Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Flashback: TV

Top Ten Episodes of 2016

#10 "Teens & Your Least Favorite Soda" My Brother My Brother and Me

The SeeSo online series based on the popular podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me lives up to the energy of the show: a loose collection of goofs between three brothers that piles into a mountain of comedy that stems from their unique characters. It certainly helps if you listen to their podcast and have an understanding of their idiosyncratic style, but this episode about men in their early 30's attempting to relate to teenagers is full of dabs, bottle flipping, and hilarity.

#9 "Anatomy of a Murder" Riverdale

Riverdale is exactly the trashy teen show we needed last year. And although its first season finale provided an epically stupid action sequence that I loved, all the best soapy melodrama is relegated to the penultimate episode, in which the central murder mystery is finally, operatically solved. There is a lot of wordless diva acting here, and if high camp in any way appeals to you, you can't miss this episode.

#8 "Modelling at the Hospital" Haters Back Off

Haters Back Off!! has always found a way to cut the edge of the Miranda Sings' vainglorious fame-seeking, but this episode finds the perfect balance between her acid tongue and the show's sweeter side. Although Miranda's quest for fame comically interferes with her mom's medical treatment, the whole things come together in a way that's both incredibly endearing and truly disgusting, the perfect register for this supremely weird show.

#7 "Saoirse Ronan / U2" SNL

This episode didn't light the world on fire, like the episode that landed at number one on my list last year, but sometimes in this time where the world is burning to the ground around us, you just need a fun, breezy sketch comedy show that you can rely on. This Irish-led episode provided exactly that, with a host who was comfortable taking a backseat to allow the pros to do their work. From the "Welcome to Hell" girlpop music video lampooning the sexual harassment allegations dropping left and right to the monologue that musically poked fun at how hard its host's name is to pronounce, this episode was pure candy.

#6 "Thanksgiving" Master of None

Taking a break from the throughline of the series to explore a series of Thanksgivings shared by an intergenerational family of black women (spearheaded by the incomparable Angela Bassett), "Thanksgiving" is a low key and tender look at coming of age and coming out of the closet in a type of family that does NOT get regular exposure on television.

#5 "The Dusty Spur" GLOW

GLOW didn't fully get me on its side until the fourth episode, because as much as I love the 80's, I'm trepidatious about the tsunami of recent nostalgia properties like It and Stranger Things. But the show more than proved its worth with "The Dusty Spur," which took a deep dive into the show's weirdest character - a female wrestler who dresses as a wolf - and turns it into a paean for human diversity and understanding. It's an incredibly powerful moment that shows that the series has much more on its mind than colorful ladies rolling around on the floor.

#4 "You Get What You Need" Big Little Lies

Sometimes all you need in a TV show is a bunch of middle-aged powerhouse actresses in a murder mystery, and the true resolution of the series isn't the discovery of who was murdered and how, but how it brings together a community of women who felt trapped by society and having their world revolve around the men in their lives.

#3 "The Gang Turns Black" It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

It's honestly no huge surprise that the famously irreverent It's Always Sunny did an It's a Wonderful Life-esque episode about race relations in modern America, but it is a surprise that it's a freaking musical. And a terrific one, at that! Combining the show's acerbic humor that points out the flaws in its own characters as gleefully as it pokes at the holes in the fabric of society with a slew of catchy tunes makes for an unforgettable television experience.

#2 "A Woman's Place" The Handmaid's Tale

I'm not normally a fan of prestige shows, and The Handmaid's Tale doesn't shy away from its share of staring out of windows while gauzy curtains are gently flowing in the breeze, but the dystopian intrigue certainly kept me going. And once you're sucked into the show, you're in. What makes "A Woman's Place" particularly strong is the way it fleshes out the world in a way that we haven't seen before by diving into the meat of the show's most interesting character: the icy matriarch of the show who had a hand in creating the woman-repressing world they're living in but is now trapped in it just like everyone else.

#1 "I Never Want to See Josh Again" Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend never stops being funny, and this episode's centerpiece musical number about a harsh, withholding mother finally showing her daughter some compassion (a bubbly 50's girl group pastiche titled "Maybe She's Not Such a Heinous Bitch After All") is certainly that. But... [SPOILERS for mid-season 3, but it's not like you were watching anyway, you monster] This episode is also where the title character Rebecca Bunch finally hits rock bottom, swallowing a handful of pills while on a plane between two cities she doesn't feel she has a place in. But instead of using this harsh, tragic moment of reality as a cliffhanger, the show respects the audience and its main character by showing her last desperate stab toward hope, summoning the stewardess by pressing the call button and finally asking for the one thing she needs most: Help. It's a powerful piece of stripped-down realism that's just as in-character for the show as its comic music video pastiches, and it had me ugly sobbing for three full minutes before I had to drive to work. It's harrowing, but it's also an inspiring beacon of light for those suffering through mental health issues.

