6 lessons I learned from TV in 2013

Here's what this year's viewing taught me about race on TV, the importance of a great partner and more

Published December 30, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

  (Fox/Brownie Harris)
(Fox/Brownie Harris)

Hopefully, you didn't come here expecting a comprehensive, critical appraisal of the year in television because, man, it has been a long year! Can you imagine the time and retention it would take to consume and parse 2013's entirety of offerings across network and cable? I loves me some TV, but, like any fan, I have my pop culture blind spots (e.g., I've never seen an episode of "Homeland"). Then there are shows that, for me, have run their course. And there are others that I enjoyed early in the year and then promptly forgot about as they went on hiatus. (Forgive me, "Veep," you are awesome. )

No matter how many hours I've logged on the couch in front of the 50-inch grinning wanly through this comedically anemic season of my beloved "Parks and Recreation" or at the keyboard detailing episodes of "The Walking Dead," as the year comes to a close, I only feel qualified to give you an amorphous and subjective overview of my myriad impressions. Rather than a Year-End list or a Best Of, let's call it "What I Learned From TV 2013."

  1. Race plays, so play the race card. This season, both "Boardwalk Empire" and "American Horror Story: Coven" mined specific periods in America's ongoing troubled history of racial tension with great success. In a fairly sophisticated story gambit, "Boardwalk" explored the conflicts between different strata of blacks within a larger context of corruption. "Coven" went full camp, pitting an outspoken voodoo priestess against a witchy white diva over each woman's claim to the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials. To literally top it off, the show gave us a headless, resurrected slave owner tortured for past sins by being forced -- ironically -- to watch blacks on television.
  2. Cable hasn't cornered the market on antiheroes. Much fuss has been made over television's dark protagonists -- Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Dexter. Love 'em or hate 'em -- usually both, which is kind of the point -- most of these ethically challenged leads live, breathe, and brood on cable. But while network TV's antiheroes still look decidedly more like heroes, they're getting more Byronic every year. This season on "Elementary," Sherlock Holmes' unorthodox crime-solving techniques have already landed him in trouble with the NYPD. But good investigators who occasionally go rogue to collar a crook have been de rigueur since Dirty Harry, Axel Foley and beyond.  It's Holmes' increasingly unquiet struggle with addiction that makes the prickly P.I. seem truly nefarious and liable to snap at any moment. And do we even need to talk about "The Blacklist's" Raymond "Red" Reddington? The murderous, self-serving "hero" of NBC's breakout action and espionage fun-fest is most certainly a black cloak hiding underneath a white hat if ever there was one.
  3. Sometimes you just can't force it. On two separate occasions I have mainlined multiple episodes of ABC's runaway hit "Scandal" as part of my responsibilities here, managing to sit through all three seasons in something like three to four days total. I assumed that, as a sort of byproduct of binging, I might develop a taste for the program and maybe catch the gladiator fever that had already spread nationwide. That is definitely not what happened. If anything, I can say that I have learned to appreciate the fertile imaginations of Shonda Rhimes and her staff for fearlessly generating one outrageous twist after another. But for me, it doesn't go down easy. And what is there to do about it other than switch channels and apply any number of appropriate, well-worn sayings? Know thyself, to each his own, not my cup of tea -- that is until "Scandal" resumes next year and I am called upon to weigh in once again.
  4. Call Raymond -- second-best won't do. A while back, NBC's "Parenthood" enlisted television veteran Ray Romano to add a curmudgeonly element to Sarah Braverman's already complicated love life. Romano's and Lauren Graham's characters are no longer romantically involved -- only a sadist would root for that rekindling -- but Romano's arc is hopefully far from over. As a picture of flawed fathering, his searching, fretting Hank Rizzoli tweaks the "Parenthood" formula in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Less than halfway through its first season, CBS's "The Crazy Ones" brought in Romano's 6-foot-8 counterpart on "Everybody Loves Raymond," Brad Garrett, presumably to spruce things up on the sitcom. While Garrett's dry, gay account exec Gordon Lewis was likely intended to counterbalance Robin Williams' frenetic Simon Roberts, the result was an overdose of oversized personalities. "The Crazy Ones" is a decent, well-fronted comedy with a strong supporting cast that just needs time to find its footing; no need to pile on.
  5. Choose your partners wisely, whether they be sex partners, cops or robot cops. I've written at length in this space about how and when Showtime's new "Masters of Sex" underperforms. Among other problems, this tonally awkward offering suffers from a nearly complete absence of palpable chemistry between the two leads. Lizzy Caplan, who practically threw off sparks bantering with Adam Scott on "Party Down," seems actually daunted by Michael Sheen's mostly inert libido. While "Sleepy Hollow" has become much mired in impenetrable plot, such is the lovable connection between Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Lieutenant Abby Mills (Nicole Beharie) that I make it a point of tuning into the first 10 minutes of each episode just to watch them quip at each other. No matter how convoluted the show becomes, if that rapport remains, hope lives. As for Fox's leaden "Almost Human," I can't tell which character frustrated me more during the sci-fi procedural's inaugural season -- Karl Urban's predictably gruff, technophobic knockoff of Will Smith in "I, Robot" or his remarkably self-aware, wholly uninteresting android partner.
  6. Sometimes you have to let go. I'm not just talking about coping with the end of "Breaking Bad." A great many of us will certainly be fielding sad, meth-fueled flashbacks for years to come, but at least that was a glorious passing. This year, I had to let go of "How I Met Your Mother" forever, for its hijinks leading up to the much-heralded series finale have become too banal to bear, its canned laughter too… well, necessary. Take heart, fellow former fans; it will be over soon. As far as "Sons of Anarchy," this will not be its last season, and so I have time to catch up. But if the biker drama continues to barrel down its current, implausible, inconsistent lane, I'm not getting back on the highway.

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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