Welcome once more to the first annual “Best of”s from all your friends here at We Have Always Lived in the Kraken! This year and every year we’ll be making ridiculous top lists, handing out awards we just made up, and in general celebrating the weird, wild year we all just experienced. In today’s final installment, we’re talking television.
2015 will likely be recognized as one of the real tipping points in how we all view and talk about televisions. The streaming services came out in force. Amazon finally seems to have a handle on things, and found many of its shows gaining real traction with its release of the highly acclaimed The Man in the High Castle, the popular Hand of God, the 1980s nostalgiafest Red Oaks, and the returns of critical favorites Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle for their second seasons. Hulu brought the dramedies with Difficult People and Casual, and showed the service is ready to step up and play with the big kids. Hell, even Yahoo got into the swing of things with Yahoo Screen, and it brought back Community, and everything went swimmingly. Okay, that’s a lie–Yahoo Screen cost Yahoo 42 million dollars, and Community (as well as the streaming service) is dead.
Then again, Crackle, of all places, made a drama starring Dennis Quaid. Sure, The Art of More hasn’t been particularly well received, but the point is, Crackle made a real show. Meanwhile, Netflix, the service that started this streaming original content revolution, happened to release two critically acclaimed superhero shows in Jessica Jones and Daredevil, a comedy with the perfect mix of bite and positivity with Master of None, went back to summer camp with Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and proved that what we all apparently wanted was a show that is almost as much of a Wikipedia entry about the rise of the Columbia drug trade and the story of Pablo Escobar as it is actual television with Narcos (seriously, people really love them some Narcos).
The way we watch television has been changing for years, but 2015 really felt like a tipping point. Even CBS, who long has resisted this newfangled thing called the Internet, has raced toward the 21st century with CBS All Access. More importantly, this is the year that traditional ratings seem to matter the least, as the networks have finally realized how limiting Nielson numbers truly are, and shows are becoming more and more about serving a specific niche audience that will love them, as opposed to trying to be for everyone and therefore for no one (except for NBC’s comedies–but hey, change is hard when you are doing, uh… oh, right, yeah, we don’t know what NBC is doing).
Meanwhile, 2015 also marked a seismic change in the television landscape for what we watch. Hannibal was brought to an untimely end, because it was too beautiful to live. The original CSI went quietly into that good night, leaving the network whose procedural model it helped create. Justified had one last hurrah before calling it a day. David Letterman and Jon Stewart said goodbye with grace and humor. And then there was Mad Men, whose ending more or less brought to a close the Second Golden Age of Television that it helped begin.
Luckily, we now potentially find ourselves in the midst of a Third Golden Age of Television–an age no longer ruled by the white male anti-hero. Instead, shows finally seem to understand that they can start telling more diverse stories–or at the very least, can cast these stories in more diverse ways. This new age is one where great shows can come from anywhere. USA can release the amazing Mr. Robot, Lifetime (yes, that Lifetime) can release the dark and poignant UnREAL, a show like Fox’s Empire can (for a time) be the biggest thing on television, and FXX can have a comedy in You’re the Worst that paradoxically features some of the best drama of the year. But despite the upstarts, HBO and AMC still lord over their domains, reminding everyone that the networks that have Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are not ready to abdicate their places of power to anyone. In the Year of Too Much, nothing had more too much more than TV. The medium finds itself with such an abundance of riches that even those who get paid to watch can no longer keep up with all the relevant television. Water cooler conversations are fundamentally changing, give or take a Game of Thrones, and as television fragments, it’s become more personal than ever. So allow us to share just a little bit about ourselves as we jump right into the vast TV pool that was 2015.
David’s Assorted Thoughts on TV in 2015
So making lists for TV in a given year is a bit tricker than for movies. It’s just a lot harder to keep up enough with the television scene to the point where I feel like I have a real handle on things. (Case in point, I have seen almost none of Mad Men, and shamefully never finished the last season of Hannibal.) So this list will be smaller than my movie list was. Still, this is what I pretend I pay myself to do. so let’s get to it.
Also I am going to spoil things (except for Mr. Robot, because go watch Mr. Robot).
Here are the Five Best Shows I Saw in 2015:
5. Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)
- As someone who has always loved comics and superheroes, today is a wondrous world where all of my passions have now gone mainstream in the most lucrative way possible in both movies and television. But jeez, even I am getting a bit of a superhero overload. Part of that is just that so much of it is the same thing over and over again. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The Flash is some of the most fun on television, Arrow has come out of the darkness into an all-new and improved tone, and after a rocky start, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually become a pretty good show. Fellow Netflix show Daredevil is amazing, and really pushed things forward, but even so, at its core Daredevil is the same type of superhero story. This is what made Jessica Jones such a breath of fresh air. It’s not just that it was a show with a female perspective (though that helps), as Agent Carter and Supergirl are also doing that to varying degrees of success. It’s that it was a show that used the superhero formula to tell a real story and deal with actual issues of trauma and recovery. Mind-controlling narcissist Killgrave (David Tennant) is a haunting villain because his evil is basically focused on one person: hard-drinking private eye (and former superhero) Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). This makes him real and compelling in a way that other Marvel properties have failed to achieve. This feminist show is dark and progressive, and while it probably had to fill a few too many episodes, man, was it just a phenomenal show.
4. Master of None (Netflix)
- This show starts off slow. Honestly, the first episode should not have been the first episode, so you just need to watch it and move on, because Aziz Ansari‘s version of Louie is spectacular. Part of that is the unique way it finds to be both biting and positive at the same time. This show is not afraid to address issue of race and sexism, but unlike a lot of shows, it’s more interested in trying to figure out how the world can do better than in condemning it for its failings. Add in that the penultimate (hey, it’s back) episode of the show is one of the best self-contained romantic comedies in years, and Master of None is a great showcase for the fact that the half-hour comedy is where a lot of the real creativity is in television right now.
3. Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
- The first season of Penny Dreadful was delightful enough, but it’s in the second season that the show really soared. Eva Green continues to be the absolute best as Vanessa Ives, but it is the elevation of the other characters on the show to a much more interesting place, especially John Clare (Rory Kinnear), who became much more effective once he was freed from only being involved Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)’s plot. Then there is Billie Piper‘s Lily, who turned the Bride of Frankenstein trope on its head to emerge as a likely main villain of season three. The characters in this show are simply great. This season deepened the lore, broadened the show’s Gothic sensibilities, and overall saw Penny Dreadful transform into one of the most compelling week-to-week experiences on television.
