Finals Week: Grading the 2012-13 Season

The 2012-13 season of television was a bizarre one. It seemed like more new series than ever started up and sputtered out almost immediately. Hell, NBC probably deserves some award for the number of new series it killed before they reached a sixth episode (all while two comedy mainstays marched through their final seasons). With the season having come to a close this past week, it’s as good a time as any to take a brief look back on some of the shows that graced screens, for better or worse, and the episodes each ended their year on.

30 Rock

Before this season, 30 Rock had been on wobbly legs, many acknowledging that some of the seams were starting to show, a bad sign for a show whose biggest attribute is its tightness. The show still had its loyal fanbase, but they weren’t oblivious. When season 7 began, it seemed to be just as shaky as the last few. Fortunately, after a few episodes, things began to click in ways they hadn’t for years, ramping up to a series finale, “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”, that perfectly encapsulated everything fans loved, and would dearly miss, about the show. Really, how could any episode of television featuring the title song from The Rural Juror musical not be perfect?

Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: A-

Community

At this point, it seems foolish to even try and talk about Community. As I noted previously, I haven’t seen a season of television be so divisive amongst fans of the series since season 5 of Lost. But fan reactions are a poor judge of quality, which made this season all the more difficult to watch and try and discuss on a weekly basis. To call season 4 of Community “mediocre” would do a great disservice to some of the great episodes, such as the Jim Rash-penned “Basic Human Anatomy” or the puppet-assisted “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”, but how else can you describe an episode like “Conventions of Space and Time”, or even worse, “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, the season’s fan-service heavy, laugh-light finale. And even more confusing, NBC renewed the show for a fifth season. A fifth season! I… I have to stop this one now, otherwise this could go on for days.

Finale Grade: D
Season Grade: B

The Office

Unlike its final-season companion, 30 Rock, The Office had dug itself so far into a hole that, by the time the ninth season began, it was difficult to tell if anyone outside of a few critics and diehards even still cared (cue flashbacks of Weeds). Season 9 was tumultuous, broad, frustrating, and at times, just bizarre. Andy Bernard’s descent into unbridled villainy accelerated to a point where some of the season’s best episodes occurred while he took his family boat on one final cruise (is it possible to be thankful that The Hangover Part III exists? If so, I am). Fortunately, having a finish line in sight, and Greg Daniels back as showrunner, gave the show a renewed energy. The Office works exceedingly well when there’s a loose narrative goal to move things forward, the romances of Jim & Pam and Michael & Holly being the two best examples. With this renewed spirit, even missteps like Boom Mic Brian, a member of the documentary crew who comes out from behind the camera to be a plot device between Jim and Pam, or Andy’s decision to quit Dunder-Mifflin and strive for… fame, or something, could be swept away quickly, or at the least, with as little pain as possible. Then, in the eleventh hour, something amazing happened: The Office delivered a show-stopping finale, one that very nearly forgave what transpired after Michael Scott took off his microphone at that airport. In a funny and poignant hour, The Office did justice to what the show was really about: the people.

Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: B

Parks & Recreation

Is it fair to say Parks & Recreation had an “off” season? Many critics have said so, but I’m not so sure. For the first time in a while, it seemed like the show had no big event to work towards, no Harvest Festival, no city council election. The season began with Ben and April in Washington, in what eventually became a mostly forgettable arc. In fact, for the first half of the season, I’d agree that Parks was having an “off” season. Thankfully, one wonderfully unexpected proposal turned the tides. The show even made a brave narrative choice by featuring the wedding of Ben and Leslie several episodes before the season’s finale, a choice that (mostly) paid dividends to a tightening of the show as a whole. Oddly, the season finale, “Are You Better Off?”, is a relatively low-key affair, at least, as low-key as an episode featuring an insane town hall meeting and Burt Macklin, FBI, can be. But low-key is not inherently bad, and “Are You Better Off?” was a great example of how to make it work. It even, in a Parks almost-tradition, ends on a wonderful cliffhanger, just to let you know that this show’s still got it.

Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B+

New Girl

While it may have started as a middle-of-the-road Zooey Deschanel starring vehicle, in its second season New Girl has morphed into a warm, funny ensemble comedy- one that just happens to have Deschanel at its center. In fact, the true stars of this season were Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller and Max Greenfield’s Scmidt. Sure, Lamorne Morris’ Winston could still use some work, and there were a few weak episodes in the bunch (the guest-overstuffed “Chicago” springs to mind), but the amount of growth shown by New Girl this season was just astounding. Episodes like “Eggs” began to use its perspective to tackle more serious issues, and “Cooler” signaled a big turning point for the show: the Nick/Jess kiss. Surprisingly, the Nick/Jess romance has been a welcome addition to the expanding world of New Girl, and the showrunners have found an enjoyable push-pull that keeps it interesting. By the season finale, “Elaine’s Big Day”, the show was confident enough to leave as many doors open as possible, setting up for what I hope will be a brilliant third season.

Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: A-

The Mindy Project

To call The Mindy Project a disappointment would be a bit too dismissive. No matter the comedy pedigree, even Mindy Kaling’s, a new show is allowed to be shaky, to take some time to find its legs. But what happens when, sixteen episodes in, the season is still inconsistent and mostly boring? The Mindy Project promised a shake-up in its first season, and while there was some shuffling of cast members, it didn’t occur until very late in the season, and even then, new additions like the usually-great Beth Grant still didn’t feel right. However, Kaling’s performance, and that of leading man Chris Messina, has been strong, and a few well-played guest stars (B.J. Novak, Seth Rogan, and Anders Holm) helped shape some of the best episodes of the season. The final stretch of episodes, featuring Holm as Kaling’s pastor love-interest, were even consistently enjoyable. It’s clear that the rough sketch of a great comedy is there, and hopefully Kaling & Co. can work it out by the time the show returns next fall.

Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: C

Happy Endings

I’m not sure ABC has ever really had to deal with a low-rated, critically-acclaimed comedy before. Their treatment of Happy Endings suggests that this is something the network had never dreamed of, and they dealt with it by shuffling the show around the week, changing up the episode order, putting it on a mid-season hiatus, and eventually relegating it to a two-a-week burnoff on Friday nights (not to mention their incredibly insulting “#SaveHappyEndings” campaign). That never detracted Happy Endings, though, and the show’s third season was its most whip-smart yet. Many might cite How I Met Your Mother, but in a perfect world, Happy Endings is the true heir apparent to the throne of Friends. Even the weak links in the cast, Elisha Cuthbert and Zachary Knighton, developed into interesting, funny characters this season. A strong stable of recurring and guest stars (including Rob Corddry, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Andy Richter, Megan Mullally, RuPaul, and Rachael Harris) added to the wonderfully absurd world of the show, and a wedding finale (as each season has had) made it all the more difficult to understand why anyone would cancel the show.

Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: A-

Bob’s Burgers

Seth MacFarlane may have an unfortunate stranglehold on the animated sitcom front, but Bob’s Burgers is the true king of the format (is it even worth mentioning The Simpsons at this point?). The ingredients may seem familiar, but Bob’s brings a certain bizarre sweetness to the recipe, and the results are a chinless blessing. After two oddly-scheduled seasons, the show finally got a full order with season three, and it pulled no punches. Every member of the Belcher family got at least one episode to shine, even pulling the originally bland Tina into MVP status with fantastic episodes like “Tina-Rannosaurus Wrecks”. Pulling out not one, but two(!) great holiday episodes, as well as a few clever tributes (see “OT: The Outside Toilet”, where the titular toilet is voiced by none other than Jon Hamm), kept the season feeling fresh, and the fleshing out of Oceanside, the New Jersey town Bob’s calls home, allowed for near-infinite character pairings. The season finale, “The Unnatural” saw the (very) loose plot threads of the season culminate in a thrilling and hilarious half-hour that cemented the show as the King of the Hill follow-up it’s always wanted to be.

Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: A

Portlandia

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s charmingly absurdist sketch show shifted gears slightly this season, switching out the constant addition of new Armisen/Brownstein characters for a higher level of serialization. Guest stars like Chloe Sevigny (as Alexandra, Fred and Carrie’s shared new roommate/love-interest) and Kyle MacLachlan’s Mayor were given fully realized, multi-episode (or in the Mayor’s case, season-long) arcs, as were many of Fred and Carrie’s characters: Peter and Nance opened a bed and breakfast in their home; Kath and Dave learn that Kath is pregnant; the Portland Milk Advisory Board desperately attempts to find an alternative to traditional milk. Okay, that last one is more a recurring gag than a sketch, but the point remains the same. This serialization pays off immensely in the season finale, “Blackout”, a hilarious episode that ends on a surprisingly heartfelt note. If this is the path of the show’s future, it’s a good one for all involved.

Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B+

Girls
Many people much smarter than me have said much, much more about Girls than I ever plan to. It’s a show that taunts you, dares you to talk/argue about it until you’re blue in the face. Compared to this season, the first was a cakewalk of setup, as this year saw many of the ticking bombs from season one exploding fantastically, creating giant messes of everything these girls want and believe. It also saw the show attempt to play with conventions, including the oh-so-controversial Patrick Wilson episode, but it’s where it all ended up that’s the most interesting of all. The season finale, and the final scene of the finale, have been dissected to bits, but I’m not sure any of us are any closer to really understanding what Lena Dunham was trying to say. Whether it’s a declaration of feminine weakness, or the opening of act three of a grand love story, the show still warrants discussion, and that’s one of the best things television can do.

Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: A-

Enlightened

It’s unfortunate that Enlightened has already been canceled by HBO. Like many, I missed the first season entirely, but found myself a devout follower by the time the second came around. Enlightened is not a show for everyone, with it’s glacial pace and focus on introversion and quiet character moments, but the second season saw the corporate espionage plot become more prominent in the mix, and with it, supporting characters that could each fill an entire episode by themselves. While Laura Dern and Mike White continued their Emmy-worthy performances as Amy Jellicoe and Tyler, respectively, Luke Wilson’s Levi, Timm Sharp’s Dougie, and Diane Ladd’s Helen Jellicoe, all lifted the show to heights most hour-long dramas could barely dream of, let alone a half-hour program. The season/series finale is a mix of poignant grace and big, juicy character moments that scream for the awards reels, Laura Dern’s final voice-over bringing the entire series to close in a neat package in such a way that’s equal parts heartbreaking, uplifting, and incredibly philosophical. There was no other show like it on television, and I doubt there will be for some time.

Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: A

The Walking Dead

After its mostly-boring second season, The Walking Dead took some pains to try and keep the show interesting going into its third, and biggest, year. Those efforts didn’t always pay off, but it was nice to see the show return to a pace and style that could be sustainable for a few more seasons. Several supporting characters, such as Steven Yuen’s Glenn, Lauren Cohan’s Maggie, and Chandler Rigg’s Carl (I know, right, Carl!), stepped up to the plate and delivered on levels they hadn’t til this point. David Morrissey stumbled a few times as the seasons big bad, The Governer, but ultimately played the role with a mix of cool evil and bubbling rage that worked perfectly in the context of the show. In fact, the season’s weakest episode didn’t come along til the very end, with a season finale that barely wrapped up any stories, instead acting a segue between this season and the next, a bold move for sure, but one that worked poorly given the narrative structure not only of the show, but of its source material. It’ll be interesting to see how a new showrunner (Scott Gimple, who penned some of the season’s best episodes) wrangles this unruly plot thread next year, and hopefully all of this anticlimax will actually pay off.

