Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 30-21: Terrorists, Zombies, Spies, and Sex
30. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Season 2). Less a reboot than a rewiring, the second season of Halt and Catch Fire retains the best elements of its initial campaign—the sharp character work, the excitement surrounding creativity—but slyly shifts its center. Rather than building around Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan (aka Don Draper 2.0), it zeroes in on the budding partnership between Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and MacMillan's protégé, Cameron Howe (the electric Mackenzie Davis). It's a brilliant maneuver, and not just because MacMillan is a more poignant character when he's trying to climb the mountain rather than staring down from its summit. Donna and Cameron make a killer team, the former trying to juggle motherhood and marriage with her own need to do fulfilling work, and the latter wrestling with the tedious obligations of corporate reality as she tries to spearhead her fledgling company into something meaningful. (The one downside: Scoot McNairy is effectively sidelined as Donna's husband; there's some potential to the storyline of a man confounded by his wife's success, but here it never quite lands.) Despite a period setting and Pace's good looks, Halt and Catch Fire was never going to be the next Mad Men, but that's OK. In focusing on its characters rather than its industry, it's developed its own identity, one that, as befits a show obsessed with invention, feels quietly revolutionary.
29. Homeland (Showtime, Season 5; last year: 35 out of 50). Calling Homeland's fifth season a return to form isn't quite accurate—the show's first 12 episodes were so bracing that they created unrealistic expectations, and Showtime's biggest hit has never come close to those heights again. But this season's batch of hokey, 24-flavored terror-chasing is more robustly entertaining than anything Homeland has delivered since its opening salvo. It's also less ridiculous. This will never be a series overly concerned with realism, but the new Berlin setting feels more grounded, and that sense of plausibility lends Homeland some real stakes. The plotting remains problematic—Peter Quinn's storyline in particular goes nowhere, and the show spends far too much time with a pesky reporter (really just an excuse for the writers to indulge in some shrill, straw-man proselytizing)—but the suspense is back, and the acting is as strong as ever. Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are still doing good work, as is the invaluable F. Murray Abraham (Phoenix's Nina Hoss even shows up in a minor part, bringing her professionalism to bear), but the revelation is Miranda Otto as an operative with a secret. Best known to nerds as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, Otto displays remarkable subtlety and intelligence, creating an antagonist who's simultaneously repugnant and sympathetic. Homeland will always belong to Danes, but for this fun and satisfying season, it was Otto who left a mark.
28. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 5.5 and 6.0; last year: 17). I've made my peace with The Walking Dead's inconsistency. There are glorious times when this violent, nihilistic, occasionally hopeful show is flat-out brilliant. ("Here's Not Here," the 90-minute two-hander with Lennie James and John Carroll Lynch, is arguably the best episode the series has delivered since Season 3's "Clear".) And then there are episodes when it's clear that the show is just servicing its bloodthirsty fan base and is barely even interested in telling a compelling story. (Don't get me started on the fake death of a major character, a horrible cheat.) But for the most part, The Walking Dead continues to amble along the good side of this line. The cast is now so sprawling that an alarming number of supporting characters feel useless, and whenever the series tries to provide an all-encompassing hour, it feels hurried and panicked. But most episodes are narrow in scope, which enhances their depth in terms of both plot and character. The Walking Dead may not be the best show on TV, but it regularly delivers some of the best episodes on TV, and it continues to experiment with form and structure in gratifying ways. Like its zombies, this show will never die (at least, not as long as viewers keep pouring in). But it's comforting to know that, even if it will never be great, it hasn't stopped trying.
