Friday, 28 December 2012

Dan's TV Awards 2012 (including a Top 10)

Friday, 28 December 2012

It's December, which means most entertainment blogs and websites will be indulging their readers with extensive Top 10 lists. I've done exactly that myself for most of the seven years Dan's Media Digest has been online. But this year I thought I'd offer something different: an awards ceremony! Of sorts. You can call it the "Danos", or something. It's basically a run-down of television shows that I thought pulled off something particularly good or bad this year. And if you still prefer a more traditional Top 10, I've included one at the very end.

The Biggest TV Surprise

Winner: DALLAS (season 1). A cable revival of a 1980s soap that's been off-air for two decades? I think everyone was waiting for TNT's new Dallas to be a stinking pile of crud, relying on brand-recognition to scrape through a cheesy season before the axe fell. We didn't expect a charming and rather good comeback, showing enough reverence for the old series (including good roles for Larry Hagman as J.R Ewing and Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing) without scrimping on "next generation" characters to lure in newbies. It was a glossy-looking return for the 21st-century Ewing's, although the sad death of Hagman puts the show in a danger zone next season. I mean, what's Dallas without J.R? [pilot review]

The Best TV Comeback

Winner: DEXTER (season 7). After a weak fifth season and a dismal sixth, the only thing keeping me watching Showtime's once-mighty Dexter was loyalty and a desire to see the deeper story end. The seventh season gambled on bringing Dexter's sister Debra into his circle of trust, after she caught her brother almost literally red-handed, and by refusing to shy away from this... the writers turned things around. Dexter became more unpredictable than it's been in years, created a terrific villain played by Rome's tough-yet-suave Ray Stevenson, and generally got its killer mojo back. It's still not as brilliant as those first few seasons, when it had more edge and freshness in its veins, but I'm now not embarrassed to call myself a fan again. [episode reviews]

Runner-up: DOWNTON ABBEY (series 3). Most people agree ITV's Emmy-winning period drama had a ludicrous soap-like second series, so it was a relief to have plausibility and of quality return for series 3. The show still has a very odd pace (a lead character's cancer scare was dealt with in two episodes), but that's partly because of its short runs. I always get the impression Downton needs thirteen episodes to do everything full justice, but ITV just can't produce more than eight and a Christmas special.

The Most Improved TV Series

Winner: THE WALKING DEAD (season 3). Most of the leads still feel like soulless "types" to me, but the third season of AMC's zombie drama The Walking Dead was a massive improvement. The pace was quicker, the storylines tighter, dead-end characters were written out (i.e. eaten), some weak characters were rehabilitated, newcomers raised extra intrigue, it helped having two separate "camps" for stories to skip between, there was more zombies and grisly violence, and it ultimately felt much more enjoyable. This is the zombie show I was imagining back when it was first announced. [episode reviews]

Runner-up: AMERICAN HORROR STORY - ASYLUM (season 2). Another cable horror that founds its groove was AHS; mainly because of the new location, '60s time period, and fresh characters. The first season's haunted house setting didn't justify a whole year's attention, no matter how many flashbacks and diversions were included, and the Harmon family were too insipid to care about. But this year we had a scary mental asylum in the early-1960s, which was a great deal easier to connect to as a fitting place for this show's brand of craziness. AHS is still very unwieldy half the time, but that's more acceptable when it has an appropriate context for such insanity and a carefree style. It still takes thing too far (did we really need aliens, zombies and Death herself to appear?), and there are more monsters than victims for my liking, but AHS:A was still a much stronger incarnation of the show. [premiere review]

The Worst Second Season of TV

Winner: THE KILLING [USA] (season 2). I know it made some obvious improvements in season 2, but it was too little too late. It was clear to the audience (but not showrunner Veena Sud) that the "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" mystery should have concluded after one season, so dragging out for another year was a big mistake. In fact, I stopped watching after awhile and was happy enough to read the Wikipedia entry of the final episode's events... and then just smirked at the culprit's identity, which was an underwhelming choice. The Killing is a fantastic production with some very good performances, but it's all servicing a badly-conceived idea. And that's unforgivable considering they have an award-winning Danish series to copy and improve on in key areas.

