Saturday, December 24, 2016



I had to be forced to watch the premiere of this show, as one glimpse in the trailers of John Travolta’s take on Robert Shapiro as some sort of martian diva seemed to confirm all my doubts about Ryan Murphy’s primature.  The man has a brand, and whatever you think of its merits, it seemed a match made in lurid, tasteless hell for the true story of the most lurid, tasteless debacle of American criminal justice in the last quarter century.

So I was shocked as anyone when the results were anything but lurid or tasteless.  While tackling difficult issues of race, sexism, celebrity and police misconduct with frankly shocking maturity and sensitivity, the show simultaneously recasts figures long ago rendered into SNL punchlines as deeply empathetic figures caught up in a circus so ludicrous and fraught that even the most consummate showmen among them are just hanging on for dear life.  Courtney B. Vance found the humanity and genuine activist beneath Johnny Cochrane’s courtroom MC persona, Sterling Brown made Chris Darden’s bungling of the prosecution into the tragedy of a conflicted man who was just a little too intelligent to ignore the broader implications of the job he’d been tapped to do, and even David Schwimmer found genuine emotion and 67 different shades of mournfulness with which to pronounce the word “Juice”.

But the standout among the standouts was Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, even before 2016 worked it’s shitty magic to somehow make the spectacle of her failures even more resonant, as Travolta’s orange-hued cartoon caricature stumbled and preened his way to an unlikely, unpopular victory by crassly exploiting racial anxieties and, most especially, America’s fervent, bone-deep hatred of any woman who has the audacity to be a sedately professional public servant.  There was no greater actor’s showcase, or hour of drama (give or take a Game Of Thrones finale), than “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, which dove deep into the constant crush of horrendous sexism that Clark was forced to shoulder through from the opposition, the press, the public and her own side, just to do the kind of difficult, thankless job that people only notice when it gets messed up.  Looking back on The People Vs. OJ, with its acidic examinations of the broader fallout of racist policing, the way celebrity perverts the integrity of our legal systems, the complicity of the press in that, and the intensity of the societal pushback against women who overreach professionally, it’s stunning that it was produced at the beginning of 2016, and not in reaction to it.

Watch It For:  The best use of the episodic TV format this year.  With the Netflix “13 hour movie” model ascendant, OJ used the hourlong structure to present a wonderfully kaleidoscopic view of one central narrative.  Such that in addition to the “Marcia” hour, you had an entire intense hour devoted to the Bronco chase, and one given over to the compellingly loopy perspective of the seemingly-eternally sequestered jury.  I’ll sometimes talk about Game Of Thrones as being 12 different shows connected by a theme song, but OJ managed to be 10 different, complete shows, all of them entertaining and compelling in their own way, in a much more compressed timeframe.


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #2.


It seems absurd on its face to say that the truest successor to Mad Men is a vulgar cartoon wherein half of the cast consists of anthropomorphic animals and beloved character actress Margo Martindale plays herself as a boozy, psychotic enemy of all mankind.  So I’ll go one better:  Bojack Horseman is not only better than all the derivations of Mad Men’s study of the eternal angst of financially and sexually overachieving but self-destructive middle-aged white men, it’s better than Mad Men itself.

Two things to put that claim in some context:  1) Mad Men is a quite good but very overrated show, and 2) I don’t give a damn that literally no one will agree with that, because I still get to be right about it.  Yes, MM has glamorous production designs, erudite writing, sex appeal and ample wit.  But wit is the humor of the terminally self-serious, and Bojack being a wacky animated comedy more readily identifiable as a progeny of The Simpsons' brand of sweeping satirical whimsy gives it sneaky advantages over its live action peers.  For starters, it’s rarely even thought of as a peer to cable antihero shows, and the inherent goofiness that comes with the half-hour animated format has been used as cover to push its eponymous equine to even darker depths of addiction and destructiveness than Don Draper ever sunk.  I used to fear the penultimate episodes of shows like The Wire or Game Of Thrones for how they always seemed to deliver the cruelest deaths, but I’ve come to dread that second to last episode of Bojack in the same way, to see what new low he could possibly, all-too-believably scrape.  Last year’s was stunningly horrible.  This year may be worse.

