In an era when a DVR queue is more intensely personal than an iPod playlist, what does it mean to pick the year’s best television? Rather than limit ourselves to a predictable top 10 or — heaven forfend! — force our indecisive crop of culture writers to make tough choices between comedies and dramas, reality and fiction, or Whitney and Whitney, we decided to let them have their Cake Boss and eat it, too. And so, the assignment was simple: Choose two television shows that mattered to you this year, positively or negatively, and consider them in tandem. The results aren’t meant to suggest a winner or a loser — although there were plenty of the latter on the airwaves, particularly on NBC — but to provide a snapshot of the ways we watched TV in 2011: messily, voraciously and intimately. Which, if you think about it, is also exactly how you want to interact with a Cake Boss should you be lucky enough to make one’s acquaintance.
The Killing (AMC) vs. Homeland (Showtime)
By Andy Greenwald
When the first season of The Killing wound its way to a deeply unsatisfying finale on Sunday, June 19, the Internet shook with the sort of collective fury usually reserved for the toppling of dictators or the adultery of @aplusk. This trembling yawp was deserved, of course. AMC’s soggy procedural had stomped about pretentiously for weeks, seemingly under the impression its viewers were more interested in ham-handed meditations on grief than an answer to the question that had been plastered across subway walls all spring. But to skim Twitter on that fateful night was to see an audience perhaps overly enraged about an ending, as if the decision to punt Rosie’s murder plot to next year was the show’s only storytelling sin. The truth is, even if The Killing had finished its first season with Tim Curry patiently explaining the who (Councilman Richmond!), where (the High School Sex Dungeon!), and what (a Doppler 10,000 weather machine!) of Rosie’s demise, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the series to date had been a failure, packed with more red herrings than Pike Place Market and enough portentous rainfall to singlehandedly jumpstart the nation’s long-dormant ark industry. Showrunner Veena Sud was the Donald Rumsfeld of Studio City, more concerned with shock-and-awe gotcha moments than the unglamorous busywork of development and infrastructure. To suggest that our investment would have been worth it had she only given us what we wanted is an insult to the many television professionals who break their stories in pursuit of strong characters, not trending topics.
This transformation of the viewing public into a nation of smug Bela Karolyis, concerned only with whether our favorite shows are able to “stick the landing” is problematic to say the least. Television is a medium predicated on opening doors, not closing them. Until this recent, highly serialized era, the thought that programs needed to provide any resolution other than a group hug, or a high-concept joke was completely alien. Now we expect flawless narrative consistency in a medium that tends to have less reliable end dates than Harold Camping. Nowhere was this worrying trend more apparent than in the message-board responses (http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/homeland-marine-one-wait-til-your-father-gets-home) to the Season 1 finale of Homeland. In contrast to The Killing, the Showtime drama did nearly everything right: Beginning with a nervy premise — CIA agent suspects returning POW is a terrorist — Homeland brilliantly married the twin poles of contemporary television, the tense thrills of a network procedural, and the subtle maturity of prestige cable, into a seamless, addictive whole. The show was artfully constructed and expertly paced; everything that bloomed in Homeland‘s final hour had been painstakingly planted in its first.
Yet the tweeting hordes were not satisfied. It was a “cop-out,” they claimed, that Sergeant Brody didn’t detonate himself at the end. It was “easy,” a “cheat.” Some even muttered that sour, dismissive syllable that can still an artist’s heart faster than any lethal device dreamed up by the nefarious Abu Nazir: “meh.” This sort of reaction seems as short-sighted as Carrie Mathison’s electroshock therapy. Brody’s vest malfunction served both the story — it provided a claustrophobic moment so deliciously fraught that living rooms all across the country were transformed into spider holes in Tikrit — and the best interests of the show: Homeland is a better series going forward with Brody alive, having managed to prove his self-sacrificing bona fides while keeping his head firmly attached to his traitorous neck.
All storytelling is dependent on twists and tricks, it’s the nature of the beast. The real skill lies is making those moments feel earned so that we’re less focused on the plot-driven hoops our characters are jumping through than on the characters themselves. (And that’s to say nothing of their flawed, fascinating jumps!) It would be a shame if we’ve become so enamored of the giant explosion that we can no longer appreciate the intricate, dramatic beauty that goes into wiring the bomb in the first place.
Whitney (NBC) vs. 2 Broke Girls (CBS)
By Molly Lambert
I like Whitney Cummings and find her charming on talk shows. And I imagine that I might like Whitney better if it were about a weird, neurotic woman (who is occasionally charming on talk shows) with a regular job instead of a cohabitating couple fighting over meaningless bullshit in an endless tiny war of sitcom-beat hostilities. In other words, I might like it better if it were 2 Broke Girls. Whitney assumes an audience investment in Whitney’s relationship with her boyfriend Alex (Chris D’Elia) that it doesn’t earn. I know that the Whitney-Alex dynamic is meant to evoke fond memories of Lucy and Desi, George and Gracie, and Rob and Laura Petrie, et. al, but in actuality it just evokes memories of being in the backseat of a car while your friends in a shitty relationship argue about which restaurant to go to (only they’re not really arguing about the restaurant). I never laugh when they fight either. It’s boring and gets performative just because there’s a potential referee. Whitney assumes I care who wins these arguments when all I want is for them to stop bickering.
