By The Pajiba Staff | TV | December 24, 2019 |
By The Pajiba Staff | TV | December 24, 2019 |
Better Call Saul — For all the bluster and success of Saul Goodman, we know that Better Call Saul at its heart is a tragedy, because Saul Goodman is the product of pain and rejection from the people he loves the most. It’s heartbreaking to consider that Saul Goodman — the captivating weasel with all the right angles in Breaking Bad — is deep down a profoundly sad man, but once Saul is taken away from him, he’s nothing but a husk of a man, a shell of his former self. A timid, nothing of a person who has lost the people who have meant the most to him — Kim and Chuck — as well as the emotional suit of armor that protected him from that pain. Better Call Saul is the story of how that armor was built. (Note: We decided to limit the Top 20 to only one drama from the Breaking Bad universe. This is the one we chose.)
Fleabag — Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted the British comedy series from her one-woman show, and stars as a young woman dealing with flawed romances, a fucked-up family, a fierce libido, and a failing cafe in contemporary London. The series follows its snarky protagonist through anal-sex-centric one-night-stands, tense quality time with her high-strung sister, and a torrid emotional affair with a hot priest. Maybe Fleabag isn’t exactly relatable. But it’s a joy to watch Waller-Bridge fling herself into ludicrous situations, behave with bold rudeness, then look right at the camera to smirk at her audience. It’s basically You’re The Worst meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, although by the time it’s over, it’s transcended both and then some.
Mad Men — What started as a stylized look at life in 1960s America — delivered in a manner that sometimes winked at the viewer a little too hard — eventually turned into a poignant look at life in general. Matt Weiner’s story was always simple, and human: It’s about the search for absolution. It’s about the struggle to not only love and be loved but to understand how one is even worthy of love given their flaws, big or small. It’s an understatement to say you’re missing out on great television if you skip Mad Men. Yes, it is Important. It’s also damn entertaining. And if you can’t get behind anything else, get behind the fact that it brought us Peggy Olson, the Patron Saint of Workplace Badassery.
Succession — Loosely based on the family of Rupert Murdoch, Succession is about an aging media tycoon and the family members vying for control of his empire after his death. The thing about the Roys is that they are all terrible people — absolute sociopaths, willing to connive and backstab members of their own family for a piece of the power. But they all are also so very bad at it, and much of the joy in Succession is schadenfreudtastic in nature: Watching all of these horrible people fail spectacularly in their efforts makes for some of the most deliciously enjoyable watching on television, thanks in part to terrific performances, especially that of Matthew MacFadyen and Sarah Snook, although Kieran Culkin is close behind. It’s an insanely addictive television series, a nasty satire with pitch-black sense of humor and a host of characters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and for once, that’s a feature not a bug.
Community — Community is a sitcom with incredibly well-established characters and relationships that doesn’t depend at all on their characterizations. It isn’t a show where characters don’t matter (like a Law & Order), but it’s also not a show where a character’s journey is the only thing that matters (like, to varying frustrating degrees, House). Dan Harmon managed to create a show where people you knew and loved could, at any moment and for almost no reason, do whatever the fuck Harmon wanted, which means watching one show is basically watching every show. Add to it the almost innumerable callbacks and Easter eggs, and there’s no reason you couldn’t easily watch this thing twenty times. Community knew what we needed years before it happened, meaning the show is not just good. It might be actual magic.
Justified — Justified is one of the best dramas of the decade, and while there have been some pitfalls along the way, you can stack the characterizing, the dialogue, and the acting of Justified against nearly any other show and come out ahead. The sly, laconic humor and homespun wit and wisdom is unlike anything we’ve seen on television since Rockford Files. What’s doubly amazing about Justified is that — with the exception of Michael Rapaport’s Daryl Crowe — even its villains (Dickie Bennett, Dewey Crowe, Kathleen Hale, Avery Markham, Mags Bennett, and especially Boyd Crowder) are as interesting and dynamic as the heroes. Meanwhile, what Raylan represents is familiar blood instigating trouble for the old institutions, too smart and too determined to turn a blind eye. Much as Sheriff Seth could not resist the temptation to clean up Deadwood, Marshal Raylan Givens wants peace for the hometown he ran from long ago. And we, cowpokes, got to watch the right man do the work.
