We live in front of the television. We eat our meals before it, we neglect our families in favor of it, we are sung to sleep by it. We get into oddly personal arguments at the office the next morning because of it, and then we retreat back home to lick our wounds in front of it. Now is the time of year when we reflect upon the past 12 months of our seemingly bottomless consumption of our flickering overlord's largesse, and we've once again asked the Grantland staff's obsessives to pick two shows (OK, in one case three shows) and consider them together, hoping that through this series of personal and idiosyncratic pairings, the overall shape of the year in TV will come into better focus. If not, well, it was fun to make people connect the dots between Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones,Luck and The Walking Dead, and those twinned Kardashian shows only one of us is insane enough to watch.
Homeland vs. Mad Men and Breaking Bad
By Chuck Klosterman
Let's pretend you own the worst TV set on Earth. Let's pretend your television is only functional for one hour every week, and — once you program that specific window into the hard drive of your DVR — you can never change it again (you can switch the channel, but not the time frame). Obviously, your life would border on the unlivable. But if you had to live this way, at least the decision about which hour to select would be easy: You would pick 10 p.m. EST on Sunday. It's the only valid choice — you could spend one-fourth of the year watching Mad Men, one-fourth of the year watching Breaking Bad, one-fourth of the year watching Homeland, and one-fourth of the year waiting for these three shows to come back. For a variety for reasons, 10 p.m. on Sunday is where great shows are now supposed to live. The only snag is that one of these aforementioned shows is not, technically, "great." Homeland is merely "good" (sometimes "very good," for never more than). And I think I've figured out why.
On Homeland, something always needs to happen.
I like Homeland, and I will watch it until the very end. It validates the existence of Showtime. But its problems are deep, and that makes it a second-tier program. If Mad Men and Breaking Bad were SEC football teams, Homeland would have to play in the Pac-12.
In every episode of Homeland, at least one scene is wholly implausible, and all the romantic relationships feel rushed and unconvincing (particularly — and most problematically — the main one). This is not the fault of the actors, or even the overall premise. It's mostly because Homeland is a high-end version of how television used to be in the 1980s, before TV got good. It's consumed by the tropes of traditional television, which is why it dominated the 2012 Emmys — it was, quite simply, less artful and less challenging than its competition (which, in the context of an awards show, is usually an advantage). Its plot mechanics are excellent, but they're over-emphasized. The plot and the pacing are absolutely everything. And once a show becomes mortally dependent on narrative, its verisimilitude and depth start to erode. Getting from point A to point B becomes the totality of the Homeland experience. The show's creators end up forcing profound events into every single episode, which is how we end up with preposterous murders and silly sex scenes and random dumb moments that only serve to remind us that we're watching conventional TV.
This, I think, is what makes Breaking Bad and (especially) Mad Men so vastly different: When nothing happens, nothing is lost. The quiet moments are better than the loud ones. There is subtext in everything — the language, the clothes, and even the semiotics (once, on a JetBlue flight, I watched an early episode of Mad Men without audio and was amazed by how much could be deduced, simply by the various characters' posture and where they happened to be standing around the office). A week in which nothing happens might still be the apex of an entire season. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are just richer, better products, which doesn't make Homeland bad; it simply means certain 10 p.m. programs deserve to be taken more seriously than others. Time will validate this. I don't care how many Emmy awards Homeland ends up winning. It will still have to settle for the Rose Bowl.
Downton Abbey vs. Game of Thrones
By Brian Phillips
Nobody rules the world without paying some sort of price. You can be poisoned, burned alive, drowned, besieged, locked in the Black Cells, decapitated, bludgeoned, dismembered, or sort of whirled around and dropped to your knees mid-combat in such a way that the 6-foot-3 warrior woman behind you can reverse-Excalibur her longsword right into your cervical vertebrae; or else you can sit there, you can just SIT THERE and know, I mean KNOW, that they all think they're better than you, they're prettier, they're cleverer, they're more likable, and it's not as if you ASKED to be the middle daughter, is it? It's not as if you WANTED this. If it were up to YOU you'd marry some square-toed country squire who'd let you pootle about in his Renault at the week-end — it was you who learned to drive, after all, YOU, not the others, though (as usual) it's not as if anyone noticed. Sometimes — yes! — you'd like to chuck it all in, the servants, the tea sets, the easy epistolary access to your contacts at major Anatolian embassies, and take up with a farmer in a cottage somewhere. It wouldn't matter where as long as you could lead an honest life, baling hay through the tender evenings, stealing a warm kiss whenever his wife pipped in to knead corn meal or whatever it is they do. But why are you imagining him with a wife? YOU'RE HIS WIFE. You can't even daydream properly, can you? Your sister REVOLUTIONIZES CLASS RELATIONS by marrying the only other qualified driver in Yorkshire and you're making a mess of your own fantasies. Why, if it were up to you they'd ALL be burn victims, wouldn't they? IF IT WERE UP TO YOU THEY'D NEVER HAVE ENDED THE WAR.
