So how about this 2016, huh? It’s been…something. But hey, at least we’ve still got all these endless avenues of escapism to run down! My favorite distraction (after comics, of course) is the good ol’ idiot-box and 2016 has been full of great shows. So full, in fact, that I’m gonna ramble on even more than usual. But before that, I GUESS I should mention some of the books out this week: Slapstick #1 is awesome (yes really). With it’s Roger-Rabbit-in-the-616 premise and fantastic art, it’s a real winner. Batman #12 answers Selina’s letter to Bruce in the last issue with a reply that should hit any Bat-fan right in the feels. Star Wars Dr. Aphra is quite affable, but the real draw is the return of 000 and BT-1, the lovable murder droids.
Okay, on to the year in TV. Netflix has decidedly become one of the top tier producers of Content (capitalization denotes quality!) that you mainline into your face over a single weekend. They kicked off the year with Love, one of those shows set in LA about young-ish people on the fringes of the industry bouncing into each other and generally being full of ennui despite the show being a genuinely funny comedy. It’s beautifully shot and very well acted, though your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for cringe humor and the fetishization of a city that could accurately be described as both a hellscape and a paradise.
Speaking of which, Bojack Horseman dropped its third season and earned a spot next to Rick and Morty and Regular Show in the pantheon of fanciful cartoons that make you feel things. If you’re unaware, the show revolves around the titular Bojack (essentially a Bob Saget archetype) as he tries to make former-fame translate to just regular fame. It’s chock-full of Hollywood satire and quippy dialogue, but like much of the city it takes place in it’s an artifice that covers a deep, underlying sadness. The show is beautifully drawn and its world full of anthropomorphized animals is rich fodder for background gags that you don’t notice till the second or third watch. The characters are all so complex and full that it transcends the inherent silliness of the premise and does what Californication tried to do for 7 seasons and never fully achieved.
Stranger Things took the internet by storm, but the farther away from it I get, the less I think I enjoyed it. Once you get past the retro-chic veneer and the affable and extremely talented group of child actors, there doesn’t seem to be a lot there thanks to a central plot that can be charitably described as a pastiche. In a more just parallel universe, The Get Down is getting the love ST has. Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, etc) does the best work of his career in this kaleidoscopic story about the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the late 70’s. The cast is aces all-around with Justice Smith and Shameik Moore (the rapper and the DJ, respectfully) leading the charge. It’s a celebration of a distinctly American creation and all of its influences from Star Wars to martial arts to comics to jazz to graffiti to disco that amazes on every level.
FX struck gold a couple of times this year. First was American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson which came out of nowhere and smacked me in the face with its greatness. I was 9 when all of it went down (I was at a Rangers game the day of the Bronco chase- they put it on the jumbotron) and most of what I remember, aside from adults talking about the potential for riots when they thought we couldn’t hear, came from the SNL and David Letterman. The show does a brilliant job of showing the complete societal context and reaction to the case as well as how the circus around it kind of kicked off the infotainment age in which we now languish (there’s even an origin story for the Kardashians!) Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown lead an all-around brilliant cast that all manage some very real and grounded moments in an otherwise very heightened production.
Atlanta also debuted on FX this year, making me wonder why it took so danged long for someone to give Donald Glover a TV show. Set in the ATL rap scene, Glover’s eye is decidedly looking at aspects that haven’t really been explored. It’s artsy and pretty and surreal and hilarious with lots of things to say about race, class, the music industry, and being young.
The DC-CW shows really kicked things into high gear this year to such a level that I even started watching Supergirl thanks to a near pitch-perfect Superman appearance (though I’m on the fence again thanks to some of the clunkiest metaphors and moralizing I’ve ever encountered). Arrow is the biggest success story, coming off its worst season with a retooling that includes a spunky and fun new team (RAGMAN, YOU GUYS! RAGMAN!) a solid villain in Prometheus, and a tolerable and often likable Felicity. Flash is in an interesting place with the ramifications from ‘Flashpoint’ being treated with a gravity and seriousness I didn’t expect. Draco Malfoy has been a wonderful addition to the cast and I’m not as mad about YET ANOTHER speedster villain as I thought I would be. The best of the bunch, though, has been Legends of Tomorrow or as one of my co-workers called it “Mick Rory and His Amazing Friends” (though I’m partial to “Sarah Lance: Time Harlot”). Its gonzo approach to ‘comic booky’ stories and ideas coupled with fish-out-of-water time travel hijinks makes it one of the most enjoyable hours on television. The entire lineup outdid itself with the 3-part (that Supergirl episode doesn’t count) Invasion! crossover that did something comics haven’t been able to do in a while- an ‘event’, epic in scope, that uses the heightened stakes of the story to tie together emotional and character arcs started in the individual shows. It was a rousing success that threw some shade at the MCU…and backed it up.
Elsewhere in comic book adaptations, we finally got a screen version of Preacher and while it wasn’t what I (or anyone, really) was expecting, it’s a dang good show. For starters, it is PERFECTLY cast. I wouldn’t have pegged Dominic Cooper for Jesse Custer but he seems right at home portraying the titular preacher who is full of conflict, both inside and out. Joseph Gilgun nails Cassidy from the first second he appears on screen and doesn’t stop. The most compelling argument for casting the actor regardless of any other ‘considerations’ is Ruth Negga as Tulip who takes a character that often comes off as a little dull in the comic and makes her a shining beacon of charisma and trouble. With a book as well known as Preacher, zagging when we expect it to zig is the absolute right choice. It’s Preacher by way of the Fargo show and that might be the best choice that Rogen and Goldeberg made.
Okay so let’s get to the big daddy in TV this year, Westworld. With the first season over, I think it’s safe to go ahead and call it as my current favorite drama on TV. It’s all atmosphere and existential questions that are far more interesting than trying to guess the plot (Seriously, ‘theories’ about this show are the worst. Stop it. That’s not what it’s for.) The allusions to video game design are fascinating for anyone whose ever played any kind of open world RPG with the ‘realism’ of the Westworld park now making me question myself every time I kill someone to fill a black soul gem in Skyrim or run over a couple of people to get around a red light in GTA. The video game comparisons eventually gave way to questions about artificial intelligence and the point at which ‘artificial’ should no longer be a qualifier. It’s heady and a bit terrifying all while being just as satisfying plot-wise as GoT. There’s a deep pool of acting talent as well with Anthony Hopkins doing a great Anthony Hopkins character, Jimmi Simpson finally getting a spotlight, and Jeffery Wright’s cagey programmer. Still, the most praise has to go to Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood for their roles as ‘hosts’ (robots) following two very different paths to sentience.