#5: Broad City
I asked a friend of mine (a dude) if he had watched Broad City yet. He said “yeah man, its hilarious, but I haven’t watched any more because it makes me so uncomfortable.” What a great crystallization of why Broad City is one of the best and most necessary comedies on television. Abbi and Ilana’s enthusiasm for pretty much everything is what drives the laughs and fuels the energy of the show. And despite their failures in life, (their jobs, their boyfriends) nothing can stand in the way of their mutual obsessions with one another; when it all comes crumbling down (and it does) they always have each other to hold them up, let loose, and maybe smoke some weed now and again. What’s likely to make my friend uncomfortable is the casualness of their sexual encounters and free wheeling lifestyles, but that is what makes Broad City such a unique experience, not only for comedy, but across all shows. Culture has attempted these portrayals before, often in problematic caricatures. The classic “I’m too focused on my career when men are more important” or “I’m such a mess! (Really? Because you got splashed with water on your way to your high-paying writing job in heels?)” or “If you just took of your glasses and let your hair down, you could be in love!” Broad City takes a look at these landscapes and shows up in a chocolate-stained-tank-top, holding a bong, and flipping off some handsome dude. Abbi and Ilana not only reject these standards but feel so great about doing it. Who cares if my job sucks or my crush doesn’t notice me or people judge my lifestyles, as long as I feel good about myself and my friends, nothing else really matters. That’s a very important thing to show on television nowadays, and Broad City accomplishes it without even really trying. They do it because its hilarious, they do it because its how people actually live.
#4: The Americans
Everything about The Americans is cold. Set around Russian sleeper agents in Cold War America (that, fittingly, is always in winter time), Elizabeth (Kerri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) operate their espionage with ruthless, cold efficiency without any warmth from their mother country. The extents to which they must go to spy leaves their marriage frozen; an emotional wreck that occasionally thaws before freezing up yet again. Plus, no one besides TV critics watches The Americans. Like I said: cold. But for those willing to make the commitment, The Americans burns bright with nuance and emotion (though a slow burn) that has almost every major TV critic raving (and lamenting) the best show without an audience. The Jennings family dynamic is superb, as Elizabeth, who must often seduce diplomats and spies, and Philip, who maintains a faux long-term relationship with an FBI secretary out of necessity, struggle to maintain their own intimacy even in the face of everything they must do to complete the mission. The most important question that wedges between them is whether to tell their daughter Paige that they are Russians in-disguise. This season reached critical mass and thawed much of even the coldest and moodiest parts of The Americans. Spoilers ahead. After finally sitting Paige down at the family dinner table to explain their treason, Elizabeth manages to smuggle her daughter into East Germany to meet her dying grandmother, who Elizabeth has not seen since being recruited into the KGB. The moment where Elizabeth holds a crying Paige, in the middle of East Berlin, and whispers a Russian lullaby is the most profound moment of the show; finally drawing back the curtain on the secret life that she has killed to keep secret. Even the smallest story lines carry such a huge emotional gut punch. The excellent ‘Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?’ centers on Elizabeth infiltrating a government contract building to plant a bug, but encounters an unexpected nighttime accountant who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coming to terms with the collateral damage of their work, Elizabeth feels compelled to ease the witness into her eventual demise, and the accountant coming to terms with her impending death (Lois Smith is superb; it is the single best guest appearance on any show this year. Full stop.) The Americans is full of these hugely significant moments that, to the casual viewer, would look nothing like the climactic sequences they would come to expect flipping through the channels. Not unlike their main characters, The Americans continues to operate with an exemplary record, but always behind the scenes and never recognized.
#3: The Knick
I’ve already spoken at length about the transcendency of The Knick, and this season was, surprise, no exception. The Knick managed to throw us all for a huge loop, but I’ll start with the lesser revelations. Revealing a puppet-strings villain in its finale drew many of its frayed storylines into sobering perspective. It was not something I expected, or something that was actually really needed for such a high quality show, but its nonetheless a welcome and exciting twist to look forward to in upcoming seasons. Spoilers ahead, seriously. BUT the biggest shock to the system from which I have yet managed to recover is Thackery’s nihilistic and gruesome departure. No other demise would fit Thack more perfectly than his botched self-surgery, in the middle of a packed surgical auditorium, as his cocaine induced stupor slowly eases him into the beyond with a smile on his face. Holding his own intestines in his twitching hands, Thack mutters “this is all we are.” Jesus. It was a complete surprise (that Soderbergh had planned all along) that left us all with our jaws dropped like Thack’s dumbfounded surgical assistants and frozen spectators. It’s hard to imagine The Knick without the life and soul of Clive Owen’s performance, but I have complete and total confidence that Soderbergh and company will continue to adapt and lean on its many, many other perfected characters: I would watch a show about any one of them.