So, yes. One way or another, dear member of the ruling class, you will suffer. You will be shot, possibly by crossbows, certainly by breathtaking wide-angle camera lenses. Iain Glen will try to marry you; the carnage will be horrific. You will be haunted by relics from an older world whose power far exceeds anything the present comprehends. They may be dragons; they may be Maggie Smith. The night is dark and full of vapours.
The biggest difference between these shows is that in Westeros, no one survives war but everyone survives sex. I know where I would choose to live. Sorry, Lady Edith.
The Killing vs. Community
By Mark Lisanti
A funny thing happened to The Killing after it was stuffed in the trunk of a car and rolled toward the inky oblivion of Lake Cancellation after its exhausting, poorly received second season: That trunk flew open and AMC fished it out of the murk in a last-second change of heart. Though the interested parties seem unwilling to confirm that the wildly disliked show is returning for a third season no one asked for, possibly shared between the capricious cable network and port-of-last-streaming-resort Netflix, its writers are already back at work devising new and exciting ways to blue-ball its core viewership of anhedonic hate-watchers carving rage-tweets in the still-suppurating wounds inflicted by its Season 1 finale. See how negative this got? The Killing has a way of doing that to people. It's unloved and unkillable. It's Jason Voorhees in a damp, oversize sweater, trying to murder us all with a fish from Pike Place Market. And then the two lead detectives on that homicide investigation will squander 26 days trying to pin the crime on Detlef Schrempf.
Then we have Community. When its time comes sometime next year, 13 half-hours after the February debut of its tragically premature final season, its obsessed fans will probably Kickstart a couple of million dollars to ousted creator/folk hero Dan Harmon to produce a run of renegade webisodes in which the Greendale study group will be played by decorative salt-and-pepper shakers, then use any excess contributions to send charred peacock carcasses, outfitted with darkest-timeline beards, to NBC. But even if the inevitable pleas for Netflix salvation go unanswered (and don't discount that possibility until we see how Arrested Development's unlikely resurrection turns out), the fiercely beloved Community feels like a show that's going to live forever. It's also unkillable, even if NBC doesn't lose its nerve as the car rolls toward the lake.
The Walking Dead vs. Luck
By Sean Fennessey
If you walked away from The Walking Dead after Season 2, I understand. Because that season was hot garbage — limp, needlessly ponderous, agri-centric, devoid of Wolfenstein-style kills. Season 2 ended on March 18. One week later, Season 1 of Michael Mann and David Milch's HBO series Luck ended. It would not be back for another. At the start of these respective seasons, there was hope, optimism, excitement. Luck's fate is well documented. Troubled by multiple horse euthanizations, HBO couldn't justify the expensive production under the harsh light of PETA and other animal-rights groups. The only people protesting The Walking Dead were for the ethical treatment of televisions.
Luck was never the majestic must-watch I wanted it to be, even though its existence felt like a stolen entry from my dream journal: gnarled, angry, middle-aged men played by some of the best actors of their generation harrumph about crime, competition, mortality, and women in Milch's crinkled, oblique phrasing. Plus, horsies and Jill Hennessy. Unsurprisingly, there was something impenetrable about it. Likewise The Walking Dead, a show with a great premise and all the tact of a machete to the cortex. Luck never really had a chance — I've long suspected HBO's decision to ax the series two episodes into production of Season 2 was as much a last-minute audible from the accounting department as it was a heed to the call from animal-rights groups. The Walking Dead needed two full seasons and a change in showrunner to figure things out. Luck wouldn't have needed that much. But it never had a chance. The Walking Dead now averages 13 million viewers a week. The lesson: Undead humans > dead horses.
