Thursday, February 2, 2017
Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 30-11: Queens, Singers, Lovers, and Monsters
30. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz, Season 1). Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience may be something of a cult classic, but I’ve never understood why, as I find the film to be ugly, pretentious, and deeply boring. (Admittedly, its tagline is terrific.) I can easily envision Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s television adaptation similarly turning into a cult classic, but for far more justifiable reasons. Chilly, chic, and fiendishly provocative, the series retains the fundamental premise of the movie—examining the mundane ins and outs of the call-girl biz—but invests it with a squirming, throbbing humanity. Its plotting is arguably too ambitious—it wastes far too much time at a heavy-duty law firm—but as a character study, The Girlfriend Experience is mesmerizing. That’s due almost entirely to Riley Keough, the Mad Max: Fury Road alum who delivers a performance that’s both enigmatic and explosive. Because the show disfavors hand-holding, Keough is forced to internalize most of her emotions, and she does so with aplomb, silently revealing her law student-cum-prostitute as a woman of fierce intelligence and indomitable pride. Starz renewed the series for a second season, but Keough won’t be returning; I wish her replacements luck.
29. Love (Netflix, Season 1). Oh look, another Judd Apatow romantic comedy about a goofy dude and the girl who’s way too hot for him. Except Love, which Apatow co-created with Lesley Arfin and Paul Rust, doesn’t quite play according to script. Yes, it’s basically a two-hander about a mismatched couple, but it keeps finding new ways to toy with the rom-com genre. As doomed partners Gus and Mickey, Rust and Gillian Jacobs exhibit a chemistry that’s highly compatible but also volatile, prone to misunderstandings and resentment. This makes their relationship more thorny and interesting than your typical will-they-won’t-they pairing. Plus, freed from the rigid half-hour time block of network TV, Love makes room for a number of genuinely enjoyable side characters, such as Gus’ gang of amateur musicians who invent theme songs for old movies. (Carltio’s Way fans, this is your show.) Those guys are cool, but they pale in comparison to Claudia O’Doherty, the bushy-tailed actress who plays Mickey’s roommate and who needs her own spinoff, like, yesterday. As is often the case with an Apatow production, Love can be a little loose and sloppy, but that’s in keeping with the spirit of its protagonists, two lost souls who miraculously find one another, then do what they do best and screw everything up.
28. Preacher (AMC, Season 1). With Sausage Party, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg proved that they take the subject of religion seriously, even if they addressed it in the most profane and juvenile way possible. Preacher, their adaptation of the popular comic book, tackles theological issues more directly, but it’s actually less concerned with pondering the existence of God. Instead, Preacher is most notable for its odd, twisted tone, a strange and inimitable brew of romance, irreverence, and violence. Occasionally, the series threatens to slide too far in one direction or another—this typically happens when the lead, a slightly miscast Dominic Cooper, is on screen—but for the most part, Rogen and Goldberg somehow keep everything in the proper balance, paying homage to the show’s comic-book roots without becoming subservient to them. The supporting cast is terrific, in particular Ruth Negga as a salty mercenary and Joseph Gilgun as a Big Lebowski-hating vampire (see, I told you it was weird). And the fight scenes are legitimately thrilling, with fluid choreography and real aesthetic oomph. Gilgun’s character isn’t the only one prone to bursting into flame—this show has personality to burn.
27. Red Oaks (Amazon, Season 2; last year: 44 of 62). For a putative comedy set at a country club during the decade of Caddyshack, Red Oaks isn’t all that funny. It isn’t unfunny; it just doesn’t have that many jokes. That’s because, in its surprisingly touching second season, Red Oaks operates chiefly as an earnest coming-of-age drama. There are still some hijinks on display—Ennis Esmer scores most of the laughs as a beleaguered tennis pro—but Red Oaks is primarily concerned with investigating how its younger characters will grow up, and whether its older ones can rediscover the spark of youth. It’s a disarmingly straightforward approach that emphasizes the series’ genuine sweetness; rather than relying on manufactured conflicts or zany conceptual gags (suffice it to say that there is no body-switching episode in Season 2), the show simply observes its hopeful, fretful characters with honesty and affection. There’s something tender about that, and true, too.
26. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 3; last year: 23). Sweet mercy, this show is funny. The milieu of Silicon Valley is arguably too meticulous—some of the industry-specific jokes sail over my head, while the series’ insistence on revealing all facets of the tech community’s ruthless culture can result in too much time spent with irritating characters (looking at you, Big Head). But by this point, the major players are so well-defined, and the actors’ rapport so effortless, that Silicon Valley just regularly spits out comedy gold like it’s a part of its DNA. Some of the serialized plots are more effective than others, but the real pleasure of the show is figuring out just which actor will be the funniest in any given episode. T.J. Miller is always a safe guess, while if you expand the competition to include duos, then the combination of Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr is unbeatable. But how about the surprise emergence of de-facto lead Thomas Middleditch, showcasing some tremendous physical chops to complement his put-upon persona? Or maybe the real MVP is Zach Woods, the zealous company man prone to absurd digressions who sleeps in a colleague’s garage—when someone points out that he’s homeless, he merrily responds, “I simply imagine that my skeleton is me and my body is my house, that way I'm always home.” For most shows, that’s a top-five bit; for Silicon Valley, it’s just another line of code.
25. The Good Place (NBC, Season 1). A quick methodological tangent: For the most part, this list focuses exclusively on episodes of television that aired in 2016. But because I needed an extra month to catch up on additional shows, a few 2017 episodes filtered into view. I note this because the season finale of The Good Place, which aired just two weeks ago, was so gobsmackingly brilliant that it rocketed the show at least 10 spots up this list. Still, even before that, this was an effortlessly entertaining show, with a killer premise—what if you ended up in Heaven by mistake?—strong writing, and a superb cast. Kristen Bell, in full Veronica Mars mode, is the perfect entry point into the series’ off-kilter afterlife, and she graciously shares the spotlight with her able cohorts, including Ted Danson as a bumbling overseer, Jameela Jamil as a passive-aggressive socialite with “legs for days”, and, best of all, D’Arcy Carden as Janet, a cheerful robot programmed with infinite information and zero social skills. (Also, Adam Scott pops in for a few episodes as the casually despicable landlord of The Bad Place, and he’s even funnier than you imagined.) Thankfully, The Good Place just got renewed—the prospect of canceling a show this good was total bullshirt.
24. Jane the Virgin (The CW, Seasons 2.5 and 3.0). On one level, Jane the Virgin functions as a telenovela, complete with evil twins, sexy mob bosses, shocking murders, and countless conspiracies. So how is that the show just feels so… wholesome? The genius of Jane the Virgin lies in its ability to churn through dozens of exaggerated storylines while never losing sight of its true focus: the family of the title character, played with radiant allure by Gina Rodriguez. This may be a series about sleazy billionaires, masked assassins, and women getting paralyzed by their sisters—of all the hashtags the show has offered up, #petrafied is my absolute favorite—but it’s also about sustaining a marriage, raising children, and generally just living your life as well as you can. Yet for all its well-earned sincerity, the show is also a blast to watch: Its comedy is generally strong—Jaime Camil is downright hysterical as Jane’s bighearted, self-obsessed father, and the winking narration by Anthony Mendez is even funnier—while its visual playfulness is bravura for a network series. Eventually, Jane the Virgin may run out of crazy stories to tell, but it’s difficult to imagine ever wanting to leave its wonderful characters.
23. The Crown (Netflix, Season 1). I expected The Crown to be enjoyable—I’m a sucker for British royal history—but I didn’t expect it to be good. Yet this swift, smart series does far more than simply recount the steps by which the world’s longest-reigning monarch ascended the throne. It tells a fascinating story, and in doing so, it is uncommonly attuned to the tricky balance between serialized and episodic television. Excepting a few flashbacks, The Crown proceeds linearly, and it accumulates power and sadness as it watches its protagonist surrender her sense of self in the service of her country. But it also delivers discrete, individualized episodes that pack a surprising punch given the slimness of their scope. Each hour—one recreating the terrifying fog that choked London for four days, another examining the creation of a famous ruined portrait of Winston Churchill, etc.—generates its own catharsis, even as it also feeds into the series’ overarching character study, one given an achingly fragile backbone by Claire Foy (who, curiously enough, was fresh off portraying another key player in the English monarchy: Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall). And in examining the fractious relationship between Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), The Crown is emotionally crippling, even if its posture is always ramrod straight.
