Well, it’s that time of year again – where my wallet runs low, I begrudgingly start wearing a scarf, and I have to make some decisions about what things I want to recommend to an audience of about ten or so people.
In terms of TV, my interest and expertise tends to lie in the comedy sphere, but I made a deliberate effort to branch out in what I watch this year. Sure, four of the shows that made my list are still comedies, but it’s hard to completely buck a trend.
Worth noting before I continue is that the way these lists have been done has changed since last year. I’ve ditched ranking the shows in any way – I have one ‘best of the year’ but the rest of the ‘runner’s up’ are simply presented in alphabetical order without ranking. I think (and hope) this is the best of both worlds – there’s some competition about which show gets to be the best, but I also don’t have to decide which of two shows I liked more when they’re of completely different genres and appeal. I’ve also stopped putting a number limit on how many entries are in each list – it’s just however many I feel like highlighting now.
And, as always, my final disclaimer remains that I have not seen everything that came out this year, I have certainly not watched even half of the shows worthy enough to be on this list. If you think I should watch something – please please comment below and I’ll try and give it a look. So, without further ado;
You can watch all of An Emmy for Megan in the time it would take to watch just one episode of the next entry on this list (and you can find them all at http://anemmyformegan.com/), so really no one has any excuse not to at least check it out. I think the premise of Megan Amram’s bare-faced desperate bid to win an Emmy award probably wouldn’t sustain anything more than this, so it’s great that the show knows when to stop.
There is basically only one joke to The Good Place writer’s debut web-series, but it’s a joke with enough malleability to remain funny. A big part of that is Megan Amram’s Emmy-nominated (but sadly not Emmy winning) performance, which is perfectly sincerely insincere. It’s a meta-performance of good-bad acting that’s actually really difficult to pull off properly. As Seth Rogan says in Episode 4 – it’s ‘the best web-series acting I’ve ever seen. It makes me high from watching it’.
Mike Schur is perhaps the master of making you wish the world was more like his shows. His version of small town America has a Democrat and a Libertarian work together in harmony, his version of hell is run by the world’s kindest demon (apologies to Devilman’s Akira) and his New York City police department is run by a gay black cop and feels like the world’s happiest little family.
It’s because of that that the news that Brooklyn Nine-Nine getting cancelled felt like such a crushing blow, and why its revival by NBC happened in such a record time (further apologies to shows The Mick and Trial and Error, both also amazing, which were axed this year without nearly as much fanfare). I’m not sure if Nine-Nine is my favourite Schur show, nor if Season Five, which aired this year is particularly worthier of praise than the four that preceded it. But the show’s near death reminded me how much I’ll miss it when it does eventually leave the airwaves for good.
Of course, if we’re here talking about Season Five, there’s no way to not talk about episode 14 – ‘The Box’. This is the episode of the season, as well as the entire show, that sticks out the most to me. Although the ensemble cast is great, the key dynamic of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that between Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta and Andre Braugher’s Captain Raymond Holt. It’s their mock father-son dynamic that forms the centre of this episode, as the two of them spend almost the entire 20 minutes trying to get a murderer played by Sterling K. Brown to confess. It’s funny, clever and brilliantly acted – not only one of the show’s best episodes but one of the best episodes of TV this year.
Season Five also has the Backstreet Boys cold open, and well… click on the link in the paragraph header and enjoy.
The TV comedy space is depressingly devoid of strong visual styles – most shows are shot the same way and even when the comedy is funny and the acting is good, it can lead to the whole thing feeling rather flat. Even the most lauded comedy shows on TV are prone to this failing. The Good Place’s visual design is striking because of its wacky set design, but when removed from that backdrop (such as in the show’s most recent season), The Good Place is just as blandly shot as any other single-camera comedy TV show.
Enter, then, Corporate, the new Comedy Central show that feels amazingly unique just by looking slightly different from every other comedy on TV. Corporate borrows the visual trappings of something akin to the opening scenes of Fight Club in order to tell its stories set in the hyper-exaggerated crushingly depressing world of massive corporate culture – sort of like Better Off Ted but without the optimism or humanity of that show’s lead characters.
This isn’t an incredibly original idea – other TV shows, films and stand-up comedy routines have skewered office culture since office culture existed, and Corporate doesn’t bring too much new to the table in terms of its targets. But it’s the relentless pessimism of the lead characters, and indeed, every character and aspect of the show that gives it a niche. The aesthetic, as mentioned before, is highly filtered and dulled, but it also plays around with that in a way that never makes it boring. Even in the first scene of the first episode there are a multiple lighting, editing and sound design choices that all carefully add to the comedy.
