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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