Out with the old and in with the new: that’s what the 2010-2011 television season should’ve been about. Instead, we saw the networks hang on to dying franchises and tired approaches, with transitioning series like Chuck and The Office banking on endless parades of guest stars instead of genuine innovation. Still, a couple of shows caught my interest this year.
The Best New Show:
The Walking Dead (Season 1)
In terms of original new programming, television experienced somewhat of a drought as the networks tried to emulate past successes with little regard to actual originality. Consider The Defenders, a blatant knock-off of Boston Legal, or The Event, which attempted to replace Lost but ended up becoming the new FlashForward instead. Then came AMC’s The Walking Dead, which surprised everyone by trying very hard to be AMC’s The Walking Dead.
I’ve already written tons about it, but allow me to share these extra thoughts: I love that The Walking Dead is adapted from a comic book in which neither capes nor tights are featured; I love that the show is forging its own path instead of re-enacting stories most fans have already read; I love that the writers are taking their sweet time, letting us get to know the characters before knocking them off; I love that, despite dealing with a zombie apocalypse, it’s managed to stay hopeful about human nature, steering clear of adolescent fatalism; and I love that I’m one step closer to convincing the world zombies would kick vampires’ butts any day of the week.
The Best Old Show:
Fringe (Season 3)
I’ve always viewed Fox’s Fringe, about an FBI team investigating the paranormal, as J.J. Abrams’ take on The X-Files. On the one hand, this interpretation allowed me to enjoy the series’ episodic nature without worrying about stuff like filler and payoff. On the other, the whole thing turned out a lot more interesting in theory than in practice, as Abrams proved too concerned with pathos, mythos, and Aramis to pull off the tonal shifts an anthology show requires.
Season three, however, is a different animal altogether, deviating from a premise that never played to the creators’ strengths in favour of classic science-fiction conceits like alternate realities and ancient doomsday devices. Through it all, the writers also explore notions of identity and moral ambiguity, always keeping the characters in the forefront. Take, for example, Walternate’s (John Noble) discourse about the difference between balance and justice. Is there more fascinating a villain than one who can both acknowledge and justify his villainy?
The One Catching On Late:
Community (Season 2)
If you’re a frequent visitor of this website, chances are you’ll fall in love with Community, which has yet to find a wide audience, owing to The Big Bang Theory cornering the same market. Tailor-made for film buffs and pop culture connoisseurs, the deconstructionist sitcom tells of a ragtag study group at Greendale Community College, though here the what matters less than the how, which changes every week as the narrative hops from genre to genre, challenging the most obscure storytelling conventions.
It took some time for Community to find its footing, but season two strikes a perfect balance between zany satire and genuine character drama. I love, for instance, what the writers have done with Pierce (Chevy Chase), whose inane cruelty turns out to mask so much pain and dysfunction that I felt ashamed for not recognising his cries for help. That the show could develop such a complex character arc in the context of zombie, dance, and Western parodies strikes me as nothing short of astounding.
The One Canucks Caught Late:
Leverage (Seasons 1 to 3)
Though it aired a few years ago on TNT, the first season premiered in Canada last summer, and I’ll freely admit the weekend marathon had me glued to the tube for twelve hours straight. For those unfamiliar with the show, Leverage tells of an eccentric group of thieves who con the rich and powerful in order to provide leverage for the little people. Think of it as Robin Hood meets Mission: Impossible with a hint of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) thrown in for good measure.
What I find most compelling about the series is the seamless way it mixes comedy and tragedy. Consider the group’s leader, Nate (Timothy Hutton), who got screwed by the system and lost his son. It may look like he’s getting some lighthearted payback, but, consumed by grief and guilt, the man is really trying to sublimate his former self, embracing the methods and people he used to stand against as an insurance investigator. As the stakes increase, so does his self-hatred, and the flashback showing his boy’s passing will tear your heart out and squish it like a sponge. Now that’s good television!