TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2012

Shows which were listed in the 2010 or 2011 pieces on this topic are disqualified from a repeat nomination. I’ll probably lift the moratorium next year, on a rolling three-year basis, so that the 2010 shows – or. at least, any of them that are still being screened (Caprica, Spooks and 24 have already gone, with Fringe on its last series and The IT Crowd likely not returning either) – will be eligible to repeat. But, for now, here are ten more of the best pieces of televisiual entertainment to have graced our screens in the last 12 months.
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TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2011

TV continues to occupy an increasing amount of our leisure time – last time I checked the Tivo, there were no less than 15 regular series which were being DVR’d, and it seems the number has been creeping up, to the point where we have to exercise discipline to ensure an unwieldy backlog doesn’t build up. It helps that the DVR hard-disk is limited to 20-25 hours of HD TV at any one time, and doesn’t appear expandable [unlike my ‘puter, which just got a 1 Tb external drive, almost entirely for media-related reasons]. It concentrates the mind when the DVR starts warning you that it’s gonna start erasing stuff, like a mother threatening to throw out all those toys if she finds them lying on the floor one more time.

To keep things fresh, all shows that were listed in last year’s top 10 are disqualified from contention. In some cases, e.g. Haven, they didn’t keep their standards up, others (Caprica, 24) were not on the schedule, but the majority would at least be worthy of an honourable mention in this year’s roll of televisual goodness. Speaking of honourable mentions, those should also go to Alphas and Being Human [the original British version, though the American remake is going in some interesting directions[. They were the two shows which were the final ones cut from the list. As last year, the list is in alphabetical order

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Forbrydelsen: Something rotten in the state of Denmark. And it’s good.

Denmark in general, and Copenhagen in particular, does not have the reputation of a hot-bed of crime. I travelled through the country on a number of occasions in my student, Inter-railing years, and the things that come to mind when you think about the country are stuff like Hans Christian Anderson, Legoland and Victor Borge. The most disturbing thing to come out of the country is probably Lars Von Trier and…well, he needed to come out of the country to express his weirdness. Otherwise, crime seemed limited to drunken students removing the head from the Little Mermaid statue. And then came Forbrydelsen literally “The Crime,” more loosely translated as The Killing. Danny Kaye must be spinning in his grave

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Dead Channels: UK vs. US TV Zombies

Dead Set

Dir: Yann Demange
Star: Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Kevin Eldon, Riz Ahmed

I largely avoided the Big Brother phenomenon, leaving the country mere months after the programme started in 2000, though it was clearly already gaining some steam. My ignorance probably added some extra resonance to this five-part series, which centres on the effect a zombie outbreak would have on show participants, from both sides of the camera. Certainly, there is no dodging the parallel drawn between the reality show devotees who gather outside the studio with their signs and chants, and the living dead chewing on human flesh later – both mindless zombies, of one kind or another.

The Walking Dead

Dir: Frank Darabont and others
Star: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden

The hero is Rick Grimes (Lincoln), a cop who is shot, and comes back from unconsciousness – like the protagonist in 28 Days Later – to find the world has gone to hell. He returns home to find his wife Lori (Callies) and son have vanished, and heads off towards Atlanta to find them. What he doesn’t know is that, while his family are safe, Lori is now in a relationship with Rick’s old partner, Shane (Bernthal), hiding out in the country.  Rick has first to track them down, and then figure out how to survive in a world with very little infrastructure left.

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The Rocky Horror Glee Show

First off, I have never watched an episode of Glee before this week. So for those of you as ignorant of the surprise hit Fox TV series as I am, let’s summarize. It’s about the members of a school choir in Lima, Ohio, as well as teacher Will Schuester, who runs the club (Matthew Morrison), and is about a 50/50 mix of high-school drama and musical numbers. The latter cover pretty much the gamut, from show tunes to Beyonce [sometimes even in the same number], and has become a cultural phenomenon. The show has sold 13 million digital downloads, and last year the cast had 25 songs reach the Billboard Top 100, the most by any act since the height of Beatlemania in 1964.

Still, you’ll probably also understand from that description why it wasn’t of much interest to me until last Tuesday, when the show delivered one of its themed episodes. Previous ones had included Madonna and Britney Spears (yawn…), but this one was themed on The Rocky Horror Show. Having seen more incarnations of that show than I care to think, dating back bordering on 25 years, this had to be seen. However, I had my pointy boots on, ready to administer an appropriate kicking, having accidentally stumbled open a scene where a fat black girl was playing the part of Frank N. Furter. Affirmative action at it’s most horrific? Lock and load, people.

