Thursday, May 31, 2018

Best Shows of 2017-18 — Part One

First, a quick announcement: This may be the last year I'll be doing this sort of season-ending post, at least in this format. The reason is that I'm taking a step back in general (not that I've been doing that much of it to begin with lately) from writing pop culture commentary. As much as I genuinely love doing it, I've come to the conclusion that I prefer to spend the limited free time I have (thanks, capitalism) watching more things instead of writing about them, especially since said I don't really see any way said writing leads me to a sustainable living.

It's entirely possible this feeling won't last, and I could end up right back here next year doing more of the same. If not I'm sure I'll do an abridged version of it of some kind on Twitter. As for movie writing, I'm sure I'll still occasionally have things to say on Letterboxd about particular films, and I do plan on continuing my annual horror movie marathons over there in some shape or form, too.

I'm not calling this the end of the blog or anything, because I truly don't know. But that's where things are going at the moment. So thanks to everyone who's read stuff over the years—especially you, Jose, if you happen to be reading this. Your comments on a lot of my early writing meant the world to me.

Read on for part one (with mild spoilers... next week's top five may have a few somewhat more significant ones) after the jump:

Not really a super inspiring group of honorable mentions this year, so I'm mostly skipping that. Steven Universe and Adventure Time were probably No. 11 and 12 in that order, followed by the latest season of LeBron James Doing Amazing Basketball Things. Other than that, nothing else I saw was even close to making the cut. (Cue the obligatory disclaimer: This did not include the likes of Barry, Vida, Westworld, The Magicians, The Expanse, and Counterpart, all of which I know have their champions and would like to get to at some point.)

Anyway, on to the main event:

10. Black Mirror

After an initial Netflix season that was significantly more uneven than the show's previous output, Black Mirror's second six-episode excursion on the streaming service proved far stronger across the board. Outside of the tepid unintentional self-parody of "Crocodile," even the weaker episodes this year at least had something to recommend, be it great acting or a memorable late twist. Still, a Black Mirror season is ultimately defined by its highs, and this season offers plenty. "USS Callister" has been seen by most as one the show's defining hours to date, and I won't put up much of a fight there; it's a thrilling, tense escape saga that sees Charlie Brooker continuing to explore the broader tonal palette "San Junipero" hinted at last year. "Hang the DJ," Brooker's tech-infused spin on the rom-com, is also a less somber affair than usual, though there's also a slight edge to its otherwise playful tone that's highly agreeable. And last but certainly not least there's "Metalhead," an hour that has a been among the show's most divisive but one that I've already raved about as one of the single scariest hours of TV I've ever seen. Granted, the technological concepts may no longer be as fresh; just about every episode this season borrows in some way from previous installments. But as long as the show is still twisting those concepts into the kinds of varied, satisfying genre configurations it did this year (i.e. delivering more "Callisters" than "Crocodiles"), who's complaining?

9. Jane the Virgin 

Yay, Jane the Virgin is great again! After an long stretch where the show seemed to be running on fumes (to the point where I did consider abandoning it at one point), season four represents the continued righting of the ship that began with the time jump in the middle of the third season. That moment was the show finally deciding to start taking chances again, and it also served as a jolt of narrative energy, giving every character and storyline a renewed spark that continued for the entirety of this year. There were still a few problems (Rafael's brief turn to the dark side early in the season was a mess, for instance), but on the whole this is the best full season of JtV since its first. Both the comedy and drama landed more consistently than they have in ages, characters who'd begun to grate on me became mostly lovable again, and the characters who I still liked even during the weaker stretches (OK, mostly just Petra) got some of their best moments in the history of the series. The final handful of episodes in particular achieve the sort of harmony between the many different storytelling modes and tones of Jane the Virgin—serious, funny, grounded, soapy, etc.—that it has only infrequently managed to sustain for an extended period following that initial, near-perfect season. Here's hoping whatever endgame Jennie Snyder Urman has in mind for next year is equally good, because it's been an absolute joy to fall back in love recently.

8. One Day at a Time 

I caught up with One Day at a Time's first season too late for last year's top 10, but it probably would have been on there at right around this same spot had I seen it in time. Season two isn't much better or worse—the show's throwback atmosphere once again has both a ton of charm and a few weaknesses, but on balance it remains a delight of a series with a great understanding of how to use its multi-camera aesthetic to construct and pay off jokes. Of course, it helps when you've got a cast this good. Two seasons in, and everyone on One Day at a Time has established both a distinct persona and a dizzying variety of comic bits of business stemming from it. (My personal favorite: Justina Machado's brilliant collection of funny stares.) The show's writers are aware of all of it, skillfully combining their actors' comedic talents in a variety of scenarios in a way that makes the jokes sing all the more. If there's a flaw in the series it lies not with its humor but with its more serious side, where it's still solid but will occasionally try to address a given topic in a way that I don't find 100 percent satisfying. But no matter—the heart of One Day at a Time lies is its family scenes, which are believable and warm in addition to being flat-out hilarious. It's tremendous sitcom comfort food.

7. Bob's Burgers 

Speaking of sitcom comfort food: I've probably taken Bob's Burgers way too much for granted over the years, spoiled as I've been by the prevalence of shows that take bigger swings on a regular basis and routinely connect. At this point the show is surely TV's foremost sitcom institution; it feels like it's always been there, delivering laughs and moments of sincere emotion with a consistency unrivaled by any current comedy that's aired this many episodes. Sure, Bob's is probably never going to top that run of brilliance in season three—one of the all-time funniest 21st century sitcom seasons—but this is a season that still gave us so much, including Nat the limo driver, the absurd comic heights of the Belcher siblings' search for the hidden ceramics room, and yet another first-rate set of holiday episodes. (The latest Christmas installment may have been the best to date, in fact.) The people who make this show have quite simply honed their craft to near-perfection, resulting in a series that's comforting but almost never stale, thanks to the well-defined personalities around which its sturdy sitcom plots and gags revolve. No other show—not even the two immediately before it on this list—so routinely puts me in a good mood, even on the rare occasions it doesn't make me laugh much.

6. American Vandal

Almost every conversation I've seen or had about American Vandal has at some point featured one or more of the participants uttering some variation of the following statement: "I did not expect to become so emotionally invested in figuring out who drew the dicks." Tell anyone the show's central premise (parodying the recent uptick in true-crime TV), and they'll probably chuckle and concede that it could carry a comedy series. And indeed, Vandal is tremendous just as a straight-up spoof, particularly in its first half, when it elicits plenty of laughs from its unblinking, deadpan seriousness as its characters investigate a case that would not seem to merit this much attention. As the show goes on, though, the human stakes also start to shine through, and the (perhaps) unjustly accused vandal Dylan Maxwell goes from slacker archetype to a figure of actual nuance and pathos, while the show itself offers some genuinely withering criticisms of institutional power and those that wield it. All of which leads to that incredible moment when you start watching a scene in which several characters reconstruct the location of a spray paint can during a party, enjoying it for its sheer cleverness at first, only to realize by the end that you've been holding your breath the whole time. From there it's not too much of a leap to say that this silly-sounding show—not that there's anything wrong with silliness, mind you—has become one of TV's most sincere and surprisingly ambitious half hours, too.

Part two next week! 

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