EMMY 2012: Writing for a Comedy Series

WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

Chris McKenna, Community
Lena Dunham, Girls
Louis C.K., Louie
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation

Forgive the brevity of this post, but for me this is no contest (okay, maybe a slight contest when you factor in the brilliance of the Girls pilot; I usually hate pilots, but this was an episode that did not need to be regurgitated once the series proper began). To my mind, it’s all about Community and “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Check out this earlier post on why it was the best comedic episode of 2011. Will it win? Probably not. Girls probably takes the cake, and while I’m okay with that, nothing beats Greendale’s Study Group and their first foray into the alternate timelines.

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COMMUNITY: The darkest timeline? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m sure many of you are reacting to the news that Dan Harmon is out at Community (and, understandably, he seems pretty bitter about the whole thing). Now my first response to this news was, “Nooooo!” How will the show go on? Will we ever see anything as balls to the wall brilliant as “Modern Warfare,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” or “Pillows and Blankets” again? The new show runners worked on Just Shoot Me?! Hand me a gun!

Those were just a few of my inital thoughts. But then I took a deep breath and thought about where Harmon left his characters on Thursday night. Jeff accepts and even embraces his role at Greendale and within the study group. Shirley and Pierce are going into business together (and Pierce seems a little more human). Britta does something right and helps Abed. Abed in turn is able to let go of the Dreamatorium (although he still maintains a smaller version in a corner of his apartment should be need to escape from time to time). Annie’s come miles from the uptight perfectionist she was at the start of the series. And Troy takes a step towards adulthood and his destiny as an air conditioner repairman (but, thankfully, he still gets to hang out with his friends). In other words, everyone is growing up.

Now we have to wait and see what this next batch of Community episodes will look and feel and sound like (I’m totally prepared for them to be truly awful). Yet, I’m also hopeful that we might witness the next stage in the evolution of these characters. Maybe it means less paintball and note-perfect Law & Order parodies. But I fell in love with this show after Season One’s “Environmental Science,” which was a fairly traditional sitcom episode. Perhaps the adventures won’t have the same audacity, but if the characters continue to relate to and care about one another the way they always have, I’ll still tune in. If not, I’ll don my goatee and hunt NBC execs in the prime timeline.

2011: The Highs and the Lows

It’s a little late (and we’re doing it a little differently), but let’s take stock of the year that just was in television.

BEST EPISODE (COMEDY): Community – “Remedial Chaos Theory”

If any episode of this past season should be taught in screenwriting classes the world over, this is the one. It’s essentially an exercise in utilizing the same established groups of characters in variations on the same situation and revealing their truths while crafting moments of comedy, romance, action, and horror (maybe its’s just me, but Pierce’s troll doll gift is the stuff of nightmares, and if I were Troy, I would also try to swallow it, thus destroying my larynx). Community is a unique show that operates on its own beautiful wavelength. The current hiatus is troubling, but I have to believe that a group of writers and actors who know their characters so well that they can tell an audience all that needs to be known in 3-minute vignettes when other shows can’t accomplish this feat in a season’s worth of work will, like the Phoenix, rise again.

BEST EPISODE (DRAMA): Mildred Pierce – “Part 5”

Okay. So lots of people thought it was slow moving (translation: boring), but I loved this mini-series. Kate Winslet’s Mildred met every challenge life put in her path, except for the terror that was her own ungrateful daughter. The final episode drove this point home. Mildred is successful as is the horrid Veda, now a classical singer. But Mildred, desperate to share in this importance and thus justify every choice she’s ever made, looks up and marries her wayward lover (Guy Pearce’s Monty), buys his house, and proceeds to shower Veda with gifts that even Mildred can’t afford. Losing her grasp on her hard-earned fortune, maybe Mildred can finally take comfort in Veda’s acceptance and gratitude. This hope is dashed when she finds her demon spawn naked in bed with Monty. Yes, Mildred reconnects with her ex, and there is the suggestion that she’ll start over baking the pies that first brought her prominence. But Veda is gone, and the sight of Mildred cursing her daughter and simultaneously chasing Veda’s departing car completes the tragedy of a woman whose mind for business is undercut by the misguided desires of her heart.

