Friday, January 30, 2015

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2014

And finally, the Manifesto presents its top 10 TV shows of 2014. If you missed them, here are links to our prior posts:

Nos. 50-41
Nos. 40-31
Nos. 30-21
Nos. 20-11

10. The Affair (Showtime, Season 1). The bare-bones plot of The Affair hardly covers new ground. Two married people find themselves drawn to each other, and the inevitable happens; resistance kicks in, passion overcomes, regret ensues, calamity strikes. We know the drill. So why does The Affair feel so fresh and vital? The most obvious answer lies in its dual perspective, an audacious, Rashomon-inspired technique that grants the show a sense of infinite possibility. Each episode begins from the point of view of one of its unfaithful participants: either Noah (Dominic West), a reasonably happy father of four summering in Montauk with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), at her father's luxurious estate; or Alison (Ruth Wilson), a sorrowful local attempting to piece her life back together, starting with her foundering marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson). Then, roughly halfway through, the show rewinds and presents the same basic events from the other character's point of view. It's a startlingly provocative device, and showrunner Sarah Treem wrings all manner of intrigue from it, repeatedly demonstrating how our perception can color our memory. (In the pilot, for example, each party recalls the other as the aggressor, which is why in Noah's segment, Alison wears a slinky white dress, while in hers, she's dressed more modestly in a T-shirt and jeans.) But The Affair isn't a one-trick pony, and as the series progresses, its overlapping structure becomes less prominent. It's an astute decision on Treem's part, because as novel as the show's design may be, it would eventually feel ostentatious if it weren't in service of compelling material. Thankfully, there's no shortage of that, as The Affair dives fearlessly into the lives of its hopelessly confused characters, who are continually beset by dissatisfaction, jealousy, and general paralysis. The whole cast is good, but it's Wilson's agonizing uncertainty that serves as the show's emotional fulcrum, while Tierney's wounded pride helps transform Noah's marriage to Helen from a plot point into something real and heartbreaking. (Helen's father, meanwhile, is played with characteristic haughtiness by John Doman, and yes, Wire fans, this means McNulty and Rawls are together again.) That's the key to The Affair, the way it presents seemingly familiar situations, then blurs and distorts them to dizzying effect. It's about things you've watched a thousand times before, yet it's unlike any TV show you've ever seen.

9. Justified (FX, Season 5). Is Raylan Givens a hero? Certainly he'd like to think so, and Justified would probably agree. But if Raylan's white Stetson is a metaphorical symbol as well as a sweet-looking hat, his penchant for extralegal tactics is indicative of the thorny and complicated nature of Justified's universe, one in which outlaws come in all sizes and the lawmen court bloodshed instead of cowering from it. It's a cops-and-robbers Western retrofitted for the new millennium's moral ambiguity, which is why its best character, Boyd Crowder (a magnetic Walton Goggins), is both a ruthless murderer and a cheerful rapscallion, walking the line while the real evil stirs up trouble. That evil arrives in Season 5 in the form of Daryl Crowe Jr. (a shockingly good Michael Rapaport), whose easygoing charm obscures the fact that everyone around him seems to die. The serialized plot of Justified's fifth season is a bit hectic, with a less identifiable through-line than the show's prior outings. Frankly, though, the story on Justified is just gravy. It's really about paying homage to Elmore Leonard's trademark combination of pulp action and elaborate verbiage, and it continues to do so with remarkable flair. The show's best scenes tend to involve tense conversations, whether it's Raylan (played by Timothy Olyphant with sly humor and colossal swagger) exchanging ominous pleasantries with Boyd, or riffing amiably with Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, hysterically understated), a behind-the-scenes player who never gets his hands dirty. (The series' weakness remains Boyd's fiancé Ava, though Season 5's immensely promising finale augurs change for the better heading into its final go-round.) There's a scene midway through the season in which Raylan and a confederate corner a band of scheming criminals in a bar that might as well be a saloon, and everything seems to be building to a storm of bullets... only then one of the gunmen delivers an intricate analogy involving King Lear. "I don't know what's going on here," Raylan confesses, "but I gotta admit, I'm interested." With a show as vividly detailed and effortlessly entertaining as Justified, it's hard to blame him.

8. Hannibal (NBC, Season 2). From a purely visual perspective, Hannibal is the most stunning show on TV. It's a grotesque paradox, how the series can discover such twisted beauty while plunging into so much death, but the show's aesthetic is simply magnificent, jolting its audience with odd angles and redolent colors. (The sound design is similarly outlandish, though it isn't as uniformly effective.) It's been this way from the beginning, but as striking as the show's first season was, it could occasionally become overwhelmed in its sensory immersion, losing track of the stories and characters at its center. Season 2—which opens with a crackerjack fight sequence, then flashes back months earlier before steadily climbing back toward that point—corrects that error, fusing breathtaking imagery with the profound battle for one man's soul. That man is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and the two men clawing over him are Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, rock-solid) and, of course, Hannibal Lecter, played with sublime strangeness and exactitude by Mads Mikkelsen. There's much more to it, of course; showrunner Bryan Fuller is technically adapting Thomas Harris' novels, and he imports many of its misshapen characters, including Mason Verger (Michael Pitt, munching scenery) and his sister, Margot (Katharine Isabelle). (Fuller's most inspired maneuver in this regard remains turning unscrupulous journalist Freddie Lounds into a woman, played with spunk and style by Lara Jean Chorostecki.) Mostly, though, Hannibal's second season is about Will and whether he will finally succumb to the seductive darkness that, thanks to years spent profiling sadistic killers, has become a part of him. It makes for a harrowing season of television, expertly plotted and entrancingly filmed. Hannibal Lecter is brilliant, precise, and even sensitive; in manipulating his puppets, he is also without mercy. In this, and in all other ways, Hannibal is worthy of its namesake.

7. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 4). Television is a democratic medium, which is why many series feature large casts; unlike a two-hour feature, a TV show has the luxury of time, allowing it to spread itself across a wide range of characters. The problem with this model, especially as shows expand in size with subsequent seasons, is that some characters are inevitably less interesting than others, and the series' imperative to devote coverage to all areas invariably results in a peaks-and-valleys rhythm, one in which the superior material is weighed down by listless filler. Game of Thrones should suffer from this malady, because Lord knows, the show is fucking enormous. But it escapes. Not because it doesn't follow the same structural formula, mind you. It's because the show's subplots don't range between good and bad so much as great and greater. Everything on this show is fantastic: the treachery in King's Landing, where Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, now and forever the show's MVP) must try to outwit the family that despises him; the messiness in Meereen, where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, improving with every episode) discovers that seizing power is easier the wielding it; the glum honor of The Wall, where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) must reconcile his loyalty with his duty; the starkness of the Riverlands, where Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, MVP-in-training) and The Hound (Rory McCann) prowl about as Westeros' greatest tandem of deadpan comedic assassins. It's all riveting. (Even the Bran storyline, a dead zone in the books, achieves crackling excitement on screen, thanks to the barren Icelandic locations and some shrewd adaptation choices.) The execution is uniformly spotless (partly because of to the unlimited budget), but what's truly epic about Game of Thrones is David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' uncanny ability to streamline George R.R. Martin's gigantic tomes into fleet, action-packed episodes that never feel lumbering or exhausting. Consider "The Mountain and the Viper", arguably the series' best hour to date. It closes with a jaw-dropping action sequence, a supremely visceral fight of kinetic beauty and graphic bloodshed. But just before that, it makes time for Tyrion's showstopping "Smash the beetles" monologue, a marvelously low-key speech that ponders the meaning of human choice and existence. This is an absolutely mammoth show, overwhelming in its scope and ambition. But it also features innumerable moments of character work that are touching, funny, and soulful. Game of Thrones is the biggest thing on TV, but the reason it's so good is that it sweats the small stuff.

6. The Honourable Woman (BBC/Netflix, Season 1). In today's era of long-form storytelling, many TV shows are growers; they take their time setting things up, seducing you with whispers and suggestion rather than immediate action. Then there are shows like The Honourable Woman, which features such an explosive pilot—a ferociously suspenseful and exciting hour that establishes its murky world of heightened stakes and political intrigue with decisiveness and economy—that it's impossible to stop yourself from clicking straight through to the next episode. Seriously, this thing had me hooked within 30 seconds, as it opens with Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing, if you can believe it, a British baroness of Jewish ancestry, and playing her well) issuing a pensive voiceover about trust—a monologue the series cleverly repeats over its "Previously On" montages going forward—while an act of brief and shocking violence occurs on screen. From there, The Honourable Woman throws us right into the maelstrom, introducing us to shadowy spies (including the invaluable Stephen Rea), corrupt politicians, and a house full of secrets. The series revolves around the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it's admirably specific about its material; showrunner Hugo Blick seems to know this region and its bloodthirsty operatives. But these characters would be lost at sea anywhere, and The Honourable Woman creates a clouded, corrosive atmosphere of compromise and capitulation. Yet as electric as the show feels, it's also patient, gradually revealing the full weight of its decade-spanning story with merciless calculation. It's a breathless viewing experience, made all the more powerful with heartfelt performances—in addition to Gyllenhaal and Rea, Lubna Azabal is superb as Nessa's most devoted friend, while Janet McTeer is flawlessly icy as Rea's boss—that evoke a quiet sadness, contrasting curiously with the show's relentless momentum. The Honourable Woman traffics in hidden motives and long-simmering feuds, where vengeance begets vengeance and conciliation is futile. As a result, it's really all about one thing: loss.

5. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7). Can a program that's generally regarded as one of the best shows of all-time somehow be underrated? Perhaps I'm not properly taking the pulse of the American public, but I feel like people are failing to appreciate just how extraordinary this show is as it enters its seventh and final season. (Well, sort-of final—Season 7's back half will conclude this April.) Mad Men has always been about change and, more specifically, its characters' unwillingness to change. When Season 7 opens, Don Draper (Jon Hamm, still peerless) is still behaving as though he's a high-profile creative partner at Sterling Cooper, even though he's forced to funnel his pitches through Freddy Rumsen. His daughter is growing up, his wife is living across the country, his office is occupied by another man—when is he going to wise up that things are different? But even if Mad Men is too subtle a show to grant Don a philosophical epiphany, this season nevertheless feels like it's charting the final evolution of one of television's greatest antiheroes. There remain moments of piercing pain—Don ends the season premiere huddled against the cold on his balcony, looking out forlornly at a world he struggles to comprehend—but there are also slivers of genuine happiness and hope. Most of those revolve around the beating heart of the series, Don's relationship with his protégé, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, never again referred to as "the daughter on West Wing"), a partnership that has forever vacillated between warm and frosty, respectful and mistrustful. It's no different here, but the lasting impression is one of ultimate understanding, and the silent, tender dance the two share near the end of "The Strategy" feels like the apotheosis of their first meeting all those years ago. Mad Men is full of quietly devastating moments like that, from Don's teasing meal at a diner with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), to his excruciatingly honest conversation with Megan (Jessica Paré), the woman who wants so desperately to make him happy but never quite can. Of course, Mad Men is about more than just Don Draper, and Matt Weiner continues to extend his generosity to the entire cast; and so, we can bask in the twitchy arrogance of Pete Campbell, the unwavering resolve of Joan Harris, the proud loyalty of Roger Sterling, even the ongoing follies of Harry Crane. But Don is the show's center, and as the midseason finale's ingenious conclusion makes clear, Weiner has positioned the final seven episodes to serve as a personal reckoning. Don may never find peace, but I for one hope he does. It seems only fair—he's brought us so much joy.

4. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 2). Masters of Sex should seem small. It's a slow, talky series, one whose most explosive scenes involve two people chatting in a hotel room. It has no violence, no death, and—at least until Season 2's gut-punch finale—no real plot twists. Yet Masters of Sex is so thoroughly about people—how they relate to one another, how they love, how they fight, how they fuck—that it feels like a watershed show for American television, one that demonstrates how a ruthless focus on complicated characters can be just as intense as any actioner. Its heroically flawed protagonist, Bill Masters (Michael Sheen, impossibly persuasive), is a selfish, spiteful man, one whose monstrous pride repeatedly impairs his noble pursuits of scientific discovery. His counterpart, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, as painfully sympathetic as Sheen is crisply calculating), is more socially adept, recognizing how to use her good looks and silver tongue to her advantage, but she herself is frustrated, troubled, and arrogant. The show's best moments—especially "Fight", a semi-bottle episode that doubled as the single best hour of television I saw all year—involve these two proud, principled scientists bickering in that aforementioned hotel room, baring their bodies and their souls to one another. You see quite a bit of flesh; after all, Masters of Sex is decidedly a show about sex, and about all of the stigmas and taboos that the ritual entails. But it's also about how people hide from one another rather than confront the truth, and how society's entrenched mores discourage open and honest communication. There's quite a bit going on in Season 2—Masters' wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, an odd but interesting screen presence), gets involved with the Civil Rights Movement, while Johnson deepens her peculiar friendship with Lillian (Julianne Nicholson, pitch-perfect)—but the show always comes back to the two pained, volatile figures at its center. They don't want to change the world, just make it a bit more comprehensible. Likewise, Masters of Sex just wants to understand these characters, but in the end, it does more than that. It makes them human.

3. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 2). Let me just come out and say this: Tatiana Maslany's performance on Orphan Black is the greatest television performance I've ever seen. But maybe I should say "performances", since Maslany isn't just essaying one character; she's playing a bunch, and she's doing it with astonishing craft and subtlety. Every different person she portrays is unique, but not completely so—somehow, amid the revolving door of accents and transformative physical tics, Maslany weaves a common thread through her disparate portrayals, a fierce intelligence that each clone wields in different ways. It's a miraculous effort that enhances the show's abiding "nature vs. nurture" debate, one that continually asserts itself as the clones circle one another with wariness and confusion. (Doh, I just broke the first rule of Clone Club.) Maslany is so good that her greatness threatens to overshadow the quality of the show she's carrying, a bracing amalgam of new-age science and old-school crime fiction. Season 2 deftly expands the fascinating mythology from the first season while also improving the quality of its villains, one of whom is naturally played by Maslany herself, only she isn't quite a villain because she instinctively feels a pull toward her genetic brethren, even though she's been raised to be cruel and callous toward her fellow clones, which means that... whoa, my head is spinning. But that sort of metaphysical quandary is par for the course for Orphan Black, a freakishly brainy show that also liberally dispenses visceral thrills. As if that's not enough, it is routinely hilarious, thanks of course to Maslany's superb comic timing and deadpan facial expressions. If you ever hear anyone grousing about the state of modern entertainment, just point them toward this show, a funny, heady, well-plotted marvel of killer effects and sharp storytelling. It's the kind of wildly ambitious series that never could have existed as recently as 10 years ago. But to quote one of the show's more peripheral but nevertheless compelling characters: It's a brand new day.

2. Fargo (FX, Season 1). "How could that possibly work?" That was me after learning that FX intended to reboot Fargo for television. You can forgive my skepticism, as it's not like the Coen Brothers' '90s crime masterpiece cried out for improvement—it's as fresh and funny now as it ever was. But Noah Hawley does everything right in this masterful 10-episode miniseries, beginning by not hewing too closely to the Coens' narrative. Certainly, Fargo mimics certain features of its theatrical counterpart—the Midwestern location, the odd characters, the collision of good and evil—but it stands perfectly well on its own, conveying its chilling, off-kilter crime saga with admirable weirdness and estimable craft. The acting is scary-good: Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman completely inhabit their characters—Thornton as Malvo, a supremely composed force of darkness, and Freeman as Lester, a meek insurance salesman who discovers a talent for manipulation—while newcomer Allison Tolman lights up the screen with her warmth and sincerity as Molly, a plucky and resourceful detective. Where Fargo really excels, however, is in its execution. Every episode features multiple scenes of superlative style, whether it's an office-building rampage viewed entirely from the exterior or a mid-blizzard shootout cloaked in snow and haunting ambiguity. This isn't a TV show; this is a 10-hour movie that FX somehow stole the rights to. Of course, it would be meaningless without interesting characters, but Fargo teems with color and life, grappling with the moral weight of its blood-soaked trajectory even as it plays up the opportunities for farce and black humor. Yet there are more layers still, none more disturbing than Lester's ascendance from pathetic weakling to criminal mastermind, a climb that coincides with his descent into moral oblivion. Fargo is a cold, forbidding place, and Fargo is a stark, ruthlessly well-made show, one that hums with eerie precision. "Walk away," Malvo barks in one scene, a rare moment where this malevolent predator seems rattled. He means business, but you wouldn't dream of missing what happens next. Besides, you wouldn't dare turn your back.

1. The Americans (FX, Season 2). The Americans defies categorization. Is it a geopolitical thriller? A domestic drama? A coming-of-age tale? A tragic love story? A dark comedy? It is, of course, all of these things, but to describe this show as the mere sum of its electrifying parts does it a disservice. It is bigger than that, and its grandeur derives directly from the marriage that forms its malleable, fascinating nucleus. The show's phenomenal first season explored the frailty of that marriage, and of the crisscrossing web of emotions that Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, in what will surely be her career-defining performance) felt for her mostly steadfast husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys, astonishingly expressive). Their union feels more secure at the beginning of Season 2, but that doesn't make them feel safe. On the contrary, they now have something to protect, and one of the many threads that The Americans gently tugs on over the course of the season is whether Elizabeth and Phillip can maintain a truly happy marriage while simultaneously fulfilling their duties to the motherland. (In case you missed it: They're Russian spies. Consider yourself caught up.) That tension extends, like a nefarious tendril creeping out of the darkness, toward their children, specifically their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor, suitably convincing), a blossoming teenager yearning to channel her newfound sense of civic responsibility into something productive. Could she become a spy? Would Elizabeth and Phillip let that happen? Would they want to?

Those questions provide the setup for next season, but in the meantime, Season 2 has plenty else to tackle. The plot is astounding in its meticulous construction—there's a reveal in the finale that shatters everything you thought you knew about one character's sense of family and honor—but on a micro level, the show is just electric. As gifted at The Americans is in mining emotional drama from its rich premise, it's equally capable of producing stunning set pieces. What's remarkable about these mother-of-god moments is that they're rarely traditional action scenes; in fact, most of them involve inaction, as when Elizabeth watches, essentially paralyzed, while one of her comrades is slowly strangled, or when a spy ruefully poisons her lover and then attempts to ease his passing while fighting back tears. Indeed, the two most breathtaking moments of the season aren't even action scenes at all. One involves Phillip's tense and chilling conversation with a pastor, an exchange that makes him question his role as a husband and father. The other, amazingly enough, is a sex scene, when Elizabeth asks Phillip to don one of his undercover disguises and then gets more than she bargained for. It's the latter passage that epitomizes The Americans' unique greatness: the way it can meld domestic relations and spy craft into something profound and devastating.