22. Quarry (Cinemax, Season 1). A jolt of brutish noir and elegant craftsmanship, Quarry is a fully realized work, eight episodes of cold, cruel filmmaking potency. It’s an obscenely slow burn, opening with a brutal murder, then flashing back to gradually illustrate how we got there. Its pacing can flag at times—this is not a show in a rush—but its competence never slackens. The characters are all colorful (Justified’s Damon Herriman is particularly good as a disenchanted heavy), but no one is more charismatic than Peter Mullan as The Broker, a magnetic figure of relaxed menace. Mostly, though, Quarry is an advertisement for director Greg Yaitanes, the Banshee graduate who helms every episode with exquisite technique and authorial distinction. For a series primarily set in the Memphis muck, this is a strikingly beautiful show, with haunting imagery and one jaw-dropping action sequence after the next. The gunplay is lethal, but the camerawork is divine.
21. Casual (Hulu, Season 2). The story of a recent divorcée (Michaela Watkins, excellent) who, along with her precocious teenage daughter, moves in with her dilettante brother, Casual felt fully formed from its inception. Yet the series grows a bit bolder and darker in Season 2, minimizing its cheap superior comedy and instead digging deeper into its three main characters, appreciating just how badly damaged they all are. To be sure, it’s still very funny—Tommy Dewey’s deadpan is unrivalled, while Tara Lynne Barr can walk away with a scene without breaking a sweat. (Bonus points for the increased presence of Nyasha Hatendi as Leon, the thankless friend who somehow gets to demonstrate the arc of an entire relationship in the span of a single cold open.) But the characters’ constant joking now feels a bit more desperate, a defense mechanism designed to prevent them from seeing themselves as they are. Casual, however, is remarkably clear-eyed, perceiving its principals with a keen understanding of their foibles; it doesn’t flinch when they behave selfishly (which they do often), but it does view them with compassion. Really, it’s a series about people gradually realizing that they want to be better. In that, the characters can consider the show that houses them a role model.
20. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 4; last year: 22). For its fourth and (sadly) final season, Masters of Sex makes a sly pivot, inverting the dynamic between its leads; this time, it’s Bill (Michael Sheen, still so, so good) who is the object of desire, being pursued by Virginia (Lizzy Caplan, ibid), the woman who has repeatedly spurned him. It’s a savvy tweak to a series that otherwise needed little revision. Masters of Sex fell out of popular critical circles years ago, but I’ve never understood why; until its untimely end, this show remained both a fascinating study of the science of sex and a gripping relationship drama. Season 4 introduces two new key characters, married doctors Nancy (Betty Gilpin, suitably frosty) and Art (Jeremy Strong, very good), who function as a sort of cracked mirror to the years-long push-pull between Bill and Virginia. Their own private marital soap opera may be a faint echo of the existential agony we’ve witnessed for the past three seasons, but it’s proof of the show’s emotional intelligence and vast empathy. For four straight years, Masters of Sex was smart, sad, cutting, and heartfelt. Maybe we didn’t deserve it.
19. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, Seasons 1.5 and 2). There’s much to recommend about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: the thoughtful portrait of female friendship; the frank look at the intersection between love and obsession; the wry humor and snappy dialogue. But really, the appeal of this show comes down to one thing: the songs. They’re amazing. Virtually every episode offers at least one musical number that’s an absolute showstopper, while the variety—everything from hip-hop to tap-dance to punk-rock to homages that ape everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Beyoncé—is astounding. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a funny, touching show that wrestles seriously with issues like addiction, infidelity, and work-life balance. It also has a Green Day parody called “Ping Pong Girl”. It’s the boulevard of beautiful dreams.