BEST SOAP OPERA: One Life to Live

Facing cancellation alongside sister soap All My Children, OLTL made every effort to go out with its head held high. If you missed this fantastic ensemble breathing life into romantic, gut-wrenching, and even humorous scripts, shame on you! But for those who watched, we saw the truth of Rex’s paternity finally revealed, a double wedding undone by an assortment of DNA tests, the reemergence of Tess (and her surprisingly exciting relationship with Ford), Shane’s bullying, Gigi’s “death” (which gave the ailing Clint a new heart), Destiny’s teenage pregnancy, and matriarch Viki finally coming to terms with her alters. But nothing tops the “Two Todds.” While some of the plastic surgery and brainwashing hi-jinks were a little zany (even for a soap), no performances matched those of Roger Howarth, Trevor St. John, Kassie DePaiva, Florencia Lozano, and Kristen Alderson. That these creative people and so many more will continue to work is a given. That it won’t always be together, playing these characters, is a crime.

WORST DECISION OF THE YEAR: The cancellations of All My Children and One Life to Live

Words more eloquent than mine have already described how the unceremonious dismissal of these two long-running classics in favor of two lifestyle shows equals the loss of beloved friends for so many. The hope for a new life online via Prospect Park is also seemingly dashed. In this day and age, there are always ways to go back and revisit favorite storylines and discover those one might have missed. But as of right now, the promise of new adventures in Pine Valley and Llanview is gone. And as the end of General Hospital doesn’t seem that far behind, it is simply a sad, sad state of affairs for the soap fan.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

This pick narrowly beats HBO’s Bobby Fischer doc, which was a compelling study of an obsessive, self-destructive genius. But this study of the tragic fate of mother Diane Schuler, her daughter, her nieces, and a car of strangers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time stayed with me for days after viewing. What happened? The evidence said that Aunt Diane was drunk, was high, and drove her vehicle into oncoming traffic the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway. But what led this devoted mother and aunt to such a fate? Schuler’s surviving sister-in-law and husband grasp at straws to explain the horror, but there is no absolving explanation. And the film tells us that such is life. Nightmares become real, and we will never understand. All that we have are the words of forensics’ expert Werner Spitz to Diane’s family: “I sincerely hope that you find peace with this.”

BEST SHOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A MAJOR CHARACTER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

The departure of Christopher Meloni’s Stabler left a void that seemed impossible to fill (and after avoiding it for so long, now I guess I have to start watching True Blood). Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish, enjoyable as they are, do not have the same chemistry with Mariska Harigtay’s Olivia (although she and Pino have their moments). That being said, SVU has featured a host of compelling mysteries and powerful guest turns (the T.R. Knight episode was far-fetched, but Treat Williams was amazing in the show’s indictment of the long-term injuries suffered by NFL players). Dan Lauria’s turn as a sexually abusive coach might have aired before Jerry Sandusky was synonymous with Satan, but syndication will link the two events in viewers’ collective memories. And in the Russian mail-order bride episode, series regular Dann Florek arguably did his best work of the entire series. So while USA’s endless marathons cannot help but make one wistful for the days of “El and Liv,” the show is more than holding its own with its new cast members and consistently intriguing stories.

WORST SHOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A MAJOR CHARACTER: The Office

Steve Carell’s departure signaled a turning point in the world of Dunder Mifflin, but I was optimistic that the show would find a way to reinvent itself in the wake of Michael Scott’s goodbye. Many a sitcom has done it before. Sadly, The Office is floundering. James Spader’s Robert California adds little to the action. But the bigger problem is Ed Helms’ Andy as boss. Andy had carved out a niche as a lovable dork when simply one of the many desk jockeys. Now, as Michael’s successor, the character has been stuffed into the mold of the former manager. Several strong Jim subplots along with Darryl caught between the office proper and the warehouse are not enough to lift the series in the face of Andy’s loss of identity and the pointless sabotaging of his relationship with Erin. I’m still watching but rarely enjoying what was once appointment television.

WORST SERIES FINALE EVEREntourage

I was never a diehard fan of this show (but then again, was anybody?). Still, I enjoyed the some of the early episodes (loved Drama and Turtle finding Nirvana – translation the kiddie table at a Bat Mitzvah to feed their munchies). But the series was long past what you might define as a prime (remember when it became the Jamie-Lynn Sigler half-hour during her real life romance with Jerry Ferrara?). So the show limped towards the finish line. But you know how it is; you’ve watched a show and its characters over the years, so you want to see how it all ends. But Vince’s sudden engagement? A reconciliation between Ari and his suddenly named wife that was supposed to read as some supreme sacrifice on his part? And Sloan in that red dress waiting to fly away with E? Stupid, stupid, and lame (let’s hope the movie gets lost in production limbo; probably won’t happen, but a girl can pray).

