Tag Archives: TV

Culture Challenged Podcast – The Return

After many many months of hibernation, Culture Challenged is back in 2017 with new content, new contributors, and new opinions. In addition to blog posts, commentary, and columns, Culture Challenged returns to the podcasting game (where have you gone “Hold on To Your Buffs”?) with the first edition of the Culture Challenged Podcast. David and new contributor (and life partner!) Ritza bring you their take on the 2017 Golden Globes Awards and why Atlanta is really the best show of the year.

The Television DVR Power Rankings (First Annual)

I recently read two pieces that evoked some interesting ideas about the nature of our TV viewing.  Andy Greenwald, Grantland.com’s television and pop culture sensei, addressed an interesting television loyalty conundrum in his most recent mailbag column that is particularly relevant as many of us, including myself, have begrudgingly plodded most of our way to The Office series finale this week.  When is the right time to bid adieu to an old television relationship when we know that the show (and subsequently our loyal connection to its characters, host, or competition format) is no longer the same program that we originally fell for?  Why are some necessary show breakups so easy to make (American Idol when Simon left, 90210 without Brandon Walsh) while others (season five of Alias) pose such a struggle?  Alan Sepinwall, the author of The Revolution Was Televised and the most prolific of television recap pioneers, discussed how the wealth of great TV has made it harder for him to keep up with the good TV (particularly on the broadcast networks) and that many quality programs are left idle on a DVR queue.

Both Greenwald and Sepinwall highlight a burgeoning issue that these record/stream/on demand times that we now live in have created: there is just so much television viewing bandwidth that each of us has (both in terms of time and number of different storylines we can follow) and with the DVR as our tool of television viewing stratification, we have complete control over what and how we prioritize.  We are the masters of our viewing lives which means that with a close to infinite amount of time, a CBS procedural (pick any one really) could be a compelling viewing choice, but with a more limited amount of time and attention, not everything can make it out of the innards of our DVR storage attic.

With all of this in mind, I have decided to create the first annual (here’s to trying!) Television DVR Power Rankings.  Appropriately timed to coalesce with the end of the broadcast television season, the Television DVR Power Rankings will finally ask me to organize and identify the why behind the already somewhat established what that is my television viewing.

Here are the ground rules:

  1. You are hypothetically given one television seating.  What would you watch?  This takes into account the following numerous show length differences – half hour (closer to twenty two minutes) or hour on network, half hour (closer to an actual thirty minutes) or hour on pay cable (closer to an actual hour), SNL’s ninety minute run that includes lots of commercials and even more moments to fast forward (musical guests, sketches that lead to nowhere), bloated (and sadly standard) two hour episodes of Celebrity Apprentice or singing competitions, and the perfectly timed close to ninety minute romp that is the brilliant Sherlock.
  2. If The Bachelor is ranked 17 and Person of Interest is ranked 16, it means that if you only had one television viewing, you would choose to watch the best episode of Person of Interest over the best episode of The Bachelor.
  3. The Lost Corollary: You are comparing the best edition of each show this year.  Although Lost had some episodes that made me yearn for amnesia (I am looking at you the awful Jack gets a tattoo episode featuring Bai Ling), the six season finales were always prolific.  Take the best version of each show as your point of comparison.
  4. Sports and news programs are not included in these rankings.  I am not considering Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show with John Stewart news programs even if I admittedly go to them for news.
  5. When applicable, actual DVR activity is important.  If a show rarely lasts longer than twenty-four hours on my queue, this leads to a higher ranking.  If I have a back log of eight unwatched episodes on my queue (tough moment Person of Interest), this is not a good thing.
  6. The external media and social repercussions of delayed viewing matter.  For example, if I have to wait a week before I can listen to a Hollywood Prospectus podcast on the Grantland Pop Culture Network because I am two weeks behind on Mad Men, this is significant.  If I have to avoid twitter or the internet until I have finished a show, this makes a difference.  The blogosphere couldn’t care less about what went down on a random episode of Shark Tank, whereas if you go to work on Monday morning having missed the previous night’s Game of Thrones, you better plan to bring water from home because the metaphoric cooler is off limits (spoiler alert indeed).
  7. For the purposes of this ranking, the TV season is June – May (allowing for shows like Breaking Bad from last summer to be included).
  8. I must have DVRed or watched (note: this is not how many viewings I had) at least two episodes to be included in the rankings.
  9. Shows released through streaming services (House of Cards) or watched through streaming services (HBO GO) are included as long as the episodes were new within the given year.  Girls and Top of the Lake count, whereas my re-viewing of Battlestar Galactica and Alias on Netflix do not.

Now, before Don Draper’s season six self can upset my wife more than he already has, on to the rankings…

NOT RANKED:

American Idol

When Simon left American Idol, I left with him (although when Philip Phillips’ “Home” won this year’s “Clocks” by Coldplay award for Song Most Overplayed in a Given Year, it was difficult to keep my distance).  I do miss the five months I used to spend every season with Ryan Seacrest in my life (and to my discredit, he is not that hard to find pretty much everywhere now if I put in a little effort), but based on all media reports, I jumped a sinking ship just at the right time.  What an embarrassment it appears to have become.

Homeland

Showtime and I seem to have difficulty matching our calendars.  I always seem to have three free months when Homeland is off the air.  I have seen season 1 over the course of a binge weekend viewing last May, but have not yet ventured into the apparently scary and sophomore slumped season 2.

37. Zero Hour

36. The Last Resort

It has been a tough time for ABC in the Thursday night 8:00 PM slot.  The Last Resort lasted a hot few seconds this fall and Zero Hour a shorter hot second this spring.  I deleted them from my queue when ABC bid adieu with some episodes left unwatched.  My hope for Anthony Edwards (er) and Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) to make a return to my TV viewing regimen after so many years away was quickly capsized.

