Survival of the Fittest: The 2011/2012 Television Season

This season of television was pretty good. There have been some excellent shows, and some downright terrible ones. The overbearing theme of this season, for me, was impatience. I finally gave up on shows I’ve been losing interest in for years, and even found myself hesitant to devote my time to new shows. I was so busy, there was a proper culling of the herd.

I was shocked when I realised that I’d only watched 15 shows from premiere to finale this season, including those who wrapped their runs midseason. To some, that’s a pretty big number, but I usually have lots of room in my heart for flagging shows – and, thus, make room in my evenings for them. How did the shows fare this season?

New Network Shows

There were plenty of shows that I knew wouldn’t be for me, and never bothered watching the pilots. Most of those, I don’t regret: Man Up, Work It!, GCB, Last Man Standing, Missing, The River, 2 Broke Girls, A Gifted Man, How to Be a Gentleman, NYC 22, Rob, Unforgettable, The Finder, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Terra Nova, Touch, The Firm and The Playboy Club. Of this set of wonderful, wonderful shows, 3 will be seeing a second season. I won’t be boarding the train now unless I hear something’s really changed. There were two I heard great things about, and will probably go back and watch over the course of the summer: NBC 6-episode burnoff shows Bent and Best Friends Forever. I’m still not sure whether or not I regret missing Scandal, so we’ll see how I feel once season two starts.

The rest, I watched at least the pilot. How did they fare?

Stopped After the Pilot: Ringer, which was absolutely terrible. Poorly written, poorly acted, with production values that recalled pornography, without the accompanying titillation. Alcatraz, whose two-part premiere I could only stomach finishing because I watched with a friend who demanded we get through it – despite writing without edge or interest and a hopeless leading lady who offered absolutely nothing beyond the shallow archetype the script gave her. I’m not sure if only half-watching any scene not featuring Silas Weir Mitchell as Monroe in the Grimm pilot, and reading the script, counts as seeing the pilot… but if it does, I certainly hope they’ve managed to wring better performances out of the lead and the rest of the cast.

Watched One or Two After: Charlie’s Angels, which is honestly the worst-written show I have ever encountered, barring maybe horrific Canadian mess The Line. I watched episode three hoping that Whedon alumn Douglas Petrie could elevate the material, but that wasn’t the case. Nor did watching a second episode of Whitney help: it merely cemented my feeling that Chris D’Elia was overqualified for the show, that the supporting cast were alright fluff, and that the show’s leading lady and comedic point of view were nothing short of awful. I liked the pilot for Up All Night, especially being a fan of the central trio of actors, but I didn’t feel like it was funny or engaging enough after episode two to keep going. I really liked Pan Am; it had an enjoyable cast with some chemistry. It just didn’t have enough meat to pull me back after the second episode, especially with flagging ratings. I adored Maria Bello‘s lead turn in Prime Suspect, but found myself getting bored halfway through episode two and decided to wait a few weeks for continuing. By the time I was interested again, the show was cancelled. And I fell in love with Free Agents after its second episode, but had trouble mustering up the energy to track down the episodes after its very quick cancellation.

Dropped By the Finale: I made it nine episodes into Hart of Dixie before losing patience with how fluffy and formulaic the show was. Though the cast are fantastic with nary a weak link, I expect it’s the type of show I’ll check in on every couple of years instead of watching steadily. I got through six episodes of The Secret Circle, and found myself a fan of a handful of castmates; in fact, I found something to like in everyone except the lead, whose utter lack of charisma or texture ultimately made the show unwatcheable for me. I fully intend on finishing the one-season-and-out run of Awake, having either liked or loved every episode from the opening six and only stopping because I fell behind. I almost made it through Once Upon a Time, mostly due to a handful of castmates I had affection for and the mediocre-to-good stories the show was telling. When I fell behind after episode sixteen, after a run of five rather strong episodes, I realised that I still wasn’t interested in continuing to watch. I just didn’t care about a single character’s fate, and that’s the hook that gets me to watch a show in the long run. And my guilty pleasure, Are You There Chelsea?, which I watched purely for its lead actress and its likeable cast, not necessarily for any of the humour. I watched four episodes from throughout the season, and I expect I’ll watch the rest someday when I’ve run out of first-run sitcom episodes.