WORST COLLECTION OF SO MUCH TALENT IN ONE PLACE: I Hate My Teenage Daughter

Tony Award winner Katie Finneran? Emmy Award Winner Jamie Pressly? Chad Coleman from The Wire? And Eric Sheffer Stevens, one of the highlights of the last few months of As the World Turns? All on one of the lamest new shows of the season? Someone get these people a better creative team behind them and craft something worthy of our screens!

BEST WTF MOMENTS: Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire is an imperfect show with a too large cast. Now that cast has been trimmed. But damn! The murder of Angela Darmody and her female lover was shocking and tragic (there goes my hopes for Angela and Richard Harrow becoming the great love story of the series). The revelation that Jimmy’s twisted mother, Gillian, had her way with her son before he ran off to WWI? Makes sense given their relationship and something we all thought would happen. But that it already had puts their entire relationship in a light demanding a second viewing. But nothing topped Jimmy’s murder at Nucky’s hands, especially when it seemed like Jimmy was in a position to survive to Season Three. From a storytelling perspective, it makes sense. There was no other way out for Jimmy, and now Nucky is a complete gangster. But does the show rebound from the loss of arguably its most compelling character, arguably the true lead of the first two seasons? Time will tell.

BEST CHARACTER: Leslie Knope – Parks and Recreation

The figurative First Lady of Pawnee organized an amazing Harvest Festival, fought the flu, decided to run for City Council, and most importantly fell in love with Ben. But whatever Leslie is doing, she does it well. The ability to be right almost all of the time would not endear Leslie to the other characters and the audience in the hands of a lesser actress. But at the heart of Amy Poehler’s performance is  optimism, wisdom, and kindness. Always efficient and never aggravating, Leslie is currently the funniest and most likable woman on TV.

WORST COUPLE: Barney and Robin – How I Met Your Mother

Back in Season Five, they finally made if official, but the writers quickly lost interest in what was and could have continued to be a nice contrast to Ted’s romantic dreams and Marshall and Lily’s super sweet marriage. Last season’s finale hinted at a second exploration of the duo. But so far we’ve only seen either Robin or Barney wanting to reconnect when the other is not ready, new partners, a secret hookup, and a pregnancy scare. In other words, every rom-com cliche you can imagine when that’s never what the couple was. Robin is likely Barney’s mystery bride from the flash forward in the most recent series premiere, but let’s hope the getting there starts to show much, much more originality.

MOST AWKWARD MOMENT IN SPORTS: Joe Paterno is Fired

I am not about to equate the loss of a job with the horrific abuse inflicted by the afore-mentioned Sandusky. Still, all sports channels and most major news outlets devoting their air time to what once seemed inconceivable, the dismissal of a legend, made for riveting TV. There is no more classic and familiar and tragic story than a supposed hero who is revealed for the scared little man he always was. His blind eyes wrought pain on so many who are only now getting a voice. Yet, who cannot help but feel something at Paterno’s downfall whether it’s shock or schadenfreude or simply sorrow. And I stayed awake until well after midnight, as I’m sure many of you did, watching the fallout.

MOST AWESOME MOMENT IN SPORTS: The Cardinals Win It All

As a Mets’ fan, I have no business celebrating this victory (although I was gleeful when St. Louis sent the Phillies home earlier than anticipated). Not that I have some great love for the Rangers either, but I was behind them at the start of the World Series, which shaped up to be the competition that ratings are made of. Then, as it so often happens, we had Game Six. The Rangers seemed on their way to the title. Then the Cards took control of the game. Then Texas was back on top. Then St. Louis tied the thing up. After many an extra inning, St. Louis emerged victorious. Now I was far from the Russian fans turning on Drago in Rocky IV, but at the start of Game Seven, any fan worth their salt had to feel that the Cardinals and their fans deserved this win. And they got it. You won’t see me rooting for them when baseball resumes, but game respects game, and for one night Pujols, La Russa, and the rest earned my applause.

COMMUNITY: See You in September

So now that we’ve seen both parts, what can we say about the Community season finale? How about it was frickin’, frakkin’, fruckin’ awesome? Part One was all about Annie, the baddest bitch in the pioneer town that used to be Greendale, and Pierce, definitely at his douchiest. Leaving Jeff vulnerable to guest star Josh Holloway was almost all the study group could take. But soon enough, there would a much greater threat to the gang and the entire campus. I speak of a giant ice cream cone flanked by stormtroopers.

