Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from TV editor Erik Adams: What’s your favorite TV show of the year so far?
TV shows are rarely at their best in their first seasons—the through-and-through great season-one comedy is even rarer. Review further beats the odds because it sat on Comedy Central’s shelf for more than a year; by the time Forrest MacNeil filed his first critique of a life experience, it felt like ages since the Andy Daly-led adaptation of Review With Myles Barlow had been announced. Whatever the reason for the wait, it wasn’t a sign of quality: Review is a darkly hysterical quest into one man’s inability to just stop it already, and that quest is fully formed from the premiere on. On podcasts, Daly can take a character through a whole downward spiral in 90 minutes or less, and Review expertly stretches that narrative to fit all nine episodes of its first season. Not since Arrested Development has a show been this funny right out of the gate—and that show’s first season doesn’t show a character finding triumph and transcendence in a stack of 30 pancakes.
A lot of shows rocked my world in the last six months—less hyperbolizing on my part and more an indicator of just how great TV is right now—but look, the one that stole its way into my heart and will remain there forever is season one of Comedy Central’s Broad City. It’s an obscene little sketch show, but damn, it is wonderful—the product of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s friendship, which has created comedy well beyond this one show. Perhaps it’s that Broad City is so on point about living while “creative” in New York—and perhaps it’s because the girls’ friendship is so real and engaging—but mostly it’s because it’s really fucking funny.
Despite Alana Bloom being one of the worst television characters I’ve had the displeasure of encountering, my favorite show of 2014 is Hannibal. I love it for all the obvious reasons—the visuals, the sounds, Bryan Fuller’s masterful adaptation of the origin material—The A.V. Club has already written about. But more so, I love it because it centers on a serial killer and I’m fascinated by the workings of a mind like that. And it’s not just any serial killer, it’s Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer I’ve watched since The Silence Of The Lambs in 1991 (Fine, I was like 2 then, so it was probably three to five years before I actually saw this movie in my horror-loving household). This show captured my mind and heart like not much else on TV has in quite some time and I cannot wait to see how its design unfolds in the future.
Fargo is my pick from a superb half-year of TV. It’s hard to choose one quality that I admire about the show; I keep discovering new layers to it as I turn it over in my head. But my love for it revolves around the idea that Fargo starts out as a story and becomes more allegorical as it goes along, until a relatively modest tale of crime in the frigid American North takes on the feel of myth. Much has been written about Lorne Malvo and the notion that he’s as much a force of evil as he is a person. But the other characters, with time, take on an elemental quality, too. Deputy Solverson is a force of resolution—the anti-chaos. Lester is a force of human will, with his increasingly improbable schemes testing the limits of a person’s ability to write his own story. And I have a particular soft spot for Gus Grimly, an avatar of pure goodness hobbled by his utter lack of greatness. I never took issue with Fargo’s existence before it aired—I didn’t think it would diminish the film if the series didn’t pan out—but it was a pleasant surprise to watch the series honor and extend the ethos of the film with such spellbinding confidence.
With True Detective, stellar seasons from Game Of Thrones and Veep, and the launch of The Leftovers, HBO is already having another banner year. But Silicon Valley deserves special mention in a TV landscape where new comedies are so often stillborn—even on premium cable, where the lack of content restrictions ostensibly should make for greater risk-taking and generally funnier shows. It not only lived up to the former, with an epic dick joke algorithm already destined for legend; it arrived with one of the most fully formed comedic ensembles since, well, Veep. Though they began as stereotypes of painfully awkward programmers, by season’s end, all of Silicon Valley’s characters had developed their own rich tics along the spectrum: Richard, constantly at war with his own timidity; Erlich, whose unending stream of bullshit eventually yields truth; Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s deadpan one-upmanship; Jared’s obsequiousness bordering on insanity, etc. Going in, I was sold on Mike Judge returning to the corporate absurdity of Office Space; now I can’t wait to spend another season watching more of these characters at play in it.
And speaking of Veep, that’s my pick. I love the way that show deals with not only the backbiting nature of government, but with concepts of both selfishness and selflessness. And this season’s twist—spoiler! Selina becomes president through a totally convoluted chain of events—was brilliant, putting the Veep gang into a whole new world where they’d finally achieved what they’d long wanted, only to realize that they’re not actually in any way prepared for it. I don’t know how realistic Veep is—given that it’s a comedy, I’d hope not very—but it’s given me a whole new perspective on government work and our political leaders. I’m sure there are some smart, capable people, but Veep has really hammered in the point that some are surely total boobs.
