Alternate Emmys: A Look Back on The Year in Cable TV

I did not watch Sunday night’s annual Emmy ceremony. The Oscars take up all my live-award-show frustration, and the choices of Emmy voters baffle me even more than the Academy’s  (Jeff Daniels over Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston? What?). But glancing at the list of nominees —specifically in the Drama category—and reflecting on the wealth of amazing series I’ve compulsively binged on this season (Sept. 2012-Sept. 2013), it occurred to me that this may in fact be the best year of television ever

The creative revolution in cable TV content , that began in 1999 with The Sopranos, has reached such a deafening pitch in quality, that for the first time in my movie-obsessed life, I’m uncertain which medium I’d pick if given a choice: this year’s offerings on the big screen…or its smaller, once-thoroughly-minor-but-now-kicking-all-kinds-of-unholy-ass cousin. Now, I’m not saying this year contains the best shows ever made. Arguably, that would be 2004, which—surfing the first great wave of cable TV—contained The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under, all airing a few months apart on HBO. I like to think the second great wave began in 2007, when AMC took a piece of the premium pie with Mad Men, followed by Breaking Bad a year later.   

And this year, with Netflix changing the game by releasing entire seasons of original content at once, I believe the third great wave of the cable revolution has kicked off, with HBO now fighting for the quality crown amidst a whole host of contenders, including Sundance, Showtime, and F/X, with many, many more about to leap into the ring to join them. All this to say that the sheer breadth and diversity of essential cable series has now resulted in the first Top 10 list I’ve ever made for TV, with last Sunday’s Emmys providing the perfect excuse to share it.  

 

Game of Thrones – Season 3 (HBO)

Combine the scope of Lord of the Rings with the character complexity of The Sopranos, and you’ve got the most addictive show on television, which hit a shocking dramatic peak with its now infamous "Red Wedding" episode at the climax of the third season. Marginally lessened by its smattering of laughably gratuitous sex scenes and one particularly un-necessary torture sub-plot, HBO’s medieval fantasy epic is nevertheless top-tier stuff, and a case study in great book-to-screen adaptations, despite the millions of angry nerd cries  bemoaning changes to GRR Martin’s beloved novels. The sheer confidence with which it juggles its sprawling cast of characters and storylines, while consistently subverting  and twisting expectations, has provided some of the most devastating and instantly iconic moments of the current pop culture landscape.

MVP: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, for turning what began as a hiss-worthy villain into the shows’ most complex and strangely sympathetic character, Jaimie Lannister.  

 

Mad Men – Season 6 (AMC)

Every year, Mad Men assumes a familiar cycle, as people complain that the show isn’t "going anywhere" for its first four or five episodes, then subsequently watch in astonishment as each season aspires to—and attains—the artistic heights of great American literature. And with 1968 as its backdrop, the petty ambitions, jealousies and affairs of Sterling-Cooper’s ad agency culminated in one of the most moving, thematically satisfying season finales of its six season run.  

MVP: Jon Hamm, for taking Don Draper’s sixth cycle on the self-destructive merry go round to its darkest depths, and emerging with unexpected, redemptive grace.

   

Boardwalk Empire – Season 3 (HBO)

This criminally underrated show, which many gave up on during its first, feet-finding season, finally became the great, classic gangster epic it’s been building towards for the last three years. Every single character in its impressive cast was provided with a fantastic arc, as the over-arching narrative—the birth of organized crime in America —coalesced into its most mythic season, bringing its young Capones, Lanskys and Lucianos in direct conflict (or collusion) with Steve Buscemi’s semi-fictional head of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson.  

MVP: Bobby Canavale, for providing an electrifying season villain, by turns funny, charming and psychotic – often all at once.

   

Top of the Lake – 6 Episode Mini-Series (Sundance)

Fusing the moral twilight of (the original) The Killing with the eeriness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, this six episode mini-series is by far the best thing Jane Campion has directed since The Piano. Elizabeth Moss slightly fudges her New Zealand accent, but gives a committed, nuanced performance as the detective investigating a young girl’s  disappearance in a poor, mountainous region of New Zealand. As the case entwines itself with the secrets of her own past, each episode unflinchingly takes the audience to disturbingly dark places, but with Campion’s unique perspective on the toll it takes for strong-willed women to forge their way through male-dominated social hierarchies (police and criminal alike). Haunting, nail-bitingly tense, and ultimately profound, Top of the Lake is pure cinema in TV clothing.  