2. You’re the Worst (FXX)
- The first season of You’re the Worst is great because it is a funny deconstruction of a love story, but season two amps things up even more. This year the show basically decided to become a drama, and let the laughs fall where they may. The show does this by presenting one of the most realistic depictions of depression I’ve ever seen in media, with Aya Cash‘s Gretchen. There is no “fixing” Gretchen, and the show’s willingness to deal with the repurcussions of what this would mean to the core relationship between Gretchen and Jimmy (Chris Geere) is fascinating. Especially because the show doesn’t make the mistake of villifying either one of them, as a lesser show might. Instead we get a realistic depiction of both what it means to be a person suffering from depression and a person that loves and lives with a person with depression. The show is still very funny, and the core group’s Sunday Funday on Halloween is amazingly hilarious, but creator Stephen Falk was able to find the drama in the comedy and vice versa, and in doing so made You’re the Worst into one of the best things on television. If you have any doubts just know that any show that can turn war vet Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) constant lament that he didn’t know it was a school into a runner joke for the entire show is the absolute best.
1. Mr. Robot (USA)
- So much has been said about this show, so I won’t dwell on it too much. But it was so unexpected. Who would have thought USA, of all networks, could make such an amazing show? Mr. Robot is about an idealist hacker trying to change the world. Revelatory in how honest and biting it is, Mr. Robot’s timeliness is extraordinary, as it comes at a time when trust in Wall Street and the 1% is at an all-time low. This has allowed the show to connect with people in ways that not many shows have in years, and to become a water cooler show in an era where such things are disappearing. Rami Malek is simply incredible as Elliot, and Christian Slater finally found the show he has been looking for after all the years of trying to reinvent himself on television. Watch this show, and then watch it again, because this is the starting point of what may very well be an all-time great.
Honorable Mention aka th Next Five: Game of Thrones, The 100, Marvel’s Daredevil, Justified, Gravity Falls
Highlights in Television Television Trends, 2015 Edition
SyFy Cares About TV Again
- SyFy used to really care about making good television, back when it was still named “SciFi.” Battlestar Galactica was at the forefront of a lot of smart science-fiction shows, but then as that show eroded, so did SyFy’s desire to keep up the quality of its programming (outside of the Canadian shows it imported). Then 2015 happened, and SyFy was ready to return in a big way. First 12 Monkeys turned out to be (by all accounts) a fairly good show, and then they made the diverse and gripping Dark Matter. These were all preludes to December, when SyFy brought out The Expanse, an extremely smart and well-made show that very well might be Game of Thrones in space. This show is the kind of serious science fiction that just hasn’t been on television in a while, and represents a return to form for SyFy that has me excited for what is to come in 2016 (hello, The Magicians).
Daredevil fights Nobu.
- A lot of people have gushed over the hallway fight scene in the second episode of Daredevil, and that scene is awesome, but for my money the best fight of the show is between Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), because seriously, everyone, it’s a superhero fighting a ninja. This fight is everything I could possibly want from a fight scene, and stunning in its execution. The hallway scene is a piece of technical mastery, but this fight is just pure exhilarating fun that perfectly combines realistic choreography with the fantastical nature of superpowers. The fact that the fight also helps move the show along into its season end game makes it all the better.
Sunny Fights in the Rain
- Into the Badlands is not a good show, but man, am I glad it exists. A pure kung fu show simply doesn’t exist on television, and this show fills that gap nicely. The first episode is not really sure what to do with itself, but none of that matters once Sunny (Daniel Wu) confronts the Widow (Emily Beecham) in the rain, triggering the absolutely stunning fight that follows. Whereas the Daredevil fights gain power from their realism and plot importance, this fight is honestly just pure martial arts porn in all the best ways. Into the Badlands is still finding itself as a show, but it will always have a place of importance, because the fights the show is doing are just completely on another level from just about everything on television (not named Daredevil or Banshee).
- I have already gushed about Aya Cash’s performance in this past season of You’re the Worst, but this is the line from the season that was a part of the most emotionally resonant story I have seen this year. Aya Cash’s combination of relief, disbelief, despair, and happiness that Jimmy didn’t let her push him away and stayed by her side even though she was at her lowest point was just amazing. I only didn’t cry because years of media exposure have desensitized me to real human emotions.
Okay, I know this isn’t the scene I am talking about, but this scene does perfectly demonstrate You’re the Worst’s dark humor, as well as part of what makes Aya Cash’s performance so good.
Clarke Makes The Hard Choice Again
- Seriously, this is some spoilers up the wazzoo here, people–but the point you realize that The 100 could be a great show starts in 2014 in the midseason finale, when Clarke (Eliza Taylor) kills her love interest Finn (Thomas McDonell) so that he cannot be tortured to death by the enemy. It began Clarke’s path of being willing to become a sin eater in order to protect the ones she loves no matter what, one that culminates in the season finale when she decides to vent the radiation into Mount Weather in order to stop the Mountain People from killing her friends and family. It is a brutal decision, in which Clarke condemns not only guilty, evil parties, but also innocent men, women, and children to death, because it is the only way to save her own people. Clarke laments just trying to be a good person, and her subsequent realization that sometimes there are no good guys is a bombshell of moral grayness that just doesn’t exist in most television programs, let alone a show for teenagers on The CW. I have always wanted to see a show take the sin eater idea as far as possible, and watching Clarke decide she can no longer live with her people as a result of her monstrous decision to save them is the most logical conclusion of this course of actions. Seeing how Clarke will be able to come back from all this in Season 3 is going to be amazing, and the fact that The 100 has some of the strongest female characters in all of television makes it a real candidate to break out in a huge way in 2016.
Jon Snow Versus The White Walkers
- While I liked the past season of Game of Thrones more than most people, even I will admit it is rather uneven–except for ‘Hardhome,’ when winter finally comes to the show. This episode was absolutely the best thing on television in years. The desperate attempts of the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk to survive as they face the full force of the White Walker army together was exhilarating. It showed how Game of Thrones can do things that no other show on television can do, and almost single-handedly put Game of Thrones into my top five for the year. The moment of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) staring at the White Walker King as the King basically gave a “come at me, bro” combined with the Gladiator “are you not entertained?” pose before raising all of the newly dead into the White Walker army is etched in my brain. The politics and quibbles of Westoros are nice and stuff, but it was great to see Game of Thrones let its fantasy flag fly, and show that whatever level of peace may exist in Westeros currently is about to be completely blown apart. The White Walkers are no longer coming. They are here, and everyone is screwed.