But it’s also screamingly funny.  Not for nothing do I invoke The Simpsons; no one has done background, sign, and music gags as well and frequently since that show's heyday. It does inside-baseball skewering of the entertainment industry (another area where the animation serves as a buffer against the inherent insufferableness that comes with that territory) as well as anything since 30 Rock.  Also, uniquely for Netflix, it has a strong sense of how to use its episodic format.  The silent-film episode “Fish Out Of Water” justly received most of the attention for its form-bending theatrics, but the hilarious-turned-harrowing bender of “That’s Too Much, Man!” was as wild a ride as any hourlong drama took this year, and the ebullient ode to abortion that was “Brrap Brrap, Pew Pew!” outdid anything South Park did this year in terms of spit-your-drink-out funny takes on hot button issues.  Bojack Horseman may be one of the worst people horses to ever front a sitcom, but Bojack Horseman is the funniest sitcom on TV.

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Watch It For:  All of the brilliance I didn’t even mention.  Like Paul F. Tompkins’ demented positivity as celebrity golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter, or Keith Olbermann’s skewering of his own blowhard image as perpetually-outraged whale of a news anchor.


4.    ATLANTA (FX)

I’m doing shorter blurbs for Atlanta and Game Of Thrones because I’ve written about both shows' seasons extensively and recently.  So I’ll just link to that Atlanta piece and add that it’s so fucking unfair that Donald Glover is one person and not, like, six.  Dude is the handsomest, and a great actor to boot.  He was a writer on 30 Rock, which is maybe the funniest television comedy of all time, when he was in his 20s.  Then he was a breakout star on Community, which is maybe the most brilliant television comedy of all time.  Then he turned out to be an extremely talented rapper, and now he just released a soul album because fuck it, why not?  And he’s been cast to play a young Lando Calrissian.  That’s the closest thing we have to the UN Security Council and Nobel committee officially labeling someone Coolest Motherfucker On The Planet. 

And he created Atlanta, which is just fuck-off brilliant, and which he somehow writes and stars in without making it feel like a vanity project.  No one crushed 2016 harder than Donald Glover, not even the Chicago Cubs or Vladimir Putin.  This year, he pretty much was what Kanye West sees when he looks in the mirror.  He may need to be destroyed, frankly.  But let’s see what the second season looks like first.

Watch It For:  The most unexpected take on Justin Bieber.


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For a show 6 years into its lifespan, Game Of Thrones had a year unusually full of growing pains, as it outpaced the source material and had to move forward with only an outline, rather than a detailed blueprint.  For the first time, the show’s scope seemed to contract rather than expand, with the only new character to make an impression being the fierce lil’ lady of Bear Island (what an impression, though!) and a cavalcade of old characters coming back from the dead, narratively or literally.  The abundance of these returns had a diminishing effect that cost GOT the top spot on this list – when much of the series’ gripping allure had been based on being the one fantasy epic that truly played for keeps, diluting the life-and-death stakes is a real issue.  But it didn’t slip too far, because as the end comes into sight, the payoffs only got more satisfying and grandiose, with the 1-2 punch of “The Battle Of The Bastards” and “The Winds Of Winter” working to best any 2 hour movie I saw this year in terms of suspense, satisfaction, and drama, not to mention sheer filmmaking verve.  I may have had some issues with how this character or that returned, or how the timelines got fuzzier than ever, but the spectacle and satisfaction of Jon, Sansa, and Cersei enacting their vengeances, and Dany finally setting sail surrounded by a cast of established Westerosi allies, would’ve been worth ten times the fuckery to get to. 

Watch It For:  Spectacle.  Heartbreak.  Payoffs and payback that have been simmering for years, in cable’s lushest, cruelest crockpot.


