Archive for the ‘television’ Category
You can also read Part 1 of the results.
Welcome to the results of the first ever TV Showdown, covering the shows that aired between September, 2011, and September, 2012. The half-hour show results are below.
Before we get to the results, I want to offer sincere thank you to all who voted, and to those who spread the word on this silly little attempt to get a sense of what the consensus is on great television. Nielsen, critical sites, Twitter can be misleading in determining which shows people are passionate about and which they merely watch. With the rise of “hate-watching” and the ubiquity of “guilty pleasures,” I offered this as an opportunity to self-assess what we each think of the shows we watch and compare our notes with each other. In no way should this be understood as a substitute for he legitimate skills of close watching, critical analysis, or journalism. Instead, this is a (hopefully fun) supplement to these, existing to take a snapshot of where we are as a TV-watching community, and perhaps serve as a resource for those looking for new shows to check out.
Enough. On with the shows.
The Top Tier
1. Parks and Recreation, NBC (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Louie, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–18
3. Community, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 32–21, loses to Louie, FX by 21–20
The votes in the first tier were incredibly close. Louie was winning for the first half the week, and Community made a late push into the top after a slow start. But it was Parks and Recreation and its occasionally dramatic political and romantic storylines that emerged as a clear winner this year. Parks and Recreation placed in the top 5 on 82% of the ballots rating it, suggesting that those who watch it really love it. Impressively, 16% of ballots that ranked both Parks and Recreation and Community had them as 1-2 (in some order), suggesting that while NBC might have its problems in the ratings, it has managed to create a really popular pairing. (Network mates 30 Rock and The Office also ranked, at 9 and 32, respectively. Bent, at 26, is ranked higher than relative ratings hit The Office, but Bent couldn’t survive its low ratings to make it to a second season after a six-episode run on NBC, as The Office had once done.)
The Second Tier
4. Archer, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 26–10, loses to Community, NBC by 24–11
5. Happy Endings, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 29–4, loses to Archer, FX by 17–9
A highly quotable animated spy spoof and the best of the new breed of friends-in-the-city sit-coms received a lot of love in their third and second seasons, respectively.
The Third Tier
6. Bob’s Burgers, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–3, loses to Happy Endings, ABC by 15–9
7. The Thick of It, Hulu loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 10–3, loses to Happy Endings, ABC by 8–5
8. Girls, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 28–10, loses to The Thick of It, Hulu by 5–4
9. 30 Rock, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 41–4, loses to Girls, HBO by 17–16
10. Cougar Town, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–2, loses to 30 Rock, NBC by 16–14
None of these received many first or second place votes, but they all are well liked by enough people to make a very strong showing. Both Fox and, perhaps surprisingly, HBO make their first appearance here. Bob’s Burgers in particular has charmed a lot of critics.
The Fourth Tier
At this point, the choice of condorcet completion method becomes more relevant. On another reasonable way of ranking, Gravity Falls would be 10 and The Legend of Korra would be 12. So, again, it is better to view these as a rough grouping.
11. New Girl, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 39–2, loses to Cougar Town, ABC by 19–9
12. Enlightened, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–3, loses to New Girl, Fox by 6–5
13. Children’s Hospital, adult swim loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 21–2, loses to Enlightened, HBO by 3–2
14. Suburgatory, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–0, loses to Children’s Hospital, adult swim by 8–6
15. Gravity Falls, Disney loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 12–0, loses to 30 Rock, NBC by 7–5
16. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 25–1, loses to Gravity Falls, Disney by 4–2
17. Veep, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–1, loses to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX by 11–7
18. The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 12–1, loses to Veep, HBO by 5–2
19. The Middle, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 17–4, loses to The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon by 3–1
20. Awkward, MTV loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 18–2, loses to The Middle, ABC by 6–4
21. Don’t Trust the B——, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 32–0, loses to Awkward, MTV by 8–6
22. The League, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 18–3, loses to Don’t Trust the B——, ABC by 9–6
23. Bored to Death, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–2, loses to The League, FX by 3–2
24. How I Met Your Mother, CBS loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 36–0, loses to Bored to Death, HBO by 7–4
25. Wilfred, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 26–1, loses to How I Met Your Mother, CBS by 10–9
26. Bent, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 28–0, loses to Wilfred, FX by 7–4
27. Raising Hope, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 20–1, loses to Wilfred, FX by 6–5
28. Modern Family, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 38–0, loses to Raising Hope, Fox by 10–9
29. The Big Bang Theory, CBS loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 22–0, loses to Bent, NBC by 5–4
30. The Simpsons, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 15–1, loses to The Big Bang Theory, CBS by 6–5
31. Futurama, Comedy Central loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–0, loses to The Simpsons, Fox by 8–4
New Girl‘s position is surprisingly high, but this is perhaps explained that those who really hated it (and there were many) didn’t watch enough episodes to vote it lower. I expected a better showing from The Middle, which was third on my own list. How I Met Your Mother, Raising Hope, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory (and The Office, below) weren’t able to bring out much love, despite being cornerstone shows on their networks’ comedy nights.