In the premiere of Season 3 of The Americans, which aired two nights ago, Phillip and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, drowning in pain)—an FBI agent who is Phillip's ostensible friend and most dangerous potential enemy—attend a self-help conference, where the speaker preaches about the dangers of living through "non-experience". It's gobbledygook, and both Phillip and Stan get a good chuckle out of it, but from a meta perspective, the guy might be onto something. The Americans is not a show you can absorb through the prism of "non-experience". You cannot watch this show passively. It attacks your nervous system and goes straight to your head, overwhelming you with its impeccable plotting and exhilarating action. And then, just when you think you've protected yourself, it stops your heart.

And for completists, here's the entire list of rankings in one place:
1. The Americans (FX, Season 2)
2. Fargo (FX, Season 1)
3. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 2)
4. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 2)
5. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7)
6. The Honourable Woman (BBC/Netflix, Season 1)
7. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 4)
8. Hannibal (NBC, Season 2)
9. Justified (FX, Season 5)
10. The Affair (Showtime, Season 1)
11. The Knick (Cinemax, Season 1)
12. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 1)
13. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 1)
14. You're the Worst (FX, Season 1)
15. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 2)
16. True Detective (HBO, Season 1)
17. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 4 (back half) and 5 (front half)
18. Sherlock (BBC, Season 3)
19. Veep (HBO, Season 3)
20. Happy Valley (Netflix/BBC, Season 1)
21. The Newsroom (HBO, Season 3)
22. Girls (HBO, Season 3)
23. Transparent (Amazon, Season 1)
24. The Missing (Starz, Season 1)
25. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 5)
26. The Bridge (FX, Season 2)
27. 24: Live Another Day (Fox, Season 9)
28. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 2)
29. Peaky Blinders (Netflix/BBC, Season 2)
30. Louie (FX, Season 4)
31. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 1)
32. Olive Kitteridge (HBO, Season 1)
33. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 2)
34. Married (FX, Season 1)
35. Homeland (Showtime, Season 4)
36. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 1 (back half) and 2 (front half))
37. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 3)
38. Outlander (Starz, Season 1)
39. Looking (HBO, Season 1)
40. Getting On (HBO, Season 2)
41. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 3 (back half) and 4 (front half))
42. Downton Abbey (BBC/PBS, Season 4)
43. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 4)
44. Community (NBC, Season 5)
45. The Strain (FX, Season 1)
46. The Spoils of Babylon (IFC, Season 1)
47. Tyrant (FX, Season 1)
48. American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, Season 4)
49. True Blood (HBO, Season 7)
50. The League (FX, Season 6)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ranking the TV Shows of 2014, #s 20-11: True Detective, The Walking Dead, and Netflix's Best Show

The Manifesto is counting down every TV show we watched in 2014—all 50 of them. If you missed our previous installments, you can find them at these links:

Nos. 50-41
Nos. 40-31
Nos. 30-21

On to the next set of 10, with one bonus pick:

[Unranked] Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 1). I don't quite know how to evaluate this series in critical terms. It's the only nonfiction show I regularly watch, so it's difficult to compare it to programs that use artifice to accomplish their ends. (Granted, many of the interstitial segments on Last Week Tonight are obviously invented, but it's not as though they're telling stories.) Here's what I do know, though: John Oliver is good at this stuff. He seems liberated operating in the halls of HBO, not only with the newfound freedom to use profanity (though he does recognize the power of a well-placed F-bomb), but with the opportunity to perform longer, uninterrupted pieces that dive deep into various social issues. He can still be unnecessarily mean-spirited—at times, it seems as though he's pandering to his audience—and some of those aforementioned filler segments can fall disastrously flat. For the most part, though, Last Week Tonight works, and what's most striking about it is its sincerity. Oliver doesn't really want to mock people; he actually cares about injustice in the world, and he uses biting humor not just to get laughs (though he garners plenty of those) but to expose the hypocrisy that percolates throughout our society. Given its format, a show like Last Week Tonight is always going to be hit-and-miss. But through one inspired, surprisingly earnest season, Oliver's batting average is awfully high.

20. Happy Valley (Netflix/BBC, Season 1). The title of Happy Valley is almost too obvious in its bitter sarcasm. The spare Yorkshire town in which it takes place seems drained of both color and joy, and it's populated by a cluster of two-bit hoodlums, sleazy drug addicts, and heartless entrepreneurs. Its main character, a street-wise sergeant named Catherine (Sarah Lancashire, effectively burdened), is not an ingenious detective but a salty beat cop, going about her business with resigned competence. But despite Sarah's traumatic past—involving a tragedy that still casts dark shadows over her relationships with her family—she carries herself with a sort of gruff decency that injects some lightness and humor into Happy Valley's cold, grey universe. It also provides some ballast for the series' Fargo-esque plot, in which a nebbishy executive (a squirrelly George Costigan) contracts with some hardened thugs to kidnap his boss' teenage daughter. Happy Valley thus proceeds as part domestic drama, part seedy crime saga, and interestingly, it works best as the latter. Sarah is a fantastic character, brittle and fierce and compassionate all at once, but her struggles with her kin feel somewhat melodramatic, too reliant on backstory to generate the desired emotional impact. The show's genre thrills, however, are top-notch, never more so than in its harrowing conclusion to its fourth episode. Happy Valley provides a persuasive portrait of a good woman doing her best to locate some rays of hope, but it's most gripping when it's approaching the basement stairs, peering warily into the darkness.

19. Veep (HBO, Season 3). You can always rely on Veep for a few sly topical zingers per episode, but the key to the show's success is that it isn't about politics. It's about panic. The series could take place in any sort of sterile working environment, whether corporate or bureaucratic, and it would still retain its instantly identifiable air of feverish desperation. Its characters aren't necessarily stupid—some of them would happily tell you just how smart they are—but they are constantly making mistakes, then trying hopelessly to correct them, only to sink deeper into self-made quicksand. You can relate to them, but you never feel sorry for them, thanks to the cast's laudable refusal to be likable. Julia Louis-Dreyfus now has the part of Selina Meyer down pat, playing up her supreme sense of entitlement without losing her fear of actual responsibility, while Anna Chlumsky and Reid Scott indulge in their own brand of toxic misanthropy. I could go on—Tony Hale is cringingly helpless as Selina's pathetically loyal bag man, while Kevin Dunn is fantastically acidic as the President's morose Chief of Staff—but every character is a part of the show's larger machine, one that runs on extreme selfishness and clammy anxiety. Everything coalesces in two late-season episodes, "Special Relationship" and "Debate", that hit every slapstick gag and acerbic one-liner for maximum hilarity. Veep is a series involving nasty, cynical people who are all devoted entirely to themselves. Yet the show is a true collaborative achievement, and its triumph derives from the one quality that's anathema to its characters: teamwork.

18. Sherlock (BBC, Season 3). Sherlock Holmes' genius can be a trap for writers. The detective in the deerstalker cap is more myth than man, and he's so brilliant that it's tempting for authors to devise insanely labyrinthine schemes for him to solve, at which point his metaphysical leaps of logic tend to leave viewers confounded rather than amazed. Sherlock is occasionally guilty of falling into this trap (see Season 2's "The Hounds of Baskerville"), but for the most part, showrunners Mark Gatiss (who also plays Holmes' sour brother, Mycroft) and Steven Moffat sidestep it by focusing less on the crimes than the characters. Sherlock is really a buddy show, and the evolving chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch's iconoclastic savant and Martin Freeman's exasperated doctor (he plays Watson, of course) continues to serve as the series' real hook. Their friendship is now cemented, but it remains prickly and unpredictable, which is what makes it so moving and satisfying. Season 3 also delivers the show's best episode yet in "The Sign of Three", a madcap 90 minutes of screwball comedy and inspired nonlinear storytelling that also features the most happily haphazard best-man speech of all-time. Sherlock is still a procedural in form, and even though it's a smart one, its reliance on twists can feel familiar. But it's the show's abiding faith in the relationship between its two gifted puzzle-solvers—brought wonderfully to life thanks to Cumberbatch's and Freeman's playful, touching performances—that lends it the aura of true genius.

17. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 4 (back half) and 5 (front half). It's so rare to find a popular TV shows that actually gets better as it goes along. After a spunky opening six episodes, The Walking Dead ground to a halt in its second season (you know, the one with the fucking farm), and while Season 3 hinted at a potential rebound, it was still disjointed and tonally chaotic. But once Scott Gimple took over as showrunner, The Walking Dead was reborn. The series still delivers its requisite zombie carnage, and it does so with increasing élan; our survivors scrap and claw with any weapons they can find, and the show continues to discover inventive new ways of pummeling undead flesh. Yet The Walking Dead's greatest revolution is one of structure. Rather than splitting time evenly across its numerous characters, Gimple created a number of isolating episodes that often feature just 2-3 survivors for the entire hour. (I could only imagine what would happen if Downton Abbey tried this. Come to think of it, a few zombies might liven that show up too.) It's a bold maneuver, but it pays astonishing dividends, especially in episodes such as "Still", in which Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney) hole up at an abandoned cabin with some moonshine, and "Consumed", in which Daryl and Carol (Melissa McBride) scavenge an abandoned hospital. They're the kind of hours where not that much actually happens, but they build out the characters beautifully, letting them process their emotions surrounding the apocalypse rather than just reacting to it. The Walking Dead was always skillful in conveying the sheer brutality of its premise, but while it frequently trafficked in death, it rarely bothered to explore its actual impact. Now, it's finally starting to make you feel the weight.

16. True Detective (HBO, Season 1). The dirty little secret of True Detective is that its story isn't very interesting. Strip away the philosophical inquiries, the soulful performances, and the exhilarating craft, and you're left with a fairly mundane story of banal human evil, sloppily told and concluding with a whimper. But you can't strip that stuff away, because it's the backbone of the entire show. True Detective's plotting is both too lazy and too ambitious—there are far too many subsidiary figures whose names we can barely keep track of—but that's all beside the point. The show is really about the sacrifices one must make to wade into a world contaminated by ugliness and loss, and of the prices that the men who make such a journey must pay. Matthew McConaughey deserves every ounce of praise he's received for burrowing into the recesses of Rust Cohle's mind and emerging as a figure of agonizing heaviness; he's so good that he sadly overshadowed Woody Harrelson's companion performance, imbuing Marty Hart with sly wit and blundering pride. And let's not forget director Cary Fukunaga's superlative, cinematic command. From the gob-smacking single-take sequence of "Who Goes There?" to the riveting backwoods assault of "The Secret Fate of All Life", True Detective hurtles forward like a freight train, brimming with confidence and audacity. It may not end up anywhere in particular, but you sure as hell don't want to miss the ride.

15. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 2). If the first season of Orange Is the New Black hit like a lightning bolt—a startling arrival of thematic urgency and accomplished storytelling—Season 2 feels more relaxed, slipping comfortably back into its own skin. It may not be as explosive, but it's more assured, more patient, and equally impressive. Creator Jenji Kohan confessed that she only built the show around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged white woman sent to prison, in order to gain the liberty to explore the peculiarities of the penal system, as well as its multicultural constituents. But Piper is no mere figurehead, and Schilling's nimble, slippery performance remains the series' greatest asset. All the same, Piper is more of a supporting player in Season 2, largely because Laura Prepon, the actress who plays Piper's volatile girlfriend, initially asked off the show and only appears in four episodes. The series doesn't suffer as a result, however, instead seizing the opportunity to broaden its scope and examine some of the other relationships within Litchfield Prison's vast landscape. The two most potent of these pivot around Taystee (Danielle Brooks), a bubbly force of nature who must choose between her loyal and giving friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley, achingly sympathetic), and her calculating mentor, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, completely terrifying). But that's just a small segment of this rich and sweeping season, and the show's clever structure—its repeated use of flashback continually deepens its characters without sacrificing forward momentum—makes each episode feel fresh and unpredictable. Kohan is constantly encountering new injustices to expose and new inmates to discover, and there's the sense that Orange Is the New Black could go on forever. Those of us who have spent two wonderful seasons with these sad, proud women can only hope.

14. You're the Worst (FX, Season 1). The two lead characters in You're the Worst—Jimmy (Chris Geere), a narcissistic failed writer, and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a narcissistic publicist—are awful people: judgmental, conceited, and selfish. (Oh, and they're narcissists.) They are also helpless, insecure, and thoroughly sweet. More importantly, they are absolutely perfect for each other. The romance of You're the Worst—which wisely begins with sex and then considers the possibility of intimacy, rather than the usual other way around—is dopily sincere, and it examines with real honesty whether these two self-centered people might actually be able to make each other's lives better, or whether they'll just feed off one another's insecurities in a bottomless spiral of mutual destruction. That may sound heavy, but You're the Worst is extraordinarily light on its feet, with whip-smart writing and sharp comedic instincts. It also nicely builds out its cast; Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue are effective sidekicks with serious problems of their own, while recurring guest star Brandon Smith delivers the punch line of the year at the end of the show's third episode, a zinger that the show meticulously sets up over an entire half-hour. That level of care elevates You're the Worst, as does Geere and Cash's naturally spiky chemistry. They aren't perfect people, and this isn't a perfect show, but when they're together, it feels a lot like bliss.

13. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 1). If you're a literalist—if you need to know what it all means—then The Leftovers isn't for you. It's a show that requires surrender, the heedless faith that it knows where it's headed, even if it sometimes feels like it's going supernova, exploding into infinite directions at once. (Given that the showrunner is Lost's Damon Lindelof, that's hardly a surprise.) But even if this series is all but certain to ask more questions than it ever answers, it's surprisingly easy to yield to The Leftovers. The show is so masterfully constructed and powerfully executed that your gnawing narrative concerns—Why are these people here? Where are they going?—fade away, and you find yourself mesmerized by the show's pure power. Justin Theroux is bluntly effective as the ostensible protagonist and unreliable narrator; you can't help but sympathize with his fraying state of mind, even as you wonder whether everything is his fault. But The Leftovers is most effective when focusing on other residents of Mapleton, its Upstate New York suburb, most notably Carrie Coon's heartbreaking mother and Ann Dowd's pitiless cult leader. It's all unapologetically messy, and at times you can feel the show strain under the enormous weight of its undertaking. But The Leftovers always comes home to Mapleton, and when it does, it achieves a powerful catharsis, a heady mixture of tragedy and hope. It's big and bold and often baffling, but you know that it's giving you everything it has. And with an accomplished cast and intrepid writing, everything can feel like the whole damn world.

12. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 1). Penny Dreadful is a thoroughly outrageous piece of work, a mash-up of monster literature—Dracula! Frankenstein! The Wolfman!—set in the forbidding Gothic locale of turn-of-the-century London. But as outlandish as the show can be—and it is not especially interested in restraint—it is equally thoughtful in its sharp writing and evocative aesthetic. The series begins with a murder in the vein of Jack the Ripper and concludes with a phenomenally tense exorcism, with plenty of lurid material that would feel right at home in, well, in a penny dreadful. But it's all presented with an exquisite care that belies its narrative madness. For one, Penny Dreadful looks and sounds great, thanks to a hauntingly beautiful visual style and Abel Korzeniowski's supple score. More importantly, John Logan's dialogue is majestically ornate; his characters don't read lines so much as recite poetry, and his words achieve an eloquence that befits the period but never sounds stilted. Best of all, Penny Dreadful features an absolute powerhouse of a performance from Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, a genteel lady with her own monstrous secrets. Vanessa encapsulates everything that's great about the show, both the beauty and the savagery, and Green is utterly hypnotic whenever she graces the screen. This is a series replete with decapitations, disembowelments, and transformations that only take place in the light of the moon. Yet in its sublime presentation, its dexterous wordplay, and its captivating lead performance, it transcends its material, transforming the pages of trashy paperbacks into high art.

11. The Knick (Cinemax, Season 1). Remember when Steven Soderbergh retired? Blessedly, neither do I. But even if The Knick is the director's first foray into television, it still feels like he's making movies. It's fascinating that a series set in 1900 can feel so bracingly modern, and The Knick, more than any other current TV show, demonstrates the cinematic potential of the small screen. Soderbergh's electric style, combined with Cliff Martinez's pulsing score, gives every scene a kick, an edge, a sense that you're not sitting on your couch looking at your television (or laptop, or iPad) but that you're actively absorbing art. Of course, The Knick has plenty of juice to begin with. Sure, it's a doctor show, and we've all seen doctor shows. But there's something special about John Thackery (Clive Owen) and how his genius curdles into obsession. And there is something seismic in his collision with Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a rivalry that turns into a friendship, if one fraught with paranoia and resentment. Of course, most of The Knick's characters are drowning in one way or another, from Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), a woman trying to assert some agency in a sickeningly patriarchal world, to Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), a beleaguered administrator with a weakness for whores, to Lucy (Eve Hewson), a wide-eyed nurse who's susceptible to Thackery's charm and awed by his charisma, making her both a love interest and an inevitable victim. Their existential struggles gain invigorating life thanks to Soderbergh's restless camera, the kind of device that can turn a simple shot of Thackery sitting silently at a table into a visual expression of man's desperate need for power and control, or a brief image of Lucy giggling, girlishly covering her mouth with her hand, into a tragic picture of misbegotten love. The Knick is primarily a heightened fable about addiction—Thackery has a cocaine habit, of course—and in this regard, it's almost indecently persuasive. You watch it, it goes straight into your bloodstream, and then you just want more.

