I wasn't going to plumb the miserable depths of the TV season, thinking that for once I'd made a positive statement free from grumpiness or cynicism or teeth-gnashing. It was nice! It made me happy a couple of days ago, and I was considering getting my anger on with a couple of pissy statements, and then I could move on. However, some TV is so bad, so misguided, so detrimental to the reputation of the medium, that it has to be named and shamed, preferably with little tiny jpgs. So, here is the TV that made our toes curl last year. Apologies for dredging up negative memories for anyone who has suffered through any of this.
Worst single episodes of the season:
10. Drive - Let The Games Begin
Oh Nathan, you devilish, gallant, funny little studburger you! How we love you and your dashing good looks, with the added bonus of self-deprecating humour and goofiness. We think you are TEH BOMM! However, please stay away from Tim Minear, because he is TV poison. Angel fans rightly bemoan the premature cancellation of the show, but with Minear on the production, it's a miracle it didn't happen earlier, as he seems jinxed. His record is shocking, with cancelled show after cancelled show, but in a way it doesn't surprise me. To date I've find him a flat, humourless writer, with a couple of Angel/Firefly episodes rising above the rest. Granted, he has a grasp of the dramatic side of the Mutant Enemy equation. Sadly, that's not enough. His shows tend to be unpleasantly dour, but Drive was made worse by the absurd premise (we're talking Prison Break levels of absurdity, if you can believe that), rushed production job (blame Fox), erratic casting (yay Dylan Baker! Boo Melanie Lynskey! Really really boo!!!), repetitive structure, and general air of half-assery. We only got as far as the third episode, and it didn't have much longer to improve, but this was bad enough to stop us watching anyway. Drab direction, shitty dialogue, embarassing acting from almost all concerned. Oh, I feel bad now. Forgive us, Nathan! We still love you! ::multiple smooches::
9. Lost - Stranger in a Strange Land
Even a rabid fanboy like myself had to admit that the third season of Lost wasn't perfect. I found the 6 episode mini on Other Island a lot more meaningful and entertaining than most, but after coming back from the short hiatus with a couple of scorching episodes, the show faltered badly with this dreary travelogue. Bai Ling guest-starred as a tattoo artist who brands her new man (Jack at his most pointless), at the same time as Juliet is branded an outcast by her Othery cohorts, headed by Diana Scarwid (wasted in this and then frustratingly absent for the rest of the season). As usual the little details are fascinating (the brand on Juliet's back is an upside-down Scientology cross, apparently), but the big picture says nothing interesting. For ruining the momentum of the second part of the season, I must speak out against something I normally love without reservation. And what was it all for? So we could find out that Jack's tattoo means, "One night in Bangkok and my arm's all hurty," or something. Booooring.
8. The O.C. - The Night Moves
The fourth and final season of The O.C. was an almost total joy, allowing the show to head off into the pretty sunset with its head held high. The genius move was to throw caution to the wind and have all sorts of craziness fly free: Che falling in love with Seth's otter totem; Ryan and Taylor hooking up, thus unlocking his inner awesomeness; Sandy bemoaning his friendlessness and practically stalking a co-worker; Ryan and Taylor falling unconscious after an accident and entering a parallel universe (of sorts); Kevin Sorbo turning up as Ryan's delinquent dad to seduce Julie Cooper, etc. It was almost all gold, but with two episodes to go, it went haywire in a bad way. An earthquake hits Newport, and Ryan gets badly injured, while super-dependable entertainment generator Julie and honking, self-obsessed O.C. Gupta Kaitlin are trapped in an ice-cream parlour or something stupid, with only a creepy obsessive classmate to help them. If I remember correctly, approximately 198% of the episode deals with that subplot, driving me to nod off repeatedly. At the end, Ryan's grievous kidney injury heals after someone puts a Band-Aid on it, and everyone returns to a demolished Chez Cohen. I get why they did all of this, to ensure the family moves from Newport to establish themselves in a town less shallow, but there had to be a better, more entertaining way to do it.
7. Doctor Who - Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks
I'm not cheating this time! It was a two-parter, and the only time the third season went awry (though the real-time Sunshiney one wasn't that brilliant either). It's not as bad as the season two episode with the Olympics, which was a maelstrom of mediocrity, but it came close. Plus, it ruined the Daleks! In much the same way that Rene Ecchevaria ruined the Borg by humanising them, writer Helen Raynor and show runner Russell T. Davies had renegade Dalek Sec absorb a spats-wearing Twenties gangster, only to reappear later as a penis-faced cross between Kid Creole and Bernard Bresslaw from Krull. As has been said before, many Who two-parters are 60 minute long scripts that can't be shrunk to 45 minutes, and are therefore stretched to 90 minutes, and as a result there are horrible padding sub-plots about pig-faced animal men (which made me pine for John Frankenheimer's The Island Of Doctor Moreau) and shantytowns in Central Park (an interesting subject, but badly served by the writing). The show rallied, thankfully, with the final five episodes being particularly great, but I can imagine this tedious mess would have put off anyone already (wrongly) angered by the introduction of Martha. (There's a name for Martha-haters; Crazy-insane-fools-who-are-dead-to-me.)
