Thursday, June 8, 2017

Best Shows of 2016-17 - Part Two

Moderate spoilers for shows No. 5 and 4. Some significant spoilers for Nos. 3-1. 

5. Rectify 

On some level, Rectify ends as it began—with a series of aesthetically exhilarating episodes that seem endlessly fussed over in order to deliver more meaning (and tears) per second than perhaps any other drama in history. In other respects, though, it's daring storytelling even by this show's standards, committing to the decision to keep Daniel apart from his family for the majority of the season and never looking back. This proves to be a fruitful narrative choice, even if a few of the storylines that resulted—Daniel's relationship with Chloe and Tawney's solo excursion to Zeke's home are two that immediately spring to mind—didn't quite hit the same thematic heights for me as the previous three seasons. So if you're looking for a reason why Rectify is ever-so-slightly lower this season than in previous years, that's my rather nitpicky explanation. (Well, that and how brilliant the shows ranked above it were.) But make no mistake: This is still a terrific final season, and even these few "weak" passages offer numerous opportunities to savor the many qualities that make Rectify so sublime: dialogue that, by locating its own unmistakable timbre between poetry and plain speech, offers turns of phrase unlike anything else on TV; visuals so breathtaking they'll make you melt time and time again; and performances that do the same while also conveying every moment of hard-won emotional clarity packed into these eight scripts. It's not the best ending of the year (see below), but it is a great one, and it cements this show as one of the most moving pieces of fiction to ever grace this Earth. I don't think that's an exaggeration in the slightest.

4. BoJack Horseman 

It took some time, but after two seasons in which I admired individual episodes far more than the whole, I'm happy to report I am fully on board the BoJack Horseman train as of this year. Even factoring in yet another so-so finale (something that's getting to be an unfortunate pattern with this show), this is a frequently jaw-dropping season of television comedy—formally adventurous, rich in theme, and much, much more consistently funny than the first two. For me, BoJack has always tended to be a show of halves, offering passable amusement for a while each year but only ever consistently coming alive once its traditional late-season heartbreak commences in earnest. That trend ended in a major way this year. with the season's two finest moments—the nearly dialogue-free marvel "Fish Out of Water" and the razor-sharp, hilarious take on abortion "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew"—both arriving before the midway point. This isn't to say the aforementioned heartbreak is any less overwhelming this time around; indeed, it may have been more powerful than ever before, culminating in three terrific episodes in a row, each of which is simultaneously extremely funny and features its own distinct emotional gut punch of an ending. Much like You're the Worst last year, this is marvelous comedic storytelling on every level (episodic, seasonal, and scene to scene), featuring some of the most thoughtful character writing on TV to go along with its stellar collection of searingly funny dialogue, great visual jokes, and always strong pun game.

3. Halt and Catch Fire 

In its incredible third season, Halt and Catch Fire found a way to meld the greater sense of narrative spryness it discovered midway through season one with moments of downright graceful interiority. At this point, it's become one of the greatest shows about both the thrill of connection—with ideas, with people, and simply with the world in general—and the devastation that can result if these connections turn sour. After starting out almost as broad parodies of cable-drama archetypes, Donna, Cameron, Gordon, and, yes, even Joe have been transformed into complex beings whose emotional needs and creative ambitions constantly drive the show's action to logical, compelling places. The result is some of the year's most emotionally-charged setpieces (the collapse of Donna and Cameron's partnership being the most obvious), but also numerous equally great scenes of moodier reflection that—unlike many of the show's stumbling early attempts at such moments—have a far greater sense of lyricism and emotional honesty this time around. (That the directing has grown in leaps and bounds from season to season doesn't hurt matters, either.) Season two was amazing in its own right, of course—momentum-filled and incredibly entertaining. But this year just digs deeper in so many ways, cutting in often transcendent fashion to the core of who these people are and their complicated dynamics with one another. It represents the last step in Halt's remarkable—in more ways than one, given the ratings—transformation into one of TV's most essential shows. Pity we only get one more season to witness it at the full height of its powers.

2. Review 

The three-episode final season of Review is a perfect closing stretch, holding absolutely nothing back in its assessment of the life Forrest MacNeil has lived (and reviewed), and whether there's any possibility of salvation for him. The penultimate half-hour's brilliant "Co-Host" segment sees him swap roles with co-host A.J. Gibbs—an opportunity the show uses to interrogate the self-imposed hollowness of Forrest's worldview via A.J. simply refusing to do the review she's assigned. As she cheerfully recounts the internal debate that led to her decision to not slap the posterior of a complete stranger simply for the sake of reviewing it, Forrest is horrified but stymied as to how to respond to this affront to his work. Because Forrest is Forrest, what could be a revelatory moment instead becomes another opportunity for him to double down on his commitment to the show, which he does with a haughty sense of superiority. And because Review is Review, the cruelly brilliant finale presents him with another way out in spite of everything he's done, courtesy of his ex-wife Suzanne, who asks him to review "not reviewing anything ever again" in a last-ditch attempt to save him. His use of the veto power in this moment is played (as many other scenes on this show have been) as an instance of painful drama far more than comedy. The chortles arrive a few moments later, when we witness the final iteration of the hell Forrest has consigned himself to for good—his show canceled, while he carries on unperturbed in the belief that it's an elaborate prank he's meant to review. At that point, all you can do is laugh and tip your cap to the sinister genius of it all.

1. The Leftovers

Of the three great final seasons to air in 2016-17, The Leftovers splits the difference between the classical rigor of Review and the long, gently billowing epilogue of Rectify. The result is one of the most satisfying drama endings in TV history—the best, I might say, since The Shield. A case could even be made that it's superior, considering its utter mastery of different moods in one brilliant hour after another, many of which seem to sum up the journey a particular character has taken with the utmost eloquence. Perhaps even more impressive, though, are the thematic cohesion and narrative momentum maintained between such distinctive episodes as, say, Kevin Sr.'s After Hours-infused Outback sojourn and "Certified's" heartstring-tugging portrait of Laurie, the show's resident skeptic. The two installments really couldn't seem any more different, but they feel of a piece because of how The Leftovers treats its characters' quests to find meaning in the universe (and their own lives) as something that's both deeply absurd and worthy of being treated with complete sincerity and seriousness.

To me, it's a show that's ultimately about stumbling around in the dark, trying to make peace with the unknowable aspects of life without losing sight of what's solidly in front of your eyes—among them all the other people who are stumbling in similar ways. And the gorgeous finale leans on that idea, focusing its attention on Nora—the person who's arguably been more broken by that cosmic event of seven years ago than anyone else—as she reconnects with Kevin following her apparent trip to the realm of the vanished 2 percent. Whether you believe her story or not (I'm inclined to, for the record), the scene works as an acknowledgment of irrevocable loss that also points toward a future for these two deeply scarred people—one in which, at long last, it appears they can let the mystery be. The bittersweet counterpoint to Forrest MacNeil's stubborn inability to escape his nightmare on Review, this is a final episode whose fundamental belief in people feels just painstakingly earned over the course of three (mostly) remarkable The Leftovers seasons. Both payoffs are of course dazzling, and it was truly the toughest of calls between these two great final stretches for the top spot this year. But I dunno . . . I guess I felt like letting a little hope win out this time, all other things being equal.

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