Best of 2010
Slide show: Killer zombies, glorious "Mad Men," Zach Galifianakis -- the shows that blew our minds this year
There’s an odd subculture of aficionados out there who adore any flavor of comedy that reminds them of their all-time favorite things: Monty Python, “Office Space,” “Caddyshack” and anything with Bill Murray or Chevy Chase in it. This crowd loves deeply unambitious characters prone to self-defeating or nihilistic asides, who nonetheless develop unexpectedly passionate responses to particular stimuli: “Star Wars,” “Aliens,” puppy parades, cliques of mean girls, wheelchairs you control by blowing into them, etc. For those who feel ambivalent about the mainstream way of life — and really, who doesn’t? — NBC’s “Community” is the holy grail of televised comedy. Here you have a handful of misfits, lumped together by fate, bravely facing two years in a mediocre, infantilizing institution of always-trying-to-get-higher learning. “Community” adeptly conjures all of the charms of its influences, from the clueless confusion and farcical antics of Chevy Chase’s Pierce to the idiot-savant buddy routine of Abed and Troy. Like its predecessors, “Community” is less about actual jokes than it is about the giddy anything-goes mentality that pervades the uneasy crossroads of idealism, skepticism and really good marijuana. After all, when you combine a healthy suspicion toward the straight world with lots of high-quality pot, what do you get? a) A deadly zombie virus spreading across Greendale; b) the discovery of a spiritually uplifting trampoline on a secret corner of campus, c) extended emotional fallout from a thieving, pen-hoarding monkey living in the school’s venting system; or d) all of the above? The answer is d — and somehow, “Community” makes “all of the above” work like never before.
You probably could’ve bet that Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s tale of prohibition-era Atlantic City would land in the year’s top 10 shows without watching a single episode, and to be sure, the HBO series’ stunning photography, gorgeous costumes, elaborate sets and fine cast haven’t disappointed. Even though this story of American ambition and corruption has taken some time to pick up steam, over the course of the first season it’s ripened into a dynamic, imaginative narrative about the complicated compromises of the American dream. However an unusual leading man Steve Buscemi may be, he has a way of reflecting every wave of resignation and regret in his big, watery eyes that makes us feel real empathy for Nucky Thompson. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) has developed from ambivalent sidekick to a compassionate but at times vicious antihero whose good intentions can’t save him from his worst impulses. And best of all, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) has transformed from abused wife to respected leader, struggling palpably with the ethical implications of her role while taking undeniable pride in her apparent talents. In its first season, the drama posed one central question: Can you sell a small piece of your soul to ensure your own survival, but preserve the rest and avoid spiraling downward into utter selfishness and depravity? The answer appears to be no, but we’re sure to learn more, in cinematically stunning form, as this provocative series matures. Considering the dearth of smart dramas on the small screen this year, “Boardwalk Empire” could be half as good and we’d still watch it. Luckily, though, HBO has backed a historical tale with loads of style, suspense and dark wit, and with scenes so cinematically rich, it can make a night out at the movies feel downright obsolete.
While most comedies these days cater to the misfits and losers of the modern landscape, “30 Rock” demonstrates how easily the vainglorious narcissist, the deluded misanthrope and the self-defeating neurotic alike can transform their so-called personality flaws into gainful employment. Maybe part of “30 Rock’s” buoyant, upbeat tone lies in this central notion, that even confused human beings whom you’d assume might become shut-ins or convicted felons find their ways to small victories each and every day, whether these victories involve securing the perfect pair of jeans, crafting an elaborate scam to rip off Carvel Ice Cream, or undermining the political campaign of an enemy of their television network. And who knew that when Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) forged a fragile friendship on the set of TGS four years ago, it would transform into one of the most odd partnerships to grace the half-hour comedy world? Just as Lemon continues to enthrall us with her utter patheticness as a human being, Jack wows us with his executive-level survival instinct, from his pitches for new reality shows (“We put a bunch of people on a plane, fly them over the Atlantic, then Tom Bergeron comes out and reveals that the pilot is a 6-year-old boy! We call it ‘Child Hell Flight’!”) to his competitive streak (“I have to talk to Rachel Maddow. Only one of us can have this haircut”) to his occasional admissions of fallibility (“Sexual performance issues? That does happen to men. I’ve faced it myself, with Greta Van Susteren, before her head transplant”). Although shows as smart and funny as this” usually don’t stay smart and funny for all that long, “30 Rock” has beaten the odds, rather spectacularly, for the fifth season in a row.