The Americans — The Americans isn’t interested in telling stories about the finality of death. Its primary focus is in the whispers and memories and shadows of people that stay behind, of how we mold and reshape ourselves in extreme circumstances as a way to survive and how those who came before us work their way into our minds and our selves. It’s possibly the best show FX has ever done — and the very peak of the Peak TV era.
Veep — Veep is top-shelf political satire coupled with insults about Vice Presidential staff members ingesting dog semen. The HBO comedy’s highbrow vulgarity so rare, so brilliantly constructed, and so devastatingly accurate that you can’t help but bow down before the mad genius (Armando Iannucci) behind the curtain. There isn’t a show — comedy or drama — that impresses more on a consistent basis.
Halt and Catch Fire — It was almost impossible that Halt and Catch Fire was picked up by AMC in the first place. It was an almost impossible sell to viewers. It could have been canceled early for creative or financial reasons, and nobody (from the outside, at least) would have been surprised. The odds of a show with these kinds of roadblocks getting to four seasons are astronomically low. The fact that it also became such a beautiful, emotional, heart-wrenching forty-hour journey is simply incredible, a feat of artistic vision and collaboration and love that deserves to be celebrated.
The Leftovers — The Leftovers is a Rorschach test disguised as a television show. It doesn’t lead you down a particular path, doesn’t tell you what to think, and makes every scenario equally plausible. It is either the most wondrous or mundane reality ever presented on television. More accurately: It’s simultaneously both the most wondrous and the most mundane. The show asks you to gaze upon it and dare to describe what you see. In doing so, it’s asking you to describe what’s meaningful for you. What matters? What makes it worth getting up in the morning. What makes it worth being heartbroken. What makes it worth dealing with the entropy baked into existence. What makes any of it meaningful?
Twin Peaks — Time is a circle, the future is the past, and no matter how hard he tries, Dale Cooper, as good as good can be, can’t fix everything. We desperately want him to. Even the most hardened Lynch fan can’t help but yearn for truth, justice and the American way. Of course, the America of Lynch is one where malice is barely contained by the postcard friendly sheen of the surface. The most recognizable images of Americana are thrown back at us in mystifying, unnerving ways: The freedom of the open road turned empty and sinister in barely lit nights; The great American countryside steeped in death; The old school motel the gateway to a new beyond. Dale Cooper is the lawman we hope for when darkness prevails, and watching him stride into the sheriff’s department of Twin Peaks, exuding authority from every pore, is satisfying to the point of schmaltzy, and this story can never be truly happy. Strip away the backward speaking, the diner dancing, the nuclear explosions and the doppelgangers, and we’re left with a very simple story: A dead girl and the man who tries but will never rescue her.
Watchmen — With Watchmen, Damon Lindelof played the perfect game. The average viewer got their minds blown by the twists; the Reddit users got the satisfaction of following the breadcrumbs to the big twists but then find more twists behind the doors. Lindelof was doing all of this while also building upon (and transforming) beloved source material, satisfying woke Twitter, and creating a series based on a 35-year-old comic book that resonates as much today than it did back then. It’s worth mentioning, too, that he’s doing all of this with directors and a writers’ room that is fully half female and half people of color. It’s almost as though Lindelof has spent the decade since Lost listening, and then he took everything he learned and applied those lessons to Watchmen, which may be perfect television series for 2019, and one hell of a way to end the decade.
Good Place — How long can The Good Place last before it outgrows its premise? That’s a question we have been asking of the high-concept The Good Place since the pilot episode. How can Mike Schur possibly sustain this show? Mike Schur followed up a flawlessly executed twist at the end of season one, that surprised everyone in the era of no surprises, with three more seasons that continued to twist and turn in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, it also racked up some of the best lines of the decade, developed and fleshed out some of the most beloved and complicated characters on television, and blended surprisingly profound philosophical questions within inspired comic gags and Emmy-worthy turns from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. It’s a perfect show with good people imparting good messages from a very bad place. We’ll never underestimate Mike Schur again.
