Thursday, February 4, 2016
Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 20-11: Clones, Robots, Doctors, Killers
20. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 3; last year: 3 out of 50). Things are starting to get a little crazy on Orphan Black. That's saying something, given that the show's pilot featured a suicide, a theft, a sniper attack, and a disturbingly inventive use of hand soap. But the show's enormous creative success—derived primarily from Tatiana Maslany's phenomenal performance(s) but also from some very smart and sharp writing—has in turn engendered heavy expectations, and in its third season, Orphan Black occasionally groans under its own weight. It is the curse of serialized television: Each new season is obliged to deliver bigger thrills, badder villains, and a general sense of more. But even if Orphan Black is now chaotic and overstretched, it remains a furiously entertaining and fascinating series, coursing with humor and intelligence and impish glee. I wrote last year that Maslany's work on this show is the greatest TV performance I've ever seen, and Season 3 only strengthens my confidence in that claim. She plays even more characters this year (she even voices a scorpion, for Christ's sake), constantly emphasizing new facets of her kaleidoscopic clones while still imperceptibly exhibiting the inherent toughness that binds them all together. And while Orphan Black's supporting cast will always feel small when standing next to Maslany's titanic performance, the ensemble does quality work: Jordan Gavaris deepens his sense of angst, Ari Millen lets loose with his own set of distinct identities, and Kristian Bruun is downright hysterical as an over-his-head amateur drug dealer. (Plus: James Frain, again!) It's often impossible to follow just what's going on these days on Orphan Black, but that hardly matters. As long as Maslany is around—protecting her family, outsmarting her enemies, and asking for mangos—Clone Club is always welcome.
19. Sense8 (Netflix, Season 1);
18. Man Seeking Woman (FXX, Season 1).
These two shows could hardly be more different; one is a painfully earnest hour-long drama, the other a tongue-in-cheek half-hour comedy. But they share a crucial quality, and that is absolute, divine madness. By rights, neither of these series should even exist—they are far too weird and unkempt and nuts to have been successfully sold in any pitch room. But here they are, and their very presence on American television is worth celebrating.
In empirical terms, Sense8 has its issues. The brainchild of the Wachowskis—those nerdy maestros who achieved superstardom with The Matrix and then started making movies that were rather less good—it's obscenely hokey, with clunky dialogue and an incomprehensible plot. But man, what a fucking show this is! Filmed in eight different major cities across the globe (and often in two separate locations for the very same scene), it follows an octet of characters who have nothing in common yet are all invisibly connected in some inexplicable manner. These "sensates" suddenly find themselves switching bodies with one another, for no apparent reason and with no warning. It's a crazy premise whose obvious goal—remarking on the fragility and the value of true human connection—renders it laudable, even if it is also a ripe target for scorn. Indeed, Sense8's startlingly sincere tone would likely make the whole enterprise laughable, if its execution weren't so damn breathtaking. There are exhilarating sequences on this show unlike anything I've ever seen: a karaoke rendition of a 4 Non Blondes hit that pervades all of its characters' minds; an orgy in which participants randomly appear and disappear, giving and receiving pleasure without regard to gender; a graphic montage of past childbirths set to a Beethoven concerto; a car chase in which the driver, abruptly summoned from two continents away, performs vehicular maneuvers yanked from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. That last one had me pumping my first in the air from my couch, and that's the kind of heedless joy that a show as gonzo as Sense8 can instill in its audience. It may not make much sense. It may not even be that good. But it does inspire awe, and with Sense8, the Wachowskis illustrate that while the world is a fractured web of languages and cultures, awe is universal.
Man Seeking Woman doesn't have any insane action sequences, but in its own anarchic way, it's even crazier than Sense8. It positions itself as a typical sitcom, centering around Josh (Jay Baruchel, beautifully cast), an affable loser struggling to find love. But there's nothing typical about this wild, brilliant comedy. Certainly, Man Seeking Woman places Josh in familiar social situations—grudgingly agreeing to go on a blind date; freaking out about whether to call or text a woman he chatted up on the subway; miserably dragging himself to a friend's destination wedding—but it then exaggerates those situations to outrageous proportions. That blind date turns out to be with an actual troll. The call-or-text debate results in an emergency meeting of the military's joint chiefs. That destination wedding is literally in Hell. (Ever had a conversation with someone about what precisely constitutes cheating on a partner? Josh has—in a courtroom specifically convened to establish the guilt of his behavior.) This is inspired stuff, but the real genius of Man Seeking Woman is that it plays its ludicrous premises absolutely straight. There's no winking to the camera or arch meta commentary—the characters are completely submerged in their predicaments. This in turn only heightens the show's allegorical impact; by conveying its sitcom tropes on a deliriously outlandish scale, the series actually makes them more relatable. That's what makes Man Seeking Woman feel like a watershed: As funny as it is—and there are times when it is utterly hysterical—it uses absurdity to discover kernels of truth.
