Saturday, January 30, 2016

2015 in Review: Television

This is the fourth in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include booksmovies, food, music, and more.

As I headed into 2015, I naively thought it unlikely that I would be exposed to very many new television shows over the course of the year.  I had my reasons.  One, like many people nowadays, I don’t watch any TV at its regularly scheduled time.  I stream everything, or binge watch on DVD.  Thus, it is incredibly easy for me to pick and choose what I watch.  Two, I thought I already knew of enough shows to keep me busy and entertained throughout the year without adding to the list.  But despite all of this, I ended up trying no less than 16 new (to me) TV shows during 2015, several of which I plan to continue watching with regularity—which probably means binge watching a new season every year or so.

Not every TV show I tried was a success.  Melanie and I watched one episode of Difficult People, a Hulu original series starring Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as two cynical comedians struggling to hit the big time in New York City.  I was originally drawn to the show because I enjoyed Eichner in his relatively brief stint on Parks & Recreation and because so many top-notch comedians were slated to make guest appearances, from Fred Armisen to Kate McKinnon to Seth Meyers.  And maybe the show is good if you stick with it for a while.  I wouldn’t know.  I watched one episode and was so annoyed that I’ve tried to avoid so much as thinking about it ever since.  I just don’t find myself entertained by characters who are total jerks and absolutely full of themselves, which is basically what the plot of Difficult People is.  No thank you.

I also wasn’t wooed by the rather popular (and well-reviewed) Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  I guess CCGC (as I’ll call it) doesn’t rightfully belong on this list, since it technically isn’t a TV show.  It’s a “web series.”  Still, in our day and age, what difference does it make?  The setup of CCGC is rather simple.  Jerry Seinfeld spends the first few minutes of each episode showing off a classic car, then he goes in that car to pick up a famous comedian and go get some coffee.  The comedians toss around some witty banter and observations, and that’s that.  And really, that should be enough, if the comedians are likeable enough.  But from what I’ve seen, comedians who aren’t performing aren’t often that likeable.  It’s clear from the select handful of episodes I’ve seen that Jerry and his caffeine-imbibing companions greatly enjoy each other’s company, but playing voyeur to their outings isn’t as amazing as it sounds.  There is a certain degree of pretentiousness that permeates every episode, and I just don’t care for it.  I’ve found the show surprisingly boring, even when the guest comedian is someone I’m quite fond of.

There have been some wins throughout the year, however.   Netflix has hit a home run with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Co-created by Tina Fey, UKS stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, a woman who has recently joined the real world after living for 15 years in a type of underground bomb shelter as part of a polygamous-like cult.  As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.  Kemper is perfect in the title role, a painfully naïve but resolutely chipper gal who finds herself living in New York City of all places.  If that doesn’t sound gripping enough, UKS’s über-catchy theme song is bound to leave you hooked.  Singing chirpily: dammit!

If drama’s your preferred genre of entertainment, another excellent show can be found via Netflix competitor Amazon: TransparentTransparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Morton / Maura Pfefferman, a sixty-something (seventy-something?) retired college professor who finally reveals to her family that she is transgender.  This sends Maura’s three adult children—each of whom already struggles with a fair amount of dysfunction—reeling, some more than others.  As a viewer, I’m happy to see Tambor in a role that commands some respect.  I was quite a fan of Arrested Development, but Tambor was always my least favorite component of that show.  I didn’t like his character—not that you were supposed to—and I rarely found him funny.  Despite Transparent’s serious themes and very adult nature, I have found Tambor to be more likeable and funny here than in his previous show.

AMC’s Better Call Saul is another winner.  Bob Odenkirk and the character of Saul Goodman gave me every reason to believe Better Call Saul would be a success, but spin-offs don’t have the highest track record and Better Call Saul’s parent show (Breaking Bad) is so iconic—I would call it the best show in all of television history—that screwing it up might seem the only genuine possibility.  Fortunately, show creator Vince Gilligan (along with co-creator Peter Gould) has given this prequel enough chronological distance from Breaking Bad that viewers will find themselves genuinely intrigued as to how the two shows ultimately intertwine.  You see, when Better Call Saul begins, Saul Goodman doesn’t yet exist.  Instead, he is Jimmy McGill, a reformed con-man working as a lawyer and, it would seem, sincerely trying to do his best.  Fans of Breaking Bad know McGill’s shady nature will re-emerge as McGill transforms into Saul, but how?  And when?  And why?  I can’t wait to find out.

