There will be spoilers along the way; there will be spoils. Television this year was strange, violent, and macabre—in some ways modern and in other ways nostalgic for an era not of our own. Sometimes it felt good to escape into story, at others times it felt like thoughtless behavior. I watched a few things this year that aren't included in this list either because I didn't complete the season or didn't watch it at all. Masters of Sex, for example, is a show that merits conversation but I didn't finish the second season—not for lack of desire, but perhaps due to ennui with white man's ennui, if that makes sense. The Leftovers, which I previously vowed to stick with, left me in a state of such bewilderment after the season finale that I just don't have the breath to talk about it; perhaps I'll join the Guilty Remnant and we can be silent about another Lindelof ending together. I also didn't get through season two of Orange is the New Black, or even start season two of The Americans. The list is not necessarily in order, though it does conclude with what I found to be the most relevant, quietly powerful show of the year.
Something strange happened in my household during the finale of True Detective, as it did to the many people “borrowing” a friend’s HBO GO subscription. Multiple attempts to view the episode revealed nothing more than the perpetuity of a black, empty screen. Perhaps time really was a black circle after all—Carcosa just another way of trapping us all into the cyclical pattern of loading, reloading and waiting for Rust Cohle to gush existential nihilism and teach us how to make figurines out of Lone Star. Unable to watch the finale on the night it aired, fearing the horror of spoilers and cultural ignominy, we set alarms for 5:00am and watched the finale unfold during the darkest hour of the morning. What spread out before us was indeed strange, rife with symbols, unapologetically violent (don’t take an ax to a gun fight, kids) and there was a monster at the end—but little resolution was given to the allusions that pervaded the rest of the story. The same show that had me reading Robert W. Chambers and Ambrose Bierce for clues about The Yellow King was just a beautiful Bromance dressed up in antlers on the way to an Intro to Nietzsche class.
Finale aside, True Detective was one of the more unusual, enrapturing shows on television in some time. Perhaps the fact that we so desperately seek solutions for the mysterious—plotting our own supernatural or divine vision of the The Yellow King's identity—says more about us as viewers than it does about the show itself. The promise of just eight episodes, the beautiful directing by Cary Fukanaga, and the height of the McConaissance (and pretty much everything about his likable pal Woody) kept our rapt attention until the beguiling dream was over.
You're the Worst
If you’ve ever stolen a cat from an independent bookstore, or purloined a blender from a wedding gift table, this show is for you. In an era where television sitcoms are saccharine, often naïve and wearing ballet flats, it’s quite refreshing to meet Jimmy and Gretchen (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash). These two really might be the worst—self-absorbed, jaded and judgmental—but what they somehow portray better than other network comedies is that pulse of the skeptic that’s alive in all of us: fear. All of the characters are fighting their own personal terror (domestication, career failure, PTSD or LA hipsters) but creator Stephen Falk does not allow his characters to be realized solely be their struggle. Jimmy, Gretchen, Edgar and Lindsay are alarmingly charming and relatable, but not the people you should leave alone with your kid or cactus. The writing is sharp and leaves behind bruises; and through all the shenanigans and adult content it’s one of the more honest shows on television above love and relationships. Perhaps the sickest thing that the jaded can do is believe that it will last, so I’m very curious to see where season two takes us, and hopefully it’s not to Williams Sonoma.
To take on a world created by the Coen brothers is a very brave feat—galvanizing your creation with cult-like anticipation and then slowly pulling away from the luster itself as you build your own vision from the icy landscape left behind. Noah Hawley’s Fargo, though largely inspired by the odd, mundane world created by the Coen’s, takes on its own story and begins in the small town of Bemidji with the defeated Lester Nygaard (played so gosh darn well by Martin Freeman). I hate to reveal too much about the series because often it's the way the icy, creepy and sometimes downright hilarious world seeps into you that makes the show so compelling. That, and remarkable performances by Billy Bob Thorton, Bob Odenkirk, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks and Oliver Platt. It’s ambitious in vision, full of the grace and disgrace of humanity, and still manages not to take itself too seriously in the process. It was both critically good television and highly pleasurable to experience, which let’s be honest, doesn’t always go hand in hand these days. You betcha, I’m ready for another season.
