It’s finally here! All over the place in the mainstream media, fawning fans of various shows have finally declared television to have officially achieved the status of capital-A Art, with a new era of greatness spilling out of our screens and ushering in a future of digital, LCD, 16:9-enhanced cultural prestige. Phew, that’s a relief. Now I can happily expand my cultural horizons every gosh-dern day without actually having to do anything (except maybe buy a set-top box).
Really, it all sounds a little more like the epoch of an obsessive cultural need for narcissistic self-validation (look Ma, watching TV makes me feel important!)—even a quick look back through history will see modern television repeating many of the high-points, and replicating many of the sins, of its past. Yes, The Wire really is great; but Art is discussed, not declared, and television’s been art for as long as it’s also been trash.
So, while some will still be patting themselves on the back for having watched The Sopranos all by themselves and without any help at all from the big kids, I’m still just as interested in trash and what’s going to happen on Mondays nights in wrestling. Yup, rasslin’. In fact, in the spirit of this great new media dawn we’re facing, I’m going to declare it a cultural turning point: TNA vs WWE on January 4, 2010.
10. Continued improvement of this year’s new shows: FlashForward, Modern Family, Community, and V are solid new additions to my TV lineup, and I look forward to their continued growth. Some of them need a little work, particularly FlashForward and V, but four new shows in a season is something to be thankful for.
9. Double seasons of reality stalwarts: Shows like Top Chef, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and Survivorare the biggest reality-series that we get double-doses of most years. American Idol and all those horrible dancing shows get usually one season per year, but these stalwarts typically get a Spring and then a Fall run, and I am thrilled at having them around all year long.
Increasingly, TV programmers are behaving like movie schedulers, using the full calendar strategically to open new seasons of their best shows. It is becoming common for networks to hold back some of their successful properties until the New Year, protecting them from the Wild West of the Fall. About a decade after the broadcast and cable networks realized that there was no good reason to premiere everything in September, there are now no set guidelines on when to put a show on the air.
Waiting until January and beyond has some advantages. Shows with a fan base can build anticipation by withholding new episodes. Serialized dramas and reality shows that do not rerun well can maintain momentum by giving viewers an entire season in four months instead of nine. Plus, by the time the New Year rolls around, it is clear which new shows are hits and which are duds – nothing is worse that exposing an old (and maybe even successful) show to a newbie in September and having it get run down by an unexpected monster hit.
For viewers, the staggered seasons are a bit of a relief. There is, after all, only so much TV you can watch in a week. Here are five shows coming back over the next few months that are worth putting on your DVR:
Returns January 10
I’m not sure how it happened, but a show about polygamy has turned into the best show about family on TV. Credit the writers and producers for avoiding what could have been a soap opera about three wives fighting over one man. Instead, we are treated to a nuanced exploration of what it means to be part of family that also happens to be a felony.
Premieres January 12
Love it or hate it, you probably watch it. Expect more bad auditions, triumphant performances and odd comments from the judges this year. But the real change is the departure of Paula Abdul, who has grown increasingly incoherent over time. She will not be missed. After the audition rounds with guest judges (Hello Neil Patrick Harris!), Ellen Degeneres will join the panel to provide an interesting counterbalance to Simon Cowell.
Premieres January 17
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is back, which is a bit surprising given that he spent most of last season dying from exposure to a bioweapon. The season ended with some nonsense about an experimental bone marrow treatment. So one reason to watch is to see how they explain that one away. But really the reason to tune in is that 24 continues to be the best high-wire act on TV. It’s not always pretty or smooth, but it is usually fun. Also, the amazing Cherry Jones is back as President Allison Taylor.
Premieres February 2
This is going to be the single most unfriendly season for new viewers of any show in the history of television. There is just no way to join Lost in progress. If you’re one of those who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ride this wave from the beginning, it is definitely worth starting with season one on DVD and watching the whole run. For those of us who crashed on the island with the survivors and haven’t missed an episode since, buckle up for a fun ride.
