Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Shows of 2015

Man, the competition was CUTTHROAT this year. While pretty much anything I liked made it onto the other lists, there's so much good TV from 2015 that didn't make it to the top 10. The Jinx, Show Me a Hero, Broad City, Daredevil, Inside Amy Schumer, the ends of Key & Peele, Parks and Recreation, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force... by limiting this list to ten, there's a ton of great stuff I don't get to talk about. Which tells you how much I liked what did make the list.

Best of 2015

10. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)

As I mentioned in the movie post, there were a lot of sequels after long gaps last year, though Wet Hot American Summer may be the only one that moved from film to television. Well, not television exactly, since it was on Netflix... which you can watch on your television... what is television anymore? Anyway First Day of Camp tackles multiple things that are really hard to pull off. Comedy sequels are tough, and so are prequels in general, and so is waiting this long to return to a simple idea. But having pretty much the entire cast back works great, all the new faces mesh in perfectly, and the way the show plays with expectations, works in the prequel format, and develops its own running jokes while returning to existing ones all works much better than could be expected.

9. Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Of the four shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe last year, Jessica Jones had the most going for it. The cast is really good, particularly Krysten Ritter as the troubled but resourceful title character and David Tennant as Kilgrave, who is perfectly horrible and menacing even when he's giving you serious Doctor Who vibes. I've heard people describe Jessica Jones as barely or reluctantly a super hero show, which is a bit odd when it's much more open about its various super powered characters actually having powers when Daredevil kind of danced around it. My point is that there's a lot of variation possible within the story space of having super powered characters, and Jessica Jones finds an interesting angle, with Jessica finding that she's better at snooping on people than helping the downtrodden. There were a few moments that didn't work for me, but the cat and mouse game between the hero and the villain provides for several huge twists and thrills, and create one of the most bingeable shows this year.

8. Review (Comedy Central)

Review is plenty funny, but the comedy isn't exactly why it makes this list. Despite the premise (Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeil tries various viewer-submitted life activities and rates them on a five-star scale) sounding every bit like it would result in one of the most episodic shows imaginable, it's actually the long-term storytelling that causes it to really shine. The first season ended with Forrest divorced and depressed, punching his boss and going into hiding. The second season begins with him back in the fold, but it isn't long before the crazy things his audience asks him to try out cause his life to once again spiral out of control and deeply affect his relationships with loved ones. It's really a show where you have to see every episode, because mistakes in the past always find ways to come back and bite him again, and the darkly funny miseries he gets put through work best when you understand exactly how he gets to where he is. I'm not sure if there will be a third season, but I hope so, as much as I wonder how Forrest could possibly handle it.

7. The Knick (Cinemax)

The second season of The Knick isn't quite as great as the first, but it's still one of the most compelling dramas that aired last year. This is another one where I'm not sure if it will come back, but if it does I'll be sure to watch it. It stars Clive Owen as a cocaine-addicted genius surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City at the turn of the century, and explores the struggles of the personal lives of he and several others at the hospital as they try to advance medicine in various ways, some of which we know will work, and some of which we know are disastrously wrong. Historical hindsight is a real bastard on this show. Every episode is directed by Steven Soderbergh, so it's one of the most cinematic shows on TV, and the great writing and cast make sure the quality of the show goes beyond the visuals. If you don't mind something that basically jumps between horrible people being horrible and horrible things happening to the couple decent folks around, or the amazingly gruesome surgery scenes, it's definitely worth watching.

6. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Being a returning show rather than a new one, it was a little easier to see where Rick and Morty relied too heavily on returning to the same dramatic constructs it keeps using or excessive violence for easy laughs, and the experience of watching it wasn't quite as magical as it was before. Still, there were six or seven episodes that were as perfect as anything else I watched in 2015, and there are bits in even the weaker ones that will stick with me for a long time. Being a great comedy and great science fiction at the same time is tough, but Rick and Morty pulls it off.

