Thursday, December 29, 2011
THE YEAR IN GAMING, 2011:
- Oh, to be young again. I know, I say that at the ripe old age of 29, but in the world of videogames, that's practically ancient. Here I am, a guy who grew up in a long-ago age of 8-bit sidescrollers and fancy pixel-based graphics, and it's a new era of motion-control, open-world gameplay, downloadable games, and online competition. Whatever happened to the days when games were about the simple act of avoiding falling into bottomless pits? Who am I kidding though ... I'm jealous of the kids who have all the time in the world to play and master the new generation of kickass games. These days, I tend to avoid playing games sometimes, if only because I get frustrated when I get really into one and then don't have time to just immerse myself in it for days on end. Over my short-but-sweet Christmas break, I finally had a couple of days to devote to some quality alone-time with my PS3 and XBOX 360, and man, I felt like a kid in a candy store, getting lost in games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City. The way things are now, these big-budget, blockbuster games clearly are massive undertakings to create, and so the market often seems devoid of big, new games - and then, suddenly, flooded with 'em. And that's how it was this year - with only a trickle of must-play games in the front-end of 2011, suddenly, the holiday season saw an onslaught of marquee releases. Who can play 'em all? And when will the game companies learn to spread things out a bit? Spread the love, guys. In any case, this ended up being an absolutely huge year for games, in more ways than one.
Most importantly, this was just a great year for gaming in terms of quality releases. The amount of triple-A titles that came out is pretty staggering - Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3 ... and those are just the tip of the iceberg. There were also a ton of cool, innovative downloadable games this year as well. Whatever other issues or challenges the industry faces, it always, always comes down to the games, and so regardless of anything else, it was a great year to be a gamer.
That said, there's no question - the gaming industry is at a crossroads, and things are going to get interesting. For Sony and Microsoft, it's going to be business as usual for another year or two - until the next console cycle comes along. But for now, the XBOX 360 and PS3 have plenty of life left in them. XBOX continues to sell well, and Sony is catching up - thanks to a stacked lineup of exclusive, first-party games and a reduced price point for the console. Now, both Sony and MS are facing challenges with their attempts to launch motion-gaming and make it a major part of their console ecosystem. Kinect is doing better than Move, but Microsoft clearly has more at stake here. They've positioned Kinect as a major part of their XBOX strategy going-forward, and are heavily invested in its success. Sony less so with Move, where it's being positioned as a fun but non-essential peripheral. But in both instances, there's so far been a lack of killer apps, or games that have convinced the core gamer to embrace motion control. With Wii, that wasn't necessary - plenty of families and kids enjoyed the Wii on its own merits, and it sold like hotcakes because of it. But the XBOX and PS3 historically cater to a different audience, an audience that tends to be more interested in games like Skyrim than Just Dance. But I will say this: I bought a Kinect as an impulse-buy recently, and the thing is pretty darn cool. No, I'd never pick a random Kinect party game over an Uncharted, but still ... it is what it is. I don't know that Kinect needs to have hardcore action games to be worthwhile, but to rack up big sales with the XBOX crowd, it might. In any case, MS's focus on the Kinect may actually have seriously hurt it in 2011, as a lack of exclusive core games caused XBOX to lose some valuable ground to the PS3. It's something that could come back to bite MS in 2012. We'll see.
Sony has its own challenges though. The big one in early 2012 will be the launch of the portable successor to the PSP, the Playstation Vita. The Vita looks amazing - a portable system packing the power of a PS3. But the question is - is that something we want or need in today's market? I know for me, I love my DS and PSP, but ultimately, for big, complex games, I'd rather play them at home and on a big TV. The Vita has a definite cool-factor, but if I only have so many opportunities to play it on the go, then is it essentially like buying a second PS3? Plus, there's the Apple factor, and that might be the biggest one of all. Apple has not-so-quietly become a major presence in the world of gaming in the last year or two. The iPhone is the #1 platform by which people play games on the go these days, and the iPad is becoming sort of a powerhouse in its own right. When you've got exclusive franchises like Infinity Blade on your platform, then yes, you are a legitimate force in gaming. And that's a huge problem for Sony, and also for Nintendo. It's ironic, too, because Apple is sort of doing the reverse of what Sony did with the PS2 and PS3. With those consoles, Sony sold people on the gaming, but used them as trojan horses to get people invested in DVD and blu-ray. And it worked like gangbusters. Now, Apple is doing something similar - selling people on the iPhone and iPad for all sorts of things not having to do with gaming, but then sneakily becoming a major player in games because of the gaming capabilities of those devices. Personally, a touch screen is never going to be my ideal way to play a game. But plenty of people are happy to get their gaming fix - particularly their portable gaming fix - from an iPhone or iPad. It will be interesting to see the impact of this on the Vita. Sony is coming out of the gates with a stellar lineup of launch titles - but will that be enough?
Already, the impact of Apple has been felt in a big way by Nintendo, especially since there's a lot of crossover between the two company's more casual gaming demos. The launch of the 3DS this year was supposed to be a no-brainer win for Nintendo. For years now, they've dominated the portable market with the DS and been virtually unchallenged, selling millions and millions of units worldwide. But the times, they are a-changin'. The failure to launch of the 3DS can be blamed on a lot of things - a lack of killer launch titles, too high of a pricepoint, initially - but still, the Apple factor is undeniable. For longtime gamers, this is troubling. Nintendo has given us years of great games and consoles - no one wants to see them fail. Apple, conversely, has not really embraced the core gamer, except for the fact that they've secured some big, exclusive titles like Infinity Blade. But Apple doesn't go to E3 (and on a personal sidenote: I did once again get to go to E3 this year, and it was awesome!), Apple doesn't have a first-party game development studio, Apple doesn't design its devices to be optimized for gaming (no buttons!), and Apple doesn't set up pricing structures that really make sense for the gaming business. At some point, Apple will have to decide: do they go all-in, or do they remain a disruptive but ultimately peripheral player?
Either way, Nintendo is in some trouble. The Wii's sales are slowing down drastically, and Nintendo's support for the console has been weak. There's been one great game for the Wii in recent months - Zelda: Skyward Sword - and that, frankly, isn't enough. Nintendo already seems to have turned its focus to its next console, the Wii U. But that is still a long ways away - what happens between now and then? Inevitably, Wii users will migrate over to the PS3 and XBOX 360, which is not good for Nintendo's longterm prospects. In the past, Nintendo could count on strong portable sales to offset slow periods for its home consoles, but now, that's not necessarilly true. The 3DS, even with some big titles finally seeing the light of day, still has an uphill battle ahead of it.
So are games as we know them all-but-dead? Will triple-A, big budget console games become an endangered species, supplanted by $5 iPhone games and free-to-play Facebook games? Good lord, let's hope not. But the good news is, games like Arkham City and Uncharted are still out there to remind us what great games are capable of, and to show us that it's still worth it to march forward and not look back. I want the games of 2012 to look and play like, well, what I dreamed the games of 2012 might look and play like circa 1992. I want the future to be filled with even more mind-blowing graphics, even more innovative gameplay, and more games that live up to the full potential of the medium. Back to basics is good, sometimes. But I only need so many wordgames, retro arcade games, and HD remakes. Gaming has always been about the new, the boundary-pushing, the future. I say let's keep it that way.
