Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 50-31

Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday in "Mr. Robot"
We’re ranking every show we watched in 2017. There were a lot. You can find the prior installments at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51

50. Girls (HBO, Season 6; last year: 34 of 88). And at long last—after alienating countless viewers, prompting innumerable hot takes, and possibly ravaging relationships the world over—Girls has come to its end. This was always a more delicate and less abrasive show than it appeared, and it continued that work in its final season, dismantling the characters’ bratty armor to reveal the pain and love underneath. It wasn’t as bracing as prior seasons; there wasn’t a “Panic in Central Park” this year, and my favorite character, Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, basically disappeared for the entire stretch run. (This season’s most memorable episode, the Matthew Rhys-starring “American Bitch”, was stimulating, but it was ultimately too didactic for me to fully embrace.) But Girls remained steadfastly true to its characters to the end, and certain moments—such as a heartbreaking meal that Lena Dunham and Adam Driver shared at a diner, following a day of ephemeral happiness—illustrated just how well Dunham understood her subjects, which is to say, herself.

49. The Crown (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 23). Following a stellar opening salvo, The Crown is somewhat less exhilarating in Season 2—more muted and sensitive, less operatic and entertaining. Still, don’t mistake this series as a genteel costume drama. The Crown continues to do fine work in examining the unique challenges accompanying a royal marriage, Claire Foy and Matt Smith trading bitter barbs with thinly veiled propriety. (Foy is especially good, modulating every word and expression to convey the painstaking deliberation her monarch puts into every action.) Beyond that, I continue to appreciate the show’s structure—how it gracefully follows the arc of its heroine’s life while still delivering punchy, self-contained episodes. This season is more democratic than the last, spending as much time with Elizabeth’s family as with the queen, and if I preferred Princess Margaret’s prickly romance with a dashing photographer (hi Matthew Goode!) to Prince Philip’s philandering misadventures at sea, I still found each hour suitably taut. That’s never more so than with “Vergangenheit”, a bold and emotionally devastating episode that follows the disgraced King Edward, concluding with a picture that is worth a thousand monologues.

48. A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix, Season 1). I’ve never read the Lemony Snicket books, so I can’t speak to how faithfully this series brings them to the screen. What I can say is that this charming, effervescent show has a wonderful facility with language, Patrick Warburton’s narrator spinning sentences into deftly woven jokes and puns. In terms of plot, A Series of Unfortunate Events is intentionally exasperating, and the sheer stupidity of the adult characters can grow tough to swallow (even if it’s also the point). But the theatrical production values are delightful, and the show’s winsome tone serves as valuable ballast against its fiendishly clever dialogue. “Look away!” the opening credits sequence winkingly pleads. Not a chance.

47. Insecure (HBO, Season 2; last year: 36). Insecure grows grimmer in Season 2, the queasy laughs and strained relationships of its first eight episodes giving way to powerful feelings of anger, dismay, and loneliness. That doesn’t mean it’s unpleasant to watch; this is still a well-acted and wryly observed show, and the interpersonal dynamics—in particular the warm friendship between Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji—remain bathed in effortless naturalism. (Also, somebody please give Lisa Joyce her own show. And Natasha Rothwell too, come to think of it.) But Insecure refuses to shy away from the darkness of the modern world, continuing to pick at the intersection of race, class, and gender like an ugly scab. We need this show, even if its protagonist has no idea what she needs.

46. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz, Season 2; last year: 30). The sire of The Girlfriend Experience is known for his odd formal experiments, and while Steven Soderbergh isn’t heavily involved with the series inspired by his film, showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan have retained his willingness to mess around with style and structure. Season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience is really two distinct seasons, each existing entirely independent from the other. (One episode of each aired weekly, but subsequent binge-watchers will likely tackle the two stories separately.) Both involve sex work, but neither is really about prostitution, which is both intriguing and a little deflating. The first season of The Girlfriend Experience was exciting because it examined, with brilliant frankness, how a careerist woman might leverage the sex trade to her advantage, and whether she could bear the dehumanizing costs inherent in the work. Season 2’s stories veer from that exploration, with results that are strange and unsettling but never boring. One arc involves a political power broker (Anna Friel) who becomes smitten with a call girl (Louisa Krause), who in turn becomes obsessed with her client. Its broader plot—involving illicit campaign donations, governmental corruption, and other electoral malfeasance—is basically nonsense, and it can be frustrating when the show shifts away from the fluctuating relationship between the two women and focuses instead on Friel’s operative’s spiraling work life, which feels comparatively banal. All the same, the depiction is visually striking, taking place almost entirely in sleek office buildings and cold halls of power that feel threatening in their barrenness. (Also, the scene of Krause manically devouring a pear is straight-up terrifying.) The second arc is similarly eye-catching but in a decidedly different way; it takes place in a dusty town in New Mexico, where a former prostitute (Alien: Covenant’s Carmen Ejogo) enters witness protection. Again, the larger storyline—the witness must remain hidden before testifying against her former lover, a murderous crime lord—makes little sense, with some enormous plot holes and credibility gaps. But it’s captivating to see how the specter of sex smothers Ejogo’s character—how she instinctively turns to it as a means to make money, and how every man in her orbit covets her body. And the visual flourishes—the flashes of light that attend her creepy witsec indoctrination sessions; the blinding white dress she constantly dons, contrasted against the yellow of the desert—always keep you engaged. Significant elements of The Girlfriend Experience don’t work, but even their failure can be fascinating. And the parts that do work leave one hell of a mark.

