Judging 2016: The Lists, Volume 1, “The TV Edition”

Thanks to everyone for the great discussion following my last post about La La Land. I had a couple of people actually call to chat about their varied experiences of the film, which was quite fun, and I really appreciated many of the disagreeing perspectives offered. 
But now it’s time for my favorite set of posts when I get to look back on the previous year and share my top five media in several key categories. It’s a nice chance to remember the best of a year, especially in years that felt like 2016 did. So here we go, kicking it off with television shows. This list contains all brand new shows except one sequel. Of the shows I mentioned last year (see list here), such as Mr. Robot and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I found the sequels enjoyable but unremarkable. Unfortunately, this does seem to be the case often with TV and film. 
1) Westworld, Season 1
In first place solidly is the new HBO show Westworld that completely blew audiences away this fall. Based on the Michael Crichton novel and the 1973 film, the show gives the viewer a fragmented view into a futuristic Western themed park staffed by ingeniously engineered and extremely lifelike androids. The idea behind the park is that visitors can come and be whoever they want, experimenting with violence and sexuality on the “hosts” as they are called. Extreme immoral behavior is justified because the androids aren’t “real”. The park becomes supposedly a place to escape and a space to avoid repression. Naturally it’s also a brilliant commercial endeavor. 
The show creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, use the narrative to dig deep into addressing a number of complex philosophical questions about what it means to be human and how society engages and understands questions of morality and belief. The Western context also opens up thinking about how the park operates as an extension of Manifest Destiny in a future world where the only room for expansion and domination is by creating the object and spaces we will subsequently dominate. From my academic background, it’s a field-trip for postcolonial and media theory, but aside from all the deep thinking, it’s a superbly acted and engrossing drama that also functions as a complex puzzle that the audience is invited to attempt to solve. 
2) Stranger Things
This was another popular favorite in 2016, and for good reason. The Netflix Original is about 3 twelve-year old boys who, while searching for their missing friend, meet a strange young girl with a nosebleed, who introduces them to a mysterious place called The Upside Down. The series is a delightful homage to the ’80s and an excellent nod to the old-school form of “horror” where what you don’t see is far more important than what you do see. In truth, Stranger Things crosses a number of generic borders, so it’s not even really a horror piece: it plays with elements from science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and coming-of-age drama. (Indeed if it was truly horror, I wouldn’t have been watching it.) Unlike some of the other choices on my list, Stranger Things isn’t terribly intellectual, but the characters are fantastic and the story is gripping. We binged this one straight in a few days.
3) Black Mirror, Season 3
This is my only selection that is not a premiere season. I have been a huge fan of the show Black Mirror from its original production for the UK Channel 4 to now, as it is produced and distributed by Netflix. Black Mirror is an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone, meaning that each episode is standalone but together each episode functions to project a hypothetical near-future world in which our usage of media and technology has transformed human society in dysfunctional ways. Charlie Brooker, the creator of the show, remained at the helm when the show moved to Netflix, and as such, the show maintained its recognizable aura. What makes it so brilliant is that it speculates futures that you can almost recognize because they’re only half a step ahead of the world as we know it today. In addition, the show doesn’t focus on the technology but rather on the individuals using the technology and their relationships. As a result, the audience quickly empathizes with the messy, heartbreaking, or outright terrifying decisions that characters must make. While the show does critique some technology in its own right, it more often challenges the viewer to rather think about the way we implement technology in our lives–a far more nuanced and thoughtful position. Admittedly, I didn’t love all the episodes, but aside from a few meh ones, the rest are downright brilliant. My favorites from this season are “Hated in the Nation” (probably my favorite Black Mirror episode ever), and “San Junipero”.
“Hated in the Nation”
4) The Expanse, Season 1
I’m slightly cheating with this one because it technically first aired right at the end of 2015, but I’m counting it as a 2016 show because I didn’t include it in last year’s lists. The Expanse is a show on the SyFy channel based on the book (and subsequent series) by James A. Corey entitled Leviathan WakesThe narrative unfolds around the disappearance of a wealthy heiress, Julie Mau, who rebelled against her father to support the Belter revolution. The Belters are the lower class individuals who live and work in the Asteroid Belt, mining the asteroids for water and much-needed minerals for Earth and Mars. Due to their prolonged stay in space stations in the Belt, the bodies of these individuals and their families have permanently adjusted to the lower gravity, rendering them probably incapable of returning to Earth. In fact, the younger generations have never even set foot on Earth. Their impending revolution against this new iteration of space serfdom or slavery is just one element of the complicated political tensions in this show. Earth and Mars are also engaged in tenuous relations because Mars was originally Earth’s colony before its occupants declared (heavily militarized) independence. Mau’s mysterious disappearance turns out (of course) to be woven into a larger system of political intrigue–a situation upon which the crew of one mining vessel accidentally stumble. I did a longer review of this show back in February of last year, so if this sounds intriguing to you, you can read that review here. The second season launches in a few weeks, so this is the perfect time to dive in. 
5) Marvel’s Luke Cage
Finally, I end with the latest of Marvel’s new television series on Netflix. We were briefly introduced to Luke Cage last year in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which made my list last year. Luke Cage has bullet-proof, impenetrable skin along with super-strength and an obscure past that includes an undeserved stint in prison. We meet him not in Hell’s Kitchen, where Jessica Jones is set, but rather in Harlem where he juggles multiple menial jobs as a barber’s assistant and kitchen assistant. The show, like the previous Marvel-Netflix collaborations, is part-superhero origin story, part-mystery, part-human drama. Unlike the Marvel blockbusters, the characters in these shows are complex and believable; we want to spend hours upon hours with them. But Luke Cage goes even a step further and also dedicates a significant portion of the series to exploring the heritage and struggles of the African-American community in the U.S. For example, the very nature of his impenetrable skin is a commentary and reversal to how so often the color of one’s skin has put one in danger living in this nation. Here his skin is the very thing that protects him, and it is something that the community of Harlem can take pride in. There have been some valid critiques of how the show explores race, but it’s certainly worth watching and entering into the thought-provoking dialogue that the show’s creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, has initiated.
Extra Mentions
That concludes my top five list for TV but I have a few other shows to briefly comment on. There were a couple older shows that I was introduced to last year that I fell in love with. My sister introduced me to Jane the Virgin, which is a remarkably smart show and a lot of fun. It is currently in its 3rd season. Then my husband introduced me to Rick & Morty, which is Dan Harmon’s (Community) venture into the animated world. It’s a bizarre, irreverent nod to the science fiction genre, and it makes me so happy. Then I have some disappointments to log as well. The Netflix release of a new season of Gilmore Girls was underwhelming, though I must admit it was fun to hear mother and daughter cracking jokes that held contemporary relevance. I was also extremely irritated with the new season of Blindspot, which felt completely hokey (including terrible South African accents). Finally, I finished off 2016 by binging the Netflix Original The OA, which I’m still trying to decide how I feel about. It’s not love, it’s not hate, but perhaps a mixture of the two.
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