Monday, January 30, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 88-71: Zombies, Gangsters, and Comedies

Alycia Debnam-Carey in "Fear the Walking Dead"
I have a confession to make. I should probably tell this to someone more qualified to process my shame—a friend, a rabbi, a shrink—but instead, I’m going to tell you. In the year 2016, I watched 88 different TV shows.

That’s right. Eighty-eight.

This is, of course, far too many television shows for any functional adult to watch in a given year. Yet it is also somehow not enough. When I started this project in 2014, I’d seen 50 shows that year; last year, I upped that total to 62. Now I’m at 88, and that gargantuan figure still constitutes a measly 19% of the year’s scripted shows. #PeakTV isn’t just a glorious era for the medium of television—it’s also inhumane.

But this is the world we live in, and I’ve made my peace with it. Each of the past two years, I’ve included a brief laundry-list of shows that I regretted not watching. This year, I’m done apologizing. If the forthcoming series of posts fails to include your favorite show, by all means yell at me about it; I’ll then politely remind you that I watched 88 freaking TV shows last year (for the record, I watched every episode of each show on this list—no pop-ins here), so I’m sorry that I couldn’t make room for your precious little SyFy drama or Adult Swim comedy. (Also, I’ll try to watch it next year, promise.)

Per usual, we’ll be releasing our rankings over five separate posts, with a new post dropping each day this week, concluding with the top 10 on Friday. As always, if you find yourself flabbergasted that I could somehow rank Show X above/below Show Y, please bear in mind that (1) ranking works of art is a fruitless and arbitrary exercise, and (2) my taste is better than yours.

Without further ado, here begins the Manifesto’s ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2016:

88. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 5; last year: 58 of 62). Thank God it’s over. House of Lies was never a good show, but in its early years, it was at least a reasonably entertaining one. But for its final two seasons, this pseudo-satire of corporate culture lost its ability to provide even sporadic moments of enjoyment, which is almost an achievement, given that it stars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell. The majority of this season was less terrible than unmemorable, but that changed with the series finale, a truly atrocious episode that somehow rendered the entire season utterly meaningless. The only good news is that the show’s extinction frees up Cheadle and Bell to find other work—the latter immediately landed in a series that will appear considerably higher on this list.

87. High Maintenance (HBO, Season 1). I have no philosophical quarrel with the anthology format—executed properly, it can boost variety and stave off staleness while still maintaining thematic continuity. But the individual episodes still need to be, you know, good. And High Maintenance, which focuses on the various clients of a bearded weed dealer, isn’t. The episode from the POV of a dog is formally interesting, but beyond that, the quick glimpses into the lives of pot-smoking New Yorkers are singularly uninteresting. Maybe I’m being too demanding in wanting a genuine story (perhaps I would feel differently if I’d watched while stoned?), but some mellows deserve to be harshed.

86. Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, Season 2; last year: 47). Why? Look, I know that the very creation of Fear the Walking Dead was calculated and mercenary, but I’m fine with that, because I acknowledge that TV networks like making money. But the whole premise of this Walking Dead spinoff was that it took place at the outset of the outbreak that led to the dreary, apocalyptic, zombie-infested wasteland that forms the backdrop for television’s most-watched show. That difference provided Fear the Walking Dead with a plausible artistic reason to exist. Now, it’s just more of the same, only with less flair and pop than its big bad parent. Thankfully, ratings are spiraling, but AMC nevertheless green-lit a third season, which actually makes sense. As every zombie aficionado knows, you aren’t safe until you shoot the lumbering, undead creature in the head.

85. Baskets (FX, Season 1). If there’s one broad area where I diverge from most TV critics, it’s in my appreciation of “ambitious” half-hour comedies, particularly those on FX. Baskets has been hailed as a breakthrough by many, an assessment I find even stranger than the show, which features Zach Galifianakis as hapless twins (one a clown, the other a community college dean) and Louie Anderson in drag as their mother. That’s certainly weird, but Baskets is too proud of its own oddness to work as an actual TV show. Martha Kelly does nice low-key work as a bewildered confidant, and Anderson has a good scene here and there, but the series insists on keeping its viewers at a distance, so its strangeness is as off-putting as it is enveloping. Galifianakis is a funny guy, but even he can’t juggle this show’s mishmash of oddball characters and uneven tones.

84. Idiotsitter (Comedy Central, Season 1). They say comedy is subjective, so when I say that I don’t find much of Idiotsitter to be funny, I recognize that’s more of a personal opinion than a professional judgment. All the same, the awkward cringe comedy of this show just isn’t for me. Jillian Bell and Charlotte Newhouse clearly enjoy working together, and I will never take Stephen Root for granted. But when I watch this show, I spend far more time wincing than laughing.