MVP: Peter Mullan, as the terrifying leader of a homegrown drug ring, equal parts menace and tragic pathos.  

 

Parade’s End’ – 5 Episode Mini-Series (BBC America/HBO)

This adaptation of a classic novel is British TV drama at its finest, a stunningly scripted labor of love by Tom Stoppard, with astonishing performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and newcomer Adelaide Clemens. Charting a love triangle that evolves over the course of Britain entering the First World War, it’s a rich, fascinating exploration of the values different people cling to, or shed, as the world changes around them—as well as one of the most genuinely romantic stories you’ll ever see.  

MVP: Adelaide Clemens, for embodying what could have so easily been a fantasy of purity and innocence with grounded intelligence, vulnerability and strength.  

 

Breaking Bad – Season 5.1 (AMC)

Only eight episodes long, the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final, devastating conclusion is mostly set-up for its currently airing conclusion, which is possibly the single most riveting season of television in history. While perhaps less satisfying as a stand-alone season—especially compared to its previous arcs—5.1 is still an essential chapter in the saga of Walter White, described by its creator (Vince Gilligan) as one man’s journey "from Mr.Chips to Scarface." The amazing train heist episode ("Dead Freight") is a clear highlight, and the seamless mix of comedy, tragedy, and thriller elements against New Mexican suburbs and deserts, still combine to create one of the most utterly unique shows around.   

MVP: The best soundtrack choices of the year, bar none.  

 

Enlightened – Season 2 (HBO)

Tragically under-seen, this small gem concluded its two-season story arc, perhaps in the knowledge that it would inevitably be cancelled. Show-runner Mike White’s portrait of an idealistic narcissist waging a one woman war against the evil corporation she works at, is sharp, wickedly funny character-based satire, but with a deeply compassionate heart. Laura Dern gives the performance of her career as Amy Jellicoe, as frustrating and cringe-inducing as she is ultimately heroic. By both tearing down easy new age philosophies, while also examining the complex and profound yearnings for harmony and truth beneath them, Enlightened never gives in to pat, easy answers, but rests in its questions with intelligence, humor and grace. I especially loved how the show allowed itself to sometimes give entire episodes to a supporting character’s point of view, which often produced the most affecting highs of a great final season.    

MVPs: An incredible roster of guest directors, including Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, and David Michod.  

 

Rectify – Season 1 (Sundance)

Another criminally under seen gem, this small, well-observed drama about a man emerging from 20 years on death row, is well worth catching up with. Like its main character, it takes the time to soak in the tiny, telling details that we so often take for granted in our "free" lives, as well as the deep questions that result from a world view created behind bars. It’s a slow burn, but always an immersive one, and over the course of its short six episode first run, an incredibly moving journey into a man’s damaged, but endlessly curious soul. And the good news is that it’s been renewed for a second season, so catch up now while you have the chance.  

MVP: Aiden Young, for saying more with his eyes than most actors do with entire seasons of dialogue.  

 

Orange is the New Black – Season 1 (Netflix)

Adopting a similar comedy-drama tone to her previous show, Weeds, Jenji Kohan’s second stab at cable TV is a real grower, and paints its world of a women’s minimum security prison with well researched insight and depth. What’s most surprising is how elements that are initially off-putting, such as the very white middle class heroine’s cutesy relationship with her straight-laced fiancee, ultimately work in service to the story itself, as Piper Chapman’s world and sense of who she is are gradually stripped away, piece by piece. And while she serves as an effective identification window for the audience, it’s the show’s dedication to exploring its large supporting cast of characters that makes this something special.  

MVP: the casting directors, for filling the prison with real, believable women instead of Hollywood starlets.  

