Cousins, Critically: 2013 In Television

Cousins, Critically started as a vehicle for M. Liam Moore and myself to rewatch Breaking Bad and “dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner.” After a while we realized that Cousins, Critically didn’t just have to be about Breaking Bad, and decided to bring in another cousin, which resulted in the best post to ever appear on this blog. With different voices on Aweful Writing, the content became decidedly better, and Cousins, Critically became a qualitative success (page views be damned!). So, in the spirit of the feature’s peak, Aweful Writing presents Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series. In part 1 of a 2 part series, a host of critical cousins has assembled to discuss their favorite television of 2013. Stay tuned for part 2!

J.T. and M. Liam Moore Discuss At Length Their Thoughts on Television In 2013

J.T. Moore: I’m thrilled to be creating a best (and worst) of list through Cousins, Critically. The series of posts that we have done in 2013 would top my list of favorite blogs in 2013, but I guess I’m biased. Then again, best of lists are kind of stupid in general. To say that one work of art is better than the other and rank them against each other is entirely subjective. But what’s more fun than a best of list?

To say that television in 2013 was great would be a massive understatement. There are 2 different posts and counting running at Aweful Writing on my favorites of the year that just have to do with TV, so I’d say that the medium had a good year.

One of the most remarkable things about television in 2013 is the number of fantastic new shows that came from what seemed like nowhere. Once you found you favorite show of 2013, the next week there would be a new one that you loved even more! A specific channel that had a particularly great year in 2013 is the Sundance Channel. They were for 3 for 3 in terms of outstanding new shows with Top of the Lake, Rectify, and Les Revenants (known in the states as The Returned). Instead of lingering on about how great these three shows were (as they all place within my Top 10 for the year) I’d like to talk about what this means for Sundance.

With these three premieres, Sundance experienced what might be one of the greatest calendar years for any network ever. In truth, 2 of the 3 series are foreign imports (Top of the Lake is from the UK, and Les Revenants is from France, obviously), but the selection of them is what matters most. These three shows gave Sundance an incredible year and one that is comparable to AMC’s humble beginnings with the premieres of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. However, I’d hope that Sundance doesn’t go down the dark path that AMC has taken, filled with Small Town Securitys and Low Winter Suns, and that the channel’s programing only gets better. But it’s hard to imagine a better year for the channel than 2013.

How about you, M. Liam? What was some of you favorite television of 2013?

M. Liam Moore: Funny you should mention new series, J.T. Like you, I devoted myself to a new show in 2013, one I began watching at the recommendation of my most trusted TV critic. That show was The Bridge (known in the States as The Bridge), and the critic who touted it as TV’s best new show was … well, there’s nothing to be gained in naming names. Let’s just say that despite an interesting premise, this Scandinavian import stunk like lutefisk.

While The Bridge may not have worked, it did strive to push the envelope. Even if it came up short, the network, FX, deserves credit for giving airtime to such an ambitious show, and allowing the show (which has since been renewed? REALLY?) time to develop its characters, explore its setting and, inevitably, either sink or swim.

FX gets a lot of love from me this year. I understand that, as a white male aged 18 to 49, I am nestled right into the network’s audience-bosom. But just as it sounds like Sundance (which I no longer get – thanks, unborn child! – though I am four episodes into its bewitching Top of the Lake) is willing to go “all in” on shows that could hardly be considered safe, FX has been doing the same thing for years, albeit with a Y-chromosome litmus test.

I love ducking into FX’s comedies: The League, It’s Always Sunny and, of course, the sublime Louie. I rank Justified fourth best among shows I watched in 2013, and The Americans was the best new series I watched this year. A mash-up of Mad Men and Homeland that keeps Mags Bennett alive AND expands Keri Russell’s wardrobe beyond flannel and slip dresses? Yes, please! I’ve got it fifth in my rankings, although only the top four are firm.

This should be lots of fun, J.T. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series! And kudos to you for not including The Killing amongst the litter strewn about AMC’s recent “dark path.” (You know I like to enforce the watch-it-before-you-trash-it rule.) Still, I have to imagine there were some shows on the network that made your Best Of list for 2013, right?

