Best Television 2015 – Dramas

51-Untruths-From-Television

Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older, but I find my enthusiasm for leaving the house to attend a feature film dwindling by the day. There are just way too many factors to deal with: showering, putting on decent clothes, driving, parking, paying 12.50 per ticket, standing in line (sometimes), sitting through advertisements and trailers, and then spending the next two hours watching some film that, when not outright disappointing, is no better than what I can comfortably watch at home on my 44″ HD TV.

Have I seen a single dramatic film this year that impressed me more than an episode of Fargo? Did any comedic features make me laugh more than Ilana and Abbi on Broad City? Not even close.

I can hear all the arguments for witnessing a film in a big theater….the amazing sound design, the huge screen, the energy that comes from a packed house laughing or screaming in unison….

My response is this: you can’t adjust the volume knob in a movie theater; unless you arrive early, you most likely will be sitting far too close to the screen or off to the side at a less than ideal angle, trying to ignore the bushy hair of the person seated in front of you; and the packed house will be dotted with people checking their smart phones and sending tweets.

This isn’t necessarily whining. It’s realizing what viewing experience suits me best: at home, on the couch, wearing sweats and ratty t-shirt, between my wife and dog, a fan of remotes on the coffee table in front of me, next to a cold beer and a bag of chips.

These ten dramas were better than any film I’ve seen in 2015.

10. Narcos (Netflix)

I found myself unexpectedly riveted by this drama, loosely based on the rise and fall of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The series expertly weaves in actual footage from news reports and interviews from the 70’s and early 80’s when the story takes place (at least in season 1), giving it a sort of hybrid documentary/fiction blend that adds depth. Wagner Moura, who plays Escobar, is amazing and deserves his Golden Globe nomination.

9. American Crime (ABC)

The only network drama to make this list (I’m not sure I even watched any  others), American Crime felt like a cable show. Unflinching, able to balance multiple story lines with a large ensemble cast, and, always going in unexpected directions. At least once per episode, I thought I could predict where the story was going based on conventions, but they were bucked at every turn. One small slight is that the show was so intense, that it became oppressive at times, and I wonder if inserting even the slightest bit of humor might improve the show.

8. The Americans (FX)

Cause I’m witty like that, I thought I’d bunch the two shows with word American in the title together. Like the fantastic Sundance show Rectify and the HBO drama The Leftovers, The Americans is another brilliant but overlooked drama that deserves more Emmy love. In my opinion, those three shows should be dominating the nominations.

All three of those shows are unlikely to ever see Emmy love because they all require heightened attention and a willingness to start from the beginning. I can’t see how anyone could simply start watching The Americans at season 4 (starting in March) and appreciate all the nods to events in earlier seasons.

This is a tough show to watch and as much as I admired the 3rd season of The Americans, it wasn’t binge-worthy to me. Not the way the first two seasons were and I am not sure why that is other than that maybe this season’s multiple story lines didn’t coalesce as well as previous ones. Or maybe I just had too many other shows to watch.

7. Justified (FX)

I was going to put this show in the list of “unjustifiably” ignored shows at the Emmy’s, but then I looked it up and saw that Timothy Olyphant was nominated for best actor in 2013 as well as Walton Goggins that same year. Regardless, the smartest detective series in decades, originally based on the Elmore Leonard novel, never received the love I believe it deserved. I suppose calling it a detective series is unfair. Raylan Givens was a U.S. Marshall, not a detective, but the show managed to take the good guys and bad guys tropes and turn them on their heads. Even the dumbest, hillbilly rednecks on the show (Dewey Crowe was my favorite) were given dimension and (sometimes) heart.

One of many amazing scenes in season 6 of Justified.

6. Mad Men (AMC) 

I feel like Mad Men has been around much longer than 7 years. It’s one of those shows, like The Sopranos, that, even when it seemed to lose its way a bit, always seemed ESSENTIAL and IMPORTANT. I bet there’s a graduate thesis in TV criticism being written somewhere comparing Don Draper to Tony Soprano. Maybe I’ll write it myself one day. Oops – guess I’m a little late…

5. Better Call Saul (AMC)

I’m not sure if I had high expectations for this Breaking Bad spinoff, or just knew that creator-show runner Vince Gilligan’s genius wasn’t limited to one show. Either way, I was excited, but prepared to be let down by Better Call Saul. How could a show focusing on Saul Goodman and his history even come close to the brilliance of Breaking Bad?

By not trying to be Breaking Bad was the answer. BCS succeeded because Gilligan and his writers knew their characters and their stories. They brought along the fantastic cinematography and time-jumping storytelling tricks that were Breaking Bad‘s trademark, yet they never felt copycat. It didn’t hurt that their leading man, Bob Odenkirk, brought unforeseen levels of flawed humanity to Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman. In my opinion, it was the best dramatic performance of the year.