The Newsroom vs. The Vampire Diaries
By Emily Yoshida
In an age of 3,000-word recaps, post-show podcasts, and all-caps live-tweets, sometimes it's easy to forget that it's often just as legitimate, maybe even preferable, to watch a show solely at face value, to resist playing critic while combing through rich texts, second-guessing the showrunners, and revising your prognosis for the show and/or Contemporary Television on a weekly basis, and just have fun getting swept up in a twisty plot and a juicy 'ship. For the last couple years, one of my favorite shows to watch almost purely as a fan is the perennially much-better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Vampire Diaries, which this season cashed in on a "will they or won't they" three and a half seasons in the making, leading its huge, often terrifying 'shipper community to trumpet their momentary victory from the rooftops. But the climactic moment, with all its breathless, vamp-on-vamp passion and sexy lighting you couldn't have fanfic'd better yourself, was intercut with a revelation that immediately cast doubt on the union; producers Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec know what they're serving up and how to cook it with optimal deliciousness that still leaves you wanting more. I've never had to write about The Vampire Diaries critically, and I'm glad; it's too much fun just going along for the ride, bawling when I'm supposed to bawl (R.I.P. Alaric) and gasping when I'm supposed to gasp (Damon and Elena!!!).
Perhaps it was my history of watching shows like The Vampire Diaries that made me feel like it would be fun or subversive to cover Aaron Sorkin's latest drama/blogbait The Newsroom like a CW teen show; surely it was an absurd idea, since The Newsroom is on HBO and boasts an award-winning cast, and The Vampire Diaries' monster cliff-hangers are punctuated by Noxzema ads. What I didn't expect was that (1) a show ostensibly about modern-day television journalism would offer so much fodder for that kind of coverage, with more relationship angst week-to-week than a Degrassi box set, (2) a pretty active real-life 'shipping community fueled by sentimental GIFs and utterly serious fanfic would rise up around it, and (3) that the show was actually more fun to watch as a soap anyway. There's still a lot that is wrong with The Newsroom; it's occasionally jaw-droppingly out of touch and didactic and sometimes weirdly racist, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited to see what happens in Season 2. #Slon Forever, baby.
Girls vs. Gallery Girls
By Molly Lambert
Six years and 12 location-specific series deep, it's easy to forget that Bravo's now unstoppable Real Housewives franchise was originally just the upstart cable network's attempt to cash in on the success of ABC's then-hot Desperate Housewives. Thus began Bravo's habit of doing mockbuster versions of popular TV shows, bringing us treasure like the excruciatingly funny reality rip-off of Gossip Girl known as NYC Prep. This year Bravo blessed us with Gallery Girls, a not-so-subtle attempt to cash in on the deafening buzz around Lena Dunham's controversial HBO breakout comedy Girls. Employing a setup similar to Girls, docu-soap Gallery Girls follows a gaggle of driven young women as they try to find places for themselves in the cutthroat New York art world. While several of the Gallery Girls were endowed with deep pockets, seemingly none of them had been gifted with self-awareness. Girls also explored the divide between grandiose self-perception and humiliating truth that afflicts a certain sort of overly educated urban dweller in the years directly following college (or art school) as they navigate life, love, and the crushing realities of capitalism.
While Girls could easily claim "satire," the cast of Gallery Girls had only the reality show trap of "misleading editing" to blame for the fact that the characters mostly came off like complete assholes. On both shows, our first impressions of the girls and their worlds were continually spun around to reveal interesting new facets. Perfect-seeming relationships are revealed to be skillful façades (Girls' Marnie and Charlie, GG's Chantal and Spencer). Egomaniacs are shown to be vulnerable and insecure (Girls' Hannah, GG's Angela). Jerks demonstrate their softer sides and good girls reveal an ability to be dicks (Girls' Adam, GG's Claudia). Over the course of a television season or your early 20s, you watch as weird strangers and random acquaintances slowly somehow become your closest friends.
Girls and Gallery Girls made the American would-be intelligentsia cringe with recognition as they witnessed the extreme ridiculousness of their own world blown up like a Chuck Close photograph to show everything in unflattering hyperrealistic detail. The dullness of fancy parties, the proliferation of "live/work spaces" with custom built-ins and midcentury-modern décor, the urban overflow of cocky guys with dumb names who date only models and beautiful artsy girls with avant-garde haircuts who speak with vocal fry. Art gallery openings, literary readings, and warehouse parties on the outskirts of town. All the places with free drinks where young people spend their nights searching for someone to go home with, feigning prematurely jaded attitudes but dreaming of a real connection. The fate-dictated disparities in money, beauty, and (closely related) employability that are deemed too socially sensitive to discuss or acknowledge but run like rivers beneath all interpersonal interactions. The strains of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty that permeate even the most glamorously fast-tracked young lives. It was all there on screen, making us just as uncomfortable as Maggie in Brooklyn.
