Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 50-31: Cops, Crooks, Cults, and Lawyers

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki in "The Night Manager"
Before continuing with our rankings, a quick reminder that this list isn’t a bell curve—the majority of the shows on this 88-item list are above-average. It’s a little nuts that I can comfortably recommend 50-plus television series from a single year, but welcome to #PeakTV.

If you missed the prior installments of the Manifesto’s 2016 rankings, you can find them at the following links:
#s 88-71
#s 70-51

50. The Path (Hulu, Season 1). Hey, cults! The Path takes itself extremely seriously, which I suppose makes sense, given that it’s a series about people who are abused, damaged, and deluded (either by others or themselves). Yet the show’s solemnity is something of a detriment, as its exploration of an alternative “community” lacks the necessary verisimilitude—there’s some batty chatter about “The Ladder” and some portentous discussion of complex hierarchies, but it all feels thinly sketched. But whenever The Path veers into melodrama, it becomes wildly entertaining. Aaron Paul is steady as a middle manager struggling with his faith (Michelle Monaghan is a bit shakier as a true believer), but it’s the stuff on the margins that really sizzles; a forbidden teen romance is the stuff of Shakespeare, while Hugh Dancy is absolutely mesmerizing as a power-hungry manipulator. I wouldn’t call myself a convert quite yet, but The Path’s first season exhibits the potential of a show that can get its hooks into you.

49. Narcos (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 35 of 62). In its early episodes of Season 2, Narcos hints at transforming from an enjoyable, straightforward docudrama into a truly elite TV show. As the season progresses, however, it settles back into its familiar rhythms, dispensing enormous amounts of information without quite digging under the skin of its characters. Still, this is an impeccably well-made show, with standout performances from Wagner Moura and Pedro Pascal, plus the occasional electric set piece. I would have preferred the individual episodes to be more distinctive—this is the classic example of a TV show essentially operating as a 10-hour movie—but Narcos still delivers robust filmmaking, with a quiet undercurrent of tragedy. Now that the Pablo Escobar storyline has wrapped up, it will be interesting to see where the series goes next, and whether it will have the courage to try something a little riskier.

48. Togetherness (HBO, Season 2; last year: 49). I was underwhelmed by the first season of Togetherness, a well-observed but ultimately dour portrait of a married couple suffering from ennui. But Season 2 is a marked improvement, with some legitimate dramatic stakes amplifying the emotional turmoil. A season-long storyline involving a dodgy attempt to open a charter school doesn’t quite work, but the character dynamics are sharp, and there’s real tension and feeling in the various fraying relationships. All of the performers are strong, in particular a fearless Amanda Peet and (to my surprise) an understated Peter Gallagher, while the show makes powerful statements on the messiness of love, marriage, and friendship. The cancelation of Togetherness was disappointing, but at least this series about people hitting their lows ended on a high note.

47. Goliath (Amazon, Season 1). Goliath is a series in which William Hurt plays the vampiric head of a law firm who never leaves his darkened office, nurses burn scars on his face, surveils his employees via closed-circuit cameras, and interrupts anyone who speaks to him by clicking some sort of infuriating clicker. In other words, this is not your typical David E. Kelley lawyer show. Which is cool! With its sleazy cops and nefarious businessmen and green-thumbed judges, Goliath is impossible to take seriously, but the key is that it never takes itself seriously. Instead, it has a great deal of fun pitting high-caliber actors against one another in puffed-up conflicts and shady conspiracies. As Hurt’s boozy, cantankerous nemesis, Billy Bob Thornton does yeoman’s work anchoring the insanity with some semblance of dirt-under-the-fingernails ruggedness, while the show also makes room for a contingent of strong female characters. Best among these are Olivia Thirlby as a stuttering upstart, Deadwood’s Molly Parker as an unscrupulous vet, and, in the show’s real discovery, Nina Arianda as a frustrated pragmatist. Goliath may not be especially true to life, but that’s precisely what makes it such a blast.

46. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 4; last year: 20). The news that Orphan Black’s upcoming fifth season will be its last is probably for the best. As spellbinding as this show once was, it finally started to fray in Season 4, spinning its wheels with a plot that’s both overcomplicated and uninteresting; the advanced notice that Season 5 will be the end should give the showrunners the opportunity to bring things to a proper conclusion, rather than continually building their world outward. Hopefully, this involves a renewed focus on Allison and Helena, two of the series’ most dynamic characters who were weirdly sidelined for the majority of Season 4. And yet, as challenging as this season of Orphan Black could be, it still routinely served as mesmerizing television, with sharp humor and high-concept ideas about evolution, eugenics, and free will. And lest it be forgotten, Tatiana Maslany’s performance is the stuff of legend, continuing to burrow deeper into her seemingly countless clones and locate new sparks of intelligence, impishness, and resolve. Orphan Black’s writers may have slipped a bit this season, but Maslany is as hypnotic and astonishing as ever.

