Guilty Pleasures.

Sometimes it seems like there’s an eternal debate taking place: what exactly is a “guilty pleasure”? And is it okay to call things guilty pleasures, or should we just admit that, if we like something, well, we like it, and can’t everyone just be okay with that thank you very much?

I’ve never really been sure of where I stand in this debate. To quote Community‘s Abed, “I just like liking things”–sometimes I think that’s my primary personality trait. But that doesn’t mean I never feel any guilt when I settle in with an episode of Gossip Girl, or when I plow through three “Teen Paranormal Romance” books over a 36 hour period.

I’m not talking about Edgar Allen Poe guilt; this isn’t going to torture me in the long term or give me an ulcer. But I spent last weekend sick in bed, and instead of reading a novel or catching up on season four of Breaking Bad, I chose to barrel through about 30 episodes of Pretty Little Liars. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, the show is equal measures fun and ridiculous, but there’s a little part of me that knows I had other options, probably better options, and I chose to watch a poorly scripted, teen-oriented ABC Family drama instead.

Scripted dramas are my acknowledged weakness. No matter how bad, I’ll watch pretty much anything so long as it’s not boring–and even sometimes if it is boring, I’ve stuck with Ringer all season, and for no good reason–and I’ll probably have a lot of fun. I realized, eight years ago, as the first season of One Tree Hill came to a close, that it was not a very good show and I should probably find something else to watch on Tuesdays after Gilmore Girls–a realization that lead me to Veronica Mars the following fall, and therefore the best realization I’ve ever had–but I’ve still seen every episode of the series, many of them more than once, and I can’t pretend I haven’t enjoyed this final, absurdist, almost unrecognizable season.

There are things I watch or have watched that other people might consider guilty pleasures: Psych and Vampire Diaries and The OC, among many many others, but they’re not shows I feel any regret over. Psych is fun and self-aware and best watched with my friends, the way we watched it in college; The OC is like a time capsule, not representative of my actual life, but of a time when I was evolving into myself–it ran for half of my high school years and half of my college years–and though its middle seasons were not especially strong, they’re the valley–get it, get it, The Valley–between two incredibly smart, incredibly funny, sometimes incredibly moving seasons of television to anyone willing to look past the soapy teen drama genre; and, at its best, I will stand by The Vampire Diaries as one of the strongest shows that’s currently airing: tightly plotted, well-acted, and sliding its characters back and forth along a carefully balanced morality scale.

When I talk about guilty pleasures I’m not talking about liking things “ironically,” I legitimately enjoy everything I’d list under the classification. And I’m not talking about liking things that are carving away at my (probably nonexistent anyway) indie cred–I don’t feel guilty over my undying love for Taylor Swift, for example. I’m not even talking about pleasures I wouldn’t want to admit to in public–it took two pints of cider and a great deal of prodding from my friends to get me to admit my greatest pop culture secret: I still watch Glee. (Though I wouldn’t exactly call that a pleasure. I don’t actual enjoy the viewing experience so much as the anger I feel over the show’s existence.) I’m talking more about the things that I enjoy with the full knowledge that they add nothing to my overall cultural experience.

Pretty Little Liars is fun. There’s a nice story about friendship at its core, and a couple of decent mysteries that keep on twisting out from under the audience–one of which could probably do to be properly solved already–but it’s not a show that makes me think all that much. It’s a show with a lot of potential that it’s probably never going to meet, much like Gossip Girl and Ringer. The writing, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the premise.

And that’s not a bad thing, not really. Any story that can be enjoyed serves a purpose. But a guilty pleasure show is not unlike ice cream. No matter how good dinner tastes, there’s always the temptation to skip ahead to dessert and fill up on that. But, like sweets, a guilty pleasure show is best enjoyed in moderation, not by the tub-full.

Now someone remind me of that, please, before I start this marathon rewatch of One Tree Hill.

How to Fix ‘Once Upon a Time.’

I really wanted to like Once Upon a Time. It should hit me right in my happy place: fairytales mixed with the real world? Do you know how many times I’ve read Ella Enchanted? But while the show has emerged as ABC’s new big hit, it has not lived up to its own storytelling potential. I keep tuning in, hoping to find the show I was looking forward to last spring, and instead I keep finding a flat, CGI mess.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. I have some ideas:

1. Kill the Kid: I know this sounds cruel, and I’m also fully aware that this is not a show that’s going to kill off its adorable moppet, but I can think of several reasons it would be a good idea. Henry serves two roles on the show: 1) he’s the catalyst. He left Storybrooke to track Emma down and he brought her back to help with Operation Cobra. If he hadn’t, nothing ever would have changed and everyone would have gone on living under Regina’s thumb. 2) He’s the believer, the one person in Storybrooke who is certain that its residents are straight out of fairytales. And as a child, he’s given more allowance for this belief. If Mary Margaret or Archie walked around town claiming to be Snow White or Jiminy Cricket, they wouldn’t be allowed near young minds, but because Henry is only ten he’s just treated as an oddity and his belief is humored by most of the people who know about it.

But now imagine if Henry died, not at Regina’s hand, but some other fairyland baddie. Here you have a brand new catalyst: Regina might seek to avenge his death (the show consistently implies that Regina wants a child, but fails to show that in her behavior. Maybe losing Henry is what she needs to finally blossom into a nuanced character) and Emma might find herself working “Operation Cobra” without him, finally showing an interest in the project out of a duty to her dead son. And we might not have to hear the words “Operation Cobra” so often. (The quality of the show’s performances would rise significantly as well.)

