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One of the dicier propositions on paper, the Coen Brothers’ involvement (as Executive Producers) with the TV show version of their beloved, peerless 1996 film meant that we were always going to hope for the best with “Fargo.” Certainly more so than with the Edie Falco-starring version that the Coens did not endorse back in 1997 that never made it beyond pilot stage. But “Fargo” exceeded our cautious expectations, and after a rather tentative first few episodes which we mostly spent getting a bead on how much/how little relation to the story of the film this storyline had (answer: none really, bar some recurring motifs), it settled into its own thing, with a whole new slew of characters to fall for almost as hard as we fell for Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Featuring a breakout performance from Allison Tolman, and the best showcase that either Colin Hanks or Billy Bob Thornton have had in ages, it has the same recognizable affable noir tone of the film, and makes the brave and correct decision to round off the story by the end of the season, making season one feel like a self-contained entity. But we must say a lot of our joy, as “Fargo”-the-movie junkies, came from picking up on the sly ways the show referred to the film. From buried money, to pregnant policewomen, to DLR plates it nodded frequently to its precursor, but in Thornton’s implacable shapeshifting bogeyman hitman, and in Martin Freeman’s despicable, self-justifying protagonist, even more craven than William H Macy’s character in the film, the show also brought totally new elements that allowed it go both darker and broader when it needed.
Best Episode: All the latter episodes are pretty solid, but we’ll go with the one that really turned us on to the show properly: episode 4, “Eating the Blame” which tells the story of how Stavros Milos (and we love us some Oliver Platt) got his fortune: sheer dumb luck (or divine intervention, as he believes) saw him dig up a case of money buried by a fence in the snow with only a certain red ice-scraper for a marker…
9. “Rick & Morty”
Probably much to his relief at this point, Dan Harmon had a pretty great year. The iconoclastic and outspoken writer/producer’s “Harmontown” live show and podcast went from strength to strength, even spawning an acclaimed documentary, while he returned to “Community,” the show that made his name, and oversaw a creative comeback after the mediocre Harmon-free season four (the show looks to have come to an end after NBC cancelled it, but at least it was on the creator’s own terms). But his greatest triumph came with his latest show, “Rick & Morty,” which proved to be a legitimate hit, outperforming not just “Community,” but most of what the mainstream networks had to air against it, despite airing on the relatively small Adult Swim. It was also, when all’s said and done, our favorite comedy of the entire season. Co-created with Justin Roiland (based on a series of shorts by the latter), the show seems like it’s going to be something of a one-joke concept: essentially, what if Doc Brown from “Back To The Future” was an amoral son-of-a-bitch who used and abused his awkward, sex-obsessed Marty-ish grandson on a series of adventures across space and time. But the result was just tremendous: an endlessly inventive, gut-busting series of sci-fi comedy adventures that brushed with jaw-dropping wrongness in places (an exploding giant alcoholic Santa, Marty being molested by a jelly-bean in a fantasy tavern), and yet often finding unexpected heart underneath the insanity. Roiland’s freewheeling, semi-improvised comic style is a perfect fit with Harmon’s famous circular storytelling nous, leaving each episode as a deeply satisfying adventure that grapples with big, lovingly realized science fiction concepts, like a sick, drunken version of “Futurama” that appeals to people other than computer science majors. It’s Harmon without the stabilizers, and that it proved such a creative and commercial triumph must feel like an enormous vindication for him.
Best Episode: “Meeseeks & Destroy” gave us the most inspired comic creations of the year with the existentially-despairing genie creatures, but the more freewheeling and inventive “Rixty Minutes” was still unmatched.
8. “Mad Men”
There’s a weird narrative that’s set in recently among some that “Mad Men” has been on a downslide: season six wasn’t greeted with the same adulation as previous ones, and viewership’s been down for the first half of the final season, which wrapped up a few weeks ago. Nikki Finke went as far as to plead publicly for the show to be denied Emmys this year. To which we can only say: when you’re on the same side as Finke, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re holding the wrong kind of opinion. Matthew Weiner’s show has never been one of instant gratification: it’s a novelistic slow-burn that might seem aimless or plot-free in places, but gradually and carefully shows its hand in unexpected and powerful ways, digging into its rich characters in ways that few others can compete with. And so was the case with Season 7A. The series picked up with Don Draper at a new low, essentially jobless and with his former partners looking to push him out completely of the company he built, while his wife was a continent away forging a new life in Los Angeles. His gradual semi-redemption wasn’t easily won, but he’s far from escaping into the light: there was a new darkness to the show, an ever-increasing sense that Don, Roger, and even their younger counterparts like Pete and Peggy, are running out of time, the era that they were comfortable with coming to an end as the 1970s fast approaches (best represented by the computer that instigated Ginsberg’s mental breakdown). And yet that comes with victories too: the series has never just been about Don, and Weiner and his team (which included, this season, “Chinatown” scribe Robert Towne) are more and more focused on the women, with Don’s daughter Sally and secretary Dawn getting particularly well-deserved showcases. Yes, the start was as slow as ever, but the show built and built until it peaked in a pair of episodes that are among the finest the series has ever had. And that series is one with a rhythm and tone that marks it apart from all the other great shows of the golden age of cable drama: one less immediately rewarding, perhaps, but just as nourishing once it all pays off.