Nobody said True Detective yet? Obviously it’s True Detective. But since everybody already knows that, I’m going to mention Kroll Show instead, which was the funniest show on TV so far this year. From the bizarre, nonsensical “Cake Train” sketch to the multi-part “Niece Denise” arc—in which Jenny Slate plays aunt and niece so effectively you’ll forget they’re the same person—it provided some of the weirdest, deepest laughs of the year. The reality-show bits are still so close to homage that it’s scary, but my favorite sketch of the season was a parody of a teen show called “Madison Chooses,” in which a young woman must choose between a stable, nerdy suitor and a bad boy—both played by Kroll. The difference between them: One recklessly uses his university’s meal-plan points, while the other is much more prudent. (It’s way funnier than that sounds; watch the first part below!)
Like most Community fans, I was pretty bummed out when NBC announced that it was finally pulling the plug on the ratings-challenged sitcom. (This was before, of course, its 11-hour salvation.) But I wasn’t quite devastated by the news, and I think the reason had less to do with the variable quality of later Community episodes than the fact that I now have an exciting new source for my Harmon fix. Rick And Morty, which the writer created with House Of Cosbys mastermind Justin Roiland, is a work of demented genius. Chronicling the sci-fi mishaps of a drunken, amoral Doc Brown type and his meek grandson, the series emerged from its creative petri dish fully formed. It’s the type of show that plops Freddy Krueger into an affectionate Inception parody, then somehow manages to converge that A-plot with a canine spoof of The Lawnmower Man—and that’s just the second episode! Rick And Morty feels like an outlet for Harmon’s wildest artistic impulses, not to mention a safe place to indulge his inner Abed. (The main theme is a blatant nod to Dr. Who—or perhaps some unused Inspector Spacetime music.) With both Harmon properties due to return within a few months, I can now say, with some certainty, that this is not the darkest timeline.
As much as I enjoyed new shows like Silicon Valley and Fargo, I keep coming back to the third season of Girls. Maybe it’s because I watched many of the season’s episodes more than once, catching friends up on what they missed, or maybe because finally starting Mad Men this summer has made me more attuned to how much I love it when shows feel free to step back from heavy serialization and veer more toward a short-story feel. Regardless of the mechanics behind it, there are scenes and episodes from this past season of Girls that I think about all the time: the disastrous roller coaster of emotions that comes to a muted, curbside-dancing halt in “Beach House,” the displacement and familial awkwardness of “Flo” (anchored by the fantastic June Squibb), the fabricated monologue that brings poor Laird to tears in “Dead Inside,” and, of course, Marnie ranting about how something always happens at the yogurt shop to fuck up her shit. There are episodes from the first two seasons I like just as much or more, but season three feels the most balanced between laugh-out-loud comedy and soul-spearing sadness. I wasn’t sure about the major gambit of the season finale, but I can’t wait to see how Lena Dunham and company deal with it in season four. I’m hoping it somehow involves Marnie and Ray getting married.
It’s an easy choice, but I really enjoyed season two of Orange Is The New Black. While I liked season one, I found the writers tried too hard to create dramatic tension (especially the final couple of episodes, where Pennsatucky went from slightly menacing to all-out psycho). This year, they managed to create an incredible villain in Vee, and further elaborated on the conflicts inside Litchfield without losing the narrative thread. I’ve rarely seen a season so well crafted, juggling a ton of plots without dropping any (okay, except for Larry’s, which Myles notes in his reviews as the beautifully titled “Ugh, Larry” section). It’s a mark of a strong show where it’s hard to pick out your favorite character, and OITNB has too many great ones for me to choose.
It wasn’t surprising that John Oliver would be successful leaving his intermittent post at The Daily Show for his own Daily Show, HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. After all, he was leaving one whip-smart political comedy news show for another, and he’s been honing his satirical chops alongside Andy Zaltzman on The Bugle podcast for years. But I could not be more delighted at the way Oliver has turned LWTWJO into its own animal so quickly, offering him the chance to deploy his inimitably precise comic delivery on subjects as diverse as net neutrality and the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision for as long as the inspiration runs. Oliver’s great strength as a satirist is how incredulity at the world’s latest stupidity is transformed into comic momentum, and if you think a tightly written, expertly delivered monologue about soccer’s governing body FIFA can’t be 13 of the funniest and most insightful minutes you’ll see on television this year, then watch and learn.