JTM: Yes, it’s true both Mad Men and Breaking Bad placed within my top 10. (Though I stayed strong and didn’t let Breaking Bad take the top spot.) Both series had an excellent 2013 putting in some of their best work ever. Even though the shows are the same age, in 2013 they found themselves in very, very different places. Mad Men (which I found myself the anomaly this year in loving it) seemed like it would be taking it slow for the year, but at episode six titled “For Immediate Release” the surprises started coming, and Mad Men continued to provide some of the most dramatically rich television of 2013. But if I’m saying Mad Men was surprising, then I don’t know what to call Breaking Bad. What’s most surprising is that I’m still able talk about it after were spilled thousands of digital pixels on it throughout the year. So I’ll just say this: one of the shows ended, and the other is getting ready for the end, and all the while they produced some of the best television I have ever seen. I hope this becomes a new rule for shows in their final years.

Another returning show that I loved at one point in time (but is nowhere near it’s final years; I wish it was!!!) that had an interesting 2013 is Homeland. I have to call Homeland interesting because I don’t know if it’s bad or not. I feels bad, hell it feels terrible, but that could be because I was ready to bail after season 2 ended. What was once one of the most thrilling, ingenious, and genuine shows on television has now become the show that I dread most on Sunday nights. The writers don’t have a handle on any of the characters, the plot has become repetitive and convoluted, and the show has even tried (and failed) to put in a few absurd twists here or there. This has resulted in the creation of a show that has no idea what it is anymore (A character study? A show about the CIA? Anything???) and something that is just sad to look at now. But Homeland has accomplished one thing which it deserves credit for: making me want to watch Homeland even less than I did before.

But I’m tired of negative criticism. M. Liam, what other shows that didn’t air on FX made you happy you were watching them?

MLM: I was happy watching AMC’s old reliables as well. Mad Men was what you folks in the industry refer to as a VIEWING EVENT in my house last year. I poured martinis, stacked appetizers and welcomed Roger Sterling into my living room. But let me be clear, J.T.: I smoked no blue meth in tracking Walter White’s decay. (Or was it transformation?)

Had you been suspicious of some drug use this fall, given my positivity toward the show, it would have been understandable after all the whining I did about Lydia, the Nazis, Skyler, YOUR T-SHIRT, etc. But I really did make my peace with Breaking Bad in 2013, and I got there by giving up on perfection and simply enjoying the show’s finale throes. So much happened – so many things we’d been anticipating for so long – and it was handled so deftly, from the writing to the directing to the acting. I had a blast.

Rank Breaking Bad third among shows I watched in 2013, two spots behind a show I haven’t given up on when it comes to perfection. The increasingly dark, crisply beautiful Mad Men was the best TV I watched last year. It offered whip-smart dialogue, fully realized characters and, of course, a totally righteous wardrobe collection. It’s not always subtle – the advertising-agency-as-whorehouse analogy is wearing thin – but what makes Mad Men so much more provocative than anything else on TV is that the show speaks to power and privilege, opportunity and success, capitalism and consumerism – without being didactic. And yes, there is CHANGE, that constant, driving force propelling Mad Men forward, and IDENTITY, the show’s ultimate ace in the hole. Don Draper is an anti-hero; Dick Whitman is his shot at redemption.

My second-favorite show of 2013 was HBO’s half-hour dramedy Girls. It’s a deep dive into the subculture of overeducated, underemployed 20-somethings from privileged backgrounds, drawn to the energy, opportunity and cachet that comes with a New York City address. I thought the show found its legs in 2013, ranging from funny to poignant, coming off emotive but not sappy, with characters at once self-absorbed (Marnie’s Kanye scene) and fiercely, tenderly devoted to each other (the Oasis bathtub scene). It surprised me, J.T., to see you didn’t have Lena Dunham and the gang in your top 10 for 2013. What gives, cuz? I thought we were a couple guys who liked Girls, no?

