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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Which TV show that didn’t make our top 40 were you most upset to see missing?
I’m going to cheat here, because the season of The Great British Baking Show that consumed so much of my headspace this year is the one on Netflix, which technically aired in 2014. But I have absolute faith that the cakes, cookies, and elaborate pastries produced by this year’s crop of tent-based amateur bakers were just as improbably beautiful as the ones I’ve come to know and salivate over, and that the reality show mechanisms surrounding them were just as pleasant and gentle. There’s something amazingly refreshing about a competitive cooking show that strips away all the manufactured confrontations, all the manipulative backstory bullshit, and just focuses on the real issues, like whether someone’s bread dough has spent long enough in the proving drawer, or how nice it would be to hang out in a beautiful British park while a couple of charming comedians make silly little jokes about soggy bottoms and rising dough.
Did y’all not get around to watching With Bob And David yet? It’s only four episodes, and it picks up (sort of literally) right where one of your favorite shows of all time, Mr. Show, left off. And as you’ll recall with Mr. Show, it’s not necessarily love at first sight—it takes a couple of episodes to get into David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s rhythms—but when you find their groove, it’s just like the old days. The key moment might just be a sketch in which Odenkirk plays a competitive skiier who’s fast because he hates skiing so much. The premise, as with many in their past, doesn’t tell nearly enough of the story to do it justice, and it’s all part of the mosaic they’re so great at cooking up. It’s as if your favorite band got back together and made an album that’s 95 percent as good as the old stuff, which is way better than you could’ve hoped.
I’m just going to sound like every other fan of this show, but damn, why are so few people still watching Bates Motel? Look, I get it: The show started off rough. Those first half-dozen episodes didn’t really seem to understand what they were doing, largely because they felt wholly in the shadow of the unimpeachable movie that gave the series its reason for existing. (Also, some bad initial story choices, which I grant you caused problems.) But damn, this third season was unquestionably the best yet. Unlike the first two, in which Vera Farmiga towered over her fellow castmates like a Colossus, Freddie Highmore has matured into a dynamo actor, and the Norma/Norman relationship that grounds the whole enterprise has become a thing of dangerous, unstable beauty. There are so many interesting themes about identity, gender, violence, and the roles that we all perform for different people. More importantly, this show is crazy: Everyone seems to have caught up to Farmiga’s decision to transport everything to Planet Camp, and the result makes for the most addicting but brilliant soap opera on TV. Television fanatics, get yourselves to a Bates Motel marathon, post-haste.
I would say Gravity Falls, but I feel like I’m constantly singing its praises to the high heavens as it heads toward its inevitable and inevitably amazing finale. So I’ll use my pick for a series that will still be around next year: The Jim Gaffigan Show. This year the dry, acerbic comedian reinvented the old standby of the “dumb daddy” standup who turns his family life into a sitcom. Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan are raising five young children in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, and his show offers a fictionalized version of their home that feels both inventive and true to life. As he gamely tackles subjects like childrearing, marriage, Catholicism, and food, Gaffigan is also wise enough to surround himself with an exemplary supporting cast, including Michael Ian Black and Adam Goldberg, with guest spots by friends like Chris Rock and Janeane Garofalo. Ashley Williams portrays Gaffigan’s delightful wife and Macaulay Culkin plays a barista who may or may not be Macaulay Culkin. The show flies kind of low on the radar over at TV Land, but its first 11-episode season will be followed by another, giving Gaffigan et al. a chance to reach the audience they deserve.
Much of my affection for iZombie comes from the show’s astronomical degree of difficulty: First of all, it takes a lot for a zombie show to stand apart from TV’s current crowd of shuffling undead. Second of all, its premise should absolutely, unequivocally not work: At a boat party, Liv Moore (punny names will get you everywhere, show) is attacked by a horde of revelers hopped up on the harmful combination of a designer drug and a trendy energy drink. This chemical cocktail leads to a form of zombieism, which Liv finds out about when she wakes up the next morning—extremely pale and craving brains—in a body bag. Despite this ridiculous setup—and the fact that medical examiner Liv picks up the personality traits and memories contained within her life-after-death sustaining snacks, whose murders she helps to solve—iZombie turned out to be 2015’s brainiest (seriously: not a show for the wordplay-averse) supernatural thrill ride. Given the involvement of Veronica Mars alumni Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, that should come as no surprise; in its witty banter, noir-tinged cases of the week, and deep bench of supporting talent, iZombie is like a Veronica Mars redux that can pin the influence of Buffy The Vampire Slayer to its bloody sleeve. And Rose McIver’s Liv certainly lives up to the sterling examples set by the Marshmallow and the Slayer. Hers is a multifaceted performance that doesn’t quite require the thespian acrobatics of Tatiana Maslany’s Orphan Black roles, but does give the actor the weekly challenge of hanging on to the person Liv was before that fateful boat party, all the while adopting the mannerisms and impulses of the people she’s linked to in death.