The Fifth Tier
32. The Office, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 39–0, loses to Futurama, Comedy Central by 12–4
33. Episodes, Showtime loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–2, loses to The Office, NBC by 5–4
34. Eastbound and Down, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 11–3, loses to Episodes, Showtime by 3–2
35. South Park, Comedy Central loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 14–2, loses to Eastbound and Down, HBO by 6–2
36. Portlandia, IFC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 17–0, loses to South Park, Comedy Central by 3–2
37. Family Guy, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–0, loses to Portlandia, IFC by 3–1
The results of the first ever TV Showdown are in. I’ll be breaking down the results over two posts, one on Half-Hour and one on One-Hour shows.
Before I do, please note that I won’t be discussing the results of the Competition shows or Variety/Reality/News/Sports shows, because there were not enough results to make the responses interesting. What responses there were didn’t share enough consensus to lead to any noticeable results. (When there were a similar number of ballots in Half-Hour and Hour, a consensus had already emerged near the top.) If you would like to view the breakdown of responses, you can do so through the following links: Competition, Alternate Method Competition, Variety, Alternate Method Variety.
3. Mad Men, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 18–7, loses to Homeland, Showtime by 15–11
5. Game of Thrones, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 22–3, loses to The Good Wife, CBS by 12–11
6. Justified, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 19–3, loses to Game of Thrones, HBO by 13–12
8. Fringe, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 19–0, loses to Sherlock, PBS by 19–8
9. The Vampire Diaries, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–1, loses to Sherlock, PBS by 12–11
11. Boardwalk Empire, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–0, loses to Parenthood, NBC by 5–4
12. Doctor Who, BBC America loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–1, loses to Boardwalk Empire, HBO by 6–4
14. Bunheads, ABC Family loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 16–1, loses to Revenge, ABC by 11–10
15. Misfits, Hulu loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–1, loses to Bunheads, ABC Family by 7–3
16. Sons of Anarchy, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 13–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–3
17. The L.A. Complex, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–2
18. The Walking Dead, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 21–0, loses to The L.A. Complex, The CW by 4–1
22. Luther, BBC America loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Castle, ABC by 3–2
23. Alphas, Syfy loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to The L.A. Complex, The CW by 6–1
24. Spartacus, Starz loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to The Newsroom, HBO by 3–1
25. Chuck, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Spartacus, Starz by 1–0
26. Luck, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–3
27. Dexter, Showtime loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Luck, HBO by 5–2
28. American Horror Story, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 17–0, loses to Dexter, Showtime by 5–1
29. Suits, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Dexter, Showtime by 3–1
30. Falling Skies, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Suits, USA by 2–1
31. Grimm, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Falling Skies, TNT by 4–2
32. House, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Grimm, NBC by 4–1
33. Grey’s Anatomy, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Suits, USA by 3–2
34. Scandal, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Grey’s Anatomy, ABC by 6–1
35. Covert Affairs, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Grey’s Anatomy, ABC by 2–1
37. Big Love, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–1, loses to House, Fox by 2–1
38. Hart of Dixie, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Big Love, HBO by 3–0
40. Bones, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Boss, Starz by 1–0
41. White Collar, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Bones, Fox by 5–3
42. The Killing, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–0, loses to White Collar, USA by 3–2
43. Alcatraz, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 13–0, loses to The Killing, AMC by 4–3
44. The Mentalist, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to The Killing, AMC by 2–1
45. True Blood, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–1, loses to The Mentalist, CBS by 2–0
46. NCIS, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Mentalist, CBS by 4–2
47. Switched at Birth, ABC Family loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to NCIS, CBS by 2–0
48. Supernatural, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Switched at Birth, ABC Family by 2–0
50. Smash, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Criminal Minds, CBS by 4–1
51. The Finder, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Criminal Minds, CBS by 2–0
52. Burn Notice, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Finder, Fox by 3–2
53. GCB, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Burn Notice, USA by 4–1
54. Person of Interest, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Finder, Fox by 2–0
55. House of Lies, Showtime loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Person of Interest, CBS by 1–0
57. Southland, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to Prime Suspect, NBC by 3–2
58 (tied). The Closer, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Southland, TNT by 3–1
62. Dallas, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 7–0, loses to The Closer, TNT by 2–1
63. Nikita, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Dallas, TNT by 2–0
64. Necessary Roughness, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Dallas, TNT by 1–0
65. Desperate Housewives, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to Necessary Roughness, USA by 1–0
68. CSI, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Hell on Wheels, AMC by 1–0
69. Hawaii Five-0, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to CSI, CBS by 2–1
Welcome to the very first TV Showdown, in which you can express your love of television, lists, arguments, and peer pressure through voting. Here are a few things you need to know to participate:
1. May I vote?
Yes. If you are reading this, you are welcome to vote (only once). Ideally you’re the sort of person who watches a good deal of TV, talks to others about it, and perhaps reads or writes reviews. But all are welcome.
2. How do I vote?
Rank the shows you watch from your favorite (1) to least favorite (lowest number). Shows you don’t watch should get “No Opinion.” This last bit is important. PLEASE PUT “NO OPINION” for shows you do not watch. This allows the condorcet system to work best.
