The 8 Ball 12.18.12: The Top 8 Cable Shows of 2012
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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The end of the year is here, which means that it is time for Best and Worst of 2012 lists. The Movie Zone 8 Ball is no different and so this year, I thought we would start off with the best in television. 2012 was a very good year for television, but especially cable TV. As HBO and Showtime brought in new shows to be the new banner-carriers as their older shows prepare to depart, basic cable nets like F/X and USA continued to deliver fine work and even channels like BBC America gained ground, bringing UK shows to an American audience. This year to give both cable and network shows a chance, I’m separating the two into their own columns and we will start with the best cable shows this week.
Caveat: The rule is simple; it had to be a show I watched the 2012 episodes of that aired on a US cable network. This did leave some cable shows out that I have not caught up to current on, such as Breaking Bad. I am working on it but am not up to the 2012 season yet. The only other caveat was that it had to be scripted television. This left out some shows like The Daily Show and The Soup, which I absolutely do enjoy but which are not the kinds of shows I was thinking of with this list.
The Newsroom (HBO)
Mad Men (AMC)
House of Lies (Showtime)
The first season of American Horror Story established it as an incredibly divisive show among genre television fans. Some people felt that Ryan Murphy had taken the show too far into camp and crazy extremes, making the show very over-the-top and somewhat lacking in terms of cohesive storytelling in the first few episodes. Others, like me, appreciated the way that the season developed and ultimately rewarded its viewers with really fun twists and turns punctuated by great acting. When the second season was announced as being an entirely separate storyline that takes place in an insane asylum in the 1960s, I was thrilled. It is fertile ground for a good horror story and Murphy didn’t disappoint. American Horror Story: Asylum has all the craziness of the first season but with better storytelling and more interesting characters. Jessica Lange has another great role in the series, this time as Sister Jude, and James Cromwell has a meaty part himself as the amoral (and, as we find out, Nazi past-hiding) Dr. Arden. Many members of the first season came back for new roles that they are knocking out of the park including Zachary Quinto, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy and even, as we saw in the last episode before the winter break, Dylan McDermott. Ian McShane of Deadwood fame also got a chance to show up and deliver a great performance as a Christmas-themed serial killer. But for my money, Murphy gave the best AHS: Asylum role to Lily Rabe who has been delivering award-worthy work as Sister Mary Eunice, the innocent nun who finds herself possessed and is now the primary villain of the season. There are four episodes left to go when the show returns in January and the stage is set for an epic conclusion.
It will probably shock some people that I have HBO’s fantasy series, which pretty much sets the bar for fantasy programming on television, as low as this. I would venture to say there will even be some outrage. And make no mistake; once my rankings had been compiled, it surprised me as well to see that the second season of the series was outside of my top five. This is certainly not to say that it was a bad season by any stretch; quite the contrary. The 2012 run of the chronicles of Westeros saw the introduction of some brilliant characters and great plot threads. The development of Tyrion Lannister into what was essentially the lead role of the season was well done as he became a true leader, while the plot thread between Arya Stark and Jaqen, her mysterious temporarily-indentured assassin, was a highlight of the season as much as Arya’s service to Tywin Lannister and the conversations they had. The performances of Lena Headey (Cersei), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) were standouts among an already-stellar cast that delivered consistently great performances; even the most hateable character on the show, little evil King Joffrey, was hated for all the right reasons. So why is it so low? Because while there were great moments, there were several frustrating ones too. Jon Snow’s development seems like it was necessary to get him to a point that will be useful next season, but this season he was making irritatingly stupid decisions. Meanwhile, Daenerys’ storyline seemed to largely be spinning its wheels and like Jon’s, it distracted from the main plot threads around King’s Landing and the war for the Iron Throne instead of providing respites from it. These were far from show-killing missteps though, and it still made for some of the most compelling watching on television.
