Five long-form TV dramas are at the top of my list. They all appear on cable channels. In the Honorable Mention category, I take a look at the funniest shows of the year: also on cable. What distinguishes the torpor of network TV? With "Walking Dead" and its other successes, AMC proves that corporate advertisers flock to quality. Anyhow, here are my top five and honorable mentions.
1) Luck. Yes. It was cancelled. HBO's horse racing drama, by David Milch and Michael Mann, was on the post, lumbering to greatness until it was knocked out by horses that died during filming. I'd bring the series, "Luck", back and put any horses inadvertently killed in filming in a hall of fame. Then I would bring Milch's "Deadwood" back and give his "John From Cincinatti" another chance. I suppose none of this will happen, given our divided convictions. But what is this jinx with Milch and HBO? "Luck" filmed the most sensational visuals of horse racing in TV history. I wanted more of these superb, fragile athletes, more of the series' fabulous secondary characters holed up in a motel, and reveled in the landscape of moral ambiguity drawn as perfectly as the hills surrounding the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles, where the series was filmed. In "Luck", Dustin Hoffman was headed into a role of his life; one his talent could fill on television, an achievement that eluded him and us, too. Unlike its competitors in 2012, "Luck" and its creators had embraced the long view: the first, shortened season set up viewers for the long run. "Luck" was tops, when it did not finish.
2) Breaking Bad. This miracle of a TV drama from AMC is entering its fifth, final season. What a run. Who would have thought the best drama of the decade would have been forged by a cancer patient who turns to cooking meth in order to supplement a dismal career as a high school chemistry teacher? In season four, we watched Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, his assistant, survive implausible and impossible pressures. For Cranston's character, Walter White, the pressure is ratcheted to the highest level by his wife and sister-in-law, who is married to the DEA agent, Dean Norris, chasing the unknown chemist/meth genius right in his family. "Breaking Bad" is number two, at the top of my list, because the writers and Cranston made the long-length drama, its plots and sub-plots, serve the exploration of evil. I didn't think Walter White had it in him, in season one. Bryan Cranston, you are da bomb and AMC, props to you.
3) Girls. Lena Dunham may be the Sacha Baron Cohen of new girl culture: who knows if she can top her first act. I'm worried. The HBO series in its premier season was a joy. You had the feeling of watching a great talent emerge from chrysalis to an exotic butterfly native to Brooklyn. But it is Hollywood, after all, and I hope Dunham is wise enough to keep it real. "Girls" and Dunham catch a subset of emerging adults more clearly and with more empathy than we've ever seen on TV. Fingers crossed, for upcoming season two.
4) Walking Dead. AMC is tapping the zeitgeist with a show that makes a morality play from our inner fears and obsessions. "Walking Dead" not only strips ordinary characters of everything they treasure, it turns ordinary ill will we harbor into the object we try so hard to repress: strangers who want to eat you, and once you are bitten, turn you into them. In the second season of Walking Dead, the heroic survivors trap themselves in a prison in order to survive the zombies while the banality of evil manifests not far away, in a "traditional town" enclave ringed by lying miscreants masquerading as public servants. Seaside on the brink! I swear, "Walking Dead" must be channeling our blog. Many of us feel like we are on the brink, and "Walking Dead" -- with all its corny characters, skillful killers, and zombies -- makes us all feel gratefully at the conclusion of each episode, we are not there yet.
5) Homeland. Speaking of grateful we are not there, Homeland's Season One was an breath-taking mash-up of paranoia, bipolar disorder, and highly placed operatives and politicians behaving badly toward terrorists determined to blow up everything made in America. Mandy Patakin, whose early career performances aspired to but matched his promise, found the role of his advancing middle age as a seasoned intelligent officer, undermined by his own bosses. Damian Lewis is outstanding as Nicholas Brody, a decorated war vet who returns as a highly placed agent of the terrorists. In Season Two he flips to being a double-agent but never quite completely. He and Claire Danes, who plays Carrie Mathison, perform the interrogation scene of the new century. In a second season it is very hard (witness, "The Killing") to keep the pot on boil around a crime that occurred or was planned, from the first to second season. I worry about season three, with cracks showing through in season two. Still. How good is this series? My wife, who only grudgingly began watching the first season on cable demand, couldn't stop until she was caught up to Season Two. On Sunday night, at the end of the show, she cried, "What are we going to do when the season ends?!" (Hint: we bought Homeland t-shirts for Xmas for our friends.)
