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My Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

Because it’s never too late for needless list-making, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2016!

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First of all, yes, I know: it’s almost the end of February 2017. We’re already two months into 2017, so it’s pretty damn late to do an “end-of-the-year wrap-up” list. And, to that, I say…you are completely right, reader. But look, I’ll be entirely honest: I don’t do these lists for you. I do them for myself, so that years from now, I have a “record” of sorts about what the year in pop culture really was for me. So yeah, maybe this isn’t exactly timely. But I feel obliged to do it anyway and, if you’re reading this, I hope you get some type of value out of this very untimely list. And, c’mon, cut me some slack here — I still beat the Oscars to the punch, so doesn’t that count for something?

And it wasn’t like I spent the last few months just twiddling my thumbs — the reason I didn’t write out my Top 10’s of the year sooner was because I had so much stuff I had to catch up on first. The way I do Top 10’s isn’t “the best things I saw in the last 365 days” — if it was, most of the best things in 2016 would make my 2017 list. Every year I spend my January going through the quality things I missed out on in the year, all in an effort to make it as through a list as I can.

Which of course is still an impossibility: I’m sure I’ll end up seeing something months from now that I think was good enough to retroactively make my list. But hey, two months into the new year is already late enough: I couldn’t wait until June now, could I? In any case, here it finally is: my Top 10’s of 2016, beginning with my favorite TV shows of 2016. Kicking off the list at number 10 is…


10. Baskets


Though he’s gained international fame from his breakout role in The Hangover, Zack Galifanakis never seemed destined to become a “mainstream” comedy star. His sensibilities in his early years was always little oft-kilter, and it quickly became clear that he couldn’t completely shed off that persona while still making worthwhile entertainment (see: Due Date. Except, no, you shouldn’t.) But, thankfully, Galifanakis didn’t have to with Baskets, his FX tragicomedy created by him, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel.

No, Baskets is Galifanakis at his best, a mismatch of awkward comedy and head-scratching surrealism, with a healthy dose of slapstick thrown on top. But what truly made Baskets one of the most delightful shows of 2016 was how much Galifanakis (and I imagine Louis C.K.) committed to the tragedy of the whole thing — to put it bluntly, Baskets is sad. REALLY fucking sad. It’s a depressing ode to the futility of dreaming, and the utter disappointment of a life unfulfilled. The fact that it’s also REALLY damn funny (and through the lens of primary director Krisel, fucking beautiful) is what makes Baskets unlike anything else on television. It truly lets Galifankis’ freak flag fly, and thank god for that. We don’t need more Keeping Up With The Jones’ from him.


9. Orange is the New Black


I’ll be honest: when a show starts to make a down-slide mid-way through its run, I’m quick to kind of shrug it off. I’ll keep watching, sure, but my expectations become substantially lower, and the series goes from “must-watch” territory to “catch it whenever you have nothing else to do.” And that’s what happened with Orange is the New Black Season 3, a still solid season of TV, but lacking the momentum and power that made the first two seasons so great. When that season came to a close, I figured the shows “glory days” were done.

But then Season 4 came, and I take it all back — Orange is the New Black is truly better than ever. Replacing the aimlessness of Season 3, Season 4 kicked the show into high gear, focusing heavily on the privatization and corruption of the prison system that puts all over our beloved characters in such dire straights. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is fucking ANGRY, enraged at the system and the monsters that it ends up creating. The penultimate episode in particular, “The Animals,” is a masterwork of TV drama, both emotionally stirring and completely devastating, with one of the most heartbreaking and tragic endings of a TV episode ever (props go to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner here, who delivered a real tour de force of direction.)

To touch upon what made the season so stellar would require a lot of spoilers, but rest assured: the way that Orange is the New Black explores some of the most troubling aspects of modern society is completely captivating, absolutely relevant, and emotionally stirring. Enraged Orange is the New Black seems to be the best Orange is the New Black, which makes it such a shame that there’s nothing in 2017 that the show could possibly be angry about to fuel future storylines.

…That was sarcasm. Season 5 is going to be interesting, all right.


8. Westworld


In the interest of time, I’m going to keep my thoughts on Westworld pretty brief. After all, I’ve spent a good enough amount of time talking about the show in the past so, if you want more details, you can simply read one of these pieces:

https://freshlypoppedculture.com/the-5-best-moments-of-westworld-season-1-f5c7ea700b43

 

https://freshlypoppedculture.com/the-5-best-moments-of-westworld-season-1-f5c7ea700b43

But suffice to say, I am completely on team Westworld. Flaws and all, I found it to be completely captivating as both smart, thoughtful sci-fi and a fun, addicting puzzle box. Season 2 can’t come fast enough and, unfortunately, it won’t — it’s going to be a long wait until the next season arrives in 2018 but, if Season 1 is any indication, it will very much be worth the wait.


