Now that the 2012-13 TV season is “officially” over, I thought I’d get some folks together and talk about a bunch of different things that happened between September and May. This is the 2012-13 season wrap roundtable.
Previously on the roundtable: Falling behind, letting go
Cory: Moving on to our second topic, let’s focus on the shows we did actually watch this season. Instead of more familiar designations like “disappointing,” “best,” or “underrated,” I was wondering what shows you folks think changed the most over the season, either good or bad? We know that television shows are fickle beasts and that ideas that seem compelling at first might crater six episodes later, while something that starts rocky can improve as time passes. Did you find any shows that traveled these different trajectories over the season? This could be rookie or veteran series.
Greg: Well, to begin with, there’s Awkward., a show that suffered from a bit of a sophomore slump last year (if you remember, it was my pick for the most disappointing show of 2012). I really cannot overstate how amazing it has been in season three. The extremely boring love triangle that plagued the latter half of season two is completely gone, replaced by the excellent character-driven comedy and compelling drama that made season one so good. But season three has actually surpassed the show’s debut season, mainly due to the development of Lacey, who during season one was (like most of Awkward.‘s adult characters) a preposterous caricature rather than a realistic human being. That’s changed, and she may be my second-favorite character on the series—next to Jenna, of course—at the moment. Some of the show’s issues with adult characters remain (Jenna’s writing teacher Mr. Hart is incredibly irritating, and Val is as annoying as ever), and every once in a while there’s a moment that rings false. But by and large, this has been a remarkable season.
On a less positive note, what is wrong with Mad Men this year? Sure, it’s had some amazing episodes (with “For Immediate Release” being one of the best installments in the show’s history). but others have been decidedly less than stellar, with the recent “The Crash” (a self-indulgent mess of an hour) being the first truly bad Mad Men episode since . . . well, maybe ever. (There have been others—including several this season—that I’m not particularly fond of, but I absolutely loathed this episode.) I’m not entirely sure what’s changed. There continues to be plenty of thematic richness, and the acting has never been better. But whereas seasons four and five—two of my favorite seasons of TV of all time—were consistently engaging, direct, and filled with narrative momentum (albeit often of the slow-paced Mad Men kind), season six has sometimes felt like the show at its most frustratingly pretentious and vague. I do mean only “sometimes,” as there have been weeks when it’s been as good as it ever was. But so far, it hasn’t taken off the way season five did with “Mystery Date,” or season four did from the very beginning. And it’s running out of time to do so.
Les: I’ll agree with Greg that Mad Men has gone a bit up its own ass this year, but I have to disagree with him that it’s frustrating. It’s still the show I enjoy watching and dissecting more than anything else on television and it’s been a profound regret that I’ve had no time to discuss or write about it this season. I thought “The Crash” was a lot of fun, between Ken Cosgrove puttin’ on the Ritz and Stan Rizzo’s beard making him impervious to pain, and highlighting just how much Don Draper’s gloss has come off. I don’t think it’s fallen too far, it’s just a reflection of the darker and more problematic time period it’s entering.
But I digress. For my pick, I think the evolution of New Girl this season was something remarkable to see. Most of us expected it to make that vaunted second season leap in quality as it was picking up a lot of steam midway through its first season, but I don’t think any of us were expecting the relationship between Nick and Jess to be such a successful focal point of that evolution. I know a lot of people talked about how they were worried that the show was going to go too heavily into the will they/won’t they territory (a topic Todd VanDerWerff expounded on in an essay earlier this year) and this season subverted those expectations by diving headfirst into it and fleshing it out over an entire season. In episodes like “Cooler,” “Quick Hardening Caulk” and “Virgins,” you got to see how this attraction was making both of them crazy—not crazy in the crazy-in-love way, but crazy in the “Oh-my-god-I-like-this-person-and-it-is-so-complicated-what-the-hell-do-I-do” kind of way—and it got some terrific comic and dramatic performances from both Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel. It quickly eclipsed the Schmidt/Cece tension, because it’s turned into that rare animal on sitcoms: a relationship that feels real, messy and human.
Plus, raise your hand if you’ve rewatched the end of “Cooler” about 30 times since. Because that kiss was awesome.
Julie: As far as shows that have changed over the course of the season, I’m putting in a vote for The Mindy Project as most improved. I stuck with the show from the beginning (and I never really *didn’t* like it), but I think the final six or so episodes were pretty great, thanks to help from some stellar guest stars, i.e. Seth Rogen, Anders Holm, and Chloe Sevingy. The show does need to do a better job of making Mindy’s workplace a little more realistic (I guess?); but I think the show is headed on the right track, and I’m hoping for a New Girl caliber second season. I know that’s aiming high.