Tonight’s installment ditched the western motif and went full Star Wars. There were several call backs to the space simulator episode (City College’s dastardly dean, Greendale’s school flag) as well as a chance for Troy to show off his superior plumbing skills. But despite the pop culture references (and let’s be real; this was a pretty fabulous homage to that galaxy far, far away), the characters were where it was at. From Troy and Jeff battling for leadership to the coupling of Annie and Abed (hmmmm…) chemistry familiar and unexpected abounded. Loved Britta and especially Shirley almost saving the day. But in the end, it had to be Pierce. How could it be anyone but Pierce? True, Hawthorne as the hero was a tad too traditionally… “sitcommy.” But it finally, finally explains Pierce’s transformation into all-out villain (he doesn’t believe he’s worthy of love and friendship so he messes with people, tests them, drives them away). The cliffhanger, tiny as it was, hints that Pierce won’t return to the study group even though they don’t want to see him go. Now here’s the thing. It probably won’t happen, but the universe of this show has evolved to the point that I could see a portion of or even an entire third season with Pierce on the outside looking in and/or other recurring characters (think Leonard or Star-Burns) sitting in with the group from week to week. Many a possibility there.

I wouldn’t say that this was my favorite episode of this most recent batch (that’s probably a three-way tie between the Christmas, “My Dinner with Andre,” and “bottle” episodes). But a strong end to a strong season, and I doubt that I’m the only one looking forward to the show’s return.

NBC Thursday Highlights

It was a strong night for NBC’s comedies (well, except for The Paul Reiser Show, which might have been good, but I turned it off after 30 seconds to check the weather). Let’s take them one by one:

Community: This reminded me of those Golden Girls episodes that hinged on recreated flashbacks (the girls recall money-making ventures, Valentine’s Day disasters, birthdays past, etc.). It’s a storytelling device that works well because it manages to showcase the characters in a variety of situations and perhaps provide some back-story without using the space of an entire episode. Such was the case with Community, as the study group recalled a year even more complicated (if that’s possible) than the one we’ve seen each week. The highlights were without question the Jeff/Annie and Pierce/Abed lingering looks montages, and I got a kick out of Dean Pelton bursting in wearing an array of inappropriate costumes (that was a gag that went on just the right length of time; they took it further than you expected without killing the joke).

The Office: Definitely an improvement from last week, but did anyone else feel that Will Ferrell’s Deangelo was a completely different, albeit more likable, character? Maybe we’re supposed to believe that he was posturing in order to assert his authority and now, after a settling in period, he’s relaxed with the group and is grateful to learn at the foot of Michael Gary Scott. Or maybe the writers just decided to change the character midstream. In any event, I liked nervous Deangelo terrified at the prospect of hosting the Dundies, and his coworkers’ tips culminated in an amusing King’s Speech parody. Erin dumping Gabe in front of everyone was cruel, but I think it served two important purposes: it paves the way for Erin and Andy to reunite, and I actually pitied and kind of liked Gabe for the first time all season (so there’s hope for his character down the line). And the Seasons of Love tribute combined with what were obviously Steve Carell’s real tears? All I can say is that next week is going to be rough.

Parks and Recreation: Leslie being paired up with Tom via the dating site really took me by surprise, and their lunch was as amusing as Ben inviting Leslie to join him at the mural was sweet. I also love that Chris’ no dating in the office policy kind of sets him up as an oblivious, even good-hearted villain along the path of the Leslie/Ben courtship. But without question, this episode was all about the Ron/Chris cook-off. From Chris’ efforts to describe a turkey burger’s appeal, to the trip to the health food store (which Ron likened to a zoo), to the stop at Food and Stuff (where Ron gets his food and most of his stuff), and finally to Chris having to admit that Ron’s burger was the superior sandwich. And let’s not forget newlyweds Andy and April. April was right to suggest that Andy get the pinwheel, but those crows were pretty awesome sauce, too.

30 Rock: Let’s just put it out there. Steve Carrell, worthy though he might be, is never going to win an Emmy for The Office. Because how can he compete with Alec Baldwin playing four incarnations of Jack Donaghy (Past Jack was my favorite because everyone talked like that in the 80s). The over-sized episode dragged in parts (Jenna’s storyline was basically an excuse to use Jane Krakowski’s pregnancy to the show’s advantage), but Tracy’s inability to sully his good name (and Jack’s obvious solution) stood out in a sea of guest stars (I gotta give props to Michael Keaton’s doomed maintenance man and Ken Howard’s perpetually smiling Hank Hooper). And through it all, we saw every aspect of the Jack/Liz relationship, a platonic partnership for the ages.