The more I’ve allowed myself to be introspective about this year—the television we experienced, the collective battles we fought, and the violence that seemed to pervade everything—I believe it was Mad Men that gave us one of the more poignant reflections on mortality. From the cult killings on True Detective to Oberyn’s slaughter and Tywin’s brutal end on Game of Thrones, and even the death heard round Sunday night television, it truly was a most violent year—blood soaked and gasping for air.
In this year’s mid-season finale, "Waterloo", we said goodbye to the beloved, barefoot patriarch of the ad men, Bertrand Cooper. It was not violent, nor unexpected; Bert dies off screen quietly and we are spared the scene of it. Towards the end of the episode Bert appears only to Don (in what might be a vision, hallucination or dream) and performs a song and dance number surrounded by young ladies and then returns to his office and closes the door on the vision, and the era. Meanwhile, man sets foot on the moon, Don lets go of Megan and Peggy gives the best pitch since Don’s Kodak carousel speech. Starved for what felt like a genuine dealing of human mortality, I finally felt something.
Matthew Weiner has crafted the last show of that great golden era of television, where a short attention span doesn’t inhibit the development of character, patience with plot and imaginative risk pays off, and the echoes of mortality reach even the moon. Perhaps the best things in life certainly are free.
Rectify might just be the most beautiful show on television. In the first episode of this season Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is reunited with his death row mate, Kerwin, in a space where Kerwin didn’t get executed and Daniel can confide in him about his current state of being. As viewers we know that Kerwin was executed just before Daniel was released from prison, the image of his cell door left open, and Daniel is in a coma at the hands of a hate crime committed by those who believe he’s guilty. The conversation they share and the space where it takes place—not within the confines of their cells but outdoors in a barren, tawny-hued field that only the surrounding livestock witness—is some of the most arresting television I’ve seen this year.
For those of you that didn’t watch season one (its available on Netflix, get to work) here is the quick recap: after new DNA evidence surfaces Daniel Holden is released from prison after serving 20 years for the rape and murder a young woman. Returning to his family in Paulie, Georgia Daniel and his family try to get the case reopened as he navigates the strangeness of life outside confinement and the notion that those who walk among don't believe him to be deserving of a second chance.
Just earlier this week I was listening to Serial and was struck by the words of Adnan’s heartbreaking letter to the show’s producer and his sometimes champion sometimes prosecutor, Sarah Koening. Immediately I thought of Rectify and that sentiment of defeat that reverberated with me.
Now that I’ve drawn attention to the similarity in my mind it’s hard for me not to want to go back to the beginning and draw-up a comparative thesis, but I will refrain. Instead, I will hold these two stories (one real and the other fabricated) in the same headspace and dwell on the context of this year, the events that have shaken us, and our passion for what it means to deliver justice.
Unlike Serial, Rectify is slow—languid, syrupy; it drips form the trees outside as Daniel relearns the passing of time. It feels like Southern Gothic and could read like Willa Cather or Faulkner on the page, but it's also modern and alarmingly current. Daniel's family gathers around him like a group of unseasoned cheerleaders—some with resolute belief in their champion, others alarmed to find themselves grouped within his discipleship. The women of Rectify make up some of my favorite performances on television: Abigail Spencer as Daniel's sister Amantha and Adelaide Clemens as Tawney, the unassuming, faith-driven wife of Daniel's stepbrother. But ultimately it’s Daniel’s world and we are just visitors, much like the scenes of Daniel and Kerwin in their respective jail cells, shot from above and hovering over them like spectators.
Rectify has never really been about Daniel's guilt or innocence; the information we’ve gathered about the case and past events have shed less light on his character than watching him explore everyday experiences. With Serial, I’ve wavered around like an unanchored balloon, untethered to any belief outside of the fault or intuition of my own humanity. I’m curious to see if Serial will even end with a verdict and what that might do to those so deeply invested in the story. For me, somehow, I’m over the verdict itself. Perhaps what’s so interesting about Daniel and Adnan, and why I can talk about them in the same breath, is their ability to shed light on the ineffective pursuit of understanding guilt and innocence, what humans can actually endure under persecution, and how we tether ourselves to those who can tell our stories, or those who unfortunately cannot. Let’s think on that for a minute while we hover above them like spectators, hoping the imprint of our faces on the glass might leave something behind that resembles impartiality, or perhaps even belief.