The characters are slightly unhinged and a little unlikable, but our lead duo are just grounded enough to guide us through the ever-repeating corridors of ‘Hampton DeVille’. Sometimes the acting leaves something to be desired, making a few would-be funny lines seeming forced, but these, I hope, are teething problems that will hopefully be sorted by the upcoming second season.
One thing I admire about Comedy Central is their dedication to daring live-action comedy. Shows like Review, Nathan for You, Detroiters and, of course Corporate are all funny, but they also realise they have to bring something more to the table in order to become truly comedy classics. Corporate hasn’t quite gotten there yet, but based on this first season I have confidence that it will.
The few people who’ve followed this blog since its beginnings will remember that one of the first reviews I made on the blog was for an anime; namely the disappointing murder mystery ERASED. I was, back then, extremely into all things anime, but my interest waned over time and recently I find myself paying attention to only one or two directors. One of those directors is Masaaki Yuasa, who made a name for himself with an exceedingly unique visual style, which he applies here to Gō Nagai’s influential Devilman series.
At first, there’s something strange about pairing Yuasa’s fluid round shapes, most notably used in series like The Tatami Galaxy or Ping Pong, with the grim and edgy aesthetic of Nagai’s series, but by the first episode all fears are instantly put to rest. The look of Devilman Crybaby is intoxicating like no other – the fluid movement that Yuasa usually uses to convey natural movement in animation here lends a horrifying realism to the demons and devilmen – look no further than the ‘Sabbath’ night-club sequence for proof of this. Comparing this sequence to the original manga or OVA shows just how much what Devilman needs is a strong visual style to properly capture its carnage.
Aesthetic is key to Devilman Crybaby, but that doesn’t mean it falls completely short on story either. The basic structure and philosophical ideas of Devilman are something you’ll have seen countless times in the various series it inspired; a condemnation of basic Christian moral philosophies isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff. Crybaby, however, gives a lot more to the characters than previous versions of the work have – especially in the relationship between Akira and Ryo, who become almost joint-protagonists in Crybaby. The visuals and the soundtrack (please Netflix, release this soundtrack on Spotify) also aid in making this story come to life – the aesthetic able to inform the story and theming so brilliantly in a way that so few other animations are able to properly do.
There are, without doubt, problems with the series – Miki is left rather undeveloped and the pacing rushes towards the end, constrained by the lack of episodes. But the strength of Crybaby’s presentation carries you through it all and allows you to forget most of the show’s few problems in the moment. Although every adaptation of Devilman has its strengths, I’m confident in calling this the definitive version of the series.
What I like about An Emmy for Megan and Joe Pera Talks With You is that they’re allowed to have their episode lengths tailored to their content. Joe Pera, for example, perfectly fits the 15 minutes it gives most of its episodes – a little quarter hour hit of perfectly-pitched gentle comedy.
Joe Pera Talks With You isn’t exactly funny, per se, although there are some laughs to get from the titular character’s excessively mild-mannered demeanour. The atmosphere it creates, however, is one more attuned to a gentle inward chuckle – it’s so relaxing and charming it’s no wonder the series’ pilot was a short called Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.
Each episode focuses on another aspect of Pera’s fictionalised life, such as breakfast or dancing, and treats each with a respect it would rarely get in any other show. Pera looks at the subjects carefully and films everything beautifully, and eventually the episode drifts away from the topic at hand in order to focus on Joe himself, and what his activities and interests reveal about this sweet, absurdist comic creation.
Joe Pera Talks With You is the kind of show that you might want to watch to fall asleep, but that holds your attention enough that you’d always stay up to see how the episode ends. Amongst its normal backdrop its characters tend towards the absurd. It has episodes based on the seemingly dullest of topics but it imbues them with a sincere humour. It is wonderfully unique, but most importantly it pulls off its idiosyncratic premise perfectly.
Near the start of the year, Phoebe Waller-Bridge released her new show Killing Eve – a spy thriller focusing around the interplay between a spy and an international assassin. The first couple of episodes of Killing Eve are pretty great – the life of Sandra Oh’s spy is much more down to earth than in most spy thrillers, and serves as a neat twist on the formula. The draw of Killing Eve was the contrast between the two women it focuses on. While the spy lives a life of dull normalities, the killer lives in exciting luxury, their contrast drawing the two together. I would have liked to put Eve on this list, were it not for its second half, which ditches this engaging idea to become much more bog-standard spy thriller stuff.