Andrew R.: No show swung more this season than Glee. For the first handful of episodes, and coming off a fantastic third season finale, I thought Glee, while still inconsistent, could finally be entertaining again. Then Sam and Brittany got married, Sue dressed up like Nicki Minaj (watch at your own risk), the guy from Terra Nova was a gigolo, and Sue covered up for a gun being fired off in her office. Glee can still reach high highs, but they are almost all nostalgia-based, and you can only do “Don’t Stop Believing” so many times. On the plus side, Elementary grew in its first season from another CBS procedural to a fascinating, deep story, with genuinely surprising twists and two talented leads with fantastic, non-romantic chemistry.
As for shows that evolved from last season, I was in on Scandal from the beginning. I’m a big Shonda Rhimes fan, Josh Malina is always fun, and Kerry Washington and I share an alma mater (go Colonials!), and the first season was lots of fun. But this season, particularly the first half, was an all-out, bonkers, must-tweet, good time, and arguably Shonda’s best work (the other candidate, of course, being the 2002 Britney Spears-led film Crossroads). Scandal went from renewal afterthought to one of the few shows I had to watch live very early in season two, and stayed there until the quite-satisfying season finale.
On the other hand, one show I watched had such a precipitous drop I would have given up on it if it had a full 22-episode season. Comedies can’t stay on top of their game forever, and the fourth season is a relatively standard falloff point, especially with the high profile and popular creator and show runner not returning. The feel of the show was off. Characters sounded more like season one versions of themselves and previous fun jokes were driven into the ground. And I wasn’t alone in my disappointment, as the always-low ratings for the cult comedy hit new lows, yet it still will be back for a fifth season at midseason next year, and I’m sure I’ll be back with it. Still, I’ve given up on Cougar Town ever reaching back to its previous heights.
Greg: I see what you did there. (I completely disagree with you, but very clever.)
Cameron: I can name two shows that changed for the better and for the worse, and both are on NBC. How… appropriate.
Grimm‘s second season started on the most tenuous footing imaginable. Nick’s mom is in town! Juliette woke up from her coma, but she doesn’t remember Nick! But throughout the second season, Grimm showed a commitment to a concept that has mostly died in the era of serialized television and binge-watching: patience. The show slowly brought Nick, Hank, and Renard onto the same page concerning the Wesen world, and surprisingly, it has strengthened all three characters as they work in tandem while trying to hold onto their own version of “normal.” Meanwhile, though it took most of the season, the show pulled up from Juliette’s amnesia plot spectacularly. Most of this plot isolated Bitsie Tulloch with herself or with side characters, but by the time she was ready to reach out and stop Nick from killing for a woman he was manipulated into loving, the show was ready to have her back. And while Grimm continued to introduce new Wesen as Monsters of the Week, it also pushed forward with its myth-arc involving the Royal Families and Claire Coffee’s entrancing Adalind Shade. The last few episodes of season two didn’t necessarily cap off the best season of television ever, but they indicated how far the show had come since its shaky beginnings. Few shows improve that quickly, but the groundwork was laid throughout the year, which allowed Grimm to let loose a zombie apocalypse in the finale and still have honest character arcs within it.
On the other hand, Revolution is another show that started with promise: the power is out everywhere in the world! J.J. Abrams doing another hero’s journey! Eric Kripke, who created Supernatural and crafted that show’s exquisite first five seasons! But what started as “promising” turned into “cringe-inducing” after the winter break. The show still hasn’t quite figured out what to do with Tracy Spiridakos. She looks good when being a badass (and this being a Kripke-run show, everyone gets a shot at being a badass) but is somewhat unconvincing with emotion, which was a problem for the first half of the show, as the death of her father and her family clash with uncle Miles Mathison was the primary emotional hook. There’s the show’s preoccupation with mythology at the expense of character, too. Rachel Mathison is a fun character, sure, but she and Aaron have spent most of the second half of the first season wandering toward a Tower thingy so they can turn the power back on, and also Aaron is somehow responsible at some point down the line and ugh who the fuck cares I’m bored just typing this sentence. But the biggest issue with Revolution, the one it’s always had, is its complete and utter lack of interest in exploring a life without power. Instead, two characters try to turn it back on, while the rest play soldiers with each other like schoolchildren. The show has never realized what a great hook it had with its core premise; instead, it’s pre-occupied with being as stereotypical a sci-fi show as possible, and that has been to its utter detriment.
