Favorite TV of 2010

I am tabbing this post with “favorite”, instead of the usual “best”, as a way to foreground the necessarily subjective nature of these exercises, something that is even more obvious now that my TV watching has become even more selective than it used to be.

That being written, in no particular order, here are my favorite television shows or programs of the year just ended:

Fringe (Fox). This is the only scripted show on a major network that I am currently watching on anything like its real broadcast schedule. Starting with “Jacksonville”, the last espisode in February before a month-long hiatus, the series began to take off where it left off at the end of season one, exploring the consequences of Walter’s and William Bell’s past, and where Olivia fits into the interface between the two universes. In addition to the much lauded “Peter”, which is where the show picked up in April, I especially loved the two part finale to season two. With the gathering of all of cortexiphan subjects, the episode begins feeling very much like a good X-Men story, appropriately culminating with fire and tragic love, and the predictable, but necessary, swapping of Olivias.

That set up the so far excellent season three. I think that it is worth noting that this series currently has two of its leads, John Noble and Anna Torv, playing two versions of their characters, and doing so mostly through subtle gestures and small differences. The two Walters, especially, have more in common than either would likely want to admit.

I don’t know what to make of the move to Friday. On the one hand, that often is a vote of no confidence from a network. On the other hand, in the current viewing context, how much do these things matter anymore? I also will have to admit that I have watched plenty of Friday televsion – Homicide, The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica – and maybe Fox is right that the audience that Fringe already has will follow it over. The real question is whether that is enough for the nework executives who decide what gets renewed and what gets canceled.

Dollhouse (Fox). So, as of January of last year there were actually two network shows I was watching in ‘real time’, and the final three espisodes of this series remain among the most strange and interesting hours of television I saw all of this past year. The ability of the creators and actors to make you care about people you wanted to hate when the series started is one of the things I take away from the show’s regrettable, but expected, demise.

Treme (HBO).  This series seemed to divide its audience into two groups: those disappointed because it isn’t The Wire, and those who don’t care that it isn’t The Wire. I am in the latter group. I think I would have been happy to see David Simon et al approach New Orleans in the same way he did Baltimore, but I am more happy to see what they have actually done, which is to tell a character-driven story about daily life in a city where people have to struggle against all manner of odds: indifferent government, structures of race, class, and gender, ignorance of outsiders, love-hate from insiders. Treme isn’t the most thrilling show on TV, but it is strongly acted, politically pointed, and humanistic, in the best, and most critical, sense of that word.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO). I wrote about this series previously from a more critical angle, but I want to underscore my conclusion to that piece: this is a compelling period drama that is virtually unique in its scale and scope for series television. It is also masterfully acted, full of rich, complicated characters and performances. But one thing I particularly enjoy about the series is how the writers seem to revel in little period details, like Richard Harrow’s mask, that prompt you to think about how different and strange the world can be.

Mad Men (AMC). Like earlier seasons, this season of Mad Men follows a carefully crafted arc for Don Draper, and here you begin with Don seemingly trying to grow up and come to terms with the choices he has made, but end with his retreat back into fantasy-land. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to think about the loopy, whirlwind feel of the finale, but as time has passed, I think that it struck just the right tone to show Don’s transformation into, well, Roger Sterling (see “Waldorf Stories” for context). I continue to appreciate how the series writers will use well known events, such as the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston fight in “The Suitcase”, to ground their stories, and to develop characters by showing how they might have responded to those events.

Top Chef Masters (Bravo). While the second season of this series was made to feel a little more like typical reality fare, with blow ups and rivalries and scheming, in the end, I love this series for its focus on food, for the professionalism of the contestants, and for the forthrightness of the judging. I will also give a provisional nod to the current season of Top Chef, the “All Stars” or “second chances” edition, which has been interesting from the perspective of how the competitors have, or have not, changed and matured, and how they are choosing to approach their second shot.

The Amazing Race 17 (CBS). This is the only show that we watch as a family on a broadcast basis, and this most recent season was one of the best in awhile. None of the contestants were truly hateful, the expectations for what the competitors were expected to do on their own seemed to get raised (though still well-short of season one), and I think that Nat and Kat are worthy winners, both for being likeable and for being good racers who treated each other well.

On Netflix streaming, Anne-Marie and I have been catching up with The Office (NBC). We have resisted this series because of our respective, though different, relationships to the original (I love that series, while Anne-Marie finds it too uncomfortable to watch), and if it weren’t available for online viewing, we probably would still be deferring. I think what enables us to watch this series together, and not the British version, is that, at his core, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) wants to be a seen as a decent guy, while David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is utterly lacking in that kind of humanity.

We are currently into the latter part of season five, and the series seems to be past its prime, broadening some of its characters, notably Dwight, and finding it increasingly difficult to explain how Michael keeps his job (well, right now he doesn’t have it, but I know he will be getting it back). On the other hand, we’ve only be watching for four or five months and are almost finished with what we can watch at Netflix.

The one series I need to withhold comment on, but am sure would be on this list if we had been able to finish it, is season one of Nurse Jackie (Showtime). I wish I understood better what is made available online and what isn’t.

As someone who remembers watching the World Cup in a match here and a match there format on PBS in the 1980s, and also when soccer was broadcast in the U.S with commercials during games, I cannot express how much I appreciate where the event now is on the domestic sports landscape, or how cool it was to be in travelling on the east coast and have the 2010 cup as something to share with others. So, thanks to ESPN and ABC for making all of that possible.

As a final note, one of the cool things Anne-Marie and I have been able to do this year is re-watch certain shows with our daughter, A. Seeing, especially, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Lost with someone new and at a young age is a great experience, and has become part of the glue that binds us as a family. I also feel like we are giving A some space and freedom to express and cultivate her geeky, fannish side, something I know she isn’t always comfortable doing with all of her friends. With others, of course, she does, and for that reason we have been watching Chuck (NBC) on DVD, which is an amiable, if not very challenging show. Most importantly, she gets to share it with a couple of her better friends from school.

