Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 39-31: Nimble Comedy, Heavy Drama, and Superheroes Light and Dark
39. Agent Carter (ABC, Season 1). The hook of Agent Carter—it's a Marvel show led by a woman!—is noteworthy, but focusing on its protagonist's gender does the show a disservice. Sleek and lean (the first season runs just eight efficient episodes), Agent Carter is a different animal from the typical Marvel property, and not just because its hero wears blouses and heels (and hats!). It derives considerable appeal just from its 1940s setting, and the stellar costuming and production design give it a welcome sense of chic. But the greatest strength of Agent Carter lies in Hayley Atwell's nimble lead performance. Emphasizing her heroine's smarts and toughness while also playing up her vulnerability, Atwell creates a true three-dimensional character that's rarely found in the Marvel universe, female or otherwise. Agent Carter's hokey storytelling can be a bit rough, and its action scenes still lack the zip of its cinematic counterparts. But it's a well-made series with a terrific central character, and it's more interested in her humanity than its otherworldly aspects. In that, it redefines our notion of what superhero shows can do.
38. Getting On (HBO, Season 3; last year: 40 out of 50). It seems fitting that, for a show about death, Getting On saved its best for last. Not that this little-watched cringe comedy about the horrors of running a geriatric ward reinvents itself for its final season; if anything, it doubles down on its characters' selfishness and social awkwardness. But it's also more touching than in the past, and funnier, too. Its three female leads (Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein, Niecy Nash) play off one another beautifully, and the series locates a real rhythm in the characters' sweaty panic. This show is hardly above scatological humor—one scene involving an enema concludes with a decidedly revolting visual punch line—but it also sympathizes with its characters, fundamentally decent people just trying to make their way. In Hung, another unloved HBO series that peaked in its third and final season, Lennie James says, "We do the best we can, and then we die." In recognizing the eternal drudgery of death with both frankness and hilarity, Getting On pays that sentiment noble tribute.
37. Daredevil (Netflix, Season 1). Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil understands that independence is crucial to a TV show's success. It may share the same space as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it functions as a standalone property, and its relatively modest scope—it's essentially a crime drama about two men fighting for control of Hell's Kitchen—works in its favor. Its execution isn't perfect; it doesn't quite know what to do with Deborah Ann Woll (which is a shame, because she's very good), and despite the welcome presence of Bob Gunton, its shadowy syndicate of supervillains isn't all that menacing. But Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is steady in the title role, and Vincent D'Onofrio is mesmeric as the malevolent Wilson Fisk. Daredevil also features some very strong action scenes (assuming you can suspend disbelief that its supremely athletic protagonist is, you know, blind), again distinguishing it from the typical network TV program. It's always going to be stigmatized because it's based on a comic, but Daredevil is a smart and serious show that eschews camp in favor of disquieting darkness. That doesn't make it a great series, but it does make it a laudable one.
36. Ash vs. Evil Dead (Starz, Season 1). Sure, there was no need for Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell to return to the Evil Dead films; those three horror-comedy classics hold up just fine today (the second is my personal favorite), and the character of Ash hardly demanded further upkeep. But enough time has passed—Army of Darkness, the third Evil Dead movie, premiered in 1992—that resurrecting Ash feels like an artistic choice rather than a commercial one. And man, is it fun to hang out with our favorite one-handed wise-cracking chainsaw-wielding Deadite-slaying friend again. Despite Campbell's deceptively nuanced lead performance—he exhibits tinges of loss and regret amid all the one-liners and shotgun blasts—Ash vs. Evil Dead isn't exactly the deepest series. But that's just fine, because this show is a fucking blast, delivering the gory thrills that made Raimi famous while also tapping a rich vein of humor. (Plus: Lucy Lawless!) And just because Ash vs. Evil Dead is straightforward doesn't mean it's unsophisticated. It takes real craft and talent to create something so purely enjoyable, and Ash vs. Evil Dead is an entertainment factory, constantly dispensing one rip-roaring episode after another. Groovy.
35. Narcos (Netflix, Season 1). The docudrama approach of Narcos is more "docu" than "drama"; you'll learn plenty about just how Pablo Escobar transformed himself from a charismatic local leader into the world's most terrifying drug kingpin, but the show itself isn't especially exciting. Boyd Holbrook's Scorsese-inspired voiceover may be a necessary evil for a series that conveys such a tremendous amount of information, but it can border on pedagogical. That said, Narcos is fascinating when it focuses on Escobar as a person, revealing not only his ruthlessness but also his gift for consolidating and maintaining power. Wagner Moura shrewdly emphasizes the drug lord's wounded pride without ever asking for sympathy, and if Holbrook's Steve Murphy is a rather white-bread hero, Pedro Pascal (the Red Viper in Game of Thrones) is very good as his flawed partner. Narcos may not be great drama—it lacks both the visceral impact and the lacerating sting of Sicario—but it's still a trip.