Andrew D.: Archer was lacking something this year. It was still full of great quotes and great set pieces, but it didn’t cohere the way it did in the first three seasons. Many have pointed out that this year, the stakes for their missions were laughably low, and that the low stakes were an intentional joke. But for me, the low stakes made for uninteresting and tedious missions. The conflict in many of the episodes was created by the characters’ incompetence. This has always been one source of humor, but it has been tempered by outside threats and enough reminders that, for all of the ISIS agents’ failings, they do have some spy know-how. So it makes sense that my favorite episode this year, “The Papal Chase,” had some badass Archer moments resulting from genuine danger. The show was by no means bad, but I didn’t look forward to new episodes the way I did in previous seasons.
Emma: Both The Good Wife and The Vampire Diaries just finished their fourth seasons and this appear to be where their similarities end (TVD fanfic aside), but both are shows hit a rocky spell this season.
The Good Wife decided we needed to meet Kalinda’s ex-husband Nick and this storyline was so terrible and so widely hated that they cut it short (thankfully). Showrunners Michelle and Robert King admitted that the storyline didn’t work the way they intended and it’s always refreshing to see the creative force acknowledging when something hasn’t worked. Other early season issues included another bankruptcy plot (saved by Nathan Lane’s wonderful guest star turn), a lack of Cary, and the misuse of Maura Tierney. Luckily, this was just a blip and the rest of the season went in an unexpected direction. After all the Nick nonsense was wrapped up and the conflicts within the firm increased, it felt like it was back to its best. The way the season ended means that when we return for season five the landscape of the show will be very different. I’m so excited for Florrick, Agos, and Associates.
The Vampire Diaries sticky spot can be summed up by two words: sire bond. When season three ended with Elena becoming a vampire, it seemed like the boldest, craziest, best move for the show. Instead, it turned Elena into a mess, her ability to make choices was taken away, and it sent the central live triangle further towards annihilation. The love triangle has never been something I’ve been all that bothered by with TVD, but the way it was handled by taking away Elena’s agency ended up making both shippers and non-shippers alike annoyed at the lack of conviction in who Elena chose thanks to the sire bond. Things did pick up and there was the fun spell of no humanity Elena. That of course ended and the season finale has laid out some potentially interesting (if not a little silly) stories for next year. As long as Caroline remains awesome then I’m happy.
In terms of comedy like Julie I would say that Mindy is most improved and I also have high hopes that it will get better next season (like New Girl did). Also, I’d like to thank Les for linking to the video from Cooler, just because.
Sabienna: I went into season two of Once Upon A Time hopeful that it would continue to pick up the momentum that began with season one’s superb outing “Hat Trick.” The final run of episodes in the series’ freshman year hinted at a richer, more fulfilling version of Once Upon A Time, and for a while, season two seemed poised to continue the maturation process—then nothing happened. I mean that literally. Season two set up a good dozen plot points—Snow’s black, black heart, the dwarfs’ magical bean farming expedition, that accursed prophecy, the return of Cora—that never really went anywhere. Even the eleventh hour introduction of Tamara and Greg, the most nonthreatening big bads in television history, amounted to little more than a round of shock therapy treatment for Regina and an aborted attempt to erase Storybrooke from the map (oh dear TV gods, why couldn’t that have worked?).
By the time the finale rolled around, I honestly had no idea if there was a point to anything that came before. But on the upside, we’re going to Neverland next season (because why not!) and Michael Raymond-James is going to be a series regular. Maybe this will be the year they realize 65 iterations of the same Regina tries to kill Snow does not a coherent series make, but if not, at least there’s an evil Peter Pan and more of Raymond-James’ swagger to look forward to.
Noel: My choice is a bit bizarre, but it’s Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Its first 13 episodes, which wrapped up in May of 2012, were something of middling crapshoot. It got better as it went along, but never really differentiated itself as anything but a generic-y space action show that just happened to have some Green Lanterns in it. The second half, which started started in September 2012, aired two episodes and then took a hiatus until January (don’t ask), was just leaps and bounds better than the episodes that came before it.
Storytelling had tightened considerably as it shifted to a more serialized mode of storytelling, but its real strength was its willingness to keep pulling the rug out from under its audience. Razer and Aya, the only two characters who didn’t feel like cardboard cutouts, suffered a break in their tentative, star-crossed relationship (he’s a humanoid alien, she’s a humanoid android), she died, came back to life, and became the Big Bad of the season when she assumed control of the Anti-Monitor, one of the most power entities in the DC Universe. It was dark (though not as dark as Legend of Korra from last summer) and shockingly emotional, especially the finale. If you had told me that this series would’ve made me sniffle and drop a tear or two into my oatmeal on a sunny Saturday morning, I would’ve laughed in your face.
