Habit, if not my so-called audience, compels me to once again unload my opinions about the best of the media I experienced during the past year, as delivered by television, books, and motion pictures.
I begin with television, still the most watched medium overall, though what worries the industry is TV’s absolute decline among young consumers, who watch a whole lotta video from “non-TV” type sources, much of it driven by social exchanges with peers and icons unknown to those of us still stuck on the couch with a big flat screen.
Ironically, of course, as the historical form of “television” (note the quotes) is in the process of getting shoved around by new competitors for the time and allegiance of audiences, the industry continues to create ever-greater experiences that somebody, somewhere is probably calling the new Golden Age, because it is. There’s so much good TV these days that my list cannot possibly stop at ten shows, and so I don’t.
How long this can possibly last, who knows, but I have really enjoyed a bunch of TV-type stuff, described below. (BTW, here are my 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 choices, if you’re curious about which multi-season shows sustained my interest, and which departed).
In no particular order, here are my favorites: Transparent, The Americans, Rectify, The Leftovers, Mr. Robot, Justified, Fargo, The Jinx, Show Me a Hero, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, Last Week Tonight, Unreal, The Affair, Silicon Valley, and You're the Worst. Read on for "why":
Transparent, Season 2 (AMAZON)
Yes, I binge-watched all 10 episodes of this brilliant Amazon series the day it dropped. I hadn’t intended to, but I just couldn’t stop, because each successive chapter delivered another revelatory angle on the supremely selfish Pfefferman family, further proving that Mort’s transition into Moira is the least outrageous behavior. Moira’s three grown kids continue to make poor choices that hurt others, and so does Moira, for that matter. Here we have a deep exploration of the consequences of a “Me Generation” steeped in “doing our own thing.”
The gimmick has not run out of juice (a sleeper couple of KGB spies live in DC during the Reagan era), indeed, the gimmick deepens our understanding of what love looks like under intense stress. We still get those moments of intense and frequently crazy-making tension as the spies we love to love go about their routines of killing, lying, stealing, and wearing many wigs. We still get credible context with respect to what was “actually” happening at the finale of the Cold War. But we also get very very deep into the family dynamics of the Jennings family as Philip and Elizabeth are forced to disclose the truth to their daughter Paige, who has become active in a peacenik-oriented Christian youth group. And we also dive deeply into the shattered love triangle of Nina, Stan, and Oleg, with some delicious side trips into the world of EST.
A less dramatically satisfying foray into the same period, but still quite a trip this year was Deutschland 83, a German production carried in the US on Sundance. A handsome young East German is recruited by his scary spy aunt to impersonate a West German soldier, assigned to NATO Command during the run-up of American campaign to place Pershing missiles in Europe. Complications ensue, many quite preposterous, even as the series embeds us simultaneously in the worlds of high-level espionage, Berlin peacenik politics, youthful sex (both gay and straight) in the time of AIDS. Another European series clearly influenced by the success of long-story-arc, showrunner-driven, binge-worthy American dramatic series is 1992, from Italy, available on Netflix. We’re in the world of Italian politics, always fun, as the old corrupt order, dominated by the Christian Democrats, gives way to the new corrupt order that paves the way for Berlusconi, who is a kind of evil hovering ghost above the machinations of six primary protagonists.
Rectify (Season 2) (Sundance)
Protagonist Daniel, his family and love interest move into a deeper state of terminal depression this season, which doesn’t sound like much of an invitation to stay with the story, but trust me, it is. Revelations about the original crime emerge, even as the consequences of Daniel’s post-prison behavior unfold. The pace of the storytelling is deliberate, the interconnections between characters painful, and the payoff deeply satisfying.
The Leftovers (Season 2) (HBO)
I stand in awe. Showrunner Damon Lindelof moves the action to Miracle, Texas, and in doing so, doubles down on the weird, possibly supernatural elements from season one, and then brings every unexplained thread into a coherent, mind-shattering, and visually stunning finale. I can barely count on one hand the episodes this season that contained major innovations in television storytelling. One episode follows a single character. Another focuses upon the conflict between the two primary female characters. Another is a fever-dream death and rebirth sequence. And so forth. And the cast, led by the intense and intensely handsome Justin Theroux, is superb.
