TV’s Wildest Nightmare & Most Beautiful Dream Concludes In Stunning Two-Hour Finale

“I hope I see all of you again. Every one of you.” ~ FBI Agent Dale Cooper

For the past three months, Twin Peaks: The Return has, rather quietly, not just been revitalizing the glut of televisual continuations overwhelming our programming (ahem Will & Grace) but redefining what a television show can accomplish with its storytelling. It has challenged, frustrated, delighted, terrified, and disturbed me in ways I’m not a gifted enough writer to convey, often because these eighteen episodes struck us repeatedly in the gut and heart, even when our brains struggled to keep up with the dream logic and Lynchian turns of narrative. While so many viewers clamored this summer to watch the battle for the Iron Throne unfold over on HBO, they missed the best show of the year and one of the most uniquely singular series I have ever watched.

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, the original run of Twin Peaks was always about darkness. Sure, Lynch and Frost prettied that up with small-town nostalgia, humor, and quirkiness, but if you strip those layers away, which the show did carefully over the course of those first two seasons, then the darkness lurking beneath was unavoidable, suffocating. Said darkness takes center stage during this third season. In fact, that’s the central motif of the series: the macabre lurking beneath the veneer of quaint normalcy. But, as Gordon Cole revealed in the opening minutes of the two-hour finale, there’s always a negative force out there, desperate to replace the good with terror and chaos. In Lynch’s world, this incomprehensible evil is called Judy, a commonplace name masquerading an almost Lovecraftian horror. The Coopers of the world, the Gordon Coles, the Major Briggses, they fight against it, however futilely. It’s the only choice we have.  It’s like Phillip Jeffries says to Gordon, Albert, and Coop in the Philadelphia field office: “We’re not going to talk about Judy. We’re not going to talk about Judy at all. In fact, we’re going to leave her out of this.” What choice do we have? We can give into it, harbor it within us as Sarah Palmer seems to have done, to drink full and descend. Or we can cross the very planes of space, time, and reality, in the name of goodness and strength, as Cooper has done, despite the inevitability of the outcome.

I don’t blame you if the last hour of Twin Peaks: The Return infuriated you. Twitter exploded in a conflagration of ire, as fans felt they deserved more definitive closure after being left with the season two cliffhanger almost three decades ago that seemed as if it would never find resolution. How could Lynch do that to us again, they cried? Well, the short answer is this: he didn’t leave us hanging, not really. Sure, he compounded his mystery (The Fireman’s tease of “Richard and Linda: two birds one stone” from the premiere finally found a cryptic payoff here, and the Palmer house seemed to once belong to an old gal named Tremont, a figure flitting in and out of Twin Peaks over the years with ties to the Black Lodge). Lynch never did get around to telling us what happened to Audrey or why Shelly’s new dirtbag boyfriend could suspend coins in midair. But what he did do, surprisingly and with the deft touch of a true artist, was tackle the cosmic questions always underpinning this series, even when we pushed them out of our minds to focus on the more fathomable murder mystery throughline.

But let’s not forget that there was a generosity to this two-part finale, too: episode 17 depicted a conclusion to the overarching plot machinations, finally bringing Cooper to Twin Peaks to have a showdown with BOB, or the floating orb he now embodied. Naido really was the new Diane. Lucy overcame her paralyzing confusion over cell phones. Freddy fulfilled his gardening-gloved destiny. The tie-ins with Fire Walk With Me and the Twin Peaks pilot provided a lovely cyclical closure to this story, as we watched the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic fade from sight. Pete Martell never found Laura’s body because Agent Cooper, with the help of teapot Phillip Jeffries and the one-armed man, traveled back in time to prevent Laura from ever meeting up with Ronette, Leo, and Jacques, thereby preventing her death. It seemed, as the final minutes of the seventeenth hour loomed, that Cooper had fulfilled his mission: he’d found Laura, and he’d saved her.

