Two years ago at Tuned In, I invented a new kind of TV award, or perhaps “award.” Like a lot of critics, I always list the best shows of the year, and the worst. But that inevitably leaves out a certain, often more interesting, group of shows: not mediocre ones, but shows that have ambitions that, for various reasons, they don’t manage to quite meet.
I named these awards The Cincies, for HBO’s 2007 drama John from Cincinnati, which was in some ways an inscrutable mess, but had moments of astonishing brilliance. If it was a failure, it was an interesting one, which is often a better thing to be than an unremarkable success.
A Cincy can be a commercial failure or a success; it can be a show that tried hard and just failed at greatness, or a show with the potential for greatness if it tried harder. Appearing on this list is not an insult; as I wrote in the awards’ first installment: “The Cincies, to me, represent one of my most important principles as a critic: that consistency and competence are less important than originality and ambition, and that sometimes, failure makes a greater contribution than success. There is too much programming on TV, and too little time in life, to spend that time with just-reliably-OK TV shows. The Cincies remind us that greatness and awfulness have more in common with each other than with adequacy and mediocrity.”
On that note, I give you… the 2011 Cincy Awards:
American Horror Story (FX). Taken on its own terms, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s sexual haunted-house thriller was one of the better new shows of the fall. But its own terms were often absolutely freaking insane, if entertainingly so: for the first several episodes, AHS lurched around in febrile agitation, stitching together scenes of disjointed horror like a Frankenstein’s monster. It got stronger, and more comprehensible, as it unfolded its S&M mythology and discovered who its real stars were–the dead who inhabited Los Angeles’ “murder house.” Unfortunately, the living that they haunted were not nearly so compelling, especially Ben and Vivien Harmon, whose crumbling marriage was the center of the show. But the deader AHS got, the better it got, and its promising arc bodes well for its future life, or its future undeath.
Boss (Starz). You can’t spell “BOmbaStic” without “Boss.” (OK, you can spell it with “Bos,” but that’s not a word.) And however you might criticize this Kelsey Grammer political drama, you couldn’t fault it for aiming too low. You might think the story of a corrupt Chicago mayor seeking to hide his diagnosis of a debilitating disease would make for drama enough, but there was more: abductions! politically ordered murder! a drug-dealing daughter! a scheming wife! sex in stairwells! severed ears! All of it topped off with scheming, cynical pols declaiming lengthy arias detailing their scheming cynical plots. The overall effect of the series was less dramatic than operatic, but the Borgias-like villainy and a tendency to tell rather than show made Boss feel cold and stagey, the characters larger than life, yet less than human. Still, Grammer could be mesmerizing as Tom Kane, the camerawork could be stunning and the series had outsized ambitions to match its city’s big shoulders.
The Killing (AMC). Few series have had such a downward trajectory, in one season, from well-received pilot to disparaged finale. In retrospect, though The Killing’s bait-and-switch cliffhanger was not the problem in itself; it would have been just fine had the series’ entire back half not been one switcheroo after another. AMC’s murder-mystery never really figured out how to stretch one investigation over a season (and more) without resorting to TV-procedural contrivances. But along the way it was often moving and unflinching as it portrayed the toll that a girl’s brutal murder took on her survivors and the detective, Sarah Linden, who investigated it. The Killing only solved half the mystery of how to turn a murder procedural into a psychological serial, but it had some fine moments on the way to a maddening season-ender.
Terra Nova (Fox). I am perhaps being too generous here, because–at least as judged by its performance vs. my hopes–it could easily have been on my Worst TV of 2011 list. And while the Cincies are meant to recognized ambition and potential, this dino drama’s faults largely stemmed from shrinking away from ambition–at least, in terms of developing characters, telling a nuanced story and actually saying something about the dystopian/utopian future/past world it drew. But at heart, this was at least a big swing for the fences, with a giant budget and T-Rex-sized genre aims (it was a sci-fi story, a cop show, a family show, a medical show, a political show and more). It disappointed me as a critic and, I suspect, the middling ratings disappointed Fox (you don’t spend that kind of change hoping for OK numbers). But it was an attempt to make something big and breathtaking, and this kind of attempt is one thing that mass-market TV can still distinguish itself with.
2 Broke Girls. If there is such a thing, after only three years of giving these awards, as a classic Cincy, this CBS sitcom is not it. It’s hard to call a waitress comedy heavily reliant on horse-poop, rape and ethnic jokes “ambitious.” But it has one important thing in common with past Cincies: a single compelling central idea, even if it’s not well-realized yet. In this comedy of upward mobility through cupcakes, the idea is baked into the title–this is one of the few new shows (appropriately in the Year of the 99%) that’s concerned with having money, not having it and what the difference between the two does to a person’s options and outlook on life. Also, like other Cincies, it contains a really bad show at war with a quite good one: a hack-y, occasionally racist, zinger-and-insult sitcom and a sharp, acidic comedy with a strong voice, about the connections between Beth Behrs’ fallen rich girl and Kat Dennings’ saucy struggler. As with some Cincies past (say, last year’s Running Wilde), I can’t say I like it yet, but unlike other already-forgotten comedies of 2011 it makes me want to like it. And that’s got to count for something.