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Screw your end of the year reviews. The best TV this year has come, and I feel like writing about it right now because it was exciting. It’s telling that of the nine shows I’ve chosen here, 6 are comedies with oft dramatic moments, one is a drama with oft comedic moments, and only one is a flat out drama (or horror story maybe), and places last on the list. Here for you are the best shows of 2018.
Bill Hader. Haderr. Hader. Get that Haderade. This man acts. This man acts at acting. There was not one performance this year where a character’s hurt and yearning could be captured so flawlessly by moments of silence, glances in a certain direction, or just plain staring at the camera blank. Hader is worn dissatisfaction, PTSD, and lifethirst come alive. A former decorated marine who killed a ton in Afghanistan, Barry now works as a hitman for a friend of his father’s (an always laconic and never boring Stephen Root) who gives him direction. The opening scenes of the show are telling. Barry comes home and showers in his lonely studio apartment, checks his answering machine, and stares at the wall forlorn. Root wakes him up and gives him a pep talk (one of many Barry has received we can tell) and sends him off to L.A. to whack some actor dipshit.
Problem: Barry falls in love. Not with the target, as would be the movie old cliché (but in a sense, yes he does) but with the target’s profession. Barry finds himself enraptured by the idea of expressing emotion (something he doesn’t know how to do) in play and in the best of ironic twist, nails his first ever scene on stage. The added brilliance here is that he only has one line playing Clarence from True Romance, and he’s so deadpan it puts Christian Slater to shame.
“Wow,” says Gene Cusimano, the theatre’s cult figurehead played with vicious and astoundingly hilarious satire by Henry Winkler. And the show takes off from there. Gems arise in the form of a silly and compassionate Chechyn mobster, the homicide detective assigned to track down Barry when inevitably shit goes awry and Barry has to murder and keep his new found passion in line with his day-job, and the whole thing turns out to be a balls out parody of acting, acting in L.A. and taking on hit-man movie clichés (and the characters within one).
Barry has a laugh every two minutes, but also belies a deep need for meaning and the presence of alienation that permeates people trying to live right now, as well as those who need to die. At the centre of it is Bill Hader, giving one of the most surprising understated performances on TV right now.
Thank you Barry.
Atlanta is super back and not super whack for season 2, and so is Earn, Al, Van, and of course the ever philosophizing Darius. This season continues with Earn’s struggles, professionally, personally, and and with just being Earn and black in America. He wants to be good at what he does—which is being Al’s manager—but he slips up often and makes bad emotional decisions. Earn’s failing is his pride, demonstrated best when he tries to take on Michael Vick in a foot race. Al, for his part is struggling with what being famous means, particularly what it means in the underground Atlanta scene and how it intersects with the larger community (an Instagram video by an enraged white mother provides huge laughs for an opening scene of an early episode). And then Darius gets the best episode of all through no other means than by just being default Darius, trying to Darius his way into getting a piano from a macabre nightmare mansion house that he found no where else than craigslist.
But rewinding to episode one, we have Kat Williams turning in a balls-out hilariously wildcard performance as a very begrudged man doing something wild and desperate, something that will have repercussions in the finale. We move on and each character gets their episode or two, with Van reevaluating her relationship to not only Earn, but those around her, and what it means to be a mother and single. Paper Boi (Al) goes on more than one adventure, one in a barbershop and with a barber, and one in the woods where in both he faces his struggles with being a name in one city. Another new character pops up in the form of intense "artist" Clark County, whose entourage provides some terror and some laughs, as well as a counterweight to Paper Boi’s persona. Also new to the scene (and he steals every one he’s in) in Tracey, fresh out of prison and grinding Earn’s gears. And then the show stops. We meet Teddy Perkins. Teddy is part commentary, part horror show, and all Donald Glover fucking with us in the best way he can, through the lens of Darius. I won’t spoil to much but to say that it is an episode that can destroy your psyche.