34. Catastrophe (Amazon/Channel 4, Season 1). Many romantic comedies insist that their leads are in love without proving that they actually enjoy one another's company. The brilliance of Catastrophe is that it centers on a relationship whose characters are trying to figure out whether they even like each other. After a week of impulsive, throw-me-up-against-the-wall sex in London with an American tourist named Rob (Rob Delaney), Irishwoman Sharon (Sharon Horgan) ends up pregnant. Rather than evade his responsibility, Rob travels to London and tries to turn passion into romance, an overture Sharon meets with exquisite hesitancy. Catastrophe doesn't have grand ambitions, but it's strangely thrilling to watch two adults fall for one another while also remaining warily pragmatic. The show features a handful of sharp supporting characters—Jonathan Forbes is a wry scene-stealer as Sharon's brother (his line reading of "Any weekend plans?" had me doubled over), while Mark Bonnar shows a mastery of deadpan as Rob's unflappable confederate—but it really excels when Horgan and Delaney share the screen (which, thankfully, is most of the time). Whether they're grossing each other out or turning each other on, their coupledom feels rooted in legitimate attraction, with all of the happiness and messiness that entails.
33. Supergirl (CBS, Season 1.0). Supergirl is rife with problems. Its special effects are pitiful, its action sequences are lackluster, and its writing can be painfully preachy. And despite all of that, I adore this show. It's proudly earnest, with a heart-on-its-sleeve warmth that envelops you in sweetness and joy. Melissa Benoist is absolutely radiant in the title role, but who could have envisioned Calista Flockhart effortlessly walking away with scenes as an entitled media queen? Their oil-and-water chemistry is enough to make you wish that Supergirl weren't about a secret superhero at all, and that it instead just spent time hanging out at its alter ego's workplace, where Benoist nervously flutters beside Flockhart and also pals around with Mehcad Brooks (True Blood) and Jeremy Jordan. But the superhero elements give Supergirl its own goofy kick—Homeland's David Harewood brings some muted pathos as an officious operative—and they hint at the possibility of something special here. If Supergirl can be this enjoyable while it's still severely flawed, just imagine what might happen if it takes flight.
32. Rectify (Sundance TV, Season 3). Rectify disdains closure. It's a show about a 20-year-old murder case that will likely never be solved, and it carries that aversion to finality through to its characters. But while the show's resistance to conventional storytelling can be off-putting—it could occasionally use a forward nudge—Rectify is a gripping evocation of a specific Georgia town, constantly adding shading to each of its characters. Even minor players, like J.D. Evermore's dogged sheriff and Luke Kirby's conflicted lawyer, feel like genuine people rather than plot points. But the strength of Rectify remains its central family, a close-knit clan dealing with fraying loyalties and simmering anger. Aden Young again shoulders most of the load as the suspected killer, but Abigail Spencer is heartbreaking as his sister, while Clayne Crawford finds new layers of vulnerability beneath his abrasive exterior. Rectify is unlikely to ever be completely satisfying, because it spurns satisfaction at every turn. But it is that rare show that has carved out its own identity: finely textured and intimately conceived, with a brittle tone but a generous heart.
31. Wolf Hall (BBC, Season 1). Wolf Hall only runs six episodes, but it's a long six episodes; for a series that traffics in the high drama of betrayals and beheadings, it's exceedingly patient. Yet the real fireworks in Wolf Hall don't involve executions but conversations—whispered plots in shadowy corners, where a lantern can scarcely illuminate the schemers doing their murderous work. Chief among them is Thomas Cromwell, head serpent of Henry VIII, and played with masterful restraint by Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance. Cromwell is a soft-spoken, feeble-looking man, but Rylance invests him with a fierce undercurrent of rage to go with his obvious intelligence; he's the smartest man in the room, and also the least visible. (Think of him as the historical cousin to Conleth Hill's Varys on Game of Thrones.) Wolf Hall drags in spots, and its scope can be oppressive—there are so many kings and queens and lords and dukes that those not acquainted with Tudor history may struggle to keep everyone straight. But Rylance is the show's unifying figure, threading everything together with his dry wit and hushed ferocity. (Meanwhile, Damian Lewis has fun articulating the inherent childishness of King Henry, and Claire Foy is hypnotic as the doomed Anne Boleyn.) Despite its lavish setting, Wolf Hall largely rejects grandeur, but it's still exhilarating to watch Cromwell prowl through corridors and murmur from behind desks, secretly bending a kingdom to his will.
Coming tomorrow: Claire Danes gets serious, zombies get curious, and HBO gets hilarious.