10) HIGH MAINTENANCE
This anthology series started out as a critically acclaimed web series on Vimeo. Now High Maintenance moves on up to an HBO series, with its style and premise intact.
The show centres on a small time marijuana drug dealer (Co-Creator Ben Sinclair) and the rounds he makes. In each episode, we look into the lives of two people who buy from him. Though we get hints of his quirky personality, we don’t learn much about the dealer. He serves as a means of connection for the series.
Instead, writers Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld put their focus on the lives of the clients, who are unique and relatable. These people come from a wide range of backgrounds, from an elderly Asian couple to a human embodiment of toxic masculinity. Sinclair and Blichfeld are amazing writers who are able to take the most oddball characters and turn them into relatable human beings. The most powerful is in the first episode, where we meet a guy who seems to embody the gay best friend stereotype. But as the “Gay Best Friend” copes with his meth addiction, he comes to realize his friendship with a spoiled socialite is toxic.
Plus, they are able to capture New York in all its quirkiness. During one drug run, the dealer is stalled so a film crew can shoot an episode of Girls. We also get glimpses into the many subcultures of the city, including a nightclub that opens its doors at 5 am. I mean, if the show can make an episode of a dog falling for a dog walker and make it adorable, you know its one standout show.
9) ADAM RUINS EVERYTHING
For anyone missing the good old days of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, allow me to present to you Adam Ruins Everything, a new comedy series dedicated to debunking common misconceptions about particular subjects. In each episode, Adam Conover annoys some innocent bystander by debunking their preconceived notions. This season, Conover debunked popular beliefs on Housing, Christmas and Hollywood. With well researched information and experts, we learn how Prostitutes formed the Wild West, why electric cars aren’t that green and how trophy hunting can save endangered animals.
This show will be compared to Penn & Teller’s debunking show, but I believe this show improves on the formula. First of all, he presents the source of his info on screen, allowing the audience to look up the information themselves. Second of all, Conover isn’t afraid to make fun of him. He portrays himself as an abrasive, inconsiderate dweeb who’s unable to make any friends, which provides many gags at his expense. There are even moments when he has to learn lessons, like the monopoly on eyeglasses and the screwed up public defense system. In the wrong hands, this character would come off as irritating to the audience, but Conover has a charming, self-aware presence about him. It helps that he surrounds himself with excellent foils to play off of. Rhea Butcher is excellent as Adam’s chagrined lawyer sister. But his most frequent victim is Emily Axford, who makes an excellent straight person for him to play off of.
No matter how depressing the information, the show always ends on a ray of hope. When Rhea points out how screwed up the public defense system is, she celebrates public defense attorneys who still fight on. When reveals the true history of Christmas, he also embraces the idea of people having their own Christmas. There’s no dark cloud that can’t have a silver lining.
8) THE GOOD PLACE
After blending comedy with optimism via Parks and Recreation, creator Michael Schur takes aim at the concept of being good with The Good Place, a criminally overlooked sitcom unlikely to get a second season but guaranteed to get a cult following.
Welcome to the Good Place, a hipster heaven where only the most saintly go after death. Among them was Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who’s awarded with a dream house, her soulmate and frozen yogurt galore. There’s just one problem; she’s the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop. Due to a glitch, both Eleanors died at the same time and the other Eleanor ended up in the Bad Place. Now the glitch is screwing up the Good Place into a Roland Emmerich version of Wonderland. To maintain her cover and save the good place, the selfish Eleanor must learn to be a good person with the help of “Real” Eleanor’s soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who happens to be an ethics scholar.
Like Schur’s previous series, this one’s full of unforgettable characters. Bell sinks her teeth into her role, bringing on the charm while presenting Eleanor’s selfishness and pettiness on full display. The flashbacks of her screwing over friends are dark comedy gold. Harper makes the perfect straight man for Bell to bounce off of, portraying Chidi as a man who so uptight about being good that a friend’s cowboy boots sends him into a moral crisis. But the real scene stealers are Janet and Michael, played respectively by D’Arcy Carden and Ted Danson. Carden finds many laughs out of info hologram Janet, especially when a glitch causes her to confuse files for cactuses. Danson delivers another amazing performance as the Good Place creator Michael, who has this childlike fascination for human.
The real star of the film is the Good Place itself. It feels like a warm and inviting place, with the bluest skies, greenest grass and colourful buildings. Adding to the personality are the various rules, including character’s inability to swear and the futuristic hologram screens. Adding to the hilarity are the leaders of the Bad Place, with Adam Scott’s leering devil Trevor and the group’s love of Richard Nixon karaoke. This universe has as much personality as Pawnee and is just as unforgettable.
It’s a shame this show isn’t getting as much attention as it deserves, but we can only hope word of mouth will give it more attention.