Many people felt that the fifth and sixth seasons of Dexter were major letdowns for the acclaimed show, believing that the show had taken a major downward turn after the shocking death of Rita at the end of season four. I don’t particularly agree with that estimation but I certainly can’t deny that the show didn’t measure up to its highest standard in the sixth season at least. Luckily, the creative forces behind the show came back in a major way with the just-concluded seventh season. Season six ended on a high note, with Debra finally finding out that her brother was a killer. Coming into the seventh season, the show made the wise move of using this as an opportunity to build up Deb, who has had the distinction of being one of the most poorly-written characters on the show at times. With Jennifer Carpenter delivering her best season’s worth of performances to date, Debra was allowed to show why she’s such a good cop: she is smart, she trusts her instincts and at the beginning of this season she refused to let Dexter lead her off his path. The Dexter/Debra dynamic was a major force for the season–especially when it came into conflict with Dexter’s burgeoning relationship with Hannah, played by the lovely and talented Yvonne Strahovski. The conflict between Debra and Hannah became a sort of angel and devil on Dexter’s shoulder without the need to spell that out and forcing him to choose. Since the show ended just last night I am keeping this mostly spoiler-free, but I loved the way that it played out and finished up. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the casting coup of bringing in Ray Stevenson as Isaak, the Russian mafia man who comes to Miami looking for vengeance after Dexter kills someone important to him. It all added up to a major creative upswing that set the stage for what should be an epic final season next year.
Regular readers of the 8 Ball are no strangers to my love for Doctor Who, and throughout the past few years I have engaged on a (now-mostly complete) project to watch all extant material from the show’s inception in the 1960s to current. The seventh series of Doctor Who was the first one I was able to watch live as it aired, and it has been one of my favorites of the rebooted iteration of the series. The seventh series so far has seen some wonderfully goofy moments as only Doctor Who can do, from a cyborg gunslinger in the Old West to Nefertiti on a spaceship with dinosaurs. But ultimately the series was, at its core, about setting the stage for the Doctor to face what he hates the most: being alone. It was known for a while that Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan would be leaving this season and the show set that stage throughout the episodes. It is without exaggeration to say that the last episode that aired so far, “The Angels Take Manhattan” is one of the finest in the new series’ history. It had some great adventure moments and very funny comedic spots, but on top of that it was one of the few episodes of television this year that I got seriously emotional over. Only Doctor Who can give characters an end that is both heartbreakingly sad and fairy-tale happy at the same time. Amy and Rory ended up torn away and (essentially) killed, but they still got their chance to live a happy life together. It is not sad for them as much as it is for the Doctor. The reaction to this episode online was one that you rarely see in terms of pure emotional outpouring and while I’m not exactly unbiased here, I can say with some level of confidence that it wasn’t the show’s extremely loyal fanbase just being overdramatic.
There is a lot of passionate debate among Walking Dead fans about the quality of the second season. I am one of those who appreciate what the farm-centered run of the series offered, but I understand why other people disliked it. Pretty much everyone I’ve seen has taken the same side in terms of loving the third season, and rightly so. The second season ended on an exciting note, with Andrea separated from the group and saved by the mysterious woman who would be revealed as Michonne while the rest of the group was being led by an increasingly iron-gloved and mentally unstable Rick. In the third season, the threats became external again as Rick and his group found themselves a home in the prison along with some untrustworthy prisoners and zombies around the corner while Michonne and Andrea made it to Woodbury, where the Governor put a rift between them. This season brought back the horror/thriller aspects, amping up the zombie threat and, correspondingly, the violence and tragedy. Lori and T-Dogg both fell and Rick found himself becoming even more unstable while the Governor and Merle caused serious problems for our heroes. At the same time several characters got the opportunity to man up and took it; Glen earned legitimate bad-ass status when he killed a walker while in captivity and then later used one of its arm bones to make a play for his and Maggie’s freedom. Meanwhile Carl stopped making dumb decisions and started growing up in his own right. The show has set the stage for an epic second half of the season when it comes back in February, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I did some very serious debating over whether I should put Sherlock on the list. Can a show be considered a series when it is just three hour and a half episodes, or does it count as TV movies at that point? Ultimately I went with inclusion based on the fact that it runs in seasons (or series’, if you’re from the UK) and the fact that…well, I really wanted to talk about it. This series, created by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, contains some of the best acting on television without equivocation. Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly on his way to becoming a major star with roles in Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit, and yet his most compelling work and what excites me the most comes in his performances as the modern adaptation of the legendary detective. His Sherlock may seem to carry some inspiration from Robert Downey Jr.’s movie take on the character but while I love Downey, Cumberbatch is the better Holmes by a mile and Martin Freeman also outdistances Jude Law as Watson. The show’s second season up the stakes from the first by introducing some iconic characters stories from Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythology, including Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia, the famous Hound of the Baskervilles and, of course, the further development of Moriarty in The Reichenbach Fall. That last episode was pure genius in plotting, as Moriarty systematically picks away at Sherlock in every way he needs to and the detective finds himself up to a true challenge. Part of the biggest problem with Sherlock Holmes adaptations is that very thing; in order to make Holmes as brilliant as he should be, he must be challenged properly and then overcome that challenge. Moffat knows how to do this and lets it play out perfectly. While I am ecstatic to see Cumberbatch and Freeman become true stars, I can’t wait to see them get back to filming so we can get a third season that will hopefully be as good as the last two.
The first season of Homeland was one that took audiences by storm, and one that I missed out on until after the fact. That did have an advantage for me as I was able to experience the first season in one fell swoop without the need to wait a full week to resolve those excruciating “what happens next?” questions. This season I had that wait and the time period from Sunday to Sunday was excruciating. With the first season having set things up perfectly, I was insanely curious to see where Homeland would go in the second season now that secret terrorist Nicholas Brody was a US senator and CIA agent Carrie Mathison had a potentially very important clue electro-shocked away. As it turned out, the second season was just as thrilling as the first, with Carrie returning to the CIA in a way that was organic and made sense while Brody’s loyalties were tested in new ways. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis continued delivering top-notch award-worthy performances while Morena Baccarin, Mandy Patinkin, David Harewood and Rupert Friend were all right at the top of their game. Even plot threads that seemed to go nowhere were compelling and served their purpose; Morgan Saylor’s Dana had a car accident storyline that did its job in putting a rift between Dana and Brody, for example. The finale that took place Sunday night was stunning in its developments and creates an entirely new game for the players to run through for the third season, leaving me hyped once again to see where the show goes from here.
Ahh, good old Sons of Anarchy. I really don’t know how much else I can say in praise of this show. I’ve spoken before at length about how much I have enjoyed Kurt Sutter’s “Hamlet on Harleys” show, but I daresay that the show managed to top even itself this season. From the very first episode, you knew this was going to be a breathtaking season and it didn’t disappoint. I can point to the incredible acting of the likes of Charlie Hunnam, Maggie Siff, Katey Sagal and Jimmy Smits; I can talk at length about the skill with which Sutter makes even the most reprehensible villains likable and sympathetic. I can talk about the fantastic characterizations of such people as Jax–weaving his way through the pitfalls of leadership and finding himself capable of depths he didn’t imagine–or of Clay who tried to grasp at the slipping threads of what he had lost and causing his own undoing in the process. But ultimately, even without all that, it is the skill with which Sutter frames moments in time that leave you shaken to the core. The way Damon Pope initially deals with the death of his daughter at Tig’s hands. Opie’s noble sacrifice to protect Jax’s soul. The moment in time where Clay realizes, once and for all, that he’s been betrayed. These are just a few of the many, many moments that made the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy the best cable show of 2012.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season: Season Eight (1971)
Episodes Watched: 587
Last Serial Completed: Colony in Space – When the Time Lords discover that the Master has stolen their secret file on the Doomsday Weapon, they realize that they have only one recourse and send the Doctor and Jo–without their knowledge or consent–to the planet Uxarieus. There, they become enmeshed in a struggle between an agrarian colony and a powerful mining corporation, with the Master himself pulling strings from the shadows.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 42
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.