The Best Overlooked TV Series

Winner: JUSTIFIED (season 3). Even in its native land, I don't get the feeling enough people watch or care about FX's brilliant "cowboy" cop show Justified. Here in the UK the situation is even worse, because it's hidden away on digital channel FiveUSA and thus goes unseen by most people. And that's such a shame, because it's a great deal more entertaining and satisfying than the likes of Boardwalk Empire, which gets far more attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Season 3 wasn't as concentrated and gripping as the amazing second season, which sometimes made it feel meandering and bloated in comparison, but there's such an impressive rogue's gallery to enjoy. It's a pleasure to enter Harlan County every year, as the whole place gets progressively more layered and textured.

Runner-up: COMMUNITY (season 3). I know, I know: this is a very niche show that pleases a relatively small audience in a very specific way. In other words, it's made by geeks for geeks. It's just so frustrating seeing vaguely similar fare like Big Bang Theory command huge audiences around the world, when this prime geek-friendly comedy struggles and would be completely unknown in the UK without passionate British fans spreading the word. (Okay, I mean downloading and passing around torrents.)

The Best-Looking TV Series

Winner: GAME OF THRONES (season 2). A production so complex and incredible you take it for granted, post-Lord of the Rings, but the fact HBO are able to create something this expensive and luscious on a television budget and schedule is frankly incredible. And you don't even notice all the work that goes into it, until you watch how all the digital landscapes, buildings and CGI creatures are added afterwards on videos like this. In terms of visuals (geographically, digitally) and sheer quality of film-making (tone, style, make-up, costumes), Game of Thrones is in a class of its own for the small-screen. [premiere review]

The Most Consistent TV Series

Winner: MAD MEN (season 5). Has there been a bad season of AMC's Mad Men? Sure, there are years where the storylines have been less interesting or entertaining than others, but it's never outright bad. This darker fifth season came in for some attack at times, but despite that it was still one of the cleverest, classiest dramas around. You just know you're in for quality settling down to watch any episode, even if you don't personally respond to something as positively, and a couple of all-time gems are almost guaranteed. [episode reviews]

The Best TV Drama

Winner: BREAKING BAD (season 5). AMC only gave us half a season this year, and there were definitely issues for fans to grumble about (spotty pacing, luck being a trigger for key events), but it remains a fantastic drama with amazing performances and plenty of surprises up its sleeve. There's so much tension in some episodes that I shit diamonds the next day. When this show ends next summer, it's going to leave a chasm on the airwaves that someone's going to have a very hard time trying to fill... especially now Homeland's gone off the boil. [episode reviews]

The Best TV Comedy

Winner: COMMUNITY (season 3). It was the weakest season of the three this year, but NBC's Community is still the most experimental and consistently hilarious comedy around. There are in-jokes galore, creative riffs on films, witty pop-culture pastiches, a whole episodes rendered as an 8-bit video game... my God, this is easily the most creative comedy ever. You just never know what you're going to get every week, just a certainty it'll never be lazy. [episode reviews]

Runner-up: FRESH MEAT (series 2). Slightly overlooked in its own way (zero nominations at the British Comedy Awards?!), Channel 4's student comedy Fresh Meat had a brilliant second series that introduced some great new characters, strengthened the existing ones, and told better stories.