JTM: You’ll be happy to know that Girls places within my next 10 best series of 2013 list. I thought the show fell short in its second season, but still held my interest. Long story short I liked the short stories that Girls had to offer (“One Man’s Trash” and “It’s A Shame About Ray” were standouts to me) rather than the long story that forced itself in by the end of the season (this is explained more in the next 10). But nevertheless, Lena Dunham has amazing and thought-provoking stories to tell, and even in an off season the show was some very enjoyable television.

M. Liam, if you’ve got nothing more to say on the state of television in 2013, then why don’t we open it up to the trenches of our other critical cousins who have plenty to say about the year in television?

Andy Stermer Exudes Life and Love for House of Cards

When Kevin Spacey talks, I listen. As congressman Frank Underwood in the Netflix original series House of Cards, Spacey talks a lot, sometimes even taking time out of his busy day as a dirty-dealing, revenge-seeking House Majority Whip to speak directly to me. Being a newcomer to the world of high-level television, I suppose it’s possible that I’m swept off my feet too easily, viewing these frequent destructions of the fourth wall as personal acknowledgements instead of trite storytelling devices. In any case, the web of dark political intrigue Spacey weaves with a cadre of well-developed cohorts is at least as addicting as it is over-dramatic. As the feisty young journalist Zoe Barnes, Kate Mara proves as intriguingly salacious as sister Rooney in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but without the weird hair and piercings. Robin Wright is smashing as Claire Underwood, Frank’s cool, calculated wife whose clever power-grabbing schemes at times rival his own. But best of all is Spacey himself, whose southern drawl and psychopathic lack of remorse carry the show even through its more tired moments. In the end, J.T.’s damning accusation of “good, not great” may be rather appropriate for House of Cards. But the rich blend of raw humanity and fantastic malice it’s characters exhibit gives their political adventures a breath of life that’s worth checking out, even if only as a stop gap between (re-watching) seasons of Breaking Bad.

L. James M. Delves Deep into One of the Year’s Best: Top of the Lake

First off, the cinematography in Top of the Lake is incredible. This is immediately apparent in the haunting opening sequence in which, after stunning shots of New Zealand landscape, a 12-year-old girl is found attempting to drown herself. We soon find out that the girl, Tui, is pregnant and that there are a number of shady goings-on in the picturesque town of Lake Top.

Another striking feature of the show is the acting, and for the most part this holds up throughout the series. The lead role, Detective Robin Griffin, is fantastic and played so perfectly by Elisabeth Moss (who you might recognize from Mad Men). In a world of sleezeballs she is one of the only ones trying to make a positive difference. I hear that Anna Paquin was originally offered the role, which could possibly have ruined the whole show. As it is, the casting, acting and directing are all superb. I thought for a while that I wasn’t sold on the character GJ, the faux-guru leader of a group of women looking for answers. Maybe it’s her air of supremacy (“she’s on another plane” says one of her followers) or her dickishness. In any case, she grew on me.

Despite the show’s disturbing content, it really draws you in. The writing is solid and the plot takes you on some nice turns. Also, since it is a miniseries, each episode is packed with development and minimizes the fluff that you might find with your usual drama. The only issues I might have are with the climactic pacing of the last couple episodes, and occasional moments of awkward dialogue.

The music and sound design are great as well. The soundtrack at times can evoke desolate, open spaces, and at other times a claustrophobic intensity… and there’s some normal junk too.

All in all, if you are wanting a looker and a thinker, take a swim in Top of the Lake. Zing!

L. James M.’s other recommendations for 2013 shows from BBC and the Brits

The Fall – another excellent crime drama… starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files! Who gets more and more beautiful with age! I watched it on Netflix, along with Top of the Lake.

The Wrong Mans – goofy comedy about a couple of dudes who get in way over their heads. On Hulu.

Misfits – wildly inappropriate sci-fi comedy about hooligans on community service who acquire superhuman abilities from an electrical storm. Actually this started in 2009 but they just had their final season this month! I watched this on Hulu+.

Also I hear Orphan Black is good, and Black Mirror looks amazing (though this began in 2011). If the titles tell us anything, they should be inspirational and uplifting.

And on the American front I have to add, in response to J.T.’s remarks regarding AMC’s crappy new shows, at least The Walking Dead had a great first half of season 4 this year.