Except, as he’s leading her through the woods, there is a bloodcurdling scream, and Laura disappears. Across town, in their living room, Sarah Palmer destroys the famous picture of her daughter with her bare hands. It seems Laura has escaped Judy’s grasp, that Cooper has triumphed and good has won out once and for all, even at a major cost (that is, Laura cannot escape her fate, not fully). Heck, even Julee Cruise croons over the end credits, her song wrapping us up in a warm, sonic hug. Not a bad way to end the series.

But Lynch and Frost know there’s more to it than that; such resolution to this wildly ambitious series, though deeply satisfying on one hand, would have betrayed not just this third season but the original episodes as well. In many ways, the dance between good and evil is an unending cycle. Look at the number 8 that floats from Jeffries’ teaspout (a nonsensical statement unless you’ve seen the series, I understand); turn it sideways, and it’s an infinity sign, an unending loop. Whether she’s trapped in another dimension or an institution as the result of her coma and assault, Audrey is stuck in a loop. Shelly left behind the abusive relationship with Leo all those years ago only to break up with the father of her child (a rehabbed Bobby Briggs) and fall back into old relationship patterns with another lying, criminal dirtbag. Heck, poor Jerry Horne spent most of the season lost in the woods. Other Twin Peaks characters broke their cycles: Nadine absolves Ed of his marital duty, and he finally proposes to Norma; Becky’s psychotic and abusive husband retreats to the woods, where he kills himself; Cooper breaks free of Dougie. So, while several of the plots didn’t have narrative closure, their connection to this theme provides them a closure of a type.

Which leads us to Cooper’s series-ending interdimensional travel, to his tracking down the Maybe-Laura in Odessa, Texas and whisking her back to her erstwhile hometown and childhood home. Sarah Palmer is not waiting for them there, just a confused woman (played by the real-life owner of that actual home). After the failed homecoming, Cooper and Maybe-Laura return to the street where they’ve parked. Cooper asks, “What year is it?” Maybe-Laura hears the wails of Sarah Palmer coming from inside the house, which promptly goes dark, and Maybe-Laura screams that bloodcurdling scream again.

Sure, it’s not a traditional ending, and it left me baffled upon initial reflection. But this is the true journey and responsibility of Cooper: whether future or past, reality or dream, his — and ours — is to fight on behalf of goodness and virtue. It’s a disorienting battle; grief, tragedy, and horror threaten to knock us off course, to make us question who we are out our cores because defeating these forces is impossible. So, no, we haven’t been left hanging. This isn’t in the same ballpark as Coop getting shot at the end of Season 1 or the chilling taunts of “How’s Annie?” in Season 2. This ending posits that the evil this show has confronted and explored isn’t contained within the confines of Twin Peaks though it does seem to emanate from there, so we must all be vigilant as we wage the war of good and evil that surrounds us and even threatens us from within.

Is it possible to break the cycle? The realist in us says no. But Coop isn’t a realist. He’s a romantic in the best sense of the word, and he won’t stop, no matter what the Black Lodge throws at him. He’s crossed realms of existence to try to save Laura Palmer. Just consider the title: Cooper returns, but Jeffries’s figure eight reminds us that to return is to start again. Maybe with a new face and a new name, not a thumbs-up or a hand outstretched for that next hot cup of black coffee this time, but a stalwart of goodness nonetheless, even when faced with certain failure. There’s comfort in that, despite an otherwise bleak, and perhaps nihilistic, ending. And that is Lynch’s genius. He provides us with a closure we never saw coming, but it’s one that, ultimately, feels just about perfect.

I know Coop hopes to see the Twin Peaks denizens again, but I for one (despite my obsessive love and adoration for this show) hope we do not. Lynch and Frost have created something special here, something as tragic and beautiful and profound as a dream. I’ll never forget it.

How Twin Peaks Dragged Television Convention Into the Heart of a Nuclear Blast, and Other Stories  

This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.”

It’s a tale as old as time: a soot-smeared Abe Lincoln type stalks into a radio station and chants some esoteric poetry in order to lull his listeners to sleep (duh) so that a recently-hatched frogbug can squeeze through an open window and crawl down the throat of a sleeping teenage girl. I mean, is it just me, or has TV just become so predictable lately?