THE BEST GAMES OF 2011:
Note: As I hinted at above, it's impossible for me to play everything, and there are dozens of games I wish I'd gotten the chance to play this past year. So the list below is by no means definitive - just my personal picks for the year's best games.
1.) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
- Skyrim is powered by gorgeous graphics, cutting-edge technology, and an expansive open-world. But in many ways, it feels like a throwback to the old days, when games were less story-driven and more about simply getting lost in a huge fantasy world. It took me a little while to warm up to the game. At first, I got bogged down in the controls, the combat mechanics, and the camera - but as I played more, those things became less important. Because Skyrim has a lot of little issues, bugs, and quirks - but the sum is much greater than the parts. At the end of the day, Skyrim is simply awesome because everything comes together to the point where you just feel like you're a warrior on an epic quest in a giant and far-away kingdom filled with caves, castles, villages, and monsters - and that's a great feeling. Few other games have managed this level of total immersion.
2.) Batman: Arkham City
- Batman: Arkham Asylum was awesome, but it just needed that extra little layer of polish to become truly great. Enter Arkham City, which elevates the franchise to true triple-A status, creating an amazing, immersive world for you to play around in. In this game, you simply are Batman. And that, my friends, is pretty freakin' badass. The gameplay is tighter, the world is bigger, the graphics sharper. And the storytelling is about as good as it gets. With a superlative voice cast (does it get any better than Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn?), the story of Arkham city is legitimately one of the best-told Batman stories in recent memory, in any medium. That's a testament to where we're at now with this franchise and with games in general.
3.) Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
- Uncharted might just be the best franchise in gaming of this generation, and Uncharted 3 seals the deal. Nobody does blockbuster, set-piece action in gaming like Naughty Dog, the geniuses behind the Uncharted games. And no game series better matches great original characters - like the already-iconic Nathan Drake - with phenomenal gameplay that makes you feel like you're controlling the best Summer adventure movie that's not actually a movie, but something better. Uncharted 3 is another masterpiece from Sony and Naughty Dog.
4.) Tie: Bastion / Rayman Origins
- I had a hard time choosing between these two titles, because both wowed me with a blend of classic gameplay and eye-popping, hand-drawn visuals. Of the two, Bastion is the more original - an isometric adventure that matches a Zelda-like adventure with a mysterious and surprisingly somber tone. A haunting, unseen voice narrates your every move, and it's a unique addition to the gameplay. It makes it feel like you're playing through a fairy-tale, and there's a sense of urgency as you try to urge the hero on to a happy ending. A super-innovative and beautifully-crafted downloadable game on XBOX. Meanwhile, Rayman Origins is a cartoon come to life. It's incredibly vibrant, and the gameplay flows like a dream. This is just a classic take on the old-school 2D platformer that's a must-play for those who still appreciate the genre.
5.) L.A. Noire
- Finally, Rockstar's open-world detective title L.A. Noire is a little rough-around-the-edges at times, but I give it huge points for innovation and uniqueness. For one thing, the graphics are incredible - particularly with regards to the facial muscle-capturing techniques used, to sculpt characters who have the most realistic and naturalistic faces and expressions I've ever seen in a game. Secondly, the game just does a great job of immersing you in a classic film noir storyline. Even when the gameplay is a bit slow or awkward, the overall world created here is amazingly rendered and realized.
And there you have it, my games of the year. I know that there are a ton of great games I didn't talk about here, so be sure to let me know your personal picks. Happy gaming.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
- 2011 was, for comics, the real-world equivalent of the Crisis On Infinite Earths. For those not well-versed in geek-speak, this was a year where things got shaken up in a big, big way. For one thing, the digital revolution is happening in comics right now. Faster than a speeding bullet, comics have gone day-and-date digital, and suddenly, getting new comics each week is a simple matter of a few taps on one's iPad or Kindle Fire. That, to me, is awesome. Like I've said before, nothing can beat reading comics the old-fashioned way. But - there's also definitely something to be said for the benefits of digital. Digital comics means saving space. It means that comics - even more obscure ones - are available to people without easy access to a comic shop. It means that those with a curiosity about the medium have the ability to quickly and easily sample a title or two. In short, digital comics means that more people can read more comics. I'd even go so far as to say that digital could be the way in which comics finally go mainstream.
- Before I move on to talking about the the best comics of the year, I do want to take a minute to mention some of the great creators that passed away this year, as unfortunately the comics industry lost some true titans in 2011. The legendary Joe Simon - co-creator of Captain America and many other heroes of the Golden Age. The equally legendary Jerry Robinson, one of the defining Batman artists, and the creator of The Joker. This one was especially sad since I got to meet Mr. Robinson two years ago at Comic-Con, where he signed a drawing of Batman and Robin for me. Gene Colan, the great horror artist of books like Tomb of Dracula. And maybe the one that hit me the hardest - Dwayne McDuffie - who died way too young, only in his forties. One of the premiere writers of this generation, McDuffie helped usher in a new age of diversity in comics with the creation of the Milestone universe - a new world of ethnically-diverse characters, including the popular Static Shock. He also penned some of the great episodes of DC's animated universe, writing classic episodes of Justice League Unlimited, as well as animated movies like Batman: Under the Red Hood.
Comics have a rich and amazing history, so even as we enter a new era for the medium, let's remember those who helped build the foundation.
- And now, my picks for the BEST in comics from this past year ...
THE BEST COMIC BOOKS OF 2011:
THE BEST SINGLE ISSUES:
1.) Jonah Hex #69
- Before the DC Reboot, Jonah Hex was one of my favorite books month-in, month-out. Every issue, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray delivered great, gritty tales of the Old West, starring the scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex. But with issue #69, the second-to-last issue of the series before it was rebooted as All-Star Western, the writing pair delivered an absolute classic, a haunting, intense standalone tale in which Jonah Hex finally comes face to face with his father, who lies dying. Illustrated by Jeff Lemire, of Sweet Tooth and Animal Man fame, the issue is one of the most powerful single issues of a comic I've ever read - an emotional, dark, tale of a scarred man confronting his past and the sins of the father.
2.) Secret Six #36 (series finale)
- The shame of the DC reboot was that it seemed to happen so suddenly, that most books didn't bother with a true ending or finale before wrapping up. But writer Gail Simone, it seems, knew the end was approaching for cult-favorite book Secret Six, and holy crap, did she go out with a bang. In the epic two part series-ender, Batman villain Bane, determined to reclaim his status as a premiere force of evil and destruction, recruits the Six to launch an all-out assault on Batman and his allies. With one swift stroke, Bane aims to once-and-for-all take down the Bat. But, it turns out that the heroes of the DC Universe have been tipped off to Bane's plan, and so they come to the aid of Batman against the Six. What transpires is all-out war - The Six vs. Everyone Else. The Six know they're doomed, but they'll be damned if they don't go down fighting. My god, what a way to close out one of the best series of the last decade.
