The 8 Ball 12.25.12: The Top 8 Network TV 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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Last week we kicked off the Movie Zone 8 Ball Year in Review with the top shows of cable television. This week we’re looking at the broadcast network side. The five major networks have a major disadvantage when it comes to narrative television, particularly in terms of drama because they are held back from handling certain topics or using certain types of content due to ratings board concerns. You will never see a show like Sons of Anarchy or The Walking Dead on ABC or FOX. Additionally, obsessive adherence to the week-to-week rise and fall of the Nielsen ratings system means that networks don’t often give shows a chance to develop in the way that cable networks can. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any good shows for those without cable. All five networks–yes, even The CW–have good-to-great programming that TV fans can get hooked into. This week we’re going to take a look at my eight personal favorites from the Big Five.
Caveat: The rule is simple; it had to be a show I watched the 2012 episodes of that aired on a US broadcast network (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and The CW). I have seen at least a couple episodes of most of the major network shows, so I don’t believe there are any I left out just because I haven’t seen them. The shows had to be scripted narrative television; no reality shows, news shows, talk shows or the like.
How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
The 2012 – 2013 broadcast season has had quite a few surprises, as you will see in the following list. This was one of the more pleasant ones for me. I tend to be wary of sitcoms as a rule and think that they lean toward the laziest and usually worst of scripted entertainment. The broadcast networks have the mechanics of building a sitcom down to the point of Henry Ford-esque assembly line efficiency: take a moderately well-known actor or unknown stand-up comedian, throw them in a hastily sketched-out setting, include half-assed supporting characters and trot out slight variations on tired jokes, gags and themes. Make sure you include a laugh track to make sure people know which parts are funny!
This season I decided to take a risk and give a few new sitcoms a chance, even after getting burned by the terribly unfunny 2 Broke Girls last year. Two of those new shows, The New Normal and The Mindy Project, didn’t make it past the fourth episodes with me for entirely different reasons that boiled down to the same thing: I wanted to punch someone after I was done with an episode. The third was Go On. Friends alumni have, much like Seinfeld alumni, not had great track records in TV shows following those iconic NBC comedies. Matthew Perry is no different than most of his colleagues; his last sitcom, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, fell by the wayside in favor of 30 Rock. With Go On, however, he has a hit and the reason is because unlike most sitcoms, it is well thought-out and serves as more than just a vehicle for crappy sight gags. Perry plays sportscaster Ryan King, whose wife Janie has recently passed away. Ryan wants to get back to work and move on with his life but finds that he can’t, leading him to reluctantly find a support group who–of course–end up becoming his bizarre, unlikely second family. Perry has a great ability to switch smoothly between dry sarcasm and emotional honesty, a rare quality that is perfect for this role while the supporting cast that includes Laura Benanti, Julie White, John Cho and Brett Gelman are great in their roles. The support group’s weird quirks are fun to be sure and provide a lot of hilarity, but series creator Scott Silveri also knows when to dial that back. Some of my favorite moments involve conversations between Ryan and visions of his late wife, played quite nicely by Christine Woods. Go On works because you emotionally invest in the characters, something a lot of other comedies could learn from.
Another big surprise for me this season has been Arrow. The CW was in a sad, sad state last year, where it tended to bring in ratings that the other networks would go to Def-Con 5 over. The network has been in transition ever since executive Dawn Ostroff stepped down. Ostroff was infamous for deciding to turn the network’s focus exclusively toward the 18 to 34 year-old female demographic, with shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill dominating the net’s landscape. That plan, while praise-worthy for its bold ideas, didn’t work out as well as they hoped in the long term and when Ostroff left in early 2011, the network more or less dropped their focus on the demographic and tried to expand. It hasn’t been as successful as they’ve liked, but progress is being made. One of the biggest hits to The CW however was the end of Smallville after the 2010 – 2011 season. The show was what counted for a ratings juggernaut on the network and it left a major hole in the schedule that CW president Mark Pedowitz struggled to fill last season. When it was announced in spring that The CW would premiere Arrow, based on the DC character Green Arrow, in the fall I was very skeptical. I have CW shows that I like (as you’ll see) but they are anomalies more than they are rules because the network has a tendency to “CW-ize” their shows, as I like to call it; in other words they fall back on their ties to the 18 – 34 female demographic and insert soap opera-ness where none is needed.
