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15. “Broad City”
You could make an argument that we still haven’t had the breakout web series that has made the kind of pop culture impact as the kind of TV series on this list (assuming we’re qualifying Netflix and Amazon’s output as more traditional television shows), but “Broad City” might be the next best thing, the web series that graduated to more traditional broadcast airwaves, and proved itself to be entirely worthy of the transition. Created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, “Broad City” debuted on YouTube back in 2009, and eventually came to the attention of Amy Poehler, who shepherded a TV version, which was initially passed on by FX, before finally landing a home on Comedy Central, and proving the high point of their output this year. On paper, it’s another show in the “Girls”/”2 Broke Girls” mold—young twentysomething women in NYC, dealing with the sort of thing that young twentysomethings deal with. But “Broad City” is a very different show: looser, rawer, with an improv-y spirit that places it more in the mold of Tina Fey than Lena Dunham. Separated from the voice-of-her-generation hype that the latter had to deal with, “Broad City” manages to feel just as revolutionary, with two protagonists (Glazer and Jacobson, who are both hysterical) who smoke weed, chase the opposite sex, and do the sort of thing that would go unremarked if this was a male stoner-com, but feels like something very different here, in part thanks to their frank, don’t-give-a-shit approach to sexuality, which obsesses the pair, but will still always come second to their friendship. It’s not quite totally consistent, but at it’s best, it’s uproariously funny, and if nothing else, serves as a handy flip of the coin to “Girls,” with a more racially diverse, scraping-to-get-by approach to twentysomething life that’s equally as rewarding as Dunham’s show, in a very different way.
Best Episode: We were especially fond of episode eight, “Destination Wedding,” which sets the pair’s relationship into a new kind of context as they head to everyone’s worst nightmare, the out-of-town wedding.
No longer the new kid on the block (indeed, with fresh competition on the horizon in the form of the aforementioned “Broad City”), “Girls” moved into its (expanded, twelve-episode) third season no longer quite being on the tip of everyone’s pop culture tongues in the way that it did over the first couple of seasons. But for the most part, that was for the better: rather than being a figurehead for millennial angst, or lightning rod debates between the show’s defenders and people who don’t like Lena Dunham because they don’t find her attractive, the series could just quietly get on with the blend of sharp comedy and unexpectedly bruising drama that made its name, and proved to do so as well as ever. It wasn’t as stellar and unexpected as the first season, but the longer run somehow made it much more even and cohesive than the second (which was written before the first had aired), even if it didn’t entirely do all the characters justice—Shoshanna got rather short shrift this time around, and was much missed as a result. For the most part, though, it continued to dig further into its protagonists, making them as selfish and unappealing and yet strangely empathetic as ever. From the unexpected affair between Marnie (Alison Williams) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) to Hannah's (Dunham) flirtation with the corporate world and GQ, there wasn’t a duff storyline in the bunch, and as with last season, the show really begins to excel when it breaks into little stand-alone mini-movies or odd digressions (the addition of Gaby Hoffman as the unstable sister of Adam Driver’s character was an unexpected boon, as was her romance with Jon Glaser’s odd downstairs neighbor). Those aside, the show’s settled into a kind of rock-solid consistency, but that consistency certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Best Episode: “Beach House” was a beautifully savage little away-day, but it was the season’s other major formula-breaker, “Flo,” which sees Hannah meet up with the other women in her extended family to visit her dying grandmother (“Nebraska” Oscar-nominee June Squibb) that lingers in the memory. Squibb, Becky Ann Baker, Dierdre Lovejoy and Amy Morton were all so good together that it actually made you long for a spin-off of sorts.
The runaway winner of this year’s "most improved" trophy, “Veep” had, over its first two seasons, been a show that was always worth a watch, but still felt like it was finding its feet, and rarely made a case for being appointment viewing. But season three was something else: creator Armando Iannucci and his team had raised their game exponentially this time around for a run of episodes that felt as tight, purposeful and gloriously sweary as his great “The Thick Of It,” rather than a slightly watered down imitator as it had sometimes felt before. Given new drive by a focused plotline that saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ frustrated, semi-incompetent Vice President running for President (and *SPOILER* eventually attaining, though only after the Commander-In-Chief resigns while she’s still third in the polls *END SPOILER*), the series proved faster and funnier than ever before, the fuck-ups and colorful insults flying at a lightning pace where early seasons had sometimes felt a bit turgid. And with real plot to get their teeth into, the cast excelled like never before: Anna Chlumsky, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, Gary Cole, Kevin Dunn, Sufe Bradshaw, Tony Hale and especially Timothy Simons all finding new notes to play in their support team, and Dreyfus building on her exceptional work in “Enough Said” last year to give what may be seen in years to come as her most defining performance, one in which she’s capable of being borderline monstrous, then redeeming herself a few moments later. In places, you feel the show start to threaten the suspension of disbelief somewhat, and then you realize the ridiculous reality of politics and remember that the show has a long way to go before it tips over the edge. Plus, like “The Thick Of It” before it, it’s by some way the most quotable show on television, you unstable piece of human scaffolding.
