Devil DOES Care: Netflix’s Daredevil Review (B)

This post contains spoilers for all 13 episode’s of Netflix’s Daredevil

Daredevil is the only superhero with his own poet laureate.

In his half-century, Daredevil has had more iconic, era-defining arcs than really seems plausible. This is doubly true considering that, relative to contemporaries like Spidey or Doctor Strange, the Man Without Fear was a late bloomer. He didn’t really become the character that inspired such transcendent greatness from the likes of Bendis, Mack, Maleev, Waid, Brubaker, Nocenti, and many more until more than a decade into his existence. That is when pretty much everything about the character (besides the whole “blind justice” angle) that makes a serial television series such an exciting prospect – Bullseye, Elektra, Stick, the Hand, the Kingpin as Daredevil antagonist – coalesced in just a few short years, finally becoming the melange of pulpy, noirish wonder we know today under the watchful eye of a certain yakuza-obsessed young gun named Frank Miller in the early 80s.

To truly contextualize this vigilantism in an articulate manner – to ruminate on what it means that Daredevil is a lawyer who feels he must go outside the law to get real work done – Daredevil stories needed a wizened ally, a powerful last-honest-man figure who could serve as Matt Murdock’s faithful Jim Gordon. The main difference between Gordon and Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich? Urich can write like a boss, and pretty much every time Daredevil transcends “consistently good” and becomes “the leading edge of the superhero craft,” you can bet that Urich is involved, playing a major role, acting as the vigilante’s personal Homer.

That Urich is constantly stymied in this quest by the world’s worst boss (you can hear Peter Parker shouting “Amen!”), J. Jonah Jameson, makes Urich’s quest to tell the truth, serving as the voice of an informed New York (while hiding the one truth that matters, DD’s identity) almost as Olympian as Matt’s.

Phil Sheldon, the everyman photographer from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, gets a lot of praise for showing us, in his four issues (and a short follow-up series), what it must be like to be a mere man among gods. Urich (who actually appears in Marvels as Sheldon’s fellow reporter) fills that same role, but he’s done it – enviably – for hundreds of issues. He even essentially got his own in-continuity Marvels, a series that followed newspaper reporters embedded in rival factions during Marvel’s Civil War crossover. This would probably be the biggest thing to happen for the Ben Urich character except for the fact that maybe the most important Marvel story of all-time, Miller/Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” arc, is, for two or three issues, essentially the story of Ben Urich summoning up the bravery to do what needs to be done in spite of intimidation from Wilson Fisk’s thugs.

This is a long-winded and rather impassioned way of saying that it’s difficult to tell, without knowing where Marvel plans to go with its street-level Defenders lineup (Matt plus Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand a.k.a the Iron Fist), whether killing Ben Urich in the penultimate episode of Season 1 of Netflix’s Daredevil was brave – because it firmly sets a new course for the MCU – or boneheaded – because it dispensed with Marvel’s greatest journalist while only ever teasing us with the idea that he might get around to some journalism sometime soon.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: his death is final. Unlike Leland Owlsley, another longtime Daredevil stalwart you kind of hope isn’t gone and (considering we only glimpse a shattered but not necessarily deceased body) maybe just maybe isn’t… Ben is for sure 100% coffin dead. There will be no Coulson resurrection for Ben, no “we just stopped Nick Fury’s heart to fool Hydra” moment where we walk into a room and see Vondie Curtis-Hall again and laugh relievedly because we fell for it, ha ha. The MCU only has so many of those “comic book deaths” to spend before their audience turns on them, and Ben Urich does not have the stature to merit one, which is sad because that lack of stature misunderstands the ways in which a supporting cast adds texture to a hero’s journey, but oh so true.

Ben is a glue guy. He’s the type of character who takes a place like Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen, a playground for kooky mobsters and ruffians, and allows it to become multi-dimensional. Literally, in the comics, he affords us the chance to see the problems Daredevil is seeing from a different perspective, adding another dimension or layer to the goings-on. It’s not really fair to tell you how important he is in the comics as a way of belittling the show – I am a crusader for allowing interpretations to stand on their own, apart from the need to be faithful to source material – but what is the Ben Urich of Netflix’s Daredevil if he doesn’t become this confidante/hype man. He barely interacted with Matt, so is he Karen Page’s Stick-like mentor? Does he symbolize the futility of a past generation? Does his death even carry much weight for those who just know Netflix Ben? Instead of becoming the guy who soliloquizes about Daredevil’s deeds, instead of becoming a practical outlet who uses Matt as a source to get real work done through the power of the press, Ben’s death is just one final way for Netflix’s Daredevil to show us how costly a vendetta can become. Or a way to let Karen move on and grow up a little, giving Ben one last beyond-the-grave chance to be novice snoop Karen’s enabler with an assist from his grieving wife. Or one final statement on one of the show’s pet themes: print media as an objective American institution capable of showing people the way is a far-off memory.

I’ll give it this: for a series as bold as Daredevil has been, it’s a very audacious move, and for a moment it pays off – with Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” ringing in your ears and resonating mournfully in your soul while Wilson Fisk makes his mad dash to freedom and to his Vanessa, Daredevil seems to be calling forth the soul of the pragmatic realist, Ben Urich. It’s the perfect capstone to the kind of story Urich would write. It’s harsh but oh so soulful.

But what’s the point of making audacious moves if, in the end, you’re just going to turn it all on a dime into exactly the kind of conventional Marvel-prescribed one-man-can-save-a-city superhero fantasy the other 12 and ¾ episodes argued so persuasively was utter bullshit?

The last fifteen minutes of Daredevil’s first season are unremittingly awful.

It’s not even that that new costume looks bad. It does, but that’s beside the point. The camera knows it looks awful, and the editing is dancing around the idea of this costume without ever truly committing to it as a physical reality.

You can tell when the editing gets skittish, because this is a show that knows from good editing. It gave us the single-take hallway fight scene in episode 2, obviously, but also countless other fight scenes that seemed completely comfortable showing off Matt’s practical black duds. Everyone went into this show ready to hate that DIY ninja look, but it is, in execution, perhaps the most iconic onscreen superhero look since we first saw Tony Stark’s painted armor. What’s most incredible is this: like we Netflix viewers befuddled by promotional images, no one onscreen knows how to discuss this look or label it. This isn’t what superheroes wear. This is just a bruiser in a black mask. And so Matt can only be identified by his adversaries and his public as “the black mask” or “the masked man,” as fitting a tribute to pulp forebears like the Shadow and Zorro as I think there could possibly be.

