Sunday, December 22, 2013

Television Goes Global, and Other Reflections on TV in 2013

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 22, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The final episode of AMC's Breaking Bad aired this past September.

The past twelve months have brought an embarrassment of riches to the dedicated television viewer. Not only a number of promising new series, but technological and industry developments have made television viewing richer, more diverse, and more convenient than it's ever been. But even on wholly traditional terms, TV has had a good year. AMC's Breaking Bad came to a powerful and satisfying conclusion. FX's Justified had another strong year, and its fifth season is set to air early in January. After some uneven early episodes, CBS's Americanized Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary went from strength to strength, culminating in a powerful first season, and this fall has proven itself to be much more than the pale shadow of BBC's incomparable Sherlock it threatened to be on paper. In November, TBS premiered The Ground Floor, a new laugh track rom-com/office comedy from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) that has grown more charming and likeable with every passing episode. And a year ago, long before Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine hit the airwaves in September, who could have guessed that the best comedy team-up on television would be Homicide: Life on the Street's Andre Braugher and Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg? All in all, we have a lot to be thankful for this year. Below I review some of the more interesting developments in television in 2013.

Television Goes Global 
John Goodman stars in Alpha House, on Amazon Instant Video
This isn't a new story, but television's new life as a genuinely global phenomenon certainly came into its own in the past 12 months. From a distribution angle we are a more international audience than ever before. Technological innovations in the industry have paid off for the worldwide audience, and it's only just beginning. With the continuing maturation of streaming services like Netflix (which more than held its own at this year's Emmys against recent powerhouses like HBO and AMC) and with both Amazon and Hulu premiering original programming, we are not only getting some exciting new venues for original shows, we are seeing the rise of a genuinely global audience. A Netflix original series doesn't have to wait for local distributors to option it: it is immediately available for streaming everywhere the service exists. (This year alone, Netflix brought us House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the much publicized and ever more criticized fourth season of Arrested Development though count me among the minority who were actually thrilled with the new episodes.) International partnerships, like the bilingual British-French co-production of the dark, police drama The Tunnel, or Serangoon Road, HBO Asia's ambitious period noir detective drama, are becoming more and more common, and the still U.S. centred Hulu partnered with the BBC to bring us The Wrong Mans, a delightfully silly comic-thriller. Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury) teamed up with Amazon Instant Video to bring us Alpha House, a political comedy starring John Goodman and Clark Johnson. (The series charts the misadventures of four Republican Senators who share a house in Washington, D.C.)  And though all of this would be exciting solely for the tech-lovers among us, fortunately the shows have also proven uniquely entertaining. A boon for television lovers worldwide!

Doctor Who Turns 50
Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt as The Doctor(s)
This November, BBC's favourite son Doctor Who turned fifty years old. Premiering back in 1963 (with a lengthy hiatus from 1989 to 2005), the science fiction series has survived cultural revolutions, the Space Race, the Cold War, the rise of the smart phone, and nearly every television series that has ever been produced on either side of the Atlantic. On November 23rd, the BBC aired the fiftieth anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor", a feature length story which was simulcast in 94 countries (including Canada's own Space channel) and even screened in 3D in select theatres across the planet. The event inspired its own Google doodle, and promised to even overshadow a royal wedding. None of this mega-promotional blitz would mean anything of course if the show itself wasn't so darn good. (After all, the larger the audience base, the more people to frustrate, disappoint, and enrage.) But the Steven Moffat-written episode more than satisfied expectations and left fans eager for more. In August, show runner Moffat announced that the Matt Smith era would be ending, and a new Doctor (the 12th) would fill his shoes: Scottish actor Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It). Back in 2009, as David Tennant's run of the Doctor was giving way to Smith, I was full of ambivalence. (It also marked the departure of Russell T. Davies, who was handing the reins off the series off to Moffat, so admittedly there was a lot to be apprehensive about.) But without ever growing tired of Smith as such, this time I simply can't wait for the handover. "The Day of the Doctor" left us with a tantalizingly rebooted tone, and the promise of renewed energy for the upcoming season. As this new generation's Doctors have been getting younger and younger with every incarnation (Christopher Eccleston, to Tennant, to Smith's wee 26 years), with the arrival of Capaldi, the Doctor will be played by a 55-year-old, the same age William Hartnell was when he was introduced as the First Doctor back in 1963. The Capaldi era begins this December 25th, debuting in the Doctor Who annual Christmas special. I don't know if the series has another Golden Jubilee in its future, but if it does, I have little doubt that I'll be tuning in.

Canadian Science Fiction Comes of Age
Rachel Nichols and Victor Webster star in Continuum
With the second season of Continuum and the first season of Orphan Black, Canada has established that it's on at forefront of the best science fiction programming currently on the air. The two shows   the former filmed and set in Vancouver and the latter filmed and set in Toronto have won audiences and acclaim across North American, despite being unapologetically Canadian. The clone thriller Orphan Black airing on Space in Canada, and BBC America in the U.S. had a solid first season full of humour, suspense and some genuinely creepy biotech. It also made an international sensation of its star, Tatiana Maslany. (Maslany has also had a delightful recurring role as a love interest for Aziz Ansari on NBC's Parks and Recreation this fall.) But it was the second season of Continuum (airing on Showcase in Canada, and SyFy in the U.S.) that simply blew me out of the water. After a politically complex first season but one which held tight to its police procedural frame, this new season embraced its time travel conceit with both hands. August's explosive second season finale seemed designed to turn the entire show inside out in terms of character, plot, and even metaphysics. Continuum is easily the best science fiction series on television right now, and the one to watch when it returns in March.

Some Familiar Faces to Watch for in 2014
Alexis Denisof on Grimm
The year may be ending, but television never sleeps and 2014 has some familiar faces returning in new and old roles. In a couple of weeks, after skipping 2013 entirely, BBC's Sherlock and Benedict Cumberbatch returns for its third season. (With roles in box office smashes like Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit, and his turn as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, 2013 may have been Cumberbatch's year even with Sherlock on haitus!) The crowdfunded Veronica Mars film is set to hit the theatres on March 14th. In recent weeks, the initially uneven Robin Williams sitcom The Crazy Ones has found a new voice and much-needed balance with the introduction of Everybody Loves Raymond veteran Brad Garrett, as Williams' suddenly-not-so-silent partner in the advertising firm. So far Garrett is still listed as a guest star, but if series producer David E. Kelley knows what he's doing, he'll sign Garrett on full time for the rest of the season. And Alexis Denisof sporting his signature British accent and oozing delicious villainy has rejoined his old Angel executive producer David Greenwalt with a series of guest spots on NBC's Grimm. Denisof's first episode aired December 6th (with at least three more appearances to follow in the new year), but it is a tantalizing suggestion for the new season of Grimm, which has so far taken more than one page from the Buffy handbook. (The recent embracing of the 'Scooby Gang' feel of the team, with more and more people getting in on Nick's secret identity including, finally, his girlfriend Juliet returns the show to the lighter feel of its great first season. It's Krampus-themed midseason finale included not only perhaps its best monster-of-the-week ever but was also the best use of the show's entire ensemble cast all season.)

While it has long been true that the best of television needs to be sought out, as channels multiply and distribution models continue to innovate and transform the televisual universe this axiom is truer than ever before. But television at its heart global audiences and new media technologies aside is an intimate experience. I hope you all had a wonderful 2013, and that the new year gives you more opportunities to curl up with your favourite shows, old and new.