The Year’s Best TV

Our critic watched as much as he could

No one can watch everything on TV. But I came close this year. Here’s what was great. In a couple of days, I’ll share what wasn’t so great.

Succession–Season three

It’s cruel, it’s vicious, it’s Shakespearean, it’s Biblical. It outlines everything that is wrong with the world right now politically, culturally, and economically by showing us what happens at the very top of the food chain. Although it’s not a comedy, it’s the funniest show currently on television. In its third season, Succession is not as much of a misanthropic revelation as it was season one when it first introduced us these shockingly unlikable characters and the joyless, opulent world they inhabited. Sometimes the plot goes in circles: first it seems that the damaged and douchey Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is going to take over his father’s media empire, then it seems that the liberal leaning but unprincipled Shiv (Sarah Snook) is going to, then it seems that the loathsome but hilarious Roman (Kieran Culkin) is going to. Rinse. Repeat.

Succession
The scheming jerks of ‘Succession.’

It soon becomes clear that Logan, their evil emotionally withholding father, enjoys watching them fight for his approval and has no intention of giving up the reins to any of them. Because these characters lack wisdom and insight–and fail to see what pawns they are–they keep making the same mistakes repeatedly yet continue to suffer no meaningful consequences for their actions. Sometimes this feels like lazy writing, but it’s also simply what privileged human beings do: fail to learn from history.

Season three begins auspiciously with the Roy Media Empire in serious trouble because of a long-buried cruise ship scandal involving rape, sexual harassment, the deaths of low-level employees and a lot of NDAs signed under duress. Kendall goes rogue and testifies against his family which seems heroic, but it quickly becomes cringy performative wokeness. As the season progresses, the scandal simply loses steam and the status quo returns. Logan ends up screwing all the children just as they’re coming together and putting their differences aside. A recent New Yorker article about Jeremy Strong went viral mocking him for his excessive seriousness in his acting method. However, there is no argument that whatever he’s doing is working. It’s one of the greatest performances this year.

The Great–Season two

For those of us who loved Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and wanted to watch a TV series with that level of eye candy, period detail, casual grasp of actual history, and lots of anachronistic vulgar dialogue that nonetheless feels true and authentic, The Great delivers thanks to showrunner Tony McNamara, who wrote The Favourite’s screenplay. Elle Fanning plays Russia’s 18th-century Empress Catherine the Great with adorably humorless luminousness…like a Sarah Lawrence freshman home for Thanksgiving lecturing all her relatives at the dinner table about the importance of veganism. Her husband, the spoiled, volatile and sexually voracious Emperor Peter, is her foil, played beautifully by Nicholas Hoult. He gets most of the best lines.

In the first season, Catherine–a foreign bride from Pomerania–falls in love with both Russia and with the writing of Enlightened European thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau. She plots a coup against Peter’s narcissistic, archaic, and chaotic reign in order to remake her beloved country into a progressive free-thinking paradise. In the Second season, having pulled off the coup, Catherine is now pregnant and finding it painful to learn that the actual day to day ruling of an empire isn’t as easy as it looks. Plus, there might have been practical and strangely justifiable advantages to the cruel and creaky hierarchical social and political system that ran Mother Russia for centuries. Also, Gillian Anderson makes a delicious guest appearance as Catherine’s hypercritical but lusty mother, who as an agenda of her own.

Physical–Season one

Rose Byrne plays Sheila Rubin, a housewife in Venice Beach, California, who has a lot in common with Jane Fonda, another progressive woman with an eating disorder who decided– once the 80s arrived–to discover herself through aerobics and make some money in the process. Rubin isn’t a movie star but, like Fonda, she steals the concept of aerobics from a friend and uses it to thanklessly make a fortune that would fuel her husband’s super lefty political career.

Physical seems, at first glance, to be a fun Mad Men-like parody of the 80s: lots of big hair and leg warmers. But Byrne’s portrayal of a woman who has bulimia is a rare piece of unflinching honesty. Lesser shows usually portray women who have eating disorders as pitiful but lovely creatures who suffer in silence. Byrne’s Sheila Rubin is truly a compartmentalized addict full of rage that she barely hides behind a warm wry smile. She hates herself and she hates everyone around her, including her husband and her overweight pushover best friend.

TV

A voiceover of Sheila’s secret, angry, critical thoughts accompany most scenes. The scenes where she binges and purges in motel rooms rival those of great drug movies like Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream for their horrifying depravity and beauty. Bulimia is the perfect metaphor for the 80s: a time when everyone was doing unhealthy things to themselves to appear healthy and treating themselves and everyone around them poorly in order to seem good. Many of the characters look longingly back at the 60s when everyone had ideals, but no one actually wants to go back there…they want their cash and prizes. And finally, yes, there are plenty of headbands, leotards, leg warmers and an eighties-tastic soundtrack that you’ll want to subscribe to on Spotify.

