Another year of TV has come and gone. The 2012-13 season was an eventful one, as it marked the end of such landmark shows as The Office, Gossip Girl and 30 Rock, and introduced the world to new attractions like Hannibal, Orphan Black and 1600 Penn (hey, I didn’t say they were all good). Along with the impending final season of Breaking Bad and whatever else the summer TV slate has in store, this warmer weather signals the approach of those all-important Emmy nominations, which will be announced three days from now on July 18th. This means I get to make another list of things I’d love to see the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences do.
Hannibal for Outstanding Drama Series. With so many perennial contenders for this category still jousting for a slot (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, just to name a few), it would be easy to go with familiar names and overlook the handful of worthy new shows that emerged over the past year. Foremost among these rookie challengers, probably along with BBC’s Orphan Black, is Hannibal. I’ll be the first to admit that, when I heard NBC had picked up a show based on the younger years of the iconic, people-eating villain, I rolled my eyes and quickly declared the idea depressingly unoriginal, a massive failure just waiting to happen. Besides, it would be impossible to find an actor who could fill Anthony Hopkins’s Oscar-winning shoes for the title role. As it turned out, I was wrong. Although I still prefer Hopkins’s openly menacing yet charming take on the character over Mads Mikkelsen’s perpetually unruffled, debonair inscrutability, the show itself ended up being a dark, twisted psychological thriller with its own unique voice. Showrunner Bryan Fuller gives it just enough stylized flair to keep the procedural format from growing too monotonous and populates the world initially created by author Thomas Harris with complex, unpredictable characters brought to life by a talented group of actors. For my money, Laurence Fishburne, who plays Jack Crawford in a tour-de-force performance and was weirdly, disappointingly not submitted for Emmy consideration, and Lara Jean Chorostecki as the mysterious crime reporter Freddie Lounds are especially impressive. Touching on themes of identity, mental health and the nature and effects of violence, the first season of Hannibal provided a strong bedrock for what could hopefully become one of the next great TV shows in an age bursting at the seams with great television.
CHECK IT OUT: “Potage” (Ep. 3), “Entrée” (Ep. 6), “Savoureux” (Ep. 13)
In a season that featured a complete cipher of a new character (Bob Benson: friendly do-gooder or repressed serial killer/undercover government agent/corporate spy/time traveler? You decide), a WTF-heavy, drug-fueled episode and at least two characters getting stabbed with a bonus face shooting, no move was ballsier than the direction Weiner and his writers went with Don Draper. By completely stripping away Don’s cool-guy façade and exposing the petty, cruel egomaniac underneath, they risked alienating viewers (and, to be fair, many were turned off), but in doing so, they forced us to see that all the wealth, advertising gloss and poetic speeches simply act as masks to disguise how rotten Don – and, by extension, the establishment society run by upper-middle-class white men he represents – are at their core. This character arc reflected the angry disillusionment, fear and chaos that pervaded America during 1968, the year in which the season was set, and it worked due largely to Jon Hamm’s incredible tightrope-walk of a performance. Taking what could’ve been an extremely melodramatic and self-indulgent storyline about the demise of a privileged brat and turning it into a quiet, achingly sad study of a man so desperate to maintain control over his life he can’t recognize that he’s destroying himself and the people he loves, Hamm makes us simultaneously root for and mourn Don’s downfall, portraying the ad genius as both a cold-hearted monster and a lost, vulnerable soul plummeting towards rock bottom. Subtle shifts in his facial expressions and body language reveal monumental truths about his character, saying more than words ever could. Rarely has a downward spiral been so fascinating.CHECK IT OUT: “Man With a Plan” (Ep. 7), “Favors” (Ep. 11), “In Care Of” (Ep. 13)
Also, this is a shining beacon of acting brilliance.
Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) for Best Supporting Actress. She didn’t have the flashiest or biggest role on HBO’s ensemble fantasy series, but despite her rather disappointingly limited screen time, Michelle Fairley gradually revealed herself to be the weary heart of the show’s third season. As Daenerys stormed cities and gathered her army in the east and the Lannisters and Tyrells jockeyed for power in King’s Landing, Catelyn Stark struggled between her duty to help her son Robb fight a war she wanted no part of and her personal desire to reunite and protect the scattered pieces of her family. Fairley makes maternal love seem like an unbreakable pillar of strength as well as a blinding weakness, her wide eyes betraying self-doubt and her inherently quiet, peaceful nature even as she seems outwardly cold and hardened. When Catelyn’s fierce yet naïve belief that everyone around her is as bound to honor as she is led to inevitable, Shakespearean tragedy, the anguished scream that tore out of Fairley’s throat and the look of utter defeat that passed across her face shattered the hearts of grizzled A Song of Ice and Fire veterans and unsuspecting newbies alike.
CHECK IT OUT: “Walk of Punishment” (Ep. 3), “Kissed by Fire” (Ep. 5), “The Rains of Castamere” (Ep. 9)
Justified for Outstanding Writing. There are times when it feels like Justified should’ve been submitted as a comedy, rather than a drama. With its idiosyncratic cast of characters (what other show would have a character named “Yolo” and have it come off as ironically hilarious instead of eye-rollingly stupid?), dialogue that crackles and electrifies as intensely as any gunfight and a wickedly dark sense of humor, the Elmore Leonard-influenced series has made me laugh more and harder than many actual sitcoms. This ability to have fun and not always take itself too seriously balances out nicely with the more serious bent of most of the storylines and themes that the show deals with, and over the course of four seasons, the immensely talented writers have learned how to make the seemingly-contrary cheeky and melancholy tones work together.
After the enjoyable but thematically lightweight arc of last year, season 4 took a more intimate direction, delving more deeply into the personal lives and relationships of its characters as they struggled to break free of the past. Raylan continued to grapple with the shadow of his father, while Boyd and Ava tried to use his budding criminal empire to carve out a new, brighter future for themselves but were held back by their less-than-reputable backgrounds and the threat of old crimes coming to light. Even Jacob Pitt’s wisecracking Tim, who finally got some more screen time (hallelujah! Now, work on Rachel, show), had to confront the scars left over from serving in the Gulf War in the form of Colton Rhodes, Boyd’s old Army buddy and new right-hand man, played by the top-notch Ron Eldard; their tense exchange in the episode “Decoy is absolute giddy, stand-up-in-your-living-room-and-applaud gold. Along with their sharp wit and general mastery over the English language, the writing staff led by creator Graham Yost once again demonstrated a deep understanding of character, setting and plot construction that few shows – or movies or books, for that matter – ever achieve. Cleverly uproarious, badass and as elegiac as the best country songs, Justified’s fourth season was an expertly-crafted meditation on the ways in which our history defines and stood among the finest entertainment of this past year.
CHECK IT OUT: “Outlaw” (Ep. 8), “Decoy” (Ep. 11), “Ghosts” (Ep. 13)
If you snub this show, you’re gonna have to answer to Ava Crowder.
And trust me, Emmys, that won’t end well for you.
Laura Dern (Enlightened) for Best Lead Actress. LIke Justified, Mike White’s HBO show about a woman who has a mental breakdown and reforms herself after getting some New Age therapy in Hawaii frequently dances the line between comedy and drama. Posing meaningful questions about the responsibilities individuals have to taking care of themselves, the people around them and the world at large, White, who also gives a nicely understated performance as the loner Tyler, exhibits a clear-eyed, humanist approach to storytelling that stands in stark contrast to the cynicism that dominates the modern television landscape. He adds just enough of a tart, darkly satirical edge to make all the earnest appeals to be your best self today feel genuinely inspirational and admirable.
