Other TV Shows I Watched: Best to Worst

Westworld

The first season of Westworld was so perfect that I kind of don’t want a second season of Westworld. It’s a complicated, twisty-turny story about human nature and resistance that’s anchored by an absolutely outstanding performance from Evan Rachel Wood, understated and powerfully-deployed special effects, and a cool sense of style.

The internet and I both guessed most of the major plot twists before they were revealed, but I found that I didn’t actually care about that – mostly because the surprises were not the main point of the story, but also because the surprises were still very clever. I watched the whole thing again, after it was done, and, if anything, I enjoyed it even more.

Most importantly, nothing that happened in any part of season one detracted from how much I enjoyed the premiere episode or made me regret my initial assessment that the horrendous amount of sexual violence was there to serve a narrative purpose. It’s interesting to think that maybe, as a network, HBO is maturing.

Big Little Lies

Speaking of HBO maturing, Big Little Lies surprised me with its measured, insightful, horrifically realistic portrayal of domestic violence. I went into this thinking I was going to get a lame story about wealthy mothers fighting in the PTA, which I only watched because Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley were all over posters at the bus stop. Instead, I was dropped into a layered, slow-paced exploration of the different kinds of violence we do to women in our culture, the centrepiece of which is an explosive marriage between Kidman’s character and her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgård.

I half-heartedly followed the coverage of this show as it aired, which means I know that there were a significant number of viewers who started off seeing Skarsgård’s character as not being so bad, or who refused to classify his behaviour as abuse until he was literally kicking his wife on the floor. That troubles me, but it’s also part of the point of the show. Abuse often doesn’t look the way we’re taught it does. That’s why the audience struggled to understand what was happening at first and, more importantly, it’s why Kidman’s character struggles to understand, too.

The scenes that take place in their marriage counsellor’s office are a thesis project on the theme “I simultaneously know and don’t know that I’m being abused.” It’s like nothing I’ve seen on television before and, unfortunately, an awful lot like things I’ve seen in real life.

That storyline alone makes the show worth watching, but there are lots of other layers on top of it. It’s dark, but it works as a seven-hour movie in all the same ways the first season of True Detective worked, with the added bonus that it’s saying something a lot more profound about violence against women.

The second season of Master of None

The first season of Master of None was very entertaining, and very different from other shows I’ve seen before. The second season, somehow, is even better – more self-assured, deeper, thornier, more experimental. It works a lot like poetry, by noticing something small and staying with it for as long as it takes to explore. It’s undoubtedly one of the best series out right now.

At the same time, I personally find Aziz Ansari’s energy level overwhelming, and one of the main stories in season two is that he meets a woman with the same energy level, and they start to spend time together. I found that story really interesting, but, as I binge-watched the series, I also found myself saying, “Can’t you guys be quiet for a second?”

That said, he speaks Italian for the whole first episode, there’s an episode about a black lesbian coming out to her family over a series of Thanksgiving dinners at different points in her life, there’s an episode about whether or not you should pretend to be a devout Muslim in front of your more religious relatives – and there are also little things like how Ansari’s character finds out that a work friend is sexually harassing women and immediately knows that he doesn’t want to be friends with that guy anymore.

So, Master of None would personally be more enjoyable for me if it made friends with silence, but it’s almost completely perfect the way it is, and it’s doing important work by sharing perspectives and experiences that we haven’t already been flooded with in mainstream media.

Stranger Things

One of the best reviews I saw of Stranger Things was one that explained how the three generations of characters in this 80s throwback series are each living in different sci-fi/horror genres from that era – the kids are in a Stephen King novel, the teens are in a slasher movie, and I don’t remember what the adults are in, but I think it’s Stephen Spielberg or something.

This was not my favourite thing, but I appreciate the craftsmanship with which it was made, and how successfully it falsely brands itself as being from the 1980s. As a thing that is actually from the 1980s, it pushed my nostalgia buttons.

The Very Last Season of Girls

Looking back over Girls as a whole, there were a handful of episodes and individual scenes that were really amazing, and the rest blurs together in my memory. The final season was no different; there’s one scene I remember liking – when  Adam makes an ill-conceived indie movie about his failed relationship with Hannah, and Jessa, who’s now his girlfriend, stands to the side, saying that she’s concerned that his disgust with Hannah isn’t coming through – but most of it passed by in a blur.