Finale Grade: B-
Season Grade: B+

Bates Motel

Bates Motel seemed like an ill-conceived project from the beginning: a modern-era prequel to the horror classic Psycho. And I’ll admit, at first I watched purely for the campy awfulness, but, like American Horror Story: Asylum, campy awfulness soon gave way to a show that was actually enjoyable to watch. Vera Farmiga’s B-movie performance as Norma Bates seemed delightfully silly at first, but became more and more unsettling as the show progressed into the quiet thriller Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates had been inhabiting from the start. While some characters, like Norman’s brother/Norma’s son Dylan took a while latch on, others, like Emma, a quiet girl with CF who’s attraction to Norman ropes her into the bizarre going-ons of the town, were immediately enrapturing. The season finale, “Midnight”, played even more low-key than the rest of the season, setting up the right balance of bizarrely campy and quietly menacing the show seems to strive for.

Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: B

The Following

Like Bates Motel, I was originally drawn to The Following on the promise of campy awfulness (plus, I’m a sucker for Kevin Bacon, what can I say?), and while it delivered largely on that front, too often the show’s story was too boring to care about, while its violence was too gruesome to be justified. Few characters have any clear motivations, and most are barely more than broad character types, put there to revolve around Bacon’s protagonist, Ryan Hardy, and James Purefoy’s antagonist, the increasingly dull and exasperatingly dramatic Joe Carroll. The season finale delivered on all of these detriments, ending on one of the lamest television cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. Unless Vera Farmiga gets transported in from Bates Motel, the chances of me coming back for more of this bleak mess are slim to none.

Finale Grade: F
Season Grade: D

Supernatural

To put it gently, Supernatural has been on too long. That, combined with full-season orders, has left the last few seasons of the show seeming like warmed-up leftovers of the taught, exciting genre program that it used to be. Season 8 was a slight step up, with some great new additions to the show’s mythology (especially the Men of Letters, which provided Sam and Dean with a much needed HQ), and a great new character to push forward into season 9 in Metatron, the scribe of God. And even a moderately boring season can be forgiven by an exciting finale, and while parts of “Sacrifice” existed solely to push the plot past some of its dead ends, the final scene, with millions of angels raining down from a now-closed Heaven, while a human Castiel, a severely wounded Sam, and an astonished Dean all looked on, was a sight to behold. It’s hard to tell where the show will go from here, but hopefully some of “Sacrifice”‘s momentum and exciting imagery will stick around.

Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B-

One By One They All Just Fade Away: Why Community doesn’t need a fifth season

I’ll admit, I was late to the Community game. I only got into the show about two years ago, during the summer before the third season. But about halfway through the first season, I knew I loved it. I knew it spoke to me in ways few shows had before, and few have since. It’s probably the second most important TV show in my life (behind Lost, which will always be the show that made me love and appreciate television). I follow the cast like a hawk, keeping an eye on any and all new projects they’re working on. I’ve been an active participant player of the “Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne” game on Reddit. I will argue violently that “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the best-written episode of television comedy ever. And yet, despite all this, I can’t help but feel that tomorrow’s season four finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, needs to be the end of the series.

In case you missed it, in the tumultuous time following season three, the Community fanbase grew to a rabid beast that no mere NBC or Sony executive could ignore. While the idea of TV fandoms have been around for a while, often attributed to huge commercial successes like Glee or era-spanning cultural definers like Doctor Who, you can thank the Human Beings (the name members of the fandom have given themselves) for helping to push the idea strongly into the forefront of the cultural consciousness. So while live ratings continue to plummet (though not a problem exclusive to Community or even its network, the flailing NBC), it seems the fandom is more huge and rabid than ever. So, only naturally, there has been a large push for NBC to renew the show for a fifth season (at this time, NBC has not renewed any of its current comedies).

But what exactly fuels this renewal mania? Obviously, if you become emotionally attached to a show, the natural inclination is to want it to run as long as possible. The never-ending cries from fans of beloved cult shows like Pushing Daisies or Party Down are more than enough proof. But Community exists in a more bizarre situation: after all that caterwauling for a fourth season, very few actually turned up for the premiere (and even less showed up for subsequent weeks). I’ve read more internet comments and Tumblr posts than I care to count about how “it’s just not the same”, or the more malicious “Community is garbage now!” “Community is the biggest disappointment on television,” etc, etc. An astounding number of those same fans who clamored for this new season have become dismissive of the show under its new showrunners, yet still show up every week to watch, undoubtedly to better fuel their tirade of jokes on Twitter. (Funny enough, the last time I remember a season of television being this divisive among fans was Lost.)

