My Top TV of 2016

December 11, 2016

It didn’t occur to me until compiling this list that for the first time ever I had more viable choices to winnow through picking the best TV of the year than I did movies of the year…I actually had trouble coming up with 10 solid films for that list (more on that in that entry) which hasn’t been the case ever. But TV…between premium cable options, Amazon Prime, and Netflix in addition to network TV struggling to stay competitive in that arena there were lots of choices for quality, exceptional television this year.

black-ish-season-1-abc-artwork-1200x1200-780x780   goldbergs

10) Blackish/The Goldbergs (tie)

I’m calling spot 10 a tie for the (IMO) two best traditional network sitcoms running. Blackish takes the traditional family sitcom and injects each episode with a level of seriousness and topical awareness that hearkens back to All in the Family but from a wholly African American perspective. The Goldbergs takes the family sitcom and douses it in heavy (but non-cloying) nostalgia by setting the action in the 1980s and focusing each episode tangentially around a key pop-culture or historical aspect of that decade. Both shows succeed based on stellar performances and authentic heart.

frequency.png

9) Frequency

There were oddly a handful of shows this year that remade old movies in serial yet updated form (Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, etc.). One that worked for me was Frequency which is an update of a 2000 movie about a son who talks to his dead father via ham radio and the “butterfly effects” that flow there out of. The CW update revamps the story a bit, stretching it out and lathering it in two era settings and substituting a female detective daughter (played by Peyton List) for Jim Caviezel’s original role. I’m just a sucker for time-travel tales that deal with the consequences of action so that’s likely what sold me on this show but I enjoyed every episode thoroughly.

better-things

8) Better Things

While I certainly missed having a new season of Louie this year, Better Things was the next best thing. Louie C.K. is on board as a co-writer and co-creator in this, Pamela Adlon’s  (who played Louie’s romantic foil on a few seasons of that show) version of that show’s concept of an honest, artsy, uncomfortable single parent show this time from a a mother’s perspective. Adlon plays Sam Fox, mother of three daughters and working actress in L.A. Better Things shares the wit and unconventional nature of Louie while also being totally its own unique self.

mv5bmtcymzc1mji5mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmze4ody2ote-_v1_uy268_cr30182268_al_

7) Luke Cage

While we approach superhero critical mass at the cinema, on network TV and now on Netflix as well, Luke Cage emerges in much the same way as last year’s Jessica Jones did–by using the trappings of “superhero” to tackle something much bigger. That’s what the best modern superhero comics do and that’s what Netflix has found a way to do that big budget pictures do not. Luke Cage is a fully realized world complete with great textures, environment and sound (that soundtrack tho!).

better-call-saul-saul-goodman-esq-800x600

6) Better Call Saul

A spin-off like this shouldn’t work but it does. Breaking Bad was one of the best shows in history and rather than repeat the formula here, this show takes its own direction. Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as the crooked lawyer Jimmy McGill (Saul) but we see his origin  and that of other Breaking characters unfold naturally and somehow surprisingly. A great comedy noir and character piece that would have been unheard of ten years ago.

atlanta

5) Atlanta

Man, this was Donald Glover’s year. What with the surprise release of a Childish Gambino album at the end of the year that was straight on ’70s soul funk perfection to cap off a year when his baby project Atlanta launched to critical and commercial success, he should be celebrating. Atlanta was a blast in so many ways and it’s unapologetic both in its authenticity and its unapologetic refusal to moralize or simplify. Great cast, great soundtrack, totally timely.

bosch

4) Bosch

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite crime writers working today. His Lincoln Lawyer and Harry Bosch series’ have both been reliable reads every year for the past couple of decades. Mainstream accessible pop-crime fiction that doesn’t insult your intelligence in the way say James Patterson does. Anyway, here we have his titular creation Harry Bosch brought to the screen–and it works completely thanks to Titus Welliver. Two seasons in we see a cop show that deals with the real issues facing such an institution today being addressed while also handling character development and big-budget action all the while.

stranger-things

3) Stranger Things

The 1980s are the go-to focus for nostalgia seekers today–the best episode of Black Mirror (see below), the focus of one of the best comics today (Paper Girls), the setting for one of our best current sitcoms (see above), the source for synth and beat and sample inspiration (see a lot of current popular music). To that note, Netflix’s Stranger Things banks on the celluloid memory and loves of a couple generations by nodding to E.T., Indiana Jones, The Lost Boys, Monster Squad, Firestarter and a ton of others in this year’s smash Stranger Things. It would be pandering to fanboy and fangirl biases if it weren’t so damn entertaining and well executed. Such a good cast, such a good original soundtrack (not even considering songs, I’m talking the score by Survive who made two great soundtracks and an original album this year all worth your time) such an exciting story. Worthy of a binge and a re-binge.