Playing Fiona Wallace, a web therapist Lisa Kudrow is straight-up fantastic in "Web Therapy" on Showtime. I didn't even know the show existed until I stumbled upon it. Kudrow is a singular talent with a jewel box filled with top quality, stealth humor. How does she do it? Thankfully, Showtime is going to give us another chance to find out. You never were quite sure the network would, because the premise of "Web Therapy" is so subversive. Who says the internet is only good for porn? The half hour follows a loose script. The joy is improvisation, with fabulous actors, deploying the simplest and least expensive format ever created for a network or cable TV series: two characters on a split screen sitting in front of a camera as though at the den computer, on Skype or another online chat. You had the feeling that the real-life stars (Lily Tomlin, Rosie O'Donnell) who did cameo turns on "Web Therapy" were jonezing for the chance to play with Kudrow, screen shot to screen shot. On "Web Therapy", Meryl Streep, Dame Meryl Streep!, did the funniest bits of the year. David Schwimmer, who also did riotous cameos with Larry David, is laugh out loud funny. And the oddball marriage between Kudrow her gay husband running for Congress, priceless. Compressed into an artificial format, these actors show great performance really is a magic trick. Lisa Kudrow for president, 2016.
Ricky Gervais "Life's Too Short" is a HBO series mockumentary, co-authored by Stephen Merchant that tracks the travail of a British actor, Warwick Davis, who happens to be a midget. One of the best features of the mockumentary, again, is the cameo appearance of real-time stars delighted to portray themselves as odd-balls, self-centered or just simply crazy. Brad Pitt and Liam Neeson embraced their bit parts with side-splitting gusto. This trend of TV stars playing comedic version of themselves is to be commended! (I'm waiting for Daniel Day-Lewis.) Gervais and Merchant, creators of The Office, are fearless. HBO has commissioned a second season.
It took me a while to warm up to the comedian, Louis C.K. What a talent, and good for the channel FX for picking him up. It is hard to find a braver actor anywhere on TV, willing to dive onto any comedic edge, no matter how sharp. It is harder still, to find a white middle-aged male with red hair who can do that. In his recent season, Louie C.K. defied the standard sitcom, 22 minute format, in favor of episodes that were like short, experimental plays. It takes a lot of guts to do what Louie C.K. is doing. Good for us!
Episodes. I never watched the TV star, Matt LeBlanc in his youthful sitcom stardom, along with his co-stars on "Friends" (Kudrow, Schwimmer are noted, above). As a washed up star on HBO's "Episodes", LeBlanc is seriously fantastic. In 2012, "Friends" stars seriously re-cycled their comedic talent. In "Episodes" you sit spell-bound by the comedic version of LeBlanc playing himself; a self-centered, rueful, pudgy ex-star whose way forward follows his dick, not his nose. The series send-up of Hollywood TV world is extraordinarily good, showing that if blogs can be cheeky, TV can be even cheekier.
PBS. Those right-wing radicals and their culture wars love to pick fights with PBS, but good Lord, how much poorer we would be without PBS. There is the series, "Nature". Its episode of the quietly obsessed Japanese videographer who spent years in the Russian wilderness just to capture a few minutes of film of the elusive Siberian tiger is a gift and blessing. Thanks for Ken Burns. Thanks, even, for Masterpiece Theater once in a while. Bill Moyers and Lisa Kudrow in 2016. Cabinet officers: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Louie C.K., Lily Tomlin, Rosie O'Donnell, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, and John Stewart. I don't know if I have the number right. I'll get it right in 2013.
The Daily Show with John Stewart. John Stewart is a guy I'd like to have dinner with, but here's what is funny; John is so good at what he does, I feel like I'm having dinner with him nearly every night. We love John Stewart, but a lot of what we love is due to cracker jack writers. So Hat's Off, to you writers! John Stewart is the guy who always seem younger than me, because he is younger than me. But for people younger than him, Stewart is literally a one-man curriculum, set up against the Fox News / Roger Ailes / Rupert Murdoch empire. Stewart dances rings around them, every single night. And for that, thank God! Mazeltov!