Nashville vs. Smash
By Tara Ariano
NBC's Smash will undoubtedly end its first year of life by showing up on TV critics' "worst" lists, which is fair and deserved. It's not a good show, and even with a change of showrunner (playwright/series creator Theresa Rebeck has been replaced by Gossip Girl's Joshua Safran), a guest cast including Jennifer Hudson and Liza Minnelli, and a new story line that will, one hopes, allow some peace for the restless ghost of Marilyn Monroe, there's no reason to expect that it will get better. Its characters will still, across the board, be unsympathetic jerks; it will still posture like a prestige drama while falling into every teen drama cliché; I will still look forward to it every week, for its (actually pretty great) original music and the promise of crackling banter between its female leads.
Given that these are the elements I love in Smash, a bad show, you can imagine how excited I was to see them recur in Nashville, which promised to be a good show. Like Smash, Nashville came from a celebrated writer — in this case, Callie Khouri, a screenplay Oscar winner for Thelma & Louise. Like Smash, Nashville would feature a contentious pair of female antagonists — a seasoned veteran vs. an upstart who hasn't paid her dues — in an iconic musical setting. Like Smash, Nashville had a polished, exciting, nearly perfect pilot. And like Smash, Nashville is getting harder and harder to defend.
Why do we have to waste so much time on Teddy (Eric Close) and his mayoral race? We can already tell that he's unworthy of his wife, Rayna (the luminously perfect Connie Britton); why is their seemingly inevitable breakup taking so long? Why hasn't anyone on the Nashville writing staff pointed out that all this political business is just as dull here as it was when Smash's Dev (Raza Jaffrey) started having work problems at City Hall? Why did we have to wait until the penultimate episode before the Nashville winter finale to see Rayna and her rival, Juliette (Hayden Panettiere), performing together?
I'm not saying I'm ready to give up on Nashville yet, but this last problem is particularly damning when you consider that it's one front where Smash — dumb, terrible Smash — surpasses Nashville. Smash's Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) were in each other's faces in virtually every episode, singing together and/or trying to outshine one another, vying for the favor of both their director and the audience. Why hasn't the same been true of Juliette and Rayna? THESE TWO SHOULD BE SPITTING NAILS AT EACH OTHER EVERY WEEK. Fix it, Callie Khouri, or I will make them take away your Oscar.
Breaking Amish vs. Pretty Little Liars
By Rembert Browne
When I look back on my television viewing in 2012, it will sadly be filled with memories of my rewatching 24. I'm not proud of this, especially in the age of Homeland being but one click away, but I contend there is nothing more satisfactory to watch while waiting on Thai delivery to arrive at your doorstep than Jack Bauer getting answers from terrorists of every ethnic group that has ever been ethnic.
With that said, there were two shows, and only two shows, that I eventually watched full seasons of, two polar-opposite shows, both accidentally revolving around a singular premise.
You know you're getting lies and deceit with a show called Pretty Little Liars. Actually, the name of the show is a giant spoiler: They lie, and the little ones (sometimes referred to as "young women") are pretty. My viewership of this show, now on hiatus in the middle of its third season, has gone from a joke to genuine enjoyment to obsession to a man in dire need of his weekly fix. I couldn't stop if I wanted to. On the other hand, Breaking Amish turned out to be the exact opposite of what the title suggested. I was thoroughly excited to watch this seemingly genuine (for once) reality show about four young Amish adults (and one Mennonite) who muster up the courage to finally leave their traditions and home and make a life for themselves in New York City.
And then, less than two episodes in, we learn that it's pretty apparent that every cast member has long been "broken" from the Amish life, and, potentially, that the entire show is staged.
