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 EVER: Entourage
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.