In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.
But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.
Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.
Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.
Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.
Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.
Review: Black Monday: Season One
Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.2.0
The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.
Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.
Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.
A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.
The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.
Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.
Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.2.5
The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?
That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.
The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.
Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.
The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.
Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.
Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.
It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2018
Almost all of these shows—even the most joyfully escapist among them—seemed preoccupied in 2018 with the forces which make us who we are.
The best television shows of 2018 comprised a bounty of varied perspectives and disparate storytelling styles. Look closely, though, and many of the year’s more rewarding shows were attuned to the rigors of human existence, and curious about the pliable concept of identity—be it the identity of a horny teen on Big Mouth, of New York City on The Deuce, or of subjugated women on The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the second season of GLOW, the eponymous wrestlers struggle for screen time on their show within the show, and simultaneously tangle with the fallout of the characters they craft for themselves in the ring. Despite The Good Place upending its stakes and setting, the show’s relentlessly likeable characters continue to underpin its sunny disposition with an earnest investigation of how our moral identities are forged. And as shows such as Atlanta, Pose, and Dear White People broadened television’s definition of “we” in 2018, one of the medium’s overarching questions seemed to be: “Why are we this way?”
As one answer to that question, The Haunting of Hill House complemented its scares with an equally harrowing portrait of a damaged family. Atlanta and Bojack Horseman found a response in the ceaseless, pummeling nature of everyday life, while Dear White People, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Barry wondered if we are what other people—white people, the patriarchy, exploitative bosses—say we are. Other shows, such as Bob’s Burgers, were delightful reprieves from reality, though one could certainly find poignancy in that show’s portrayal of middle-class America.
This year’s list shares only nine entries with last year, a fact that highlights the breadth of a TV landscape that’s abundant in shows with limited runs. In some cases, shows made a qualitative leap in their second seasons; in others, bold newcomers quickly established themselves among TV’s upper echelon. Almost all of these shows—even the most joyfully escapist among them—seemed preoccupied in 2018 with the forces which make us who we are. Michael Haigis
25. The Terror
Based on the true story of a failed British expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century, The Terror explores the toxic combination of arrogance and bravery that fuels the exploratory missions launched by great colonial powers. After getting stuck for a year and a half in Artic ice, the men, weakened by lead poisoning and fighting the elements, set off on foot in search of salvation. The Terror brings those awful facts vividly alive—and then goes further, creating a full-blown horror story by introducing a monster called the Tuunbaq, which looks something like a giant polar bear with a human face. The men divide into two factions, battling one another as well as the monster while dying in increasingly baroque ways. Scenes like a fire that ravages a camp, trapping dozens of people in flaming tents just as the men are having a rare night of celebration, ramp up the sense of claustrophobic terror, which only gets worse when the mad leader of one of the factions begins to cannibalize his enemies. Throughout it all, the Tuunbaq keeps decimating their ranks while growing increasingly weakened by the bullets they empty into him—and, presumably, the lead he ingests when he eats them. Like other classic movie monsters, the Tuunbaq is an unsettling metaphor for the way humans throw nature itself out of balance when we gain too much power. Elise Nakhnikian
