Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 62-51: Netflix Comedies, BBC Boredom, and Louis C.K.'s Failure

Ellie Kemper in Tina Fey's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"
God, I watch a lot of television.

This is both a boast and a confession. In the current era of #PeakTV, it requires a considerable level of dedication to keep up with the overwhelming number of scripted shows that air at all times and across a dozen different platforms. It also requires a pitiful social life, a prohibitive cable bill, and a perpetual lack of sleep. For we deviants who are committed to scouring all corners of the artistic world, watching TV is less a hobby than a calling, a solemn quest to discover the next great prestige drama or quirky comedy.

It is also a losing battle. The forthcoming series of posts will chronicle my thoughts on a healthy (OK, unhealthy) number of TV shows, but what galls me are not the series I disliked but those I haven't seen. Unless you write about television for a living, it is virtually impossible to consume all of the available programming (at least, not without inventing the 37-hour-day). There is, quite literally, too much damn TV.

Which brings me to my apology: Despite having watched more TV in 2015 than is advisable for a passably functioning human, I didn't watch everything. I didn't even come close. As such, I probably missed one or more of your pet programs—not because of malice or apathy, but the unforgiving tyranny of opportunity cost. For every show I did watch—again, there were quite a few—this meant that I consciously chose not to watch something else, something critically acclaimed, something beloved. A partial, woefully incomplete list of such shows that I failed to view in 2015 include the following: Archer, Bloodline, Bojack Horseman, Broad City, Casual, The Good Wife, Humans (curse AMC for censoring British imports!), Inside Amy Schumer, Jane the Virgin, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (curse BBC America as well!), The Last Kingdom, Manhattan, Mozart in the Jungle, Review, and UnREAL.

Now for the good news: I still watched plenty. Last year, I watched (and ranked) exactly 50 television shows, an alarming number. This year, I somehow upped that number to 62. And, as is the Manifesto's annual duty, I shall now rank them all. The usual warning that accompanies such rankings applies: They're more guidelines than rules, and the list would likely shake out differently if I formed it a week ago or a week from now. (Think of it like a poll, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus five spots.) But if the Internet was made for one thing, it was to induce people into irrational fits of anger by arbitrarily comparing individual works of art against one another. So, by all means, get fired up.

But more importantly, get your queues fired up. The great thing about modern TV-watching is that viewers are no longer at the mercy of networks. You can watch most of these shows if you just make the investment in doing so. And remember, this list isn't a bell curve—most of the shows cited are good. Some of them are just plain great.

Enough with the preamble. Here begins the Manifesto's ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2015:

62. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 5; last year's ranking: 43 of 50). Falling Skies was never a particularly good show, but it was rarely risible. That changed during its last and least season, a pitiful amalgam of shaky action scenes, sloppy writing, and dubious plotting. (Turning Colin Cunningham's slippery malcontent into a mustache-twirling bald baddie should have been a home run, but it flopped.) Everything disintegrated during the ghastly finale, a moronic hour that robbed the entire series of stakes and felt like a monstrous cheat. Falling Skies was never worthy of much of a legacy—its most apt descriptor was "passable"—but it still deserved to go out better than this.

61. The League (FXX, Season 7; last year: 50). Hey, it wasn't the worst show on television! The final season of The League still made me chuckle one or two times per episode (usually involving Jon LaJoie's Taco), but it still couldn't escape the sensation that this thing should have ended years ago. At its early peak, The League felt like a renovated Seinfeld, deftly threading its misanthropic characters together with wit and surprise. At its nadir, it had cartoon versions Seth Rogen and Jason Mantzoukas sporting "pube beards of bees". Sadly, the last season of The League veered far too much toward the latter.

60. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FXX, Season 1). I suppose there are worse things than Denis Leary playing a washed-up, drugged-out, flailing former rock star. (Whether there are worse things than John Corbett playing Leary's antagonistic guitarist named Flash is another matter.) And for the prurient among us, there are pleasures to be had from the camera ogling Elizabeth Gillies. But in trying to create a world about the niggling dissatisfaction that besets past celebrities, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll falls victim to its own pervasive ennui. It tries incredibly hard to be as low-key as possible, resulting in a show that has no real reason to exist. That in turn results in a program that is largely harmless, mostly joyless, and entirely meaningless.

