Like I say every year, there is simply too much great TV. It’s a fact. Even TV network executives have noted how it is near-impossible to keep up with all the latest critically-acclaimed content that fills our screens, especially with the deluge of output from companies like Amazon and Netflix that now produce their own shows.
BETTER CALL SAUL – ‘FIVE-O’/’PIMENTO’
Better Call Saul is on track to equal or even surpass the show it spun-off from. It’s quite a bold claim, I know – Breaking Bad was a critical juggernaut that became one of the most adored and acclaimed shows of the 21st century – but with episodes as intense and emotional as ‘Five-O’ and ‘Pimento’, BCS proves that it can easily match or outdo its predecessor.
The two shows are quite different, despite sharing some of the same DNA and two main characters. Saul is a much slower show, more interested in character building and dialogue than shootouts in the desert or moments of explosive violence, though it’s certainly capable of creating tense Bad-esque action scenes when it wants to.
It also retains the previous series’ methodical storytelling, where everything each character does makes logical and emotional sense, it’s always clear how their actions follow on from what’s happened previously and how these actions then build up to unexpected moments of shocking drama, followed by episodes that examine the fallout of these events before moving onto the next big dramatic moment. In BB, these big moments were often gunfights or a death or Walt doing something horrible. In Saul, these climactic moments occur in the form of a monologue or an emotionally-charged conversation that hits just as hard as any bit of violence from That Other Show.
The series features Jimmy McGill, a criminal lawyer – but not yet the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman that we know he becomes – struggling to kick-start his career, deal with his old law firm and help his brother Chuck, who has a strange medical condition that leaves him housebound and painfully averse to electricity and sunlight. He occasionally crosses paths with parking attendant/former cop/future Walt babysitter Mike Ehrmentraut, who exists mainly on the sidelines of BCS except for his his award-worthy showcase in ‘Five-O’.
The writers resist the urge to shoehorn too many blatant references to That Other Show into Better Call Saul and every one they do slip in naturally fits into Jimmy and Mike’s story.
The show retains BB’s stellar cinematography and dry humour and turns a character who was mostly played for comic relief into a fully fleshed-out person who is unknowingly heading for a fall, which gives Better Call Saul a tragic undercurrent that bubbles under its comedic exterior. Every happy scene with his ex Kim and brother Chuck are tinged with sadness as neither are mentioned in Breaking Bad and we are left to imagine why, which brings many horrible possibilities to mind.
SHOW ME A HERO – ALL 6 EPISODES.
A miniseries about a city council struggling with a federal court ruling to implement new public housing may not sound like gripping, must-see TV. But Show Me A Hero turns this premise into a powerful and moving examination of racism, political greed and class warfare in late 80’s New York. It’s impossible to pick a standout episode as they work perfectly together to make an unforgettable drama based on real events that deals with issues that are still relevant to modern-day America.
The series was created by David Simon and is anchored by an incredible performance from Oscar Isaac as ambitious politician Nick Wasicsko, who runs for Mayor of Yonkers and promises to oppose the court’s ruling if elected but has a change of heart and spends his term as Mayor fighting to get the houses built, battling against rival politicians and a huge public outcry from angry voters who feel that he betrayed them.
In chaotic city hall meetings, he faces a determined mob of citizens who are furious that their white and wealthy middle-class neighbourhoods would have affordable housing that lets people from the poorest parts of the city move in next door to them. They complain that this would lower their property values and bring in crime and drugs and they just don’t want to live next to
minorities poor people. After these meetings, Mayor Wasicsko is demoralised and despairing, and who could blame him. This will not be an easy process.
Half of the series follows this surprisingly-intense political battle while the other focuses on some of the people that the desegregation would help, like Norma (LaTonya Richard-Jackson), who’s losing her sight and needs a carer, and Billie (Dominique Fishback) who falls for a drug dealer, and Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera) who has emigrated to the USA looking for a better place to raise her children.
Scenes with these characters are often quietly devastating and make the dehumanising rhetoric of the
racist concerned protestors sting even more. The excellent cast also features Alfred Molina, who is tremendously punchable as smug, slimy conservative Hank Spallone, and Jon Bernthal as one of Nick’s few allies, civil rights attorney Michael Sussman.
