Friday, October 20, 2017

All Shows Ranked - Post-"Halt and Catch Fire" Edition

So I promised one of my Twitter friends that I'd post the latest iteration of this exercise—which I haven't done in years—so she could make fun of it, but you're all welcome to join in the fun, too. (This *should* be every show I've ever watched from beginning to end. So no Simpsons, Good Wife, or U.S. Office, among others. And no Lone Star, 'cause how can you judge a show based on just two episodes? But it could've been something, dammit.)

The full list after the jump:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Music Review - Big Thief Live in Madison

"We're gonna play for three hours," Adrianne Lenker announced as Big Thief took the stage at the High Noon Saloon last Monday night. She sounded almost apologetic about it, informing us we were free to leave before the end without feeling bad. As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, a few folks even took her up on it—perhaps people who had Fourth of July events the next day to attend, or else more casual Big Thief fans for whom nearly 40 songs was a little too much of a good thing. The vast majority stayed, though, likely aware that they were witnessing a gig that will go down in hushed tones—among the few hundred who saw it, at least—as something downright legendary. The Cure and Springsteen-type artists aside, the only real antecedent I can recall off the top of my head (though I'm sure there are others) is that one time when Screaming Females played their first four albums in a row in a New Brunswick basement.

Big Thief's own marathon show was not nearly so orderly as all that—something Lenker drew attention to at one point, noting a total unfamiliarity with the ins and outs of putting together a Springsteen-esque setlist. She and her bandmates also had to contend with the fact that Big Thief as a project is only a couple of years old, with a mere two albums under their belt thus far. The fact that those albums are both stacked front-to-back with classic songs doesn't hurt, of course, and they formed the main foundation of the evening's music. Incendiary takes on Masterpiece gems "Real Love" and "Humans," two of the most aggressive tracks in the band's catalogue, were high points that drew fervent rounds of applause for both Lenker's and Buck Meek's extended guitar work. The songs from follow-up album Capacity, a slightly quieter, more atmospheric affair of a record on balance ("Shark Smile" and the title track aside), didn't have the same sort of knockdown effect, but they nevertheless sounded rich and full live, from the shimmering country rock of "Black Diamonds" to Lenker's elegantly finger-picked rendition of "Pretty Words." Performances like these suggested that, on any normal night, Big Thief is likely to be one of the best live bands around.

This night, though, they approached transcendence as they repeatedly took multi-song excursions into newer and older material alike. The latter—many drawn, as I would find out later in the set, from the albums Lenker and Meek recorded prior to forming Big Thief—tended toward a lighter, more wistful sensibility while still retaining a gift for surprising, emotionally complex turns of phrase. A tune called "Angels" in particular is an absolute stunner, and a song I'm glad exists in a studio version, allowing it to further insinuate itself into my head over the past few days. I doubt any of these will become concert staples at any point in the future; there are simply too many great, well known songs recorded under the Big Thief moniker. So it was a treat to see them dusted off for this rare occasion, and to witness the ways in which Lenker has developed as a songwriter in such a short time.

The new cuts—though I could not tell you most of their names at this point, aside from "Orange" and "Shoulders," which have been available to hear on NPR Music's YouTube channel for some time now—provided even more proof of that. One early song was (along with Capacity's "Haley" and Masterpiece's "Lorraine") among the most straightforward, sweetly country-sounding tracks Lenker has written to date, built around a gorgeously loping refrain about dreaming. Others had a sense of edge and menace more characteristic of the first half of Capacity, with a number of references to jealousy and violence creeping into the picture. Few modern bands do variations in subject matter, tone, and musical timbre quite so well, and let's just say they show no signs of losing that ability any time in the near future. Their third record, whenever it arrives, already seems all but certain to continue their streak of top-10 quality album releases.

As the evening wore on, the odd, seemingly off-the-cuff nature of the setlist continued to be apparent. Rather than saving "Masterpiece" for the very end, the band delivered a raucous rendition of their signature track before diving into a few more deep cuts, plus a cover for good measure. Placing "Mother," a beautiful non-album song whose chorus must be at the very top of Lenker's vocal range, near the end of a such a lengthy set made for some endearingly awkward moments on stage as she attempted to wrap her somewhat tired voice around the notes. After a couple stumbles, she did, performing the rest of the song flawlessly. Another new song and a stirring rendition of Capacity lead single "Mythological Beauty" followed, and with that, the night's magnificent, zig-zagging journey through Big Thief's songbook had finally reached its end. And Madison, Wisconsin, a place already responsible for one of my favorite concert memories, had just given me another one to treasure for a long, long time.