I signed up for ABC Family's lies, not TLC's, which is why Breaking Amish will always be something that just came and went in 2012, whereas PLL will continue to be the super-attractive, highly hormonal, potentially homicidal gift that keeps on giving well into the new year. Well, that and Jack Bauer.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians vs. Khloé & Lamar
By Alex Pappademas
It's impossible to watch Khloé Kardashian eye-roll her way through season after season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and not fall in love with her a little, just like Lamar Odom did. She's the snarky Marilyn Munster in this family of pouting, preening emotional Frankensteins; she's also the closest thing the show has to a viewer-surrogate character. She says what the audience is thinking; when Team K went to the Dominican Republic on vacation this season and Kris Jenner took Kim out on a Jet Ski ride after a couple of cocktails, it was Khloé who expressed surprise that Jenner would put her "prized possession" at risk like that. As Leo Tolstoy once wrote regarding the dynamics of unhappy families: Oh no she di-in't. But she did. And she always does. Khloé is just like us, in that she obviously can't stand the Kardashians most of the time but doesn't know how to quit them.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians is about what happens to a family when its normal bonds are superseded by a complex web of promotional obligations, but it still deals with universal themes: the group versus the individual; the struggle to assert yourself without alienating the people you're bound to by blood, even if those people are creepy, craven attention-junkies. Those issues came to a head this season. During a performative group-therapy session (with super-qualified professional and former Two Coreys couples counselor Dr. Nicki Monti, the Dr. Nick to Dr. Drew's reality-TV Dr. Hibbard), when Rob cried about living in his sisters' shadow, I actually empathized with him a little. He's clearly too inept and entitled to make something of himself on his own, but it can't be easy being the least-talented Kardashian. And Khloé's arc was also about trying to peel away from the pack — she started the season off by refusing to take a DNA test to dispel rumors that Robert Kardashian was her real dad, but when the family tried to guilt her into schlepping from L.A. to New York to "support" Scott Disick at the opening of his douche-baggy Asian-fusion restaurant, she screamed "I'm not a Kardashian, I'm an Odom," like Theon Greyjoy gearing up to storm Winterfell.
I want her to be OK; I want her to break free from the smothering vampire-squid embrace of House Kardashian. And yet I find Khloé and Lamar, the Kardashians brand-extension where she pretends that's possible, to be tragic only in the boringest imaginable way. In its second season, despite a big real-life-facilitated twist — Lamar gets traded to the Mavericks, forcing Khloé to relocate to Dallas — it continued to be a listless verité sitcom about generally nice-seeming, schmoopily married people whose domestic squabbles are a waste of camera-battery life, with a supporting cast composed of human throw-pillows. I'm sure Khloé & Lamar's friend-ployees Jamie and Malika are swell people who deserve happiness, but you could replace them with holograms or kittens or paper bags adorned with stick-on googly-eyes and yarn-braids and it wouldn't make much difference from a dramatic standpoint. As spin-offs go, it's Joey, not Frasier.
Representative Khloé & Lamar episode: Khloé's friendship with fellow NBA wife Porschla Kidd makes Malika jealous. Representative Keeping Up With the Kardashians episode: After visiting her ailing mother for the first time in years, Kris Jenner becomes obsessed with her own death and takes her whole brood shopping for a family mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever cemetery (subsequent TMZ headline: "We're Buying Our Graves!!!"). It's all morbid fun and games until Kris lies down in a coffin, a visual that upsets Rob deeply — like Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney, he's already lost one parent, remember — and inspires him to get an '80s-hot picture of his mom tattooed on his forearm so she can live forever, a visual that upset me deeply. The whole hour was amazing; watching these solipsists try to process their own mortality and the idea of a world without them in it was like watching hamsters try to work an iPad, and by the time the credits rolled I was convinced the Kardashians were a greater, more absurd creation than the Bluths, the Fishers, and the Lannisters combined. If you believe the tabloids, Khloé and Lamar are currently racing Kris and Bruce Jenner to divorce court, which would presumably mean the end of Khloé & Lamar and the return of Khloé to the Kardashian fold full-time. For her sake, I hope it isn't true; for TV's sake, I hope it is.
The Walking Dead vs. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
By Bill Simmons
These are my two favorite zombie shows. In The Walking Dead, we've been following the same crew of survivors as they bounce around Atlanta searching for food and shelter, protecting each other and murdering as many zombies as possible. The shadow of morality hangs over everything. If your daughter's shoulder gets chewed by a zombie, shouldn't you kill her right then and there? Is it OK to kill other survivors if you're battling for the same medicine? Would you bring a newborn baby into this wretched world, or would you be a better parent by aborting it? What happens if you fell in love with your buddy's wife because you thought he was dead, then that buddy came back, and you could easily just kill him and pretend you thought he was a zombie? If you create a walled town to protect yourselves from zombies and build something resembling a society in the process, do you then have license to kill anyone who threatens that society even if it's other survivors? Can you seduce someone when you haven't showered in six weeks and your clothes stink of B.O. and zombie guts?
By Season 3, Dead figured out how to advance those issues while also giving its audience what it really wanted — namely, a never-ending slew of zombies getting brutally murdered. Suddenly you couldn't go eight minutes without seeing a zombie get decapitated or impaled. (It's really too bad we don't have a John Hollinger type charting this show — I think it quadrupled its Zombie Killing PER and Decapitation Usage Rate this season.) Now it doesn't matter if each episode is bad or good. As long as there's enough blood and gore, we're happy. The Walking Dead finally knows what it is, and here's the answer: There's no morality, there's no ambiguity, and there's no dancing back and forth between good and evil. You're just there to survive and keep what you have.