7. Better Call Saul


Poor Better Call Saul — the show is consistently one of the best things on television, but airs so early in the year that it’s really easy to forget about how good it is come list-making time. Thankfully the revving up to the next season is already in full effect (this list is REALLY late you guys), so my memory of how freaking great Season 2 was is starting to come back in full force.

Somehow the show managed to improve itself over its already great first season, and continues to cement itself as a very different show than Breaking Bad. Plots in Better Call Saul lack the same sense of danger that they did in the latter show, but somehow still feel just as pressing and important. But more than anything, Better Call Saul is a testament to the wonder of great writing, mixed with captivating performances. It’s not the type of show that will generate a bunch of fan theories or a lot of online engagement, but that in no way means its anything less than drama at its finest. Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and everyone else involved deserve a massive pat on the back for another fine accomplishment in the world of television.


6. Atlanta


Describing what makes Donald Glover’s new show work is a surprisingly complex task, but here goes it: Atlanta is yet another surreal comedy-drama on FX, one that could easily share some of the same DNA with Baskets on paper. But one look at this series, and it’s easy to see that the two show’s respective approach to comedy/drama couldn’t be any different, with Atlanta setting out on a path that is entirely its own. It’s funny, yes, and well written, yes. But it’s also completely unique in the drama/comedy field, with no other show out there even vaguely similar to it. I know I’ve already said it once (and will say it at least one more time before this list is through,) but Atlanta truly is unlike anything else on the TV spectrum, and for more than any other reason, that’s why I love it so much.

Also: Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius is one of the best comedy characters of the year, and absurdly funny every time he is utilized. That is all.


5. Bojack Horseman


How is the show about the talking horse featuring about 2,000 cheesy animal puns one of the five best shows of 2016? I ask myself this constantly, because I will never not be in awe at what Raphael Bob Waksberg managed to accomplish with this crazy, crazy show. Bojack Horseman is hilarious, and as a comedy alone, I would have probably found a spot for it on this list. But it didn’t take long for this show to prove itself to be more than just a silly comedy.

Which, yes, is a weird thorough-line with a lot of the entries on this list: we are in a golden age of TV dramedies, and Bojack Horseman fits in quite well with Atlanta and Baskets in this regard. But while those two shows are still in their first season and “working things out” (so to speak), Bojack Horseman was in its third season in 2016, and has pretty much mastered its own unique blend of gut busting humor and heartbreaking drama. It’s themes have never been more clear, nor has its confidence been more strong. Season 3 of Bojack Horseman is a show at the top of its game, and what it manages to achieve emotionally is insane. When it comes to Netflix’s best original show, the answer is pretty damn clear: Bojack Horseman all the way.


4 & 3. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.:Made in America


Look, if you told me that two of my ten favorite TV shows of 2016 would be centered around the public figure that was (is?) O.J. Simpson, I would have called you absolutely crazy. Though I was somewhat aware of the huge scope that the O.J. trial had, I am a bit of a young-un, and thus did not live through the era itself. So, trust me, seeing it laid out in almost 20 hours of real and fictionalized footage is quite the eye opening experience.

But the subject matter of both The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America is one thing — it’s the execution that makes both shows so overwhelmingly excellent. O.J.:Made in America in particular is a documentary masterpiece, managing to perfectly tell the entire story of not just O.J.’s rise and fall, but Los Angeles in the post Civil Rights era. I have never seen a documentary so perfectly explore its subject matter, and there were literally dozens of times watching Made in America in which I felt absolutely floored at what I was witnessing. And yes, there’s a whole debate about if Made in America really even is a TV show, but I could honestly care less…because it’s totally a TV show. And you’re wrong if you think otherwise.

But though O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece, that is no insult to The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which is just as excellent in a very, very different way. In fact, it’s a crazy bit of serendipity that the two launched so close together, because they complement each other very well. Though both focus on the same topic, I never felt like I was learning the same information twice, or felt like the feeling of watching either quite encapsulated me in the same way. But, rest assured, both O.J. Simpson projects in 2016 were some of the very best television around. Because 2016 was just weird like that, I guess.


2. The Americans


I’m starting to feel pretty bad for The Americans at this point: for the third year in a row, it just missed out on being my favorite show of the year. That is its fate for me, I guess — always the Best of TV bridesmaid, never the Best of TV bride.

But just because The Americans once again missed out on the top spot, doesn’t mean the show is anything less than stupendous. It doesn’t even mean the show is getting worse over the years — hell, I would argue it’s getting better, which is kind of insane when you consider the crazy good quality the series has always maintained. But what can I say? There’s no show on television right now that is as constantly engaging, as consistently nail biting, and as overall just as well executed as The Americans. The acting is near-perfect, the writing is near-perfect, the production design is near-perfect: everything about this damn show is just off-the-walls fantastic.

And yet…it always ends up getting kicked out of first place by something not just incredible, but all-time great. A masterpiece of the television form, if you would. And my number one pick this year is no different.