Thinking about BOARDWALK EMPIRE and the significance of cinematic gestures on TV

After watching the series premiere of Boardwalk Empire, I was struck by how cinematic it felt. Not just in its production design or narrative form, but in the way that it was shot and edited. A number of the examples I had in mind right after that episode have exited my brain, but the one that has stuck with me is the slow, wordless, and artfully framed mob hit in Chicago that follows the big meeting in Atlantic City.

It is rare in series television to have a sequence like this, where so much time and effort is devoted to crafting a moment for visual effect. Most of what happens in this scene has no narrative purpose, and it centers on a character about which the audience knows little and who, by virtue of being killed in the first episode, is at most a footnote in the series. I thought a lot about this in the week between episodes, but did not fully trust my thinking because, like just about everyone who watched the pilot episode, I knew that Martin Scorsese directed and that Thelma Schoonmaker edited. Maybe I was being unduly influenced by that knowledge.

For the most part the first season of the show settled into a more familiar set of rhythms for a TV drama, but the finale, which Anne-Marie and I watched last night, returned to a cinematic presentation, and I began thinking again about what kinds of visual and narrative codes work across the two media and which are more difficult to transpose.

For me, a cinematic gesture that did not work in the finale is Margaret finding the rag in the barnbrack cake. Film has a different narrative economy than series television, and within that economy, this kind of broad signification can be effective because you get so little time with the characters and stories often need to be moved forward with efficiency.

In the context of Boardwalk Empire, however, this moment seems cheap and unnecessary. We already know what the stakes are in the choices that Margaret has to make about staying or not staying in Atlantic City and with Nucky. Margaret is a complicated, smart character and even the implication that she would be moved by pulling the rag undermines her and what the audience has learned of her during the show’s twelve episodes. The rag is an anvil here. In a film, it may have worked as shorthand for Margaret’s dilemma.

At the same time, the companion moment where Nan finds the ring does work. There is a difference in mode of address, straight versus ironic, but also as much as we have come to know Margaret, we know little about Nan. We know that she harbors romantic fantasies about Warren Harding and the White House, fantasies that are belied by her being shuttled off to Atlantic City as Harding seeks the presidency. This lack of knowledge gives weight, and even a poignancy, to her finding the ring. I also think that Nan’s situation works well in conjunction with Anabelle’s, showing both sides of the fantasy and the fragility of life for women, especially the young and unmarried, in this time and place. Notably, these two characters never actually meet (or if they do, only in passing). Rather, they are woven together in the narrative over multiple episodes, culminating in Nan finding the ring and Anabelle finding George Baxter.

After these examples, are the cinematic gestures that I am still processing.

One of these is from the musical montage at the close of the finale. After conspiring with the Commodore and Eli, Jimmy is seen, smoking, on the beach, first in close-up profile and then in a long shot from the back. These shots reference the opening credits, supplanting Jimmy for Nucky. This moment is at once obvious and subtle, mostly for the way it appears to visually signify the outcome of the conversation at the Commodore’s.

What I can’t help thinking, though, is that the impact of these shots, especially the long shot, is mitigated by having been made for television. How different would my reaction be if I had originally seen this moment in a darkened theater and on the big screen, amplifying the power of the image (on the other hand, I’m not sure that these particular shots can be read effectively out of the context of the opening credits, credits that the audience will have had twelve occasions to view and think over before seeing Jimmy on the beach)?

The murdering of the D’Alessio brothers while Nucky holds forth in front of the press is an explicitly cinematic gesture as it directly references the baptism sequence from The Godfather and, maybe more obliquely, Jimmy Conway’s killing spree in Goodfellas. Each murder is given its own time, each is done in a particular style and with a particular kind of flair, and the sequence ends with a return to the site of each killing, now artfully adorned with pools and splatters of blood.

As with the hit from the premiere, the extension of this scene does not serve any obvious narrative purpose. There have already been multiple opportunities to see how cold blooded Jimmy, Capone, and Richard Harrow can be, but I think each of these characters has also been presented as more complicated than just that. Just in the finale alone is a conversation between Angela and Jimmy about his PTSD, and a reminder of Al’s decision to ‘grow up’ (I was glad that he grabbed the apple from the shopping bag after doing his part of the killing; that was an effective way to show that simply deciding to mature does not make it so, especially not when one is engaged in an illicit way of life). By contrast, the assassins in The Godfather are largely anonymous or background characters whose primary reason for being is to service their principal scene, and De Niro’s Jimmy is a psychopath (and, significantly, in Goodfellas, you get shots of bodies, not murders).

Scenes such as this, and the shots of Jimmy on the beach, at the moment, to me, seem out of place. In fact, the murders and press conference montage seems to want to situate Boardwalk Empire within film, and not TV, history. But is that a good or bad thing? What do I want from television? What do I want from film? What makes for visually arresting TV? And how does it look different from what works on film?

I think we all know that the experience of watching a movie made for the big screen on a television, especially at home, is a very different experience from the one intended. I suspect that this also means that attempting to make a TV series as if it were a film, while an interesting exercise, is something that won’t quite work either.

Which is not to suggest that Boardwalk Empire, taken as a whole, does not work as compelling television. It does, and I am already looking forward to a second season. But I am also interested to see how the series develops its visual and narrative style over time. Right now my thinking is that it will be more interesting to see less borrowing and quoting from film(s) and more of an attempt to do what the creators want to do in ways that seem more adapted, or ‘native’, to television. And yet I have to admit that I don’t really know what might look like.