Cult Fix’s Best TV of 2016 (5-1)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
5. Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul also made it to #5 on last year’s list, so it can definitely be congratulated for its consistency. It richly deserves its grizzled veteran (of two years) spot, because season two took everything promising from season one and built on it. Season two was slower, more methodical and prone to long, meandering digressions, but that was all part of the individual charm that really lifted it. After the show flirted with high stakes, violent storylines in the early stages of season one, it soon figured out that, unlike its parent show, Saul is a show that’s best when it’s focusing on the intimate and the mundane, and making those elements just as compelling as the showy pyrotechnics of Breaking Bad. There’s a patience to Saul that’s refreshing – a willingness to zoom in on the minutiae of a character’s conflict where other shows would pull back and just show the broad strokes, creating characters like Kim, Chuck and Jimmy himself who count as some of the most vivid figures on TV, filled with tiny idiosyncrasies and flaws that make them impossible to box into a simple category. And while Saul made Jimmy’s exceedingly small-scale story urgent, it managed to have its cake and eat it by packing in a parallel story featuring old Breaking Bad favourite Mike that plays as a prequel in the orthodox sense, with all the life-and-death peril and criminal threats that some may have expected from this show as Mike collides with a bunch of Walter White’s future foes. The fact that these two, entirely disparate stories can co-exist so naturally is a testament to how well Better Call Saul manages its different stakes, mixing conflicts over forged documents with an assassination plot and making them equally worthy of our attention. In season two, Better Call Saul earned the right to lose the spin-off moniker, and began to work as a terrific show in its own right.
4. Black Mirror
Fans of Charlie Brooker’s cheerfully misanthropic satire were worried when Netflix bought the series last year. Would a show founded on British cynicism and British cast members work when transplanted to an American setting? Would everything just be Americanized? Would entire episodes be set in a Burger King? People shouldn’t have worried. Netflix’s Black Mirror was just like the old Black Mirror where it needed to be, but different in all the right places. In the anthology of six stories, we had a real grab bag of what this show could do, mostly delivered strongly. Shut Up and Dance delivered classic flavour Black Mirror, unremittingly misanthropic in its outlook, free of truly sympathetic characters and packing a bitterly cruel twist ending, while Hated in the Nation applied that formula to the police procedural genre, providing an intriguing new spin on the technophobia that defines this show. Nosedive and Playtest went stylized, delving into new kinds of imagery for satire that was in turns hilarious, terrifying and mind-bending, benefiting heavily from the visuals and star power that Netflix’s big budget provides. And then there was San Junipero. Let’s just say that it more or less justified the season’s entire existence, delivering a pitch-perfect story that proved that Black Mirror is so much more than just a nihilistic condemnation of technology. San Junipero was, I would argue, this year’s best movie, delivering a close-ended story so satisfying and so clever in its construction that a dozen rewatches wouldn’t exhaust the story’s many hints and additional resonances. Not every story this year hit the mark – Men Against Fire stretched out an intriguing satirical point about genocide and the callousness of warfare into a flavourless 60-minute slog without a single definable character – but season three was the best selection box you’ll ever receive for Christmas. Except instead of caramel and orange, the fillings would probably be something awful, like murder, or death.
3. BoJack Horseman
You’re probably wondering why an animated horse comedy made the top three.
Suffice to say, BoJack Horseman is something much, much deeper than that reductive tag suggests. It’s absolutely a comedy – an incredibly, densely funny one at that with a joke rate of about 100 per minute (just pause at any given moment for a golden sight gag) but it’s also one of the sharpest, most woundingly accurate dramas around, mostly simultaneously, chronicling the issue of depression with a brutal frankness that most gritty dramas would steer away from in an instant. This year’s third season saw Netflix’s best comedy reach new heights of comedy, artistry and… well, sadism.
Season three is as good a time as any to experiment, and there were some truly memorable experiments on display here. Take Fish Out of Water, an episode set entirely underwater, in which the only dialogue takes place in a 30-second pre-credits scene. The premise is ballsy enough as is, but BoJack took the elevator pitch and crafted it into a breathtaking 25-minute silent movie that told a moving emotional story about its central character, complete with some beautiful animation that moved from old-school slapstick to awestruck explorations of nature. Or just take any of the final four episodes, all of which worked to systematically dismantle every major relationship on the show in increasingly shocking ways, leading up to a penultimate episode punch that’s devastatingly brutal in its twisted irony. Just don’t ever mention the phrase “I want to be an architect”.
BoJack is cruelly brilliant, and brilliantly cruel. It’s the type of TV that’ll either leave you breathless from laughing, staring in existential despair at the horror of what you’ve witnessed, or both.