And then Matt meets a man he should consider his true nemesis, poor Melvin Potter. For his final showdown with Wilson, Matt debuts that Kevlar body armor that’s all the rage these days, and the show becomes a bit of a joke.

Not just in its production design, which is lacking, or its editing and direction, which are scared to death of the way that motorcycle-helmet-esque headpiece and that high-collared jacket scrunch the handsome, angular features of star Charlie Cox into oblivion. This goes right down to the script level. Because now, the series’ overriding obsession with Matt needing to find a solution that both keeps Fisk off the streets and squares with his Catholic upbringing, a serious quandary that would seemingly have no real solution, is easily tied up when this new suit allows Matt to apparently level up in the ninja department. Now Matt can just neutralize Fisk with his fists while knowing exactly where to draw the line! Well if we were always going to go that route, we could have probably skipped just about every nuanced conversation Matt had with Father Lantom, and Claire Bishop, and Foggy, and just about everyone about his tenuous moral position… How convenient.

Even worse, now, with a ribbon nicely wrapped around everything just so, the characters have a shorthand with which to discuss this masked vigilante (“Oh look at that, the papers are calling him Daredevil now!”). It’s strange to bitch that a show that waited 13 hours to intone that name in the opening credits rushes the establishment of the Daredevil persona, but with this new shorthand for a once hard-to-define entity comes the kind of winking bonhomie among the leads that one would expect from “get it?” Stan Lee cameos or subpar non-Marvel Studios adaptations of Marvel characters.

None of this would be that aggravating if Daredevil did not wave about its raw, seething potential so flagrantly. As if struck by its own radioactive isotope, this show is coursing with the good stuff, the awe-inspiring power and finesse, that promises something special. And, bless it, with Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio inhabiting their lead roles so convincingly, it frequently delivers.

Also, there’s just so much of it! To put it in perspective: in one evening’s upload, there was suddenly just as much, if not much more, of Charlie Cox’s low-key, laconic, bruised Matt Murdock as there is, after years of franchise-building, of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill. A Netflix series is, by its very nature, not intrinsically one whole; it is many parts that eventually coalesce into something bigger. Some people (with superheroic constitutions) may combine all those parts into a whole in one 13 hour sitting, but for many, assembling the puzzle will be a slower, episode-by-episode process. And so writing off all of Daredevil based on the last quarter of one of its thirteen episodes would be like writing off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe because Iron Man 3 squanders all of its quirky promise once it turns into an orange-glow action spectacle.

Instead, the barometer for reading and understanding something as episodic and sporadic as Netflix’s Daredevil is far from the air-conditioned largesse of an IMAX screen, where you take in one continuous two-hour shot of spectacle and then go through two years of withdrawl waiting for a sequel; instead let’s look to where Daredevil has thrived for decades – the comic shop.

Walk into a comic shop and you will be overwhelmed by volume – stacks and stacks of back issues, current issues, preview issues. Comics, with this glut of product, have a luxury that Kevin Feige, who gets two opportunities to wow us a year, does not. They are allowed to vary in quality. Wildly. Comics people sort of accept this as a reality; in decades of continuity, you can’t win ‘em all. You treasure what’s great. The most seasoned, most contented comics fans will tell you that there is little point in following a single character’s every exploit – only aggravation lies down that completist’s road. Here there be Clone Sagas…

Instead, the recommendation you’ll get is to find the writers and artists you think do good work, and follow them where they go. Track down their arcs and you’ll delight in the ways that they’ve fused their idiosyncrasies and sensibilities onto characters that have been soaring through skylines since long before they picked up a pen. And so, you’ll rarely get an argument against Daredevil being one of the most splendid examples of the mainstream comic book form, largely thanks to those creators who have defined his adventures; you’ll also be unable to find a person who loves every Daredevil comic. There have been too many of them, and not every one of them is a “Born Again” or “The Murdock Papers.” Daredevil has been a jovial yellow-clad jokester who fights Stilt-Man while spouting off Peter Parker-like witticisms. He’s been possessed by bad juju and driven away all his friends. He’s done that again. And again. Like every superhero created before 1990, he went through the 90s… Protect a Manhattan neighborhood for five decades, there are bound to be one or two “lost decades” in there.

13 episodes is nothing compared to appearing in 562 issues of your own solo comic, but yeah, in these 13 hours, there are some high points and, lamentably, there are some “lost hours.” None is more lost than Episode 7, which suffers from Marvel’s persistent mythology-building problem (see: Thanos in Avengers, Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos until he actually does any darn thing). At exactly the moment when the show has picked up a full-head of steam after a slow build, right when Matt has the next name (Leland Owlsley) that will get him closer to the impossibly grand Wilson Fisk, and is ready to jump into his next arc, a man from Daredevil’s past comes along and says “Hey audience, look over here at this other thing!”

The thing about a slow build – and this series handles its build masterfully, slowly introducing us to Wilson Fisk and his criminal associates and only letting Matt and Wilson confront each other at the end of episode 6 – is that a slow build is only worth it if you actually open the building once its finished being built. Instead, episode 7 wants to inform us that there are bigger things – magic things… – afoot outside the world about which Matt (reminder, the guy who is our protagonist) knows or cares. And, sad fact is, he cares as much about these things after he is schooled on them in a vague and unsatisfying manner as he did before he was even aware they existed. To which I can only respond: Marvel, come back to me when you actually have something substantial and can artfully work up to it in a way that doesn’t involve sporadic, painful, shoehorned-in mentions across untenable periods of time (see: the Infinity Stones, also Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Centipede, which was that shows blockaded [and dumb] way of hinting at Hydra before that was allowed).

This undernourished mythology (almost certainly the mysticism of Doctor Strange or Iron Fist) is on loan here to the Hand, the faceless, shadowy army of ninjas that’s always dogging Matt in the comics. And so, even once the show has moved past its detour into something mystical-ish, the Hand and their figurehead Nobu (now in red-clad ninja mode) continue to carry the stain until they are summarily dismissed from the proceedings in episode 9, sure to return to prominence oh some two or three years down the line. So that makes episodes 7-9 an arc. It is the show’s low-point. But Daredevil recovers. And even if it hadn’t recovered, it would still be great based on its first half.

