Tuesday, December 22, 2015


It's been a little while since I've written about television. Here are the shows I've seen in the second half of this year, sorted roughly from favorite to least! This list is very Netflix-heavy; per my plan, I canceled HBO Now after "my" shows were over and returned to the cheaper Netflix, which had a ridiculous number of long-awaited comedies come out in a short span of time.

Master of None might be my favorite show of the year. It feels like Aziz Ansari made an entire series about my life: what it feels like to be a single guy in your 30s, with some outward measures of success but lots of ambivalence about what you're supposed to be doing with your life. He nails modern relationships... actually, "nails" probably isn't the right word, since what Aziz does best is ask questions and explore things in a really thoughtful, funny manner. The show sometimes feels like a sunnier counterpart to Louie, and is unafraid to go for long stretches of time without jokes in order to explore something meaningful.

Jessica Jones is just ridiculously good. It solves a lot of stuff that has been irritating me lately in television and film, and does so while telling an utterly harrowing story. It's a superhero show that doesn't feel like a superhero show at all: it's a noir mystery, whose heroine just happens to have superhuman strength (which doesn't do her much good at all - we admire Jessica for her quick thinking and improvisational skills). I want more. More!

First Day of Camp accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of reviving a 15-year-old cult comedy. A lot has been written about the stunning accomplishment of bringing back all of the original cast (Bradley Cooper! Amy Poehler! H. Jon Benjamin!), but I think the more impressive deed is how well they incorporate brand-new actors and characters into the story while maintaining Wain's goofy vision. Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and more blend perfectly into the story, creating perfect chemistry with the rest of the cast. (My favorite part, though, still might be the stand-along David Hyde Pierce scene.)

If the three shows above did not exist, I would have no hesitation in putting W/ Bob and David at the top of the list. Like First Day of Camp, it pulls off the incredible challenge at reviving an iconic, beloved touchstone of comedy after fifteen years' absence, and manages to simultaneously bring us more of what we enjoyed and also make it feel fresh, new, and exciting. The thing that surprised me most about this was how great David Cross was in it: his performance reminded me of why I fell in love with Mr. Show in the first place. I haven't seen that voice from him in the stuff that he's done since, and I'd assumed that it was just no longer a part of him, but characters like his Some-Nonsense Judge showed that he just needed the right environment to bring it back out. And sketches like Salesman pushed the show into interesting directions, exploring unusual comedic territory.

As I always tell people, it takes a few episodes to get into the swing of Bojack Horseman. The show didn’t really start clicking for me until maybe the fifth episode or so of the first season. Fortunately, the stellar voice cast and the amazing background gags eased me past the seemingly-awkward storylines until I started to get what the show was doing, and it evolved into one of the most raw, amazingly emotionally honest shows ever. People often say that cartoons make it difficult to break outside of juvenile storytelling and audiences, but Bojack inverts that: it’s able to get away with stunning depictions of depression that would be utterly unpalatable if performed by live-action actors. The second season is even better than the first: there’s no ramping-up needed, and starts off at the same high level of performance that the first season culminated in. The show continues the best stuff from the first season (Vincent Adultman!), improves things that were already good (Mr. Peanut Butter that’s one word don’t write one word), and soars to astonishingly new highs of comedy. Hollywoo Stars And Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? just might be the funniest thing I’ve seen all year, and it still manages to plumb surprisingly deep and fraught territory in the complex rivalry between two putative friends.

Man. I really should have written an entire post on Sense8, I have MANY OPINIONS and THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about it. As with everything the Wachowskis do, it’s insanely ambitious. Like most of their works, it falls short in a lot of ways, but it’s trying to do more than just about anything, and the successes more than make up for its failures. The core idea is really fascinating to me; it seems like a perfect companion piece to The Bone Clocks, to the point where I wonder if the Wachowskis and David Mitchell were comparing notes on the transmigration of souls while collaborating on the theatrical adaptation of Cloud Atlas. The storylines were really interesting, although I kept waiting for them to all cohere in a way that they never did; the Chicago, SF, and Iceland stories formed a coherent core, while everything else felt like a detour. But they were all beautifully shot and acted detours. Occasionally the show seems to spill over into over-the-top melodrama, but it’s melodrama about topics that the Wachowskis care deeply about, and because of that it never felt manipulative or cynical. There’s a moral urgency to the show that’s incredibly rare, and while I’m not especially curious about the metaplot behind it, I AM looking forward to more expressions of radical empathy.

Orange is the New Black continues to be great. I miss seeing Lauren Lapkus, but the ensemble continues to be really strong. This is one of those rare shows that manages to surprise me: I had expected Piper’s deception towards Alex to drive the season, but it gets handled in an unexpected way. Speaking of unexpected, I defy anyone who claims that they predicted how the season ended. It is impossible! The show continues to be subtly humanist in the way it quietly grows its universe, showing who these women are and how they came to be. Who would have thought that the meth ladies would grow so sympathetic? Or that we’d learn what makes Big Boo tick? I am a little curious how they’ll keep the show going - I think that Piper’s approaching the culmination of her original term, so I wonder whether they’ll have her commit (or get accused of) a fresh crime to keep her in the slammer for longer.

After falling in love with Jessica Jones, I craved more, so I watched Daredevil. It was fine, but I really wish I had watched them in the other order. Virtually everything that JJ did right, DD does wrong, so I had to fight back a constant sense of low-grade irritation throughout the series. That said, there are a lot of things it does well. The fight scenes are absolutely amazing, some of the best choreographed conflicts I've ever seen on TV. (This is one area in which JJ falls short, though the contrast is completely believable. Daredevil isn't really a superhero. He doesn't have super-strength or super-speed or invisibility or anything: he's just a guy with better-than-average senses, who has trained ridiculously hard for his entire life. He needs to be incredibly skilled to do what he does, and his fighting style is extremely graceful and assured. By contrast, Jessica has never really needed to try hard to beat anyone: she has immense physical strength, so she just gets fights done by brute force. It isn't as interesting to watch as Daredevil's ballet, but perfectly in keeping with the character.) Daredevil's villain is extremely well-done, too. I like how you can see his evolution, how his environment helped turn him into who he is; many of his motivations and relationships are sympathetic, even while his methods are reprehensible. It's telling that he has a more honest friendship and love-life than any of the heroes. Killgrave is infinitely less sympathetic, but he is still well-developed, and ultimately the more terrifying of the two (particularly within the context of the show).

And that's it! Uh, in retrospect, when I said that this list is "Netflix-heavy" I should have said "completely dominated by Netflix". They've done an amazing job in just a few short years at realizing their ambition of becoming a competitor to HBO. And, needless to say, there's much more good television on the service that I haven't watched, not to mention the vast number of shows off the service. Who has the time?!

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