By DONNA J. PLESH
Eleven things about television in 2011, and in no particular order:
“The Killing.” In April AMC premiered the first episode of the 13-episode drama about two Seattle cops hunting the killer of a 13-year-old girl. Back then I wrote “At its heart, the 13-episode “The Killing” is a complex story about the search for the girl’s killer, a serialized whodunit, if you will, tying together the stories of the detectives assigned to the case, the girl’s grieving family and the suspects all in a moody setting.” I also said it was the best new series of the year I had seen — at least up to that time. Of course what too many people remember about the series is that the murder was not solved at season’s end, though all signs pointed to a Seattle mayoral candidate as the killer who himself may, or may not, have been killed in that last episode. The inconclusive ending to the first season drew complaints from viewers and some critics who figured the girl’s killer would be unmasked in season one. I had no problem with the ending, in fact it made me even more eager for the forthcoming second season in 2012. Now if the show had been canceled, well that would have been a different story.
Daytime soaps. Not everyone is a fan of soap operas, but I was a faithful viewer of ABC’s “All My Children” for years. Sadly, the network ended the show in September and announced it would also end “One Life to Live” at the end of this year. But viewers then learned that a company called Prospect Park would revive “AMC” and “OLTL” on the Internet in 2012. “OLTL” cast members — many of the regulars — signed on for the new venture. Such was not the case with “AMC,” especially since the heart and soul of the show was actress Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane character — and Lucci had not signed on. But no matter, in late November Prospect Park announced it was scrapping plans for both series — economic matters were cited. A sad state of affairs for soap fans. “One Life To Live” is scheduled to air its final episode on Jan. 13, 2012.
“Downton Abbey.” PBS once again came away with a big Emmy win in 2011 for its period drama “Downton Abbey,” about an aristocratic family and their help in the period leading up to World War I. The series took home Emmys for best directing, writing, supporting actress and best miniseries — the category usually won in recent years by HBO. “Downton” is just another in a long line of period dramas that the British do oh so well. And I, like so many others, fell under its spell. Beautiful people, beautiful settings, tidbits of romance, and much drama involving the “upstairs” Crawley family and the “downstairs” “Downton” staff. Season two begins in Jan. 8 on PBS.
More women headline comedy series. Comedies made a big comeback on network television this fall. Granted comedies are not the “kings” of TV as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, but they are back. And, unlike previous years, most of the comedies that premiered in September have been given a full season pickup and are doing quite well in the ratings. The stars of two of the new comedy ratings hits — CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and “New Girl” on Fox — are women. Ditto for NBC’s “Whitney,” while not a ratings success it has been given a full season pickup. It is nice to see women starring in a comedy series and not just as a girlfriend, wife, best friend or potential girlfriend for a comedy’s male lead. Though ABC’s “Suburgatory” has a male lead in Jeremy Sisto, Jane Levy plays his teenage daughter and the scene stealing and always-watchable Cheryl Hines plays a perky neighbor. Sisto’s the “star,” but Levy and Hines are front and center in almost every episode. Though four of its leads are male, this season CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” has beefed up many episodes with frequent continuing guest stars including Mayim Bialik, along with cast regulars Kaley Cuoco and Melissa Rauch. Add in the returning veteran comedies starring women — “Mike & Molly,” “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock” and “The Middle” — and the so-called fairer sex certainly are making their mark on prime time TV.
Julianna Margulies. Finally this gifted actress got her well-deserved lead actress in a drama Emmy for CBS’ “Good Wife.” I thought she should have taken home the award in 2010, but she won this year for her role as lawyer Alicia Florrick, a woman dealing with a philandering husband and two teenage children.
“Justified.” Speaking of good TV drama, you would be hard pressed to find a drama in primetime on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox or The CW as compelling as this FX series. Timothy Olyphant stars as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, trying to keep the peace back home in rural mining-country Harlan County, Kentucky. And it isn’t easy, what with dirty politics, hidden fortunes and drug dealers among others who make his job harder than hard. And we won’t even talk about his troubled personal life. The show now has an Emmy award on its shelf, courtesy of Margo Martindale who took home the gold as outstanding supporting actress in a drama playing Mags Bennett last season. The series new season (starting Jan. 17) has Raylan’s old nemesis Boyd Crowder back and up to no good. This is must see TV.
“Homeland.” The best new drama of the fall season is, again, on cable. On Showtime Claire Danes stars as a driven, troubled CIA agent determined to prove that a Marine (Damian Lewis) home after being missing for eight years in Iraq has been turned by his captors and might be plotting an attack on this country. Each weekly episode seems to answer some questions, while posing others. If this series were a book, I would be staying up reading it to the very end. The first season ended on Dec. 18, but Showtime has renewed it. Claire Danes is fabulous as the CIA agent and, if there is any justice, will pick up an Emmy Award in 2012.
The USA Network. The cable channel continues to crank out very watchable dramas. Most of the series started as summer-only shows, but now USA is splitting seasons with some series so they return in late fall/early winter for a few episodes to keep them fresh in viewer’s minds. My favorites are “Burn Notice,” “White Collar” and “Covert Affairs.” This past summer USA premiered “Suits,” about a high-powered law firm and its young, smart, new associate, a college dropout who manages to pass himself off as a Harvard Law School grad. Another winner.
Primetime soaps. While daytime soaps are an endangered species, such is not the case in primetime, thanks to ABC. The network has “Desperate Housewives,” now in its final season, and had “Brothers &Sisters” until it was canceled after the 2010-2011 season. This season ABC premiered “Revenge,” an addictive series about a young woman bent on revenge against those she has marked as responsible for the downfall of her beloved father. Just like any soap, this one is filled with all the good, juicy stuff: beautiful people, sex, lies, murder, rich people, violence and infidelity. You get the picture. Heading the cast as the avenging angel is Emily Van Camp (from “Brothers & Sisters”) and Madeleine Stowe as her main adversary. Fun show and a must watch every week!
Fairy tales. I guess it was only a matter of time until the networks, which have already mined the fields for shows about vampires, ghosts and the undead, turned to fairy tale-based series. ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and NBC’s “Grimm” seem to have caught on with many viewers, with “Time” doing better in the ratings on Sunday nights while “Grimm’s” Nielsen numbers on Friday nights have only been so-so. Maybe I am biased against these types of shows because, as a child, I had absolutely no interest in fairy tales. Boring. So I guess that explains why I don’t really care for these shows. I find “Time’s” back and forth from fairy tale past to the present annoying. “Grimm” on the other hand is really just a police procedural with the primary hunter of mythological creatures being a cop descended from a group of hunters known as the “Grimms.” Yawn.
The 1960s. It’s 2011 but this fall NBC and ABC decided to go back to the future — the 1960s — for two new dramas. So how did that turn out? Not well. NBC’s “The Playboy Club” earned the distinction of being the first show of the fall season to be canceled. ABC’s “Pan Am” about flight attendants and pilots in the early years of the jet age is hanging on by its fingernails in the 10 p.m. Sunday timeslot. It has gotten an order for a total of 14 episodes, but whether or not it gets a full season pickup is unknown at this writing. What’s next? Perhaps a series set in the 1970s (oops, Fox has already done that) or the 1980s (oops, TNT is bringing back “Dallas” next summer). Who knows what the 2012-2013 will bring? I’ll be watching!
Donna J. Plesh is a veteran television writer and reviewer who also writes stories that may be viewed at www.thecolumnists.com