Daredevil’s first episode begins with a young boy in dire straits pleading for his father’s help. It ends with an echo of that same scenario; once again, the father can do nothing to help his son, but a far-off stranger with especially sensitive hearing can. And will.

On its own, this first episode, with that thematic backbone, is promising – it tracks Matt and Foggy’s attempts to defend an innocent person, the frightened Karen Page, surprisingly the only time the lawyers do any actual defending of the innocent – but it’s when the next episode picks up on that same night, with Matt left for dead in a dumpster, that the show really shows what it can do. This is not a show, like first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, that leaves the concerns of its previous episode’s behind, twiddling its thumbs until something big and explosive happens.

Netflix’s Daredevil is a tightly wound crime thriller, and it’s a satisfying payoff when that child abduction is not just some mostly-off-screen affirmation of Matt’s willingness to step into action, but actually forms the backbone of the entire next episode. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but that second episode is probably my favorite, and it’s not even because of the now-famed hallway fight. The episode artfully cuts between Matt’s past – his relationship with his father – and present – an evening of healing and bonding with a good Samaritan who tends to his gnarly wounds – showing a deft, Lost-like touch with flashing back at the most opportune thematic moments. It also gives Matt someone interesting – Rosario Dawson! – with whom he can discuss his mission, and it makes sure to complicate her black-and-white view of things by presenting her with the extreme ickiness Matt must face on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When she informs Matt from behind her own ad hoc mask how to most effectively torture a man, it is both a fist-pumping victory and a melancholy corruption of the innocent. Daredevil is at its best when it picks at this triumphant weariness. That is the hallway fight’s true masterstroke: the camera trickery is fine, but it’s the choreography, emphasizing just how weak and sapped of energy Matt is, that makes the scene so memorable. It’s especially evocative because – in the episode in which we see our final flashback to Battlin’ Jack – it shows just how much Matt has become the spittin’ image of his dad.

This is tight, effective, craftsman-like scripting. It’s important to note at this point that these two episode’s were the only two written by original showrunner Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) before he decamped for seemingly greener pastures (Son’y Spiderman… oops…). You can see this in the end product. Both episode’s tie together beautifully, taking place chronologically in an extremely compact window, and both lean heavily on something future writers seem to care not one lick about – Matt’s relationship with his father. Episode 3, just about the only episode I would consider a standalone issue rather than a piece of an arc, looks lost in the woods in comparison, brilliant introduction of Fisk aside. It abandons what seemed to be Goddard’s unifying flashback conceit and leans heavily on Matt’s maneuverings in the courtroom, which, as we see through the rest of the season, are a completely expendable facet of this show’s idea of Matt Murdock. We never really enter see Matt giving an impassioned speech to a jury or dealing with objections again; based on how confusing his motives are in this episode (in which he defends a man who he knows is guilty), this might actually be a blessing.

About that Fisk reveal though: saving that for episode 3, and keeping him seperate form Matt until episode 6… those were some big risks. The show ramps up to the idea of this unknowable figure who runs a vast criminal syndicate while never allowing anyone to speak his name. This could be a chore, having three whole episodes of waiting for someone to speak a name we all know will be spoken (a la “come on Benedict Cumberbatch, we all know you’re Khan…”).

But the show has an ace up its sleeve, a stand-in who ably carries the ship until Fisk appears – the persnickety lieutenant Wesley. In what turns out to be a stellar cast across the board (Cox, with that sleepy croak in his voice, is a true discovery as Murdock and D’Onofrio brings unexpected pathos in every single one of his barked whispers), Toby Leonard Moore may very well be the first season’s MVP. In a role that could have been a sniveling appetizer to D’Onofrio’s beefy main course, Leonard Moore owns a room full of baddies and lends a certain mystique to his boss, even once Fisk does finally appear and ask sweetly for wine recommendations.

The only other time I’ve seen Moore, it was in a bit part in John Wick, a film that serves as a fine template for what Daredevil pulls off in its transcendent second arc. In John Wick, a group of Russian gangsters unintentionally draw the ire of an unstoppable foe who takes apart their burgeoning empire. The fascinating trick Daredevil pulls off is turning these Russians, who start as stereotypes (and never truly transcend stereotype) into sympathetic, even tragic figures – evoking Icarus in the way they fly to close to the sun – without ever letting us lose sight of how awful they are. This is where Joe Posanski, co-executive producer of the series and writer of episode’s 4 and 6, completely changes the direction of Daredevil. This is the show’s longform masterpiece.

Episode 4 returns unexpectedly to flashback storytelling, just for one little prologue; but this time, our POV characters are the Ranskahov brothers, who escape a Siberian gulag and vow to make a new start in New York. As we know by now, they’ve done a bang up job, getting a place at the table in Fisk’s Legion of Doom Ethnically Delineated Mob Stereotypes. Keep in mind, as your heart sinks when one of them is decapitated even as he went out of his way to swallow his pride and reaffirm his dedication to Fisk (chalk it up to bad timing), that we’ve seen these directly or indirectly traffic young woman, kidnap a child, and brutalize Claire Temple. These are two despicable brothers, but Posanski finds the soulfulness in their attempt to keep their own identity in tact while kowtowing to the subordinate of a man whose name they can not speak. Everything about this series is clicking at this point (with one notable exception), and its fascinating to see how plotlines feed into each other – how Fisk’s courtship of Vanessa escalates Fisk’s existing plans to consolidate power and eliminate the Ranskahovs, how Matt’s activities lead to him being an easy target for a frame job, how the firm’s involvement with Elena and the tenement building puts him in the right place to find out about the extent of police corruption in the NYPD. Here is where we see most of the show’s “Oh wow” moments: Fisk unleashing his id for the first time, Detective Blake and Hoffman’s heel turn, the unexpected bombing of Hell’s Kitchen, every single delicious moment of Episode 6…

Episode 6 is perfect. It is a master class in how to follow up a big twist (the bombings) with fallout that feels emotionally relevant for our characters. We spend most of the episode locked in a dreary building with Matt and a dying goon we should abhor. Yet, with everything boiled down to its essence, the show finds its soul, unlocking the kinds of depths that the 13th episode’s climax so clearly lacks. It is in this arc, and specifically in this episode, that Vladamir Ranskahov, separated from his brother, in his death throes, becomes a legitimately great character. As he tells Matt the name of his next target (and we prepare ourselves for an arc in which Matt takes down Lelend) and goes out in a blaze of glory, the potential for this series seems pretty much limitless halfway through!

