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TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011... Number 1

Several new series debuted in April 2011 to transform what had been a mediocre season into an exceptional one, including Game of Thrones. AMC, meanwhile, systematically abused three of its great series, calling into question whether the cable network is truly ready for the big time.

Highpoint Number 1: Game of Thrones and the Shows of April

On 31 March 2011, if asked to grade the 2010-2011 television season, I would have been hard-pressed to give it much above a C. Perhaps a C+ at best. The season hitherto had not been without some highpoints, many enumerated in previous installments in this countdown. But all in all, it had been a fairly undistinguished season. Most of the new shows were not successful and several had been out and out disappointments. A couple had been outstanding newcomers, like The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, and Raising Hope, while one of the very best new shows, Terrierson F/X, had been a ratings bomb of the first order. All things considered, on the eve of April’s Fools Day, the 2010-2011 season was more bust than boom.

Then came April. Several shows returned to start their new seasons (Treme and Doctor Who), which helped improve things a bit. Above all, though, it was a string of outstanding new series that elevated the television landscape: HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s The Borgias, AMC’s The Killing, and HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce. As a group these shows raised the season’s grade up to at least a B+. Rarely have so many outstanding series debuted so late in a television season.

It's far too early to be able to say whether or not Game of Thrones represents a turning point in television for genre shows, but at least on the cable channels it could well be. HBO took a huge gamble by funding one of the most expensive series in the history of TV, albeit one in which the money spent can clearly be seen on the screen. The gamble paid off, with the worldwide syndication alone making the show a money maker.

The show did well in regard to ratings, but also garnered considerable critical acclaim in all quarters. The latter was the biggest surprise and could well be the show’s greatest legacy.

There have been fantasy and genre shows that have achieved critical praise in the past. In the '60s, The Twilight Zone received an unusual degree of attention for a SF/Fantasy/Horror series thanks to the involvement of cutting edge dramatist/writer Rod Serling and the recruitment of many outstanding writers like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. In 1967 The Prisoner was a widely acclaimed British success. For the next 30 years, however, no similar series received much in the way of critical acclaim, despite shows like Star Trek going nova with its passionate fanbase.

Twin Peaks and The X-Files were both shows with strong fantasy/SF elements and elicited considerable admiration from the critical community. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was instantly embraced by many of America’s leading TV critics such as Matt Roush, Ken Tucker, and David Bianculli, all of whom insisted it was one of the—if not the—best shows on TV, but major awards did not come its way, perhaps because it was on the WB (later UPN) or perhaps Hollywood and the awards shows still couldn’t quite bring themselves to lavish awards on a show about vampires and the blonde who loved and killed them.

More recently, Battlestar Galactica was embraced by critics, but despite winning the Program of the Year Award in the Television Critics Association, it failed to win many nominations. Lost was SF Lite, but still important in helping to break down the resistance to Fantasy and SF. In general, though, the gap between genre shows on the one hand and mainstream acceptance has remained close to unbridgeable.

That Game of Thrones received an Emmy nomination for Best Drama is, therefore, a milestone. Those handing out nominations could squint at Lost and imagine it as something other than a fantasy series, but only the blind and deaf living among liars could think that about Game of Thrones. The show not only received a nomination, but did so in its first season, something still fairly unusual. Last fall’s Boardwalk Empire managed it, but it had not only the same HBO backing as Game of Thrones but also the Terence Winter/Martin Scorsese names, not to mention a high profile star in Steve Buscemi.

Of course, it helped that Game of Thrones was clearly as good as any series on TV. It excelled on every level, including acting, writing, and direction, while its sets, CGI, and art design set new standards for television. More so than any series ever to appear on HBO, the series felt more like a neverending feature film than television. Based on George R. R. Martin’s work-in-progress A Song of Ice and Fire, it retained the gritty, dangerous feel of the novels. In Martin’s series—currently planned to extend to seven volumes, though the fifth was released only this summer—all sorts of nastiness ensues, definitely fantasy for coarsened adults, not children.