This is starting to sound dangerously like fanfiction, so let’s move on to:

2. Quit it with the Lost references: We get it, there’s a shared family tree here, and Lost was a really good show, but Once Upon a Time‘s constant reminders only leave me wishing I were watching Lost instead. If you insist on your Apollo candy bars and your MacCutcheon whisky, your numbers and your patriarchal bad guys played by Alan Dale then leave them as set decoration. Don’t let the camera linger on them, taunting your audience with reminders of a show you aren’t living up to.

3. Employ a little subtlety: No one doubts that the Evil Queen/Regina is evil. It’s in her name. Plus, she spends all of her time manipulating people into killing her family members and pruning a tree full of shiny red apples. She is not a good person. But there are plenty of ways to show us just how bad she is that don’t require her to stalk about interrogating strangers and looking angry.

Go take a look at the third season of Buffy (I know the you’re familiar, some of your writers wrote for the third season of Buffy). Look at that mayor, just as if not more evil than Regina. He’s a family man, afraid of germs and foul language. If he weren’t trying to kill our heroine and ascend to giant snakedom his manners would be impeccable. But you never doubt that he’s evil or dangerous. He’s sweet and silly and undeniably terrifying. Regina is none of these things. She’s just kind of…malicious.

But the subtlety issue doesn’t just apply to Regina. Whether it’s lines like “I need my pain. It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy,” or an insistence on framing every shot of Sydney Glass in a mirror, there’s a constant sense that you want to be clever, and that you want the audience to know just how clever you’re being. And it comes across as smarmy and insulting.

4. Give the CGI a rest: I know you want to create a rich, magical fairyland, but your budget isn’t really making that happen. Instead, everything looks flat and cheap and fake. The best scenes in the fairybacks are the ones filmed in real places, whether they’re grassy farms or river banks. I believe the setting. There must be a way to work off of more existing sets, I’m sure there are bits of castles and cabins and the like in LA, left-overs from old movies and tv shows. And I suspect it would improve the caliber of the acting in the fairybacks, having the actors work on real sets instead of green screens. Save the money for the magic and the big, sweeping establishing shots.

5. Let someone remember who they are…and live: I think this may be the most important step. Having Graham remember who he was a few weeks ago could have been great. He could have been another voice, this time an adult voice, a more reasonable voice, telling Emma that this whole Fairyland thing is for real. Instead he died seconds later, taking what he knew with him.

If one person remembers who they are–and I’m thinking it should be Mary Margaret or Archie, someone Emma is more likely to believe–then that’s forward momentum for a story that’s been inching along since the pilot. This is a show that could learn something from Vampire Diaries rapidfire plotting and crazy shenanigans.

And boy would it help if you got rid of the kid.

Saying Goodbye (Finally).

One Tree Hill is the show I never quite figured out how to quit. Don’t get me wrong, I tried. I searched out new shows that aired at the same time (without that incentive I may never have tuned in to the Veronica Mars pilot back in 2004. And then where would I be?), I actively refused to watch, but still, a month or two down the line, I would find myself coming back to it, getting sucked back in by the melodrama of it all.

The version of One Tree Hill that airs today has little in common with the show that debuted in the fall of 2003, though many of the faces remain the same. Back then the series was about two boys–biological half-brothers, though only one was raised by their shared father–who came to blows over basketball, a pretty girl, and that eternal teen soap struggle of the outsider vs. the insider.

The outsider, Lucas Scott, was ostensibly the central character of the series. He was the brother raised by a single mom, though his paternal uncle was the primary male influence on his childhood. He was quiet, bookish, the traditional “nice guy.” (By the end of that first season, intentionally or not, Lucas had evolved into a not-so-nice-guy in a nice-guy shell, though the show kept up the pretense that Lucas was a good kid no matter how he behaved.) Nathan Scott was the over-confident brother, popular and promiscuous and suffering under the pressures of his father’s dreams. (Just as Lucas grew quickly into a rather unlikable guy, Nathan, by the end of season one, had gone from the kind of guy who cheats on his girlfriend to the kind of guy who proposes marriage at age 16. Nathan is still quick to anger, often responding to taunts the way Marty McFly responds to accusations of chicken-hood, but he’s also become the kind of guy who can step up to the challenges of young marriage, young fatherhood and not always getting to hold onto your dreams.)

As the seasons passed and Lucas and Nathan’s rivalry settled into a warmer, more brotherly relationship, the show’s scope widened. It grew into an ensemble drama, focusing more on Haley (Lucas’s best friend and Nathan’s wife), Peyton (the girl that initially came between the brothers) and Brooke (Peyton’s best friend and Lucas’s on-again-off-again girlfriend). Things got soapier, with pregnancy scares, health scares, relationship musical chairs and a superb villain in Daddy Scott, who played puppetmaster with his sons, murdered his brother in cold blood, and never quite managed to die himself (though more season finales have featured him nearly kicking it than not).

And then at the end of the fourth season, with all the teenage characters graduating high school, the show decided to take a risk (albeit a popular one that year) and skip four years, bringing everyone back to Tree Hill as adults, rather than teens. The passage of time allowed the characters to reshuffle more realistically than they ever had before, and breathed some new life into the series, but everything eventually fell back into the patterns of earlier seasons, and, at the end of season 6, Lucas and Peyton left the show (in what would have been a truly decent series finale), literally driving off into the sunset, newlyweds and new parents.

That’s pretty much where the show gave up on plot. It moved forward, technically, introducing new characters, pairing them off, presenting happy endings one week and tearing them apart the next. There were still love triangles and break-ups, weddings and babies and occasional dramatic events, like a brutal car crash with limited consequences, a psychotic nanny-turned-kidnapper, and a parent lost to cancer, but for the most part the show has been going through the motions these last few years. Whole episodes have been given over to indie music montages, or talking about chairs. The show has essentially evolved into a hang-out sitcom, only it’s still an hour long, tethered to its soapy dramas, and really only funny by accident.

