Friday, December 25, 2015

My Top 12 Shows of 2015

It's time for my annual edition of My Top 12 Shows of 2015 (for past editions, check out the Top 10 TV tag):

1. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX- There’s little chance that the show will receive

the awards recognition it so bluntly told us it didn't need in "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" but, for my money, this is the most sophisticated comedy on TV and deserves even more credit for continuing to be one of television’s most innovative shows after its 100-episode mark. The tenth season featured a drink-a-thon on a cross-country flight, a "Birdman" homage which followed Charlie for a continuous nine-minute shot (with commercials pre-empted), a cult created by Dennis (later co-opted by Dee, Frank, and Dee again), a fight to claim Frank’s bloodline, and an appearance by the gang on Family Feud. With the character beats becoming richer and more complex, It’s Always Sunny not only has one of the most well-developed comic voices on television, but it also has TV’s most finely tuned ensemble.

2. Last Man on Earth, Fox-A Twilight Zone premise wrapped in the sensibilities of an SNL sketch,
Will Forte plays a guy whose makeshift solutions to being the sole survivor of an epidemic-induced apocalypse are building a kick-ass margarita pool and befriending an array of volleyballs. It's an entertaining enough show but the game changes entirely when he meets Kristen Schaal and the show morphs into an Adam-in-Eve situation in which Eve is a shrewish nag and Adam wants to run away from responsibility. And so on and so forth. The novelty of the premise allowed the show to switch gears with new cast additions and subtractions which leant itself to one of the most unpredictable rides on television backed by one hell of a comic performance in Will Forte as the ever-evolving post-apocalyptic schlub Phil Miller 1.0 .

3. BoJack Horseman, Netflix-Move over "Togetherness" and "Happyish": The most psychologically resonant exploration of happiness and depression didn't come from some prestige cable show but a cartoon about a talking horse. BJH started out as a Hollywood satire and while it hasn't lost any of its funny in the Netflix show's sophomore season, the journey of its central character is heart-wrenching but grounded in such truth that BoJack's highs are well-earned and the lows are deeply felt. The show is also doing an incredible job at world-building with meatier story lines for the side characters, the addition of Lisa Kudrow as an owl stuck in the 80's, and too many other anthropomorphic strokes of genius to mention here. The show creators even tried their darndest to explain the lingering question about where meat comes from in this all-animal universe.  

4. Orange is the New Black, Netflix-Continuing its exploration of oppressed womanhood through the lens of a woman's federal prison, OitNB's new season continued utilizing every facet of one of 
TV's best ensembles to achieve a finely tuned balance of the humorously quirky (i.e. Cindy's attempts to convert to Judaism, Angie's escape attempt), the heartwarming (i.e. Crazy Eyes' crush, the budding friendship between Boo and Pennsatucky), and darker territory (i.e. Pennsatucky's rape, Soso's suicide attempt, Sophia's discrimination) culminating in a glorious free-for-all prison-wide stampede into a neighboring water reservoir for a moment of careless joy. Overlying all this is the clash of idealism verse reality in Caputo's pragmatic attempt to best his predecessor in having a net positive effect on prison conditions. If there is one disappointment to be found in Season 3, it is unclear whether the showrunners are aware that Piper (and Alex) no longer has the potential to be the show's most interesting story line in any given episode. That's just a testament to the strength of the ensemble. 

5. The Brink, HBO-Hampered by early unfavorable comparisons to "Dr. Strangelove" and "Veep", the political black comedy did a wonderful job of amassing fans and silencing haters as its disparate story lines weaved together, the characters got more and more absurd (the sexy no-nonsense Israeli consulate, non-sequitors Vanessa and Martin, the hyper religious ambassador and that's just the side characters), its stakes escalated consistently, and its running gags started hitting with increased frequency. The first season followed a pair of distractable fighter pilots (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin), a low-level State Department attache and his driver (Jack Black and Aasif Mandvi) and one of TV's best comedic performances in Tim Robbins as a hell-bent secretary of state. Maribeth Monroe (mastering the diplomatic walk-and-talk in a manner that would make Aaron Sorkin proud), John Larroquette, and Carla Gugino round out a hyper-talented ensemble.

6. Narcos, Netflix-Narcos is the classic study of power corrupting that's been told many times by De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola but it feels fresh when this tale is transplanted to the leadership vacuum of Colombia. 
Pablo Escobar isn't a Ray Liotta character who fell under the allure of crime and turned cold. Instead, Escobar was a man who grew up in an environment where evil was the norm and he just exploited it better than anyone else. Narcos makes the case that Columbia's drug empire was born out of a dog-eat-dog world. Chance is also a key thru-line that runs through the series: It was through mere chance that the "cockroach" surveyed a Chilean death squad and picked Pablo Escobar for his goldilocks qualities (not too murdery, not too soft) out of the three cartel chiefs in Medellin.

The story is one of the few TV shows where over reliance on narration is welcome and if you listen closely, you'll notice that the narration is a character in his own right (not at the Ron Howard level on "Arrested Development" but maybe it soon).

7. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix-Tina Fey and Robert Carlock attempt to mine
humor out of one of the darkest sitcom premises imaginable -- a woman readjusting to life after being trapped for 15 years in a psychotic preachers' bunker -- and succeed wildly in their sophomore follow-up to "30 Rock." Ellie Kemper (the only actress who seemed like she was trying in the latter seasons of “The Office”) shines as a heroine who drops an odd mix of naivette and spunky enthusiasm with every line of dialogue. Casting Tituss Burgess and Carol "Mrs. Latka Gravas" Kane as Kimmy's sidekicks are both strokes of inspiration and, rounding out the cast, Jane Krakowski proves game at once again poking fun at imagined aristocratic mores as a boomerang bigot (she's secretly Native American). The show regularly delves into absurdity and the direction often breaks the fourth wall, but it never loses site of that underlying "Mary Tyler Moore"-like storyline of a girl trying to make it on her own. 

8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CW-Genre-savvy Rachel Bloom has made a name for herself by wielding an axe through the conventions of musical theater in a series of deliciously subversive YouTube videos and hasn't missed a beat in transferring her style of comedy to the small screen. Bloom plays Harvard-educated lawyer Rebecca Bunch who gets a lot of mileage out of being so wonderfully neurotic that she's an unreliable narrator in her own story. Is she really in West Covina for Josh? Is she aware of her illness? The vagueness of her situation lends itself perfectly to the reality-bending nature of the integrated musical and there's a lot of fun to be had. The show also deserves credit for developing all sides of the Josh-Greg-Rebecca love triangle. Greg (Santiago Fontana) is jaded without being unsympathetic and Josh (Vincent Rodriguez) is a sincerely sweet guy who just happens to have not yet caught onto Rebecca's loopiness. Both characterizations are hard to pull off. Other highlights include Donna Lynne Champlin as Rebecca's desperate-for-friends coworker and (my personal favorite) Vella Lovell as a neighbor who could give "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"'s Chelsea Peretti as TV's ditziest character a run for her money.

9. Fresh off the Boat, ABC-Simultaneously a throwback to and a riff on TGIF family-style sitcoms, "Fresh off the Boat" has a modern edginess in the vein of "Everybody Hates Chris" or "Malcolm in the Middle." More than those two shows, however, the show approaches 90's sitcoms with an ironic self-consciousness without omitting that genuine sweetness that those sitcoms were known for. More often than not, 11-year-old protagonist Eddie Huang learns a lesson in a roundabout way.

Featuring the first Asian-American family on network TV in 20 years (if you don't count TBS, and who does?), the show is unashamed to be a product of its place and time and half the fun is ironically reliving the 90's references that the show is so generous to sprinkle out. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan infuses the plots with labyrinthine storylines that are reminiscent of the looniness she brought to the sitcom with "Don't Trust the B----" but the results are enhanced with the sincere performances of Randall Park and Constance Wu. In particular, Wu qualifies as one of the breakout characters of the season with her wry delivery of some of TV's best lines of dialogue.  

10. Casual, Hulu-Shows centering around flawed people dating are generally problematic because
it's hard to empathize with the trials and tribulations of good-looking actors with active sex lives. Few shows have highlighted the emptiness of sex like this show which features the talents of SNL's biggest firing mistake of the century in Michaela Watkins. Watkins plays a recent divorcee cohabitating with her brother (Tommy Dewey) and trying to get herself back in the field. As a psychiatrist, she has an impeccable grasp on relationship problems but can't get over the hump that involves herself.

Jason Reitman directed the first two episodes of this show and his penchant for combining a light comedic (or as they say "dramedic") tone and truthful character work is in full form here. With Tara Lynn Barr's character pushing the envelope of the bratty teenage daughter trope; Eliza Coupe as a manic pixie sexual nightmare, and one of the most meaningful sibling relationships on TV, there's a lot of great character work being done here.

11. Empire, Fox-With it's two instantly iconic leads in Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson and a kinetic pace, Empire's first season was entirely worthy of being the buzziest show on TV.. In an age where TV critics are becoming increasingly difficult to please as a de facto diversity police of sorts, Empire has been transcendent in its ambition to tell an Orson Wellesian version of the modern African-American narrative. The modern portrayal of the rags-to-riches myth as a hip-hop empire is given its proper due here. Unfortunately in the second season, the show started shuffling alliances and plot sequences with too much carelessness to maintain any consistency. A groundbreaking first season and a shockingly disappointing second season average out somewhere around 11th place.

12. Homeland, Showtime-After skipping a season and a half, it's relatively comforting to jump in on
Season 5 and see it's not impossible to get back in stride with this show. With Brody's story line having run out of steam (along with, you know, his being dead), the show has turned a new chapter (complete with an exciting new atonal opening credit sequence). As the show relocates to Berlin, the show takes on the aura of a neo-Cold War thriller. Saul, Rupert and Dar Adal return in roles that stretch them (particularly Saul) in new scenarios while Miranda Otto as Saul's cunning new right hand woman and Otto During as a high-powered business man with a big heart are among the new characters added to the mix. What's refreshing about the 5th season of "Homeland" is that there's a normalcy to these characters while there's plenty of room to make the principals squirm.