18. Man Seeking Woman (FXX, Season 2, last year: 18). Man Seeking Woman sticks with its patented formula in Season 2, which makes sense, because that formula—taking mundane scenarios involving love and friendship, then blowing them up to insane proportions—is pure genius. The utter thrill that accompanied Season 1—the sensation of stumbling onto something entirely new—may have dissipated, but the execution is arguably even tighter this time around, with fewer duds mixed in among the regular bits of screwball brilliance. The series also dabbles in serialized plotting, sprinkling some emotional poignancy amid the comic absurdity. Even better, this season delivers not one but two “Woman Seeking Man” episodes, one of which contains the single funniest line uttered on television in 2016, the other of which features Carrie-Annie Moss as a fixer who salvages women’s reputations after they commit the sin of exerting some independence. “I think I can get the charges reduced from ‘Bitch’ to ‘Crazy,’” she tells her dumbstruck client. “If this were Texas, you’d be looking at aggravated cunt.” And they say feminism is dead.
17. Billions (Showtime, Season 1). A purported look at power and corruption in high finance, Billions is a ludicrous show, but it seems to know this. And that self-awareness turns what could have been a sluggish polemic into something far more slippery and appealing. Of course, casting always helps, and Paul Giamatti is predictably ferocious as a fanatical prosecutor who sets his sights on a brazen entrepreneur, played with wolfish charm by Damien Lewis. The heart of the show, however, is Maggie Siff as Wendy, an in-house psychologist who moonlights as a dominatrix. That’s ribald stuff—and I haven’t even mentioned that she’s both Lewis’ subordinate and Giamatti’s wife—but Siff quietly highlights Wendy’s ambitions and frustrations, and in the process she becomes the series’ painfully human center. Billions is never going to be a subtle show—whenever Giamatti and Lewis share the screen, the surrounding scenery is littered with bite marks—but it is a smart one, with savvy plotting and strong characters. I’m buying stock.
16. Stranger Things (Netflix, Season 1). Weren’t the ’80s awesome? Honestly, I don’t really remember. But Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ lean and mean horror pastiche, recreates the decade as an epoch of youthful bonding, killer synth music, and truly scary monsters. A fusion of more influences than you can count—Spielberg, Carpenter, Raimi, De Palma, you name it—the series is a loving and impeccably textured homage to a bygone cinematic era. But if it were only that, it would be a curiosity rather than a sensation. Thankfully, Stranger Things manages to develop its own brand of ’80s-inflected entertainment, a giddy mixture of trembling self-discovery and nightmarish terror. There’s a moment at the end of the series’ sixth episode that is so spectacularly jubilant, I literally jumped off my couch. As a nominal horror series, Stranger Things is suspenseful and imaginative, but its greatest achievement is the way it bottles that sense of joy.
15. You’re the Worst (FXX, Season 3; last year: 5). The second season of You’re the Worst was a thunderbolt, an uproarious slate of comedy episodes that somehow doubled as a devastating study of depression. Season 3 doesn’t try to repeat that narrative through line, which is a smart choice—going back to the well would have felt cheap and safe. But even if this season of You’re the Worst lacks the electric charge of its predecessor, it’s still a coup, effortlessly toggling between side-splitting humor and thoughtfully observed romantic drama. The show also remains formally ambitious, carving out entire episodes for supporting characters and wielding the camera in exciting and stylish ways. It may no longer be the best half-hour show on TV, but You’re the Worst is still exceptional television—it’s alternately celebratory and elegiac, but it’s always riveting.
14. Mr. Robot (USA, Season 2; last year: 12). It’s about the craft. The actual storyline of Mr. Robot, with its nefarious hackers and malevolent corporations and corrupt bureaucrats and long-simmering twists, is just a little bit silly. The show handles its cockamamie philosophizing reasonably well in Season 2, envisioning just what happens once the dog catches the car, but its relentless name-dropping and strained topicality can feel tedious. But that doesn’t bother me, because I don’t watch Mr. Robot for its politics. Hell, I don’t even really watch it for its story, which is becoming so sprawling that I barely try to wrap my head around it. I watch it for its style. Showrunner Sam Esmail directed all 12 episodes of Season 2, and his aesthetic gifts are just astonishing. The off-kilter framing, the silky long takes, the stabs of pop music, the unbearable intensity—it’s all the work of an artist with a singular vision, one who’s holding nothing back in bringing it to life. Esmail’s craftsmanship is less the work of a showrunner than a film director who’s finally received the opportunity to make his passion product. The ultimate twist of Mr. Robot is that it isn’t a TV show at all—it’s movie-making on the small screen.