3. How often do I need to watch a show for my voting to count?
I’ll count your votes regardless, but I ask you to follow this rule of thumb:
Half-hour shows: At least half the new episodes
Hour-long shows: At least 1/3 the new episodes
Competition shows: At least 1/3 the new episodes
News, Reality, Variety, Sports: At least 6 hours of the show (12+ for sports)
4. Am I ranking all-time favorites or just this year?
Please rank the shows based solely on episodes that first aired in the US from September 15, 2011, to September 15, 2012. This is a snapshot in time.
5. My favorite show isn’t on here! What should I do?
I made my best effort to include many of the most popular, respected, and passionately loved shows, but I can’t (and wouldn’t) include everything. If there’s something you would like to see on one of the lists, please let me know and I will potentially add it next year. I am also limiting the list to shows that were released in the United States on TV/internet during the year.
6. What is condorcet voting? Why this way?
Many year-end lists use a ranking system of a persons’s top 10 or 25 shows. But there are some shows that we haven’t watched, and these lose out. And I might not be passionate about a show but still think it’s better than something else. This allows these preferences to count for a show and blind spots not to count against a show. Everybody wins.
7. When can I vote?
Any time between Friday, September 7, 2012, and Friday, September 14, 2012.
Now go vote. I’ll post the results next weekend.
Half-Hour Scripted: http://is.gd/HeHghs
One-Hour Scripted: http://is.gd/dbO2E0
News, Reality, Sports, Variety: http://is.gd/CDNl6k
One of my favorite half-hour cable shows is House Hunters. (Actually, I prefer House Hunters International, part of the HH franchise that now includes a vacation home show.) In the show, we meet a couple who describe their needs and desires for a home. They then visit three houses (or condos or flats) to purchase. As the couple walks through the homes, they point out features that they like or don’t like. A realtor describes the area and the amenities. At the end, the couple sits down over coffee or walk down a sidewalk to discuss the three homes. Throughout the show, a host narrates by discussing the salient features of each house. A graphic on the screen declares “House #1/2/3″ and a brief description like “Downtown Location” or “Extra Bedroom.”
The joy of watching the show is, at least for me, something akin to watching a game show. The contestants are making a large-money decision, and we viewers at home guess at not only what would be the best decision for the couple but also what the couple will actually choose.
News broke a while back that the couple often wasn’t choosing between three options but had already made their decision (for production purposes, it’s easier if the house is already on deposit or purchased) or the other two options were never really options (they might have been staged friends’ homes, for instance). This fakery didn’t bother me as much as if some other reality-suggesting show turned out to be faked, because the peculiar pleasures of House Hunters have so much to do with its bizarrely reductive attempts to reconstruct reasoning processes.
The couples on the show are notorious (at least within my household) for the bizarre reasons they choose a house. “I like the paint color.” “This one has a larger master bathroom.” The forced conceit of having a television crew follow you around as you try to come up with things to say about each room is a delightful insight into what people think they should know or care about a house. Note: it’s not that we are getting insight into how people think about houses; we are getting insight into how people think that they should think about houses. It’s as if at each moment of the show, the couple is saying, “This sounds like the sort of reason we might choose one place over another that doesn’t sound like I’m just saying ‘I like it’ over and over.” Add in the acrinomy caused by couples negotiating their first time on television while they try to figure out how to give justifying reasons for their decisions, and the show is a delightful entrance into artificially constructed reasoning.
I was reminded of my interest in House Hunters week by the release of Sight & Sound Magazine’s list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time, according to invited critics, academics, and programmers. Like House Hunters, the Sight & Sound list invites participants and viewers to engage in reconstructed reasoning. A few months ago, critics needed to decide which films they consider the 10 greatest of all time and why. Based on the accounts I have read, few were satisfied with “I like it,” so elaborate reasoning processes were established and obscure rules are employed. It seems that no two critics adopted the same decision procedure for why each had the list he or she did. With introspection failing, all that’s left is an artificial attempt at reasoning where reasoning can at best fall short. (Part of why the Vishnevestsky method was so delightful is how it called our attention to this artifice.)
A second stage of reconstructed reasoning is taking place now that the list has been revealed, and we are left wondering if there is a reason why Vertigo surpassed Citizen Kane at the No. 1 position, or why certain directors have fallen out of favor. These attempts to draw out some reasoning process that would have led to this decision is as potentially fun and as likely unhelpful as guessing which home will be chosen on House Hunters. When the rules for deciding are made up as one goes along, we are left asking what sorts of publicly available reasons could explain miniscule shifts in voting preferences over the ten years since the last poll. Our reasoning fails us now, just as it was of limited use to those voting in the poll.
Now, please don’t conclude from this that there is no such thing as a better or worse reason for voting something one of the ten greatest films of all time, or that all reasoning is just an expression of taste, or any other foolishly general conclusion. We reason. Sometimes we reason well. Sometimes we reason where reason is of limited use, but this is not to say it is of no use. In some cases “larger master bathroom” is reason enough to make a decision, and in some cases “exemplary expression of a personal vision” is reason enough as well.
Warning: This is about television, but includes material unsuitable for those disinclined from hearing about another person’s adorable kid.
I’ve been thinking a bit about television, and what the cool kids in media studies call “convergence.” Convergence is a catch-all term that brings under one heading the various ways in which changing technology leads to the migration of media across different platforms, the industrial processes behind these changes, and the new cultural experiences that follow. In other words, how should we think about playing a movie on a telephone?