3.) Batgirl #24 (final issue)
- The end of the old DC meant the end of some beloved series, and the potential ending for some beloved characters. One of the saddest endings was for the Stephanie Brown version of Batgirl, who would be written out of the DC Universe during the reboot, replaced by original Batgirl Barbara Gordon. What I - and I think others - liked about Stephanie was that she was a character who seemed to scrape and claw her way into the limelight. Introduced years ago as The Spoiler, an ally of Robin, Stephanie was the daughter of a two-bit criminal who decided to defy her father by becoming a hero. Even though DC continually tried to write her out of the storylines and keep her sidelined - even killing her off at one point - Stephanie kept coming back, seemingly only because fans really dug her. She was the girl-next-door as superhero, and who doesn't love that. Anyways, Bryan Q. Miller, against all odds, crafted a great series around the idea that Stephanie had now graduated to the role of Batgirl. It was a fantastic series, and the final issue was amazing and heartbreaking -a glimpse at the future that we'll never see - a series of flashforwards that posited what might have happened to Stephanie had she enjoyed a long career in the cape and cowl. The finale seemed to directly address the fans upset with the impending reboot. "It's only the end if you want it to be," Stephanie told us. And with those words, a great run and a great character rode off into the sunset.
- To make a long story short, for the past couple of years, pre-DC reboot, Dick Grayson, the original Robin, had become the new Batman. A lot of good stories were told with Dick as Batman, but the best was in the pages of Detective Comics, where writer Scott Snyder wrote an arc called "The Black Mirror," in which Dick was confronted with a Gotham City that seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. What started out as a standard mystery soon became a personal case for Dick - it turned out that Gotham's newest murderer was in fact a key member of the Batman supporting cast. This revelation was shocking, disturbing, and downright creepy. And the finale of this arc, in 'Tec 881, was a doozy - a page-turner of the highest order, and a worthy finale to one of the longest-running and most legendary comic books of all time. With this storyline, Scott Snyder cemented himself as the new, premiere writer of Batman.
- The issues above are all pre-DC reboot, but here's one that was probably *the* defining moment of the New 52 relaunch, the moment where fans stood up and said "hey, there may be some damn good comics to come out of this whole shebang." With one issue, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Travel Foreman established a mood of unsettling horror and creeping dread. Because, from the get-go, we could see the contrast forming between Buddy Baker - family man, activist, and part-time superhero - and the world of horror that he was about to enter. Even as Buddy spent quality time with his wife and kids, a terrible evil lurked around him. With one issue, Lemire declared that Animal Manm perhaps unexpectedly, was the must-read book of the New 52.
THE BEST ONGOING SERIES:
1.) Sweet Tooth
- I didn't mention Sweet Tooth in my best single-issues list only because the series reads like the weirdest, most awesome HBO TV series you'll ever see, with one storyline flowing seamlessly into the next. Sure, the series had some truly standout issues in 2011, like one surreal chapter where the title character goes on a dream-quest in which he remembers his own origins - beautifully-painted by writer-artist Jeff Lemire. I've also absolutely loved the recent flashback arc where we see the backstory of the virus that brought about the apocalyptic plague that set up the premise of the book. But Sweet Tooth is just this amazing tapestry of ideas, characters, and ongoing plot developments - it's always my #1 must-read comic book these days. For those not in-the-know, Sweet Tooth is an ongoing book from DC's mature-readers Vertigo imprint, written and drawn by one of the rising stars of the comics industry, Jeff Lemire. The book takes place in a near-future where the world's been decimated by a plague. Humanity has been all-but-decimated, and the remaining people live in a world ravaged by violence and chaos, just trying to survive. In the aftermath of this plague though, a strange thing has happened - a wave of babies born since the plague have been mutants - strange human-animal hybrids, who are immune to the still-spreading plague virus. One of these hybrids, Sweet Tooth, is seen by some as the key to curing the plague, as he's the first known hybrid to have been discovered. And so began a mystery in which Sweet Tooth, accompanied by his badass guardian Jeppard, travels the globe in search of answers as to his origins. It's an epic, sprawling tale filled with action, mystery, and horror - and to me, it's the best book out there right now.
2.) Animal Man
- I talked earlier about what Jeff Lemire (there's that name again) has done with Animal Man, but I'll add this: even though he's a lesser-known character in the mainstream, Animal Man has quite the legacy in comics. Back in the day, Grant Morrison had a legendary run on the character. Even recently, there was a really good miniseries - The Last Days of Animal Man - that looked at the character as a middle-aged hero facing retirement. So for Lemire to come in and do a new take on the character that a.) incorporates what's gone before, but b.) feels totally new and unique ... it's quite an accomplishment. What's more, the book really set the bar for the New 52 - it showed that whatever issues people might have with how some of the more high-profile titles were handled, at the least, the new DC would be home to titles like this one - the kind of offbeat, dark, edgier stuff that DC was known for in the 80's and 90's, but that it had gotten away from in recent years. If there's one great thing about the new DC, it's that books like Animal Man now have a home there.
- One of my big reading endeavors of 2011 was to finally catch up on Invincible - you know, that *other* book from Robert Kirkman that isn't The Walking Dead. I did a marathon reading session through the various volumes that collect the comic's run to-date. From what I can gather, this is the way to go to catch up on the book, because there've been some delays in its monthly output. But reading it in trade format, man, I found myself totally hooked on Kirkman's funny-yet-epic superhero story. Kirkman just keeps upping the ante for Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, and as with The Walking Dead, he's never afraid to shake things up or throw us some major curveballs. And it doesn't get more major than The Viltrumite War, an star-spanning saga that began in 2010 and raced towards its blockbuster conclusion in 2011. It was in many ways the ultimate Invincible epic - Mark and his morally-questionable dad defending the earth from their own alien race, who are intent on enslaving earth. But what makes Invincible so addicting is the way that Kirkman writes it as both a traditional superhero story but also as something that feels 100% different from the books at DC or Marvel. The characters feel modern and well-defined, there's quirky humor, there's lots of imagination, and there are bouts of brutal violence that remind you that yes, this is a book where serious $%&% goes down. If you haven't jumped onboard yet, be sure to check out Invincible.
4.) Detective Comics and Batman - by Scott Snyder
- After writing one of the best Batman arcs in recent years during his run on Detective Comics, Scott Snyder picked up right where he left off, quality-wise, on the New 52 relaunch of Batman. A lot of people were worried about the fact that the reboot was prematurely ending Snyder's 'Tec run, starring Dick Grayson as the new Batman. But as it turns out, Snyder proved equally adept at writing Bruce Wayne. His Batman run kicked off with a bang, pitting Bruce against a secret cabal of Gothamites with a longstanding vendetta against the Wayne family (a thread that also ties nicely into Snyder's earlier Batman: Gates of Gotham series). Snyder's also had the help of some kickass artists i bringing his Bat-books to life. The dark, moody art of Jock helped make Detective as good as it was, and the lighter, more kinetic art of Greg Capullo has been a huge part of making the latest Batman arc feel like a big-budget blockbuster put to page. In short, 2011 was the year where Snyder became DC's MVP - especially when it comes to Batman.