1. Horace and Pete


Because, I’m going to say it again, and this time I really do mean it: Horace and Pete is unlike anything else released in 2016. Hell, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever watched IN MY LIFETIME. A strange amalgamation of comedy and a top-tier melodrama play, Horace and Pete fits no category. It’s really funny, it’s really insightful, it’s really emotionally devastating — it’s really everything, in a way that only the best pieces of pop culture can be.

And make no mistake, Horace and Pete truly fits that category. Not an episode went by where I wasn’t completely awe-struck about what was unfolding in front of me, or stunned at what Louis C.K. managed to create almost entirely on his own. Both directing AND writing something of this magnitude is something only a creative genius could accomplish, and Louis C.K. completely proves himself to indeed be one of those with Horace and Pete.

Which is of course not to say he didn’t have a ton of help by a whole heap of gifted people working on this project. How C.K. was able to get Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and Laurie Metcalf in a room together to create this thing defies belief, because their collective actor powers should have enough force to shatter the entire universe. Instead it just creates some of the most powerful pieces of film I have ever said, wrapped up in a package that is far more emotionally complex and thematically rich than you would expect from the guy who wrote Pootie Tang.

But even more so than with Louie, what Louis C.K. was able to create with Horace and Pete is truly a revelation. I sincerely believe that the man is now one of our most talented storytellers, and has a knack for filmmaking that puts most others to shame. Because Horace and Pete isn’t just the best TV comedy I saw in 2016. Nor was it the best TV drama or, hell, the best TV show. No, Horace and Pete is hands down the best piece of pop culture I had the pleasure to bare witness to in a very, very long time.

So there you have it, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2016. Once again, sorry for the lateness but, hey, better late than never…right? Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself. Anyways, also check out my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016, while you’re still here.

https://freshlypoppedculture.com/the-5-best-moments-of-westworld-season-1-f5c7ea700b43


Also published on Medium.

Matthew Legarreta is the Editor and Owner of Freshly Popped Culture. A big ol' ball of movie, TV, and video game loving flesh, Matthew has been writing about pop culture for nearly a decade. Matthew also loves writing about himself in the third person, because it makes him feel important (or something.)

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Matt’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

Right at the edge of being at all relevant, here are my top 10 TV shows of 2017.

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You know what? I’m rather impressed with myself, and I don’t particularly care if anyone else is. Usually I can’t release my Top 10 TV and Film lists until weeks and weeks into the new year — I am a completionist, after all, and live in an area in which many of the big Oscar films don’t even come out until months after they first hit limited release (if at all.) And as for my delay with TV, I’m lazy, and have a lot of things I end up catching up on based entirely on the fact that other people had them in their 10 Tops for the year. So most years (like last, for instance), I don’t release either lists until WAY past the point in which anyone even cares.

But this year? I was able to do my catch up far faster than normal, mostly because I am unemployed and have absolutely nothing better to do with all this time (SO MUCH TIME, you guys.) So rather than deliver my lists extremely late, they are just normal late. Believe it or not, it’s an improvement, and I’m not going to let anyone else take that away from me. Maybe a few years from now, I can actually be on time with them!

But, eh, probably not.

Anyways, I’ll be releasing both my Top 10 TV shows and Top 10 movies list for the year that was 2017, starting out today with television. As has been the case with the format for the past few years, there are WAY TOO MANY GOOD TV SHOWS, so the amount of stuff I had to regretfully push off the list was numerous. So numerous, in fact, I plan on publishing a separate list recounting those in the coming days too. But, for now, here’s what I settled on for the 10 best TV shows I saw in the past twelve months, starting with…


10. Samurai Jack

There’s a part of me that thinks I’m only putting Samurai Jack on this list because I remain in awe that we even got it in the first place. An actual conclusion to the long thought dead Cartoon Network series just seemed like a fanboy pipe dream, and that, eventually, one we would all just forget about (until the property got rebooted in twenty years, of course.) But, no, a final season of Samurai Jack is indeed something we got in 2017. And though I had a few quibbles here and there (namely that the romance felt a bit contrived, and the ending a tad rushed), I came away from the ten-episode run as enamored with the series as I ever was. The first three episodes, in particular, are just masterful television, combining astonishing animation with amazing action and, most exciting of all, brilliant character work. The show got darker with its return but, more importantly, it got more reflective and bold with the story it was trying to tell. Even if it wasn’t 100% perfect, Samurai Jack was unlike anything else on television, and a strong case that Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the most brilliant people currently working in the medium. Please let him do more of it, world, rather than continued Hotel Transylvania films. Samurai Jack proves he can do far, far, far, far better.


