Every January, it is customary for me to review my favorite media of the prior year. No criticism, critique, or concern–just a pure celebration of awesome things that I love. Of course, it’s over halfway through February so I’m a bit late because I wanted to complete my three-part series on visual & procedural rhetoric. So let’s dive right in with my top television shows from last year:
1) Big Little Lies
This mini-series from HBO feels a bit like a somber Parenthood. The show focuses on a group of parents who are trying to raise their children with love and intention–within the context of their wealthy Monterey, CA community. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom who has just moved into the area so that her son can attend a better school, but very soon after they arrive, her son is accused of hurting one of his classmates, an act that he denies. This incident, along with flash-forwards to an impending murder within the community, frames the rising tensions among the various parents who either choose to support Jane or remain suspicious. Each family has their own secrets and personal struggles. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is in battle with her teenage daughter and feels constantly outdone by her ex-husband’s new beautiful wife. Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, outwardly appears to have a perfect life and charming husband, but in truth, their relationship is dysfunctional and abusive.
The drama in each family’s life could easily have been exploited for an overwrought and melodramatic series, but instead, the show creators maintained a subtlety. Each character is treated with compassion and complexity. Some of the individuals I strongly disliked and then found myself softening towards them; others I instantly loved but over time came to see them as more complicated and messy. For all of the characters, one was forced to fully confront the difficulties that parenting entails, and particularly those unique challenges within their socio-economic bracket. Do note, this is not for the light-hearted. True to HBO form, Big Little Lies is dark, depressing, and intense — but I would say well worth it.
My next picks are all sequel series:
2) The Leftovers, Season 3
This show defies any simple synopsis. The basic premise of the show is that 2% of the world disappears into thin air–individuals of every age, ranging from the unborn to the elderly. The show follows those who were left behind, the leftovers, and how they try to come to terms with this unexplainable incident. Some turn to religion; some turn to science; some try not to think too hard about it; others descend into deep despair. The Leftovers is one of HBO’s highest rated shows, yet it maintained a relatively small audience because this show challenges so many conventional expectations of what television is supposed to do. Magical realism is woven throughout the show…but in a manner that feels natural and unsurprising, though certainly unsettling. The episodes move slowly and the storylines unfold in complicated ways, requiring a level of patience and commitment that is unusual for long-form media that are not a mini-series or movie.
But this is a long-term relationship that is truly worth the work and dedication. It took me a long time to get through season one, but once I found my rhythm, I was fully drawn into the profound richness of the show. Through each character who must make sense of the world after this event, the creators are able to grapple with some huge philosophical questions about the meaning of life, death, family, and society. This third season was probably the strangest one yet, but it gave a really fulfilling end to the series. I’m also relieved it’s over because as much as I love this show and think it’s simply brilliant….I was exhausted by the end!
3a) The Expanse, Season 2
Ok I am cheating here a little bit. Number three is a tie between two sequel series for shows that I simply love. Season 2 of The Expanse was amazing. After the slow, tension-filled build-up of the first season, this season was a well-earned whirlwind. There were some new characters like Bobby, who were fantastic, and this season did a much better job in the writing of its women. The politics and interpersonal dynamics of this show are extremely well-executed, and it is one of the few visual adaptations of a written SF text that is able to capture the philosophical complexities, or as Darko Suvin would say, the “cognitive estrangement” of the intended narrative. This show is not about the action or drama (though there is plenty of that); it is very much about ideology, society, and humanity as all good SF should be. (IMO) For more details about the show, check out my review of the first season.
3b) Broadchurch, Season 3
I’ve mentioned this show before here at High and Low, so I’ll point you to my previous review. It is an all-time favorite of mine, so I was thrilled that they decided to add one more season. This season is less directly connected with the prior two seasons, but it provides some nice breathing room for the town of Broadchurch to transition into its future while being more cognizant of the dark realities that the town has always held. In this season. detectives Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant) must solve the case of a local woman’s rape, another traumatic crime for Broadchurch that will challenge a different set of assumptions, particularly in regards to the community’s hegemonic expectations associated with gender. The first two seasons remain my favorites, but this was still a solid season that I swiftly binged.
4) Rick & Morty, Season 3
Fans have been waiting a very long time for this third season to Rick & Morty, but thankfully I only just discovered the show last year so I didn’t have long to wait. If you were a fan of NBC’s Community, you will likely appreciate this cynical and witty endeavor from Dan Harmon about a brilliant but morally challenged (and usually drunk) scientist and his earnest grandson who travel through time and space on various adventures. The first two seasons were smart, but this season’s writing was a whole new level of pay-attention-or-you-will-miss-the-many-layers-of-meaning-and-pop-culture-allusions. This season also contained a much stronger overall season arc, following Morty and Summer as they come to terms with their parents’ separation and Rick as he must face his own role within the family. Season 3 is both the bleakest season yet, but simultaneously a really honest exploration of the value of family. Only Dan Harmon manages to execute that kind of dichotomy.
5) Master of None, Season 2
Everybody raved about season 1 of Master of None, but I was fairly underwhelmed. When I eventually got round to season 2, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The opening episode is a riff off of great Italian cinema classics like The Bicycle Thief, shot entirely in black and white and set in Modena, Italy. Dev has a random, magical encounter with another tourist but before he can pursue her further, someone steals his phone that also happens to contain her number. The entire season takes on a similar wistful tone as Dev and his friends continue to pursue romance in the modern era. This season felt a little more serious, a little more pensive, a little sadder, but, as a result, I also found myself resonating with the characters in a way that I didn’t with the first season. In many ways, this season felt more like a collection of carefully executed short films, especially considering the stunning cinematography and aesthetics of each episode.
There are a few other shows that I thoroughly enjoyed last year but didn’t make the top 5, ahem 6, list for various reasons. Thanks to a new friend Alea for introducing me to Bravest Warriors, an amazing show from Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time. Bravest Warriors also contains a storyline where children must grow up quickly in a tough world without their parents, but this show is definitely for a slightly older audience. After much nagging from several friends, I finally started The Good Place and then promptly binged all two seasons until I had caught up. It’s one of those shows I’d rather not tell you anything about…just trust me and go watch it. It’s funny but also so smart. I also picked up some shows that are old classics upon recommendations from friends. I’ve been steadily working through Battlestar Galactica for quite a while now, but as of this week, I only have 9 episodes left. Season 3 lost its way towards the end, and I’ve been warned to keep my expectations low for the end of Season 4, but still I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey through space with the crew of the Galactica. Then there was Orphan Black…which I hardcore binged all the way through last year. I just couldn’t put it down. Tatiana Maslany acts as all of the main characters in this ensemble cast…and she is simply amazing. If you want to know why, watch the pilot…I give away no secrets. Finally, I must apologize to everybody who has been telling me to watch Parks & Recreation. Ok fine, you were right. It’s awesome. I’m almost done…