And time has gone wonky on One Tree Hill. Those first four seasons covered only two years, then they skipped four years, came back for awhile and then skipped another year and a half. Sometimes the show seems in step with real time, sometimes, as in the season 8 finale, an entire year can pass in a single episode. When One Tree Hill went on the air in 2003 I was the same age as it’s teenage characters–though several years younger than its twenty-something actors–but these days I think I’ve fallen behind. It’s hard to gauge on a show like this, though, where most of the characters had found personal and/or professional success by age 22 and, out of a handful of high school friends from suburban North Carolina, at least five flirted with some degree of fame. That’s not even mentioning the famous actress, successful director, rock star, sports agent, photographer or assistant-turned model they befriended along the way. And I repeat, this show is set in a small town in North Carolina.

This is not to say that One Tree Hill is completely without merit. Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Galeotti (as Brooke and Haley respectively) turn in reliable and consistent performances; the friendships at the heart of the story are, for the most part, quite strong; and late in One Tree Hill’s third season there was a story arc that culminated in an episode about a tragic school shooting, an event with consequences that still ripple through the show today, as I would imagine such a tragedy would continue to affect the lives of the people at its center. One Tree Hill may be ridiculous, but at least it remembers where it’s been and keeps track of its consequences.

The ninth and final season of the show premiered tonight. I didn’t watch it live, I haven’t watched it live in years, probably, but I will turn it on when I’m done here. I gave up trying to quit this show awhile ago, gave up on fighting what was clearly a losing battle, and with so little time left in Tree Hill, I’m not really interested in quitting. I’ll see these characters through to the end, enjoy what little plot they offer and even smile when Chad Michael Murray returns as Lucas. I’m kind of excited to see what’s coming next, what ridiculous melodrama and time-filling indie songs will see us through this final season.

And then I’ll happily say goodbye.

Finally.

Pop Culture Resolutions for a Science Fiction Year.

So it’s 2012 now, which seems like a date out of science fiction more than a year I’m actually living in. I’m thinking that’s a sign that this year should entail a Battlestar Galactica rewatch, or maybe diving into some literary sci-fi, which has never called to me in the same ways that science fiction television has. It’s probably time I read Ender’s Game, for example.

But this isn’t my only resolution for 2012. I made my list of personal resolutions earlier this week, the usual things like GO TO THE GYM and KEEP MY BEDROOM CLEAN. But I thought some pop culture resolutions were in order as well, and what better place to record them than here?

  • Catch up on Breaking Bad and Louie. A few months ago, as you may remember, I was tearing my way through Breaking Bad, gulping down episodes as fast as my Netflix account would load them, but I stalled out when I started season 4. I’m not sure why–maybe as a defense against all the months I’d have to wait for season 5, or because Jesse Pinkman just kept breaking my heart–but I’m determined to get the rest of season 4 under my belt before the new season starts up.

I also worked through the first season of Louie in 2011, and as much as I loved it (and found myself, oddly, falling in love with Louis C.K. in the process), it somehow took me 5 months to watch 13 22-minute episodes of the show. I won’t let season 2 take another 5 months.

  • Read 100 Books. This is a resolution I’ve set for the past 4 or 5 years, and the closest I’ve ever come was in 2008 when I hit 81 books by December 31st, but 2011 was kind of a dud year for me at 56 books (I recognize that this is still a pretty high number, but I know I can do better). I am also, as I did last year, going to make an effort to read more books for the first time, rather than going back to those that I’ve read before (while making allowances for my annual rereads of the Harry Potter series and Ella Enchanted), and I’ll be attempting more non-fiction, more science fiction, and at least one challenge (will this be the year I finally read Anna Karenina? Or Infinite Jest?)
  • Rewatch some of the shows I’ve been putting off. I’m already 8 episodes into The O.C. (though I did find myself side-tracked this weekend by the fourth season of Wizards of Waverly Place–no regrets!), and my friend Bex and I are planning to go back to The West Wing after that. I’ve been taking on Friday Night Lights a few episodes at a time, because more than that is too much for my tear ducts to take, and now that I’ve got most of Everwood on DVD it might be time to revisit the Browns–and finally see the chunk of seasons 2 and 3 that I missed the first time around.
  • Think more critically about what I watch, rather than giving in to my usual kneejerk hyperbole. As much as I, to quote Abed Nadir, “just like liking things,” and as much as that is the mission statement of this blog, I also know that if I want to pursue this passion I need to gain a little objectivity. My default reaction to TV is generally something along the lines of “OH MY GOD I LOVE IT THIS IS THE BEST EPISODE EVER CAN I GIVE YOU ALL MY !!!!!!s” But that’s not how criticism works. This is going to be a year about taking a step back, not from loving things, but from my initial reactions.The other thing this means it that I’m going to try to respect my own opinions more. I have an inclination to trust the opinions of others over my own and I need to stop doing that. I don’t always have to agree with everyone.
  • Listen to more podcasts. I’m a huge fan of Pop Culture Happy Hour, and when I can get past Nathan Rabin’s not-meant-for-earbuds voice I tend to enjoy Reasonable Discussions, but I don’t listen to that many podcasts overall. With the new year I have a new gym membership, and a new iPhone to fill with things to occupy my brain while at the gym. I’d love some recommendations for what else I should be listening to.
  • See all of the Best Picture nominees. I managed this last year with a combination of good taste, Netflix and free tickets to a 24-hour screening, and it made the actual experience of the Oscars a lot more fun. I’d love to make that happen again.But probably my most important resolution is this one:
  • Post to East Cupcake more often. I’m shooting for at least once a week (shh, pretend it’s not the eighth). I think that’s manageable. I’m hoping to start including more reviews, either for individual episodes as I did for Vampire Diaries“The Reckoning” or for new series as they premiere or for seasons of things I’m rewatching. I’m also planning to expand East Cupcake’s scope to include pop culture in general, instead of focusing exclusively on television. You may see more about what I’m reading or what movies I’m watching, or, as I start to listen to more podcasts, you may hear about those. I would really love to see this blog flourish this year and I think expanding its focus will help with that.

