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KICKING TELEVISION: The Good, The Bad and the Lorre (2014 TV in Review)

KICKING TELEVISION: The Good, The Bad and the Lorre (2014 TV in Review)

I’m not big on lists, especially
in columns. I’ve indicted the BuzzFeed generation and their listicles in many
publications. But as our calendars fumble their way towards irrelevance, the
hour and our editors ask us to review the year as it fades into memory. As a
writer who published his
third book
this year to great fanfare among close relatives, “Best of” columns only serve as a reminder of the failures of our offerings,
and how much of our advances we owe back to our publishers. But 2014 was
another exciting year for television, which now regularly challenges film in
terms of narrative and aesthetic acumen. And 2014 was the year that Kicking
Television stole from Wilco and entered into the fray of TV commentary. So not
to be outdone by my new peers, here for your consideration is what I saw as the
good, the bad, and the ugly Lorre of the year in television.

The Good

You’re the Worst (FX)I’ve previously
declared my undying affection for this show in this space
. It is
quite simply the best sitcom on television, and the most interesting
dissemination of love in 22-minute intervals since Sam and Diane. Love and hate
aren’t opposites, they’re twins. And love is stupid. It’s a godawful waste of
time. Intimacy is ridiculous and often revolting. Honesty is exponentially more
difficult than deception. You’re the
Worst
celebrates these painful disparities without caricature or the
promise of inevitable reconciliation. Aya Cash (Gretchen) and Chris Geere
(Jimmy) are near flawless as a couple on the brink of love and in fear of
happiness, and Desmin Borges (Edgar) and Kether Donohue (Lindsay) defy the
tired tropes of supporting cast BFFs in creator Stephen Falk’s triumphant
production. You’re the Worst is the
shining hope that the sitcom is not dead.

The Walking Dead (AMC) — I was late to the party that is The Walking Dead. While I love
post-apocalyptic narratives, I’m afraid of zombies. And blood. And Andrew
Lincoln’s Mark from Love Actually. And while I liked the first few
seasons of the show, I wasn’t addicted to it like many. I tired of Hershel’s
farm. I skipped scenes involving The Governor. But, as soon as the show escaped
the confines of the prison, and put its band of survivors on the road, it
stepped into a higher echelon. The
Walking Dead
has become more about the challenges of surviving a world
without amenities than about stabbing extras in the head. Additionally, it takes the
time to develop characters and yet doesn’t remain static in its narrative. And
in a television landscape absent of diversity, The Walking Dead boasts the most racially varied cast perhaps ever.
Pedestrian white male actors everywhere should be in fear of this becoming a
trend.

Streaming Television — Streaming video services have compelled the film and television industries to become more conscious of the
wants and needs of their audience. By providing programming and viewing options
outside of the formulaic and staid proclivities of traditional television, the entire
industry had changed for the better. Network television is now not only being
bested by cable, but outflanked by streaming services. NetFlix is the HBO of the
medium, with Amazon and Yahoo auditioning for the roles of AMC and Showtime. (Hulu,
inexplicably, seems content as a cross between The WB and TBS.) House of Cards (NetFlix) and Transparent (Amazon) are two of the best
shows on television, and could not exist in the formulaic realm of
traditional TV. Next year will see streaming services bring viewers more of the
Marvel Universe, the third life of Community,
a talk show from Chelsea Handler, shows from Paul Feig, Jason Reitman, Tina
Fey, Mart Kaufmann, and other auteurs who have found their interest in TV reinvigorated
by the possibility and versatility of a new medium. CBS plans on combating
streaming television by sending the cast of NCIS directly to your home for
table readings.

Last Week Tonight with John
Oliver
(HBO) —
I didn’t tune into Last Week
Tonight
immediately when it debuted this past summer. I stopped watching The Daily Show some time ago. The Comedy
Central stalwart has essentially become an indictment of incompetent media, and
though that’s certainly an argument that needs to be advocated, it made for a
stale production. When Oliver made the jump to HBO, my fear was that his show
would be a pale imitation of something I had grown tired of. I couldn’t have
been more wrong. Oliver has taken satirical current affairs programming to a
new level, deftly combining progressive in-depth journalism with pitch perfect
humor. No other show ever could disseminate LGBTQ rights in Uganda, net neutrality,
and lotteries with the journalistic precision of 60 Minutes and still be funny. If Oliver doesn’t win a Peabody, they
should stop giving out the award.

