An artistic golden age isn’t possible without the garbage to weigh that gold against. And in the case of at least one of the shows on our list of the 10 worst TV series to debut in the United States in 2012, 90 more episodes remain to be compared to the best future years television has to offer. But take heart: Most of these shows were rejected by viewers almost as immediately as critics; so while television executives continue to shove Rob Schneider down the public’s collective throat, the public knows it doesn’t have to swallow.
10. House Of Lies (Showtime)
As the spin-doctor antihero of this allegedly satirical series, Don Cheadle talks right to the camera, explaining what’s going on and expressing his shallowly cynical worldview. But since the show is never funny, and the language lacks any color or verve, he just seems to be telling it like it is. Usually when a show comes across this nasty, it at least has some ugly trainwreck fascination, but the amazing thing about House Of Lies is that it’s also the single most boring show to debut in 2012, which is some feat. Even Cheadle comes across as a cardboard cutout of himself.
9. Beauty And The Beast (The CW)
The arguments against The CW’s attempt at updating Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman’s weird, wooly romance from the late ’80s begin with one obvious, superficial flaw: No matter how deep that scar on Jay Ryan’s face runs, it’s impossible to consider a creature of such cut-from-granite looks “beastly.” Of course, as the show’s premise plays out, a genetically modified monster lurks beneath Ryan’s catalogue-ready looks—an Incredible Hulk-like alter ego with a military-experiment-gone-wrong backstory standing in for the original’s fascinatingly realized “world below.” Amid it all is a lost-looking Kristin Kreuk, presumably wishing Lana Lang could’ve been written into the Arrow continuity.
8. Brickleberry (Comedy Central)
The only funny thing about this animated series is the timing: It premièred at Comic-Con not long after executive producer Daniel Tosh, who flogged the hell out of it on Tosh 2.0, got in trouble for reportedly suggesting in no uncertain terms that rape jokes are always funny. There have been a lot of different interpretations of what Tosh was going for there, but based on the evidence of this show, what Tosh meant to say was: Rape jokes are always funny. Also AIDS, Parkinson’s, racism, and misogyny, though not all of the references to and examples of these things in the show count as “jokes.” By showing how bad shock-comedy can get, Brickleberry makes everyone else working the same territory look brilliant. Opie and Anthony should send Tosh a fruit basket.
7. ¡Rob! (CBS)
CBS’ continued attempts to build new comedy hits out of its established ones led to the dark week when the pilot for this Rob Schneider vehicle scored incredible ratings due to its lead-in, a new episode of The Big Bang Theory. The premise alone—Rob Schneider marries into a giant family of Mexicans!—should have been enough to scare any viewer off, but the execution, which culminated in a supposedly hilarious joke where Schneider accidentally appeared to be raping his wife’s grandmother, was even poorer than viewers might have assumed. The following episodes weren’t worse than the pilot, but they certainly didn’t improve upon it either, and a talented ensemble cast that could have garnered laughs on just about any other program was tasked with the impossible: making Schneider seem like the funniest guy in the room. It didn’t work, the audience sagged, and CBS put the show out of its misery.
6. Take It All (NBC)
What’s a worst-of-TV list without a game show hosted by Howie Mandel, one that was plastered across the airwaves over the holidays? Take It All, the latest entrant to this list, would be here if only for the way that Mandel goes out of his way to goad the contestants into being awful to each other, or for the fact that someone apparently thought the age-old office-party tradition of Yankee Swap might make for a good TV show. And that’s to say nothing of the advertising campaign, which stuck the unfortunate double entendre of the title right next to the grinning rictus of Mandel’s face. Yet even that wasn’t the worst thing about this show. No, what made Take It All so awful was its convoluted, impossible-to-understand rules, to say nothing of the way the game seemed designed so that the producers would never have to give anyone any prizes. It was gross and uncomfortable television, not what one wants from a holiday game show.
