2018 TV Omnibus: Best to Worst

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects is, for me, one of those shows that’s so perfect and flawless and amazing that I never need to watch it again. I love the editing, just liked I loved the editing on Big Little Lies. I love the acting. I love how hot and sweltering everything looks. I love that it has all the good parts of Gillian Flynn’s acerbic Women-Can-Be-Monsters-Too storytelling without the misogyny of Gone Girl.

Basically, the story is that a reporter goes back to her hometown to investigate a serial killer and, in the process, she unearths a bunch of super bad memories about her mother’s abuse that lead her to think maybe the serial killer is her mom. The story’s kind of about that, but it’s also kind of about violence against women in general – particularly women doing violence against other women – and the way that that’s tied up in sexuality.

It’s very, very smart, and really well paced, and if Gillian Flynn, and Amy Adams, and Jean-Marc Vallée aren’t enough to bring you in, Marti Noxon has her name all over it, too.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Season 1)

This is the Netflix version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, based on a comic book series where she’s an actual Satan-worshipping witch who has to do dark rituals in the woods. It kind of waffles between funny and unsettling – and, even though I’m not Christian and never have been, I must admit it feels weird to hear the actors say, “Praise Satan!” all the time – but it’s very stylish and it has a killer soundtrack. It also has Michelle Gomez, whom I loved on Doctor Who, and who perfectly inhabits the “hot, mean witch” acting niche on both shows.

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure show, but it’s at the perfect stage where the pleasure still outweighs the guilt. And it’s also trying to be feminist, in a clumsy, imperfect way, which is better than not trying at all, Riverdale.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 2)

The thing I enjoyed most about this season of The Handmaid’s Tale was discussing it with other people online. Talking about whatever awful thing just happened on the show opened the door to a lot of really good conversations about rhetoric and politics and power structures and, in that respect, I honestly do think Handmaid’s Tale is performing a service by giving us a way to process and articulate our thoughts about what’s happening in the world.

At the same time, there were moments (especially in the first two episodes) where I felt needlessly terrorized. The show was stirring up a lot of anxiety about what would happen if women’s rights and gay rights were repealed and it wasn’t really offering a solution. It was just showing me an endless parade of suffering and saying, “Hey, I bet this happens to you one day.” That didn’t feel good, and I’m not sure it was telling us anything that the first season hadn’t already conveyed.

I’m also a little bit cautious about the way the story’s framed in the second season. There are times when it almost seems like the show’s buying into its villains’ rhetoric – like it’s trying to convince us to root for June because she’s a better Christian than the dictators in her theocracy, or it’s setting up an argument where the dictatorship is wrong because it’s based on a misinterpretation of the Bible and not because forcing people to be Christian is wrong either way. There’s a line I really don’t like where June suggests that, if she had known America would turn into a religious dictatorship, she wouldn’t have committed adultery and… that seems like the wrong lesson to learn.

I’m willing to wait and see where it’s going, but I’m stressed about it, still.

Killing Eve (Season 1)

There’s always been a homoerotic subtext in detective stories, where the detective and his (almost always his) arch nemesis are super obsessed with each other in a way that would read as sexual were it not completely forbidden to say such a thing. Killing Eve is the detective show that makes that subtext text by giving us a female MI5 agent (played by Sandra Oh) who’s locked in a mutual and overtly sexual obsession with a female assassin played by Jodie Comer.

This is very much a plot twist-plot twist-plot twist show where the action lurches in a new direction every time the audience starts to catch up; it’s not sharp and calculated in the way I would ideally want an eight-episode season to be – but the novelty of creating these two roles for female actors and making it actually gay balances out my impatience with that. Even though it’s treading a pretty familiar path, it feels like something we haven’t seen before because it’s happening to someone we haven’t seen before, and that’s cool.

Orange is the New Black (Season 6)

I don’t remember what happened, but I remember liking this season. I’m one of the Orange in the New Black viewers who hated it in the beginning and warmed to it later on. So, for me, drifting away from the original premise and structure of the show is a good thing. I also think the writers have been very smart about how they’ve changed the Chapman character over the years. It was always kind of a hard sell to tell a story about the US prison system through the eyes of a middleclass white woman and, as the show has expanded its focus to other characters, it’s also started making jokes that acknowledge how out of touch Chapman can be with what other people are feeling.

The only thing I do remember from this season is a huge spoiler for what happens at the end, but I like that the show that started as the polar opposite of Oz has swung around to become Oz junior – a gentler but no less ardent criticism of the prison system, with all of its hypocrisy, racism, and profiteering.

The Good Place (Seasons 1 & 2)

Okay, so Tumblr tricked me into thinking there was some kind of bisexual love triangle between the characters, and I spent the whole second season waiting for that to materialize and being confused when it didn’t.

Otherwise, this show is way better than I thought it was going to be. The premise – that a bad person accidentally gets into heaven and tries to learn to be a good person so she doesn’t get sent to hell – sounds like it’s going to be corny, especially when you see clips online of people saying “fork” instead of “fuck.” But there’s a major twist toward the end of the first season that retroactively makes things a lot more interesting.

It’s super hard to explain why the writing impresses me so much without revealing the twist, but the writers have to do a very delicate balancing act where they’re misleading us about the factual premise of the show but also truthfully introducing us to the emotional premise of the show so that, once we find out we’ve been lied to, we’re still on the same emotional journey we thought we were signing up for.

Season two is, in some ways, even more impressive, because it’s about how to deal with the sitcom challenge of needing to reset the characters and the situation without nuking personal growth, and the writers come up with a solution we have literally never seen before.

The Good Place is an okay sitcom in terms of being funny, but it’s an amazing sitcom in terms of changing the definition of what a sitcom can be and how it can operate. I think we’ll see a lot of shows that imitate it in the future.