17. Better Call Saul (AMC, Season 1). Better Call Saul didn't need to be good to be successful. Its predecessor, Breaking Bad, was such a legendary crime saga that this Albuquerque-set prequel could have just recycled the same formula, and it would have been a hit. But Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould aren't interested in repeating themselves. And Better Call Saul, while occasionally delivering the same genre thrills that Breaking Bad supplied so regularly, is a very different type of show. When we first meet the title character (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), he doesn't even go by the name of Saul Goodman but rather Jimmy McGill, a hard-working defense attorney who operates out of the backroom of a nail salon. And while Jimmy isn't exactly ethically flawless—a former con man, he has a keen eye for a good scam—he's a fundamentally decent guy, a self-made lawyer who legitimately believes in the sacred power of the legal system. And that's why Better Call Saul, as effortlessly entertaining and wickedly funny as it can be, primarily operates on the level of a tragedy. With humor and compassion, it lucidly charts a good man's descent into amorality, making it a thoughtful and surprisingly poignant experience. Like Breaking Bad, it's brilliantly plotted, and it can land some vicious punches ("Five-O," the hour centering on Jonathan Banks's ex-cop Mike, packs a wallop). But its lingering impact, oddly enough, is one of sadness. Where Saul Goodman is a riot, Jimmy McGill's life is defined by loss.
16. The Knick (Cinemax, Season 2; last year: 11). The most powerful drugs attack your central nervous system, and The Knick—a drama about addiction, among many other things—is a paralytic, fastening you to your seat as its runs you over with its energy and craft. In many ways, this is a nasty, brutish show. Characters behave horribly toward one another, and the only thing more ubiquitous than iniquity is blood. But Steven Soderbergh's vicious, unrelenting evocation of a turn-of-the-century New York hospital is simply too forceful and persuasive to be unpleasant. It helps that it's funny; Clive Owen and Jeremy Bobb are both hilariously disdainful of their inferiors, while the burgeoning partnership between Chris Sullivan's foul-mouthed entrepreneur and Cara Seymour's disgraced nun is touching (even if its foundation is rotted). And the rise of Eve Hewson's worldly nurse is a happy counter to the inevitable fall of André Holland's mistreated physician. But while The Knick's characters are compelling, the show still does its best work in that ghostly white operating theater, where Owen's doctor works his magic and Soderbergh struts his stuff. Some of the surgeries are downright sickening, but how can you look away if you can't move? The Knick takes place around the advent of electricity, which only fits; there is a current running through this series, a voltage that shocks you again and again. No wonder its hero falls prey to drugs—how else can he hope to escape?
15. Transparent (Amazon, Season 2; last year: 23). Last year's arrival of Transparent was hailed as a breakthrough, and rightly so—it was revitalizing to watch a series that grappled with the serious topic of transgender identity while simultaneously serving as an uproarious comedy, thereby cutting against any concerns of self-importance. But if Season 1 of Transparent was a seminal moment for television, Season 2 is a better TV show. The anchor remains Jeffrey Tambor's stirring performance as Maura Pfefferman, a trans woman striving to assert herself while struggling to connect with her loved ones. But showrunner Jill Soloway has gently expanded the show's scope, granting equal time and affection to each helpless member of the Pfefferman family. As a result, Maura now feels less like Transparent's raison d'être than just another one of its lost souls, fumbling with sex and love and pain. And even though each of the Pfeffermans can be selfish and cruel, Transparent is a profoundly empathetic show, and while it finds humor in each of its characters' predicaments—Josh Duplass's terror of commitment, Amy Landecker's sexual ennui, Gaby Hoffmann's tremulous exploration—it also treats them with tenderness. (In addition, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein both give powerful supporting performances as thrown-over lovers, while Kathryn Hahn is heartbreaking as a compassionate but strong-willed rabbi.) Yet the real marvel of this season is Soloway's bravura decision to intercut the Pfeffermans' struggles with those of their ancestors in Nazi Germany. It's a nervy, potentially cataclysmic conceit, but it builds to a conclusion of enormous power, streaking the show's bright palette with tears. Near the end of the season's penultimate episode, "Man on the Land"—a bracing, devastating half-hour of prickly dialogue and formal experimentation—the soundtrack returns to its de-facto theme song, PAL's remix of Alice Boman's "Waiting". It's a hugely cathartic moment, and the song's refrain crystallizes my feelings about the show's impending return: "Are you coming back? I'm waiting."