9. The Handmaid’s Tale

By far the most buzzed about new TV series of the year, it would have been easy for The Handmaid’s Tale to coast on the timeliness of its themes, trading in actual craftsmanship and skill for the mere fact that, yeah, what it’s saying is “important.” But what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so great is that it manages to do both in a way that is seamless and never preachy — the themes that the show approaches are powerful and important and sadly relevant, but that never takes away from how concise and skillful the show is on its own. There’s a fantastic dystopian tale at the center of The Handmaid’s Tale, and even if we lived in a utopia of equal rights (which we of course don’t), the story in and of itself would be enough to make The Handmaid’s Tale worth watching. Plus the incredible performances of the cast (especially Elisabeth Moss in the lead), and the absolutely awe-inspiring visuals. The Handmaid’s Tale might be the show of the current zeitgeist…but it’s also a pretty good one, so I can’t complain much about the love it has received.


8. Nathan for You

Every year that Nathan Fielder chooses to create more episodes of this brilliant show, I will almost certainly find a place for it on my end-of-the-year list. It’s just that good, and this season especially gave us a number of glorious episodes. Nathan’s amazing attempt to create a Late Night appropriate story in “The Anecdote.” His absolutely nutty plan to create a band that heavily used the sound of a smoke detector, which somehow got him wrapped up in the world of Big Oil, because it’s Nathan for You and the world is insane. And, of course, “Finding Frances,” the format breaker that ended the season with a surprisingly touching, thought-provoking story of lost love and regret, so good that even documentarian Errol Morris had to rave about it, calling it his “new favorite love story.” Also, the episode in question involved filming a Mud sequel entitled Mud 2: Never Clean. God I love this insane show.


7. The Americans

You know how good The Americans is? Even an off season of the show manages to find its way into my Top 10 at the end of the year. Because even if Season 5 is probably the weakest season since Season 1…god, it’s just so incredibly good. The Americans is probably the most consistently strong long-running show on all of television, and even a season that isn’t quite as masterful as Season 2 or 3 or 4 still has high points that other shows dream they could touch. The acting remains as powerful as ever, the writing as concise, and the direction as meticulous. Really the only thing setting this season back is the fact that it’s the penultimate one, meaning that a lot of the time was spent seeding the endgame and setting up the final plots — even by The Americans standards, it was a slower season than usual. But the final couple of episodes were absolutely brilliant, and proof that we need not worry about this show as it approaches its final 10 episode season. More than any other series on television, I have faith these people know what they are doing — they haven’t steered us wrong so far, right?


6. Better Call Saul

From one slow burn to another, it’s kind of fascinating how Better Call Saul has managed to grow in the face of its more popular, more explosive parent show. While Breaking Bad focused on big moments and huge plot movements (to genius effect, of course), Better Call Saul’s approach is entirely different. It’s even more character focused, a lot less action heavy, and as much as I hate to use the word to describe anything as exciting and brilliant as this show…yeah, a little bit slower. But that approach has actually benefited the show, especially going into its third season. The fact we got to know these characters so well is really helping this series excel as the plot takes off in kind, with Season 3 in particular delivering some rather huge moments for the character of Jimmy McGill and the people around him. It’s not a big action crime show like Breaking Bad, but it’s almost equally as good in every other regard. Season 3 especially was the show really finding its creative genius, delivering week after week of constant greatness. The series is off to the dramatic races now, and as long as the performances, writing, and visuals remain as strong as they do now, the show will very much remain a worthy predecessor to Vince Gilligan’s last masterwork. And, to be honest, that’s a far better position to be in than pretty much any other TV spin-off I can think of.


5. American Vandal

Ah: American Vandal — the little show that could of 2017. When Netflix dropped the thing in mid-September of this year, I don’t think very man people had it on their radar. The plot seemed a tad obnoxious, and pretty much no one of note was involved in its creation both behind and in front of the camera. But like any good surprise hit, word-of-mouth propelled this one to be one of Netflix’s most talked about shows of the year. And boy was all that conversation well deserved. American Vandal is a real treat from start to finish, a pitch-perfect parody that only gets better the more it unfolds. The series is really some amazing satire, managing to wrangle both blistering laughs and surprising pathos from the story of a bunch of dicks drawn on some cars in a parking lot. American Vandal works on pretty much every level, but what puts it over the moon is how stunningly authentic it ultimately feels. In addition to being a note-for-note true crime parody, American Vandal also makes for a great teen comedy, assembling a bunch of different teenaged personalities and delivering a concise message about how they behave and interact in the cyber age. Liberally featuring things like Youtube, Twitch, Instagram, and the like, American Vandal ended up feeling like one of the most authentic pictures of modern youth that I’ve yet seen. And with authenticity being the key to comedy…well, American Vandal ended up being an absolute knockout in pretty much every regard.