35. Revolution

34. Hannibal

I tried Revolution because I am a devoted follower of the J.J. Abrams Television factory (see Lost, Alias), but the long hiatus dried up my interest such that by the time it came back in March, I questioned my general enjoyment (very little) of the show in the first place.  Hannibal, recommended by TV men I trust (Sepinwall and Greenwald), got one viewing out of me before I deleted it from the queue last week after having forgotten to record a recent episode.  I considered when I was going to make time to catch up, I realized that I probably wouldn’t.  Ouch.  It will probably get cancelled anyway because NBC apparently has no idea how to market its few quality shows.

33. The Amazing Race

The Amazing Race is one of the best examples of the perils of TV viewing bandwidth.  Although I don’t agree with all the Emmy love in the reality competition program category (Survivor is consistently looked over for even a nomination), The Amazing Race is a well-produced, occasionally compelling, beautifully shot, and very easy to watch (let’s just say it does not require Games of Thrones-like focus) hour of television.  Unfortunately, often delayed by NFL football game duration ripple effects on Sunday nights in the fall, if I don’t prepare by recording into The Good Wife at 9:00 PM just in case one too many instant replays in a 4:00 PM Chargers game in Denver forces 60 Minutes to begin after 7:00 PM, I am missing portions of episodes.  Once I miss portions of episodes and don’t feel compelled to catch up on-line, I lose interest.  This has probably happened to me at least five times by now.  If I lose interest in the fall, I rarely come back to the new season in the spring (as was this case this year).  The Amazing Race is a fine show that makes itself too easy to miss.  Good or bad, you don’t want to be a show that breeds apathy.

32. Bates Motel

Carlton Cuse was one of the two Lost showrunners and Vera Farmiga has always been enjoyable on screen, so I thought I would give Bates Motel a go when it debuted in March.  It is now mid May and I have yet to watch even one shot of one episode.  On the plus side, I do not have a season pass and have yet to fail to record an episode (all eight are sitting idle in my queue), so there’s that.  If I need more DVR space, it is the first thing to go.

31. The Following

Back in January, I began writing weekly recaps of The Following.  Back in March, I stopped writing weekly recaps of The Following because I did not enjoy writing recaps of The Following.  I did not enjoy writing recaps of The Following because I did not enjoy watching The Following.   I did not enjoy watching The Following because the The Following is a bad show.  I have five episodes to go to complete the season and I have many times sat down to take the plunge, only to choose to re-watch season 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones instead.  If The Following somehow disappeared from my queue, my response would be, “finally.”

30. Shark Tank

My relationship with Shark Tank is a masterclass in negligence.  It certainly interests me when I am watching and I sometimes will choose to watch a segment when I have ten minutes to kill, but often this season (and it has been a long one that likely cost the Mavs Deron Williams and his great attitude last offseason) I have randomly deleted unwatched episodes to make more room on my queue.  This is not the best of signs.

29. The Killing

Season 2 of The Killing was an exercise in the dreariest and most frustrating forms of futility.  The promise of the premise and those first few episodes of season 1 were long forgotten by the end of this rainy nightmare.  I kept watching because once you invest in a mystery, you feel compelled to be there for the eventual solve.  Unfortunately, the implausible outcome of the Sarah Larson case was so far from worth it.  Amazingly brought back for a third season (and a new mystery), I will give the program a second go for two episodes (my belief in the premise and Joel Kinnaman are the only reasons), but I expect a swift departure.

28. Bachelor Pad

Not returning this summer (a small disappointment), Bachelor Pad was an easy summer fill-in when more traditional reality TV programs were between seasons.  As a competition show, it is not too quality.  As a dating show, it even more of a tough sell as a means to find love than its major league precursors of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.  Notwithstanding, it kept my interest, had a buzzworthy finale, and was a perfect place for Tierra from this season’s The Bachelor to extend her fifteen minutes.  It’s too bad.

27. Person of Interest

Of all shows in the rankings, Person of Interest is most influenced by its only loose flirtations with serialized storytelling (it is as procedural a drama as I watch) and the lack of any form of media attention.  If I am behind on an episode (right now the number is eight), there is no external repercussion.  I have never met anyone who watches Person of Interest, never read a weekly recap, and never seen anything about it on-line besides an occasional EW check-in review.  I find it to be a compelling, well-conceived hour of television with enjoyable actors (Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel) playing enjoyable superhero archetypes in a realistic world, but I just don’t have time in my weekly grind to make time for it.  When I do get around to watching it (last year I caught up with season 1 sometime in the fall), I will enjoy myself, but until then, may the queue hold its contents strong.

26. The Mindy Project

If you haven’t been a part of the wonderful world of Mindy Kaling, the time is whenever you have it.  The Mindy Project consistently delivers (although I like parts of episodes more than episodes as a whole), but rarely stands out as a viewing priority.  I often find myself one or two weeks behind.  In a world next season without 30 Rock and The Office, The Mindy Project may take a higher place on these rankings, but until that time, there is no rush to view (Ironically, tonight is the season finale.  I will probably get around to it after the NBA Playoffs are over in June).

25. Elementary

Elementary has had a bright freshmen season.  It benefits from Jonny Lee Miller’s striking charisma, epic hiatuses between each Sherlock series that prevent Arthur Conan Doyle character over-saturation, and well-constructed little mysteries of the week.  Procedural at its core, it does not shy away from serialized character development.  Both Joan Watson and Sherlock have undergone some effective narrative arcs that make watching it more time sensitive than its CBS procedural brethren.  It is one of the first dramas I get to when Sunday nights on HBO and AMC are in their dark periods.