large_3nyt5nidxxmngfklxq2xmb9hcun

2) OJ Simpson: Made in America

Some folks threw this in their best movie list as it is a documentary, but as it was serialized across 5 installments on ESPN I’m counting it as TV. The 30 for 30 series is dependably solid even for those of us who aren’t sports junkies (Believeland this year was also superb) but with Made in America ESPN upped their game to the next level. It was the year of revisiting 90s news but particularly OJ Simpson’s story. I didn’t catch the biopic recreation but I did tune in for all 10 hours of this documentary and found it superb from first shot till last. Not only do we get the full scope and history of OJ’s tragic personal story arc, we get the entire historical and sociopolitical implications of his story from race relations in the 1970s through the police state of Compton in the 1980s on through Rodney King and the impact of the verdict itself. This is a nuanced, full on examination of everything OJ from his humble beginning through his historic trial and beyond and the issues raised are worth our reexamination today more than ever.

6jw6vl_d

1) Black Mirror

Netflix picked up the British sci-fi cult favorite that depicts dystopian near-future scenarios and though they only released six episodes this season those six episodes were the best of the show thus far. Each episode was perfect in pretty much every aspect and each was all too plausible in its scenario from the extreme impact of social media in the near future (“Nosedive”) to 3D violence in video games (“Playtest”) and the desensitization of soldiers (“Men Against Fire”)…heck even the disappearance of the bees tied in with the inhumane behavior of folks on the comment sections (“Hated in the Nation”). It wasn’t all grim of course. The best episode of the batch was pretty happy (“San Junipero”) as it layed out our love of nostalgia (particularly for the US 1980s) for all to see in its natural conclusion.

Honorable Mentions: Though I’m not all the way through it yet Netflix’s The Crown is truly amazing, after a crappy week of depression for everyone who loves rationality SNL gifted us the comfort and encouragement of their best episode in years  with Dave Chapelle and A Tribe Called Quest as guests, and BBC’s superb crime drama Undercover is recommended to all; while not as strong as last season Showtime’s The Affair remains compelling.

 

The vehicle which transmits a particular media can itself be part of the artistic expression–secondary, certainly, it isn’t on equal footing with the creator or artist but rather subtly intertwined with the expression itself as an added layer of entertainment. This is not always the case either, because the vehicle of transmission is often totally irrelevant. But when it is part of the entertainment package, the vehicle of transmission enhances the experience of a particular media item wonderfully albeit sometimes imperceptibly.

Two particular things got me thinking about this concept specifically at this time. First, I recently took a beach vacation and before going I stopped by a few local used bookstores to stock up on cheap paperbacks. Now the ideal beach read, at least for me, has to be something that is fast-paced, exciting, and page-turning and not to dense or hyper-literate yet without being dumb, poorly written or overly cliched. Thus a good beach read is by someone like Michael Connelly who detours “literary fiction” without becoming a James Patterson and does so by writing creatively and, well, “good.” Anyway, it had been a long time since I had bought fiction paperbacks; typically the sort of thing I’d want in a fiction paperback is something I’d try to find at the library; I’d resort to buying it if I couldn’t find it there, but any fiction item I purchase typically is something by a favorite author I know I’ll want to re-read and keep or something I’ve read before and know is a classic that I want to hold onto, in which case I want a nice, presentable softcover TPB or Hardcover; if a classic work of literature, I want it in an even nicer format if I can find a deal on it.  Anyway, since I was in the process of moving and thus in between libraries, because I wanted specific authors and books, and because I knew there was a high-probability that what I read on a beach would get sandy and water-logged, my best bet was purchasing these books myself.  So armed with a stack of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Graham Joyce paperbacks I made way to the beach. Down by the water each day, I realized that there’s no better companion to a shady beach chair, a cooler of drinks, and a fifteen minute dip in the ocean every hour or two than a great paperback thriller or mystery. Certainly the story itself has to be good–the author has to suck you in, get you flipping the pages, and never drag on to bore you out of the forward momentum. You have to be dying to know what will happen next, otherwise you’ll just throw it down and zone out in the sun. But the paperback format itself adds to this enjoyment tremendously; looking around to see what other beach-goers were reading I spotted the occasional Kindle and I just kept thinking that I would be continually nervous that the water dripping off of me, the waves rolling in, the sun beating down, and the sand everywhere would have me constantly nervous that my electronic device would go kaputz and not only would I be out a hundred or more bucks, I’d be without a read for the day. Armed with a 2 or 3 dollar used paperback, I could fold the pages, toss it in the beach bag, read it while covered in sand and not be overly concerned with its overall condition–it just had to hold up for me to finish reading it. If I fell in love with the book and wanted it for my library, I could hunt it down later in hardback. Even off the beach, the perfect format for a thriller you only need to read once is the used paperback; it’s fun and perfectly sized for reading wherever you want and easily portable. I suppose the Kindle could replicate this experience better than many other reading experiences if and when the price per item is comparable but until that is a reality I’ll hold out.