My interest recently has been more specific. As the father of a kid a little more than a year old, my partner and I have to make a lot of decisions about what media we will let him consume, in what quantities, and at what times. Our general approach has been to err on the side of less watching for now. He basically gets to watch TV when he is getting his fingernails clipped (the kid squirms like a worm on a hook), when he is sick (he’s caught bits of Sweetgrass and The Muppets this way), and when we are visiting his television-watching cousins. He occasionally gets to watch YouTube videos of song-and-dance numbers from old movies or can pound on the iPad for some interactive app. All told, he’s spent very little time watching TV shows or movies on a TV set. But he still loves the TV.
I got a Roku player for Christmas from my in-laws, and this has become our primary means of playing music when we are at home. We all like music a lot, so it’s not uncommon for music to be playing for an hour or two each day. And when it does, it is often piped through the Roku, attached to the TV and the stereo system. The Pandora or Shoutcast information displays on the screen while we play. So when he hears music, he turns to watch the CD cover art float across the screen or see what else the TV displays while his music plays. This expectation is so engrained that he loses interest very quickly in anything on the TV that is not accompanied by music. At his age, he is too young to follow a story told audio-visually, but he can dance along to a song.
I don’t know quite what conceptual tools a fifteen-month-old has, but it’s pretty clear from his behavior that he is interested in the TV primarily for the music. He loves music and will start dancing at any suggestion of music. (Yesterday, church bells rang at 4pm and he started to dance.)
My kid won’t grow up having clearly delineated television shows, web content, and movies. “Films” will always have been an anachronistic term. Tablet computers were the nighlights keeping his parents entertained during his sleepless first few weeks. The music industry will always have had a deal with Apple, and most music the world has ever recorded will be available for a price (or the cost of an intrusive ad). He’ll be fine with that, as long as he can dance.
I’ve been watching The Vampire Diaries recently, which is a really entertaining, surprisingly capable show that scratches my itch for marathon-able genre television. It reminded me, though, of something that I’ve seen repeated in a lot of other vampire mythologies. Well, okay, I’m really only familiar with The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m pretty sure it’s not in all vampire stories, but it seems to have become one of the key points that all vampire stories need to accept or deny. I want to know: why do vampires respect property laws?
Vampires, the stories go, are not allowed to enter a house where a human being lives. Once that person dies, they can enter. Otherwise, they must get an invitation (usually, an invitation from the human habitant) in order to enter. Some myths allow the vampire to later be expelled, others don’t. The point is, vampires are bound – physically prevented somehow – from entering a human residence.
Perhaps this says something strange about me, but I find it much easier to go along with a story about vampires than I do to go along with a story that assumes (1) that property rights are natural and (2) that property-ownership is a non-vague metaphysical relation. Allow me to elaborate.
Some folks think that I stand in an ownership-relation to my body. I own my body. By extension, when I work the common land that belongs to everyone or no one, I make that thing mine by mixing my labor with it. (Yes, it’s called the labor-mixing argument. It’s in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government if you want the history of the idea. Homework: How did Marx exploit this principle?) I then have a natural right to whatever I’ve labored on. Slowly, by extension, and in ways that are not always clear, we extend ownership to many things that I didn’t mix my labor with. Usually, I paid for it and that makes it mine. Using arguments like these, some people see the right to own property as a natural right, one that applies to all human beings just because they are human beings. This is distinct from a legal right which is a right that applies only because the laws of the place I live say so. (More homework: Are civil right different from these two or identical to one or the other? What about human rights?)
Property rights as legal rights make a lot of sense to me. Property rights as natural rights don’t seem that plausible to me. The way to make them plausible, I think, is to say that they are natural in virtue of some aspect of human beings (or, more generally, rational agents), particularly something about the way they naturally congregate into societies.
What seems like a really bad way to argue that property rights are natural rights is to find support in either (1) the physical constition of the universe (that is in nomological law) or (2) in some broadly logical principle about objects and their relations (a metaphysical law). Nothing about my physical make-up as a member of homo sapiens logically requires that I be able to own property. And nothing about me as a physical being or as a rational agent seems to require it either (although some will disagree at this point).
All this means that it strikes me as extremely unlikely that the universe as it exists or as it would exist if there were vampires would be one that makes it a truth of the world that vampires must respect property lines. (I’m assuming a very plausible principle here: fictional worlds are like are own in every way not specifically marked as different. E.g., The world of The Vampire Diaries has gravity like ours and New York City has the same layout, but there is a place called Mystic Falls, there are vamipres, and so on.)
And while we’re at it, why the doorstop? Why not the curb? Property lines are ambiguous. And furthermore, whether or not someone lives at a place is vague (there are cases where it is not clear that I live there or I do not live there). I mean, have you ever tried to file taxes in two states? It’s a nightmare. How likely is it that there is some property principle in the universe (like gravity,or two objects can’t coexist at the same place at the same time) that is non-ambiguous and non-vague?
Vampires? I can roll with that. Ownership as a nomological or metaphysical law? That’s what bugs me.
UPDATE: I just watched TVD s1 e20, where Damon makes the following statement about threshholds, “Hotels and short-term leases are a gray area. Play it by ear.”