6. Jekyll - Episode 3
In a word, Jekyll was shit. In several words, Jekyll was shit with some fantastic ideas, lots of ambition, and the odd moment of pure genius. The first three episodes, however, were made hard-going by the awful awful direction. Douglas MacKinnon handled them (before passing the baton to the far more capable Matt Lipsey), and did everything possible to ruin Steven Moffat's flawed but interesting script. Making The Nesbitt gurn and bleat like an Irish Jim Carrey was his most obvious crime, but not understanding the basics of blocking a scene made many setpieces fall apart in the most hilarious ways. Cramped sets, shoddy lighting, awful over-acting, and ineptly staged shock moments littered all three episodes, but this was truly the worst. We thought it was a parody of horror movies, it was so wretched. MacKinnon is surely a shoo-in for Scary Movie 5, as long as the producers convince him it's a drama. Oh, and someone burn Gina Bellman's Equity membership so that she can never darken our TVs again. Why does she still get work? I blame Dennis Potter.
5. Veronica Mars - Un-American Graffiti
Once the best show on TV, Veronica Mars was treated with disrespect and disdain by network heads for two seasons, and then in the hard-fought-for third, the viewers turned on it as well. Suffering an inexplicable downturn in popularity (and therefore a corresponding decline in confidence), it battled on, trying to hold onto the Gilmore Girls viewers and failing miserably (even though it's 10000000 times the show Gilmore Girls thinks it is). The odd excellent episode won back some plaudits (<3 Paul Rudd 4evah), and the season finale was a heart-breaking triumphant improvement, but a couple of episodes before that, the show shot itself in the foot with incredible sniper accuracy by turning Veronica into the living embodiment of Paul Haggis' hated Crash, as well as sending lovable Keith on an out-of-character mission to stop teenagers drinking. His return to the sheriff's office was a promising idea, but all it did was turn him into a big judgemental jerk who would fit right in on CSI: Miami. The A-plot (about a Middle Eastern family targeted by a hate campaign) was timely and relevant, but sensitively handled it was not. Veronica's snarky noir voiceover turned shrill and preachy, and every single previously lovable aspect of the show fell horribly flat. A soul-crushing disaster of epic proportions. Just like Crash!
4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - The Wrap Party
Oh yeah, we had to get this in there somewhere. To be honest, there were episodes that were more unwatchably smug and tedious, episodes that ripped off Sorkin's previous work more egregiously, episodes that were even less funny and more preachy, but even though the first few episodes were already not that great, this is where the great project flew off the rails like a burning train, not unlike that bit at the end of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Eli Wallach guests as a living embodiment of censorship victimhood, sitting the audience down and explaining in very deliberate terms how McCarthyism is alive and well in Dubya's America, which no one noticed until he points it out. Thanks, guest-star Eli Wallach! Then Simon and Matt go trawling for African-American comedians, only to find dispiriting amounts of, "Black dudes do this, white folks do that," of such magnitude that Simon is forced to retcon his past into an improbable Boyz N' The Hood parody. Oh, and Matt meets a bunch of sexy ladies who are very very very very very very very stupid. That's the joke for this episode. Stupid women saying stupid things.
::sigh:: Sorkin's appalling low comedy masquerading as sophistication is yet another symptom of his arrogant assumption that only he is qualified to write his shows, meaning he has to cast around for desperately unfunny jokes, plots that are either rehashed from West Wing (and thus are incompatible with the format of the show. Soldiers kidnapped in Afghanistan?), Moebius-Strip conversations, and single-episode ideas padded out to four-part mini-epics. It got worse (the finale, so bad criminal charges could be filed), but this was the beginning of the end.
And no, Guardian TV critics, I'm not saying this because I'm too stupid to appreciate good drama, so stop writing blog posts about how no one is capable of understanding Sorkin's genius. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops: when he's good, he's amazing; when he's bad, he's unwatchable. And embarrassing. And patronising. And arrogant. And unfunny. Let's hope GoodSorkin worked on the forthcoming Charlie Wilson's War, and if BadSorkin worked on it, I hope he doesn't get as pissy and defensive as he did when people called him on the atrocity that was Studio 60.
3. Battlestar Galactica - The Woman King
As I said before, as much as I loved the first four episodes of BSG season 3, I sat through the rest of the season with an increasingly heavy heart. More time was spent dealing with Tyrol and Callie's failing marriage, Baltar's status as a walking metaphor, and worst of all, Apollo and Starbuck's forbidden love (partially prohibited because of Starbuck's religious beliefs, but the tenets of her religion remain unexplained, so the whole thing seemed as ridiculous as it was boring). If the showrunners want to spend time on a romantic relationship, let's see Bill Adama and Laura Roslin getting it on. It's what the fans want, damn it. However, the show plumbed depths I did not think it capable of plumbing with this hour of horrid anvilbashing obviousness. Normally I would rejoice to see Bruce Davison in the show, but this time I just felt bad for him. Playing a racist doctor targetting Sagittarons, with only Helo to save the day, the dialogue became more and more leaden, the premise more obvious, the speechifying more insulting. As with the Veronica Mars episode, it was all about the big themes writ larger than large, and even though the show had flirted with metaphorical crassness before, this was the only time the writers and directors went all out to bludgeon the viewer with finger-wagging moral superiority. And it made me hate Helo. Good work, showrunners.