Biggest Disappointment of 2015:
- Television was actually pretty strong for the most part this year, which made it really disappointing that the major networks simply punted this past pilot season. Sure, there have been hits, like Quantico and Blindspot, but this has really been the least inspiring group of new shows from major networks in years. Not that the major networks are where you go for real innovation, but the amount of phoned-in and generic-to-offensive show ideas (how does Truth Be Told get made now?! Seriously, someone tell me!) that got green-lit this fall was just really disheartening. So instead of calling out any shows individually (other than Truth Be Told, because seriously, what the hell…), I am just going to say to Fox, NBC, ABC, and CBS: step up your game. (Although CBS may get a small pass, because Limitless is actually the most creatively executed CBS shows in years.) I know all you major networks are destined to be left behind, but at least put up a fight against it.
Best Episode of 2015: ‘Hardhome’; Game of Thrones Season 5 Episode 8
- Runner- Up: ‘The Heart is a Dumb Dumb’; You’re the Worst Season 2, Episode 13–or maybe ‘LCD Soundsystem’; You’re the Worst Season 2, Episode 8 (look, this show is really good)
- Runner-Runner-Up: ‘Mornings’; Master of None Season 1, Episode 9
Show That No One Realizes is Amazing: The CW’s The 1oo
- Runner- Up: Syfy’s Dark Matter
Male Performance of 2015: Rami Malek in Mr. Robot
- Runner-Up: David Tennant in Jessica Jones
Female Performance of 2015: Aya Cash in You’re the Worst
- Runner-Up: Stephanie Corneliussen in Mr. Robot
- Runner-Runner-Up: Eva Green in Penny Dreadful
Shows I Need to Catch Up On:
- The Leftovers
- The Man In The High Castle
- Mozart in the Jungle
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
- Jane the Virgin
- True Detective
- Rick and Morty
- Star vs. the Forces of Evil
My 2016 ambition is to stop watching television. That’s not because I don’t love television. It’s because, like the moon, television is a harsh mistress. Many shows, even in the Golden Ages we’ve been having since roughly The Sopranos, are designed to be satisfying the way a cocaine habit is satisfying–initial highs followed by the user obsessively returning on a regular basis even as the pleasure becomes more attenuated. Characters become people you hang out with rather than ideas you observe, and stories become long-running, repetitive narratives without real change or end, with just enough variation to keep you hooked. It’s seductively easier to watch the next episode of a show you’re already familiar with than to start something new, even if the show itself is no longer enjoyable or interesting (God, if only I had the life back that I spent on the last few seasons of Dexter or How I Met Your Mother). Inertia is a powerful force, but it’s one to be resisted.
The fact is that, despite there being an abundance of quality television, even quality television rarely rises to the imperative transcendence required to make the time investment worth it. Is season five of Angel really worth watching seasons one through four? Is later Fringe worth the aggressively mediocre first season and a half or so before the show gets good? Even in the past few years, there are very few shows that are good enough to be worth investing in over the eight or ten or twelve movies I could see in the same amount of time. The flat fact is that there’s too much pop culture out there to settle for the merely entertaining, and too few television shows with sustained, complete stories that push the medium forward.
I fully admit that part of this might be that 2015 brought the end of some of the best television ever–not just fitfully excellent dramas like Justified, but Mad Men and Hannibal, two shows that have a strong claim to the top 10 dramas of all time. Both shows demonstrate the heights the medium is capable of achieving, and anything less amazing feels to a certain extent like a waste of time. It might be churlish to expect every show to be as delicate, as deeply felt, as enormously involving, and as intellectually and emotionally satisfying as Mad Men, the only show that truly continues to bear the standard that The Sopranos embodied when it essentially reinvented TV. But I maintain it’s reasonable to expect that every show aspire to be Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s brilliant remix of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels (and films) into a dark and moving (and often blackly comic) story about murder, mental illness, the Devil, and the deep well of friendship.
Don’t get me wrong, Hannibal is amazing, and easily makes my personal top 5 best dramas ever made (along with Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, and a fifth spot filled by whatever best thing I’ve seen lately). But Hannibal isn’t as good as it is because it offers a sprawling, socio-historical viewpoint, or a decade-long look at one man’s life/marriage/business. It’s great because it wants to be, in the best sense of the phrase. The cinematography strives to the tell the story in an expressive, meaningful, and attractive way; the writing is both clever and psychologically complex, with characters whose actions stem from multiple, parallel motivations; the tone is carefully controlled; the score is creative and effective; and as a gory procedural, Hannibal resists the urge to isolate events in a single episode, instead letting its characters feel the weight of the horrors they’ve witnessed. These are all elements that combine to make one of the best shows ever made, but they’re elements that any show can achieve with the right creatives behind it, as long as they have the freedom and willingness to raise the bar. That so few shows commit to that effort is the strongest reason I have for trying not to watch television anymore. Fortunately for you, I failed pretty hard this year.
So please enjoy the following list of Ten 2015 shows that, while great, just weren’t Hannibal.
Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls is the closest I’ve ever seen a television show come to being a Pixar movie, which makes it extraordinarily special. Like many cartoons, it features strong performances, quality animation, great character design (probably the chief strength of American animation in general), and humor that consistently hits the mark. Unlike most cartoons, Gravity Falls tells a single sustained story in a world that gets increasingly complex over the course of the show–a story that’s not only very compelling but which always returns to real character development. The show’s well-crafted ensemble, including summer vacationing twins Dipper (Jason Ritter), Mabel (Kristen Schaal), their “Grunkle” Stan (Alex Hirsch), and Stan’s employees at the hokey Mystery Shack he runs in the small, weird town of Gravity Falls, began the series as sketches but gradually gained dimension and pathos as the show continued. The addition in 2015 of Stan’s mysterious twin brother Ford (a perfect J.K. Simmons) was a brilliant shift both toward science fiction and the show’s core thematic concerns about the bond between siblings and the right approach to all things weird. The only real complaint about Gravity Falls is that it’s ending too soon, after merely two seasons (which were admittedly scheduled over four years), with the result that the slow arc of development in the first season and a half clashes poorly with the more compressed pacing of the last quarter of the show. Still, no matter what surprises the final episode holds, Gravity Falls will long be remembered for its original and meaningful conceit, its beloved characters, and its skillful execution of a cartoon people of any age can watch and enjoy.
