My Favorite TV of 2015, Part 1: The Honorable Mentions

First up, as per usual, it’s important to note that year-end lists are essentially bullshit.

And yet, I wouldn’t write one if I actually believed that, even though what I find valuable about them may not be what others find valuable. To some, this is about objectively ranking shows and assigning one as the “best.” That has no worth as far as I’m concerned, since it drives pageviews and sparks outrage but really doesn’t do anything to celebrate the medium. And that’s part of what these lists are to me: A celebration, especially if it turns people onto shows they might not have heard of or haven’t gotten around to yet. If anything, those that didn’t make the top list may prove more useful to you than those that did.

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“Hamilton” and 40

It all comes back to musical theatre, in the end.

I’m here and it’s about 11 pm on a Wednesday and I have work tomorrow and I pretty much don’t care. I used to get this a lot, that feeling that there’s something in my mind and it hurts like a splinter and I need to let my fingers run over the keyboard lest I scratch my cranium so hard my cerebellum would spill onto the floor. I used to have that all the time. Over the years, less so. Now? Barely ever.

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Review: You’re The Worst, “LCD Soundsystem”

Well, someone’s certainly watched “Juno.”

That was my immediate thought during the big “twist” of tonight’s episode of “You’re The Worst,” although I put twist in quotes as I’m fairly certain Stephen Falk’s script and direction wanted us to see what Gretchen could not, turning this episode into another ii-tragedy for what is now unquestionably the central character of this show. For a while, you could argue Jimmy and Gretchen were co-leads, with the show equally interested in their respective views of life and each other. Lindsay and Edgar? Even though they didn’t want to be seen as sidekicks, let’s face it: They were important but secondary, augmenting the proceedings, and sometimes even stealing it, but never supplanting the central duo.

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Review: Arrow, “Haunted”

Both “Arrow” and “The Flash” are currently carrying the burden of having to function as their own respective entities and set up “Legends Of Tomorrow,” which is an unfair place for both shows. “The Flash” is inherently more nimble at this point, and can throw in the occasional TWELVE-FOOT SHARK BEAST THING to bring the wow factor. But “Arrow” is still coming off a monstrously ill-conceived third season and trying to figure out its own new voice at the same time it’s bringing Sara Lance and Ray Palmer back from the dead to be part of the upcoming spin-off.

Still, the fourth season of “Arrow” has been a marked improvement over last season, which is admittedly a backhanded compliment at face value. But it’s still back well beyond simply being “watchable,” and I’m hoping that once Sara and Ray are sent off on their merry, time-traveling ways, the pieces are in place for a solid season. Sure, it’s a blast to see Matt Ryan tonight returning as John Constantine: He’s great in the role, and was infinitely better than “Constantine” the show itself was. But honestly, I think I enjoyed Laurel Lance dressing down Oliver Queen’s mansplaining more than any DC mythology on display in tonight’s episode. It’s a long time coming, and suggests that “Arrow” understands its lead character can be a blowhard. That goes a long way towards tolerating his a-holeness when it occurs. After all, if the show thinks he’s being heroic when in fact he’s demeaning every character around him, especially the female ones, then that’s a huge freakin’ problem.

Having Constantine around to help Sarah get her soul back is conveniently plotting, but having him sense the Emperor Palpatine-levels of evil emanating off of Damien Darhk goes a long ways towards setting up the impossible odds that Green Arrow Inc face this season. He’s a man who faces demons on the regular, and yet Constantine is advising Oliver to pack up and move out. Darhk is a scary dude. He’s not as scary as Diggle’s helmet, but he’s scary all the same. You would think it would be hard for the show to top having Ra’s al Ghul, a top-tier DC baddie. And yet, the execution there was so bad that Darhk feels like a step up in terms of overall danger, and not just to my spellcheck. (Having Neal McDonough in the lead role doesn’t exactly hurt, either.)

Now that Sara is done busting through walls like the female assassin equivalent of the Kool-Aid mascot, we’re still left with a show slowly regaining its feet. I don’t think Season 2 of “Arrow” will ultimately be the aberration that the second season of “Sons Of Anarchy” proved to be, but I also don’t think there’s any guarantee that the show will reach those heights again, either. So long as The CW is into world-building and cross-show pollination, it will be hard for any one entity to be its best self. “The Flash” has entire other Earth from which to pull new stories. “Arrow” has a lot of baggage, and while fighting to redeem one’s past is baked into the show’s DNA, it’s yet to see how much that will work for the show itself. But I’ll be watching to see if it does, which is a huge testament to how far the show has come since nearly losing me as a viewer forever with its third-season finale.

Review: Netflix’s “Master Of None” is one of the year’s best shows

It’s almost impossible to think of your own life outside the context of its relationship to the pop culture you consume. The reasons that songs, movies, television, and art work because the best seems to illuminate something that you’ve always suspected but could never articulate. Sometimes those moments are revelatory, and sometimes they are devastating. But it’s part of the enduring quality of pop culture: It tells us something familiar and new at the same time.