45. The Night Manager (AMC/BBC1, Season 1). If The Night Manager functioned solely as Tom Hiddleston’s audition to be the next James Bond, it would still be a success. But there’s more to this John le Carré adaptation than Hiddleston’s piercing eyes and chiseled abs. As a soapy spy story, The Night Manager is deliciously upper-class, all globetrotting and fine dining and cloak-and-dagger death-dealing. As a loathsome arms dealer, Hugh Laurie’s dripping disdain proves a perfect counterpoint to Hiddleston’s suavity, while Olivia Colman is just right as a dogged intelligence operative. As with most screen adaptations of le Carré’s work, the storyline is basically impossible to follow, and the conclusion is arguably too sunny for such a morally grey universe. (For a more powerful and gut-punching le Carré adaptation, check out A Most Wanted Man, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance.) But for the most part, The Night Manager is smart, sleek, and sexy, just like its star.

44. Horace and Pete (, Season 1). Louie may not have aired this year, but no single artist exerted more influence over the television landscape than Louis C.K. The avant-garde comedian served as the co-creator of two series (Baskets and Better Things) and the executive producer of a third (One Mississippi). I disliked each of those shows, and I disliked large swaths of Horace and Pete as well, a series prone to digressive scenes of interminable length and no apparent relevance. But I’ll say this for C.K.: He has his own voice. And Horace and Pete, as aggravating as it could sometimes be, was like nothing else on television. Essentially a 10-episode filmed play in the vein of The Iceman Cometh, Horace and Pete is alternately frustrating and fascinating, with mundane stretches of banal commentary punctuated by stunning, powerful moments of catharsis and tragedy. C.K. himself serves as the show’s stoic anchor, but the real stars are Steve Buscemi, Laurie Metcalf (in an all-time guest appearance), and an acrid, spectacularly profane Alan Alda. Horace and Pete was far from the best show I watched in 2016, but it was among the most memorable, and that counts for something.

43. Ash vs. Evil Dead (Starz, Season 2; last year: 36). There’s an episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead in which a 1970s muscle car becomes possessed, locking its passengers inside, playing fiendish music at max volume through the radio, and eventually rearing up on two wheels before running over the unfortunate souls who are pitifully attempting to run away, squelching their heads into goo. This is awesome. And if the second season of Ash vs. Evil Dead isn’t uniformly raucous, it’s pretty damn close. This is a show where the hero finds himself trapped inside the anus of a demonic corpse, and the heroine engages in a savage brawl with a cute, demented puppet. If that doesn’t appeal to you, I will politely suggest that you trade in your delicate sensibilities and use the proceeds to buy yourself a soul.

42. The Get Down (Netflix, Season 1). Any attempt at even a basic description of The Get Down—a free-wheeling look at the genesis of hip-hop in 1977 New York City—risks both underselling the show’s merits and overstating its coherence. Shepherded by Baz Luhrmann, that Australian wunderkind, it’s an utterly insane experience, laden with one ostentatious flourish after the next: stylish montages, breakneck editing, dance-offs, rap battles, the works. Naturally, not everything goes smoothly, and at times The Get Down can suffer from sensory overload. Nevertheless, it represents bold, wide-screen storytelling, and certain moments are so deliriously magnificent that it makes the entire enterprise well worth it. If you’re looking for subtlety or restraint or common sense, go elsewhere. But if you want to watch an epic about a graffiti-spraying, drug-dealing, break-dancing DJ named Shaolin Fantastic, then to quote an artist from The Get Down’s era, this must be the place.

41. Hap and Leonard (Sundance TV, Season 1). One of the cool things about #PeakTV is that it makes room for different formats and production templates. Take Hap and Leonard: a gritty, self-contained, six-episode miniseries with no fat to trim and no prisoners taken. (For this reason, Sundance’s announcement that the show will return for a second season was both welcome and kind of a letdown.) It’s a bloody, pulpy noir, replete with plot twists, double-crosses, buried treasure, and perhaps the most physically intimidating female villain since Lena Olin in Romeo Is Bleeding (say hello to Polyanna McIntosh). The cast is also top-notch: James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams exhibit a wonderfully relaxed chemistry, Jimmi Simpson has the time of his life as a sadist, and Christina Hendricks is quietly soulful as a duplicitous seductress in way over her head. There may not be much deeper meaning hidden within Hap and Leonard’s sweaty, swampy caper, but that doesn’t make it any less rollicking a ride.

