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.

American Horror Story
We had some catching up to do, having missed the first season when it aired last year, and centred on a house with a long history of murder, inhabited by a family of three – and all the people who had died in it previously. The second season is even more disturbing, taking its horror from the realm of the supernatural back to the evil that men (and women) do, set in a 1964 insane asylum, ruled over by a seriously-twisted nun and even more insane Doctor. Jessica Lange, as the former, fully deserved the Emmy she won, and James Cromwell… Well, Babe will never seem the same again.

The Aquabats Super Show!
They’ve been one of our favourite live bands for a decade now, with their mix of B-movie insanity and ska-punk pop tunes as infectious as Ebola, and they’ve wanted to get their own superhero TV show for even longer. Finally, The Hub – also home to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – gave them a shot, and the result is a brilliantly deadpan slice of fun for all ages (such as the TARDIS-like van, infinitely bigger on the inside). The production values are deliberately cheap and shoddy, but there’s an enormous and obvious affection for everything from Japanese monster flicks to Saturday morning cartoons.

Being Human (UK)
This took its own time to make the list, having got through three seasons of spectral, lycanthropic and vampiric angst without troubling any of my lists. However, the fourth season saw two of the trio replaced. Much as we had enjoyed Russell Tovey’s performance as previous werewolf George, the chemistry of the new household was a great deal better (and less whiny, it has to be said), while the storylines, too, seemed to have improved, with more thought put into them. It remains, however, really confusing to be watching this and the US version simultaneously, with characters and plot threads getting mixed-up in our poor old heads…

The Borgias
Not the British series, which still is widely regarded as among the worst of all-time [I don’t remember it as being that bad. Mind you, I was 15, and likely couldn’t see past all the tits. Minor factoid: watched some of it being filmed at Doune Castle]. This is rather better, held together largely by a great performance from Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI in a time when popes were allowed to have a wife and expected to have a mistress. Advertised with the tagline, “The original crime family”, the Borgias were supposedly an influence on Mario Puzo when he wrote The Godfather. It’s easy to see why in this historical romp.

Covert Affairs
It’s like Spooks/MI-5, only with better teeth and hair… Piper Perabo is perkily perfect CIA operative Annie Walker, jet-setting around the world, looking for intelligence in all the wrong places. But what initially looks to have about as much substance as a tanker of candy-floss, proves surprisingly steely, with no shortage of mayhem, betrayal and treachery. It also gets bonus points for re-introducing us to one of the best TV villainesses of recent years, Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) a.k.a. the woman who shot Mrs. Jack Bauer. Needless to say, we didn’t trust her, from the moment she showed up here, as department head Lena Smith.

This started the same week as another fairy-tale themed series, Once Upon a Time, and we opted for the grittier approach taken here, with a cop who discovers he is descended from a long line of monster hunters. He has to sort out the good from the bad in the communities that lurk just beneath the surface, and also try to keep his personal life personal. In the second season in particular, that has become increasingly impossible, and the show has also improved beyond being just a “fairy-tale of the week,” which it looked like it might be early on. It now has depth and a universe of its own in which to work.

Claire Danes also won a well-deserved Emmy, for her role as damaged CIA intelligence analyst Carrie Mathison, who becomes convinced that Nicholas Brody, a returning rescued POW from Iran, has been turned and is now a sleeper agent for the terrorists, despite being on the fast political track. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that she’s basically right: but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as she tries to convince her bosses that these are not just psychotic delusions, because she’s off her meds. And is Brody necessarily the bad guy he initially appears? Can he perhaps be turned into a useful asset?

This is a guilty pleasure, a sprawling soap-opera which sees millionairess “Amanda Clarke” move to the Hamptons. Except, as the quotes suggest, that’s not her real identity: she is out for complete and utter vengeance on the family responsible for branding her late father a terrorist, and having him killed. #1 with a bullet is Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), her father’s former lover, who betrayed him and is now reaping the rewards. Stowe is deliciously malevolent, and there are just so many shenanigans going on here, that you can only snuggle up on the couch with ice-cream, and enjoy the class warfare as it unfolds.

