Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Summer 2014 TV Season

Basically what I did back at the end of May; a little personal report card of the TV shows I watched, since I don't talk about TV anymore as much as I used to. Here are the shows I watched that (for the most part) have ended and that aired over the summer or in the last month. I know, I'm kind of late with this, but it's not like I'm turning this in, right?

Almost Royal: Surprisingly funny show that just sort of showed up on BBC America. It's two improv comedians touring America under the guise of being visiting royals who are supposed to be 74th and 75th in line to the British throne. So, Borat, basically, but not as cutting or extreme. The cringe factor is there, but not as highly as you'd expect. It's interesting to see how locals react to these two clumsy people. I think probably my favorite bit is when they were asked to appear in an improv show as a courtesy... it was kind of meta watching the two of them derail an improv group in character, where they were basically winning improv by pretending to be bad at improv in order to throw off people who were actually quite bad at improv. There's some kind of comedic genius there, I'm just not articulating it. B+

Bring It!: This was one of those things where Lifetime broke up the first season with six or eight weeks off in the middle. It means a lot to me to see people be supportive of one another, particularly parents who are supportive of their kids, and it honestly surprised me when it came back that I had become so emotionally involved in the people on the show. A reality show about hip hop majorette dancers never seemed to me like something I would watch, but I got wrapped up in it. I got wrapped up in whether Sunjai would ever make cuts, or if Kayla is going to make it to college. When a bunch of white cops closed one of the competition events at the sight of so many black people milling around in a church parking lot, I got angry. And it makes me feel good to see parents who are divorced putting aside their differences to do everything they can for their daughters. It's an emotionally involving show for me, and it's proof that you can be tough with kids in a way that builds them up rather than chipping away at their self-esteem. A-

Californication: I have no idea why I watched this show for so many years. The final season was more of the same bumbling bullshit from the somehow infallible Hank Moody, stumbling his way through the same problems he always has, never getting his shit together, and I guess at the end we're meant to assume that this is the time his dumbass gesture of selflessness finally fixed everything. Whatever. At least this season had my darling Heather Graham on it. (Though seeing her with a 21 year-old son just made me feel old). D-

Dance Moms: This one is having its finale this week, and I admit I'm a little bit edgy about who gets a solo at nationals. (Can't Kendall and Nia both get one?) I have a feeling we're about to dump one of the other major toxic elements this season, so that would be kind of great. I don't know what it is about this show. I still wish there was more of the dancing and the competitions, rather than the personality politics (as a former teacher, a lot of what goes on in the classroom makes me cringe), but this has basically become my football team. Some people are obsessed with the Chicago Bears; I have the ALDC, and Maddie Ziegler is my Walter Payton. (Kalani was my Willie Gault, but she sadly got pulled off the team by her mother during the break.) B

Defiance: I'm really enjoying this sci-fi (er, Syfy) series. This second season really tied a lot of the loose threads from the previous together, and pulled some real mindfucks (particularly the return of Kenya Rosewater). I can't wait to see where it goes from here. This is one of my summer treats. As long as I have one science fiction show to enjoy, I'm happy. B+

Derek: Wow, the people who have an opinion on this show are really polarized. (A lot of that, of course, has to do with how polarizing Ricky Gervais has become.) I think the balance of sentiment and comedy was awkward when the show first started, but I've come to really love the way the show stands up for people who aren't overly valued by society--the elderly, the mentally handicapped, those who sacrifice everything they have to care for others. I think the balance works just fine. I like sentiment if it's genuine, and here I think it is. A+

Devious Maids: This show is silly as hell, but it's sexy and soapy and I love it. The second season stumbled a bit with its overt attempt to do something Hitchcockian, and it'll never rise to the heights of the trashy glory of Desperate Housewives, but I love this stupid show. B-

Dominion: I watched the premiere episode of this Syfy series, but then I dropped it. Not my kind of thing, although I enjoyed just how much it seemed to be ripping off Dune. Feels unfair to grade it since I didn't stick with it past the premiere.

Extant: I was really enjoying this show at first; then I missed an episode and never went back to it. Maybe I'll catch it all one day, but when I went into depression mode this summer, I became pretty disengaged, and this one didn't feel like a priority to catch up on. (There were also TiVo and Comcast issues through much of August and September, so things got lost in that.) C

Garfunkel and Oates: It's okay. I think they're funny, but I think the show meanders. C

Hell's Kitchen: I can't even remember watching it now. I'm finally done with this show. It's been a matter of course for some time that the executive meddling is patently transparent, but it's also become more or less impossible to care about anyone competing, and they don't really show enough of the actual cooking anymore to get caught up in it. For a few seasons now, the producers have clearly decided to just cast the biggest assholes they can and hope that no one gets along with one another, and it's goddamn boring to watch. We're done, show. I'm not watching another one. (In fact, it's actually on right now and I'm not watching it. Or remembering it's on, really.) F

Hotel Hell: Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, but for hotels. It's okay. I'm never clamoring for it, but I prefer the "rehabbing a business" kind of show over Hell's Kitchen. C+