45. Patriot (Amazon, Season 1). The most mesmerizing scene in Patriot—an indescribable blend of spy thriller, character study, and office sitcom—takes place when an undercover CIA agent and a Luxembourg detective play a game of rock-paper-scissors. I don’t really know what else to tell you. This show is so eccentric, so original, so entirely itself, it’s kind of amazing it exists at all. (I’d been planning on writing that it was the weirdest show I watched in 2017. Then Happy! happened.) Sometimes its sheer peculiarity can feel daunting, but there’s a strange pleasure in watching a series that’s so fully formed, so utterly in command of what it wants to be. The story is gobbledygook—maybe something about a spy who poses as a metallurgist so he can travel to Luxembourg and thwart an arms deal with Iran, and then there’s also a folk musician?—but that’s irrelevant. You watch this show to be amazed by its quirky angularity, and eventually to be impressed by how Michael Dorman’s aggressively blank lead performance ever-so-gradually reveals rivulets of emotion. Oh, and for that rock-paper-scissors scene. Man, that was something.

44. Love (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 29). Love’s strength is its weakness. It takes its time, digging into not just the relationship between its curiously matched couple but their individual lives as well. This means that the show is very strong on character development and realism, but somewhat weak in terms of energy and momentum. Whenever Love devotes extended time to one character’s life and job—either Paul Rust’s work on an idiotic YA soap or Gillian Jacobs’ miserable tour of duty at a radio station—it starts to flag. The good news is that the series mostly keeps the two leads together this season, and it continues to explore their relationship with its patented combination of intelligence, humor, and discomfort. Episodes like “A Day”, in which the couple amble about Los Angeles enjoying one another’s company, hum with a relaxed warmth and nuance rare to television. And the late-season conflicts feel natural rather than engineered, an authentic portrayal of how two people with innate chemistry can’t always make things work. The show can be sad, happy, surprising, and excruciating all at once. You know, kind of like its title.

43. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, Season 3; last year: 19). I still enjoy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; the characters play off each other wonderfully, the jokes zing, and Rachel Bloom’s performance is so scarily convincing that it’s hard not to wonder if she also suffers from the title character’s various afflictions. At the same time, the series is starting to feel a little bit like a great premise in search of an interesting story. I appreciate its willingness to finally diverge from its Josh Chan obsession, and some of the mini-arcs this season—in particular Rebecca’s harrowing suicide attempt—hit with alarming force. (At the time I write this, the season still has three episodes left to air.) But while Rebecca remains a fascinatingly complex character, her quasi-comic shenanigans are wearing slightly thin. Thankfully, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is still a musical, and every week supplies multiple breakout songs to savor. It seems cruel to choose favorites—they’re all our children, really—but I can’t help but highlight four: the faux-’80s power-punk banger “Let’s Generalize About Men”, the hilariously stoned-faced “The Moment Is Me”, the mom-valentine “Maybe She’s Not Such a Heinous Bitch After All”, and the magnificent “The End of the Movie”, which features Josh Groban making salient points about life’s messiness while appearing as a meta extra in his own song. So long as the show keeps churning out hits like these, its narrative can be as repetitive as it wants.

42. Broad City (Comedy Central, Season 4). For a zany comedy, Season 4 of Broad City undergoes a notable and inspired political shift, delivering some pointed barbs at the current state of the union. (A certain politician’s name is bleeped whenever spoken.) Fortunately, that shift doesn’t sabotage the engine that runs the show, which makes sense, because the devoted friendship between the neurotic Abbi and the madcap Ilana is forever. In sprinkling in some scathing political commentary, Broad City never loses its focus on the leads—their bumbling misadventures, their bouts of panic, their fierce loyalty. Front-to-back, this wasn’t the strongest batch of episodes, but it did deliver a number of highlights, including a heady Sliding Doors-ian origin story of Abbi and Ilana’s first meeting, plus a stupendous sojourn to Florida, where the sun is always shining and the guns are always loaded. A frequently hysterical comedy that also gives voice to our collective rage? Yas queen.

41. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 5; last year: 46). I had hoped that, with the foreknowledge that Season 5 would be its last, Orphan Black might tighten up its plotting and deliver its most compelling serialized mystery since Season 2. Nope. The logistics of the show’s final season are just as wonky and inscrutable as the previous two, with hazy villains and incomprehensible mythology. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. Tatiana Maslany is so outrageously good— delivering a performance(s) of astonishing technical craft and subtle emotional gradation—that she elevates everyone and everything around her. And Orphan Black’s heart remained incredibly pure to the end, telling a thrilling tale of how a group of seemingly disparate women banded together to vanquish evil and protect their family. There was never really anything like this show. And while I hate to foreclose the possibility of future achievement, it’s fair to wonder if there will ever be anything like Maslany’s performance again.

40. iZombie (The CW, Season 3). iZombie’s DNA contains snippets of genetic code from so many other series—Buffy, Castle, Dollhouse, Law and Order, Veronica Mars—that it’s a wonder it can feel like its own show. Yet after three full seasons, iZombie has become exceedingly comfortable in its own skin, telling gripping new stories with confidence and panache. I’m still not fully sold on the big bads (losing Steven Weber hurt), and the show’s procedural crime-of-the-week structure can yield uneven results. But the actors have developed terrific rapport, and the game-changing season finale promises a brave new world in Season 4. Besides, Rose McIver is such a blast to hang out with, pinballing between personalities with wit and vigor, that the show’s high episodic variance barely matters. Also, the brain-speckled meals that she makes every week look delicious.

39. American Gods (Starz, Season 1). Packaging matters. The serialized story in American Gods, about a regular joe who gets swept up in a titanic battle between rival deities, isn’t especially interesting (at least not yet). But the show looks phenomenal, and there’s some great stuff happening in the margins. Most episodes open with a vignette that’s completely disconnected from the rest of the show, and these short films are exhilarating in their mystery and flair. And the season’s two best episodes don’t even address the long-form conflict at all, instead focusing entirely on Emily Browning’s character, who transforms from docile housewife into immortal badass in thrilling fashion. American Gods still has some troubleshooting to do—and with reports that showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are leaving, it’s fair to wonder how that troubleshooting will be performed—but it’s so regularly dazzling that its problems seem insignificant, the trivial stuff of mere mortals.

38. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Sundance/BBC, Season 2). There’s a creepiness to Top of the Lake that runs deeper than its pulpy material. That’s embodied here by David Dencik, who delivers an unnervingly repellent performance as a predatory pseudo-philosopher with a sinister agenda and a hair-trigger temper. Of course, the star of the show remains Elisabeth Moss’ brilliant, damaged detective; in addition to giving her a new case to solve, China Girl introduces her to the teenage daughter she’s never met. It seems like an ungainly mix on the page, but China Girl makes it work, not so much bifurcating its subplots as using them to probe different facets of Moss’ wounded character. The mystery here is less devastating than it was in Season 1, but the show remains compulsively watchable, both as a lacerating study of women in law enforcement and as a thought-provoking examination of surrogacy. (Gwendoline Christie plays Moss’ partner this year, and damn is it interesting to see Brienne of Tarth without her armor.) China Girl is a knife to the gut, and also a tickle to the brain.

37. Dear White People (Netflix, Season 1). I was a big fan of Justin Simien’s movie, but I was also skeptical that he could translate such a taut and streamlined film into a compelling TV series. I needn’t have worried. As it turns out, Dear White People works perfectly on the small screen, with each spiky episode focusing on a particular student at its fictional college. It’s a savvy approach, and it allows Simien to fluidly weave the tapestry that blankets the modern campus, a quilt of confusion, appropriation, and anger. All of the performances are nicely modulated—as the putative lead, Logan Browning shoulders the heaviest burden with ease—but Dear White People is most laudable for its intelligence and craft. This is a show that grapples seriously with societal issues, yet in doing so, it never feels academic.