UPDATE 2: And to clarify, my objection is not that there can’t be vague objects in nature. (There’s no sharp border between a mountain and a valley, for instance.) It’s that even if property rights were somehow natural (which I don’t think they are), there’s no non-arbitrary reason for there to be a sharp cut-off (the doorstep/window) for something ambiguous and vague like where property lines end.
Lost spoilers through the series finale (6.17)
Note to readers: The first two sections are boring background. Feel free to skip ahead to the more interesting discussion in part three, below the video.
“I once was lost.” – John Newton
I’ve not always been kind to Lost. Maybe even a little harsh. I first came to the show from my dad, who was a fan. When my brother bought him the first season on DVD, I borrowed it and dug in. I found it very effective at times, with fun mysteries about rumblings in the jungle and weird smoke and a light shining out of the ground. But those fun moments were a little too few and far between for me. The format of the first season, with its on-island stories broken up by single-episode flashbacks developing each character’s history, both made the (to me) more interesting on-island stories move too slowly and was too dependent on the acting of its cast, who (especially that first season) were of varied abilities. Locke story? Yea! Jack story? Ugh. And so on.
I would step away, then try again at various points. I would rewatch a previous season or handful of episodes when I felt the push to try again. After enjoying a season four catch-up (DVRed off of Syfy when it was still Sci-Fi) to watch season five, my wife and I just couldn’t handle the week-to-week viewing of a show we just weren’t enjoying very much. So we gave up. For good, I thought. When season six rolled around in 2010, I’d skim through my Twitter feed on Wednesday mornings, catching some reactions to the previous night’s episodes while doing my best to avoid spoilers in case I did want to dig in again.
“I’m lost in the world. I’m down on my mind.” – Kanye West
Then all hell broke loose. Friends of ours who are not particularly television addicts were rushing home on Tuesday nights for their weekly Lost viewing, but they were increasingly annoyed by the slow pace of season six. And boy, did they hate the finale. So few answers! What about this? What about that?
Honestly, it left me a little intrigued.
But also a little put out. I didn’t feel a part of this fan community. I had never watched that closely for secret signals about what was going on. (If pressed, I could probably remember half the numbers of that famous sequence.) So after the hullabaloo died down, I began suggesting to my wife that we attempt a rewatch. From what point was a tough answer, but we settled on season four. That turned out to be a pretty great choice because I loved that season on the rewatch. The on-island stories were moving along swiftly, the new cast of characters included some stronger actors with richer stories to embody, and there were lots of intriguing questions rising to the forefront. I once again lost interest in the beginning of season five. Way too much time off-island. Glacial plotting. Until it got awesome with a few episodes left. And finally, turning to season six, I realized this was a show I loved. Or rather, in seasons four through six Lost became the show I always wanted it to be: not a collection of short stories with a couple mysterious strands running through it, but a creatively, structurally, and emotionally ambitious story with strong characters who made decisions without enough information and lived with consequences that they didn’t understand.
I watched the show with my wife, apart from the fan communities that were listening to showrunner podcasts and debating clues and constructing timelines and predicting where the show was going. Other than the general sense from friends and twitter buddies (and one afternoon in which I read Jason Mittell’s Lost Wednesday posts on Antenna) I’ve been able to watch it (1) without the questions that gnawed at the show’s devotees and (2) in one relatively compact stretch. Both of these factors presumably made a difference in how I watched. But I’ll leave it to smart folks like Jason Mittell to work that out.
I’ll focus on something slightly different. I knew from others that the show’s finale was religious, but I didn’t know the specifics. (Alison Janney is some kind of angel who decides who was good and who was bad? Or something?) I also knew that people were unsatisfied that so many questions were left unanswered. At the forefront of my mind in watching season six were not questions about how the Dharma Initiative got to the island or how the donkey wheel placed people in Tunisia. I wanted to know, “Why aren’t people digging this as much as I am? Why am I loving this so much when so many friends whose television opinions I respect dislike it so much?” What follows is my (inadequate) attempt at a (partial) answer.
“We are building a religion.” – Cake
With the possible exception of Angel, which was built around the idea of redemption (what it is, why it matters, how to get it) and secondarily around the nature of prophecy, Lost is the most religious show I’ve ever watched. First, I’ll say how it’s religious, which should lead naturally into my reasons for appreciating the final season (and especially the finale) more than the more devoted fans.
- Religious Themes: Central to Lost, at least in its middle seasons, was the conflict between faith and reason played out between John Locke and Jack Shephard, respectively. This conflict became more nuanced in the later seasons, as Jack’s arc took him from “man of science” to “man who was convinced that his life had purpose, despite there being little more than a gut feeling telling him this.” Locke went from faithful servant of the island to dead. Importantly, both end up in the same place in the end, but for most of the last two seasons the show was in favor of a “reason tempered with humility of the unknown” approach that Jack came to embody and which allowed him to be the island’s savior. (Nothing in those early seasons suggested to me that Jack was a Christ-figure, but that’s how the finale played it.) There were plenty of other religious themes, including the nature of prophecy (again, parrallels to Angel), the existence and nature of free will, the role of authority, the possibility of miracles, and the search for meaning. Lost was a pretty religious show, at least from season two on.