7) THIS IS US
This show is the perfect example of less is more. There are no big stars (except maybe Mandy Moore), no big action scenes and no big premise. It’s just a simple dramedy about random thirty somethings trying to get through live despite their personal problems. And yet, this show has become a sensation among critics and viewers. Its success is not so much despite its simplicity as its success is because of its simplicity. Created by Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love), all This Is Us needs is extraordinary writing and astounding performances.
Fogelman combines both to give us a group of relatable characters. First, we get a young couple (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) expecting triplets. There’s a sitcom star (Justin Hartley) who despises his show and wants out. Meanwhile his twin sister (Chrissy Metz) sees her overweight body as a burden, until she falls for an easygoing overweight guy (Chris Sullivan). Finally, there a family man (Sterling K. Brown) who confronts his estranged father (Ron Cephas Jones), who abandoned him as at baby. All these actors bring so much depth to these characters they feel like ordinary people. The most notable standout is Metz, who brings out the shame overweight people are forced to feel by their environment.
Since the opening montage of the characters celebrating their 34th birthday, the show has brought us one extraordinary episode after another. Each episode has a plot twist, presented with a subtle touch to bring more depth to the characters. Fogelman and his writers show a surprising understanding of human nature. They understand people’s stubborn refusal to accept changes in their lives. They understand a person’s tendencies to let bitterness towards loved ones seethe inwardly until it explodes in pure anger. They understand that even the worst actions are done with the best intentions. But in the end, loved ones will always reach a bit of understanding.
Looking at a preview of this underrated series, you would not expect it to have come from the husband/wife team behind The Good Wife. On the surface, it seems quite fitting for creators Robert and Michelle King, being a political dramedy and all. But then we have space ants eating people’s brains and suddenly we have “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” These two genres shouldn’t fit each other and yet the Kings blend them both together to create a paranoid political satire.
Documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) would rather film tribal dances than get involved in politics. But a government shutdown forces her to reluctantly head to DC and assist her brother, Democratic Senator Luke (Danny Pino). At the same time, space ants are taking control of politicians, creating further divide. With the help of conspiracy theorist Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), Nurse Rochelle Daudier (Nikki M. James) and republican senator Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), Laurel must find out the ant’s plans and try to stop them.
Of all the shows on this list, this one is definitely the most experimental. This show isn’t afraid to make unusual decisions with their storytelling. For their recaps, the show has a folk singer sing about previous episodes. But with later episodes, they take the recaps a step further. One episode will have the singer do a song about writing a recap for an episode, shown from his point of view. In another episode, he will suddenly start recalling an episode of Gunsmoke out of boredom. Despite these strange directions, the show keeps its full focus on the story.
At its core, the ants serve as a political commentary on partisan polarization. In recent years, we have seen a political environment more divided than ever. The most extreme members on both sides are represented by Republican Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhloub) and Democrat Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell). The show puts equal blame on both sides, both demonizing the other and neither able to compromise. The ones who do try to reach a compromise are shot down by their more extreme superiors. In one brilliant scene, we get a montage of two infected people demonizing each other’s party in the YouTube comments, with both typing the shit out of the exclamation points. Through Laurel and Gareth, The Kings calls on both sides to engage in an understanding. Both hostile to each other at first, these two learn to work together for a common goal, while engaging in the classic will they/won’t they trope. Instead of one trying to change the other, they learn to respect each other’s views and reach a compromise.
Unfortunately, a show like this is too original for mainstream TV. If this is the only season, it was a brilliant way to go out.
5) STRANGER THINGS
In such a short amount of time, this little series sucked us into the upside down and has ingrained itself into pop culture. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this show led to increase purchases of Eggos.
From the moment the show’s neon titles slide in from the screen, Stranger Things sucks you in with it eerie sense of mystery and nostalgic tone. From the moment Will Byers (Noah Schnapps) vanishes, a group of ordinary people are forced into a world of Government Cover ups, world bending monsters and a psychic girl named Eleven(Millie Bobby Brown). The Duffer Brothers seem to draw inspiration from the X-Files with the cover up storyline. But it seems to draw more from Fringe through its creative, unsettling imagery. The Cronenberg-esque environment of the Upside Down unsettles from the slimy settings and limited lighting. But the brothers take the inspiration and make it feel like their own.
Unlike those two shows, it’s not agents who are solving this case, but Will’s friends and family. The closest thing we have to an authority figure in lead is the small time Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), but he’s also an average Joe. Many characters stand out in both their storylines and performances. Though obviously inspired by the Goonies, Will’s friends stand on their own with unique personalities and great performances. Whether it’s the lisping Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) or the mysterious Eleven, the kids stand out in their own way. Winona Ryder gives an extraordinary performance as Will’s desperate mother Joyce, who finds her son can contact her via Christmas lights. With little screen time, Shannon Purser brings such presence to her timid geek Barb that her character started a hashtag trend. Albeit, there are many generic characters, especially with the bullies, but our heroes are so well written you forget about the rest.