Steven Soderbergh understands that he must grab us in this century of endless distraction, and his efforts to hold our attention in Mosaic parallel the characters’ attempts to corral chaos into a functional narrative. In the guise of mounting a murder mystery, the filmmaker attempts to push narrative out of a classical three-act format. Mosaic‘s episodes could be watched in any order and they’d still have a dizzying emotional and intellectual effect, suggesting less what we know than what we don’t. As he did in films such as The Limey and Side Effects, Soderbergh fashions found and abstract poetry out of the hard lines of the lairs of the rich and famous. His formalism suggests a wonderfully unlikely fusion of the films of Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni with lurid noir. Mosaic suggests a mammoth world that exists beyond his rigorously structured narrative, as every textured shot and stray bit of humor hints at the wild humanity existing under the controlled institutions and mannerisms that we collectively call society. Chuck Bowen
23. Silicon Valley
Despite losing T.J. Miller as its resident frenemy/douchebro, Silicon Valley successfully maintained its trademark undercurrent of pettiness and macho one-upmanship throughout its fifth season. The new season contained two of the show’s best episodes to date, “Reorientation” and “Fifty-One Percent,” the former a master class in throwing techie shade, the latter so perfectly succinct it could have served as the series finale. As always, Silicon Valley casts a satirical gaze on timely tech topics, with this season focusing on Bitcoin, net neutrality, employee poaching, artificial intelligence, the all-consuming blob called Amazon, and the inexplicable allure of Tesla cars. The writers also took their most biting jabs at Information Technology by offering up a vicious parable on the technological and psychological effects of sexual harassment. Directed by Gillian Robespierre, “Facial Recognition” showed that not even female robots are immune to the whims of horny men in power. Additionally, this season benefitted from the consistently reliable physicality of its lead, Thomas Middleditch. Richard Hendricks continues to grow, applying the things he’s learned in prior seasons while still managing to make the same mistakes. He’s the perfect counterbalance to Martin Starr’s droll-as-always Gilfoyle, a dead-on impersonation of your average programmer and still the show’s secret weapon. Odie Henderson
This soulful soap operatic drama pays tribute to New York City’s ball culture of the 1980s. Painting in broad, dramatic strokes, the script highlights the factors—racism, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS, and the wealth gap—that inspired these men and women to create their own world and faux families, where they could show one another the love and respect that they couldn’t find anywhere else. Balancing out the show’s earnest speeches and righteous crusades is plenty of sheer, campy joy, much of it provided by the balls that cap off most of the episodes. It’s an endearingly lumpy mix, made even more so by the uneven quality of the acting, but that very lack of polish is a large part of why the series works. Like the original ball scene, with all its homemade fabulosity, Pose aspires to a level of perfection it can’t quite achieve—and wins us over with the sheer heart and humanity of its effort. Nakhnikian
Unlike Homeland, which is based on another Israeli series, Fauda makes no attempt to cover the political debates or social context behind its constant action. Instead, like its main characters, it keeps its head down and its focus tight. The series follows the fictional members of an elite undercover unit of the Israeli army and whichever Palestinian freedom fighter/terrorist that Doron (Lior Raz), a rogue member of the unit, is obsessed with that season, while occasionally checking in with a handful of other Israelis and Palestinians—family members, lovers, or commanding officers—who either affect or are affected by the main characters’ actions. Fauda (Arabic for “chaos”) is particularly good at showing how war, especially one with no end in sight, poisons the lives of everyone—even civilians. While most of the women on the perimeter of the action have relatively modest dreams, just hoping to marry the man they love or keep their children safe, they inevitably get sucked into the maelstrom, losing their peace of mind, their loved ones, and sometimes their lives. Their romances sometimes stretch credulity, particularly this season when, despite actress Laëtitia Eïdo’s excellent work, Shirin, a dedicated Palestinian doctor, risks becoming a mere symbol of suffering as Doron and Shirin’s young militant cousin Walid (Shadi Mar’i) treat her like the rope in a macho game of tug of war. But the way killings and atrocities keep piling up on both sides, creating more trauma and more would-be martyrs by the day, feels all too believable. Nakhnikian
20. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
