By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com June 13, 2012 at 2:52PM
While the summer is an excuse for the movie studios to roll out their biggest offerings, television executives are much more afraid of warm weather, leaving the television dial mostly as a wasteland of repeats and reality shows. As such, the TV season essentially gets underway in September and runs through to May (with cable dramas occasionally moving the goalposts a little either way -- "Breaking Bad" starts in July, "The Newsroom" next week).
As such, TV should probably be judged on a slightly different schedule, and to mark the passing of the season (arguably which just ended with "Mad Men"; read our season finale recap here), we've run down, as we did last year, our ten favorite shows of the season. These kinds of lists always generate disagreements, and there's so much good television that some shows are bound to miss out -- some of us couldn't be bigger fans of "Parks and Recreation" for instance, but its fourth season was a significant enough step down from its pitch-perfect third (which topped this list last year) that it found itself slipping on the list.
But if you have a case to make for any of the other sterling shows that we didn't include -- "Fringe," "Eastbound & Down," "Boardwalk Empire," "Enlightened," "Bob's Burgers," "30 Rock," "Downton Abbey," "The Hour," "The Good Wife," "Treme," "Luck," "Veep" and many, many others, you can sound off in the comments section below.
When it came to the Television BAFTA for Best Drama Series this year, there was pretty stiff competition among the nominees: previous winner "Misfits," the last series of long-running spy series "Spooks," and the hugely popular detective show "Scott and Bailey" (and that's even without the stalwart shows that weren't even nominated like "Doctor Who," "Sherlock" and "Downton Abbey"). But the winner was none of these things: in a rare example of an awards show getting it exactly right, the winner was "The Fades," the BBC3 (or BBC America in the U.S.) supernatural drama which received relatively low-ratings, and embarassingly, had already been cancelled. The series was created by fast-rising writer Jack Thorne ("The Scouting Book For Boys," "This Is England '86," the upcoming "A Long Way Down"), who pitched it to the BBC as " 'Ghostbusters' meets 'Freaks & Geeks.' " And tonally at least, that's not far off, but the finished product was much darker, weirder, sexier and funnier than that sounds. The pilot introduces us to Paul (Ian de Caestecker), a teenager suffering from apocalyptic visions who discovers that he's an Angelic -- one of a special few able to see Fades, spirits of the dead who never made it to the afterlife. As it turns out, the Fades have a plan, and Paul, along with his best friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), twin sister Anna (Lily Loveless), would-be-girlfriend Jay (Sophie Wu) and his sinister mentor Neil (Johnny Harris), have to band together to stop Paul's visions from coming true. It sounds like any other post-'Buffy'/"Supernatural" type series, but Thorne (who penned all six episodes himself) makes it feel fresh, purely by putting together a cast of genuinely compelling characters (Harris, of "Snow White and the Huntsman," being a particular highlight), smart comedy, and raw emotion -- few shows can make you tear up during the "previously on" introduction, but this one, which sees Kaluuya deliver the recap in character, did. The villains were motivated and terrifying, the action well-directed and exciting, the plot twists surprising, and the whole thing was enormously entertaining, even if some aspects didn't quite work (there was a sub-plot featuring Paul's teacher (Tom Ellis) mourning his wife (Natalie Dormer), who'd been turned into a Fade, that never quite went anywhere). Hopefully, the BAFTA win will make the BBC reconsider their decision not to comission a second season, especially given the cliffhanger ending.
Must See Episode: The fourth, which picked up on the jaw-dropping climax of the previous episode, when Paul was rendered comatose, even as the lead Fade (Joe Dempsie) regains corporal form, and starts chewing up the townspeople.
A decade on, the major attempts to tackle the war on terror have been in jumped-up action series like "24" or "Sleeper Cell," and a new show from some of the writer/producers on the former didn't exactly inspire hope of a more nuanced take, despite a starry cast assembled -- Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. But as it turned out, "Homeland" -- a loose remake of Israeli series "Hatufim" -- was both gripping thriller and well-drawn character study, which against the odds managed to carry its premise across the first season without dragging or dropping off significantly. The show follows bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes) who is told by an informant that an American prisoner of war has been turned. Months later, she watches Private Nicholas Brody get off a plane back onto home soil after eight years, and is immediately suspicious of him. Is Brody really a sleeper agent with a terrible aim? Or is Carrie simply losing her mind? The answer was both, and also neither -- creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had created a plot without easy answers, set in a world of grey, that still barreled towards a breathlessly tense conclusion. Not that it was ever rushed, with the show just as interested in its protagonists as in its twists and turns, and while there were some weaker performances in the sidelines, the central trio more than delivered. Claire Danes reminded everyone of the talent she first displayed in "My So Called Life" with a turn that demands Emmy recognition; manipulative and vulnerable and terrified that she might be wrong, and that her mind might be betraying her. Damian Lewis, meanwhile, has always fared better on television than in movies, from "Band of Brothers" to "Life," and gave another storming performance here, expertly keeping Brody's motivations out of reach while still allowing an insight into the man. And Mandy Patinkin was a wonderful avuncular mentor, battling against his own imploding relationship and trying to save Carrie from herself (special mention too to Morena Baccarin as Brody's wife -- she'd always felt a little flat on "Firefly," but is ace here). There were certainly flaws, in retrospect: some patchy dialogue, a few subplots that felt like padding, a couple of moments that felt contrived or far-fetched. And questions still remain about whether the show will be able to stretch that premise to its second season and beyond. But they've already surpassed expectations, so we're certainly hopeful for its return this September.
Must See Episode: Episode 7, "The Weekend," in which Brody and Carrie's relationship comes to a head as they go for a dirty getaway together at her family's cabin. The episode culminates in a conversation so brilliantly written and unexpectedly performed that it'll be ensconsed in the TV hall of fame long after the show comes to an end.