Atlanta as a show reminds me of the Outkast song “Spottieottiedopalicious” especially on verse:
Via Atlanta, Georgia a lil’ spot where
Young men and young women go to experience
They first li’l taste of the night life
Me? Well I’ve never been there; well perhaps once
But I, was so engulfed in the Olde E
I never made it to the door you speak of, hard core
While the DJ sweatin’ out all the problems
And the troubles of the day
While this fine bow-legged girl fine as all outdoors
Lulls lukewarm lullabies in your left ear
Competing with “Set it Off, ” in the right
But it all blends perfectly let the liquor tell it
“Hey hey look baby they playin’ our song”
And the crowd goes wild as if
Holyfield has just won the fight
But in actuality it’s only about 3 A.M
And three niggas just don’ got hauled
Off in the ambulance (sliced up)
Two niggas don’ start bustin’ (wham wham)
And one nigga don’ took his shirt off talkin’ ’bout
“Now who else wanna fuck with Hollywood Courts?”
It’s just my interpretation of the situation
Atlanta stays fresh in its sophomore season and Donald Glover is so on fire with it you need to call him 5 ambulances.
When will it decline? When will one man’s privileged misery get old? When will it all get too silly and too sad? The answer: when life does. The ever addled Bojack Horseman’s personal issues are all of our personal issues, they are not sorted out at the end of a 22 minute episode, or a season, or maybe even a whole series run. Mental illness and addiction are not solved easily, and even if we do manage to overcome big hills we carry the baggage of our previous sufferings with us always. BoJack rinses and repeats: “I’m not okay, but it’s okay to be not okay.” Well, not when you are constantly making others not okay too. Bojack is like our hero in the next review: he is a vortex that continually sucks people into his personal sicknesses.
But oh it’s funny. It’s thoughtful. It’s screwball. It’s satire a la scathe. This year we take on the #metoo movement and Hollywood’s shameful forgiveness of awful people, BoJack as a feminist leader, and a variety of other niche issues like adoption and asexualism. The best episodes lie in the middle, with a Halloween episode that juxtaposes three parties in three different times and lends profound insight into Mr. Peanutbutter’s continual problems with connecting to intimacy. In another episode Bojack fails to distinguish reality from the TV show he is filming, as the stories run too parallel and involve people to close to him in his real life.
Finally, the showstopper. Bojack makes a point of criticizing the show he is on for talking to much: “Why is there so much dialogue, TV is a visual medium!” and then the very following is entirely spent on him delivering a single, heart smashing monologue. It’s 22 minutes of Bojack talking to his dead mother, and it will leave you in pieces. Lastly, Bojack deals with addiction, and the savagery it inflicts on others. In monumental irony, Bojack becomes a feminist hero when he utters the line “Maybe we shouldn’t choke women,” and then finds himself doing the very act when his pills get the better of him.
Packed once again with celebrity voices and amazing throw away jokes (Bojack requires a minimum of one re-watch per season) it continues to be the most comedically dense show on the air. It requires you to think and work, to engage your brain, not turn it off. Bojack Horseman is simply the best show Netflix has ever made to date, and as long as he is human and faulted, I will never stop watching it.
'Better Call Saul'
Better Call Saul takes a dip this season, a little one, despite the continued amazing work of Rhea Seahorn as Kim Wexler and some surprising supporting character notes. These particularly from an addled German engineer assigned to create Gus Fring’s underground meth lab masterpiece under the supervision of Mike, and from the latest Salamanca on the scene, Lalo, who for once is not a Salamanca who is a mindless thug.
At the centre of the two (and not often intermingling) narratives are Jimmy and Mike. Jimmy is doing Jimmy, scheming and hustling while trying to get his ability to practice law back, often sucking in Kim, who is easily seduced when it comes to her actually helping people. This makes sense, as Kim’s main job is corporate and soul destroying. On the Mike side, we see his transition from typically moral man to being the brains and muscle of a full fledged criminal organization in a particularly sad crime he chooses to commit. Two key events here are integral in our main lead’s arcs: for Jimmy it is dealing—or not dealing—with his brother’s death and how that will affect him in the law game, and for Mike it goes back (or forward, as it were) to whether or not he will commit to a full measure or a half measure in dealing with a particular problem.