Great night all around. Thoughts?

COMMUNITY: My Dinner with Abed

I’m a bit late to the dance, but I have to talk about last night’s Community. What was promoted as a Pulp Fiction parody (and Pierce as The Gimp was a great sight gag), was really a spot on homage (to quote Abed) to another film, My Dinner with Andre. I love that movie. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea; it really is just two two old friends talking for nearly two hours about life, art, and how we relate to one another. But there is a mesmerizing quality to the picture, and if you watch it multiple times, you find your alliances shifting from Andre and his elevated notions to his far more practical but equally intelligent friend, Wally (writers Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, respectively). And damn if the Community crew didn’t have it down cold.

Danny Pudi as Abed as Chad as Andre perfectly captured Andre Gregory’s enlightened and delighted speech patterns when telling his tale of a new life discovered as an extra on Cougar Town (in the movie, Andre regales his friend with a story of a wild theatrical experiment in a Polish forest). But at the core, it’s the same story of recognizing the limits of one’s own skin and imagining then living another life that in some ways is more meaningful and possibly more real than the day to day. Joel McHale’s Jeff was reluctant to play along, but then he gets into the spirit of the thing with the Indian girl story (of course Jeff just wanted someone, anyone to think he was pretty). What hurt him most when the waiter spilled the beans? The fact that Abed executed the better film themed party? Or that he thought he and Abed were sharing a moment of truth when such a thing might not be possible with Abed or anyone? In the end, the friends actually do connect over the distance between them and a renewed appreciation for one another (Jeff likes Abed as he is and Abed just wants some time with his first friend at Greendale). The final scene, Andre’s haunting exit music over iconic Pulp Fiction images was maybe the last thing I ever expected to see, but it was beautiful and kind of touching. Well done, Community!

COMMUNITY: Rebound

After a few slow weeks (I don’t know about you, but I felt something was off with Annie’s anti-drug play and the Dungeons & Dragons homage), Community rebounded nicely with a Valentine’s Day episode that saw the group exploring the world outside of their circle before (mostly) getting the gang back together.

So there’s Jeff, pushed to his limit as the group’s father figure and debating the merits of Barenaked Ladies. He announces that the fight is on, and as such is susceptible to Duncan’s desire to watch Liverpool vs. Manchester United at Casa Winger. This segues into Chang showing up uninvited and starting a wild party that Jeff actually enjoys. Until he realizes that the shindig is merely a way for the suddenly homeless Chang to crash on Jeff’s couch. Jeff throws Chang out, but Duncan’s admission of loneliness, and the absence of messages from his friends, prompt Jeff to carry the sleeping Chang over the threshold and give him a safe place to sleep for the night. The thing about Jeff is that he could probably find people to hang with outside of Greendale, but who would care about him, who would need him? If Jeff is learning anything, it’s that being there for others, tiresome as it can be at times, yields the give and take that is friendship. And he is basically a good guy, hence the message to the study group where he tells them all that he loves them. Nice.

Subplots saw Troy and Abed vying for the same girl. She picks Troy. Then she insults Abed. And that won’t work for Troy who naturally opts to spend Valentine’s Day in the arms of his best bro. These two have one of the coolest friendships on TV. They get each other’s jokes, have each other’s backs, and won’t let something as trivial as a potential love interest come between them. As for the girls, Britta thinks she’s hanging with a lesbian (she’s straight), and Annie learns that it’s Britta who’s mistaken for a “friend of Ellen.” Britta and Annie are friends (of course, not on the Troy/Abed level), but the former has a tendency to condescend to the latter. So it was great to see Annie with the upper hand when Britta was humiliated and not use it against her. Because that’s what friends do. Side note: Shirley is mostly off-screen for this one, but I guess she spent most of the night with her recently returned ex. I missed her, but at least she probably had a good night.

Finally, after several weeks where Pierce seemed unbalanced (even for Pierce), we discover that he’s hooked on painkillers as a result of his earlier injuries (ironically manifesting in a tiny Andy Dick), and an episode that was set to end all warm and fuzzy concluded with the devastating image of Pierce passed out on a park bench. Suddenly, the last few episodes make a lot of sense (if the writers follow through with some kind of intervention or at least a recovery period enabled by the study group). Something tells me the show won’t let us down.