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Still excellent. A+

The Leftovers: I wanted to stick with it and give it the benefit of the doubt that it was going somewhere, because it really does have a talented cast, but it was so unrelentingly depressing that I just had to stop, particularly in August when my depression got way out of hand. It's just unfocused enough to be frustrating, anyway. C-

Married: Another show that got lost to cable and DVR problems. I was enjoying it, but not enough to catch up with the last few episodes, I guess. Jenny Slate is adorable. B

MasterChef: This was an absolutely terrible season. It was insufferable because the eventual winner, Courtney, was so clearly basking in the glow of obvious favoritism. (It was so obvious that when one contestant, Ahran, openly accused the judges of it, Joe Bastianich practically screamed at her. Magically, Courtney ended up in the bottom three on that episode. Even more magically, she survived and went on to win the show.) I got tired of the constant praise, and I got even more tired of the way Courtney ran with it in true Teacher's Pet fashion. We all know that person who does something well, and when they get praised for it they decide it's because they're special little snowflakes, not because of what they did. It was a drag to see her then win the show; it was like a fait accompli, and there was no suspense there. There was no drama. It was 17 weeks of the Courtney Show, and the final few minutes, where Elizabeth's concession "Courtney deserved it" was so obviously, blatantly dubbed in, was pretty insulting.

So much executive meddling this year, and no attempts to hide it. Leslie's accidental substitution of salt for sugar in his final dessert was clearly false. I'm not buying it. Gordon Ramsey eats a piece of cake where salt has been substituted for sugar and instead of coughing it up and drinking water, he merely looks a little confused? Bullshit. Total bullshit. I bake cakes, that is a huge mistake and it would yield something totally inedible. Hell, I put a quarter-cup of water too much in my cake the other day and it changed the composition; I ended up with a very moist cake that crumbles easily. Give me a break,

And watching the judges be so much harder on everyone else, so direct in their aggressions against the non-Courtneys of the world, was hard to take. There were times when I thought Gordon was going to strangle Cutter just for being so damn Southern. This season it was much harder to take--and it's always hard to take--the self-importance and hypocrisy of the judges. This is literally a show that purports to find the best amateur, home cook in America, and then angrily holds them up to exacting professional standards. Team challenges? Running a brigade? Tag team cooking? Somehow I don't think those are going to come up in the process of Courtney writing a cookbook.

This was a terrible season that centered on the worship of an insufferable asshole who won. It made it very, very hard to want to watch another season of this nonsense. D

Orange Is the New Black: I think this is an incredible show. I don't know what else to say. There's been a lot of backlash I'm not really keen on addressing. I thought this season was excellent. A+

Pretty Little Liars: The problem with this show is that it's always erasing half of the gains it makes. It's frustrating, because sometimes it's like the show can't decide whether its characters or smart or not. It can sometimes make for frustrating viewing, but once this season got going, I was along for the ride. There was a death this season that I'm really pissed off about, and the timeline has suddenly become extremely problematic, and there were a couple of elements that were really problematic, but I'm too far into this to stop now. And I really don't want to. This season and the last have started to really go full "Twin Peaks for Teens," and I'm done apologizing for watching just because it's ridiculous. It's ridiculous in a sublimely weird way. B+

Raising Asia: Disappointing. I had to stop watching it. This show is about Asia Monet Ray, one of the most talented dancers on Dance Moms last year. Her mother, Kristie, pulled Asia out of the show at the end of the 2013 season, which really sucked. Remember, the Abby Lee Dance Company is my team, and losing one of our most talented players was shitty. So I was kind of happy to see her with her own show, because I love watching her dance, but the show is so uncomfortable to watch that I only made it two weeks (four episodes) in. Where Kristie Ray was tough and confident on Dance Moms, she now comes off as a paranoid, anxious stage mom, and so much of the show is about that and the strained relationships in the family dynamics. That's difficult to take, so I'm out. C-

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History: I spent this week watching all fourteen hours of Ken Burns' newest documentary on the PBS website. It's excellent. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are two of my favorite historical figures, and I really appreciated the in-depth look at their personalities and their presidential histories. I'm glad Burns didn't shy away from the faults of both men. Theodore's (to me) most shameful moment as President--the dishonorable discharge of 167 African-American soliders (without pay) during the Brownsville Affair--is confronted head-on. FDR himself didn't do very well for black civil rights, either. (Don't you ever get frustrated with American history in that respect? Every time is never the right time for black equality to be addressed; it's always something for "later generations," who then balk at the challenge. The fact that it's even a challenge is so fucking frustrating.) Burns also can't back away from FDR's affairs, and doesn't. There's a good lesson here that everyone is a human being, subject to the flaws of being one. It's hard to admire people; it's easier to admire deeds and accomplishments. Of course, an equal amount of time is given to Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy's niece and Franklin's wife (and fifth cousin), who really emerges as a fascinating, likable, even heroic figure. She was my favorite part of the entire series. Just beautifully done, a portrait of flawed people who genuinely believed in altruism and in doing the right thing. A+

Space Dandy: I'm not predisposed to like anime, but I love this series. It's like a rockabilly Heavy Metal. Couple of misfires here in the second half of the season, but when this show sails, brother, it truly soars. A-

