Monday, January 29, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 108-81

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"
#PeakTV is a blessing and a curse, a paradise of exceptional artistry and a wormhole of endless mediocrity, a blissful escape from reality and a nauseating reminder of it. Watching television used to be a frivolous activity; now, it’s a blood sport, a ruthless competition, a point of pride and a mark of shame. The sheer muchness of it is just so daunting, and it triggers debate, exasperation, and hostility. Everyone’s favorite show lies at the bottom of someone else’s DVR discard pile; everyone’s shrugged-off curiosity (“I gave up after the first two eps, pretty boring”) is someone else’s precious treasure.

The countdown that follows—to be broken out over the next five days—ranks every single TV show I watched in 2017. There were, to put it mildly, a lot. There were also not enough; every year brings with it new buzz, new whispers about a niche program that I just wasn’t able to make time for.

I could pretend that these rankings are a matter of subjective taste—that people respond differently to various genres, styles, and modes of storytelling. I could also acknowledge that rankings are ludicrous, and that every rigid numerical slotting here carries with it what you might call a dramatic margin of error. (Seriously, if you reshuffled a bunch of shows on this list up or down by 20 slots, I doubt I’d even notice.)

But who am I kidding? Let’s be honest: If I ranked something higher than you would have, it’s because I, an inveterate watcher of television, grasped hidden meaning from the show that you, a pitiful casual viewer, failed to comprehend. If I ranked something lower, it’s because I wisely located the tiresome formula and dullness that eluded you. And if this list doesn’t even include one of your favorite shows—if I just didn’t watch your beloved cartoon comedy or your thought-provoking historical drama or your under-the-radar Danish thriller—it isn’t because I simply couldn’t make room in my preposterously crowded viewing calendar; it’s because I wanted to affront you personally. I hope it hurts.

And with that point of politeness out of the way, here begins the Manifesto’s ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2017:

108. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 78 of 88). This show paralyzes me. I sit on my couch and stare at the screen and feel nothing. Joke after relentless joke sails past me, a firing squad assaulting me with limp non sequiturs and glib pop-culture references. It’s like I’m at a 3-D movie and the special glasses don’t work, so I can’t even see what’s happening. If I squint hard enough, I can make out a hard-working Ellie Kemper, a talented comic actress who needs to be unshackled from this show immediately. Somebody, please, break her free.

107. I Love Dick (Amazon, Season 1). There is one pretty good episode of I Love Dick, in which four different women reflect thoughtfully on their lives and experiences. It has nothing to do with the broader show, which may be why it’s good, because the other seven episodes are insufferable. You’d think that a series pairing Kathryn Hahn as a neurotic New York writer and Kevin Bacon as a studly Texas art dealer would be compelling, but this show seems to resist being enjoyed, like it’s some sort of weird exercise in anti-entertainment. It would probably fit snugly in the Bacon character’s art gallery, which I can’t imagine anyone ever volunteering to actually visit.

106. Iron Fist (Netflix, Season 1). Marvel Entertainment gets a lot of flak for churning out commercially engineered products that function more as marketing materials than works of art, but those products typically come with a high floor; the studio pours tons of money into its assembly line, and it always hires good actors, so even when the writing falters, the cast and the production values prevent things from veering into outright badness. Not so with Iron Fist, the corporation’s first true clunker. As the kung-fu-fighting lead, Finn Jones is a disaster, while the story is nonsensical glop. Ordinarily, it’d be easy to write the show off as a one-time misfire, but thanks to the MCU’s obsession with synergy and cross-over, Marvel fans will likely have to endure more of this prattle for some time.

105. Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (Netflix, Season 2; 2015 rank: 56 of 62). There comes a point with comedy when you just have to throw up your hands and say, “I don’t get it.” I really tried with this series; I even re-watched the cult-classic movie (sorry, still didn’t take). I wish I liked it, especially given how much I like the cast. But so help me, this show is agonizingly bad. The constant parody and self-referential humor, which once might have passed as clever, has now curdled into smugness, as though David Wain and Michael Showalter are congratulating fans for being in on the joke. I’m sure that’s fun for them, but some of us are sick of waiting for a punch line that never comes.

104. Gunpowder (HBO, Season 1). It isn’t Kit Harington’s fault that he’ll be associated with Jon Snow for at least the next 10 years, but if he wants to step out of that dragon-sized shadow, then Gunpowder—which casts Harington as a sulky, honorable revolutionary battling a cruelly oppressive ruler—surely won’t help. There’s some fun stuff in here, including Tom Cullen’s snarling performance as Guy Fawkes and Mark Gatiss’ sly turn as a sinister bureaucrat. But Gunpowder is thuddingly obvious and predictable, and it rips off so many better productions of its ilk (most notably Braveheart) that it isn’t nearly as explosive as it would like.