- Religious Mythology: But Lost went beyond merely entertaining questions about religion, and built its own religious mythology. It borrowed from existing religions to create its own set of myths, symbols, and rituals. (I don’t want to play up to much the notion that “Lost fans are like religious devotees,” but lots of people set out Tuesday nights the way that religious practitioners set out their holy day.) More interesting to me is the way that Lost gloriously defied reducing any of its symbolism, imagery, and ideas to a specific religion. It probably borrowed more from Christianity than other religions, but the show really creates its own set of artifacts, heroes of the faith, and symbolism in a way that few shows attempt. It borrows liberally from other religions, but puts them to its own use in creating a mythology built on common archetypes (twin brothers, games, individual sacrifice) that has its own specifics. Protect the light at the center of the island! Turn the donkey wheel! Trust Jacob! Don’t trust Jacob! Lost created a fictional universe with a set of moral principles, focal stories, and religious perspectives that goes beyond typical world-building. (Side note:I was a little annoyed at the stained glass window in the church(?) in the finale that included symbols from various religions; this suggested a that the show was more about the unity of all religions rather than creating something new out of them, which is the reading I prefer.)
- Religious Readings: Lost also provides a unique, although obtuse entry into thinking about how people approach religious texts and the parallels for television shows with rich mythologies. Here’s four rough groupings of how people approach religious texts … and Lost. (1) There are those who expect extremely detailed, accurate, and literal reconstructions of religious texts. They might, to point to one contemporary instance, determine that Jesus Christ is returning on May 21, 2011, based on a combination of interpreting vague phrases (“rumors of war”) and interpolating from specific chronologies. They expect their religious texts to provide all the answers to all the questions they bring to it. These folks aren’t more or less religious than others, nor are they all crazies. (But those May 21 folks are a little crazy.) Perhaps the Gemara era of Talmudic commentary might represent this sort of precise, detailed approach that expects coherence. These interpreters expect a level of detail and foreground a kind of interpretation that parallels (in some, but obviously not all ways) the kind of answer-seeking that marked many Lost fans. (2) Other folks approach religious texts with a set of non-religious questions. What can this text teach us about the culture at the time? About literary form? About the sociology of religion? Similarly, some folks (the kind most likely to write books about Lost) are interested in what Lost can tell us about television, about America, about our desire for meaning and community. (3) Another set of Lost viewers is primarily concerned with the stories or the characters. They don’t care about what the island really is or whether there is a scientific explanation of Locke’s ability to walk after the plane crash. They care about these people, they marvel at their stories, and they want to know what happens to them. And plenty of folks approach the Upanishads or the Koran or the Book of Ruth as a collection of really great, emotionally powerful stories. In both cases, we can learn things from these stories, the way we learn things from any great stories. (4) Finally, some folks expect that religious texts are collections of stories, often gathered from multiple authors and even more editors, that more or less hang together, and which generally tell a coherent narrative, but do so not by filling in all the details but by leaving things so open that there are any number of ways to make it consistent. Plenty is left open to interpretation and plenty is left underdetermined because the point was never to fill in all the details but to tell parables, allegories, and other good stories that are compelling and instructive.
These groups are not exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive. One could easily shift perspectives and embrace the value of these (and more). I prefer approach (4), with an interest in the careful analysis represented in (1) and plenty of external questions like those valued in (2).
Ultimately, appreciating the last season of Lost is about adopting approach (3) or approach (4). The first approach will set you up for disappointment. The second is interesting, but not one that the show really cared about. (Unlike, say, 24 or The Wire, which emphasized their real-world applications.) The fourth approach is the one I most closely identify with in the interpretation of religious texts, so I think by being removed from the fan communities that emphasized (1), I tended toward this approach and was thus able to get more enjoyment out of the final season. And while the show often flirted with (1) and mostly focused on (3), the finale was really focused on (3) and, especially in those last fifteen minutes, on (4). Having spent most of the final season thinking about how little interested I was in answers of the sort that (1) expected (I could barely remember the questions), and only mildly interested in (2) and (3), I think that I was a better position to appreciate such an ambiguous finale. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t hang together; it may fit together as tightly and coherently as the first approach expects. But I never expected everything to be explicit, everything to be answered, everything to be tied together. (Again, this is only partly because of this taxonomy of religious reading; I was also primed by other viewers to expect a lot of questions remaining unanswered.)
Religious texts mostly don’t make things explicit when they are telling stories. (They often do that elsewhere.) They tell you parts of the story: the parts that answered someone else’s question or that portrayed a particularly resonant idea. And as in most religious texts, Lost is about people without enough information, making monumental decisions, the consequences of which they don’t understand. Occasionally the gods/God/showrunners step in with another piece of the puzzle, either directly or surreptitiously. But mostly we live in ignorance, trying to learn a little more, fitting together the pieces, knowing that ultimately even if it all fits together we’ll live most of our lives without all the pieces in place.
As in Lost, so in life.
[Having written all this now, I am interested to go and read others' interpretations of the final season and especially the finale. Perhaps I'll even update this afterwards.]
