TV Show

Michael Swaim: Breaking Bad

AMC

More like "Freaking Good!" am I right!?

And thus began my brief career as TV Guide's chief photo captionist. I was fired shortly thereafter for using the word "holocosplay" on a still from an upcoming History Channel special about ancient cavemen aliens. Then I got this job, which is way easier -- The Guide editors never would have let me get away with the segue I'm about to make.

Hey, speaking of easy jobs, you know who doesn't have one? Walter White, a New Mexico high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who decides to sell meth to get a nest egg together for his pregnant wife and cerebral-palsy-afflicted son before he kicks off. And it's Hal from Malcolm in the Middle! And his brother-in-law is a DEA agent! At this point I feel I should specify that it's not a sitcom!

AMC
Friends would have been so much better if Phoebe had dissolved Ross in an acid bath.

It is in fact my pick for the most representative TV show of 2011, both because this season (season 4) was an incredible foray into the macabre side of magical realism replete with characters elevated to mythic level and fraught with a pervasive sense of doom that mirrors our own deepest suspicions about the universe, and also because BOOM-BANG-KAPOW! Take THAT, Methy! And give one of THESE to TUCO FOR ME!

2011, it seems to me, has been another installment in the continuing trend toward apocalypse fixation, doom-saying and awesome distractions from same. We're in the midst of something of a golden age of entertainment across a few media, yet everyone snidely acknowledges that it's a terrible time to be selling or doing anything. The second season of Louie also provided a pretty dead-on, hilarious belt of that grim perspective this year, but I think BB edges it out on the gun-battles-and-explosions front. Which, let's be honest, is a pretty important front. Plus, when you abbreviate Louie it's just "L," and you end up sounding like an asshole.

FX
What's his full name? LiCK? LuCK? It's stupid, that's what.

What better avatar for this year than the penultimate season of a series about a dude who you kind of know from the beginning is making poor choices that will end badly for him, yet secretly kind of want to see succeed in spite of yourself? That's us! That's now! We know we screwed up, we know we've done wrong, and the nerdlingers and number crunchers are telling us it's too late -- we're double-dipped, past the tipping point, globally warmed, boned like what.

But maybe, just maybe, if we can kill or cause to be killed all of our enemies in big badass explosions and gunfights, it'll all turn out OK, bitch!

Kristi Harrison: Modern Family

When Modern Family debuted in 2009, I completely wrote it off, just because it was a family sitcom. I don't know about you, but when I go back and watch sitcoms from the 1970s and '80s, I vomit soft-focused sugar over the opposite wall. For about 20 years, there was a steady continuum of very special episode awful, covering everything from the evils of alcohol to the dangers of a sitting president's wife infiltrating your school and humiliating you in front of your classmates ... before molesting you in her bike shop.

The '80s were a horrible time.

Which was why I was surprised by Modern Family. First and foremost, the writing is really good. As in I don't need a looped recording of people convulsively spewing "HAHAHA!" to make me aware of the jokes. Ultimately, I could just end the entry here, because I can't make the same statement about many other shows on TV right now. But quality writing isn't even why I picked Modern Family. I picked it because it's like looking in a mirror, but one populated with much taller, more beautiful people with way better skin and straight bangs.

For example, here's a real-time Instagram picture of me, my little sister and the white-haired leprechaun who lived with us during my childhood:


When I recall her face I just hear screams.

Here's another one. It's a picture of me, my kids, my dad, his kids who are also the same age as my kids and the gay couple that I wish I had in my life, but don't, for some terrible reason that is unknown to me:


I'm the redhead.

Chances are, you know someone who's in the same family boat -- one with step-siblings and new marriages and different shades of skin color. And if you don't, just wait. This is the reality of a world where people are living longer and making babies longer. Well, not literally making long babies. That would be horrible.


Horribly classy.

Modern Family pulls off the sentimental family stuff in a way that hasn't been attempted since The Wonder Years ... but with more jokes and with people who look more like America looks today. And it works.


Progress!

Robert Brockway: Community

NBC

The first two seasons of Community were fantastic, experimental and optimistic. But above all, they were fun: You got a real sense that everybody truly enjoyed what they were doing, and even if it didn't always work, they acknowledged the failure with a charming smile, an enigmatic shrug and a shot of some Alison Brie cleavage, so all was forgiven.

Getty
A strategy we've shamelessly stolen.

Then, this year, we got the third season. And what the hell was the deal with that? All the joy just drained right out of the show. It still tried to be experimental, but when it failed (and it did), Community instead answered with a sullen middle finger and a shot of something not-Alison-Brie's-cleavage.

There were some rumors that this abrupt, jarring change in both tone and quality was due to Dan Harmon suffering some personal setbacks, and even though you should never let that affect your work (you can't just flip out and start calling everything bullshit; that's unprofessional), we all know that these things happen. Luckily, the show started to regain some footing around episode 6, and was back in fighting form by episode 8 ... which was when the network execs announced that it was going on mid-season hiatus. That's TV-polite for "canceled, but we're sort of sorry about it."

That seems to be a trend this year: People suffer their usual setbacks and are staggered, but just as they finally, slowly start to recover, they get royally screwed again.

So I guess what I'm trying to say here is: I'm totally fired, aren't I?

Getty
Yes, but here's a charming smile, an enigmatic shrug and ...

Jack O'Brien: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

Hulu

For the uninitiated, the Real Housewives are a series of reality TV shows that take bored, rich women from various geographical locations and film them being mean to each other until someone has a mental breakdown. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the best of the bunch, as the women are better at being mean to each other and capable of withstanding more psychological trauma than any other cast, or human being. For optimal effect, the show is best viewed in out-of-context snippets, preferably from the other room, while telling your wife that you can't believe she watches this crap.


Once she goes to bed, it can also be watched from the couch while muttering
that you can't believe she watches this crap quietly to yourself.

Everything that's strange about this period in American history is on display in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The characters throw lavish "benefits" for charity that seem specifically designed to mock the needy, or the verb form of the word "need." We follow one perpetually slurring woman into a plastic surgery appointment and witness the shocked face of her doctor as she lists the bewildering cocktail of antidepressants she's on. Like the characters in Margin Call -- the critically acclaimed movie about the 2008 financial collapse, and probably the smartest movie I saw this year -- the people on the show seem to scoff at the idea that anyone actually deserves this much money. Margin Call shows them admitting it behind closed doors, and The Real Housewives shows those same people doing their best to deny it while interacting in polite society.


"Polite" relative to Somalia, maybe.

Both the show and the film are remarkable for making you feel like you're watching a historical document about the modern world that feels as alienating as one from hundreds of years ago. I'm not sure if future historians will watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but I'd recommend it. The show gives you the chance to watch the world disintegrate around a species that will never exist again. And if I had to bet, the video footage of the eventual crow uprising probably won't be nearly as funny.

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