Winter Has Come: TV in 2015

Saul

Photo by Ursula Coyote, AMC

2015 is shaping to be television’s most prolific year yet. A show just premiered on the PlayStation network, of all places. Netflix and Amazon have fully established themselves as networks to watch. And great television’s old haunts – basic cable, subscription services, even the broadcast networks – haven’t been slouching either. Here’s a look at four of my favorite shows so far this year.

Better Call Saul

When AMC announced that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would be reuniting the Breaking Bad crew for a spinoff starring the huckster lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the initial response was trepidatious at best. Why risk spoiling one of the greatest runs in TV history with a shameless cash grab? But such reactions, despite the wobbly creative fortunes of the parent network, proved unfounded. Far be it from me to question Gilligan and Gould’s narrative ambitions.

With this new series, they’ve transplanted many of the qualities that made Breaking Bad a late-breaking phenomenon – gorgeous cinematography, meticulous direction, deliberate pacing, black comedy – onto a new time period. They’ve replaced the Mr. Chips-to-Scarface narrative of Walter White with something far less polarized in Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk), whose moral compass is pointed in a more firmly gray direction than Walt’s. And they’ve embraced much of the potential and few of the pitfalls of the prequel form, never resorting to cheap walk-on cameos or cute callbacks.

Instead, Better Call Saul is a quirky triumph of ill-fitting suits, sweaty collars and shady business transactions. Jimmy McGill probably lacks the philosophical depth of Walter White, and Bob Odenkirk is no Bryan Cranston when it comes to balancing the opposite extremes of gut-busting comedy and wrenching drama, but there’s pleasure, more as the weeks have gone by, in watching Odenkirk render Jimmy’s slick manipulations. And the supporting cast, typical for a production from this team, is superb.

Last week’s episode “Five-Oh” revealed the full and tragic backstory of Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks), one of the standout Breaking Bad characters who stayed on the sidelines for the first half of the Better Call Saul season. This episode was worth waiting for. Banks has never been better than when he delivered an impassioned monologue detailing the injustices his late son endured. And Mike’s sad story surrounds an uproarious middle sequence in which Mike ropes Jimmy into his avoidance act. On paper, Better Call Saul looked like a sellout. In practice, I’m buying in.

The Americans

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn, FX

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn, FX

Three seasons in, this romantic-spy-drama-thriller has ranked among television’s most impressive and consistent shows, only to go unnoticed by the Emmy awards and by viewers, who have been turning out in almost pathetically low numbers to watch new episodes this season. Don’t let audience apathy turn you off, though. The Americans is written, directed, acted and shot to perfection every week. It’s narratively and thematically complex but never showy or self-righteous about its straightforward intelligence. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell routinely deliver stellar work with or without wigs.

Parenting has come to the forefront this season, with Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings contemplating bringing Paige into their KGB spy fold, or at least letting her know about what they’ve been doing behind closed doors for her whole life. At the same time, Phillip has been asked to get close to a 15 year-old girl in order to gather important secret information from her father. The thematic parallels are obvious but never overstated, and the impeccable moments add up to a thrilling tapestry of troubled family connections.

Togetherness

Photo by Melissa Moseley, HBO

Photo by Melissa Moseley, HBO

One relationship crumbles while another sputters to a start during the first season of this HBO half-hour from indie filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass. The latter plays Brett, an unassuming middle-aged man with a crummy job and a wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) who’s increasingly unsatisfied with his rote sexual routine and grim affect. In the pilot, Brett and Michelle welcome Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) after they separately hit upon hard times. The two form a bond that starts friendly but quickly turns romantic, at least for Alex.

The bones of this eight-episode season are familiar, but the connective tissue feels fresh. Instead of lingering on the logistical complications of having two new adults living in a family home, Togetherness suggests that the biggest problems in those relationships lie with the specific clash of personalities. And the show isn’t weighed down or held back by the underlying “white people problems.” It recognizes that its characters are privileged and draws its most painful observations from the possibility that these people have problems even with the privileges they acknowledge and enjoy. The show navigates that tricky territory with ease, emerging with potent depictions of infidelity and emotional distance. Led by the downcast Duplass and Lynskey with able support from Zissis and Peet, the charming cast erases any possibility that the show will devolve into cliches.

Broad City

Photo by Matthew Peyton, Comedy Central

Photo by Matthew Peyton, Comedy Central

It’s the season that launched a thousand magazine cover profiles. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are quickly becoming the poster children for a certain kind of hypermodern Big Apple energy, which courses through the weed-soaked veins of this series, elevating it to the highest caliber of comedy anywhere in American pop culture right now. This season has built on the zany pleasures of the last, with highlights including Abbi’s drug trip and Ilana’s sexual experience with her lookalike Alia Shawkat, sauntering over from her terrific work on the last season of Arrested Development. Mainstream inroads haven’t deterred the show’s momentum. Broad City shines a sympathetic spotlight two women who love each other almost as they love their anarchic lifestyle. That’s a televised revolution if ever there were one.

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