The Atlantic’s editors and writers pick their favorite moments from Breaking Bad, The Office, Orange is the New Black, and more from the past year. (And episode hoarders, beware: Spoilers abound.)
When Modern Family debuted in 2009, it drew notice for bringing two non-traditional families to network primetime alongside the familiar heterosexual, nuclear family. There were two gay men with an adopted daughter, and an interracial couple whose members were both on their second marriages. Both kinds of arrangement are increasingly common in America, so it seemed like a big deal that they had found their way to the same family sitcom, a format that has long wavered between reflecting and policing our nation’s self-image.
There was also a third, less talked-about element to the unorthodox nature of Modern Family's characters. Jay and Gloria are not just interracial but intergenerational. Gloria, a Colombian, is much younger (and several times more attractive) than her affluent, white husband, Jay.
Read more. [Image: ABC]
There’s a moment in Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s excruciatingly tense tale of the 2009 capture of an American ship captain by Somalian pirate, where the audience gets a rare chance to laugh. It’s probably not meant to come off this way, but after 90-ish minutes of nightmarish, shaky-cam time spent with Tom Hanks’s schlubby title character and his harried, emaciated captors, the appearance of square-jawed, capital-H Handsome Navy Seals onscreen sent at least a few of the people in my theater into titters.
The mood changes in other ways once these guys literally parachute in and then, spoiler alert, bring an end to the hostage situation. An aircraft carrier and a couple Navy destroyers assist; as Time’s Michael Crowley wrote, “you feel that the U.S. military has come to your rescue.”
Captain Phillips joins a host of recent, acclaimed, non-fiction films that leave viewers gleeful about the power of the United States’ national-security forces. Zero Dark Thirty documented the abuses, dead-ends, and bureaucratic bullshit that prolonged the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but its final third satisfyingly drove home just how smart and surgical the CIA and Seal Team 6 ended up being. Argo leapt back a few decades to show Ben Affleck’s covert agent as a personality-free avatar of competence who whisked a group of stranded Americans out of a hostile Tehran.
Read more. [Image: Columbia; Showtime]
Early in the first season of Treme, HBO’s drama about post-Katrina New Orleans illustrates the intrinsic disconnect between the city’s insiders and outsiders when a street musician named Sonny chats with a group of church volunteers visiting from Wisconsin.
As the dimwitted Madison tourists prattle on about their desire to “help save” the city’s devastated Ninth Ward, Sonny smirks at them. “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Had you ever even heard of the Ninth Ward before the storm?” A beat later, when the tourists request that he play “something authentic,” Sonny (who moments before had been performing an old-time blues standard called “Careless Love”) sarcastically offers to play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” noting how “every cheesehead from chowderland” loves to hear it.
The contentious notion of authenticity—and how to best identify and maintain it—is intrinsic to Treme, which begins its fourth and final season Sunday.
Read more. [Image: HBO]
Earlier this month, the “Japanese-styled family game show” Japanizi: Going Going Gong premiered in the United States and Canada, on Disney XD and YTV respectively. The show puts teams of kids through physical challenges ranging from running along conveyor belts to dressing up as penguins in order to slide down a slippery slope—oftentimes while “ninjas” throw various projectiles at them. Marblemedia, the company behind Japanizi, describes it as a chance for audiences to “experience the zany world of Japanese game show culture.”
This isn’t a new proposition. Japanizi itself is a kid-friendly version of ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which ran from 2008 to 2009. Even long before that, Japanese game shows have been sent up by the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. The punchline to those gags resembles English speakers’ Youtube comments on the subject: These programs are “crazy,” “wacky,” and “weird.”
But the stereotype of Japanese game shows as bizarre affairs where producers put contestants through strange punishment just doesn’t ring true in 2013. The “Japanese game show culture” Japanizi and I Survived A Japanese Game Show trumpet—and that comedies and comment sections mock—once existed, sometimes in forms even more extreme than Western parodies. But that hasn’t been the case in the last 15 years. If anything, more and more Japanese people say their TV choices nowadays have become boring.
Read more. [Image: Disney; YTV]
Five years ago, HBO aired a quirky little mockumentary written and starred in by an Australian comic few Americans knew of: Summer Heights High, the eight-part, sidesplitting portrait of a Sydney public high school created by writer-performer Chris Lilley. Lilley played all three principal roles: Mr. G., the flamboyantly self-deluded drama teacher; Jonah Takalua, the juvenile delinquent with a penchant for phallic graffiti; and Ja’mie King, the egomaniacal exchange student from Sydney’s posh North Shore. HBO’s gamble paid off. Within weeks, viewers fell in love.
Each of the characters a fount for laughs in his or her own right, but Ja’mie was a clear fan favorite. From her self-serving charity projects to her fondness for the term “povo” (short for “impoverished”), she made a big impression stateside—big enough for HBO to team up with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to produce Ja’mie: Private School Girl, which premiered in the U.S. on Sunday.
Read more. [Image: HBO]
How many TV shows could pull off having their main character be both the protagonist and the villain of the same episode, while being played by three different actors?
Saturday’s 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who aims for two lofty goals: to celebrate the show’s history, and to deliver a story with some kind of change and growth for its leads. On the first score, it is, in a word, fantastic. Pretty much the entire thing falls under the category of fan service—David Tennant and Billie Piper are back! We get to see the Last Great Time War! That UNIT scientist is wearing a Fourth Doctor-ish scarf! We find out why Queen Elizabeth I was so mad at the Tennant’s Tenth Doctor at the end of “The Shakespeare Code”! And OMG TOM BAKER!
As for the story, it’s a fun romp that hits some strong emotional notes and does show our hero(es) making some life-altering choices. Previous multi-Doctor stories have been notoriously not very good, even by the production-value standards of their respective eras. “The Day of the Doctor” sailed over that bar with light years to spare. The plot actually gets set in motion by a rather banal scheme by a rather banal, C-list Who monster, the Zygons, who hid themselves in paintings until Earth proved itself worthy of invasion by developing streaming video and the iPhone 5.
But the true bad guy of this story isn’t the Zygons: It’s the long-unmentioned (OK, retconned) version of the Doctor played by John Hurt.
Read more. [Image: BBC]
Last week’s episode of Holland’s Got Talent featured a 30-year-old Chinese-born contestant named Xiao Wang, a PhD candidate who moonlights as an opera singer. Xiao was on hand to sing “La donna e mobile,” an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and performed beautifully.
However, one of the talent judges on the show, a Dutch singer named Cornelis Willem Heuckeroth, used the segment as an opportunity to mock Xiao’s Chinese-ness.
Here were a few of Heuckeroth’s comments:
"Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?"
"This is the best Chinese I’ve had in weeks, and it’s not takeaway!"
"He looks like a waiter from a Chinese restaurant."
"This is the best Chinese person I’ve ever seen, and he’s not even a delivery boy."
Hueckeroth, who for some reason goes by the name “Gordon,” also called Xiao’s performance a “surplise.”
The other two panelists on the show both looked embarrassed by Gordon’s remarks; one, an American named Dan Karaty, even told him that he’s “really not supposed to say things like that.”
Read more. [Image: Matt Schiavenza]
When it started in 1963, Doctor Who should not have succeeded. A committee created it, to fill a time slot. It had a small budget. The BBC intended for it to be a children’s educational show focusing on science and history. Oh, and it debuted the night after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
And yet it worked, as seen in the incredible hype preceding Saturday’s 50th anniversary special—an extra-long, star-filled special called “The Day of the Doctor.”
What went right? It’s not just the always-exterminating Daleks, or the complex, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plots. Those are fun, but there’s something more primal that’s been with it since it’s start in 1963: adventure. A sense of the new. When William Hartnell debuted in November 1963 as the Doctor, showing off his time and space-traveling TARDIS, and asked his co-stars and viewers, “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension?” And the truth was, they hadn’t. Not like this.
Read more. [Image: BBC]
Ethereal, tiny, quixotic, Icelandic Björk.
At some point in the past, someone stuck a camera in front of her face and told her to explain television. She does, sort of, referring to the circuit board as a kind of city, describing the almost-reasonable theory of an Icelandic poet, and concluding that a “Danish book” contained the scientifical truth that let her enjoy TV again.
Look, you just have to watch it. It’s transcendent.