27. Deutschland 83 (Sundance TV, Season 1). Another spy show fraught with terror and danger, Deutschland 83 has much in common with Homeland. But it feels fresher, and not just because it's set in East Germany during the Cold War. The lead character of Martin (Jonas Nay) is a competent double agent, but he's also green, uncertain, and scared shitless. Martin's internal conflict lends some emotional heft to Deutschland 83's genre thrills, of which there are plenty. The perspective may be new, but this is still a classic thriller, with unnerving set pieces and pot-boiling intrigue. (It also features a killer soundtrack laden with '80s post-punk and new wave.) It doesn't quite have the depth and ambition of television's preeminent spy series, The Americans, but there's a welcome scrappiness to Deutschland 83 that feels exciting, even tantalizing. Sundance has been mum on a second season, but this show still has plenty of story left to tell, and plenty of hearts to set pounding.
26. The Affair (Showtime, Season 2; last year: 10). The pilot of The Affair was a thunderbolt, a stunning introduction to the show's ingenious dual-perspective structure. As the first season went on, it narrowly avoided diminishing returns, keeping its time-jumping technique lively even as it teetered on the edge of gimmicky. Season 2 retains the multi-POV method, but it's less of a audacious gambit than a thoughtful storytelling device; this season isn't as much about spotting the differences between the characters' perspectives but recognizing how their experiences inform their memories, and vice-versa. Crucially, it also expands the show's universe from beyond its principals. Ruth Wilson and Dominic West remain nuanced and sensitive actors, but in bringing Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson into the fold, The Affair amplifies its scope—the reverberations of the title event spread outward like cancerous cells—while still staying true to its intimate tone and scale. (In addition, Julia Goldani Telles does very fine work as West's impetuous daughter. Also, holy hell, Brooke Lyons.) The Affair may have backed itself into a corner with its flashback setup—that blasted murder trial is going to have to take place eventually—but for the time being, it continues to be a powerful and empathetic show, one that honestly explores emotions even as it traffics in twisty melodrama. That occasionally results in tonal whiplash, but for the most part, The Affair is both searching and riveting, a tender examination of human connection that will also make you gasp.
25. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 3; last year: 28). I wrote about Banshee at some length last year, following the airing of "Tribal", the most gripping and shockingly powerful hour the show has ever produced. If the remainder of Season 3 doesn't quite ascend to such lurid, devastating heights, it remains a fun and ferocious season of television, one that continues the show's progression from fanciful exploitative pulp to legitimate dramatic series. It also benefits from a proper villain, the hulking Geno Segers as Chayton Littlestone, a true big bad who counters the ironman endurance of Lucas Hood (Antony Starr, getting better with every episode) with no-nonsense brutality. But while Banshee will always be best known for its set pieces— a gruesomely bloody, masterfully filmed duel to the death between two fan favorites; a thrilling heist sequence captured entirely on surveillance cameras—it also exhibits surprising feeling, whether in probing the increasingly strained friendship between Hood and Job (Hoon Lee, the show's steadiest performer) or the doomed romance between Hood and his deputy, Siobhan (Trieste Kelly Dunn, tough yet achingly fragile). At its heart, Banshee is still a throwback B series, all violence and viscera. But after its most recent season, it's also become something else: a show worth taking seriously.
24. The Returned (Sundance TV/Canal+, Season 2). A beautiful nightmare, The Returned is a horror series that isn't horrifying, at least not in the traditional sense. This odd, fascinating show rejects easy answers and explanations, preferring instead to immerse its viewers in mood and mystery. This opacity can make The Returned frustrating at times, as can its large and often undifferentiated cast. But this is still a mesmerizing show, exhibiting both a rewarding patience in its storytelling and an imposing command in its filmmaking. Every episode supplies a number of striking images—water bursting through a dam, a woman wading into a dark river, a teenage girl doing something unspeakable—but while The Returned shrouds itself in secrecy, it also creates powerful relationships, including the sisterly warmth between Camille (Yara Pilartz) and Lena (Jenna Thiam) and, even better, the tremulous bond between surrogate mother Julie (Céline Sallette, quiet and tender) and 10-year-old Victor (Swann Nambotin, creepy as hell). Did I mention that half the characters are zombies, inexplicably resurrected from the dead? That's the kind of premise that's vulnerable to schlock, but The Returned is far too exacting to fall prey to silliness. With pristine technique, it brings you inside its haunting ambiance of confusion and fear, and it keeps you there. Maybe it's horrifying after all.
23. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 2; last year: 31). Silicon Valley is a show about the hilarity of failure. In every episode, something goes horribly wrong, leaving its characters scrambling to put out the fire. Some crises are more hysterical than others—the consequences of T.J. Miller "negging" soliciting firms are far more entertaining than anything involving Chris Diamantopoulos's exaggerated billionaire—but there is a deceptive intelligence to the show's writing. Every joke, every insult, every catastrophe—they are all carefully constructed, with sharp attention to detail and timing. (Miller's deadpan inquiry to close out the finale is possibly the greatest season-ending one-liner in TV history.) Thomas Middleditch's protagonist can still be annoyingly ineffectual, but he also has the thankless job of straight man, granting more colorful characters—Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr's mutual superiority, Zach Woods's painful obsequiousness, Alice Wetterlund's supreme apathy—opportunities to steal the spotlight. Silicon Valley isn't very interested in character development; most of the major players remain exactly the same as when the series premiered 18 episodes ago. But given that those characters are so well-defined and play off one another so beautifully, that's hardly cause for complaint. Maybe someday, Silicon Valley will turn into something meaningful, but for now, I'll happily settle for its steady, meticulously conceived excellence.
22. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 3; last year: 4). For a show preoccupied with pushing the envelope in the scientific community, it's perhaps fitting that Masters of Sex tries to do too much in its third season. Some of its many subplots—impotent gorillas! sulky teenage football players!—are bizarre, and they fail to mesh with the series' larger narrative. But that narrative remains incredibly powerful, as do the lead performances from Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Bill Masters' behavior is as loathsome as ever, but Sheen continues to add incremental layers to the man, now depicting him as a flailing parent as well as a heartbroken lover. As for the object of his affection, Virginia Johnson still fights to assert herself in the cruel, sexist world of science, and Caplan makes her valiant struggle feel seismically important while also accentuating Virginia's own brittle flaws. (In addition, Josh Charles is very fine as a straight-talking businessman, while Emily Kinney does lovely work as a precocious volunteer.) Masters of Sex is less perfect than it used to be, but even its failures are noble, the product of a show that, like its hero and heroine, tries too hard, and aches too much.
21. Veep (HBO, Season 4; last year: 19). The second-best thing about Veep is that it satirizes the entire industry of politics while remaining strenuously apolitical. The show's bumbling antics take place in a recognizably real world, but it never leans red or blue, just blackly comic. Veep persuasively argues that, regardless of our political affiliation, our leaders are all equally selfish, motivated by greed rather than goodwill. That sounds dark, but this series is far too entertaining to be disturbing. Which brings me to the best thing about Veep: God, this show is funny. The series' characters are so well-drawn by now that it could easily slip into complacency, but every episode possesses a crackling wit that alternates between big belly laughs and sly, subversive runners. It's the kind of show where it's impossible to choose your favorite character, because they all make a case. (In fact, I'm tempted to declare a new cast member MVP: Sam Richardson's good-naturedly incompetent flunky. But wait, that means I'm neglecting Anna Chlumsky's self-loathing loyalist, and Matt Walsh's bumbling press secretary, and Kevin Dunn's acerbic chief of staff, and... you get the idea.) Prior to Season 4, there was some mild trepidation that the migration into the Oval Office would neuter the show's humor, but don't worry: Julia Louis-Dreyfus becoming the most powerful woman in the world makes her no less wonderfully powerless. Heading into its fifth season, Veep is showing no signs of slowing down, and it makes me grateful that, unlike the hapless politicians this series so beautifully skewers, TV shows don't have term limits.
Coming tomorrow: Canadian clones, drug-soaked prequels, a bracing premiere, and a painful farewell.