Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 50-40: Greedy Presidents, Corrupt Cops, and Sad Nazis

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in "True Detective"
The Manifesto is ranking every TV show we watched in 2015. If you missed our first installment, you can find it here.

50. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 33 out of 50). In many ways, Netflix's flagship show—the one that started this whole binge-watching craze—actually improved in its third season. Its characters are drawn deeper, its plotting is more realistic, and its overall tone is more restrained. The problem is that depth, realism, and restraint are the exact opposite qualities of what made House of Cards such a cheesy sensation in the first place. Admittedly, there's some dogs-chasing-cars poignancy to this season's arc, which finds Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood, having finally ascended to the summit, struggling to find his identity. And the marriage between Frank and Robin Wright's Claire is explored with far greater nuance than I would have thought possible from such a blockheaded series. But like Frank, this updated House of Cards never feels comfortable in its newfound skin, and it often plays like a cut-rate West Wing, awkwardly trafficking in realpolitik without evincing any real passion. There's something to be said for the show's earnest attempt to reinvent itself, but if the rejiggered House of Cards is going to be this sedate, it might be time to let the monster back out of its cage.

49. Togetherness (HBO, Season 1). Togetherness is a very well-observed portrait of modern life, with uniformly strong performances, particularly from Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. It is also a major drag. I'm hardly one to complain that my entertainment is too depressing, but Togetherness's melancholia somehow feels engineered, less a natural outgrowth of its characters than a systematic attempt by its showrunners to make you as sad as possible. It's admirable and insightful, but far from enjoyable.

48. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 2.5 and 3.0, last year: 36). Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will always live in the shadow of The Avengers. That's perfectly fine—we can hardly expect a minor small-screen property to match the budget or ambition of one of the most colossal movie franchises in the world. But just because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a TV show doesn't mean it has to feel small. There's a frustrating sense of caution surrounding the series that severely limits its potential, which is a shame, because it's assembled a dependable roster of actors who bring some pep to its procedural plotting. I still believe Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can grow into its own program, something fresher, stranger, and bolder than it is right now. As it is, the show currently features strong enough acting and writing to serve as a suitably entertaining diversion. In a show set within the shadows of superheroes, that's somehow appropriate, even if it's also disappointing.

47. Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, Season 1). Let's just acknowledge the obvious: Fear the Walking Dead has absolutely no need to exist, and its creation is a naked commercial attempt to prey on the massive viewership of the biggest cable hit ever. With that said, this slender prequel at least distinguishes itself from its forebear, opting for quiet intrigue rather than gory catharsis. It's less compelling than it could be—some of its arguments concerning the inflexibility of authority are ham-fisted—but it features enough you-are-there verisimilitude to work as a plausible depiction of just how unsettling life would become if (OK, when) the zombie apocalypse hits. That's hardly a revelation, but Fear the Walking Dead scores points for its credibility (if not its empathy), and that alone gives it a (legitimate) reason for being.

46. Outlander (Starz, Season 1.5; last year: 38). Wrapping up the second half of its promising, unfulfilling first season, Outlander remains irritatingly less than the sum of its intriguing parts. There's a lot to like here: Caitriona Balfe's assured lead performance; Tobias Menzies's unfathomably repugnant villain; a compelling mythological premise; the period costumes and the verdant Scottish countryside; sex and violence. But despite holding all of these pieces in its hands, Outlander is still fumbling to put them together. It will deliver a terrific episode, then follow it with a limply plotted clunker weighed down by Balfe's noxious voiceover. The good news is that the ferocious finale teases some welcome unpredictability heading into Season 2, and I remain hopeful that the show will jettison its parasitic elements and embrace its more textured side. For a series about a woman stuck in the past, it's easy to be excited for Outlander's future.

45. True Detective (HBO, Season 2; last year: 16). It really isn't that bad. Yes, #TrueDetectiveSeason2 is something of a mess. Vince Vaughn is woefully miscast, the villains are parodic, and the overplotted teleplay is a disaster. But even during its riveting first season, True Detective was never about storytelling. It was about atmosphere, and if its follow-up lacks Cary Joji Fukunaga's jaw-dropping showmanship, it still soaks its characters in a brine that reeks of Los Angeles' corruption and rot. Colin Farrell is terrific as a disgraced cop, while Rachel McAdams (continuing to expand her range) nails the part of a no-nonsense knife-wielding badass. (The ubiquitous James Frain also shows up, which is never a bad thing.) And as overdone and undercooked as it may be, True Detective proves it can still deliver a set piece; a shootout at the end of the fourth episode feels ripped from a Michael Mann movie and is as gripping as anything you'll find on television. Who were our characters shooting at? Who cares? Revel in True Detective's seedy beauty, and let the bullets fly.

