Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 70-51: Musicians, Politicians, and Revolutionaries

Robin Wright and Neve Campbell in "House of Cards"
We’re counting down every TV show we watched in 2016. There were 88 of them. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

70. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 2; last year: 55 of 62). Donald Trump’s improbable, meteoric ascendancy may have been terrible for America, but it was a boon for John Oliver. In our country’s buffoon-in-chief, Oliver located the perfect target for his particular brand of liberal scorn and flummoxed outrage. Yet while Trump allowed Oliver to be both funny and incredulous, his rise couldn’t entirely solve the fundamental problem with Last Week Tonight: Oliver’s smug pandering to his audience. You know the pattern by now: Oliver will make an incisive point about a political issue, then follow it with a tiresome, jokey analogy that provokes strained chuckles from his live attendees. (Example: In discussing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Oliver avers that Flint’s very name evokes disaster, then equates the city to Smurf Village, saying, “Never forget what happened there.” Ha, ha.) It’s frustrating, because when Oliver ignores his audience and just focuses on his topic, he can be an eloquent and powerful orator (though it helps if you agree with him). But his insistence on spiking his rhetoric with random sarcasm and irreverent humor invariably waters down his commentary. Last Week Tonight can still be provocative television, but it’s tempting to imagine the show stripped of its live audience, so that Oliver can riff without feeling obligated to satisfy his crowds.

69. Queen Sugar (OWN, Season 1). Without doubt, the very existence of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, which examines three black adults trying to revive their deceased father’s farm, is a victory for representation. (Even further, every episode was directed by a woman.) But that can only take a TV show so far, and as a piece of storytelling, Queen Sugar is both muddled and overcooked. A few subplots work nicely, but some—especially an accusation of rape involving a Kobe Bryant stand-in—are disastrous, and on the whole, the series never acquires the fine-grained realism that it so clearly desires. The racial and geographic specificity is there, but the characters are still shapeless.

68. Vinyl (HBO, Season 1). It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Spearheaded by longtime Sopranos writer and Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, and with a zany pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, Vinyl was designed to continue HBO’s run of prestige dominance. Instead, it was canceled after one flawed, chaotic, occasionally entertaining season. There’s a lot to admire in Vinyl: the depth of its talented cast, the painstaking period detail, the visual dazzle of its set pieces. But the show is simply too damn messy and over-caffeinated to cohere thematically, and despite Bobby Cannavale’s manic lead performance, his drug-addled music executive is too one-note to be interesting. It’s weirdly fitting that such a noisy, rambunctious show slipped away so quietly.

67. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, Season 2; last year: 42). Following an intriguing but uneven first season, The Man in the High Castle performs some troubleshooting in its second go-round. Rupert Evans’ mopey boyfriend finally gets something to do in joining the Resistance, and the pacing is generally improved. Still, this show is plagued by too many bland characters, and it does itself no favors when it bizarrely shunts one of its better players (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s reserved trade minister) into a confounding alternate universe for half the season. Rufus Sewell is still doing excellent work as a Nazi who attempts to put family first, but for every strong scene with him, there’s an insufferably dull sequence involving Luke Kleintank’s morose heir searching for his identity. (Also, DJ Qualls, ugh.) The all-too-plausible premise of The Man in the High Castle will always lend it a disturbing aura of creative possibility, but until the execution snaps into place, it will always feel half-formed.

66. Peaky Blinders (Netflix/BBC, Season 3; 2014 rank: 29 of 50). This is a real bummer. The first two seasons of Peaky Blinders didn’t always make sense, but they were consistently entertaining, with a propulsive energy and an electric lead turn from Cillian Murphy. But in Season 3, things grind to a halt. Paddy Considine enjoys himself as a dastardly priest, and Tom Hardy returns late in the season to goose the proceedings, but until then, the show feels strangely inert, mired in a labyrinthine plot involving stolen Russian jewels. The writing is sloppy—it doesn’t help that showrunner Steven Knight picked the wrong girl following Season 2’s cliffhanger—but the real issue is the sudden lack of excitement. This is a series about Irish gangsters who wear funny hats and do shady deeds for Winston Churchill. If it isn’t fun, what’s the point?