There’s been some talk recently about Community‘s “Pierce problem.” (And by “recently” I mean two whole weeks ago, which is basically forever in Internet Time.) Notable critics Jace Lacob, Alan Sepinwall, James Poniewozik have all written about it, as have many others. Emily Nussbaum connected it the show’s (possible) Chevy Chase problem. I don’t know (or care very much) about connections between Pierce’s character on the show and Chevy Chase the actor. But I do find it odd that Community has been singled out for its portrayal of Pierce, when so few shows even bother to have a character over the age of 60.
Community is fundamentally about the difficult necessity of forming and maintaing social groups, how they shape individual identities, and how they force a person to embrace new ideas and abandon old ones. Shirley’s religious convictions are tested, Jeff’s proclaimed moral relativism is shattered, Abed’s social skills are stretched, Britta’s self-righteousness is excoriated, and so on. Fundamentally, the show values human connections over almost any other ideal. Pierce, a generation older than anyone else in the group crystallizes this problem beautifully.
At first it seems that Pierce is simply out of touch with a younger generation, but over the course of a season and a half it has become clear that Pierce has never learned how to be a friend. Perhaps because he came to have his fortune early in life and on his own, he never saw himself as having peers, which may be one of the bases for friendship. (I’m really tempted to analyze all of Community’s relationships based on an Aristotelian taxonomy of friendship, but I’ll spare you. Perhaps just glance at this.)
In any case, Pierce plays a central role in the life of the group. Firstly, he is a “ghost of Christmas future” to prevent Jeff Scrooge from pulling out of all human relationships that are roughly equal. Both Jeff and Pierce entered the show only able to use people for their own advantage. Jeff is consistently caught between that old way and a new way in which he gives of himself for these other people. Jeff can still change, although the logic of the show isn’t settled enough to say whether the creators think he will. Pierce can’t change, without some character-breaking life conversion. (The connections between Jeff and Pierce probably go deeper. For instance, Noel Kirkpatrick of Monsters of Television suggested to me that that there similarities are further shown in their attitudes towards Annie.)
Secondly, Pierce represents the difficulty of people of different generations becoming friends. Perhaps the Pierce character is sometimes too convenient in throwing together stereotypes of a generation (self-made, casually racist) but the show at least attempts to find ways of fleshing out his character, even if some of those have been dead-ends. The character is limited in how much it can be fleshed out, but it is limited for good reason: Pierce has become so ossified in his personality that there is not much possibility for change. That, again, is a (possible) difference between he and Jeff.
Compare this, for a moment, to the portrayal of an older generation on two other very good shows, Parenthood and The Good Wife. In both cases, the shows created a parental figure so despicable that nearly every other character (and, in turn, the viewer) can’t help but despise them: Zeek Braverman (Craig T. Nelson) and Jackie Florick (Mary Beth Piel). These two characters served a single function on the first season of their shows. Zeek is the patriarch and the single largest problem in the lives of each of the now-adult children are how they were formed by his overbearing persona. Jackie is the prim, judgmental mother-in-law who is supposed to draw additional(!) sympathy for the embattered Alicia Florick. Both of these shows had to work extra hard in their second seasons to find some reason for us not to hate these characters, but they had dug themselves a huge hole at the outset.
I point to these other (very good) shows to demonstrate just how hard it is to write interesting older characters, and to point out that Pierce in the first season was a leg up on comparable (albeit dramatic) characters. (Good luck finding a sit-com where an older character isn’t just a horny boss or a dotty aunt or Betty White/Fred Willard in a cameo.) Pierce isn’t just a plot-mover (although like any character he has been used that way at times, notably on “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”), he’s a legitimate member of the group whose story arcs are as central and important as any other character on the show (with the possibly exception of Jeff, who is the de facto lead in the ensemble).
Put another way, on Community the “Pierce problem” is the same as the Jeff problem and the Annie problem and the Troy problem: how much are they willing to give up to be a part of this group? Some episodes a character like Pierce or Abed or Britta mostly just pushes the story along, but that’s the nature of an ensemble show.
I don’t care if Pierce becomes even angrier, even meaner, even more recalcitrant, because sometimes that happens to people. If Community were ever to have a Pierce problem, it would be that the character is no longer funny, which on a sit-com is the only real problem you can have that doesn’t involve Charlie Sheen.
I’m really not sure what the best performances on television were in 2010. Did you watch Louie or Terriers on FX? Then you don’t need me to tell you how great Louis C. K. and Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James were. Perhaps you watched Community‘s ensemble kick everyone’s asses around the comedy block. And there’s an overlap between critical lauds and industry awards for actors like John Hamm and Tina Fey. But I’m more interested in the performances that we just didn’t appreciate enough in 2010. Perhaps they were on shows that don’t get a lot of talk from the critics I follow. Or they may have been overshadowed by bigger, better, or arbitrarily chosen performances on their show. So here is a list of performers that I thought were very good to excellent but didn’t seem to get talked about much in the reviews or tweeters I follow. The usual restrictions apply, in that I haven’t seen many of this year’s much-talked about shows, including Breaking Bad and The Good Wife.
So, here we go with Unheralded Television Performances in 2010, and the performers who may have drawn attention away from these achievements.