5.) The Walking Dead
- I just recently caught up on the latest volume of The Walking Dead, and the same thing happened to me that always does with this book - I sat down intending to read just a portion of the story, and before I knew it, I read the whole thing in one sitting. The Walking Dead has a sense of forward momentum like no other comic out there, and it's also more unpredictable - I never know what Robert Kirkman has in store for these characters. That said, I felt like the latest batch of issues played things a little safe. After the shocking events of the previous volume, we got a lot of character stuff that was a little repetitive at times. It's funny, because I also definitely recognized some elements of the TV show beginning to find their way into the comics - which is both good and bad. One of the key romantic developments has probably been a long-time coming now, so that was cool to finally see happen. I just hope that the book doesn't tone itself down at all to be accessible to fans of the show. The Walking Dead grabbed me because it was intense, violent, dark, and often, just plain #%&$'ed-up. Let's hope it stays that way. Still, this remains one of the true modern-classics, and I'm always curious to see what happens next.
6.) Swamp Thing
- Scott Snyder does it again. Much like Lemire did with Animal Man, Snyder took a character that enjoyed a legendary run in the 80's (courtesy of Alan Moore), and brought him back into DC proper with a take that felt familiar yet fresh. What I'm loving about the new Swamp Thing is that Snyder is bringing back the weird horror and gothic romance of the Alan Moore run, but also delivering some great new twists. Most noticeably, the book so far has featured Alec Holland back to being a normal guy, with only vague memories as his time as the Swamp Thing. This makes for a strange relationship with his former love Abby Arcane, who's grown cold and hardened since we last saw her. I also love the lush, bold artwork from Yanick Paquette. And by the way, one cool thing about the new Swamp Thing and Animal Man books - both are working in tandem to plant seeds for an upcoming, epic crossover storyline. In some cases, that might be annoying, but with guys like Lemire and Snyder at the helm, you know you're in for an amazing story.
7.) Batgirl - by Bryan Q. Miller
- There's a certain kind of comic that tends to get underrated, and Batgirl was of that type. It was a comic where, sure, some big storylines would happen once in a while, and we'd get some big action and epic heroics. But month to month, the thing that made the book so endearing was simply that Bryan Q. Miller made Stephanie Brown feel like a friend that we'd check in with and just hang out with for a bit. The fact that I felt sort of buddy-buddy with (okay, and maybe had a slight crush on) a costumed adventurer sounds weird, maybe, but that's a testament to the writing of Miller. When his run on Batgirl ended, it felt like an old friend had gone away. But this was a book that was just really enjoyable - cool, clean art, fun adventures, fleshed-out characters, and a spunky, likable protagonist who was the rare (relatively) well-adjusted person in the always-dysfunctional Bat-family. It's only the end if you want it to be, Miller wrote, and this was an end that I definitely did not want. Let's hope that Ms. Brown resurfaces sooner rather than later in the new DCU.
8.) Secret Six
- Secret Six was one of the great comics of the last several years - a twisted take on supervillains where, somehow, writer Gail Simone made us root for a group of some of comicdom's darkest souls. Simone combined fan-favorites like Deadshot and Bane with also-rans like Catman and new characters like Scandal Savage. Somehow, she made those also-rans into awesome characters, those new characters into great ones, and made us remember why we loved those fan-favorites in the first place. This book was the place where Simone's writing was at its best - darkly funny, delightfully twisted, and action-packed. The two-part finale that I talked about above was a mini-epic for the ages. And, in the New 52, this book's absence left a huge void - a testament to its status as one of the best books on the stands from start to finish.
9.) Batman, Inc.
- Part of me cringes when I read Grant Morrison's psychedelic acid-trip take on Batman. My preferred Batman is a dark, grim character who lives in a neo-noir world. But Morrison's take on Batman-as-James Bond-on-crack was so entertainingly weird that I couldn't help but enjoy it, and his unique style and dense, cryptic narratives made Batman, Inc. a must-read for me each month. Yes, I sometimes read this stuff and wonder if you have to be on mind-altering drugs to fully comprehend what Morrison's going for. But that's also what makes these stories so mind-bendingly cool. Morrison just seemed to be in his own little corner of the universe - with near-indifference towards what was going on elsewhere in the DC Universe, Morrison was just doing his thing, telling his own sprawling, acid-washed epic in which Batman forms Batman, Inc. - franchising the war on crime so as to fight a global war against a terrorist organization known as Leviathan. Somehow, Leviathan is linked to the last several years' worth of Morrison-penned Bat-stories, and the various web of plot threads and crazy characters practically requires an encyclopedia to decipher (and in the recent Batman: Leviathan special, there actually is a giant appendix that tries to make sense of the story so far!). But that's the fun of it. Who else is doing comics like this these days. Morrison is basically saying screw accessibility, and screw mainstream interpretations of Batman - here's a Batman story that's insane, near-incomprehensible, and completely off-the-wall. In other words, god bless Grant Morrison for daring to be different.
- First thing's first - there's no better artist working in comics today than J.H. Williams III. Each month, he makes new issues of Batgirl into works of modern art, crafting gorgeous pages full of beautifully-painted panels. His work is, quite simply, mind-blowing. What other artist changes style completely depending on whether the title's crimson-haired hero is in costume or in civilian garb? Williams is operating on a higher plane these days - it's crazy. But, we knew that Williams was a phenomenal artist. What we didn't know was that he could write - continuing the adventures of Kate Kane - the new Batwoman - that were so elegantly penned by Greg Rucka previously, and doing so without missing a beat. Williams' stories have a more surreal, dreamlike quality than Rucka's more hard-boiled crime stories, but Batwoman is still a great read. And it's one of the must-read books of DC's New 52 - buy it for the art, stay for the cool characters and intriguing plotlines.
Runners Up: Fables, Jack of Fables, Red Robin, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Jonah Hex, Green Lantern, All-Star Western
THE BEST MINISERIES AND SPECIALS:
1.) Flashpoint: Batman - Knight of Vengeance
- This summer's Flashpoint event was billed as a huge, universe-altering storyline designed to bridge the gap between the old DCU and the new. As it turns out, the series itself was only okay, but some of the surrounding, spin-off series were, in fact, excellent. The best of the bunch, by far, was Batman: Knight of Vengeance. In this twisted series from noir writer Brian Azzarello and his frequent collaborator Eduardo Risso, we enter a world where Bruce Wayne is dead. Instead of Bruce's parents being shot on that fateful night, a young Bruce was tragically killed, and in response, a traumatized Thomas Wayne becomes the Batman. The story is a fascinating what-if scenario, and the reveal regarding who, exactly, is the Joker of this world is one of this year's great shockers.
