[10 January 2011]
It was difficult to turn on your TV this year without seeing the undead: zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, angels. Make that the undead and Betty White, who, in addition to having her own sitcom, appeared on every show on television except Sewing with Nancy. Some would credit (or blame) the rise in supernatural-themed shows to the Twilight franchise, but really, Twilight is only responsible for a dominant storyline, in which the pasty white girl falls for the dashing living dead boy and acquires her own safety detail along the way: The Notebook mashed up with The Lost Boys.
The undead theme isn’t completely clear in Lost, whose characters might be classified variously as undead, dead, living, or the hallucination of some comic book geek who drank the worm. Regardless, we learned this year the show’s Primary Message: the afterlife sucks a whole lot more than life. We also learned that even as The Event was hyped as the next great Lost-type series, it was only an uninteresting diversion.
In addition to Lost, primetime’s longest running show, Law & Order, also turned undead, cancelled but replaced by Law & Order, the L.A. version. On daytime TV, As the World Turns, soap’s longest running show, quit rotating, to be replaced with a group of talking women, The Talk, because daytime needs more talking women. Conan also left TV this year, but he came back, and proved that you can still make boatloads of money by getting screwed in Hollywood.
Glee proved an especially vibrant site of rejuvenation, with all those mega-promoted episodes that managed to feature everybody who wasn’t guest-starring on 30 Rock. And let’s not forget Bristol Palin, whose dancing made conservative commentators cheer like teen girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Some big name film performers got series, such as Laura Linney and Steve Buscemi (on The Big C and Boardwalk Empire), while some lesser-knowns got the chance to strut and show why they deserve to be big names.
Following are some standouts in this category:
Among leads, Andrew Lincoln as Deputy Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead achieved an especially complex feat, as his earnest zombie-fighting was at once compelling and convincing. The premiere episode featured our winner of the Heartbreaking Guest Star Award, Lennie James as a husband confronted with killing his own wife, now a zombie.
On the comedy front, we laud Adam Scott, as an actor turned catering company waiter on Party Down. Scott made Henry wholly credible and likable, with a certain “Isn’t he pitiful?” quality. The show also produced our When Will She Get the Role She Deserves? Award winner, Kristen Bell, who guested as Henry’s brief romantic interest, but has yet to get a part to match Veronica Mars.
Among female performers, the best included Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams on Southland. Living up to the promise she showed in films like Poetic Justice and Ray (we’ll forget Our Family Wedding), King made clear the difficulties and rewards of Lydia’s work. And Alex Borstein created a fully dimensional two-dimensional character (Lois) on Family Guy.
The Abbott and Costello Award must go to Danny Pudi and Donald Glover, as Abed and Troy on Community. As they built the coolest blanket fort in history, they also fed off each other with great timing—although it’s hard to decide whether Abed or Troy is Costello.
Two other veteran TV actors went out into left field, and in so doing, had us wondering, “WTF?” As a dumpster-diving eco-activist on The Big C, the wonderful and underappreciated John Benjamin Hickey was equal parts freak and devoted brother to Laura Linney’s cancer patient. Hickey conveys the heart of a man who might easily be written off as a nut job and burden. On Raising Hope, Garret Dillahunt as Burt Chance is TV’s biggest man-child. He also keeps up with Martha Plimpton, at her best as his wife Virginia, as well as this year’s Came Out of Nowhere Award winner, Lucas Neff as Jimmy, and the Almost as Prolific as Betty White winner, Cloris Leachman as Maw Maw.
Jim Beaver offers a slightly more serious turn as big-old-bear-with-a-heart Bobby Singer on Supernatural. This year, Bobby got out of his wheelchair, lost his soul and got it back, and had a cute five-hour relationship with the lady next door, and still kicking some demon ass in the basement. (While on the subject of Supernatural, can we get back to Dean and Sam as two regular humans hunting demons?)
Three of the year’s best guest actors weren’t quite demonic, but were definitely demon seed. On Cold Case‘s “Metamorphosis,” Carel Struycken (best known as Lurch from The Addams Family films) wins the Keyser Söze Award for his performance of the circus idiot with a conniving dark side. Over on the increasingly tired Desperate Housewives, Josh Zuckerman and Diane Farr effectively demonstrated how a cruel, self-absorbed, alcoholic mother can turn a sweet, sad-sack kid into a sweet, sad-sack serial killer in the episode “Epiphany.”
So much for what was good. Television, as always, has some things to work on, for instance realizing there are 48 other states besides New Jersey and Alaska, and numerous cities besides New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami. I’m thankful I’m not in the “young adult” bracket, because I’d be pretty insulted that almost every example of a “peer” on TV (particularly those in New Jersey) is vain, vapid, and frequently drunk, the exception being Alexis (Molly Quinn) on Castle.
While on the subject of vapidity, my last complaint focuses on Bravo and A&E. There was a time when intelligent viewers looking for shows with artistic merit could turn to these two networks. Now, Bravo and A&E run cheaply made reality shows that appeal to the lowest denominator.