 

Girls – Season 2 (HBO)

Lena Dunham’s divisive, controversial, look at the lives of four young women navigating life in Brooklyn, is in many ways the anti-Sex and the City, more interested in ugly truths than easy trend-setting. Her characters are often selfish, tactless, insecure and hurtful, yet always compelling, and often very, very funny. It’s perhaps the most accurate account of what being young and broke in New York City is like, and how painful and confusing it can be to figure out our own identity while we’re so busy presenting one to a world that demands us to be fully formed in order to meet it. And it’s fascinating to watch such a young writer-performer develop her voice, sometimes stumbling, but always bravely reaching to create art that rings true.  

MVP: Lena Dunham, for her fearlessly authentic nudity onscreen, to the dismay of internet body fascists everywhere.  

 

Honorable Mentions

Homeland S2 was a ton of compulsive fun, if guilty of a few ridiculous plot twists too many (Wi-Fi dispensed heart attack? Come on now). Treme S3 was as enjoyable and affectionate a trip to New Orleans as ever, if a tad meandering. House of Cards was compelling and entertaining, if not quite as smart as it wanted to be. Veep S2  was a blast of great satire, but more of a dessert than a main course.

About The Final Episode Of ‘Dexter’

Yeah, yeah, I know the joke’s on me for even watching this show to the bitter last, through all eight—eight!—seasons, riding out what horrible twist after another, half-baked subplots and supporting characters that went nowhere, goofy voiceover and whopping implausibility, in the expectation of what, exactly? I’ve abandoned other series for much less. So maybe there’s something to recommend here after all.

The finale was, like most of the series, rather bad—but in this case, it’s because it reached for something grand and somber, in the tradition of other “serious” dramas, lacking any of the camp that made the show such a guilty pleasure. The fact remains, too, that Dexter wasn’t really a show that was building toward an ending. It was more of a comic book, a creep-of-the-week feature. To try and conclude it on this elegiac tone, with a real misstep of a final scene, was to deny Dexter’s narrative DNA.
 
I don’t think anybody watched Dexter for the story arcs, really. It was just another antihero fable with a nifty hook, but one that didn’t beat around the bush with its messy, cathartic killings. It was willfully cheesy, the only program of that genre willing to embrace high-wire soap opera status. Screening an episode left you chuckling and shaking your head, while stuff like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad had you wound up and shaking by the credits. As with the programming of a generation before, it allowed you to turn your brain off. Blood and guts without the consequences. In other words: TV.

‘Boardwalk Empire’ Introduces Its Most Promising New Villain In Ages

Well, in the antihero-focused years of TV since The Sopranos, “villain” is a relative term—one supposes we could redefine it as “someone who promises to thwart the seedy dealings of the main character and appears to operate in an even more coldblooded fashion”—but nevertheless, we were surprised when Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Valentin Narcisse didn’t show up in the season premiere of Boardwalk Empire, and our anticipation only mounted from there.

The second episode, “Resignation,” showed us that Dr. Narcisse would be part of the lingering fallout from the previous episode’s extravagant neck-stabbing—though all in all, it’s almost as if he’s just used the incident as leverage to get his foot in the door of Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City criminal empire. His icy sophistication is a lovely change of pace from the entertaining but rather one-note sociopath Gyp Rosetti, who was the homicidal thug threatening the status quo last time around: the show may have just found its Professor Moriarty.
 
Quoting scripture as if sitting in holy judgment of all the peasants below himself (he twice referred to himself as a “king” with no irony whatsoever; another frightened character quaveringly remarks that “he owns a piece of everybody”), the Trinidadian, Harlem-based doctor of divinity burns at a different, mysterious temperature against the rest of the cast, but his bloodlust easily matches theirs, and he seems to be a racial purist as well—he invokes the imagery of a lynching before having a white woman killed in part for seducing a black man. With motivations like these, why bother predicting what’ll happen next week? Just sit back and let the carnage unfold.   