Kiefer Sutherland’s post-24 show on Fox is a lot more touchy-feely, with Sutherland playing a former journalist with a severely autistic son, Jake, who doesn’t speak, but seems to have an incredible awareness for numbers and the interconnectedness of things. That allows him to bring people together – but also makes the kid a potentially very useful commodity [if you’ve seen Pi, you’ll know why]. It’s a novel mix of the emotional (almost spiritual) with thriller elements, and the first season ended with Jack, sorry, Martin going on the run with Jake, after losing a custody battle. Interested to see how things develop, when it returns in February.

YouTube video

After a couple of seasons where the show was content largely to mimic the most famous of London crimes e.g. the Ripper (inevitably!) and the Krays, the third went for more original ground and was a good deal more successful as a result. It manages to find the sweet spot between characterization and cases, which is often difficult for police procedurals – most tend to concentrate on one or the other. Not to say that this is staid or even slightly plausible, however; instead, it is played with all the enthusiasm and loopy imagination of a Victorian “penny dreadful”, and is all the more fun for it.

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

Falling Skies
This tale of life after an alien invasion took a while to get going, but proved to be worth sticking with. Gradually we learn more about the ETs, their abduction of children and “harnessing” of the kids, which has both physical and psychological effects. There’s a chilling plausibility to much of this too; one suspects any actual alien invasion would probably result in humanity getting its collective arse kicked, rather than some kind of Independence Day triumph. Occasionally get a little too religious, though you get past that with a little rolling of eyes. Curious to see where they go in Series 2.

An Idiot Abroad
Debated continues to rage in TC Towers are to whether Karl Pilkington is real or a comic creation, played with deadpan seriousness. That’s been the case since we were first aware of him on The Ricky Gervais Show, and Idiot leaves the question unresolved. It’s a wonderfully funny counterpoint to the suggestion that travel broadens the mind, though Karl is thrown in at the deep-end of foreign culture and shows himself to be remarkably game, e.g. eating things that would certainly not pass my lips. So: genuine idiot or Borat-like character? The jury remains out on that one.

Law and Order: UK
I never bothered with the many US versions of the show, e.g. Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, etc. but have thoroughly enjoyed this one, even if the stories are largely reworked American episodes. There’s something uniquely British about the rhythms on view, and in particular, Bradley Walsh as cheerfully-reformed alkie DS Brooks. At its best – and it usually is – it’s smart yet emotional drama that really drives home the minefield negotiated by those in charge of striking the balance between law and justice. as well as the difference in those two concepts.

Funnily enough, I’ve written more – lots more – about this one on, and it remains the best action heroine show on TV, even though it’s now buried on the least-watched network (The CW) on a Friday night, where shows go to die. It’s a different take to the previous TV version, with Nikita here having quit her former quasi-governmental employers, “Division”,and now seeks to destroy them, with the help of both internal and external allies. The best fight scenes on TV, and the best selection of strong female characters, especially in Season 2, where Division has an anti-Nikita in charge.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
After the success of the first series, a second was commissioned, but the diagnosis of star Andy Whitfield with cancer put that on ice. While he underwent treatment, the makers went for a prequel, which retained most of the other aspects, e.g. John Hannah yelling “By Jupiter’s cock!” We also got Jaime Murray, best-known here for playing slutty psycho Lila on Season 2 of Dexter, demonstrating her range here by playing Gaia, a psycho slut. Her end in both was pretty messy, and the series single-handedly demolishes the idea of Rome being the birthplace of civilization. Sadly, Whitfield died in September, so has been recast for the show’s return next year.

Strike Back
It’s like Spooks/MI-5’s cruder big brother, with  all the gratuitous violence, swearing and rampant nudity you could want, and more than a hint of 24, with MI-6 agents Michael Stonebridge and Damian Scott kicking terrorist arse from India to Budapest [we can only speculate who would win, if Stonebridge and Jack Bauer had a fight]. Somewhat confusingly, the British Stonebridge is played by a Yank, and the American Scott by an Aussie. It’s one of two UK/US co-productions on the list – this seems to be the wave of the future, allowing for British talent to receive enhanced production values. 

