Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Best Shows of 2015-16 - Part One

Farewell, Transparent. I don't know if it was conversations with folks on social media that brought me around to the belief that this widely-praised show (which, in a decision that makes me cringe now, I placed at No. 5 on this list a year ago) rings fundamentally empty in most respects, or simply if season two was just so much worse at covering up that hollow, often offensive core. Either way, don't expect to see it anywhere on this year's version of my season-ending chronicle of the best in TV. As for fellow former top-five heavyweight The 100 . . . well, let's sum up what happened to this once-great series in two words: utter ruin. It joins The Good Wife in the illustrious hall of shame of shows that reached greatness, only to fall apart and (probably) never recover from a series of deeply horrible creative choices the following season. (Or maybe it will recover. I dunno. I haven't finished it, because final-semester-of-college obligations forced me to reduce my weekly viewing load a bit this spring. Suffice to say this show didn't merit inclusion in that group.)

The other major disappointment from this year's group of shows is the conspicuous absence of Jane the Virgin. Midway through the year, it seemed to have a spot all but sewn up, but the back half of the season has simply not been very good. Unlike The 100, it doesn't seem to be beyond salvaging (they haven't completely ruined two-thirds of the characters, for one thing), but it was kind of a rough year for The CW in general. (Two shows in the top 20 is still not too shabby, but early in the year it looked like several more were in play. And none ended up making the top 10.)

I could talk about the season's more pleasant surprises as well (of which there were many), but since a number of those shows are listed below, it's probably not worth hearing me sing their praises extensively here. Suffice to say they helped made it another great year in TV in spite of these various high-profile flops.

Part one after the jump (part two will post next week). Mild to moderate spoilers for some shows ahead:

Need to watch (or am super behind on): Portlandia, Carmilla, Happy Valley, Please Like Me, Mr. Robot, The Path, and at least a half-dozen premium cable shows.

Honorable mentions (in approximate order from most to least favorite): Adventure Time, iZombie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Archer, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Master of None, Review, Bob's Burgers, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

10. UnREAL

I really enjoyed UnREAL back when I saw it last summer, but it's only in the past few weeks that I've come to appreciate just how rock-solid this debut season was. At the time, I felt Lifetime's biting, deeply cynical behind-the-scenes portrait of a reality show didn't fully come into its own until midway through, and while that's still partially true, the ingredients (especially Shiri Appleby's lead performance, one of the best of the season) were, in retrospect, in place right from the start. What really makes UnREAL special from a storytelling perspective, though (similar to The 100 last year), is its utter refusal to back away from the horrible consequences of its main characters' decisions. As Rachel acknowledges in the superb finale (a brilliantly stuck landing in a year when several other noteworthy shows failed to close out good seasons on a high note), she, Quinn, and the people who worked with them crossed some unforgivable lines in their pursuit of quality TV. That concept, while hardly unique at this point, can still be gripping stuff, and this season certainly was a treat for those who like their television drama with a heavy helping of bitterness.

9. Manhattan 

And speaking of bitterness . . .

The first of three straight terrific second seasons of basic-cable dramas, Manhattan is also (*sobs*) the only one that will not get a chance to prove it can avoid the third-season pitfalls that have befallen many of its brethren. Its unscheduled departure is a bummer, because WGN America's stellar historical drama was, at its best, every bit as brilliantly committed to slow-burn paranoia and moral issues of conscience and national ideology as The Americans is. While in some respects this season was a slightly less consistent work than the show's first (early on, you could see the story gears straining in order to get everyone back in position following the events of season one's cliffhanger), it ended up being a deeply satisfying one, particularly during a superb second half that offered one dramatic payoff after another. The bravura pair of final episodes, which saw the title project finally reach the testing stage, mostly work as an ending, but it still would have been fascinating to see this story continue past that dubious historical milestone. Curse the cancellation gods for this one.