But as we’ve already mentioned, Stick comes along and puts the kibbosh on all of that so we can think about magic children for a hot minute.

It’s not like Stick is the only problem with Daredevil. His storyline (not his flashbacks, which are fine, but the predicament he introduces) is indicative of a universe that always feels the need to hint at something bigger rather than reveling in the now. But the loop that Ben, Karen, and Foggy get caught in for much of the front half of the season introduces a new problem to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it brings Netflix into the fold – bloated Netflix runtimes mean that sometimes the show can live a little too much in the now.

Pretty much every episode asks “What we can we do with the 10 minutes we need to dedicate to those characters this episode?”

Pretty much every episode fails to answer that question satisfactorily.

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Let me be clear. I love each of these performances. I disagree with the consensus that Eldon Henson’s long-haired jester is a drastic departure from comics’ Foggy; I actually think its a truly great interpretation. I also had no qualms shipping Foggy and Karen when the show asked me to (especially during that one hospital scene), and still see little reason to ship Karen and Matt outside of their history in the comics.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? These characters all work in the same office (Ben excepted), but Matt and Karen may as well live in different cities from, like, Episode 1 until Episode 10 or so. The Continuing Adventures of Ben and Karen, Crack Investigators. The Continuing Adventurers of Foggy and Karen, Moony-Eyed Do-Gooders… these are both shows that operate in the Daredevil universe, and would be fine shows on their own I suppose, but where they are placed in context of Matt and Fisk’s ongoing battle always means they’re echoing back information that we already know. Union Allied is bad. Fisk wants the tenements. Fisk killed his father.

Their quest puts them in perpetual peril (and leads to the show’s most notable deaths) but it never contributes any momentum to a show that thrives on it. So while it’s nice to see Karen and Foggy get drunk together, again, it begs the question: are these characters we needed to keep up with every episode? In an ideal world, they would be; but Daredevil intentionally inverts the traditional hero-focus dynamic. It gives all the innovative inspiration to the various characters in the criminal syndicate, and explores their humanity as they turn on each other; it leaves Karen and Foggy out to dry.

The last few episodes of the season attempt to address this by introducing conflict between the Nelson & Murdock team. Foggy discovers that Matt is a vigilante, and his anger causes him to lash out at Karen, ending their flirtation. Ben and Matt come this close to forming something like their comic book relationship until Ben, under immense financial strain, tells Karen he’s backing down. The Scooby Gang is splitting up! This, of course, leads Karen to do the very silly thing she does that ends up getting Ben killed and leading Wesley to her. It would all feel tightly plotted if revealing Fisk’s past misdeeds actually led to his demise, but this proves to be another dead end. The show’s bloat actually presents a unique problem: we are presented with about fifteen ways to bring Fisk down (Union Allied, the murder of his father, dissension in the ranks), but the one that does it (Detective Hoffman, whose survival feels like a footnote when it comes back up) feels a bit like Al Capone being brought down for taxes. There is undoubtedly a measure of satisfaction in watching D’Onofrio counter every move, but he does it so many times that he eliminates some of the show’s more interesting avenues.

Still, there is a measure of poetry to what ends up doing Fisk in: a temper tantrum, just like the one that led to the downfall of the Ranskahovs. D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk is consistently fascinating. It has little precedence in the comics, where Fisk is always the picture of dapper confidence and unerring menace. D’Onofrio instead seems to be playing on Fisk’s uncanny resemblance to a grown-up newborn. He plays Daredevil’s nemesis as immature to the point of an almost sweet naivete. He loves Vanessa completely – tenderly even – and believes completely that bombing Hell’s Kitchen is an act of similarly tender love for his city. It’s incredible the amount of symbolism and poetry they pull out of Fisk’s attempts to use routine and culture to counteract his innate brutishness, his childlike temperament. His obsession with white canvas, the way the show uses his preferred classical music as signpost for his misdeeds, and especially the contrast in his routine pre- and post-Vanessa are all artful explorations of the soul of this man. There’s a part of you that hates him for evading capture and making his grand dash for Vanessa and freedom, but also a part of you that hopes he’ll get away.

Had the show ended right there, with Fisk on his way to Vanessa (or even with Matt standing in the truck’s path) this may very well have been the triumph of the MCU, the most evocative encapsulation of the Marvel ethos. As it stands in that moment climactic moment, everything feels so complex, so gray. It feels far from some tidy punch-kick solution.

And it is preordained that the solution that has been presented, with Matt jump-punching Fisk so hard it knocked him straight into a prison cell, will be complicated by Season 2. Just about the only moment that shows promise in the season’s final scenes is the one in which Fisk, now fully cognizant of the beast he is, stares at the prison wall, a blank white canvas just as daunting as the one he bought for millions from Vanessa.

Daredevil has more arcs in store for us, and Fisk will be a big part of them. Some will soar. Some will suck. Still, I have to admit that a little part of me will never be able to cope with the fact that none of them will include Ben Urich breaking down the dichotomy of Daredevil the way only he can.

How I Met Your Mother

What do you do if you feel 40 minutes of a finale is touching, golden perfection, and three minutes of it are potentially the dealbreaker that might make people (not you, but people) swear off not just those first forty minutes but 208 episodes? (Oh heck yeah, you better believe I’m about to spoil some plot details.)

It’s a pretty apt encapsulation of a show that was similarly seen as sporadically brilliant, touched by greatness, but given to bouts of horrifying its fanbase, most often when the endgame came into play.

I feel like I’m actively processing this finale as I write. Often, when I sit down to write my thoughts on a movie, I’ve long ago decided where I stand on it, and have to make allowances from another point of a view, but on what we can now say is the total, overarching narrative of the Epic of Ted Moseby, I am of two minds. One cheers this. The other backs this.

I give the creators credit for not catering to our basest need to see a pure, uncomplicated happy ending. We didn’t need to pan left in 2030, and see the Mother beaming on the loveseat next to the kids’ sofa. Life isn’t always like that.

But I have to take major demerits for them taking what seemed to be a beautiful realization of a deeper, more eternal happiness, and twisting it into their own version of a happy ending. Life definitely isn’t like that.