Speaking of zombies, I totally get why The Walking Dead didn’t make the cut—and furthermore, why plenty of smart people (some of them colleagues) regularly dismiss the show as ersatz prestige television. Our own Zack Handlen does a bang-up job every week reiterating the weaknesses of the series, and I can’t say I disagree with Alex McCown’s grievances regarding the ultimate fate of [REDACTED]. But for all its occasional dramatic failures and lapses in logic, The Walking Dead remains a consistent source of crackerjack genre filmmaking on the small screen, with every other episode providing some incredible action or suspense setpiece. Beyond that, the show’s sprawling cast of characters has grown surprisingly indispensable of late, to the point that every dispatching of a principal—we’ll just pretend the Alexandrians don’t qualify—actually kind of hurts. (One gruesome death last spring inspired in me Game Of Thrones levels of dismay, both for the graphicness of the violence and the senseless tragedy of the loss.) This season hasn’t been perfect, but if you factor in season five—a zenith of the series, half of which aired in 2015—there’s no way I can deny that The Walking Dead is an essential component of my TV diet. I’ll miss it when it finally shuffles off the air, sometime around the end of time.
Starz’s crime drama Power was one of 2015’s surprise successes, returning for its second season with more than double the audience of its first to become the most-watched show in the cable underdog’s history. It also doubled in quality, which shocked me as someone who watched the first season with considerable skepticism, then watched the second mostly out of curiosity. It’s not a perfect show, but it does a whole lot well this season, and burnishes its reputation as the rare crime drama that skews decidedly female without condescending to its audience or sanding down its hard edges. When the show falters, it’s often due to a surplus of ambition. Drug kingpin Ghost (Omari Hardwick) has to fend off not one but two formidable Big Bads simultaneously, all while carrying on a calamitous affair with the federal attorney trying to take him down. Such a house of cards can only be maintained by a sociopath par excellence, and I can’t wait to see what Ghost does next.
I’m sure that precisely no one will be shocked that my instant answer to this question is The Middle. No, it wasn’t even a flip of a coin between this and The Goldbergs, because—and I dare say that even Adam F. Goldberg himself would concede this point—that it’s nothing short of remarkable that The Middle is now in the seventh season of its run and is still continuing to evolve and find new directions for its characters. Brick is the only kid still at home and is discovering the inherent challenges in attaining that status, Sue is experiencing her first year of college, and Axl is struggling to deal with how much differently his life is turning out than he’d expected. Although Mike is having a mid-life crisis, he’s also got a side business that may or may not be starting to take off. (With this show, as with life, it’s probably best not to get your hopes up about a possible financial windfall.) We’ve also seen Brad come out, and now it turns out that Axl’s buddy Sean is on his own journey of self. Really, the only person who doesn’t seem to be experiencing some significant transformation is Frankie. But, hey, it’s nice to have at least one constant to fall back on, especially in a year that’s given us as much of a “we’re through the looking glass here, people” moment as Mike Heck rocking out to Boston.
I’ll say I’m mildly perturbed (though I guess not surprised, especially considering I didn’t feel caught up enough on TV stuff to vote!) by the absence of Girls, which aired its fourth season in 2015. It wasn’t the show’s strongest overall, but Lena Dunham’s series is so much stronger than most that it doesn’t have to be their best year ever to deserve a spot on a Top 40 list. One thing of many I love about this show is how it often crafts individual episodes (much like our excellent No. 1 pick), the best of which this year was the terrific “Sit-In,” where Hannah (Dunham) returns to New York to find her sorta-ex Adam (Adam Driver) shacking up with a new beau in their old apartment, and locks herself in her old room as characters cycle in and out of the apartment over the course of about 24 hours. That slow-motion break-up fallout was the show’s finest and most focused half-hour, but in general Girls etches its characters with heartbreaking, hilarious, sometimes pitiless detail. For my subscriber money, it’s still the best thing on HBO.