4. Master of None

It sucks that talking about Aziz Anzari has become something of a touchy subject, because it absolutely overshadows the accomplishments of the man a few months prior. But even if Ansari himself is something of a damaged good, I won’t let that stop me from appreciating the greatness that was Master of None Season 2. While I really enjoyed the first season of Anzari’s Netflix dramedy, the second season was a vast improvement, and on a whole different level altogether. With a renewed interest in making the most creative show possible, Aziz Anzari took inspiration from the first season’s best episode (“Mornings”) and molded most of the installments in Season 2 based on that episode’s unique approach to the structure of a TV episode. And what an end result — I legitimately think every episode of Master of None Season 2 is outstanding, from the big idea episodes like “Thankgiving” or “I Love New York,” to the smaller installments like the closing two-parter focusing on Dev’s relationship with his Italian crush. Extremely confident, extremely unique, and altogether impactful — I loved the hell out of Master of None this year. And I’m not going to let some groan-inducing behavior from its main voice detract from that.


3. Better Things

Remember everything I said about Master of None above? The same, but for Louis C.K., and with Better Things. On the one hand it’s a little easier to handle this one because C.K.’s role is strictly behind the scenes…but then again, what C.K. did was far more monstrous than Ansari. So fuck him and fuck the situation entirely. BUT don’t fuck Better Things, because man oh man did I love the show’s sophomore season. Pamela Adlon’s voice remains as unique and entertaining as ever, and Better Things represented a far more reflective, deeper reading of its subject matter than we got in the show’s freshman debut. It was heartwarming, and thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining, and I hope Adlon gets to do whatever the hell she wants with these things now that it’s separated completely from C.K.’s influence. All that being said, the comedian DID write or co-write every episode this season, and his prints were all over the brilliant writing for this. Because he is a brilliant writer, and creative voice. But, also, a fucking asshole. UGH, this whole situation. Anyways, Better Things is wonderful, and I hope it will remain wonderful for however long Adlon wants to keep things going.


2. The Good Place

Whew, finally, a comedy I can talk about without having to mention abhorrent, horrifying behavior! I’ve already spoken at length about how much I loved the second half of The Good Place’s first season (which started in January, lest you forget), but I haven’t really spoken about how the show followed up its amazing home stretch in its second season. Well, suffice to say, this show remains absolutely incredible, and is quickly climbing up the ranks of my all-time favorite TV comedies. That’s a bold thing to say for a show only two seasons in, but what can I say? The Good Place is one of the funniest, most exciting TV series I’ve seen in a while. It’s a show that not only has a strong and unique comic voice, but the storytelling and creativity to match it.

On a week to week basis, I literally have no idea where The Good Place is going, with its story pivoting wildly and it constantly burning through plot that a standard show would probably ruminate in for numerous episodes. And while that might seem like a flaw for some, it only increases my love of this nutty and brave show. Every week they jump into the abyss, with twist after twist after twist changing the nature of the show on an episode-to-episode basis. But after they have managed to reap the benefits of such transitions literally dozens of time, I stopped worrying about where the show might go. At this point, I’m just enjoying the absolutely delightful ride. And I highly recommend for you to do so as well. This is the beginning of a landmark comedy and, as always, I can’t wait to see where The Good Place goes next.


1. The Leftovers

Back when Season 2 of The Leftovers premiered, I was gobsmacked by how brilliant it was. While I loved the first season a lot more than some people, even I could never imagine how absolutely magnificent the show could get in its second set of 10 episodes. It was my favorite series of 2015 and, at the time, I had no idea how in the world a season of television could possibly get better.

It did.

The Leftovers Season 3 is a masterpiece. It is brilliant from top-to-bottom, with every episode fantastic on their own, and wonderous altogether. It served as the perfect capper to the series, more perfect than any other final season of a drama that I can think of. It’s pure, uncut brilliant, powered by the incredible acting, beautiful writing, and always outstanding production values. It’s the kind of show that’s so good that I can’t even think of more superlatives to use to express its greatness — already I’ve thrown like a dozen out, and none of them can match how I truly feel about this amazing little stretch of eight episodes. From the storytelling boldness of “The Most Powerful Man in the World” to the emotional wallop that is “The Book of Nora” (the show’s series finale), there was not a single misstep in this collection of episodes. Not a single damn flaw.

There’s a lot more I want to say about The Leftovers Season 3 that I didn’t get the chance to express when it first came out. How amazing Justin Thereoux and Carrie Coon were in their performances, and how much they absolutely grew into their characters over the show’s three-year lifespan. How the series turned out to be a pretty powerful romance, while simultaneously tackling a dozen other themes and plotlines. How the show ended up being the perfect one for 2017, with its constant theme of how we approach the end of the world feeling more and more relevant as we delved into the real life shitshow that was 2017. Hell, how it gave us an episode of television that referenced 80’s sitcom Perfect Stranger dozens of times, and was also as heartbreaking as any other installment of the show. So many, many thoughts. But, ultimately, I’m left with one thought that is more important than them all.

I’ve loved a lot of TV shows, especially in the modern era. And, for the last five years, I’ve had a clear favorite of all time — Breaking Bad, of course. But in three short seasons, The Leftovers has topped it for me. It is now my favorite TV series of all time, and I am 100% unwavering in that stance. No show has hit me harder emotionally, or impressed me more fundamentally, or wowed me in ways so absorbing. For me at least, The Leftovers is the new king of the TV mountain. Long live the king.