It’s always a pleasure when The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, like Mrs. Maisel’s comedy routines, doesn’t take the easy road. Around the midway point of the show’s second season, Midge’s (Rachel Brosnahan) father learns that she’s comedian, during one of her sets. As is her custom, Midge fabulously rolls with the punches, causing Abe (Tony Shaloub) to depressingly pull away from her in ways that are more than a little sad and a whole lot of toxic. But the episode doesn’t end with him putting his foot down. Soon, Abe learns that his son, Noah (Will Brill), is a C.I.A. agent and the government, through fear of repercussion, prevents him from doing onto Noah as he did onto Midge. To be denied the full force of his patriarchal might effectively opens his eyes to the fact that Midge is more talented than the hack comedians that tend to him and all the other bluebloods on the borscht belt. After almost losing his life to free-wheeling Paris, Abe should have known better, but this vivaciously alive and often disarmingly off-color comedy knows that some men, most men actually, need to be reminded more than once of a woman’s worth. Ed Gonzalez
19. High Maintenance
Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the husband-and-wife creators of High Maintenance, have fun regarding the changing character of New York. Theirs is a lightness of spirit that never feels smug, and is evident even in seemingly throwaway gags, like an extended reference to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The highlight of High Maintenance‘s new season is “Derech,” because it’s the episode where all of the show’s thematic concerns, along with its flair for misdirection, most effortlessly converge. Centered on an ex-Hasidic man (Luzer Twersky) who’s probably being taken advantage of by a Vice reporter (Ismenia Mendes) for a story, the episode zigs and zags its way to its unexpected conclusion, recontextualizing our view of everyone along the way. And by the time one of the drag performers (Darrell Thorne), who earlier sings “What are you up to, Elisabeth Shue?” in a moment of stoned bliss, swoops in to save the day, High Maintenance has again digressively arrived at a familiar and comforting place. Here and elsewhere, the series attests with great compassion to the revitalizing effects of living in a place where, while more homogeneous than it once was, pockets of resistance remain—and where people are nothing if not alive to the power of difference. Gonzalez
18. The Good Place
The Good Place has always partially deconstructed the sitcom format, with the amiable Bad Place demon Michael (Ted Danson) acting as a writer-creator who places his deceased subjects in uncomfortable situations and watches them wriggle. Owing to Michael’s ability to shape reality for the show’s other characters, The Good Place can alter its own premise from season to season—sometimes from episode to episode. In its third season, The Good Place capitalized on that flexibility by having Michael bring his ragtag group of subjects back to Earth, where they ostensibly have another shot at entering The Good Place. At least, that is, until they don’t. The Good Place uses its fluid internal logic to manifest hilarious sight gags, poke fun at locales as disparate as Australia and Jacksonville, and heighten the stakes for its characters: The show’s central question is no longer whether the misanthropic Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her motley crew belong in The Good Place, but whether humans are inherently capable of substantial self-improvement. Ultimately, The Good Place has faith in both its characters’ budding altruism and human capacity for change, which—along with keen observational humor and a limitless format—turns the show’s quietly heady investigation of ethics into an optimistic salve. Haigis
Bill Hader and Alec Berg, the creators of HBO’s dark comedy Barry, mine a considerable amount of heartfelt insight from their show’s farcical premise: Barry (Hader) is a depressed hitman who falls in love with acting after stumbling into an acting class while on a mission in Los Angeles. The universe of Barry is marked by a style of absurdism and surrealism that recalls FX’s Atlanta, another comedy about a man struggling to improve his station in life. The series has an absorbing, dreamlike quality that, when punctuated with extreme violence, appears nightmarish. Events occur in Barry’s life that defy logic: The police, investigating a series of crimes connected to Barry, bumble along as though they’ve never handled an investigation before, and after Barry’s partner in a brief romantic fling becomes mysteriously distant, his overreaction is no less inexplicable. Such moments service the show’s convoluted plot, which operates as a comedy of errors. Hader and Berg appear uninterested in revealing more about Barry’s personal history than what is communicated by their catchy premise, seemingly figuring that watching Barry navigate the criminal underworld and the cutthroat acting world will remain interesting and entertaining enough. And for the most part, they’re right. Haigis
16. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Like most shows from the Ryan Murphy traveling circus, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story—or as I like to call it, American Horror Story: Irréversible—slowly sinks its teeth into you. First it confronts us with the unbearable horror of Andrew Cunanan’s (Darren Criss) rage against one of his victims, then backtracks in time to reveal the sadness and frustration of both victim and victimizer, so as to make sense of what initially feels so absolutely senseless. Which is to say, everything that the news didn’t tell you during Cunanan’s three-month killing spree in mid-1997. In one episode, David Madson (Cody Fern) locks eyes with a woman who regards him with a contempt that’s wrenching, numbing him to the certainty of his death. And that’s just one of many instances of how this show harrowingly depicts the psychological and physical toll of the tyranny of the closet. Gonzalez