- Every so often, you'll see these giant short-story compilations come out, and you're never quite sure what you're going to get in these comic book equivalents of a box of chocolates. But this one-shot special from Vertigo was an awesome surprise, packed to the brim with cool sci-fi and horror stories that were the kind of wonderfully weird tales that made me love Vertigo in the first place. A strange story of zombie love and a cautionary tale of climate-change-gone-apocalyptic are just two of the highlights of this unexpectedly awesome special.
3.) Tie: Superior / Kick-Ass 2
- Give Mark Millar credit, the bombastic writer of Kick-Ass knows how to write comics that get people talking. Unfortunately, some of that talk inevitably revolves around the delays that his books tend to suffer, with several months sometimes passing between issues. But, towards the end of the year, Millar seemed to get his books back on track, scheduling-wise, and they also picked up some narrative momentum as well. Kick-Ass 2, for me, sometimes walked a fine line between entertainingly over-the-top and just plain offensive. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I've been thoroughly enjoying the sequel to Kick-Ass for its sheer, brazen audacity and ridiculousness. Meanwhile, Superior has been an interesting read - a story about a disabled kid who is suddenly granted the powers of his favorite fictional superhero, but only gets to keep them by paying a steep price. Both books have their flaws, but Millar nonetheless makes them feel like must-read events.
4.) Batman: Gates of Gotham
- Here was a cool, clockwork mystery from Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins - a story that delved into the history of Gotham City, and how it reflects back on the modern day. The story flashes between the past and present, with a villain terrorizing Gotham whose roots go back to the city's founding. And so we learn about how the city was built, with its five most prominent families (including the Waynes, of course), making decisions that would forever alter the foundations of Gotham - literally and figuratively. Great writing by Snyder and Higgins, this was the rare must-read Batman miniseries, and it helped set the stage for Snyder's later run on Batman proper.
- Spaceman is still in the middle of its 9-part story, but I feel confident that, by the time it wraps up, it will end up as one of the more intriguing and memorable series to come out of Vertigo in a long while. This dystopian sci-fi story from Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (of 100 Bullets fame) is an atmospheric story of a future in which an environmentally-ruined earth is now breeding genetically-engineered, neanderthal-like grunts to do all of the dirty work that regular people don't want to have to deal with. Spaceman is the story of one such grunt who somehow gets caught up in a web of lies, crime, and scandal - far more than he usually deals with in his simple, blue-collar existence. Azzarello infuses the book with rhythmic future-slang that makes this dstopian world feel alien-yet-familiar, and Risso delivers his usual simple-yet-suggestive art. A highlight of late 2011, and certainly a book to keep an eye on in 2012.
Runners Up: Jimmy Olsen One-Shot, Flashpoint: Grodd of War
THE BEST SUPERHERO MOVIES OF 2011:
1.) Captain America
2.) X-Men: First Class
BOOKS ON MY READING LIST FOR 2012:
- There's more good comics than one person can possibly read in one year, so there are a lot of books on my radar that I hope to get around to soon. One such book is LOCKE & KEY, which I've heard great things about. All I can say is, the first trade paperback has been purchased, and it's ready to be read. I've also heard amazing things about Ed Brubaker's crime book CRIMINAL. Since I'm a huge Brubaker fan, that is another one on my short-list.
- One other shout-out, in terms of great books I caught up on this year. If you have any interest in World War II, I can't recommend Garth Ennis' WAR STORIES highly enough. Collected in two volumes, these are short stories that cover all aspects of the war, with a mix of humor, horror, and extensively-researched historical detail. Check 'em out.
THE BEST WRITERS OF 2011:
1.) Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.)
2.) Scott Snyder (Detective Comics, Batman, Swamp Thing)
3.) Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible)
4.) Geoff Johns (Green Lantern, The Flash, Flashpoint, Justice League, Aquaman)
5.) Brian Azzarello (Batman: Knight of Vengeance, Spaceman)
6.) Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (Jonah Hex, All-Star Western)
7.) Grant Morrison (Batman, Inc.)
8.) Bryan Q. Miller (Batgirl)
9.) Gail Simone (Secret Six, Birds of Prey)
10.) Kyle Higgins (Batman: Gates of Gotham, Nightwing, Deathstroke)
THE BEST ARTISTS OF 2011:
1.) J.H. Williams III (Batwoman)
2.) Jim Lee (Justice League)
3.) Ryan Ottley (Invincible)
4.) Andy Kubert (Flashpoint)
5.) Yanick Paquette (Batman Inc., Swamp Thing)
6.) Marcus To (Red Robin, Huntress)
7.) Eduardo Risso (Batman: Knight of Vengeance, Spaceman)
8.) Travel Foreman (Animal Man)
9.) Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead)
10.) David Finch (Batman: Dark Knight)
And that's it for the Best Comics of 2011. Excelsior and happy reading!
THE YEAR IN ROCK, 2011:
- The state of rock n' roll in 2011 can, sadly, be summed up by what's been happening to the legendary KROQ here in Los Angeles. When I first moved to LA, one of the things that I immediately loved about the city was that I had a great rock radio station to listen to, something I'd been lacking since my days in Boston. I discovered a lot of great music and a lot of great bands by listening to KROQ. And sure, the station tended to become overly trendy - overplaying whatever rock fad was hot in a given year. But hey, at least hey played new music. In 2011, tune into KROQ at any given moment and you're much more likely to hear a 90's-era song from Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or the Chili Peppers than anything new. It's 2011 - I love 90's rock, but it's now, officially, classic rock, and there are other stations for that. Now, it's a rarity to find new music on the station. Sadly, LA is probably lucky at this point to have a couple of stations that play any sort of new rock music (and in LA's defense, a couple of scrappier stations have risen up to try to fill the void now left by KROQ). In many places in the country, however, new rock is totally absent from the airwaves. And man, that sucks.
This means that in order to find the good stuff, you have to seek it out. And when you seek it out, you run into platforms like iTunes that filter content and only promote a limited number of bands. Take a look at the iTunes rock charts - bands like Journey and Bon Jovi top the Top 100, and nary a new rock song ranks highly. Things get even more bleak when you look at the general music Top 100, where rock is a minimal presence these days.
So why do we no longer seem to want to rock? I don't know, it sort of baffles me. I see my peers into the likes of Adele and Coldplay and I wonder ... what happened? Did Gen Y just mellow out to the point of being lamer than our Baby Boomer parents? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with, say, Adele - she seems uber-talented and I give her credit, she's an original. But I also see her popularity as a sign of the times ... a time where, sadly, we're a country of Adele-loving, American Idol-watching, Dancing With the Stars-obsessed wimps. Has America forgotten how to rock and/or roll?
Maybe it's the lack of new music on KROQ, or maybe it's the fact that Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to have faded out of the mainstream, replaced by the likes of Dance Central and Just Dance in the world of party games. Maybe it's the fact that Steven Tyler is hosting Idol even as it's been almost a decade since Aerosmith put out a new album, or that Nickelback is somehow a top rock act. Maybe it's that The White Stripes broke up way too soon or that R.E.M. called it quits and didn't get the mainstream accolades they deserved. But something is in the air. "The End of the World as We Know It" ...? Still, despite the doom and gloom, there were, of course, plenty of reasons to feel fine.
