Saturday, December 31, 2016

Annual 12 Best Shows of the Year List

This hasn't been a particularly productive year in terms of keeping up my blog, so it's helpful to briefly discuss why I have still been blogging for such a long time. Considering a few professional writers I know stopped blogging after they became published elsewhere because it's difficult to maintain content on multiple platforms, it does seem like at the very least, I can't logistically  put my very best content on this blog if I'm writing for other places. 

Contrary to popular belief, I don't write here to build a fan base. If you came here and are a fan, thank you (donate if you want)! My blog is used to showcase my writing for people that make their way over here, to develop ideas, to test promotional strategies and on rare occasions: Because there's something I just want to write. My 12 best shows of the year is strictly for me. It's literally something I think about every time I write a TV show: Will this show make my top 12? It pushes me artistically to broaden my horizons as a viewer and pushes me critically as well. I also just want to highlight what I think is great TV.

1. 11.22.63, Hulu  (Season 1)-This TV show recalled the work of Frank Darabont  (not the "Walking Dead" era, of course) in telling a historic fable that retains its sense of sepia-soaked nostalgia without shying away from the era's darker elements like the casualness of domestic violence or the disenfranchisement of immigrants that could partially how someone like Lee Harvey Oswald could fall through the cracks in the first place. Through it all, the show plays with all the logistical tropes of a loopy time travel scenario (essentially, going down all the roads of the Hitler Time Travel Exemption with Kennedy's murder) and centers around a romance (with Sarah Gadon) and fragile alliance/friendship (with George McKay) that's played with utterly convincing sincerity by James "my life is a perpetual art experiment" Franco of all people. Between this, "Timeless", "Agent Carter", and "The Man in the High Castle", 2016 was a good year in television for sun-drenched nostalgia and the year's best show took this on with a singular vision.

2. People v. OJ Simpson, FX (Season 1)-Rarely has a docudrama aired on TV like this with so little wiggle room in the imaginations of its viewers, or at least the portion who was alive in 1995: If you made the choice not to live under a rock back then, the events of the OJ Simpson trial were simply an inescapable part of daily life. With so much of this history so ingrained in our collective consciousness, it's a wonder at all that a narrative with any sense of suspense or discovery can be crafted at all. But "People v OJ Simpson" doesn't just do that; It weaves together found art to tell what might be the definitive tale of present-day Americana with explorations on the self-imposed tensions around race, our national obsession with celebrity, the fallibility of public opinion, and the curious way fame has a way of magnifying mistakes (although the show got admittedly clunky when trying to posit Robert Kardashian as a lesson in irony). Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, Courtney Vance and Sterling Brown are excellent as lawyers dead set on winning with varying degrees of moral integrity and at the hollow center of it all is OJ Simpson (played with a childlike misunderstanding of his own actions by Cuba Gooding Jr) who ultimately turned out to be the least important part of the equation.

3. BoJack Horseman, Netflix  (Season 3)**-BoJack is rolling in the animal-based puns and
pathos with more self-assurance and ambition than ever before. BoJack's depression is portrayed with such a level of realism that it wouldn't be surprising to know that a mentally-ill person could find comfort here. BoJack's universe continues to expand with the recurrence of his castmates and the reintroduction of Kelsey Jannings (BoJack's efforts to repair this relationship made for 2016's most popular and dissected episode). This is also a great year for Todd, who discovered he was asexual (quite possibly the most underrepresented sexual subset on TV), and for BoJack discovering who his real friends are: It turns Sarah Lynn was really reliable after all (while she was in the "alive" category) and Dianne had a nice moment or two. If the show didn't botch the ending, it would have topped the list.

4. Lady Dynamite, Netflix (Season 1)-My initial difficulty with this show wasn't because there was nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the fourth-wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City." Within a couple episodes, however, Maria Bamford and crew are able to master all these tricks and weave them together into a coherent tone. At its heart is Maria Bamford as Maria Bamford (I know that comedians playing themselves is as old as time, stick with it): A modern-day Mary Tyler Moore if Moore's neuroses were slightly more severe and had clinically-defined labels that she wore on her sleeve.

