Welcome to the TV in 2012 roundtable. I’ve assembled nearly 20 of my fellow critics, scholars and friends to reflect and review the year in television. Between now and the end of the year, the group will discuss various topics covering the highs, the lows and everything in between. See previous entries of the roundtable here.
In our first post-Christmas roundtable entry, we chat about the shows that surprised–both good and bad–this year.
Cory Barker: Moving on, let’s talk about the most surprising shows of the year. ‘Surprising’ can carry multiple meanings — good, bad, somewhere in between. Maybe a mediocre show had a surprisingly good season, or a great show surprised you with how lame it became in 2012, or maybe even a brand-new show surprised you with its quality (or lack thereof). So let’s hear ’em, your most surprising show of the year.
Noel Kirkpatrick: I’m going outside the typical box with my choice: the anime Chihayafuru. If you had told me that I would fall in love with a high school club/sports anime (a very well-trodden genre in the medium) about competitive katura (think the card game memory, but with poetry instead of pictures), I would’ve laughed at you. But Chihayafuru snuck up on me, winning me over with charming characters, shameless but well-executed teen romance plots, and ample amounts of over-the-top awesome to make katura completely and utterly addictive to watch. Best of all? I suspect it would surprise people who don’t like anime, too.
Adam Wright: Last year, Homeland premiered on Showtime and took the TV world by the balls. The fast-paced thriller kept fans and critics praising this new show with no end. It even dominated at the Emmys. Then the season two premiere broke ratings record and it seemed like the show was hotter than ever. Then it happened. Things got… bad. Bad plot-holes, cheesy writing, and a love story being pushed down our throats, fans and critics quickly started to turn on Homeland. With every unnecessary twist, it was getting compared to the bad years of 24. Even though season two finale broke ratings again, it’s clear that people see Homeland differently. To me, seeing how fast things got quickly things deteriorated was the biggest surprise of the year.
Emma Fraser: When I heard that season five of Fringe’s was going to be set in 2036 I was certain that I was going to be disappointed with this final season. The trip to this time in season four was by far my least favorite episode since its first year (even with the appearance of Henry Ian Cusick) and so warning bells were sounding loud and clear. Instead I have found this season to be emotionally engaging (it’s made me teary most weeks) and even though not all of the plot threads have paid off, it’s still one of the boldest shows on TV. I’d love to see Astrid get to be more than just the person who stays behind in the lab and if Lincoln Lee gets to make an appearance I’ll be one happy lady. I know that some viewers have been disappointed with the direction of this final year, but I am not one of them and I was certain I would be.
Greg Boyd: I think Rev. pretty much epitomizes the word “surprising”, given the fact that I’d never even heard of it until this year. For some reason, this sitcom centered around a vicar in the Church of England hasn’t caught on with American audiences the way a number of other British shows have: probably because it’s so quiet and low-key. But I fell in love with it from the first episode. Though it’s certainly its own thing, it demonstrates a command of both its humorous and serious tones that recalls Louie (although the two shows actually premiered at roughly the same time) and an optimism similar to (although somewhat more cautious than) that of Parks and Rec. And while most sitcoms rarely even mention their characters’ religious beliefs, this one manages to ask deep questions about faith while also being extremely funny. It got away from that early in season two, which is when it struggled a bit. But the rest of the time, it was one of the best shows on television.
Cameron White: I was a bit worried about Scandal going into this season. The first season was nicely arced around using Liza Weil as a parallel to and cover for Olivia Pope’s own tryst with President Fitzgerald Grant. But it ended with Cyrus, Fitz’s best man, having her killed in order to silence her from speaking up about the president’s indiscretions. Meanwhile, the identity of our audience surrogate, Quinn Perkins, was suddenly up for grabs as AUSA David Rosen busts into Olivia’s law offices to arrest her. It all just makes you want to throw up your hands and go “what the f*** is going on here?!?!” Fortunately, season two has successfully leveraged the madness of season one’s last couple of hours into a tremendous character story about how the real movers and shakers in Washington operate behind closed doors making secret agreements while hiding in plain sight. There are no longer clean arcs; instead, there are a lot of characters whose secrets could unravel the entire show at the drop of a white hat. It’s… well, it’s thrilling television, that’s for damn sure. And it’s taken me completely by surprise at how invested I am in its outcomes.
Les Chappell: I don’t know what everyone else was expecting the best new show of the fall to be, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be Ben and Kate. What seemed on the surface to be a lighthearted show about a dysfunctional pair of siblings raising a little girl has turned into one of the most heartfelt, fully-formed sitcoms in years, and easily the show I’ve been anticipating new episodes of the most. Everyone in the ensemble brings something wonderful to the table – Nat Faxon’s boyish enthusiasm, Dakota Johnson’s irreplaceable awkwardness, Echo Kellum’s game-for-anything attitude, and above all Lucy Punch’s amorality with a heart of gold. Showrunner Dana Fox and her writing staff are incredibly adept at packing each episode with wonderfully funny lines (“I’m gonna go talk to that dog. Hey dog! What you doing?” “Then that is when I will see you with my looking balls!”) and ending on heartfelt moments that never felt forced. The ending of the Thanksgiving episode in particular may have been the finest comedy moment of the fall season, a beautiful back-and-forth of lies and love that reduced me to three different kinds of tears. When I heard about the show at upfronts, I expected to think of it only as a good complement to Raising Hope – I didn’t think I’d be so invested in its survival I might well trade half the comedies on the air to keep it alive.