I’m speaking, of course, of the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired this past Sunday and featured David Lynch at his absolute Lynchiest: obtuse symbolism, chilling sound design, and a frolicking squad of ghost hobos abounded. The conventional plot–in as much as this show, in its original incarnation or its current one, has ever abided conventionality–was abandoned entirely in favor of an experimental film that depicted the origins of BOB and the White Lodge’s attempts to counterbalance his evil (I think?). Twitter had an absolute field day as audiences found themselves confronted with an episode of television so utterly baffling that was unlike anything that had come before it.

As the episode’s credits rolled and our favorite homicidal Abe Lincoln lookalike/emerging beat poet trudged into the desert darkness, I uttered only one syllable: “Whoa.” I struggled to make sense of what I had seen. The Giant floating in mid-air and shooting a ray of light from his head? A glowing orb with Laura Palmer’s face inside it? A Norman Rockwell-inspired nascent relationship between two teenagers? A frogbug? I couldn’t fathom how all of these visuals united into a coherent story. What did Lynch mean for us to take from this episode? At the time, I couldn’t answer any of those questions.  All I knew was that I had been riveted, disturbed, haunted, and invigorated in equal measure, to say nothing of my complete sense of befuddlement.

But that’s what I love about Lynch overall and his work here in particular: even if the narrative seems impossible to penetrate, I’m never not feeling. The mere sight of the Giant calmed me; the incantation at the top of this post unnerved me; the sight of the frogbug crawling into the girl’s sleeping mouth disgusted me. But if we step back from the traditional narrative and let our emotions lead the way, that’s when meaning emerges, if meaning is something you insist upon, that is. For Lynch, story and emotional response aren’t just synonymous; they’re inextricable.

Even in this era of peak TV, the best series are dependent upon some tropes. We expect an episode to connect in some way to what came before it, a discernible character to follow all the way through, a plot that abides the laws of nature and logic. Lynch denies us all of these things after baiting us with those opening minutes that do pick up with Evil Cooper and Ray driving after having blackmailed their way out of prison in the previous episode. But then those hobo ghosts show up, Trent Reznor performs at the Bang Bang Club, and our understanding of TV figuratively explodes before our very eyes. 

I’m not here to insist that you love Episode 8 of Twin PeaksThe Return (although I hope you did). I know many people won’t, and that’s the beauty of Lynch’s art: he’s polarizing in the singularity of his vision. But let’s set aside enjoyment for a second and just step back and appreciate that this episode aired on TV at all. When was the last time you felt legitimately challenged by an episode of television? I’m not talking about a show that traffics in the moral grey area of an antihero or dares to kill off its ostensible central character. I’m talking about an episode that, by its very existence, challenges your understanding of what episodic television can and should be. An episode that explodes your expectations of narrative storytelling. An episode that uses your emotional register to connect a series of seemingly disconnected images. Prior to this episode, I can’t cite another example. As a lover of television, I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.

In the absence of anything else, I think it’s best to heed Lynch’s advice: drink full and descend.

Twin Peaks: The Return airs on Showtime on Sundays at 9 pm. It is off for the upcoming holiday weekend and will air a new installment on Sunday, July 9th.

I’m baaaaaack! (Part II)

So you might have been wondering, as you hungrily devoured my latest post, where I had gone for so many months like a bear retreating to its cave to hibernate.  Rest assured, there was no hibernation.  In fact, just the opposite: I’ve been busy writing.

Most recently, a short story of mine called “Comfort Food” was accepted for publication at the amazing literary magazine One Teen Story.  It is currently available for Kindle download on a little website you may have heard of called Amazon.  Follow the link below to check it out, or you can wait patiently for the paper copy to ship in just a short while.

https://www.amazon.com/One-Teen-Story/dp/B00CA6BWOA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1476014651&sr=1-1&keywords=one+teen+story

As you can see by the wonderful cover art of the issue, I have a name and — spoiler alert — have had one this entire time.  I am neither, contrary to popular belief, a robot nor a C.H.U.D.  This is my blog, where I will continue to muse on the state of television, but if you’re interested in following my other writing, you can go to:

http://eddoerr.com/

So what did you think of my unveiling?  Dramatic enough for you?  What am I doing still writing? I have a DVR threatening to bust its veritable buttons.  Toodles!