Atlanta — There are and have been only so many ways that I can praise everything about Atlanta with each episode that airs: from the writing to the direction to the cinematography and the performances by both the regular cast members (Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, and Lakeith Stanfield) and by guest stars such as Katt Williams as Uncle Willy, Robert Powell III as Bibby, RJ Walker as Clark County (yoo-hoo!), and even Michael Vick). When Atlanta wants to be funny, it’s hilarious and when the show wants to make you nervous, it can and often does rival any horror movie out there as it will have you inching forward in your seat with each minute that passes as you wait impatiently to find out what happens next. Every episode pretty much leaves every other comedy on television in its dust.
Brooklyn Nine Nine — Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the best comedies on television. It is kind and funny and diverse, supremely well-acted, and it somehow features the best role of Andre Braugher’s long and terrific career, and Mike Schur’s superpower continues to be his ability to create perfect romantic arcs without getting bogged down in will-they-won’t-they bullshit. It’s been one of those shows that’s been on the verge of cancellation for six years (and actually was canceled at one point), but Schur shakes it off every season and somehow manages to improve on the last every single year. Hot damn.
Patriot — We cannot emphasize enough how staggeringly great Patriot is. It’s a funny, suspenseful, incredibly tense spy thriller about all the things that can go wrong between Point A and B, no matter how straight a line there is between the two points. Michael Dorman, who is perfection here, plays an undercover, off-the-books CIA agent whose only task is to get a suitcase full of money from the United States to a guy overseas, and it’s remarkable how many ways that a single task can be upended, how many lives can be affected, and how many people are brought into its orbit. There have been a lot of shows that have attempted to be the “next Breaking Bad,” but no show since has combined tension and great character work as well as Patriot.
Bojack Horseman — Netflix’s first ever original animated comedy BoJack Horseman is one of television’s most unexpectedly reliable series. What had started out as an unwieldy but interesting Hollywood satire populated by anthropomorphic animals quickly evolved into one of the medium’s bleakest and most perceptive social critiques as well as arguably the most painfully accurate depiction of depression ever seen in an animated comedy. With every new season, we greatly anticipate the chance to binge-watch something that’s guaranteed to emotionally devastate us.
Russian Doll — There’s a ruthless emotional rawness to Russian Doll that’s seeded in the writing, flowers in the performance, and is watered by a gritty authenticity of its representation of New York. Its tone is a bit theatrical, yet it feels familiar enough in its atmosphere that you can imagine stumbling into this repeating night. This is the story of that one wild night that felt like a dream, then a nightmare. But instead of waking up, Nadia must return again and again to that awkward start until she gets it right. And thanks to the brilliant humor and humanity alive in this dark sci-fi comedy, we revel in sharing her journey.
Steven Universe — Steven Universe is a quirky science-fiction cartoon series that follows the adventures of the titular boy wonder and the Crystal Gems, extraterrestrial defenders of Earth, of which his late mother was once one. It has earned praise for its sophisticated yet casual inclusion of a variety of complex characters under the LGBTQA umbrella, challenging gender norms, touching on gender fluidity and transgender identity, building two major arcs on lesbian relationships, and even displaying same-sex kissing as a totally natural extension of these romances. This cartoon show has been teaching kids about personal boundaries, consent, trust and intimacy in a way that’s digestible and accessible. It’s remarkably progressive in a way that doesn’t sensationalize its politics. These are just the Gems, just Steven’s family and friends. Love is love. And love wins, making for a show rewarding for adults and worthy of the upcoming generation.
Barry — Bill Hader plays a former Marine turned disaffected, detached hitman who finds a sliver of joy in his miserable life by joining an acting class, but as he immerses himself in a new life, he can’t escape his old one. It’s a black comedy punctuated with violence, buoyed by a very understated Bill Hader performance and an Emmy winning supporting turn by Henry Winkler. It’s a morbidly funny series, but also genuinely affecting, and while it mixes up a number of genres and inspirations, Barry feels brilliantly unique.
Header Image Source: Amazon