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #5


Ellie Kemper joined The Office in 2009, and while her thick-headed but stubbornly cheerful Erin quickly distinguished herself as one of the bright spots in that show’s disappointing decline, it was actually a fairly egregious misuse of her talents.  Because while The Office was once one of the best comedies of the 2000’s, it also aired directly next to the best, most consistent comedy of this millennium, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s 30 Rock,.  And Kemper’s rubber-faced effervescence was clearly meant for that live-action cartoon rather than the wry, observational sensibility of its lead-in.

But the universe has worked to correct this, as Kemper got to basically play the same character again in Fey and Carlock’s follow up, only with that stubborn cheerfulness cranked up to 11, and the cluelessness given a more involved (if absurd) justification – she spent 15 years locked in a doomsday bunker by an insane would-be cult leader.  That’s a completely ridiculous level of darkness to build into the premise of a goofy sitcom. But because Kimmy Schmidt seems to inhabit the same comic universe the creators honed so well on 30 Rock, it and she fit right in to their New York, a lively cesspool defined by ceaseless but chipper depravity.  It’s a colorful if filthy world, one where the corpses of unloved improv actors are summarily dumped in the East River, the most popular musical in the world is a not-even-thinly-veiled ode to father/son incest, and an Italian man’s struggle to come out to his family is complicated by the fact that his grandmother is not just a wizened caricature of an uncomprehending matriarch, but a literal muppet.

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Matching Kemper in delivering Fey’s trademark lighting-fast, discursive dialogue is a small core of supporting players: Rock alum Jane Krakowski as Kimmy’s desperate social-climber of a boss, Titus Burgess as her gay black roommate whose flamboyance is somehow saved from offensive stereotype by way of also being cartoonishly lazy and venal (no, I don’t understand how that works either), and secret weapon Carol Kane as her proudly skeezy ”stoop crone”/landlord.  And then there’s the guest players:  Jon Hamm as the delusional yet charming (he is Jon Hamm, after all) reverend, Amy Sedaris as Krakowski’s even more desperate clinger of a friend, Jeff Goldblum as a Dr. Phil-type who makes Leo Spaceman look like a model of professional diligence, and in the season’s best arc, Fey herself as a hard-drinking psychiatrist whose demons may be more than even Kimmy’s indomitable positivity can conquer. 

In its second season especially, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feels like a proper spin-off to 30 Rock.  I don’t know much higher praise I could give a comedy than that.

Watch It For:  The year's most sustained sequence of comic insanity, in which Ice-T gives a surprise eulogy for a very special victim, indeed, and closes by playing “Amazing Grace” on a saxophone.  

Friday, December 23, 2016


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #6.


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No show on television delivers a surprise death like Game Of Thrones.  With its voluminous cast deployed across its sprawling narrative landscape like bombs, exploding with a frequency that is consistent, but whose patterns are unpredictable.  By contrast, no show on TV wields the threat of death with a more devastatingly steady hand than The Americans.  It can be difficult for a show to deal in constant life and death stakes with a core cast as small as it has, but with fewer of Hitchcock’s proverbial bombs lying around, creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have resisted the temptation to pad out that cast with sacrificial lambs masquerading as characters of significance (see: Sons Of Anarchy’s periodic influxes of redshirt prospects/charters, probably The Walking Dead, going off some of the griping I’ve heard about it).  The result is that when season four runs out the long-running fuse on a couple of those narrative bombs, you suddenly realize how disciplined the show has been about playing the “shocking death that changes everything!” card. 

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That’s not to say that character deaths are just a cheap shock tactic (indeed, a properly deployed one is as expensive as shock tactics can get), or are not a necessary aspect of this type of storytelling.  If those stakes are going to remain at that heightened life and death level, the piper must periodically get paid.  This is just to point out how The Americans may seem to fit in the same mold as a few dozen other antihero dramas on the cable dial(/malfunctioning streaming service), but as befits a show about asymmetric warfare, it is playing that game in different, subtler ways.  And so where the children of the antihero are frequently flavorless obstacles to be navigated around, the best thread of season 4 involves daughter Paige’s struggle to adjust to the world-shattering news that her parents are Soviet spies (a revelation itself that most contemporaries would save for the final stretch, rather than the halfway point of the series).

While Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys continue to give hands down the best dramatic performances on television, and ringers like Frank Langella, Dylan Baker, and Character Actress Margo Martindale (whose cold-blooded Soviet spook is somehow her second most frightening appearance on this year’s list), it was Holly Taylor that really stepped up to deliver the most memorable moments.  In a season with potent chemical weapons on the loose and shocking deaths rearing their heads, Paige took the cake with her first, deeply conflicted forays into grooming assets. When she has her first kiss, we can tell that even she is not sure if it’s because she likes the boy or to set up a honeypot scenario.  And I still can't even decide which would be worse.  It's not shattering in the same way the death of a beloved character is, but the weight of the blow lands all the same.

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And I haven’t even mentioned Martha.  Poor, poor Martha.  With its pressure-cooker intensity and apparent impossibility of anything but the bleakest of conclusions for all its players, The Americans is not the easiest show to watch week to week.  But like the work of its protagonists, it is smart, cold, and devastatingly effective.

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Watch It For:  Hands down, television's best wig game (pictured).

Thursday, December 22, 2016


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #7.


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Bill Hader is one of the most unassuming comic geniuses of our time.  Fred Armisen is one of the most assuming, but also insanely prolific and a remarkable actor that has somehow never inflicted a serious dramatic turn upon us.  The sheer range of passive-aggression he displays on Portlandia alone is amazing, particularly considering the limited milieu in which that show operates.  But Documentary Now! opens up not just the range of performance available to SNL alums (also including John Mulaney and Seth Meyers on the writing/producing side), but of style and subject matter as well.  Each episode of DN! is a lovingly, expertly crafted homage to a particular documentary, recreating the look, feel, and spirit of a Talking Heads concert film, a Japanese culinary documentary, or an unpitying look at the quiet desperation of door-to-door salesmen in the 1950s.  Entire episodes may be shot in black and white, or on handheld cameras, or presented in Spanish.  The look, sound, and atmosphere are recreated with uncanny precision and subtlety that will delight documentary-cinema geeks, but matters just as much for casual viewers.  Whether I have seen each doc or not, whether I’m actively aware of it or not, the authentic feel permeates every frame with a specificity that allows the most minor of comedic tweaks to earn bigger laughs. 

You could see the same effect in years past with Key And Peele.  The fussed-over production of their taped pieces allowed their parodies to hit notes that you just don’t get when SNL hastily trots out Bryan Cranston in a Heisenberg hat to parrot a few iconic lines for a cold open.  The latter produces titters of recognition; the former can surprise you with the familiar, by blindsiding you with a recreation of a quirk you never knew you’d noticed in the first place.  Such that you don’t need to know who Spaulding Gray is exactly to recognize the myopic artiste-type Hader is playing to the hilt in “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”, or be intimately familiar with the Maysles’s Salesman (I wasn’t) to appreciate the nuances of despair that Armisen brings to a salesman aptly nicknamed “The Possum”.  The filmmaking plugs you into the characterization before the actors even open their mouths. 

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Watch It For:  The sneaky emotional payoffs, like the shockingly sweet conclusion to “Juan Loves Rice And Chicken”.  Or just for the Hader impressions we've been missing since he left SNL, as the premiere and finale give extended spotlights for his takes on James Carville and Robert Evans (featuring such astute bitchery as "Chariots Of Fire - which at best is a soundtrack your mother has in her car...").  God, I hope we never lose him permanently to "serious" acting.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this # 8.  


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Many shows with great debut seasons suffer fairly steep sophomore slumps (see Mr. Robot for this year’s most striking example).  But there are rarer occasions wherein a sophomore surge occurs, and a previously good show hits a peak that it will never quite reach again.  Sometimes, an incredible season takes an immediate nosedive following a questionable ending, and spends year after year chasing that dramatic dragon to increasingly diminished returns (Sons Of Anarchy, Dexter). Other times, the show is able to carry through enough of its strengths to continually flirt with that summit, but can never find a replacement for that particular conflict or antagonist that allows them to quite reach it (Justified, Boardwalk Empire).