Highlights from 2015: We finally discover the truth (in a well-made, moving backstory) about Stan Pines (‘A Tale of Two Stans’); the show explores dating and gender dynamics (‘Roadside Attraction’); the young twins have a moment of crisis as Dipper finds his courage and imagines his possible future as Ford’s apprentice (‘Dipper and Mable vs. The Future’); and things get very creepy and surreal (and awesome, especially Wendy) in the beginning of the series’ three-part finale (‘Weirdmageddon Part 1’).
Hannibal quotient: 3/10, due to some darker than expected humor, occasional horror genre influences, and a strong sense of continuity. An entire bonus point for the simultaneously hilarious and horrifying vision in part one of the show’s epic finale of a giant, neurotic human arm (voiced by Louis C.K.) complaining peevishly that nobody will get in its mouth and let it eat them. The Ravenstag would be proud.
A partnership between Dan Harmon (Community) and voice actor Justin Roiland (amazingly playing both leads, often in direct conversation with one another), Rick and Morty mines all sorts of pathos, comedy, and ironic horror from taking an honest look at what the odd friendship between eccentric scientist Doc Brown and everyteen Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films would entail in real life. Season one of this show established both its bizarre sense of humor and philosophy of life, one all the more effecting because its alternately raging and despairing acknowledgment of the pain of living in a complicated, broken world is so carefully hidden beneath comedic bluster, as when we discover that Rick’s apparently meaningless catchphrase is actually a crie de cour. Season two had a lot to live up to, and although a few episodes missed the mark, those that hit ended up being immensely effective science fiction. As this show continues, it’s become clear that its ultimate subject is its exploration of Rick, an arrogant, abrasive, alcoholic old man who can’t help destroying every human connection he’s ever formed. We know he’s ashamed of his actions, but the real question is whether Rick is truly capable of change. Only time will tell.
Highlights from 2015: Morty lives an entire life as a carpet salesman in the hit video game “Roy” (‘Mortynight Run’); the hilarity of the episode mocking television’s propensity for randomly introduced “Cousin Oliver”s (‘Total Rickall’), a gutting suicide attempt (‘Auto Erotic Assimilation’), Rick’s ship takes brutal action to “Protect Summer” (‘The Ricks Must Be Crazy’); Morty’s parents have their best story ever, when Rick drops them off at an intergalactic couples counseling session that goes terribly awry (“Oh God they’re co-dependent!”) (‘Big Trouble in Little Sanchez’); the absurd monologue where a distressed alien (voiced by Werner Herzog, no less) laments how obsessed human beings are with their penises (‘Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate’), and the season’s excellent finale (‘The Wedding Squanchers’).
Hannibal quotient: 4/10, for brutal violence, twisty episodes, and Rick’s psychological depth and Hannibal-like arrogance and disregard for the well-being of others.
FX’s Archer has been an interesting challenge for creator Adam Reed. This animated comedy about a spy agency is, after six seasons, the longest show he’s ever made (compared to his two-and-done absurdist superhero farce, Frisky Dingo, and the four-season parody recut show Sealab 2021, where every episode essentially hit the reset button). As someone who clearly eventually gets bored with whatever he’s doing, Reed has had to work hard to keep Archer fresh in its middle age. In season 5, he rebooted the show completely, turning Archer and his confederates from spies into a would-be cocaine cartel and changing Archer‘s strictly episode structure into one long, sustained story. 2015’s season 6 essentially unbooted all that, returning the team to headquarters for a more classic feel. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing: this cast and these characters probably represent the best ensemble on television since Firefly, forming an impeccable comedic engine. Together, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin)’s charming dickishness, Pam (Amber Nash)’s unique blend of self-confidence and gustatory/sexual gluttony, Mallory (Jessica Walter)’s ice cold contempt for everyone around her, Lana (Aisha Tyler)’s large-handed “straight man” attitude, Cyril (Chris Parnell)’s ever-increasing patheticness, Ray (Adam Reed)’s tendency toward horrible injury, Cheryl (Judy Greer)’s haughty insanity, and Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates)’s bizarre proclivities can make anything funny, as the show proved this year by setting an entire episode in real time in a stuck elevator. I have no idea what the team will be doing in season seven, but I know I’ll enjoy it.
Highlights from 2015: Christian Slater as a constantly annoyed government agent named Slater; a moving story about a Japanese soldier who never surrendered (‘The Holdout’); the show’s new best character, Milton, a rolling toast machine; and Archer finally getting Archer and Lana back together, exploring their relationship in a series of great episodes where we meet Lana’s parents (‘The Kanes’), see them taking a romantic weekend in Wales (‘Achub y Morfilod’), and experience a classic romantic face (‘Reignition Sequence’).
Hannibal quotient: 1/10, because this is about as far from Hannibal in subject matter and tone as it is possible to get, except for the episode where Woodhouse talks fondly about eating “long pig.”
I’ve long maintained that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the logical conclusion of Arrested Development, which was itself the logical conclusion of Seinfeld. Not only is there no hugging and no learning, but the group of complete bastards in this show actively resist any such softening of their awful and hilarious antics. Always Sunny just began its 11th season last week, and shows no signs of slowing down. Every episode is basically a variation on the exact same premise–the group wants something, but will fail to achieve it thanks to their unique combination of ignorance, in-fighting, and severe character/psychological flaws, often hurting innocent bystanders in the process. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is a narcissist and (in one of the show’s best running jokes) probably a serial killer; his sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson), as the butt of every joke and the subject of the gang’s collective hatred and misogyny, would be sympathetic if she weren’t so awful and also a bird; Mac (Rob McElhenny) is a lovably dumb closet case; rich patriarch Frank (Danny DeVito) is a crass and disgusting goblin man; and Charlie (Charlie Day) is the illiterate, mentally challenged heart of the show, as sweet and put-upon as he is dumb. Together they own a bar in Philly where they precipitate disasters. Shot in a loose, low-budget style and featuring rapid-paced dialogue (including many instances of the gang yelling over each other), Always Sunny never fails to delight.
2015 highlights: a drinking contest on an airplane (‘The Gang Beats Wade Boggs’); an innovative apparently single-take episode, ala Birdman, gave us a glimpse into the absurd ways in which Charlie keeps the bar in business (‘Charlie Work’); the meta-episode comparing Always Sunny to other, more successful sitcoms (‘The Gang Misses the Boat’); and the one where they go on a game show (‘The Gang Goes On Family Fight’).
Hannibal quotient: 5/10, as, like Hannibal, this is also mostly a show about terrible people trying to outwit and destroy each other.