Mr. Robot (USA)
Yes, it sagged a bit in the middle, but Mr. Robot was such a compulsive, must-watch show last summer that when one episode was cancelled because of its similarity to yet-another mass shooting, well, I went into mild depression, and then felt guilty for fear that I was placing an imaginary story ahead of a real-life example. Which dilemma illustrates one of the strong attractions of the series: its depiction of the shadow world of hackers and the underground that felt authentic, even as we learn how unreliable our central narrator must be, and therefore perhaps the story that seems so authentic is a byproduct of mental illness, drug abuse, sleep deprivation instead of the wild and crazy ride the plot is giving all of us. Oh, I so wanted to identify with protagonist Elliott Alderson, the skeletal, bug-eyed Asperger-tinged bundle of nerves so brilliantly portrayed by Rami Malek.
Justified (Season 6) (FX)
Saying goodbye to Raylan, Boyd, Ava and their equally crazy adversaries was painful, even if the last thirty minutes provided a graceful closure to all those years of violence, betrayal, and hillbilly evil. Graham Yost, you have my thanks.
Fargo (Season 2) (FX)
Season one rode on its similarity in tone and visual splendor to the Coen Brothers original. Season two upped the ante with an array of villains and dupes that never failed to entertain, even as horror piled upon horror. We are in 1979, literally during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the White House. Our characters, especially Patrick Wilson’s state trooper, have yet to escape the memories of Vietnam, just like the country. Kirstin Dunst’s dizzy pre-feminist housewife/hairdresser Peggy yearns to be free, especially if it means moving from her dreary life with butcher husband Ed to California, or at least a seminar. Her inadvertent hit-and-run gins up the story, because unfortunately for her, the victim is a scion of the feared Gerhardt crime family, itself under siege from the Kansas City Mob. In a cast of remarkable actors (Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Jesse Plemons, Brad Garrett), a standout is the homily-spouting contract killer Bokeem Woodbine. And of course, the landscape, itself a full-blown character, week after week.
The Jinx (HBO)
All hail to filmmaker Andrew Jarecki who gives us more than a simple documentary, he enters into the story, almost as a peer (he’s from the same social class) and earns enough trust from our central character that his walls come down, despite the fact that he of course knew the cameras were rolling (except for the final big reveal that led to Robert Durst’s indictment the day after the final episode aired). This is high-stakes filmmaking of a unique sort, and storytelling at its best. True crime, real criminal. Wow. By the way, it was an exceptional year for TV networks’ support of quality documentaries, with solid entries coming from HBO, Showtime, Netflix, as well as ITVS and PBS.
Show Me a Hero (HBO)
Oscar Isaacs is a remarkable actor. Without his meticulous performance as the morally conflicted but ultimately heroic Yonkers NY mayor, this lengthy mini-series would probably not have been sustainable. Thanks to HBO’s patronage of the unrivaled TV talent David Simon, we wind up with a deeply compelling, thought-provoking and significant drama. Fine work from the rest of the cast, as well, especially Keener, as well as Ryder, who is having a bit of a comeback these days.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
The backstory of how a schlump ambulance-chasing lawyer becomes the criminal consigliore we came to love in Breaking Bad could have been awful, but the story, a kind of shaggy dog ramble down the boulevard of broken dreams, just kept getting better. Starting with an epic performance by Bob Odenkirk, stir in a delicious taste of Jonathan Banks, shake with a creepy-mean Michael McKean, and many wonderful supporting actors, and ‘Saul’ manages to deliver the impossible – a prequel that’s almost, if not quite as wonderful as the original.
