My fellow TV addicts,
Pilot, your response to The Great Indoors is the most generous reading I can even imagine. I’m not sure CBS comedies deserve your open-heartedness. (And I say that as someone who watches and more or less enjoys at least three of them.)
Here, without further ado, is my carefully calibrated, utterly precise top 10 list.
1. The People v. O.J. Simpson
2. The Americans
3. Halt and Catch Fire
5. American Crime
6. Game of Thrones
7. Survivor’s Remorse
8. The 100
9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
10. Difficult People
OK, that was a lie, there are another 20 shows I could have added with pride. Better Call Saul—a wonderfully twisty (but not in a tiresome, Scandal-ruining way), openly emotional drama that at this point feels like it exists in a different universe from Breaking Bad—lost out because it aired so long ago. I forgot how great it was until I saw it on Willa’s list. Atlanta, whose miserabilist pilot I hated but which burrowed into my head more effectively than pretty much anything else I watched this year, should be up there. London Spy, which built from a disturbing opening episode (off-puttingly creepy or gloomy openers were a definite thing this year) into a psychologically convincing story of a gay guy who grew up marinating in familial homophobia finally realizing his potential. London Spy could just as easily have been called Be Wowed by Ben Whishaw’s Acting, Humans; he was in almost every scene, and I already want to start calling him Sir Ben. Perhaps Claire Foy’s QEII will knight Whishaw at some point in Season 17 of The Crown? I was sure that show would be a rehash of a royal story I’d already seen hundreds of times, but it provided much-needed posh-voiced entertainment just after the election—and even a few of those moments of transcendence I’m always banging on about. The coronation scene, in which Elizabeth is anointed and pledges her troth to the nation and God, really moved me, though I’m still a confirmed anti-monarchist.
I could also replace a bunch of them without feeling a twinge of regret. Game of Thrones is there on the basis of a couple of astonishing fight scenes (about which I have heretofore given zero rips), Lady Lyanna Mormont, and the thrill of getting to join in on various chants about the North. (Apparently, whatever my U.S. passport says, I am still a Mancunian.) The second season of American Crime coaxed wonderful performances out of several fine actors, and its focus on the psychological damage familial and peer-group homophobia can inflict on gay high-schoolers was devastating. But is it the fifth-best show of the year? Who knows!
This year, as in 2015, it felt like Netflix, Amazon, and even smaller services like Seeso and Acorn TV dominated my viewing, because they succeeded in adhering my rear end to the couch for far longer than is healthy. New shows like The Crown, Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Take My Wife, and Good Girls Revolt (not good in the strict sense of the word but shockingly watchable) joined Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards (yes, I’m still watching!), Catastrophe, Grace and Frankie, Longmire, Transparent, and others I’ve surely forgotten in taking over my life, if only for one weekend at a time. All these shows gave me uncomplicated pleasure, and because the services cough up all the episodes at once, they complicate journalistic timing, which makes it easier to watch them like a pleasure-seeking civilian rather than a hot-take-seeking writer.
This year I got to hang out with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the co-showrunners of The Americans, and interview a bunch of actors, composers, and network execs about Season 4 for the Americans insider podcast. That left me more convinced than ever that it’s the best show on television. I get anxious just thinking about Season 4’s complications—Martha, Agent Gaad, Nina, Pastor Tim’s African sojourn, Young Hee, the Glanders of it all—and yet all that is as nothing compared with the really devastating stuff happening inside Philip’s and Elizabeth’s and Paige’s heads. Nevertheless, I put The People v. O.J. Simpson at the top of my list, because those 10 episodes managed to be thrilling and gripping and enraging—and also to illuminate new aspects of an already overexposed story. I had low expectations going in, because Ryan Murphy—I’ve loved his shows more than most critics, but I’ve also watched them, so I know how quickly things can go wrong—but also because, being the crone of this foursome, I saw O.J.-mania as a live show, and I wasn’t sure it would work as a rerun.
I have very clear memories of the white Bronco chase, which I watched in a Dairy Queen in Norman, Oklahoma. During the trial, I was one of those people who listened to the live feed all day at my desk then went home to watch Geraldo Rivera and John Gibson and all the talking heads who provided exegesis of the day’s courtroom drama. Such happy memories of Gerry Spence and his fringed jacket! I’ve been an O.J.-ologist for decades, but the FX series still felt fresh and insightful and fair. My favorite episode was, of course, “A Jury in Jail.” What expresses our nation’s divisions more clearly than a fight over whether to watch Seinfeld or Martin?
I’ll get back to my favorite dramas in my next entry, because first I want to help bring some laughter into Willa’s world. I often laugh out loud at television—though my favorite is a 1-2 punch of eureka! insight and ha-ha laughter. I reliably get that combo in Survivor’s Remorse, which has gotten better every season. One particularly pleasing episode seamlessly shifted from silliness about sex robots to a discussion of colorism and activism; another—perhaps the half-hour that made me laugh the most this entire year—was about the challenges of writing a really good thank you note. Like The Americans, it’s burrowing deeper into its characters’ psyches in ways that are totally convincing, and I love that the members of the Calloway family seem to genuinely care for each other. As Margaret Lyons pointed out in her great New York Times “Watching” newsletter, “[I]ts characters are funny for one another’s sake—the jokes aren’t there to make just the audience laugh, they’re there to make other characters laugh as well.” So many sitcoms—Veep, Silicon Valley, Big Bang Theory, all the network comedies about unhappy married couples—are about people who hate each other (or, best-case scenario, are just pretending to). I just need to be reassured that humor is sometimes more than a festival of shiv swinging.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is hilarious (and touching and sad), as is Difficult People, which is also slightly unpleasant and totally unhinged. I love The Real O’Neals, which combines absurdist fish-out-of-water humor with truly perceptive commentary about growing up gay in a loving, anxious family. Fresh Off the Boat is fab, especially now that Eddie’s younger brothers are being fleshed out. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is sweet and weird and very funny. Black-ish brings the belly laughs and is a surprise successor to The Good Wife as the network show that most reliably deals with important issues that broadcast television typically declines to tackle. (The Carmichael Show, too.) Modern Family is still churning out touching stories in its eighth season. I know some people found Modern Family cloying from the pilot on, but it has always tickled my funny bone, so I’m glad they’re still working from the same template. Catastrophe cracks me up. I adore American Housewife, and I don’t really know why—Katie (the irresistible Katy Mixon) is so full of resentment and barely controlled anger that I worry she’s developing an ulcer. But I like her, and, to close the loop, she makes me laugh.
I’m enjoying this so much. I just wish we could all have this conversation in person, perhaps sitting on an old couch that’s been left outdoors for days, like they do in Insecure, Atlanta, and Take My Wife.