For me, the turnaround of 2015 was Homeland. Last year the show was at its snoozy worst—on the plus side, it finally buried the Carrie-Brody romance, and I loved Nimrat Kaur’s turn as a badass Pakistani intelligence operative; but on the bad side, everything else. And yet, knowing how easily the show can remake itself—just send Carrie off to another global hot spot—I gave it another try and got sucked right in. Carrie and Saul’s trust-me/don’t-trust-me act got very annoying very fast, as did the way Carrie sent away her daughter, went off her meds, and descended into full-on mania then seemingly got over it before the next episode. Instead, I’ve been gripped by Miranda Otto as duplicitous Berlin station chief Allison Carr: This season her spy-story shenanigans have taken Homeland into The Americans territory, with long scenes of credible tradecraft. (But, c’mon, who did Rupert Friend piss off? Peter Quinn has been slashed, shot, kidnapped, hit over the head with a pipe, and forced to breathe poison gas. Find a new doll to stick pins into, Homeland writers!)
Margaret, I’m a big fan of Mom, too. Allison Janney and Anna Faris are magnificent, and I love that the most populist (and popular) channel on television has a show about two broke addicts. If I were faced with a DVR full of unwatched shows (I guess it could happen), Mom would be one of the first I’d hit “play” on. But something holds me back from labeling it great. I think it’s that while it makes some attempts to portray poverty and the consequences of addiction in a realistic manner—Bonnie’s relapse, their too-small apartment requiring mother and daughter to share a bed, etc.—it combines them with too many credibility-stretching elements, like the way the kids miraculously moved out of the apartment and removed “need to take care of my offspring on a daily basis” from Christy’s to-do list (with an explanation, yes, but too casually nevertheless).
It’s not that I’m demanding utter fidelity to the unforgiving laws of real life—it never bothered me that Max and Caroline have a horse in their backyard, because 2 Broke Girls—which I’m sad, as a longtime defender, to say is now as bad as everyone always thought it was—isn’t attempting to make a sociological point. With Mom, my sense is that the writers know a thing or two about addiction, but they’ve never been no-backstop, no-network, no-qualifications poor, which is why the characters don’t live their lives like actual poor people do: desperately holding on to the shitty job whose unpredictable schedule doesn’t allow them to go to school or take the steps that would allow them to make a change. (The half-assed poverty of Jane, Xiomara, and Alba Villanueva on Jane the Virgin, and the choice-filled lifestyles of the barely working Pfeffermans on Transparent bug me, too, but less than Mom’s wannabe realistic depiction.)
Alan, you asked if we’d rather watch a show that’s consistently good but never great, or an uneven show that offers glimpses of genius. I’m absolutely, definitely, indisputably on Team Transcendence. The reward doesn’t even have to be genius—but I do love shows that manage to elicit emotions. Sometimes, those feelings come from unexpected sources: After a very lackluster start to the season, “Spinning Wheel,” the Dec. 15 episode of NCIS, stimulated my sentimental sap zone in an efficient and really quite pleasing manner. It was a long way from transcendence, but the not-totally-convincing story of Ducky Mallard’s missing half-brother brought a tear to my eye, which means I’ll happily sit through another 10 mediocre but not-unpleasant episodes hoping that that might happen again.
What else gets me? The Great British Baking Show, now somewhat randomly on PBS (which has shown only Seasons 3 and 4 of the six that have aired in Britain), makes me hungry—for uber-British foodstuffs like trifle and Battenberg cake—and full of love for the contestants and the judges (one day I dream of making someone as happy as Mary Berry looks when she bites into a well-baked boozy dessert) and the hosts and everyone in the British Isles, with their can-do attitude, cooperative spirit, and boundless knowledge of obscure European cake-decorating techniques.
Yes, Willa, I’m still watching Downton Abbey—though partly so that Seth Stevenson and I can strut our podcast stuff one last time. (Watch your Slate Plus podcasts feed starting Sunday, Jan. 3, everyone!) It is in many ways a ridiculous show—a soap opera written by people who don’t seem to have the vaguest clue how soap operas work and thus repeat the same events with only slight variations over and over and over again—but I do enjoy it, and not only because it presents Seth and me with multiple opportunities to poke gentle fun at old-school prestige TV. The real draw, of course, is the acting, which—with the exception of a few folks like Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith—isn’t always flawless but always seems right for the part. The best way I can explain what I mean by that is to point out that a journalist wouldn’t write a story the same way for the New York Times as for the New York Post. Some actors can only be Times writers or Post writers; others can write—that is, perform—in whatever style is called for. And lots of the Downton cast do what is asked of them beautifully, even though they are capable of far more subtlety and variation.
Speaking of great actors, I’d love to hear your favorites. I’ll mention just one right now: Rhea Seehorn. She’s had an OK career playing various iterations of the same ball-busting blonde, but in Better Call Saul, she got to be more than a grown-up mean girl. Kim Wexler is supportive and kind and clever and ball-busting. I confess I’m having a hard time remembering all the twists and turns from Better Call Saul’s first season (shows that air in the first quarter get the short straw in this kind of year-end conversation), but I can’t wait to find out what really happened between Kim and Jimmy.
The right answer is Sarah, Josh, then Ali,
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