I’m not sure you can exactly “buy” my picks for great television this year, but you can subscribe to their services or whatever.
I find I’m enjoying TV much more than movies these days. Who’s with me?
Stranger Things, Netflix
The big surprise was Stranger Things, though it shouldn’t have been. Kids in the 80s discovering terrible secrets in their little town after one of their own goes missing? Filmed with a Spielberg/King sensibility and 80s visual style? Sign me up!
It’s not a perfect show but a very good one, and I find these days I’m more interested in what stories can help me experience than what ideas they introduce. Stranger Things doesn’t deliver earth-shattering, game-changing revelations or advancements in the genre, but it expertly places you back in a specific time and place and — most importantly — feeling of being young in a world of dangerous possibility.
Like Mad Men, it’s a time machine that consistently placed me in a fugue state of imagination, and that’s not something most shows even bother to try.
Big flagship cable dramas these days have to be ambitious and sprawling and full of mystery, and it’s this latter part that most fuck up. A “mystery” isn’t simply the audience asking, “What the fuck is that about?” or, worse, “What the fuck is going on?” or, worst, “Who the fuck are they going to kill off next?”; it’s a matter of meaning.
What do these answers mean?
Smart-ish writers raise questions. Dumb Hollywood execs and writers’ rooms contrive answers. Smarter writers make the answers into better questions.
Westworld does an extraordinary job of cultivating an atmosphere of mystery while also actually, you know, solving some. A question raised in one episode usually gets answered two episodes later, and that’s fine because each answer implies a bigger and more interesting question.
I find I’m less interested in the corporate intrigue and more interested in the rising consciousness of the “hosts,” but it never seems to overwhelm the story.
The risk for the show’s future is overcomplicating the mystery, especially if it experiments with time frames and which people are “real” or not — mystery for mystery’s sake. They’ve done an excellent job so far with imbuing the twists with meaning, and I hope that stays the norm.
The show is also beautifully shot and written, and almost every performer is extraordinary — Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson. Jesus. They’re all good.
You’d think Aquarius would be right up my alley, and you’d be right. We’ve got the 60s and Charles Manson and David Duchovny and crime, and the show scratches all those itches. I’m surprised by how much more I enjoy the non-Manson crimes in the show, but they’re excellent snapshots of the era.
A great crime story often addresses what about its time and place makes a certain action a crime. Aquarius does that well.
I find some of the liberties taken with the Manson story a little jarring (especially the casting of an actor who is WAY more polished than the real Manson), and I hate being the person with his arms folded who says, “That’s not where the bodies were found on Cielo Drive.” But I am.
Still, I enjoy the show immensely and the performances are excellent.