65. Roadies (Showtime, Season 1). Oh look, another show about the music industry headlined by a big name that was ignominiously canceled after one season. But Cameron Crowe’s Roadies is sort of the anti-Vinyl; it’s fundamentally sweet, with wholesome characters and limited conflict. That doesn’t make Roadies a particularly good show—the primary romance between Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino rings false, and there’s very little narrative momentum either long- or short-term. Still, Crowe’s characters have a gentleness that’s disarming, and most of the cast (particularly Imogen Poots and Rafe Spall) does a fine job conveying his optimistic worldview. Its cancelation was understandable—for a show that traveled to a different city with each episode, Roadies never really felt like it went anywhere—but it’s also a pity. Now more than ever, we could use more pleasant shows about decent people.

64. And Then There Were None (Lifetime/BBC1, Season 1). There wasn’t any real need to make another version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and this BBC import sticks so closely to the script that it’s arguably redundant. (The primary deviation is to incorporate a handful of flashbacks, most of which are ill-conceived.) That said, the new miniseries is worth watching for two reasons. First, it restores Christie’s original ending, a deliciously bleak conclusion that had been massacred by prior adaptations. Second, look, British actors! Charles Dance sparring with Miranda Richardson! Noah Taylor glowering at Sam Neill! The dude from Jupiter Ascending taunting the creep from The Dark Knight Rises! To this distinguished troupe we can add Maeve Dermody, a young performer who acquits herself with considerable poise and quiet fragility. Her character may not fare that well—you do understand the meaning of the title, don’t you?—but the actress is destined for great things.

63. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 4; last year: 50). On one level, Season 4 of House of Cards is its best since Netflix dumped out the original batch of episodes all at once in 2013 and forever changed how we watch TV. There’s some real tension in the marriage between Frank and Claire Underwood, and Joel Kinnaman provides a worthy antagonist as a slick and handsome political rival. But the show still has too much padding, and its attempts to fuse inside-baseball realism with comic-book villainy are ungainly. And while it isn’t House of Cards’ fault that political reality became stranger than political fiction in 2016, the show’s stabs at enlivening its White House with gleeful contempt now feel weary rather than wacky. The pleasure of this series lay in traveling to an alternate universe, one where presidents could meet in secret with Russian autocrats and cultivate their own privately motivated war on terror. Nowadays, that seems less like an escape than a rerun.

62. Atlanta (FX, Season 1). Here we go. This show popped up at #1 on a great many critics’ lists, and it landed at #3 overall in the wide-reaching Uproxx Critics’ Poll. And I get it. Donald Glover is doing something new here, and there’s value in experimenting with the medium of television. There’s value in centering a series on a black community, too. So in intellectual terms, Atlanta is laudable. But here’s the thing: This show is not fun to watch. Like, at all. And sure, maybe the point is that it isn’t fun, but even if its primary function is to make thematic and sociological observations, those would hit a lot harder if they were attached to well-developed characters or interesting stories. But under Glover’s listless approach, Atlanta just sort of sloughs around, seemingly convinced that it’s fascinating just by virtue of being challenging. There’s obvious potential here, but in its current iteration, Atlanta strikes me as too self-satisfied to deliver the kind of consciousness-raising impact it so desperately wishes to make.

61. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 3.5 and 4.0; last year: 48). By this point, I’ve come to accept Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for what it is: a well-made, reasonably enjoyable show that is content to remain exactly that. Quite a few elements on this series are pretty good. The action sequences are kinetic, the characters are well-drawn (FitzSimmons!), the cast has a strong rapport (Jason O’Mara is a nice addition, as is the invaluable John Hannah), and the serialized plotting is properly paced. Still, there’s no apparent thirst for greatness here. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is too tentative, too sensible, to ever develop into must-see TV. That’s not a huge problem—there’s nothing inherently wrong with a program that provides 42 minutes of diverting entertainment, 22 times a year. But given that it’s set in a world where virtually anything is possible, the show’s contentment at playing things safe can’t help but feel disappointing.