Though shorter and less weighty than previous seasons, the fifth season of Louie proves yet again that it’s still one of the very best shows on TV. Louis CK’s idiosyncratic portrayal of a man lost within himself still resonates because the series’ titular character shoulders the burden of understanding the changing world around him. Through his trademark punchline-based vignettes, CK turns his ire and frustrations on himself. He complains to his therapist about not finding satisfaction in life only to watch him fall asleep. He criticizes his daughter for looking at her phone during a play performance but softens when he discovers she was enjoying it differently than him. He calls a broad, obnoxious comedian a hack yet realizes that his self-pitying schtick is just as trite. Louie’s fifth season was about Louie coming to terms with his own irrelevance while still finding the laughs within. Even after five years, Louie still looks and sounds like nothing else on TV.
I’ll also sing the praises of an original streaming series that may have slipped through the cracks: Hulu’s Difficult People. Creator Julie Klausner stars alongside Billy Eichner as two thirtysomething friends trying and failing to make a living in comedy. Klausner has described the series as, “Will & Grace if they were unlikable and a 6 and a 7,” but what makes the show work for me isn’t its acerbic tone, but the specificity of its world. Plenty of comedies riff on pop culture, but few do it as effortlessly as Difficult People. (Sample dialogue: “Chrissy Teigen just weighed in on the Greek election.” “She doesn’t have the astute political mind of a Naya Rivera.”) Whether Billy and Julie are bemoaning “participators” (those who are all too eager to be an audience volunteer) or mercilessly critiquing child actors, there’s a delightfully urbane ennui to all their interactions. But the show is self-aware enough to ask viewers to laugh at Billy and Julie as much as with them. And at its best Difficult People finds just enough heart—particularly in its loving central friendship—to balance out all the snark.
While a late-night talk show is, by its very nature, not appointment television, it felt like an event when the time slot David Letterman occupied for 22 years gave way to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. I had written for this very site about how I expected the show to be entertaining, but far less inventive than the groundbreaking Colbert Report. And in some ways that’s true, as the high-wire satire Colbert maintained for so many years would be impossible to replicate. But Colbert has still managed to not just excel as a talk show host, but push the staid format enough to distinguish himself from the various Jimmys competing against him in late night. An opening week that included Joe Biden, Elon Musk, and Justice Stephen Breyer alongside the usual movie stars and made it clear this show was going to aim a bit higher than getting celebrities to play beer pong. One night, Misty Copeland talked about being the first African American to lead the American Ballet Theatre, and then danced while Yo-Yo Ma accompanied. Then the next night Billy Eichner shared the couch with President Clinton. There are still nights when you get the same actor-comic-band lineup you’d see on any show. But on the whole, Colbert’s Late Night feels less like Letterman’s show and more like Dick Cavett’s—a thoughtful, often intellectual show for grownups that can still be riotously funny.
I can’t pretend I’m surprised IFC mini-series The Spoils Before Dying didn’t make The A.V. Club’s list of 2015’s best television. In his pre-air review, Dennis Perkins points out that it’s “almost too well made” for a spoof, pitting the petty resentments of Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), exiled auteur and Orson Welles caricature, against the grace and intensity of its star (Michael K. Williams as actor Lincoln Washington playing Jonrosh character Rock Banyon). As it unfolds (the original broadcast was dizzying, almost merciless, unleashing all six episodes in three nights), The Spoils Before Dying layers jokes within jokes and characters within characters, and it embraces the tension of embedding a stirring declaration of artistic vision within a scorned has-been’s peevish jeremiad. The Spoils Before Dying strikes that tension like a piano string, and its emotional resonance is more exquisite for the absurdity surrounding it.
I tend to harp on this a lot (and I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t make the list) but The Amazing World Of Gumball has had some excellently sharp, funny episodes this year. It’s kind of wild watching what was just felt like a silly cartoon defined by its multiple character designs become a pretty direct satire on lower-class suburban living, familial struggles, and trenchant explorations of how we experience media. Of course not every episode is a winner but when it nails an episode, it can be thrilling, deep, funny, and shocking. The show doesn’t shy away from its darker takes on the material, and can sometimes be as bleak as Bojack Horseman or Rick And Morty, but it always has a firm foot in maintaining a positive perspective, even if that perspective is bittersweet.