Perhaps the biggest television event of 2015 was Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show after 16 years. Over the course of his tenure, Stewart transformed a minor fake news comedy program into a vital voice of reason in an increasingly deranged media landscape. As skilled and important a journalist as he was a satirist, Stewart’s wry delivery and “comedian’s comedian” jokes belied his real reaction to CNN, Fox News, the Bush administration, and the increasing polarization of politics, a species of despairing anger whose expression was cathartic for millions of viewers whose viewpoints seemed to have otherwise disappeared from the conversation. In short, The Daily Show wasn’t just good, it was important. Stewart’s replacement, Trever Noah, has yet to achieve anything like Jon’s success as either a comedian or a political voice–but that’s okay, because HBO’s Last Week Tonight is The Daily Show‘s true descendant. Host John Oliver uses his weekly, commercial-free format to get in-depth on issues of government policy and corporate behavior, producing 10 to 15-minute segments alerting viewers to terrible problems and potential solutions. His amusing first season penchant for spending HBO’s money on elaborate displays has become a vital source of thrilling, pointed satirical stunts, from commissioning insulting new versions of famous songs in order to attack problematic world leaders to sending his ideas out into the world in the form of billboards and other advertisements. Oliver is committed to honestly and passionately informing, rather than simply summarizing the news, and his program is the closest thing to true advocacy on television today. Like The Daily Show before it, Last Week Tonight isn’t just good, it’s important. (But it’s pretty good, too.)
Highlights from 2015: Oliver’s argument for the importance of infrastructure, complete with a star-studded trailer for an infrastructure-themed action movie (S02E04); Oliver’s cogent and very funny interview with Edward Snowden about government surveillance (S02E08); the gifting of weird/rejected mascots to various government programs (S02E13); the ongoing discussion of the FIFA corruption scandal, including Oliver’s address to Jack Warner, which actually aired on TV in Trinidad, and the one where he had to drink a Bud Light Lime after Sepp Blatter resigned; Oliver’s continued focus on the fucked-up nature of the American justice system, including judicial elections (S02E03), bail (S02E16), mandatory sentencing guidelines (S02E22), public defenders (S02E27), and prisoner reentry (S02E33); the real, accurate sex education video they made to help counter the awful state of sex ed in America (S02E24); and Oliver’s satirical televangelist church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, which proved that it was perfectly legal to make wild promises when asking people for money as long as you’re vaguely religious (the fake church received tens of thousands of dollars in “seed” money from viewers, which Oliver donated to charity before shutting down the experiment after receiving both bags of actual seed and multiple jars of semen). It was a very long and very excellent season.
Hannibal quotient: 1/10; despite the show’s format and subject matter being entirely different, it is true that, like Hannibal, Janice from Accounting doesn’t give a fuck.
Another long-running show that ended this year, Parks and Recreation has had a very up and down existence over the course of its seven seasons. The show’s first season or so is profoundly awful, as the clone of The Office (including the faux documentary presentation) began as a show contemptuous of its small-minded, mean-spirited characters. But somehow creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur were able to turn it all around, and Parks and Rec became something very special in a TV comedy landscape dominated by the descendants of Seinfeld–an earnest, uncynical defense of government, of joy, and of sincerity. Amy Poehler starred as Leslie Knope, a unique character whose passion for local government was endearing and infectious, and the show surrounded her with excellent, indelible characters, especially Nick Offerman’s gruff, masculine libertarian Ron Swanson, the adorably childish Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt before he was a big movie star), and deadpan pessimist April Ludgate (a phenomenal Aubrey Plaza), not to mention Aziz Ansari, Jim O’Heir, Retta, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, and Rob Lowe as key members of a sprawling ensemble. Often a live action workplace complement to The Simpsons‘ family sitcom, Parks and Rec explored important issues, satirized small town politics, and proved that shows can be uproariously funny without sacrificing warmth and heart. Although the show definitely showed signs of age around seasons five and six, its final 13 episodes proved that Parks was still capable of greatness. It will be missed.
Highlights from 2015: Leslie and co. try to break up two of their worst nemeses, Councilman Jamm and Ron’s ex-wife, Tammy (‘Ron & Jammy’); Leslie and Ron’s entire life-long relationship climaxes in this bottle episode where the two re-establish their friendship after a between-seasons conflict (‘Leslie and Ron’); lots of real politicians guest star in an episode set in D.C., but more importantly, Parks finds a satisfying conclusion to Leslie’s mentoring of April, who reveals at long last that she really does care about her job (‘Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer Goes to Washington’); the show explores feminism in politics when Leslie refuses to participate in a sexist pie-making contest (‘Pie-Mary’); Andy hosts the last episode of his ridiculous, joyful children’s show (‘The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show’); and the show’s long, effulgent finale, which cares enough to find a happy ending for just about everybody (‘One Last Ride’).
Hannibal quotient: 0/10, because this is the happiest goddamn show and the number of artfully displayed murdered corpses is practically zero.
I called Justified “fitfully excellent” up above, because the show’s fifth and sixth seasons were in large part drastic misfires and misunderstandings of how the show should work (respectively, not as a mystery and with a serious villain to counterpoint the comedic ones). But Graham Yost’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story–and more broadly the master crime/Western novelist’s style, structure, and themes–had an extraordinarily high potential that it met more often than not. Like Parks and Recreation, Justified‘s final season brought the show back to its core strengths after a few years in the wilderness: multiple criminal elements contend over a valuable MacGuffin while roguish Deputy Federal Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) plays his own game to apprehend or kill his adversaries. A downhome Kentucky epic of greed, violence, and the law, Justified is a vastly entertaining sociological study of the economic and social causes, shadings, and ramifications of Southern crime. Emulating Elmore Leonard’s blend of smart, genre-savvy characters, naturalistic plot twists, colloquial dialogue, and sincere drama can’t have been easy, but Justified pulls it off in spaces, assisted by a phenomenal set of guest actors and supporting cast and anchored by career-best performances from Olyphant and Walton Goggins’ as Givens’ “frenemy,” fearsome and complex crimelord Boyd Crowder. The question that drives the show is whether anyone can overcome their upbringing, and the show’s excellent final season tells us that even if Boyd and Raylan find different answers, well, they still dug coal together, and that will never not be true.
Highlights from 2015: The sad death of Dewey Crowe (‘Fate’s Right Hand’); the show revisits two characters from its phenomenal second season, bitter and imprisoned Dickie Bennett and budding criminal mastermind Loretta McCready (‘The Trash and the Snake’); Constable Bob proves his worth (‘Sounding); Choo-Choo’s surprising emotional depth (‘Alive Day’); Boyd takes Ava to the cabin in Bulletville to find out where her loyalties lie (‘The Hunt’); Raylan confronts the ghost of his father (‘Dark as a Dungeon’); Loretta makes her play (‘Burned’); a tense scene in the Wynnabago (‘Fugitive Number One’); a running gun battle in the woods at night between Raylan and Boyd (‘Collateral’); one last standoff and really the whole finale (‘The Promise’). Special mention for Sam Elliot’s menacing performance as the villain Avery Markham.