I’m baaaaaack!

Friends, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?  The calendar days might have changed, but one thing remained constant: my DVR stands at a mind-boggling 88% with no sign of shedding those extra pounds.  But what can I say?  It’s been an excellent fall television season already, and I can’t be the only one with a serious case of #tvfomo.  The next great series might be tucked away in some remote corner of the television landscape, and far be it from me to turn a blind eye to it.  The result is an almost voracious devouring of any- and everything my DVR can store.  Also, I still watch The Strain because I think I secretly hate myself.

We have so much to talk about, don’t you agree?  While I could devote a great deal of space to the pure enjoyment I’m finding in this second cycle of Scream Queens, or the complete bewilderment I felt after watching — and, for the first time in two years, genuinely enjoying — Arrow‘s premiere episode, or the hilarity of Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s opening Florida arc, I’m going to hone in on the new shows that I have added to my growing list.  Guys, am I a TV show hoarder?

Rather than contemplate the psychology behind my TV obsession, let’s get to it!

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s wholly original new series is a must-watch. He plays Earn Marks, whose cousin Alfred starts blowing up the hip-hop scene as Paper Boi.  The series is so specific and nuanced that Glover’s performance and world feel lived-in from the first frame.  Earn’s desire to manage his cousin might be the driving plot in these opening installments, but this show already aspires to be so much more than a standard sitcom, as evidenced by the brilliant second episode that finds Earn in jail after the events of the pilot.  Don’t miss it.

Better Things – If you loved Pamela Adlon in Louie C.K.’s masterful series Louie, then you will adore her brand-new show.  This time, it’s Adlon in front of the camera and C.K. serving behind it as she plays Sam Fox, a single mother raising her three daughters in L.A.  It’s a tough series to explain beyond that because, like Louie, it’s impossible to pin it down to a certain genre.  The tone varies almost from comedy to pathos to drama as it moves from scene to scene.  If you’re looking for a laugh-filled yuckfest, look elsewhere.  But, if honest and insightful storytelling is more your speed, then you’ve got to add this to your list.  #sorrynotsorry

Designated Survivor – In these tumultuous political times, we can derive so much comfort in having Kiefer Sutherland back on television.  This time, he becomes the President after an act of terrorism decimates the entire U.S. government, leaving him at the helm.  There’s not much else to say because if that premise doesn’t hook you immediately, then I’d advise you to see a doctor so that said doctor can confirm you have a pulse and are in fact a real-life human being.  Because KIEFER vs. TERRORISTS. #triedandtrue #presidentbauer

The Good Place – As far as I’m concerned, Michael Schur can film a psychotic toddler frying ants with a magnifying glass for twenty-two episodes, and I’ll be there.  Fortunately, his latest series is a tad more ambitious: Kristen Bell’s Eleanor winds up in an afterlife known as The Good Place, only to confess that she was selected for eternal bliss purely on accident.  The emotional core of the series is Eleanor’s attempt to learn how to be good in order to keep her place in paradise.  The show is inventive, wacky, and just a delightful way to spend twenty-two minutes each week.  Plus, Ted Danson.  Ted.  Danson.

Queen Sugar – Ava DuVerney’s operatic and cinematic series is a revelation, centering around a group of siblings who relocate to Louisiana in the wake of their father’s death in order to claim their inheritance: a sugarcane farm.  True Blood‘s Rutina Wesley leads a wonderful cast of characters, each affected in his or her own way by the loss of the patriarch while also managing the messiness of their own lives.  In its exploration of grief, loss, and moving on, this feels like the spiritual successor of Six Feet Under, just about the highest compliment I can pay a show. Impeccably paced and brilliantly written and performed, do yourself a favor and get lost in DuVerney’s instantly-excellent show.