United States of Tara
Premieres March 22
Unlike Lost, it is relatively easy to catch up on United States of Tara before season two begins in March. The premise is simple – a family struggles with a mom who has multiple personalities. But the movie-of-the-week description does not do justice to this funny and heart-wrenching show. Toni Collette shines as Tara and all her other selves. John Corbett and Rosemarie DeWitt are also stellar as Tara’s long-suffering husband and sister. Going into the show, I was not sure it would be able to sustain for a full season, but after 12 episodes it is just starting to dig deeper into the psychology and family dynamics.
So there you have it. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, pass the remote – I think ABC is rerunning Prep and Landing again.
This time of year typically brings us a slew of holiday themed television and lots of list-y goodness celebrating the best in pop culture from the year that was. In an effort to combine these two end-of-year staples, I thought I’d compile my definitive list of the best holiday episodes EVER.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few classics. But pointing out the holes is half the fun of the list, right? So, let the countdown begin:
10. The O.C.: “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
As I am myself the product of a Jewish father and a shiksa mother, I have to give credit to The O.C. for combining the best of Christmas and Hanukkah into one über-holiday. (It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got both Jesus and Moses on your side.) The episode also features all the hallmarks of classic season one The O.C.: a love triangle, a Newport Beach party, a drunken Marissa Cooper… and a partridge in a pear tree.
9. A Very Brady Christmas (1988)
I admit this one may be a bit of a cheat, since it’s actually a made-for-TV movie. However, it did launch the short-lived “adult” series The Bradys, and so it makes the list. The family Brady reunites at the old homestead, but holiday cheer is low as all the kids are now dealing with grown-up problems. Greg and his wife can’t agree on where to spend the holidays; Peter is dating his female boss who (horror!) makes more money than him; Jan is having marital problems of her own; Bobby wants to be a racecar driver; Cindy is still tired of being treated like the baby; and former cheerleader Marcia somehow ended up married to an oaf named Wally. Even poor Alice is back with her old employers, having split with Sam the Butcher. But, in true Brady fashion, the family puts their problems aside and pulls together when Mike gets trapped inside a caved-in building. The whole thing is deliciously, unironically campy, but I challenge you not to choke up just a little bit when Mike emerges from the rubble as Carol and the kids sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.
8. The Simpsons: “Grift of the Magi”
During the past 20 seasons there have been many a holiday-themed Simpsons episode—but only one that features an appearance by a wee, animated Gary Coleman as a toy factory security guard who tries to stop Lisa, Bart and Homer from destroying an evil toy called Funzo.
7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Amends”
Angel—recently returned from a Hell dimension—is haunted by the ghosts of his murderous past. While trying to help him, Buffy encounters the First Evil (who we meet again as the big bad of season 7) and snow falls on Sunnydale after a poignant confrontation between the star (sun?) crossed lovers.
6. Frasier: “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”
A classic example of the kind of highbrow farce that was Frasier’s stock in trade. In order to not upset the mother of his latest girlfriend, Frasier pretends to be Jewish—meaning he has to frantically scramble to hide the Christmas ham, the tree and his brother Niles (the sublime David Hyde Pierce), who happens to be dressed as Jesus. Frasier and his father also attempt to have an emotional heart-to-heart, with disastrous results. “We never should have tried this, we’re not Jewish!”
5. The West Wing: “Noel”
Season one’s “In Excelisus Deo” is often held up as the gold standard of West Wing holiday epsiodes, but I’m always partial to a Josh Lyman-centric story, so I’m going with season two’s melancholic “Noel.” Still dealing with the fallout of the Rosslyn shooting, Leo calls in a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) to help Josh come to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. The episode’s emotional climax is juxtaposed with a haunting performance by Yo-Yo Ma, and ends with a rather lovely moment in which Leo tells Josh, “as long as I got a job, you got a job.”
4. 30 Rock: “Ludachristmas”
Not wanting to spend the holiday with his irascible mother (hilariously played by Elaine Stritch), Jack attaches himself to Liz’s more wholesome family (including guest stars Buck Henry and Andy Richter, also hilarious). Meanwhile, over in the B plot, Tracy is forced into sobriety by a court-ordered alcohol monitoring device that threatens to put a damper on the annual “Ludachristmas” celebration, and Kenneth’s attempts to impart the true spirit of the holiday season leads to the group attempting to chop down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
3. Seinfeld: “The Strike”
This episode did more than just create a pop culture buzzword; it invented an entirely new holiday. Frank Costanza introduced the world to Festivus (for the rest of us), a holiday that includes a celebratory aluminum pole, feats of strength and the all-important airing of grievances.
