It's hard to believe that we're approaching the holiday season again. The older I get, the earlier and earlier it seems that Thanksgiving and Christmas come up on the calendar. I know, I know -- I'm still a young whipper-snapper, at least that's what I'm told by some folks; that doesn't change the fact that I'm noticing that the march of time seems to be accelerating into something of a jog, if not a full-on sprint just yet.
Oops. Sorry about the maudlin introspection. 'Tis the season, and all that.
Back to the business I intended to handle in this space. Since we're approaching Thanksgiving, it's a good time for me to express my appreciation for some of my favorite TV programming this past year.
Here's what I'm thankful for in 2011:
"The Middle." For not being my favorite half-hour television comedy, I'm awfully fond of this funny, wise and often tender program. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this show has grown into one of my favorite weekly stops on the dial.
This show's strength is its strong core cast: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer, as an ensemble, have created a believable -- and likable -- on-screen family. Some of the show's best and most dynamic scenes are when all five of the actors share the screen, zinging dialogue back and forth.
A favorite scene of mine was in the hilarious season premiere, as the family squabbled while trying to figure out how to properly play an amalgamation of half-remembered board games. It might have been the flat-out funniest five minutes of TV this year, and demonstrated how strong this cast has become. While any one of the five can carry a plot on his or her own, as a unit they shine, and deserve mention in the discussion of the best ensembles currently on the air.
"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." No, this show isn't for every taste, but I like it a lot, mainly because it's an effective re-imagining of the typical "young urbanites in the city" ensemble comedy.
The cast (Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito) is game, willing to dance on the edge of a razor blade for a laugh, even if it means that their characters come off as creeps, dullards or worse.
Their best episode so far this season -- in the only similarity to "The Middle" the shows may ever share -- was about a made-up board game, "CharDee MacDennis: The Game of Games." The contest initially involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol and answering oddly subjective trivia questions (the answer to "What's the best band of all time?" is "Chumbawamba"), but as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly vicious, like a series of triple-dog-dare-yous that only people soaked in liquor would agree to perform.
So what makes the show funny? The perspective. The audience is not asked to admire the characters, nor are they positioned as pitiable figures. They are shown for what they are, creatures of impulse who act rashly (and are almost defiant when it comes to not thinking things through), and because of that, often make incredibly bad -- and incredibly funny -- choices.
"Revenge." If you'd told me at the beginning of the fall season that I'd be hooked on this nighttime soap, I'd have taken us both to see a doctor -- because either you were delirious, or I was hearing things. See, I know me and what I like. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this kind of program wouldn't have grabbed my attention -- except for a derisive chuckle and sad shake of my head.
To be fair, I had enjoyed the pilot, but a first episode can be deceiving, especially when the plot is already as knotted and gnarled as the one that is at the center of "Revenge." To my relief, episode two was just as good. So was number three.
In fact, they might have actually been -- dare I say -- better? Twistier? More fun?
To my surprise, I have to say yes. To all three questions.
As the show has continued its run, I'm happy to say that I'm liking it more and more. The cast, led by Emily Van Camp and Madeline Stowe, is playing the material beautifully, finding delicacy and nuance in plots that could have ended up as so much overheated melodrama. Creator Mike Kelley has put together a thoroughly addictive nighttime drama, the first one in many moons that truly feels like the long-lost heir to shows like "Dallas" and "Dynasty" at their peak.