Coming tomorrow: the 10 best TV shows of the year.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ranking the TV Shows of 2014, #s 30-21: Girls, Transparent, Louie, and HBO's Black Sheep

The Manifesto is counting down every TV show we watched in 2014—all 50 of them. If you missed our previous installments, you can find them at these links:

Nos. 50-41
Nos. 40-31

30. Louie (FX, Season 4). Louis C.K. doesn't care about television norms, and Louie capitalizes on that disdain both for good and for ill. The show is defiantly unlike anything else on TV, and its fierce originality sometimes strays from feeling audacious to just plain weird. Some episodes go absolutely nowhere, and while C.K. takes evident glee in upending viewers' expectations, he's often doing so at the expense of delivering compelling material. But C.K. takes some real risks in Season 4, bravely diving into the world of long-form storytelling rather than settling for cheap, punchy skits. He also continues to elicit strong performances from Hadley Delaney and Ursula Parker, the actresses playing his young daughters. (His panicked approach to parenthood remains the heart of the series.) Not everything works, but when Louie is clicking—as in the case of "In the Woods", a 90-minute episode of staggering emotional depth—it feels like a revolution. That sort of payoff makes the show's more shambling moments worth tolerating. With an artist as imaginative and fearless as C.K., you need to leave the shackles off and just let him loose.

29. Peaky Blinders (Netflix/BBC, Season 2). After a fun first season, Peaky Blinders takes its time on its second go-round, and its deliberate pace seems at odds with its buoyant, boisterous energy. It's a disappointingly weak start—the assorted subplots feel messy, the supporting characters stuck in neutral—but it turns out that Peaky Blinders is playing the long game, because its sixth and final episode is an absolute master class of suspense, action, and humor. Cillian Murphy remains casually magnetic as Tommy Shelby, and while Tom Hardy tears into his preposterous part with palpable relish—seriously, his role as a Jewish gangster is so ridiculous, Hardy has no right making it as thrilling as he does—the real find is Charlotte Riley as Tommy's love interest and intellectual equal. (Sadly, Sam Neill's venal detective, once operating in intriguing shades of grey, has just about run his course.) The characters on Peaky Blinders make furtive dealings in darkly lit backrooms, but there's nothing sneaky about this show's clear, proud delivery of pulp entertainment.

28. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 2). Speaking of wildly entertaining. Banshee was agreeably moronic when it first premiered, mixing smoky Western tropes with Cinemax's penchant for outsized violence and bare breasts. As it's matured, however, Banshee has hinted at shifting from a rebellious exaggeration of other TV shows into an actual show of its own. Don't get me wrong, Season 2 is still nuts—there are insane shootouts and acrobatic sex scenes aplenty—but there are real character foundations in place now, and the sense that these people exist for reasons beyond shock value and titillation. Antony Starr has settled nicely into his part as a small-town sheriff with a secret, while Hoon Lee and Frankie Faison deliver some of the best mismatched buddy comedy this side of Martin and Riggs. Of course, Banshee still gets the adrenalin pumping, with well-conceived action sequences and high-pitched emotions. (It also may have finally solved its villain problem in the season finale.) It never takes itself too seriously, which is precisely why it now feels like a serious TV player. The violence may be bloody and the sex may be hot, but the show itself is always cool.

(And if the first three episodes of Season 3—the third of which features one of the most electric, exquisitely choreographed fight scenes ever to take place on TV—are any indication, it's only getting cooler.)

27. 24: Live Another Day (Fox, Season 9). Who saw this coming? 24 built the template for the modern action show, but when it limped to its ostensible conclusion back in 2010, it felt inconsequential. But Jack is back, and even if Kiefer Sutherland is as gruffly effective as he always was, the show itself feels recharged and vital. The shorter run helps; with only 12 episodes to fill, Season 9 doesn't need to pad things out with ludicrous subplots and useless ancillary characters. Mostly, though, Live Another Day succeeds simply by letting Jack Bauer fight terrorism against all odds. It's nothing new, but the execution here is sharp, and Sutherland plays up Jack's emotional exhaustion just enough to be affecting without becoming maudlin. (Yvonne Strahovski also proves to be a crucial addition, supplying a no-nonsense pluck that nicely complements Jack's live-wire energy.) Live Another Day doesn't rewrite the book, but it knows its pages well. That only makes sense, given that 24 wrote the book in the first place.

26. The Bridge (FX, Season 2). The Bridge is one of the richest shows on television, which makes its poor ratings (and ultimate cancellation) a bitter irony. Genre enthusiasts will take pleasure in the series' slick violence and menacing baddies, but The Bridge is more than just a particularly gritty procedural. It's also laden with flavor and complication, and this season abandons the serial-killer schlock of its predecessor in favor of a sprawling conspiracy plot that blurs lines between hero and villain, cop and criminal, America and Mexico. The show's pacing can be frustratingly deliberate, and Season 2's first half is often confusing, with its myriad characters and seemingly disconnected threads. But it leads to a powerful payoff on the back end, weaving those threads together with agility and force. More importantly, The Bridge still shines on a character level, especially in the strained-but-loyal partnership between detectives Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir), but also in the eccentricities of nominal heavies Fausto Galvan (Ramón Franco) and newcomer Eleanor Nacht (Franka Potente). I will mourn The Bridge's end, but I am grateful for the time I spent in its strange, unpredictable universe.

25. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 5). Boardwalk Empire's fourth season wasn't bad, exactly, but it certainly paled in comparison to the series' explosive first three outings. Thankfully, it rebounds for its swansong, thanks to a heightened sense of stakes and a surprisingly effective flashback structure. Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is one of the most ineffectual protagonists ever to headline a TV show, but his impotence is part of the point, and this season's digressions to his early days prove thematically potent, especially in the show's operatic finale. He's only part of the landscape, however, and Boardwalk Empire makes time for its many, many other players. The show always had too many characters to become truly engrossing, but it gives most of them fitting sendoffs, especially self-loathing Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and woebegone hustler Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), the latter of whom headlines the season's most affecting sequence. (In context, Jeffrey Wright's line reading of "Then tell yourself I will" is utterly haunting.) And on a micro level, Boardwalk Empire still sparkles with finely polished writing and stupendous period production design. It may not have been the triumphant flagship series that HBO once envisioned, but its legacy of memorable messiness is just the sort of ending that a character as complicated and ambiguous as Nucky Thompson deserves.

24. The Missing (Starz, Season 1). The Missing stars off as a howler, a shamelessly manipulative piece of fearmongering about a kidnapped child. But by the end of its third episode, it reveals itself as a ruthlessly well-plotted work of clever screenwriting, and its sense of merciless intelligence only deepens from there. James Nesbitt is very good as the child's distraught father, while Tchéky Karyo's weary performance as an aged detective serves as the series' emotional soul. But The Missing is less about its performances than its careful rationing of information, and even if you could accuse showrunners Harry and Jack Williams of toying with their audience, they do so with such meticulous patience that it doesn't much matter. The Missing is suspenseful, but any series about a disappearing child can feel tense. It's the show's gradual unspooling of its lurid history that lends it real tragic force.

23. Transparent (Amazon, Season 1). Transparent was hailed as a miracle by many critics, and while it's tempting to view that as a reflection of its subject matter rather than its quality, that would do the show a disservice. Besides, Transparent's setup—in which a middle-aged man struggles with his transition from man to woman—is almost beside the point. It's really a standard dysfunctional family story filtered through the particular lens of sexual confusion, which serves to amplify the sense of dissatisfaction and frustration that each of the characters experience. What makes Transparent so rewarding is its abiding affection for those characters. The headliner, of course, is Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, excellent), but the show is just as much about her three adult children: Sarah (Amy Landecker), a happily married mother who must reconcile long-dormant feelings of homosexuality; Josh (Jay Duplass), a caddish music producer who's unable to sustain a relationship longer than a few minutes; and, most of all, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann, fearlessly sloppy), an outright mess just trying to make sense of the world. That's true of everyone on Transparent, which infuses its characters' pratfalls with both hilarity and empathy. "I'm just a person," Maura declares during an especially heartbreaking moment. And Transparent, for all its bravura candor when it comes to tackling modern sexuality and its attendant cataclysms, is just a TV show. It's the show's spirit of love, forgiveness, and joy that makes it a good one.

22. Girls (HBO, Season 3). Girls doesn't need to change to stay good. It's felt fully realized ever since its premiere, and given that its main character, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham, as if you didn't already know that), seems genetically incapable of adjusting her behavior, you might expect the show to remain the same forever. But if Girls' third season continues to mine the territory that made it so successful—Hannah repeatedly does well for herself thanks to her intellect and force of will, then repeatedly sabotages her own success thanks to her insecurity and narcissism—it nevertheless evokes a spirit of restlessness, if not actual change. That's most evident in Hannah's developing relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), a union previously defined by sexual perversity and imbalance that is now plagued by far more normal problems: shifting career paths, concerns about long-term compatibility, routine jealousy. And even if Girls tends to marginalize its supporting characters, particularly Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna (note to Dunham: There is no such thing as too much Shoshanna), Hannah's turmoil still feels of a piece with modern society's rumbling sense of discontent, even if it's also entirely her own. And with an episode like "Beach House", Girls reminds us just how good it can be—how spectacularly jagged and honest it can feel—when it throws its four main characters into a pan and lets them sizzle. Sure, it's still a series about four spoiled, bratty white girls, but it also feels like a show about the world.