83. One Mississippi (Amazon, Season 1). This show isn’t funny, and that’s fine. I don’t expect an autobiographical series about a cancer survivor who was molested as a child to be funny. But One Mississippi often seems like it wants to be funny, which confuses me. Maybe it’s some sort of experimental anti-comedy? How else to explain the random fantasy sequences that grind every episode to a halt? There’s the vague outline of a sweet, soulful show lurking somewhere inside here, but Tig Notaro’s affectless style makes her seem superior rather than sympathetic, and while John Rothman is good as her quirky stepfather, the remaining characters are more like sketches than people.

82. Wayward Pines (Fox, Season 2; last year: 43). Well, I suppose this is what happens when you replace Matt Dillon with Jason Patric. Not that the failure of Wayward Pines’ second season is any of the actors’ fault—Patric eventually settles in, and Hannibal alum Kacey Rohl is reliably strong. The real problem is that Wayward Pines never should have had a second season in the first place. The best parts of the series’ reasonably satisfying first run derived from the slow-burn mystery, which allowed the show to percolate with intrigue and menace. With that uncertainty stripped away, Season 2 reveals the Wayward Pines universe as fundamentally goofy and nonsensical. (Also, note to producers: Stop killing Hope Davis.) Over the time, the show takes itself more and more seriously; in the process, it becomes less and less fun.

81. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FX, Season 2; last year: 60). In its second and final season, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll develops a sliver of a serialized plot, in which the father-daughter musician team of Denis Leary and Elizabeth Gillies discover that their respective significant others are cheating on them… with each other. That lends itself to a few funny sight gags involving hurt feelings and slaughtered guitars, but beyond that, there’s still very little energy to this loose, inoffensive, ultimately pointless show. There is, however, an utterly bizarre subplot involving the band’s bass player and drummer who team up with Campbell Scott to create a rock opera about Ireland’s potato famine. I can’t say I’ll miss this show, but I can’t entirely resent any program that features Campbell Scott rapping in an Irish accent.

80. Vice Principals (HBO, Season 1). This show should have worked. Danny McBride and Jody Hill have a singular voice—an oil-and-water combination of cringe comedy and buried sweetness—and Walton Goggins is a comic savant. But where Eastbound & Down typically operated within the narrow overlap of that peculiar Venn diagram—you rooted for Kenny Powers, even though he behaved like a buffoon most of the time—Vice Principals is too excessive and absurd to really work as either. McBride brings his usual bumbling man-child helplessness, but his shtick has always been high-risk; if the humor isn’t funny enough or the gentleness isn’t sincere enough, the whole enterprise just collapses. Vice Principals has moments of brilliance, but it’s largely unpleasant, and its misses severely outnumber its hits.

79. Bloodline (Netflix, Season 2). The highlight of the first season of Bloodline was Ben Mendelsohn’s slippery, enigmatic performance as a black-sheep brother craving respect and attention. The problem with Season 2—and maybe just skip to the next show on this list if you’re concerned about Season 1 spoilers—is that Mendelsohn’s character died at the end of the first season, but the showrunners recognized the vitality of his presence, so they kept him on for Season 2, where he appears either in flashbacks or as a ghost. It may have made intellectual sense, but it really just underscores the show’s steady degradation. Bloodline is a sweaty, seedy noir that should be pulpy and thrilling, but instead it’s slow and dour, which makes the occasional moments of insanity just seem ludicrous. Bloodline’s writers aren’t bad people, but by pushing this series past its expiration point, they did a bad thing.

78. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 54). Sigh. It is what it is. In Kimmy Schmidt’s second season, Tina Fey doubles down on her brand of anarchic wildness, deluging you with a barrage of meta jokes, throwaway one-liners, and hip references. Her manic style of comedy clearly appeals to a broad swath of viewers—30 Rock is basically a cult classic at this point—but for me, it’s just exhausting. Ellie Kemper is still excellent as the title loon, and Fey herself shines in a few late-season episodes as a bipolar therapist (a dramatically different role compared to her bumbling prosecutor in Season 1). But there’s no real depth to the characters, and for every moment of inspired genius, there’s a B or C story that goes absolutely nowhere. (Did Carol Kane’s character really start dating Robert Durst?) It’s comedy as assault, and I emerge from each episode feeling pummeled.

77. Better Things (FX, Season 1). Louie and I had our disagreements, especially during its latter seasons, but one of that erratic show’s most reliable staples was Pamela Adlon, the gifted actress who played Louis C.K.’s crush, his sometimes-girlfriend, and his consistent life-ruiner. So I had high hopes for Better Things, where Adlon plays a single mother of three girls. Unfortunately, the belligerent storytelling philosophy that eventually submarined Louie—call it “anti-entertainment”—infects this new series as well, which floats aimlessly from one episode to the next without developing any momentum or interest. I get that being a mom is hard, and that life is filled with banal daily rituals and nettlesome interactions that don’t necessarily translate to exciting drama. But Better Things’ day-in-the-life approach results in a frustrating, meandering show that seems to actively resist not just catharsis, but also humor. It’s doubtless designed to seem profound, but it really just feels meaningless.