Storage Wars: Stop trying to turn it into a sitcom, A&E. C

The Strain: Interesting pilot--it was like Dracula from the point of view of the health inspector who encountered the Demeter--but eventually the only thing it strained was my patience. C

True Blood: Another show I'm not sure I really enjoyed enough to keep watching it the way I did. The final season just rambled on forever and forever, contorting itself to contrive happy endings for everyone. My major problem with this show is that all the vampires we're supposed to be so sympathetic to have been murderers at some point, so I wasn't really invested in their happiness. Jessica murdered three fairy children because she couldn't control herself, but yeah, let's redeem this character. It's not complex, it just doesn't care. I will say, though, that Bill's big, dramatic assisted suicide in the final episode was utterly hilarious. It's so serious, and then he's staked, and there's a pause, and he pops like a zit. That was fucking funny. That made the whole season for me. And it's played straight, as a serious moment! Wonderful! (Oh, and Rutger Hauer made another appearance. It's always so funny when they get a real actor on that show trying to compete with Anna Paquin being so overdramatic and panto.) Eh, at least Jason's happy. He's the only one who earned it. C+

Vicious: Another show that got really mixed reviews, but which I quite enjoyed. Maybe because the whole "affection only shown through coarse insult humor" is basically how I was raised. I dug the way it was done in a stagebound, 70s sitcom type of style; the throwback to that was valid, I thought, since they were basically making something along the lines of Steptoe and Son, but with a gay couple. Besides, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi are always wonderful, and seeing them trade barbs was a highlight of my week for six weeks straight. I hope when the announced second season airs, it doesn't take a whole year to get it on PBS as it did the first. A-

The Wil Wheaton Project: It was The Soup for genre fans, hosted by a guy who genuinely loves all things skiffy, horror, fantasy and game related. Wil's enthusiasm for the genre is infectious, and seeing him each week was like a renewal. I don't hang out with groups of genre fans anymore because so much of it has devolved into name-calling and griping and fights over what a "real" fan is. With Wil, it was like being a younger man again, before the internet made me so jaded with fanhood. It was just being enthusiastic, all of the jokes were good-natured, and even if some of them made you groan, it was still fun just to groan. I loved it. So, of course, Syfy canceled it. That's it, Syfy, just keep crying about how you want geeks to love you again and then keep canceling everything aimed at us. I say this as a former employee: fuck you. I say this as a Farscape fan who has never gotten over being burned by its surprise renewal-cancellation: fuck you. I say this as someone who loves science fiction: I'm ashamed of you. Stop pandering to me. You only want me when you don't have enough people tweeting about the newest Sharknado. Wil, you get an imperfect but enthusiasm-heavy A.

You're the Worst: Like Married, I was enjoying it, then missed the last few episodes and don't feel put out by that. Aya Cash is pretty wonderful, though. B


Kelly Sedinger said...

DAMMIT, I had JUST managed to forget MasterChef and you remind me! Seriously, what an awful, awful season this was, and come to think of it, each season has felt preordained, hasn't it? You knew there was no way anybody but the blind Chinese woman was going to win that one year, or that anybody but Luca was going to win last year. But at least those contestants weren't loathsome, and there was a little suspense along the way. This year, none.

And I, too, call bullshit on the salt-instead-of-sugar thing. His cake looked fantastic, nicely browned the way a cake is supposed to look, and it's SUGAR that makes it brown because it caramelizes. This was such colossal bullshit that it directly insulted the audience. I hated this season so much I'll have trouble watching it next year. (And I am fucking NOT watching the episode that brings Courtney back. Hell with that.)

Roger Owen Green said...

At this writing, I've only gotten to near the end of Part 3 of the Roosevelts (c. 1919), but it IS excellent. Watching nothing else on your list, but I do see the main story from John Oliver almost every week (Miss America, most recently) and it is likewise stellar.

SamuraiFrog said...

Kelly: That was probably the biggest problem that I had with MasterChef this season: even the suspense was obviously manufactured. Did you notice that Courtney was only in the bottom three on ONE episode, and it was the episode where Ahran openly accused the judges of favoritism?

I go through this every year when watching it. It's like there's an order. I notice how they get rid of African-American women right away. I notice how then they get rid of people you barely remember because they don't bother giving them much screen time. I know based on the edit who is going to win: you can tell the difference now between the underdog edit and the overconfidence edit. You can tell who's there because they're not shy about having conflicts with everyone. Sure, Leslie rubbed everyone the wrong way, but he could cook. He could cook so well they had to get him to lie about his cake just to set up Courtney and Elizabeth for the final... Hope he got paid off pretty well for that.

I really, really don't know if I can sit through another season at this rate. And yeah, at least Luca and Christine were very likable, but I did call their victories by the third episodes of their respective seasons. The main problem last year wasn't that you knew Luca was going to win, is what that they kept dragging it out to shove in more and more episodes, and they kept what's her name from Philly around long past the point of reason simply because she created so much drama by being a loud bully.

Roger: I watched the first three episodes in one day, and I was actually a little sad for a while because TR had died at the end of the third one.