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TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2010

It may be tied to the decline in our cinema-going, but we’re watching more TV at this point that any time I can remember. There have been occasions recently when our living-room Tivo has been unable to cope with the scheduling, as we try and record three programmes simultaneously – fortunately, there is also the bedroom DVR which can be used as a back-up. After jump, you’ll find the ten shows which have entertained us most reliably this year – unlike our 2008 listing, we’re just going in alphabetical order this time.

Note: there’s a couple of new shows in the fall season, Nikita and The Event, that have potential, but we haven’t seen enough episodes to be sure. They’ll qualify for next year’s listing (if I do one…).

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Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954: The BBC TV adaptation

Dir: Rudolph Cartier
Star: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Mitchell, André Morell, Donald Pleasence.

It’s hard to appreciate the impact the BBC adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had on the country at the time. The first of the two broadcasts, in December 1954, triggered an enormous furor, with motions proposed in Parliament criticizing “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.” When the performance was repeated the following week, needless to say, it got the biggest television audience in the country since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. [Some things don’t change!]

That was not a repeat of the original screening, as both broadcasts were largely performed live, with some filmed inserts to allow for scenery, costume, etc. changes. Fortunately, the second showing was recorded; this being the days before video-tape (which would become available a couple of years late), the process basically involved filming a TV monitor, and the resulting picture quality leaves more than a little to be desired, especially when you start watching it. However, the brain adapts, and the grainy, ghostly quality of the images eventually ceases to matter.

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One Missed Call: The TV Series

Having not exactly been impressed with the original Japanese feature film, and even less enthusiastic about the pointless and uninteresting American remake thereof, it’s no surprise the DVDs of the TV series sat on the shelf for quite some time. They’d been acquired before we saw either movie, and the prospect of sitting through the equivalent of about five more feature films of the same kind of nonsense, didn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm. However, when we eventually could be bothered to slap them in the player, we were pleasantly surprised – this Asahi television version, which came out a couple of years after Takashi Miike’s movie, is actually the best version of the bunch.

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Spartacus: Blood and Sand – Xena for adults…?

Spartacus depicts extreme sensuality, brutality and language that some viewers may find objectionable. The show is a historical portrayal of ancient Roman society and the intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period.”
— Pre-screening warning

spartacusYeah, “suggest” would be the key word. For, historically, there’s little known about the man – he falls into the same category of neo-legendary characters as Robin Hood or King Arthur. This allows artists to portray him pretty much how they want, without much chance of being proven wrong. Said creator Steven S. DeKnight, “We take the Spartacus legend, we turn it on its side, and we beat the crap out of it” and added, “While we may bend history, we try to never break it.  But I will always opt for what delivers the most dramatic impact over a strict adherence to historical fact.”

Hence the comparison of the title – a pretty loose description, but one that isn’t too far away from the truth. It’s set roughly around the same time, in the same part of the world, stars Lucy Lawless and also springs from the long-time collaboration between Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, who produced this along with Joshua Donen. But the mythical and mystical aspects, of gods and monsters, are basically absent, in favour of a much more grounded approach. And the pre-broadcast warning is entirely justified: the blood flows in digital torrents, particularly during the gladiatorial battles, the nudity is copious, and the sex too, in just about every combination possible [though we need more lesbians…]

As you might have guessed, In centers on Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), a Thracian who leads a battalion of soldiers supposedly allied with the Romans. But when he ends up inciting a mutiny, he is condemned to die in the arena, and his wife becomes a slave. However, his execution ends up in the death of the four gladiators he faces, and he is sold to Batiatus (John Hannah), who runs one of the local troupes of arena performers, who sees possibilities in the new arrival. The rough edges are hewn to fine precision under the training of Doctore (Peter Mensah), but the rising fame of Spartacus makes him an enemy in current champion Crixus (Manu Bennett). Meanwhile, Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lawless) are angling to use Spartacus’s popularity to enhance their own standing with the local nobles, who currently despise the gladiator’s owner as beneath them.

spartacus2It’s marvellously excessive soap-opera: perhaps its nearest cousin would be the WWE, with Hannah playing the role of Vince McMahon, manipulating those beneath him for his own ends, as they fight for the amusement of the masses. It’s really his show, perhaps more than Spartacus, with he and Lawless splendidly slimy and hedonistic, yet honourable on their own terms and deeply devoted to each other. It’s a bit of a shock to see the star of the Mummy films, or Four Weddings and a Funeral, dropping F-bombs and yelling “By Jupiter’s cock!” at people – though I feel life would be enhanced if we all used such colourful expletives in moments of stress. Similarly, Lawless shows a good deal more skin here than she ever did as Xena, and is wearing nicely into her forties.