103. Shots Fired (Fox, Season 1). The premise of Shots Fired—yet another cop shoots an unarmed motorist, only this time the cop is black and the victim is white—is intriguing. And the show is deeply sincere in how it tackles such charged material. But the execution is just bad. There is no verisimilitude to its scathing depiction of various institutions (gubernatorial politics, police department corruption); everything feels false and ham-fisted. It’s laudable how the show tried to use network television to target racial strife in America, but its intentions proved far better than its aim.

102. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 5; last year: 63). It’s tempting to pin the artistic failure of House of Cards on real life. After all, when actual American politics have devolved into such a nightmarish circus, how can a show that thrived on exaggerated scandal work as entertainment? But don’t be fooled. The problem with House of Cards isn’t that it no longer works as escapism; it’s that the characters are no longer interesting. The show has simply run out of energy, and it’s proved incapable of reinventing itself. (Ironically, real life may have given the show an inadvertent boost; if nothing else, Kevin Spacey’s forced exit will require the showrunners to drastically retool things for Season 6.) There’s still a ton of talent involved—for God’s sake, both Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson joined the cast this season—but no matter who pops up in the Oval Office, the series keeps running in circles.

101. The Tick (Amazon, Season 1). With the superhero boom in full swing, it’s only natural that superhero satire should follow. The Tick lands a few jabs at the silliness of superhero culture, but beyond that, it doesn’t have a lot to say. It’s too timid to work as incisive parody, and it’s too childish to work as an adventure on its own terms. There are a few funny jokes and a few exciting scenes, but for the most part, the show feels more like a conceptual sketch than a finished product.

100. Crashing (HBO, Season 1). If you’ve never heard that stand-up comedy is hard, then perhaps you’ll find Crashing revelatory. But while Pete Holmes offers a smattering of insight into the dog-eat-dog world of the stage and the mic, he doesn’t really provide any reason to watch people fail at being funny. The show doesn’t really have characters (it’s mostly successful comedians playing themselves), and the personas it does create are either caricatures (like Holmes’ wife’s lover) or pathetically wimpy (Holmes himself). At times, Crashing can feel true to life, but comedians need more than truth to create a compelling set.

99. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 4; last year: 70). A few years ago, Last Week Tonight ran a promo for its second season with the faux-tagline, “More of basically the same.” Well guess what? Two years later, nothing has changed. John Oliver is still a sharp political commentator, and he certainly had no shortage of terrible things to discuss in 2017. But Last Week Tonight still feels baggy, repetitive, and self-satisfied. Every salient point is inevitably nullified by three or four feeble jokes, fewer of which seemed to land this year. Oliver can be funny in spurts, but he’s rarely as funny as he (or his audience) seems to think he is. The price of knowledge shouldn’t be as high as swallowing forced humor a half-hour at a time.

98. Baskets (FX, Season 2; last year: 85). Baskets got a little better in Season 2—a little less random, a little more empathetic. And Louie Anderson’s gentle, internalized performance has proved to be the heart of the show. (Though I still think it’s strange that FX gets a pass for casting a man in the part of an obese woman, given that obese women aren’t exactly feasting on plum roles these days.) Still, the series is too off-kilter for my plebeian tastes, with too many pointless digressions and listless scenes. It isn’t funny, and outside of Anderson’s arc, it isn’t moving either. It just feels strange for the sake of being strange.

97. The Gifted (Fox, Season 1). There’s plenty of good stuff in The Gifted, including some fine performances (particularly from Emma Dumont, Jamie Chung, and the always-great Amy Acker) and a handful of kinetic action sequences. But the chintzy special effects largely scream “TV”, and beyond that, the show struggles to translate mutant abilities into on-screen action (get ready for lots of consternated, scrunched-up facial expressions and frantic arm-waving). More problematically, the writing is often quite poor, with painful dialogue and a story that can’t capitalize on the premise’s allegorical potential. All is not lost: Late in the season, Skyler Samuels shows up as the Frost sisters, a trio of telepathic triplets with electric-blue eyes, matching miniskirts, and a whole heap of attitude. In Season 2, The Gifted should lean into that kind of spunky personality (and maybe lean away from its central family, in particular the intolerably whiny teenage son). If mutants aren’t fun to watch, then what’s the point?

96. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 7.5 and 8.0; last year: 74). Speaking of pointless. There is no blood left in The Walking Dead; it’s just a zombie, shuffling around and waiting for somebody to stab it in the brain. There’s an alarming weariness to the series, and while you could argue that’s intentional—that the whole point is that survival is hard, and that endurance grinds people down to nothing—I don’t give the show that much credit. The Walking Dead is too successful to be canceled, so it’s become stuck in a time loop of its own making, constantly traversing the same nihilistic arcs because there are no new stories left to tell. I’d like to think that eventually, AMC will put it out of its misery, but I’ve become too conditioned by the show to have any real hope.

95. Friends from College (Netflix, Season 1). This show should be better. It stars a bunch of appealing performers who do quality work, most notably Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, and Annie Parisse. And it tackles serious material—marriage, friendship, parenting, aging—with a vaguely comic slant, which creates the potential for big laughs. But the laughs never arrive in Friends from College, and the insight never shows up either. It’s a series about six unpleasant and unsatisfied people, and it seems to think that this alone can form the basis for a TV show. There just isn’t enough interesting material here, and the series so actively resists traditional rom-com beats that it becomes aggressively unmemorable. The friends wonder why they’re still friends, and you wonder why you’re still watching.

94. Vice Principals (HBO, Season 2; last year: 80). Every so often in Season 2 of Vice Principals, the show’s latent sweetness would burst through the faux-comic clouds, and I found myself oddly touched. But those moments were rare, and for the most part, this remained a deeply unlikable show, an ungainly mix of painful cringe comedy and outrageous slapstick. Despite its utter absurdity (yes, there’s a tiger mauling involved), Vice Principals desperately wants you to care about its characters. Yet I’ve become immune to Danny McBride’s man-child shtick, and Walton Goggins’ frenemy is far too sadistic for me to regard him with any empathy. But hey, if the point of this show is to cause its viewers to wince as often as possible, then consider it a success.

93. She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix, Season 1). It’s telling that the most memorable sequence in She’s Gotta Have It—a montage of Brooklynites reacting with despair on Election Night 2016, set to Stew’s “Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code”—can exist entirely independent from the show’s broader universe. There’s a fiery rage at the heart of this series (a reboot of Spike Lee’s first movie), one that’s rooted not just in race but in gender, with Lee taking aim at the multiplicity of men who objectify his heroine. Yet despite an intelligent and sympathetic lead performance from DeWanda Wise, She’s Gotta Have It never coheres as a television show, operating instead as a disconnected series of political points. There are scattered moments of greatness, but there are just as many pointless dead ends (don’t get me started on the subplot about the aspiring dancer who gets injections in her ass), suggesting that Lee is abusing the freedoms of the streaming format, just because he can. There’s enough good material here to make you wonder what might have happened if Lee had been disciplined enough to cut things down to a shorter length—like, say, the length of a movie.

92. Homeland (Showtime, Season 6; 2015 rank: 29). Ouch. The former crown jewel of Showtime, Homeland’s seventh season premieres in two weeks, with the network having stated that the show will end after Season 8. With luck, that looming sense of finality will raise the stakes a bit, because Season 6 was shockingly dull. Claire Danes and Rupert Friend are/were still doing fine work (Mandy Patinkin seems a little bored), but there’s just no urgency to the storytelling anymore, and the show’s political dimensions are stiff and unconvincing. (It’s interesting that the season’s most ludicrous episode—in which Quinn somehow becomes an inadvertent hostage-taker in Carrie’s apartment—was also its most entertaining.) Homeland will never again recover its Season 1 mojo, but there has to be a way to reinvigorate this show without just recycling the same terror-related storylines. But hey, remember that 24 delivered one of its best (half-) seasons in its ninth go-round, so I’m not abandoning all hope just yet. Besides, if we give up, then the terrorists win.

91. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, Season 3). Hoo boy. Suffice it to say that this ranking is something of an outlier among critics; Twin Peaks ranked fifth on Uproxx’s TV critics poll (with 14 of 55 critics placing it within their top three), while the A.V. Club named it the second-best show of the year. It’s mind-boggling to me just how obsessed people are with this show, but if I take a step or five back, I can almost understand it. Twin Peaks is plainly the work of an auteur who doesn’t give a damn about conventional notions of what a TV show is supposed to be, and that audacity obviously appeals to people. That makes sense. There’s just one problem: This show is bad. I don’t mean “bad” as in too violent, or too extravagant, or too dark. I just mean bad, as in the opposite of good. Sure, there are a few standout sequences sprinkled within these 18 interminable hours, and Kyle MacLachlan’s sinewy performance is technically impressive. But if each hour features maybe five minutes of stellar material, that still leaves 55 minutes per episode of unadulterated nonsense, when David Lynch seems to be testing his fanatically loyal viewers, forcing them to find meaning in the meaningless. (The ultimate distillation of this is a two-and-a-half minute scene of somebody sweeping the floor, which critics variously construed as “an unorthodox suspense piece”, a “witty formal gag”, a moment of “transcendental meditation”, and an exercise in “that classic Lynchian juxtaposition of the terrible and the banal”. Nope, definitely wasn’t just 150 consecutive seconds of a dude sweeping the fucking floor.) I can’t entirely begrudge Twin Peaks’ existence, because I want artists to continue to stretch the boundaries of television, and if this show’s immense critical success somehow encourages network executives to give talented directors a blank check to make whatever the hell they want, then I’m all for it. But what Lynch made here wasn’t mind-blowing, or elegiac, or mysterious or fascinating or rapturous. It was just bad—self-indulgent, excessive, and tedious. I refuse to believe that this is where TV is headed—not because I have too little faith in the medium, but because I have too much.

90. The Path (Hulu, Season 2; last year: 50). There’s the skeleton of a good show in The Path’s second season, involving material that should be compelling: an excommunicate’s struggle to reintegrate himself into mainstream society, a son torn between two warring parents, a leader’s crisis of conscience. But the deeper The Path digs into its idiotic mythology, the more apparent its central flaw becomes: This show makes no sense. Part of this is intentional, of course; the cultish mumbo-jumbo is ridiculous by design, with the show exploring how members can willingly devote their lives to such nonsense. The problem is that the cult never feels like a real cult, and the show’s characters rarely behave like real people. So as The Path keeps blathering about tax evasion and community involvement and carcinogenic water, it becomes impossible to take the show seriously (which is a problem, because the show screams to be taken seriously). On the plus side, there is a scene where Michelle Monaghan gets splattered with poisonous black cow blood. It’s hilarious.

89. The Defenders (Netflix, Season 1). It’s easy to deride the televised comic-book crossover as just another cash grab, but TV is arguably the most sensible venue for such an event, given that movies struggle to cram multiple headliners into a single feature and give them sufficient room to flourish. And there’s undeniable pleasure to be had in watching the end of The Defenders’ third episode, which marks the first time our four main heroes (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and, guh, Iron Fist) join forces and kick ass. Unfortunately, The Defenders rarely gives its title characters anything interesting to do, and the show is marred by the same issue that has plagued many of the MCU’s movies: lousy villains. Here, Marvel has compounded the error from Daredevil’s second season (not to mention Iron Fist’s first) and designated the main heavy as The Hand, a nefarious criminal organization of, um, stealthy ninjas or something. Anonymous fighters make for boring antagonists, which neuters The Defenders’ sense of conflict. What’s curious about the show is that its most interesting character proves to be Elodie Yung’s Elektra, Daredevil’s ex-lover who undergoes a literal and then a metaphorical awakening. That’s more than what happens to any of our heroes, who punch some bad guys and the clock, biding their time until they can return to their own shows and serve as the unquestioned alpha once more.

88. Grimm (NBC, Season 6; last year: 54). Well this is a bummer. I had hoped, after Grimm closed out its fifth season on a run of strong episodes, that the show would ditch its procedural structure and go fully serialized for its final season. Nope. Instead, after a few promising early episodes, the series quickly returned to its bland status quo, and the wind quickly leaked out of its sails. (For the record, I’m not strictly against procedural television, but Grimm struggled with the dynamic throughout its run.) And while the show attempted to develop a Terminator-esque big bad for its stretch run, the conflict never really landed, and the finale concluded with a shameful bait-and-switch. That doesn’t entirely sully Grimm’s pleasures; this was a perfectly adequate show, and it stayed adequate for six full seasons. But it’s hard not to view this ending as a disappointment.

87. Detroiters (Comedy Central, Season 1). There’s something sweet about Detroiters, a fitfully funny comedy starring real-life best friends Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. It can be disarming in how low-stakes it feels, and the affection between the two leads is obviously genuine. At the same time, this is a show about an incompetent two-bit advertising firm, so its ceiling can only be so high. Detroiters never made me angry, but it didn’t always make me laugh, which resulted in too many dead spots. In the words of an aid campaign that these two guys almost certainly pitched at some point, I suppose you could do worse.