It’s mildly depressing that this list divorced itself from HBO’s latest comedy-drama series, Togetherness. Mark and Jay Duplass have had a marathon year, having inked lucrative deals with both Netflix and The Orchard, but their eight-episode run this past winter was an undeniable win. Alongside producer, writer, and star Steve Zissis, the brothers managed to transform their inspired style of filmmaking, which usually warrants breezy, 80-minute productions at the longest, into addicting serialized television that never lost any of their trademark flair. It’s a smart, funny, and endearing series that’s brutally honest about the pitfalls and joys of marriage without ever becoming too preachy or sardonic. Here’s hoping the forthcoming reruns on HBO over the holidays will get more viewers hooked for the sophomore season.
When you looked outside of main roster WWE, there was a glut of good wrestling programming peppered throughout 2015. NJPW put on a number of great events and expanded its American broadcast coverage, while WWE’s developmental program NXT became its own brand and put on one of, if not the, best wrestling events of the year. As great as NXT’s year has been though, the best wrestling program out there is one of the year’s best shows period. Debuting its first season on the El Rey network, Lucha Underground came out of the gate fully formed. No baby steps, no sense of needing to settle into a groove. Instead, Lucha Underground served as a reminder of what wrestling at its best can really be. The show succeeded by putting storytelling first, by making sure that even the most outlandish elements of its storylines—and to be sure, Lucha Underground is outlandish, what with the ghost ninjas, dragon luchadores, and a man who gets stronger every time he dies roaming the halls of the Temple—are grounded in emotion and logical motivation. With its high-flying Lucha libre style, a varied cast of colorful characters, and cohesive, compelling storytelling, Lucha Underground isn’t just for wrestling fans; it’s for fans of beautifully written, exciting, fun TV, full stop.
Guys, guys, stop what you’re doing right now and watch Catastrophe
on Amazon. It will only take you three hours, which is part of the reason it’s so amazing. In six scant episodes, creators and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan created a television series that captures the ups and down of a relationship so perfectly, it’s almost painful to watch. Delaney plays American Rob who meet Horgan’s London-dwelling Sharon while on a business trip and accidentally knocks her up. He moves to Britain to prep for their rag-tag family they may not even be 100 percent sure they want. It’s biting and hilarious and sweet. While Delaney is perfectly affable, it’s Horgan who delivers a gut punch performance, trying to balance her desire to live her once-independent life with the very real fact that she’s having a baby with a man she barely knows. Go. Watch it. Now.
Strange and niche as it may have been, IFC’s Documentary Now! rarely missed a beat in its first season. Its super-specific parodies of varying iconic documentary films and styles both honored the original material as well as critiqued it, creating a conversation between the satire and its reality. Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader brought intelligence and painstaking attention to detail to every stand-alone installment. And on top of it all, it’s funny, too, with Hader churning out a slew of impressive comedic performances that allow him to really dig into each of the strange characters in these stories. His performance as Little Vivvy is award-worthy. And above all else, the creators’ love for film came through in every episode. IFC, at least, sees the magic and renewed the show for two more seasons before the first even premiered.
I can only imagine that the only reason Couples Therapy isn’t number one on this and every other list is because my colleagues are unaware that a glorious exercise in extreme voyeurism and schadenfreude exists, allowing rubberneckers to plunge deep into the sordid relationship dysfunction. I would describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime assortment of weirdos, creeps, and has-beens if every season didn’t bring together a similarly impressive assortment of unimpressive human beings. This year we’ve been treated to the scary Machiavellian mind games of rapper Joe Budden, the rampaging insanity and brokenness of former supermodel and current scary lady Janice Dickinson, and the Christian awfulness of Creed frontman Scott Stapp. It’s such an astonishing array of people whose private lives really should remain private that even a figure as larger-than-life and outrageous as leathery, whiskey-voiced Mob Wives standout “Big Ang” recedes into the background. That, friends, is quality television, despite what those haters at the Peabody Awards might have to say.
It makes sense that Community
didn’t crack this list in its sixth season (and likely last, if reports of how much money Yahoo lost by keeping it afloat are to be believed). It fell a long way from the inspired brilliance that made it our second-best show of 2010 and never quite rebuilt itself after a disastrous Dan Harmon-free fourth season, a victim of its own ambitions and a fascination with its inner workings that could make episodes feel like in-progress autopsies. However, season six didn’t just exist to fulfill a hashtag prophecy: It wound up being the show’s most consistent stretch. The show embraced its age and the ways it had changed from year to year, the longer running times gave episodes more room to breathe (assuming you could get Yahoo Screen to work for 30 minutes in a row), Paget Brewster and Keith David brought a lot of fun new energy to the ensemble, and while it didn’t go as spoof-heavy as prior seasons it did pull off the supposedly impossible task of making a paintball episode feel fresh. And after years of living on the bubble it managed to create a perfect finale, one that cycled through everything that made Community great: its fascination with storytelling and personal growth, its deep understanding of its characters, and the emotional heart all its self-referential remove never fully obscured. (Abed’s thoughts on what TV should be were enough to break me.) It wasn’t Community at its peak, but if this is the last time we see Greendale Community College and those who called it home, it was a pretty great swan song.
