The Curate’s Egg Awards
We are living, you know, in an age of quality television. Everyone knows it. I know it; you know it; that one guy on Twitter who won’t stop gassing on about The Americans knows it. Television is so good that it would be worth giving up sex for, if anyone ever had sex anymore. Television is so goddamn great that they did a television remake of a mediocre movie written by Michael Crichton and the critics couldn’t stop drooling over it! If the inevitable Dukes of Hazzard reboot doesn’t get at least 13 Emmy nominations I will be shocked beyond words.
But you know what, folks? They can’t all be winners. I’m not just talking about the pure duds that we’ve had to suffer through since around 1999, when the era of Peak TV was discovered by a bunch of underemployed critics who simultaneously discovered that they could get paid more often for watching television than for watching movies. I’m talking about the shows that have been nearly universally lauded as classics of their time. Yea, even these managed to tarnish themselves and their creators by occasionally squeezing out a wet fart of a character, concept, subplot, or episode. So now, as we gear up for the fall season, let’s look back at the Curate’s Egg Awards, commemorating the worst of the best.
THE SOPRANOS embraces Negritude.
Look, I love The Sopranos. It arguably kicked off the era of Quality Television I like to make fun of. Hell, I love it so much I wrote a goddamn book about it! But was it perfect? Oh, boy, was it not. And it was never more imperfect then when it tried to talk to, or about, black people. One could argue that the portrayal of blacks on the show as alternately clownish, incompetent, or invisible was just a reflection of the way its racist leads perceived them; but given the ones they encountered, it’s hard to blame them. From the incompetent hoods who fail to kill Tony to the crooked reverend, there’s not a flattering black figure to be found on the show — and that’s without even breaching The Sopranos‘ disastrous attempts at depicting the art of hip-hop in the persons of “Massive Genius” and, over 50 episodes later, “Da Lux”. And who’s there to defend African-American culture? Only Dr. Melfi’s nebbishy son, woke Bard undergrad Jason LaPenna.
MAD MEN encounters the counter-culture.
For a show that took place in a highly acculturated milieu during the most crucial years of the 20th century’s youth movement, Mad Men sure didn’t know how to handle the kids with their long hair and their rock ‘n’ roll. As with The Sopranos, you could make the case that Don Draper’s inability to connect to the young folks with anything other than his penis was more a reflection on him than it was on them, but boy howdy, were they a bunch of cartoons. If there was supposed to be something ironic about Don chewing out a bunch of pot-smoking kids who liked to listen to jazz instead of going over Secor Laxatives sales figures, it sailed right under my radar, and I almost cheered when he got rolled by a bunch of hillbilly beatniks. As with American culture itself, things started to go downhill once the Beatles showed up.
SONS OF ANARCHY visits the merry isle of Eire.
If we’re being honest, Sons of Anarchy wasn’t really that great a show to begin with; it was pure lurid pulp that survived on its watchable combination of hammy acting, over-the-top violence, and an underexplored setting. But when the show decided, in its third season, to take the gang across the pond to Ireland to track down a baby-snatcher (hey, it made sense at the time), it reached a zenith of ridiculousness that it never quite recovered from. The interminable first half of the season kept throwing pointless roadblocks in the way, giving what should have been a half-episode commercial flight a truly grueling when-are-they-gonna-get-to-the-fireworks-factory vibe, and by the time they finally got there about 92 episodes in, it didn’t get any better. It didn’t hurt the ratings any — season 3 saw SoA become the highest-rated FX series ever up to that point — but it was a dismal slog that even the appearance of Paula Malcomson and Titus Welliver couldn’t save.
DEADWOOD treads the hardwood.
Speaking of Paula and Titus, Deadwood — long held up as the gold standard of shows that were canceled too soon — didn’t fuck up often. It’s probably my favorite television series of all time, and it’s near complete perfection from beginning to end. But the abbreviated third season was clearly made under the assumption that the show would return for a fourth season, and, well, it didn’t. Which means the appearance of Brian Cox as Jack Langrishe, an actor and impresario of Al Swearengen’s old acquaintance, never quite got a chance to make any sense. He’d just wander through a scene, raising the bar for florid dialogue, and then fade away until the next episode, when he’d do it again, keeping us forever primed for a relevancy that never arrived. Cox was tremendously good in the role (as he usually is), but the character of Langrishe was forced by circumstance into becoming little more than a perplexing sideshow.
HANNIBAL eats its own dinner.
There is probably no finer example of style over substance in the era of Quality Television than Hannibal. (Well, maybe Legion, but that’s another article.) The show was gorgeous on almost every conceivable level, from the set design to the costumes to the acting to the elegant arrangement of both food and gore. And it’s a good thing, too, because the aesthetics of Hannibal were basically the only things elevating it above the pure twaddle of the plot. There’s not a single episode of the show that makes any sense whatsoever, and the arcs overall have story holes you could navigate a dessert cart through. The very premise is that psychiatrists are essentially wizards, and that serial murderers are slightly more commonplace than shoplifters, and it just gets loopier than there. Come for the stunning visual imagery, but stay for the…uh…well, stay for the stunning visual imagery too.