And don’t get me wrong; Arrow has a few small hints of that. But by and large, the show is not really what you would expect on the network that brought you Wildcats and Hart of Dixie. For starters, it is probably the most violent show on network TV. I’m not saying that violence makes a show better, but this show wouldn’t have worked if Arrow didn’t…well, shoot people with arrows. The show does use some of the same touches that Smallville did in establishing its world; if not for the presence of a different Green Arrow in Smallville it would not at all be hard to imagine that the two shows exist within the same continuity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What makes this show work isn’t the Smallville feel or the family drama, the body count or any little factor like that. The show has a great sense of story and character, as well as a very talented cast headed up by Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen. To be fair, any show that includes the great John Barrowman among its cast is going to garner interest from me, but the regular cast is all great including Katie Cassidy as Laurel, David Ramsay as Diggle and Willa Holland as Thea. The show is still somewhat finding its way in terms of finding where it fits the DC universe in with the CW stuff, but so far it is going a great job and it has been a bright spot in the network’s gloomy schedule in terms of ratings.
Castle is a show that has had me hooked all the way from the first season. ABC’s dramedic cop serial has been firmly anchored in the category of quality TV thanks to sharp, witty writing, great characters and a fantastic chemistry between stars Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. At the end of the fourth season though, creator/showrunner Andrew Marlowe finally took the plunge that has killed many a great TV show when he finally put the “will they or won’t they” couple together. Just ask Moonlighting (among many others) how well that decision worked out. So like many Castle fans, I watched and waited to see if Marlowe and company would overcome the pitfalls that other great shows have failed at. Obviously we are still early into things, but thus far it has been a resounding yes. The new situation of Castle and Beckett’s under-the-radar romance has been dealt with very well and it has given both Katic and Fillion the chance to take their characters outside of their normal lines. Could it still go wrong? Absolutely. It hasn’t yet though, and that’s quite an accomplishment even this early in.
Meanwhile, there are several other aspects to the show that make it work so well and the fourth season has kept those up as well. Castle’s home life has always been an integral part of the show; this season his daughter Alexis (played by the lovely and talented Molly Quinn) has been away at school while his mother Martha has been busy with her own things. This has given Castle a chance to develop as he gets outside his comfort zone. And in terms of the “Crimes of the Week,” there have been some really great ones. An obvious highlight was the sci-fi convention-themed “The Final Frontier,” which saw a new height to per-capita Firefly references and gave Beckett an awesome character quirk as a fan of cheesy sci-fi; other great stories have included the Auction Hunter-themed “Secret’s Safe with Me” and the religious cult of “Swan Song.” Castle is the kind of show that could have easily burned out after a season or two but in its fifth season it is going as strong as ever.
Nikita really shouldn’t be on the air at this point. The show has, being a staple of the CW’s Friday night death slot, been one of the lower-rated shows on network TV and this season saw its fortunes dip even lower after it got the “why isn’t this cancelled yet?” America’s Next Top Model as a lead-in while it battled with NBC’s Grimm and FOX’s Fringe for the genre audience. So yes, by this point it probably should have been cancelled. However, I’m exquisitely happy that it hasn’t been. I’ve always been a sucker for espionage shows and Nikita is one of the better ones to come along in the last several years. Sure, it owes as much to Alias as it does to its more literal predecessor La Femme Nikita, but Nikita actually raises the bar with its cast and writing. That’s not a slam on Jennifer Garner or JJ Abrams, but Maggie Q is one of the more underrated actresses working on television and she has a great cast around her in Lyndsy Fonseca, Shane West and Aaron Stanford, not to mention Melinda Clarke as the devious Amanda and Noah Bean as the now-series regular Ryan Fletcher.