You can bet many fans will be eager for second season, ready to see what mystery’s in store for the kids.
It’s rare for a reboot to not only match the original source, but improves on it in every way. As Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore did for Battlestar Galactica, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy take Michael Crichton’s 70s cult classic Westworld and elevates it into a thrilling labyrinth that asks what it means to be human.
Welcome to Westworld; a simulation of the old west, where clients get to live their cowboy fantasies. Here is a place where they can unleash their inhibitions to the “hosts”, getting to kill them or worst. But there’s trouble afoot. Android maiden Maeve (Thandie Newton) finds herself growing suspicious of the world around her. Human client William (Jimmie Simpson) falls for “host” Dolores Apernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s hearing a mysterious voice named Arnold. Not to mention the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a menacing veteran client in search of…what? Not to mention the problems within the company, with programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) growing suspicious of program founder Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who’s resisting changes in the storytelling insisted by the executives.
These are just the surface of a complex labyrinth of stories. I can’t say too much without giving away the many twists and turns this series. What I can talk about the themes that run throughout the show. Through the androids, the show asks a lot of questions about humanity. With lack of consequences, some clients get to unleash their worst natures, killing some hosts and forcing themselves on other hosts. It brings up questions of what this says about them. Plus, it brings up questions of how much freewill these androids have over their actions.
What I can talk about is the visuals. The set pieces are astounding, each unique in their style and tone. Westworld itself has this gritty beauty fitting for a western. Plus, there’s the saloon piano which plays modern tunes like “Black Hole Sun” and “Paint it Black,” which provides an interesting feel to the universe. In contrast is the laboratory, which has a sterile futuristic look to match the bureaucratic feel. This adds a more unsettling feeling in scenes of the Lowe’s “therapy” with various hosts.
The result is a sci fi thriller that reels you in with its stunning visual and complex storytelling. To top it off with many great performances, from the menacing Anthony Hopkins to the commanding Newton makes this show a near masterpiece.
3) BOJACK HORSEMAN
Bojack Horseman took an axe and gave Hollywoo forty whacks. When he saw what he had done, he gave the sitcom formula.
Starting off as an inappropriate adult cartoon about the life of a has been sitcom actor (voiced by Will Arnett) in a world of humans and anthropomorphic animals, this series went from a Family Guy wannabee into a cynical masterpiece of vicious satire and existential human drama. This show’s fearless in its portray of misery and empathize with the worst in humanity, while adding some animal puns for good measure.
In this season, Bojack has finally achieved his comeback with “Secretariat”. Now there’re talks of him getting an Oscar nomination for his dream role. But to get there, he has to deal with awkward film interviews and film festivals. Despite achieving his dreams, he still finds no sense of fulfillment in his life. The same seems to go for his roommate/squalor Todd (Aaron Paul), his ex-girlfriend/agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and wannabe journalist Diane (Alison Brie). Not so much for Bojack’s obliviously cheerful rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins).
In its third season, Bojack Horseman continues to stare into the worst of humanity and laughed in its face. From the opening tedious interviews Bojack endures, the series takes aim at SeaWorld, the Academy Awards and the year 2007. On the subject of abortion, an episode does a brilliant job of portray how both sides exploit the subject for career gain. This season takes more risk with its storytelling; with one episode travelling back to 2007 and another nearly dialogue free. There are of course many funny moments, including a scene where he offends the underwater nation with a simple hand gesture or another where Todd accidently tips a waitress millions of dollars. There are as many sad moments, including the Heartbreaking Planetarium scene with Bojack and Sarah Lynn.
I imagine years from now, there will be classes analyzing this series. There are already essay discussing its theme on religion, meaning of life (or lack thereof), and human misery. The subjects are so complicated it would take all day to discuss them, so let’s discuss Bojacks’ actions. Bojack remains a selfish, toxic character who constantly screws over all those around him. Whether he’s sleeping with Todd or forcing recovering addict Sarah Lynn into a weekend bender, his behaviour can be infuriating. Yet you still kind of sympathize with him. His actions are a desperate attempt to escape the emptiness of his life and set things right. But he constantly gets in his own way, leaving himself in guilt and misery. Yet, the series argues Bojack uses the guilt as an excuse for his behaviour, or as Todd says “You can’t keep doing shitty things and just feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay.” Through Todd’s rant, the show holds Bojack responsible for his actions, stating that “you are all the things that are wrong with you.” This offers a bit of hope because it means Bojack can choose to be a better person, and he does some good deeds, including returning a seahorse baby to its daddy. Each audience member comes out of it a different perspective on life.