I find myself wondering at which point I stopped buying in and potentially cashed out, especially since it all happened so fast, turning from adoration to confusion in the blink of an eye. If the show had faded to black as that train swipes in front of our newly-introduced couple, we’re talking about one of the best series-cappers of all time. And yet the vision of the show, its record in the history books from here to eternity, includes this epilogue that adds so much more – it closes up a complex mythology and puts a big tidy bow on it. A bow people will hate. An ugly, ugly bow. The Harry Potter epilogue is pretty despised, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. As a matter of fact, it’s just a pretty lame assurance that, after the chaos, the status quo was maintained for many years. You can’t say the writers of HIMYM don’t go for broke in the last few minutes though, shattering the status quo. And it’s not that I mind the status quo being smashed.

Do I buy that Robin and Barney got divorced, for instance? Absolutely, and I don’t think it cheapens what they had, or that this whole season was about the weekend of their wedding. The show readily admitted that these two were sort of broken people who found solace in each other’s misanthropic presence, and I thought the episode handled the dissolution of that comfort soon after their nuptials pretty darn well.

Do I buy that Robin would grow apart from this group? Absolutely. I think this was the strongest thread in the episode, and it was surprising to see the show imply that it was only Robin who drifted. Wouldn’t they all drift? But Robin’s rant to Lily in that empty apartment was heartbreaking, the episode’s most honest moment, the moment that truly felt like the culmination of a show that was so much about growing up.

And growing older. So do I think that this notion that the mother – Tracy… her name is Tracy… – died after knowing Ted for ten years cheapens all this time (just about ten years) we’ve spent getting to know Ted on his quest for his one true love? No! No way. The moment I realized with everyone else that this might be the case, that the mother might die before 2030, I had the opposite reaction. I found the idea poetic, more than a little tragic. But also moving, in that Ted did have those ten years, and they were great and affirmed his ideals and made him a happier man, and that’s what mattered to him as he passed this tale on. Not everyone’s flavor in a Monday night sitcom, I get it, but it really struck me that the writers could make that all mean a lot, stuffing so much movement and life and loss and growing into one hour.

But, while they did make Ted’s interactions with the mother this wonderful, warm thing (give them credit where it’s due, they found a Mother worthy of Ted), her death, which in my vision of why this should work is a huge moment, is barely an afterthought – to them, to us, and to Ted’s kids, who dismiss it at the end of his story so easily. And that cheapens it. It’s that they seem so unmoved after (let’s be kind) what must have been a long day of soul-bareing from their father; if I’d just heard that story about Dad meeting Mom on the Farhampton train platform, well, no matter how much I thought Dad should hook up with Aunt Robin, I might keep that in for a bit and reverently respect the ending to the story of how Ted Moseby met my mom. I wouldn’t need to try to check my “Dad, you’ve been telling us this story for so long” snark; it wouldn’t exist. If my dad ended with that, I’d be a puddle. It’s that Ted’s kids were so out-of-tune with what had just been presented to them (almost as if they’d been talking years before Ted ever sat down and asked for their feedback, amiright?) that drove me batty after what I thought were forty minutes of divine excellence.

It’s not even that I disagree with them either. If I don’t think the show did us wrong by introducing the death into the narrative, don’t think Barney and Robin made sense as lifelong partners, and definitely don’t want to see Ted Moseby pine after a memory for the rest of his life or Robin regret her decision to pass on Ted for the rest of hers, then I should be the one trumpeting (french horning?) the brilliance of that ending. And there is something awe-inspiring about seeing Ted holding the blue french horn aloft as Robin cries from her window, no doubt. There is a full-circle, epic grandiosity to it that romantic comedies across time aspire to. On its own, it sings. If Ted had decided to go there of his own accord, inspired after all that soul-cleansing storytelling, I might have bought it. It’s the kids flippancy that throws me. It’s unfair to flay a scene that was written and filmed over a half-decade ago, I suppose, and even more unfair to criticize teenage actors who are now no longer teenagers. But the showrunners had years to decide not to use that material, and ample opportunities to come up with something… anything… else! And they didn’t.

They went with ending their series on a scene that can best be described as tone-deaf, that is shot clumsily, that is all about gimmickry (look what we did all this time ago!) and that erases so much goodwill. So can we erase it? I appreciate the vision of Craig Thomas and Carter Bays too much to advocate ignoring the ending they not only opted to use but clearly designed years of writing to conform to (a move that Sepinwall effectively murders in his piece, and for good reason) outright, and yet I couldn’t blame anyone reading just this last sentence if they took my final verdict as an admonition and acted on it: I was happier with How I Met Your Mother as a whole when that train wiped a smiling, deeply-in-love Ted and Tracy from view (yes, even though I knew what would become of her in 2024), and part of me wishes even now that I’d confused that for the ending, flipped off my TV, and drifted off to sleep dreaming of yellow umbrellas and the eternal promise of the one.

2013’s New Comedies, Big, Funny, but Not Both

Having to dis a Marvel property has gotten me down. I need some cheering up. Let’s move on to the class clowns: the 2013 freshman class has introduced some big, star-laden, ratings-baiting comedies; some great, assured, confidently funny shows. If only I were describing the same shows on both sides of that semicolon, the comedy landscape would be much easier to process.

Let’s start with the big stars meant to pull in those mad ratings. For Robin Williams, it’s working. His CBS comedy The Crazy Ones is a massive hit out of the gate, which is too bad because I think it is deliriously unfunny. I have kept watching it out of some strange compulsion I do not understand that perhaps has to do with the charm of the dashingly handsome James Wolk in a role that plays off his ever-smiling Bob Benson without indulging in the creepy undertones. It just feels like everything else about this show is wrong: Williams is rarely given a chance to unleash, and when he does, it feels like he does it in all the wrong places, like the writers said “Well this is the least important scene in the episode that doesn’t convey any important information, so we’ll let Robin ad lib utter nonsense over this. But elsewhere, let’s stick to our horrible script” One of the writing’s great crimes: it has reigned in Sunnydale’s hippest vampire slayer, turning her into a straight-arrow shrew, the pouty straight-man at center of the Robin Williams creative storm. Watching the two deal with their father-daughter issues while co-running an ad agency is exactly the reason we don’t want to see what Don Draper will be doing when he’s 65 and cuddly and venerated.