You could say the same about RHOBH — in fact, Taylor says as much in the opening credits, when we're watching the dolled-up housewives looking sexy and belting out one defining quote about themselves. "I've fought too hard for this ZIP code to go home now," Taylor says defiantly. That's how everyone feels on this show. They're protecting something that's fundamentally depressing — shallow relationships, exclusive dinner-party appearances, access to a "velvet rope" lifestyle of chartered planes and Aspen ski trips, marriages that seem fine on the surface but could end at any time. They're all trapped in various stages of plastic surgery that range from "a barely noticeable upgrade" to "fundamental disfiguration." They say horrible things about one another, then reconcile over Chardonnay in empty restaurants as they stare each other down. In RHOBH, the single worst thing you can do is throw a dinner party and intentionally NOT invite someone. You might as well just throw a grenade through their living room window.
The best moment of the current season happened when Yolanda (a new addition to the cast) invited everyone over for — you guessed it — a dinner party! She threw it at the Malibu house that she shares with her husband, David Foster, a famous music producer who traps his guests after dessert, plays piano, and forces them to listen to his music. (I wish I was making this up. It would be like me inviting people over for dinner, then insisting they gather around and listen to me read my columns.) Taylor was absolutely bombed during Foster's performance and manically grinning from ear to ear like the Joker — what else is new? — but for whatever reason, she didn't appreciate being told when she could and couldn't sing. She went into a surly, puffy-lipped funk and ruined the rest of the night. On The Walking Dead, they would have just shot her with a bow and arrow and moved on. On RHOBH, they shrug off her bizarre behavior until the next dinner party, and only because someone else will surely top it. I don't know which world is worse — zombie-laden Atlanta or zombie-laden Beverly Hills — just that everyone has fought too hard for their ZIP codes to go home now.
That Metal Show vs. Saturday Night Live
By Steven Hyden
At this point, even casual fans of Saturday Night Live (and people with only rudimentary A/V know-how) are aware of the late-night institution's sound issues regarding its musical guests. The music mix is frequently haphazard, with garbled vocals, muddy drums, and guitars and keyboards that melt in and out of the sonic jumble like the second side of Feels. SNL is still the highest-profile showcase for live music on television, but the sound guy apparently is on loan from A.J. Big Shots and gets paid in beer.
But even if you factor in the hinky sound, many of SNL's musical guests in 2012 seemed a little small. Aside from the occasional drop-in from a Mick Jagger or a Paul McCartney, the show's musical offerings have been aggressively young and Internet-y this year, with mixed results. At times, SNL's pursuit of the latest Web-endorsed flavor of the week seemed to verge on trolling. Lana Del Rey is, of course, the most infamous example. But do you remember Sleigh Bells sounding like Hysteria blasting through a clock radio while incongruously standing (quite ridiculously) in front of Marshall stacks that obviously weren't plugged in? Or how a very sleepy and tweedy Bon Iver turned SNL into a prog-folk episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test? Or the abomination that is Karmin? Even Frank Ocean did himself and the exquisite Channel Orange no favors with that weird, John Mayer–assisted, "I'ma play Galaga" performance of the truncated "Pyramids." Somebody needs to teach these kids about the business they call show.
On the opposite end of the musical trendiness scale — from SNL, from the whole entire world, really — was VH1's That Metal Show. In 11 seasons spread out over four years, That Metal Show has covered the spectrum of hard rock and metal, interviewing legends (this season featured Slash, Michael Anthony, Bill Ward, and Glenn Danzig, and how's that for a supergroup?) as well as young Turks and lots and lots of people in between. You have no idea how many metal dudes you may or may not vaguely remember being referenced by shop kids in the late '80s and early '90s who are still making records and packing decent-sized clubs until you've watched That Metal Show. If you based all of your knowledge of contemporary music solely on the most recent TMS season, you'd assume ex-Dokken guitarist George Lynch was Justin Bieber and Adrenaline Mob was Mumford & Sons. And I love that. TMS is the only show on television that is hosted by and directed at hard-core music fans, and it has a fan's sensibility: The only stuff that matters is whatever Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson, and Jim Florentine and their audience full of Tom Araya and Lita Ford lookalikes decide is cool. Also: the guitar solos always ring through crystal clear.