2) GAME OF THRONES
No longer able to fall back on the George R.R. Martin books, series developers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss faced the challenge of going forward with an original storyline while matching Martin’s storytelling style. The writers meet this task head on and the result is another glorious season for Game of Thrones.
There will be spoilers ahead.
The series picks up where the last season left off. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) tries to maintain order after Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is forced to flee her people. A resurrected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) joins forces with his half-sister Sansa (Sophia Turner) to take on the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Cersei (Lena Heady) tries to regain control of her son’s after he’s corrupted by the religious fanatics known as the High Sparrow (lead by Jonathan Price). You know what, if I have to go through all the storylines, we’ll be here all day.
What I can talk about are the many unforgettable moments. Fans cheered when Snow was resurrected and faced Ramsay one of the greatest battles in TV history. Fans also cried during Hodor’s unforgettable “Hold the Door” sacrifice. Plus we got some unforgettable guest appearances including Max Von Sydow as the three eyed raven and Ian McShane as a peaceful carpenter who tries to lead the Hound to a peaceful existence.
It’s just an entertaining season with lots of intrigue and kickass action scenes.
1) (TIE) AMERICAN CRIME and THE PEOPLE VS OJ SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
I know a tie is kind of cheating, but these two have so much in common they had to be put together. Beyond both having “American Crime” in their titles, both are anthology series with each season focusing on a particular crime. Both have reoccurring actors portraying multiple roles. Fortunately, both are astounding, masterfully written shows which use the crime as a means of discussing multiple subjects relevant for many viewers.
The first series, American Crime, is an anthology series written by Academy Award Winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave). In its second series, we look into an elite high school, where Taylor (Connor Jessup) believes he had been raped by a member of his basketball team. This escalate quickly was Taylor’s mother Anne (Lili Taylor) seeks justice for her son while Principal Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) tries to protect the school’s reputation and the Coach (Timothy Hutton) tries to maintain team loyalty.
Through this crime, Ripley dives head on into issues like sexual assault, homosexuality, class, and a little about race. There’s also a great episode focusing on school shootings and its effects on a town. The strength of the show is the misconceptions that lead to misguided decisions. Many characters have their priorities mixed up, yet their motivations are understandable. The Coach lives under a misguided idea of loyalty for his team, but some part of him wants to get to the truth. Principal Graham seems to care more about the school’s reputation than punishing the rapist, yet you can understand the pressure she’s going through. Even Anne’s crusade for justice causes her to go behind her son’s back. Their decisions are morally questionable, but they’re always understandable. As in the earlier season, Ridley never offers any easy answers in this show, forcing the audience to ponder moments long after each episode.
The People VS. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story looks at OJ’s murder trial. Most of the media’s focus is on Ryan Murphy’s contribution to the series, but the real credit should go to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Having worked together on screenplays for Ed Wood, Man on the Moon and Big Eyes, these screenwriters are the masters of biopics. They bring their A-game in this series, bringing us into the court cases from many perspectives. We get all of the infamous moments, from the low speed car chase and the gloves moment to the controversial Time Magazine cover and prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) many hairstyles. This time, we get to see it from the point of view of the players. It allows us to see the inner workings of lawyers, media and their families.
Like American Crime, this series uses the crime to discuss multiple issues. It was inevitable, considering this trial triggered these discussions in the first place. At the centre of the trial was of course race. The series begins with a montage of newsreels of the assault on Rodney King, which cultivated in the riots when the cops were acquitted. With anger at the LA Police’s racism, this became more than just a murder trial. It embodied how the law targets people of colour. Adding depth to this is prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling K Brown). As the one person of colour among the prosecution team, we not only see the perspective of the rare person of colour who believed OJ was guilty, especially thanks to Brown’s low key performance. The show also deals with sexism through Marcia, who had to deal with media making shallow comments about her looks, especially when she keeps changing her hairstyle. Paulson makes you feel every painful humiliation Clark suffers.
But the most fascinating aspect of the series is its look at media and how it screwed up the trial so much. Led by the charismatic Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), OJ’s defense team knew exactly how to manipulate the media in their favour. With no media savvy, the prosecuting team failed to see the media war they were in the middle of. As the show progresses, it becomes harder for the courts to keep the news from interfering with the outcome of the trial.
Both of these shows bring out the complexities of their crimes, handling many issues with clear focus and honest maturity. The actors bring out the humanity in their characters, thanks to brilliant writing. These shows are an experience, guaranteed to get people talking after every episode.
 I could imagine Agents Mulder and Scully investigating these scenarios. Who’s up for a cross over between Stranger Things and the X-Files?