“Men of a Certain Age”
While that title may sound, to actual men of a certain age, about as appealing as “Your Prostate and You” or “Colonoscopy Time!,” TNT’s understated drama about middle-aged men manages to explore the indignities of aging through the comforting lens of old friendships. Like the title itself, these stories are both fearlessly ordinary and daringly depressing, from Joe’s struggles with gambling in the wake of his divorce to Terry’s nonexistent acting career and halfhearted flings to Owen’s failed attempts to gain some respect from his father (who’s also his boss at the car dealership). Luckily, show creators Ray Romano and Mike Royce lean into the pathos and the humor in every story, buoying each scene with the sorts of heartbreaking, absurd details that make us sigh and chuckle at ourselves in real life. Slowly, we discover the dark ironies of these men’s choices: Terry hates planning anything in advance, but lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty as a result; Joe’s son blames himself for everything, when Joe figures all that stuff is his fault instead; Owen volleys between shame and pride, mirroring his father’s warmth and withdrawal. These are the sorts of smart contradictions that transform quirky characters into fully imagined, familiar, larger-than-life figures that stay with us when an episode is over. Of course, the great acting helps; Andre Braugher, Scott Bakula and Romano reveal the weight of each scene without detracting from the drama’s diligent realism. More than anything, though, “Men of a Certain Age” demonstrates just how moving and entertaining an ordinary show about ordinary life can be.
That said, not every grumpy, divorced middle-aged man with kids spends his time having heartfelt talks and come-to-Jesus moments. Some of them just whine about how old and fat and disgusting they’ve become while eating potato chips on the couch. Some of them complain about how annoying and inconvenient their children are, mostly hoping that such talk with get them laid by the single mom whose children are also annoying and inconvenient. Whether all of this sounds funny or repugnant is a matter of taste, but at the very least the grumpy, the lazy and the heavily inconvenienced among us appreciate Louis CK’s unvarnished, squealing-pig approach to the midlife crisis. Considering the self-congratulatory nature of most self-titled shows, you have to applaud a man who invites Ricky Gervais onto his show, just to play a sadistic doctor friend who a) tortures Louie by diagnosing him with life-threatening afflictions, b) demands to examine Louie, then calls his “the worst penis I’ve ever seen in my life,” and c) refers to Louie as “a collection of broken organs mashed into a big, sweaty ginger skin sack.” This show turns negativity and self-effacement into an extreme sport — but really, so does middle age itself. Kudos to Louis CK for bravely throwing himself onto the altar of aging, decline and despair, so that we all might go forth feeling a little less mediocre and disgusting.
“Parks and Recreation”
Who could’ve guessed that a half-hour comedy around small-town government officials could be this brilliant? Aside from a steady stream of great moments from Amy Poehler as deputy parks director Leslie Knope, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” really hit its stride in its second season, from the best-ever episode about a visit by corrupt officials (including “SNL’s” Fred Armisen) from Pawnee’s sister city in Venezuela to another where Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) offers a barrage of ideas on slashing the city budget (“Sell the zoo animals.” “To whom?” “Cosmetics labs. Weird restaurants. I’m just spitballin’ here”). And you never want to miss any episode that features a public meeting. When Leslie announces that the city’s parks will be closed until further notice, one woman stands up and says, “School is out in two weeks. What am I going to do with my kids all day? Keep them in my house? Where I live?” Unexpected laugh-out-loud moments like that are what makes “Parks and Recreation” one of the most underrated sitcoms on TV.