For one thing, the void in rock discoverability was partly filled by shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon - where not only are The Roots the house band, but all manner of new and legendary rock acts found a place to play. Other late night shows - from Letterman to Conan to SNL, seemingly sensed the void as well, and jumped to fill in the gap. Some of the best moments I saw in rock this year were on late night TV - from Foster the People tearing the house down on SNL, to the Foo Fighters and Joan Jett tag-teaming on "Bad Reputation" on Letterman. For another, new music services like Spotify have risen up to help the music fans find the good stuff. While the initial wave of uber-annoying Facebook updates about what people were listening to helped to turn me off from the service for a bit, Spotify is definitely on my list of things to explore in 2012.
As for me, 2011 was a year where I was lucky to attend a couple of awesome live shows. In February, I saw Ozzy Osbourne live in concert for the first time ever. Lucky for us, the gods of rock smiled down on the Prince of Darkness that night, and infused Ozzy with moments where he seemed to be channeling his younger self. Seeing the Ozzman, backed by an awesome band, play his legendary tunes was a night I'll always remember. Not to mention, the opener was the legendary Slash, with singer Myles Kennedy. The two rocked the house, playing a mix of excellent new songs and classic GnR rockers. In March, I saw the 80's-rock-themed musical Rock of Ages live at the Pantages theater in Hollywood - my first visit there. It was a great time, and I couldn't help but get caught up in the nonstop barrage of 80's mash-ups and classic power ballads. In April, I visited Seattle for the first time ever, on a work trip. But while there, I got to visit the Museum of Pop Culture, where an awesome exhibit on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana was on display. Even though I was in the city for work, in a way, my trip to the birthplace of Grunge felt like a pilgrimage years in the making. Then, in the Summer, my friends and I once again visited the OC Fair-grounds, where for the second time, we saw the man, the myth, the legend - "Weird" Al Yankovic, in concert. Al once again put on an amazing show that had fans young and old singing along to Al's hilarious parodies and original jams. I've had "CNR" (Charles Nelson Reilly) in my head ever since. Then, in September, my brother and I saw two legendary bands in a double-bill at Universal's Gibson amphitheater - Def Leppard and Heart. I had seen Def Leppard before, and once again, they were a ton of fun. But man, Heart was the real surprise - the first ladies of rock n' roll were in top form - blowing the audience away with soul-rattling renditions of their top songs. Finally, I was fortunate enough to snag a pair of free, VIP tickets to see none other than Cheap Trick at the famous Greek Theater. I got myself to the Greek and enjoyed up-close seats to see the classic rockers rip through one song after another as part of their Dream Police tour - backed, no less, by a full orchestra. Epic barely describes it. So yeah, all that stuff I said before about rock n' roll fading away? After thinking back to all of the great music I saw in 2011, I'm tempted to take that back, and declare that rock is very much alive and kicking.
As for new music released this past year, well, the album of the year for me was - similar to last year - a return-to-form tour de force from a legendary classic rocker. This year, that rocker was ALICE COOPER, and the album was WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, a sequel of sorts to the 70's album that first declared Cooper as the fearsome king of shock-rock. Last year, I saw Cooper live for the first time, and after that I really began studying up on his history and back catalogue of lesser-known records. It was fascinating to see how the band had evolved over the years - at various periods, they dabbled in Frank Zappa-esque weirdness, New Wave, and hair-metal. But to me, it was fitting that in 2011, the same year that the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, Cooper released probably his best album in years - appropriately enough, a wildly eclectic mix of styles. Welcome 2 My Nightmare has classic rockers, dark symphonic ballads, Vaudevillian-novelty songs, and even a pop-rock mash-up with Ke$ha. And yet somehow, it works, and plays as an awesome medley of ghoulish music to get down to.
Otherwise, there were definitely a number of tracks from more modern rockers that grabbed me. I thought the Foo Fighters put out one of their best-ever albums this year. Rise Against had a pretty strong album with a couple of great songs on it. The Black Keys had another excellent showing as well. A couple of new groups like Grouplove and Foster the People struck it big out of the gate, and had some of the year's most instantly-catchy rock songs ... we'll see if these guys stick around. I'll also give a shout-out to some of the great music that came from the movies this year. From Karen O's searing cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to the pulsating, 80's-style soundtrack of Drive, a lot of my favorite movies this year were made all the more awesome by being not just great films, but rock n' roll films.
Sadly, as mentioned, 2011 also marked the end (or so it seems) of one of my favorite bands of the last decade, The White Stripes. This to me was sort of a tragedy, because all indications were that the band was still at the top of their game, and had years if not decades of great music still to come. Jack White is clearly not going to just retire or go away or anything, but to me, none of his side projects have ever enjoyed quite the same alchemy as he and bandmate Meg had. Maybe the Stripes will reunite someday, but man, their absence leaves a huge, potentially irreplaceable void in the modern rock scene.
Speaking of which, 2011 also marked the breakup of one of the great modern rock bands, R.E.M. Like just about anyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's and was plugged in to MTV at that time, R.E.M. was a huge, huge influence on me. I still remember buying the single to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" and just playing it over and over on my tape-deck back in the day. R.E.M. was, for me, the soundtrack of the transition from kid to teen, from innocence to angst (not to sound melodramatic or anything, but let's face it - is there any more defining moment of 90's pre-teen/teen angst than Angela from "My So-Called Life" walking through the street as "Everybody Hurts" plays?"). Sure, the band seemed to fade from relevance a bit as the years went on, but for me, albums like "Green," "Out of Time," "Automatic For the People," "Monster," and "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" are all undisputed classics that stand the test of time. I'm glad that the band was able to put out a very solid final album in 2011. While I didn't love the album as a whole, there were one or two songs that felt like classic R.E.M. - my favorite of which, "Discoverer," was a rockin' rallying cry that was vintage R.E.M.
So yes, despite some of the grim overtones in my intro, I do think that there are signs of life yet in the world of rock, and I have a lot of hope for what's to come in 2012. Already, I'm psyched that one of my favorite bands of the last several years - The Darkness - has reunited, is touring, and has a new album in the works. I've got my tickets to see them in LA in February. And who knows what else is to come in the new year. All I know is, may 2012 be a year of rock n' roll rebirth!
DANNY'S TOP ROCK SONGS OF 2011:
1.) "Walk" - Foo Fighters
- I think I first heard this song over the closing credits of the movie Thor. I remember thinking, "okay, this is an instant-classic." To me, this is one of the Foo's best songs in years - a catchy yet emotionally-charged ballad that might just be their best since the days of Everlong.
2. ) "I'll Bite Your Face Off" - Alice Cooper
- I love this song - it's twisted, funny, and yet has the sound of a classic rock relic in the style of The Rolling Stones. The song lulls you into thinking it's a typical love-story, with the twist being that the object of Cooper's affection is actually one of the living dead - a ravenous woman who wants nothing more than to, well, bite his face off!
