Friday, February 19, 2016

COLUMN: Best of 2015: TV

They say this is television's greatest era, and honestly, I'm getting a little sick of it. Occasionally, I like to have a life with my life. But this year, I've found myself shirking friends and activities in order to race home and watch one of two dozen absolutely un-missable shows. My DVR can't even keep up. Last year, I decreed the teen-targeted "Vampire Diaries" the show of the year. It's barely faltered in quality this year, but it didn't even make my Top 10 in 2015. That's how good we have it right now. So many good shows, so little time. Here are my picks for the best TV of 2015.

10. UNDATEABLE LIVE (NBC) - Okay, let's be clear here. This is a horrible sitcom. The premise is generic, the plotlines are generic, the jokes are generic. Yet it's easily the most charming show on TV today for one reason alone: Each episode is broadcast LIVE as it happens. If an actor flubs a line, you see it in real time. The writing might be painfully unfunny, but the gifted ensemble is amazing, and the live element makes it easy for them to veer wildly off-script, break character, crack each other up, and create a genuinely good time for cast and audience alike. More shows like this need to exist.

9. THE FLASH (CW) - Superhero shows tend to only come in two forms: Either they're SO hokey and silly that you can't bear to watch, or they're SO dark and brooding that there's absolutely no fun to be had. The CW's take on The Flash finally gets the balance right. Complex story arcs, a surplus of bad guys, and the whole thing's presented in a breezy way that's instantly watchable. It's intricate enough for the adult in me but downright fun enough for the kid in me who just wants to watch a guy run at the speed of sound.

8. GAME OF THRONES (HBO) - I feel a little bad for HBO. A few scant years ago, they were the only cable channel able to compete with the majors when it came to scripted original programming. Nowadays, it seems like every cable network has its own slate of critically-acclaimed shows while HBO has lagged somewhat. Good thing, then, that they have one of the greatest shows of all time to fall back on. As per usual, it was a season of lies, betrayal, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, and, well, just a lot of stabbing. Now that the TV show has caught up with the books, though, it'll be interesting to see where things go from here. Winter is coming.

7. ALONE (History) - I'm pretty sure survival shows aren't quite the life-or-death scenarios they portray. "Survivor" shoots every season with an army of producers, cameras, and medics just off-screen. The "remote island" that the family on "Alaskan Bush People" calls home actually has a population of 1200 and neighbors who live just around the bend. The History Channel's experiment with "Alone," though, seems a little more legit. Ten survivalists get dropped off on the rainy hellscape of Vancouver Island with minimal supplies and cameras they have to run themselves. The last man standing without tapping out claims a million bucks. The toll on the contestants is visible, and the drama is palpable -- especially while you're watching from an air conditioned TV room eating a Pop-Tart.

6. PEEP SHOW (Channel 4) - "Peep Show" has been bringing its modernized take on "The Odd Couple" to British audiences for over a decade now, and the show just wrapped its ninth and final season. It might just be another show about mis-matched roommates, but I don't ever recall seeing Oscar eat a dog or Felix skipping the birth of his child to play video games. It's raunchy, ribald, cynical, sneering, and the only show to ever make me laugh so hard that I nearly passed out. Put the kids to bed, then accidentally wake them up minutes later with your laughter. The previous 8 seasons are available stateside on Hulu and Netflix, and it's worth the trouble to find the ninth online.

5. NIGHTWATCH (A&E) - This show, which follows third shift cops and EMT techs in New Orleans, could easily be just another gore-sploitation vehicle to show off America's trashier side. But "Nightwatch" is helmed by Dick Wolf, the creator of "Law and Order" and a guy who knows a little bit about drama. Here, the shock-and-awe voyeurism is tempered by a purposeful focus on the day-to-day lives of the officers and EMTs, who show off a remarkable amount of charisma. These are the REAL superheroes of our world, and in an age where negativity and mistrust of the police makes headlines, a show like this reminds you why we need these people in our lives. If I ever have the misfortune to be shot, stabbed, or impaled, I hope it happens in the Big Easy so these folks can come to my aid.

4. MASTER OF NONE (Netflix) - Aziz Ansari is one of the funniest comedians on the planet, but the one thing he's never displayed to the world is heart. That all changed when "Master of None" showed up on Netflix. Co-creator Ansari plays struggling actor Dev, who navigates the hipster enclaves of New York with relative ease. In reality, the wide-eyed Dev is little more than a vehicle by which the comedian can explore heavy topics like racial and gender constructs, generational entitlement, urban life, modern dating, and more -- but with a thoughtful approach that celebrates the silliest bits of our society. And as Ansari's girlfriend on the series, Saturday Night Live cast-off Noel Wells has officially become my newest crush.

3. THE RETURNED (A&E) - In a sleepy mountain town, the dead are coming back to life. A handful of folks both long and recently departed suddenly return to their families with no memory of what happened or how they were resurrected. Is it a miracle or something far more sinister? And why are they constantly hungry? This could be the plotline for a great movie, let alone a fantastic TV show. And its helmed by the co-creator of "Lost"?  There's NO WAY this show could fail -- except that it did, and A&E cancelled "The Returned" after one phenomenal season and a cliffhanger never to be resolved. The good news is that the A&E version was closely modeled on the original French "Les Revenants," which DID get a second season that's happening right now and available in the US on Sundance (if you can take the subtitles.)

2. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC) - The saddest moment of the year is right here, knowing that this is the last time I'll ever be able to put "Parks and Rec" in a best-of list. What started as a less-funny clone of "The Office" rapidly became one of my favorite TV shows of all time. In its farewell season, the show time-jumped five years into the future and didn't disappoint as it wrapped up the storylines of the unsinkable Leslie Knope and her thankless job in the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana. In its too-short seven season run, Parks & Rec was the smartest comedy on TV and made bonafide stars out of Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, and Chris Pratt. Pawnee, may you live on in our hearts forever.

1. MR. ROBOT (USA) - If somebody had told me a year ago that the best show on TV would end up coming from the USA Network, I'd have eaten my hat (and I really like my hat.) But Mr. Robot is a claustrophobic thrillride miles above anything else on the tube in 2015. Elliot Alderson, played with expert depth by the amazing Rami Malek, is a computer security expert by day, self-styled cyber-vigilante by night. Oh, and he's also a paranoid delusional drug addict with social anxiety disorder. And when he gets recruited by a group of hackers intent on bringing about nothing less than global economic anarchy, the ride begins. It's a futuristic film noir that's as dark and bleak as midnight on Mars, with plot twists so shocking that I once found myself jumping up screaming "NO WAY!" to my television set and two very startled cats.

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