Key & Peele vs. Barter Kings
By Hua Hsu
Times remain hard on the boulevard, and there's a glut of TV programming to keep spirits afloat. It's "reality" in its barest form, all these inspirational, aspirational shows about other-people's-profiteering, most of it on A&E: the untold riches lurking in storage lockers (TEAM BARRY) and lost baggage, the struggles of boar-fighting hoggers, the American Dreams of a family of beardos who made megabucks hawking duck calls and decoys. I spent a few weeks engrossed by Shipping Wars, wherein freelance movers bid to see who would move ridiculous, near-unmovable objects across the country in the least amount of days for the lowest sum of money. In one episode, "Scott" runs out of gas and runs down to find a filling station, eventually convincing another driver to let him siphon some diesel from his tank with his mouth (pause).
I don't think any of this is real or anything, and if HGTV — the next channel up once you've stacked some chips and want to invest in that all-open-concept-everything lifestyle — bothers to fake House Hunters, then nothing is sacred. But the situations, desires, and personalities here are real, if a bit exaggerated, and that's why these shows can be so entrancing. Who doesn't want to monetize their very ambition? Stay schemin'! I've had to draw the line with Barter Kings, perhaps the only show on A&E that forces a viewer to wonder if it's OK that all this is happening. In the Barter Kings miniverse, there is no system to outsmart, no "30-dollar bill" (s/o Darrell Sheets) spun out of some distant schlub's long-forgotten 15 cents. Most of these shows are victimless, but in Barter Kings, we meet the people whose flippable goods have paved kings Antonio and Steve's road to the riches. Their goal is to barter some modest item already in their possession into something better, so on/so forth, until, many trades later, an old Dell laptop is traded for a 1969 bass amp once owned by Willie Nelson — your unemployed wife can really use this computer, they remind the amp's owner — which worms its way into a car or hot tub or boat or bad-to-the-bone chopper or something.
I'm not being ironic when I say there's something moderately inspirational about Antonio and Steve's purpose-driven lives — their resourcefulness, their willingness to get over by any means necessary. But it felt too craven, too serious and humorless, even if I know that's how most people go about their business. In a way, I watched a show about another tag-team duo, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's mysteriously named Key & Peele, for similar reasons. They held a mirror up to our times as well, but one that was cracked and unbarterable into something better. The chummy, seemingly edgeless pair of Key and Peele — the logo does them no favors — said and did some of the funniest things I've witnessed all year. They have an ear for it all — "Liam Neesons," the impossibility of capturing dubstep in words, Obama's anger translator, and the syllable festival that is the "East/West College Bowl" roll call. (For your enjoyment: two homages to that skit that feel a little problematic.)
There's something about Key & Peele that's comfortable even as it gets "racial" — their zombie bigots, for example. It's not as nasty as forerunners like Dave Chappelle, Mr. Show, or MADtv (where the duo used to toil), and maybe the high hit/dud ratio of their skits is due to how universally laughable they make everything seem. But maybe that's the hope. The possibility that our social dead ends and dick-shaped brinksmanship get resolved in heads exploding, people shitting themselves, or Rihanna simply Tasing the fuck out of Chris Brown.
Survivor vs. The Challenge (and Every Other Reality Show I Watch, and There Are a Lot of Them)
By Tess Lynch
Not covering this season of Survivor has caused me emotional damage that will never be repaired. On the one hand, it's sort of delightful to let its greatness wash over me like a warm Pacific wave studded with friendly dolphins and the kind of seaweed used in expensive facial treatments without having to pause the DVR; but, on the other hand, it's a great season and I can't stop myself from taking useless notes occasionally out of vestigial habit. There's Abi-Maria, the sourpuss who runs her mouth without cease; Jeff Kent, hiding his true identity and pretending that he doesn't already have millions of dollars, giving one of the bitterest exit interviews in Survivor history; Facts of Life star Lisa Whelchel, still tender from her divorce, delivering bizarre and vaguely religious bons mots about how the game is "bigger than" her; and, of course, Jonathan Penner, returning from his previous stint on Survivor: Cook Islands, serving as a narrator and benevolent manipulator. As I've previously said, it's the one reality show that never gives me the heebie-jeebies for being a fan.