The Affair is a drama/mystery that airs on Showtime.  To say the show is about a love affair between married writer Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Montauk waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) is to grossly oversimplify.  It would spoil things if I said too much, but I will point out that one fascinating feature of the show is that each episode is divided into two parts, with each part representing a different person’s point of view.  The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in perspective draw the viewer more fully into the mysteries that unfold.  It’s a worthwhile show.

Showtime is also responsible for Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a series that originally ran from 2003–2010.  I saw my first couple of episodes of this show in December, but I have since watched nearly the first two seasons via Amazon.  As Penn & Teller—well, Penn, since he’s the only one who ever talks—explain in the first episode, Bullshit! is the famous magicians’ attempt to follow in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, who devoted much of his later life to exposing frauds whom he saw as preying on the vulnerability of others—psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, and the like.   While Penn & Teller definitely address things like ESP, talking to the dead, and Ouija boards, they also come down hard on things like bottled water, the funeral industry, and health nuts.  While the show is unabashedly biased, the evidence seems fairly and reasonably articulated, such that I have been swayed on more than one issue.  Case in point: I’m not so sure I can support recycling anymore.  (What!?  Yup!  Go watch that episode and then get back to me!)  Bullshit! is laced with profanity, but it’s often as hilarious as it is informative.  I wish more people would watch shows like this.

Network TV was not without its charms in 2015.  I quite enjoyed the first season of Fox’s The Last Man on Earth.  Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, a man who finds himself all alone after a deadly virus wipes out all the rest of humanity.  Or almost all the rest.  By the end of episode one, after years of searching and leaving notes spray painted on highway billboards, Phil discovers he is not alone.  The show is a kind of post-apocalyptic Gilligan’s Island, and with Forte in the lead and Kirsten Schaal soon at his side, it’s no surprise it’s one of the better sitcoms to hit the network airwaves over the last few years.  That being said, the second season wasn’t nearly as funny as the first and it’s hard to see how the show will keep its momentum for very long.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed they can somehow make it work, but I’d be lying if I said I was entirely optimistic.

More recently, Fox gave us The Grinder, a sitcom starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage as brothers turned partners-in-law.  Sort of.  Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, Jr., a famous actor who played an attorney in a wildly popular and long-running TV series (also called The Grinder) which has recently come to an end.  Savage plays Stewart Sanderson, an actual attorney.  Naturally, once Dean finds himself out of work, he believes his television credentials make him a perfect asset for brother Stewart’s law firm and, as much as Stewart resists it, continually imposes himself on the cases Stewart is handling.  It’s a pretty funny premise, and there’s something perfect in the pairing of Lowe and Savage.  Each plays his character well—Lowe as the blissfully naïve and outlandishly overconfident superstar, Savage as the disgruntled and serious family man who is ever stuck in his older brother’s shadow.  The pilot episode showed great promise, but sadly, the show has quickly become formulaic and I’m not sure it has what it takes to last.  It’s kind of a one-joke show.  It’s a good joke, mind you, but … yeah.

I’m on the fence about Superstore, a 2015 latecomer from NBC.  It’s about a group of employees who work at a Walmart-type store.  It doesn’t sound like much.  It’s a kind of ensemble comedy.  I don’t even know what to say about it.  Something right is happening with it—it has some pretty good laughs—but there is a pervasive sense of mediocrity that somehow underlies the whole thing.  It feels destined to be incredibly short-lived and remembered by no one.  I know I’m speaking vaguely, but I find it hard to articulate my impressions of this one.  There’s a spark in there somewhere, something I wish could survive and be refined.  But I don’t think it will.

I guess I should mention Inside Amy Schumer.  Amy Schumer has become something of a hot commodity in the world of comedy lately.  I hear a lot of people sing her praises, but I’m not completely sold on her.  She can be very funny, but she also finds herself too funny, and that’s unappealing in a comedian.  Her sense of humor is also a bit too juvenile for me a lot of the time.  I should clarify what I mean, because otherwise those who know me well will take me as a hypocrite.  For me, something is juvenile not just because it is sexually or scatologically explicit.  I can be as raunchy and boundary-pushing in my humor as anyone, though not everyone gets to know that side of me.  But I find it offensive and annoying when people act like something is funny merely because it is profane, or sexualized, or scatological.  And, in my opinion, Amy Schumer falls too often into that latter camp.  It just seems cheap and lame.  Anyway, if you’re wondering what Inside Amy Schumer itself is, it’s sketch comedy.  It’s not the kind filmed in front of a live audience—think Portlandia rather than Saturday Night Live—but each episode also contains snippets of Schumer doing standup and moments where she interviews real people on the street (usually about sex).  If you’re not afraid of hard-R comedy, you will likely laugh aplenty while watching the show.  But even I find myself offended—on behalf of good comedy, if nothing else—at least some of the time.

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