24. The X Factor

Since The X Factor last aired its overblown self in December, Simon Cowell’s producer brain trust said goodbye to LA Reid (his choice), Khloe Kardashian as co-host (she gave it her best effort, but just wasn’t any good), and Britney Spears (an “amazing” train wreck of a judge).  Simon, Mario Lopez, and Demi Lovato are coming back (her new self-titled album out today!) and will all have another upward battle to relevance in an audience landscape that has grown weary of all the talent competition programs.  I am rooting for The X Factor because I believe in Simon and have for so many years, but I would not be surprised that sometime in the next twelve months, Fox (on their schedule) or I (on my DVR) delete this program from our lives.

23. Modern Family

22. 30 Rock

21. Parks and Recreation

30 Rock has aired its last episodes, and, unlike The Office (until recently at least), gave its loyal viewers a wonderful final season.  I had been with 30 Rock since the beginning and was emotional about its ending (December’s series finale remains on my queue).  Despite my consistent enjoyment of almost every episode, it never found its way closer to the hypothetical top of past DVR rankings because it shied away from serialization and too much sentimentality (I am a sucker) and it promoted zany and unrealistic circumstances.  The low ranking also speaks to my taste in comedy (questionable) more than to the quality execution of Tina Fey’s television darling (consistently brilliant).  Parks and Recreation has been my pound for pound favorite comedy over the past two seasons (since Michael left The Office) and watching an episode is like the television version of eating a piece of vanilla cake – delicious.  It will likely be the highest ranked scripted comedy I watch next season.  Modern Family has posed a viewing conundrum recently.  I have begun to be in the camp that there are just so many happy family stories a show can yield, and, often (and appropriately) devoid of any high stakes consequences (when Hayley got kicked out of college it was a little too much “no big deal” for me), I have become less and less compelled to watch.  If I were told that this week’s Modern Family was its last, I would be fine with that.  This doesn’t mean that I am going to stop watching and enjoying each episode, it just means that it no longer feels as essential to my television viewing experience.

20. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is the biggest beneficiary of number six of the ground rules.  I enjoy being a part of The Walking Dead experience more than I enjoy watching The Walking Dead (at least since season 1).  Besides Hershel, Maggie, and Daryl, I am not sure I even like any of the other characters on the show and Rick may be the all-time worst lead character I have ever watched consistently on a television program (his long speech scenes are just horrendous).  The Walking Dead also benefits from one of the best tension catching theme songs I have ever heard (er was pretty wonderful) that pulls you in after the three minutes prologue of each episode into a false belief that you will have a reason to care again.  To its credit, writers have killed off several of the most horrific characters, so there is hope yet for Rick!

19. Sherlock

Sherlock may produce the best 86 minutes of any program on this list, but it is on so infrequently and for so little time (each series is three episodes of this length), it is hard to place it up higher with the big boys.

18. House of Cards

I binged on House of Cards over the course of three days in March.  Although I remember little from the experience besides how much I loved Corey Stoll’s portrayal of a charismatic congressmen with a few too many demons, I recognize that if I were watching weekly, it would be competing closer to the top of these rankings.  It is quality programming (led my David Fincher’s visionary directorial lead) that always begged me to keep going.

17. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is probably one of the five best shows I have ever seen on television and Bryan Cranston gives the best of acting performances, yet of the shows ranked so high, it is the program I like the least.  Spending five seasons with Walter White has been an exercise in lowering expectations and the devolving of the humanity and integrity of an American family.  Void of any really redeeming characters, I find it hard to enjoy a program in which I have no one to root for.

16. The Bachelor

Influenced by wonderful weekly conversations between Juliet Litman and David Jacoby and propelled by a fun stay at the Bachelor Pad last summer, I decided to hop on to the ABC ratings juggernaut this fall.  Although I am aware that The Bachelor’s track record for maintaining post show love is an unquestionable failure, I found Sean Lowe’s journey to find a wife candidate genuine and heartfelt.  It is so well-produced and sensitive to the viewers emotional leanings that the buy-in happens almost immediately.  This season, in particular, benefitted from the experience that was Tierra (and, like Survivor, a season can be judged on the quality of contestants), but I do think the format and execution are some of the best you will find in the reality TV world.

15. The Celebrity Apprentice: All-Stars

I have been threatening to fire myself from the boardroom for several seasons now, but, like The Amazing Race, it is easy to whip out the old series pass manager, but, unlike The Amazing Race, the spring season on NBC that The Celebrity Apprentice inhabits does not compete with NFL games for schedule time sanctity.  An admitted guilty pleasure (sometimes at least), Donald will often remind the viewer that The Apprentice was once (according to some metrics, it is a little like the three scientists who say global warming is a hoax) the most watched show on television and the creative project/boardroom format still provides some evidence why.  I do not like Donald Trump, I struggle with his sons Erik and Don Jr. (Ivanka is wonderful), and I rarely have a “celebrity” that I care about, but the tasks remain somewhat interesting (albeit obnoxiously self-promotional), Gary Busey is an unsolvable riddle of a man that I still want to solve, and a weekly elimination of past seasons all-stars (all of which I watched before) still breeds my attention.  Do I wish that I my relationship with The Celebrity Apprentice had been terminated many years ago?  Absolutely, I just want someone else to tell me “you’re fired.”

14. Real Time with Bill Maher

A recent add-on to the queue since Dad’s HBO Go account became an actualization with my Apple TV, Real Time could be ranked higher if it showed up for watching at a consistent time (it is always sometime after Friday and before Tuesday) or at least closer to the original Friday night airing.  There is no hour of television in which I learn more and think more.  Bill Maher has been a part of my television life since his Politically Incorrect days on Comedy Central and I am grateful that I can finally watch him again (I was consuming his program via podcast for the last several years).

13. Top of the Lake

Elisabeth Moss is a detective in the New Zealand outback solving a mystery as told through the lush, beautiful, and unique lens of Jane Campion.  Yes, please.  Top of the Lake was everything The Killing was not (good?).  Only six total hours of a story that has a beginning, middle, and logical end, Top of the Lake was one of the best things I saw this year.  Now Netflix streamable, I highly recommend.