Where have we been the last six seasons? How did we miss this? Chris just stumbled across an episode by chance; she was on the phone to me, and the conversation was peppered from her end with “What the fuck?” and “Holy shit!” It plays kinda like a cross between Buffy and The X-Files, with brothers Sam and Dean Winchester criss-crossing the country to take on occult evils of one form or another. While it’s not exactly impenetrable – we’ve figured out what’s going on without much difficulty – we’re waiting for the show to appear on Netflix streaming so we can catch up on the previous 100+ episodes

Torchwood: Miracle Day
Another US/UK co-production, we were concerned how this one would work out, and after some early stumbles, it meshed the obvious nods to the American audience, e.g. Mekhi Phifer with the essential British aspects (Gwen and Captain Jack) pretty well. Certainly, every penny was up on screen, and there was no toning down for a global audience. Indeed, we could have done without an entire episode basically being devoted to showing exactly how gay Harkness was [the omni-sexual approach from the UK series seemed more appropriate]. If not quite Children of Earth, not bad.

The Walking Dead
I covered the series last December, but am pleased to report it has kept up its quality and remains the most intense horror series presently on television. The second season is now under way with the dwindling band of survivors abandoning the city after their trip to CDC headquarters in search of centralized survivors didn’t quite go as planned. However, we’ve currently got one child missing and another shot accidentally, as well as all the zombies. Almost as good is this parody, which you wonder why no-one apparently thought of previously.

A truly guilty pleasure, watching people struggle their way through an impossible obstacle course, where failure is not an option – it’s the only option. Reminiscent of a hardcore version of MXC, complete with two presenters whose deadpan asides definitely enhance the viewing pleasure. I could go on about the program being a showcase for the indefatigable strength of the human spirit in the face of obstacles, but truth be told,. there’s really nothing funnier than watching people get whacked in the face, falling off things, and cartwheeling down into muddy ponds. Hey, don’t just take my word for it…

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

A teenage girl goes missing, and her corpse is found in the trunk of a car belonging to the campaign of a Copenhagen mayoral candidate. But the main difference between the show and just about every other police procedural on TV – not that, as we’ll see, Forbrydelsen is simply this – is its pacing. Normally, a case gets opened, investigated and closed in a single episode, which means you gallop through clues, suspects, red herrings and solutions in 45 or so minutes. Not so here, where the crime is painstakingly investigated over twenty 55-minute episodes. Police attention at various times targets the victim’s classmates,  a teacher, the candidate, her secret boyfriend, and it looks bleak for each of them in turn.

But this aspect is only maybe one-third of the show. Just as important is the depiction of the family’s grief, as they go through the process of burying their daughter, and trying to come to terms with the unexpected lightning-bolt that has struck their family. An aspect almost entirely buried in other genre shows, is depicted here in unflinching detail. The parents (played with an aching level of intensity by Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, right) are damaged, on a very core level: he sets out for revenge on a suspect, she is even more unable to cope.

The political angle centres on candidate Troels Hartmann (Lars Mikkelsen), who finds his aspirations of office potentially derailed – rightly or wrongly – by his proximity to the case, and who has his own secrets, irrelevant to the case, which it may end up exposing. His attempts to keep his campaign rolling, in an atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue, are another  key facet, as alliances are formed and destroyed, while loyalties are tested (and often found wanting). Albeit it’s one that may pose confusing problems to the overseas viewer, unaware of the internal machinations of Danish politics. Is there any difference between the “Liberals” and the “Moderates”? Can we get some kind of scorecard?