21. The Newsroom (HBO, Season 3). I recognize that I'm supposed to hate this show. Lord knows everyone else does. But here's the thing about Aaron Sorkin: He's an amazing writer. Yes, he's pompous, and yes, his predilection for condescension can be irritating (though it's far less present this season). But he knows words, he knows characters, and I love the way he puts them together—his rich, stylized dialogue is unlike that of any other writer (it's usually funnier, too). Politically, this season of The Newsroom is less focused than in the past, which is for the best; avoiding hot-button issues allows Sorkin to concentrate on his characters, not his proselytizing. The show also still rocks a killer cast: Jeff Daniels is effortless as a mellower Will McAvoy, Emily Mortimer remains the series' underrated glue as MacKenzie McHale, and Thomas Sadoski and Olivia Munn are an absolute riot as romantically confused coworkers Don and Sloan. If you want to remember The Newsroom for its holier-than-thou rants or its scolding retroactive news coverage, that's your prerogative. I choose to recall Will's good-natured bickering with his attorney (a terrific Marcia Gay Harden), or his warm friendship with Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston). Fare thee well, Newsroom. You made a lot of people angry, but you always made me laugh.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 20-11.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ranking the TV Shows of 2014, #s 40-31: House of Cards, Homeland, and Lots More HBO

The Manifesto is counting down every TV show we watched in 2014—all 50 of them. If you missed numbers 50-41, you can find them here.

On to the next set of 10:

40. Getting On (HBO, Season 2). The second season of Getting On takes all of 30 seconds to establish its sweet, sickly tone. As grieving family members watch an elderly loved one die in a hospital bed, a few nurses hover behind them, with one of them finally breaking the silence: "Take all the time you need. But we need this bed by 11." That sort of behavior—simultaneously compassionate and officious—is the heart of Getting On, a cringe comedy in the style of The Office transplanted to a geriatric ward. Most of the main characters are sicker than the patients they treat, including the doctor obsessed with studying the urinary habits of mice and the nurse who lugs her personal baggage wherever she goes. The show is occasionally very funny, often very painful, but mostly just kind of there. But even if not much happens in Getting On, the series knows its characters well, and it introduces just enough genuine warmth to offset the squirming outrageousness. You won't want to go to this hospital ward before you die, but you might enjoy watching it from a distance.

39. Looking (HBO, Season 1). Looking is another show that understands its characters without giving them much to do. It has a strong sense of place (it explores the gay scene in San Francisco), and it feels culturally relevant. I just wish it weren't as tentative as its protagonists. It has some terrific moments, most notably an entire episode in which protagonist Patrick (Frozen's Jonathan Groff) spends the day on the lam with Richie, his new sort-of-boyfriend (Raúl Castillo). And it's refreshingly frank, not only about society's taboos regarding gay sex but also about the actual sex itself. But the show tends to idle in low gear, as though carving out an untapped niche in the TV landscape nullifies the need for a real dramatic engine. Looking's first season is a solid, respectful introduction to the lives of these men. For its second season, it's time for the show to stop looking and start feeling.

38. Outlander (Starz, Season 1). Can one great episode elevate an entire show? "The Wedding," Outlander's seventh episode, is a tremendous hour of television, filled with nervy storytelling, powerful character development, and, it must be said, some really hot sex. It's so good that it obscures the muddled, clumsy quality of the remainder of the show's first half-season. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to like here: The premise, in which World War II nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) suddenly finds herself whisked several centuries into the past, is inherently compelling, while the verdant Scottish hillsides make for some beautiful locations. Balfe also displays strong chemistry with love interest Jamie (Sam Heughan), and it's always a treat to see Tobias Menzies (Brutus on Rome, Edmure Tully on Game of Thrones) pop up, much less playing two different roles. But Outlander is often far too clunky in its presentation, and Claire's incessant voiceover is a ghastly screenwriting crutch that robs the show of its intimacy. Outlander isn't yet a good show, but it has the pieces to become one. Yet a series shrouded in magic and mysticism would be well-served placing some faith in its viewers.

37. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 3). It's still basically dumb, and its forays into corporate politics remain utter nonsense. But after an alarmingly bad second season that went dark but not deep, House of Lies returns to form by outputting calorie-free fluff. The show's individual plots are inane—never more so than when examining the feud between two high-powered hip-hop artists squabbling for control of their fashion company—but on a show like House of Lies, the plot is essentially filler. What really matters are the character dynamics, and they remain amusing. Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell spark together nicely, but the show is never better than when its supporting odd couple, Clyde (Ben Schwartz) and Doug (Josh Lawson), are yapping and snapping at one another. (Meanwhile, Dawn Olivieri remains the series' secret weapon as Cheadle's volcanic ex-wife.) Despite its slick appearance, House of Lies will teach you nothing about how the world of management consulting works. But it knows a thing or two about putdowns and dick jokes.

36. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 1 (back half) and 2 (front half)). When it premiered in the fall of 2013, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt like unfulfilled potential; it assembled a team of strong actors (led by the invaluable Clark Gregg), placed its characters in theoretically exciting situations, then basically spun its wheels. But the back half of Season 1 allowed the show to synergize with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was just the jumpstart it needed. The series still has plenty of work to do—the long-form plotting is still too deliberate, and the writing isn't as smart or as funny as it should be (especially given the Whedon pedigree attached)—but it has some real energy now, and a sense that it's its own creation, rather than a minor addendum to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to build on its own mythology and enrich the camaraderie between its characters, the more it has a chance of becoming essential viewing on its own terms.

35. Homeland (Showtime, Season 4). What a roller-coaster. I didn't hate Homeland's second and third seasons as much as most, just as I didn't quite find rapture in its first (and best) entry. But Season 4 is a wild, sobering reminder of just how good and bad the show can be. Parts of it—such as Carrie's (Claire Danes) attempts to rescue Saul (Mandy Patinkin) with nothing more than a satellite and a cell phone, or the premiere's smash-and-grab SUV attack (Hey, isn't that Corey Stoll? Oh, never mind.)—are suspenseful and masterfully executed. And parts—such as the thuddingly tone-deaf finale, or a pitifully undercooked subplot that feels like 24's leftovers involving an ambassador and her husband (Hey, isn't that Duck Phillips?)—are infuriatingly stupid. Danes is still doing good work as Carrie, and anything involving Quinn (Rupert Friend) remains compelling (well, except when it's a manufactured romance between him and Carrie). And Homeland still shows sufficient flashes of brilliance that I'm greedily returning for Season 5. In the interim, I can only hope that the series hires some writers who know people as well as pyrotechnics.

34. Married (FX, Season 1). Married is the grim, unsettling tale of two people who remain together primarily because it would take too much effort for them to grow apart. That sounds like it should be miserable, but while you occasionally want to despise Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) for their selfishness, Married injects just enough sunshine into its cloudy universe—and Faxon and Greer exhibit such natural tenderness for one other—that its lead characters are worth rooting for. It can also be downright hysterical at times, such as when Russ and Lina bicker about their sex life during a parent-teacher conference, or when he phones her for assistance from a sperm clinic while she's prowling the aisles at Bed Bath & Beyond. Married can occasionally be a bummer, and its pratfalls sometimes ring with sheer misery rather than the desired schadenfreude. But its marriage feels real, and often enough, so do its laughs.

33. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 2). Let's face it: House of Cards is an idiotic show. Characters behave in nonsensical ways, the plot spills out seemingly at random, and any attempts at political realism feel laughable. But who cares? The show is a total blast, and Kevin Spacey is so obviously enjoying himself as manipulative politician Frank Underwood that it's impossible not to get swept up in the tide. It's also a series that's ideally suited to Netflix's binge-watching model: The faster you progress from one episode to the next, the less time you have to linger on the story's inconsistencies, instead just savoring the melodrama and the ridiculous twists. You want realism? Turn on C-SPAN. I'll take House of Cards' Machiavellian antics and out-of-nowhere threesomes any day.

32. Olive Kitteridge (HBO, Season 1). A four-part miniseries, Olive Kitteridge is somewhat unique in the television universe in that it possesses a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It also progresses through those parts in descending quality. The first hour of Olive Kitteridge is phenomenal, with Frances McDormand perfectly evoking the steely strength and ruthless judgment of the title character, while Richard Jenkins is ideally matched as her loyal, hangdog husband who's never happier than when beaming with pride while mentoring the sheltered Denise (a fantastic Zoe Kazan). The second installment is nearly as good, but as Olive ages, the series begins to lose its rare feeling of brittle affection, replacing it with ugliness and despair. Still, McDormand is riveting throughout, and Olive Kitteridge remains a powerful, character-driven drama. We don't have enough of those on TV, just like we don't meet enough protagonists as three-dimensional and nuanced as Olive.

31. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 1). Silicon Valley feels like it should be a great show. It has great writing (Office Space's Mike Judge is the showrunner), great acting (Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr are especially excellent), and a great premise (a bunch of socially dysfunctional tech nerds must adjust after receiving a boatload of money to develop a new app, or something). But it isn't quite great, primarily because the main character, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), is maddeningly ineffectual, but also because its B- and C-plots don't always land. (Series regular Christopher Evan Welch dying halfway through filming hardly helped matters.) Nevertheless, this is a very funny show, with extremely sharp banter—Nanjiani and Starr are absolutely perfect foils, while T.J. Miller and Zach Woods bring their own respective brands of anarchy and obsequiousness—and a verisimilar depiction of a region choked with arrogance and anxiety. It's a series that feels bracingly smart, never more so than when its characters are being hilariously stupid.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 30-21.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ranking the TV Shows of 2014, #s 50-41: Downton Abbey, HBO Finales, and More

[Note: If you're wondering what happened to the conclusion of our ranked list of 2014 movies, don't worry, we haven't forgotten about it. But before finalizing our top 10 list, we feel it's our duty to track down and watch a few more critically acclaimed releases—including Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year, and Two Days, One Night—as those could feasibly contend for an appearance on the final list. As such, we're postponing the countdown for one week and switching to television as a stopgap.]