5. The Good Wife, CBS (Season 6)-To be fair, I never watched a single episode before this year. Once I caught it on a domestic flight, I was immediately hooked and have since been gobbling up the last three seasons when I'm looking for a dependable dose of intellectual excitement. Rarely have I encountered a procedural with such purpose beyond going through the same rote motions. Rarely have I ever seen characters whose intelligence and sense of conviction can come across on screen so well without resorting to blatant Sorkinist cheats.

6. Orange is the New Black, Netflix (Season 4)**-In an era where your average high-profile TV includes an Oscar winner or two, "Orange is the New Black" is still the medium's strongest ensemble. As such, so many balls are being juggled in the air, that there are always going to be plots that will strike the viewer. This year, Soso and Poussay's relationship along with Pennsatucky's liberation from Coates were among the strongest in my eyes, but there were a lot of directions the writers went in that got traction. While I maintain that the season finale resonated with social activists because of erroneous connections, it's good to know that people draw inspiration from the show in whatever ways they see fit. Although cruel guards (have we forgotten "Pornstache" already?) are relatively familiar territory for this show and the "Orange is the New Black" seemed relatively unaware that Season 4 was not a particularly new shade of evil, Brad William Henke made a memorable villain as Piscatella nonetheless.

7. Another Period, Comedy Central (Season 2)-For me, “Another Period” is proof positive that with a couple tweaks, a show can really grow on you. During first season, I thought the show was broad and -- because I had trouble finding anything likeable about the two sisters who anchored the show -- quite cruel. The second season has benefited from a grand karmic leveling with the girls being upstaged by Harriett Tubman and Hortense along with Chair being a serious threat to Dodo's power in the upstairs quarter. Of course, Blanche still isn't getting any human dignity from Peepers or the universe in general, but here's hoping she channels her inner craziness enough to seriously stab him in season 3. The increased maneuvering for power and the *gasp* hidden Belacourt family secret(s)
 has posited "Another Period" more in line with the upstairs-downstairs class drama (likely "Downton Abbey") its made to skewer with a more American twist. One jarring thing about the show is its mix of humor. It takes a while to appreciate because the jokes are so intricately plotted, yet there is no limit on how low-brow these guys are willing to go for a joke. Watching this meticulously crafted blue humor delivered by some of the straightest men on TV-- stoic Victorian personalities like Peepers (Michael Ian Black) and the adorably naive Garfield (Armen Weitzman)-has been one of my biggest guilty pleasures this year.

8. Those Who Can't, TruTV (Seasons 1 and 2)-This is an entry in which my head is telling me that it’s absurd to rank this show ahead of some 55-60 other TV shows I saw this year, but my funny bone simply can’t resist. From Denver-based comedy trio Grawlix (Ben Roy, Andrew Orvedahl, and Adam Clayton-Holland), "Those Who Can't" looks at secondary education through the world of three lazy teachers enabled by a dysfunctional school administration. The show is striking in how confident it is of its comic tone right out of the gate and how deeply it dives into that joke no matter how dumb or smart it is. The characters come fully-formed and what’s underlooked is how the episodes have an escalating complexity in their plot that leads to a eureka moment akin to “Seinfeld” (although that’s admittedly a pretty lofty comparison to make). The show also boasts a lot of supporting roles with unsung actors including Sonya Eddy as the off-again on-again principal, Mary Lynn Rajskub as a loopy drama teacher, Rory Scovel (full disclosure: I have no idea who he is and don’t even want to check his IMDB page to find out he’s not particularly Quinn-ish in real life) as a touchy-feely principal, and Maria Thayer (who looks like she’s having the time of her life here) as a librarian desperate to fit in.

9. Shut Eye, Hulu (Season 1)-A breezy noir that has explores the world of psychics with a little bit
of magic, hypnotism, and gypsy mafia culture for good measure. Jeffrey Donovan plays a variation of his character from "Burn Notice": level headed under pressure and always thinking two steps ahead. Donovan plays a former magician Charlie Haverford who reluctantly operates as middle management under a mother-and-son mafia threat. Charlie's ambitious wife (KaDee Strickland) wants to stake out a bigger piece of the pie for herself by going after a wealthy mark. From there, the narrative spirals in all sorts of directions as the couple juggles all sorts of external threats while keeping law enforcement at bay, doing damage control on a drug overdose on their premises, and trying not to let a lesbian tryst with a hypnotist (Emmanuelle Chiriquí) threaten their trust in each other.