A New Jersey Diner’s Tribute to James Gandolfini

Actor James Gandolfini, best known for playing Tony Soprano, one of the most compelling protagonists in television history on one of television’s most compelling shows, and for his work in great films like True Romancepassed away yesterday at the age of 51. The loss came as a shock to fans, and already, the tributes to the actor, a Jersey native who won acclaim and admiration for his evocative work bringing the many facets of David Chase’s richly-written mob boss to life, every panic attack, every whacking, every one-liner burned into a collective cultural memory, are pouring in. Steven Van Zandt called him "a brother." "Best of James Gandolfini" clip shows are already piling up from every corner of YouTube. There will be plenty more in the next few days, and well-deserved for an actor who gave his all to bring the world such memorable characters and memorable pieces of art. 

But one of the simplest, but neatest tributes so far has to be the one from Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery in Broomfield, New Jersey, best known as the diner where the pivotal, ambiguous final scene from The Sopranos was filmed. As John Klekamp of News 12 NJ told via Twitter, Holsten’s was packed with locals wishing to pay tribute to Gandolfini at the site of one of his best-known scenes, and Holsten’s had placed a simple card on the booth where the family last sat that read "Reserved." Keeping it simple, and honoring him in a place where he was doing what he did best at his best. Nice.

Now, let’s all go back to the diner one more time. Don’t stop believin’.

Cristin Milioti Leads the Musical ‘Once’ to Broadway

Perhaps you’ve seen her as a cranky bridesmaid on The Sopranos. Or maybe as a pigtailed, threesome-loving writer on 30 Rock. But starting now, you’ll see Cristin Milioti on the Broadway stage as “Girl,” a Czech singer/songwriter in the stage adaptation of the 2007 movie Once. With its Oscar-winning, soaring song  “Falling Slowly,” and powerfully complicated romance, this musical announced its move to Broadway just minutes before its off-Broadway run even began. Here, Cristin Milioti shares all — what’s fresh about the adaptation, her fears about moving to Broadway — and what continuously keeps people coming to see the show, more than once. 

How did you first become involved with Once?
They asked me to do a reading of it back in February. At the time, I was just playing the trombone for it, but John, the director, and I really hit it off and he pushed for me to audition for the role I’m playing now.  I auditioned for him, but they had someone else cast as the girl at the time — Nellie McKay — but then he still really pushed for me. There was a whole issue; I can’t sight-read and I couldn’t play the music, so they gave me ten days to learn it, and I did!
 
Have you been taking piano lessons for a while?
No, my friend — he’s an actor, an amazing piano player- he wrote out numbers for fingers and letters on top of the keys, so it’s all muscle memory. So then once I did that and learned the songs, they were like, “Okay, great.” And then they brought me to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a pre-Broadway workshop, and now we’re here.
 
How many songs did you have to learn?
Six or seven. I probably only play about five on the piano because “If You Want Me” I sing just by myself — I’m accompanied, but the rest I play. I also play a classical piece really early on.
 
Do you write any of your own stuff in your free time?
Yep, but I couldn’t tell you what I’m playing. I can play it for you, but I wouldn’t know what it is; that’s why the sight-reading was so difficult. Everyone in this show is, like, the best musician you’ve ever met. They’re insane. This one woman in the show learned the accordion, this other guy learned the drums and the banjo, and when he plays them, you’re like, “Oh, I’m sure he’s played the banjo since he was eight,” but he’s only been playing it for a couple of months. I’m surrounded by geniuses.
 
What about Markèta Irglová and Glen Hansard, the original stars and songwriters of the movie Once?
They’re incredible musicians. It’s intimidating. And I know she plays guitar as well as piano, and he plays piano as well as guitar. They can kind of pick up and just go.
 
 
Cristin Milioti
 
When did you first meet them?
Well, Glen came up and played with us for a night in Cambridge and jammed with us. We hung out with him a couple of times in the break, before we started rehearsals. Steve and I played with him at a bar one night and I sang a couple tracks on his album so we got to hang out that way. We met Markèta one day before we went into tech — really, really late. It was really intimidating and she’s a lovely, lovely person. She just sat in on rehearsal and then she came to opening night. I only met her twice.
 
What did they think of it?
They both love it, from what they’ve told me. But I would imagine it’s a strange thing to watch; I’ve never seen the film and I’ve been told it’s definitely different in its own thing. On stage, we tell it differently.
 