5. Justified (FX)

This might be the show I'm saddest about ending last year, because its combination of gritty crime drama with highly amusing, wonderfully-styled dialogue seems hard to replace. Being the final season, it had to stop dancing around and tie off its ongoing plot threads, and that means bringing the story of Raylan and Boyd to a close. It doesn't go quite where you expect, because it's written in the style of Elmore Leonard and there's a bunch of other interests at play so of course it doesn't, but it still works out in a way that is dramatically satisfying and fun to watch. Sam Elliott is a strong presence as the driving force behind the season's main elements, and Jonathan Tucker is remarkable as the one last hot shot villain that Raylan has to contend with. I'm glad that the last season cements Justified as one of the great modern crime dramas on TV.

4. Game of Thrones (HBO)

There was some understandable controversy over the way Game of Thrones continued to use sex, particularly sexual violence, for dramatic effect in its fifth season. At some point your audience understands that being a woman in this world is no picnic, and it stops having a purpose being shock value. It ultimately seemed small to me though, in a season that had so many good things going for it, from big fantasy action on a scale that TV basically never has, to great success at moving the story forward in important ways, and for the first time, massive surprises for people who had read the books already. Since the next one won't be out before season six airs, book fans and TV-only fans are on the same level, and it feels exciting, not know what's going to happen and waiting to see how the cast of dozens handles what comes at them with seemingly anything being possible.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)

I wasn't even sure if I was going to watch this, with my general distaste for spin-offs, but I gave it a shot since Vince Gilligan was involved. It was much better than I expected, telling the surprisingly earnest story of Jimmy McGill, a man who tries his hardest to put aside his dishonest past and find his way as a real lawyer, but is stymied repeatedly by circumstances beyond his control. Eventually he reaches a decision, which is not unavoidable but certainly understandable, and puts himself on a path that will lead to him becoming Saul Goodman. We haven't seen that transformation yet, but it's coming, and I'm definitely excited to see how it happens. It should also be mentioned that coming from a lot of the same people as Breaking Bad, Saul maintains that show's incredible cinematography and sense of style while shifting to a notably more mundane central plot.

2. The Leftovers (HBO)

I watched the first season of The Leftovers last year and enjoyed it, but I guess it didn't really stick with me. That changed with its brilliant second season, which I loved enough to question whether I had paid enough attention the last time it was on. They shifted location from New York to Texas but kept the core cast and general tone of the show intact, which explores grief and loss through the prism of a mysterious event that caused about 2% of the people on Earth to disappear at once. A few years have passed since that happened, but things are still far from normal, and the show's exploration of its characters' reactions and inner lives delivers poignancy and "oh shit" moments at an incredible pace. It's not easy to explain why it works so well, but if you watch it knowing that the point of the show is not to answer its own mysteries but examine how they affect people, it's powerful and mesmerizing with every single episode.

1. Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men's final season aired in two chunks over the last two years, bringing its cast out of the 60s and into 1970, as their efforts to keep Sterling Cooper as its own entity finally run their course and their lives begin to permanently alter irrevocably. Since the plot is basically driven by the decisions and personalities of the main characters rather than something more direct like an inevitable violent confrontation, it's not as easy to know what the conclusion will be or to reach it in a fulfilling way, but Matthew Weiner and his team of writers understand these people and the world they live in, and managed to find a perfect ending for pretty much everyone. There are multiple ways to interpret the final scene, but they all have the same general dramatic meaning, and its one that works as a way of summing up the whole series. I look forward to revisiting the show somewhere down the road, and I expect that to be as worthwhile as watching it all for the first time.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2015 but I didn't watch until then.

The Simpsons (FOX)

While I'm not actually done watching the show, I plan to stop well before I catch up to the current season - I just finished the 11th, and I'm really feeling the decline everyone who kept up with it experienced years ago. If you can ignore the fact that The Simpsons has been bad for longer than it was good, you can find a show that holds up as one of the best and most influential series ever made, casting a shadow over the 90s just as big as Seinfeld or anything else. The fact that it couldn't keep up after it reached double digits in years shouldn't count too much against it, since almost nothing else even gets a chance to. There's a period there, probably the 3rd through 8th seasons, where it's just unbelievable, where every joke is laugh out loud funny or at least undeniably well constructed, and where it's coining words or phrases constantly that still get used today. I'm glad I finally took the time to see why people love this show so much.

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