10. The Good Place, NBC (Season 1)-The always-game Kristen Bell helms one of the year’s most ambitious sitcoms as a self-absorbed slacker of outrageous proportions who accidentally ends up in Heaven and has to bluff her way through it with the aid of an ethics professor. Helmed be Mike Schur (“Parks and Recreation” “The Office”), the show has a very self-evident sense of fun exploring surprisingly deep moral conundrums under a comic guise while doing an excellent job at building a world. Ted Danson is one of TV’s best characters as a nebbish celestial architect from above constantly fretting over his creation and newcomer D’Arcy Carden is a wonderful bundle of contradictions as an android personal assistant who takes every command too literally. Who knows how long the show can keep up these cliffhangers, but so far, it’s a great ride.

11. American Horror Story: Roanoke, FX (Season 5)^:  "American Horror Story" best functions as a supernatural whodunit of sorts: A regular Joe with a healthy dose of skepticism gets thrust into something otherworldly, and the exact nature of the evil perpetrator is revealed to them (and us) over the course of the season. The first season executed this to a T but the first season was just a house in LA with a bunch of ghosts. It didn't have the same potential for fun as a 1950s asylum or a tourist trap freak show. On the other end of the spectrum, the show became overloaded with excessive plotlines and camp as it set its sights higher. The second season alone had an evil Nazi doctor, a sadistic nun, some freaky form of beasts out in the woods AND a malicious monsignor who all just coincidentally happen to be doing their dastardly deeds in the same cul-de-sac of horrors.

Season Six was a return to form with the best of both worlds: Set within the context of the haunted ground of Roanoke’s Lost  Colony and the racially-tense modern day backwaters of North Carolina, this season exudes a great sense of place while maintaining the scale of a tightly-wound  narrative.

12. Schitt's Creek, Pop TV (Season 2)-Co-created by Eugene Levy and son Daniel (who's apparently semi-famous or, as we like to say, famous in Canada), the show centers around an obscenely rich family with stunted adult children (Levy and Annie Murphy) being stripped of all their assets and being forced to move to a backwater town. The show initially was watchable but didn't really deliver on its potential of a small-town comedy with characters eccentric enough to be engaging. It also didn't help that central character David (Levy) was mostly a sad sack whose lone emotional M.O. was cosmopolitan disgust at his surroundings. In fact, the show's only real source of delight in the first season was Stevie  (Emily Hampshire) bringing David back to reality.

In the second season, we had a David-Stevie relationship that was as fresh as ever, but  it also helped that giving the kids jobs enabled their rough edges to be sanded off every so slightly while Moira (Catherine O'Hara) went in the opposite direction. She became more overtly aloof which drew more out-loud laughter from me. The TV landscape is shifting more toward soft-laugh dramedy and Moira's absurdist demeanor keeps "Schitt's Creek" out of that trap. There was also a greater sense of familiarity with the characters that enabled the show's character-based humor to shine more. I enjoyed the sweetness of David and Steevie's evolution alongside each other, but I also found myself suddenly becoming enamored with Twyla's tangential  blabbing, Jocelyn's eternal reservoir of patience and  Bob's creepy intrusions into  Johnny's space. Like "Another Period," this show had one of the best sophomore season spikes I've ever seen.

