Television is experiencing something of an arms race with good shows. Blame Netflix and AMC. Netflix realized a few years ago that their success will become a threat to the studios that license content to them and become a problem. So they made the decision to start making their own content to plan for the future. As some movies and shows were whittled off their library, they began replacing with original offerings – and many of those were very, very good. AMC gambled with Mad Men years ago and have built a reputation for great dramas like Breaking Bad and now their prize is The Walking Dead. Other cable networks have followed suit and started putting out good original shows too and now every network seems to have a prestige drama to its name. And competition means that the viewers have more options than ever. Here are some quick thoughts on television shows that I really enjoyed this year.
Season one of the FX Original was a very pleasant surprise. Another surprise was when a 2nd season was commissioned and word came out that it would be set in the 1970s and follow one of the characters from season 1 in his younger days. Showrunner Noah Hawley has done a masterful job with this show and season 2 was probably the best show of the season for me. Extremely well written, acted, paced and shot. It was edge of your seat tense and laugh out loud funny (sometimes in the same minute). And I thought the conclusion was a perfect one. A 3rd season is now confirmed. I’m ecstatic.
Homeland has had its share of troubles in the last couple of years. After a fantastic first season, the show fumbled around with figuring out what to do for the next few seasons. This year, they’ve finally found a real winning formula of action, social commentary, and spy intrigue. Carrie Mathison is still the focal point, but they’ve spent time sketching out supporting characters a bit more, which helps. Plus, they’ve opted for a more “ripped from the headlines” approach, which actually suits the show very well. If you gave up on the show a couple years ago, you’d probably like this season.
The Walking Dead // Fear the Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is the most popular show on cable. It’s been good for a while now and this season has been quite good as well, but has felt a lot like a long lead-in to a bigger arc beginning next year. Still, it’s a fun and brutal show. Now that Mad Men has concluded, AMC decided to double down on the zombie apocalypse and order a spinoff show to keep up appearances during TWD’s off season. Fear the Walking Dead explores the very beginning of the zombie outbreak through the lens of a blended family. It’s an interesting concept that a short 6 episode first season couldn’t fully realize. Still, I think there’s some potential for new ground to be broken there so the show doesn’t just turn into The Walking Dead: LA.
Game of Thrones
Ah, Game of Thrones. Everyone’s favorite epic fantasy show. This season was a bit hit or miss, but it all built up to a cliffhanger of an ending that has had everyone talking all summer. What makes it that much more arresting is the fact that they’ve finished all the material from the published books. So even the book readers don’t really know what’s coming now. The characters are still mostly despicable and nothing good ever really happens, which is part of why it’s so hard to look away. How many more seasons will they have? And is so-and-so really such-and-such?!
Last Man on Earth
There are a few shows that my wife and I really enjoy watching together. And this is one of them. It’s so, so good. Will Forte and Kristen Schaal are delightful in their portrayal of very crazy characters in a very crazy world. What I like is that this show often trots out some sitcom tropes, but they’re all tilted to a post-apocalyptic world where a small group of survivors are all we have. In a world… where post-apocalyptic settings are a dime a dozen, this show has a refreshingly funny and sometimes touching take on the genre. Plus, their mid-season cliffhanger was very well put together.
Daredevil // Jessica Jones
Netflix finally debuted their much-hyped Marvel shows this year! They kicked it off with a Daredevil show that establishes itself as the most brutal things Marvel has done. It’s violent, bloody, shocking, and compelling. They built a hero, sure, but it’s the time they spent building up the villain that made the show so good. And the opening credits and gorgeous! Then, they rolled out Jessica Jones, a show just as shocking, but not because of its bloody violence. No, this show relies on demented psychological drama. Again, the hero is interesting and flawed, but the villain is so twisted and evil that you are drawn in instantly to the storyline. These shows prove that Marvel knows what it’s doing in the TV world as much as they have a plan on the silver screen.