Kerensa Cadenas: This year, I fell in love with New Girl’s terrific second season, have been so let down by The Mindy Project that I’m hate watching and loving, due to succumbing to Les’s constant tweeting, Ben & Kate. However, nothing surprised me more than how smart and feminist, Don’t Trust The B in Apartment 23 is. I tried watching a couple episodes in the first season but stopped watching. I decided to give it another chance and I’m so glad I did. It’s so weird and funny and is refreshingly mean. Krysten Ritter is so good as Chloe and James Van Der Beek is hilarious as a ridiculous version of himself. And the back to back pairing of “Love and Monsters” and “Sexy People” were some of the best deconstructions of the romantic comedy and the societal ridiculousness of People’s Sexiest Man (sorry Channing Tatum) that I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope The CW picks it up.
Andrew Rabin: When a network knocks a series’ order down to only six episodes, and then chooses to air them all within three weeks, it is not typically a good sign for the show. And so I was pleasantly surprised by NBC’s spring sitcom, Bent. The series starred an all-star team led by Studio 60’s Amanda Peet and Perfect Couples‘ Dave Walton, and featuring Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor, Friday Night Light’s Jesse Plemons, and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove, among others. While the series didn’t reinvent anything, it was sweet and charming and had a cast-wide chemistry that seemed to build as the (short) run went on. The series finale, “Tile Date,” was a series high, pointing in several directions where the show could have potentially gone. Too few people saw Bent, but for those who did it was an unexpected, yet pleasant, surprise.
Julie Hammerle: I hate to be that girl who keeps talking about the same show over and over again, but I will because no other show surprised me as much as season three of The Walking Dead did. I had been hate-watching The Walking Dead since pretty much the second episode of the show. I liked the pilot, but shortly thereafter the show became a mess of spotty characters, under-developed plot, and too-little T-Dog. But then our Zeroes found themselves grappling with living inside the prison gates and Andrea found herself being charmed by the Governor, and suddenly the show was no longer about Rick fretting over his love life. The show finally began to explore the deeper issues of survival and what it means to be human in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Hopefully this trend will continue into the latter half of season three and season four (even sans showrunner). (RIP T-Dog. Never forget.)
Mark Waller: I had very low expectations for the new season of Dexter, given how my interest in the show waned through the disappointing third and fourth seasons to a point where I didn’t even finish the fifth and avoided the disastrous sixth season completely. So when I read advance reviews of the seventh season as a creative rejuvenation, I didn’t really believe it. But lo and behold, the first few episodes of the new season pulled me back in. Dexter finally revealing to somebody in his inner circle his real identity brought life to the show that had been mostly lifeless since Dexter blew up Doakes in the second season. And Dexter working through his identity and all of his other stuff with his sister Deb gave the viewer an unexpectedly great examination of family dynamics (and gave Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter some excellent material to showcase their acting skills.) Of course, it wouldn’t be a season of Dexter without some boring stuff going on, and Angel opening a restaurant and Quinn doing…stuff that Quinn does, definitely filled that role. And ultimately I was disappointed that Yvonne Strahvoski’s Hannah McKay character devolved from a Deadly Woman With Feelings to what appears to be a new version of Michael Myers (albeit much more attractive.) But despite some typical narrative hiccups, I was mostly pleased with a full season of Dexter for the first time in years.
Cory Barker: Just call me Les Chappell, but I’m going to cheat a little with my pick here. 2012 has been a surprisingly great year for (gulp) Ryan Murphy shows. Despite a somewhat shocking decline in hype and media interest, Glee‘s fourth season is the show’s most consistent, and at times, best, run ever. Really, this increase in quality dates back to the spring, when the third season closed out quite strong thanks to a returning focus to the things the show does best—turning every major high school moment into a life-altering emotional roller-coaster most notably—and underrated performances from nearly everyone in the main cast. Somehow, the split storytelling between the Old Directions and the New Directions has worked out, even if certain characters have more or less disappeared from the narrative. Frankly, I think the deteriorating popularity of the show has helped it move away from the obnoxious stunt episodes and lame casting and allowed it to move back towards the raw–and sometimes ridiculous–emotional storytelling.
Perhaps even more surprising is the wildly entertaining second season of Murphy’s horror anthology American Horror Story. After a first season that managed to be both unbelievably insane and terribly boring, the second season has been much more consistent because of its increased reliance on one of Murphy’s biggest strengths: just going for it. Armed with a brand-new setting and cast of characters, Murphy and his team have dropped some of the pretenses about “theme” and let loose a barrage of demented individuals and a bricolage of generic and stylistic references from all across popular culture, creating one hell of a compelling mess. While Glee shows us the kind of greatness Murphy can reach when he focuses on the small things, American Horror Story is the perfect platform for his more dominant nihilistic side — and both have been wonderful in 2012. Shudder.