12. Mad Men

Mad Men is a layered, engrossing, and provocative television masterpiece.  A little late to the game (I binged on the first three seasons via the Netflix), I have subsequently happily awaited the each season of ten Sunday nights of shows over the course of the past three years (season 6 has a handful of episodes left to air) that I have watched “live.”  I was legitimately concerned in 2010 upon completion of The Wire that I would struggle to find another television show of equal quality, and, although very different in scope and texture, Mad Men is certainly in the conversation for the best television I have ever watched.  At the same time, something has felt a little bit different this year.  Next to Game of Thrones (not by network, but by consecutive time slot), I find myself yearning for the power players of Westeros much more than for the power players of Madison Avenue.  I think it may be a matter of stakes – Don’s escapades and his new (but tired) path down extramarital affair land has never felt so superfluous, especially with the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy framing the significant historical context.  Mad Men is still Mad Men, I just care a little differently.

11. The Americans

The Americans, the freshmen period drama on FX set in 1981 about two KGB spies playing a deep cover game of house with two children, is the best new drama of the past two seasons (this includes Homeland).  Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings is one of the finest performances of the year and Matthew Rhys, as her husband Phillip, matches her scene for scene.  It is largely character driven and utilizes period authenticity as a backdrop, not as a leading concept (as many replica period shows after Mad Men have tried).  The spy stuff is so much more fun without the modern technology that provides us with constant connectivity.  Dead drops under park benches, listening devices in shelf clocks, and good old-fashioned hair disguises create a different (and I would argue better) type of suspense.

10. Saturday Night Live

9. The Daily Show with John Stewart

I occasionally watch SNL or The Daily Show live, but most of the time, it will be my ritualized first order on the agenda (over breakfast) the next morning.  SNL is an institution of American television that I freely admit in 2013 delivers less and less frequently.  There is rarely a bit or a sketch that compares favorably to the writing on 30 Rock (or The Daily Show for that matter), but like a sports team that I have followed for most of my life, I am loyal and as long as Lorne Michaels is the Executive Producer (and my DVR is working properly), I won’t jump ship.  Its mythology and esteem so immersed in a nostalgic history, it fits so well with my sensibility.  I am more into how this cast or this sketch fits into the bigger historical picture than with my general enjoyment thereof.  Today’s announcement that this week’s season finale will be Bill Hader’s last as a member of the cast is just another inevitable departure on a cast (but probably more like a sports roster) that is as much about who is leaving as who is arriving.  I really enjoy Bill Hader as an impressionist and as versatile leading player and he will certainly be missed, but like his Studio 8H forerunners, there will be another new talent to come in and fill his shoes.  The Daily Show with John Stewart continues to be one of my favorite sources for news commentary, although I think it has gone through some growing pains in recent years with fewer correspondent stories (a staple during its heyday with Carell, Colbert, and Helms) and more repetitive bits.  I continue to marvel at the writing staff who manage to put out mostly brilliant work four times a week and to John Stewart for evolving and continually upping his game (and for his ability to read some very long books over the course of a three day weekend).  His brief hiatus from the hosting chair (John Oliver is the perfect fill-in choice) this summer will be an intriguing precursor to the day when The Daily Show and John Stewart part ways.  We will get to see how much of our of The Daily Show enjoyment is about its phenomenal host.

8. The Office

This week, The Office has its series finale episode and for much of this season (really only until the last two episodes), it couldn’t have come soon enough.  I have been with the Scranton Dunder Mifflin branch since it began and I freely admit the show has been a challenge to watch since Steve Carell left two seasons ago.  As explored in Andy Greenwald’s aforementioned column, when is the right time to leave a show that is no longer making the show you fell in love with?  There were many times over the past two seasons when I just wanted to have an excuse to leave, but I was never able to find one.  What became even more peculiar was my viewing tendency.  I would, despite my increasingly negative feelings toward the show, choose to watch The Office first on Thursday night (over the much better at this stage in their career Parks and Recreation and whatever dramas on CBS that were recording).  The Office remained my go-to program and despite my acknowledgment of decreasing returns, I never strayed from it.  While watching last week’s penultimate episode that coalesces perfectly around the central romantic relationships between Jim and Pam and Dwight and Angela, it struck me why leaving a show is so hard.  I not only cared about these people and was deeply invested in their lives, but I cared about how that investment had affected my life.  This is why TV is such a wonderful medium – we are given the luxury of time to spend with characters or hosts or valued competition formats over the course of many years.  These shows are given the opportunity to become so deeply imbedded and connected to substantial periods of our lives.  I thought about my personal journey in conjunction with Jim and Pam’s journey and remembered the unbelievable changes that have occurred in my life (specifically romantic life) as I have watched Jim’s unrequited flirtation form into the most genuine, beautiful, more recently difficult, but always honest of fictional romances that I will ever have the pleasure to watch in any storytelling medium.  If Party of Five was a show that I watched as I was coming of age as an adolescent and will be forever linked to that time, The Office has been a show that has accompanied some massive transformations in my young adult life.  I have such rich memories of past seasons and my external circumstances that surrounded them.  The Office series end will really mark the end of this era of my life and what a ride it has been.

7. The Real World: Portland and St. Thomas

Despite the island of boredom that was The Real World: St. Thomas, Portland has more than made up for it with Hurricane Nia force winds of drama.  A loyal viewer since 1995 (this is hard for me to even believe), The Real World remains my first reality TV love and continues to deliver compelling television.  In a similar vein to SNL, my Real World love lives in nostalgia and history.  Each new season adds on to that legacy and, at this point, I will be a viewer as long as it continues.