 

What are your pop culture resolutions?

Tis the Season for Christmas TV.

I love Christmas. Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I don’t really care. I love Christmas. It’s fun to get gifts. It’s fun to give gifts. Also, Christmas is my birthday and thus doubly special to me. I know the holiday season is not all about celebrating the wonder of my existence, but it’s fun to pretend that the wreaths, the trees, the lights, the songs and especially the holiday-themed television episodes are a way of making up for the fact that I have to share my day with such a large percentage of the western world.

You may have noticed the word “especially” before “holiday-themed television episodes” in that paragraph. That’s because I love Christmas TV. Probably even more than I love popping in my Love Actually DVD as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table. Each year brings new episodes to the canon (I can think of several really excellent episodes from this year, some of which you’ll see mentioned below), but going back and revisiting the “classics” is good fun too.

I could not possibly come up with a comprehensive list of Christmas TV, and without one I wouldn’t dare to try an official East Cupcake top ten list. What I have to offer, however, is a list of ten Christmas episodes–or at least ten shows, there are a few series on this list that have turned out more than one excellent Christmas episode–that I especially love. This isn’t definitive, it isn’t complete, it’s just a handful of suggestions, things I plan to watch over the next few days to get in the spirit of this time of year.

1. Veronica Mars – “An Echolls Family Christmas”
I’m actually watching this episode as I type this. The first season of Veronica Mars is one of the greats: smart, well-plotted, sometimes very funny and frequently very dark. And “An Echolls Family Christmas” is a stand-out episode. The central mystery plays with most of the main characters, only introducing a couple of extraneous guests to help flesh out the world of the show (and offer up a baddie), and putting Neptune’s economic divide on full display, and the B-plot is a puzzle piece to the overall arc of the season. It’s a fun and funny episode that builds the world, furthers the plot and advances both characters and relationships. And it’s not so much about Christmas as it is set to a holiday backdrop, with carols and twinkly lights there to remind you of the season without forcing it on you.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Amends”
“Amends” is one of Buffy‘s most memorable episodes. It plays a little game of Ghosts of Christmas Past as the First (in its first appearance, long before its role as the Big Bad to end all Big Bads in season 7) haunts Angel in the guise of his past victims. The episode is very dark, taking Angel to the brink of suicide, but its overall message is one of healing and forgiveness (and the magical powers of snow). And if Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t rip your heart out, well, you didn’t have a heart to begin with.
3. Gilmore Girls –  “Forgiveness and Stuff,” “The Bracebridge Dinner”
The A.V. Club has been ringing in the season with a daily entry in their T.V. Club Advent Calendar and last week they covered “Forgiveness and Stuff,” Gilmore Girls‘ first season Christmas episode. David Sims talked about what a lovely job the episode does with addressing the family tensions that were especially prevalent in that first season, and “The Bracebridge Dinner,” expands on that–a year down the line the relationship between Lorelai and her parents has changed, things aren’t as tense. When you look at the two episodes back to back you can see how much things have progressed; where Lorelai was an outsider looking in on her family in the first season, she’s more of a participant in season 2, even if it takes some needling from Rory. She talks to her parents, even jokes with them a little, and while she’s still not thrilled with the suggestion that she might be a little like her mother, she’s clearly embraced her role in the Gilmore family. Neither episode throws the holiday at you, either. “Forgiveness and Stuff” uses it as a setting, and the holiday party at the center of “The Bracebridge Dinner” is more interested in having fun with its Elizabethan theme than any sort of religious celebration.
4. Community – “Comparative Religion,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Regional Holiday Music”
Community has now turned out a Christmas episode in each of its three seasons and while the first one was fine (worth it for the Forest Whitaker eye alone), the second and third are outstanding. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” manages to be a silly and loving homage to the stop motion Christmas specials of yore and also a heartbreaking story about Abed’s inability to deal with his own emotions. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is actually quite similar to a later episode in season 2, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” They’re both stories of this study group sitting in a room with someone they believe is at risk, trying to talk them down in their own ways, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” hides it behind stop motion and musical numbers. In many ways it is tremendously sad. “Regional Holiday Music,” however, is transcendant. If Community never comes back (though I’m choosing to remain optimistic), at least it will have ended on an absolute high note, a better episode of Glee than any episode Glee has ever done. The songs are goofy, the jokes send up Glee, yes, but also aspects of Community, like all the messed up dimensions of Annie’s relationship with Jeff. And it’s unrelentingly hilarious.
 
5. The O.C. – “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t,” “The Chrismukk-huh?”
The O.C. did a Chrismukkah episode in each of its four seasons, but I’m only recommending three of them because I can barely remember the events of “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvah-kah” (beyond the fact that there was a Bar Mitzvah). The other three episodes are each delightful in their own way, though, whether Seth’s first introducing the holiday in season 1, Lindsay’s true family tree is coming out at the world’s most awkward Christmas dinner in season 2, or Ryan and Taylor are trying to put the Cohens back together in a world where they don’t exist (or were born the wrong gender) in season 4. (The O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah is a staple in my Christmas playlist, too.)
 