76. Divorce (HBO, Season 1). I never watched Sex and the City, so I can’t speak to the differences between Sarah Jessica Parker’s work on that show versus this one, her return to the network she once helped thrive. What I can say is that her performance here is defiantly unglamorous, in a manner that’s both admirable and irritating. As its title may suggest, Divorce is an unhappy show about unhappy people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Parker displays a reasonably believable non-chemistry with Thomas Haden Church, playing a couple whose marriage has outlived its life expectancy. At the same time, why is Divorce here? It isn’t very funny—it’s at its worst when it strives for a tone of caustic observational humor, as in depicting the floundering relationship between upscale types at dinner parties (don’t get me started on Haden Church’s stalking of Parker’s lover, played by a neutered Jemaine Clement)—and it isn’t particularly insightful, either. It’s just kind of a drag, with moments of embarrassment that simply distract from the overall ugliness. Fun for the whole family!

75. 11.22.63 (Hulu, Season 1). With its potboiler premise—New England loner travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination—11.22.63 has the makings of a classic miniseries. But despite the presence of a mid-tier movie star (James Franco) in the lead, this Stephen King adaptation is curiously inert as a work of pulp fiction. That isn’t a deal-breaker, though, because around its halfway point, 11.22.63 makes a sharp detour, focusing less on the assassination and more on the swooning romance between Franco’s amateur gumshoe and Sarah Gadon’s cheery teacher. It’s a surprising and inspired development, and Gadon is very good, but the love story doesn’t quite work either, feeling more theoretical than impassioned. The result is a show that’s conceptually interesting but never really achieves liftoff.

74. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 6.5 and 7.0; last year: 28). Well, that escalated quickly. There’s obviously no stopping The Walking Dead from a commercial standpoint, but after five-plus seasons of television that ranged from mundane to terrific, the creative well has just about dried up. Sure, the show’s wandering structure can always lend itself to new story arcs—new villains, new communities, new characters whom we meet and maybe kinda get to know and like before they gruesomely die—but artistically speaking, we’ve reached stasis. The show’s budget is high enough that the action is typically well-executed, and every so often, a narrowly focused episode will be compelling. But The Walking Dead is coasting on pure formula right now. It has no themes left to unpack, no truths left to discover. I still watch this show because I’ve already invested 91 hours of my life into it, so stopping now would constitute surrender, and I don’t like giving up. But I’m watching out of obligation, not enjoyment, and I don’t think I’m alone. The real zombies here aren’t the murderous walkers, it’s those of us sitting glumly on our couches.

73. Gomorrah (Sundance TV/Sky Italia, Season 1). Critics hailed the 2009 Italian mob film Gomorrah as a masterpiece, but I found it cold, scattered, and heartless. I feel much the same way about Gomorrah the TV series, which, as with the movie, is based on a book by Roberto Saviano. It may be that the show reflects the cruel realities of the modern mob and its terrible consequences on working-class citizens, but the show is far too detached for its political points to land with any real impact. There are way too many indistinguishable characters, and the occasional bursts of violence are directed with minimal interest in visual flair; that lack of artistry may be an accomplishment to some, but to me, it’s a detriment. If the theme of Gomorrah is that the Mafia is bad, that comes across well enough, but I don’t know that I needed to watch a tedious TV show to confirm it.

72. Downton Abbey (BBC, Season 6; last year: 57). I won’t miss Downton Abbey, but I’m not exactly glad it’s gone, either. This wildly, inexplicably popular show was relentlessly pleasant, and while it was thoroughly unmemorable, it could still function as a passable diversion. And in its final season, freed from the burden of cliffhangers and continuing plotlines, the series was able to turn on the sap full force—every possible romantic match is made, every seemingly dangerous development is smoothly resolved, and everyone receives a happy ending (yes, even the once-evil footman). It’s all incredibly gooey and trite, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally enjoy it. If that sounds like faint praise, that’s only fitting for a series that prided itself on a surface decorousness, even as it constantly attempted—often ineffectively, sometimes winningly—to reveal the fiery desires simmering beneath the stiff upper lips.

71. Daredevil (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 37). Ouch. The first season of Daredevil wasn’t perfect, but it had a terrific villain (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk), and it featured uncommonly robust action filmmaking for a TV show. The fight scenes are still strong in Season 2, but the villain—a collection of silent ninjas known as The Hand—is decidedly not. That’s a problem for a serialized program that runs 13 episodes per season, as it means that Daredevil peters out when it should be ramping up. Not everything is bad—Charlie Cox exhibits suitably sultry chemistry with Élodie Yung (as Elektra), and Jon Bernthal is excellent as The Punisher—but the character dynamics don’t have as much snap, and the season has a marking-time feel to it. There’s enough talent on hand here that I’m still looking forward to a third season (recently pushed back to 2018), but this batch of episodes shows what can happen when the writing fails to measure up to the actors and the action.

Coming tomorrow: musicians, politicians, Nazis, and superheroes.

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