Lumps of coal: The worst TV I watched in 2011
Flimsy mysteries, bad comedies and terrible endings
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I've written a lot of words praising the best TV had to offer in 2011. Now comes the dark side: the worst things I watched.
This list comes with a rather large caveat, which is that I imagine there are many things far, far worse on television than what's going to be on this list. I just haven't seen them, or have seen only a few minutes of them. I go out of my way to avoid Nancy Grace, have only been exposed to the Kardashians casually, couldn't pick a Dance Mom out of a line up, etc.
And in a few cases, something I chose wasn't necessarily as bad as something I omitted, but was disappointing enough to make the cut over something clearly inferior where I had no expectations.
So where I would be surprised if there was something out there on television in 2011 that I hadn't seen and would clearly bump one of my favorites from the best-of list, I will not pretend that this is a list of the absolute worst television of the year. These are just 10 shows, in alphabetical order, that made me unhappy in one way or another.
The 2011 Academy Awards (ABC): The Oscar producers wanted young and hip, so they hired James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host. But their writers (notoriously Bruce Villanch) saddled them with the same hacky material that hosts of every age have struggled with for a while - Hathaway and Franco appearing to dress in each other's clothes may have been a low point - Franco mentally checked out almost immediately, and poor Hathaway was left to flail about at twice the speed and volume to try to make something out of this mess she'd been given. The telecast was so excruciating that presenter Billy Crystal got a prolonged ovation just for reminding the audience in the theater what a non-terrible Oscar host looked like.
"American Horror Story" (FX): It's a hit for FX, and many of my fellow critics like it, but the half-dozen episodes I watched before bailing represented everything I dislike about co-creator Ryan Murphy's over-the-top style and none of the parts I tend to enjoy early on. A silly assault of whatever crazy ideas Murphy and Falchuk wanted to throw in there (Ghosts in gimp suits! Naked Dylan McDermott! Shape-changing maids!) mixed in with some performances that at least got the joke (Jessica Lange, mostly) and others that unfortunately didn't (Connie Britton), all of it so fast and relentless and loud that little of it had the intended impact on me.
The "Big Love" finale (HBO): There were many episodes of television far worse than this, but few were as disappointing. I'd put in five seasons of watching "Big Love" for the performances, and for some of the questions it raised about spirituality, marriage, politics, etc. But the show also held me at a remove because the man at the center of it was such a maddening blank. I knew I strongly disliked Bill Henrickson, but it was never entirely clear how the show felt about the guy - until a finale where he was martyred in ridiculous fashion and held up as a good, misunderstood man, rather than the passive-aggressive, manipulative emotional black hole we’d all been watching for five seasons. It wasn't so much that the finale was bad, as that it revealed that the show I was watching for five years apparently wasn't the one the creators thought they were making.
"Charlie's Angels" (ABC): All three of this fall's retro dramas ("Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" were the others) suffered from an identity crisis of one kind or another. But where the other two weren't sure what kind of show they wanted to be each week, the "Charlie's Angels" reboot decided immediately - it just chose horribly wrong, with a grimm, ultra-serious take that robbed whatever campy/cheesey fun you might have expected from the brand name, and with a collection of terrible performances and bad writing that undercut any attempt to give the Angels some dramatic heft.
"Entourage" (HBO): The laziest "comedy" on television didn't magically discover a work ethic in its final season, hitting the eject button on various storylines as quickly and obnoxiously as possible. ("Here, Turtle: I solved all your money problems by buying up those tequila shares you stupidly sold!") The finale was a special brand of clueless, as the series suddenly decided that what it wanted was for Vince, E and Ari to all live happily ever after with various lady friends - and, in the case of Vince, with a reporter he and we had just met, and whose courtship took place entirely off screen so the show wouldn't have to bother showing how she fell madly in love with him overnight. "Entourage" was never an especially good show, but there were times when it understood what it was and what its limitations and could be very watchable as a result. The victory lap season was both complacent and oblivious.
"Episodes" (Showtime): More smugness and laziness came courtesy of this tin-eared, predictable Hollywood satire about a pair of poor, beleaguered English writers whose acclaimed sitcom becomes unrecognizable in an American adaptation. (The show kept arguing that it should be a note-for-note remake, ignoring the many times this approach has failed spectacularly.) Every joke was telegraphed from miles away, and the only ones that ever even vaguely worked involved Matt LeBlanc playing a fictionalized version of himself. Overall, the whole thing was so obnoxious that it made me root for the bumbling network executives out of spite.
"The Killing" (AMC): There's been some mild revisionist history suggesting that people were only mad at "The Killing" finale because it didn't tell us who murdered Rosie Larsen. No. What made me, and many others, upset, was that the show had, piece by piece, fallen apart in every other way - it was a character-driven drama without interesting characters and a mystery series that only seemed to have one move (red herring endings that were immediately revealed as such the following week) - until the point where we realized that the only thing that would make the time wasted on the previous hours worth it would be to find out who the killer was, and "The Killing" couldn't even do that right. A near-total misfire, outside of some good performances in service of mostly one-note characters.
The diner scenes on "2 Broke Girls" (CBS): When "2 Broke Girls" is just following Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs as they slowly become friends and work a series of odd jobs to get their cupcake business of the ground, it's a not-awful sitcom with potential to grow into much more than that. But whatever goodwill is generated by the chemistry between the two leads immediately gets thrown away whenever they report to their regular job working at a greasy spoon where the other employees are heinous ethnic caricatures, where the patrons are all hipsters who are the butt of the same thin joke over and over, and where the series' overall IQ plummets. There's a good show at the center of "Broke Girls," but the first season has to end with the health department shutting that place down so Max and Caroline can never, ever go there again.
"Torchwood: Miracle Day" (Starz): "Torchwood" creator Russell T. Davies brought his sci-fi franchise to America with a miniseries that was twice as long as the previous "Children of Earth" and not even half as good. "Miracle Day," in which everyone on the planet lost the ability to die - and discovered that immortality came with a lot of downside - suffered everywhere from the disease of more. Too much story (even for 10 hours), too many new (and boring or irritating) American characters, and just too much ambition and not enough direction. Bigger was definitely not better in this case, and if Davies decides to continue the series (either here or in the UK), here's hoping he scales things back a bit.
"Whitney" (NBC): Where I can find merit to half of "Broke Girls," the other new Whitney Cummings sitcom has been much scarcer on silver linings. So much to dislike, including terrible jokes being greeted by the laughtrack as if every single scene was Chuckles the Clown's funeral, and characters behaving not as human beings, but as aliens who learned everything about our culture from watching "Veronica's Closet." Worst of all, the central relationship between Whitney and her boyfriend is built on a deep foundation of mutual loathing, yet the show tries to treat their various mind games as cute and fun. Ugh.
Others considered: "Allen Gregory" (FOX), "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" (CBS), "The Event" (NBC), "Franklin & Bash" (TNT), "H8R" (CW), "Harry's Law" (NBC), "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" (FOX), "Last Man Standing" (ABC), "The Paul Reiser Show" (NBC), "The Playboy Club" (NBC), "Terra Nova" (FOX)
A sneak peek at 2012: The new year hasn't even started yet, and yet I will be shocked if I hate anything quite as much as I dislike ABC's upcoming cross-dressing sitcom "Work It."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org