6. How I Met Your Mother – “How Lily Stole Christmas,” “Little Minnesota,” “False Positive,” “Symphony of Illumination”
How I Met Your Mother has turned out nearly as many Christmas episodes as it has seasons and they’re all worth watching at this time of year. “How Lily Stole Christmas” is funny and sweet and it explores Lily’s friendship with Ted, which doesn’t always get as much attention as either of their relationships with Marshall. “Little Minnesota” does this with Marshall and Robin, another little seen pairing and the primary reason I love the episode so. Last year’s “False Positive” and this year’s “Symphony of Illumination” have both explored the days after learning you’re pregnant and what that means both for those who want kids and those who don’t, as well as the roles your friends play in a moment of personal crisis. The two episodes took those stories in different directions, but they both did a great job with it. “False Positive” is also especially and exceptionally funny, and the home of Ted’s Christmas-Themed Movie Snack.
 
7. Doctor Who – the Christmas Specials
Before I started watching Doctor Who I never got new TV on my birthday. Times have changed, though, and now each year brings a new Christmas special like it’s a birthday present just for me. And with only one exception (*cough*”The Next Doctor”*cough*), they’ve all been pretty incredible. Just think of that moment when the Tenth Doctor steps out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Christmas Invasion,” awakened by spilled tea and ready to save the world (again and also for the first time). He’s tasting blood and quoting The Lion King and having a sword-fight on the ledge of a spaceship over London and it’s fantastic. Or think about loud, brilliant, loud Donna’s introduction in “The Runaway Bride.” Or Astrid’s fate in “The Voyage of the Damned.” Or the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreaking swan song in “The End of Time.” Or the way “A Christmas Carol” plays with sharks and stories and the ways time can be rewritten.  Even “The Next Doctor” isn’t terrible, it just doesn’t live up to my expectations after so many other great Christmas specials.
 
8. The Office (US) – “Christmas Party,” “A Benihana Christmas,” “Classy Christmas”
The US version of The Office has turned out 5 Christmas episodes in 8 years, and while they’ve all had their moments I’d say these three are the best of the bunch. “Christmas Party” is both hilarious–Michael turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap–and heart-wrenching–Jim trying to make sure Pam gets the present he’s probably been planning for years. “A Benihana Christmas” pits the Party Planning Committee against the Committee to Plan Parties and finally unites Karen and Pam as friends (however briefly). And “Classy Christmas” is a brilliant study in psychological torture.
 
9. The West Wing – “In Excelsis Deo,” “Noël,” “Holy Night”
Aaron Sorkin’s sentimental side works well in Christmas episodes, where a certain amount of sentimentality is to be expected. It’s been awhile since I saw any of these episodes of The West Wing, but images from them stand out, whether it’s Toby and Mrs. Landingham at the funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” or Leo telling Josh the story of the man in the hole in “Noël” or Danny, in his Santa disguise, kissing CJ in front of the rest of the press in “Holy Night,” these episodes work because, at least on TV, Christmas is a time when you can get away with a little extra sentiment. (I can’t remember which of these episodes featured the Whiffenpoofs performing “O Holy Night”–probably “Holy Night”–but it’s lovely. And there’s a gorgeous instrumental version in the Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip episode “The Christmas Show.”)
 
10. Parks & Recreation – “Christmas Scandal,” “Citizen Knope”
Parks & Recreation has done two Christmas episodes, both about Leslie having to step back from her job in the Parks department. In “Christmas Scandal” she gets pulled into a local sex scandal and has to fight to salvage her reputation and in “Citizen Knope” she is dealing with the repercussions of an actual sex scandal, though one on a much smaller scale. And in both episodes the rest of the Parks department comes together to show their appreciation for everything it is that Leslie does for them, whether that’s taking on an outrageous list of tasks that keep things running smoothly or just giving the absolute best Christmas presents. The episodes are really about how much she means to her Parks Department family and that’s where they get their holiday spirit. They’re also both hilarious.

X-O-X-O.

I watch a lot of critically acclaimed TV: The Good Wife, Mad Men, the NBC Thursday night comedy line-up (except for the not-so-critically acclaimed Whitney, which inspires in me the strong urge to cry/vomit/throw heavy objects at my television), Breaking Bad. I also watch a lot of good-not-great TV: The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Castle and Bones. Even some outright terrible television: One Tree Hill, Glee (until recently).

 

But then there’s a category that is great-to-me TV. These shows may be hit-or-miss, they may not fit a typical definition of outstanding television (or, hey, maybe they do–you don’t find a lot of people who both watch and don’t love Vampire Diaries these days, critics included, and I’ve already expressed to you that I find it to be the best show on television), but they have a hold on me that makes me love them in spite of flaws, in spite of a tenuous grasp on reality, in spite of almost anything really. In this category you can find How I Met Your Mother, Psych, the aforementioned Vampire Diaries…these are the shows I most look forward to each week (in addition to the NBC Thursday night comedy line-up, which is basically a religion in my apartment). They’re the shows I most hate to see go on hiatus (even for just a week), whose return I most anticipate in the fall (sometimes Castle and Bones fall under this category as well). I watch One Tree Hill because I literally cannot stop (you don’t know how many times I’ve tried). I watch How I Met Your Mother because I don’t ever want to stop.

 

The latest show to fall under this category is Gossip Girl.