86. Hap and Leonard (Sundance, Season 2; last year: 41). The first season of Hap and Leonard was an out-of-nowhere delight, a taut noirish thriller filled with sex, violence, and intrigue. Season 2 is much more restrained, and the show suffers for it. Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy are still very good together, but the cold-case plotting is obscure, and the series just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. Maybe that’s because the show felt compelled to attach some blunt racial messaging to its mystery this season, a well-intentioned effort that mostly muddies things up tonally. Or maybe the source novel just wasn’t as exciting as the first. With luck, Hap and Leonard will rebound with Season 3, and this year’s awkward batch of episodes will go down as an anomaly rather than the start of a trend.

85. Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix, Season 1). For a show about a real estate agent who turns into a flesh-craving zombie, Santa Clarita Diet is startlingly tame. Sure, there’s plenty of gory violence and frantic hijinks, but the tone is primarily sweet and gentle. It’s so gentle, in fact, that I’m not sure the show possesses much of a point, other than to prove—as if anyone had doubts—that Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant can be funny. Whatever Santa Clarita Diet is satirizing—modern consumerism, rat-race suburbia, marriage and parenting—it doesn’t hit its target with anything more than a glancing blow. That doesn’t make it unpleasant—Barrymore and Olyphant pair nicely together, while Liv Hewson and Skyler Gisondo have their own enjoyable babe-dork chemistry—but it does make it forgettable. (Also, the last scene of the finale made me wonder if I’d missed an episode; plenty of shows have cliff-hangers, but this was more like a cliff-sitter.) It’s fun to watch a show take such garish material and turn it into something light and thoughtful, but maybe next season the series could be a bit more red-blooded.

84. The Missing (Starz, Season 2; 2014 rank: 24 of 50). I’m a sucker for long-form mysteries, and the second season of The Missing mostly does its job, delivering twisty flashbacks, red herrings, secret identities, and all manner of surprises. Still, unlike its rigorously plotted first season, this go-round feels more like a cheat, with the show desperately trying to undercut you with twists rather than playing fair. And while TchĂ©ky Karyo and Laura Fraser deliver nuanced performances, the remaining characters aren’t especially compelling. That said, The Missing can still be masterful in the way it shuttles across timelines and gradually reveals crucial information, turning you into a breathless investigator. You may not be entirely satisfied, but you’ll want to plow through to the conclusion anyway.

83. Snowfall (FX, Season 1). Snowfall has the makings of great drama, with an ambitious triptych structure chronicling the rise of crack-cocaine in the early ’80s. The problem is that the three legs of its triangle—involving an aspiring youth in over his head, a CIA agent funneling guns to the Nicaraguan contras, and a luchador who falls in with a local gang—virtually never intersect, and only one of them is interesting on its own. Damson Idris is riveting as the smart young dealer who seeks to capitalize on an untapped market, and many of Snowfall’s nitty-gritty mechanics involving the clandestine purchasing and distribution of illicit substances are inherently fascinating. But the remaining characters aren’t sufficiently defined to justify the show’s extravagant length and procedural minutiae. The pieces are intriguing enough for me to look forward to Season 2, but for now the product is far from pure.

82. Runaways (Hulu, Season 1). Amid the current glut of superhero shows, Runaways stands out somewhat; it’s brighter than its Netflix brethren, with a greater emphasis on character than action. Unfortunately, there are a lot of characters in Runaways, which focuses not just on six variously powered children but on their respective parents as well—that’s a whopping 16 series regulars. In terms of plotting, it’s something of a mess, with a Path-like cult engaging in some devious maneuvering involving kidnapped teenagers, a spooky regeneration chamber, and an ominous construction site. It’s difficult to follow and ridiculous besides, but Runaways does offer an appealingly earnest tone, fusing superhero growing pains with standard teenage melodrama. It’s a bit jumbled, but somewhat enjoyably so. Also, there’s a CGI dinosaur. She’s awesome.

81. The Get Down (Netflix, Season 1.5; last year: 42). The cancelation of The Get Down was no surprise, given the series’ exorbitant price tag and limited commercial and critical appeal. It’s still a shame, because during its first half-season, the show regularly delivered some of the most inspired moments on television. Sadly, things slowed down significantly during this (now-final) batch of episodes, which shifted their focus toward violence and gang warfare and away from creativity and joy. Some of the musical sequences are still exhilarating, and the show’s heart-on-its-sleeve emotional approach is in keeping with its outsized spirit. But the whole thing becomes exhausting, and after speeding forward at a thousand miles an hour, The Get Down finally runs out of steam.

Coming tomorrow: Rapists, punishers, money launderers, popes, and other deviants.

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