In the third season of the show, Nikita changed things up in a way that only genre television has the balls to do by making Division, the shadowy covert government agency that was the villain for the first two seasons, the show’s protagonist with the Maggie Q’s titular operative more or less in charge with Ryan, Michael, Birkhoff and Alex forming the nexus of those in charge. Tension is coming in with the government making Division clean up the mess that former Division head Percy left while the threat of mass termination hangs over their head and Amanda out there in the world causing problems for them. The switch has paid off in spades and seems organic–let’s face it, Nikita couldn’t struggle against the entire intelligence community on her own forever–while also shaking everything up. The show has continued its predilections toward shocking twists but what makes them work is the fact that Nikita’s twists don’t seem implausible within the confines of the show. This is a show that is difficult to stay attached to with the threat of cancellation ever-looming, but it pulls you in and makes sure that you don’t want to let go.
For almost any of other past three seasons, Modern Family would be ranked far higher than #4; it has consistently been one of the funniest and most endearing shows on network television. And let’s be honest; #4 is nothing to sneeze at. The trials and tribulations of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan displays more heart in single episodes than your typical sitcom shows in a season; there is a very good reason that it regularly dominates the major television awards in the comedic categories. That being said, I kind of feel like the fourth season has been the first to dip a bit. For the first time in the show’s run, not every episode and plotline have worked as well as they want to. One of the big weaknesses this season has been handling Haley’s presence on the show; Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd obviously wanted Haley to progress and not be the high school character who just stays in limbo but her college tenure included awkward ways to include Sarah Hyland in episodes and when she was kicked out of college, it felt like the writers had just given up on ways to include her while from afar and bring her home. Alex’s storylines have similarly seemed uneven and lacking in real fluidity and consistency and the first few episodes seemed to be lacking in terms of their both self-contained and ongoing plots.
Those flaws with the current season aside, the show is still great and still one of the funniest on TV. Claire in particular has had a major upswing this season; Julie Bowen does a great job with the role but there have been times where her neurotic nature becomes a bit too much. That has evened out this season and Bowen has had a chance to really shine in episodes like “Open House of Horrors” where she decides to show Phil just how scary she can be or “Yard Sale” where she is certain that Alex’s new boyfriend is gay. The Claire/Phil relationship is the source for some of the best humor on this show, not the least of which are Phil’s clueless observations and Claire’s deadpan reactions to said observations. Few lines of dialogue had me laughing harder this season than Phil thoughtlessly saying “I’m not nervous, I’ve had hogs bigger than this between my legs” in reference to a motorcycle while Jay and Claire look on dumbfounded. Gloria’s pregnancy has provided some pretty ample fodder for humor as well. This season may not be Modern Family at its best, but even a slight drop from its peak keeps the show among the best on the air.
And here we have the single-biggest surprise of the season. Believe me, I was ready to hate this when it was announced. CBS revealed in the spring that it had greenlit an Americanized, modern take on Sherlock Holmes and like many fans of the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock I was disgusted at the lack of creativity that the network was showing. It got even worse when it was announced that Watson would be a woman, leading to the inevitable conclusion that Sherlock and Watson would be hooking up at some point–or at least playing the “will they or won’t they” game. There was nothing even remotely positive that I had to say about this initial news and even the casting of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Sherlock and Watson did little to assuage my dread of the series. It seemed very much like the Hollywood attitude to foreign films: “That’s a great movie! How can we rip it off for a cheap buck?”
At this point you are probably wondering why I even gave it a chance if I was so down on the idea. That’s a fair question; the answer is that I decided to watch it almost by accident. The night of the show’s premiere, I had nothing in particular to do and while flipping channels, I ended up on CBS. I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad that I did. Now, make no mistake…this show is indeed derivative of Sherlock in some parts. Miller’s portrayal of the Great Detective is reminiscent of Benedict Cumberbatch’s prickly, anti-social and eccentric genius and the dynamic between Holmes and Watson is, at its core, similar. However, considering that these things are part and parcel to Conan-Doyle’s original characters, this is understandable. What makes the show work on its own instead of just as a shallow Sherlock copy is the fact that, while they have some of those similarities, Elementary never tries to match itself up to its BBC counterpart. Elementary is, much like Castle a crime procedural that focuses on the crimes as a way to explore the characters investigating the crimes. To the show’s extreme credit, they have held true to their promise that there is no romance between Watson and Holmes; there has never even been the slightest hint of this maybe cropping up one day, which keeps it on a different playing field than Castle or Bones. Miller is magnetic as Holmes and Liu is putting in her best work since Kill Bill and even surpasses the work that made her a household name on Ally McBeal. The crimes investigated have all been intriguing and inventive while the Holmes/Watson dynamic has kept the show grounded. It is my favorite new show on broadcast television with ease.