What really holds Enlightened together, however, is the openhearted performance of Laura Dern as the sometimes delightful, sometimes cringe-worthy but always unapologetically human Amy Jellicoe. Taking advantage of the kind of wonderfully dynamic and complex role that women all-too-rarely find, Dern proves unafraid of embodying Amy and all of her flaws, exposing her as narcissistic, sanctimonious and completely lacking in any kind of self-awareness when it comes to social situations, but like the show itself, she never treats her character with anything less than complete empathy. Buoyed by excellent supporting work from actors like White, Luke Wilson and Sarah Burns, it’s a portrayal of such grace and humility that, despite how unlikable Amy can be at times, it quickly becomes impossible to not root for her to succeed. Since HBO disappointingly but unsurprisingly canceled Enlightened after only two excellent seasons, this is the Emmys’ last chance to reward Dern, and it would be a shame if they pass it up. As EW’s Darren Franich perceptively observes in his write-up following the show’s cancellation, after watching Dern at work, we go from wondering why Amy cares so much to wondering why we don’t care more.
CHECK IT OUT: “Follow Me” (Ep. 4), “All I Ever Wanted” (Ep. 6), “Agent of Change” (Ep. 8)
Ease up on the Modern Family adoration. Seriously. I’ll be real here: I haven’t watched a ton of Modern Family, but the episodes I have seen were actually pretty good. While it doesn’t take the risks that something like Community has, the show is filled with likable, if rather simplistic, characters and is always reliable for providing some good, comforting laughs, the kind of thing that will probably send most people off to bed happy. So, I don’t have anything against Modern Family the way some seem to, but let’s face it: over the course of its four-seasons-and-counting run, the Steven Levitan/Christopher Lloyd sitcom has gotten more than its fair share of attention awards-wise. Its adult cast members in particular annually crowd out other equally good or better contenders; it doesn’t help that they refuse to submit anyone in the lead categories, even though Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen could easily go that way. With such worthy, exciting comedies as Enlightened, Happy Endings, Louie, Veep, etc., available to choose from, it’s time the Emmys shone a spotlight on something different for a change.
If they must award an old favorite, why not at least give 30 Rock some sentimental farewell love?
CHECK IT OUT: “No-Ho-Ho” (Ep. 7), “The Marry Prankster” (Ep. 12), “She Got Game Night” (Ep. 18)
The Hour for Outstanding Miniseries or TV Movie. People frequently refer to this BBC drama as the “British Mad Men” (I sometimes think of it as the optimistic or idealistic version of Mad Men, but the truth is, aside from the period setting and regular exploration of gender politics, the two shows aren’t all that similar. Creator Abi Morgan doesn’t aim for Matthew Weiner’s symbolic or thematic complexity, preferring a more straightforward, accessible approach, yet with its jazzy opening credits sequence and a mostly somber, though not self-serious, tone that would make absurdist moments like this from Mad Men feel completely out-of-place, The Hour somehow feels even classier.
Sporting an outstanding ensemble cast headed by Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West, it follows the day-to-day activities of a newly established broadcast news team in 1950s London as they deal with complex social issues and tricky newsroom politics. Each episode deftly combines the deliberate thoughtfulness of an intimate, small-scale drama with the tautness of a thriller that comes from each season being structured around a central mystery; the frequent cliffhangers are as gripping as anything from Lost and lend tension to a show that could easily have been overly slow or meditative. As compelling as the show’s first season was, its second – and final – season took things up to a whole new level. Revolving an investigation of a shady night club, the show found new depths to its already finely-drawn cast of characters, with the heartbreaking relationship between supporting players Lix Storm (the delightful Anna Chancellor) and Randall Brown (new addition Peter Capaldi) in particular serving as a highlight, and it explored questions of political corruption, social injustice and journalistic ethics with elegance and bright-eyed honesty, opting for a nuanced approach rather than soapbox condescension. It’s the urgent, principled, this-is-REAL-journalism firebrand Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom wishes it could be.
CHECK IT OUT: Episodes 1, 5 and 6