6. Girls

At close to thirty minutes of universal quality, Girls packs so much into each installment and may be the best bang for your buck at an incredible television seating.  I do question how long it has to be sensational – season 2 was a different kind of fun than season 1 (in a melancholic, depressing, and obsessive compulsive kind of way) and I do wonder if there is a point where watching Hannah and her friends struggle so much to find happiness will be just too much to endure.

5. Funny or Die presents: Billy on the Street

Billy on the Street wins both the award for show that I audibly laughed at the most (beating 30 Rock by a wide margin) and was in the top three for shows that I most often watched live (along with Survivor and The Challenge).  Here are some tangible examples why:

4. The Challenge: Battle of the Seasons

Much has been written about The Challenge on this space (see my weekly power rankings from Battle of the Seasons and my column with picks for an all-star season), so I won’t beleaguer too much more of the same here.  One thing I will say – I am consistently more excited for both the season premiere and the season finale of The Challenge than of any other show in these rankings.

3. Game of Thrones

In the grand tradition of Lost (more on this in a bit), Game of Thrones has become my favorite dramatic series on television.  Also like Lost and pertinent to these rankings, I am put at a decided and unwelcome social disadvantage if I step out in public on a Monday morning without having viewed the previous evening’s Game of Thrones episode.  Game of Thrones is the social television of the moment and it is a pleasure to be a part of it.  In addition, despite its fantasy book roots, GoT reminds me of all that was great about The Wire.  Its’ expansive patchwork of characters, social classes, and objectives takes a certain type of viewing focus to fully understand.  I certainly struggle at times to make sense of it all (I have decided to not read the books concurrently – I want to experience the show without a narrative comparison), but when earned, the rewards are that much greater.  It also boasts the best television show opening ever.

2. Survivor

(SPOILER ALERT) When Cochran won the twenty-sixth season of Survivor in a landslide jury vote last Sunday night, I found myself having a tremendous amount of pride.  Like Cochran, my Survivor journey began thirteen years ago with the season finale of season 1 (I will always remember the experience watching with my parents in a CT hotel room the night before I moved into my freshmen year college dorm) and I was sincerely happy for this seemingly like-minded devoted follower.  Cochran’s fandom and his unlikely transformation and ascension to the Survivor crown represent the best of what Survivor can be.  Its successful longevity is a byproduct of many things, but none more important than the perfect blend of an excellent game format and an excellent host in Jeff Probst.  Interestingly enough, Sunday’s finale went head to head with both Game of Thrones and Mad Men and it was a no-brainer to choose to watch Survivor first.  Originally to avoid print, internet, and television spoilers, I began watching Survivor the night that it airs and as close to live as possible.  Now, largely removed from the greater pop culture conversation, I watch Survivor first because it remains the most reliable, consistent, comforting, and entertaining hour of television.  Some casts work better than others, but the journey through tribal council spokens and immunity and reward challenges as participants try to outwit, outplay, and eventually outlast one another has proven to be the most successful of formulas.

1. Lost (an emeritus selection)

Lost, my favorite show of all-time, still sits on top of my series priority manager (in case of a conflict) on my DVR and, after almost three years since the series finale, it is going nowhere.  The First Annual DVR Power Rankings would not be complete without Lost ranked first. 

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  

Following the FOLLOWING and other Spring TV Quick Hits

I needed a break.  The last time I sat down to write my weekly reflection of The Following was over three weeks ago and I hoped that taking some time off would allow me to come back to the show (DVR storage was a friend) with a fresh perspective and maybe even a new found appreciation.  This morning I binge watched the last three episodes – “Welcome Home”, “Love Hurts”, and “Guilt” – to see if the wild world of Joe Carroll’s cult had evolved into something worth salvaging.  I discovered that the tension and its relatively well-executed escalation is still there, the curse of Ryan Hardy (don’t get too close or you will be in danger!) is going strong, and characters still make decisions that are based on actions that have little connection to any real world application of logic.  This flawed, problem-ridden serialized saga remains a viewing conundrum of sorts.  It pulls you in enough with some snappy narratives and effective pacing while keeping you a spear gun’s distance away with a premise that all seems so silly.  As pages are turned in each new cult member’s chapter (Marin Ireland’s Amanda Porter was particularly annoying in “Love Hurts”), I just want to get to the end of the book already!

With five episodes left before season 1 bows its ugly head for a summer hibernation, my commitment hangs on a loose thread, or as I like to call it, every storyline introduced on this show.  I have spent too much time with the Carroll/Matthews/Hardy clan to leave now, but if circumstances and the influx of some great television returns reduce my viewing time bandwidth, tears will I not shed.

For now, The Following is on a belabored final lap with some important (a relative term) narrative resets to be aware of…

  • Claire Matthews endured one too many abduction attempts and finally allowed her would be captors (this week it is Roderick himself accompanied by some weapons expert who conveniently belonged to a constitutionalist militia as a youth) to take her to Joe and to her (completely bored at this point) son, Joey.  For the first time next week, the Carroll/Matthews family will all be under one roof.
  • We finally (I was hoping we could forget about them completely) revisited Jacob and a very wounded Paul who took refuge at a rustic retreat owned by Jacob’s folks.  Jacob’s mom finds Emma’s abandoned lovers playing doctor (or at least desperately needing one) and suggests a hospital before daddy comes home and calls the police (Jacob’s mom is played by Jayne Atkinson on a break from diplomatic duties on House of Cards).  Jacob (“I have never killed anyone, mom!”) decides that suffocating Paul is the way to start when Roderick’s command center receives his secret email SOS signal and mobilizes the rescue party for his return to Carrolland headquarters.  Jacob arrives there with some very angry feelings toward Emma (she did kind of did leave him for slaughter).  Our momentary celebration that Paul is finally gone is curtailed by Jacob’s lifelike Paul hallucinations (Adan Canto, don’t you have some other acting work to ruin scenes in?) that are just a nuisance to all (especially this humble viewer).
  • Ryan’s investigative unit is in all kinds of shambles, Mike Weston was pretty badly beat up and is probably filming the new X-Men so is off the grid (but will make a full recovery), Annie Parisse feels badly about failing her original task force and now must babysit Ryan, and new Chief Nick Donovan seems as incompetent (at least Hardy thinks so) as his forbearers.
  • As for Ryan, he outs his best friend from witness protection in order to conceal Claire (she left anyway) resulting in some bullet wounds to the chest for his buddy, reciprocates Claire’s “I love you” (she left anyway), and is now set up for a presumed final showdown with his arch nemesis and a rescue attempt of his damsel who in many ways is choosing distress.