Ted Lasso–Season two

It is tempting to hate Ted Lasso because so many annoying people love it for all the wrong reasons. The first season was about a sunny optimistic football coach–full of inspirational slogans–who absurdly gets hired to coach a British soccer team. This sounds too corny to be tolerable, but it works even though it created one of the most annoying fan bases in recent history. The show redeems its bizarre premise by the discovery that the team’s owner Rebecca Welton–played beautifully and sharply by Hannah Waddingham–hired Ted in order to ruin her club. She got ownership of the team thanks to a divorce settlement, and it was the only thing her loathsome ex-husband ever loved.

Ted Lasso
Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso.

Season two is a bit of a middle finger aimed at the fans who worship Ted Lasso’s heartwarming wit and wisdom. The story is now darker and teases out the pain behind Lasso’s aggressive cheerfulness. It also fleshes out some of the supporting cast members who were more like charming, colorful plot devices during season one. One of these more profound character transformations is that of Nathan Shelley, the team’s former invisible kit manager turned assistant coach who is at first disarming and lovable in his pathetic ingratiating bumbling British way, but as he becomes more valuable to the team–thanks to Ted’s support and encouragement–rage lurking below Nate’s cheerful surface emerges as he turns on Ted and the team giving the end of the season a compelling darkness that seems straight from the Old Testament of the Bible.

The Good Fight–Season five

While The Good Wife was an ode to moderate politics and a brilliantly written and acted look at how our government and legal system works thanks to compromise and hidden cunning agendas, The Good Fight, its spinoff sans Julianna Margulies, is about how things work when politics disrupts these bulky institutions. The latest season was the only show on television to use COVID as subject matter, dig in with both hands, and actually get it right. But the most compelling storyline is one in which Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin), a layman with no legal training, spontaneously decides to open a court in the back of the copy shop where he works. In this unconventional courtroom, he tries criminal and civil cases using a heady combination of popular opinion and Wackner’s whimsy.

At first, this courtroom is quite a satisfying and entertaining piece of political theater that seems to indicate that we could privatize justice itself and make it into a reality show. Why not? Gradually the experience descends into madness and vigilante justice as the slow creeping hands of fascism reveal themselves. Plus an unusually disarming and subdued Wanda Sykes joins the cast as a new partner at Reddick-Lockhart who’s doing research on space law, and Elaine May appears in a few dream sequences as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Search party–Season Four

Search Party started out as a strange but freshly compelling missing person caper comedy in which Chantal Witherbottom, a poetess, vanishes mysteriously and a small friend group of college classmates who she barely knew in college take it upon themselves to find her. These loathsome Williamsburg-dwelling millennials aren’t very good detectives but they are brilliant at making everything about her disappearance about themselves. This is especially the case for Dory Sief (played brilliantly and thoughtfully by Alia Shawkat) a rudderless young woman who feels a strange affinity for her missing acquaintance and believes that rescuing her will give her life meaning and direction. The second season is about what happens when they find Chantal, and the circumstances of her disappearance wasn’t anything like it appeared to be. Now the close-knit group of friends have to cover up a senseless murder that happened as a result of their search.

The third season is about what happens when this murder is uncovered and Dory has to stand trial for her crimes…but becomes a media sensation in the process. The fourth season, Dory has managed to be acquitted for her crimes but now that she’s a celebrity murderess, she is imprisoned once again…by a stalker who kidnaps her. All the while, various side characters come and go, leaving us thoroughly entertained. If you enjoy watching millennials being mocked relentlessly in a way that feels shrewd and authentic, you must binge all four seasons of Search Party….and then start watching Season Five when it debuts on HBO Max January 7th.

The other two–Season two

When the first season debuted at the end of 2018, the premise was enticing: what happens to the Dubeks, an Ohio family, when the youngest boy Chase (Case Walker) becomes an overnight sensation pop star a la Justin Bieber while the two older siblings Brooke and Cary (the other eponymous “other two” played by Helene Yorke and Drew Carver) have been struggling unsuccessfully for years to become famous. Of course, the other two siblings are happy for their brother but they’re also hilariously resentful and confused by his meteoric success.

I worried that the series only had a season’s worth of material before things got repetitive and dull, but the second season has only improved things by widening its scope. Now their baby brother is truly famous but feeling ambivalent about his fame–the two siblings and their mother Pat (Molly Shannon) have managed to use their brother’s success as a stepping stone into successful careers of their own. This has provided ripe opportunities to deftly skewer several strata of the entertainment/media industry including magazine publishing, Cameo, Vogue magazine, Instagays, celebrity churches, gay hook up apps and NDAs.

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