“Mad Men” will rank among the best TV shows of the next decade, not just the best of this year, because it’s a drama that dares to offer us all of the intelligence and symbolic layers of a great novel. If Matthew Weiner has an unsavory habit of talking about “Mad Men” like it’s Shakespeare, so be it — a cursory glance at the rest of the skin-deep cops-and-lawyers puppet shows that infect our TV screens, and we’re ready to allow Weiner a little grandiosity around his fine creation. While the show lost some momentum in its second season, its third more than made up for it with its extended deconstruction of the joys and perils of selling your soul to the company store. The end of each episode this season felt like putting down another chapter in a great book; we’re left full of questions, sure, but once we start looking for answers, a whole shadow world of meaning opens up to us. Against a backdrop of TV characters who say exactly what they mean at all times, Don Draper communicates mostly through what he doesn’t — or won’t — say. In short, “Mad Men” is simply five times smarter, funnier, more moving and more stylish than the top dramas on TV right now, but best of all, it demands a little work and thought from its audience. The pleasure of becoming so deeply engaged in Weiner’s rich, witty, dark creation is what keeps audiences coming back, week after week.
“Bored to Death”
How could you possibly make the angst and self-involvement of New York City writers and editors into an appealing half-hour comedy? By tapping into the tweaked wit of Jonathan Ames, and then casting Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis as your whiny trio of big city creatives. Still, not even loyal fans of “Bored to Death” could’ve predicted how dazzlingly odd and affecting the show could become in its second season, from Jonathan’s (Schwartzman) disastrous investigation into an S/M parlor to George’s (Danson) unexpected romance with the doctor treating him for prostate cancer. While Ray’s (Galifianakis) downward spiral into toddler-level antics are always delightful to behold (“Why are you always picking on me? I don’t procrastinate. I just like to do things later!”), it’s the philosophical conversations between Jonathan and George that are the sweet heart of this goofy gem. You wouldn’t think that talks between a blocked writer and a depressed, downsized, dope-smoking editor could be quite so affecting, but Danson and Schwartzman are brilliant at portraying the defeats and disappointments faced by a couple of insecure narcissists. By capturing the self-doubts and laziness of these underachieving elites, Ames has created a comedy that’s anything but boring.
“The Walking Dead”
A six-part dystopic zombie series really shouldn’t be any better than the wide assortment of classic zombie films available for public consumption, but somehow comic book and series creator Robert Kirkman has succeeded in serving up an enthralling and highly addictive undead spectacle for our viewing pleasure (and by “pleasure,” of course, I mean the kind of pleasure that comes from watching our hero hack a dead body to bloody bits in order to mask himself with the scent of the undead). Lead actor Andrew Lincoln, who plays former cop and zombie-apocalypse survivor Rick Grimes, has all of the gravitas and grit that you need for a man delivering lines like “All I am is a man who’s looking for his wife and son. Anybody gets in the way of that’s gonna lose.” The instant soapy elements — illicit affairs, endangered sisters, enraged racists — are kept in check by smart, spare dialogue and concise editing, plus some of the most intelligently written post-apocalyptic scenarios to date. (The fourth episode’s shift from battling apparent gang toughs to introducing a custodian whose fiercely protective instincts made him a natural leader typifies the intriguing and deeply satisfying storylines Kirkman and the other writers have dreamed up for the series.) Best of all, the show is gorgeous to behold, with memorably haunting scenes featuring undead who scatter and wander and swarm like maggots, particularly when shot from the building-top perches where survivors survey a zombie-infested Atlanta street-scape. Even if you dislike horror and gore, you shouldn’t let the stumbling corpses fool you: “Walking Dead” is one of the smartest, most original series to air this year.
In its second season, “Modern Family” continues to prove that, after a full decade of spiraling downward, the family sitcom need not be a stale and horrid thing. In fact, show creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have transformed it into a thing of great beauty, milking each absurd but eminently relatable scenario for all it’s worth. Whether Cameron is reinterpreting baby books into a sordid tales of cocaine-fueled club-hopping to save himself from dying of boredom or Manny is dreaming up unnervingly sophisticated schemes to woo his latest elementary school crush, each story on this show is packed with enough amusing back story and heated banter that it feels at once inspired and unpredictable. Best of all, the characters here are complex enough to surprise us each week with their funny but still realistic quirks, from Phil Dunphy’s sentimentality to Gloria’s brutal streak. Most of all, “Modern Family” unearths the harsh realities of being tethered to an unruly gaggle of emotionally deranged people you’re not allowed to ignore. Or, in the words of Claire to her husband, Phil, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have almost no faith in you.” We get it. We wish we didn’t, but we do.