The silver lining in all of this: The Following is very low on my television watching totem pole.  Here are some quick thoughts on what really matters and what I recommend you check out…

  • The 28th season of The Real World (Portland!) starts tonight and in recent weeks, Real World love has been spread all over the media world.  Last weekend, MTV aired retro MTV marathons of three seasons of the reality tv pioneer (the first season in New York, Las Vegas, and the most significant and best season of all-time, San Francisco).  Twitter activity was unheralded and Real World talk (and subsequently momentum heading into tonight) is all the rage.  Vulture even disseminated a ranking of all the seasons that is wonderful for its existence, but is immediately unreliable for placing London in seventh place.
  • If you haven’t been watching The Americans on FX, you haven’t been watching the best drama (at least until Game of Thrones and then Mad Men return in the coming weeks) currently airing on television.  This delicious plate of Cold War period espionage set against KGB family drama keeps getting better each week.  Watching Keri Russell dive into her 1980s mom jeans as a Russian spy is an embarrassment of TV viewing riches.  She is a revelation.
  • I also strongly recommend Jane Campion’s miniseries (currently on iTunes or weekly on the Sundance Channel) Top of the Lake starring a wonderfully cast Elisabeth Moss showing an incredible range and such a clear distinction from her near iconic portrayal of Peggy Olson on Mad Men.  I am only two episodes in (there are going to be five), but this mystery set in a beautifully shot world of remote New Zealand gets under your skin with its potency of subject, character, and atmospheric delivery.  It is everything The Killing could have been if it had had a charismatic lead character, a competent writing staff, and sound leadership (I am looking at you Veena Sud).
  • Over the course of three days (it was closer to two) last week, I finally found the time to binge on the thirteen episodes of season 1 of House of Cards on Netflix.  The experience was wholly unique because for the first time I was binge watching something that was not originally released or intended for week by week consumption.  I am not sure what to think and am especially unsure of how I will ultimately remember the experience, but I can say that I struggled deciding when to take a break (episodes lead so expertly and effortlessly into the next).  David Fincher directed episodes one and two, but his influence on style and substance was acutely felt throughout.  It is a taut political thriller that brilliantly leads the viewer through a web of power and destruction at such an incredible and engrossing pace.  The entire ensemble of actors is outstanding, particularly Corey Stoll as an ambitious congressmen with some major demons and Robin Wright as Kevin Spacey’s elegant and commanding wife and partner in political aspiration.
  • Finally, Season 3 of Game of Thrones begins on March 31 and Season 6 of Mad Men begins on April 7 and let’s just say the anticipation and the excitement is real.  Sunday nights will be booked for the foreseeable future.

Following The Following may be a chore of sorts, but thankfully it barely dilutes the current and upcoming spring TV waters.  Dive in and trust me that it will be warmer than you think.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.

THE X FACTOR – Season 2 Introduction and a Closer Look at the Top 24

The UK version of The X Factor debuted in September of 2004 and has run every fall since.   Created by Simon Cowell, an original Pop Idol judge and burgeoning (and often notoriously mean honest) music producer icon, X Factor gave Simon complete control (something he did not have on Pop Idol) to steer the ever popular reality performance competition juggernaut.  His offseason side job was a little program called American Idol, a more successful version of the UK counterpart that only lasted two seasons (or series, as they call them in Britain), and Simon became an even bigger star in the States and internationally than the talent he was trying to cultivate.

The UK X Factor has spawned the careers of some major acts (Leona Lewis, One Direction) and some acts that have only seemed to make an audible dent in Europe (No, I have never heard of Matt Cardle or Alexandra Burke either).  With the Idol brand on a downward trend (beyond an Olympic miracle, last season’s winner, Philip Phillipps, was going to go down as the least memorable Idol champion since Taylor Hicks), Simon knew that it was time to make a change and bring the X Factor to the United States.

Last season’s American version debut had some successful components (music mogul LA Reid as a judge, live prelim auditions), but failed to reach Simon’s lofty preseason ratings predictions and failed to find its own, dare I say, “x factor” as a television program.  You could see the kernels of something great, but there was something wrong in the overall mix.  Changes had to be made.  Simon said “thank you, but don’t come again” to judges Nicole Scherzinger (a little bit out of her league and ostracized for her terrible decision to send the incredible Rachel Crow home) and Simon old-faithful Paula Abdul (whose career second act may have peaked in 2003).  The unintentionally comedic host Steve Jones (who spent the season as a befuddled, awkward, and hilarious Welsh import) was also given his metaphoric pink slip (I do miss his tomfoolery).