15. Random Acts of Flyness
In the first episode of his Afrofuturist-ish HBO sketch show, creator, director, and star Terence Nance says Random Acts of Flyness is “about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.” That broad frame allows Nance to download a multiverse of thoughts and ideas, from pointed observations about casual misogyny to a satiric skewering of “white thoughts.” Building on his work in films like An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Nance invents his own kaleidoscopic audiovisual language. Images switch frequently between realistic and surrealistic live action, obscure archival footage, and various styles of animation. Words blossom in myriad forms: as near-subliminal messages, as text exchanges that break into the action to comment on it, as fast-talking monologues or probing conversations. The end result may be dense to the point of impenetrable at times, but Random Acts of Flyness can be gloriously straightforward too. A recurring bit with the characteristically ambiguous title of “Blackface” consists of a parade of beautiful dark-skinned faces, each perfectly lit against a black backdrop and gazing at the camera in lingering close-up. A celebration of black American creativity, intelligence, and beauty,
14. Bob’s Burgers
The Belcher kids, as whip-smart as they are, will believe anything as long as what they’re told is as anarchic as their inner spirits. “That all checks out,” says Louise, after a chauffeur informs her that “Thomas Hanks” was paid $12,000 after fans of Big were decapitated en masse after sticking their heads out of limousine roofs. Of course, sometimes only seeing is believing. Case in point: “The Trouble with Doubles,” an uproarious and poignant ode to the vividness of our fears, which sees Tina (Dan Mintz), Louise (Kristen Schaal), and Gene (Eugene Mirman) hosting a movie night that ends with their friends more than a little shaken—and in the case of Rudy (Brian Huskey), hilariously out of breath. The moment is enough for Tina to take charge, conquering a private fear by busting out the “legendary Tina-singing-to-her-poop tape.” The sentimental and the anarchic continue to walk gloriously hand in hand on Bob’s Burgers, which understands that desperate times often all for deeply embarrassing measures. Gonzalez
13. Better Call Saul
After four seasons, Better Call Saul has more than established itself as a devious inversion of the series that originated it. Audiences once took pleasure in seeing Walter White break bad, traveling down his predetermined—and over-quoted—path of going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. There’s comparatively little pleasure in Jimmy McGill’s equally predetermined descent into the shoes of criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. For what fun montages and schemes may crop up along the way (the Free Will Baptist Church con is an all-timer), there’s a real dread in knowing how he ends up. The series has simply been too good at showing his heart, at giving a glimpse of the man who might have been; we don’t want to let go. But Better Call Saul has let go. In the aftermath of the previous season, Jimmy slips into a hole of resentment and discontent from which he may never emerge. Here he finally is, the lauded male antihero at the center of TV’s golden age. Buy his poster. Wear his t-shirt. After all, isn’t he what we’ve all waited for? Steven Scaife
12. The Americans
How quickly things change. The fifth season of The Americans ended with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) tacitly accepting that she’s bought the fantasy of the American capitalist dream. Flash-forward a year to the morally uneasy finale of the series and Elizabeth looks out of over a Russian skyline and utters, “We’ll get used to it.” We may never know if she actually believes that to be true. More certain is that, some 20 minutes into the episode, The Americans pulled off its greatest coup. Inside a parking garage, the world collapsing around them, Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) are confronted by Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), and for the next 10 minutes Philip pulls a perfect high-wire act that puts the Jennings’ almost eight-year-long gaslighting of their neighbor into dazzlingly broad context. Philip’s bravura, a brilliantly controlled articulation of everything that was real and less than real about his friendship to Stan, is at once stinging and vulnerable—and the perfect distillation of everything that made The Americans one of the greatest modern-day television shows. Gonzalez
11. The Handmaid’s Tale
Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Haigis
10. Killing Eve