13. Supergirl (CBS/The CW, Seasons 1.5 and 2.0; last year: 33). This show has its problems. Its villains are lackluster, its special effects are so-so, and its serialized storytelling could be tighter. And I don’t care. I absolutely adore watching this show. It’s so empathetic and funny and sweet and sad and empowering, I just want to bathe in the warm glow of its universe forever. Melissa Benoist is pure light as the title hero, while Chris Wood is proving a fantastic love interest as her clueless alien companion. The writing has sharpened over time, imparting noble themes without resorting to preaching, and now that the cast has gelled, the Buffy-esque banter is delightful. And in developing the romance between Chyler Leigh and Floriana Lima, the series exhibits extraordinary tenderness and sensitivity. Remember: There are 88 different TV shows on this list. This is the only one that repeatedly made me cry. Supergirl is a gift. Treasure it. It’s heroic.
12. Black Mirror (Netflix, Season 3). It’s tricky to evaluate any season of Black Mirror as a whole, as its anthology format inevitably lends itself to comparing individual episodes, rather than holistically considering the entire batch. You know by now that every hour of Black Mirror will in some way revolve around a non-existent but highly plausible piece of technology, and it will do so in a manner that is utterly terrifying and—because of that aforementioned plausibility—deeply disturbing. As befits the freedom of the format, Season 3’s continued exploration of that theme results in some good episodes and some less-good ones. But even the weaker entries, such as “Playtest” and “Shut Up and Dance”, crackle with tension and excitement; if the payoff doesn’t quite match the setup, that shouldn’t entirely invalidate the spine-tingling sense of fear that the episodes generate. Meanwhile, the season’s highlights represent some of the show’s best work ever. “Nosedive,” starring a perfectly cast Bryce Dallas Howard, conceives one of the most alarmingly feasible dystopias the show has ever concocted, a social-networking wasteland where every single human interaction is just another quantified Uber ride. And “San Junipero”, with Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is arguably the series’ greatest episode ever. To spoil its premise would be unseemly, so suffice it to say that its virtuoso choice of a theme song holds true: When a TV show can deliver an hour as bracing and life-affirming as this, heaven really is a place on earth.
11. Westworld (HBO, Season 1). Heard of this one? The internet did its best to ruin Westworld, turning it into an, ahem, maze of fan theories, everyone feverishly devoted to forecasting the show’s next big twist. I can’t begrudge people their speculation, especially when it leads to engagement, but it’s crucial to remember something: What happens in Westworld doesn’t really matter. What matters is why it happens, and what it says about us as a species. Obviously, the series’ jigsaw-puzzle structure is conducive to postulating, with each episode unspooling ribbons of plot and tossing out crumbs of potentially meaningful data. But for me, the power of Westworld lies not in its revelations but its ruminations. Much like Joss Whedon’s great and underrated Dollhouse, this is a show that uses the existence of androids to ponder what it means to be human, to grapple with the consequences of our best and worst impulses. Lest that sound too philosophical, remember that Westworld is an absolutely badass show, with a fantastic production design, brilliant use of warped pop music (Radiohead fans, enjoy yourselves), and high-octane action sequences that unleash torrents of adrenaline. It’s also supremely well-acted, with an incredibly deep bench; I’ll just highlight Evan Rachel Wood as a bright-eyed homesteader who gradually gains dawning awareness of her fate, Jeffrey Wright as a meticulous engineer with his own secrets, and Thandie Newton as a madam who thrillingly transforms herself from used to user. And for all of its knotty dialogue about programming and loops and backstories, the epic majesty of Westworld can be encapsulated in two quiet nonverbal moments—one at the very end of the pilot, when a character casually swats a fly, and the other at the end of the finale, when a different character at long last breaks into a wide smile. It’s those little slivers of visual storytelling that make Westworld great. If you fail to appreciate them, then this maze wasn’t meant for you.
Coming tomorrow: the top 10.