Maniac

Maniac is a limited series on Netflix about two people who go through an experimental psychiatric drug trial where they try to work through a bunch of their personal problems by living out bizarre scenarios in their minds. It stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.

There are parts of Maniac that are really, really powerful, and the story’s told in a patient, deliberate way, but it’s slow. Jumping into a new scenario almost every episode is part of the reason for that, because it means that, while the story’s still moving forward, it loses momentum each time the new scenario has to be explained. And because the scenarios are essentially weird fever dreams brought on by medication, they’re not all that interesting and sense-making in themselves – the meaning really depends on mapping everything back to character development, which always initially gets bogged down.

Emma Stone has really hit her stride in the last few years, and I enjoyed her performance a lot. I also enjoyed Sally Field a lot – doing something quite different than we’ve normally seen her do. But it felt a bit like homework sometimes.

Westworld (Season 2)

There’s one really outstanding episode from season two of Westworld called “Kiksuya.” It focuses on a Native American robot and dramatizes the story of how he realized the world he was living in was fake, found out all the horrible science fiction things happening to him, and then used the fact that no one gives a shit about the Native American plotline to his advantage so that he could quietly prepare his tribe to escape the theme park. It has all the heart and novelty and social commentary that I loved in season one, and it’s maybe one of my favourite episodes of television ever.

The rest of the season’s all over the place. It’s hard to follow what’s going on, and there are insane plot twists that don’t really have any of that heart or novelty or commentary to them. Whereas the plot twists in season one felt powerful because we were able to empathise with the characters and appreciate how shocking the revelations were for them, most of the twists in season two seem to be about surprising us with things the characters already know.

That doesn’t work as well, and it also puts more distance between us and the characters, making it harder to go on a journey with them. To top it off, the season finishes on a totally backward note where all of the characters who died will almost definitely be back next season, and all of the ones who got what looks like a happy ending are probably gone for good. It’s emotionally confusing on top of being mentally confusing, and I’m not sure I’ll watch season three.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

This is a limited series about a group of girls who go missing from their finishing school in 1900. It’s a period piece, which is not my favourite, and, even though it’s set in Australia, it has that weird British school element of sadistically beating children. However, the story is really mysterious, the ending is ambiguous, it’s shot in a more interesting way than you’d expect, and the costumes are amazing. It also has Natalie Dormer and Yael Stone in it.

As much as I liked the costumes and the mystery, I found the dialogue kind of mannered and thought some of plot details treated as revelations were telegraphed from the very beginning. Like, maybe I am unusually good at playing “Who is a lesbian?” and “Who grew up in an orphanage and lives under a pseudonym to escape her past as, probably, a con artist?” but maybe not.

Re:Mind

Re:Mind is an amazing Japanese show that seems to exist just to be an acting vehicle for members of a J-pop band. The band members play teenage schoolmates who wake up chained to a dining table in some strange location. Every episode, they argue with each other about how to escape and whose fault it is that this is happening and which of them needs to shut up. Then the lights go out and one of them disappears. They all scream that what’s happening doesn’t make sense. Then a new episode starts.

I won’t lie – I watched mostly because I thought it was hilarious that this show even exists. However, the mystery element does get a little more interesting as it goes on. The girls eventually start to figure out that this has something to do with a classmate who committed suicide the year before, and their conversations about it reveal a fairly complicated story about bullying. The whole situation is still insane, but it has some substance deep, deep down, and I liked some of the lighting choices near the end.

The 100 (Season 5)

Even though the formula for this show’s pretty clear – every season the main characters meet some new group of people that wants to kill them and, after trying to make peace, the whole situation falls apart and almost everybody dies – I am always genuinely surprised by how and when and why everything falls apart. That was as true for season five as any other season.

The 100 has always been my guilty pleasure show. I’m not going to try to argue that it makes sense or that it’s doing anything profound. I enjoyed this season a little bit less than I’ve enjoyed some of the previous seasons, and I was not okay with the plot line about how people with chronic pain are being addicts if they take pain medication, but, if all you care about is post-apocalyptic fashion and seeing how weirdly they all kill themselves, it’s still a good time.

I also genuinely admire one aspect of the writing, which is that the show takes a flexible attitude toward who can be allowed into the in-group. Every season, the main characters seem to pick up random people from the different groups they fight with, and their identity as “us” in the “us vs them” struggles that follow is allowed to expand and change. I think that’s cool, and I think the fact that most of the important characters are female is cool, too. It’s still pretty rare in sci-fi.

The Sinner (Season 1)

The Sinner is about a woman who commits a murder and doesn’t know why. The One Detective who believes her spends all season trying to help her recover her repressed memories of trauma so that they can figure out why the murder happened. He is Bill Pullman, and she is Jessica Biel, and that means that The Sinner, for me, is also still about how Mary got kicked out of the Camden house for looking at a beer.. Never forget.

I binged this season in about a day, because there were so many cliff-hangers, but the ending was pretty disappointing, and I don’t understand why there’s a second season.

3% (Season 2)

This is that Brazilian show about how rich people all live on an island, and you have to compete in the mental Olympics to join them. And also everyone’s working a double-cross against everyone else.

The second season is interesting in that it’s focussed on characters who’ve become disillusioned with “the process” – the supposedly fair way that people are selected to join the 3%. It has a lot of real-world resonance in that some of us were taught that our societies are based on meritocracy when they aren’t. This season, I also confirmed my suspicion that Bianca Comparato, who plays the lead character, Michele, is doing her own English dubbing, which is why it’s so much better than everyone else’s.

Otherwise, I’m finding it exhausting that everyone betrays everyone else every six minutes. I know that’s in fashion right now, but I hate it.

Image: Sharp Objects; HBO | November 24, 2018