True Detective (HBO) — Look, I know nearly everyone has
True Detective on their “Best of 2014”
lists. The acting was superb, the writing was sublime, and the aesthetic was
unlike anything television has ever seen. And the six-minute take from episode
four is something that will be taught in film school for generations. But my
affection for it has more to do with its format than its acting or content. The
idea of a series of mini-series is not revolutionary, but one that has had more
success in the UK than in the US. True
Detective
, along with Fargo and American Horror Story, have found new
ways to tell stories using the medium of television, and a unique way to get
big talent (Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Vince Vaughn, Cary Fukunaga,
Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thornton et al.) to have an affair with TV
without committing to it.

Transparent (Amazon) — Transparent (I didn’t catch the double-entendre until Episode
8) is a series that would never have seen the light of day on a network,
perhaps not on cable, and certainly not five years ago. Jeffrey Tambor is
transcendent (see what I did there?) as Maura, who self-identifies as a woman,
and the challenges of their upper-middle class LA family. Tambor is excellent.
Judith Light (their understanding ex-wife) is embodying the role of a lifetime.
And Jill Soloway’s deft touch as creator and showrunner takes the narrative to
places never before seen in TV. But what I think makes it not just one of the
best shows of 2014, but a promising piece of art for 2015, is the manner in
which it fills the cast with unlikable characters. Maura is not without
faults, his children are self-involved and spoiled, and even Light’s Shelly was
happily planning on euthanizing her new husband. But, like Breaking Bad, Transparent proves there is interesting art in the
unlikable, despite what creative writing programs might tell you.

Banshee (Cinemax) — If someone walks in on you
watching Banshee at the wrong moment,
they’ll think you’re watching porn. Soft core porn, but porn nonetheless. And
there’s no shortage of sex and nudity in the show, but it’s on Cinemax, so it’s
kind of a given. But behind discarded panties and reverse cowboys is a show
that is simply one of the best on TV. The premise is sublime: Fresh from
serving time for a jewelry heist, our anti-hero witnesses the murder of a newly
hired small town Pennsylvania sheriff and assumes his identity. Throw in the
Amish, an ex with her own secrets, the Ukrainian mob, a Native American reserve, and a
hell of a lot of violence, and you’re left with a show that reminds me a lot of
a graphic novel, in its imaginative narratives and refined aesthetic. Also:
porn.

The Bad

Sons of Anarchy (FX) — I never understood this show and
was happy to see it end. It always seemed like The Sopranos on bikes to me, but with bad writing and poorly
realized characters. Charlie Hunnam spent seven seasons chewing scenery and his
British accent. Ron Perlman appeared ready to crawl back into the sewers to woo
Linda Hamilton, or just to hide from the scripts. Katie Sagal seemed shocked
that they were still in production, and she was on Married… with Children for twenty-eight seasons. The Shakespearean
influence was so heavy handed it might as well have been called Son of Hamlet. And the endless parade of
guest stars, culled from a list of celebrities who wear leather (Dave Navarro,
Henry Rollins, Sonny Barger, Marilyn Manson, Danny Trejo) brought the show to
the very edge of parody. Except I like parody.
 

How I Met Your Mother (CBS) — I really enjoyed HIMYM. It is perhaps the last of the
great multi-cam sitcoms. It wasn’t just a TV show, but part of the cultural
landscape. The Bro Code, lawyered, and slap bets are, for better or worse,
engrained in our lives. But the show’s final season was atrocious, and it killed
most of my affection for the preceding eight seasons. Handcuffed by the schedules
of its stars, HIMYM’s final season
took an unwelcome departure from the formula that made it a success. Set not in
New York, but at a rural wedding destination, and taking place over the course of a just few
days, season 9 was the equivalent of Cheers
finishing up its run set in a New York Starbucks. The cast shot scenes
separately; the scripts seemed cobbled together by a writer’s room unaccustomed
to their new aesthetic, and the desperate plot twist that killed off the
titular mother left the audience angry and confused. I know we’ll never again
meet the high water mark of the finales of M*A*S*H,
or St. Elsewhere, or even Newhart, but the poor choices of HIMYM’s producers in managing the challenges
of their ultimate season destroyed the legacy of the series, its
re-watchability, and even worse (wait for it) a spinoff, How I Met Your Dad.

