Following on from the Top 10 films of this year, it’s time to focus our attention on the best shows from the small screen. Louis Chilton is back once again to give his insightful opinions on the shows he loved in 2016.
10. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Season 11
It is indeed possible for a long-running television programme to age gracefully, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a great example of such. While the latest season fell slightly flat in places (‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’ is a pretty disposable parody of 1980s ski movies; ‘Being Frank’, shown entirely from the viewpoint of Danny Devito’s Frank Reynolds is particularly weak), there were also instances of the show at its anarchic best (‘Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs’; ‘Charlie Finds a Leprechaun’). Over the course of its run, Sunny has distinguished itself as a recent classic of TV comedy. Its five lead characters – the ‘psychotically vain’ Dennis (Glen Howerton), his sister Dee (Kaitlin Olsen), the buffoonish Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day) and Devito’s Frank, a modern grotesque – are perfectly tuned in to each other’s rhythms, and are always generous with the performances. It takes great skill to make such absolute dysfunction coherent, and Sunny manages to turn chaos into a slick comic machine.
9. You’re The Worst, Season 3
You’re the Worst, the comedy-drama series about a narcissistic, mean-spirited but ultimately endearing young couple entered its third season this year. It no longer has the element of surprise in its corner; long-term viewers of the show will already know exactly the humour and pathos it can deliver. Plotlines for this season include Gretchen (Aya Cash) getting treatment for her clinical depression, Jimmy (Chris Geere) dealing with the death of his father, and their friend Edgar (Desmin Borges) using marijuana to self-medicate his PTSD. If that doesn’t sound like a-laugh-a-minute stuff, you’d be surprised. The jokes are as good as any programme on TV, a distinct melange of savage one-liners, pop-culture references and character-based humour. Geere and Cash are endlessly enjoyable as the two leads. The show is still willing to take risks, allowing minor characters to step into the spotlight for whole episodes with great success. But mostly, You’re the Worst’s most impressive achievement remains the same: wringing a genuine emotional potency from the most cynical and facetious of circumstances.
8. Girls, Season 5
Season four of HBO’s Girls was widely considered a let-down; it had appeared to most onlookers like the show that was once event television had jumped the proverbial shark. Or was at least floundering in the nearby shallows. In one of the year’s biggest surprises, however, Girls’ season five was a complete rejuvenation. Episodes were consistently good, ably balancing its usual cringe humour with moments of deftly handled mournfulness, and, eventually, exuberance. The ever-divisive Lena Dunham fronts a cast that were all at the top of their game. Allison Williams’ Marnie, a character who can be summed up simply by the word ‘insufferable’ gets her own episode, and – surprise! – it’s a knockout. Adam Driver is his usual magnetic self as the brutish artist Adam, and Zosia Mamet, whose plotline saw her alienated and miserable in Tokyo, has never been more pared-down. Girls has taken a curious narrative direction – what once was a show about female friendship among a group of four women in their mid-twenties has become four divergent stories about people who realise they have outgrown each other. It is quite the feat that it has managed to remain such a coherent, thoroughly enjoyable artistic vision.
7. The Girlfriend Experience, Season 1
The Girlfriend Experience, which aired on US Network Starz, no less, before making it to the UK by way of Amazon video, has a subtlety and intelligence which bely its somewhat prurient premise. Said premise being: Riley Keough (who played the villain so wonderfully in Andrea Arnold’s recent American Honey) plays Christine Reade, an intern at a law firm who moonlights as a high-price escort. The episodes are sharp-edged, airtight drama. People have compared The Girlfriend Experience to arthouse cinema, and it isn’t hard to see why. The dialogue is opaque but convincing, the world created is one enigmatic experience after the next. The lead character herself is amazingly watchable; Keough brings coldness, depth and intrigue to a role that is compellingly written. This is an exploration of intimacy as performance, and there are layers and complexities to its method.
6. Horace and Pete
Louis CK’s latest project was produced largely in secret, and sold directly on his website without a marketing campaign or even a prior announcement. The surprises didn’t stop there, as Horace and Pete proved to be a well of dramatic invention, channelling everything from Ibsen to Cheers. Each episode of the 10-part miniseries was set in a bar, owned and operated by Horace (CK) and Pete (Steve Buscemi). Also in the regular cast were The Sopranos’ Edie Falco and the inimitable Alan Alda, giving his best performance in decades as the irascible, despicable ‘Uncle Pete’. There are a few over-egged turns in the minor cast but every one of the leads (including CK, who has in the past struggled with more complicated requirements) are impeccable and compelling. Horace and Pete is filmed and staged very much like a play – an impression CK encourages through long, dialogue-heavy cuts and breaking the story into ‘acts’. The story itself is staged family melodrama, a tale of family feuds and misery passed down through generations. It is by no means a perfect production, but it is wonderfully, ambitiously different. Between this and his seemingly finished series Louie, CK has established himself as one of the foremost auteurs of modern television.