60. Luke Cage (Netflix, Season 1). Consider this the flip side of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As a member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Luke Cage is impressively distinct—and undeniably contemporary—in its themes, focusing on race, class, and police brutality. That’s interesting for any television show, much less one about a superhero with unbreakable skin. But while the concepts are intriguing and the actors are all solid (I particularly enjoy Mahershala Ali as a kingpin and Frank Whaley as a corrupt cop), the show is somehow a little off. Story developments that would seem to make sense on the page sputter on the screen, and the show’s evocation of Harlem just doesn’t feel lived-in. Plus, despite Mike Colter’s committed performance, the title character is somewhat bland, and his invincibility renders most of the fight scenes boring. Luke Cage is essentially invulnerable, but Luke Cage stumbles a bit too often.

59. The Affair (Showtime, Season 3; last year: 26). When The Affair finally resolved its central mystery at the end of its second season, it left open the question of exactly where it might go next. The answer, it turned out, was basically nowhere. That’s not entirely a putdown—the show has always done a fine job in examining the fallout of its central transgression, and here it persuasively depicts characters who find themselves stuck in place. Still, Season 3 really bogs down when it focuses on Dominic West’s Noah, a generally despicable womanizer who becomes plagued with guilt-ridden delusions of persecution. The material involving Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson is considerably better, but their screen time is limited, a shortcoming that becomes more glaring when the show inexplicably turns its focus to a new character of minimal interest. And the dual-POV structure, so bracing in The Affair’s initial season, feels cursory by this point. It makes Showtime’s decision to pick up the show for a fourth season highly curious. The Affair still has moments of enormous empathy and emotional nuance, but it’s hard to fight the feeling that it’s just playing out the string.

58. Good Girls Revolt (Amazon, Season 1). Another show where the execution can’t quite keep pace with the intention, this series about women working at a news magazine in 1970 is arguably worth watching for its message alone. Its examination of sex discrimination in the workplace (with a glancing eye toward racial politics) remains relevant today, even as its period details—the clothes, the cars, the drugs—place it firmly in the past. Yet Good Girls Revolt lacks the necessary vitality to really spark as a TV show. The cast of mostly unknowns is impressive—TV vet (and Pitch Perfect alum) Anna Camp is particularly good as a buttoned-up daddy’s girl—but the show’s primary plot, involving a class action complaint, takes far too long to develop. In a sense, the abrupt cancelation of Good Girls Revolt is devastating, not because the show was especially good, but because it felt like it was just about to spread its wings. Instead, this hesitant, promising series will never get off the ground. The revolution wasn’t televised, but it should have been.

57. The Last Panthers (Sundance TV/Sky Atlantic/Canal+, Season 1). If first impressions were all that mattered, The Last Panthers, which begins with an exhilarating diamond heist, would be a top-10 show. Unfortunately, as it progresses, this moody miniseries grows more convoluted and less involving, trafficking in messy geopolitical subplots and tortured backstories. Still, Samantha Morton is typically excellent as an insurance investigator with a haunted past, and the late John Hurt is effortlessly watchable as her shifty superior. The Last Panthers never recaptures the thrill of its opening sequence, but it’s cagey enough to keep your interest, even as its energy flags.

56. Marcella (Netflix/ITV, Season 1). Here is a show that plays perfectly to the unique pleasures of binge-watching. A police procedural with an unreliable narrator, Marcella’s twisty storytelling is, shall we say, dubious. But it’s a furiously entertaining show, loaded with red herrings, cliffhangers, and spasms of bloodletting. Most of the characters are paper-thin, but Anna Friel is terrific as the lead, a brilliant detective who just may be out of her mind. The genre material is largely familiar—Luther fans, this is your next fix—and I’m confident that if I tried to unpack everything, I’d fall into one plot hole after another. But I burned through the season’s eight episodes in a matter of nights, and my lasting memory is of Friel’s intensity, and of strapping myself in for a bumpy, violent ride. Bring on Season 2.