I watched this entire series after turning in my ballot, and loved it, so I’m going to use this space to plug One Punch Man. We typically don’t give much love to non-Western television in these kinds of lists, but not only is One Punch Man excellent anime, it’s just great TV, with a ton of comedy, pathos, and kickass fight scenes. To entice people who might be wary of anime, I’ll note that One Punch Man has the same hook as a lot of the shows on this list: depression. Hero Saitama—a shiny-headed, shrimpy dude in a yellow tracksuit—is so unbelievably strong he can beat even the toughest, most evil monsters with just a single punch. He’s achieved the dream of basically every kid who’s ever played with an action figure or watched Dragonball Z or whatever kids watch these days, and… it’s deeply dissatisfying. Where removing essentially any stakes would stop any other show cold, it allows this one to investigate the other insane characters who make up its pulpy world—a series of knowing riffs on archetypal heroes and villains who are only stereotypical because they’re trying to be something they’re not, plugging what we might call their personal brands instead of helping people. And the show gets to have its cake and eat it too, contrasting long, drawn-out fights with Saitama’s total boredom (during one particularly memorable sequence, he appears to actually be invested in fighting an opponent, only to reveal he’s actually upset he missed a sale at his supermarket). It’s a weird, weird show, deeply specific and oddly universal at the same time—and it’s somehow this compelling without an English dub.
So no one else really, really, really, really, really loved Sense8? If my loving this wacky, beautiful, messy, emotion-filled show about a group of interconnected strangers who slowly begin to realize that they share a strange supernatural bond makes me the odd woman out here, then I’ll happily take it. The first season of Sense8 takes its time getting to the point, sure, but the ride is so fun and filled with beauty and oddity that the destination is almost beside the point. No show better illustrated the power of human connection in this increasingly disconnected world, whether illustrated by the best use of “What’s Up?” ever or an unexpected orgy. Also, no other show had a bus called the “Van Damn,” in a creatively spelled ode to the Muscles From Brussels.
Looking up and down the list, I’m noticing a distinct absence of any traditional three-camera/live-studio-audience sitcoms, so I’m torn about which of the two on my own Top 15 list to mention: Mom or The Carmichael Show. Since I already wrote a long appreciation of the former, and since the latter got a surprise renewal for a second season—and could use more viewers when it comes back—let’s give it up for Jerrod Carmichael and Nicholas Stoller’s throwback to the heyday of Norman Lear. It’s not just that the six-episode first season of The Carmichael Show features refreshingly frank discussions about race, politics, guns, and religion, all within a working-class North Carolina family; it’s also very funny. What makes the show work is that Carmichael and Stoller don’t just type their cast as “conservative,” “Christian,” “militant,” etc. They understand that real people represent a mix of opinions, based on what they believe from minute to minute to be in their self-interest. (The self-described Democrat played by David Alan Grier says that he voted for Bush because of the stimulus check, adding, “You can bomb whoever you want so long as you send me $1,600.”) There’s a real vitality and nuance to The Carmichael Show, unlike anything on television right now… except for Mom, that is.
I’m not sure I’m outright upset that Orange Is The New Black didn’t make it onto the list this year, but it surprised me. I don’t know if season three was up to the standards of the previous two seasons, but its storytelling was still ambitious and unflinching, and I wouldn’t say that it had fallen completely out of step on any level. It makes me wonder if there is just an inevitable sense of diminishing returns the more times we experience the rush of adrenaline that comes with a new Netflix season release: the all-at-once distribution method makes the first season feel like a revelation, but as the seasons progress, does the diminishing novelty result in people forgetting about the shows more quickly? While the third season lacked the narrative focus that Vee offered last year, I appreciated its willingness to frame Piper as the story’s villain, and am still thinking about the euphoria of the season’s final scenes, in particular Black Cindy’s transcendent mikvah. Perhaps it’s “old-fashioned” at this point to focus on Netflix’s “older” series, but my long-term relationships with the inmates at Litchfield stood out more for me than some of the emerging connections with your Kimmys or your Jessicas.