And yet, here we are again. On the eve of the season four finale, a massive movement has broken out online, including a contribution from the big dog itself, Sony, to watch the season four finale live and live-tweet the show as a message to NBC that they’d better renew the show for a fifth season. And while I find it admirable, I have only one question: Why? Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, has said time and time again that the show was never meant to run longer than four seasons (it is a show centered around a college degree, after all). Even the most ardent spoiler-avoider must be aware that “Advanced Introduction to Finality” will deal with Jeff and the study group’s completion of their time at Greendale. It’s the main narrative thread that’s driven the entire series. There’s no real reason the show has to stop, as there will always be stories to mine from the characters and their relationships, even without the titular community college to bring them all together, but it’s just not the right direction for the show.

For as much as Community is about the personal relationships forged between its main cast, the show works best when built around Group Study Room F. Part of season four’s uneasy oddness can be directly traced to a lack of study room. Group Study Room F, and in a larger sense, Greendale Community College itself, is essentially a character in the show, much like The Simpsons‘ Springfield or Parks and Recreation‘s Pawnee. Like those, Greendale is filled to the brim with eclectic and entertaining characters that almost seem to inhabit their own show when they’re not floating in and out of ours. Be it the screechy-voiced Garrett, always in need of saving, the party-starting Magnitude, whose dialogue consists almost entirely of the phrase “Pop pop!”, or one of Greendale’s more tragic figures, Todd, a war veteran that the study group sees as an enemy, but is really just a guy with a child trying to make something of his life after returning home. And that’s not even mentioning Greendale’s wonderfully zany professors and faculty, of which two have become series regulars in the form of Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton and Ken Jeong’s Ben Chang.

To pull Greendale from Community‘s formula would be the equivalent of losing a main cast member, which would be especially problematic for Community. Chevy Chase, who plays Pierce Hawthorne, has already exited the show, and his split from them was messy and, by the accounts of cast members, writers, and Dan Harmon, extremely mean-spirited. Chase has a long history of being difficult to work with, so none of that was necessarily surprising, but it left the show in a hard place. His arc through the second and third seasons saw him wrestle with feelings of inadequacy amongst the study group, at times becoming the show’s antagonist, but his redemption at the end of season three, especially in the penultimate episode “Digital Estate Planning”, left the character open for a challenging and fulfilling arc in season four. However, Chase’s exit forced the show to sideline Pierce, instead reducing him to rehashed jokes from seasons past and entire episodes where his name is barely mentioned.

Which is all to say: can Community survive a fifth season, especially when losing not only a main cast member, but also the character that is Greendale Community College? On some level, yes, it could. This season, like many a season four before it, has seen the show shift from a forward thinking, challenging invention of a mad whacked-on-pills scientist to a show that just wants to please its fans (which, let’s be clear, is not a bad thing, and trust me when I say that it’s happened to at least one of your favorite shows). But this isn’t just any old show we’re talking about, this is Community. The show inherently has a built-in narrative structure that would make it difficult to move past Greendale, even if it hadn’t become the rich world it is now.

And most of all, is it worth it to try and extend the life of a show, especially a comedy, beyond its natural endpoint? One simply needs to watch one of Community‘s night-mates, The Office, to see a show that has been pumped so full of drugs to keep it going that it’s literally falling apart at the seams. The Office reached a natural endpoint in possibly its most moving and poignant episode, “Goodbye, Michael”, yet NBC insisted on keeping it around for two more years. Community, like The Office, has a rich supply of supporting characters to keep the show afloat, but not even The Office risked leaving its Scranton, Pennsylvania office park for any extended period of time. So I say, let Community go on its terms. Everything about “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, from the episode description to the title to its mere existence, reads “End of Series”, and I can’t help feel a fifth season would barely be able to bring much, let alone closure. To quote Nietzsche: “The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.” Community has reached its goal; it’s time for us to accept it, and say goodbye.