5. Stars Earn Stripes (NBC)
Arguably the only television program of the fall season panned by critics and Desmond Tutu (though the South African activist has yet to go on record regarding Emily Owens, M.D.), Stars Earn Stripes prompted a call for cancellation signed by Tutu and eight other Nobel Peace laureates. But in a year marred by gun violence across the United States—where the most heinous and headline-grabbing incidents involved military-grade firearms—denouncement from the Nobel Committee isn’t necessary to harbor moral objections to a reality show where celebrities fired live ammunition from assault weapons brandished logo-to-camera. Intended as a tribute to the men and women of the country’s armed forces (one which, to its credit, did raise money for veterans’ charities), Stars Earn Stripes instead reduced the sacrifices of these heroes to chintzy reality-show fare.
4. Anger Management (FX)
Or, as The A.V. Club calls it, The Show That Will Hopefully Pay For Many More Seasons Of Louie. Given the overall pedigree of FX’s comedy lineup, it’s both jarring and dispiriting to see this lazy, unfunny cash grab of a show end up alongside the network’s other offerings. The fact that it already received a 90-episode back order means that this assembly-line production posing as a half-hour situation comedy will unfurl for quite some time to come. Sure, it will line the network’s coffers and potentially enable lower-rated yet critically loved shows to carry on. But anyone who’s ever stared directly at an episode of Anger Management and seen Charlie Sheen mug his way through jokes that are unfunny at best and offensive at worst will wonder if it’s ultimately worth it.
3. Oh Sit! (The CW)
The CW’s “extreme musical chairs” game show didn’t have the guts to be the best possible version of its ultra-cheesy concept. At times, it almost seemed to be an adult-aimed, high-energy re-creation of the game shows that occupied much of Nickelodeon’s schedule in the early ’90s. There were the requisite physical challenges, the up-tempo music, and the people sprawling all over the floor after some stupid piece of shit. But the show botched nearly every part of this equation. The physical challenges were difficult to understand. The rules—particularly those used to keep score—managed to overcomplicate the game of musical fucking chairs. One of the hosts was Jamie Kennedy. The band was just awful. It’s tempting to just write this off as something that never aspired to be more than “extreme musical chairs,” but TV fans should lament the fact that idea got greenlit in the first place.
2. True Justice (Reelz)
Not only did Steven Seagal star in this jaw-dropping imported-from-Europe shitstorm, but he wrote every single episode of it as well. That makes his seeming inability to actually remember his lines all the most impressive. There’s room in the television landscape for a low-budget show that wears its shortcomings on its sleeve, but the deadly serious nature of True Justice indicates that absolutely no one understands how horrific this endeavor is. Inexplicably, Reelz will be airing the already-produced second season in 2013, meaning that we might have to reserve a space on next year’s list. We’d love to say it couldn’t get any worse, but all bets are off when it comes to True Justice.
1. Work It! (ABC)
Two men struggling to find work in a faltering economy decide the only reasonable solution is to dress up as women and take jobs as sales reps for a pharmaceutical company. It’s a premise so remarkably stupid it should’ve aired during the fall of 2011, when network television briefly became obsessed with finding a way to stave off the imaginary “mancession” via a handful of hackneyed, regressive sitcoms. Instead, ABC held Work It! until early 2012, but it still served as the nadir of a horrible, horrible trend. There’s comedic and dramatic potential in showing how men deal with a world in which traditional roles are shifting more rapidly than ever (and cross-dressing has a long history of being not necessarily terrible), but the show was a trainwreck from the start, full of tired gags, broad stereotypes, and little else. After two episodes, ABC junked the series; it now lives on in memory, and as answer to the trivia question, “What show’s premise was predicated upon the idea that Bugs Bunny in a dress would’ve been funnier if he’d been smugger and less convincing?” The judges will also accept “The worst TV show of 2012.”
And now, as is customary for The A.V. Club’s roundup of the year’s worst TV, some special acknowledgment of programs that didn’t fit comfortably into the main list.