Although it didn’t pick up much of a following in its first season, Man Seeking Woman deserves recognition for creator Simon Rich and team’s commitment to pushing every dating trope to its surrealist extreme. When a new show has this much of a high-risk, high-reward approach, all you can ask initially is that it produces more hits than misses as it finds its footing, and this one did just that. Fantasy sequences like Jay Baruchel’s Josh enlisting the help of his best friend, his sister, and the Center For Important Emergencies in drafting the perfect text to send a girl are hilarious and painfully relatable. While the gags that didn’t work often felt like they dragged on forever, the ones that did displayed the almost limitless potential this show has to deliver something fresh and meaningful in the tired world of dating. And if nothing else, it’s a great showcase for Baruchel to do his skinny awkward thing and for Eric André to show a more restrained humorous side that doesn’t involve blending his hand on the street. I’m hopeful and excited to see if the show takes a big leap forward in season two.
It’s not surprising that Married missed the list. It was on mine (at the bottom, but still). This low-concept FX series about a complacently unhappy couple (never-better traditional scene-stealers Judy Greer and Nat Faxon) navigating marital and parental dissatisfaction, financial woes, and general disillusionment with where life’s beached them showed such improvement in its second season that its cancellation really stings. With an equally outstanding, offbeat supporting cast (Jenny Slate, Sarah Burns, John Hodgman, Brett Gelman, and a truly revelatory Paul Reiser), Married grew beyond some of its first season’s more clichéd “being married sure is a grind, huh?” elements just as its characters did, completing its transformation into an insightful, spiky meditation on marriage and growing up. Less a sitcom than a series of short stories on the theme of wry acceptance and accommodation, Married turned into a show that could stand beside the likes of Louie or Master Of None in the category of meditative, hard-to-sell modern dramedies. That “peak TV” didn’t have room for it to develop further is another indication that we just can’t have nice, funny, deceptively warm and resonant things.
While on the subject of marriages, where in the hell is Outlander? Is the theme song that big a turn-off? Ronald D. Moore’s faithful (but not at all fawning) adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s genre-defying novels could have settled for being one of the most beautiful shows in a year of beautiful shows (and I’m not just talking about the cast—Scotland is gorgeous). But unsurprisingly, Moore pulled off a lot of the same things that made the best seasons of Battlestar Galactica so extraordinary. It’s a show about many things—gender politics, personal responsibility, the dynamics of a troubled period in history, the nature of marriage, the cost and importance of national and cultural pride, the power of great knitwear—but like Battlestar, it succeeds by never straying far from the people at its heart. Catriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies don’t ever shy from the raw stuff that drives the story, and the finale manages to be one of the most brutal and most hopeful hours of television in this year, or any. Yes, the sex is hot—and it’s no coincidence that “The Wedding” was written and directed by women—but Outlander is impressive and impacting for reasons that go far beyond boning. Even the theme song has grown on me.
I’m not surprised Russell T. Davies’ sister series Banana and Cucumber didn’t make the list, given how underseen they are Stateside, but I loved the time I spent with both of them. Banana is a half-hour anthology series following members of Manchester’s LGBT community, while Cucumber is a serialized drama focused on a handful of protagonists in this same circle. Lead characters on one series pop up in supporting roles on the other, filling in gaps and making the shared universe feel particularly lived-in. The larger scope of Banana gives Cucumber an even stronger sense of place, providing backstories for some of its tangential figures, and the (comparatively) long-form examination of Cucumber adds breadth to Banana‘s one-off stories. While characters and storylines thread through both however, the structural differences of the two shows keep them tonally distinct. Davies has taken an inventive and exciting approach to storytelling with these series, and the fact that neither show suffers when viewed individually is particularly impressive. Banana and Cucumber are entertaining and affecting in their own right, but together, they’re something special.
Missing Game Of Thrones? Damien Lewis? Um, The Tudors? Have I got a show for you: Wolf Hall, the BBC miniseries about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII (Lewis), written by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky. Mark Rylance is racking up movie awards notice for inventing the mannered poker face in Bridge Of Spies, but his Cromwell is the standout of the year, a Trojan dog biding its time. Rylance and Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn are so electric together I was ready to overturn history. The other ingredient that makes the season so captivating is the unique way it moves, sidestepping all the traps of stately snoozes and modern reenactments to create an original historical—forgive me—cinematic universe. It’s only six episodes so far, based on Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Apparently Rylance and Lewis are looking forward to reprising their roles when her third book comes out. Until then, there’s always the magnificent original.