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Review: “You’re The Worst”, Season 2, Episode 8: “Spooky Sunday Funday”

On some level, tonight’s episode of “You’re The Worst” played out exactly as you thought it might once you saw the title “Spooky Sunday Funday.” This was a way for the show to revisit one of its season one highlights but put it through the prism of both Halloween and, far more importantly, last week’s revelations about Gretchen. The idea that Jimmy would use this as an excuse to do exactly what he promised he wouldn’t (namely, to “fix” her) seemed like the only possible course of action, but that’s because it’s the right course. Jimmy’s look of concern at the end of last week’s episode gave him gravitas, but didn’t cure him of being a fundamentally dumb individual.

Now, I say “dumb,” and that sounds cruel, but the point “You’re The Worst” is trying to illuminate is that OF COURSE people want to fix each other, even though in their heads they know it’s impossible. After all, there are exceptions to the rule, and surely we know the people in our lives better than some theoretical examples that seem sound on paper. It’s not that Jimmy is selfish to try this, although that’s certainly part of it. But he genuinely hopes that this works out for Gretchen, which is why this episode isn’t an exercise in narcissism so much as hopeless naivete. It also makes Jimmy’s “meet cute” with the owner of the bar he constantly frequents all the more heartbreaking: He’s a guy who is trying to make things with Gretchen work. He’s not trying to slither out at the first sign of trouble. But eventually, the chasm between the pair will get to the point where Hot Bar Owner* is going to seem like an option, and we will both hate him for it and understand and then hate ourselves for understanding.

* I refuse to learn her name because that feels like I’m not respecting Gretchen enough.

If all of that wasn’t particularly surprising, holy shitsnacks was the pure unbridled terror of the final stop of the Sunday Funday hellaciously shocking. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen that on anything not called “American Horror Story” on television, and even then at least you EXPECT it. Maybe the closest analogy is last season’s episode of “Louie” called “Untitled,” in which his nightmares gave ME nightmares for weeks. I just didn’t expect what unfurled, which is precisely the point. That it inevitably provided breakthrough moments for Edgar and Gretchen was satisfying. That it gave them both incredible comic moments was an added bonus. (Between last night’s “Fresh Off The Boat” and this episode, it’s a helluva week for “Silence Of The Lambs” references.)

If “There Is Currently Not A Problem” was the fulcrum around which this second season will pivot, then it seems as if Jimmy/Gretchen will be on a downward slope for the forseeable future. And that’s sad, but probably inevitable: There’s no way to “fix” Gretchen, but the two can’t “add cocaine to the butt stuff” with the same frivolity as in the season two premiere. Hell, they couldn’t even do it then. This is a show that refuses to rely on stasis to mine similar comic scenarios. The bravado of this episode’s inversion of what felt like it’s version of “Bar Wars” from “Cheers” suggests its restlessness. And that means Jimmy and Gretchen will not always be together. But I also don’t think they are destined to be apart. Last season saw them go through some troubles. But this is the first real hurdle they’ve had to overcome. It’s not a hurdle that’s anyone’s fault. But for two people that have spent their lives running away from complication, it will take some time for them to be able to stand still and truly engage with one another. Just because it won’t happen right away doesn’t mean it won’t happen. “You’re The Worst” has earned enough rope to see how far down this messy path it can take these two without making it an exercise in emotional cruelty for both its characters and its audience.

Ten Things I Think I Think About TV: Volume 1

We’re neck deep into the peak time of Peak TV: The Fall season is in full-swing, and its scythe of original programming has claimed many a victim and inspired many a think piece. October is also one of the worst times at The Job I Do That’s Not Writing About TV, Even Though A Lot Of People Think That’s My Actual Job, Which Is As Perpetually Flattering As It Is Incorrect. So other than writing about “Saturday Night Live” for Rolling Stone, I haven’t jotted down many thoughts about any shows in the past month. Since time is still limited, I can’t write about everything as in-depth as I would like. But here are ten things I think I think about TV right now… Read More »

Review: In its second season “Review” turns into an all-time classic series

You might not think the show “Review” would be one of the small screen’s best examinations of the nature of evil. You would be wrong.

I’ve written fair extensively about the show over the past two years, as it’s gone from an interesting pilot to a fascinating series of continuity-laced sketches to one of the more somber depictions of human frailty on any network. Every time it seems like the show can’t push its protagonist any further, “Review” finds a way to strip a little more of the man’s happiness away. Read More »

5 Questions and 500 Words: “Grandfathered” and “The Grinder”

Welcome to another installment of “5 Questions and 500 Words,” my approach to reviewing the crazy amount of shows that will be unspooling/returning over the course of the next few weeks. Given the glut of shows, and the glut of reviews that will be published for these shows, I’m keeping things short and sweet. This is for your convenience and my sanity.

