Monday, June 4, 2018

Best Shows of 2017-18 — Part Two

Significant (but mostly in a very non-specific way) spoilers after the jump. And once again, thanks for reading:

5. Twin Peaks: The Return 

Twin Peaks not being at the top of this list will likely draw a sigh from the many folks who consider it the greatest gift to TV of this or any year. Alas, there's just a tad too much here that I found willfully alienating to make it a serious contender for the top spot. Perhaps if I saw what so many did in that eighth episode or those frequent non-sequitur ending scenes in the Roadhouse . . . but it is what it is. So let's focus on the positives here: The 90 percent of The Return that I liked was just about as good as anything on television in 2017-18, with a rhythm entirely its own— one that's distinct from the show's '90s incarnation. By that I mostly mean it's far, far weirder, with some of its most compelling passages playing out like David Lynch and Mark Frost channeling their inner silent comedy clown through Kyle MacLachlan's Dougie Jones. (MacLachlan's work as several different characters—ranging from cuddly to downright menacing—is among the best TV acting of the year, by the way.) But then it'll pivot on a dime to deliver moments of sheer horror with tremendous power and integrity, culminating in a three-episode closing stretch that ties back into the events of both Fire Walk with Me and the original Twin Peaks finale in frightening, shattering ways. Whatever my feelings about the show's many tangents and asides (and here I should probably note that I liked my fair share of them, none more so than Wally Brando), the larger feelings its main arc brought out in me have lingered for months. That's worthy of respect—and a top-five ranking.

4. Alias Grace

Sarah Polley's fascination with unreliable narration, last seen in her documentary Stories We Tell, manifests itself again in her work adapting Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace for the screen. The context is far different, however—in Stories it's handled with a certain self-reflexive wit, with Polley even acknowledging her own inherent unreliability as the documentarian. And while there is still a playfulness to some of the lines Grace speaks to Dr. Jordan and others, on the whole Alias Grace—a story of murder, patriarchy, and class stratification, among other things—is a far angrier work that even in its many moments of wit condemns a society that attempts to fit her into a particular box, even as the writing shies away from any sort of heavy-handedness. Not that Alias Grace's brilliance is all Polley's and Atwood's doing; it's strongly directed by Mary Harron and well acted across the board, with Sarah Gadon's work in particular strengthening the story's underlying ideas of selfhood and agency in an oppressive world. Through knowingly delivered voiceover, measured glances, and vocal cadences that all suggest layers of unexpressed thought (some hidden from the other characters but some concealed from the viewers, too), she never lets us lose sight of how Grace is always the smartest person in the room, trying to carve out space to tell her own story while also rebelling—in what ways she can—against those who would presume to tell it for her. Building to several bold narrative brushstrokes in its final episode and confidently navigating all of them, it's among the finest examples of the miniseries form in ages.

3. Halt and Catch Fire

I wrote about Halt and Catch Fire's gorgeous final season back when it ended last fall, praising how it painstakingly guides its characters to a renewed (and hopefully wiser) sense of openness and connection. In some respects it's a mirror image of the previous year, which used detailed character work and eloquently developed emotional fissures to build to a series of huge schisms between the show's core protagonists down the stretch. This one takes a similar tack with the aftermath of those divisions, allowing the passage of time to do its thing but playing fair when it comes to the most seemingly irreparable relationships on the show, such as the Donna/Cameron partnership. Then, haltingly at first (no pun intended), it makes gestures toward repair, brought on by both its characters' internal dimensions—witness Kerry Bishe's greatness, playing this newly aloof and colder version of herself while also showing us the layers of vulnerability that still exist underneath the steeliness—and the intrusions of the outside world bringing these people into one another's emotional orbits once again in spite of themselves. There's death. There's reconciliation. There's a romantic drifting apart that's handled with wistful perfection—sad but also a reflection of where the two characters in question are at in their lives. And it's all handled with the same level of thematic delicacy and spaciousness that Halt became known for in the second half of its run. The show's overall standing in the 2010s drama pantheon (factoring in the relative weakness of its first season) could be an interesting topic for end-of-decade discussions; the quality of this magnificent endgame is a much more straightforward one. It's sublime.

2. Atlanta

For someone who did basically like the show from the start, I was on the low end of the Atlanta praise last season, finding it a compelling, often very funny, but inconsistent combination of the inspired ("Juneteenth," "The Club," etc.) and the occasional less-than-great episode. Whether you're with me on that assessment or not, I suspect we'd agree that Atlanta: Robbin' Season is a leap forward and pretty much all inspiration—a dazzling piece of work that does so much in its 11 installments. The show's season-long examination of the idea of theft is a superb spine to build a set of episodes around, allowing said episodes to branch off into themes of racism, capitalism, fame, family, and more while still tying back into a cohesive vision. Bizarre, sometimes almost absurdist touches abound, but even at their strangest those moments tend to recall a reality that's not too different, sometimes via direct reference (the season premiere's take on "Florida Man," for instance) and other times through a more sidelong echoing that can twist suddenly into outright horror. It adds up to a portrayal of 21st century America that's bleak but also relentlessly, uproariously funny—the aforementioned moments of pointed weirdness being just one of the show's many tools, as it proves equally adept at the sorts of unexpected punchlines, deadpan humor, and comic characterization (from Darius's always-hilarious philosophizing to Paper Boi's reactions in "Barbershop") that it fine-tuned over the course of that initial season. Tone, rhythm, visual style, you name it—every week Robbin' Season seemed to bring something different to the table, and every week it coalesced into something that ranged from extraordinary to (on just a few occasions) merely excellent. Similar to last year's top two picks, chalk up its second-place ranking here to what was essentially a coin flip.

1. The Americans 

And I won't lie, perhaps there's a bit of sentiment involved in this decision too, given my well-known love for The Americans. But if anything that may have made the task it faced all the more difficult—this is a show that has put such care into every element, with years of text and subtext making us feel as though we know these characters on a deeper level than most. With this level of intricacy comes the risk that any misstep would be magnified; I had a strong feeling of trepidation about Philip's decision at the end of "Dead Hand," for instance, initially thinking that it reeked of writerly convenience in a way The Americans has almost always taken great pains to avoid. I needn't have worried, because the show would revisit and expand upon that particular choice in ways that proved as near-perfect as anything in its history. If there are any quibbles with the season (and you can find some with almost anything . . . in this case I'd point to the lighting of the warehouse scene in "Mr. and Mrs. Teacup" as a rare aesthetic blunder), none of them have to do with the final narrative swings it takes, which are all supported by the layers of emotional detail the writers have built over the course of the series. In that regard, these final episodes also make an even stronger case for season five, which I loved plenty (more than many people, I think) but now feel I wildly underrated; its musings on identity and the concept of home dovetail beautifully into season six, which reflects on what it truly means to sacrifice those things. As Stevie Nicks' lyrics in "Gold Dust Woman" ask during the season premiere: "Well did she make you cry, make you break down / Shatter your illusions of love? / And is it over now / Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?" By the time this story has reached its masterful final chapter, we've been given an answer that's both emotionally potent and arrived at with the utmost grace.

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