TV Surprises: When Bad Shows Turn Good

By: Daniel Reynolds

As some of you may know from following the Same Page, I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad. For my money, it is the best directed, best written and best acted show on TV right now. Few shows manage to grab my attention  and lock me into that ‘must see’ mindset like it does. But of course, Breaking Bad is gone until July, and after that 8 episode season, it will be gone forever. Sure there are other shows out there (Mad Men is still awesome, Louie is defining TV in a whole new way, etc.), but lately I’ve been thinking about some shows that have surprised me this season and helped me forget about the lack of Walter White and the gang.

The Walking Dead

As I’ve written elsewhere, the Walking Dead is a hit show, albeit something of a surprise one. As a reader of the comics, I was all-in after the first season. I liked the show’s construction, I didn’t mind the diversions from the books (because, let’s relax), and I was excited to see where the live action version would go next. But then Season 2 happened and we had a lot of time devoted to people ambling off into the woods (always a bad idea) looking for some girl, the trial of some random dude who probably just should have been left for dead, and people dealing with depression. I quit at some point around episode 8 or 9, having listened to one too many speeches about survival from Rick, Shane, Lori, etc (admittedly, this is a problem with the comic, too).

The Walking Dead: No more messing around.

The Walking Dead: No more messing around.

Naturally, I figured a show about zombies would inexorably march on without me and I’d just leave it at that. But, I kept hearing the chatter, the buzz across the Internet, that the Walking Dead was getting better. Perhaps it was because of the gentle (relatively speaking) removal of Frank Darabont as showrunner, but yes, the Walking Dead rounded into form in those last few episodes of Season 2. There was the searing confrontation between Rick and Shane, the shocking takedown of Dale, and the terrifying reminder that zombies en masse still roamed.

I haven’t caught up on Season 3 yet (only at Episode 4 now), but the uptick in pace and overall quality is immediately apparent. Instead of getting side tracked into pointless side missions (we need to get that zombie out of the well!), Rick and company continue to barrel headfirst into trouble (but always with a machete). And now Michonne is in the mix, and the Governor is at large, and well, let’s just say I’m glad to be back among the shambling horde that is watching this show.

Boardwalk Empire

For much of season 2, and the start of season 3, I’m not even sure why I was still watching Boardwalk Empire (more like Boredwalk, amirite?). As others have commented, it felt like a show with all the pieces needed to succeed (storied creative team, big name cast, sky high production values, etc.) and yet, it felt hollow. Now, a lot of the blame has been thrown at the casting of Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thomson, the ostensible lead of the show, king of the underworld. Everyone knows Buscemi, but they usually know him as this guy, or that guy, not as THE guy. And yeah, I get that.

Come on Steve, don't look so concerned.

Come on Steve, don’t look so concerned.

However, Boardwalk Empire suffered from what I call Prestige Syndrome. Sure, it used old-timey music, and went out of its way to work in famous real-life political and underworld figures, people actually said things like “Cheers to prohibition!”; it was full of all that on-the-nose stuff. The show tended to believe that by existing the way it did, it should automatically be considered significant. And then they killed off Jimmy Darmody, the one character that seemed to be struggling against the whole historical straightjacket conceit of the show.

But, and believe me I don’t say this lightly, in a classic Wire-like sense, Boardwalk Empire began, after spending most of season 3 dithering all over the eastern seaboard, pulling the strings together to tighten the knot of the plot. Now, we’ve got show MVP Richard Harrow unpacking his guns to rain down who knows what kind of holy terror, Nucky planning to take on the insane Gyp Rosetti and, come on, who else almost leapt off the couch when goddamn Al Capone (!) walked out of the crowd to say, “Then we talk about who dies.” Love it.

The Office

This one is actually cheating, I guess, since this season of the Office, its ninth, is its last. In sitcom years that is Lonesome George old. The show has already lost its star, Steve Carrell, to a vaguely defined movie career (and is currently working on writing another would-be movie star, Ed Helms, out of the show). It should be put out to pasture but since it remains as one of NBC’s lone brand name attractions, it remains. For all intents and purposes, the ninth season (of almost any show) should be a misbegotten mess.

The Office is off somewhere in the wilderness.

The Office is off somewhere in the wilderness.

Yet, a strange thing is happening over in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Office is… pretty good. Now hold on, maybe good is a strong term. It is not, I repeat not, a necessary show and it is definitely the lesser of NBC’s other longer running comedy shows (Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock; RIP Community), and yet it almost feels like its makers have been freed to sort of run wild. The Office is no longer like any real office – or any real reality, really – but the bizarre mix of characters and the depressing pall that hangs over the whole show (Kevin’s dead turtle, the ongoing Angela/Oscar/Senator romance, poor Jim and his hopeless business venture, whatever the hell Erin is doing) now make it perversely watchable. I realize this is not a ringing endorsement; saying a show is not terrible never is. But like one of those marathoners who run for four hours, long after everyone else is done, you’ve almost got to toss it a little respect.


So that is where TV is at right now for me. And before anyone gets up in arms, I do watch other shows (Hello, New Girl!) but when people ask: I’m still scrounging through the Office, enjoying the Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire, and pining, always pining, for the return of Breaking Bad.

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