I don’t want to get weird about analyzing why Girls pisses me off so much, but it does piss me off sometimes, and I think the reason for that is that what happens to Hannah in this show often reveals underlying assumptions about how the world works that involve a lot of unacknowledged privilege. For example, in the final season, Hannah, who has never accomplished anything noteworthy in her life, and keeps blowing up every opportunity she gets, writes a single essay that is so amazing that she starts getting the kinds of head-hunting, out-of-nowhere job offers that Lena Dunham – who, let’s be fair, has actually accomplished something – might receive. And the underlying assumption of that seems to be that, if you’re talented, people will just recognize that and give you stuff. Which is usually not what happens.

There’s also a very weird story line where Hannah gets pregnant by accident and decides not to get an abortion – which is her right to decide – and then the final episode is a flash-forward where she and Marnie are living together in the massive house she can afford because of the undeserved tenure-track teaching job she was offered for writing an essay, looking after the baby. And I think the show wants me to believe that having a child has made Hannah more mature… but that’s not evident from her behaviour. It’s also strange that that’s the last episode rather than the episode just before that, where the main characters are together in the same room for the very last time.

So, I mean, it died as it lived. And I didn’t hate it. But I didn’t love it, either.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I think I read one of the books this series is based on, but most of what I remember seems to come from the unpopular Jim Carey movie. In any event, the Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate events is sometimes very funny, but also rigidly structured and repetitive. I get that it’s a children’s show, but, since one of its main conceits is breaking the format of children’s stories and treating kids like intelligent people, I found the formula a little bit annoying.

There was a very surprising and upsetting twist part way through, and there were some awesomely gloomy songs, but there was also a lot of me distractedly playing games on my phone while Neil Patrick Harris did a weird voice.

The 3%

So, for the first two episodes of The 3%, I was like, “Whoa, finally a sci-fi show created a universal translator where the characters’ lips don’t move in English and the voice they hear sounds overly-formal and like it’s not quite matching the right emotion. That’s a very bold choice.” Then, I realized that The 3% was filmed in Spanish and dubbed into English.

The dubbing isn’t great, but it’s an interesting show. The premise is that, in a dystopian future, people over the age of 18 have one chance to take part in The Process, where they compete for admission to a life of wealth and luxury as opposed to the day-to-day poverty they live in. Only 3% will make it through The Process, and the first season follows a cohort of test-takers as, each episode, they face new physical and psychological challenges. Subplots include the fact that at least one of them is secretly working for an activist group that wants to destroy The Process, as well as a power struggle among the people who administer the tests.

It’s an okay show. I was personally most interested in the storyline about the activists trying to infiltrate The Process, which played out in a reasonably surprising and exciting way. The structure where the group takes a new test every episode and ends up eliminating someone stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit, but I also kind of liked how it mirrored reality TV. There’s a real message about structural inequalities in this show, which I think is important, but 50% of the plot erased itself from my brain as soon as I’d finished watching.

The Very Last Season of House of Lies

I didn’t know this was the very last season of House of Lies as I watched it, but I clued in when the ending felt so final. I literally don’t remember anything that happened except for the final scene, where Marty and Jeannie wake up hung-over, and Jeannie asks, “Marty, did you marry me last night?”

It was the perfect ending to a show that always finished each season with a non-linear montage of those two characters hitting some new milestone in their relationship. No matter what else it tried to be, House of Lies was always most successful as a love story about two awful people who make each other a little less awful.

Jessica Jones

I really like the premise of Jessica Jones – that she’s a superhero whose arch nemesis is her abusive, sociopath ex-boyfriend. I think it’s really interesting and empowering. I just also think it’s a really bad sign that the series was most enjoyable during the stretch where she and her socio-ex were forced to work together.

That’s partly because of the casting – David Tennant is a really good choice to play the villain, because, even when he’s being evil, you kind of want to like him, and that’s the whole point. But it’s also because none of the other subplots in the first season work very well. When Jessica’s hanging out with future!Hellcat and Luke Cage, it gets to be pretty boring, because it’s just people looking darkly at each other while they talk about different kinds of strength. When you throw David Tennant’s character in, the stakes get higher, and the banter gets a little snappier, and the implications of what’s happening resonate more.

And, you know, spoilers, but I don’t think he’ll be back again.

Image: Westworld; HBO | June 9, 2017