Special award for obnoxious American exceptionalism:
Going strictly by medal count, the United States dominated the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, notching a total of 104 visits to the platform. (Second-place finisher China ended the games with 88, with the home squad, Great Britain, in third with 65 total medals.) Still, to watch NBC’s coverage of the Games of the XXX Olympiad, it was as if American athletes were competing unopposed. It’s understandably difficult to cover the breadth of an international event like the Olympics—and the coverage elsewhere on the dial was much more inclusive—but would it have been so hard to cover athletes who were not the members of Team USA and/or Usain Bolt?
Special award for being exactly as awful as everyone anticipated:
In this accelerated culture, Lifetime’s Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton biopic, Liz & Dick, arrived with its own built-in cult audience, skipping the usual steps of a The Room- or Birdemic-style phenomenon and being embraced for its campy ghastliness the moment it premièred. But the telefilm could only coast on going-to-be-so-bad-it-will-be-good fumes for so long, and thousands of sarcastic tweets couldn’t liven up the performance of a woefully miscast Lindsay Lohan, nor could it add any perk to a leaden script. Sometimes trash is just straight-up trash.
Special award for a bad finale to a series whose fans deserved better:
It’s doubtful anyone still watching House as it went into its last season had big expectations for the series finale. The show’s final four years (half of its entire run) were, at best, hit-or-miss, trading in character integrity and plausibility for increasingly cheap shocks, forced drama, and bad romance. But at least the eighth season eased up some on the craziness, which meant that there was hope that the end might at least have some dignity to it. Instead, “Everybody Dies” is the kind of indulgent mess that punishes viewers for whatever little emotional investment in the adventures of Dr. Gregory House they have left. Wilson’s cancer is getting worse, and House’s shenanigans run the risk of sending him back to jail, so that he’ll miss the final months of his best friend’s life. So House decides to fake his death, or commit suicide, or something in between. The specifics don’t really matter, because the result is a histrionic, hollow mess, full of knowing looks, nonsensical platitudes, and a lot of hot air.
Special award for proving network viewers have some standards:
The instant, ignominious failure of Are You There, Chelsea?, starring a blonde Laura Prepon as a watered-down version of Chelsea Handler (and co-starring Handler as her disapproving sister), gladdens the heart of anyone looking for proof, any proof, that TV audiences won’t watch just anything—even if part of its problem was the NBC’s strategy of scheduling it alongside Whitney backfired, causing viewers to wonder just how many unfunny, aggressively obnoxious TV heroines they needed in their lives. Special points for cluelessness to the genius who came up with the masterstroke of adapting Handler’s sensibility to primetime by recycling the title of her best-known book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, while dropping the reference to an alcoholic beverage—thus rendering it both unfunny and meaningless.
Special award for un-self-aware self-awareness
The whole self-mocking-celebrities thing may be over. Life’s Too Short, the flailing comedy about Warwick Davis’ failure to parlay his starring turn in Willow into A-list status, has its funny moments—such as the Liam Neeson cameo in the première—but they’re like the bright spots at a cocktail party where nobody can get any air, and that party goes on for seven weeks. It’s really just one more excuse for co-creator Ricky Gervais to portray himself as an alpha-male asshole whose greatest pleasure in life is in sniggering at his mates for not being as successful or self-aware as he is. Heed the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Ricky: “We must be careful what we pretend to be.”
Special award for unexpected resilience
The Mob Doctor is the most accurately titled show in 2012. There’s a mob, and there’s a doctor, and that doctor works with that mob. So well done, person who titled this show. Unfortunately, that’s the best that can be said about The Mob Doctor, which somehow will manage to air all 13 produced episodes without being yanked off the air. As a point of comparison: The far superior Lone Star didn’t make it to its third episode, which probably means Kyle Killen should have called that show The Con-Man Bigamist in order to guarantee a longer shelf life. Wasting both a decent premise and an even better cast, The Mob Doctor made the fatal mistake of watering down a morally fascinating premise while simultaneously neutering every single character. It’s almost tempting to applaud the show for being so bad at so many things simultaneously. Instead, simply hope that Jordana Spiro and Zach Gilford fire their agents so their talents can flourish on better shows.