This Is Us – I never thought I would come across a series that would fill the hole in my heart left behind when Parenthood signed off last year, and then along comes This Is Us.  The feels, you guys.  So many feels.  I’m not going to spoil anything here (the first two episodes end with great, attention-grabbing twists) beyond the fact that this funny and emotional series has, only two hours in, claimed my top spot for Best Network Drama on Television. So what are you still reading this for?  Grab your box of tissues and watch already!

 

Sorry for the additional DVR-related angst, but if I’m feeling it, it’s only right that you would be too!  Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I make a pretty big announcement!

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 20: #1

At long last, my friends, the time has come to place the crown atop the head and a scepter in the hand of one lucky series.  You ready?

It might interest you to know that, while many other entries on this list caused significant deliberation on my part, this show’s place was a foregone conclusion. So, without further delay, the best series in my #top20in20 goes to…

 

#1: Fargo

Ya, you betcha this is the best series of 2015, don’tcha know? Brilliantly written, impeccably performed, and consistently unpredictable, Fargo absolutely blew me away.  While the labyrinthine plotting commanded my attention, I attribute the runaway success of this second season to the memorable characters Noah Hawley created, with Nick Offerman’s Carl and Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan standing out as all-time greats.  For a show that hinges on operatic depictions of violence, the attention to character — from the pitch-perfect dialogue to multidimensional treatments of even secondary players — becomes the show’s ultimate takeaway.  It also elevates Fargo to a level of storytelling reserved for the finest works of literature.

If you remember (and obvi you do because you have committed all my blog posts to your photographic memory duh), I also named Fargo the best series of 2014, but this second cycle managed — somehow –to improve on the first year in virtually every way, despite the fact that there were no discernible places where we detected the need for improvement in the first place. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as Ed and Peggy Blumquist serve as excellent centerpieces, while Patrick Wilson turns in maybe his finest performance as Lou Solverson, and I’ve never felt more endeared to Ted Danson as I did here.  These people, and so many more, ricochet off one another in surprising ways, which is yet another of Fargo‘s strengths: allowing the characters to dictate the direction of the plot.

fargo

But, lest you fear that the increasingly complicated and intersecting plot doesn’t leave time for the wonderfully weird diversions we saw in the first season, rest assured, Fargo still retains its strangeness: Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan, for instance, or those symbolically recurring UFOs, the meaning of which we could debate at length in future blog posts. Oddly enough, these fit in perfectly with the world the show creates.

The confidence Fargo exudes is infectious.  While season one acted like a jazz riff on the original film, with winks and nods to the source material peppered throughout, Hawley used all he’d learned from the outstanding first cycle to tell his very own crime story and, in so doing, has created a television masterclass.  Funny, moving, surprising, and completely satisfying, Fargo claimed my top spot because there’s not a single misstep or moment I would have changed.  It was, in short, the closest thing to television perfection we saw in all of 2015.  Ya, you betcha!

 

Thanks so much for sticking around for my little project here.  I hope you enjoyed!

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 19: #2

I never thought I would utter this sentence, but here it goes: I’m prepared to announce the television equivalent of Joe Biden. #tvpolitics That’s right!  The reveal of the second best series of 2015 has, at last, dawned, so get ready to have your mind blown.

And the silver medal goes to…

 

#2: Review

Television’s best kept secret (unless you know me personally, which means I have harangued you until you agreed to watch so I would go and take my crazy elsewhere), Andy Daly’s Review has perfected the serialized sketch show. He plays Forrest MacNeil, a critic doling out up to five stars for real-life experiences — suggested through viewer write-ins — rather than films or restaurants.  Last year, his dedication to his show ruined his life: when asked to review divorce, for instance, he divorced his wife — then ate a triumphant thirty pancakes.  But this year, we get even deeper inside Forrest’s head, and — in getting to know what makes him tick — we come to understand him as well as TV heavyweight characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano. Daly’s created one pathological dude here, and we should all be so, so thankful.