59. Louie (FX, Season 5; last year: 30). Here we go. The fifth season of Louie currently sports a sparkling 91 score on Metacritic, with an 8.4 user score. Setting aside methodological qualms (just how many episodes do critics watch before they review a TV show, anyway?), it's safe to say the show is well-liked.

But I've had enough. I've defended Louie in the past because Louis C.K. really is a comic genius when he wants to be, and his insistently erratic series intermittently delivered some transcendent episodes during its first four seasons, which helped offset its frequent ventures into banal absurdity. But the fifth season stretched me past my breaking point. My problem with Louie isn't that it's no longer funny; I don't need to pigeonhole shows into rigid classifications of "comedy" or "drama", and I have no problem with nominal comedies angling for pathos. (Last season, Louie itself gave us the stunning "In the Woods", a 90-minute powerhouse of an episode that barely featured a single joke.) My problem is that C.K. has chosen to replace the show's awkward comedy with... nothing. There's no hook here—no thematic identity, no character development, no purpose. Essentially, Louie now offers nothing of interest beyond seeing just how unbelievably useless some of its episodes can be. (The only exceptions involve bits featuring his two kids—because even C.K. can't prevent Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker from being adorable—and Pamela Adlon as his soul mate/life-ruiner.) For God's sake, the season finale features Louie losing his luggage at the airport, then wandering around looking for his bag. (If you're thinking, "Hey, that's happened to me!" just remember: Relatability does not equate to watchability.) It's as if C.K. is engaging in a devious experiment, continuously making Louie less and less like a TV show and more like a nonsensical free-association exercise, just to see if critics will continue to praise his brilliance.

Something tells me he'll survive without the Manifesto's endorsement, but I'm jumping ship. In a prior season, there's a scene where C.K. expresses shyness about taking his shirt off in front of his girlfriend. That's a sweet, human moment, but it's also a harbinger of what Louie has become. The adulation may be universal, but take a closer look. This emperor has no clothes.

58. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 4; last year: 37). It's unfathomable that a series starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell could belch out a 12-episode season that featured a grand total of two memorable moments. (In one, Josh Lawson and the invaluable Jenny Slate try to convince Bell's pregnant consultant to donate her unborn baby to them; in the other, Cheadle and professional agitator Ben Schwartz needle Lawson into sending an especially regrettable text message.) House of Lies was always thematically wobbly—its supposed skewering of big-business culture never rang true—but that never mattered when it was funny and revolved around strong characters. Now, it's just marking time, with insipid serialized storytelling alongside feeble subplots and increasingly limp attempts at humor. The show is designed to generate tension in the possibility of its protagonist making millions, but it's hard to care when everything on screen is bankrupt.

57. Downton Abbey (BBC, Season 5; last year: 42). Speaking of marking time. Downton Abbey will never be a bad TV show—it is too polite, and too tasteful, to engender an emotion as powerful as hatred. The problem is that, for all its soapy melodrama and irritating contrivances, it rarely engenders any emotion at all. The occasional scene can deliver something resembling an impact—invariably, this will involve Michelle Dockery's prickly heiress, Jim Carter's imperious butler, or Rob James-Collier's furtive footman—but the typical episode is a handsomely appointed bore. The plotting is predictable, the characters are shrill, and the writing is painfully obvious. Downton Abbey is defiantly a period piece, but while it's supposed to be transportive, it's really just enervating. Perhaps no other television show is so effective at putting viewers to sleep.

56. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix, Season 1). If you've seen the original Wet Hot American Summer movie—a thudding 2001 parody that happened to feature a remarkable number of young actors who grew up to be stars (including Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper)—you know what you're going to get from this kooky, hectic series. Roughly one-quarter of the jokes land, but the real problem is the show's devout commitment to extreme discomfort. The impressive cast has a light comic touch, but showrunners David Wain and Michael Showalter traffic in heaviness, weighing down every scene with exaggerated literalism. That clearly appeals to the significant population of viewers who turned the tiresome movie into a cult classic, but it wears exceptionally thin very quickly, to the point where you're desperate to fast-forward the scene until the next overlong joke begins. "I'm not trying to belabor a point here," Janeane Garofalo says during the finale, before spending several minutes belaboring that point in excruciating detail. If you think that's funny, then First Day of Camp will have you in stitches. My reflex isn't to laugh, but to wince.

55. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 2; last year: unranked). I remain grateful that Last Week Tonight exists—it's gratifying to see a series fuse partisan politics with comedy so openly, and the show's long-form approach to discrete issues remains inspired. But something about John Oliver's shtick has grown stale as he's gotten more comfortable at HBO. His non sequiturs are less bracing, his insults feel more catty, and he seems a bit too self-righteous. With that said, there is nothing manufactured about his anger; whether you agree with Oliver's viewpoint or not (a binary that will likely inform your opinion of each individual episode), you can admire his evident passion, even if he's more interested in pointing out society's problems than in providing solutions. I just can't shake the feeling that he's operating at half-speed. Last Week Tonight remains provocative television, but it should be setting the world afire.

54. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 1). I like Tina Fey as both an actress and a writer, but as a showrunner, she kind of drives me nuts. The spiritual successor to the maddening 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is often very funny, and it features a terrific lead performance from The Office's Ellie Kemper. (Plus, a certain heartthrob shows up for the last few episodes and absolutely kills it.) Kimmy is adorably clueless—in the pilot, someone looks her up and down and says, "I pronounce you ridiculous!"—and the series generates fresh laughs from its familiar fish-out-of-water conceit. But Fey's commitment to anarchy—the sudden flashbacks, the bizarre cameos, the general randomness—makes watching her shows something of a chore; keeping up with every meta reference and sudden digression is less exciting than exhausting. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can be a hoot, but it's too haphazard and self-satisfied to constitute great comedy. I pronounce it ridiculous.

53. Blunt Talk (Starz, Season 1). Blunt Talk is a far more conventional comedy than Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to the extent that any show could be described as conventional where the lead character has his manservant lull him to sleep by reading passages from the Quran. That lead character is played by Patrick Stewart, and the distinguished Briton clearly enjoys making a fool of himself, whether it's shouting Shakespeare during a cocaine binge or serving as the little spoon with his indulgent female colleague (Jacki Weaver). That level of dissonance—a seemingly reputable man behaving with the utmost disreputability—makes Blunt Talk worth watching. Still, while the entire cast is committed—I particularly like Adrian Scarborough's exceedingly loyal valet and Dolly Wells's sweet-natured subordinate—the show itself feels a bit stale, covering well-worn territory without providing a fresh perspective. Blunt Talk is generally funny, and that's often enough, but it's rarely memorable.

52. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 4.5 and 5.0; last year: 41). After finishing up another so-so season last May, Grimm tightened up this past fall, airing only six episodes prior to its midseason break. It has at least 10 more planned for this spring, but the show could benefit from trimming some fat. Grimm remains pleasant to watch because its characters are so well-established—and the actors playing them so relaxed—that they lend the series some natural warmth. (I'm still wary of the narrative merits of Claire Coffee transitioning from badass vixen to meek housewife, but at least Coffee is selling the switch nicely.) But when it comes to standalone episodes, Grimm vomits up some real duds. The case-of-the-week structure has always limited the show to a certain extent, but the writers are running out of interesting ways for their heroic detective to track down supernatural murderers, and it's getting downright painful. (And that's ignoring the halfhearted attempts to marry the show's fantastical elements with the more mundane aspects of real-life police procedure and due process.) Grimm is sturdy enough to make for entertaining viewing, especially as long as Coffee, Silas Weir Mitchell, and Reggie Lee remain in the game. But it might want to take a tip from one of its (increasingly indistinguishable) villains and transform itself—preferably into a miniseries.

51. Married (FX, Season 2; last year: 34). Married is such a wisp of a show that it's easy to miss how talented Judy Greer and Nat Faxon are in portraying the leads. Together, they make a wonderfully credible couple: vaguely disenchanted with life, but also happy with each other, even if they routinely find themselves irritated. But Married's cancellation felt inevitable, and not just because of its dreadful ratings. There just isn't a whole lot of story here, and while Greer and Faxon's minor misadventures feel real, they also feel inconsequential. It's gratifying that the showrunners never seem obligated to impose artificial hardships on their characters—they never cheat on one another, their kids never run away, and they never face any overly manufactured crises—but that lack of conflict also reflects that Married has run its course. The good news is that its characters should live happily ever after, more or less. And I enjoyed my time with them—more or less.

Coming tomorrow: Kevin Spacey gets rankled, Colin Farrell gets riled, and Matt Dillon gets confused.


Ashley Andersen said...

Your assessment of Louie is spot on. Agree x infinity.

Jeremy said...

Shh, don't tell anyone else, or you might be forced to surrender your Auteur Appreciation card.