In short: It’s as good as you’d expect a show from the creator of The Wire to be.
HANNIBAL – ‘DIGESTIVO’/’THE WRATH OF THE LAMB’
At the beginning of season three, Hannibal – both the character and the show – was feeling cocky. The show had received great reviews and got a third season despite its small viewership, and the character had escaped the increasingly-suspicious FBI by fleeing the country and leaving most of the main cast lying in pools of blood.
Some of them live to see another day, but their finale fight with Dr ‘Cannibal’ Lecter has left them shaken and traumatised. Not that he cares. He’s busy relaxing in Florence with his psychiatrist/hostage/servant/accomplice Bedelia and feasting on some of the locals.
Soon, Will Graham and the FBI are after him again, but finding him will be tricky and Will’s unusual relationship with the killer has developed into a troubling obsession.
This season of Hannibal squashes a lot into its 13 episodes. It’s almost like showrunner Bryan Fuller knew that a fourth season was unlikely and so found a way to continue the story of the first two seasons while also fitting in a brief trip into Hannibal’s origins and uses the second half of the season to do his version of Red Dragon, with former spook/hobbit companion Richard Armitage playing the skin-crawlingly creepy Tooth Fairy killer Francis Dolarhyde.
The first half of the season follows Will’s Hannibal hunt, and the new locations – including a Gothic manor and the sunny streets of Florence – give the show plenty of opportunities to create more stunningly-pretty scenes.
The main problem with this season is that it tends to over-indulge this penchant for turning episodes into a series of abstract, arty visuals at the expense of pacing and narrative clarity. This is at its worst at the start of the season, where the sight of yet another shot of slow-motion blood or wine or water had me fighting the urge to scream ‘Just get on with it!’ at the screen.
The dialogue, which at its worst has been borderline-pretentious in previous seasons, often skips far over that line this season. The show is still brilliant – it is on this list, after all – but these annoyances and over-indulgences stop it from reaching the heights of season 2.
It’s still more than capable of making moments which perfectly balance the beautiful with the brutal and creating tense, gory, incredible episodes of television which are also darkly funny and entertaining, like ‘Digestivo’, which ends the ‘Hannibal on the run’ story arc, and ‘Wrath of the Lamb’, which ends the Red Dragon arc and, sadly, the entire series.
Joe Anderson, replacing Michael Pitt as the repulsive Mason Verger, steals many a scene in season 3 and ‘Digestivo’ gives him plenty of scenery to chew with his newly-deformed mouth as his character gets some of Thomas Harris’ most ludicrous material and he plays it with just the right amount of raised-eyebrow ham and snarling menace.
Francis confronts Will and Hannibal for the final time in ‘Wrath of the Lamb’, an excellent finale which sends the series off in typically nightmarish style. It also ends on a nicely ambiguous note which works well as a tease for a fourth season if the show ever gets resurrected, which is not impossible considering how many other shows have been brought back from the dead recently.
But if this really is the end (and it almost certainly is), I’ll miss this strange, gruesome little show. Its cancellation was unfortunate and somewhat inevitable but it ended perfectly and there was nothing else like it on television.
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT – ‘KIMMY GOES TO A PARTY!’
The struggles of a young woman who has recently been freed from her underground prison after suffering several years of brainwashing at the mercy of an insane cult leader who convinced his subjects that the world had ended sounds more like a premise for a bleak, harrowing drama than a cheery, colourful sitcom. And yet, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is hilarious, with a great mixture of rapid-fire jokes, surreal moments, goofy cut-away gags, and the occasional bit of dark humour when the show dwells on Kimmy’s time in the bunker.
UKS was created by Tina Fey, who also created 30 Rock, and the New York that Kimmy now calls home is just as wacky and cartoonish as the one Liz Lemon worked in.
The show is anchored by a winningly likeable performance from Ellie Kemper who plays the titular character, perfectly balancing Kimmy’s relentless optimism and naivety with the deeply-hidden anger and strength that helped her survive her years underground as she makes the fascinating transition from doomsday cult prisoner to independent citizen.