Best Episode: Local bias might tip this U.K. resident towards episode seven, “Special Relationship,” which sees Selina on a state trip to the U.K., complete with tabloid skulduggery, breaking the Queen’s china, a scene-stealing turn from Christopher Meloni as a dim-witted personal trainer, the always-welcome Darren Boyd as an acerbic Deputy Prime Minister, and campaign manager Dan having an absolute melt down.
After an extended sabbatical (nearly two years passed between the third and fourth season), Louis C.K. returned with the latest batch of his much-acclaimed auteurist semi-sitcom. True to form, it was more distinctive, idiosyncratic and experimental than ever: after increasing experiments away from formula and towards a kind of serialization in the last batch of episodes, the new season was something else entirely: three-to-four feature length movies all adding up to a sort of predominant theme about masculinity, romance, fatherhood, childhood, and relationships between men and women. Ultimately, it added up to a season that courted controversy in a way that the show hadn’t before: Louie’s encounter with Yvonne Strahovski’s model, with Sarah Baker’s self-described fat girl, and his non-consensual grappling with Pamela Adlon, seemed to be planned directly with the intention of instigating the dozens of think pieces that followed in their wake; as some have suggested, C.K essentially trolling his viewers and the press. It also added up to something more uneven: structurally wonky, dominated by the 6-part “Elevator” run, less concerned with making you laugh (even by comparison to what came before), and a little more sentimental even (the ending to the “Pamela” three-parter never quite sat right with us). But a bold and playful season of “Louie” that doesn’t work 100% of the time is still going to be more interesting, thought-provoking, and better made than most of what’s on television. And every episode had something beautiful, unexpected or hilarious in it, from the refuse collectors invading Louie’s apartment in the season opener, to Ellen Burstyn’s performance and the extended motel-room flashback to Louie’s near-collapse of his marriage, to Pamela throwing out all of Louie’s furniture and the glorious, glorious return of Charles Grodin. Problematic? Yes. Uneven? Certainly. Like nothing else? Of course. One gets the instinct that C.K. is itching to head back to the big screen sooner rather than later, but as long as FX are giving him carte blanche, we’ll be tuning in to “Louie.”
Best Episode: It divided Playlisters, but we mostly adored the “In The Woods” two-parter, a “Freaks & Geeks”-ish coming-of-age flashback about young Louie’s flirtation with pot, and his betrayal of a beloved science teacher in favor of a skeezy drug dealer (Jeremy Renner, giving his best performance since “The Hurt Locker.” (YOU ARE INSANE THESE WERE THE WORST - ed.) Told you it was divisive...
11. “Game Of Thrones”
Near the end of season three, “Game Of Thrones” unveiled The Red Wedding, a brutal shocker that killed off a number of the show’s most prominent character, and instantly stepped into the annals of TV history. It seemed like a moment that the series would find difficult to top, even after shocking from the pilot, and one wondered if season four would just end up a long series of comedowns after that event. But instead, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss didn’t miss a beat, with a (mostly) eventful collection of ten episodes that shook up the status quo on the series in a big way, and, inevitably, left some of the most, and least, beloved characters dead by the end. On the one hand, giving a verdict on “Game Of Thrones” each season is a fool’s errand: the show’s reached a remarkable level of consistency, with Benioff and Weiss continuing to doing a remarkable job of adapting George R.R. Martin’s texts to screen while often improving on them, production values that can’t be beaten on TV (the fight for the wall in the penultimate episode had as much spectacle as most blockbusters this year), and a phenomenal cast who continue to be hugely pleasurable to watch, particularly with such fine writing. The series continues to serve some characters better than others—we’re yet to find much about Jon Snow interesting beyond the battle scenes, and Daenerys didn’t have much to do all season. And the show made its first major, major misstep in *SPOILER* the deeply problematic sex/rape scene between Cersei and Jaimie *END SPOILER*, something clearly botched on both the writing and filmmaking level, if the baffled response by the people behind it was anything to go by. But while misfired, it did also illustrate something that’s become one of the show’s greatest strengths: an unwillingness to let a character become entirely sympathetic or entirely villainous, testing your love for your favorites and reminding you of the humanity of the most hissable. It’s in this moral grey area that the show swims, and it’s that that makes it transcend pure genre and become what’s sure to be, by the time it’s done, one of TV’s most monumental achievements.
Best Episode: Finale “The Children” was a stunner, the most satisfying, thrilling and even moving season-ender that the show’s had to date.