Well, do YOU really want to discuss Republican politics right now? OK. Let's talk about stuff I came across last year that I really liked and want to share with you. No guarantee you'll like it, of course, but you might see something here where you go, “hmmm” and check it out, and discover that it's terrific.
Despite what you probably saw on the crap cable stations that infest American airwaves, there were some truly great documentaries this year. Doctor Brian Cox, astrophysicist, spokesman for the CERN project, and keyboardist for D:Ream and Dare, two well-known British rock groups, hosted “Wonders of the Solar System” and “Wonders of the Universe” on BBC-1. Cox is engaging and articulate, and the depth and accuracy are up to the usual BBC high standards. If you haven't paid much attention to what's going on above the sky in the past 20 years, this is must-see television. This isn't the universe you were taught about in school. Available on video disks.
David Attenborough, arguably the greatest nature documentarian ever, came out with a beautiful stunner, the six-part “Frozen Planet” that is utterly mesmerizing. It takes the viewer on a year-long tour of the polar regions, and ends with a terrifying look at the changes climate change has brought about. It'll be on Discovery this coming summer. US viewers won't be cheated out of content by the 44 minutes that made a broadcast hour; Attenborough had 45 minutes of documentary, and 15 minutes of how they got those incredible shots. You miss out on the how-they-did-it part.
British television had some extraordinary moments. Charlie Brooker, long-time TV critic, Guardian dark humor columnist and producer of game shows, turned his talents toward a remarkable three part series known as “Black Mirror” which was some of the best speculative fiction/satire I've seen on television. Each stand-alone episode takes a look at a near-future Britain transformed by technology. The first one details how the British princess is kidnapped by terrorists, who subsequently make one demand for her release: the Prime Minister must have sexual congress with a live pig on television. Then the princess goes free. The story does not go the way you might expect, and it is harsh, and brilliant.
Another series that was stunningly good was Torchwood. This had been a rather mediocre sci-fi/horror series for its first three seasons. Then in its fourth season it had a truncated four-part series (eight hours) called “Children of Earth” in which the entire plotline changed and suddenly became something much more profound and terrifying. It was eerie and engrossing. It returned this year with a mostly new cast and a third reinvention. The plotline is that nobody can die. This includes the terminally ill, would-be suicides, burn victims and so on. Not an unmixed blessing. Nor do wounds heal any more. If you get injured, you're stuck with the pain, forever. It creates a macabre new world.
“Being Human”, the story of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat, continued to surprise and impress. The premise sounds silly as hell, but the writing and acting rise well above it. There's also a not-bad American version of the show on ScyFy.
Technically, the following wasn't a show I encountered in 2011: “Sherlock” had its first three episodes in 2010, and a second three in January 2012. The last episode was “The Reichenbach Fall” and yes, Sherlock has a titanic struggle with Moriarty and falls to his death. A third series is in the works. Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the wonderfully British name, plays Sherlock in 21st century London. He's brilliant as Sherlock. In the first episode, he overhears a plod muttering about that “damned psychopathic amateur detective” and he turns to the policeman and says archly, “I am not a psychopath. I am a high-functioning sociopath.” Which, in fact, Sherlock was. Stephen Moffat, the genius behind the reincarnations of Doctor Who (the last three Doctors), and Torchwood wrote the Sherlock series, and manages to be funny without being clownish, and does an incredibly good job of melding Sherlock into the present day without ruining the mythos of the character.
“Skins” was back for its fifth season, and third generation of kids. The acting and writing were excellent, but it has a bit of a well-trodden feel to it at this point, a sense that we've done this before, meeting the kids, learning their back stories, getting a sense for how they interact. But I'll watch this coming series because, like Star Trek movies, the even-numbered series tend to be the great ones. Second season was on par with the best of West Wing, or MASH.
Doctor Who was funny, stupid, engrossing and ridiculous all at once, just like it always is. Don't take it seriously, and you'll enjoy the hell out of it.