The television series reflects this, with considerable whoring, nudity, boozing, sex, graphic violence, and assorted forms of bloodletting. Viewers of the first season were graced with an incestuous relationship that is at the heart of the narrative, while one of the lead characters on the show was murdered (not a shock to those who had read the novels, but absolutely stunning to those who have not). But none of this is gratuitous and all adds to a powerful overall vision. One can easily imagine that we might never get TV sword and sorcerer fantasy this good ever again. Game of Thrones is to television what Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is to film.

Whether or not the series wins Best Drama is almost secondary to its having been nominated to begin with. What is particularly fascinating is the range of people who consider it one of TV’s elite shows. Unlike Buffy, it has been embraced not only by TV critics and a small core of fans, but by the TV community as a whole. If I were a voter I would definitely opt for this series over Mad Men, but my gut tells me that voters—who mainly live in the US—will probably tend to vote for the American production rather than Game of Thrones, which while technically an American series, primarily had a British crew and mainly featured British actors.

I do think one of the few American actors on the show, Peter Dinklage, will receive a well-deserved Emmy for Best Supporting Actor—the diminutive actor managed to dominate every scene he was in and most viewers of the show looked forward to his every appearance. An enormously talented actor, Dinklage has declined to take on many roles for small people, something that has probably limited the number of his film and television appearances (though he has received critical acclaim in films like The Station Agent). But the role of the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, a part that allows him to brilliantly chew up one scene after another, was obviously too meaty to turn down. If he doesn’t win the Emmy, there will be a lot of baffled and angry people. But his winning is, I think, one of the three safe bets in this year’s Emmys, the other two being Steve Carrell in his last year of eligibility for The Office and Margo Martindale for her outstanding performance on Justified.

A second great series to debut in April was AMC’s The Killing. Critical response to the show was somewhat mixed. While there was no denying the show’s many virtues, it also contained more irritating red herrings in any show since Season Two of Twin Peaks. Time and again viewers were made to think that they’ve been presented with a significant clue only to have it come to nothing; after multiple false trails, and a string of narrative dead ends, a reaction set in. Some critics tore into the series mercilessly, which frankly baffled me. Yes, the false clues were an indication of a weak writing strategy, but focusing on that detracted from the show’s many strengths.

First and foremost in the “strengths” category were Mireille Enos and Michelle Forbes, both of whom snagged Emmy noms as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. What is particularly amazing about Enos’s performance was that she was in advanced stages of pregnancy during much of the filming, something you wouldn’t know unless you looked closely at her baggy sweaters and overcoat (you can tell when she gave birth due to rather abrupt clothing changes: goodbye bulky coats, hello slimming attire).

As outstanding as Enos was, however, Michelle Forbes was the emotional heart of the show. The tortured pain and agony that she brought to her role as the mother of a murdered teen was visceral. Forbes has always been one of the finest actresses on TV—her ill-advised Season Two appearance on True Blood not withstanding—but here she took her craft to a new level. If it weren’t for Margo Martindale’s performance on Justified, Forbes would be my choice to win. When was the last time that the Best Supporting Actress category featured two actresses having had such extraordinary years?

The Killing became, despite its undeniable narrative flaws, one of my favorite shows on television. Yes, there were too many false trails and the red herrings were irritating, but I loved the many haunting portrayals of people in pain. In fact, the show wasn’t about solving a mystery, but about the agony that inevitably afflicts each and every soul. Without exception, every major character on the show was haunted by demons, if not from the present, then from the past. If you were obsessing over failures in the plot, you were kinda missing the whole point.

Not a perfect show, and the season finalé was irritating as hell, but I can’t want to see Sarah Linden (Enos) and her partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) back in action, though show runner Veena Sud has warned us not to expect that all of the primary characters will return. Nonetheless, when the show returns next spring or summer, I will definitely tune in.

I talked about both The Borgias and Mildred Pierce under Highpoint Number 2 and will not expand here on what I wrote there. But those shows, along with Game of Thrones and The Killing transformed the 2010-2011 season from a mediocre season to a superb one.

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