I guess there are camps, just like there were at the finale of The Sopranos, but I’m firmly in the camp of believing that “Person to Person” was pure genius. As he is descending into the final circle of hell at an Esalen self-actualizing group, Don Draper reaches out by phone in quick succession to the three women who defined his life – Peggy, Sally and Peggy – and then, somehow, manages to climb out of the dread and nothingness into a higher plane, symbolized by the ironic and conflicting final images of Don meditating and the full 30-second Coke commercial that, of course, represents the entire transmutation of the Baby Boomer generation’s ethos into the sale of a bottle of sugar water. I don’t need to enumerate the remarkable work of Matt Weiner and his cast, especially this last season by Jon Hamm, nor the contribution the series made to the elevation of the longform TV series as a serious work of imagination and art. There was no coasting to a tidy end. Weiner made sure that the dominant themes he painstakingly exhumed about the human condition were there for us to enjoy and understand.
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
The best late night comedy show on television, and due to the sharpness of the writing and Oliver’s unflagging commitment to social justice, a new format that takes seriously the opportunity to effectuate change in the real world. I'm watching (and waiting) Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, grabbing the odd episode here and there from the DVR queue, but neither has the must-see quality that John Stewart delivered night after night. There may be an occasional Kimmel or Fallon or all the rest that I may try to catch, but like SNL, most of late night is so utterly predictable, and in the case of the talk shows, so shill-ridden that I cannot be bothered. I do confess to an occasional dip into @Midnight, where the manic personality of Chris Hardwick blends nicely with Internet crap and the seemingly spontaneous outbursts of randomly selected comedians -- offering something different while eating a bowl of soup in front of the TV set in the kitchen.
I know little about the world of reality competition shows, and care even less, having never watched one episode of the Bachelor, The Amazing Race, and their ilk. But thanks to the wonderful new New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, I caught the beginning of Unreal and never looked back. One had the sense that the showrunners, themselves expats from the world they were studying, served as contemporary muckrakers, eager to expose the excesses and duplicity of reality TV through thinly veiled characters that they actually knew. Whether this is a roman a clef, or just an exaggerated over-the-top dramedy, I couldn’t say, but in the framework of “workplace” shows, this is a winner.
The Affair (Season 2) (Showtime)
I confess I’m slightly embarrassed to put The Affair on my list of top shows. Yes, it is a show that rarely lasts on my DVR for more than a few hours. Yes, I’m completely absorbed by the characters, none of whom are particularly admirable. Yes, I kick myself because I feel like I’m watching a soap opera with a defective sense of time and point of view. And yet I watch, and enjoy, so I guess I need to get over my damn self and admit that Showtime has delivered a strong piece of work here.
Silicon Valley Season 2 (HBO)
This show is a workplace comedy (like it’s HBO sibling Veep), for sure, but the unique qualities of the Silicon Valley ecosystem make it feel like much more, like a real-time Twitter feed of over-the-top tech-bro arrogance, buffoonery and venality. Showrunner Mike Judge knows the terrain, pulls no punches, and gives his spot-on ensemble cast things to do that are revelatory not only of character (a requirement for any type of sitcom to last – we have to care about the people), but also the unfolding of one of the most important stories on the planet. We laugh, but we also cry, because the future of the world is in the hands of clods like those in this show.
You’re The Worst, Season Two (FX)
We have here a quartet of dysfunctional hipsters who should be unlovable, but aren’t – that was the premise of season one, when Jimmy and Gretchen go beyond the partying to find connection, even if it’s hard for them to admit. Season 2 breaks it all down with a long-arc story centering on Gretchen’s clinical depression. You’re the Worst is the best example of a relatively new mode of storytelling – a season-long uber-story, usually deeply emotional, revealed over time within the traditional three-act structure of the sitcom half-hour episode. Other very appealing examples can be found in Please Like Me, from Australia (Pivot) and Catastrophe, from England (Amazon), and Netflix's Tina Fey delight, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Runners-up (meaning I enjoyed them, but not as much as those above) including the pilot of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon) – the series ran out of steam; Amy Schumer (Comedy Central); Documentary Now (IFC); Homeland, Season 5 (Showtime); Game of Thrones (HBO); Veep (HBO); Louie (FX); Sense8 I(Netflix); Halt and Catch Fire (AMC); The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix); Ray Donovan (Showtime); American Crime (ABC); Bloodline (Netflix); Empire (Fox).