Ahh, Supernatural. It shouldn’t surprise regular readers of the 8 Ball that this show ranks on the list, as I have regularly mentioned my appreciation for the show. The Eric Kripke-created series has maintained a high level of quality in eight seasons that is almost unheard of in genre television. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is more or less the hallmark of supernatural TV, had its highly-unfortunate fourth season as well as the unrealized potential of season seven. While not every episode of Sam and Dean’s adventures have been perfect, the show has been regularly great and appears to still have quite a bit of life left in it. This has never been more evident than this past year, which saw the conclusion to the seventh-season arc regarding the Leviathans, Castiel’s fall and Bobby’s passing. Those latter two were enormous in magnitude to Sam and Dean and yet despite those show-shaking changes, the season continued moving along strongly through its conclusion. The first half of the eighth season has been all about Sam and Dean getting back together after Dean ended up in Purgatory and their chance to finally seal the door on demonkind once and for all. At the same time we’re getting glimpses back at what Sam and Dean were up to in the time since the season premiere and we realize that they both had their own trials, although of very different natures.
So how has Supernatural succeeded where so many other genre TV shows dropped off the map well before their eight years? One of the biggest aspects is that the show has a clear roadmap of where it wants to go and it knows that to get there, it has to keep fans invested in the core brother relationship. Sam and Dean are the heart of this show; everything else can and often does go at any moment but it is the ups and downs of the Winchester brothers that keep people interested. And the writers aren’t stupid; they realize that we as fans know they won’t permanently kill of Sam or Dean. That’s why they have no problem offing anyone else, and when they are so adept at introducing great characters it keeps the tension high. Even Bobby went eventually, which means that when great guest stars like Felicia Day show up in important roles, we care because that character may well not make it through the hour. But equally integral to the show’s success is the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It likes joking around with its fanbase and doing silly episodes that it can fit within the continuity. This season has seen the cartoon-themed “Heroicus Hunterius,” which is as funny and inventive in parts as anything the show has done to date. At this rate the show could easily go another two or three seasons without any concern to me about a potential dip in quality.
Community is, depending on who you talk to, the most underrated or overrated show on television. Some people absolutely swear by the show and make a regular hobby out of cursing NBC for treating it almost as badly as FOX treated Firefly. Then there are those who believe that the show has either never been as funny or clever as its fans believe, or who feel that the show jumped the shark somewhere between the first and third seasons. Clearly, I’m not in the overrated camp. The adventures of the Greendale Community College study group makes for some of the most consistently inventive and funny material on television, eschewing sitcom conventions and even basic television convention in the search for humor. The show has a meta quality to it of course, and the pop culture references appeal to the geek in all of us, but it goes even further than that. Whether it is an episode that shows seven different parallel realities stemming from a simple pizza party or a Rankin Bass-inspired animated holiday episode, the show has no compunctions about taking huge creative risks and those risks almost always pay off. In 2012 Greendale saw an epic fort war that made paintball look like a simple game, a hilariously on-the-nose Law & Order homage that saw the death (or not) of Starburns, the 8-bit video game that was “Digital Estate Planning” and more. The show has seen no shortage of controversy between the Chevy Chase drama and the show being regularly tossed around NBC’s schedule in a way so brazen that one might actually imagine that they are trying to anger the fanbase in order to motivate them to watch, but none of that takes away from the fact that it’s the most rewarding show on network TV.
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.