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s affinity for girls behaving badly was at the center of her last project for the BBC, Fleabag, in which the female protagonist steals, seduces, and cracks rape jokes. With Killing Eve—which Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the same whip-smart voice to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Waller-Bridge’s own Fleabag. Those programs are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger
As much as any series this year, Legion underscored the role of television as a forum for risk-taking. Noah Hawley’s comic-book freak-out uses boldly off-kilter visuals and an occasionally challenging narrative to elevate what is essentially standard superhero fare. In its second season, the series maintains focus on the showdown between David (Dan Stevens) and The Shadow King (Navid Negahban), a conflict that seems as fundamentally simplistic as any good-versus-evil tale. Yet Legion, by employing stylistic flourishes which reflect David’s fractured psyche and telepathic powers, turns a basic story into a byzantine maze which leads to a genuine shock. After embedding the viewer in David’s highly unreliable perspective, the second season ends with a twist that suggests we might have been subjected more to his delusions than once seemed possible. When the nominal hero commits an unforgivable violation in the season’s surprising finale, Legion morphs into a rumination on egoism, entitlement, and toxic masculinity. Legion is a superhero story that does more than merely excite, and maintains a healthy skepticism toward would-be heroes with unchecked power. Haigis
Homecoming‘s visual ambition is complemented by intellectual curiosity, with creator and director Sam Esmail using the show’s titular facility—a therapeutic treatment facility designed to help returning American veterans acclimate to civilian life—to impugn the motivations of the military industrial complex and its profiteering contractors. In the tight span of 10 easily digestibly half-hour episodes, the show’s writers highlight the tenuous relationship between memory and reality, and demonstrate the dehumanizing nature of combat. As Heidi, an under-experienced social worker played by Julia Roberts, circles the dark truth of what happened at Homecoming, the series explores the emotional fallout of the soldiers’ most tragic experiences, and underlines the way the men’s emotions inform their very realities. Homecoming manages to both thrill and propose a grim hypothetical: that the earnest practice of soldier rehabilitation and the economic rigors of the war business may not be able to coexist. Haigis
7. BoJack Horseman
More than any other of modern television’s prestige offerings, BoJack Horseman is at once edifying and infantile. It tosses out literary witticisms with ease and dots its assiduously composed backgrounds with visual and linguistic larks that will have you reaching for the pause button. And yet, for all its trenchant banter and adroit wordplay, it’s the Netflix show’s painful earnestness that makes it brilliant—the way it uses fantasy to address reality and its many barbarities, the unescapable consequences of selfishness, the collateral damage of self-destruction, the corrosive effects of mental illness. But the latest season of the series isn’t all ennui and agony. It’s also slathered with sex jokes and groan-inducing euphemisms, unrepentantly childish and deftly delivered. It’s a serious show, but not self-serious. Greg Cwik
6. The Deuce
In its second season, HBO’s sprawling, richly detailed series jumps forward to 1978 in order to arrive at another inflection point—one marked by the nascent feminist movement, emerging punk culture, and the complete commodification of porn. With this temporal leap, creators David Simon and George Pelecanos maintain the sensation that New York is perpetually on the brink of transformation, and create tension by intertwining the destinies of the show’s characters with the fate of the changing city. The series focuses on the far-reaching effects of urban transformation, and asks who benefits the most from urban renewal. In Simon’s work, change is calamitous for a city’s marginalized characters, those figures who are barred from the insulated corridors of power—and those figures toward which, including even the villainous and predatory pimps, Simon is clearly most sympathetic. For the club owners and porn stars in The Deuce, 1978 is a boom. Yet Simon, so focused on renewal and decay, is rarely coy about foreshowing the bust. Season two amounts to a halcyon recollection, overshadowed by impending tragedy that will likely come as a shock, and represent the end of the good old days, which were deteriorating from the moment they began. Haigis
5. Dear White People
Dear White People‘s sophomore season urgently formulates a trenchant assessment of America’s deteriorating national dialogue. Last season proposed discourse as a bridge between whites and blacks, but as Twitter trolls and insurgent white nationalists plunge the fictional Winchester University into unrest, Dear White People now questions whether such a discourse is possible at all. Writer-creator Justin Simien is adept at asking questions without purporting to have any answers. The show’s mostly black students have individual and unique reactions to the events of last season, but they’re united by a crisis of confidence. Student union meetings across campus are clouded with uncertainty, as students struggle to move forward while Winchester is increasingly divided along racial lines. Despite being as quick and witty as ever, the characters’ conversations unfold with a demoralizing sense of fatalism. The series offers a dim view of communication in an increasingly tribal world. Haigis