Watched the Full Season, Hating Myself Every Step of the Way: Smash. If not for my love for Megan Hilty and my addiction to the original music numbers, I expect I would have bailed by episode five. As it was, the season finale had me ripping my hair out in frustration. If not for the regime change (with heartening signs already, culling the worst parts of the cast), I’d probably just have watched the performances for season two off YouTube and stayed away.

The Success Stories: Which leaves the new shows that I watched the full seasons of (without outright hatewatching), finding myself new beloved characters and stories. Of the 43 new scripted series for this season, how many made it to the end of the season for me?

Four. Out of 43. Less than ten percent.

Thankfully, all four are absolute keepers. Suburgatory, New Girl and Don’t Trust the B– have slipped into my weekly schedule as if they were there all the time. Meanwhile, Revenge grew from an interesting guilty pleasure to a fantastic, emotionally complex drama about family, morality, secrets and of course, reveeeeeeeeeeenge. Every week I would look forward to these shows, the thought eliciting a smile from me even on the darkest day. Not only did I watch every episode of them, but all four have been renewed for next season. I’m looking forward to years of entertainment from them.

Longtime Shows I’ve Dropped

This season, I’ve pink-slipped a few shows I’ve been watching for more than five years, week-in and week-out.

How I Met Your Mother: I gave up on this one, technically, last season. Season six nearly broke my heart; the quality was so poor, even with the writers going back to ongoing serial arcs like in the strong early years, that I decided it was too frustrating to watch week to week. Funny enough, despite having watched the show every week for six years previously, I completely forgot about it for most of this season. The gap it left was more than ably filled by fare like New Girl.

Grey’s Anatomy: After the disappointing season seven, which I felt didn’t use the hospital shooting effectively enough (despite spark popping up in the occasional episode), we had season eight: a season in which most of the cast were securely settled into long-term relationships, or cycling through recurring love interests repeatedly. I love most of the characters, despite the limp story arcs most of them are sleepwalking through, so I expected I’d watch every week like usual. Except I didn’t. By episode nine, I’d completely lost interest in the show, returning only for episode thirteen (an alt-universe episode that had a lot more energy than the show’s had since the shooting), and the pre-finale episode (which, at the time, I thought was the season finale).

The end-of-season was interesting, but it feels like another hospital shooting; a chance to shake everything up to inject some artificial energy into these weary bones, only to settle back into old patterns quickly. And, seeing as we had these characters recovering from an awful trauma only a couple of years ago, the writers will have to be very clever to come up with tricks they didn’t use the last time. I doubt I’m out entirely, as the show hasn’t offended me like How I Met Your Mother, but I doubt I’ll watch more than five episodes a season from hereon out.

Supernatural: Like How I Met Your Mother, this one really left my regular rotation last year after “Family Matters”, the episode so boring I paused it halfway through and never went back. This drop is really devastating considering, like HIMYM, there were years where this show was in my top five shows on television. The show’s first four seasons are fantastic, with some episodes that deserve to be in a pantheon of my favourite episodes of all time. But the show started showing its age in season 5, then changed hands for seasons 6 and 7. Now, despite another change of showrunner, I’m not entirely sure I’ll come back next year. The problems started when the show was still under Eric Kripke, after all, back in year five.

So, What Made It?

Aside from new network shows noted above (Suburgatory, Smash, Don’t Trust the B–, New Girl and Revenge), there are ten others I watched from premiere to finale (or, in some cases, fully intend to watch from premiere to finale). What are they?

Despite a drop in quality, or perhaps merely my own flagging interest, Fringe, Glee and Game of Thrones all made it to the end of the year and will stay on my radar at least until the end of next season.

Fringe had a problematic season where it messed with its own timeline, offering some intriguing new elements but mostly struggling to keep up the quality. Issues including the destruction of years’ worth of character development thanks to a timeline change, a bunch of iffy standalone episodes, and a really frustrating flashforward episode that destroyed the momentum of the season and ruined a number of surprises from the season finale. This season’s main saving graces, in new series regular Lincoln Lee (both blue and red versions) and the always entertaining Red-verse Olivia, seem to have been phased out of the show for the most part for next year, which is even more worrying.