She’s supported by a great cast, including Titus Burgess’ scene-stealing role as flamboyant struggling actor Titus Andromedon, Jane Krakowski’s snooty, rich mother Jacqueline Voorhees, Dylan Gelula as her spoilt brat daughter Xanthippe, and Carol Kane as Kimmy’s landlord Lillian Kaushtupper (the names in this show are just fantastic).
It also has the catchiest theme song in recent memory. It gets stuck in your head and will never leave. Ever.
DOCTOR WHO – ‘HEAVEN SENT’
Last year, I said that series 8 of Doctor Who was the best one since Matt Smith’s first series several years ago. And it was. But then, this year, the show produced a season that was even better than last year’s, with ambitious plots that avoided being over-complicated, experimental stories which varied wildly in genre and tone, episodes which blurred the line between two-parter and stand-alone, and some really iconic moments for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
Plus, it only had one awful episode and a couple of episodes that were, at worst, mediocre. In a show this maddeningly inconsistent, that’s almost impressive.
So now, without wishing to repeat myself too much, I’d like to declare that this series is the best since Matt Smith’s first one several years ago.
Its standout highlight was an episode where the Doctor is trapped alone in a complex prison and must figure out how to avoid the monster that patrols it and escape. Capaldi carries the entire episode by himself in a brilliant one-man show that will almost certainly become an all-time classic.
Other highlights included the quick but welcome return of Michelle Gomez’s wonderfully demented Missy, the Doctor’s lengthy confrontation with Davros, Maisie Williams’ nuanced performance as the Viking girl-turned-immortal Ashildr, a nice farewell to Clara Oswald, and a stunning ten minute scene where the Doctor tries to prevent a peace negotiation from turning into the start of a war by giving a speech full of passion and anger.
Oh, and the bit where he explains a complicated paradox directly to the camera while wandering around the TARDIS before playing a version of his own theme song on an electric guitar. It’s daft, yes, very daft indeed, but it was fun.
COMMUNITY – ‘EMOTIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF BROADCAST TELEVISION’
The final season of the quirky little comedy that lasted far longer than anyone expected, continuing on despite cast members leaving, its showrunner getting fired and rehired, even returning from cancellation, sent the show off in style. Saved by the now-defunct streaming service Yahoo Screen and freed from the constraints of broadcast television, the show could now do whatever it wanted, which lead to some of the best episodes of the series and, unfortunately, some of its most self-indulgent.
The Save Greendale committee still had plenty of work to do, with administrative consultant Frankie (Paget Brewster) and eccentric inventor Elroy (Keith David) brought in to help fix the school’s many problems.
The new characters fit remarkably well into the group. Elroy gets the sort of goofy non-sequitirs that Troy or Pierce would’ve delivered in previous seasons and the show has a lot of fun contrasting Frankie’s strict, no-nonsense personality with the insanity of Greendale Community College.
The episodes in this season are longer and, on a couple of rare occasions, ruder than before. After so many changes, the show doesn’t feel quite the same as it did when it began, but it’s still funny, though season 6 tends to go for surreal, zany gags more often than the sort of touching emotional moments that made the first few seasons special.
A Karate Kid play, a spy-themed paintball episode, an exploration of the Dean’s sexuality, and a wedding for put-upon nerd Garrett are some of the season’s highlights, while an episode about grifting (which features an unforgivable waste of Matt Berry) and a road-trip episode are both ruined by the writers’ fondness for being meta and self-aware going way too far at the expense of actual jokes.
The series finale, ‘Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television’ is perfect. Genuinely perfect. As the end of the year approaches, some of the former study group’s members prepare to make big changes that will split the group up permanently. Before they go, Abed asks everyone to pitch their ideal seventh season, an idea which the group uses as a chance to imagine what their life would be like if they all stayed at Greendale. It’s a hilarious and heart-warming send-off to characters that I’ve grown rather attached to since I binged the first season in 2010. Like the show’s best episode, ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’, the finale’s clever high-concept premise is firmly grounded in character drama, the episode is packed with jokes and it features one of the best end-credits tags of the series.
Now, we wait for the movie…