Best Episode: Of those last two, it was finale “Waterloo” that once again showed off the genius of Weiner’s storytelling structure, as the characters reach a fork in the road while saying goodbye to one of their own, and watching mankind take a small step onto the moon.
7. “Masters of Sex”
So we don’t think there has been a single TV feature we’ve run recently in which we haven’t sung the praises of the brilliant but underseen “Masters of Sex,” and well, we’re just going to keep on doing it until everyone in the world is watching it. The exquisitely mounted (its period detailing rivals anything “Mad Men” has to offer) and impeccably played drama, based on real-life sexology pioneers Dr Virginia Johnson and Dr Bill Masters is everything you could hope for from sex-and-science drama: it’s perceptive about gender roles at the time (and now), especially with regards attitudes to sex and sexual freedom, it’s witty and insightful about sexual, scientific and academic hubris, and it’s totally on the money about relationships, be they budding, tentative romances or long, stale repressive marriages. Featuring a welcome weekly showcase for two of our very favorite actors in Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, we can see how the deliberate unlikeability, the un-heroism of Sheen’s character might have contributed to less than “Mad Men” numbers, but the uncompromising nature of his portrayal of his deeply fucked-up character (physician, heal thyself!) is actually one of the show’s best gifts--he becomes more fascinating as his attraction to Virginia peels away layers of stiffness and propriety that even he is not aware of. And beyond Sheen and Caplan is one of the very best broad ensembles on TV, with Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson and Ann Dowd all reliably excellent, while Caitlin Fitzgerald as Master’s wife Libby, ex-soap star Teddy Sears as a philandering doctor and “Heroes”‘ Nicholas D’Agosto all have small breakouts in supporting roles. The show returns in July--please watch it, or we’re going to fill up the internet with more articles telling you why you should.
Best Episode: “Brave New World.” Midway through a season we’d already been beguiled and deeply impressed by, came episode 6, which broke our hearts to boot, with its depictions of the personal toll of two very different but equally dysfunctional marriages: Libby Masters (Fitzgerald) gets drunk with a pair of swingers in a Miami hotel and blithely makes up a false story about a dead husband and a pair of living children, while Margaret Scully, played by Janney, who deserves a(nother) Emmy for this moment alone, suffers the catastrophic humiliation of being turned away from the sex study when she reveals, without knowing how sad it is, that no, she has never had an orgasm.
6. “Breaking Bad”
Every year, we put this list together, and every year, someone yells at us for not placing “Breaking Bad” higher (yes, even when it ranked second two years ago). Unfortunately, the show’s final run, the second half of season five that aired last summer, wasn’t quite enough to make us put it atop the list and save ourselves the grief this time around. Ultimately, the conclusion somewhat backed up our major misgiving about the series: that it was ultimately borderline comic-booky in its focus on plot, and that it had somewhat peaked in terms of finding new things to say about its characters: neither half of season five saw us learning much more about either Walt and Jessie (the latter in particular was borderline absent for the final eight episodes). But all of that is not to say that the show wasn’t absolutely tremendous entertainment, as well made and acted as anything else on television, and that we weren’t absolutely gripped through each of the last eight episodes. Vince Gilligan & co put their foot to the floor from the first episode, taking the Walter/Hank confrontation teased in the previous season finale and putting it into play almost immediately, and there was an electric excitement to this final run as everything finally blows up, culminating in a desert showdown that’s almost unmatched in television history in its sheer level of tension, only to follow it up with a sudden time-jump (instigated in part by a terrific Robert Forster cameo: we’d much rather see a spin-off focused on him than on Bob Odenkirk’s Saul, much as we love the latter). Yes, we had issues with the series that some didn’t, right up to the end--the neo-Nazis felt like a rather generic and anonymous final adversary, especially after Gus, for instance. But who couldn’t find something to love about the writing, the directing, and more than anything, that gigantic central performance from the astonishing Bryan Cranston, who’ll be spoken of in hushed tones for a century because of the work he did here.
Best Episode: The sixth episode of the half-season, “Ozymandias,” was a definite highpoint of the entire series. Directed by “Brick,” “Looper” and future “Star Wars Episode VIII” helmer Rian Johnson, it opened *SPOILER* with the wrenching murder of Hank *END SPOILER*, and finally blows everything up in a relentless hour that feels both like it rushes by in fifteen minutes, and lasts an eternity.