We are living in a golden age of television. Network TV may be a graveyard these days, but between the premium cable boom and the rise of original programming on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, television viewers have no shortage of high-quality options. Some are serialized and novelistic in scope, others are episodic and tightly plotted, but overall, the world of television is growing increasingly cinematic, blurring the line between big screen and small. Movie stars pop up on FX, A-list directors collaborate with HBO, and industry talent in general is eagerly exploring the unique storytelling opportunities that TV has to offer.

And boy, are there loads of opportunities. The Manifesto is nominally a movie blog, but that hasn't prevented me from diving deep into the wonderful world of television, which brings me to my confession: I watch a lot of TV. It could be charitably described as unhealthy. All told, I watched 50 separate TV series in their entirety in 2014 alone. I feel confident, and a bit ashamed, in declaring that that's more than you watched. But as more strange and intriguing TV shows continue to pop up, I spend more and more time plopped on my couch, basking in the glories of original high-definition content.

And so, what follows is a ranked list of every TV show that I watched in 2014. Yet the scary part is that, even with the ludicrous number of hours I've committed to the realm of television, there remain a number of highly regarded programs that I've yet to see. These include, by way of example: Mozart in the Jungle, Jane the Virgin, Archer, Parks and Recreation, Black Mirror, Broad City, Rectify, and Review. I apologize that I failed to get to each of those series, and I fully intend to devour all of them at some point in the future.

But here's the best part: I could theoretically watch any of those shows right now, just as you can watch any of the 50 shows I'm about to discuss with the push of a button. So fire up your Netflix account, hit up your friends for their HBO Go passwords, and figure out whether you want to use iTunes or OnDemand to discover the magic of FX and AMC. It's a brave new world of television, and the access point is right at your fingertips. Get to it.

On to the list. Fifty being a nice round number, we'll be splitting these into 5 posts of 10 shows each. As always, don't concentrate too much on the specific ranking, which is ultimately arbitrary. I should note, however, that this list is not a bell curve—I don't consider half of the shows on this list to be below-average. Thus, once we get into the 30s, I can happily recommend that you watch all of the series I'll be writing up; by the time we reach the final two posts, that recommendation will turn into a plea.

Without further ado, here is the Manifesto's ranked list of every television show that we watched in full in 2014 (for convenience, I'm including the network and particular season number in parentheses):

50. The League (FX, Season 6). The League used to be an enjoyable show—hit-and-miss, sure, but generally wacky and inspired in its misanthropic humor. Now? There's a scene in this season of The League in which a mentally retarded Asian man is hired to teach a woman how to prepare gourmet food, only for him to dump a bowl full of noodles onto his head. Later, the same character defends himself in a fight by shitting himself. This is what passes for comedy on the current iteration of The League.

49. True Blood (HBO, Season 7). It's a shame that True Blood ran as long as it did, because people will forget just how fresh it felt when it premiered back in 2008, or how a hammy Denis O'Hare stole its third season with a magnetic performance. But the ratings juggernaut concludes with a pitiful whimper: the plotting is scattered, the action is limp, and the character development is inane. Let us remember this groundbreaking show at its best, not at its last.

48. American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, Season 4). I don't deny that the latest entry in FX's gonzo flagship is crazy. When you revolve your show around a murderous silent clown, conjoined twins, and Jessica Lange as a German sexpot, you're going to have crazy in abundance. The problem is that Freak Show's ridiculousness feels turgid rather than fun. Yes, it's violent, it's lurid, and it's bonkers. It's also just plain dull.

47. Tyrant (FX, Season 1). Tyrant is an American television show set in the Middle East. That alone is laudable. But Tyrant always feels like a TV show: stiff and false, with actors playing parts rather than inhabiting characters. (A shaky lead performance from Adam Rayner doesn't help matters.) When I learned that Tyrant was in development, I was pleased that FX was taking such a risk. Then I watched it, and my pleasure evaporated, replaced by bafflement and dismay.

46. The Spoils of Babylon (IFC, Season 1). You'd think that a parody of soapy prestige pictures starring Will Ferrell and Tobey Maguire would be a can't-miss proposition. But while some pieces of Oscar bait may be overwrought, at least they tell stories. The Spoils of Babylon didn't need to have a great screenplay to work, but it needed to have some sort of hook beyond Ferrell's drunken rants that bookend each half-hour. As it is, the show feels like a potentially funny SNL skit stretched over six painfully long episodes.

45. The Strain (FX, Season 1). Some would argue that pop culture has reached its saturation point with vampires, but I still think the bloodsuckers can serve as the foundation for fruitful stories, both literal and metaphorical. But The Strain takes itself so damn seriously that it turns its vampire-infestation plot into a drag. It is also, with the exception of one gripping bottle episode, poorly executed, with feeble effects and hilariously overdone flashbacks. The Strain had potential—any show starring Corey Stoll and David Bradley does—but similar to its fanged villains, it sucks all the fun out of life.

[Also, if it seems like I'm unduly hammering on FX here, what with the network placing four shows in the bottom six spots on this list, don't worry: There was plenty of terrific stuff on that channel this year. Just wait.]

44. Community (NBC, Season 5). The darling of Internet fandom, Community was always a polarizing show, though I never really understood why. Its much-beloved first three seasons were thoroughly uneven, offering moments of inspired parody and wit to go along with thinly sketched ideas and pandering humor. And though creator Dan Harmon made his much-anticipated return for Season 5, the show's final go-round with NBC (it's being resurrected online in the near future), his guiding hand doesn't really change that hit-and-miss comedy quotient. Every episode of this season's run made me laugh at least a few times, just as every episode made me groan. That may be the most damning indictment of a show that courted such controversy and passion: It's completely adequate.

43. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 4). Speaking of adequate, it's difficult to imagine a more middle-of-the-road show than Falling Skies. It has solid production values, the acting is decent (it's always good to see Noah Wyle and Will Patton getting work), and the plot, while dopey, is at least reasonably imaginative and well-executed. There's nothing terribly great about this series, but there's not much wrong with it either. It approaches its alien-invasion concept with thoughtfulness and care, even as it also makes room for a swaggering character like Colin Cunningham's wisecracking outlaw. The pieces don't always connect, but they're still interesting pieces. If this were the '90s, Falling Skies would likely be one of the best shows on TV. Its relative mediocrity says less about its own merits than about just how far television has come.

42. Downton Abbey (BBC/PBS, Season 4). I just can't give up on Downton Abbey. Sure, its increasingly swollen cast of primary characters is absurd, and roughly half of its innumerable subplots are insufferable (looking at you, Isobel). And while its period reconstruction is convincing, I don't care for its waxy, video-like look. Still, some of the characters' stories remain deeply affecting, particularly the uncertain future of Lady Mary (the marvelously icy Michelle Dockery) and the warm respect between Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Downton Abbey never gets under my skin, but it also rarely gets on my nerves. If that sounds like a tepid endorsement, it's only fitting for a show that is playfully, unfailingly polite.

41. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 3 (back half) and 4 (front half)). Grimm seemed destined for cancellation long ago, but I'm pleased it stuck around, since it's finally starting to develop some rhythm. Its slow pacing is irksome, and it's as likely to offer up a horrendous hour as a good one, but such is life with the 22-episode network format. (Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a few duds mixed in to its 144 episodes.) But the cast now gels together nicely, especially the friendly rapport between Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli, miles along from where he started) and Eddy Monroe (Silas Weird Mitchell, the series' MVP). Grimm will never be a great show—it is too formulaic and tentative for that—but it has its pleasures, including its ever-expanding mythology and its sense of camaraderie. Given the current state of network TV, you could do a lot worse.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 40-31.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014: The Honorable Mentions (#s 16-11)

Nearing the finish line in our countdown of 2014 releases, we're just inches away from our top 10, which means it's time to present the year's honorable mentions. But first, in case you missed it, here's what we've covered so far.