Whew. That was my love letter to The Leftovers or, umm, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. Sorry, got kind of carried away at the end there. Anyways, tune in on Wednesday for my list of the ten best movies of the year. I promise I’ll try my best to not turn it into a soliloquy about how much I love The Leftovers. 

You now…”my best.”


Also published on Medium.

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New Sci-Fi Series Counterpart Doesn’t Just Give J.K. Simmons A Much Deserved Lead Role — It Gives Him Two of Them

Character actor J.K. Simmons finally gets the chance to lead his own series with Starz’s Counterpart, and it’s already off to a pretty encouraging start.

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Ah, the tried and true character actor — really, the Hollywood equivalent of the “never a bride, always a bridesmaid” idiom. Character actors are more often than not the best thing in whatever they are featured in, with their ability to take the simplest of roles and turn them into pure gold giving them the much-valued status of “Hey, it’s THAT guy!” I can write you entire lists of great characters actors and actresses, but I have to imagine that one of the men at the very top woud have to be J.K. Simmons.

The dude has been in over 180 movies and (mostly) TV shows, and acts the crap out of pretty much every single one of them. From supporting roles in procedurals like Law and Order or The Closer, to comedic bit characters in films like I Love You, Man or Extract, to even voice-over work in Portal 2 and (ESPECIALLY) The Legend of Korra, there has never been a time in a movie or TV show where I was like “Wow, there is way too much J.K. Simmons in this.” In fact, the sentiment is almost entirely the opposite.

Of course, his career got a huge bump up in status with the release of 2015’s Whiplash, in which Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his phenomenal work as teacher/monster Fletcher. And, like all Oscar winners, it was only a matter of time until such an award would result in bigger roles for Simmons to dive into. Of course, unlike other actors like Eddie Redmayne or Jennifer Lawrence or Benedict Cumberbatch, love from the Oscars couldn’t result in leading roles in huge superhero franchises. Not only because he already made his mark on that particular genre by giving the best performance in a superhero movie ever with J.J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man trilogy (that’s only slightly hyperbolic), but just because of who Simmons was. He’s a sixty-two-year-old man, after all — despite how surprisingly swole he is, there simply isn’t a lot of leading franchise roles in the movie business for a man of his age. Sure, he would still be given stuff like Commissioner Gordon in Justice League and the like, but he could never realistically be the choice to play the new Batman (although, wow, he would probably be really awesome as old Bruce in a Batman Beyond movie…wait, what was I talking about again?) No, despite how amazing an actor he is and his new Oscar-winning profile, it seemed like SImmons just aged out of the opportunity to be a big leading man in Hollywood films.

…But, thankfully, television exists! With the brunt of new programming assaulting our eyeballs, and the wide variety of different things finding success in the realm, surely a man of Simmons talent and pedigree can earn himself a much deserved leading role, right? That’s where Starz new sci-fi series Counterpart comes in. Finally, it’s a chance for Simmons to truly stretch his leading man status, outside of a larger ensemble (Oz) or simply being the laughing stock in a forgettable family sitcom (let’s try to pretend Growing Up Fisher never existed, shall we?) Counterpart is a big, ambitious, creative science fiction series, and offers Simmons his first real chance at a dramatic, centerpiece role. And, from the looks of the show’s first episode, Simmons is very much making the best of it.

It certainly helps that the series around him, though, is off to a pretty great start. I knew almost nothing about Counterpart going in — I only knew that Simmons was the lead, that he was playing a dual-role in it, and that it was a spy thriller with sci-fi elements. And, to be honest, even after watching the first episode, I feel like I only know a tad bit more than that.

But though that might feel like a con for some pilots, I actually think the flow of information benefits Counterpart. Right off the bat you understand this is a big world with some heady science fiction going on — but the episode wisely doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Like the best science fiction, it slowly introduces you to the universe, letting you know only the basics of what is going on, primarily through action and world building rather than scene after scene of boring exposition. What exposition is given is delivered rather matter-of-factly, and treats its subject material as a much more banal thing than it actually is. I’m trying to stay rather vague here, because I think one of the joys of the show’s first episode is trying to piece together the universe, and where the series seems to be heading. But, just to offer a little tease, let’s just say I felt a lot of similarities between it and the first season of Orphan Black, crossed with later seasons of Fringe. Which, if you know anything about my taste, is fine company to be in indeed.

But though the premiere is good, the real big ticket item here is indeed Simmons, who already is doing stellar work in both performances he is given. While watching the premiere (simply entitled “The Crossing”), I was struck with how absolutely perfect a role (roles?) it was for J.K. Simmons. It gives the actor the chance to utilize both the nice guy, sympathetic side of his acting range (seen in things like Juno and the aforementioned The Legend of Korra), AND his firecracker, intense side featured in…well, pretty much everything else. Simmons was certainly typecast as the intense, angry guy after Oz, and though you can’t blame people for giving him roles like that (he’s VERY GOOD in them), it’s nice to see him get the chance to flex his range in a literal line-to-line span.