Danny Grinberg: With every new season of Survivor, I’m on the verge of giving up. After the all-star characters and jaw-dropping gameplay of Heroes vs. Villains, the following four seasons have been demoralizing bores in comparison. Shiny twists like the Medallion of Power and Redemption Island proved to be disastrous flops and the largely unlikeable casts couldn’t have strategized their way out of a sleeping bag. Perhaps worst of all, the show amped up its religiosity factor to irksome new levels, casting lots of aggressive evangelists and treating us to an onslaught of prayer circles.
Thankfully, I decided to give Survivor: Philippines one last chance and was rewarded with the series’ return to form. Some of the highlights included Matsing’s hilarious annihilation, provocative and revealing tribal councils, and (the biggest shock of all) whole groups of people who actually knew how to play the game and were worth rooting for. Promoting a “keep the best players around” strategy, the survivors also generated one of the strongest, most compelling final fours to date. While I have my doubts that the producers can yield the same magic in the upcoming seasons (they only seem to do so every four or five iterations), I’m glad to confirm that Survivor still has the potential to feel as riveting as it did in its glory days.
Eric Thurm: I don’t have the ability/time to watch many shows regularly, so I’d been perennially disappointed that I let myself get invested enough in How I Met Your Mother to keep watching it week after week. But at the end of this past season and the beginning of the current eighth season, the show seems to have found some much-needed urgency as it heads into its endgame. Standout work from all of the cast members (but especially the oft-overlooked Cobie Smulders) has taken the final resolution of the relationships and made plots I was already heavily invested in worth following to their conclusions on their own merit. Season eight has a seen a return to, if not the insane comic highs of season two, at least the consistent quality of season three, and even a string of just-OK episodes was saved by the excellent, emotional (I’ll admit it) two-parter “The Robin,” which should convince anyone who dropped out in the dregs of seasons five and six to come back for the rest of the season. Hopefully the just-announced ninth season won’t ruin that.
Wesley Ambrecht: 2012 was a great year for comedy. Unfortunately, no one watched the best new offerings. For Unsupervised and I Just Want My Pants Back, this meant a swift cancellation. For Ben and Kate and Battleground, it means likely cancellation. For Girls, it means nothing, because HBO takes a DGAF approach to ratings.
Interestingly enough, Girls was the only one of these 5 offerings that I had high expectations for. HBO built the show up to a point where backlash had begun before the show even aired. For the other four, I expected the typical growing pains of any comedy and felt none. Thus, it would be easy for me to cheat like Cory and Les by making this post about a collection of comedies that deserved better. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on just one; Unsupervised.
Although I consider myself a big fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, my expectations for Unsupervised were tempered by co-creator David Hornsby’s short-lived CBS sitcom How to Be a Gentleman. But, from the get-go, Unsupervised was a joyous, wacky, outrageous and often sweet comedy that had me in stitches. A few days back, when we were talking about standout performances, I actually considered mentioning Rob Rosell, whose work as Russ, has been tremendous. No one character made me laugh more in 2012 than Russ. Whether he was fighting off rabid dogs, using his peanut allergy to enter the science fair or (as scene in THIS clip) eating wires to try and become a robot, Russ was always making me laugh. If you have yet to check Unsupervised out, as the ratings would suggest, I urge you to do so immediately.
Jamiesen Borak: To me the biggest surprise of the year is that my favorite new series is one that airs on Disney Channel. I had never heard of Gravity Falls until the day after it aired when a friend of mine posted a link to the pilot. Rarely do I watch a 22 minute video based on a single Facebook post, but I cannot express how happy I am that I did. While 2012 was a great year in animation overall thanks to the introduction of The Legend of Korra and the continued awesomeness ofAdventure Time, Gravity Falls stands above the rest as the perfect combination of humor and heart.
The show is essentially what you would get if you threw two scoops of classic era The Simpsons, one scoop of The X-Files, and a dash of Twin Peaks all into a blender. Creator Alex Hirsch has a clear vision in his head of what this show is, and it’s readily apparent from the first episode (go read his interview with The A.V. Club, it’s great). After only a handful of episodes, the world of Gravity Falls feels fully fleshed and established. There’s a growing mythology to the world that never overtakes the episodes at hand, but rather helps paint a larger picture of the small Pacific Northwest town and the paranormal universe it resides in.
But it’s the brother/sister relationship at the core of the series that makes the show stand out, being perhaps the best relationships on TV. Rather than bickering and fighting like most TV siblings, Dipper and Mabel care for one another always. They might fight in an episode or two, but most of the time they are always there for each other and wants what’s best for the other. No matter how unrealistic the surrounding world may get with the likes of gnomes, clones, and time travel, the Pines’ siblings loving relationship always keeps the show’s emotional stakes grounded in reality.
Plus, who couldn’t love a show with episode titles like “The Time Traveler’s Pig”.
Next up: Worst and/or Most Disappointing Show