36. Mr. Robot (USA, Season 3; last year: 14). I don’t pretend to have any idea what’s going on in this show anymore. I’m sure that if I spent several weeks diving down Reddit rabbit holes, I could partially glean what happened with the aftermath of the Five-Nine hack, and the disappearance of Tyrell Wellick, and maybe even something about currency manipulation and the Congo. But I’m not inclined to do that, and the good news is that you don’t really need to understand Mr. Robot to appreciate it. The plotting is more frenetic than ever before, but it’s the characters who have my attention, along with Sam Esmail’s bruising, lacquered craft. Rami Malek continues to do yeoman’s work as the world’s most socially maladjusted hacker, while Season 3 allows Carly Chaikin and Grace Gummer to color in new shades of grey; it also brings in the magnetic Bobby Cannavale, who supplies exactly as much restraint as you might expect. (On the down side, it badly minimizes Portia Doubleday, an error that must be rectified immediately.) Eventually, I might grow tired of Mr. Robot’s obsessively intricate mythology, but as long as Esmail keeps serving up glorious sights—like a gripping, episode-long action sequence set in and around an office building that appears to be filmed in a single, ravishing take—I’ll greedily come back for more.

35. American Vandal (Netflix, Season 1). Confession: I’ve never listened to Serial, and I’ve never watched Making a Murderer. But even if my familiarity with the true-crime genre is poor, I can still appreciate the extraordinary stylistic rigor of American Vandal, which imagines a distinctly ludicrous crime—an unwashed high school student is accused of spray-painting penises on teachers’ cars—and proceeds to analyze the question of his guilt with absolute sincerity. At times, the absurdity of the premise threatens to overwhelm its fine-grained details, but the show plays things so completely straight that it’s impossible not to admire its commitment. What’s really surprising, though, is how American Vandal quietly turns its bumbling suspects and feverish investigators into actual characters, darkening the show’s comic brilliance with a flicker of pathos. There’s a scene at the end of the episode, when an accused suddenly breaks down in tears, that punched me in the stomach. Earlier in that same episode, the student detectives conduct a frantic search of personnel files based on a clue involving “hot moms”. Yeah, exactly.

34. Master of None (Netflix, Season 2; 2015 rank: 13 of 62). The second (and likely last) season of Master of None takes some time to find its footing; the first few episodes, including an impressively thorough homage to Italian cinema, are more cute than funny. But as it progresses, Master of None reminds us of what makes it special, telling small, poignant stories that mix playful humor with heartfelt feeling. Not everything works; a subplot involving Bobby Cannavale as a lecherous celebrity accused of misconduct feels uncertain, and it will likely only play as even more awkward now that accusations against Aziz Ansari himself have surfaced. But the final three episodes—one chronicling a single family’s Thanksgivings through the years, the other two playing out as an extended, swooning love story—are all knockouts, full of big emotions and gentle grace notes. Master of None was never the outright funniest comedy on TV, but it was one of the sweetest and most moving.

33. Feud (FX, Season 1). As the story of two vampy has-beens constantly trying to one-up each other, Feud is effortlessly enjoyable, full of witty anecdotes and marvelous sniping. As the study of two talented, aging women trying to find work in an industry that dismisses them, it’s something else—a sober and scathing look at discrimination, and at how Hollywood swiftly discards actresses who fail to conform to a specified image. It’s a beautifully made and performed show; Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are both immaculate, while the supporting cast—including a ruthless Stanley Tucci, a weary Alfred Molina, and a dignified Jackie Hoffman—is uniformly excellent. But what makes Feud memorable is how it burrows underneath its surface camp to locate acute loneliness and pain, wounds inflicted by a system whose casual abuses, it would seem, are age-old.

32. The Good Place (NBC, Season 2; last year: 25). Many critics have called The Good Place the best show of the year, but I can’t quite go that far; as comedies go, it’s more clever than funny, and several of its main characters are too broadly drawn for me to fully connect with them. That said, this is a decidedly brilliant show, with whip-smart dialogue and an endlessly inventive supply of artfully conceived dilemmas. (For the record, the season finale airs tomorrow night; if it’s anything like last year’s finale, I’ll need to retroactively bump up this ranking by 10 slots.) Season 2 wisely minimized the flashbacks and focused on the character dynamics, resulting in sharp, unexpected pairings and a handful of inspired surprises. Also, Janet. Never forget Janet.

31. Godless (Netflix, Season 1). Godless’ Western setup—sneering one-armed villain seeks revenge on the traitorous underling who stole his fortune—is instantly appealing. But while Jeff Daniels and Jack O’Connell are both good as the heavy and the hero, respectively, the show distinguishes itself with its supporting characters and its colorful setting, a “town full of women” called La Belle. There’s a parched, sun-baked feel to the series, and the show’s skillful actors—particularly Michelle Dockery as a no-nonsense rancher, Scoot McNairy as a near-sighted lawman, and Merritt Weaver as his rough-and-tumble sister—lean into that sense of dryness. Godless’ set pieces are executed with alacrity and zip, but what lingers is its dusty sense of hopelessness, and the hardscrabble people who try with all their might to fend off their endlessly encroaching fate.

Coming tomorrow: drug dealers, serial killers, virginal mothers, and magical lovers.

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