For YTW, that antagonist was Gretchen’s depression, and if all the examples I’m citing are from dramas, that’s because the arc that propelled it to that sophomore surge was largely dramatic.  And while the third season was still very insightful and very, very funny about the ways we allow our baggage to sabotage our relationships and general happiness, it couldn’t help but fall short of the raw pathos of Gretchen’s spiral and Jimmy’s struggle to comprehend it.  The show tried to compensate by giving more dramatic material to supporting players Lindsay and Edgar, but the final dissolution of her marriage veered into territory that was too unremittingly cruel (a fine line the show generally walks with aplomb), and he is a character that just rarely works for me.  While he took center stage for the series highlight “22”, that touching, format-bending episode is not enough to lift the entire season on its shoulders.  Nor to make sense out of his ass-backward fall into success as a comedy writer/performer, despite never showing the slightest aptitude for delivering even the most basic joke (the character, not Desmond Borges, who is capable of wringing laughs out of fairly bleak material when the opportunity presents). 

So the show falls back, as always, on the considerable strength of the central couple.  And while their material, dealing with his father’s death and her blusterous forays into therapy, provided plenty of laughs, it did not have enough feels to keep the show from slipping down the list considerably (last year I rated it #1 overall).   If the show is ever able to tap into a dramatic vein as rich as last year’s again, it’s a given that Aya Cash and Chris Geere will be able to knock it out of the park.  Until then, we’ll have to settle with them being funny as fuck as the most oddly, blackly sweet couple to grace the airwaves.  At least to each other.  Literally everyone else in the world can eat a bag of diseased assholes.

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Watch It For:  A wake turned ill-advised heckling session, with live piano accompaniment by Ben Folds providing tinkling punctuation for each jab.


In year's past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this # 9.  Things start to get a bit political here.  I know no one comes here for that, but it couldn't be helped.

9.  VEEP (HB0)

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The unlikely cherry on top of the sundae of electoral birdshit that 2016 served us was that a smooth, peaceful transition of power was possible, if only in the realm of particularly scabrous political satire. When creator Armando Ianucci left Veep for the 5th season, it seemed like a given that his brand of unceasingly brutalistic insults could not be recreated by a mere professional comedy writer.  But Curb Your Enthusiasm vet David Mandel leapt over not just the incredibly distinctive dialogue bar, but also stepped into the most complicated plot morass the show had ever ventured into. With a tied election resulting in run-off chaos that led to Selina turning on her own staff, Gary getting delusions of grandeur, and in perhaps the richest comic vein the show ever tapped, Jonah “Jonad” “The Scrotum Pole” “The Cloud Botherer” Ryan running for Congress.  Paired with unflappably un-competent Richard T. Splett as a campaign manager, Jonah’s campaign is a runaway train of unprincipled idiocy that of course manages to win in spite of itself (this is 2016, after all) by relentlessly and senselessly denigrating the woman running for president (this is 2016, after all). 

Meanwhile, in the White House, Selina wrestles with her attempts to put down a defection from within her own ranks and come to some terms with her strained relationship with her mother while still making time to undermine her own daughters attempts to define herself as a lesbian and a filmmaker (the documentary she films “Kissing Your Sister: The Story Of A Tie” makes for the season’s best episode).  And her frantic flunkies continue to run in circles, stepping on each other’s privates and then vociferously and specifically insulting the girth and texture of said privates.  It makes for the usual delightful television, and now, in all likelihood, also an unfortunately idealized version of what the bungling and finger-pointing at the White House is going to actually look like for the next however many years.  Under Trump, the vulgarity will no doubt remain accurate, but with a severalfold increase in Neo-Nazis, the real insults probably aren’t going to be quite as florid and entertaining as they are on HBO (why settle for calling someone "cuck" when you can tell them to go fuck a bag of glass?).  Veep has, through no fault of its own, become to the incoming Trump administration what The West Wing was to Clinton’s.  Thanks to 2016, what was once scathing satire has become aspirational fantasy. 

But at least we still get to see Jonah announce that he’s “eating so much pussy I’m shittin’ clits!” to a room full of school children. 

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Watch It ForRichard T. Splett.