That's not to say that I don't watch every other reality show ever created just because I hate myself: Teen Mom 2, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Intervention, Hoarders, The Challenge, 16 and Pregnant, 11 and Pregnant, Couples Therapy, Dirt Eaters of the Mogwai Peninsula, Dog People, My Penis & Its Friends — I've been there, and it's ugly, but I continue to rent mind condominiums in all of these places. I try to convince myself that Intervention is a socially beneficial enterprise, not the exploitative "emotional snuff film" that critics have claimed it is; in all likelihood, it's a combination of the two, maybe skewing toward the latter. Is it riveting? Almost always. But so is Teen Mom 2's Jenelle Evans's insane prioritization of attending a Ke$ha concert over not going to prison, and the alien smoothness of RHOBH's Brandi Glanville's plump cheekbones. I stare at RHOBH's homogenized faces every week, watching them do nothing and talk about even less. It's ASMR programming, like being cuddled against one large synthetic breast that insults its twin neighbor from time to time. It has its place, its private sector of my recreational evenings. But it has no nutritional value. I don't believe it actually rots my brain, it just helps it ripen under a fake sun until I've finally had enough and pass out thinking of a single sparkling glass of white wine served to me at Villa Blanca.
I would think that The Challenge might throw some fiber or vitamins into the mix just due to the fact that its structure contains roughly 50 percent physically competitive games, but the remaining 50 percent of the show is midori sours mixed in a mansion outfitted with bunk beds and contestants hurling each other's luggage into swimming pools. Yes, the cast sweats and dangles from bungee cords and has to run 50 miles through the desert after being forced to eat a six-pound suckling pig covered in Magic Shell and a side of plantains in three minutes (or similar), but there's only that kind of solid gold, genuine integrity 50 percent of the time. Survivor, by contrast, encourages its cast to lie about their identities, placing strategy above brand: personal quibbles are directly rerouted back to game play (if you're obnoxious enough, your alliance may keep you around because you've alienated a jury too much to be a viable winner), hook-ups frowned upon (nothing is more threatening than a couple — the game hinges on individual ambition, the ability to trade allies for enemies at any point), and everyone is too weak and exhausted to throw chairs at one another. There is no luggage to toss out a window, no pool for it to land in. There are no midori sours. There are a lot of bugs that bite, and cute oceanic Nemos to impale with spears, and borderline famine. The most personal moments shown on Survivor have an air of locker-roominess about them; people seem more driven by either financial greed or a fanatic love of the game than fame, its fans seem more like sports fans than the kind of people who like to watch characters with feathered hair eating salad and talking baby-talk to silent co-stars who pretend to be their friends. The enjoyment viewers get is different from the rest of the pack, defensible and sometimes even enlightening. ASMR-type reality shows, for some of us, have their place (not quite "an orgasm for your brain," but sometimes you just want to hear the soft, whispery mumbles of Yolanda Foster as she gives you a tour of her lemon grove), as do torture-porn psychological serials featuring "cat juice," and everything in between. But they're dessert — OK, maybe cocktails, maybe "cat juice" isn't a good dessert — and never dinner. I think it's fine to enjoy bad shows. Just don't do anything stupid like admitting that you watch them to the entire Internet. That would be suicidal.
New Girl vs. Kitchen Nightmares
By Amos Barshad
On every episode of Kitchen Nightmares, the same thing happens. Gordon Ramsay rolls up like he's the goddamned cavalry, flirts with the owner's mother, declares the food to be shit, shames the screw-ups ruining the place into storming out in a huff before eventually earning their trust with his peerless tough love, makes everyone cry when he reveals the pared-down menu and the new prefab décor, and psychs everyone up for the first post-Gordon dinner service (which at first goes well and then immediately terrible and then, finally — after one last tough-love-tear-inducing pep talk — totally, triumphantly great). The entire time, Ramsay is smug and dismissive and lemon-faced, his every gesture a screwed up bit of disgust. Plus, apparently, it's not easy shoving every round of footage into the prescribed narrative; sometimes, the editing is so byzantine it's as if it were done by hammer. And I lap up its every offering like succor for my conflicted TV heart.
I love New Girl, too, but it's a more complicated relationship. I watch those young kids flail around, unmoored and slumped and starving for motivation, and, every once in a while, I get unintentionally curmudgeonly, about quote-unqoute my generation: The big plan here is for this guy to write a zombie novel! Are you kidding me?! And so I crave the old-school structure and rigidity of Ramsay's draconian ways, and the pathetic, sniveling peons doing his inane bidding. Because on Kitchen Nightmares, you got people running restaurants who really should not be running restaurants. But at some point of their lives they looked around and decided "I'm gonna open a restaurant," and they went for it. They didn't sit around wondering if or when or why, they just did it. And in a really bitter, really screwed-up way, that fatalism is inspiring. There's honor in that.