Seriously, you fools, watch this show immediately.

Bottom Five Episodes of 2016

#5 "The Play's the Thing" Will

Look, I can get down with a show where a sexy young William Shakespeare rocks out to modern songs in a Baz Luhrmann-esque fantasia of Elizabethan London. But when your show is just one of those writer biopics where random people in their lives spout famous lines that they just write down, thus robbing them of the creative agency, and those songs are just "London Calling" (which is maybe the most cliché needle drop ever broadcast), maybe it's time to hang up the gaudy, anachronistic cloak.

#4 "Rockets, Communists, and the Dewey Decimal System" Young Sheldon

Nobody needed me to tell them that Young Sheldon ain't great, but I went ahead and ventured into that swamp anyway. For you. Anyway, over a generously short 18 minute run time, Young Sheldon attempts to wring jokes from a thin premise about what is clearly a young sociopath carving his way through the world via insults and pointed barbs. Honestly, this feels more like a prequel to Dexter than anything.

#3 "The Other Side" The Handmaid's Tale

This episode took a break from the main storyline to follow a character who we'd only previously seen in flashbacks. To be honest, it was a storyline I'd been wondering about, but not someone I needed an entire hour dedicated to, especially right in the middle of an intriguing plotline in the A-story, which this low-key episode, placed only three slot before the finale, deflates like taking a buzz saw to a balloon.

#2 "Election Night" American Horror Story: Cult

I heard that the season improved beyond the first episode, but I could barely make it through half an hour, let alone 45 minutes. Ryan Murphy has never been particularly subtle about his social commentaries, but directly including the 2016 election in the narrative was a step too far. Billie Lourd's millennial liberal character does the best at hitting the tragicomic tone he was going for, but everything else is painfully on the nose, and then he has the gall to throw in a bunch of clowns for no reason. It's horror via sledgehammer, with no thought to the nuance of what makes people actually afraid.

#1 "Kevin Hart / Foo Fighters" SNL

SNL has had a very satisfying season, but to end the year it seems like they backloaded every bad idea they've had over the entire year. I've never been a huge fan of Kevin Hart, but this episode played to his worst strengths, focusing on sketches about pooping your pants, llama boners, old men being fat, and... well, one sketch I'm pretty sure didn't actually have jokes. The two best sketches were the commercial parody "Christmas Jewelry" and Weekend Update, and those had the common denominator of Hart being nowhere near them. There's just less and less space for his "safe" (read: sexist) vein of family comedy, and his endless mugging is just exhausting. But that said, nobody could have saved the anemic content of this episode, so it's not all his fault. Just mostly.

Best New Show: The Handmaid's Tale

I'm not usually one for prestige dramas where every line of dialogue is performed at a whisper and every other scene begins with someone staring out a window with gauzy curtains, but the evangelical dystopia it presents is a fascinating world with obvious political allegory, populated with interesting and complex characters. Also, it gets bonus points because I read the book and absolutely nothing happens, so every bit of delicious parlor room drama was cooked up wholecloth for the show.

Worst New Show: Anything Amazon Makes That Isn't More to Love

This year, Amazon introduced three new comedy pilots, none of which they picked up for series, which makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place. The biggest loss by far is Love You More, a Bridget Everett vehicle which had a diverse cast of indelible characters including overweight, elderly, and Downs Syndrome performers who are all treated like actual human beings. It was warm, funny, dirty, and unafraid to push the envelope, and it's a shame Amazon thinks we'd rather see more Z: The Beginning of Everything than this stellar show.

Best Netflix Show:

 accomplished the impossible: It made me actually interested in wrestling. It's still not something I have any urge to watch, but this show - about the creation of women's wrestling and the Hollywood rejects who found a second chance through it - really facilitates understanding with the art form, and every single character is hilarious, delightfully 80's, and worth digging into deeper. This show is warm as hell, and it loves everyone in its motley crew, no matter how strange.