Season two of GLOW maintained the show’s masterful balance of camp, breezy humor, and weighty drama, while offering deepened insight into how its striving characters relate to the patriarchal systems in their professional and personal lives. As they struggle to keep their show on the air, Ruth (Alison Brie), Debbie (Betty Gilpin), and the rest of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling compete with one another for the opportunity to stage matches that often veer toward exploitation. The fraught relationship between the women’s professional success and personal debasement is one that GLOW‘s writers cannily navigate—never more so than when Tammé (Kia Stevens) embarrassedly performs as her wrestling persona, The Welfare Queen, in front of her horrified son (Eli Goree). GLOW reflects her paradoxical emotions in equal measure: Tammé‘s pride at having mastered a craft, and her utter shame at having to stoop toward racial caricature for approval. The series is similarly poignant when portraying pitfalls faced by its other female characters, including an encounter between Ruth and a network executive which unflinchingly evokes the #MeToo movement. Just as often, GLOW is airy and accessible, using comedy as a Trojan horse for trenchant observations of the role of women in wrestling, entertainment, and society at large. Haigis
3. Big Mouth
It feels reductive to call Big Mouth a public service, because no one thinks of public services as being thoughtful, funny, or full of illustrated penises. But the Netflix cartoon’s brazen approach to sexuality is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, a plea to normalize the behavior and bodily functions that society has taught us to hide in shame. To do it for the kids, because the kids of Big Mouth sure could use a more understanding world to grow up in. Puberty for them may have a distinct surplus of hairy monsters and horny ghosts, but their confusion and anxiety rings as unfortunately true as any teen drama ever has. If the first season introduced all the apparitions that symbolized the kids’ new urges and thought processes, the second tasks them with something even more difficult: adjusting to the fact that those things are all here to stay. Even the new addition of the seemingly malevolent dildo connoisseur the Shame Wizard isn’t here to be defeated so much as eventually accommodated. While lives and relationships change, season two of Big Mouth demonstrates how we all learn to survive with those wizards, ghosts, and monsters whispering in our ears. Scaife
2. The Haunting of Hill House
Created, written, and directed by Mike Flanagan, who’s unmatched in his ability to tune audiences into the strain and intensity of characters’ tortured psyches, The Haunting of Hill House is less than an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name than an echo of it. The series, at least until its disarmingly hopeful finale, leaves you with a depressing and melancholy impression that there may actually be no escape from whatever it is that’s haunting the Crain family. And there’s a sense that all five of the Crain siblings seem to understand as much, each and every one of them throwing themselves into their work or shrinking into their addictions, sometimes both, as if hoping to discover something to the contrary. It’s as they’re all perpetually standing on a bridge between the real and the ethereal, uncertain of where to go. Gonzalez
1. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season is cloaked in a heavy yet strangely exhilarating veil of dread. Like Twin Peaks: The Return, there’s a sense that anything can happen in this series, as comedy mingles with violence and transcendence with a liquidity that feels simultaneously spontaneous and preordained. The most uncomfortable moments of Atlanta‘s first season, such as the killing of a gun-running Uber driver, are the rule in Robbin’ Season rather than the exception. Last season’s lighter, frothier moments—the ones that kept it more or less tethered to the formula of a modern, upscale single-camera TV comedy for erudite young liberals—have been pared away. The characters are chillier and more aloof, defensive, and hostile now. Part of this new discomfort stems from what is murkily implied to have occurred in the characters’ lives since we last saw them. We’re made intensely aware of our limitations as spectators. Donald Trump became president of the United States while Atlanta‘s first season was earning critical accolades. The early episodes of Robbin’ Season don’t mention this event, but the show’s anxious atmosphere appears to be a reaction to his divisive politics of hatred and paranoia. Bowen
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