Molly Moore Is Disappointed by How I Met Your Mother

This scene sucked.

How I Met Your Mother used to be great. I really enjoyed most of the past seasons, but recently it has gone downhill. Season 9 I believe, has hit rock bottom and has been quite a disappointment thus far. All episodes that have aired this season and that will continue to air take place within a 55 hour time period of Robin and Barney’s wedding. I guess the writers really had nothing to write about. Sure, it is nice of them to tie up loose ends and all but at the same time it would be nice to see how life works out for Ted and his future wife, as we have seen Ted fail time after time with relationships. “Bedtime Stories” an episode this season was all in rhyme, in order to get Marvin to fall asleep on a long bus ride that he and Marshall were taking to Long Island. It was creative and all, but it also was incredibly annoying to watch and listen to. (The lack of metre didn’t help either.) Speaking of Marshall, it would be nice to see more of him in current times at the wedding with the rest of the crew, rather than in a car cross-country road trippin’ from Minnesota to New York. I guess we can only hope that the remainder of the season will improve in 2014.

Tony Moore Presents The Legend of Korra

Some of you might be thinking to yourself “What the hell is Legend of Korra?” I am here to answer that very question.  LoK is the second incarnation of the Avatar television show, the first incarnation being The Last Airbender, NOT to be confused with the absolute travesty of a film remake produced by M. Night Shyamalan a few years ago. A little background for those who do not know anything about the show, there are four nations: the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation, each able to control their respective elements (known as bending). In The Last Airbender we are introduced to Aang, the titular character is the last of his kind, but also the Avatar, a powerful individual who is capable of harnessing power over all four elements. He was frozen in ice for one hundred years and missed the Fire Nation declaring war against everybody and Fire Lord Ozai attempting to take control of the entire world. Over the course of The Last Airbender’s three seasons, we follow Aang and his companions as they help him learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements so he can prevent the end of the world as they know it.

The Last Airbender series was phenomenal. It aired on Nickelodeon so it had the fun, kid-friendly atmosphere but it also got deep into issues of spirituality, moral conduct, and an ever changing world. Along with content that appeals to a variety of age groups, we get displays of bending that are extremely fun to watch. The Last Airbender had all kinds of awesome fight scenes but The Legend of Korra takes the visuals to a whole new level. The first season of The Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the events of the first series. Korra is the new Avatar, reborn after Avatar Aang passed away. While The Last Airbender took a good deal of time emphasizing the learning process Aang must go through to learn how to use each element, The Legend of Korra starts out with a nearly fully realized Avatar, able to bend Water (her natural element), Fire, and Earth. Season one of LoK focuses on Korra’s lack of spirituality, a necessity for learning Airbending. We also have the AMAZING addition of Pro Bending, a three-on-three, fast-paced, action-packed spectacle. After that description, I’ll need to throw on this link so you all can see what I mean:

So while The Last Airbender established what bending is, The Legend of Korra displays what you can do with it.

At long last we have come to my review of the second season of The Legend of Korra, airing from September through November of this year. This season has the most adult themes running through its veins than any of the other seasons of Avatar. This time we’re dealing with a civil war, brother fighting against brother, and a whole mess of evil spirits that have come to disrupt the land of the living. This latter theme opens up all kinds of possibilities for the animators and they certainly had fun with it. One of my favorite episodes of the season is one that spans two episodes that tells the story of how the first Avatar came to be, titled “Beginnings, Part 1 and 2”. Studio Mir animated both of these episodes, as well as certain episodes from The Last Airbender and all of LoK first season. I don’t expect all of you to take another nine minutes to watch another clip, but at least open it up and click on certain parts of the video so you can see some of the beautiful imagery produced by these amazing animators:

The writing isn’t always stellar for this show, but the good writing far outweighs the bad so it doesn’t take too much away from the season overall. And don’t take that the wrong way because you can still get very invested in the characters and the story in season two gets surprisingly heavy for a show on a children’s network. I know a cartoon can be a tough sell in this sea of Breaking Bads and Mad Mens but if you are looking for a show that has action, comedy, and real-world situations thrown into a beautiful fantasy world, look no further than The Legend of Korra.

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