Worst Netflix Show: Friends From College

As much as I love Cobie Smulders and Keegan Michael-Key and am so glad that Jae Suh Park is getting a showcase, Friends from College is an eldritch nightmare of a series, attempting to wring humor from a concept that has no idea what it's supposed to be.

Best Returning Show: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Every season, the nature of what the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is has changed, but in the third and possibly final season (considering the ratings this poor show has been getting), but in this season the "crazy" revolves around the central character's struggles with her own mental health, a journey that started at the beginning of the show, but reaches its darkest moments here in a journey that's just starting to go uphill. It's a tremendously raw, tender look at a truly modern journey, and the parody musical numbers continue to be the best things about TV this decade.

Worst Returning Show: Will & Grace

It's fun to spend time with these sets and characters over the course of a ten minute viral video, but the nostalgia factor doesn't extend for an entire season. The series had some interesting plot elements revolving around the realities of aging in the gay world, but it was (and has always been) too toothless to really do anything truly insightful with them. It's a laugh track-laden relic from the 90's, and while it was diverting enough to sit through occasionally, there's really nothing they have to offer.

Best Cancelled Show: Haters Back Off!!

Miranda Sings is a character that revels in being the most disgusting, off-putting thing you've ever seen onscreen. It makes sense that her Netflix series died on the vine, but it was a clever, delightful show that was unafraid to go for the gross-out, and I'll certainly miss it. Also this season made the genius decision to cast Matt Besser as Miranda's absentee father, and I regret that we won't get to spend more time with him.

Worst Cancelled Show: Baby Daddy

Deep in the darkness of those TV channels you never flip to, there is a secret enclave of sitcoms that seem to have been cryogenically frozen since 1993 and thawed periodically for six generic, mind-bogglingly unfunny, laugh track-fueled seasons.

Best Actor: Timothy Olyphant (Santa Clarita Diet)

I can't say I'd ever pegged Olyphant as a comedy actor, but his manic attempts to maintain normalcy in his family while his wife slowly transforms into a rotting, flesh-eating zombie are truly hilarious. He does a lot of work with a single yelp or smile, and he's the shining light of a show that I liked very much but didn't love.

Worst Actress: Nicole Kidman's Accent (Big Little Lies)

Why is it so hard for producers to just let her be Australian? Her American accent has never been perfect, but it wouldn't interfere with my enjoyment of the show if I didn't have to listen to her choke down her native tongue.

Best Actress: Nicole Kidman's Wig (Big Little Lies)

God bless those wigs, they work so hard for her.

Biggest Surprise: That Best Picture Announcement

Everyone had their own two cents about the accidental announcement that La La Land won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, only to be revealed that Moonlight was the actual winner. But I think it was a sublime moment of television. In this fragmented media age, there's not really been a water cooler moment this epic in years. I say bring back Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty for every award next year!

Biggest Disappointment: I Couldn't Include Insecure on My "Best Episodes" List

I really enjoy Issa Rae's HBO series Insecure, which ran for a second season this year, but while the series as a whole was great, I couldn't think of a single standout episode to call out as particularly great. Every episode is one puzzle piece adding to the mosaic that was the season, and placing one of them on a pedestal just didn't seem fair. But I didn't want to let this list go by without shouting out the show, so here it is!

Best Theme Song: Will & Grace

I've always loved this theme song. It's like capturing warm, homey,  nostalgia in a bottle, and the best thing about the show returning is getting to hear this tune emanating from my TV once more.

Worst Theme Song: Non-Theme Songs

From Riverdale to Dear White People, more and more shows are opting to just have a title card with a three second musical sting as an intro piece. Whatever happened to the art of a theme song? I know it makes it hard to binge shows on Netflix, but there's something Pavlovian and nostalgic about hearing the same song introduce a show each week, and there are so many good title sequences out there. It's kind of sad that I had to go back to the 90's to find one to laud this time around.

Best SNL Sketch: "La La Land Interrogation"

Basically, this is a satire of any conversation I had with any human being last December. And I was the cops. (Although I did see Moonlight and found it mostly underwhelming).

Worst SNL Sketch: "Dive Bar"

Ryan Gosling is involved in both of the sketches I mentioned, and it's a shame that the one actually featuring his talents was such a wash. He broke so much during the night that his giggling here doesn't have the impact it could have had, and letting this truly weird nonsense sketch fall on Kenan's shoulders was a terrible idea. The man is a trouper, but he has only ever done one thing, and that is mug at the camera while letting bad comedy flail around him.