Honorable Mentions:
Agent Carter, ABC-This action show really nails down the aesthetics and feel of a 1950's action serial but delivers it with a knowing wink. It never failed as a straight-up action story while simultaneously keeping the subversive meta-commentary in the picture.
Billy on the Street, TruTV*-Billy Eichner's refusal to abide by pedestrian social norms as he grills contestants on minute pop-culture details isn't just hilarious, it's also incredibly creative. Look at how Escaping Margo Robbie's moment satirizes the zero-sum game of staying on Hollywood's A-list or how the "This is Olivia Wilde, aren't you hideous in comparison?" segment satirizes the way tabloids encourage us to worship celebrities.
Casual, Hulu**-For a show tonally stuck between drama and dramedy, "Casual" managed to be one of the most engaging programs on TV without a net of laugh-inducing moments to fall back on. If it hadn't lost steam around the last three episodes, it would have made the list again. Why it doesn't just take the leap into "drama" like the recently-concluded "Parenthood," I'm not sure. 
Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency, BBC-There was some criticism that this wasn't particularly faithful to the source material, but if the source material is as non-linear as Douglas Adams, what would have been the point? This show was one of the most unique television entries and I understand how it could be a your-mileage-may-vary type of series, but it managed to keep me engaged enough in its narrative to keep me involved in the story's endgame. Within an eclectic ensemble of characters, there were enough winning storylines to smooth over any rough patches.
Fresh off the Boat,  ABC**-Nahnatchka Khan continues to use her immigrant experience (though from a different part of the Asian continent) to consistently provide a mix of aw-shucks moments, subversive humor and 90's nostalgia each week. Although this is typical sitcom fare, few sitcoms are as consistently inventive on a weekly basis.
Grace and Frankie, Netflix*-Move over young'uns. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda can still out-act the Julia Louis-Dreyfuses and Lena Dunham's of the TV world with their hands tied behind their backa. The second season was more of a lateral move narrative-wise than a stakes-raising season. Some of the big developments like Grace's new relationship or Frankie's business idea splattered with a thud but the new directions the show has taken have been interesting nonetheless.
Gravity Falls, Disney-An extremely rare breed of children's show that can be enjoyed straight by adults rather than the way Pixar likes to layer kid-friendly comedy (with references only adults can get). The difference with "Gravity Falls" is that you find yourself rooting for the kids and laughing on their level. The show's strong conclusion was an indication of just how far Dipper and Mabel have come as people and into our hearts. That last sentence was corny, I know, but this show has a way of eliciting those kinds of sentiments.
Late Night with Seth Meyers, NBC-The late night wars were a particularly cut-throat battle for eyeballs this election season, and Seth Meyers' unexpected ascension to must-watch commentary was great validation for those who watched him on Weekend Update and always admired his edge. As the Trump campaign got more ridiculous, Meyers just said "screw it" to fair and balanced and pummeled Trump with every "A Closer Look" he could come up and never surfaced for air until a somber post-election concession speech.
Silicon Valley, HBO^-Mike Judge's show is about how Murphy's Law is always conspiring against America's latest incarnation of the rags-to-riches myth in dot com start-ups. It's a different type of show with less emphasis on the characters' personal lives and more about them as a single (and rarely functional) work unit. This season, Stephen Toblowsky's deceptive billionaire provided the show with it's best nemesis to date.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix**-Like "Grace and Frankie" this show didn't raise the stakes, but not all great TV has to make the narrative more intense from season to season. Kimmy and Dong didn't turn into Kimmy and Dong 2.0, for example, but that doesn't take away the merit of the interesting directions the show took. Having Tina Fey play a character again is just showboating, but there were plenty of positive developments with Titus' new romantic relationship being key among them.

**=Made my top 12 last year
*=Made my honorable mentions last year
^=Has made my top 10 or top 12 before  (Silicon Valley here and American Horror Story here) 
To give you an idea of how deep the field was, here were the other shows I saw this year (many of which were very good, but just didn't make the cut):
Adam Ruins Everything, TruTV; America's Got Talent, NBC; Archer, FX; Atlanta, FX; Braindead, CBS; Conan, TBS; The Characters, Netflix; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CW; Daredevil*, Netflix; Difficult People*, Hulu; Documentary Now!, IFC; Falling Water, USA*; Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, TBS; Flaked, Netflix; The Get Down, Netflix; The Great Indoors, CBS; Grinder, Fox; Haters Back Off, Netflix; Idiot Sitter, Comedy Central; Impractical Jokers, TruTV; It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX; Last Man on Earth, Fox; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO; Lost and Found, Netflix; Mad TV, CW; Modern Family, ABC; Mozart in the Jungle; Amazon Prime; Night Manager, AMC; One Mississippi, Amazon Prime; The Path, Hulu; Plebs, Hulu; Preacher*, AMC; Real O'Neals, ABC; Saturday Night Live, NBC; Search Party, TBS; Small Business Revolution, Hulu; Sing it Off, Pop TV; Son of Zorn, NBC; Strange Calls, Hulu; Supergirl*, CW; Speechless*, ABC; South Park, Comedy Central; Superstore, NBC; Time Traveling Bong, Comedy Central; Timeless, NBC

The asterisk means I didn't get around to watching the full run because in the case of most of these, I wasn't intrigued. In the case of "Supergirl," I watched it out of order.

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