 

I was a fan back in the first season, devouring all the pre-writer’s strike episodes over the course of a long car trip to Florida in January of 2008. I watched off-and-on in season 2 (this goes against my fundamental rule of television, which is to watch everything and to watch it in order), and quit entirely in season 3. Until the series finally paired up a couple of characters I’d been waiting to see together since season 1, Dan Humphrey and Blair Waldorf. And I very quickly found myself sucked back into the series.

 

It’s a silly show, very soapy and focused around a heavily exaggerated vision of an already exaggerated world. But it’s also absorbing. The characters have sharp style and sharper tongues. They are eternally playing a game of musical partners, often matching themselves up in configurations that are at best repetitive and at worst vaguely incestuous. And none of it bears any resemblance to the so-called “real world.” Vulture even does a weekly reality index, weighing the ridiculous against the believable (though they define “believable” on a bit differently than most). They also call it the Greatest Show of Our Age.

 

Mindy Kaling wrote in her new book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (which is excellent and which I’m sure I’ll talk about more at some point), that she “regard[s] romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than [her] regular human world.” If you don’t try to place them in our reality, she says, romcoms are highly enjoyable. I look at shows like Gossip Girl the same way.

 

My life is never going to look like Serena Van Der Woodsen’s or Blair Waldorf’s. Not even like Dan Humphrey’s, though he’s the show’s supposed everyman (the sort of everyman who ends up in a meaningful relationship with his dream girl at 17, dates an Emma-Watson-alike movie star his freshman year of college, hangs out with famous authors and has his first book published at age 21 to great critical acclaim). I may live on the Upper East Side, but the city I see every day looks nothing like the one that Gossip Girl blogs about.

 

At the same time though, the series keeps me coming back. I’m not drawn in by every plotline–I could care less about most things involving Nate, especially when he’s having an illicit affair with Elizabeth Hurley, and the never-ending saga of Blair’s engagement to and subsequent pregnancy with His Serene(ly boring) Highness*, the Prince of Monaco is wearing thin–but the central conceit of the show–that these characters lives have been broadcast on Gossip Girl since their freshman year of high school, that their every move can be, and usually is, caught on camera-phone–still fascinates me**. The idea that they are fundamentally different because they can’t forget that they’re in the public eye, especially the hyper-judgmental public eye of the average high school student, is the guiding principal of the series and that is a whole can of storytelling worms.

 

But as I mentioned above, there was a very specific reason that I came back to this series after over a year without it: Dan and Blair.

 

The show set up a mutual dislike between Dan and Blair in the pilot and that only mounted as the series continued. They’ve teamed up when they needed to, generally to help out Serena, and they shared one very sweet scene in the fourth episode of the series, but the show has always gotten a lot of mileage out of the way Blair can spit out Dan’s name like it actually tastes bad. The truth, though, is that Dan and Blair actually have a lot in common, from their superiority complexes to, apparently, their taste in movies, and when the writers started to set up a genuine friendship between the characters last season, what evolved felt entirely natural. They still sparred, but so do all the best fictional pairs. They still had difficult admitting that they might like each other as people, but this only led to a bit of elegant and entertaining storytelling, in which they carried on their friendship like the illicit affairs that have been a staple of soaps for as long as there have been soaps. And they didn’t touch on the idea that there might be something romantic brewing beneath the surface of their friendship until outsiders started expressing their opinions on the strange duo.

 

I should say that I am almost certain that the writers of Gossip Girl are going to screw this up. The series has been pushing the supposed true love between Blair and Chuck since the first season (though having just rewatched the first season I have to say I don’t really see it–Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick have undeniable chemistry, but the be-all-and-end-all attitude toward their relationship comes about rather abruptly), and what’s more, Blair is currently engaged to a prince and pregnant with an heir. I also have little faith in the creative juices that are fueling the pairing. They may be able to spin an absorbing tale, but they’ve never shown much skill for sustaining one.

 

In the Gossip Girl voiceover that has framed the show since the beginning (the narration is done to catty perfection by Kristen Bell, though the dialogue is often nonsensical), there is one phrase we’re sure to hear every week: “you know you love me, X-O-X-O.” It may not be true for the Upper East Siders whose secrets she has so often exposed under the veil of anonymity, but for this Upper East Sider, I have to admit, her words hold water.

 

* I totally looked this up, and aside from the “(ly boring)” part, it is the correct honorific for the Hereditary Prince of Monaco. Go Wikipedia.

** Admittedly it’s not always used as effectively as it could be, but the show has absolutely gotten it right on occasion. Whether Dan was trying to get his sister to listen to something she wouldn’t hear from him directly or Chuck wanted to speed up the inevitable break-up between Blair and Nate or Blair needed guidance from the all-knowing to help Serena out of a tight spot, Gossip Girl was there.

Normal.

I’m not really sure how “normal” people watch TV, let alone how they talk about it.

I am confused by co-workers who say they love The Office, but don’t know the actors’ names. Or worse, the characters’ names. I get irrationally angry with friends who watch things out of order, or in pieces, or who don’t feel the need to pay attention to every line. I can’t stand it when people talk through scenes or leave the room or fall asleep. And I embarrass myself when I do land in a conversation about television, struggling to find the line between a water-cooler chat about LOST and a Doc Jensen column. After all, it was fandom that taught me how to talk about TV.

As a result, I’m never comfortable having conversations about television with people I didn’t meet on the internet–or with people who I can’t trust to love me even after they have to listen to a fifteen minute rant about Amy Sherman-Palladino and character assassination on Gilmore Girls. I’m not even really comfortable discussing TV in public. I get overly verbose, overly emotional…perhaps this is an ironic statement from someone who has just started a blog about TV, but I often find words insufficient when I try to discuss television. I am reduced to flailage and capslocking and excessive use of !!!!!!!s (or whatever the verbal equivalents would be).