44. Red Oaks (Amazon, Season 1). There isn't anything deceptive about Red Oaks, a quaint, slight, charming comedy about life at a New Jersey country club in 1985. Its characters are thin, its jokes are obvious, and its trajectory is predictable. But there's something oddly sweet about this show, a wholesomeness that belies some of the more outrageous hijinks it dutifully spews out. At its core, Red Oaks is about the fear of growing up, and it evokes that fear with a surprising degree of honesty and tenderness. The mostly young cast is quite good (Gage Golightly is particularly strong as a girlfriend who actually values commitment and family), but the real stars are Ennis Esmer as the dissatisfied tennis pro and Paul Reiser as the weary club president. When you first meet these guys, you think you know their role in the narrative (the wisecracking helper, the slimy villain), but Red Oaks gradually peels back their layers, showing that there's more to this club than old money, new cars, and multiple kinds of fresh grass.

43. Wayward Pines (Fox, Season 1). The advantage of mystery shows is that the conclusion rarely matters. The pleasure of watching a series like Wayward Pines—a slow-burn thriller about a disturbed town in the Pacific Northwest—isn't in pulling back the curtain but in luxuriating in the unknown. And while M. Night Shyamalan's career has hit its speed bumps, he's good with premises; at this point, it's probably best for him to set something up, then let someone else figure out how to develop it. To that end, Shyamalan only directs the first episode of Wayward Pines, and he immediately invests it with tension and menace. A cross between Twin Peaks and Lost, Wayward Pines is a fundamentally silly show, but it's also impressively made and smartly paced, gradually doling out crumbs of information to sate our appetites but resisting the urge to deliver too much exposition. Matt Dillon is in fine form as a skeptical sheriff, while Melissa Leo, per her calling card, steals every scene she's in as a mischievous nurse. Some air eventually leaks out of Wayward Pines as it trudges toward its breathless conclusion, but the journey is satisfying all the same.

42. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, Season 1). Speaking of terrific premises, The Man in the High Castle has such a great setup—based on a Philip K. Dick novel, it takes place in a universe where the Axis won World War II—that it's appointment viewing regardless of its quality. Which is fortunate, because significant elements of this show are downright lousy. Alexa Davalos (forever Gwen from Angel to me) does yeoman's work, but the primary male characters are useless, with Rupert Evans overdoing it and Luke Kleintank barely doing anything. (Don't get me started on DJ Qualls, best known as Kyle from Road Trip.) Thankfully, there's enough interesting stuff happening in the margins to keep The Man in the High Castle from sinking into quicksand. Rufus Sewell is excellent as a Nazi commandant, and several of the show's subplots—one involving an antiques dealer (Brennan Brown, very good) cozying up to the Japanese aristocracy, another centering on a German defector's (Rudolph Wegener) last gasp at decency—are richly drawn. I'm pleased The Man in the High Castle landed a second season; this world is simply too interesting and too laden with storytelling opportunities to give up on. But going forward, the showrunners are advised to shift focus to the characters who actually matter.

41. Looking (HBO, Season 2; last year: 39);
40. Girls (HBO, Season 4; last year: 22).
I'm discussing these shows together, because they've always been companion pieces of sorts, even if they've started trending in opposite directions. After a tentative first season, Looking began to hit its stride in round 2 (naturally, it was then canceled), locating some urgency in its storytelling rather than simply observing the San Francisco scene but not participating. In contrast, Girls has begun to spin its wheels a bit; the recent announcement that it will end after two more seasons is for the best (and it gives Lena Dunham sufficient notice to build to a proper conclusion). But both shows remain valuable programs: funny, tender, and human, even if they can also feel aimless and uneven. Not all of Looking's characters are compelling, but the central relationship between Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey is beautifully explored, unfolding with true feeling and heart-aching realism. As for Girls, it recovers from its early-season sputter with "Sit-In"—one of its best half-hours ever (and a bottle episode at that)—and the subsequent arrival of Gillian Jacobs generates some welcome energy and conflict in the season's second half. (There is still not enough of Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna for my liking, but that would be the case even if she appeared in every scene.) I'll mourn Looking's end, but with any luck, Girls will pick up its mantle and continue telling character-focused stories about people who are selfish and vain, but also decent and hopeful.

Coming later this evening: Marvel gets dark, Pablo Escobar gets mad, and Bruce Campbell gets groovy.

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