Hannibal quotient: 8/10, given that Justified is also adapting a specific author’s literary style and features pitch black humor (both shows even did an episode based on organ theft rings), complicated crime and law enforcement stories, quality cinematography, and sharp dialogue
FX’s The Americans is about as well-crafted as any show could be. It only really misses greatness for two reasons. One, the FBI plotline is somehow never as satisfying as the other side of the show, which follows two Soviet sleeper agents, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), pretending to be a normal American family. Two, the show’s restrained tone and low-key spy plotting tends to limit its scope and ambition. That said, this 80s period piece is a masterclass in drama, perfectly combining the trials and tribulations of family life–including the Jennings’ struggle to turn their cover story into a real marriage, and the difficulties of raising children while doing dangerous and secret work–with a tense and emotionally complex story of espionage and murder. The Americans has less to say about history and culture clash than the nature of trust and the burden of ideology, and honestly, it’s all the better for it. Not every period piece can be Mad Men, and the show succeeds far more as a multi-layered character drama about people forced by circumstance and occupation to do terrible things. Powerful performances from Russel and Rhys (as well as excellent supporting turns from Noah Emmerich, Alison Wright, Margo Martindale, Frank Langella, and young Holly Turner), perfect 80s soundtrack choices, and lots of wigs contribute to a grim but rewarding show that definitely stands out in this new Golden Age.
Highlights in 2015: Amid worries of what may come of their daughter being recruited, Elizabeth and Phillip put another recruit’s body in a suitcase (‘Baggage’); in a mostly silent, excruciating, yet oddly intimate scene, Phillip extracts Elizabeth’s broken teeth (‘Open House’); Elizabeth has a long conversation with an old woman she must kill (‘Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?’); Martha discovers the truth about Phillip (‘Divestment’); Paige discovers the truth about her parents (‘Stingers’); and throughout the season, Phillip takes on yet another uncomfortable/problematic relationship, this time seducing a vulnerable young girl.
Hannibal quotient: 3/10, because most of the characters on this show still have qualms about murder
Mad Men quotient: 7/10, with The Americans missing that show’s elliptical storytelling structure and taking a somewhat different tack toward history’s influence on the personal
Netflix hit the ball pretty much out of the park with both of its Marvel superhero shows this year. First, Daredevil. Television action is rare, and action shows this good are rarer still. Excellent casting and performances from Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Toby Leonard Moore, and Rosario Dawson (among others) bring just the right tone and emotionality to this reimagining of the long-running comic about Matt Murdock, a Hell’s Kitchen lawyer who discovered he had superpowers after being blinded in an accident. I can’t help but compare this show to the feature film with Ben Affleck in the title role, a movie which, unlike most people, I love unabashedly (particularly the director’s cut); but showrunners Drew Goddard and Steven DeKnight make Daredevil their own. Tense, thrilling action sequences are the highlight, as the show features some of the most brutal fights I’ve seen on television (streaming or otherwise), but Daredevil also deserves high praise for having the patience to explore real character drama from multiple perspectives, whether that’s D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin) struggling to reconcile his personal difficulties with the challenges of his plot to take over development in a New York neighborhood hit hard by the climactic battle in The Avengers, Woll’s Karen Page and Elden Henson as Matt’s law partner Foggy trying to deal with being ordinary people in a world of superheros, or Cox himself as Murdock learning how to be a costumed hero without losing himself to his need for violent vigilantism. Above, Daredevil takes its story seriously, and rarely succumbs to the temptation to sink to the level of “just a comic book show.” The show’s sincere new look at age-old superhero comic concerns about morality, the law, secret identities and what it means to defend a city proves that there’s life in the old genre yet. Excellent cinematography and strong plotting (if unevenly paced over the season) round out an exciting new program whose next season has me salivating.
Highlights from 2015: The ‘hallway’ fight, a long-take battle between an exhausted Daredevil and half a dozen armed guards, one which calls back to one of the best cinematic fights ever in Oldboy (‘Cut Man’); Fisk contemplates blank walls (‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’); Matt explains how he sees the world (‘World on Fire’); in flashback, the blind warrior Stick (an excellent Scott Glen) trains young Matt in both combat and moral absolutism (‘Stick’); Wilson Fisk reveals himself to the public (‘Shadows in the Glass’); as David mentioned in his part of this post, the other great fight in the show, a bloody, brutal affair between Matt and a freaking ninja (‘Speak of the Devil’); Foggy discovers the truth and Matt tries to justify himself in an episode that expands and explores their entire history (‘Nelson v Murdock’); Matt and Father Lantom have a great conversation about morality and the Devil (‘The Path of the Righteous’); and the entire finale, especially Fisk’s biblical monologue embracing himself as a villain, his subsequent escape, the climactic fight between Daredevil and Kingpin (‘Daredevil’).
Hannibal quotient: 7/10. Beautifully dark cinematography and an intense war between hero and antagonist make Daredevil more like Fuller’s masterpiece than you’d think–not to mention strong religious themes and both shows’ tendency toward pulp–and like this show’s, Hannibal‘s fight scenes are to be treasured.
The other Netflix Marvel show this year was Jessica Jones. Personally I give Daredevil the slight edge, but its distaff cousin also delivered some of the best television of the year. A noir-infused show about rape/trauma and the long, hard road to recovery, Jessica Jones pits its alcoholic, abrasive PI (Krysten Ritter) against the man who violated her in every possible way, the whiny, petulant, terrifying Kilgrave (David Tennant). The show isn’t without flaw–the noir style is a little tacked-on, and the show would be much better without some of its distracting subplots (particularly the Nuke storyline, Jeri Hogarth [Carrie Ann Moss]’s relationship troubles, and Colby Minifie’s bizarrely out of place performance as Robyn). But the ideas the show tackles are so important that those flaws are easy to overlook. Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones takes a more realistic look at the ramifications of a world with superpowers, from the wonderful romantic relationship Jessica builds with the perfectly cast Luke Cage (Mike Colter) to the horror of what a man might really do with the power to control minds. Above all, what makes this show so exciting is Jessica herself–a woman as strong and smart as she is flawed and wounded, willing to break rules as she struggles to put herself back together. The show as a whole sees Jones confidently executing plans she’s not sure of, and in the process trying to decide who she is in the wake of her past trauma and present difficulties. If there’s one thing that kept me going from one episode to the next, it was wondering what she’d do next, and that holds true for next season, too.