3.) "Discoverer" - R.E.M.
- I've always liked R.E.M.'s more upbeat rock tracks, and this one spoke to me with its rallying-cry call and piercing vocals by the great Michael Stipe. This was one final great rock song from one of the all-time great bands.
4.) "A Real Hero" - Drive soundtrack - College feat. Electric Youth
- As soon as I heard this song in Drive, I knew I had to buy the soundtrack. Ultra-moody, the song's pulsating 80's beat perfectly captures the feeling of driving at night in a neon-lit cityscape, and also evokes the movie's themes of a lone-wolf hero struggling with his own humanity. Music to drive to, to be sure.
5.) "Help Is On the Way" - Rise Against
- I said this a while back, but I'll say it again - this song would be perfect to accompany the new Superman movie trailer. It's a rousing rocker from Rise Against, who can't help but make each of their songs a tale of epic proportions.
6.) "Lonely Boy" - The Black Keys
- The Black Keys are the current standard-bearers for stripped-down funk-rock, and this is another great jam from them, perfect to boogie down to. Great guitars and a cool vibe make this another great one from the Keys.
7.) "What Baby Wants" - Alice Cooper feat. Ke$ha
- It shouldn't work, but it does - the original Shock Rocker teamed with the current queen of ironically-detached pop-princess sleaze. But the interplay between old and new makes for a funny and super-catchy collaboration, with Ke$ha becoming the object of Cooper's been-there, done-her disdain.
8.) "Make It Stop (September's Children)" - Rise Against
- Another epic from Rise Against, this melodramatic fist-pumper is just a soaring, sweeping power ballad that gets your heart pumping. In an age where so much rock is stripped-down, I love that Rise Against always goes big and bombastic.
9.) "Colours" - Grouplove
- Here's a catchy, fun tune that took a little of the pain away from the White Stripes break-up, as it's a Stripes-esque garage rocker that gets in your head and doesn't go away, with clever wordplay to boot. Very curious to see where the group goes from here.
10.) "Pumped-Up Kicks" - Foster The People
- The surprise pop-rock anthem of the year, this song seems upbeat at first, but it's actually a pretty dark song about schoolyard violence. In any case, what sold me on it was the band's rockin' performance earlier this year on SNL, where I saw that, perhaps, Foster the People might be the real deal.
And that's it for 2011. What were your favorite songs of the year? Let me know, and as always: for those about to rock, I salute you!
It was a year of highs and lows to be sure, but now it's time to honor the year's best. I didn't see everything of course (I hear great things about Homeland, and I'm behind on True Blood!), but I did see a lot, and I think that's reflected here. So here they are ...
DANNY'S TOP SCRIPTED TV SHOWS OF 2011:
1.) Breaking Bad- Season 3 of Breaking Bad ended on one of the most intense, nail-biting cliffhangers I've ever seen, and Season 4 picked right back up and never lost an ounce of narrative momentum. Season 4 was a giant chess game, between Walter White and Gus Fring, between Fring and Walter's brother-in-law Hank, between Skyler and her scheming boss Ted, between on-edge Jesse and the hard-to-read Mike The Cleaner. Everything eventually came to a head in one of the most amazing season finales I've ever seen, with Walter finally getting the best of Gus. In this season, Walter in fact became "the man who knocks," and in witnessing his transformation, we're witnessing one of the great American stories of a good man gone bad. Funny, action-packed, completely unpredictable, and intense-as-hell, Breaking Bad this year was the best thing on TV, bar none. We already knew it was great - in 2011, it became legendary.
- Explosively funny, mind-bendingly clever, and unfailingly ambitious, Community will do anything and everything in the name of comedy. This year, the show parodied everything from Apocalypse Now to Glee, and in between it packed in more gags, references, and witty asides than I could count. This was also the year where each and every member of the Community cast finally felt fully formed. Jeff, Britta, Annie, Piere, Troy, Abed, Chang, and The Dean - joined by a calvacade of great side characters and bit players. There hasn't been a world this full of awesome concepts and characters - or a show this sharply and smartly funny - since the heyday of The Simpsons. If you're not watching Community, then you're not watching the best comedy currently on TV.
- As good as Community is, Louie is so fresh and unique that it was close to coming in at #2. Louie isn't always laugh-out-loud funny, but when it is, it's gut-bustingly hilarious. Louie isn't always poignant and dramatic, but when it is, it's as powerful as any drama on the air. What Louie is, always, is a gloriously unfiltered look into the mind of comedian Louis CK, and it just keeps getting better and more must-see as it goes on. In a world where so many TV shows feel processed and created-by-committe, it's amazing to see a show that is this raw and the product of so singular a voice. And what a voice it is.
- Justified was great in Season 1, but man, did business pick up in Season 2. The show's sophomore season upped the ante by pitting hero Raylan Givens against the veangeful Bennett clan, led by the formidable villainy of Mags Bennett (brought to life by a phenomenal performance from Margo Martindale). Jeremy Davies was a standout as Mags' loose-cannon son Dickie, and Walton Goggins continued to be a scene-stealer as the unpredictable Boyd Crowder. This was an awesome season of TV - 100% certified badass.
- Boardwalk Empire has a deep, deep bench of talented actors that comprise its sprawling cast, but it wisely ended its second season by refocusing on the central conflict between its two leads - Steve Buscemi's bootlegging kingpin Nucky Thompson, and Michael Pitt's emotionally-scarred prodigal son Jimmy Darmody. To that end, the final few episodes of Season 2 were so good that I had to reevaluate my thoughts on the show. To me, the exploration of Jimmy's tortured past in S2's penultimate episode, followed by his shocking confrontation with Nucky in the finale, put this show over the edge for me. Boardwalk Empire is now, officially, one hell of a show. The standout performances on the series are simply too numerous to mention, the characters too uniformly great to single out just one or two favorites (though I'll echo others and say that Richard Harrow is the man). I can't wait to see where the show goes from here.
- Parks is another show that, to me ... well, it's crazy that more people aren't watching. What they're missing is a show that's clever, hilarious, filled with great characters, and that even has plenty of heart mixed in with the irreverant humor. The cast of Parks & Rec continues to amaze me, and it feels like each week I have a new favorite character. The show smartly has evolved to take full advantage of its ensemble. Sure, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope is still front and center, but she's surrounded with the best group of funny people on TV - Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones ... the talent here is insane, and the writing is up to the level of the talent. A modern-day comedy classic.
- It took me a little while to learn to love Game of Thrones. After watching the pilot, I was literally on Wikipedia trying to figure out who all the characters were. But the show's creators had faith that, in time, the show's sprawling storylines would start to gel into a cohesive whole ... and gel they did. By the second half of the season, GoT became must-watch TV, a fantasy epic marked by several fantastic performances. By the time we got to the amazing finale, I was 100% hooked and dying for Season 2. This show simply felt epic. From the amazing production value to the huge scope of the storylines, this show was not only awesome, but redefined kinds of stories are possible on TV.
