Watch enough television and your mind can feel as if it's dissolving into liquid cheese. Thank goodness for those magic moments, the ones that make you proud to own a TV rather than being deeply ashamed.
Even though the 2011-12 season was less than inspiring, I found 10 reasons this winter and spring to celebrate.
Neeson's a comedian. One secret to the success of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant is they're generous in giving their funniest bits to guests. Recipients during this season of HBO's Life's Too Short included Sting, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, but no one seized the chance better than Liam Neeson, who sent up his tough-guy image in an ad-lib exercise with Gervais where he kept insisting that the starving children of Africa and bowel cancer were fodder for humor. Neeson's agent needs to get him a wacky comedy at once.
John Bates goes on trial. Downton Abbey, the soap opera for people who think they're too smart for soap operas, became a national addiction, in large part because Julian Fellowes' razor-sharp scripts kept us invested in the characters. No one won our hearts more than valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a wounded veteran who is so madly in love with the head housemaid that he might have killed his wife. The emotional trial packed a punch — and set up a doozy of a cliffhanger.
Smash goes to the top. I've spent plenty of time skewering NBC's ambitious drama, but give the writing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman credit for some Broadway-worthy original numbers, most notably I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl, a toe-tapping rouser performed during a penthouse party. If only the dialogue were as clever as the lyrics.
Bent gets the shaft. Most sitcoms that come and go in a matter of weeks deserve their quick death, but sometimes one is treated so unfairly that you wonder which network programmer the producers ticked off. NBC, the network that brought you the insipid Best Friends Forever and equally awful Free Agents, burned off this charming romantic comedy in which Amanda Peet and David Walton generated the kind of chemistry we remember between Sam and Diane. Of course, back then, the network allowed Cheers, a ratings-challenged sitcom during its early years, time to build an audience. Different era, different attitude.
Leon Russell does a song for you. HBO's The Union, which documents the making of an Elton John-Leon Russell CD, could have just been an hourlong infomercial. Instead, it served as a moving tribute to a renewed friendship built on the love of music and each other. The climactic scene in which Russell debuts In the Hands of Angels to his colleague had John in tears. He wasn't the only one.
Elmo needs a hug. My heart will always belong to Grover, which means I've never been a fan of his pseudo-replacement, Elmo. So imagine my surprise in being so moved by PBS's Being Elmo, a remarkable documentary about how puppeteer Kevin Clash emerged from a life of poverty to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Jim Henson. I might not want a play date with Elmo, but I'd hang with Clash any time.
Girls go wild. Lena Dunham's discomforting series has its detractors, most of whom can't sympathize with the characters' lazy, self-entitled approach to life. Fair enough, but how could you not feel for Dunham's Hannah during a wildly inappropriate sexual encounter with her heartless boyfriend? Kudos to Dunham and her producing partner, Judd Apatow, for showing that not everyone's sex life looks like a scene out of Californication.
Don Draper loosens up. It's not fair. Not only is Jon Hamm one of the sexiest men alive, but he's also hilarious. When freed from the confines of the buttoned-up Mad Men, he's capable of playing the fool. In a surprise appearance on the live episode of NBC's 30 Rock, Hamm stole the show from fellow guest stars Jimmy Fallon and Paul McCartney in an Amos 'n Andy spoof that was so fantastic even Draper would have to roar.
Sherlock meets his match. The BBC's updated Sherlock Holmes has always been smart television, but this season it was also downright sultry. In "A Scandal in Belgravia," the best episode to date, our dour detective discovers it's not so elementary to outfox a sexy dominatrix, played with such zest by Lara Pulver that you'd think she was on Cinemax, not PBS.
There goes the neighborhood. Desperate Housewives stopped being groundbreaking television six seasons ago, but creator Marc Cherry had enough of the old magic left to make the series finale touching, funny and nostalgic. There have been better exits, but give Cherry and the actresses one last round of applause for going out in style.