Speaking of cuddly and venerated, let’s talk about Michael J. Fox, on whose return NBC has unwisely pegged all their hopes. Not unwisely because it’s bad. I think The Michael J. Fox show has an immense workmanlike charm and is divinely cast across the board, especially in it the kid department. NBC’s faith was unwise because it did not pay off even a little bit. NBC’s entireonce-venerated Thursday night line-up has floundered in the ratings. It is ratings poison, Must-Avoid TV. But this show was guaranteed, thanks to how much NBC was willing to give to have Fox back, a full season order from the outset, so regardless of its horrendous ratings, this show will go on, and I’m glad for this. I do believe that, given time, this cast can find consistent chemistry and a larger audience. Maybe not the audience NBC banked on getting (the “Radical, Michael J. Fox was the dude back in the ‘80s!” demographic), but an audience that likes the gently funny, occasionally clever rhythms of the similar Modern Family (which is not hurting for viewers).

I wish I could say that same audience will find Trophy Wife or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the fall’s most criminally underwatched comedies. If Robin Williams is the class clown who sits in the front row turning everything into an extended riff that only occasionally makes everyone in the class laugh, Malin Akerman and Andy Samberg are the two wits sitting in the back muttering bon mots under their breath so only the select few surrounding them can hear. But those blessed few are getting one heck of a show.

It’s surprising that Samberg’s comedy hasn’t found more traction since Samberg is such a Millennial property, but it is best to keep in mind that, like Ryan Gosling and Benedict Cumberbatch, Samberg is Internet famous first, actually famous a distant second. Also, no one ever said making music vidoes with T-Pain would translate into sitcom success. It’s not how Bill Cosby did it, that’s for sure. So I understand why the reservations might be there. But ignore them. Samberg is already comfortable as the cocky, goofy center of a fantastic ensemble, but it’s that ensemble, the other cops in the precinct played by such treasures as straight-faced Andre Braugher, sensitive slab-of-meat Terry Crewes, pathetically noble Joe Lo Truglio, and singularly cuckoo Chelsea Peretti, that sets Brooklyn Nine-Nine apart already, making it seem like a show that’s been churning out solid laughs for five years and not five episodes.

Trophy Wife still has some work to do in that department; it’s ensemble is large and unwieldy, it’s child actors not quite the equivalent of Michael J. Fox’s brood. Trophy Wife is a complex cocktail that needs a few more tries before the mix is right. Give it a season, and it could be a breakout darling like New Girl, which also struggled to find the right balance early on. The show is interspersed with remarkable talent, especially in the form of whip-smart Bradley Whitford and languidly dry Michaela Watkins, but, considering it follows three different iterations of Whitford wives in three separate households, the balance can be uneven.

Fortunately, one thing about the show is already perfectly calibrated, and that is the lead performance by Malin Akerman, a gifted comedienne who the majority of the American public likely remembers for getting laid to the strange dulcet tones of Leonard Cohen in Watchmen. Akerman is, as her role in that film can attest, a level-ten stunner, and if the show were interested in making her just a trophy for Whitford’s older attorney to possess, then she would be a stunning one. But the show is nowhere near as vapid or shallow as the name Trophy Wife might imply. (Like Cougar Town, the show will regret that name in three seasons, if it doesn’t already.) Akerman’s third wife can be ditzy, but the show has found purpose in following her quest to become more than a blond slice of heaven on an older man’s arm. She’s trying to be a good stepmother to these kids, a part of a large family unit that is, to be honest, just as much of a “modern family” as the one we see on that other ABC show. In the role, Akerman is the best new non-Ichabod thing on television, a slapstick goddess with pleasant traces of Lucy who draws laughs out of every situation without ever taking anything away from the potentially noble twenty-something quest to find direction and meaning while in an out-of-the-blue stable marriage that has given her a new set of stepkids so close to her own age it’s frightening.

S.H.I.E.L.D, Underperforming on the Biggest Stage Possible

If Sleepy Hollow is the kid in the 2013 Freshman Class you thought would drop out of college on Day 3 but has cleared that bar and then some, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is its exact inverse: the kid who by all accounts should be rocking this, what with that phenomenal movie pedigree and that name in the showrunner seat (Whedon, even if it’s not THAT Whedon, it’s his brother); but who, in spite of all that, is struggling immensely out of the gate.

Every professor’s coming up to you and telling you this kid is doing… okay, but it’s clear some coasting is going on. There is concern is what I’m saying. “It’s okay,” you say sheepishly in reply, “it’s early, and it can take a while to adjust with these things,” but you worry that, while Daddy (Disney) will keep the kid here and trying and chugging along as long as possible, it’s going to be more of a struggle than anyone expected.

The struggle: S.H.I.E.L.D is remarkably inconsistent considering all that ABC has riding on its success. If this show fails, the unstoppable force that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe can brush the misstep off like a flake of dead skin, but ABC the flailing television network wants desperately to make procedural shows set in all those shiny new Disney assets (especially the Star Wars universe) “a thing.” And right now, S.H.I.E.L.D, against every prediction I might have laid down a month ago, is most decidedly not “a thing.”

It is highly rated. It is competent. But for something set in the infinitely interesting world of Marvel superheroes, it is decidedly pedestrian, showing glimmers of extraordinary progress (especially in fourth installment “Eye Spy”) amidst an ocean of sub-NCIS spycraft and case-solving peppered with clichéd banter and dull, underserved characters.

To be clear, this can be fixed. A Whedon show can take a while to get off the ground if it is given the opportunity (Firefly, why?!?), and boy howdy will ABC give this show that opportunity. But after a paternalistic, hacker-bashing, superhero-naming dud like this past week’s outing, my optimism that this show will take advantage of that opportunity is waning. I like Skye’s style and think Fitz and Simmons are adorbs, but I have yet to think all but one of these episode’s is even half as inspired as episode’s written for brilliant Marvel animated series like Spectacular Spiderman, Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, or X-Men: Evolution. Considering the budgetary discrepancies (I’m certain the budget for one episode of S.H.I.E.L.D could have funded entire seasons of the brilliant shows I just mentioned), that should not be a promising sign for Disney. At this point, if you’re not already on board with this show due to a preexisting obsession with the Cult of Coulson, I’d recommend waiting this one out until it gets better, as one can only hope it will, or sit it out as it lets out a low, mournful seven-season death rattle of mediocrity.

Next Page: Dissing S.H.I.E.L.D bums me out, so let’s talk comedies

Sleepy Hollow, Fall’s Messy Miracle

Sleepy Hollow was, at the Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV panel I sat in on at DragonCon, easily singled out as the new show most likely to get the axe first.

