Tuesday, February 21, 2017

COLUMN: Best of 2016 - TV

Some people say I waste my life in front of the TV. Poppycock, I say. I'm no couch potato. I'm simply a devoted journalist committed to his craft. If I didn't spend every night in a sedentary position, how else could I give you such accurate picks for the Best TV Shows of 2016?

Truth be told, when 2016 wasn't busy killing off all our heroes or turning a reality TV star into the leader of the free world, it really DID give us some amazing televised treats.  Here are my ten favorites of the year:

#10 - EXPEDITION UNKNOWN (Travel Channel) - Simply a retooled version of his former show "Destination Truth," but this time around, explorer and archaeologist Josh Gates hunts down evidence of legends and buried treasure in any number of exotic locales. Does he ever find anything of note? Nope. But the quests themselves take a backseat to the charm of Gates, whose charismatic everyman appeal makes him the ultimate travel buddy.

#9 - ROADIES (Showtime). Critics haaaaated this show. I haven't seen a "worst of the year" list that doesn't include it. Call me weird, but I thought it was great. Writer/director Cameron Crowe's unapologetic love affair with rock-n-roll energized this already-cancelled series that followed a team of rock's unsung heroes. Was it an overly sentimental, saccharine, and entirely unrealistic portrayal? Absolutely. But just as rock music thrives on myth, so too should have this show.

#8 - GILMORE GIRLS: A Year in the Life (Netflix). For six seasons, "Gilmore Girls" was among the smartest shows on TV. Then creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left, and the show's final season was a creative disaster. Palladino always wanted the chance to end things on her terms, so Netflix lured her back to Stars Hollow for a final arc of four movie-length episodes to conclude the series the way she wanted to. Based on the critical and commercial reaction to the new episodes, we may not have seen the last of Stars Hollow yet.

#7 - WESTWORLD (HBO). When I first heard that HBO was trying their hand at a remake of "Westworld," I'm sure I rolled my eyes. Few movies creeped me out like the campy 1973 original. But boy, did HBO get it right. It's still the same dystopian future where a wild-west theme park becomes overrun by sentient gun-slinging robots gone rogue, but HBO's reimagining focuses on the robots and their gradual awakening to the true perception of their existence. This "Westworld" takes a hard look at the morality of artificial intelligence and makes you wonder what the future of "Hey, Google" has in store for us all.

#6 - THE GOOD PLACE (NBC). "Parks and Recreation" set a new standard in sitcom writing, and its farewell in 2015 was a sad day. But "Parks" producer Michael Schur came right back with "The Good Place," a sitcom WAY too smart and quirky for its own good. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, who dies and awakens in "The Good Place," an afterlife of stereotyped perfection. There's just one problem: she's a horrible person who made it to the Good Place on a clerical error. What follows is a captivating and amusing look at the nature of what makes a person "good" or "bad," as seen through a host of heavenly deranged residents. Whether its got more than one trick up its sleeve remains to be seen, but if anyone can do it, it's Schur.

#5 - THE FLASH (CW). Network television is needlessly overrun by superhero shows these days. The whole let's-defeat-a-bad-guy-of-the-week schtick gets old quick. Most are either too dark and heavy-handed (Daredevil, Gotham) or too soapy and breezy (I'm looking at you, Supergirl.) The one show that gets it right is The Flash. It's the perfect mix of action, morality, long story arcs AND monsters-of-the-week, and a healthy dose of fun with a cast that looks like they're having the time of their lives.

#4 - GAME OF THRONES (HBO). HBO says there aren't many episodes of GoT remaining, which I find hard to swallow, because I'm pretty sure winter is coming, and along with it an undead army of ghouls and a cadre of ill-tempered dragons. George RR Martin has created a world more complex and compelling than even Middle Earth, and "Game of Thrones" remains my only annual appointment viewing.

#3 - CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND (CW). This deserves to be the most talked-about show of the year. Instead, hardly anyone knows that its on, buried in the Friday night lineup of the CW. First off, how cool is it that there's a successful musical comedy on TV that performs original songs? But hiding behind the music is perhaps the most envelope-pushing comedy in network TV history. If you like your laughs a bit bawdy, you really need to get onboard.

#2 - SEARCH PARTY (TBS) - A "dark hipster comedic mystery starring Alia Shawkat" must have been one tall order to pitch to a network, but I'm so glad that TBS bit at the chance. This sleeper of a show is about a group of self-absorbed, highly damaged millennials who decide to play detective when a classmate (who they didn't even know very well) vanishes. But what the show's really searching for is humanity admidst dysfunction. Do the characters know the difference between being selfless and being self-obsessed? Or can a person be BOTH? It's a fun ride trying to find out.

#1 - STRANGER THINGS (Netflix). It's not perfect. Sometimes it's TOO nostalgic, and if you stop and think, it's got plotholes big enough to drive a Buick through. But the virtually unknown Duffer Brothers behind Netflix's surprise hit of the year figured out a way to take everything we loved about vintage movies like "E.T." and "The Goonies" and translate it through modern storytelling that makes everything just a bit scarier and more amped-up. I sat down to watch the first episode out of curiosity and binged the whole series right then and there. It's THAT good. In a year that seemed like the whole world was going to heck in a handbasket, there was no better escapism than watching a ragtag group of kids trying to save the day against unspeakable evil. Throw in a much-missed Winona Ryder for good measure, and this is the show that 2016 desperately needed.

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