With Simon and LA Reid remaining on the judges panel, Simon wanted to find two new woman judges who could provide more of the buzz and vitality that the program strives to achieve.  In Britney Spears (not a girl, not yet a thirty-one year old woman), The X Factor has a megastar judge (she received top billing even over Mr. Cowell) who is still relevant (although I think her singing abilities have always been a little more “oops” than “hit me baby one more time”) and deserves credit for her longevity in the industry amidst some career-defining tough moments.  Demi Lovato, the twenty-year-old Disney factory pop/actor starlet, is a more unconventional choice as the second judge, but she brings with her a connection to younger fans who have been reared on her tween focused performance projects.  No stranger to some personal (and sadly public) problems, Demi has lived her twenty years, but has risen above these struggles.  Both Britney and Demi are at a pivotal point in their careers as they embark on the X Factor judge/mentor circuit this fall and both seem hungry for a career win.

In a stroke of unexpected genius, Simon removed the host from the audition/boot camp portion of the show allowing for more contestant intimacy and access throughout the many nights of audition coverage.  It is rumored that the always professional Mario Lopez and potentially underrated Khloe Kardashian will be stepping in for the live shows, but so far it has been a pleasure to be freed from the clumsiness of Steve Jones during these early stages.

This week, X Factor finished the emotional roller coaster known as boot camp (to the delight of tissue companies everywhere who are sure to capitalize on the sudden rise of tear shedding) and chose the top twenty-four acts in four major categories.  Last season, the categories were Girls, Boys, Groups, and Over 30s.  Complacent he is not in season 2 and Simon’s desire to make positive changes shook up this expected format.

This year, the four categories are Teens (under 17), Young Adults (17-24), Over 25s, and Groups.  The older group last season felt like it never had a shot, there was too broad an age, stylistic, and maturity (remember poor Astro’s attitude about being in the bottom two) difference between the older “girls” and “boys” and the youngest competitors, and the whole group idea felt forced (and straight up struggled under the leadership of Ms. Abdul).  These redefined categories and mentor assignments (Simon attached to the groups is brilliant, Britney is adorable with the little ones) should provide a more palatable formula for season two success.

Let us breakdown the final 24 acts and how they did at the mentor’s houses:

THE YOUNG ADULTS (17-24)

Mentored by Demi Lovato and assisted by Nick “I like your new clean cut look” Jonas brother.

Location: Demi’s noveau chic LA pad

Jennel Garcia, 18, student, Rochester, MA – She is a sweetheart in life, but has this tremendous sexy fire when she performs.  Her “I Kissed a Girl” was not her best work and may have been overly affected by Demi’s pre-performance chat.  Jennel: “I thought we would kind of chat before I started singing, but we didn’t and I thought they would say something after I sang, but they didn’t.  It was really nerve-wracking – I lost so much confidence, but I did everything I could possibly do.”  Demi was “bummed” that her “light was a little dimmed” after giving Jennel advice.  Jennel has the it, but with a very talented group, is not a lock for one of the four spots for the live shows.

Willie Jones, 17, student, Shreveport, LA – Willie, the unexpected country crooner, took a risk singing “Nobody Knows” again after a self-professed “bombed” performance at boot camp.  Although a much improved rendition here (especially in the eyes of Demi and Nick), Nick is correct to point out that he needs to define his particular genre.

Jillian Jensen, 19, part-time piano teacher, Rochester, MA – Known for her emotional first audition that highlighted her unfortunate shared history of bulling with Demi, producers have not shown us a ton of Jillian singing since.  Her “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles was “kind of sexy” Nick Jonas and was a pleasant surprise.  Like Jennel, her confidence and emotions may be a future consideration further in this competition.

Nick Youngerman, 21, janitor, Tipp City, OH – The exuberant (“I love this song”) young MC “sang” “Tick-Tock” by Keshia.  Although not able to sing (the “oh oh oh” choruses were monotoned), he has definite stage charisma, but I am not sure his performance ceiling is that high.  Demi: “I couldn’t tell if I was like loving it or super annoyed by it.”  Yep.

Paige Thomas, 21, nursing student, San Antonio, TX – The mom of a lovely little three-year old has been an emotional theme park ride since going head to head with CeCe Fry at boot camp.  Bizarre outfit aside, I didn’t get her “Turn up the music” by Chris Brown.  Demi may be right that her best moment may have been in her first audition.  As she exposes more insecurities, Nick is right to ask if Demi can get her “back to that girl” that the judges fell in love with.

CeCe Fry, 21, mail clerk, Decatur, IL – CeCe is a bit of a head case (what’s up with the leopard spots that she paints all over her face and leg?) and must fight what Demi described to her as being sometimes “unlikeable.”  Her “I’m Sexy and I Know It” did take Demi’s direction and she certainly wants this thing badly.  Will America like her?  She will certainly fight to the limit to find out.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Jennel, Jillian, Willie, CeCe

The four who will (Demi’s selections) go on to the live shows: Jennel, Jillian, Nick, Cece

THE GROUPS

Mentored by Simon Cowell and assisted by Marc “smart to end up with Simon on X Factor, sorry Jennifer” Anthony.

Location: Simon’s Miami palace (although apparently it isn’t even his pad)

Playback, teens – This charming group of five young (and super happy to be here after all being eliminated as individuals at boot camp) lads turned on Simon (“there is a something naive and kind of likable about them”), but Marc did not get it (“I was looking at an airplane”).  Lead lad Owen’s intense long-distance relationship with Tori (“this is all for you, Tori”) is…something.

Emblem3, 16-19, Huntington Beach, CA – Sorry, boys.  I don’t get it.  Their awkward “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” reggae pop rendition stumbled when the dude who never wears a shirt got lost looking at the beautiful sky.  Simon says that “they lost their way” and I am just not sure they ever found it.

Sister C, 17-21, Mount Belvieu, TX – These three sisters from a small Texas town have a killer blend and tight harmonies.  Their performance sizzled and each solo would compete in the young adults category.  They could be the one to beat in this category if America can get them (as Britney at their boot camp performance did not).

Lyric 145, 19-23 – The combination of two brothers plus effortless rapper Lyric (another post boot camp creation) made “Party in the USA” come alive in ways I did not think were possible.  Marc and Simon agree that Lyric is a “superstar.” (Although, what is up with covering her eye like a pirate?)