It has already avoided that ignoble distinction thanks to the miserable Lucky 7 (and many other now cancelled shows) but, as it’s become by far the biggest breakout hit of the year and has already earned a second season, it’s fair to say we were off by quite a bit. And yeah, sometimes it’s hard to call these things from a trailer and synopsis alone, but everything, especially how little everyone was looking for a modern twist on Washington Irving’s story, seemed to indicate Sleepy Hollow would be a mess. And it is!

But it’s one of the most wonderful, focused, purely happy-making messes on the face of this Earth. As it approaches the halfway point in its 13 episode first season, Sleepy Hollow has proven itself to be the strange bastard child of National Treasure and Lovecraft we didn’t know we needed. This wonderful mutation has yet to meet a strange footnote in American history it couldn’t turn into an intriguing hour of high-adventure. (Roanoke?!? Already?!?) Right down to its uber-competent warrior/genius Ichabod Crane, played brilliantly by huge star-to-be-just-you-wait Tom Mison as what essentially amounts to the more cuddly twin brother of Jack Davenport’s befuddled, scruffy Commodore Norrington from the second Pirates film, Sleepy Hollow has next to nothing to do with anything Washington Irving wrote.

But fear not… this show lacks not for inspiration! I like to imagine in the writers’ room everyone sits next to a stack of books about American Legends and Folklore and, as they leaf through the books, they shout “That sounds cool, PUT IT IN THE SHOW!”

“All of it?”

“YES, ALL OF IT!”

If the 2013 freshman class of television shows were new students at a university, Sleepy Hollow would be that kid who seemed, from everything about them you could see (their transcripts, their essay), to be not so much cut out for this. And then they walk in the door and you can tell that nothing you knew ahead of time prepared you for what you see before you now: this kid clearly spent a great summer between high school and college reading Lovecraft and Stephen King, watching the best buddy cop movies, quoting important Bible verses, adopting a smooth British accent for no reason other than it sounds cool, and having an all-around ball. It should all be insufferable, but, as everyone watches the kid walk in the room and sighs contentedly, you realize that this kid is going to do just fine if he can iron out some of the wrinkles in that new image (like the way every episode ends with the demon handily defeated; at some point ONE of these demons has to be able to wreak some havoc for more than ten minutes). No show seemed less promising coming in, and no show seems more promising now that we’ve gotten a peak inside the strange minds that are putting this show, the one show I’d tell you you HAVE to jump on if you haven’t yet, together.

Next Page: Sleepy Hollow‘s Dreary Mirror Image

Notes on a Young Television Season

Let’s start with this: Breaking Bad is over. It was much watched and has been much discussed. I will not add to that discussion – not because I feel too much has been said, but because I have nothing to say. I didn’t watch it and have avoided everything that has been said about it like it bears a contagious and outrageously deadly disease. I plan on watching Breaking Bad one day, I swear! I just haven’t yet, and until I do, I want to know nothing more than what little I know right now. Which is something something cancer, something something crystal meth.

This makes me immensely unqualified to talk to you about television, in the sense that the most buzzed-about television event of 2013 (or maybe of ever), as well as the entire run of the consensus GOAT television show, are completely unknown to me. But what is qualified really?

Let’s get deep for a moment. I haven’t watched Breaking Bad in part because I’m an idiot, conceded; but also in part because the right time for me to watch Breaking Bad has not come yet. Now I could say I “haven’t had enough time” to watch Breaking Bad, which might be true; but anyone who observes my television watching habits could make any number of easy calls based on popular aesthetic taste and open up plenty of BB time: “Stop watching Glee you fool! You waste four hours a week on The Voice? You’re still watching Survivor? NO!

And there you go, plenty of time just opened up to follow Walt and Jesse on their magical adventure to methland, where they ultimately acquire inner peace and hard-won contentment. (This is what happens, right?)

But I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t give those shows up. Here’s why:

I long ago made the potentially unwise call to see Glee through to its probably-ignoble end because I still enjoy so many of the pieces of Glee that I can get past the oft-shoddiness of the whole. I can rant about Glee with the best of them: five seasons in, Glee has never improved even a smidge on its exposition delivery method, which still involves everyone sitting down in a room and listening as one person introduces the week’s theme or artist in the most trivial manner possible while everyone else chips in by spouting excited and completely worthless factoids about that week’s theme or artist, as if they’d all read the same “Did You Know? Pop Stars Edition” pamphlet as kids. (Representative exchange from the premiere: Schu – “This week is all about the early years of The Beatles, when all they had was a belief in eachother and a belief that together they could do anything!” Marley – “When George Harrison was a kid, he was made fun of because his dad was a bus driver…” Thanks Glee!) I worry that this is ashow, as it reaches its finale, that his no real questions left to answer now that Rachel and Kurt have found phenomenal New York success, Schue has become the most irrelevantly martyred adult teacher ever, and the show’s one remaing lost soul and question mark, Finn Huson, was neccesarily memorialized on a brilliant episode (the show’s last one?) after the sudden and shocking death of the man who played him with so much relateable befuddlement, Cory Monteith. With so many loose ends tied up, what does Glee have left to offer us? I still believe the answer is “a lot” because Glee has also, in five seasons, never lost its ability to deliver an emotional gut-punch. The show’s gift and its curse: it has never once during its run met a setpiece or plot point it couldn’t make less subtle. Glee is allergic to subtlety, and that means its emotions, delivered through glorious popular music (speak not of Glee’s attempts to pen original songs), can be like a shot of adrenaline to the heart no other show (preoccupied as other shows are with occasionally portraying human emotion in a subtle and restrained manner) could dream of offering.