Eric: I think the show that has actually swung the most this season (for both good and ill) has been How I Met Your Mother. The eighth season was like a Bell Curve—the beginning wasn’t great, but was completely redeemed by “The Final Play,” one of the smartest storytelling decisions the writers on that show have made since season two. I know most people don’t love the bait-and-switch the HIMYM team is so fond of, but “The Final Play” was a great retroactive justification for and comment on some of the drawn-out stuff from the first half of the season, and Ted and Robin seemed to have finally, finally resolved their shit. There were a few pretty solid episodes from there (I’m a sucker for “P.S. I Love You”) and we finally saw The Mother. But then we found out the last season would take place over the course of a weekend and everything crashed again. Blech.
Kerensa: Hands down, this goes to New Girl. It started out as a show that I gave up on in its first season but casually began watching again towards the end, so I decided to stick with it going into season two. And it has never let me down. Honestly, most of the time it has completely surpassed my expectations. It’s been delightful to watch Jess evolve from a potentially problematic one-note lady into a complex and interesting character. Like every other American woman, have completely fallen in love with Nick Miller. It’s a show that I have become so completely invested in; it’s one of the only shows I consistently kept up with all season.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Mad Men. It’s a show that I still love but begrudgingly sometimes. As of late, its highs are really high, like this week’s episode and Betty being amazing. But then there are episodes like “The Crash” and I have to really question on what level Matthew Weiner is trolling us on. I also remember that there was subtlety and nuance that the show had when exploring it’s themes and now they’ve just become so overt at times that it’s just laughable. And I can’t deal with all these Don whorehouse flashbacks. It’s too much.
Heather: Another vote for New Girl. As others have mentioned, this show so completely shifted that it felt like an entirely different series from its first season. I barely managed to get through two episodes from season one; New Girl became one of my few must-watch programs this year. It’s managed to find a lovely balance of quirky humor (badgers in air ducts, True American drinking game, Tuggb Romney, lionfish) and heartfelt moments. One of my favorites of the season was the hot air balloon scene between Nick and Schmidt at their Tin Party, post Cece/Shivrang engagement. The silliness was paused, and the two friends had an actually friendship moment—honesty, transparency, emotions. The characters became less like caricatures this season; they discovered things about themselves that viewers can relate to: Cece realizing she wants kids, Jess accepting her feelings for Nick, Nick desiring to be more “adult” for the sake of Jess. It was all so so good.
Wesley: For me, no show was more unsatisfying and whiplash-y than The Vampire Diaries. I think I knew the quality would drop with Kevin Williamson shirking all responsibilities. Heck, last season wasn’t great and he was still around for part of that. Still, I underestimated just how badly Julie Plec could fuck things up. From turning Elena into a vampire, to creating the sire bond (emotions can sometimes trigger magic, you guys!), to offing Jeremy and all things Silas related, this season was an utter mess. At a certain point, after I realized that the quest for the cure was not going to be an arc but rather two poorly plotted episodes, I started watching solely for Claire Holt. As the show around her got worse and worse, Holt got better and better. This bodes well for The Originals where both she and Joe Morgan are headed next fall, but it makes me depreciatively less interested in the mothership.
Cory: When you wait until the end to respond to these things, most of the great points are already made, so I’ll briefly note that I agree about New Girl’s progression and some of the disappointment with shows like Glee and The Vampire Diaries. But to mix in some different shows, I think my perception of Boardwalk Empire really solidified this season after another run of rope-a-dope and satisfying storytelling. This was the year that I started to fully comprehend the show’s rhythms—lots of disparate stories at the beginning, a sudden rush of thrilling conclusions at the end—and I think I appreciated the previous seasons in retrospect. The show still has a number of problems, mostly due to the sheer number of characters and stories in-play at once, and it will never offer the kind of thematic complexity and depth that folks might crave, but it is very, very good at what it does and has somehow become a little underrated as a result.
On the other side, it’s worth mentioning the rapid descent of shows like The Following and Revenge. There’s no real reason to keep piling on Revenge, but it was clear by the first few episodes that the story wasn’t going to progress without a lot of additional bloating. The Following is a tricky case because it was problematic from the jump. Yet, the pilot is still probably the show’s best episode and as the story progressed, there wasn’t much of a story at all. For a show supposedly built on shocking moments, The Following quickly devolved into a boring, turgid formula based on the illusion of surprise and a whole lot of violence.
Images courtesy of AMC, The CW, and Fox.