Monday, February 04, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite TV Shows of 2012

Arya Stark, one of the most popular characters
 in the Game of Thrones series
I have previously blogged about the five favorite books I read in 2012. When I am not reading, I watch television on my DVR (or go to see movies). Now that the Super Bowl is over, the 2013 television season

The shows that I made sure my DVR recorded every week in 2013 and which I often watched live were some of my favorite television shows from 2012:
5. The Good Wife. I first found about the The Good Wife when Archie Panjabi won the Best Supporting Actress in Television Drama Series at the Emmys in 2010. She was so striking that I thought "I should really check out that show," especially since I was shocked she had beaten out the person I thought was the clear frontrunner, Rose Byrne from Damages. I knew that the show starred an alum from ER, Julianna Margulies but I think I saw it as a cheap knock-off of the Eliot Spitzer scandal. (The show follows the travails of the wife of a politician who admits to an affair and the "good wife" stands by her man.) I have actually never seen the first season of the show but I got hooked towards the beginning of the second season and have not looked back. It basically is an update of David E. Kelley's LA Law and The Practice with less sex, but more interesting cases, and with local politics thrown in. Margulies is very good and bring a lot more nuanced to her role as "the good wife," as does Christine Baranski in a dramatic role. They used to have Michael Boatman in a more prominent role but now the show's cast is almost overwhelmingly white but I'm still hooked. Besides, both Josh Charles and Matt Czuchry bring enough "cute white boy" energy to keep the casual gay fan engaged. 
4. Modern Family. This is simply the best comedy on television, taking the overdone format of a sitcom about simple domestic living and turning it on its head by trying to represent as much family diversity as possible. So, there's the family with the hot Latina trophy wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her pedantic son Manny living with the rich and grumpy curmudgeon (Ed O'Neill) Jay; the very gay couple Cameron (overweight,dramatic & queeny camer Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (red-headed, dramatic & queeny Jesse Tyler Ferguson) raising their adopted Asian girl toddler Lily; and the "typical" nuclear family consisting of a pretty, neurotic mom (Julie Bowen) Claire and a childlike father (Ty Burrell) Phil with their three kids Haley, Alex and Luke. It should be noted that despite the astonishingly good writing and uniformly good acting (the entire adult cast regularly gets nominated and Best Supporting Actor has been won by a Modern Family castmember every year it has been on television) this is another show which does not have a regular African-American castmember, even though the producers have clearly tried hard to represent the wide spectrum of diversity present in America. One extra thrill for me while watching the show is knowing that is filmed in my home town of Los Angeles and from time to time recognizing some of the locations that the characters are in. The unapologetic portrayal of a "real" gay couple is one of the clear highlights of the show, but Burrell, Bowen, Stonestreet are also comedic actors performing at the top of their game. 
3. Homeland. The first season of Homeland may be the best first season of a television drama, ever. (Although I think the producers of The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Lost may quibble, and I would add the first season of 24, Alias and Six Feet Under to that list. Homeland has the DNA of 24 through producer Howard Gordon but stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis as the co-leads. Both of these actors are infinitely superior to Keifer Sutherland, but when you throw in Mandy Patinkin there's no contest. But the key to Homeland is its writing, and in the first season the writers conceived and executed a perfectly timed, insanely suspenseful sequence of realistic events involving lifelike, complicated characters that it was simply breath-taking to behold. Although they were unable to maintain that high level of excellence through the second season (which also happened in 2012), even a slightly flawed Homeland was still better than 99% of everything else on television. 
2. Walking Dead. I had heard about this new show about the zombie apocalypse based on a series of popular comics graphic novels airing on cable but since I don't read graphic novels I was somewhat uninterested in watching it. I'm not sure what convinced me to watch the first episode, but I happened to run into it a few weeks before the debut of the now-infamous second season and was immediately hooked after seeing the pilot and devoured the entirety of the rest of the first season (only 5 1-hour episodes) in the next twenty four hours. The brilliance of Walking Dead is that it works on many levels. If you are interested in blood-spattering gore and violent situations then you will get more than your fill of both, basically in every episode. If you are interested (like I am) in emotionally-laden, nuanced situations that complex characters have to navigate in a dangerous, difficult world extrapolated from our own then you will also see a lot of that in every episode. The show is based on very popular material from another medium from which it is slightly deviating (with the approval and participation of its creator Robert Kirkman) that brings along another whole fan base. It's this combination, plus the ruthless policy of the producers (enacted to maximal effect multiple times already) that literally no character is safe from extinction that makes and made Walking Dead the most watched show by the most coveted audience (18-49) on cable television.
1. Game of Thrones. The top two shows on my list are similar, in that they are genre pieces of fiction (Walking Dead is based on a horror-speculative fiction graphic novel while Game of Thrones is based on one of the best selling swords-and-sorcery fantasy series of all time) that also have participation from the creator of the original work. Game of Thrones airs on HBO which means that both the budget of the show is much larger (rumored to be on the order of 50-60 million dollars per season, or more than $5 million per episode) while its audience is relatively smaller (Walking Dead averaged about 5 million and 7 million viewers per episode in its first two seasons while Game of Thrones averaged about 2.5 million and 3.5 million in its first two seasons). Because it's on premium cable, Game of Thrones is also able to be more sexually explicit than its rivals (this also applies to Homeland which airs on Showtime) and it uses (some would say abuses) this ability, primarily by including lots of female nudity. For me, the reason why the show is a must-see is that I am a fan of the underlying source material, and I am curious to see how the producers are going to bring the books to life on screen. But, the reason why I am a fan of that material (as well as the show) is that it is fascinating political drama, based around compelling characters that we have come to care about, put in harrowing situations. One could really argue that the television adaption is taking an already great series of books and improving on them by making use of the medium to highlight and create nuances and meanings which may have either escaped notice while reading (or may not have even been there in the original text!) And the exciting thing about the series is that although we know what happens in the first several seasons of the show because they are based on the first few books, George R.R. Martin hasn't finished writing the books yet so no one knows the ultimate resolution of any of the fates of the characters. Similar to Walking Dead, Martin is also fairly ruthless about his characters and many, many heads roll, even of characters that the audience loves (and some that they hate). Another key feature that separates Game of Thrones from its rivals is the sheer magnitude of the cast of characters. They are numerous and multifarious, providing different kinds of viewers with people that they can cheer for and root against. My favorite is Tyrion Lannister (played to Emmy award-winning perfection by Peter Dinklage) who happens to be a "bad guy" in the series, but he is also (one of) the smartest person in the books, while also being an amoral, brutally scarred dwarf scion of the richest family in the Kingdom. Even if you have not read the books (as my Other Half has not) you can still quite enjoy the series, although I think if you have read the books it gives one an extra frisson of pleasure.
Honorable Mentions
The Big Bang Theory, True Blood, Happy Endings, Boss and Alphas. Guilty pleasure: Scandal.

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