It seems like too easy or safe an answer to pick a show already long acknowledged as one of TV’s best. But there’s a distinct pleasure in watching a well-written, well-acted, well-directed show at the peak of its powers, and how else can you describe Mad Men? After last year’s often hard-to-watch season, in which late-’60s New York and everyone in it seemed on the verge of collapse, the show’s penultimate half-season views like a joyful victory lap by comparison, with the show yet again finding ways to show the same characters and same relationships in new light. As the show gives Don Draper the chance to slowly start picking up the pieces—leaving us to wonder whether he’ll be a better person by season’s end, or simply fall harder—we still had time for moments like Bert Cooper’s soft-shoe farewell, the gruesome results of Ginsberg’s psychological battle with the office computer, and Peggy’s oddly endearing relationship with the neighbor kid who comes over to watch her TV. The final episode in particular was masterfully done, pushing the characters forward while calling back to classic moments like Don’s rash gamble in “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” his late-night bonding session with Peggy in “The Suitcase,” and Peggy herself finally giving a pitch reminiscent of “The Wheel.” Mad Men isn’t just a great show; it knows it’s a great show, and that assurance comes across in ways large and small. If the show has a single flaw, it’s that we have to wait until 2015 to see how it all ends.
Playing House is not a deep show, and it’s not an important show, but when I opened up the ol’ DVR menu on Tuesday nights it was always my first choice. Even in the beginning of its run, Playing House felt assured and lived-in, thanks to the incredible chemistry between stars/creators/real-life BFFs Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. Any woman with a best friend understands what it’s like to have a platonic partner who is such an integral part of her life that she can supercede romantic relationships. Parham and St. Clair made that feel real without ever falling over a cliff into a pile of treacle. While I would have enjoyed Playing House if it were just a vehicle for its stars, the writers were able to populate their small Connecticut town with the type of lovely weirdos who would feel right at home in Stars Hollow, providing opportunities for excellent turns by Keegan-Michael Key, Zach Woods, and Jane Kaczmarek. But the greatest guest of all? Obviously Bosephus.
It’s clear from this wide variety of wonderful answers that 2014 has been almost an embarrassment of riches on the television front. But despite all the new, exciting shows that caught my eye this year—most notably Looking, Playing House, and The 100—the show that truly captured my heart was something old but certainly not stale: The Good Wife. Season five as a whole was the show’s best yet (ahem, not that the Emmys noticed), and the second half was especially strong, gaining an incredible amount of internal story momentum and emotional heft from the shocking death of a main character. And that the show kept that death a secret right up until the moment it happened? Well, that’s just some badass ninja shit right there. Bravo, The Good Wife. The NSA ain’t got nothing on you.
Like Mike, my favorite show of the year is Mad Men. Looking is right behind it, but I’ve written so much about it I’d like to recommend another HBO half-hour in my top five: Doll & Em. It’s the darker version of the Broad City/Playing House trend where two old female friends make a show together, in this case Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells as versions of themselves. Dolly goes through a rough break-up, so Emily offers to fly her out to Hollywood, and she can even be Emily’s assistant if she wants. Immediately the friendship warps to the power imbalance, and for three consecutive Wednesdays, this hidden, hand-made curiosity dug into their relationship. Critics threw it out for tired Hollywood satire, but along with it went its funny-grave psychodrama and its unique visual approach. Directed (and co-written) by indie filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, Doll & Em is shot in a nervous, nervy handheld style that brings out the tension with its frontlines filming while highlighting the delicacy with its home video look. It’s one of the most radical shows of the year, and television fans looking for creative invention should check it out.
Every time someone’s asked me to recommend a show this year, I’ve found myself going back to Comedy Central. Key And Peele is in its element a few seasons in, and Broad City’s debut season delivered 10 offbeat episodes that were more self-assured than most veteran comedies. Still, I have to say that the best surprise was Inside Amy Schumer. I had watched the first season off and on, but the second season came to play. While The Newsroom parody (“The Foodroom”) got the most viral attention, sketches like “Hello M’lady” and “A Very Realistic Military Game” tackle subject matter other sketch shows haven’t touched, and are whip-smart besides. I can always find something to complain about with the Emmys, but there’s no arguing with the IAS writing team’s nomination.
I don’t think 24: Live Another Day was the best show to air so far this year, but it was far and away the most surprising. I went in with no expectations, having bailed on the Jack Bauer Power Hour by the time it reached its final seasons, but I’ve had a lot of fun with Jack’s London adventures. While there’s no doubt the show was tired after eight seasons, it left a void in the self-seriously silly action thriller genre—it’s a thing—that made its return a thrilling blast from the past. Anchored by Kiefer Sutherland and featuring a scenery-chewing guest turn from Michelle Fairley, the shorter 12-episode run has delivered the right balance of pathos, absurdity, and unarmed, restrained characters being defenestrated. I laughed, I cried, and I circled my calendar for a year from now when 24: Live Yet Another Day starts to pick away at this goodwill. For now, though, I’m all for a well-made summer series with an intelligent approach to navigating the good, the bad, and the ugly of its past.