These are the best shows of the year.  Sort of.  We’re democratic types here in the sewer, so we utilized a pointlessly-complex voting system to rank the various shows we loved this year.  The result is extremely light on comedies, though not because anyone thought it was a particularly bad year for it.  We just mostly agreed on which dramas were best, whereas there was little consensus on which comedy reigned supreme.  So without further ado, here’s our (aggregated) favorites:

 

10. THE AMERICANS (FX)

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The closing of the Cold War.  The world is divided in two, rife with spies, spy hunters, terrorists and counter-terrorists.  Our heroes are pawns in the final moves of a chess game for the fate of the world.  They’re patriots, warriors trained to infiltrate and undermine an empire.  The catch is that our heroes are Commies and the enemy is the USA.  Deep cover, posing as married travel agents with kids, except their courtship consisted of being assigned to each other in a Moscow KGB office.

That’s an intriguing premise.  We get to see the enemy up close, but we’re also safe because they have long since been vanquished.  But The Americans only wears the clothes (Editor’s Note: and wigs! oh, the wigs…) of a spy thriller.  It wears them very well, but goes much deeper than that.  It’s an exciting and brutal and sexy and at times funny espionage yarn, but in its soul it is a show about lies.  Lies that become truth.  Truths that feel like a lies.  How they shape our lives, guide our actions, make us doubt ourselves.  And sometimes open us up to something deeper.

The heart of the show is our “heroes’” unyieldingly complex relationship.  They’re a married professional couple with kids living pretty much the blueprint of the American Dream.  They’re also partners in crime, who seduce and kill and torture and extort to achieve their goals.  And yet somewhere below that they do love each other.  Can a relationship as complicated as this one ever work?  All through the season we observe the cracks these tensions create and contradictions that arise.  A target beating your “wife” up as she’s having sex with him can be hand-waved away, but her actually feeling affection for one of her targets is a betrayal.  You can attend your husband’s fake marriage, but him lying about sleeping with an old girlfriend stings.  You can proclaim your love as loud as you want.  You may even mean it.  But at what point is everything just too much?

An exciting spy thriller, set during an interesting, underutilized period.  And an honest, deep portrayal of the complexity of relationships. This show is not one to miss.

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Defining Moment: The incredible period-music choices, never better than the bookending uses of “Tusk” in the pilot.  Fleetwood Mac has never so badass.

- Stelios Xenidis

9.  KEY AND PEELE (COMEDY CENTRAL)

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It’s a shame that so many people only seem to know Key & Peele from watching the most popular sketches online (and many have only seen the East/West College Bowl).  You really to watch the show itself, along with the live audience interstitials, to get just how fun and smart and cinematic this show can be. Cinematic being the key word here.  Credit must go to Peter Atencio, who I believe has directed every episode, freely switching video formats, going from 4:3 to widescreen to widescreen letterbox in the same show, and perfectly catching the peculiarities of different film stocks, be it clunky 70’s or 80’s video or a slick modern action film.  This must be incredibly freeing for the writers and production staff.  If they write a horror film parody, they know that it’s going to look and feel like a horror film, and that the audience at home will recognize the genre straight away.  Whether it’s an 80’s PSA, a Miami Vice parody, or a send-up of a gritty modern action film, Atencio captures it perfectly, allowing for the guys to get straight to the funny without needing to pause to orient the viewer.

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Of course, all of this would mean very little if Key & Peele wasn’t funny. But boy howdy, is it funny.  I can’t recall a sketch comedy series that knows how to end a sketch better than K&P.  They’re not afraid to tackle any genre or subject, and they have a deft hand when it comes to issues of race, without getting heavy-handed or preachy.  And they have a fine taste for the absurd (Editor’s Note: this author originally asked to be credited as “Bismo Funyuns”).  All in all, this has been the best season of Key & Peele to date, and one of the funniest shows airing on any network.

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Defining Moment: The brilliantly surreal “Continental Breakfast” sketch

 – Robert C

 

8.  ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (NETFLIX)

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What the hell?  Why is this show my favorite show of the year?  I’m a white male geek in his late thirties.  I don’t like “based a true story” stuff.  I don’t like prison shows.  They just aren’t my thing.  Marketing logic would dictate I’m completely wrong for a female heavy show, set in a prison and based on a real life story.  And it is made by the creator of Weeds, a show I’ve also tried and failed to enjoy? And I like this more than Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones?  Why am I asking so many rhetorical questions?

