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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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All Hail the Cloud

June 1, 2012

So, every month or so Yahoo! “News” posts a story like this:   Daddy, What Were Compact Discs?

I happened to read this one while listening to the Uncle Tupelo “7 inch singles” collection i snagged at the independent- record-store promotional holiday National Record Store Day this past month. I mention it only because I found it somewhat ironic to read about the “future” of media consumption jettisoning all things physical while enjoying a product released in support of  what is left of the  “dying” brick and mortar stores. The article read like all similar such Yahoo! promoted stories of the sort, like more or less an advertisement for Apple products while once again the comment thread consisted of bickering back and forth between physical media devotees and digital stream-embracers. This particular piece was pulled from the New York Times finance section. In it, Sam Grobart predicts the very soon demise of physical media and speculates about the “what were CDs, DVDs, VCR’s, etc.” child to parent conversations of the allegedly very near future. He detailed briefly the history of the format wars, the vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to ipod, the film strip to BETA to VHS to DVD to Blu Ray, etc, and its history of “mostly” progression (though sometimes regression as well).

Now, I admit I can be a bit of a curmodgeon on this issue and acknowledge that I’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on something so relatively asinine. The fact of the matter is that I do love my physical media–my vinyl records, including 180-gram pressings of new albums, my CDs, my Blu-Rays, etc, but I also love the convenience of digital. I stream Netflix and use an i-pod practically every day, but I have also scraped through my phsyical collection to condense and skim every time I’ve gotten ready for a move (because boxes of records and books are indeed heavy, a selling point for which digital certainly comes out on top by a mile). When it comes down to it, I listen to 75 % of  new music via digital, whether streaming a new discovery online or syncing something to my ipod to listen to for a review. As I’ve mentioned before though, if I love an album chances are that by the end of the year I’m going to spring for the vinyl pressing or at least the CD of it. But for most albums, the cheaper more convenient digital format works just fine. Audiophiles can argue about sound quality, but at least sites like Band Camp now offer full quality digital music. Though I prefer certain music on vinyl and certain on CD (and I make the case for the delivery medium as part of the art itself in this previous post), I recognize that some of that is nostalgia, some of that is my identity as a “collector” of various things, some of that is tied up with subtle forms of “materialism.” Though I don’t think digital can replicate the feel of going to a record store on new release day, running into friends there, getting unexpected recommendations from knowledgeable and like-minded clerks, or of remembering a forgotten album while poring through and organizing your collection and throwing it on the stereo in rediscovery, or of soaking in the artwork and liner notes from a big record sleeve while that album spins, or of scouring thrift stores and yard sells for missing pieces of your collection, or of buying an album from the merch booth at a concert and seeking out a signature from the artist, or the good and bad aspect of being limited to what you have on hand and not being overwhelmed by the vast ocean of choice, or a whole host of other experiential issues, I do see the positive ways the online age has opened up the music frontier, from connecting fans and artists who are separated by continents, from exploding the options one has in discovering new music, from instant gratification of a new acquisition, and certainly even legitimate and legal digital music purchases are now for the most part far cheaper than the physical items often were (and are), especially CDs at the height of corporate price-fixing. So if the future holds only digital and the LPs and CDs are all for the collectors alone, I’ll hold on to my favorites, eventually piece together the optimal physical stereo to support them that magazines like Rolling Stone always highlight during this vinyl boom of new collectors, and find the best way to play digital music in a way that presents its sound authentically.

But what still concerns me regarding the author of the finance article’s “completely digital in the near future” prediction is this:  we’ve all seen what a financial recession can do to numbers and money that isn’t “really” there, what about art and media in a synonomous situation? I mean, I realize the “cloud” is “physical” somewhere. I trust back up and such; I use Carbonite and a detached hard drive to back up information, so a personal computer crash isn’t the threat in such a complete way as it once was, though I am always finding CDs I lost between backups as I scour my  shelves to re-rip them. But this article supposes a set of speakers streaming an online collection of music and a TV streaming all movies is the only way to go very soon. I keep thinking of all those times my Netflix decides to stop working at 10:30 every night due to whatever reason it has (I sometimes suspect Netflix of limiting output quality to make sure you don’t get too much bang for your buck). I keep thinking of that movie I want to see that Netflix doesn’t offer on the stream and then kicking myself that I got rid of it. I think about the music I try to listen to that has to “buffer” or is interrupted by ads. I think about the 2 or 3 bucks Amazon, Vudu, or On Demand want to charge for an episode of “Breaking Bad.” The point is, if digital is the near future how do we prevent limited information and media availibiltiy or price fixing? How to stop a “digital monopoly?” Netflix became the primary game on the block and then dropped half of their movies from their digital stream to focus on the cheaper acquisition of television shows. In towns that have lost video rental stores because of Netflix, someone wanting a movie from the 80’s or 90’s on a whim some Friday night is out of luck until the mail runs next week. Sure there is competition to Netflix, but it often seems like they’ve cornered the market and now I’m thankful that I hung onto my favorite movies every time I’ve consolidated my shelves. It’s why, as someone who loves and reads books for learning, pleasure, and practicality that I find it unlikely that I’ll every make the full-on Kindle jump. I don’t even have an e-reader of any kind yet. I decided before my last big move to jettison the bulk of my fictional books aside from favorites and collectibles, that paperbacks for the most part in that department were “disposable,” to save room only for those works I love, reference, and return to. So in theory I’d have no problem e-reading all my “pop” fiction but until I can get those novels and one-time-only reads of whatever genre as cheap as a thrift store or as free as a library, until the device I read them on is so disposable I could care less that it’s sun, water, or element damaged, I’m not ready for that jump yet. But the worst case scenario, for me, about an all digital future is that if all of my music, video, pictures, books, and art were floating on some cloud, or if I didn’t even “own” my entertainment merely streamed it from a provider, what happens when the internet price hikes or the music/movie/book provider doubles their monthly charge? Or I need to cut my service a month or two to save money? Or a “pulse” knocks out all wireless signals for a month, a year? There are any number of scenarios, however unlikely, that could effectively keep me from listening to a song or watching a movie or reading a book I would like to.  Far more likely though is that the equipment I use or the internet service provider my apartment owner makes me use will act up in the way my computer, no matter how new or protected, does from time to time. Whether bad weather, bad signals, or a computer virus there are times when most of us curse technology as we rewire and test out our devices so that we can make an ordinary, daily transaction or action of some sort that was done with far less technology in the not-too-distant past. That’s the reason why, other than being a bit of a curmudgeon, that many of us like at least some of our media in a physical, tactile format. I find it good that both online options are expanding and that younger collectors are discovering the warmth and enjoyment of vinyl music and turntables. I don’t want the “cloud” to be the only option; I want to go to a library, go to a movie theater, go to a record shop and interact with people and products.

*By the way, that Uncle Tupelo 7 inch singles box? Fantastic. Hearing those early songs by such an influential yet often unacknowledged band in 45 form really amps up the borderline between punk and country where they staked their ground, especially their cover of “I Wanna Destroy You.” And also? I did follow the link and enter the code from the enclosed coupon to get that free download of the box in digital form. Like I said, I like both options.