I suspect that the way I feel about television has affected the way those around me feel about television, or at least the way they watch it. Nearly all of my friends are involved in fandom to some extent, and a few of them were before we met, but would they all be fully functioning fangirls if we had never roomed together? Would my mother be able to participate in my rants about character assassination on Gilmore Girls if I weren’t her daughter, or would my sister be tumbling about her Dawson’s Creek rewatch, or would my father be lending me his DVDs of The Wire? How has my obsession with television affected the lives of those around me?

I know I’m not the only person whose heart wells up with so much passion for the medium, the internet has taught me this, but I also know that the average television viewer is more casual. Less inclined to perusing and parsing the text and subtext of a series. Not everyone has to watch everything in order. Not everyone has to keep track of the details.

What must the Emmys be like if you’re just a casual TV viewer? I find them ecstatic, entirely joyful–even when I’m watching my favorites lose–but every year I hear complaints that they’re boring and stale. What does a show like Breaking Bad look like if you haven’t seen every episode? Doesn’t it bother you to find that you’re missing information? Don’t you want all the pieces of the puzzle?

I doubt that I’ll ever be someone who can watch TV casually–I think at this point I’ve invested too much time and energy into it to give up or let go–but I do wonder what it’s like for the rest of the world, for the people who just decide to skip a week of Modern Family, or to only catch the second half of an episode of Parenthood. Maybe the people who can do that just don’t care…but I have to think they’re missing out on all the fun.

Without Qualifiers.

Allow me to say this without qualifiers: Vampire Diaries is currently the best show on TV.

It is fearless, it moves at an insane pace, and it’s grounded in some really spectacular performances from young actors.

You may not expect much from an actress who got her start on Degrassi, but Nina Dobrev flawlessly embodies two wildly different characters, and she can draw the line between them with the tiniest of gestures. Paul Wesley does some awesome eyeball acting. Ian Somerhalder, who started off a scenery-chewing villain (having more fun than anyone else in the business), has demonstrated the skill to pull Damon in for the quiet scenes. And Candice Accola has turned Caroline into an endlessly fierce and heartbreakingly human vampire.

Episode’s like tonight’s (“The Reckoning”) are prime examples of The Vampire Diaries doing all the things it does best: tight, fast plotting, detailed character work, foreshadowing and follow through.

“The Reckoning” had several different plot lines going (Stefan and Elena and Klaus, Tyler and Caroline and Rebekah, Bonnie and Matt and Vicki, Damon and Katherine and Jeremy and Anna) all of them interwoven, all but one taking place on the high school campus, all within a single night, mostly within a twenty minute period. All of the stories were given about equal screen time and nothing was wasted.

Vampire Diaries has a knack for setting up its stories–both long and short term–and it always plays them out to their end, but it doesn’t waste time. The series moves lightning fast, the writers dive right into the action, but they weave it through the narrative, telling small stories about senior prank night alongside big stories about eternity and love and loneliness and addiction. Klaus can find Elena, his supposedly dead doppelgänger, almost immediately, but then you’re going to get a scene where Tyler and Caroline rig a door handle with honey and chat about Matt. But then they’re going to get interrupted by a crazy, ancient vampire, but she’s going to be playing with a camera phone and dealing with a small jealousy issue. Our leading lady’s life will be on the line, but Bonnie and Matt will have time to talk about how weird their lives are now, compared to a couple of years ago when they were just lifeguards. And then Matt’s going to try to kill himself so he can talk to his dead sister.

Three characters were technically dead for part of tonight’s episode. Admittedly they all came back, but that’s not always the case on this show. There is an innate fearlessness attached to the show that makes watching it absolutely thrilling. You literally never know what’s going to happen next because you can’t rely on the series to stop where most shows would. Characters can and do die. And they can and do lose themselves.

Vampire Diaries knows its characters and it relies on the audience to know its characters–sometimes that’s Elena’s absolute faith in Stefan and Stefan’s love for Elena, sometimes it’s Damon’s moral gray areas or Bonnie’s moral absolutes. The show also knows that making a change on the character level can completely shake up the story. Tonight that meant Stefan losing his last piece of humanity, his love for Elena. It also meant Elena putting her faith in Damon. The stories they set up on the character level–Stefan moving back to Mystic Falls, but without the emotional attachment that was tying him to the town before, Damon giving into Elena’s need for him to be the “good brother,” though we’ve seen it tear him apart in the past–will always be more compelling than a crazy chase scene. And Vampire Diaries has offered up some excellent chase scenes.

Mostly though, this is a series that knows where it’s going and it leaves breadcrumbs along the way. Often we don’t know that’s what they are until we’ve moved past them, but there is a clear path through this story. Everything is relevant eventually.

So when I say Vampire Diaries is the best show on TV I don’t feel the need to qualify it. I don’t mean it’s the best fantasy show on TV, or the best show on Thursday nights (which is stiff competition anyway!). I don’t mean it’s the best show on the CW, or the best network show. I mean it is the best show.

And you should really be watching.

How to Fix ‘Ringer.’

I really wanted to like Ringer. It is, after all, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s big return to TV (a medium that suits her much better than the narrow spectrum of horror movies she’s starred in since Buffy went off the air in 2003). It’s also got Kristoffer Polaha, who I so liked in Life Unexpected, and Nestor Carbonell, he of Lost and the luscious lashes. It’s even got the potential to tell a compelling story, with its secrets and doppelgängers. Shows like Vampire Diaries and Battlestar Galactica have demonstrated just how much fun is to be had when you’ve got duplicates on the loose.