Highlights from 2015: Jessica and Luke have sex, then food, then sex again, each so pleased to find someone else who knows what it’s like to have powers (‘AKA It’s Called Whiskey’); Jessica submits to Kilgrave’s request for daily photos in order to protect her friend (‘AKA The Sandwich Saved Me’); Kilgrave takes a police station hostage (‘AKA Top Shelf Perverts’); Jessica and Kilgrave play house and it’s super weird (‘AKA WWJD?’); a tense, violent bottle episode sees Kilgrave behind glass (‘AKA Sin Bin’); Luke (under Kilgrave’s influence) and Jessica have a brutal fight (‘AKA Take a Bloody Number’); the exciting, scary season finale (‘AKA Smile’).
Hannibal quotient: 5/10 for horrible violence and violent horror, the psychological effects of past trauma, and a manipulative son of a bitch who continually escapes capture.
Next, more on the two best shows of the year:
Mad Men is the best show nobody watched, a critical darling that somehow never seemed sexy or easy enough for most viewers to get into. But if you give it a chance, you’ll find it’s not work at all, but legitimately as exciting, thrilling, and absorbing as any other all-time great show. Advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm in one of the best performances ever, period) experiences the turbulent 1960s as the changing times and the show’s careful, patient work expose him layer by layer. Meanwhile, the show grew to incorporate more than a dozen different perspectives, using the “novel of short stories” structure pioneered by Mad Men’s progenitor, The Sopranos, to tell stories that made the historical personal and the personal historical. But the question of who is Don Draper was always paramount. At first it appears that Don’s problem is that he’s actually two men–Don Draper, the confident charmer, dominant in romance as well as business, and Dick Whitman, the cowardly kid who grew up poor, who stole another man’s identity, who is always ready to run away. But the layer beneath that is that, if advertising teaches us how to want, Don’s irony is that he never learned his own lesson–that he wants things he can’t have (the approval of father figures, success without responsibility, relationships without compromise), that he has things he doesn’t want (a wife, a family, a reputation), that his desires are all muddled up with his fears of being discovered, being trapped, being nobody. The genius of creator/writer Matthew Weiner’s masterpiece isn’t just that it’s exquisitely executed on every level (writing, acting, cinematography, music, editing), that its scope is so wide, that its characters are so deep, that the show’s plotting is as elliptical as it is entertaining–it’s also that the show’s themes are as complex and meaningful as anything on television. This is ultimately a show about the decade of counter-cultural revolution, seen from the perspective of the rich white guy who enters 1960 on top of the world. The show’s first few seasons act as the last gasp of the 1950s before everything is irrevocably broken with the Kennedy assassination in November of ’63. From then on, like the man in the title sequence, Draper is in freefall, and the despair he ultimately reaches is as gutting as anything I’ve ever seen. The short final season first sums and then destroys all Mad Men has made, sending its characters hurtling forward into the next uncertain decade, where change might be possible, where happiness might be found at last–in a bottle of Coke, if nowhere else.
Highlights in 2015: In a moment representing her show-long struggle to balance work and life, Peggy can’t find her passport (‘Severance’); Megan accepts a million dollar divorce settlement, but her mother has other plans, and Don returns home to an apartment as empty as he is (‘New Business’); Glen ships out for Vietnam (‘The Forecast’); Don plans what he thinks will be one last caper, but it’s over before it begins, while Pete reconnects with Trudy (‘Time & Life’); McCann Erickson is a sexist, conformist dystopian nightmare (‘Lost Horizon’); Don recounts his one terrible war story at a veteran’s dinner and later gives his car to a young, hustling foil, and Betty has a brutal conversation with Sally (‘The Milk and Honey Route’); every moment of the series finale, but especially Don’s heartbreaking phone call to Peggy (‘Person to Person’).
Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is the show that, for me, all other shows are compared to and found wanting. A Red Dragon prequel about the twisted friendship between psychologist and secret cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) and gifted FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), Hannibal remixes the entire Harrisverse (four books, five movies) into a hauntingly beautiful, beautifully horrible psychological thriller. In terms of plot, the series covers Lecter’s befriending, manipulation, and framing of Will Graham, Will’s subsequent (and morally compromising) attempt to trap and capture Lecter, their post-break-up dance of reconciliation in Europe (mostly pulling from the film/novel Hannibal), and a six-episode arc directly adapting Red Dragon, but the show is ultimately about that fine line between life and death, and the world a friendship closer than love can make for itself there. A brilliant procedural and deeply affecting drama, Hannibal is gorgeously executed, from the dark, lyrical cinematography and exception use of CG surrealism to the simply amazing performances from all involved (but especially Mads Mikkelson, who utterly supplants Anthony Hopkins’ iconic turn as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs the way Heath Ledger stole the Joker’s mantle from Jack Nicholson). More importantly, the writing is phenomenal, blending a dense weave of influences, imagery, and direct quotes from the novels into a work that thrums with the intense mystery of the human mind and the dark allure of violence. Dueling character study, literary pastiche, black comedy, pulp thriller, surreal work of horror, and powerful drama, Hannibal is everything you could possibly want in a TV show. It was canceled all too soon, but the three seasons we have are an impossible gift that I will treasure all my life, watching and rewatching to feel once more so horrified, so amused, so excited, and so shaken.
Highlights from 2015: Lecter says “Bonjour,” gives a lecture as the Devil, teaches DeMaurier the difference between observation and participation, converse with Abel Giddeon (in flashback), and, missing Will, folds a man into a broken heart (‘Antipasto’); Will loses Abigail again, hears a story from Inspector Pazzi, sees a flesh-stag, and forgives Hannibal in the catacombs (‘Primavera’); Will makes his own imago and everyone considers the fate of Mischa (‘Secondo’); Chilton and Mason show the scars Hannibal gave them, Will admits to wanting to run away with Hannibal, Lecter sends a note to Jack, and Will sails off romantically to Europe (‘Aperitivo’); Pazzi meets his fate, but Jack gets revenge for the season two finale (‘Contorno’); Will and Hannibal reunite and Hannibal tries very hard to get inside Will’s head (‘Dolce’); the entire horrifying and awesome events at Muskrat Farms, and Will finally rejects Hannibal, who responds by twisting the knife (‘Digestivo’); Will swings the pendulum once more (‘The Great Red Dragon’); Alana asserts her authority, and in flashback, Lecter brings Abigail to life and to death (‘And the Woman Clothed with the Sun…’); Lecter encourages Dolarhyde to “become,” Reba meets a tiger, and in perhaps the single most important image of the series, Dolarhyde eats a painting (‘And the Woman Clothed in Sun’); “Save yourself, kill them all,” the attack on Will’s family, and the subsequent conversation between Will and Lecter (‘…And the Beast from the Sea’); Will wonders if Hannibal is in love with him, Chilton is captured, Hannibal eats a lip (‘The Number of the Beast is 666…’); the entire series finale, but especially the final confrontation, sexually charged murder, romantic embrace, and self-annhilation set to Siouxie Sioux’s “Love Crime” (‘The Wrath of the Lamb’).