review

The deeper down the rabbit hole Forrest tumbles, the more darkly hilarious Review gets.  In the premiere episode, Forrest and his assistant A.J. Gibbs introduce a season two wrinkle: the veto.  In a moment of atypical reflection, Forrest reveals that there are some reviews even he should have the option to pass on, so when the veto gets its reveal in the premiere, we know it’s bound to pop up later in the season. To no one’s surprise, Forrest’s squandered vetoes force him to ultimately review “murder,” and we’re laughing hysterically at the depths this show and character will plumb.  What makes Review such a miracle is that it is both the darkest and funniest show on television, a near-impossible balancing act pulled off flawlessly.

Along the way, Forrest reviews, to outlandish and gut-busting effect, having the perfect body, leading a cult, giving something six stars, relinquishing decision-making to a Magic 8 Ball, curing homosexuality, getting embroiled in a conspiracy theory, living as a little person, and more.  All other comedies — network, cable, or otherwise — can and should take note of Review‘s massive accomplishment because, in my mind, no other sitcom is in the same league.  Transforming the very nature of television comedy? Five stars.

 

Tomorrow’s the big one, folks: numero uno!  My apologies for my bilingual diatribe, but I’m excited.  Sorry I’m not sorry!  See you tomorrow!

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 18: #3

Can you feel the anticipation crackling in the air?  That’s what happens when bronze medals are on the verge — nay, the precipice — of distribution.

Let me say that the three final shows that top this list are separated only by the slightest of margins, and those margins come down to my personal taste.  The quality of all three is, to my mind, unimpeachable, so you might quibble with my ordering here even more than before, but we’ll get through this.  I believe in the strength of our relationship, tbh.

Anyhow, here we go: the bronze medal winner of my #top20in20 list goes to…

 

#3: The Leftovers

Let me begin by saying that season one of this HBO series was not my favorite.  I appreciated what Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were going for in their adaptation of Perrotta’s novel  — namely, a  riff on loss and the process of letting go — but the trail they blazed did not grab me.  It seemed self-indulgent in its intentional obtuseness, the symbolism evoking a sense of wtf-ery without any kind of payoff or falling flat in its clumsy execution (that damn bagel, for instance).  When the season ended, I did not intend to pick it up again.

I provide this context to convey to you how much the show’s second season improved over the first, and to assure you that I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a show than I am about The Leftovers.  Transplanting the cast to Miracle and pitting the Garveys against the Murphys gave us a narrative throughline we desperately needed.  But that’s not to say the plot momentum eclipsed the weird symbolism; instead, it gave it context and meaning while still managing to confound us initially (oh, hey there, dude slaughtering goats in family restaurants).  Even the season-opening cavewoman vignette linked to the season’s overarching themes.  I was equally entranced, confused, and excited by each episode — and, just like that, The Leftovers became appointment television and the series I had always hoped it would be.

leftovers

There was so much to sink our teeth into this year, from the excellent acting by Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Regina King, Kevin Carroll, Christopher Eccleston, and the rest of the cast to the utter unpredictability of the unfolding story. Speaking of the latter, I would be remiss not to mention my single favorite episode of 2015: “International Assassin.” I refuse to spoil it here, but suffice it to say that I don’t think anyone watching could have predicted that, given the way the previous episode ended, the story would go where it did, but somehow what transpired made perfect sense. Such is the power of The Leftovers when it fires on all cylinders, which it did consistently for ten brilliant episodes.

If “International Assassin” marks my favorite episode of the year, then the season finale “I Live Here Now” captures my favorite scene of the year: Kevin Garvey’s emotionally fraught and off-key karaoke rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”  Shot in extreme close-up to achieve a rawness and authenticity of emotion, this scene continues to haunt me.  If you didn’t choke up, then you — sir or madam — are heartless.  Theroux deserves an Emmy nod (actually, a win) for that three minutes alone.