Telephoria’s Favorites: 2010

Time to count down our favorite episodes of 2010, the ones that stuck with us when all was said and done. So without further ado…

HONORABLE MENTION:

THE OFFICE – “The Delivery”

Not the strongest of days for the Scranton crew (although Season Seven is finally starting to pick up some steam). Still, the birth of little Cecelia Marie Halpert featured an unraveling Jim, a mad dash to the hospital, Pam breast feeding the wrong baby, and the sweetest Andy/Erin moment to date. Long awaited, it was classic Dunder Mifflin.

10. SHERLOCK – “The Great Game”

This re-imagining of the classic mystery series (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, respectively), did not substitute 21st century technology for plot but rather used it to enhance familiar stories and make them seem more relevant than ever. The season finale saw Holmes investigating a slew of seemingly unrelated crimes all engineered by the sinister Moriarty (a truly scary Andrew Scott). Funny, thrilling, and closing with a cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more right now.

9. PARKS AND RECREATION – “Telethon”

I haven’t yet blogged about this show because it kind of crept up on me during NBC’s Thursday night line up. Little by little, it won me over, so you can imagine my displeasure when NBC bumped it for Outsourced. Thankfully, Leslie and Co. are on their way back. This episode, penned by series star Amy Poehler, focused on a diabetes fundraiser so lacking in talent that Andy’s band, Ron’s skill at caning a chair, and ultimately Leslie’s recollections of her favorite Friends episodes had to fill the void (all because Tom is delayed in bringing guest of honor Detlef Schrempf). This zaniness combined with Mark’s doomed proposal to Ann gave every character a moment to shine, and if you’re not watching yet, tune in as soon as it’s back on the air where it belongs.

8. CAPRICA“Things We Lock Away”

Gone too soon. Sure Syfy burned off the remaining episodes of this Battlestar Galactica prequel, but lost is the opportunity to delve deeper into the origins of the Cylons and the spiritual divide between monotheistic and polytheistic humans. I enjoyed most of the first part of the first and only season, but “Things We Lock Away” stood out. Zoe and Tamara, after a particularly brutal fight, come together to reshape V-World, and Amanda became a spy in the Willow household. But it’s her husband Daniel, manipulated into killing business rival Tomas Vergis and then calling on the Adamas to wash the blood away, who best suggested the compromises these characters could and would make in service of their own needs, their own survival. Think of the magnitude of suffering witnessed on BSG. And while Caprica lacked the action sequences of its predecessor, how fascinating and terrifying to contemplate that it was the result of the whims of a few longing to reclaim parts of their pasts and work them into their futures. Shame we won’t get to see more of that.

7. FUTURAMA – “Lethal Inspection”

Science Fiction of a far lighter variety, ostensibly this was the story of robot Bender seeking revenge on the inspector who sent him out into the world flawed, unable to download into a new body, and therefore mortal. What followed was a road trip where Hermes aided Bender in his quest for answers and ultimately helped his friend to focus on living for whatever time he has rather than dwell on the fact that it’ll all end someday. Food for thought to be sure, but then came the revelation that Hermes himself saved Bender from the scrap heap, valuing the little robot’s life over policy, and he accompanied Bender on his journey to keep the secret. Not quite “Jurassic Bark,” but pretty damn close.

6. COMMUNITY – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

I loved the character work of “Cooperative Calligraphy,” but this was such wild take on Christmas specials that I have to rank it. Abed, abandoned by his mother and their tradition of watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, descends into a stop-motion fantasy and learns the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas is a feeling that translates into video games, liquor, and, ultimately, just being with the ones you love. You have to appreciate the skill that crafted the episode and the heart at its center.

5. BOARDWALK EMPIRE – “A Return to Normalcy”

I almost went with “Nights in Ballygran,” the episode that really made me a fan, but the first season finale did what all season finales should. I can’t wait for the show to come back. I want to see Nucky and Margaret in the next phase of their relationship, Van Alden coping with his and Lucy’s unexpected baby, and Jimmy scheming with the Commodore and Eli to take back Atlantic City. I tuned into Season One in large part because of the hype, but I’ll be back for Season Two for the promise of what’s to come.

4. KIDS IN THE HALL: DEATH COMES TO TOWN – “Dead Man Walking”

How great was it to have KITH back on our screens, doing the kind of intricate comedy that SNL barely remembers? This series about a small town plagued by murders and secret lives climaxed with morbidly obese hero Ricky battling and defeating Death during a public execution (bow down to the genius that arrived at such a conclusion). But the entire outing was obviously the troupe having fun, shocking each other and the audience, and let’s hope they have similar projects planned for the near future.

