Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Best Shows of the 2014-15 Season - Part Two

And here's part two, featuring my five favorite shows of the year. (If you missed part one, you can find it here.)

Spoilers after the jump:

 5. Transparent  

I feel like we don't talk enough about the influence Six Feet Under has had on TV. While plenty of recent dramas have taken The Sopranos' model (amoral protagonist, grim violence, etc.) and run with it, HBO's oft-forgotten gem seems to me as though it may end up having the more lasting influence, what with its focus on a screwed-up group of characters and how their interactions with each other cause them to evolve and (hopefully, though not always) grow over time. Our behavior, after all, has a profound effect on everyone around us, which is something that the story of the Fisher clan nailed time and time again. Plenty of shows since then have used that truth to great effect (including Mad Men and Rectify), but Transparent does so as effectively as any series I can recall. Like Six Feet Under, this is a show built around a group of individuals (the Pfefferman family and those in their immediate orbit) navigating relationships and questions of identity, and often struggling to overcome their own inertia. The characters' frequent inability to see past themselves can often make them infuriating, but the show never really judges them too harshly for it, instead recognizing that their faults are in some way or another shared by an awful lot of human beings. And even as it's exploring those faults in great detail, it allows every single character moments of warmth and connection that are sometimes unexpected but always feel fully earned once they've happened. On top of all that, it might just be the most visually intoxicating show on TV right now; outside of Rectify, no current series excels more at taking the ordinary, mundane world and making it into something new and immersive, often by zeroing in on small, specific details like a hand simply touching a face. I know the show has its detractors, but for me, there wasn't a more striking or confident debut to be found anywhere else on television this year.

4. The 100 

Yep, you read that right. Plenty of shows this season got more attention and acclaim, but very few had a better season than The 100's incredible second year. Much like Spartacus before it, the show seems destined to never quite catch on with either critics or with a wider audience, likely because of an inauspicious start on a less celebrated network. (Never mind that The CW actually has one the most solid lineups of dramatic programming to be found anywhere right now.) But those that love it tend to champion it as one of the best things on television right now, because . . . well, it's one of the best things on television right now. Following a promising but uneven debut season, season two picked up right where the previous finale left off, bringing the survivors on the Ark down to the ground and placing them in the midst of a struggle for survival between three competing groups. As this tense situation developed and shifted, the show's love of impossible moral dilemmas returned in force as well, with protagonist Clarke Griffin and others getting placed into one tight spot after another and having to make the best possible decision they could. Even the one major misstep this year—the immediate aftermath of Finn's massacre of a Grounder village—eventually got where it needed to go, ridding the show of its weakest character in the process and providing part of the impetus for the season's relentlessly intense back half. If I have one reservation about this season, it's that the finale left me a little bit nervous, venturing into denser mythological territory (reminiscent of both Lost and late-era BSG) that could very easily send The 100 flying off the rails in season three. We'll see. But regardless, this should stand as one of the most brilliantly realized and consistent years of a science-fiction drama in recent memory.

3. Mad Men 

As I sat down to compile this list, I found myself having the same debate with myself that I did last year. How far should I drop Mad Men because of one bad episode? For certain shows, a meandering, frustrating, and thoroughly inelegant episode like "New Business" would spell the end of any hopes of a top five finish. (Particularly when in this case that single episode made up close to 15% of the season.) Mad Men, though, is not most shows. So while I still have no clue what Matthew Weiner was thinking with regards to that misstep, at least he fulfilled the show's traditional "one lousy episode a season" quota early this year, giving the series more than enough time to get back into my good graces. Last season recovered beautifully from "The Runaways" with "The Strategy" and "Waterloo", but that was nothing compared to the five-episode stretch that wrapped up the show's final run. If "New Business" was Mad Men at its worst and most self-indulgent, there was none of that in the episodes that followed it: just a series of wise, visually eloquent, and beautifully acted scenes that stayed true to both character and era, while also paying homage to (and sometimes subverting, as "Time & Life" did especially well) the show's own history. The finale has been polarizing, both in terms of opinions on its quality and views of what we're supposed to take away from it. But for me it's a beautifully optimistic end—pretty much the anti-Sopranos in terms of tone, even as they share a deeply ambiguous final scene—that sees every one of its major characters at long last fully embracing who they are, celebrating all they have, and (seemingly) coming to some sort of happiness as a result. It's an ending that feels wholly in keeping with the sort of show Mad Men was; though it technically belongs to the antihero age, it never took as grim a view of people and the possibility of change as the likes of The Shield or The Wire did. Instead, it's remained its own distinct thing all these years, perched between the patterns of the past and the possibilities of the future. Plenty of others have read the final moments differently, but in them I see the show finally casting its lot with the future. And oh, what a wonderful thing that is to see.