Olivia Williams, Dollhouse
The focus: Enver Gjokaj
Gjokaj gave what was probably my favorite performance of 2010, as they only truly believable doll in the Dollhouse. When he became Topher, it instantly became one of the great impressions in the history of television. But in a subtler position, Olivia Williams gave us a cool but never cold, strong but never invincible, tricky but never tricked Adelle DeWitt, head of the Los Angeles dollhouse. Simultaneously, she gave one of the strongest supporting roles of the year in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. A great year for her.
Ray Romano, Men of a Certain Age
The focus: Andre Braugher
Braugher got the Emmy nomination, and I have no complaints about that. Scott Bakula got a good share of attention for his fine performance here, coming off his guest stint on Chuck. But this little-watched TNT drama, created by Romano, got its emotional center from Romano as the core of this trio of friends. Whether hanging out at their favorite diner, running his party goods store, or contemplating his failures as a father to his nervous preteen son, Romano brought a somewhat slack-jawed but always compelling look at a man struggling to keep his life circling the drain rather than running down it.
Joshua Jackson, Fringe
The focus: John Noble, Anna Torv
There’s a lot of love for John Noble’s performance as Walter Bishop, which has improved since his awful first season. And Anna Torv was asked to do a lot in the front half of the third season, and found a way to pull it off. But it seems that nobody has mentioned the fine job that Jackson has done playing charming but not smarmy, serious yet never self-serious. He manages Noble’s performance as Walter with aplomb and has found a delicate way to convey Peter’s friendship with Olivia.
Andrea Anders, Better Off Ted
The focus: Portia de Rossi, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett
I wrote in my Best of 2010 list about de Rossi, Slavin, and Barrett. But let us not forget Anders and her kooky, energetic, and occasionally hilarious performance as love interest to Ted Crisp. Her role was tough because she was asked both to be the grounded, sane one next to de Rossi, Slavin, and Barrett, and the crazy, unhinged one next to Jay Harrington and her mostly anonymous coworkers. And she did it.
Ken Marino, Party Down
The focus: Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Jane Lynch
Caplan was wonderful. Scott was serviceable as the audience’s entry point into Party Down Catering. Lynch got a lot of the kudos for her performance in the first season. But Marino’s lovesick Ron Donald with his Soup R Crackers franchise dream was both more emotionally moving and more hilarious than any of the other three. In a really wicked ensemble that only got better when Megan Mullally joined the cast in season two, Marino stood out with his puppy dog looks and killer comic timing.
Aimee Teegarden, Friday Night Lights
The focus: Connie Britton, Kyle Chandler
Some characters are great because of the actor’s performance. Some characters are written so beautifully, it’s difficult to know how much credit to give the actor. Teegarden falls into this latter category. A little stiff and wooden in the early seasons, she’s now become my favorite authentic representation of teenage life on television over the last ten years. The Taylor family oozes authenticity, and while Britton and Chandler get most of the credit, Teegarden deserves credit for holding her own in scenes with them and finding a way to let the writers develop compelling stories of love, friendship, and learning around her character.
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
The focus: Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari
It seemed that NBC was developing P&R as a star vehicle for SNL alumna Poehler. At times the first season felt that way. But the ensemble quickly developed and Offerman, Pratt, and Ansari gave performances so beloved, that Poehler became a little lost in the lovefest. So consider this a mild corrective to that.
Neil Flynn, The Middle & Garrett Dillahunt, Raising Hope
These are two uneven but occasionally hilarious shows that don’t get a lot of attention. Nearly all of Raising Hope‘s best scenes include Dillahunt, who helps elevate so-so material with fabulous line readings. I know him mostly for more dramatic roles (including this year’s excellent film Winter’s Bone), but he’s even better in a comedic role. Flynn takes a nearly opposite approach, toning down every would-be joke until it seems he’s trying to turn The Middle into a low-key family drama. He manages to be a wonderful combination of classic daddy-knows-best sitcom dad and playful yet lackadaisical partner in crime.
Is it the funniest show on TV? Most weeks, yes. (But it gets some serious competition from #3 at times.) But it’s also a rich, warm, smart, sophisticated, superbly acted, sharply written show. That’s why it’s number one. Unlike Modern Family, which throws some sentimental goop onto the ends of its shows in the least compelling manner possible, Community has built a cast of characters who genuine like each other and who we can care about, so when it goes for sentimental it succeeds beautifully. It seems the greatest divide among the passionate fans of the show is just which episode is the greatest, which says a lot about how many truly excellent episodes of television it has already given us. Funny, smart, sexy – will you marry me, Community? (I’ve previously written about Community here.)
Oh, Terriers, how we loved you so. You brought us so much humor, so much intrigue, so much Donal Logue. You will go down as one of the all time great one season wonders. You reminded us that great characters can be funny and tragic, and that the best stories are sometimes the least conclusive. We praised you in life, let us praise you in death. And for those of you have yet to experience the charms of Terriers, let me tell you that it even with some unresolved stories, it is well worth your time to watch all 13 episodes.
I’m pretty sure I could sit and watch Leslie Knope recount Friends episodes for hours on end. Sadly, we only got about 90 seconds of that in “Telethon,” one of the many hilarious episodes from the show’s second season. Happily, P&R has created one of the strongest ensembles on television, who take their already solid scripts and find ways to ground them in the absurdities of every day life. (I’ve previously written about Parks and Recreation here.)