Then there is The Voice, which is, like anything associated with one of the foulest phrases in all of television and also the world (“results show”), a massive time commitment. If I didn’t get invested in the show’s off-beat singers and bantering coaches and team-against-team narratives so much, it would be a time drain, a time suck. And though I don’t consider it that at all, I have to admit that, even if the best reason to watch is the coaches’ interactions with starry-eyed hopefuls and of course with each other (particularly when it comes to Blake Shelton and Adam Levine’s immensely ship-worthy bromance), even I sometimes fast-forward past the fluff, which is most often coach-related and of which there is an extensive, ungodly amount. (And we haven’t even gotten to the part of the season where the show punishes us for some unknown but obviously horrible crime with a social media correspondent, oh Lord above, why, please make it stop…) But the incredible thing about The Voice is that, encased in all the fluff is a reality competition which has transformed in two years from scrappy upstart to clear heir-apparent to the singing show throne, and in doing so, has vastly improved on its early but uneven success. The biggest improvement: in its first three seasons, The Voice felt like a fantasy football league in which only two of the four participants (Blake/Adam) had any idea what they were doing, a scenario so suffocatingly uneven that, as anyone who’s played in one these leagues knows, it becomes no fun for anyone. Cee-Lo, while always a dazzling presence, has always seemed largely to be promoting his own cat-and-cockatoo-filled version of reality, and Christina Aguilera was that guy who drafts only his hometown players (young, unpolished women who sing like Christina Aguilera!) regardless of their ability to actually win, forcing everyone else to go “Seriously?” But now Christina, who I have despised with a special and powerful passion in other seasons, is returning after a fun Shakira/Usher experiment that ended up being monopolized by Blake’s country music empire, and the show has become important enough/she is being paid enough that the queen diva has given up her aging Liz Taylor act (heavy mascara, catty glances, unnecessary feuding, skimpy clothing, excessive fanning, overwhelming disinterest) and has put together a diverse and dazzling assortment of talent while also being funny, invested and occasionally (I can’t believe I’m saying this) adorable. It’s heartening to see her care about winning this show with an artist who might not be her little clone. And Cee-Lo is deferring to neither a cat nor a bird, which is an improvement.

And then there’s Survivor, whose name at this point is as much a testament to its ability to persist unceasingly at an unbelievably advanced age as it is to any sort of “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” motto. Yes, Survivor has had more seasons than I have years of living, but it is, depending on its cast and premise, frequently brilliant, a fact that the non-Survivor watching populace (which grows larger every year and which at one point, yes, also included yours truly during a seven or eight year hiatus during which even I gave up on the show for not doing anything extraordinarily interesting) struggles mightily to grasp. This month, NPR blogger Linda Holmes, a longtime Survivor fan and advocate, thoughtfully voiced her displeasure with the growing sexism ingrained in the show’s bikini-clad, man-club-celebrating premise, a point I’m not sure I completely agreed with and which I also think deserves a big, important discussion. So imagine my distress when more comments looked like this (“Who still watches that show, you losers? Why would you talk about this show amidst these hallowed blogs of NPR?” which is rather uncivil considering these are the NPR comment boards) than this (“I intelligently disagree/agree with you because…”) So let’s tackle it from this angle: it is inarguable that Survivor broke ground by combining The Real World with Castaway. Its early seasons were a stop-the-presses event, its big names were reality rock stars, all of which makes it easy to overlook a blatant fact: the first season of Survivor is an adorably appealing mess. No one but Richard Hatch and his few alliance mates had any clue what they were doing, with many players actually spurning alliances. As a game of strategy, early Survivor is a desert with the occasional blessed oasis of smart gameplay. There is an argument to be made that Survivor’s currently favored combination of seasoned veterans and savvy fans far outpaces those early seasons’ pioneers both in gameplay acumen and in the “actually engrossing on television” department. Arguing the show never surpassed in overall quality its buzzy but messy first season is, from a competition perspective, like arguing football was never better than the days immediately after Knute Rockne popularized the forward pass. Yeah, late-season Survivor relies too much on gambits and rule-enforced twists (One World, Redemption Island) that erode the game’s inherent simplicity, but when those gambits work to manufacture drama in a way that doesn’t feel overly-controlled, the results can reclaim the “never-before-seen social experiment” spirit that so captivated America at the turn of the millennium. Such a season is picking up steam now; in a move that destroys all previous strategic certainties, the show has sent previous competitors to the island to compete against/with their loved ones. What started out contrived and confusing is turning into a masterful story engine/harsh competition the likes of which we’ve never seen before. I’ve watched many seasons of this show, and Linda Holmes has watched many more, and, totally-merited complaints about sexism aside, neither of us have any idea how family ties will affect this brilliant game.
Point being, if I didn’t want to be watching any of these admittedly uneven shows, well… I wouldn’t be watching them. I’m a grown-man who made evaluative grown-man decisions to watch sometimes qualitatively-challenged television which, in spite of my fandom, I have no problem admitting likely pales in comparison to Breaking Bad in the grand scheme of things. And I don’t regret it. I do this because, when the planets align (about two or three times a season) these shows hum on exactly the frequency I need them to and they do as much for me as, if not more than, Breaking Bad could do. I’m a guy that likes musicals, the singing of classic rock covers, the drama of competition shows. I adore Tribal Council. And Breaking Bad contains suspiciously few of these elements, whatever its other merits may be.

No television watcher’s DVR Season Pass should read like a sterile best-of list is what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a little room in my diet for some Breaking Bad… But keep this in mind: if every show on the air was as oppressively quality-conscious, heavily serialized, morally complex, and cloudy-day gray as Breaking Bad, the television landscape would depress us all. Fast.

With that in mind, it falls to us to decide every fall what new visions we might adopt into the strange little menagerie of television shows with which we choose to maintain an “involved” relationship. Because we can’t keep up with them all. It’s just not possible. There are too many. If I watched every show I’d ever heard was phenomenal, I’d be watching, in addition to Breaking Bad: Scandal, Rectify, Justified, The Good Wife, The Vampire Diaries, Arrested Development, and Pretty Little Liars. And so many other shows. I would also be really tired and a less productive human being. Maybe dead.

But staying within a box of previous tastes and favored creators and performers also reduces gratification. There was nothing about 2008 Charles (who, based on his Lost and Heroes obsessions, should be stuck in Syfy purgatory right now) that suggested my favorite shows of 2013 would count amongst their ranks Downton Abbey, Girls, Orange Is the New Black, and Bunheads. Bunheads is an especially obvious outlier to my typical T. I have never seen creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls, knew nothing about ballet, and thought of ABC Family as the television equivalent of a hormonal pre-teen writing a catty slam letter. My only entry point into the show was Sutton Foster, a Broadway entity of which I was only vaguely aware. Explain to me how Bunheads, in its sole season, became one of my most adored darlings of all time? You can’t. And yet, from the moment I laid eyes on it, I fell deeply, madly in love. I will light a candle mourning its passing every year.

So, in addition to approaching the fall with an understanding that we will end up buying little of what the networks are selling (the past two years, I’ve watched about 80% of pilots and, by the next fall, only one show has still been on my slate: New Girl and Elementary respectively), we must also cast a wide, adventurous net. We must put ourselves out there and be ready to embrace the unexpected. And nothing in 2013 was more unexpected than:

Next Page: Fall’s Most Unexpected Success