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.

1 comment:

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