2. Rectify

If I had to pick, I'd probably take Rectify's first season over its second, simply because there's a level of thematic density to those six episodes that the show's slightly longer sophomore campaign couldn't possibly hope to replicate. There's no shame in that (few shows can), and thankfully Ray McKinnon and company were smart enough not to try. Instead, they elected to expand what was already an extremely strong series of psychological portraits into a vision of deeply damaged souls attempting to find their way forward. Mirroring this intense focus on the interior is a subtle but pronounced shift towards a darker color palette. Sunlight is still present in copious amounts (this is Rectify, after all), but the back half of the season especially finds it encroached upon by constricting indoor spaces: among them the house Daniel and Trey visit in "Weird as You", Teddy and Tawney's home in "Until You're Blue", and the courthouse where the finale's shattering cliffhanger leaves us. This fine ensemble similarly rises to the task of giving even greater inner dimension to their characters; Clayne Crawford brings Teddy's internalized pain in the wake of Daniel's attack to haunting life, while Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens (among others) continue to imbue quiet gazes with more melancholy than I'd have thought possible prior to watching this show. And of course, there's Daniel Holden, played by Aden Young in a performance that grows in depth with each new episode: sometimes in ways that make your heart ache, and other times in ways that are deeply unsettling. That combination of deep emotion and uneasy tension informs the show as a whole as well, and I'm actually sort of glad season three will be back to only six episodes, because the experience of watching a longer season of Rectify was almost too overwhelming. The level of craft that went into it, though? Undeniable.

1. The Americans

At this point, The Americans is just running rings around everything else on TV, mixing a tight sense of thematic control with an ever-increasing sense of narrative daring to produce television that is simultaneously thrilling, devastating, and thought-provoking. Season three saw the show execute the two most jaw-dropping moments in its history, as the ongoing deceptions of Paige and Martha came to an end (though even now, neither knows the full extent of the truth), leaving the lives of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings in their most tenuous position to date. Meanwhile, the internal conflicts within various characters continued to percolate, with EST seminars proving fertile ground for some of the most emotionally and thematically complex material of the series to date. There are simply very few current shows doing more things than The Americans is right now; it's at once a masterful period piece, a thriller that knows just how to wring maximum suspense from every scene, and a layered, desperately sad examination of secrets, belief, conscience and the nature of free will. Once in a while that vast scope can lead to an episode feeling a bit scattered or overstuffed, but that strikes me more as a feature than a bug; it is, after all, in the very nature of Phillip and Elizabeth's lives for things to be overstuffed. The delicately balanced life they've spent over a decade building is constantly on the verge of imploding (more now than ever), and it often threatens to take the show along with it. But we're three seasons in now, otherwise known as the point when cable dramas either cement their status as legendary (Breaking Bad, The Wire) or start to show the strain of telling an ongoing story over many episodes (Boardwalk Empire, Justified, Homeland). After a season like this, it's pretty obvious which group The Americans falls into. It can't come back soon enough. 

1 comment:

  1. Your screenramblings are not ramblings at all.