Though I selected my top ten TV series and top ten TV episodes of 2015 earlier this month, neither list quite satisfies my desire to shout what I love about television from the rooftops. And so, with only one more TV Watch column to file this year, here’s a grab-bag of year-end awards that includes just about everything but the best series and episodes.
Best Miniseries: “Show Me a Hero” (HBO)
Edging out “Wolf Hall” by a whisker is another period piece about the ruthless machinery of politics, this one much closer to home. With distance, David Simon’s kaleidoscopic account of the battle over public housing in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s and 1990s—adapted with William F. Zorzi from reporting by the New York Times’ Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis—is more than the “necessary history” I described in my initial review. Rather, the miniseries’ deftly wrought accumulation of diverse perspectives sustains a kitchen-sink drama similar to “Spotlight,” in which we come to feel the human fabric from which the social contract is woven, and sometimes torn apart.
Best TV Movie: “Bessie“
Though it’s up against admittedly weak competition, and suffers from the usual problems of the overstuffed biopic, “Bessie” not only features one of the year’s most transfixing (and underrated) performances—Mo’Nique’s magnetic Ma Rainey. It’s also an astute depiction of black culture and black consciousness in the Jim Crow era, from the Harlem Renaissance and the “brown paper bag” test to black nationalism and “racial uplift” ideology, all somehow shoehorned into a coherent narrative by talented director Dee Rees.
Best Actor (Drama): Matthew
Rhys, “The Americans” (FX)
His is among the quietest lead performances on television, but Rhys, along with co-star Keri Russell, conveys the moral, ideological, and familial dilemmas facing deep-cover Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings with remarkable power and precision. Whether challenging his handler (Frank Langella) in order to protect his family or negotiating his affair with an employee of FBI counterintelligence (Alison Wright), Rhys’ Philip bears the weight of Cold War in every gesture, every line of his increasingly haggard face. By the time Philip confronts what he’s wrought, horrified, in the season-three finale, Rhys reflects an entire history of violence—the glass, darkly, through which we view the world of FX’s consistently brilliant drama.
Best Actress (Drama):
Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Though I might have named her dashing, damaged costar Best Actor, Jon Hamm’s Emmy win (finally!) makes my little gesture moot. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Moss, who in seven seasons transformed her mousy secretary into copy chief, worldly woman, and heir apparent to her former boss’ advertising genius. For me, “Mad Men” always belonged to Peggy Olson as much as it did Don Draper, never more so than in the series’ final episodes. Roller skating through the empty SCDP offices and strutting into McCann with a cigarette hanging from her lips, she became the emblem of the series’ every hope where Don marked off its every disappointment, and for that Moss deserves every award in the book.
Best Actor (Comedy): Jeffrey
Tambor, “Transparent” (Amazon)
In a second season that casts a wide net, focusing on the mistakes and regrets accrued by the Pfefferman kids as they shamble through adulthood, Tambor’s Maura lends serene force to “Transparent,” holding its many moving parts in orbit. She mucks up, of course, and still feels out of place from time to time, but Tambor beautifully captures the tender wisdom of having long since learned that we never stop growing into ourselves.
(Comedy): Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
The entire cast of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is terrific—Tambor only barely beat out Tituss Burgess, and I might change my mind if you ask me again tomorrow—but the series’ beating heart is Kemper, who takes a role than could easily come across as too precious and layers it with something like desperation. Her Kimmy is indeed unbreakable, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the frightening vagaries of life, large and small. That she confronts each challenge with such sincere verve is what makes Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix comedy so winsome, a tale of fragile human beings struggling against a world always trying to make them feel like garbage.
Best Line: “The Devils Are Here,” “Empire“
“Why are you over there crying like Tammy Faye Baker?” – Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson)
Though the hip-hop melodrama’s star seems to have dimmed, as measured by both ratings and critics’ response to the series’ second season, “Empire” remains, for me, required viewing, if only to see what the irrepressible Cookie will say next. She is one of the year’s finest comic creations, and this line—directed at a woman sobbing over a severed head sent in the mail—made me laugh so hard I nearly died.
