Dear TV Club,
If we’ve moved into an era distinct from the one that gave birth to The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad, it’s more for the sheer abundance of choice than it is for a lack of obvious DNA from the shows of the ’00s. As Willa notes, there are still plenty of white male antihero shows, even if the results are more mixed than they were before. But you can spot clear lines of succession stretching between many of the previous decade’s best shows and some of the current ones, whether they share a creator (The Leftovers, mostly for good but occasionally for ill, is an even more unfiltered reflection of Damon Lindelof’s id than Lost was) or simply similar character types (Halt and Catch Fire has evolved greatly from a shaky start last year, but the root of the show was ’80s Don Draper teaming up with ’80s Walter White).
There are some shows that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago: From subject to delivery system to episodic structure, Transparent would have been unthinkable even in the days of Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen. But others are taking what are now familiar TV constructs and filtering them through new voices, from something as ambitious as Orange Is the New Black (which had a 2015 season that was merely very good instead of the greatness of its first two) to something more formulaic but still exciting due to the characters featured, such as Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat.
But when there were fewer great shows on TV, it was easier to find consensus. (Though even in HBO’s glory days, there were those who were Team Sopranos and those who were Team Wire.) With this year’s HitFix critics’ poll, 21 different shows got at least one first-place vote, and 98 different shows wound up on at least one critic’s top 10 list. (If we had, as many critics requested, expanded the ballot beyond only 10 spots, I can’t even begin to calculate how many more shows would have gotten votes.)
At the turn of the century, the choice for TV’s best drama was a pretty binary one, between the optimism of The West Wing and the cynicism of The Sopranos. Now, there’s an incredibly broad spectrum across each genre, where if you wanted a weighty drama this year you could have opted for the visceral power of Game of Thrones, or the lyric meditation of Rectify, or the art-film nightmare fuel of Hannibal, or the hard-boiled fun of Justified, or the whatever-the-hell-that was-but-I-loved-it of The Leftovers. (More on that in a minute.) Comedy’s just as diverse—especially depending on how you want to classify something like a Transparent or a Casual—from the committed discomfort of Review to ABC’s hand-crafted family sitcoms to the mix of melancholia and absurdity on BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty.
Willa, you asked for our top 10 lists, and mine is one that makes me both giddy, because of how much affection I have for all the shows on it, and irritated, because of how many shows I left off. (At the moment, I’m in the process of crafting an honorable mentions piece that was once going to include 10 more worthy shows, then expanded to 15, 20, and is now hovering dangerously close to 35, still leaving off shows I enjoyed a lot this year. Peak TV is a blessing to the viewer and a curse to the TV critic.)
I could write several thousand words on each of these (and have), but the story of The Leftovers sums up this strange, wonderful, busy year as well as anything. Here was a show that debuted a year ago and was polarizing in the extreme but sang to me like few dramas I’ve seen in any era. I wasn’t the only critic championing that first season, but I still got a lot of funny looks at the Television Critics Association last January from friends who worried that my love of the show reflected some hidden personal turmoil. (Spoiler: I’m fine. I just like weird TV sometimes.) Lindelof would later admit he was “really depressed” writing that season and wasn’t even sure if he wanted to go through the experience again. And then … The Leftovers didn’t suddenly add Rogelio de la Vega to the cast or ask its characters to sing about the wonders of Coca-Cola, but it found a way to tell its stories better—in a way that gave the show just enough of a sense of purpose, and lightness, to make it far more watchable than it had been the year before, but without undermining any of the tremendous cathartic quality. If anything, the escalating, unrelenting horrors of the real world only made the series’ key questions, about how we are meant to go on in the face of tragedy and the knowledge that life can be snatched away without warning or explanation, even more resonant.
And, Willa, while I can certainly empathize with a bias against dreamlike TV episodes, having written so much about Tony Soprano’s dreams and trips to parallel realities over the years, I thought “International Assassin” was the episode of the year because it managed to straddle a line between dream logic and far more conventional genre storytelling. If Kevin had put on the priest’s vestments or one of the other outfits in that wardrobe, the episode might have felt too precious. But because he spends most of the episode’s first half locked in a battle to both stay alive and assassinate Patti (or her body double, Rhonda Gennaro), and because he’s aware of who he really is and what’s happening the entire time (and going along with it, as opposed to how I imagine Jack Shephard from Lost would have behaved in the same circumstance), the episode moves with the briskness of 24 even as things are getting stranger and more tragic. That’s the kind of episode you only try if you are prepared to deal with horrible failure and possibly cancellation. Instead, they pulled it off, and the second season won over so many of the show’s former detractors that HBO was willing to renew it even though the ratings took a nosedive from when the show had True Blood as a lead-in last year.
Margaret, what shows or moments most wowed you this year? And have you taken to viewing Peak TV as a burden or a blessing?
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