On Sunday, September 20th the television industry will recognize excellence with Emmy Awards. All the predictions have been made, the odds calculated and bets made. Often our most beloved shows are not recognized, nominated or awarded. Sons of Anarchy was as culturally provocative as Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but it was never an industry darling. My list of the ten best shows this year is an attempt to acknowledge the artists who have entertained and enlightened us with their work. You may be surprised that some of your favorites did not make my list.
There are many entertaining and enjoyable shows that simply were not the best shows of the year. The question I asked myself wasn’t only one of entertainment, but also one of anticipation, intrigue and unique storytelling. So while, Scandal, Survivor’s Remorse, How To Get Away with Murder, American Crime, Power, Games of Throne, Walking Dead, Orphan Black, Broadchurch, The Strain, The Honourable Woman, and Red Road are some of my favorite shows, they did not top the scales in all areas this year. The best ten shows this year bring forth unique stories and they are told creatively with attention to pacing, imagery and have cultural impact without meaningless isms (misogny, sexism, racism…). The list does not include any Netflex or Amazon shows.
In no particular order here are my favorite shows this year. Let me know if you agree or disagree.
Season one of Cinemax’s period drama, The Knick, was brilliant in its portrayal of not only the inception of modern medicine but life at the turn of the century. The show is relentless in its storytelling. Not even in the operating theater is there relief from racial, class and intellectual tensions and divide. The horrors of Dr. John Thackery’s cocaine and opium addiction are laid bare in the Chinese drug den, his bedroom with his lover and ultimately in the sanitorium. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Dr. Christiansen, Dr. John Thackery ‘s brilliance, laser focus and need for recognition disregards civility and kindness. He is initially unwilling to hire the exceptionally talented Dr. Algernon Edwards and when he is forced to, he rudely scorns and diminishes him. It isn’t until Thackery realizes that Algernon is a kindred soul that he begins to see him as an equal. Clive Owen and Andre Holland’s performances are engaging and grounding, but it is director Soderberg’s depiction of surgical gore and the cost of modern medical procedures that is illuminating: blood transfusions, abortion, cesarean section, etc….
One sign of a good show is meaningful complexity that requires multiple viewings to untangle the plot, confirm outcomes and uncover jewels. Often shows’ complexity are like fool’s gold, i.e. Lost. Mr Robot’s success rests heavily on the main characters ability to pull us into the technological world and his mania, quietly sometimes silently or through voice-overs. We care as much about him as we do his girlfriends and family. But it is the creator, writers and director’s ability to bring film-making (images, complex plot, cultural conversation) to tv that ensures Mr. Robot is no fool’s gold, though it has a lot to live up to in season 2. USA has a hit!
This action-packed Spanish (Mexican) crime drama is a fun and terrifying thriller with English subtitles and distant echoes of Dexter, Sopranos and Hitman or The Professional. Sr. Avila is not a hit-man or a serial killer; he is an assassin, killer for hire. Last season, his professional and personal worlds fell apart when he hired a teenage apprentice, brilliantly played by Jorge Caballero. If you were expecting Season 2 to disappoint or fall into predictable rhythms, you were pleasantly surprised by the way it raised the bar in storytelling and character exploration moving the story quickly into unexpected areas.
Caballero is calm and explosive in his faux role of funeral director and lead assassin. I never knew I was so interested in the motivations and inner life of assassins. I cant wait to see what new insights and predicaments his new role will bring in Season 3, though I will truly miss the layered performances of the two major characters we lost this season. No spoilers here, so if you have not seen this show, check it out on HBO Go! And if you get hooked check out Prófugos, and Capadocia.
Based on the Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series of novels, this British-American show is equal parts science fiction, historical drama and romance. Claire Randall reunites with her husband, Frank Randall, in 1945 after her WW2 duties as a nurse. During their honeymoon, she visits the stones at Craigh na Dun and faints, waking-up in 1743 to an attack by Redcoat Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, an ancestor of her husband and his double. She is saved by Scotsman Jamie Fraser and is held captive by the highlanders who value her as a healer but believe she may be a spy. Claire and Jamie’s lives are intertwined as they fight for their freedom independently and eventually together. This epic tale expertly addresses rape, love and war. The show is beautifully lit and shot. Caitriona Balfe brings such warmth and intelligence to her role as Claire. And Tobias Mezies doubles down as Frank Randall and the despicable Captain Randall. Starz’s hit returns for season two in France with an on the mend Jamie, Sam Heughan.
Like Orphan Black and The Leftovers, this show has elevated the sci-fi television game. Defiance is part of SYFY’s strong line-up which includes Dominion, 12 Monkeys and Z Nation among others. In its third season the story arcs are familiar, but the show’s ability to create an ever-expanding world of unique characters with distinct cultures and languages is impressive. Familial relationships are explored and the eclectic community has to band together to protect their town and the planet from the Voltans and the Omec. The show continues to fearlessly and without much fanfare, tackel sexuality like Stahma’s fluid sexuality and Omec’s incest and cannibalism. Datak, Stahma and Doc remain favorites, while Irisa’s transformation continues to send shock waves through her relationship with her father and Berlin. Nolan shows Irisa once again that he would do anything for her and Defiance, the town that often abandons him.
The second season of FX’s middle eastern drama finds Barry’s family in America mourning his execution for a failed coup. But his unstable if not sociopath brother, Jamal Al-Fayeed, is unable to execute him. Alive, and destitute in the desert, Bassam Al-Fayeed or Barry must avoid recognition as he attempts to avoid the government’s army and the Army of the Caliphate. Reluctantly he joins and eventually leads the Red Hand Brigade. Though he is reunited with his family and they are all committed to Abuddin, his loyalty is torn as he has formed an attachment to Daliyah. This season’s commentary on father and sons is poignant as Barry embraces his gay son and Jamal abandons his three sons, presuming Nusrat’s child was a boy. Also interesting is the role women have in the family as well as in the armies: Amira, Molly, Leila, Daliyah and Halima. This show is flawed, but compelling and it will be interesting to see how the show recalibrates after a major loss this season.
