TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 1

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.

Lowpoint Number 1: The Shabbiness of AMC

In the past four years, AMC has branded itself as the purveyor of the finest original programming on television, with not even HBO matching the quality of AMC’s four great series: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and The Killing. Each of these shows is highly acclaimed by both critics and fans, each driven by great writing, high production values, and tremendous acting. Mad Men has won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, while Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will not repeat winning Emmys for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor only because their show is ineligible this year. Most likely Jon Hamm of Mad Men will finally win a well-deserved Emmy.

While The Walking Dead has not received the awards notice of the others, it was only because of its six-episode first season run. It did, however, make scores of lists of the best shows of 2010. AMC’s track record has been so outstanding that for many TV fans the most anticipated new show of the fall of 2011 is its new series Hell on Wheels, which is set against the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century.

But all of this success is happening despite the programming executives at AMC. One would normally expect that programming executives would treat all those connected with such superb shows not merely with respect and gratitude, but something akin to awe. Not so with AMC. While no reports have surfaced of a conflict with the executive producers of The Killing, AMC has butted heads with the creators and show runners of their other three shows.

In a theme that is all too familiar, this is a story about money, and the insistence on the part of AMC to nickel and dime its flagship series and alienate cast and crew, all to make a little more profits. The cost to the AMC brand, however, has been huge. It’s too early to tell, but the AMC label might be so damaged at this point that creators of new series might shop their new projects to AMC only as a last resort.

Viewers and fans saw no Mad Men in 2011—possibly the most critically acclaimed series on TV—because AMC and Lionsgate (the studio that produces the show) engaged in a protracted dispute with show runner/creator Matthew Weiner. The conflict did not extend merely to how much money Weiner would receive, but to things that affected the quality of the show. For example, AMC insisted that all episodes be cut by two minutes for additional commercials and wanted to increase significantly the amount of product placement on the show. According to reports, Weiner won on the last issue, but made a major concession on the two-minute cuts. The Season Five premiere and finalé will air without the two minute cuts, while the rest of the season will have the extra two minutes of commercials. The DVDs, however, will show the full, uncut episodes, with the missing two minutes restored.

With Weiner and star Jon Hamm having signed new contracts, Mad Men would seem to have reached its final potential conflict between AMC and creators, but at this point one cannot put anything past AMC.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, had always intended for the show to end after a limited number of episodes. The story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s becoming a master crystal meth cook after being diagnosed with terminal cancer never felt like a show that could go on forever without losing narrative integrity. One can only applaud Gilligan having the fortitude to announce that the show’s fifth season will be its last. Is that too late for AMC to interfere with the series as it did with Mad Men? Not on your life!

Gilligan wanted the show’s final season to consist of as many as the middle three seasons (Season One was shortened by the Screen Writer’s Guild strike), 13 episodes. AMC had a different idea; six episodes should, in their opinion, be more than enough to wrap up the series. Gilligan and Sony, the studio that produces the show, actually shopped the final season of the show to other networks. Perhaps the latter was a negotiating ploy; perhaps it was a serious attempt to extend the life of the series to a proper conclusion. Luckily we’ll never know. AMC realized that its brand was not taking not merely a beating, but an extended public flogging. An agreement was reached to bring Breaking Bad back for a 16-episode final season.

Unbelievably, neither of these incidents represents AMC at its worst. This was reserved for one of the most absurd firings in the history of television.

One of the best new series of the fall of 2010—in my book the finest, since I am not quite the fan of Boardwalk Empire others are—was Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead, the Citizen Kane of TV zombies series, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s celebrated comic book series. AMC had some nervousness about how a zombie series would go over on television and so ordered only six episodes for its first season. But all seemed to be going well. The show had, by a considerable margin, the largest number of viewers of any AMC series to date and received considerable critical acclaim. Darabont showed that a show purportedly about zombies could be TV’s finest exploration of what it meant to be human.

Darabont attended Comic-Con in San Diego in July, and both he and his actors and Kirkman expressed their excitement over the upcoming season. All seemed bright on The Walking Dead.

Then came news that baffled everyone: AMC tersely announced Darabont was no longer attached to The Walking Dead. Of the several important film directors working on TV in the previous season (as discussed in Highpoint Number 2) Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) was the one most completely involved in his show. For several days no one knew what to think. There were reports that perhaps Darabont was not comfortable with the pace of television and was wanting to move on, which conflicted with how excited he had seemed at Comic-Con, only a few days prior to the announcement of his departure from the show.

Then Kim Masters in The Hollywood Reporter, first in their print edition and then online, broke the story that Darabont had in fact been fired, easily one of the most shocking stories in TV history (‘The Walking Dead’: What Really Happened to Fired Showrunner Frank Darabont, CNN, 10 August 2011). No network seemed capable of firing someone of Darabont’s stature. After all, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved films of the past 20 years and has long been ranked #1 by fans on for several years, now. As Masters explained, AMC’s relationship with The Walking Dead is different than with its other series: it owns the property. AMC also developed Mad Men, but it then sold it to Lionsgate, while Sony brought Breaking Bad to AMC.

But with all three series, a reckless and daredevil attitude towards saving money and increasing profits has endangered the artists’ integrity of its series.

Two suspicions arise.

One, could it be that AMC is not ready to be a long term provider of quality television? Breaking Bad will end next year, while Mad Men is moving towards its conclusion. The Killing had many outstanding qualities in its first season, but if it continues its reliance on misleading clues, it will almost certainly alienate viewers. It is, at best, a shaky franchise upon which to continue AMC’s success.

Two, AMC could have a much, much tougher time attracting exceptional series in the future. Potential creators and show runners are going to remember AMC putting the squeeze on Weiner to cut Mad Men by two minutes per episode, attempting to force Gilligan to trim the final season of Breaking Bad from 13 to six episodes, and firing Darabont for refusing to kowtow to their demands for substantial cuts in the budget.

My gut tells me that AMC is going to be a flash in the pan. A very bright, very memorable flash, but a flash nonetheless. While AMC briefly surpassed HBO and Showtime and every other network on TV for superb television, the corporate mentality is less that of creators than bean counters. One very rarely hears similar stories about HBO, the only network that has consistently produced series as good as AMC’s.