And you know what else is nice, and in fact, rather refreshing? To just see someone of J.K. Simmons’ type lead a genre show like this in the first place. Even in television, it’s extremely rare for a sixty-two-year-old man to get the chance to lead a sci-fi series. No, the part would likely go to someone in their thirties or (at the very “extreme” range) forties. But as good as someone like Michael Fassbender or Jake Gyllenhaal would do with a part like this, Simmons brings something lived-in and experienced to the proceedings. And considering the main theme of the show (essentially, how the decisions and actions we make in life affect us as people), casting an older actor certainly has its benefits…especially when said actor is J.K. Simmons. After all, Counterpart so far is, more than anything, a starring vehicle for Simmons. And he owns the role in the way that only a character actor with three decades of acting experience can.

As a series, it’s fair to say Counterpart still very much has room to grow. I’m not really sold on any of its supporting characters quite yet and, by design, I feel like we’ve barely touched the surface on what the series will even really be about (although what is teased does have me quite excited for what it could accomplish.) And though its bureaucratic, rather plain tone fits the universe thus far, I do hope the series acquires a more interesting aesthetic and visual palette in the episodes ahead. In a world where we get as visually interesting and unique science fiction as Mr. Robot or Westworld, something as workman-like and sparse as Counterpart can’t help but feel a tad bit blase.

But, still — this is barely the first episode, and I’m already super intrigued to see where the series will go from here. And for a pilot, that’s pretty much the entire battle. There’s a lot of cool sci-fi concepts and intriguing thematic questions already at play in Counterpart, and I can only hope the story will unfold in a way that drives those themes and concepts to new heights. And even if Counterpart doesn’t turn out to be my cup of tea, just to see J.K. Simmons finally get those juicy leading man parts in his mouth makes the creation of the series entirely worth it.

Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 PM EST on Starz. Already it’s not getting nearly the attention it deserves, so I encourage you all to give it a try. If you’re into detail-sparse, theme-driven science fiction, you’ll probably dig it. And if you’re into J.K. Simmons (a.k.a are a human being with two ears and a heart), even more so.


Also published on Medium.

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The Definitive, Unarguable Ranking of Every Black Mirror Episode

This is my Black Mirror episode rankings. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

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I had no intention of actually publishing a full ranking of every Black Mirror episode. Sure, I very much had my personal ranking saved and ready to go (who doesn’t in this day and age?), but I figured such a ranking would serve no purpose on the internet, what with the show being so radically different on and episode-to-episode basis, and the beauty of the anthology format allowing radically different opinions on what is the “best” and the “worst” installments of the show. What would posting my arbitrary ranking on the interweb ultimately prove?

But my opinion on the matter dramatically changed when, a few days ago, I got a phone call from out of the blue. I say “phone call” but, really, it was a weird video chat thing that popped up in my field of vision, projected from the tip of my iris. To be honest it freaked me the hell out and, personally, I can’t imagine much good can come out of continuously using the technology. But, in any case, the most important thing here isn’t the tech, but the message (kind of like Black Mirror itself, actually.) It was from seriescreator Charlie Brooker and, rather than butcher his beautiful words, I will simply quote the man himself.

“Yo Matthew, how’s it hanging? Saw you were watching Black Mirror via the neural connectors I have installed throughout all the social networks — people keep telling me there will be a downside to that technology, but what the hell do they know? I’m Charlie FUCKING Brooker, bruv. Don’t tell me the dangers of motherfucking technology!

Anywho, I’ve been reading a lot of people ranking episodes of Black Mirror on the internet, and I’m here to tell you they are ALL WRONG. They have no idea what they are talking about, actually — YOU are the only one who has the 100% factual ranking, the objective truth on which episodes of my work are amazing, and which ones are slightly less amazing. Only you have the correct ranking, Matthew. Please, spread your truth. Spread THE truth. You are the only one who truly can.

Your pal, Charlie Brooker.”

I don’t really know why he signed a video message, but that’s not the point — I had just been assigned a task from on high. Like God speaking to Moses, or God speaking to Abraham, or God speaking to Kevin Costner, I now knew what my purpose was. I knew what my task had to be. I knew why I was ALIVE, damn it — my opinion on Black Mirror was the only correct one, and it was my job to spread the truth of which episodes, objectively, rock. And so that’s what I’m doing. Here’s my ranking of every Black Mirror episode so far, all 19 stories of bad tech…and even worse people. Enjoy, but remember: I am the only one who is correct. And the rest of you are, simply, wrong.