14. Hannibal (NBC, Season 3; last year: 8). Hannibal's third (and, alas, final) season is really two conjoined mini-seasons. The second of these is a surprisingly literal adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, with The Hobbit's Richard Armitage terrifying viewers as twisted serial killer Francis Dolorhyde while Mads Mikkelsen's title character calmly manipulates things from behind bars. The straightforward arc is slightly disappointing—by its nature, Hannibal is most horrifying when you don't know what's coming—but it's still beautifully done, concluding with a stunning final scene that stands as the apotheosis of the series' lyrical brutality. Yet it's the season's opening episodes that really astound, with intrepid investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) tracking Hannibal to Florence, where the world's most eloquent cannibal is gallivanting with his quasi-prisoner, Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson, having fun). This plotline is technically based on Harris's third novel, the much-maligned Hannibal, but it's stranger and more oblique, with shocking revelations and deliciously macabre humor. Unifying everything is the show's sublime technique, a heightened aesthetic of chilling sound design and warped imagery. Hannibal is a savage series, featuring unspeakable violence and sadistic murderers. But the show's primary concern has always been beauty, and as ugly and bloody as it can be, it's really a feverish love story, with Hannibal and Will as the tragic couple. Hannibal will sicken some to their stomachs, but for those who can push through it, the rewards are bountiful. Amid all the death, this bizarre, entrancing tale of predator and prey achieves a rare kind of grace.
13. Master of None (Netflix, Season 1). Creating great comedy is hard. Many writers can pen funny jokes; the challenge is to make those jokes meaningful. With Master of None, Aziz Ansari has made what feels like the pinnacle of modern comedy: a frequently side-splitting show that also features trenchant insights into modern life and, more crucially, fully developed characters. The series has a ramshackle feel, with each episode exploring a specific theme, some universal (remembering to consider our parents as people), some esoteric (an entire half-hour is devoted to the bizarre treatment that Indians have received in mainstream American entertainment). But there is nevertheless a sense of connectedness about the show, which is at its heart a sweet, earnest coming-of-age story about a man just trying to figure his life out. That could result in some existential heaviness, but Master of None is too fleet and entertaining to be burdensome. It reaches its greatest heights in two different two-handers centering around Dev (Ansari) and his new girlfriend, Rachel (Noël Wells). The first, the astonishing "Nashville", follows the fledgling couple on one of the most marvelous and messy first dates ever shown on TV. The second, the heartrending "Mornings", is a bottle episode set in Dev's apartment after Rachel moves in, and it rapidly chronicles month after month of their relationship, from hot-blooded passion to diminishing excitement to terrifying uncertainty. In doing this, Master of None doesn't just insightfully comment on the perils of dating in the 21st century—it also tells a fully formed and touching story about these two people in particular. That it does so while delivering a number of laugh-out-loud moments makes it no less significant.
12. Mr. Robot (USA, Season 1). Confession: I can't guarantee that all of Mr. Robot makes sense. Second confession: I care very little whether Mr. Robot makes perfect sense. An intoxicating rush of superlative style and bonkers storytelling, this explosive series is one strange and heady brew. It is unflinchingly critical of modern civilization's many sins, but I'm less interested in its social commentary than in its dramatic power. Led by an electric Rami Malek—who's ably supported by a pitch-perfect Christian Slater and a ferocious Martin Wallström—Mr. Robot is a gripping piece of work, fueled as much by patience and filmmaking savvy as by unbridled rage. The storyline, which borrows liberally from Fight Club, is masterful in its deception and immersion, but it's the technique that really sizzles. Mr. Robot may have aired on TV (on USA, of all networks), but it feels thoroughly cinematic, with supple camerawork and whip-smart editing. This is a crazy show, but it also feels ruthlessly disciplined, which prevents it from getting swallowed up in the enormity of its own excess. That lends me confidence that, as wild and unpredictable as this series is, it's channeling that energy toward something particular, something important. Next season, showrunner Sam Esmail will be directing every episode, so we'll see if he can keep the train from careening off its tracks. But regardless of where it's going, Mr. Robot's first run is a fascinating think piece that is also one hell of a ride. That's actually ironic: For a show so pointedly concerned with American greed, Mr. Robot feels like a shining, full-throttled exemplar of the American dream.
11. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7.5; last year: 5). At this point in popular discourse, Mad Men is less a television show than a symbol—a cultural touchstone that represents the medium's transformation from episodic to novelistic, as well as its capacity to both fascinate and frustrate viewers. But while we're studiously analyzing this series' literary relevance in critical-thinking seminars (or drunkenly debating it in bars), let's not forget just how damn entertaining it was. Beautifully written and designed, with acidic humor and deep pathos, Mad Men's final seven episodes were not quite the show at its peak; Don's obsession with a woebegone mother who abandoned her daughter never generates the desired impact, and a few of the subsidiary romances feel just a tad forced. But to its bitter, secretly tragic end, this remains a breathtaking show, the sweeping drama (Betty, no!) mingling effortlessly with the wry comedy (Peggy, yes!). Like the series itself, this final half-season is all about reinvention, and in tracing Don's desperate attempts to rediscover himself, it achieves a startling power. Everything culminates in a quietly shattering finale with a concluding image that is, depending on your perspective, either the apogee of peace or the permanent loss of it. But there's no need to choose between sadness and joy on this show; Mad Men regularly provided both, often at once. In fact, the only unequivocally sad thing about this iconic, wonderful series of television is that it had to end.
Coming tomorrow: the top 10.