2. Crazy-Ex Girlfriend
Crazy-Ex Girlfriend exists in conversation with BoJack, in that it’s an ostensibly comedic character study of a heavily flawed person who makes all the wrong life decisions and constantly alienates their friends in the pursuit of something meaningless. Both are utterly despairing and nihilistic in their outlook, but have an essential faith in the majority of humanity as shown by broadly sympathetic supporting characters. Crazy Ex, though, has much more to do, so the fact that it’s not just good, but absolutely fantastic, is pretty damn impressive. For instance, it’s also a musical, which is traditionally a weird mix with television. Yet Crazy Ex is unerringly consistent in that department, cranking out two or more original numbers per week, around about 50% of which are solid gold and the other 50% are merely great.
It’s also that rare romantic comedy that works simultaneously as a straightforward romantic comedy and as a brutal deconstruction of all romantic comedies. At its core, this is a show about the harm that simplistic narratives about romance can do when they’re applied to reality – the central character, Rebecca, sees herself as the trademark rom-com protagonist, a viewpoint that’s nothing if not horrifically harmful. Yet in season two, it’s broadened out beyond that mission statement to explore how her friends are moving way on past her by taking their trauma and emotional issues and tackling it head-on, leading to a fascinating dynamic where the character we’re meant to root for is one of the least likeable/emotionally developed in the entire cast.
Don’t be put off by the title – ‘it’s ironic’ is a little surface level, but suffice to say that Crazy-Ex Girlfriend is a show committed to examining, and dismantling, and then putting back together all of those snap thoughts that one would have looking at a title like this. It’s a romcom for people who hate romcoms, and a musical for people who hate musicals.
The top spot was a tight one this year, which speaks to just how much exceptional TV was out there in 2016. Yet one show really stuck out to me as an example of how television is evolving and improving with age, offering an entirely new kind of experience that has so much promise for the future.
Westworld, loosely based on the internet phenomenon of Westworld podcasts, has been touted ‘the new Game of Thrones!’, but in reality, it’s much more than an attempt to bottle the GOT lightning again. It’s a show that deserves to be talked about on its own terms, that’s just too big and too ambitious to be seen the genre comparisons aside, it’s much more focused on theme as opposed to narrative, while GOT swings the other way. And while the mysteries are a key part of the show, it’s a pretty sturdy character drama in its own right that recognises the value of a kick-ass cast including Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ed Harris, and most other talented B-listers to take the script and breathe life into it – listen to one terrifying monologue by Hopkins’ villain, and tell me that Westworld doesn’t have characters.
Above all, Westworld is something rare for TV, in that it’s a story about storytelling – as one character puts it, ‘lies to tell a greater truth’. Its setting, a Western-themed park populated by lifelike androids, is one great big canvas for creativity in-universe, a place where visitors can come to find clarity and order in a place where everything makes sense, but actions don’t matter. It’s a story about memory, in which androids are kept in captivity by the inability to recall their past beyond the created back-stories prescribed for them, and therefore about the way in which identity is crafted from past experiences. It’s a story about consciousness, and the search for a deeper meaning when we’ve come to a place where we seemingly cannot advance as a species, while the Hosts provoke questions of where the line can be drawn at all – where does life begin, exactly – with the formation of identity, possession of free will, recognition of your place in the universe, or all of these?
Westworld is a show about questions, so it’s fitting that it provokes so damn many of them, up to and including the question of whether there’s an answer to anything at all. And yes, it’s also a show about mystery, in which the exact chronology of events is obscured, and in which the true nature of characters is slowly revealed rather than shown all at once. But the mysteries are smartly unveiled and become clearer each and every week rather than being obscured up to a ‘shocking’ big reveal, and the quest to see a bigger picture as the clarity of it all increases is one of the most fun parts about watching the show – it works with you in providing a steady drip-feed of clues, and ended up revealing most of its teased mysteries neatly by the end of season one instead of dragging them out forever.
Not everyone loved Westworld – its heavily mysterious, theory-baiting structure was always going to split opinion. For me, though, TV didn’t get more thoughtful, exciting and ultimately rewarding than this in 2016.
- The Flash/Arrow/Legends of Tomorrow, which have all gone through significant improvements in their new seasons, and crossed over with thrilling results recently.
- Lucifer, 2016’s most surprising guilty pleasure.
- Limitless, an audacious, weird, fun show that was cancelled before it could truly find its footing.
- House of Cards, which bounced back in a season that managed to rediscover what made the show work in the first place.
- Frequency, an underappreciated pulpy cop sci-fi that explores the butterfly effect in intriguing ways.