40. Outlander (Starz, Season 2; last year: 46). Outlander makes an enormous leap to begin its second season, abandoning the lush Scottish highlands in favor of the metropolitan clamor of 18th-century Paris. It’s everything the show was destined to be: sharply written and beautifully shot, with diabolical intrigue, feverish romance, and dastardly villains, all held together by Caitriona Balfe’s confident performance. Unfortunately, the series eventually returns to Scotland for its revisionist take on the Jacobite rebellion, losing some of its newly acquired pizzazz in the process. Still, this can be a breathtaking show, with gorgeous costumes, stirring music, and evocative imagery. Outlander essentially pushed the reset button at the end of this season, so we’ll see what kind of show it chooses to be on its return: the adequate, genteel costume drama it was for the majority of Season 1, or the bracing, unpredictable tour de force it showed flashes of transforming into early in Season 2.

39. Outcast (Cinemax, Season 1). The opening scene of Outcast’s pilot episode is one of the most spectacular horror sequences I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s also a warning: This show is not for the fainthearted. Like all supernatural series, Outcast can become slightly tedious when it delves too deeply into its demonic mythology. But the atmosphere of omnipresent terror that the show generates—a feeling of constant, clammy unease—is a coup for televised horror. Even better, the series manages to function as a genuinely compelling exploration of faith without sacrificing any tension, and its depiction of a small West Virginia town—a shifting amalgam of kinship and suspicion— feels just right. If you’re a fan of chilling, slow-burn horror, you’d be advised to seek this show out. If you aren’t, you’d be advised to run and hide.

38. Happy Valley (Netflix/BBC, Season 2; 2014 rank: 20 of 50). The first season of Happy Valley was a bolt from the grey, an agonizingly tense crime drama that doubled as a lacerating character study. Season 2 sticks to the same template, but it succeeds for different reasons. This time around, the criminal elements—involving a blah serial killer, plus a guilty cop frantically covering his tracks (the latter is played by Kevin Doyle, best known as Mr. Molesley from Downton Abbey)—feel secondhand, lacking the zip of the first season’s gripping kidnapping plot. That’s OK, though, because Happy Valley is really about Catherine Cawood, the veteran sergeant played with crisp confidence and weary resignation by Sarah Lancashire. She’s a woman who does her job exceptionally well, and she wonders where it’s gotten her. The genre material may be pedestrian, but when it focuses on Catherine’s tattered home life, Happy Valley is sad and sympathetic, digging into its characters’ lives and under their skin. Perhaps for its third and final season, the series will manage to ace both facets of its drama at once.

37. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 4; last year: 25). Following its third and best season, you would have expected Banshee to pull out all the stops for its sendoff. And it does—mostly. The final go-round stumbles a bit in trying to replace Geno Segers’ big bad from Season 3 (the serial killer that the show imports doesn’t remotely cut it), and its action sequences don’t quite reach the lofty heights previously set by the series. Still, Banshee remains furiously entertaining, with a terrifically distinct milieu (Amish Country has never felt so sordid) and a no-holds-barred attitude. Antony Starr continues to do fine work as the town’s relentless faux-sheriff, especially opposite Hoon Lee’s flamboyant hacker and Matt Servitto’s gruff deputy, while Eliza Dushku is predictably fantastic as a no-nonsense FBI agent with baggage. Banshee may have originated as a silly, ultraviolent poster child for premium-cable boundary-pushing, but it eventually matured into something far darker and richer. It will be missed, but at least it went out with a bang.

36. Insecure (HBO, Season 1). A funny and scalding self-portrait, Issa Rae’s Insecure manages to work on numerous levels without ever feeling overstuffed. It’s a searching look at racial politics in the workplace, an honest examination of modern relationships, and, most affectingly, a touching study of female friendship. For the majority of its first season, Insecure is content to just gradually push and probe its characters, but for its final two episodes, it becomes something more threatening and intriguing. It’s a dramatic tonal shift that could sink a less confident series, but under Rae’s stewardship, Insecure seems like it can handle anything, even if its characters are lost at sea.