- I've always hated the notion that comedy can only be great if it incorporates the elements of conventional drama. I don't buy the idea that comedy has to adhere to traditional notions of plot or character to be great. I love absurdist humor - to me, when done right, it's as praiseworthy as any other type of comedy - and no one is doing it better than the mad geniuses behind Children's Hospital. In short, fifteen minute episodes, Rob Cordry and co. pack in more crazy gags and jokes than most shows do in twice the time. Anything can happen, and usually does. And the comic timing of the cast is the best in the biz. Rob Cordry, Megan Mullally, Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Erinn Hayes, Lake Bell, Malin Ackermann, Henry Winkler, and a parade of guest stars make for a veritable comedy dream team.
THE NEXT BEST:
11.) Lights Out
- Here's one that I'm sure is going to fly under-the-radar of a lot of Best-Of-2011 lists, as it premiered way back in January and ran through the Spring. But man, Lights Out evolved over the course of its single season into one heck of a show - the first time I've ever seen a TV show that encapsulated the big-fight feel of the Rocky movies, but with the story expanded to a season's worth of drama and build-up. For whatever reason, this FX show failed to pick up a big audience, and it was a little slow coming out of the gate. But man, once Eamonn Walker joined the cast as an ultra-intense trainer, the show began firing on all cylinders, and it rode that wave of momentum all the way up to its awesome series finale. Holt McCallany was fantastic as our hero, "Lights" Leary as well. This was a show that deserved a bigger audience.
12.) Curb Your Enthusiasm
- I love Curb - it's one of the best comedies of all time, but I have to admit it had something of an inconsistent season. When it was up, it was really up - witness the instant classic "Palestinian Chicken" episode. But even when it was only okay, there are always little gems - conversations, one-off jokes, musings, and Larry David-isms - that make Curb one-of-a-kind. More, please.
- As I said earlier, it's a complete trip to have this show back on TV and on an MTV that is a universe away from what it was during the duo's 90's heyday. But while MTV has changed, B&B haven't, and thankfully so. Mike Judge's playground to mock culture and society remains as sharp and hilarious as ever.
- Season 2 of The Walking Dead struggled at times, and though there were moments of awesomeness, certain plotlines dragged, and the show had a hard time making its characters truly pop. The same characters that I loved from the comics too often felt boring or annoying on the show. But there were signs ... as the season went on, the show picked up some serious steam, all culminating in a legit-awesome mid-season finale that gave me hope for what's to come. Can't wait to see where things go from here.
- Chuck is almost at its end, so as a longtime fan of the show and its endearingly geeky world, it pleases me greatly to say that Season 5, so far, has been pretty great. Season 4 was often a struggle to get through, no question. But Season 5 has been getting better with each episode, and the recent Christmas episode, which saw the return of Brandon Rough as arch-villain Shaw, was absolutely awesome - a reminder of just how great Chuck can be. It also reminded me that, man, I am going to be sad when this show is done. Even through the rough patches, Chuck's got some of the best characters on TV, and I've always been happy to spend time with them through thick and thin.
OTHER TOP TV:
- A lot of what I make a point to watch on television is scripted, but every so often, something off the beaten path catches my eye. One show that was a total must-watch for me in early 2011 was AN IDIOT ABROAD. The brainchild of Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, An Idiot Abroad sees the pair send their beleaguered buddy Karl Pilkington off on one globetrotting adventure after another. Karl, a man who barely likes to leave his house, is totally out of his element, and his reactions as he visits each of the fables Seven Wonders of the World are always hilarious. Karl's everyman insights are often boneheaded, yet at times oddly brilliant in some strange, simplistic way. The great thing about Karl is that he has no pretentions of culture whatsoever. He'll never be in awe of something just because - and sometimes, that makes him a moron, yet sometimes, you can't help but admire his simplistic worldview. The cool thing about An Idiot Abroad is that, even though it's hilarious, it also functions as a fantastic travelogue, with great scenes of world culture and historic sites. Mostly though, there are few things that crack me up more than the idiot-savant mad genius of Karl Pilkington. A second season of An Idiot Abroad premieres on the Science Channel in early '12, and personally, I can't wait.
- I thought that CONAN had a pretty darn good year, particulary this past winter when he really brought his A-game. His series of shows in New York were consistently hilarious, and he finished out the year with some strong new comedy bits (the Human Centipede Menorah, anyone?) and the return of some old favorites (Clutch Cargo!). Conan is still my go-to choice for late-night hilarity.
- That said, I've also got to hand it to LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON. Jimmy's show has been getting better and better. He's got the best band on TV in The Roots, and his comedy sketches, musical parodies, and guest bands are increasingly becoming the best in late night. The writing on the show is very, very strong, and Jimmy keeps getting better as a host. Mostly though, Late Night has, in the last year, become the source of more buzzworthy comedy clips than any of its competitors.
- Of course, even if I don't watch them as much as I'd like, I once again have to hand it to John Stewart and THE DAILY SHOW, as well as Stephen Colbert and THE COLBERT REPORT. In these tumultuous political times, Stewart and Colbert are the one-two-punch that helps to bring some sanity back into the national political discussion. There is so much absurdity in national politics at the moment, it's nice to know that Stewart and Colbert are there to make sure it doesn't go unnoticed.
- I still feel like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE can be wildly inconsistent, but I will say that I've enjoyed seeing a new wave of talent slowly but surely take over the show, even as old hands like Bill Hader continue to impress. Hader's Stephon is probably the best and most consistently hilarious recurring SNL character in years, and few other things on TV in 2011 made me laugh harder than the always-awesome club recommendations of Stephon.
- Finally, here's the Best Show I Watched on DVD/Blu-Ray This Year: DEADWOOD. In 2011, an episode or two of Deadwood became a weekly tradition, and I came to admire the show's Shakespearean drama and Old West grit. The cast of the show - maybe even more so in retrospect - was absolutely stellar. And Ian McShane's Al Swearengen has quickly shot to the top of my list of all-time great TV characters. Okay, I'll admit - sometimes a few minutes of Deadwood go by and I'll realize I have no idea what the characters just said (even if I can tell their mood from some strategically-placed expletives). But in general, it's been a pleasure to immerse myself in David Milch's Old West epic.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:
1.) Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
Best Actor in a Comedy:
Runners Up: Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock, Louie CK - Louie
1.) Donald Glover - Community
Runners Up: Danny Pudi - Community, Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation, Adam Baldwin - Chuck
1.) Kelly MacDonald - Boardwalk Empire
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:
1.) Margo Martindale - Justified
Runners Up: Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad, Gretchen Mol - Boardwalk Empire
Best Actor in a Drama:
1.) Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Runners Up: Sean Bean - Game of Thrones, Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire, Holt McCallany - Lights Out
1.) John Noble - Fringe
Runners Up: Dean Norris - Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito - Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad, Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones, Mark Addy - Game of Thrones, Michael Shannon - Boardwalk Empire, Michael Pitt - Boardwalk Empire, Jack Huston - Boardwalk Empire, Eamonn Walker - Lights Out