In contrast, Whitfield is a little less memorable: the first episode is somewhat dull, until Batiatus shows up, and for the first half of the series, he is rather too single-minded, caring about nothing save being reunited with his wife. That’s how Batiatus gets him to agree to fight in the arena, by promising to re-unite Spartacus with his one true love. His master delivers – but in a twisted fashion that sets in motion the train of events which eventually hits the buffers in the final episode of the first season, with Spartacus’s rebellion kicking off in arterial fashion. I trust I am not spoiling this for anyone, since it’s historical fact. Whitfield does have his moments, not least when forced to battle his best-friend for the amusement of a teenage boy.

It is, however, the violence which really makes this stand out from the pack of historical TV series cluttering up the airwaves of late [hello, The Tudors]. It “glories in slaughter” (to borrow a quote from Dennis Healey about Mrs. T) in a way unmatched by any TV show I’ve ever seen, and only rarely reached by movies e.g. Shogun Assassin and Bad Taste, for my money going well past anything Eli Roth or other alleged “torture porn” directors have ever done. While it’s almost all CGI, the limb-lopping, blood-spatter and finishing moves worthy of Mortal Kombat (the game, of course) are done with deep affection and impressive style – why else bother having digital blood splashing on the camera lens?

spartacus3Morally, you could certainly argue that there, the series is on dodgy ground. It portrays slaughter as entertainment, for our entertainment: the underlying feel is “Tsk, tsk – weren’t the Romans terrible people? Now, stay tuned, as we’re going to show you just how terrible they were…” But it’s just such unashamed fun to watch. Hannah and Lawless are superb, and it’s hard to see how the second series – commissioned before the first episode had even been screened – will be able to cope without one or perhaps both of them. Which as about as much as I can say without getting seriously spoilerish.

However, there may be bigger problems. Star Whitfield was diagnosed last month with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer. It was caught early, and the prognosis for recovery is good, but it has already delayed filming, with discussion being directed towards a possible prequel series instead. That would be a shame, and I hope the disease is just another in the line of enemies soundly-defeated by our Spartacus. There’s nothing else like it on TV, and we’ll miss our weekly dose of ultraviolence until it returns.

Incredibly Bad TV Show: Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura

Regular readers will know that we’re big fans of conspiracy theories here at TC. While not necessarily believing them all – especially the all-encompassing, shape-shifting lizards from another dimension type ones – they’re like intellectual table-salt. They enhance the flavor of life, and help foster a sense of cynicism about the motives and actions of government and those in power, which is certainly extremely sensible. However, just as conspiracy theories cover the gamut from plausible to completely-loopy [though remarkably entertaining], so does coverage of them in the mainstream media range from sober, serious consideration of the possibilities to… Well, to Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura.

We should probably have got some kind of inkling from its location on Tru TV. The channel used to be known as Court TV, but changed its brand in 2008, now operating under the slogan, “Not reality. Actuality.” Going by shows such as Operation Repo, “actuality” appears to mean making stuff up and trying to give the impression it’s real.  Saying Tru TV does not have a good record for serious investigative journalism is like saying Michael Jackson had some deficiencies as a child-care provider.  But, hey, we’ll cut it some slack: after all, host Jesse Ventura remains one of the few people to crack the two-party system, during his spell as Governor of Minnesota. If there’s anyone capable of cutting through the BS, it’d be him.

Unfortunately,  any hope of a balanced look at the topics under investigation evaporates in the fiery heat of the near-hysterical approach to the subject matter. After the jump, we’ll bravely go through the entire series, episode by episode, and expose the deadly truth about Conspiracy Theory!!!! Ok, perhaps not, but after you’ve watched a few of these shows, the style does tend to rub off…

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