35. Transparent (Amazon, Season 3; last year: 15). A series with a deep and talented ensemble, Transparent seems to play to a different strength with each new season. Its opener focused on Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a trans woman struggling with the process of her transition. Season 2 delivered the startling gambit of linking the modern Pfefferman clan to its ancestors fleeing Nazi persecution, as somehow perceived by Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali, a sexual experimenter with her own host of issues. This time around, the most poignant storyline involves Jay Duplass’ Josh, the careless playboy who finds himself in a tailspin, desperately clutching for any semblance of emotional connection. As a whole, Season 3 is less immediately powerful than its predecessor, and it occasionally seems to be going through the motions. But this remains a thoughtful and deeply empathetic show, with hauntingly brittle characters and a stinging sense of humor. The finale, which features Judith Light covering an Alanis Morissette hit, is a joyous episode of television, even as it quietly hints at the scabrous issues that plague the Pfeffermans, a close-knit crew that is simultaneously a stand-in for every modern American family and its own, entirely unique tribe.

34. Girls (HBO, Season 5; last year: 40). It’s unfortunate that Girls is so divisive, because it’s really a show about people finding their way back to one another. Of course, those people tend to be petty, narcissistic, and mean, but Girls’ fifth season is arguably its best since its first in locating the cracked humanity lurking beneath its characters’ burnished, haughty exteriors. The show is still imperfect—a series about the anti-romantic escapades of four selfish New Yorkers is always going to be imperfect—but several of its episodes are perfect, including “Japan”, a winsome half-hour that follows Zosia Mamet’s struggles abroad, and “The Panic in Central Panic”, an absolutely thrilling episode that focuses entirely on Marnie, the series’ single greatest flash point. It seemed unlikely after the clunky Season 4, but there’s genuine reason to be excited for Girls’ final season, which premieres in just a few weeks. The comedy is as bitter as ever, but the sense of hope is sweet.

33. Rectify (Sundance TV, Season 4; last year: 32). Many critics have hailed Rectify as an all-time great show, and while I can’t go that far, there’s a sense of grace surrounding it that feels significant. Its final season remains slowly paced, disdaining traditional catharsis in favor of gentle reconciliation, but its usual emotional intelligence somehow feels more forceful, more conclusive. In remembering Daniel Holden’s horrific past, Aden Young delivers some of his most extraordinary work, but the stunning MVP of Season 4 is Clayne Crawford, who takes a once-irritating character and layers him with a profoundly painful sense of sorrow and regret. (Abigail Spencer, meanwhile, remains awesome, because she is always awesome.) Not everything works—the half-resolution of the murder plot feels somewhat trivial, while one character’s spiritual journey is less compelling than it should be—but Rectify ultimately concludes with a quiet poetry, a strange, gossamer beauty that encapsulates just how tender and lovely this show could be.

32. Catastrophe (Amazon/Channel 4, Season 2; last year: 34). Now in its second season, Catastrophe’s central couple (American Rob Delaney and Irishwoman Sharon Horgan) have acquired the laid-back, lived-in rhythms of two people who truly know one another. Thankfully, they still retain the capacity to make each other laugh. That’s critical, because there’s quite a bit of angst in their relationship, which now includes two small children. In unflinchingly observing this couple’s new normal—the fights and the fucks, the blame and the shame—Catastrophe doesn’t really break new ground, but it does operate with honesty and wit. An episode where the couple heads off to Paris for a decidedly messy vacation is wonderful, but for the most part, this incisive, amusing show is content just to watch its characters behave and play off one another. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it’s no less delightful.

31. Fleabag (Amazon/BBC1, Season 1). The comedy of Fleabag is difficult to classify. It isn’t quite cringe comedy, though there’s plenty of painful awkwardness on display. It isn’t really slapstick, though some of the physical comedy is uproarious. And it isn’t strictly raunch, though the series by no means shies away from the particulars of sex. Ultimately, Fleabag’s comedy lies entirely in the brilliant performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British actress who plays the show’s title character/fiasco. Shattering the fourth wall with an astounding array of grins, grimaces, and eyebrow movements, Waller-Bridge is marvelously expressive, providing our window into the soul of a person who’s deeply damaged, even if she’s also a joy to be around. Fleabag’s mixture of comedy and pathos isn’t always fluid, but that’s partly by design; this is a jagged, jarring show that kicks you out of your comfort zone and places you directly in the headspace of its charming, hopeless protagonist. In portraying this sharp and wounded woman, Waller-Bridge is in complete control, even if her character hasn’t got a clue.

Coming tomorrow: Seth Rogen gets religious, The Queen gets serious, and the ’80s get strange.

1 comment:

Allison O said...

WHAT? Insecure should be reserved for Friday. And This Is Us yesterday?! Both have realistic, abet slightly exaggerated, characters who are relatable and acted really well! I'm intrigued to see what you've saved for Thurs/Fri as I can't think of shows, beyond Veep, that I've enjoyed more.