I don’t think this season of The Leftovers will ever leave me.  It has, with its gut-punching pathos, mystical imagery, and haunting meditations on the power of loss, left an indelible mark.  These ten episodes challenged us, provoked us, and moved us in profound and unexpected ways as only the best art can hope to.

 

Silver coming up tomorrow!  Hurray!  Any thoughts?

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 17: #4

Remember this week on The Bachelor when Olivia went on a bizarre tirade about her ugly cankles and questionable toe knuckles like minutes after Ben announced that two dear family friends had died in a frigging plane crash?  (Btw that’s a trick question because of course you do.)  Seriously embarrassing stuff, right?

Once your personal “best of” list gets this close to the top, you’re likely to treat a dissenter much in the way Ben treated Olivia: with polite or, more likely, outright scorn.  Things get personal is my point.  Sure, we’re probably going to disagree, but maybe talk about your cankles a little bit from now, if you catch my drift.

I’m not sure about that analogy I just busted out, but any excuse to shoehorn in America’s finest television series is simply one I cannot pass up.  But seriously, Olivia’s a complete sociopath, right? #teamjubilee

 

#4: Transparent

Jill Soloway’s beautifully melancholic, wryly funny series suffered no sophomore slump.  In fact, Transparent exploited our familiarity with the Pfefferman clan to take these characters to new depths, whether that meant Sarah’s spinning out of control after pulling a surreptitious runaway bride or Ali’s coquettish relationship with UCLA professor Leslie.  But amidst the personal disasters that drive so much of the conflict, Josh’s newly minted role as Colton’s father and Raquel’s fiancee showed us new dimensions to that perennially frustrating character: some softened him, others confirmed our suspicions.

But Transparent does not deal in platitudes or soft truths.  Its characters are, by and large, a collection of hot messes doing their best to make sense of their lives, but in so doing, they stumble, they scar, and they disappoint.  Such is life, and the show’s pitch-perfect observation of the human condition makes it a revelatory series.

transparent

Much has, of course, been said about Jeffrey Tambor’s turn as Maura Pfefferman, and he carries that excellence into this second season unabated.  This year we find Maura — now that she has come out as trans to her family — struggling to find her place. We knew her cohabitation with ex-wife Shelly was doomed from the start, but seeing Maura branch out from the comfort of that routine makes for fascinating viewing.  My favorite moment — and one of the most telling for her character — occurs at the end of the second episode: Maura, initially uncomfortable out with her friends, finally casts her inhibitions aside and, staring into a mirror, dances alone to the pulsating music.  It’s beautiful and incredibly moving, the kind of small moment that Transparent can, time and time again, extrapolate into metaphor.

Gender and sexual identity lie at the heart of Transparent, but the specificity with which it depicts its characters’ struggles produces a true universality as it explores the very nature of identity to heart-breaking, gorgeous, and transcendent effect.  Do yourself a favor, and don’t miss it.

 

Tomorrow, I will crown the third place finisher with a bronze medal that I don’t have.  Trophy time, folks!  #top20in20

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 16: #5

Top five, baby!  This is serious business, ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t want to overstate it, but wars have been waged over the upper half of a quality top ten list, and the fate of humankind now sits firmly in my hands.  I don’t want this to change your opinion of me, but maybe you could just look down at your feet when I pass by?  That would be great.

Jk obviously because attention makes me uncomfortable. #truth Let’s do this thing!

 

#5: Game of Thrones

Oh, Westeros, you are one cruel mistress! And I say mistress because I think it’s time we all agreed that, contrary to the thoughts of many characters, women — or rather, one woman in particular — will inherit this earth. The continued empowerment of Daenerys Targaryen provides the storytelling throughline to which viewers can cling, especially given the show and source material’s habit of killing off beloved characters along the way (RIP Barristan Selmy). Plus, now that Tyrion Lannister stands beside the Mother of Dragons to provide council, there’s really no stopping her.  I couldn’t be more excited about the future of this show, can you tell? #tyrionneedstorideadragon

With the “fire” aspect covered, the “ice” side took huge strides forward this year, as well, particularly in the episode “Hardhome,” a ruthless battle against the White Walker army that proved how much we need those three cuddly dragons.  In my mind, this was one of the two best episodes of the year (the other belonging to an as-of-yet-unmentioned entry): directed to perfection, the choreography of chaos never looked so flawless.  In one episode, Benioff and Weiss reasserted their dominance of the television epic.  Heart-pounding and brutal, it was the show at its best.