Honorable Mention:
12 Monkeys, SyFy-"Honorable" is the key word here. The show started strong out the gate with wonderfully loopy time travel plots (I'm a sucker for that kind of thing) and a tangible chemistry between leads Amanda Schull and Aaron Stanford. The show started to muddle itself up by going in tangential directions and I have yet to complete it, but we'll always have the show's great start.

Adam Ruins Everything, TruTV-Of all the sketches from CollegeHumor's catalogue to turn into a TV show, this is a winner. Adam Conover's know-it-all skeptic is a fully-formed comic character who succeeds in both entertaining and enlightening, but much of the credit also goes to the way the show makes full use of the cinematic possibilities of the half-hour format.

Better Call Saul, AMC-It's a breath of fresh air to revisit Vince Gilligan's version of Albuquerque without having the expectations and elevated prestige of "Breaking Bad" and Bob Odenkirk certainly didn't let us down in his new role as series lead. The character work and sense of place were both rich as can be but the storylines weren't as memorable so many months later.

Billy on the Street, TruTV-One of my favorite discoveries of 2015, Billy Eichner is raw, hilarious, and fearless. His obsession with pop culture taken to violent extremes is something that I suspect a lot of us see in ourselves (I know I do).

Daredevil, Netflix-Probably, my #13, Daredevil was a highly satisfying trip that really succeeded at being grounded in an age where every other superhero blockbuster tries to hammer the point in that their hero is an everyday guy. The cast of Charlie Cox, Elden Henson, Vincent D'onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Rosario Dawson, Ayelet Zurer, and Toby Leonard Moore produced some of the richest characters on TV.

Grace and Frankie, Netflix-Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin can act circles around all the young guns on TV so their arrival to serialized TV this year was a welcome surprise. The show is one of the few examples that shows about older people don't have to be tailor made for the AARP crowd. The trials and tribulations of Grace and Frankie were transcendent for all generations.

Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central-One of the most distinct, edgy and consistently funny sketch shows out there. "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" can stand up against any 30 minutes of TV this season but so many smaller sketches like the "Friday Night Lights" parody and the "I'm Sorry" sketch were inspired pieces of satire as well.

Last Week tonight with with John Oliver, HBO-Oliver made my list last year and he continues to make me laugh and inflame my passions in equal measure.

Modern Family, ABC-In recent years, I joined the critical chorus in proclaiming the show's arrival into the land of diminishing returns, but the show seemed to have a revival as of late. The Andy-Haley storyline has been deftly handled and the show continues to find inventive uses for the comedic talents of Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara. In all honesty, I'm not suggesting this show is groundbreaking but with an uptick in writing quality, it is one of my most consistently enjoyable viewing experiences week in and week out.

Sense8, Netflix-A highly ambitious global soap opera and superhero show from the Wachowski Brothers that feels tonally different than any other superhero show out there with it's more humanist and global tone.

To let you know what exactly I did watch this year so you can see the pool I chose these TV shows from (some of these are in fact, pretty good, too):
2 Broke Girls, CBS, American Dad, TBS; Agent Carter, ABC; American Horror Story, FX (only the 1st episode); Americans, FX (only about 4 episodes, might have made the list if I finished the season); Another Period, Comedy Central; Archer, FX; Bates Motel, A and E; Ash vs Evil Dead, Starz; The Awesomes, Hulu; Big Time in Hollywood Florida, Comedy Central; Blind Spot, NBC; Bloodline, Netflix (only 3 episodes); The Comedians, FX (only 2 episodes); Daily Show w/Trevor Noah, Comedy Central; Difficult People, Hulu; Documentary Now, IFC; Dr. Ken, ABC; Elementary, CBS; Family Guy, Fox; Fugget About It, Hulu; Garfunkel and Oates, IFC; Glee, Fox; Gotham, Fox;  Grinder, Fox; Halt and Catch Fire, AMC; Humans, AMC; Impress Me, Pop TV; Key and Peele, Comedy Central; Librarians, TNT; Late Show with David Letterman/Stephen Colbert, CBS; Late Show with James Corden, CBS; Master of None, Netflix; Man Seeking Woman, FX; Middle of the Night Show, MTV; Mom, CBS; Other Space, Yahoo; Playing House, USA (only 3 episodes); Project Greenlight, HBO; Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO; Review, Comedy Central; Rick and Morty, Adult Swim;  Seth Meyers, NBC; Seven Days in Hell, HBO; Schitt's Creek, Pop TV, Silicon Valley, HBO; Sing it On, Pop TV; SNL, NBC; Toddrick, MTV; Togetherness, HBO; Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, NBC; True Detective, HBO (only the 1st episode)

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