Monday, June 10, 2019

Best TV Shows of 2018-19 - Part Two

Some spoilers after the jump:

5. Vida 

The first season of Vida was promising but not quite fully-formed; its second is a near-masterpiece of multifaceted character drama, albeit one that's not totally without problems (for one thing, the show continues to think Lyn and Johnny's on-again, off-again romance is much more interesting than I do). Take a pair of contrasting scenes involving Mishel Prada's Emma in an episode shortly after the season's midway point—one in which she cruelly lashes out at Eddy, her mom's still-grieving widow, and another a few minutes later in which she offers to let (nay, demands) Marisol stay with her after she discovers Mari's been kicked out by her father. This act of kindness doesn't excuse the preceding behavior, of course, but Vida excels at showing how both of those moments come from the same tightly-wound emotional place—a place that's often kept Emma at arm's length from those around her (romantic partners and otherwise). Her arc over the course of the season, driven in significant part by her scenes with great new characters Nico and Baco (Roberta Colindrez and Raúl Castillo, respectively, a welcome infusion of additional acting talent to an already brilliantly-acted show), is a series of subtle, deeply felt character shifts that add up to something gorgeous and moving. The same can be said of Lyn, Eddy, and Mari, as Vida uses the longer 10-episode order to dig deeper into both the inner lives of its creations and its larger conflict about gentrification. To me there remains room for Vida to get even better, but the nuanced excellence of this season already puts it in the running for the best half-hour on TV.

4. Superstore 

More than maybe any other recent network sitcom, Superstore understands pettiness and soul-crushing boredom. The NBC sitcom, which just wrapped its fourth and best season to date, offers a sort-of antidote to the workplace family dynamics of many of its ostensible predecessors. Its characters do bond on occasion, don't get me wrong, but their moments of camaraderie are rarely a result of some deep connection; rather, they're instances of shared alienation and existential tiredness, a nod to the undeniable truth that human beings aren't actually built to thrive working 40 or more hours a week. I'm making the show sound like some dreary exercise here, I realize, so I should also stress that this season in particular is also some of the most uproariously funny TV of the last few years—the show's understanding of the deleterious effects of capitalism matched only by its strong grounding in sitcom fundamentals and the comedic talents of its cast. (Nor does it suggest there's no hope—a key storyline late in the season involves a push for unionization that's rousing even as it doesn't sugarcoat the damage that the corporate backlash can do.) But so much of the humor—Garrett's sarcasm on the PA addresses, Cheyenne and Mateo's goofing off, the customer-based sight gags, etc.—is all driven by palpable exhaustion. The possibility of the show losing that edge exists, of course, but at least for now it's a scathingly funny acknowledgment of the evils of corporate soullessness and the humanity of all of us living under it.

3. Lodge 49 

Much the same can be said for Lodge 49, outside of the "scathingly funny" part. To be clear: The show is often very funny, just not in nearly the same way—its humor tends toward the more quietly elegiac as it wanders through what's left of a town abandoned by a company that's long-since bled it dry, following the lives of about a dozen or so of its denizens who almost all belong to the titular lodge. There's a sort of Twin Peaks-esque weirdness that propels parts of the story as well—a mythology about the "true lodge" and various secrets the leadership of this particular fraternal order may be hiding. Lodge 49 doesn't bother pretending it's likely to add up to much of anything, though; even as some of its characters become deeply invested in it, the general sense is that it's all likely to end up being a bunch of nonsense. If you're sensing from these descriptions that the show is sort of aimless, you'd be somewhat right, but that's mostly because it's a show about aimlessness, featuring characters who are unmoored, frustrated, or otherwise lost as they bounce off each other and search for some kind of meaning (or not). As the season goes on, the show develops a set of wonderful character dynamics—including one of the best sibling duos seen on TV in years in Sonya Cassidy's Liz and Wyatt Russell's Dud, and the slightly prickly friendship between Dud and Brent Jennings' Ernie—that can form a sort-of-oasis amid the ruins left between by so-called "job creation." Like Superstore, Lodge 49 doesn't pretend any of this is OK. What it does say, in its own beautifully meandering way, is that life's still somehow worth living.

2. Better Call Saul 

When last I talked about Better Call Saul on here (back in season two), I suggested that there was likely a ceiling on just how great it could be due to the fact that the Jimmy side of things was almost always more compelling than Mike's half of the story. The spottier third season to me only strengthened that argument, as it ratcheted up the McGill brothers' feud to even more operatic heights and then . . . oh right, guess we gotta check on Gus and Mike and see what they're up to now. In the remarkable season four, Gus remains a sometimes problematic character. Iconic as he was on Breaking Bad, he still doesn't always fit quite so neatly into the fabric of BCS—for all Giancarlo Esposito's talents, the monologue he delivers beside a hospital bed is easily the season's low point. The superlab storyline, however, does wonders for Mike, allowing him (and Jonathan Banks' performance, always superb even as the show has at times struggled to utilize it) to become a genuine emotional anchor in a way that's only happened in a couple of other episodes until now. It's stunning TV, particularly watching it happen in parallel with Jimmy and Kim reaching their own various crossroads; their scenes, as always, are riveting, from the giddy caper narrative of "Coushatta" to the gut-punch of a scene that closes "Winner" and pays off four years of dreadful expectation to perfection. I know there are many who argue BCS has long been equal to (or better than) its predecessor; for all its many scenes of greatness, it's never previously merited that comparison for me. Now it has.

1. Succession 

Better Call Saul was TV's greatest drama this year, at least as the term is traditionally defined. But that's because Succession defies straightforward categorization. It's a comedy, for sure—a sharp-tongued, brash not-really-satire (the dialogue may be the best, most eloquently foul-mouthed on TV since Deadwood) skewering the ultra-wealthy and their outsized influence on politics, media, and more. But it's also a straight-up soap opera full of gripping power plays and deeply warped intra-family dynamics in which we hang on every new, juicy narrative development. These two sides of the show shouldn't be able to hang together, but they do—each scene of bitter laughter existing uneasily alongside, for instance, a boardroom showdown of sheer intensity or a wordless revelation about the childhood abuse inflicted on the Roy family patriarch. Such scenes deftly humanize the characters, only for later instances of lavish, morally bankrupt excess to remind you who these people really are—a back-and-forth that could play as a moralistic "why are you watching this?" gotcha to the audience were the show not smart enough to acknowledge itself as being just as gripped by the whole saga. Elsewhere viciously ironic touches abound, such as the use of an old pro-union song following the aforementioned boardroom scene, lest Succession somehow be accused of offering too much sympathy to the devil. If it can't hope to match the masterful interiority of the likes of Rectify or The Americans, that's because it doesn't have to and it's not really trying. This is its own, thus far brilliant thing—savvy and scarily entertaining TV with one of the best true acting ensembles assembled since (once again) Deadwood. 

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