4. Mr. Robot (USA)

Best new drama of 2015? I would have to say Mr. Robot. I was late to the game on this one, but thankfully I had set my DVR to record the series, as I binged the entire thing it about a week or two. I had to binge, as my wife started this series without me and I needed to catch up to her so we could watch the last few episodes together.

Like Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot was a master class in filmic storytelling. The uniquely odd camera angles, the expert use of voice over, the truly amazing sound design….the technical accomplishments alone are enough to recommend it. But add a phenomenal lead performance by Rami Malek and a nice turn by Christian Slater and it’s just icing on the cake. I’m ready for season 2 please!

3. The Leftovers (HBO)

Why aren’t you watching this show? Is it because you still have a bad taste in your mouth from the series finale of Lost? Time to move on, because The Leftovers is much better than Lost ever was, and season two took a strong season one and brought it to far greater heights.

When the story begins, 2% of the population have disappeared in an event called the Sudden Departure. The show picks up several months later and is mostly about how society handles the unexplained tragedy. Season two takes it in new directions, and it is worth getting through some slow episodes in season 1 to get to the profoundly thought-provoking second season.

2. Rectify (Sundance)

I can’t think of another show to compare Rectify with. There’s something wholly unique about the show; maybe it’s the perfectly, unnervingly slow pacing, maybe the naturalistic performances and suburban Georgian setting set it apart. Perhaps it’s the way this naturalism is spotted with occasional surrealism; especially the flashbacks to Daniel Holden’s 20 years as a prisoner in solitary confinement.

Aden Young’s performance as the emotionally stunted Daniel is so unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, it’s one of those performances that make you ask: is that how he is in real life? The overly-considered verbal delivery, the laconic body language, and then, a burst of unexpected rage. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, and in season 3, characters like Daniel’s step-brother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) and the local Sheriff Daggett (J.D. Evermore) are given expanded story lines and with them, deeper layers of complexity.

Season 3 ended in a way that, for me, worked as a great series finale, but I have read that there will be a final season 4. This is the sort of show that would never have made it to air 10 years ago. It bucks convention and expectation and will go down as one of the most influential dramas in TV history. (mark my words/blog)

And the number one show….

Fargo (FX)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I’m reminded of this famous line from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet when I think about my feelings for the 2nd season of Fargo. I am tempted to simply write: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6….etc. and leave it at that, but that feels cheap and easy and if I’m anything, I’m cheap and expensive.

I could watch Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Peggy Blumquist for hours. If she doesn’t win the Emmy for best supporting actress award, it will be a shocker. Maybe it’s that the finale of season 2 ended only a couple weeks ago and it’s all so fresh in my head, but if there was a more impressive ensemble cast on a television drama this year, I’m not sure what it was. Even minor characters, like Nick Offerman‘s alcoholic-libertarian-lawyer are given their moments to shine. I can picture the Coen Brothers watching this series (they are executive producers) and going, “Boy, this is better than what we could have come up with!”

It’s violent, it’s hilarious, it’s heartbreaking, it’s surreal, it’s stupid, it’s clever and it’s the best show of 2015.

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Television ruled in 2015 – Comedy

OK, I’ll admit that I spend an unhealthy amount of time on the couch, in front of the 43″ high-definition story box, often when I have other, more pressing duties (like showering, gardening, sleeping). But once prone, I get sucked into the world of serialized drama and comedy.

With amazing original content streaming from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other non-broadcast/non-cable sources, the number of truly excellent shows available to the masses is insanely high. In fact, of my top 20 shows of 2015 — 10 comedies, 10 dramas — only two are from network channels. Cable still holds my sway, with FX and HBO leading the pack, but about half of my favorites are from streaming sites. Sites is a bit of a misnomer, with the popularity of Rokus, Chromecasts, Apple TV, smart TVs and gaming devices with internet connections. For me, it’s the Roku, and many of my favorite cable channels can also be found on the Roku for streaming their content on demand (Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, Fox, NBC, FX are the ones I view most often).

And with so many great shows, across so many channels, I was unable to watch all the ones that appealed to me. Those that I’m hoping to squeeze into 2016 are: You’re the Worst, Master of None, Bojack Horseman, Red Oaks, Jessica Jones, Show Me A Hero, Deutschland 83, Getting On, Ash vs. Evil Dead, American Horror Story, Blackish, Hannibal….

But you came here to see what my favorites are, right? You don’t give a rats patootie what the cultural landscape looks like from my ass-flattened position on the couch. So let’s get to it.

I’ll start with the comedies:

10. Last Man On Earth (Fox)

This is the only show on my list from a network TV channel (Fox). This show was a grower for me, hitting its stride mid-way through season 1, but season 2 was strong from beginning to end. Hoping it gets renewed. The serialized nature of the show (watching from the beginning is fairly essential) may doom its longevity. Will Forte and Kristen Schaal are great, and in season 2 their characters are given more to work with and therefore more emotional depth.

9. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)

Though not as enamored of this show as many — I find a lot of the jokes too broad and obvious for my taste — there’s no denying that the show pushes buttons and boundaries like no other and I am excited to see what she does with the show next year after hitting the celebrity zeitgeist in 2015. I might have had Amy Schumer overload in 2015.

8. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

I will put this show in my top list, even years after it reaches its series finale. Just to underline my decade long love affair with this hilarious show. The Paddy’s Gang is about to embrace us with their 11th season of mischief and inappropriate behavior and I am ready.

7. Catastrophe (Amazon)

6. Casual (Hulu)

2015 was a strong year for smart relationship-based comedies. I haven’t seen season 2 of You’re the Worst, but I hear it is even better than the excellent first season, so I’ll add that to the list. Married, the recently cancelled FX series, deserved to make the top 10 and would have in a weaker year. But the newbies to the scene, Amazon and Hulu, have upped the playing field and introduced us to some wonderful new characters: all of them over the age of 30, and, in the case of Catastrophe, over (God forbid!) 40.

The chemistry between Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe is so natural, so believable. Every line of dialogue is infused with subtext. Both of them are whip-smart and sarcastic, often using their wits to hide fears about commitment and impending parenthood. The unnecessarily melodramatic season finale was the only false note in a harmonically masterful composition.

Casual, Jason Reitman’s foray into serialized dramedy (yes, this has just as much drama as comedy) took me a couple episodes to fully engage, but, like Catastrophe, features strong lead characters: all damaged, all hiding their pain with humor and sarcasm. Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins play siblings Alex and Valerie who end up cohabitating (along with Valerie’s teenage daughter, Laura) after Michaela’s recent divorce leaves the women (somewhat) homeless. Sometimes the themes are underlined a bit too thickly, but most of the time the show expresses a rare honesty and vulnerability, and Michaela Watkins is Emmy-worthy good.

5. Portlandia (IFC)

I’ve really liked all the seasons of Portlandia, but even I was getting a little tired of the hipster skits and the jumping around from character to character. So I was happily surprised that in 2015 Fred and Carrie decided to focus and leave several of the episodes to feature a single couple of characters (there’s bad grammar in that sentence). And when they do play multiple roles, they do it with a unified storyline, such as the Bed and Breakfast episode where many of our favorite couples all stay at the same B&B. And special kudos to Steve Buscemi for stealing the show as a celery salesman.

4. Kroll Show (Comedy Central)

How did this brilliantly dumb-smart Comedy Central reality TV satire not make any critics top 10 lists?  Nick Kroll can inhabit more ridiculous characters than any other actor I can think of. The facial expressions, the voices, the unique dialects and catch phrases…I have to supply two clips here because narrowing it down is near impossible, but if you haven’t seen the show, and can appreciate the surreal nature of legitimate reality shows, then check out all 3 excellent seasons.

 

3. Louie (FX)

This show continues to surprise me. Even when I am not sure I “like” an episode or find a featured character extremely annoying (Michael Rappaport as a thuggish cop in “Cop Story”), I can always marvel at the craftsmanship, the convention-smashing risks (episode 5 “Untitled” is surreal and dark and still gnaws at my psyche) and willingness to show the power dynamics in a relationship (Pamela Adlon), warts and all. Louie actually stands up for himself with her, though it ultimately doesn’t end well for him. The 2-part season finale perfectly encapsulated the brilliance of this show and the exasperation, with maybe the darkest episode I’ve ever seen in a “comedy.” Yet, the show still knows that nothing beats a poop joke, when all is said and done.

2. Maron (IFC)    2.5 WTF (podcast)

Maybe I’m placing this one a little too high, but Marc Maron gets extra points for pulling off another excellent season of his TV show while at the same time, taking his podcast to new levels of captivating. Interviews with President Obama, Richard Linklater, Henry Winkler, Parker Posey, and Terry Gross were just 5 of over 100 interviews Maron conducted from his famous garage in 2015. Of course we skip to about 12 minutes in to get to the interview portion, but no other interview podcast revealed as much humanity as WTF in 2015.

The TV show Maron tackled a lot of interesting themes in 2015 (depression, being a sperm donor to a lesbian couple, accepting his dysfunctional family, patent trolling) even if it was a little less ambitious than 2014’s second season. The plot thread regarding his character’s new TV show didn’t really work, but overall, despite Marc’s neurotic behavior, it was another stellar season of Maron.

Broad City (Comedy Central)

I am not bragging when I say that I was a fan before you were. I suppose you may have also discovered Abbi and Ilana from their YouTube series before the hit the big time at CC. Now, Broad City is a veritable institution. The equivalent of a water-cooler show, like Lost. Overstating it? I dunno. I’m of the wrong generation to decipher the cultural impact of these two boundary breaking comic geniuses. But I work with a bunch of 20- somethings and I can say that they all love the show and relate to the cultural and technological references that permeate every episode. Not sure if the example below is cultural or technological, but it is certainly Broad City.