The Biggest TV Drama Flop

Winner: ETERNAL LAW (series 1). The co-creators of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes have the necessary clout to get high-concept ideas like Eternal Law made in the UK, so it's depressing when the end result is so lukewarm and ill considered. The idea of two angels working as lawyers on Earth has some potential, but this was a dismal and tedious approach to the idea. No sense of magic, little heart, insipid plots. The northern city of York looked gorgeous on camera, but that was about its own mild pleasure. [pilot review]

The Biggest TV Comedy Flop

Winner: LIFE'S TOO SHORT (series 1). It sounded like a bad idea, and that gut instinct proved correct—but not for the reasons I first imagined. There were the odd times you felt like Warwick Davis was being exploited or laughed at, but Life's Too Short was ultimately a flop because it was painfully unfunny most of the time (beyond a half-dozen scenes that were used to promote it), and just didn't know what it was supposed to be doing. I still don't fully understand why Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had weekly cameos (which just made it feel like they had no faith in Warwick to carry the show), or why they even bothered giving Warwick an accountant character that did nothing. A tragic waste of everyone's time and effort. [episode reviews]

The Worst TV Remake

Winner: THE INBETWEENERS (season 1). It was always going to be very difficult translating E4's Inbetweeners to America. Not in terms of the premise, which is universal, but in terms of the whole tone and in trying to replicate the chemistry of "the boys". MTV's valiant attempt had its moments, and wasn't a total disaster, but it was just so obviously a weak copy. Maybe this is less of a problem if you were watching it with fresh eyes, having never seen the UK version, but I can only experience it as a pale and soulless shadow. [premiere review]

The Best Cancelled TV Series

Winner: LAST RESORT (season 1). It was always going to struggle given its ludicrously high-concept idea, male-skewing formula (for a channel that does better with females), and a bad Thursday night timeslot in the US. And that's a shame, because Last Resort was one of the best new US dramas this year (alongside Arrow). It may have had a concept best-suited to a film, but I thought Shawn Ryan and his writers managed to make it work surprisingly well as a weekly TV series. I don't think more than a few seasons would have been possible, but it certainly deserved more than 13 hours. [pilot review]

Full Star Reviews of 2012

As regulars know, I don't give out four-star reviews lightly. Over the course of twelve months, I don't think I've ever given out more than ten "full star" reviews. Are my standards set too high? Is television struggling to achieve near-perfection just now? It's probably a mix of both those things. Below are direct links to this year's reviews that achieved the prestigious "full star" ranking at DMD, which I hope you'll take a look at:

Yep, just six episodes out of the year's reviews got a full-star review! (I'm hard to please.) There were undoubtedly more episodes deserving of a full-star rating this year, of course, it's just that I wasn't reviewing those shows here...

Dan's Top 10 Shows of 2012

These are my favourite 10 shows of 2012, with 2011's ranking in brackets:
1. (1) Breaking Bad (season 5) - see above.
2. (-) Mad Men (season 5) - see above.
3. (-) Sherlock (series 2) - a trio of Conan Doyle's best stories, updated with aplomb.
4. (-) Dexter (season 7) - see above.
5. (3) Community (season 3) - see above.
6. (-) The Walking Dead (season 3) - see above.
7. (4) Game of Thrones (season 2) - faster-paced, easier to grasp, more action.
8. (2) Homeland (season 2) - stupider, but still blessed with amazing performances.
9. (8) Justified (season 3) - see above.
10. (-) Downton Abbey (series 3) - see above.

Notable absences: 'Boardwalk Empire' (a plodding third season made me quit halfway through, although I've recently restarted my viewing because people tell me the finale's so strong); 'Spartacus: Vengeance' (still enjoyable, but the change in lead actor and lack of John Hannah knocked it down in my estimation); 'Doctor Who' (not enough episodes to really justify a Top 10 placing this year); 'Fringe' (the final season's taken a very different direction that doesn't quite chime with me in the same way); 'Louie' (a weak and repetitive-feeling third season, beyond a few choice episodes and the excellent 'Late Show trilogy' near the end--no wonder Louis C.K's taking a year off to recharge);'Luck' (I never even made it past the sluggish pilot, sorry); 'Veep' (I just didn't find it that funny, clever or important); 'Hit & Miss' (I enjoyed aspects of it, but it just wasn't strong enough overall); and 'The Newsroom' (enjoyable at times, but the characters were bizarre, the arguments smothering, and the writers' hand too visible).