Where the failing lies is in the prolonged transformations. Yes they are written beautifully and with subtlety, yes they are filmed with style and grace, yes sometimes it feels like a lot of filler, even for a short 8 episode season. BCS does some of the best character work on TV, often doing it so in silence, but we do know where both of these characters are headed, and by the time the finale wraps up and Jimmy’s to Saul transformation is complete, we find ourselves maybe saying finally. Suffering too is the lack of Nacho this season, as he has proven to be the best and most morally interesting characters on the show, and he is left with little dialogue and little story to be dealt with.
Still, great show.
American Vandal outdoes itself in many ways, both in the comedy and drama department for its second installment. The conceit to bring it back is great: Both Peter and Max have become national viral stars due to their first documentary covering the mystery of who drew the dicks in season one.
Now a more heinous crime has literally wrecked itself across a Washington town, and the new Scooby-doo camera crew is called in to get to the bottom of it the best way they know how: filming, interviewing, and piecing together instagram and text messages. This is the Millennial detective show of our time.
And this is where AV is genius, it strikes at the very identity of today’s youth and what it means to grow up in a digital world. The commentary is insightful and heartrending, and gets at the heart of what it means to this generation: that they are actually the most self aware of what and who they are of any generation, while they are in it. Gen X’ers often eschewed the outside analysis of themselves, but Millennials know exactly what they are because they read it online. They live online, and they can identify both what their strengths and their weaknesses are. The tragedy of AV is in those who get left behind in a digital world, those who are not able to reconcile the difference between a real person and a finely groomed online image. The culprit of this season’s hilarious pranks uses this very concept (a groomed online image) and weaponizes it.
And holy shit is this season’s prank hilarious. I still smile when I hear the name of the perpetrator the "turd burglar," and it is said so often throughout the season and with such deadpan delivery and matter of factness that it gets funnier every time it is uttered. When you find out what the crime is and how on the nose (oh lord) the name is, I hope you will be shitting yourself as much as I was.
I can’t state enough how funny and poignant and relevant this show is. It is the most important show on TV today in meting out what it means to be young today.
'The Good Place'
Cuuuuute. So darn cute. The Good Place doesn’t doesn’t knock us back with morality or insight or pull at our heart strings or try to outclever cleverness. It’s just fun and cute. But yes, it’s clever. Taking place in the afterlife where all of the characters assume they are some place they are not at different times, The Good Place is just full of fun and lovable people with a cast that hasn’t been this charming since Community. Tad Danson and Kirsten Stewart stand out as despicable people who are conniving their ways through a post death existence, and who yes, change and find their hearts a long the way. If there is a moral, it’s that bad people come in different forms and they can be good when they are all put in a room together. Basically a fun social experiment, TGP adds colour and creativity to a regular TV line-up and manages to charm. Ted Danson is perfect with his effortless sensitivity and general soothing "Dad" aura, and Stewart shines as the perpetually grumpy and sarcastic anti-hero. Beautiful joviality to pass the time.
'The Handmaid’s Tale'
Free from its source material, THT takes us deeper into its world with fascinating extrapolations. We see the death labour camps where the lowest of castes are exiled when they commit sins in The Republic of Gilead. This is anthropology. We see the political machinations of the new fundamentalist nation and how it interacts with the rest of the world. This is international relations. We see its hypocrisies and its faults, we see how women who are of the upper caste negotiate power within it. All of these things demand scrutiny, for if Margaret Atwood is going to create such an entity, we as the consumers need and want to see more of how it operates. This is history and sociology. Most of all, we see how Offred and a few others subvert it, and how they can become well, not seduced by it, but definitely rolled over by it. There is real tension here, because, well, I thought at first that it was ridiculous and alarmist how season one was compared to a Trumpian/Pence ideology, but oh lord how things can seem all too real now. That aside, this is just a marvelously crafted, sublimely well acted, and deftly executed study in drama and extremism, and manages to hold us with unexpected twists and character notes. Most at stake here is how the utter devotion to Gilead’s ideology by young people can lead them to the the worst kind of tragedy. The Handmaid’s Tale is not light watching, and is almost in dire contrast to the rest of the list above, but it is essential viewing to anybody who requires good TV and some thought and reflection.