“Grandfathered” and “The Grinder” premiere Tuesday, September 29, at 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm EST (respectively) on FOX

You can’t even be bothered to write two separate reviews?

Look: This isn’t a knock on either show. Some programs aren’t meant to sustain heavy insight, and that’s totally fine. The takeaway you need to know: These are two very entertaining pilots. Both are in the upper tier of this Fall’s crop, which I know isn’t saying much, but they still have modest goals that are effectively achieved. That shouldn’t necessarily be praised, but here we are.

Choose a side, Mr. Critic: Which is better?

Again: I’m only looking at the pilots for these shows. There’s no way to know which one will get better. But if I had to put my chips on the table, I’d go for “Grandfathered,” which is the sweeter of the two shows, has John Stamos doing his Stamos-iest work, and is secretly a rom-com buried in a high-concept show.

What puts “The Grinder” slightly below that?

Do you like Rob Lowe? Because I do. I love his energy on “Parks and Recreation” and those DirecTV ads. He’s like Nicolas Cage but you’re more willing to forgive him because he still looks cuts from alabaster. But do you want that energy so prominent on a television show? He’s full-tilt weird as a former actor on a successful lawyer procedural who tries to practice law with his brother (Fred Savage) after the show’s cancellation. I like weird. I am not sure that this much weird can be sustainable over the long haul.

But you still enjoyed it?

Oh sure. And it’s not like “Grandfathered” is blowing the socks off the single-camera comedy world, either. I’m not sure what it says about Fox’s comedy division that they have pushed aside younger, female faces aside in favor of two men so identical that they are this side of Dylan McDermott/Dermot Mulroney. You don’t have the gender or sexual politics of “The Mindy Project” (now on Hulu) and “New Girl” (pushed until later in the season). But you might have a shot at a more broadly-appealing program. That might be good for FOX, but bad for fans of comedy with a singular voice.

Why are you getting more depressed as this review goes on?

I’m not, honestly. I now get to watch Paget Brewster and Fred Savage on a weekly basis, which is a good thing. I probably won’t tune in on a weekly basis, but I also want have to do so: in both cases, it’s easy to see an incremental change turning into an overall hard reset each week. These are safe choices for FOX, and executed far better than we have any right to expect given the overall dire Fall lineup. I’m curious to see how much Stamos and Lowe will be asked to push the envelope, even while fearing these shows are coloring so far within the lines that approaching the edge will take either a huge miracle or an unintentional accident.

5 Questions and 500 Words: “Heroes Reborn”

Welcome to another installment of “5 Questions and 500 Words,” my approach to reviewing the crazy amount of shows that will be unspooling/returning over the course of the next few weeks. Given the glut of shows, and the glut of reviews that will be published for these shows, I’m keeping things short and sweet. This is for your convenience and my sanity.

“Heroes” premieres Thursday, September 24, at 8:00 pm on NBC

Here’s my first question: Why?

It’s an excellent initial point of interrogation. Because NBC? I guess that’s the best reason. They have been flinging shows up against the wall and seeing what sticks. In some regards, it makes sense: The superhero genre was all but absent on TV when this initially aired, and now it’s absolute huge. Why not try and re-establish a toehold usually a brand that’s at least familiar, if not exactly beloved, at this point?

What were your feelings as you pressed play on the screener?

“Look, no way this is worse than that circus shit.”

And was that true?

I would say absolutely yes, because that circus stuff was THE WORST. In all seriousness, the two-hour premiere (really two episodes aired back-to-back, which is different even though few people care) has everything you used to love AND hate about “Heroes.” I’d give a slight edge to the “love” side, but it’s super close, and this show has a track record of interesting ideas that gradually run off a cliff by volume’s end.

Can I just jump in having never watched the original series?

You could, although I think that you’d lose a lot in terms of emotional investment and “hey, it’s THAT character” moments. In short: this series alludes to the continuity of the original series, but uses a big moment at the outset of this pilot to reset the gameboard. This is a world that knows about superpowered people, but not everyone trusts them. Think every “X-Men,” and you get the picture. The cast is essentially all-new from the original series: With the exception of Jack Coleman’s Noah Bennett, those from the original “Heroes” appear sporadically, if at all, in these two hours.

Does the world need this miniseries?

“Heroes Reborn” would say yes, and its ponderous self-importance, coupled with an almost cripplingly lack of humor, can make this a slog. (One story, set in Japan, is the glorious exception to this rule: it’s full of mystery/visual wit and makes the rest look worse by comparison.) Still, the problem lies more in execution than in theory: The idea of people of all walks of life realizing they can do extraordinary things is Storytelling 101, and “Heroes Reborn” maintains the show’s original global approach. Its diversity of characters and locations is inherently potent. But “Heroes Reborn” consistently tells the safest stories, limiting its inherently unlimited scope. That’s a terrible superpower for a show to have.