55. This Is Us (NBC, Season 1). Speaking of twists. But even setting aside its penchant for startling reveals, it’s easy to be cynical about This Is Us. This is a deeply manipulative show that takes great pains to wring tears from its audience. There’s something troubling about that. At the same time, the characters are so warmhearted that it’s basically impossible not to cheer for them. At some point, I may grow tired of This Is Us’ relentless sentimentality. For the time being, though, I’m willing to lose myself in their mechanically scripted struggles and take pleasure in their manufactured triumphs. Also, Sterling K. Brown is on this show, and I don’t want to be one of those soulless people who roots against Sterling K. Brown.

54. Grimm (NBC, Season 5.5; last year: 52). Grimm has always been a serialized cable show trapped inside a network procedural’s body, and that conflict has produced some major tonal whiplash. But with the announcement that Grimm’s sixth season (currently airing) will be its last and will run an abbreviated 13 episodes, it’s clear that the showrunners finally wised up. The episodes that closed out Season 5 last summer were downright invigorating, a gratifying reminder of what this series can do when it abandons its blah monster-of-the-week structure and digs deeper into its underlying mythology. It’s still a highly imperfect show—the special effects are pretty lame, and roughly half of the villains are pitiful—but it’s finally developed an identity, with strong character dynamics and some genuine suspense. It’s hard to believe that the series has already racked up 110 total episodes, but if the close of Season 5 is any indication, Grimm might finally deliver a long-awaited payoff.

53. Roots (History/A&E/Lifetime, Season 1). As with And Then There Were None, I don’t know that we needed a remake of Roots. But we got one, and surprise, it’s exceptionally well-done, with terrific production values and solid performances across the board. (Particular shout-outs go to Rege-Jean Page as the flamboyant Chicken George and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as his repugnant, self-loathing owner.) The story of a man seeking to throw off the shackles of slavery and claim his independence retains its power, as does the series’ sprawling, generation-spanning timeline. This version of Roots may not expand much upon the original, but for those unfamiliar with the material, this is a stirring saga well worth seeking out.

52. Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon, Season 3). I think I’m getting soft, because I’m clearly developing a weakness for syrupy shows with a heartfelt message. The third season of Mozart in the Jungle is even sillier and more scattered than its first two, opening with a ridiculous storyline in Italy involving a fiery opera singer (hi Monica Bellucci!), and also making time for tedious labor negotiations between the musicians and their bosses. But the series remains highly watchable, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal’s nimble performance and to a general lightness of tone. And in exploring the burgeoning desires of Lola Kirke’s Hailey to become a conductor, Mozart in the Jungle acquires a cheesy but legitimate power about the pleasures and perils of following your dreams. It’s still a frothy and insubstantial show, but it’s never an unpleasant one.

51. Agent Carter (ABC, Season 2; last year: 39). The end of Agent Carter after two brief seasons is disappointing, but it’s also fitting for a small, quiet show that was always destined to be overlooked. There may not have been a robust market for a mystery series set in the late ’40s about the threat of nuclear annihilation, but the second season of Agent Carter is largely a blast anyway. Hayley Atwell continues to do terrific work as a no-nonsense G-woman—her chemistry with James D’Arcy is flat-out delightful—while Wynn Everett is a major find as an actress with a secret. (Also, every scene with Bridget Regan is a gift.) The series’ budget is too small for the effects-driven sequences to really land, but the show still looks great, with a vivacious color scheme and impressive production design. Agent Carter will go down as a curio in the annals of the MCU, but it’s one that future fans will be delighted to discover.

Coming tomorrow: Tom Hiddleston gets sexy, Billy Bob Thornton gets salty, and Baz Luhrmann gets crazy.

No comments: