2015: some of my favourite TV shows

There’s been a lot to love in 2015. Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favourite TV shows from this year.

 

Catastrophe

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Catastrophe is comedy genius, a bite-sized delight that’s frank, foolish and frankly fabulous. Like all of its jokes, its small moments and its (few) bigger dramas, Catastrophe’s premise is something familiar done different – to brilliant effect. Irish Sharon and American Rob (played by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the show’s creators) have six days of casual bonking when Rob is on a work trip in London. They promptly forget about each other when Rob returns to the US, until Sharon discovers she is pregnant and gives Rob a call. Next thing, Rob’s on a plane back to London. The show goes all in on its backwards rom-com premise, where the promise of babies and weddings comes first and the getting to know each other comes second. The beauty of Catastrophe is that there’s no ‘will they or won’t they’ – they have and they are – but the romance works anyway.

One of a few shows manipulating the flexibility of the television format to reinvent the rom-com, Catastrophe is proof that a fictional romance doesn’t need love triangles, epic miscommunications or the ‘Ross and Rachel’ model to subsist. It’s simply watching two very funny people co-exist. (Its tiniest jokes are often the most effective, like the fact that Rob never changes Sharon’s name in his phone from ‘Sharon (London Sex)’.) Horgan, who is a veteran TV writer and the creator of the brilliant Pulling, is luminous – sharp, surprising and intractably watchable. Delaney, a ‘Twitter comedian’, is a consistent and charming presence. His reactions to the madness around him are the gift that keeps on giving, and he seems as captivated by Horgan (or, rather, Rob seems as captivated by Sharon) as the rest of us. The pair has stupidly good chemistry, and they are orbited by a pack of wacky peripheral players, including Sharon’s bizarre brother, Rob’s revolting Amercian friend and Sharon’s friends Chris and Fran – hapless married yuppies. Every line is piss-your-pants funny and just so authentic, the kind of humour that works because there are no rules. Catastrophe is undoubtedly the best comedy to surface in years.

Please Like Me

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Please Like Me found its groove this season in a bold, sophisticated set of episodes that had me cackling away and clutching my chest, which ached for Josh and his ridiculous family, almost non-stop through every instalment. Another series that takes familiarity and turns it on its head, this latest season was thoughtful, complex and incredibly accomplished. The show always finds a way to make space for each of its characters to burrow into your heart, and this season was a great vehicle for three terrific comedic performances, from Hannah Gadsby, Renee Lim and Caitlin Stasey. All of these women took my breath away, and the sixth episode singlehandedly makes the case for Stasey as one of our best and most underused young actors. Josh Thomas and co. write great reams of cracking quotable lines and some of TV’s sweetest moments, as well as spotlights on the highly absurd: celestial musical moments and the occasional destruction of extravagant towering desserts. The Christmas finale is a work of genius, so unbearably awkward I can’t remember a more tense episode of television that happens just at the dining table (where all the significant moments of Please Like Me take place). The show is a winner, and we are all winners for watching it. You can read more of my thoughts on Please Like Me here.

Being Mary Jane

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It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Being Mary Jane, the sleek Gabrielle Union vehicle on US BET network, which is a shame because it’s one of the most satisfyingly sudsy shows on TV. Created by Mara Brock Akil (who made the diverting Girlfriends) and directed by her husband, Salim Akil, Being Mary Jane chews through a huge amount of story every season, which is at once a rom-com, a workplace drama, a family story and a sociological study of wealthy black America. Centred on Mary Jane Paul, a successful cable news anchor with a chaotic personal life, Being Mary Jane is one of the only truly authentic representations of contemporary single life on TV. Mary Jane, who is in her late thirties, has a pretty fabulous life – she’s wealthy, famous and incredibly gorgeous (I swear Union has not aged since her days playing a teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On); she lives in a swanky house and wears stunning designer outfits. Closer to home, Mary Jane fusses over her chaotic family (including her brother, a hardworking recovering addict, her niece, a terse young mother, and her invalid diva mother, played by the excellent Margaret Avery) and agonises over her relationships with the various men in her life (chiefly married hunk Andre and the Man That Got Away, the divine David). Mary Jane is on the hunt for ‘black love’, and her search is the perfect combination of high drama, sexy romantic moments and sly, silly humour (the series opens with MJ stealing and freezing an ex-boyfriend’s sperm).

The show shares a some DNA with Debra Oswald’s Offspring – Mary Jane, like Nina Proudman, is a high-strung woman who is brilliant at her job but hopeless at everything else. Brock Akil has superb command of the genuine romantic moment – as well as those moments that are decidedly less romantic. And, thanks to her work on Girlfriends, she writes a range of ripper scenes for MJ and her girl gang, particularly for MJ’s producer bestie, Lisa Vidal’s gregarious Kara. Season two is a great improvement on the jumbled, salty first season; the show is at its best when it blends broader issues of politics, race and gender into Mary Jane’s social world. With a knockout central performance by Union, who deserves several awards nominations for the role but, incredibly, has received none, Being Mary Jane is the perfect series to binge on this summer.

Hannibal

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Of all the shows on this list, each one a clever meditation on what makes TV good and how to do those things better, Bryan Fuller’s ill-fated, under-watched Hannibal is perhaps least like ‘TV’ – at least as we understand the form. This is especially true for its surreal, severe, sumptuous third season, which is really two seasons in one: the first, Hannibal’s sojourn in Europe, and the second, a revamp of the Red Dragon story starring a formidable Richard Armitage in that eponymous role. Hannibal is a cop show, a serial killer show (a category that certainly exists, and for which you can thank Showtime’s Dexter, for all its latter seasons’ missteps), an arthouse film, a black comedy, a horror and a romance all rolled into one. Starring a feline Mads Mikkelsen and his honey-dipped tongue in the titular role, and the gorgeous Hugh Dancy as Hannibal’s nemisis/best bud/obsession object, FBI profiler Will Graham, Fuller’s Hannibal, despite the many genres it straddles, virtually defies categorisation.

It is a tense, oddly therapeutic drama that meditates on the mythologising of serial killers as artists, and on the ardour between a killer and his captor. It features several excellent performances, a crunchy, creepy score and truly striking visuals – some of the most beautifully rendered gore ever put to screen: trees growing out of dismembered bodies, throats slit and ‘strung’ to be played like a cello, torsos sliced thinly and placed on perspex slides as specimens to be examined. There’s a deep well of humour in the mythology of Hannibal the Cannibal, and Fuller exploits it all to great effect; the charming Mikkelsen sashays around the kitchen preparing disturbingly extravagant meals and leaving just enough to the imagination for us to always be wondering: ‘What, exactly, are they eating?’ Dancy and co, including a stoic Laurence Fishburne, the ever-welcome Raúl Esparza and the cool crystalline charisma of a post-X-Files Gillian Anderson, play along, taking great pregnant pauses before they bite into Lecter’s exquisite food. The show is funny and tragic and electrifying, an elegant and formally innovative drama that was sadly cancelled at the end of its masterful third season. Its cancellation is a great shame, but Hannibal was always lightyears beyond TV’s slow crime output, and thankfully the three seasons can now be taken as one complete delectable meal – that is, if you have the stomach for it!

Bojack Horseman

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Bojack Horseman, the Netflix cartoon about a man-horse who is the washed-up former star of a ’90s family sitcom, is one of the saddest funny shows on TV. Season one was pretty good but season two is better – caustically funny, vibrant with some brilliant, heartrending cartoon voicework, and lightened up with puns and silly slapstick to get anyone (even the most cold-hearted cynic) laughing. Featuring the considerable talents of the thoroughly underrated Lisa Kudrow as Wanda, a TV-executive owl who was in a thirty-year coma, and Will Arnett in undoubtedly his best post-Gob Bleuth form, season two is breathless and strangely beautiful. The crude Technicolor world of Bojack Horseman‘s Hollywood (or ‘Hollywoo’), made up of humans and anthropomorphic animals, is dark and jaded, but the show has a pulsing undercurrent of humanity that draws you through the excellent second season and really makes you care an awful lot about a clinically depressed man-horse. Along with UnREAL, Please Like Me and You’re The Worst‘s much-improved second season, Bojack Horseman is one of a few very clever series tackling mental illness in deft and surprising ways. If you were unconvinced by the uneven first season, go back and try the second.

Key and Peele

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This year Key and Peele rounded off five brilliant seasons with one of its funniest, most consistent and considered outputs to date. Centred on two incredibly dextrous comedic performances from Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key (whose other TV work this year, as the romantic lead on USA’s sweet Playing House, has proved his next step should be as an emotive, sexy leading man in a chewy romantic role), Key and Peele‘s output is sometimes less shareable than that of its Comedy Central sibling, Inside Amy Schumer (a show that had ‘a moment’ this year), but it’s certainly sturdier and often sharper. Much of Key and Peele is drawn from contemporary issues of race and politics but each one of their sketches is able to be about two or three different things at once, while still a simple, rounded story that’s just plain funny. Some favourites from this year include ‘Prepared for Terries’, ‘MC Mom’ and the bright, brilliant ‘Negrotown’, which was originally released online in May, giving us time to watch, laugh and think about it, before airing it again in the show’s season finale. Then there’s the joyfully aimless True Detective-style driving sequences, included from season four through to the finale, which ended with a call-back to a cunning season-one joke, ‘I Said Biiitch’. Key and Peele, as brilliant as Monty Python but still thoroughly distinctive in tone and style, will be sorely missed, and I’m very much looking forward to what these clever comedians do next.

Master of None

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In a lot of ways Master of None is a thoroughly un-Netflix show. It’s a quiet rom-com and a striking character portrait of creator and star Aziz Ansari’s preternaturally uncertain Dev. It’s not flashy or out-there; it’s not super violent or hyper-sexualised (although the series begins the same way all stories about young hipsters begin: with an awkward sexual encounter). But looking more closely reveals the incredible skill and boldness behind the series, which is much more than just a standard sitcom. Ansari and his co-creator, Bob’s Burgers writer Alan Yang, have worked on (and presumably watched) enough TV to know what the norm is – and exactly how to invert it.

The way the series approaches race is a thoughtful revision of the predominately white Bright Young Things sitcom: there’s a central friendship group made up of non-white actors with one ‘token’ white friend, a deep-dive into the history of two Asian-American families that provides moving revelations and experiences not generally explored on TV, and Colin Salmon’s amusing cameo as an eccentric action star on the ‘black virus movie’ The Sickening. (Salmon also gets one of the late Harris Wittels’ last great jokes: an intricate, ridiculous domino display that is tipped over with the appropriate fanfare.) Then there’s the entire (brilliant) fourth episode of the series, ‘Indians on TV’, in which Ansari and Yang present a problem: television executives will not hire more than one Indian actor for the fictional show Three Buddies, lest it become an ‘Indian sitcom’, and an ingenious solution: an indictment of this backwards (and certainly real-life) ideology that essentially engineers the all-Indian version of Three Buddies that the executives are too racist to make. Ansari and Yang fill the screen with non-white faces, choosing to aim for a more realistically diversified New York with real, rounded Asian characters, and in doing so they present to us the kind of expansive and interesting television landscape we could have if whiteness did not rule the TV roost. Though it’s light, digestible and provocative in the way that all Netflix shows are, Master of None succeeds where many of the streaming giant’s other original series fail: by being memorable beyond the binge. Master of None is worth watching and watching again in order to truly absorb the cleverness of Ansari and Yang’s creation.

Glitch

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Glitch, Australia’s neo-horror/sci-fi series about a group of small-town residents who have risen from the dead, is a foray into virtually unknown territory for Aussie TV. Matchbox Pictures’ respectable genre piece is a well-executed and good-looking interrogation of the significance of identity and its links to the places and people we cherish. What happens to us when we are gone? What happens to the places we inhabited, the people we loved? What does it feel like to be forgotten, or replaced? All these questions and more swirl above the risen Yoorana residents: an Italian-Australian school teacher, a war veteran, a sullen teenager, a WWII internee, Yoorana’s first mayor, a local cop’s recently deceased wife, and a mysterious and violent John Doe. Each episode of the six-episode first season, which aired week-to-week on the ABC and dropped all at once on iView (in a savvy move that was nevertheless hesitantly executed), focuses on the story behind one of these risen residents, and so some episodes are much better than others. Overall, though, the series is a smart, moody drama with a touch of the larrikin sensibility that underpins all our best TV shows. Read more of my thoughts on Glitch here.

Transparent

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If you’ve watched any of Transparent, now in its second season on Australian streaming service Stan, I won’t need to tell you that the show is very, very special. In fact, it’s breathtaking, and every bit of hype and praise you’ve heard since the show began in 2014 is absolutely on the money. Centred on LA-based Jewish clan the Pfeffermens, Transparent follows the transition of Maura (the inimitable Jeffrey Tambor), a trans woman, and her self-obsessed family: daughters Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (the hardworking Gabby Hoffman), son Josh (Jay Duplass) and ex-wife Shelly (fabulous Judith Light). The show is created by Jill Soloway, who has cleverly avoided making Transparent a kind of blueprint for queerness; Maura’s transition is not a self-help ‘It Gets Better’ guide for the rest of the world, it’s just the story of one woman gripping onto her true identity.

At once deeply personal and tenderly detached, Transparent fits the mould of the new indie dramedy (shows like Louie, Girls and Looking), and its characters could be the typical id-ruled urbanites to slot in that genre – though Soloway’s work is cleverer and more distinct than its contemporaries. She never makes fun of her characters, who some people might call ‘unlikeable’; instead she handles their flaws and rough edges with a great deal of kindness and generosity. The series is visually stunning, each shot arranged particularly as if inside a doll’s house. (The opening scene of season two is a white wedding tableau against the fluro greens, blues and yellows of the LA coastline, which is breath-snatching and hilarious to boot). The performances are stunning, too – particularly those from Tambor, whose Maura is a melancholy, earthy presence, Light’s poignant Shelly, and Hoffman, who produces here another wild and shrewdly funny performance to match her recent turns on Girls and in the excellent abortion rom-com Obvious Child. Undeniably watchable and all-consuming, Transparent arrived fully formed with a distinct personality and an intoxicating, original point-of-view. It’s indie TV at its absolute best.

Jane The Virgin

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Like Transparent, Jane the Virgin arrived 2014 with a flavour all its own: highly distinctive as well as hilarious and utterly gorgeous. Don’t be put off by the awkward title; this telanovela pastiche is incredibly smart and well-put-together television that is a joy to laugh along with (and cry over, depending on your ability to be affected by truly glorious fictional families). Jane (the charming Gina Rodriguez) is an aspiring writer engaged to wet police detective Michael, a couple willing to wait until marriage. When Jane is accidentally impregnated with another man’s sperm, her whole world blows apart. The man in question: Rafael, the buff owner of the hotel at which Jane works, whose wife, Petra, is being investigated by Jane’s Michael. To add to the drama, Jane has just discovered that her father, whose identity was kept secret by her mother, Xo (who had Jane as a teenager), is actually Rogelio (the hysterically funny Jaime Camil), the star of her abuela’s favourite telanovela.

Jane the Virgin is what happens when the absurd drama of the telanovela collides with the logic and empathy of the everyday: Jane might be a pregnant virgin but she’s also a believable human woman who handles the craziness of her life with reason and compassion, and always makes smart, understandable choices. (Jane the Virgin is, without a doubt, one of the most empathy-driven shows on TV.) The show shines most when it’s a loving parody of the genre from which it originated (it’s based on a Venezuelan telenovela, Juana la Virgen); any scene with Rogelio is brilliant, as is the superb voice-over narration by Anthony Mendez – wry, metafictional and scrumptious. It also features probably the best grandmother-mother-daughter trio since Gilmore Girls. With brilliant comedic performances across the board (except Michael, down with Michael, #TeamRafael all the way), Jane the Virgin is just such a pleasure to watch. Along with underrated sci-fi series The 100 and Rachel Bloom’s exciting new musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin is yet more proof that the maligned CW network is doing thoroughly interesting things with female-led TV that successfully bends genre and form. Jane the Virgin is the best of the bunch, and well worth a summer binge to catch up before the tail-end of season two airs in 2016.


 

Honourable Mentions:

The Good Wife will always be one of my favourite shows – and one of the best series ever made. Able to produce elegant and consistent network-length seasons to match any shorter cable or streaming drama, The Good Wife is still sharp, shrewd and hilarious in season seven. It relies on true character moments to produce richly satisfying twisty-turning plots; we know the characters so well these days and yet we’re still surprised by what they will and won’t do. An impeccably well-acted and well-written drama, with that innate sense of just how small a move one must make away from the traditions of the procedural to produce great serialised television, The Good Wife is one of the true grand, gripping TV experiences.

 

***

As mentioned above, the CW, that derided trash-heavy teen network in the US, is actually producing some of the boldest female-driven television around, and two of those excellent shows are sci-fi saga The 100 and zany musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (iZombie could also be included in this list, except that it’s becoming a female-led show that’s driven by a man, the surprising, diverting and stupidly sexy Major, played by Robert Buckley, so I’ve excluded it.)

The 100 follows a group of hoodlum teenagers (formerly 100 and now . . . significantly fewer) dropped from their home on a space station to nuclear-war-ravaged earth to test whether or not the planet is liveable. A kind of Battlestar Galactica meets Lord of the Flies meets Lost, but with more kissing, the central thesis of The 100 appears to be that women should be running the world because whenever the men do it, they fuck it up. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful and inventive take on post-Hunger Games teen dystopia, and it’s helpful that the series is populated by filthy hunks – both male and female – who like to smash their bodies into one another. It’s sexy, grimy fun with a refreshing sharpness.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Rachel Bloom’s musical comedy series about a successful lawyer, Rebecca Bunch (played by the wonderfully weird, effervescent Bloom), who is thoroughly dissatisfied with her adult life when she runs into her high school boyfriend, Josh Chan, and decides to follow him back to his hometown of West Covina, California. Trouble is, he didn’t invite her, so Rebecca has to hastily set up a life for herself in West Covina (suburban Southern California at its most soul destroying) to convince Josh, and everyone else, that she hasn’t moved just for him. Yes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a TV musical, but it’s the best TV musical since the first season of Glee (which, no matter what you thought of its latter seasons, had a brilliant first run). It combines the zaniness and the smarts of Ryan Murphy’s musical giant, and the originality and brilliant musicality of NBC’s aptly named trainwreck, Smash, with the metacomedy and self-reflexiveness of the spotty but underappreciated Galavant – all with a superb central performance from Bloom. It’s also worth noting that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has cast an Asian-American man to be a romantic lead without making a joke of him, which shouldn’t be something that needs singling out but, sadly, still is.

***

This year the ABC has screened three brilliant Indigenous shows: Black Comedy, a diverting sketch series, Ready For This, a well-crafted and poignant teen drama, and the searing feature-length conclusion to the wonderful, heartbreaking Redfern Now. Each series is a distinct exploration of the (predominately urban) contemporary Indigenous experience – a perspective that Australian pop culture is sorely lacking.

Black Comedy runs the regular highs and lows of a sketch comedy series but with gusto and a patent sharpness, featuring brilliant sketches like ‘Blakforce’, ‘Black White Woman’, ‘Indigenous GPS’ and all the ‘Tiddas’ sketches. Bits and pieces are up on YouTube and they are incredibly shareable – so I suggest you do.

Ready For This is an emotion-driven teen drama in the style of Canadian stalwart Degrassi or 2000s Aussie series Blue Water High: five Indigenous students move to a boarding house in Sydney to follow their creative and sporting dreams. Featuring particularly strong, considered performances from Aaron McGrath and Madeleine Madden, Ready For This is an engaging reflection on belonging and the sometimes serious but often frivolous concerns of teenagers. It works for kids and adults, and is worth looking up on iView.

Redfern Now‘s finale, called ‘Promise Me’, is a sharply rendered tragedy underpinned by hope, as are all of Redfern Now‘s tough, treasured instalments. Featuring the beloved Deborah Mailman at her best, and the rare respectful storyline about female trauma that allows the victim to direct her own future and manage her own pain, ‘Promise Me’ is a painful but stunning conclusion to one of the best Australian series ever made.

***

I’ve written about Jessica Jones elsewhere, but I’ll reiterate here that it is a smart, inventive and progressive series that is worth watching – along with Outlander – to see how the female gaze truly operates on film. There are several excellent performances: Krysten Ritter in the title role, Mike Colter as brooding Luke Cage, Rachael Taylor as Jessica’s tender bestie, Trish, and David Tennant as the first truly terrifying Marvel villian, the abhorrent Kilgrave. The writing is, as with most superhero fare, spotty, and the series could be tighter and more effective at just ten episodes (it runs to a flabby thirteen), but the ideas and the execution are strong and robust and worth the hype they’re generating.

***

A shout out to two half-hour sitcoms from the US worth sitting down with: the brilliant Bob’s Burgers and the underappreciated Brookyln Nine-Nine.

Bob’s Burgers is a pastiche cartoon, blending family-style comedy with adult humour and pop-culture homage drawn primarily from the 1980s. The voicework is fine and the jokes come thick and fast – like the best comedies they are character-based rather than situation-based and, as such, each character is your favourite at turns or all at once. (My favourite: Gene, whose best joke remains the time when he jumped on a classmate’s back, wrapped his arms around her neck and shouted ‘Gene Jacket!’. It’s that kind of humour.) Bob’s Burgers is not to everyone’s taste, but those who love it can appreciate the subtle brilliance behind the simple family fun.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is just true zaniness, and it’s ‘kind comedy’ in the style of the much-loved Parks and Recreation. The characters care about each other and they all strive for success, so each episode is kept buoyant with unwavering positivity. I don’t like or care about any of the characters as I did the Pawnee Parks Department, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine races you through an episode on pure entertainment value. You’ll care most for the relationship between Andy Samberg’s Jake and the great Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt; it is the smartest thing about the show, a kind of tetchy, loving, reverse Leslie-Ron dynamic.

***

There’s a renaissance of the much-maligned but secretly beloved romantic-comedy genre – but it’s not happening on the big screen. TV’s longer format and formal flexibility has proved a tempting template for lovers of the rom-com to revive the genre (which is in its death throes in cinema) for the small screen. Shows like Catastrophe, Please Like Me, The Mindy Project and You’re The Worst all draw deeply from the rom-com well, and so does Netflix’s appallingly named Scrotal Recall. This British series, which is sweet and earnestly funny in a way that defies its own title, follows twentysomething Dylan (Johnny Flynn), who discovers he has contracted an STI and so revisits his past relationships to spread the bad news with the help of his two best friends (Daniel Ings and Misfits‘ Antonia Thomas). An extraordinarily charming series that is also mercifully short, and therefore perfect for a binge-watch, Scrotal Recall is in danger of being missed by those who would appreciate it most because of its truly terrible name. So, take my word for it: it’s good and you’ll love it.

 

You can read my list of favourite books here. And look out for my favourite movies, and other odds and ends, coming soon.

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