Best Musical Performance: "Singin' in the Rain / Umbrella" Tom Holland (Lip Sync Battle)

Skip to 1:42 in the video and get ready to have your mind blown. Tom Holland was chosen to play Spider-Man partially because he came pre-packaged with rad acrobatic talents, but he really brings them to the fore here in this tremendously energetic musical mash-up for the ages.

Worst Musical Performance: "Bon Appetit" Katy Perry feat. Migos (SNL)

Oh boy, how could I possibly pick the most awkward and discomfiting part of this performance? Maybe how Katy Perry spends most of the first minute and a half lying down, crushing her diaphragm so it's difficult to sing? Or the way the dancers and then the rap trio Migos awkwardly clamber onto the table when it's their turn to perform? No, it has to be Perry's fumbling dance moves during the rap break, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt just how soul-crushingly white a person can be.

Best Use of a Song: "Boobs in California" (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)

I'm so glad Titus compromised his morals to perform this for a local songwriter, because "Boobs in California" is a great parody song on its own, but the self-consciously fey performance adds a beautiful extra layer of irony to the best thing that Kimmy Schmidt has thus far brought to the zeitgeist. And its frequent reuse at perfect times throughout the rest of the season is an excellent world-building gag that always brings a sparkle to the show.

Worst Use of a Song: "Feeling Good" (The Handmaid's Tale)

The Handmaid's Tale was nothing if not heavy-handed with its song choices, but a faux-inspiring moment accompanied by the strains of "Birds flying high, you know how I feel..." borders on self-parody. It's such a clunker that it falls straight into the dirt, burrowing to the core of the earth and sending a geyser of lava all over the screen.

Best Guest Star: Portia De Rossi (Santa Clarita Diet)

Portia de Rossi is the pot of gold at the end of Santa Clarita Diet, barging in during the last two episodes with a Mary Poppins bag full of laughs as a scientist with zero ability to relate to other human beings.

Worst Guest Star: Sean Spicer (The Emmys)

I mean, I know this administration is a joke, but actually letting them make jokes tacitly implies that what they're doing is normal and worth weak ribs from an awards show presenter. We all know Sean Spicer is a liar, but having him admit so himself isn't funny. It's just sad that everyone is letting this happen.

Best Commercial: "Pool Boy" Coca-Cola

This commercial has it all. Sex appeal. LGBT representation. And a knock-down, drag-out attitude that should be relatable to anyone with a sibling.

Worst Commercial: "Roundabout" Toyota

Is it just me, or are ads getting too surreal? You do have to make a point about the product you're selling. And is this a pair of quadruplets running a con? Is this a man who committed some past sin he's atoning for in roundabout purgatory? What about this would make me want to buy a truck? I'm so confused.

Top Five Pretty Guys

#5 Joseph Fiennes (The Handmaid's Tale)

Yes, his character is an evil man who has committed unconscionable acts, but that doesn't mean we have to yuck the yum that is Joseph Fiennes the actor. Good work, my dude.

#4 KJ Apa (Riverdale)

I literally can't even with the fact that the guy getting the most attention in the Riverdale cast is Cole Sprouse. Teenybopper magazines can never get over the brooding characters, no matter how annoying they are. But come on! Archie has always been where it's at, and KJ Apa obliges us with a shirtless shot at least once every three episodes.

#3 Dear White People Ensemble

Whether your preferred flavor is clean-cut jock, hipster chic, or whatever the hell Marque Richardson wants us to call him, Dear White People has something for you.

#2 Insecure Ensemble

I think the title of the show refers exclusively to how these men make me feel about my own body. Also, just when you think Y'lan Noel is the hottest person to ever step foot on HBO, in comes Jay Ellis to take off his shirt, revealing that there's more to his character than the geeky persona that first meets the eye.

#1 Miguel Ángel Silvestre (Sense8)

It would take a hell of an expensive lawyer to gather enough evidence to convince me that Miguel Ángel Silvestre isn't objectively the most beautiful man on the planet.

Bonus: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Grab Bag

One thing that Crazy-Ex Girlfriend is good at is casting bit players who steal the scene, whether it's the suave, suited incarnation of the Santa Ana Winds (Eric Michael Roy), or the Brazilian swim-up bartender (Mano Agapion) who shakes that drink oh-so right.

<------- Read the MOVIES section here               Read the MUSIC & MISC. section here ------>
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