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.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Best Shows of 2016-17 - Part One

The top-five curse . . . it is real, and it is terrible. My beloved Sense8 (No. 4 last year) not only suffered the misfortune of a tumble all the way off this year's list—territory well traveled by so many others in past seasons—but an infuriating cancellation that denies it the chance to earn its way back into my good graces. I should note that I don't think the show's sophomore campaign was as dismal as that of most of its previously cursed brethren (it's got nothing on The Good Wife or what I saw of last season of The 100, that's for sure), but it was an uneven and dramatically awkward enough year that you won't see it anywhere below. Still, rest in peace, beautiful Sense8. And watch part two of this list on Thursday for a couple of early contenders to underwhelm in 2017-18, if tradition holds.

As for this year's group of shows, suffice to say it's the most wide-open field I can recall seeing in some time. The top spot (a foregone conclusion by mid-March almost every year I've done this exercise) remained up in the air to the bitter end thanks to several late contenders, as did where the final few shows on either side of the cut line would end up. (Some were victims of timing: I suspect iZombie would make it if it had started a few weeks earlier, considering how strongly it tends to end its seasons. Likewise, Steven Universe possibly misses the cut for the first time in its history if it doesn't air that superb quartet of episodes at the very end of May.) It's by far the most fun I've ever had arguing internally about where to place each show, so I hope you enjoy, and comments are always welcome. (Praise is good, but I also feed off indignant "where's [insert title of show]??!!" comments, so whatever floats your boat.)

Speaking of which, here's a partial list of omissions that may answer that very question. As usual, I'm behind on every premium cable series (with the exception of The Leftovers), including possible heavy-hitters like the new Twin Peaks and Insecure. I also haven't watched Queen Sugar, Feud, Baskets, Riverdale, Underground, and the new Archer season, though in many cases this is because I doubt those shows would even come close to making the cut. (Of that group, the only one I genuinely regret missing out on is Queen Sugar.) I've also only seen half of The Good Fight, which I'm enjoying but wouldn't make it anywhere near this list. Lastly, I'm significantly behind on Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but both of them are no longer doing as much for me, so they too would likely not have factored into this. That doesn't come close to covering everything, but it should address many of the most obvious queries.

Now, on to the list-making proceedings, shall we?

Honorable Mentions

Adventure Time (The show's late-era resurgence continues, including a pair of excellent miniseries and quite a few other great episodes. It's never quite reached the consistent peaks it did back in its fourth and fifth seasons, but still . . . happy news indeed.)

Atlanta (Suspect the second season of this will end up being an all-time classic. First season is very strong but not quite top-10 material for me. Some terrific individual episodes, though, and Darius is an instant legend.)

Better Call Saul (With the addition of Gus, the gulf between the Breaking Bad-lite side of this show and the far superior Jimmy/Kim/Chuck drama has never been wider. Still a really good show overall, and it has gotten its groove back in recent weeks. But man, some of those early-season episodes were a slog in spots. Last year struck a better balance.)

Bob's Burgers (Still one of TV's most consistent joys six years in. I'm way behind as of writing this, but for my money, this season may end up as its best since season three.)

Black Mirror (Mainly because "San Junipero" is one of the seven wonders of the television world. "Hated in the Nation" is pretty swell, too.)

Catastrophe (Far defter in combining its caustic banter with moments of genuine drama than season two was, though nothing about it really screams "serious top-10 contender" to me anymore.)

iZombie (No third-season slump here. Still probably the wittiest dialogue on TV, as well as the most enjoyable, well utilized rogues' gallery of villains of any show since Justified. Would likely be my No. 11 pick if I didn't respect the sanctity of the top 10.)

Master of None (Another year, another pretty stellar season of Master of None that had just enough flaws in its long-term storytelling—and another iffy enough ending—to barely miss the cut.)

Sports (This season of Sports was as reliably wonderful as ever. I mean, who can deny such stellar scenes as The Pass? Or the shot that ended The Streak? Or the amazing softball regional comeback made by my alma mater, giving them a chance to defend their title starting tonight?  Riveting. Just riveting.)

You're the Worst (A scattered and uneven effort compared to season two—and season one, for that matter—but FX's twisted yet sincere rom-com delivered its fair share of marvelous episodes once it shook off some early-season cobwebs.)

Moderate (mostly vague) spoilers below. 

10. Sweet/Vicious 

Jeez, what a magnificent tonal hybrid of a show. Sweet/Vicious, MTV's college vigilante drama, came out of the gate stronger and more confident than any hour-long in ages, masterfully blending scenes of high-wire tension, crackling good dialogue, righteous beatdowns delivered to rapists, and powerful character drama—much of this last aspect anchored by Eliza Bennett, who gave one of the best TV performances of the year. Save for some slight pacing issues toward the end of the season, it's a superb study in how to craft a show for both short-term dramatic success and an eye toward long-term potential, offering riveting payoffs to several of its ongoing narrative threads while smartly leaving others dangling for the future. Alas, this future will likely never arrive, unless the attempts to find the series a new home prove to be successful (which I doubt). This cancellation stings more than anything in recent memory—even Manhattan last year didn't hurt quite as much, because that season at least felt on some level like a logical place for the show to end. Sweet/Vicious' finale isn't entirely inadequate as a series ender, but at the same time, it's incredibly frustrating how a number of its simmering storylines won't ever get the chance to boil over. Between the show's dark wit, sharply drawn characters, and the adept way it handled its serious themes, it had all the makings of something that probably could have grown into a cult hit with a little more time. Ah well.