Glee started out in an odd place: it was finally achieving the more serious and realistic scale it wanted, but at the cost of its humour and charm. By midseason the show was back to its regular self, being wildly inconsistent and more-than-occasionally awful, but also with moments of utter brilliance. I want to see what season four looks like, so I’ll be sticking around; that said, I doubt the show will ever improve if this year didn’t manage the feat, so I know exactly what I’ll be signing on for.

It pains me to include Game of Thrones in this section, especially as it hasn’t really done anything wrong. Well, a few things. It has gotten to the point where I fast-forward through Jon Snow’s plotline, because I don’t care even a little bit what is going on north of the wall. The same frustration could be applied to Daenerys’ vacation in Qarth, though that at least offers some interesting scenes between she and besotted second-in-command Jorah. Bran is not a compelling character, and his plotline drags up until late in the season.  The one flaw in King’s Landing is, having increased the prominence of Shae, the show has quickly stripped her of the intelligence and confidence she briefly showed last season, repainting her as clueless and frivolous. The increased focus on the odious and moronic Theon Greyjoy is a good move for the show, exploring the themes of the world nicely, but that doesn’t make spending time with the character less maddening.

The show’s been as brilliant as it’s been frustrating. There’s the time spent with Arya and Tywin Lannister, a dynamic that the show has calibrated expertly. There’s Arya and Jaqen, again well-drawn and engaging. There’s the friendship between Catelyn and new character Brienne, who alone is a great addition to the cast. And there’s the situation in King’s Landing, featuring a wealth of riches in its many scenes between Cersei, Tyrion and Sansa, all of whom were season one MVPs and perform even better this season.  The chemistry between Robb and his new love interest Talisa is palpable, and it offers Robb a much stronger character arc than he had last year. More screentime to Osha, the charismatic wildling, livens up the otherwise dull-as-dishwater plotline handed to the series’ weakest link, Bran. And the show has offered another brilliant new character in the honourable Davos Seaworth, whose strength offers support to the otherwise flat Stannis and mildly disappointing Melisandre.

So what’s wrong? Perhaps it’s watching the show alone this season instead of with friends, and week-to-week instead of in spurts, but it just moves so slowly. The season is almost over at this point, and it feels as though not much has happened at all. The pace is deceptive: almost every character has gone through character evolution, from Arya to Robb to Tyrion, and things are clearly coming to a head at end of season. Despite that, though, I still find myself getting frustrated with the show, and having trouble praising it to the heights that the critics are. There’s just too many weak or frustrating plotlines. I’d happily give all of Bran, Theon, Jon and Dany’s screentime this season to underserved figures like Jaime Lannister and Sansa Stark. It’s a problem I can’t diagnose, but I’m hoping at the very least the final two episodes will offer some plot movement alongside the character exploration we’ve gotten this season.

That just leaves the sh0ws that have performed well.

The Good Wife didn’t have as strong a season this year as it did last, but it was still engaging and filled with well-realised characters. The show followed the pattern of last year, with a strong arc that gave the show some great steam (last year, the takeover attempt; this year, Wendy Scott-Carr targeting Will for judicial bribery), only to settle into arcs that left something to be desired (last year, the overlong Kalinda/Blake story; this year, the plotline about the Florricks’ old house).  That said, even when the show pursues weaker stories, like Alicia and Jackie battling for their old house, there’s still deep character exploration and development, one reason why this show is so strong.

Parks and Recreation is one of television’s most consistently entertaining shows. The cast is so good, the chemistry is so strong, that the show can’t trip over itself like so many others do. This season may not have reached the heights of seasons two or three, but it was still a very fun, warm season of television that was a joy to watch every week. Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn were also two of the show’s best-ever guest stars, coming in for an extended arc for Leslie’s run for City Council and nailing every moment of it.

Community is precisely the opposite of Parks and Recreation‘s consistency. I would say twelve out of its twenty-two episodes from this season were pretty strong, and the rest were spotty. When the show is suffering, it’s bad: see last year’s “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” for an example of how shoddy the show can get. However, when the show is good, we get format-benders like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Digital Estate Planning”, or even just solid, funny episodes like “Advanced Gay”. This season was much stronger than last season; it combined the gimmick episodes that defined the show while never allowing itself to descend into an extended run of subpar episodes, like last season. (Though, to be fair, said run was peppered with some of the series’ best.) For a sendoff for series creator Dan Harmon, if not the show itself, it’s a season to be proud of.