Dope Crisis, 25 & 30, Philadelphia, PA – This duo has been together seven years and both Simon and Marc think they had a good audition, but aren’t sure there is any further they can go.

Lylas, 15-19 – This boot camp reject combination of five girls are all really good singers as individuals and kind of worked together singing Shontelle’s “Impossible.”  Simon thought they were “unbelievable” and I definitely could feel something when they sang together.  They could be one to watch in this category.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Playback, Lyric 145, Lylas, Sister C

The four who will (Simon’s selections) go on to the live shows: Playback, Lyric 145, Lylas, Sister C

THE OVER 25s

Mentored by LA “I am not happy about this category, but I want to win” Reid and assisted by Justin Bieber and his manager, Scooter Braun (still not sure why he plays such a key role)

Location: at LA’s actual home in Beverly Hills, an absolutely gorgeous view

Jason Brock, 34, computer tech, San Francisco, CA  – After a vocally impressive first audition, Mr. Brock belted a clean and clear performance of “I hope you know” by Fergie.  The judge/mentor response says it all: LA: “That was a strong…(pause)vocal.”  Justin asked, “Is that the one?” and Scooter reminded us that the winner wins “a big contract” (thanks Scooter).  I am not sure they are high on Jason.

David Correy, 26, musician, Riva, MD – The tattooed, vocally strong guy told us at his first auditions that he is different because he is adopted and hoping to reconnect with his birth mother.  His slow, California skyline adoring version of “Domino” by Jesse J. gave LA “chill pumps,” but he believes that “viability in the marketplace is the question.”  He can definitely sing.

Daryl Black, 37, musician, Elk Grove, CA – Daryl felt his performance of “She’s Gone” and put his heart and soul out there.  Although Scooter believed “he’s got a special voice, and with a band behind him…” (what could possibly happen, Scooter?), LA just thought it was “singing.”  I think he was more successful in his first audition.

Tate Stevens, 37, road worker, Belton, MO – This “only dude in the hat” (what about Vino’s beanie?) does not want to go back to asphalt work (who does?).  His countrified “Back at One” by Brian McKnight was well-received by LA as a song choice.  Scooter thinks “there is something about him that makes you want to root for him,” but Justin is “not sure about giving him the 5 million.”  Agreed.

Vino Alan, 40, musician, Waynesville, MO – Adorned with tattoos covering his head, Vino admirably wants to provide for his son.  His rendition of “Sober” by Pink hits some of the same emotional peaks and makes some of the emotional connections as the original (high praise from me).  Scooter’s take, “The dude is petrified, he’s nervous, he’s scuffing up your shoes, but he stepped up.”  LA “likes the soul but is worried about the package…the package.” (whatever that means)

Tara Simon, 27, vocal coach, Atlanta, GA – She feels like she is going to win the whole thing (and actually believes it) and is super lucky with the new format (she would be destroyed by the girls if this were last year).  It seems like the men in her category are not enthralled to spend time with this vocal coach who may want to think about a new profession.  Tara thanked Jesus and thinks she gave “a near perfect performance” of “The Reason” by Hoobastank.  Justin thinks “she should make sure to have more sweet moments with her voice” and in life (I added the second part).

The four who should go on to the live shows: David, Vino, Jason, Daryl

The four who will (LA’s selections) go on to the live shows: David, Vino, Daryl, Tara

TEENS (13-17)

 Mentored by Britney Spears and assisted by will.i.am who, according to Britney, “knows what kids are listening to.”

Location: at Britney’s LA home which apparently is not her actual home

Diamond White, 13, student, Los Angeles, CA – Diamond White is a star.  Her performance of “I’m With You” by Avril Lavigne was a definitive better vocal than the original.  She may be in a different league than most other performers.  Will.i.am thought she was “amazing,” but that she “cares about her moves too much.”  I am unimpressed with will.i.am’s overall appearance.

Reed Deming, 13, student, San Antonio, TX – This Justin Bieber-lite believes that his “entire life has been in preparation for this moment.”  Reed’s almost undistinguishable slow version of “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s (in retrospect, all of the teen performances were super slow.  Did Britney ask for this?) left Britney thinking “he was nervous” and “can deliver better than he did, “  Will.i.am compares Reed to “a little emperor, like a little emperor kid.” (Joffrey from Game of Thrones? Oh boy.)

James Tanner, 15, student, Groveport, OH – As the only teen rapper in the competition, Mr. Tanner has his work cut out for him against some great singers.  Britney and will.i.am seemed to agree.

Arin Ray, 17, student, Cincinnati, OH – Mr. Ray competed last year as member of the group Intensity (one of the many groups that Paula mentored and America never seemed to figure out last season).  His version of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a competent, if safe performance.  However, both Britney and will.i.am saw something special.

Beatrice Miller, 13, student, Maplewood, NJ – After showing some nerves before her performance, she rocked a plodding version of “Titanium.”  Will.i.am considered her performance “fresh.”  I think she has a little fire inside of her and may be able to compete in close to the league of some of her best teen competition.

Carly Rose Sonenclar, 13, student, Westchester, NY – After her incredible first audition, it was clear that this girl has a killer voice.  Her “Broken Hearted” by Karmin was a soulful work of art.  In the understatement of the year, Britney said, “she is a very talented young girl.”  She could very well be the winner of this season’s The X Factor.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Carly Rose, Beatrice, Diamond,  Arin

The four who will (Britney’s selections) go on to the live shows: Carly Rose, Reed, Diamond, Arin

What did you all think?  Which contestants will go to the live shows?  How long before Scooter Braun has his own reality show?

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  His weekly X Factor column appears on the Afterblog at Afterbuzztv.com.