In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Every year the stuffy old men and women that nominate movies and TV shows for awards nominate the same three shows and four actors for everything. Thankfully, I’m not that old – nor that stuffy – and I present to you my picks for the best of the best. Some of the very reasons we all love being Couch Potatoes are listed below.
Please be aware this article contains spoilers for How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, Southland, Breakout Kings, Homeland, Falling Skies, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story.
The old fuddy-duddies nominating shows and I do agree on one thing: Modern Family is still the best 22 minutes of laughter on television. Sure there’s the feel good rom-com musings of How I Met Your Mother, the madcap geekiness of The Big Bang Theory, Suburgatory and New Girl are both much funnier than anyone had hoped for, and even Fox’s Animation is always good for a bunch of laughs (despite the combined 43 years between its four main shows), but pound for pound nothing can beat the endearing and hysterical histrionics of the Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado clan. With a cast this sizable and talented, how can any other show claim the top spot of Best Comedy?
The best drama category usually goes to a critical darling, which is quite possible here at the first ever Couchies, but no matter how many ratings and critical acclaim a series can get, I will not let that sway my decision. The Walking Dead is a triumph, especially for this comic book geek and American Horror Story is definitely not as awesome as people think it is. Game of Thrones’ parting shot of Daenerys Targaryen surrounded by her new baby dragons almost ensures that the series will win the Couchy for next year for Season Two when those dragons invade Westeros. And sadly the quality of Dexter has dropped so much in recent seasons that it slashes itself out of the running. Homeland is compelling in its tale of terror and Sons of Anarchy had its best season yet, but then there’s the little show that could: Southland. When NBC put Jay Leno on at 10 a few years back, cancelling Southland was their first stupid move. Luckily TNT isn’t that dumb and picked this gritty as hell, no-one-comes-out-unscathed cop drama. This season saw Detective Nate Moretta gunned down; his partner, Sammy going haywire over the shooting; Lydia trying to deal with new partners in the wake of her own partner’s shooting; and hardass officer John Cooper’s painkiller issues, as well as his issues with his trainee Ben Sherman. These events helped turn a good drama into a great one and TNT continues to be smart in keeping this series going – Season 4 debuts Jan. 17. Trust me, just because this show isn’t on awards ballots does not mean it isn’t every bit as great as some of the better marketed and reviewed shows. Actually, I’m wrong; Southland is far superior to the better marketed and reviewed shows.
Best Adrenaline Boost
Let’s face it, Best Drama awards are usually for character filled and character development-heavy shows. But what about when you want to let loose and watch a bunch of hellraisers raise hell? My thoughts exactly. In past years, this award would have gone to shows like 24 or Prison Break. This year, shows like Chase and Undercovers knocked themselves out of the running by getting canceled and the return of Fear Factor happened too close to this piece’s publication to truly earn the award. Peter erasing himself from the Fringe universe made for a hell of a season finale. But it’s the first season of Breakout Kings earns the Couchie. Don’t let the stupid name fool you; they even make fun of it on the show. But a pair of U.S. Marshalls teaming up a small group of convicts, who are each an expert in some nefarious field, to catch other escapees far more dangerous than our outlaw heroes is a wham-bam hour. If you need to get caught up, catch Episode 3. “The Bag Man” has the team track a convict that (once again) broke out Fox River Penitentiary – and this episode also features Prison Break’s Robert Knepper reprising his role as the sadistic T-Bag.
Shock and Awe Moment of the Year (Comedy)
Sometimes, even the sitcoms we all know and love provide use with a moment so jarring that it stays with us – and becomes a part of that show’s culture. There were plenty of big time moments in sitcomland this year: Russell married Liz on Rules of Engagement, Barney getting married on How I Met Your Mother, and Sheldon begins dating Amy Farah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory to name a few. But for me the biggest and most emotional moment of the year was Marshall’s dad dying unexpectedly on How I Met Your Mother. The January episode, titled “Bad News,” was pitch-perfect, containing a whole bunch of laughs surrounding the story of Marshall and Lily finding out if they’ll be able to have kids or not while meeting their fertility doctor – who happens to be Barney’s doppelganger, Dr. Stengel. Each scene contained a number counting down to the heartbreaking final scene, in which Marshall, who’s feeling extra jubilant and manly after Dr. Stengel tells him he has super sperm, only to have it all ripped away as Lily shows up and gives him the news that he just lost his mentor and best friend: his father. Hey, I didn’t say that the award would go to a funny scene.