The other thing that made me think of this format as part of the art argument came from a few Yahoo news story. One story was the rehashed filler they pull out every month or so, the “businesses that are as good as dead”article which names video rental stores, costume stores, etc. Record Stores made the list, with the same old reasoning that people download, and when they do buy CDs they do so cheaply in big box stores. The article said that despite what hipsters, DJs, and collectors want to believe, the indie record shops are largely on the way out except for the ones who’ve managed to adapt and adopt business methods that work in the digital economy. Conversely, there was a story a day or two later that talked about how many record shops that struggled when the bottom fell out of the CD business were gaining enough ground to level off by switching to vinyl for the bulk of their sells. Indie stores in big cities and college towns around the country now devote more of their sales floors to LPs and 45s than to CDs  and the annual “Record Store Day” event in which artists release limited edition vinyl releases directly through independent music retailers was another huge hit this year. Vinyl sales were up more in 2010 than in any year since Soundscan began taking numbers in 1990. New albums by established artists and up and coming indie acts release their albums not only on CD and download, but on at least 500-1000 vinyl pressings; vinyl reissues of albums by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Who sell very well each and every year. Such stores in areas like Charlottesville VA, Cincinnati, OH and Louisville Ky have begun stocking high quality turntables because they were tired of turning away the teenagers and college kids stumbling into their stores to buy vinyl but needing the system to play it on. Now, vinyl collectors and audiophiles have kept vinyl in business and popular for years (this even made it to film in the classic 1990s comedy “High Fidelity” based on the Nick Hornby book), but the popularity among indie rock fan teenagers and twenty-somethings has helped it boom out more than ever to such a point that artists as mainstream as Taylor Swift make sure to press vinyl editions of their new work. Of course it’s still a niche market and the price of new vinyl coupled with the limitations and requirements it poses to mass consumption will never make its sells a drop in the bucket compared to legal and illegal digital downloads. But it is interesting. The part of this prompting the argument I am making here comes largely from the comment-thread in that last story. Every time there is a “vinyl is booming” new-story, there are dozens of people commenting things like “Huh? Why?” and dozens of audiophiles posting about the superior sound quality of vinyl vis-a-vis digital. These comment threads explode into over-the-top arguments as people seem to find each others arguments completely incomprehensible. Both have their points but both miss a key aspect of this hobby too. Vinyl does offer a warmer, fuller sound when the record is clean and well cared for, the turntable is of good quality, and the amp and speakers are the correct components. The clicks and pops won’t be there on new cared-for LPs (contrary to the arguments of those never having heard a new vinyl) and on older items a few introductory pops are indeed pleasantly nostalgic. The sound on a vinyl copy of, say,  “Abbey Road” compared with every CD pressing before last year’s remastering overhaul was miles ahead–I had no idea there were as many instruments and notes in the background as there were because of digital’s habit of maxing every sound to its top volume and then leveling it flat in a digital sample onto CD. Vinyl has a particular sound, one that jazz, blues, and classic rock built itself to suit for many years so of course a Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, or BB King record from the 1960s will sound miles ahead of its CD pressing. Yet the digital folks have their point to; properly mastered CDs sound great on the right system, are more portable and sound great cars. MP3s are enervated a bit every time they are opened to a certain extent but aren’t susceptible to human sound warping through scuffs and scratches and are the height of portability thus far. They do limit the sound by compressing it more than any format before (LPs give off sound waves, CDs sample soundwaves, mp3s compress those samples even more), but now high-quality 320 and up kpbs digital tracks are available that in most cases catch the quality of a sound recording the way it was supposed to be; the fact that sometimes that results in a high-gloss sheen that sounds “artificial” to some in comparison to the “warmth” offered by vinyl is due more to aesthetic and nostalgic sensibilities than fact. What both sides of this (admittedly to the outsider rather pointless and arbitrary) argument don’t give priority to nearly enough is the format-as-part-of-the-art fact: it certainly isn’t just sound that draws collectors and hipsters to vinyl. If I just want to hear a new album, a download is the most efficient way to get to do so, often cheap or free; I can carry it around with me and hear it in my car or with headphones. If I want a better sounding copy to carry with me most anyplace that also offers me the intended packaging, there’s CD. For me, I preview and listen and can love albums that I download but once I truly find a great one (or know beforehand it will be a great one), I don’t feel I have it in the proper format until I get it for my turntable. Not just for sound–for presentation, collection, and process. It sounds good on an old fashioned home stereo; it requires my involvement in that I place it on the turntable and put the needle to it. I hear the first and last track of the first side, which especially in vinyl-era releases was the result of a deliberate sequencing decision and then I flip it to side two and repeat the process. It requires my care in that I keep it clean and safe. It gives me a giant cover with full-size artwork and an inner sleeve, often liner notes and extras tucked within. It gives me a collectible to place on the shelf and pull down when I want to. The vinyl hobby itself sends me to new and used and out of the way places in the towns I live in or bargain hunting on line. There’s nothing better than getting a record never pressed on CD or sampled digitally or one you’d never have thought to get and getting it for a few dollars only to find out you love hearing it spin on your turntable.