The Little Drummer Girl is perhaps similarly troubled plot-wise, but doesn’t even have a unique set up – an actress is recruited by a bunch of Israeli spies to infiltrate the ranks of some Palestinian terrorists who have been responsible for some recent terror attacks targeting Jews. The only reason I was drawn to it at all was the director; Park Chan-Wook, who was responsible for The Handmaiden, one of my favourite films of last year.
Even with a story that sometimes leaves something to be desired, Chan-Wook’s direction makes this show completely worthwhile – it’s one of the best directed shows I’ve seen in a extremely long time. For a spy thriller, it’s beautifully saturated – brilliantly evoking the 70s setting in its use of colour. It is of course, shot perfectly, and Chan-Wook’s camera is typically active but even above that there’s a number of visuals that are so creative it’s almost a shock to see them attached to this show. In the fourth episode, there’s a sex scene that shows how Chan-Wook doesn’t need the explicit imagery of The Handmaiden to get his point across – the camera focuses on characters eyes and mouths; establishing a connection between the two characters much more subtly than in his previous film.
The acting from the three main players; Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgård and Florence Pugh is similarly fantastic and lends the entire script some real weight. The show’s theme of comparing acting to espionage is often overly spelled out in the dialogue, and some of the character relations feel like they would be overly simplistic when reading the script. But the acting breathes life into the entire thing, and even when the plot has to rapidly increase its pace, it is never allowed to fall off the edge.
Despite being a bit sniffy about the plot, it’s never downright bad – the slow pacing at the start is, at least for the first couple episodes, ratcheted up smoothly and it manages to keep the audience into the dark as to its true intentions for a surprisingly long time. In those first couple of episodes, every character motivation and action feels like it has an onion’s worth of layering behind it, and while later episodes ditch some of the more complex plotting, it makes up for it with an increase in direct tension.
There’s something horribly annoying about when people say ‘Oh this show only gets good at about episode 4, or in season 2 etc’, because why would I spend my (not particularly) valuable time on watching something bad for 4 hours when there’s so much else on. So when I say ‘Succession is something you won’t get into until around episode 4’, you have every right to feel sceptical. The key difference here though, is that Succession is brilliant from the start, but that the way it operates is so strange you have to adjust to its world view, at which point you’ll wonder how you ever thought you didn’t like it.
Succession, which was created by the dream team of Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong and Anchorman/The Big Short’s Adam McKay, revolves around the Roy family, an obvious parallel to the Murdoch’s, and their internal struggles for control of the media empire their father created. It’s tempting to dismiss the show as yet another ‘sympathy for the devil’ idea. Why would anyone in the current climate want to watch a show that attempts to understand and bring pathos some of the world’s worst people? Well, the trick is that the show never really makes you love its characters, especially not the Rupert Murdoch stand-in Logan Roy, who is constantly presented as the worst kind of person. Instead, when it does give its characters humanity, it reserves it for those circling Logan’s periphery; his children and other family members who he has managed to irreversibly damage. Succession shows his children for the Machiavellian schemers that they are, but also contextualises their actions by making the root cause of their nature the show’s central villain.
It can be tiring to watch another show where none of the characters are meant to be likeable, but Succession also manages to dodge that bullet by having characters in there that you do want to at least root for – characters that have some chance of escaping the pull of Logan Roy. There’s his only daughter Shiv, who makes the most open act of rebellion against her father – or her fiancée Tom and his sidekick Greg, who are perhaps the most watchable double act I’ve seen on TV in quite some time.
The show has been compared to Greek or Shakespearean tragedies, and there’s truth to those comparisons. The constant plotting and high stakes matched to family dynamics does have a lot of the appeal of a King Lear-like tale. But the surprising success is the show’s characters. The Roy children are hateable but watchable; the writing treads the finest tightrope act; it knows exactly the social context in which it’s being aired, but this doesn’t stop it from examining the hopeless tragedy of characters like Kendall and Roman Roy. I think that might be why it takes some time to get into. The show has to get you into its mindset, a strange headspace where you’re both deeply invested and disconnected from the power struggles and relationship dramas; where you can laugh and feel for these people. When it’s done that, the whole show clicks into place perfectly, and makes it, for me at least, the best show of the year.