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.