Great art is great art regardless of how it is presented. Yet the vehicle of transmission can add to the joy of the experience one has when consuming such art. Certain movies look great on the big screen and are a joy to see collectively in a theater and seeing them alone at home on the TV often cannot match that. A visually stunning movie looks excellent on a a Blu-Ray player with a proper screen and sound-system and can be much more fun that trying to squint your eyes at your smartphone to watch it. A classic jazz record sounds best on the turntable; a nineties hip-hop album sounds best on CD in a car with great bass speakers. A great comic-arc reads best in a nice and carefully presented Omnibus but a one-off fun short story comic works best as a single issue. A thriller works best as a cheap paperback, a dense erudite work is best in a hardcover sewn volume. I would argue that a newspaper still reads best via newsprint but those days are almost gone. So sure, this involves primarily matters of opinion and personal taste and I’m sure there’s an entire generation of kids growing up right now who will find no problem digesting every bit of their media with a handheld device. Perhaps by then every bit of media will be created and be tailored for display on such a device and thus be unfit for presentation in any other way. But for now, in the supposed last days of physical media there are still things that work best in the format they were created in and for; and hey, if the digital pulse ever comes knocking out all RF, satellite and wi-fi signals those of us with any digital media at all might be able to use our collectibles as widespread currency ala “The Book of Eli.”

The first few months of every year are most often a dead period at the cinema. All of the Oscar-baiting artistic ventures and critically-anticipated works have months since hit yet  still linger at the box-office  to give folks who wait to see the award winners after their wins a chance to catch them,  and all of the block-buster popcorn seat-fillers are a couple of months away. Usually new offerings in February and March are artistic-wannabes that weren’t quite up to snuff for award season or things that aimed to be summer crowd-pleasers but aren’t felt by their studios to  match up to their competition. So any good picture that sneaks in to the theaters at this time is  worth praising and suggesting to others seeking a re-entry into the multiplex to start off the film-going experience of the new year.

So, that being said, The Lincoln Lawyer is the first must-see movie of 2011. I’ve been eying this one since I heard about it a few months ago–it seemed to show promise of delivering the noir-crime goodness, and it does that pretty well. Based on the  novel by Michael Connelly, the screenplay manages to keep the feel of a page-turning pot-boiler. Matthew McConaughey portrays Connelly’s character Mickey Haller, a defense attorney whose office is the backseat of his Lincoln town car as he’s chauffeured around the city of LA to its different courtrooms defending his (often repeat-offender) list of clients including prostitutes, biker gangs, and drug dealers. McConaughey does a terrific job, and though he’s always been a likable figure on-screen, he’s rarely had roles that give him much to work with, which makes this performance easily his best to date. He plays Mickey with humor, wit, flaws, and depth. Mickey is no easy character to pin down, he’s a perfect noir character; McCaugney portrays him early on allowing you to admire him in his grime, seemingly cool even in his sleaze and moral grey abode, yet evolves him midway through to show touches of deep humanity, capable of seeking actual justice. The rest of the cast is great as well–Marrisa Tomei continues to be great in this second-wave of her career (reignited a couple of years ago with her turn in The Wrestler) as Mickey’s ex-wife, friend, mother of his child, and fellow lawyer from the other side as a prosecutor; Ryan Philipe as the smarmy, spoiled client Mickey has to defend; as well as everyone else, actors from Bones and Breaking Bad play bit roles to perfection amongst many others.

The cinematography compliments the overall atmosphere of the picture, capturing an LA filled with morally complex and questionable characters and elusive justice. The soundtrack is spot-on, the twists and turns continual yet plausible and realistic. A great thriller, a great mystery, and a picture that looks, sounds, and feels as it should–some scares, some jumps, plenty of surprises, a bit of heart and quite a few laughs. Since the source material for this film is the first in a series of books featuring the same protagonist, here’s hoping a few repeat visits with the same central cast. Hollywood usually doesn’t capture these types of adaptations too well, so in a case where they have, maybe we’ll see them go for it again.

Rating: 8/10