(Editor’s Note: we suspect brain inflammation from tainted olives)

Taylor Schilling is fantastic portraying many facets of main girl Piper Chapman.  She can be the privileged WASP living in Brooklyn with her writer boyfriend, trying to start a business making organic soaps.  But in the same episode she can be the adrift twenty-something getting caught up in things bigger and more serious than she comprehends, or the emotionally oblivious destroyer of lives and feelings.  Or the object of lust, affection, scorn and disgust, often from the same people.

“Just like TV to make a show about prison be all about a pretty blonde,” some might say.  But even if she often acts as an instigator of the events in this show, Piper’s role is almost always to act as a frame for the stories of the other women in this prison.  Be they are satirical like Pennsatucky’s mistaken rise to pro-life celebrity and confused prison Messiah.  Or melancholic like Miss Claudette’s tender, unrequited love story, or heartbreaking like the story of Tricia and her little notebook.  The characters are deeply layered.  Women like Crazy Eyes, Red and Yoga Jones have such easy hooks upon which a lazy show could have hung the skin of a character, called it a day and no one would have called foul.  Instead, their layers get pulled back, one by one until we get to a satisfying truth.  The awesomely loud pair of Taystee and Poussey get their own true moments of emotions aside from the jokes and the posturing.  Even Pornstache, the wonderfully named “villain” of the show, gets his moment in the sun.

How could I end up liking this show so much?  Because no matter where it turns its gaze, Orange Is The New Black is simply wonderfully made and a joy to experience.

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Defining Moment: Crazy Eyes gets theatrical with the Scared Straight program.

- Stelios Xenidis

 

7.  HOUSE OF CARDS (NETFLIX)

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It’s Francis Underwood’s job to keep all the cards in place, because if one falls out of place, the whole thing collapses.  As House Majority Whip, Francis is the locus for all the sturm and drang that accompanies the clunky, often outrageous passage of laws and nearly imperceptible transfers of power in Washington DC.  If you please him, he will please you back, but if you cross him….

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This is complex stuff, but as in the BBC series it’s based on, Kevin Spacey’s Underwood breaks the fourth wall to tell us exactly what’s happening and why it matters.  He doesn’t invite us in – we have no choice; simply by watching, we become his unwitting accomplices.  Rounding out the show is Francis’s other confidant, his wife Claire, an equally compelling figure, played by Robin Wright in a layered performance that betrays so many dimensions and complexities that you could base an entire other series around her.  There’s also Zoe, a cub reporter/blogger who tangles with him, and most dramatically, Congressman Peter Russo, a rising political star who falls into Francis’s powerful and destructive orbit.  Actor Corey Stoll brings light to this dark place in a terrific, sincere performance that nearly steals the spotlight from Spacey.  Nearly.

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House of Cards, while not being Netflix’s first original series, announced the service in a big way as a home for wayward creative minds and audiences craving more than the safety and shiny surfaces.  Most of us here binge-watched (Editor’s Note: I can quit any time I want. I just don’t want to) and marveled over the intricate layers of drama and subtext that make up this dark and often ugly tapestry that felt no need to flinch, soften the blow, reward our need for happy endings or redemption, or reassure us that even in Washington, the good guy can come out on top.

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Defining moment: Francis in an underground garage with a garage door button.

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6.  MAD MEN (AMC)

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AMC’s Mad Men is a show that is hard to discuss in broad terms due to the subtlety and grace in which it goes about its business (Editor’s Note: Subtlety!). It’s not as aggressive as many of the great shows, nor is it built on big payoffs.  It’s just a constant literary source of exemplary television and this latest season was no different.  Plus it’s frequently hilarious.

Mad Men is aging gracefully as it eases out of the colorful era that transitioned the idyllic heyday of the Ward Cleaver era into the stained and tumultuous late 60’s.  It truly is a special and specific lens in which to revisit the events and themes that shaped the nation and led to where we are today.  Don Draper’s golden years are over, and watching him struggle to stay afloat as his world changes is fantastic television.  From the steamy tryst with Linda Cardellini’s Sylvia to the merger with Ted Chaough’s firm and the stress it causes his disciple Peggy, to the ways he and Roger Sterling are becoming less and less alike, to the wonderfully bizarre episode with the entire office gets hopped up on speed, it’s all richly rewarding.

Mad Men‘s last year is forthcoming but the wait is worth it, as the classiest show on television does its own thing without giving a damn what anyone else is doing or what network executives ask for.

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Defining Moment: The ego of Don Draper encapsulated in rigid, near slave-like instructions he gives to his mistress as he goes to take care of business.

Nick Nunziata

 

Top 5 to come tomorrow…