5. Dag, Season 4
Released last year in its native Norway, Dag’s fourth – and seemingly final – season was given English subtitles and an airing on Sky Arts this year. For those unfamiliar with the little-known series, Dag is a melancholy, outrageous comedy about the life of a misanthropic relationship councillor. While it didn’t match the sheer brilliance and surprise of its earlier episodes, there was no shortage of highlights: a badger trapped in a car driven rabid by cocaine, a graphic ‘spit roast’ involving two best friends, and a finale as touching and honest as they come. Most people are unlikely to have heard of Dag, even less seen it, but it is every bit as funny as America’s best comic output, while packing a maudlin emotional punch that gives it real substance.
4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 2
I can’t enthuse enough about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the musical comedy-drama that was once American network television’s lowest-rated show. The brainchild of minor internet sensation Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend returned for its second season a couple of months ago, with episodes appearing on UK Netflix a day after airing in the US. It is ostensibly a story of one woman’s romantic infatuation with a childhood sweetheart, with a couple of musical numbers every episode. It is, however, surprisingly subversive – intelligent, feminist television that is very consistently funny. Both dialogue and lyrics hold plenty of laughs but the project is glued together by the unshakeable charisma of Bloom, whose lead character, Rebecca Bunch, has a manically enjoyable comic energy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is yet to find the audience it deserves, but here’s hoping the CW network finds its lead’s recent Golden Globe nomination cause for renewal.
3. BoJack Horseman, Season 3
Everyone’s favourite depressed celebrity horse returned for a third season, and with more depth, surrealism, and existential misery than ever before. Will Arnett voices BoJack, the former TV star turned Oscar hopeful after his starring role in the ‘Secretariat’ movie. With a supporting cast that includes Aaron Paul, Alison Brie and Paul F. Tomkins, BoJack is a uniquely sophisticated animation, with heavy themes, expansive storylines and a sense of humour that sets it apart from others of its ilk. Netflix has accumulated some impressive properties by this point, but BoJack Horseman may be its first effort to achieve greatness. And the dialogue-free, underwater-based episode that has every TV critic talking is pretty special to boot.
2. Atlanta, Season 1
Following in the footsteps of Louis CK’s revolutionary Louie, Donald Glover’s Atlanta is a brilliant, hugely promising piece of auteur television. Focusing on a likeable loser (Glover) who tries to get into the music business by managing his rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Atlanta is funny, sad, and complexly political. There is a refreshing malleability to the reality of the show; wild shifts in genre are handled so brazenly everything seems to just click. Many issues surrounding Black American culture are brought to the fore. Nothing is above interrogation, or above being made the butt of some surreal joke. Expectations are sure to be sky-high for season two of this essential series.
1. High Maintenance, Season 1
High Maintenance, formally an acclaimed webseries from husband-and-wife creative team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, made its transition to the big leagues of HBO with a six-episode order. And what a smooth transition it was. They are essentially a collection of short films, tied together only by sporadic appearances from Sinclair’s nameless, effortlessly likable weed dealer. And each episode is utterly brilliant. The performances are both stunningly naturalistic and, when called for, laugh-out-loud funny. There is an almost profound humanity to each of the character portraits – a humanity that even presides in episode 3, which focuses entirely on a dog. The series has received a slight backlash, deemed by some too ‘hipster’ for its own good. Such a critique is deeply untrue. High Maintenance is short-form storytelling at its utmost, an unpredictable and uniquely brilliant use of television as a medium.
Some honourable mentions: Westworld was messy and indulgent but threw some pretty mind-blowing twists your way. Better Call Saul massively improved towards the end of its second season, finally ideating to be the spin-off Breaking Bad deserved. And in a particularly poor year for British TV, Fresh Meat still provided a fittingly good final series.
Images: FX; Apatow Productions; Starz Network; Pig Newton; Viafilm; CBS; Netflix; Vimeo