Shock and Awe Moment of the Year (Drama)
Every year, a slew of dramas give us a ton of powerful scenes to chew on. This year was no different, we saw Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) begrudgingly join the aliens during the season finale of Falling Skies, Opie shooing Clay for the murder of his wife and father on Sons of Anarchy, and Ned Stark’s head rolling through the streets on Game of Thrones. For my money, the reveal (which I’m sure a lot of you saw coming) that Sophie is a zombie on The Walking Dead was harrowing to witness. After spending half of a season searching for the lost little girl, she creeps out of Hershel’s barn, which was filled with walkers. Shane screams about the world they all live in now and that the hardest choices have to be made before breaking the barn door open an annihilating every zombie member of Hershel’s family. With barely a few seconds to catch our breath (yes, the scene actually makes you care about the walkers and the people they once were), little Sophie walks out, hungry for brains and leaving Rick no other choice but the hardest one: a bullet to her head in front of everyone. Every bit of hope zapped away in one jarring sequence. Feb. 12 and the beginning of the second half of Season 2 can’t get here quickly enough.
Be Our Guest
They might not be the stars of the show, but whether they were part of the supporting cast or stopped by for a few episodes, these actors left an indelible mark on the shows they visited. Now of course there are always plenty of guest stars and supporting players, from the incomparable John Lithgow on How I Met Your Mother to Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farah Fowler coming into her own on The Big Bang Theory. The aforementioned Robert Knepper terrorized the Breakout Kings and Law and Order SVU was stuffed to the brim with memorable guest-stars as always, but it was supporting actress Jessica Lange who made American Horror Story decent enough to watch. I know a lot of people who enjoyed the show’s first season, but I just thought it was paint-by-numbers of classic horror movie tropes. I don’t think it’s a bad show at all, and I do think that the anthology aspect of the show can only make it better, but I don’t get the heaps of praise that are showered on it by mainstream Hollywood. But whenever Lange’s eerie neighbor, Constance sauntered into the scene, she not only stole it, but she made an often unbearable episode worth watching. And for that, there could be no better guest or supporting actor. Note to Ryan Murphy: make sure Ms. Lange returns in some capacity for Season Two.
What Were They Thinking?
Like any fun-filled year in our tweet-filled, mile-a-minute news cycle, we saw some interesting stories. From the Kardashian Wedding debacle to Ashton Kutcher’s divorce from Demi Moore (not to mention his lackluster turn on Two and Half Men) and the PTC crying out against NBC for choosing Howard Stern to join America’s Got Talent; there’s always something to pique our interests. In fact, there are just too many news bits to list here. But miles ahead of any story this year was the entity known as Charlie Sheen. The guy had the biggest salary on television and was the star of TV’s most watched show. But at some point, Mr. Carlos Estevez (as he was known before fame) either snapped or got tired of the sitcom grind. I doubt anyone will truly know, including Teflon Charlie. But Sheen proceeded to lambast the producers and creator of Two and a Half Men as well the network boss. He aired videos and tweets that went from the incomprehensibly hilarious to “the should we all stage an intervention?” point. One could even assume that he just got sick and tired of hiding who he really is and began the Violent Torpedo of Truth tour, which subsequently violently torpedoed his career. Since his month long tirade, Sheen has cooled off greatly. He made fun of himself at the Emmys, and sat, squirmed and laughed as comedians roasted him on Comedy Central. While many fans await his return to TV, in the form of the show Anger Management for FX, there’s also no telling what antics the Vatican Assassin Warlock from Mars will be up to next.
Best New Show
Every year, a slew of new shows debut to win us over our hearts and minds. This year we've seen new comedies like Suburgatory and New Girl, as well as fantastical dramas like Once Upon a Time. But pound for pound the single best reason to skip work and avoid phone calls this season was Homeland. Starring the incomparable Claire Danes and Mandy Patankin, Shotime's newest cloak-and-dagger drama plays like a cerebral 24. I guess that's what happens when 24's creator, Howard Gordon takes the high stakes out of the one day at a time concept and plunges deep into the meticulous planning and plotting of the good guys and the bad guys. Danes and Patankin are joined by a cast that rises far above its capabilities. There's Morena Baccarin (previously best known for playing the alien queen on V) as Jessica Brody, the wife of a recently freed POW; British actor David Harewood as the steely-eyed CIA Director, David Estes; and of course Damien Lewis (previously seen on NBC's Life and HBO's Band of Brothers) as Sgt. Nicholas Brody, an American POW who was held captive in Iraq for eight years, only to return home and become the prime suspect in Carrie Matheson's (Danes) investigation. Lewis does a marvelous job at portraying a man who is trying to put his life back together while being at the forefront of a recruitment campaign – and a man who may or may not be a traitor to America.
Well that's it, the first ever Couchies, and in well under three hours. I could bore you with best actor and best actress but it's New Year's Eve and you probably have a lot of drinking to do in between The Walking Dead and Twilight Zone marathons.