9. Please Like Me 

Despite the statement from creator Josh Thomas to the contrary, Please Like Me's final season doesn't really work as an ending when all is said and done. While this is the type of show that was likely always going to leave its characters in some state of flux, its series finale feels rushed, awkward, and unfinished in a way that still doesn't quite sit right with me many months later. The good news is that this reservation—and the fact that Please Like Me is the kind of hangout comedy that benefits from the greater degree of breathing room afforded by its previous two seasons' 10-episode runs, rather than this year's mere six installments—is far from enough to mar this otherwise great stretch run. There's just no denying the reliable excellence of this show, and each of those six episodes (even that finale, whatever its other issues) is terrific as an individual testament to that fact. So while this is a series that really deserves some sort of special down the road to allow us to say a more proper goodbye, the imperfectly realized farewell we've been offered here—filled with plenty of Please Like Me's typical warmth, belly laughs, and lived-in characters and dialogue, as well as several moments that emotionally wound with an honesty that few other TV sitcoms can equal—is still more than worthy of a place here. This show was a gift and a gem, and I'll miss it terribly.

8. Steven Universe 

Well, here's to leaving a terrific final impression with your last couple episodes of the year. To my eyes, this season of Steven Universe has gone through more dramatic fluctuations in quality than previous ones, and the general flatness of the post-"Last One Out of Beach City" run had been causing it to spiral precariously toward the cut line as of late. But suffice to say the most recent arc—the one-two punch of "Off Colors" and "Lars' Head" in particular—reverses that trend in a huge way, offering the first genuinely massive shifts to the show's universe in some time while also finally giving one of its iffier creations (Lars) his best character development ever. It's exhilarating TV that in turn got me thinking about just how much other great material there was in the previous 12 months: Pearl's song in "Mr. Greg," the events of "Beta" and "Earthlings," Peridot doing her best Wile E. Coyote impression, and so much more. True, when Steven Universe was off its game this season, it tended to be off for several episodes at a time, which is something I'm not used to seeing from a series that's typically been a model of consistency. But as the recent struggles of quite a few other densely-packed genre shows illustrate, even in a slightly down season, this one remains light-years ahead of almost all of them when it comes to crafting lovable characters and a well thought-out, patiently built mythology. It remains, in short, pretty much the best.

7. The Good Place 

And speaking of the power of great final impressions, here's another example. Prior to its concluding episode, The Good Place seemed like it was firmly setting up camp in the also-rans for 2016-17—a promising, very funny show that brought plenty of laughs but didn't always quite know what to do philosophically with its high-concept premise, seeming almost destined to deliver Parks and Rec-style diminishing returns sooner rather than later. And who knows? It may still do exactly that. But in the meantime, the show's first-season finale is a remarkable piece of television, brilliantly executing an ingenious, obvious-only-in-retrospect twist—a moment I might go so far as to call the single most well-crafted "holy crap" scene in recent TV history outside of a few key sections of The Americans—that completely upends everything I thought this show could be, while seemingly paving the way for a second season that could prove fascinating and even more ambitious. With that season-elevating ending in mind, and buoyed by the overall strength of its jokes and characters (plus bravura turns from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell), The Good Place ended up as one of the best comedy series debuts I've seen in a long while, as well as my favorite new show of the year by a fair margin.

6. The Americans 

Consider this your (slight) shocker of the year. It's not that The Americans really did anything wrong this year—well, aside from that godawful grain montage, which I won't go over again here—but rather that season five felt significantly more muted and reserved than I've come to expect from this series. I'm not objecting to the pace here; The Americans has long been one of the most elegant slow-burn dramas in TV history, and its patience is part of why I love it. But the slow burn has always had an accompanying emotional urgency that wasn't always sustained quite as well as I'd have liked this time around. While the season does build beautifully to a pair of profound emotional crises for Philip and Elizabeth (one at the end of season high point "Dyatkovo" and the other in the finale), it's still hard to escape the feeling it stretched itself thinner than it needed to in order to get there. Just to be crystal clear here: I respect the creative decision-making that led to such a season, and on the whole I still loved most of what The Americans did this year, especially the choice to end on that moment of uneasy mutual contemplation rather than a more obvious cliffhanger for the final season. (Really, the entire ending stretch from "Darkroom" onward was brilliant and brought most of the many, many threads into sharper thematic focus.) This is an extraordinary series that had a season that was still plenty excellent. No shame in that. But for the first time in ages, its ironclad grip on that No. 1 spot relaxed, leaving its competitors with a rare opportunity to be seized.

Which of them did so? Check back Thursday for part two. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017