Hannibal quotient: 10/10. This is as Hannibal as it gets, people.
Finally, the two most frustrating shows of 2015:
As we did on the old blog, David and I will no doubt once again review Game of Thrones when the show returns. At that point we’ll also throw up our previous reviews, where you’ll find many thousands of words where I complain about the show’s overall direction. Since you don’t have access to those yet, I hope you’ll indulge me a brief summary of why Game of Thrones was, for me, one of the most frustrating television experiences of 2015. I don’t think I really have to describe what this extremely popular adaption of G. R. R. Martin’s epic series of deconstructionist fantasy novels is about, right? But it’s important to note that I don’t call even this last season of Game of Thrones bad television. It’s a frustrating show because I know the heights of which it is capable–not just in past seasons, but in sequences like this year’s phenomenal last half of ‘Hardhome’, in which everything the show and its protagonists have been ignoring comes home to roost. I have three essential complaints. First, for a show that is in many ways about rape (and other forms of abuse endured by the powerless at the hands of the powerful), it is so often tone-deaf about portraying sex and sexual violence. This was particularly true in season five, which on the one hand let sexualization stand in for characterization when it came to the Sand Snakes in Dorne and on the other hand subjected us to Ramsay’s horrific rape of Sansa to little point. Even Cersei’s otherwise much deserved comeuppance felt sullied by the sexualized nature of her punishment. Second, Game of Thrones‘ glacial pacing is starting to get to me, with multiple plotlines this season feeling like underwritten filler or just plain underwritten–in the same span of time it takes Tyrion to make his way around the world and into the ruling class of Meereen, Arya barely learns or does anything under the tutelage of the Faceless Men. The simple fact is that they force their plotlines to fill 10 episodes, when many of them don’t or shouldn’t last that long. Adding insult to injury, although we did finally get a real scene with the White Walkers, the other major threat to the kingdom, Danaerys, is once more as far away from sailing to Westeros as she’s ever been. Finally, this was the season that really proved to me that Game of Thrones will probably never turn from its path of relentless grimness. Searching for hope at the end of the season, I found precious little, and the show continued to pull the only trick it knows–evil prospers and the good are compromised or killed (or compromised, then killed). The darker the show gets, the more I want some kind of upturn or catharsis, some indication that it is possible to improve this fucked-up world. I’ll keep watching–you can’t not, with the show as popular and influential as it is–but here’s hoping Game of Thrones finds a way to improve on these three fronts, especially now that they’ve overtaken Martin’s novels in the plot.
The other most frustrating television show of 2015 was Sense8, the Netflix collaboration between J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis. Once again, frustration is less a matter of quality than of potential. This weird, groundbreaking sci-fi show is really eight shows in one: a police procedural following Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), an LGBT-flavored Mexican soap opera following closeted movie star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Andre Silvestre), a hard-boiled action/crime drama following safecracker Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt), an indie film drama about DJ Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), a Bollywood romance about troubled bride-to-be Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai), a mostly light-hearted Nancy Drew-esque detective story featuring the mtf trans hacker Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a Korean action film about underground kickboxer Sun Bak (Doona Bae), and a gritty crime drama set in Kenya about bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen). At the start of the show, each of these eight are imbued with a powerful psychic connection to the rest, allowing them to experience each others’ senses and emotions and to talk to one another from around the world. That’s the essential draw of the show, and whenever Sense8 puts its characters together, it’s strange and new and glorious, from a shared song to an international orgy to the show’s action climax, where each “sensate” utilized their own special skills to infiltrate an enemy compound and rescue one of their own. The frustration I have with the show is that these sorts of connection scenes don’t happen nearly often enough–and without them, the show falters completely. Each of the eight shows I listed above tend to come off as underwritten, achingly slow-paced, and depressingly generic. I’ll probably watch season two in the hopes that after this introductory season the creators will feel able to spread their wings and embrace the sci-fi awesomeness at the core of the show, but if they don’t, Sense8 will go down as one the biggest wastes of potential in television history.
And now for the lists! Here are some shows that I’ve enjoyed but want to catch back up with:
- Penny Dreadful (I loved this show’s haunting, gorgeous, keenly felt first season)
- Orphan Black (even as its conspiracy plotlines became hopelessly snared, Tatiana Mazlany’s phenomenal performances make this a show worth returning to)
- Louie (there’s no rush with Louie; this show will be waiting in all its excellence whenever I find the time to take in the last season or two that I’ve missed)
- True Detective (I’ve grown a little warmer toward season one on a rewatch, so it might be time to check out the much less well received second story)
- Fargo (after a flawed but ambitious first season, this TV adaptation of the Coen Bros’ unique style has reportedly gotten even better in season two)
- Veep (hilarious, profane, and very well acted, this one just slipped off my radar somehow)
- Girls (this is a great show, but it’s often painfully close to home; now that it has an end date, I might as well steel myself for the binge)
And some shows I’ve haven’t seen but would like to get around to, someday:
- Show Me a Hero (David Simon always deserves my attention)
- Making a Murderer and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (two incredible true crime documentary shows in one year? dayenu!)
- The Knick (by all accounts, Steven Soderbergh should “retire” more often)
- Silicon Valley (I’ve heard great things about this Mike Judge “Office Space in the tech world” satire)
- Mr. Robot (I suppose I should get over my intense dislike of Christian Slater and give this a shot, given how much my fellow Kraken inhabitants like it)
- Halt and Catch Fire (even I’m curious to see how this period piece set in the early computer era decided to refocus between its first and second seasons)
That’s it for today’s final “Best Of”s for 2015. Go back and find any entries you may have missed, and come back next year for the “Best Of” 2016! Thanks for reading!