Like The Americans, this German spy thriller, set in 1983, highlights how families and spies operated during the Cold War. In the eight episode season Martin Rauch is recruited by his aunt, Lenora Rauch, to go undercover as a West German soldier for the East Germany Secret Service simply because he fits the description of a soldier with access they wanted. While undercover he experiences freedom in East Germany and proves his worth as a spy, but begins to question his beliefs and loyalties. When he realizes that the secrets of NATO military strategy he provided are being used to initiate war he breaks his cover and attempts to resolve the issue. Deutshland 83 shows the true cost of the war on Martin’s family. The action scenes are stellar and Jonas Nay’s development of Martin from a young impressionable man to one who is willing confront power is impressive.
Leaving behind the respectability politics of The Cosby Show, Blackish aims at striking a balance between assimilation and ethnic identity, black awareness and pride. Dre Johnson, Anthony Andersen, is a well to do advertising executive married to a mixed-race surgeon, Bow (Tracy Ellis Ross), and together they have four children. Fifteen-year-old Zoey is attractive and popular. Thirteen-year-old Andre Jr. is a nerd. The six-year-old twins, Jack and Diane are fun and scarily mature, respectively. Acting veterans, Laurence Fishburn, Jenifer Lewis and Raven Symone round out the cast. Each episodes’ laughs are grounded in valuable life and family lessons. So far they have addressed the black diet, black Santa, Republicans, the sex talk, and homosexuality to name but a few of season one’s topics. Abc’s Blackish is an exemplary family comedy for this generation. The family dynamic is authentic and Anthony Andersen shines in his role.
Rectify is Sundance’s quiet, focused and thoughtful examination of Daniel Holden’s release from death row after nineteen years for the rape and murder of his girlfriend Hanna. Though the show doesn’t look at crime or incarceration issues like ABC’s American Drama, it does unravel the psychological, family and legal issues associated with death row cases by exploring the impact Daniel’s experience has had on his family. Season three’s six episodes was split between Daniel’s continued attempt at reintegration and the town’s fight to determine his innocence or guilt. Part of the show’s intrigue is the slow unraveling of the truth: Daniel’s, the DA now Senator-Senator Roland Foulkes and Trey Willis’. The entire cast is exceptional from Aden Young’s portrayal of the damaged and insightful Daniel to Abigail Spenser’s spot on hypersexual arrested development sister Amantha Holden and Adelaide Clemons’ naive and lost sister-in-law Tawny Talbot.
Though flawed in its pacing and over-packed with story-telling and unnecessary celebrity pop-ups, the show has reached cult following. The show tackles everything from homosexuality to mental illness, and of course sibling rivalry. Helmed by Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, Fox’s Empire is entertaining television at its best. It authentically captures a hip hop family’s rise to success and their IPO launching of Empire Entertainment. The show’s conflict is as much about love as it is hate between Cookie and Lucious Lyon. After doing a long bid in prison, Cookie’s reintegration is not marred by pyschological or emotional trauma as she is fueled by revenge even more than she is concerned with re-connecting with her three sons. Her mission to get a stake in Empire Entertainment is dwarted left and right by those who believe they too have earned the valuable stock and leadership position. There is no denying the scene stealing performance of Taraji Henson; as Cookie Lyon she hurls brilliant one liners at allies and enemies alike. The show’s draw is also its chart topping original music from the Lyon family: Hakeem’s Drip Drop, Luscious You’re So Beautiful and Jamals You’re So Beautiful remix, Good Enough and Keep Your Money. Season 2 will be expanded to eighteen episodes. Let’s hope the team tighten’s the storytelling while keeping the fun and great music of season 1.
- The most haunting scene…… Scandal‘s Lawn Chair episode when Clarence Parker sits in a lawn chair standing guard over his murdered son, Brandon, until he has justice. Courtney B. Vance deserves an Emmy for this performance.
- The most surprising show……TNT’s Murder in the First led by Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson is everything Season 2 of True Detectives set out to accomplish but didn’t. This season the show pushed beyond a procedural to explore police corruption and the environments that create drugpins and school shooters. Compact, the season would have benefitted from an extra episode or two.
- The best remake/cartoon……Fox’s Gotham captures the dark world set fort in DC Comics. It is appropriate for the TV-14 audience, yet inviting to adult fans. The actors capture the heros and villans bringing nuance to the catwoman, the penquin, the riddler and the joker. Cameron Monaghan was soooo good as Jerome Valeska.
- The most disappointed season goes to Hannibal. Season one was filled with gripping images and storytelling that the small scene rarely sees, but season 2 veered into to the often told Hannibal story, adding little to the conversation.
- The best scene stealer…… BBC’s Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany as Cosima Niehaus, Alison Hendrix, Helena, Rachel Duncan, Elizabeth Childs, Katja Obinger, Janika Zingler, Aryanna Giordano, Danielle Fournier, Jennifer Fitzsimmons, Krystal Goderitch, and Tony Sawicki. As Alison and Katja she is simply riveting, manic and deranged but loving.
- The most poignant scene……Viola Davis’ make-up and wig removal on How to Get Away with Murder. Removing her mask, she showed the world her beauty non-classical or not!
- The most meaningful performance……Mo Nique’s performance as Ma Rainey in Bessie showed us all why she won the best supporting oscar. Her limited on-screen time left us wanting more!