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Elsewhere, Thrones used its fifth season to perfect what it’s already done so well.  Namely, the excellent writing masterfully characterizes the Westerosi flora and fauna in surprising ways.  I never expected to feel as deeply for Cersei Lannister as I did this season, but how painful was it to watch her, imprisoned by the High Sparrow, licking water from a dungeon floor? Or, an episode later, witnessing her horrific Walk of Shame through the streets of King’s Landing?  Needless to say, I’ll never look at Cersei the same way again, and her character — not to mention Game of Thrones itself — is better for it.  So few shows reveal the dimensions and facets of its characters as well as this one, making for a more complex and challenging experience.

Surprise abounds this year, too.  Everyone from Braavos to Dragonstone has been yammering on about the death of Jon Snow at the hands of the Nights Watch brotherhood (as well as predicting the details of his likely resurrection), and with good reason.  The best of television surprises, but Game of Thrones is the only show on television unafraid to knock us completely off our axis and force us to redraw the lines of our expectations time and time again.  We might scream and cry in the moment, lamenting the sadistic mind of George R.R. Martin, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Television is a braver, more uncompromising place thanks to the ten incredible episodes per year that transport us to Westeros.

 

We’re scaling this list like Tormund Giantsbane scaling the Wall!  Stay tuned for number four tomorrow!  #top20in20

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 15: #6

Wait a minute, you didn’t think I forgot about our little arrangement, did you?  I know it’s after 9 pm on a Monday, and we’re halfway through an episode of The Bachelor that already included Chris Harrison in soccer shorts, but without priorities in life, where would we be?  Probably playing a soccer game overseen by Chris Harrison, actually…

 

#6: The Americans

Few shows manage to quicken your pulse while simultaneously engaging your intellect and judo-chopping you directly in the feels, but FX’s The Americans pulls off that balancing act with each and every episode.  Its third season might be its best yet as Jennings daughter Paige becomes increasingly savvy to Elizabeth and Phillip’s clandestine goings-on, culminating in one of the year’s ultimate OMG moments that guarantees to change everything moving forward.

In most cases, a spy drama would find itself relegated to “genre” television, but The Americans is no typical series.  The further we get into this thing, I’m damned certain it will take on the scope of a great Shakespearean tragedy.  For a show that dwells in morality’s grey area as often and with as much success, the impending tragedy is all but certain.  The tension, masterful  in its execution, is simply a matter of how long these Soviet spies can stave off that inevitability.

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the Jennings matriarch and patriarch deliver flawless performances.  It takes a true actor or actress to convince us of the level of deception required in order to make this show work, but Russell and Rhys accept that challenge and better it.  Their work has always been and continues to be balletic in every sense of the word: we don’t doubt for a second that they’re committed Soviet spies, nor do we question the familial ties tethering them to America.  Brilliant work.  Toss in great supporting work from Frank Langella as handler Gabriel, Noah Emmerich as tenacious FBI agent and Jennings neighbor Stan Beeman, and Alison Wright as the beleaguered wife of Phillip’s undercover identity “Clark,” and you have a cast difficult to beat.

The Americans proves that dramatic television need not pander to generate genuine thrills because it understands something so few shows do: it treats its central conceit as metaphor.  Sure, we’re interested in the notion of Soviet sleeper cells in 1980s America, but we stick around for the powerful meditations on family, loyalty, dedication, and identity.  It’s a parable, an allegory, and a testament to the power of character-driven storytelling.  For true TV lovers, it’s also must-watch television.

 

We’re about to crack the top five!  Come on back tomorrow to see the next entry in #top20in20.