Netflix commissioned a show centered on the drug empire of Pablo Escobar. The famous kingpin ruled a portion of Colombia in the 80’s and raked in millions of dollars selling cocaine. I have read an account of his crimes in a book called “Killing Pablo” and was shocked by the reach he wielded. This show is perfectly crafted to depict the ruthless nature of his crimes and the tactics used to try to stop him. And it’s mostly presented in Spanish, something many other networks would shy away from, making it seem all the more real.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
So Netflix has done very well with dramas like House of Cards and Daredevil, but what about comedies? This year, they gave us Tina Fey’s project Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The set-up is wild: a woman has been held captive by a cult leader for years and is finally liberated and starts an independent life in NYC. It’s got the feel of 30 Rock, but with more sweetness from the main character and the underlying darkness of the premise too. I love that the first season arcs back and tackles some of the fallout from her past captivity. I can’t wait to see more from this show next year.
Master of None
Since Louis CK broke out with his great FX show that took a melancholic, semi-autobiographical approach, other comedians have coveted a similar vehicle. Aziz Ansari put together this show for Netflix that hints at “Louie”-level self-depreciation. But Aziz is not Louie and has a very, very different outlook on life. These episodes shine because they lean into issues like race and singleness and mid-thirties ennui. In some ways, it’s less like “Louie” and more like a subdued “Seinfeld”. And he casts his own parents in the roles of his on-screen parents and it’s priceless.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Besides putting out some good originals, Netflix has pushed some chips the way of resurrecting existing shows or properties (with, albeit, mixed results). Here, they took an underground cult classic movie and made a prequel series. Somehow, they managed to get all the principle cast back in some capacity (though many are big, big stars now) and just sort of turned them loose together for a wild and random set of episodes. I loved that it was all a big inside joke, especially because the characters are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly in their 40’s. The guest stars are fantastic and the story is just so bonkers. I loved it.
Ho boy, The Jinx was super weird, super creepy and super good. Capitalizing on the phenomenon that was the “Serial” podcast, HBO released this true-crime documentary series and happened to hit gold when the case kind of blew up again just as they were concluding the show. Viewers were immersed in the twisted murder mysteries as they unspooled and, eventually, tightened around the subject of the show’s neck. It was really incredible to see. Expect more true-crime docu-series from other networks after the success of this one (Netflix dropped one this month already).
Better Call Saul
Breaking Bad is gone and is greatly missed. But, as I mentioned before, AMC needed to backfill some of these heavy hitters fast. So in addition to a Walking Dead spinoff, they put together a Breaking Bad prequel centered on scumbag-with-a-heart-of-gold attorney Saul Goodman. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s really good! Bob Odenkirk is great at his character and the supporting cast is also stellar. Plus, we actually care about seeing how Saul got from rock bottom to where he is in Breaking Bad.
Mad Men sort of defined the era of the anti-hero for awhile. Don Draper became a case study in how to write that new standard for flawed leading men. At its core, Mad Men was kind of a workplace comedy, but with a lot of drama and an exploration of the tectonic cultural shifts of the 1960’s. As the show came to a close, viewers were gifted resolution for many of the characters they’ve followed for 7 seasons, but some characters were left a little more open ended. Show running Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos, so you know he’s willing to let the viewers fill in the blanks. And that’s what he did here perfectly. I thought the final season and the final episode were the perfect way to send off one of the best shows of all time.
Parks and Recreation
It was another almost perfect send off for Parks and Rec. The last show standing from the Must See TV quartet of The Office/30 Rock/Community/Parks and Rec from a few years back. This show started as a shambling spinoff of The Office, but quickly settled itself and built its characters and its world into something truly special. For their final season, they time-shifted ahead and spent time in the future, which gave them a chance to do some more social and political commentary. By the time the finale rolled around, everything just felt right. And the way that they gave us a few things outright and kept others more veiled was perfect. Plus, they gave a number of bonafide movie stars their big breaks! I miss Pawney already.