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.