#1: The Strain
I’ve already fired a shot across the bow of The Strain, but why not kick it a little more while it’s down there? I’ve held onto hope for the Guillermo Del Toro project to salvage something interesting from its bloody corpse. Instead its characters stumble around like corpses themselves, shells of real people filled with every stereotypical archetype you can imagine. Maybe its my love for zombie outbreaks, or the hope that Corey Stoll will go Peter Russo on everyone, but time’s up for The Strain. I mean, look at Corey Stoll in this wig. The Strain is the gross, superficial wig on top of an otherwise promising premise. Luckily for you, I’ve seen the other side of the vampire mountain and can confidently say there would be no greater waste of your time than to try this series.
#2: True Detective
Each episode of True Detective Season 2 ended the same way: Colin Farrell’s ruffled brow and our collective exasperated sigh. No show this year experienced a greater fall than True Detective, whose first season is among HBO’s all-time great programming. Missing the quintessential (and existential) McConaughey, and the lovable humor of Woody Harrelson, Season 2 never had a chance to get off the ground. Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell were great despite the one-dimensional direction, but Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch can confidently mark their first serious foray into drama as a hearty loss. Also missing from Season 2 is Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed most of Season 1 and gave the series its signature visual bravado (and a tracking shot for the ages). With Nick Pizzolatto as the remaining caretaker, True Detective lost its soul; he steers the ship backwards, pointing it again towards the cynicism that Rust Cohle finally moved passed in Season 1. Thank the Deer Antler God that True Detective hits a hard reset every year.
#3: Wayward Pines
The theme for bad television this year appears to be “good concept, terrible execution”. Truly great sci-fi is even more difficult to find on the tube, especially when great source material like Wayward Pines is snatched up by the likes of FOX. Spoilers ahead, but trust me, you won’t mind. Set something-like-4,000-years in the future, a small town in Idaho must defend itself against packs of lethal and terrifying human relatives who mutated to survive the global warming apocalypse that occurred in their-distant-past but our not-too-distant-future. Pretty interesting sci-fi wise. But when cast with TV-journeymen/has-beens like Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, Carla Gugino, and Shannyn Sossamon, the result is all thumbs. (Note to all TV execs: start with your big twist first and then spend remaining eps grappling with it. Don’t string us along for 9 episodes so the last one will be interesting).
Top TV: #33 thru #29
#33: Parks and Recreation
The Parks and Recreation farewell tour was fun. Let’s pull in all the old characters, let’s set up everyone’s futures; I get it, and I usually like it. But nothing of 2015 Parks and Rec is particularly memorable except for the fact that it ended. Everyone’s still mean to Jerry, which was fun five years ago. What initially drew me to Parks and Rec was how wholly good each character was; you only wanted what was best for them and the screen glowed with unbridled optimism. But when the finale still tries to hit the make-fun-of-Jerry chord, its feels more tried and mean-spirited than in good humor. What stuck with me through the year of the farewell season wasn’t good humor (I can’t recall a single joke), but how exhausted the whole premise felt. So much weight is put on how a show ends that it often overshadows the joyous years prior, which however unfair does paint the series. Which makes the farewell season feel especially lazy and people-pleasing. When the end result of your character arcs is “everyone gets married”, you simply lost something along the way.
To be ranked 32nd out of 33 (especially on a nationally renowned site like this) would probably not be a notch on anyone’s belt. But out of all the shows on this list, few things made me happier than Ballers making it even this high (or on the map at all). And lets be honest, everything good about this show begins and ends with Dwayne Johnson (with sprinkled bits of John David Washington, Denzel’s son, in between). Dwayne is excellent as the former-football-pro turned agent, and even with the show’s substantial other issues, its worth some time here and there to see him go to work. I will go on record again and call The Rock as a McConaissance candidate, and Steven Spielberg seems to agree with me.
#31: The Man in the High Castle
After puttering around for most of its premiere season, The Man in the High Castle managed to stitch its final episodes together to offer us a tantalizing taste of what the Philip K Dick-inspired story has in store. Though heavily weighed down by some sub-par acting and writing, the bits and pieces we are given about an Axis-victory WWII is more than enough to keep things interesting: Germany nuked Washington DC, Nagasaki is still a beautiful city, Africa is enslaved (again). Most of our time is spent following the American resistance movement as they pursue film reels depicting an alternate ending to WWII, one where the Americans win the war. However the high wire political maneuvering and cloak-and-dagger reconnaissance pitting the Japanese and the Nazis against another is where High Castle really excels. Sadly, these portions are too few and far between and are overwhelmed by the mediocre romances (and mediocre performances) that it tries so hard to get right.
As a proud member of the Kyle Chandler fan club, you’re damn right I was excited for Bloodline. A disturbing peek into a calm-on-the-surface Florida Key family, Bloodline is a topsy-turvy tale of brotherly and sisterly love (and more importantly, hate). Its great entertainment, and does a whole lot more things right than it does wrong. The tropical vistas and beautiful sunsets are perfectly harnessed in Jaime Reynoso’s camera; the weather reflects the changing nature of the Rayburns, with the calm lap of Florida waves transforming at night as wind howls, rain falls, and lightning flashes in the distance. And although Kyle Chandler may be the hook, Ben Mendelsohn is the catch (that sounds weird). As the disowned brother coming home for the family reunion, Mendelsohn takes us on a journey evolving from love and understanding to hate and disgust. He’s the lovable vagabond turned unanticipated villain that brings life to the whole series. Almost any other year Bloodline would rank a lot higher, but with 2015 firmly in the golden age of television (Dustin Hoffman agrees), there’s simply too much keeping it from breaking the top 30.
#29: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Kimmy Schmidt is what we would get if Amy Poehler starred in Room. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a joy to watch, its enthusiasm far surpasses its competitors, thanks mostly to Ellie Kemper’s smile and limitless stores of energy as the titular character who escapes the clutches of delusional cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (can Jon Hamm do no wrong?). It also covertly speaks to the duality of surviving, how jabs and jokes are made at your suffering at every turn, but also how surviving can be a sort of freedom in itself. This is echoed in Tina Fey’s own life: when Kimmy quips that “the worst thing that ever happened to me happened in my own front yard”, she refers to Fey’s own childhood experience of being attacked outside her home. Despite these fascinating explorations, Kimmy Schmidt struggles to capitalize and find its tone. Its numerous racial jokes (Jane Krakowski’s Native American roots, Kimmy’s Vietnamese boyfriend, the Latino maid) go far enough to blatantly play to stereotypes but not far enough to make it commentary. As the season goes on, the style of humor begins to feel more like throwing it all at the wall just to see what sticks (Kimmy Schmidt would probably have a .300 batting average), and the speed at which pop culture references fly past your head is enough to have most spinning in circles trying to catch up. With all that said, Kimmy Schmidt brings unbridled optimism to an otherwise gloomy subject (often exploited by TV, a la SVU or Game of Thrones) and is well-deserved of its place on our queues.