The weekly humiliations of Whitney that are the show’s stock-in-trade tend to make me cringe but not laugh (believe me, I want to laugh). No one on Whitney is very likable, but no one is an asshole in a way that is particularly funny. Any imaginary world has to hook you in somehow and make the idea of spending quality parasocial time with a group of fictional humans seem enticing, or at least interesting in a trainwrecky way (see: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and the overall appeal of reality TV).
In interviews, Cummings comes across as genuinely weird and whip-smart, but on Whitney the character of Whitney is sanded into Michigan J. Frog, flop-sweating under hot lights through a set-piece lap dance. 2 Broke Girls, meanwhile, has hilarious pratfalls that don’t feel desperate and jokes that work just because they’re delivered well and then dispensed with. 2 Broke Girls‘ Achilles’ heel is the way it mines gratingly broad humor from undeniably racist stereotypes. The worst jokes on both shows have an orange DayGlo soda cringeyness to them, as if they derived from faded flashcards exhumed from crud-dusted network basement crates. But Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings have chemistry for miles and timing for days. They’re a comedic couple worthy of your time.
House Hunters (HGTV) vs. House Hunters International (HGTV)
By Max Silvestri
Of all the many things in American culture that leave me nervous about the future of this country, none hits me harder than the chasm of taste and charm that separates House Hunters International from its domestic cousin, House Hunters prime. If you’re unfamiliar, House Hunters is a reality franchise on HGTV wherein an individual or family looking to buy or rent works with a realtor and chooses between three properties. It is a simple, easily repeatable premise: The buyers are introduced, they present their criteria to their realtor, they visit each property, they weigh the pros and cons, and then they make their decision. Both shows have a coda where we see the happy homeowners settled in their new property. That is where the similarities between international and domestic end.
House Hunters International is a transfixing glimpse into endlessly romantic and cosmopolitan globetrotting lifestyles. Not everyone on the show is wealthy, but they are all interesting. After each episode, I’m left desperate to flee my now sad-seeming, small, New York existence. The idea of change gives me an upset stomach, but the heroes of International confront it head-on. You might see an elderly British couple living in a countryside manor deciding to pack up their lives and move into a one bedroom in downtown Paris, or a shy mathematician relocating his family halfway around the world on a lark, settling on a remote island off the coast of Australia. And even Americans shine when featured on International. I think I’ve now seen at least two episodes, possibly three, in which Americans, both single and attached, buy apartments in Buenos Aires because they fell in love with tango. If your heart doesn’t melt at the thought of real adults moving to another city because of its increased dance options, you do not know how to love and I pity your partner. They embrace fixer-uppers, original details, and local charm. Square footage, garbage disposals, and granite countertops are tertiary.
When compared to the blinding and glamorous light of its international sibling, House Hunters is a depressing glimpse into the mindset of the American homeowner. By and large, the buyers on House Hunters want to purchase what they already have, but larger. And they want it as far away from other people as possible. Without fail I get disgusted while watching. These domestic consumers are mouth-breathing ham-beasts, ooh-ing and aah-ing with their thick fingers up their thick butts about a property’s library’s potential to be a “sweet man cave.” They cluck their tongues at walls not big enough to support their flat screens, and couples exchange glances when told by the realtor they can’t build a fence. Their interior design instincts lean less “tastefully modern” and more “laying low in a safe house until my sleeper cell is activated.” The codas usually reveal the families to have stripped the homes of all remaining personality and happily replaced it with paintings of race cars.
We are all doomed, but, with the time we have left, I recommend filling your DVR with House Hunters International. It’s on five times a day.
Parks and Recreation (NBC) vs. 30 Rock (NBC)
By Steve Kandell
The workplace sitcom relies on a suspension of disbelief greater than any science fiction: that a group of sane, or adorably, precociously insane, adults would limit their social interactions to people with whom they share an office. This isn’t something we think about, it just is, but increasingly we want those relationships to feel earned. For all the Tina Fey/SNL insider bona fides upon which 30 Rock was first sold, that show is pure absurdity; to question whether Jack Donaghy and Kenneth the Page would ever actually hang out wouldn’t be any better use of your time than trying to deduce why a live sketch comedy show like TGS has only two, sometimes three, cast members.
Parks and Recreation, however, just now hitting its prime in its fourth season, manages to duck all of those questions simply by having an office full of characters who seem as if they actually do have something to offer one another besides one-liners, and as such make the most convincing arbitrary, location-based ensemble since Cheers. In fact, Rashida Jones’ chemistry with Amy Poehler was considered so vital that a job in Pawnee City Hall was clumsily created for Jones’ character — she had been a nurse and is now handling PR for the health department? Or something? Charming as Rashida Jones is, Ann Perkins’ lack of any obvious reason to exist is the closest thing one can find to a knock on the show these days, and even in that case, the reason turns out to be a simple one: She belongs, and people like her. Ron Swanson is the most indelible sitcom creation in decades, but even he’d never be plausible if he didn’t have genuine affection for the people he’s forced to spend 40 hours a week with. It’s what separates Parks from other sitcoms, and it’s the difference between a writers’ room and an actual room.
If you missed Part 1, featuring Chuck Klosterman on The Office vs. Enlightened, Tess Lynch on Parenthood vs. Up All Night, and more, click here. For Part 2, featuring Game of Thrones vs. Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad vs. Celebrity Rehab and the battle of the bro shows, click here.