Disappointments included Primeval, in which dinosaurs and other critters keep invading London or Cardiff, depending on the show's budget. It still has the best rubber monsters around, but that's about all it has now. They've gone through two complete cast swaps, and the trend is downward.
A friend turned me on to a Canadian series, “ReGenesis” about people at a epidemiology lab in Toronto. The first season is superb, and the second excellent. The wheels start to fall off the show in season three, when bat science starts creeping in and good characters leave the show, but the first two seasons are well worth watching.
American cable shone this year. My own favorites were “True Blood” and “Episodes”, which is the story of a English screenwriter getting eaten by the Hollywood system. Falling-down funny. Even as network television continues to go down the tubes, cable tv gets better. There was the wonderfully creepy “American Horror Story”, “Boardwalk”, “Treme” and “Weeds” which came back from a jump-shark season to recapture some of the originality and wit that was the hallmark of the series.
One major disappointment was “Dexter”. The writers seems to have developed the attention span of kittens, picking up and discarding one great premise after another, giving the show about as much continuity as a 1960s sit-com. Toward the end, the plot devices started getting flat-out ridiculous. It was particularly frustrating because it threw away excellent turns by Edward James Olmos, Colin Hanks, and Mos Def. As an example of great ideas that didn't survive one episode, Dexter has an emotional breakdown, and the ghost of his father, source of wise counsel and restraint, is replaced by the ghost of his half brother Brian Moser, the Ice Cream Truck Killer. It could have provided great insights into Dexter's character, but no, he was gone in forty-five minutes.
There was one network show worth watching in the Vast Wasteland: “Grimm.” It's an odd-ball cop show, in which one of the cops can see various monsters such as werewolves and vampires, and they all hate and fear him. Sounds silly, but ten episodes in, it's holding up pretty well.
Movies: just a list here: “Boy Wonder”; “Ides of March”; “Contagion”; “The Lovely Bones” (2009, but I didn't see it until this year); “The King's Speech”; “A Serious Man”; “Red State”.
Animation: “Rango” was far and away the best animated feature I saw this year. Not only was it lacking the heavy-handed 'afterschool moral fable' elements that afflict most American animations, but the artwork was breathtaking and the characters unique and intriguing. The movie is a splendid parody of spaghetti westerns (worth seeing just for “The Spirit of the West” and for a certain famed cactus-juice mystic as a road-kill armadillo) that has fun riffing off lots of different movies.
There was a Japanese anime series of note this past year: Gosick. In the normal course of events, if an anime features an emotionally damaged girl who is supposed to be 15 but looks about 12, then you might want to turn around and walk away unless you have a thing for barely-sublimated cartoon pedophilia. Unfortunately, this is a big thing in Japan, and it's not hard to find cartoons that are devoted to prepubescent T&A.
“Gosick” (the name means “Gothic” in Japanese Kanga) avoids all of that. The character is as described, but is also a reclusive genius who, bored with her cloistered existence, wishes to “examine chaos” and find answers. This makes her a combination of Sherlock Holmes (right down to a pipe!) and a spiritual seeker. It's intelligent, it's sly, and it avoids most of the more annoying elements to be found in anime. If there is a problem, it's that the series denouement has a rushed feel to it, like it was meant to go one or two more seasons but got canceled. But it does wrap up, and in a reasonably satisfactory way.
Music: I already mentioned (in a previous piece) Native Speaker (by Braids) and Philharmonics (by Agnes Obel) as the best albums of the year. Add to that “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars. Like the other two, it's highly original and bends music genres.
The most electrifying song I heard this year was a 2006 effort by James McMurtry, “We Can't Make It Here” If the Occupy movement needed an anthem, this powerful song is it. You can watch one of many videos with the song here: I had been working on using the song to made a video for Occupy and had held up while waiting to see how the SOPA/PIPA fight went, and was delighted to discover that McMurtry has already put out a plea for people to use to song to make videos supporting Occupy. I am -so- on that now! The lyrics are here Go and listen to the song. It will scar you.
We'll return to the utter inanity that is the hilarious disgrace of elections in the Corporate States tonight.