With the last gaspings of season and series finales this week, the 2011-12 season comes to a close. And any season that gave us Homeland, Girls, a great batch of Breaking Bad, Enlightened, and what’s shaping up as a terrific run of Mad Men must be deemed a success, right? Or is the quality outweighed by the soggy awfulness of Free Agents, Two Broke Girls, The Playboy Club, and H8r (oh, let’s face it, everything on the CW except Supernatural and the attempt to bring back Sarah Michelle Gellar, who — much as I like Emily VanCamp — would have been the perfect star for Revenge, not Ringer)?
By any measure, it was an odd season, with every putative trend yielding a denial of that trend. “The network sitcom is back!”? With the arguable exception of the evolving New Girl, crap like Man Up!, mediocrities like Last Man Standing, the Whitney Cummings mini-juggernaut and the slightly-above-average Up All Night did not extend to even the prospect of a Modern Family-style ratings surge. The most foolish trend chased by the networks was in thinking a period-piece basic cable show that’s been winning Emmys — that would be Mad Men — was evidence of a desire of mass audience interest in such programming. Hello and goodbye, Pan Am and Playboy Club. And any net still clinging to the notion of launching a new Lost-style exotic adventure show with a deep mythology was, I’m relieved to say, disappointed. (Terra Nova, we hardly missed you, but memo to CBS: Sign Stephen Lang to a private-eye series with a smart show-runner and you’ll have a hit. You’re welcome.)
One heartening trend was an ever-so-slight move away from easy cynicism and toward a more hopeful, optimistic, less ironical or peevish attitude in a number of new shows. In general, I’m pretty tired of the knee-jerk equating of “dark” and “edgy” with “quality TV.” American Horror Story, for all of its clever visual and storytelling tricks, was in its black heart a deeply despairing show that made pretty much every one of its humans and its dead spirits miserable specimens. (I’m glad to see Connie Britton escape from its clutches for the promising-looking Nashville in the fall.) Boss, on Starz, would have been a better show (and as it was, it certainly wasn’t bad) had it allowed Kelsey Grammer’s Tom Kane a tad more soulfulness, a pol’s back-slapping sense of humor, and denied him more stentorian maundering (you know, the stuff that won him the Emmy), and not turned Kathleen Robertson’s Kitty O’Neill into a victim rather than further develop the scissory-sexy, witty-worldweary person she began the season by embodying.
Indeed, at this point, the edgiest thing a producer could do would be to mount a stylistically daring, well-acted show that was free of bleakness, snark, or the promise that we are being shown the corrupt underbelly of any given profession. Even though I’m not a great fan of it, Once Upon a Time exhibits a generosity of spirit I can applaud, and I’m glad it’s a success. While it comes on as a dark, edgy show, Person of Interest is another ratings hit that is actually, if you watched its progress over the season, quite open to the goodness of humanity — for what is this show really about, at bottom, if not the redemption of the wounded souls of Jim Caviezel’s Reese and Michael Emerson’s Finch, and those to whose aid they come? A Gifted Man might have been similarly uplifting in an interesting way, but something about the show took a wrong creative turn early on; perhaps that’s what star Patrick Wilson was at least in part referring to when he said the series was ultimately not what he “signed on for” in a tweet after it was canceled. And Smash: For all the carping that I and other critics did about it, there was never any doubt that creator Theresa Rebek wanted to share with network television viewers the same bursting joy for the musical-theater experience that she has felt, even if it was only Megan Hilty who occasionally came close to embodying it.
One thing the networks and cable both did well at this season? Canceling the right shows. Ninety-nine percent of the series jettisoned were good calls, and each network could have gone a few further. Had The Biggest Loser, Private Practice, and Criminal Minds all been erased, prime time would be the more invigorated for it.
The cancellation that made me the saddest, however, was of HBO’s Luck. I feel badly for the animals whose pain prompted shutting down the production, and mourn the great promise that was cut short for this David Milch-Michael Mann production. It just got better and better with each week, and looked ready to really burst forth with a second season that would have given Dustin Hoffman and a superb ensemble cast the opportunity for an adventurous second season. (And, I should add, Luck was another encouraging example of a show that avoided cheap cynicism, whose heart and mind was pure and full of love — which only made its real-life difficulties more agonizing for its makers, I’m sure.)
In their different ways, Homeland and Enlightened accomplished something very difficult to pull off: Making us care about difficult, often abrasive central characters. Claire Danes and Laura Dern portrayed women who are willful, driven, sometimes deluded, and often condescended to by the men all around them, even the ones they think they can trust. Until the recent arrival of Lena Dunham and Girls, these were television’s greatest current odd-women-out; you’d have to go back to the Helen Mirren-Prime Suspect and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback to find TV women as vividly prickly, intelligent, and brave in the face of simultaneous, tumultuous difficulties.
I’ve left out one big genre until this point: reality TV. This was the season that it hit the wall, a dead end, proved what a gleefully depraved or merely barren precinct of human endeavor it is. From H8r to the Real Housewives franchise, from the Kardashians to American Idol and The Voice, reality/competition anoints very few figures that merit any truly intriguing interest. (There are always exceptions, of course: Kelly Clarkson, I’ll follow you anywhere.) Dancing With the Stars feels played out, The Biggest Loser is a blight, and Howard Stern had better get a whole lot more cuttingly funny if he’s going to do what NBC hopes he will: Turn America’s Got Talent into something other than a show that’s more gloppily sentimental than the same network’s genealogical tear-jerker Who Do You Think You Are. But the ratings for these shows are, for the most part (you can’t keep the Kardash-clan down, apparently) no longer the mega-bursts of addictive artificial energy — the crystal meth of television – they were conceived to be.
More and more, network TV is divided into a few creative/business models: The shows that bring in big ratings (think NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men — um, basically only CBS shows), stuff that keeps getting renewed because their networks are praying, willing them, to catch on with larger audiences (think Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother, Grimm), and shows that innovate but are useless as bellwhethers because they’re unique (Community) or which revive supposedly dead genres (Once Upon A Time).
And more than at any other time in TV history, if you’re a producer of television, what network your show is on is the crucial factor in whether the show thrives, survives, becomes acclaimed, or dies a quick death. The Maria Bello Prime Suspect? Had it been on Showtime and scrapped the first few episodes that tried to ingratiate itself to the masses, it’d have been renewed. Revenge? If it was on AMC and could have allowed Madeleine Stowe to go further with her slinky evilness, it would have an even more intense fan-base, and reviews to match.
I’ll also add this: You know what? I’ll bet if Whitney Cummings had peddled herself to HBO and had accordingly made Whitney the way she crafted her brassy stand-up act, it would have been adjudged bold, daring, controversial, and essential to have an opinion about.
You know, like Girls.
What did you think of the 2011-12 season? Are there shows you wish had survived, and others you wish had been canceled?