2. John From Cincinnati - His Visit: Day Four
I'll get this out of the way so that I can get to the heart of why this episode was so terrible; WHY DID YOU STOP MAKING DEADWOOD, MILCH?!!!???! WHY?!?!?!!? YOU BROKE MY HEART!!! Now that's out of the way, you can rest assured that this rant has nothing to do with bitterness over the unresolved fate of that most excellent show. It's more than enough that Jesus From Cincinnati is a pretentious quasi-mystical nothing, with an obscure plot, risible non-acting surfers who don't surf either, and the shrieking of the hams (more on that below). I will say that the plot and that cod-Shakespearian dialogue often fascinated me, while not entertaining me even one iota. What the hell was Milch doing? Nothing like it has ever been made before, and considering the negative critical and popular reaction, never will again. Was it a car-crash? Or the wave of the future? Was Milch advancing the storytelling form, or was he masturbating with an enormous, smug grin on his pretentious face? Or was it all of the above? No one, including Milch, knows.
Every week was an exercise in audience-baiting, but the fourth episode was the worst of the lot. Never have I watched a TV show and been so convinced that the show creator was laughing in my face. The opening scene (Cass killing time in her hotel) sets the tone of the episode where nothing happens for 45 minutes, with only Rebecca DeMornay's Cissy Yost furthering the invisible plot. To make things worse, she accomplishes this by screeching for the entire episode. Like nails down an infinite blackboard, the show vibrates your eardrum until it splits, and then goes to work on your teeth and skull. I've never seen anything so willfully awful and knowingly unenlightening outside of a Tracey Emin exhibition. Lars Von Trier would approve, which perhaps is criticism enough. Milch's disregard for his audience is unparalleled, and it's only the existence of his masterwork, Deadwood, that stops me and several thousand other JFC viewers from hiring someone to torture him with the sound of DeMornay bleating at a pitch that would explode his head, just like the aliens at the end of Mars Attacks.
1. Torchwood - Countrycide
Talking about those episodes made me realise how truly abysmal they all were, but even during the middle of this unpleasant nostalgic flashback, nothing comes close to this eye-wateringly wretched hour of amateurish TV. I'm sure nothing good could have come from Chris Chibnall's horrendous script, mushing together cliches torn from much better films and TV shows, but to make things worse, the direction and acting reaches apocalyptically bad proportions. Like a group of teenagers armed with a camcorder and hopped up on Mountain Dew and multiple viewings of Terminator 2 and The Hills Have Eyes, the show unravels fast, with absurd macho posturings, childish dialogue, hysterical overacting, laughable portentousness, and ambition far exceeding ability. Seeing Torchwood Gupta Owen pretending to be a gun-toting hardass has been making us laugh ever since, his stupid little hopping movements like some kind of Dadaist performance piece.
That's before we get into the hilarious message of the episode, that sometimes humans are more inhuman than their alien antagonists. This is meant to be a criticism of our inhumanity? But it doesn't mean anything if a) you're comparing them to fictional non-human characters, and b) you're making the human bad guys do something that no human has ever done, i.e. band together as a village to eat visitors. There are many horrible things human beings do to each other (something everyone knows without Chibnall and his ridiculous ilk telling us), but I don't think communal cannibalism is among them. The fact that the show thought that it was illuminating some deep dark hole in our psyche, all the while stumbling around, mortally wounded by comical blocking and sub-moronic speechifying, made me simultaneously disgusted with the entire production and overjoyed that I was able to watch something so wrong-headed still being made in this day and age.
Okay, I did enjoy watching the episode with Canyon, because we laughed and laughed and laughed, but the thought that everyone thought they were creating something profound pissed me off when the tears of mirth had dried. There are episodes of Manimal that say more about the human condition than this, with the added bonus of Simon MacCorkindale turning into a horse. As a whole, Torchwood represents everything that's wrong with British TV, but this one episode was worse than that. It was the nuclear-powered awful-bomb that almost killed storytelling itself, and as such should be buried a thousand miles down in earth lined with salt. And yet, I can't wait for the next season, especially as the super-awesome Martha Jones is coming back for a few episodes (please don't ruin her or there will be hell to pay!!!). I might even recap it.
Wow, I went off a bit there. If I sound unhinged, I will say that many of the people involved are very talented and have done other good stuff, so it's often a conflagration of negative elements conspiring to create TV awfulness, and some of these shows are among my favourites. However, if it's bad, it's my duty to hit those bastards with every adjective I can think of. If it means even one less message-laden chunk of worthiness is prevented from reaching our plasma screens, all of this fist-shaking will be justified. Here's to a new season of gold and dreck to get my teeth into. As Prince once said, life can be so nice!