Best Scene: “Demons,” “Sense8,” (Netflix)
I’ll admit that the pleasure principle is at work here, because the telepathic queer orgy that comes in the midst of the Wachowskis’ messy, periodically nonsensical, fantastically entertaining sci-fi series is hot as hell. But it’s also that rare occasion in which one can say a sex scene is also an illustration of thematic first principles: it is but the most risky and electric of several moments that see the characters of “Sense8” live out the series’ bracing progressive credo, “I’m not just a me. I’m also a we.”
In fairness, this is more a vote for “Most Disappointing” than it is for “Worst,” as BBC America’s sci-fi actioner spun off its axis this season despite the ever-impressive presence of Tatiana Maslany, playing a bunch of clones battling religious extremists, shadow corporations, and now the military. Though it seemed in its first two season, always on the verge of brilliance, “Insolvent Phantom” signaled the end of my patience with “Orphan Black” after an ineffective muddle of a season, culminating in a last-act twist so contrived it left me spitting mad. I so wanted this show to reach its full potential, and now I fear it never will.
Worst Series: “True Detective” (HBO)
So self-serious that it became an unwitting parody of the beloved first season, the return of “True Detective” struck an uncomfortable compromise between wild, fantastical elements (a corpse with its eyes burned out, an assailant in a bird’s head mask) and social realism (online porn, PTSD, substance abuse)—and in the process exposed Nic Pizzolatto’s writing as a bunch of risible blather masquerading as poetry. I wanted the Expressionist vigor of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in chiaroscuro black-and-white. I wanted a full-blown L.A. noir for the 21st century. Instead, I’ve got Vince Vaughn talking nonsense for 10 minutes at a stretch. No thanks.
Worst New Series: “The
Art of More” (Crackle)
There is little to say in defense of the fledging streaming
service’s first original drama series except that it draws a bright line under
the excesses of a medium in which privilege is too often mistaken for
“prestige.” “The Art of More,” a sulfuric, unpleasant
affair set in the world of high-end auction houses, succeeds only in aping
preening, corrupt collector Sam Bruckner (Dennis Quaid, on what you might call
a smarm offensive): it’s “bombastic, uncouth, and impossibly
egotistical,” and no amount of money that Crackle throws at the series
will be able to change that.
Review I Got Totally
Wrong: “The Last Man on Earth” (FOX)
Though I greeted the debut of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s
apocalyptic comedy with effusive praise, in particular for its ingenious pilot
episode and the hilarious Kristen Schaal, I soon learned the hard way to avoid
writing too soon in a series’ run. By the end of the first season, the
interminable slog of Phil Miller’s (Will Forte) sex-obsessed social pratfalls
and a small army of misused supporting actors (poor January Jones!) had
transformed the delights of watching “The Last Man on Earth” had
become something like dread, and it hasn’t won back my love since.
Review I Got Totally
Right: “Homeland” (Showtime)
I was tempted to include my pan of “Fargo,” which I never came
around to in its second season despite the near-universal acclaim it received
from critics, but that just seems like trolling. Instead, it’s the more
polarizing “Homeland” that continued its evolution from a
counterterrorism love story into a tense and ruthless, this time with an assist
from Nina Hoss and the tremendous Miranda Otto. Now in its fifth season,
Showtime’s timely, chilling series once again unspooled slowly, creating
tension not only from the machinations of U.S. and German intelligence
officials, but also from the bleak truth, as Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes)
avers, that the so-called “War on Terror” isn’t going to end anytime
Best Reader Comment: “Cohle
Blooded,” “True Detective“:
“Most of these critics are miserable misanthropes. Oh so you’re from Louisiana too? Maybe all YOU know LA from is from TV and movies. This season has nailed the setting aspect; it’s just mostly the parts of LA nobody likes to go. The setting matches the theme, characters and the tone. This season is doing just fine, thank you.”
From L.A. to La., this has been your intrepid critic / miserable misanthrope reporting from the front lines of “peak TV.” Thanks, as always, for reading along.