Nos. 92-79 (Tiers 12 and 11)
Nos. 78-71 (Tier 10)
Nos. 70-64 (Tier 9)
Nos. 63-56 (Tier 8)
Nos. 55-48 (Tier 7)
Nos. 47-40 (Tier 6)
Nos. 39-32 (Tier 5)
Nos. 31-24 (Tier 4)
Nos. 23-17 (Tier 3)

Tier 2: The Honorable Mentions

16. Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-Ho, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 84 Metacritic). Snowpiercer's opening crawl briskly informs viewers of the film's post-apocalyptic setting, one in which the world's remaining population huddles from sub-zero temperatures within "the rattling ark". In other words, this is a movie about a bunch of angry people stuck together on a train. But the use of the artful phrase "rattling ark" suggests that Snowpiercer is not your ordinary action movie, and Bong uses this simple conceit as a launching pad for an extraordinarily fertile film, one bristling with tantalizing ideas even as it's also bustling with kickass action. The movie is painstakingly linear, and it begins at the back of the train, where a throng of refugees live in squalid conditions. Snowpiercer isn't coy about its allegorical caste system; when a bigwig named Mason (a spectacular Tilda Swinton) ventures to the rear to deliver an exasperated oratory about haves and have-nots—one that distills the principles of despotism into three little words: "be a shoe"—she might as well be reading a press release from Wall Street. It's cute, but Bong isn't the type to get bogged down in politics. He's too obsessed with moving forward, as is Curtis (Chris Evans, effectively subdued), a bearded plebian who stages a bloody revolt and leads his comrades (poor choice of words?) toward the front of the train, car by car. As they advance, so too does the movie's aesthetic, shifting from the dingy, smeared greys of the tail section to a dazzling array of vibrant colors and discordant sights, such as a luminescent aquarium. (My favorite interlude involves the sudden appearance of Alison Pill as a bubbly kindergarten teacher spewing dogma and bullets.) Snowpiercer's momentum flags a bit once it runs out of surprises, but for the most part, it's an unpredictable, rip-roaring ride. During her riveting speech, Mason insists that a productive society is founded on order, with chaos as its enemy. It's a notion that Snowpiercer, with its careening turns and striking visuals, gleefully throws back in her face.

15. The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 81% RT, 69 MC). The Fault in Our Stars may be a modern movie—when its characters exchange text messages, the words pop onto the screen like sunny thought bubbles—but its sensibilities are proudly old-fashioned. There is nothing especially surprising or even original about this warm, sensitive weepie. Based on a bestseller by John Green, it's the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, magnificent), a cancer warrior who informs us during a startlingly frank opening voiceover that she is presiding over a tale of death. But first there must be love, and Hazel finds it in Gus (Ansel Elgort, quite good), a fellow survivor who flatters Hazel incessantly but always in a cheerful, respectful way that never broaches harassment. The Fault in Our Stars is nominally the story of Hazel and Gus' shared battle against disease, but it's also much more than that. Hazel is not your typical wilting flower but a strong-willed fighter, one who bluntly acknowledges the fact of her cancer even as she attempts to defeat it. And her interactions with both Gus and, more notably, her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, both excellent), spark with honesty, warmth, and even anger. Hazel may be an archetype, but she feels like a fully fledged person, and all credit goes to Woodley, who delivers yet another effortlessly natural performance that is as free of vanity—she spends virtually the entire movie with oxygen tubes stuck up her nose—as it is full of vitality. The Fault in Our Stars is entirely her story, and it unfolds with uncommon compassion and grace. Yet it is also, in its tender way, strangely merciless. It's an undeniably heart-wrenching film, but its aching depiction of one teenager's struggle to survive seems almost engineered for maximum emotional trauma. This is a lovely movie, but be warned: It will break your spirit, and it will have your tears.

14. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 89% RT, 76 MC). Even with his piercing blue eyes and gleaming smile, there is something not quite right about David (Dan Stevens) when we first see him darkening the doorway of a rural New Mexico family, announcing himself as an Army pal of their slain son. That sense of not-quite-rightness persists for some time, until it curdles into downright wrongness, which is to say, flat-out awesomeness. But first, the simmer: David smoothly ingratiates himself into the lives of this unhappy foursome, behaving with unfailing politeness and charm. In addition to helping around the house—he proves an able drinking buddy for the family's patriarch—he generates some sexual tension with their surly teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), and serves as a protector for their timid son, Luke (Brendan Meyer). Yet even as David is playing the hero, Wingard makes clear that he has a screw loose, and Stevens—known to legions of television fans as Matthew from Downton Abbey—deftly reinforces that perception through his unblinking gaze and confident swagger. The Guest could have coasted indefinitely on its vibe of lurking malevolence, but at its rough halfway point, David gets his hands on some guns, at which point the movie becomes—and I'm using technical terminology here—batshit crazy. But even as The Guest squanders its delirious tension, it more than compensates with sheer cool, whether it's through Steve Moore's pulsing Halloween-esque score or Wingard's knack for stylish set pieces, as when a high-school dance arena becomes a stalker's playground. (Lance Reddick also shows up, which never hurts.) The Guest is pure, campy fun, which is not to say that it is tacky; Wingard is a professional who proves that meticulous craft and a smoldering lead performance can transform a genre exercise into art. Early in The Guest, Luke asks David what he plays to do to a gang of bullies they've tailed to a local bar. "Nothing bad," David responds. He's lying, of course—the wolfish glint in those blue eyes makes that plain as day—but then again, maybe not. When David breaks bad, this slick, lively thriller can get awfully good.

13. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 92% RT, 88 MC). The hotel looks like a dollhouse, with its manicured façade, its intricate latticework, and its perfectly symmetrical construction. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is its own form of exquisite manufacturing, boasting pristine camerawork, fastidious framing, and immaculate production design. In other words, it's a Wes Anderson movie. But unlike some of his prior work, in which Anderson's obsession with artistic perfection sucked the soul out of his filmmaking, The Grand Budapest Hotel exhibits a robust, even wild energy that contrasts beautifully with its unfailingly precise staging. Perfectly embodying this duality is the film's protagonist, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, wonderful), the concierge at the title retreat. The ideal caretaker, Gustave is tireless, dedicated, and resourceful. He is also conceited, horny, and delectably vulgar, and Fiennes takes visible relish in chipping away at Gustave's enduring politeness with bouts of selfishness and bursts of profanity. Yet while the movie's frantic plot is a great deal of manic fun—there are chases and gunfights, prison escapes and globetrotting escapades—it is also tinged with a melancholy that feels revolutionary for an Anderson picture. Parts of it are very funny (never more so than when a cat makes an abrupt exit from a parlor), while parts—particularly when Saoirse Ronan graces the screen with her presence—are downright joyous, but its lingering impression is one of sadness. There's an unvarnished sincerity to the storytelling here that both undercuts and elevates the punctilious presentation, and this emotional texture—in conjunction with his prior effort, the sublime Moonrise Kingdom—suggests that, after 18 years and 8 features, Anderson is finally growing up. Like all of his films, The Grand Budapest Hotel will dazzle your eye and tickle your funny bone. But it also reaffirms its director's newfound willingness, and ability, to ever-so-gently tug at your heartstrings.

12. Dear White People (Justin Simien, 92% RT, 79 MC). At a time when race relations in America are an absolute mess, Dear White People feels vital, even if it's more of an agitator than a salve. A blistering critique of how the veneer of political correctness shackles open debate, the movie takes place at a fictional Ivy League university where racial tensions are constantly seething, threatening to boil over. They eventually do, thanks to a brazenly racist frat party that, as the end credits reveal, bears alarming similarities to real-life events. Most of the film, however, takes place in flashback, chronicling the buildup to the eruption. Simien splits his focus across a number of characters, some more interesting than others, but his greatest creation is Sam (Tessa Thompson, very good), a light-skinned black student with a radio show and a gift for provocation. Sam casually instructs her white listeners about the dos and don'ts of contemporary racial mores—apparently, using the term "African-American" is actually bigoted, as it's an overly formal label that betrays an underlying fear of upsetting black people—but Simien isn't a lecturer. He's more interested in fostering a discussion, and Dear White People is refreshingly frank in broaching a topic that the cinema too often treats with wariness and anxiety. Yet what's really impressive about Dear White People is what a good movie it is. Simien's volatility naturally recalls Spike Lee (whom the film name-checks), but his formal discipline is more evocative of Wes Anderson, composing crisp, steady frames with economy and flair. He also stays grounded in his characters, no mean feat for a film that's so boisterously topical. Dear White People has a lot to say, and it speaks loudly and without fear, but it's never more arresting than when quietly allowing Sam to relay a painful childhood memory. As Simien well knows, the political means nothing without the personal.

11. Proxy (Zack Parker, 57% RT, 57 MC). Proxy does not fuck around. It opens with an act of violence so unspeakable that it seems designed to test audiences' endurance. From there, things grow less visibly upsetting but infinitely more creepy, with Parker using silence and mood to invest the characters' seemingly inconsequential actions—shopping in a department store, ambling through a windswept parking lot, moseying to the refrigerator for a snack—with unbearable tension. Initially, the movie focuses on Esther (Alexia Rasmussen, unsettlingly blank), a vacant twentysomething woman who has recently suffered a profound loss. She shuffles to a support group, where she meets Melanie (Alexa Havins, on point), a perky blond who seems a bit too sanguine, given her own tragic circumstances. From there, Proxy progresses with shocking unpredictability. It is rare to watch a movie where you have absolutely no inkling of its trajectory, but while Proxy takes one sharp turn after another, it never feels like a cheat. That's because, even as you're processing its haywire twists and its shifts in point of view, you're also caught up in its quicksand-like tone, a disquieting sensation where everything somehow feels off, like you're looking through a fractured prism. For the most part, Parker's technique isn't flashy; he points and shoots, and he lets his actors' tentativeness enhance the film's aura of unease. (Rasmussen is particularly unnerving—her Esther always seems strangely out-of-place.) Now and then, however, he lets loose with an operatic flourish—one slow-motion sequence is especially heightened, not to mention flat-out nuts—at which point Proxy becomes both ridiculous and completely spellbinding. You'll be relieved to escape this movie when it's over. You'll also wonder if it has really let you go.

More coming soon.