8. Halt and Catch Fire 

On the other hand, bless the cancellation gods for somehow keeping Halt and Catch Fire around despite its own terrible ratings (and relative lack of Mad Men-esque cultural significance). I finally caught up on the show in mid-April, and after a truly terrible start, it came into its own over the second half of season one. The much-praised season two, though, was on another level from the very beginning; nearly everything clicked, from the increased focus on Cameron and Donna and their attempts to grow their fledgling company without selling out, to the sometimes-wrenching story of Donna and Gordon's struggling marriage. Even Joe, the perpetual weak spot of the first season, was much-improved here as a man trying to transform himself into someone more positive. His fiancee, Sara, was unfortunately a rather vaguely-sketched in character who never functioned as much more than a symbol in that journey. As a result, their relationship never quite took flight the way everything else did, which in turn kept Halt ever so slightly below the level of several other AMC greats. But in most other aspects, it was tantalizingly close.

7. Better Call Saul 

Better Call Saul can still be an occasionally frustrating experience due to its bifurcation, particularly considering the fact that one part of the series (the part charting the ongoing stories of Jimmy, Kim, Chuck, and those orbiting them) is so clearly superior to the other (focusing on Mike and his various dealings in the criminal world). But no matter; it was still formally adventurous and superbly acted TV even in its most Breaking Bad-imitative moments. And when the show veered away from the world of drugs (as it thankfully did the majority of the time) to focus on storylines like Jimmy McGill's various acts of moral dubiousness and Kim Wexler's (season two MVP Rhea Seehorn) likely ill-advised decision to start a solo practice after leaving her firm, it soared into beautifully tragic territory unlike anything its parent series ever came up with. However much my interest in the other stuff waxed and waned over the course of the season, the quality of this material alone made BCS one of the very best dramas on TV.

6. My Mad Fat Diary 

Following a three-season run in Britain from 2013-15, My Mad Fat Diary arrived in the U.S. (via Hulu) this year with remarkably little fanfare. Considering its quality, that's a huge oversight. These 16 episodes are mostly magnificent, charting the lives of Rae (a 16-year-old girl who struggles with body image issues, self-harm, and depression), her friends, her mother, and her therapist through so many scenes of honestly-rendered angst, sorrow, and wit, as well as the best use of voiceover narration I've ever seen on a television series. My only major reservation is that the third season (though it delivers a strong series finale) undermines that honesty a bit, setting up a number of its conflicts by way of rushed plotting or poorly motivated character choices. But those first two seasons? Well, they're only pretty much the equal of Freaks and Geeks, otherwise known as the best teen drama of all time. This is moving, thoughtful, and meaningful TV, especially when (in the show's two best episodes, "Not I" and "Ladies and Gentlemen") it delves into the relationship between Rae and her best friend Chloe. So seek it out, if you haven't.

Comments? Do you know me well enough to pick my top five ahead of time?


  1. Greg I'm disappointed nothing in there made me angry what is wrong with you?

    1. I know my No. 1 show (I'm sure you know what it is) will annoy you, and isn't that what matters in the end?

  2. Meh, I'm more dismissive in regard to that show than I am annoyed by it, so no it's not.

    You have failed if you wanted to annoy someone with this.

    1. Yeah, I don't think you'll have a significant problem with anything else in the top five, so that's disappointing. Oh well.

    2. Booo.

      PS is it OK if on part 2 I share ~my~top 10?

  3. Awesome list, Greg! You reminded me of a few shows I need to catch up on and I am so psyched another American critic loves MMFD. Gotta go look up Carmilla now. Somehow I haven't heard of that one.

  4. Awesome list, Greg! You reminded me of a few shows I need to catch up on and I am so psyched another American critic loves MMFD. Gotta go look up Carmilla now. Somehow I haven't heard of that one.

    1. Thanks! It's a really good web series. Fun stuff. Their social media game is also on point. Great Twitter accounts from the perspectives of different characters.