Unfortunately, Ringer hasn’t followed through on the promise of its cast or its premise. We’re four episodes in and neither Bridget nor Siobhan has developed much of a personality (outside of the occasional bit of watered-down snark from Bridget), the story is driven by events rather than the characters’ responses to those events, and Bridget is still fumbling her way through her sister’s life, relying on context clues and luck to get by undetected.

There are a few easy ways the show could improve, though:

1. Give Bridget an ally. Until the final moments of last week’s episode the only person who was in on her secret was her sponsor/maybe-boyfriend Malcolm. He doesn’t know any more about Siobhan’s life than Bridget does, he’s only accesible to her over the phone and he’s painfully boring. By letting someone from Siobhan’s life in on who she is Bridget will have access to inside information (no more of that awkward dialogue where Bridget gets just enough to get her to the other side of a conversation), as well as someone she can talk to. It will allow her to actually talk to someone, instead of talking around everything. Last week’s episode ended with Bridget confessing her identity to Gemma. We can only hope that Gemma will a) believe her and b) help her.

2. Address the pregnancy. Bridget is not pregnant and that’s something she can only hide for so long–not every TV husband is as gullible as Will Schuester. Admittedly she’s got a lot of secrets going at the moment, but this one has only been used as an excuse thus far. Addressing it head on would cut back my eye-rolling by half.

3. Expose a few secrets, to the audience at least. It seems like every character on this show is keeping at least a half dozen secrets from every other character. Bridget and Siobhan especially. The series has been using flashbacks since the pilot, but it has yet to take full advantage of the format–if they let out a little more of the twins’ backstory (for example, the identity of the little boy from the pilot) they might find a more invested audience. They shouldn’t give everything away, but letting go of bits of information over time will give the story a little momentum.

4. Give Siobhan something to do that goes beyond seducing American business men for nefarious purposes. Or at least tell us what her nefarious purposes are. When we only see her interacting with a man she’s using for his connection to her husband and making one-sided phone calls it’s hard to learn anything about her. We don’t know her motives or what she’s feeling–all we know is that she’s a decent actress. And because of that, we can’t even trust the Siobhan we see in flashbacks.

I hope tonight’s episode will show signs of improvement. They’re already on their way to accomplishing number 1. Fingers crossed that they follow through.

Two Steps Behind.

The season 4 finale of Breaking Bad aired last night and I’m sure the internet is full of reviews and recaps and speculation. If the explosive reactions I’ve seen on tumblr and twitter are any indication, it was a hell of a finale.

But I haven’t seen it.

I put off starting Breaking Bad for a long time. Not because I didn’t think it was good, I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the series since it started, but because I didn’t think I’d find anything to interest me in a series that’s so heavily focused on drugs. I should have known better. After all, I have no interest in football and yet find Friday Night Lights to be some of the most compelling and thrilling television of the last ten years.

I did finally cave to Breaking Bad a few weeks ago, though. The first three seasons were streaming on Netflix (I don’t understand people who complain about the lack of selection available on Netflix–there’s so much excellent television to choose from!–but that’s another post for another time), and the fourth season was ramping up on AMC. It seemed like a good time.

I had to push myself to watch that first season, though. It was like the vegetables of television; while it was clear that the performances were outstanding, the writing was top notch and the character work was impeccable, I was still watching a series that did not interest me on a fundamental level. I got through those first seven episodes, and then the season 2 premiere–all the while hearing from friends that I was going to get sucked in any minute–but then I let myself get distracted by the second season of Better Off Ted and by premiere week and by a slow-moving Friday Night Lights rewatch. And then, with increasing concern that I’d be spoiled for the events of season 4 before I had finished watching season 2, I pulled Breaking Bad back up on Netflix this weekend.

And promptly tore through season 2.

Here’s the thing about Breaking Bad: while I do feel like the episodes are too long at 47 minutes, and while I still find nothing interesting about the drug business, and while I’m thoroughly confused by Jesse Pinkman’s shiny white teeth, the series has captured me completely on a character level. My heart races every time Walt has to get something past his family (though I’m simultaneously hoping his secrets will come out at any minute), and I want only good things to come to Jesse, to whom good things seem impossible. My heart broke for Jane, and it breaks for Skylar and Walter Jr. on a regular basis. Even Hank, who I couldn’t stand at first, has grown on me considerably.

I’m not someone who generally has much sympathy for traditionally unlikable characters. I like heroes and I have since my Disney days, so it takes a truly outstanding series to convince me that I should side with a man like Walter White. Maybe that wouldn’t have been the case at the beginning of the series when he was desperate to find a means of providing for his family, but at the end of series two his motives have changed, he is no longer a good man doing a bad thing, and I still feel for him.

Breaking Bad is very concerned with consequences. Obviously, I can’t speak for seasons 3 and 4, but the second season starts laying the pieces for its consequences right from the beginning. The episode teasers of the stuffed animal in the pool, each one revealing more of the surrounding scene, all build to the consequences of Walter White’s actions on a grand scale. Consequences that don’t just affect him or Jesse or his family, but that affect the city of Albuquerque and the people flying over it. The second season foreshadowed this widening scope with the music video in “Negro Y Azul” and with Hank’s map of the blue meth’s expansion.

I may be two seasons behind everybody else, and my excitement may, therefore, be thoroughly uninteresting to those with a firmer grasp on the zeitgeist, but I had to share my excitement–that is, after all, what this blog is all about. And Breaking Bad is, if nothing else, exciting TV.