3. AS THE WORLD TURNS – “Finale”

The final months could have been stronger given the length of time between the cancellation notice and our last glimpse of Oakdale. Still, that last episode was satisfying. Tom and Margo were solid while Katie and Chris were just starting out. Carly and Jack prepared for a new child while Janet and Dusty celebrated Baby Lorenzo. Paul and Emily got their happy ending, and Barbara and Henry danced the night away. Maybe Lily and Holden, like Luke and Noah, remained estranged, but reconciliation seemed in the cards in an unseen future. But it was patriarch Bob Hughes, retiring at long last and reflecting on a life well-lived, who quietly summed up the journeys of these characters (and that of the loyal audience). An ending is always a beginning. Goodnight, ATWT.

2. IN TREATMENT – “Sunil: Week Seven”

Yeah. It’s the twist that stayed with me. Paul’s sessions with Sunil were an elaborate con. The patient knew how to push the right buttons to force his therapist to punch his ticket home. As a result, you have to re-watch every Sunil episode in a different light. And that’s good television.

1. MAD MEN – “The Suitcase”

Nothing else matched it. Peggy and Don’s all night duet addressed all the love, resentment, gratitude, and frustration between mentor and protege. Low blows (Don using the fact that he quietly supported Peggy post-pregnancy as an excuse for taking her for granted), laughs (they found Roger’s memoir and learned about Cooper’s… surgery), and punches (both witnessed on TV and pathetically delivered by Don and an equally drunk Duck) were just the prologue to the main event. Don admits what he’s known for the entire episode (Anna is dead), and he cries to Peggy who picks up the pieces and assures him that he is known by someone else who loves him in her own way. About as perfect an episode as you’ll ever find, and I’ll wager that Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are assured Emmys for their efforts.

So here’s to 2010. Let’s hope 2011 is as exciting and rewarding.

Best Characters of 2010

As the year comes to a close (and before we count down our favorite episodes of 2010), let’s pause and look at the characters, some returning and some new, who made the biggest impressions:

5. The Study Group, Chang, Dean Pelton, Duncan, basically everyone on Community: Okay. I really tried to pick just one representative from this stellar cast. First I was going to go with Troy based on his awesome maturity in the dark birthday episode or Annie getting lost in the character dictated by her fake ID. Then I thought back to Shirley defending her faith against Abed’s epic religious movie and Jeff and Pierce, in the same episode, hitting a particularly poignant note when Jeff came to collect his older friend after an ill-advised Senior Citizen joyride. Pelton’s attempt to teach Jeff a lesson in inventing a class on conspiracy theories gave him some of the best moments in the “shootout” climax (and I loved Britta getting her freak on in Fluffy Town). Chang popped and locked as the rest of group tried to pry Jeff away from the fellow lawyers who were never his real friends. And an animated Abed searching for the meaning of Christmas was wildly funny and unbelievably touching (also give props to Duncan for his self-absorbed Christmas wizard). We’re in an age of lots of strong comedy ensembles, but the students and staff of Greendale, week in and week out, are at the head of the class.

4. Adam Newman (The Young and the Restless): As played by Michael Muhney, Adam Newman, son and black sheep of one of Genoa City’s most powerful families, is what makes soaps great. He’s a villain with a conscience. In 2009, he inadvertently caused his stepmother to lose her unborn child, worked to encourage a hysterical pregnancy to cover his tracks, and kidnapped his own niece to keep the lie going. Then he fell for grieving mother Sharon, his own brother’s ex, and the guilt just grew. In 2010, the walls closed in on Adam, thanks to an “intervention” where nearly every character on the canvas railed against him for his crimes. Written into this corner, Adam faked his own death and left town. And that’s when he stood out the most. When Adam was gone, the show was lacking. Every time somebody flashed back to a conversation or confrontation with Adam, I found myself thinking he can’t come back soon enough. Adam’s return, and the circumstances that kept him out of jail, allowed him to mix it up with his enemies and call them on their hypocrisies (it’s a soap; everyone has blood on their hands). Now Adam, against all odds, is reunited with Sharon, who has never been better paired, and while he’s facing a murder charge engineered by his vengeful father, he’ll get out of it, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Boardwalk Empire): Boardwalk Empire is the best new show of 2010, and there are many characters, some fictional and some factual, to choose from. Do we pick Nucky Thompson, the cool, controlling boss of Atlantic City? Or his one time protege, the hotheaded Jimmy Darmody? Then there’s the lovely and intelligent Margaret Schroeder and a young Al Capone learning the ropes that he’ll climb to infamy. These, and many more, could have made their way onto this list, but Michael Shannon’s zealous Prohibition agent takes the prize. Van Alden wasn’t always front and center, but when he was… holy hell! Whether smirking at the sight of busted barrels of green beer, or whipping his back while lusting for Margaret, or awkwardly dining with his barren wife, or engaging in one of the most disturbing sex scenes in recent memory (and now Nucky’s former lady friend, Lucy, is expecting his child), Van Alden and his actions haunted my thoughts as the credits rolled. But nothing stands out more than his murder of partner Agent Sebso. The audience knew that Sebso was in bed with Nucky and murdered the witness who would have sent Jimmy up the river. But Van Alden only suspected, and that was enough for him to lead Sebso to an outdoor religious service and drown him in front of the entire congregation. He’s not playing with a full deck, and in a world populated by murderous gangsters, Van Alden is the most dangerous character on the show.