State of Affairs (NBC) — After watching this Katherine
Heigl comeback vehicle, a friend who had been a fan of hers asked me to
describe the show. My response:It’s
like West Wing and Homeland were a gay couple that adopted
a baby that grew up to be Scandal who
married Revenge but then had a torrid
affair with Homeland that resulted in
a baby who was kidnapped from the hospital by Shonda Rhimes who raised her with
her husband, the mummified body of Tom Clancy.” Heigl’s character’s name is Charleston
Tucker, Alfre Woodard appears embarrassed to be collecting her paycheck, and
the rest of the cast looks like they’re already in line for next fall’s pilot
casting. This show is an argument for libraries. It’s so awful I fully expect
it to be renewed for 2015/2016.

The Lorre

The Sitcom — This section needed to be named for Chuck Lorre,
the producer of Two and a Half Men, Mom, Big
Bang Theory
, and Mike & Molly.
It begged to be something more than just ugly. I mourned
the death of the sitcom a few weeks ago
, and put much of the blame at
the feet of Lorre and those who have pandered in his footsteps. With the
exception of You’re the Worst, and in
the absence of Parks and Rec, I don’t
know if there’ll be a sitcom in television worth watching in 2015. (I don’t consider
Transparent to be a sitcom.)
Certainly not on network TV. I have high but tempered hopes for the upcoming Matthew
Perry/Thomas Lennon remake of The Odd
Couple
and Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,
but I fear that we’ll see State of
Affairs: Los Angeles
before we see a return to the heyday of the sitcom.

Wasting Talent — I understand that actors, producers, and gaffers
have mortgages to pay. Hell, I do writing for people I won’t add to my resume
or admit to my parents. But it’s heartbreaking to see talent so frivolously
wasted on TV. Margo Martindale and Will Arnett doing fart jokes on The Millers. John Mulaney having his
career set back five years by Mulaney,
not to mention wasting Martin Short and Elliott Gould. Ken Marino enduring
Casey Wilson in Marry Me. The entire
cast of The Newsroom choking their
way through Aaron Sorkin recycling discarded West Wing scripts. Jon Cryer being wasted on Two and a Half Men. No, wait. That’s where Cryer belongs. There’s a
short window in an artist’s career to attain the success we all aspire to. To
see those years wasted on efforts like the aforementioned makes you truly
appreciate when the medium reaches the heights of True Detective and You’re the
Worst
.

Social Issues and Sports Broadcasters — Sports,
as I’ve written many times before, is the last collective experience in the
television medium. You can watch NCIS or CSI or NCSI on your own schedule. You can stream, legally or illegally,
any episode of any show anytime you want, from anywhere in the world. But
sports telecasts still need to be seen live, to witness the narrative as it evolves in
real time. And, in a year that saw domestic abuse and LGBTQ rights at the
forefront of the public discourse in the world of sports, the inability of the
sports media to disseminate and discuss social issues served as an indictment
of their industry. During Sochi, very little was made of Russia’s archaic
anti-gay legislation. Even as athletes did their best to confront the issue,
NBC ignored it. Michael Sam was the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL
team, and bigoted reactions by NBC’s Tony Dungy were dismissed under the thin
excuse of religion. When Ray Rice was caught on tape beating his then-fiancée
unconscious, NFL partners ESPN/ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX bumbled their way through
the conversation, without experts or, you know, women, added to the discussion.
Adrian Peterson was arrested for taking a switch to his 4-year-old child, and
networks debated its effect on fantasy leagues. Perhaps most indicative of the
sports media’s failures was ESPN’s Ray Lewis, who should probably be in jail
for double manslaughter, opining on the subject of domestic abuse, like having D.C. Stephenson discuss the integration of baseball.

White Men in Late Night — In a year that saw David
Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, and Stephen Colbert shuffle
into retirement or new roles, the opportunity was ripe for television to
attempt to revolutionize or contemporize late night television. Instead, they just
brought in more old white dudes. With the exception of Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show (replacing Comedy
Central’s Colbert Report) late night
TV will remain old and white with penises for at least another generation. I
find it impossible to believe that some more interesting choices could not have
been made to replace Fallon and Ferguson in their 12:35 timeslots. Instead,
predictably, NBC and CBS chose Seth Meyers and James Corden over every woman
and minority possibility on earth. Though, in defense of their diversity policies, Meyers
is Jewish and Corden is an Anglican. Probably. It’s frustrating enough for
insomniacs that these shows are about as progressive as an NRA convention and
funny as a TV Land sitcom, but to simply serve us more white men jokes, written
by white men, delivered by white men is discouraging for those of us who
appreciate the possibilities of the medium, not to mention those with uteri or
have a skin colour other than pasty.

Help us, Larry Wilmore and You’re the Worst; you’re our only hope.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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