I heard that you have additional subplots going on, and characters that were merely peripheral in the movie are more fleshed-out in the musical. I’m assuming "Guy’s" vacuum-repairing dad is one of them.
Yes, he’s one of them. The guy who owns the piano store is also more of a presence. We get into my family a little bit more, but again, I don’t know since I haven’t seen the film. I know that a lot of people who are obsessed with the movie have come with these expectations that it’s not going to live up to it, and they love it — just as fanatically — even though it’s its own thing.
 
What’s been the most memorable audience reaction so far?
Wow, I don’t know. Opening night was pretty surreal because they told us we were going to Broadway, like, right before we went out on stage. Glen and Markèta were there. All of our families were there. All of our friends. I’ve had great feedback from audience members; if I’m walking down the street and someone saw it the night before, they’ll say, “I can’t stop thinking about it,” or “It’s incredible.” 
 
This is your third Broadway show. Have any of your previous roles informed this one?
No. I feel like every time I do a play, I forget that I’ve done other plays; I’m always confused, it’s always brand new. I never know what I’m doing. Every time feels like the first time, which is a great thing. I’ve always wanted to be a musician and never really pursued it, and I feel like this is the closest something has been to my heart, in a way, because I get to sort of live that out.
 
I read that Markèta said the Girl she created is who she wants to be because of the character’s honesty and integrity. How do you feel about the Girl you’ve created? Who do you think she is?
I’d say the same thing. She’s the girl I want to be. It’s interesting though, because when I met Markèta, I looked at her and thought, “I wish I could be you.” More who she is as a person. She’s very honest. She says everything very simply but you’re like… oh my God. And she seems very confident and very gracious. There’s an incredible grace about her that I really admire, so I find it interesting she would say that because I feel that way about her, but I do feel that way about this character as well. But there are things about this character that I wouldn’t want to be.
 
What are those?
The fact that she’s selfless to her own detriment, but also such a positive presence. She does, I really believe, the right thing. She made a commitment to someone, she has a child, and they can’t work. But yeah, I still wish I could be more like her.
 
Cristin Milioti
 
In an article, you said that you “like acting because you have so many things you can do in performance to hide behind when you’re nervous during a moment onstage. “ Have you had moments like this with Once?
No, so far I feel like for the amount of adrenaline that you go through up there, I find it to be very… not safe, I’m trying to look for the right words… anything can happen up there. And it’s all magical. You feel like you can pull something from thin air. In a way, it’s more comforting than actual life, where things seem much more black and white or concrete. You’re just in a fantasy up there, and yet it’s so real. Especially with this piece.
 
How did it feel having Markèta Irglová and Glen Hansard sit in on rehearsals?
Terrifying. I got a little used to Glen since we had played with him in Cambridge, but I was intimidated by Markèta. She’s such a good musician that I was worried I wouldn’t live up to her standards. She was gracious and wonderful. The acting had nothing to do with it because I’m not playing Markèta, I’m playing Girl. She’s not gonna be like, “She’s playing me wrong,” because I’m not playing her, but I was still worried about performing her music for her because that’s such an intimate, delicate thing in life.
 
Did they ever talk about their real-life romance?
Only once, in an interview. She’s married now, he’s dating a lovely woman. But this changed their life. And I think they both changed each other’s lives. From what I can tell, there’s a beautiful bond there.
 
And how does it feel to be coming back to Broadway?
Since it’s an open-ended run, it’s all very unknown. Off-Broadway, we had an open and close date, but with this, do we run for a month?  Do we run for six months? A year? No one knows.  But I can say this show has been the best experience I’ve ever had, hands-down, theatrically. I kind of feel like I’m the luckiest girl alive. Not alive, but… I just feel very lucky.

A History of the F*cking Sopranos

Someone with a disturbing amount of time at their disposal has compiled the ultimate Sopranos clip show–a chronological, oral history of the word Fuck (and Shit) as seen on the show. Every single F-bomb that came out of every and any character’s mouth is here, and the results are poisoning. What I’m saying is make your five-year-old nephew watch this and watch them emerge as the meanest motherf*cker this side of New Joisey. Now we just need one for The Wire. Any takers?