2. Peggy Olson (Mad Men): I came this close to selecting Don Draper for his lost weekend arc, but I have to give a slight edge to the continuing metamorphosis on his former secretary. No longer the mousy girl pining for Pete and frequently serving as Don’s emotional punching bag, Peggy took charge of the reinvented agency and the season. On the personal front, she kicked a lame boyfriend to the curb, started hanging out with a female photo editor who obviously wanted to be more than friends, and ultimately took up with a liberal artist. She also had to cope with the news that baby daddy Pete finally impregnated his wife. But it was in the professional realm that Peggy made the biggest impact. She made the pitches that Don couldn’t, stripped naked to assert her authority with Stan, the smug new art director, and signed Topaz as a first step towards keeping the young firm afloat. And of course, there was the Glo-Coat commercial that netted SCDP a CLIO. It was her brainchild, but Don took most of the credit. This led to a confrontation four seasons in the making. Peggy called Don out for his abuse, finally rid herself of former lover Duck, and ultimately came to a new understanding with her boss. Peggy allowing Don to be vulnerable took all of her strength. Credit Elisabeth Moss with a performance that better get some love come Emmy time.

1. Paul Weston (In Treatment): Gabriel Byrne took his troubled therapist to new heights this season. As always, he listened with an unmatched intensity to his patients. But it was during his own sessions with new therapist Adele that Paul most impressed. Initially, Paul goes to Adele seeking a refill for his Ambien prescription. Among other things, his belief that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, weighs heavily on his mind. It’s not that much of a stretch; his father died of the same ailment. But it soon becomes clear that Paul is using the possibility of the sickness to excuse his lack of effort in his personal relationships. Adele recognizes this, but her attempts to force Paul to go deeper in order to understand why he sometimes succeeds as a therapist but rarely as a man, only lead to Paul putting Adele down and then trying to convince her that a romantic relationship outside of her office might be all that he needs. In short, Paul came off as manipulative, if not more so, than any of his past or present patients. In the end, he appears ready to make some positive changes, but to get to that point, Paul sank very low. And I hated him, and loved Byrne’s performance, during every minute of it.

Merry Thursday Night

In short, NBC’s Thursday night rocked it out. Community’s Rudolph homage started slow but finished particularly sweet. Coming off of a week when the study group hurt each other more than they helped, the gang bands together to support a lonely Abed and find the meaning of Christmas in their friendship. Loved Jeff-in-the-Box! Nice to see Pierce as the last teddy bear standing after a few weeks on the sidelines. Got teary eyed at the final image of the friends morphing back to their true form in Abed’s tiny TV screen. A little dark to be sure, but ultimately very satisfying.

30 Rock went for total dysfunction. Liz’s quest for a drama free holiday leads her to Jack’s attack zone, and guest stars Alan Alda, Elaine Stritch, and Elizabeth Banks played off of each other well from the first drink to the hospital room. Tracy remembers the power of laughter, and Paul and Jenna find their way back to one another courtesy of an inspired costume idea. Poor Liz has to take a bus home with a parrot, but methinks there’s a wedding in the cards which means more Colleen and Milton (so glad he got that kidney!). Bring it on.

Over on The Office, always known for stellar Christmas outings, things were… sigh. Darryl and his daughter, Jim and Pam exchanging gifts, and Holly… please let this be Michael’s endgame. Great direction by Rainn Wilson. Just a feel good end to the entire night. Creepy snowmen and all.