The focus, however, is Sophie Lund (Sofie Gråbøl – it rhymes with “trouble”), who is up there in the pantheon of great female TV detectives, alongside Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison,, Cagney and Lacey? She is fully committed to the task at hand, even though it starts on what was supposed to be her final day on the job, before moving with her son and boyfriend to Sweden. However, something about the case resonates with her, and she puts everything aside, pursuing the truth with admirable determination and tenacity. While her bosses may believe the truth has been found, she won’t stop picking away, until all the layers of misdirection have been erased.

It would have been easy for the show to fall into the standard “female police officer” clichés: sexual tension with a colleague, struggling to balance work and family life, etc. However, the show doesn’t bother with either: Lund is so single-mindedly devoted to the task as hand, as to be a borderline sociopath. She doesn’t so much deal with people, as tolerate them, and in that way resembles the other Scandinavian heroine of recent note, Lisbeth Salander. There are some exceptions – Lund does have more sympathy for the victim’s family than some of her colleague, trying to keep them informed when it might be best not to. On the whole, though, as her son notes, she’s more comfortable dealing with the dead, and as the series progresses, her isolation from those around her becomes near-complete.

I also have to mention her Faroese sweater, a swatch from which (or a Lund-alike) is at the top of this piece. It’s almost a character in itself: just like Colombo’s grubby raincoat.  We expressed concern when it was badly wounded by a knife-wielding attacker (with no sense of dress sense), and were pleased to see that it made a full recovery, and was back, good as new, in later episodes.

Then there’s Meyer,  the man who will replace her – just as soon as Lund leaves, which gets postponed more often than a James Cameron release date. He initially seems a bit of a dick, an abrasive ‘bad cop’, but there are moments where his humanity shows through, such as his wife turning up at the police station bearing bananas and his fibre pills. He has his moments too, and by the time we reached the final few episodes, we were warming to Meyer, and his odd loyalty to Lund, even as she ploughs on her own trail, without as much as the courtesy of bothering to inform him of her intentions.

The show originally came out in early 2007 and was a huge hit in Denmark – one-third of the entire population watched the final episodes. The BBC bought the rights, but despite its success, both at home and elsewhere in Europe, hadn’t screened it. The success of Wallander, and I suspect, word of of a US remake (more on which below), eventually convinced them to show it, albeit buried on BBC Four. It became an unexpected hit there: unlike most shows, the ratings actually grew over the course of its airing, in 10 double-eps, reaching over 600,000 for the finale, compared to less than 450,000 for its debut. To put that into context, it’s higher than Mad Men on the same channel. The BBC will be screening the second series later this year, and we can’t wait: we’ll need to find something to fill the the gap in our televisual schedule. Spiral sounds promising.

Gråbøl may be slightly familiar, if you have an encyclopaedic memory for obscure European movies. If so, you may recall a 1997 Ewan McGregor film, Nightwatch, playing a student who takes a job as a night watchman at a morgue, only to be implicated as a serial killer. It was a remake of a Danish film of the same name, three years previously, which I saw at the time. Gråbøl was the student’s girlfriend – Patricia Arquette in the remake. S’funny how, 17 years later, she is now involved in another Danish crime thriller deemed worthy of a remake for the America market, with AMC now screening their version of the story, with Mireille Enos taking on Gråbøl’s role. as “Sarah Linden”. We rewatched it recently, and it’s just…wrong seeing her a) young, b) blonde and c) generally happy.

We’ve been watching that as well, and it’s solid if entirely unnecessary. This version does compact the story down, into 13 x 45-minute episodes, relocating it from Copenhagen to Seattle, and thus far has increased the “political shenanigans” angle, which is probably my least favorite aspect. There is certainly potential for confusion: at one point, Lund discovers a crucial piece of evidence hidden in a globe. We wondered why she was going back in there, until we realized that it was Sarah Linden we’d seen find evidence there – something which happened in Week 3 of the US version, took place about ten episodes later in the Danish version.

We’re curious to see if they change who the killer is in the AMC series – executive producer Veena Sud told said, “We are kind of diverging and creating our own world, our world of suspects and, potentially, ultimately who killed Rosie Larsen.” Maybe they can then sell it back to Denmark?