Mad Men is very different this year, though it’s hard to define why. There’s something more accessible and broader about it without the show suffering for that. The character moments are bigger, louder. Pete and Lane literally boxing at the office. Don hallucinating that he’s murdered an ex-lover. Joan and her husband having a dramatic fight that culminates in his storming off. There’s something about the feeling of change in the air that makes these scenes, which by any other season’s standards would be over-the-top, that instead makes these small explosions seem inevitable. Times are changing. And things that have been simmering for a very long time are ready to boil.

Possibly the winner for ‘Most Improved’ is Cougar Town. Last year, the show was charming, but its lead was completely grating. Her behaviour and voice weren’t just comedically over-the-top; instead, she felt more like an asshole that her group of friends and boyfriend inexplicably accepted as their leader. This season, it seems like they’ve carefully recalibrated Jules, allowing her a smidge of self-awareness and pulling back on her moments of bizarre cruelty. As a result, the show’s having the strongest run, I think, of its short life.

And last but not least, two new shows that have definitely left their mark. Showtime’s Homeland is contender for my favoutite show of the season, anchored by two starmaking performances by already-known Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. The storytelling is taut and suspenseful without being boring, the character work carefully considered, and the pacing effective. “The Weekend” is one of the year’s best-written episodes of television, flat out. The other is Nick’s The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to breakout three-season animation Avatar: The Last AirbenderAvatar was strong because, despite the trappings of a kid’s show, it had some fairly sophisticated character arcs and serialised plots going on, and some great considerations about the nature of war, and good and evil. Korra is aimed at that same audience, now a few years older, and thus can also go a little darker. Every episode of its first season so far has been good, managing to wring feelings and laughter out of plot developments that, done by a lesser show, would have fallen completely flat (like the love triangle episode).

So, there’s a long rumination on the strengths and weaknesses of this season of television. Here’s hoping next year is even stronger, though the crop of incoming new shows doesn’t inspire much hope.

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7 responses to “Survival of the Fittest: The 2011/2012 Television Season

  1. Kara Lalalala May 25, 2012 at 5:03 am

    Ahhh it pains my heart, I have been glued to Supernatural and a quarter way through this season I had to drop it completely. SO MUCH CRYING! I just want rock and roll music and hot boys shooting monsters. Why do they think they are deeper than they are? WHY! Anyway, awesome play by play of TV, I just wish you’d get in the game and help shows pull of their boot straps. Also I want to punch New Girl in the face so bad it keeps me watching. *guilty*

  2. Kara Lalalala May 25, 2012 at 5:08 am

    P.S Grimm is well… grim. But you’re right Silas Weir Mitchell, despite his douchey fake name, sticks out like a sore thumb due to be even slightly interesting and watchable. The other characters may as well be card board cut outs. And Once Upon a Time, is intolerable despite all the pretty faces.. I miss my supernatural themed “pop and chips” nights on the couch watching some kind of bad ass beating up some kind of monster.
    P.S.S what do you think of the new Sherlock Holmes?

    • R. Lackie May 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      I miss some good ‘pop and chips’ shows too. Did you ever try Fringe? It started out slooooooow but got awesome, particularly in seasons two and three. It might recall The X-Files a bit for you…

      The UK one by Steven Moffat? Very good, though I’m still in the middle of season one. They’ve done some really cool things visually to represent his deductive process, and they’re using technology in some pretty cool ways. The Moffat episodes are best, though he only writes one a season.

  3. Kara Lalalala May 25, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    I liked Fringe but stupidly started watching it while it was actually airing on TV and missed a bunch of episodes and then ruined the big secret. Fringe got X-files level of awesome though for sure. I’m still on the fence about Sherlock.. Steven Moffatt should have just written all of them, what else has he got to do!

  4. Kara Lalalala May 26, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I KNOW BUT ITS NOT ON YET! GOD IM SO EXCITED!!

  5. Pingback: ABOUT THE BLOG: The Big Bad Thousand « The Diversionist

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