Three Step Up: Three shows, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Dexter demonstrated a nice jump up in quality this year. None are remotely close to pantheon status, but it was nice to see at least an upgrade in quality.
Dexter - My long time favorite guilty pleasure was getting less and less pleasurable. It's the sort of thing where as quality slowly deteriorates over the seasons you start to wonder what the hell you are doing still watching it. A funny thing about TV versus movies: Part of the appeal of TV is making an almost personal connection to the characters. Movies can survive on plot and actions, and in fact, often have little time for real character development and interpersonal evolution. TV is just the opposite, it lives and dies by the appeal of it's characters. No matter how good you are at action and plot, you can't hold eyeballs for 100 episodes. The only way to do that is to create characters that people feel compelled to spend time with. Often they are folks you just like to hang out with -- Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory -- sometimes they are awful people but so magnetic you can't look away -- Tony Soprano, Don Draper -- but whatever the case, you watch out of a desire to see what they are up to and how they are going about their lives, just as if they were real.
Dexter has always been borderline in that respect. While the lead character, and his portrayal by Michael C. Hall, has always be fun, the rest of the cast and B-stories have been excruciating. The first couple of seasons, as we got into the back story of Dexter and the newness of a serial killer as a good guy, it was all in naughty fun. Then things went steadily south. By the end of last year they were really pulling stuff out of their posteriors with ghosts and sister-love and all sorts of random crap. The only questions became, was Dex going to do a kill in this episode or do I have to suffer the side characters again. Degrading the connection to the one valuable character prompted the question: "Wait, why do I watch this?"
This season made some significant steps in clearing that up. Almost a reboot, they began by acting as if the last three season never happened, or at least dismissing them. They're still struggling with the right way to handle villains -- the arcs are not smooth, they dwell and hint then abruptly close the storylines -- but they've put Dexter at risk and heightened the conflict by adding the risk that he will bring his sister down with him and making his rationalization get ever more precarious. That's made it interesting again -- or at least a worthy guilty pleasure again.
The Walking Dead - I had dropped this show from regular viewing before the end of the first season. It was clearly not even up to the level of an acceptable guilty pleasure. Every episode seemed to be 45 minutes of exposition and useless whining spiced up with 5 minutes of zombie kills. I avoided this season but then I read a couple of reviews that said everything changed. And it did. The big thing that changed was the characters stopped pontificating about moral dilemmas and screeching about how you can't make this or that sacrifice, even when their survival depended on it. It was abysmal dialogue and horrendous drama. Now they do what needs to be done to survive and shut their traps about it, at times achieving a sort of riveting badassery. If it makes sense to say a zombie apocalypse drama has gotten more realistic, then it has. It's still borderline. It leans heavily into being misery porn -- things just keep getting more and more awful -- and the characters are not particularly likeable or interesting, even the good guys. Still, in this season we've gotten a more complex and curious world, along with hints that progress to dealing with zombies is being made and there is an ever so small sliver of hope for the species. So I'm back watching it for now, though I'm not sure how long it will last without any characters I particularly care about.
Boardwalk Empire - Terence Winter is the main brain behind Boardwalk Empire and coming from a Sopranos background as he does, comparisons are begged. Bottom line: Not Even Close. Boardwalk... has never been in danger of losing my attention. It is a truly solid mob drama -- great acting, strong stories, lots of hard guy action, and a full dose of HBO-level sex. The characters are complex and involving, although in a moral sense they are basically the same -- they do terrible things but have bright spots in their souls; bright spots that can either be strengths or weaknesses on a varying basis.
There is no subtlety in Boardwalk Empire. Everything is a plain as a lump of granite and it hits as hard when dropped on your head. Oh there are feeble attempts at something deeper. Portrayals of the oppression of women and blacks are appropriately progressive. Small events can have unintended consequences. But for the most part it's who's taking advantage of whom. It's all done with the utmost professionalism and attention to craft, but there is no high concept behind it. The story of The Sopranos was the story of human capacity for self-delusion. There was a mob drama backdrop but the gangster conflicts were short and sweet and only existed to move the personal story of the characters forward towards the high concept. Boardwalk... is all about being a mobster and maneuvering for power given whatever core of humanity you have in you. In The Sopranos, being a mobster was a tool for illustrating the human condition. That is the difference between craft and art.
Which is not to discount craft. I'll watch the hell out of Boardwalk.... It's ripping good stuff. Fine, fine entertainment. Great fodder for writing and comment. And about the best we can hope for in the post-Golden Age.