2. Veronica Mars: “An Echolls Family Christmas”
There’s not much comfort and joy in Neptune as Veronica is enlisted to find out who stole Weevil’s winnings in a high stakes poker game at the Echolls’ house. (“Annoy tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!”) Meanwhile, Veronica’s P.I. dad tries to protect movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) from a stalker. Secrets are revealed and plots become twistier in one of the cleverest episodes of the brilliant teen noir series.
1. The Office (UK): Christmas Special (Parts 1 & 2)
Before Jim and Pam, there was Tim and Dawn. The original BBC mockumentary about office drones at a paper company consisted of 12 perfect episodes of bone-dry British humor and concluded with a two-part Christmas special that gave its characters (and viewers) the happy ending they deserved. Tim and Dawn find love and even buffoonish, ex-boss David Brent finds a measure of redemption in a special that also stands as one of the best series finales of all time.
This was the decade in which television became art. So argues Emily Nussbuam in a recent New York Magazine essay, “When TV Became Art”. She certainly makes a strong case that 2000-2009 was a pivotal age for TV and I strongly recommend her essay to anyone interested in the development of television over the past decade. I agree that this was, all in all, the finest decade for great television.
Others have argued that TV had arisen as an art form in earlier decades, some (though in dwindling numbers) arguing for the fifties, based on the series that presented staged plays for a television audience, including such original masterpieces as “Twelve Angry Men”, written by Reginald Rose for Studio One, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, written by Rod Serling for Playhouse 90. Later, Robert J. Thompson, in his widely cited Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, argued for the eighties as the crucial period. But Nussbaum has numbers on her side; it is difficult to argue against the sheer quantity of very fine shows that emerged in the past ten years. The number of truly great series from the past ten years is so substantial that it might surpass the number of great shows from all previous decades combined.
Nonetheless, I want to take issue with Nussbaum. I think that chopping the overall picture up into decade-sized blocks obscures the reality. I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art, and that point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one questions the enormous influence that Joss Whedon’s quirky series exerted on other shows, but I do not believe that many people realize the degree to which it altered the TV landscape. TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards.
In contrast, the show that Nussbaum promotes as the apex of TV as Art, The Wire, has not actually played a crucial role in that development. The Wire is a beneficiary of the birth of TV as art, a promulgator of that development, not its cause. There is no question it is a truly great show, but it really did nothing to change TV. Television had already changed, and we largely have Buffy to thank for that. To be fair, Nussbaum does mention Buffy and Joss Whedon frequently in her essay, obviously crediting both the show and the creator for much of the best that the decade had to offer, but she seems to imply that TV as art was a work in progress as the decade began and it most definitely was not.
Although many realize just how revolutionary Buffy was as a series and the impact that it made on the medium (many TV creators site it as their favorite show while others acknowledge its direct influence), not everyone is aware of how groundbreaking the series was or of the number of concrete changes it wrought on television. It was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do. Let me enumerate some of the changes made, all of them rather substantial.
One of the most important changes that Buffy brought about was a new understanding of long story arcs on TV. A very brief history of narrative on television is in order to provide a context for my point. For most of the history of television, the format of series was episodic. On almost all shows (excepting soap operas), no matter what happened on one episode of a series, the next week would witness a complete reset. If James West was beaten to a pulp or even shot on The Wild, Wild West, the next week he would be as fine as ever.
No matter what happens on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick and Laura would never refer to it again. As a result, each episode was self-contained and ignored any kind of narrative order. Watch the episodes of It Takes a Thief in any order that you wish; juxtapose an episode from season four and then from season two and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. This began to change with Hill Street Blues and the shows that Robert J. Thompson applauded: St. Elsewhere, China Beach, L. A. Law, and thirtysomething. For the first time on primetime television, stories got messy and spilled over from one episode to another…
Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole—until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.