19. “Playtest”

Black Mirror tackling the world of VR and future gaming should have been a home run, but man what a misfire this one was, on practically every level. Simultaneously failing to be an interesting look at the technology AND failing to tell an emotionally powerful story about its main character, “Playtest” came to an overtly twist-filled end mostly feeling like a waste of time. Director Dan Trachtenberg and star Wyatt Russell deserved a hell of a lot more than being a part of Black Mirror’s all-time worst episode. As it shall be known, since I said it.

18. “Men Against Fire”

Men Against Fire’s biggest crime by far is being mostly unmemorable. Despite being a rather recent episode of the show, I can barely remember what actually happened in it. The idea of manipulating soldiers into doing whatever you want through mental augmentation is extremely fucked up, fantastic territory for strong Black Mirror material, but I just wish the finished project was more noteworthy than what we got. As is stands, you’re better off playing Bioshock to essentially get the same message. Or, hell, even watching Hardcore Henry!

17. “Metalhead”

Metalhead is undeniably a cool episode technically, with the beautiful black and white cinematography and terror-inducing direction from David Slade making a strong initial impression. But at the end of the day it’s the thematically lightest episode of Black Mirror, one that can easily be summed up as “Woman runs from robot dog, defeats robot dog, but dies anyway.” There’s nothing else thematically or character wise to really latch on than the simple atmosphere, and well I can appreciate the bare bones approach works for some, it didn’t work for me. And since my opinion is the only one that is correct when it comes to Black Mirror, BOTTOM THREE TIME, “Metalhead.”

16. “Crocodile”

I liked “Crocodile” more than most I imagine, and kind of appreciated how wonderfully fucked up the entire journey is (it might be Black Mirror’s most darkest, or at the very least, most cynical episodes.) But despite Andrea Riseboroughs’ stellar performance, it’s hard to deny there’s more thematically interesting and emotionally powerful episodes of Black Mirror. 15 more, in fact!

15. “Arkangel”

The first half of “Arkangel” is GREAT, and what the episode says about child rearing in the modern (and near modern age) is really interesting. Too bad it kind of devolves into standard “teenage daughter dealing with controlling mother” fair in the second half, though. Turns what should have been an all-timer into a merely decent episode of the show. Jodie Foster’s direction was aces, though.

14. “Hated in the Nation”

Yes, I like the robot killer bee episode. Don’t @ me.

13. “The National Anthem”

Black Mirror’s inaugural episode is not even close to its finest hour, and is honestly probably not the best place to introduce viewers to what the show can really be at the height of its power. Why they would choose to open the show with the episode in which the Prime Minister fucks a pig is beyond me.

12. “Black Museum”

I LIKED BLACK MUSEUM FOLKS, AND ALL YOUR HOT TAKES ABOUT IT ARE BAD. CHARLIE BROOKER WANTED TO MAKE A SILLY LITTLE ANTHOLOGY EPISODE WITH A HEAVY DOSE OF META, SELF REFERENTIAL HUMOR, AND I SAY LET HIM! !!! IT’S LIKE TALES FROM THE CRYPT: BLACK MIRROR EDITION, AND I DUG IT. ALSO, THE TEDDY BEAR STORY WAS SUPER SAD, SO THERE!!!! CASE CLOSED, NO ARGUING, IT’S THE FACTUAL TRUTH. LET’S MOVE ON.

11. “White Bear”

I know a lot of people love “White Bear” but, man, I just found the entire episode to be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I can appreciate the subversion of the final scene and the important message it sends about how we treat those we view as criminals…but, man, I’d be totally fine to never have to experience this episode of television ever again.

10. “The Waldo Moment”

“The Waldo Moment” is bar none the most underrated episode of Black Mirror. I’m pretty certain that at least 50% of viewers probably have it as their least favorite episode, but I’m just here to say that they are completely wrong, that their opinions have no validity, and that they don’t deserve to ever watch this show again. “The Waldo Moment” is smart satire, the kind that only grows finer and finer as the world turns to shit and everything goes crazy. Ever since The Trump Infestation, the episode’s themes and message have failed to leave my mind. Certainly one of the show’s most surprisingly prescient installments.

9. “U.S.S. Callister”

“U.S.S. Callister” is, first and foremost, a surprisingly fun episode of Black Mirror. It doesn’t take itself extremely seriously, which is an enjoyable and different mood for the show to be in. The performances are also all top tier, from Cristin Miloti (who rocks everything) to Jesse Plemons (who rocks everything) and even Jimmi Simpson (who…you get the point.) I think it missed an ending that packed a bit more of a punch but, other than that, “U.S.S Callister” is a super enjoyable episode of Black Mirror, one that rightfully skewers the occasional grossness of obsessive, entitled video game players. After GamerGate, they probably deserve to be taken down another peg.

8. “San Junipero”

Is it a contrarian take to put “San Junipero,” undebatably the most beloved episode of Black Mirror, right at the halfway point in the rankings? For many of you, probably. But, to that, I say with the height of all my powers: BOO HOO, YOUR 80’s NOSTALGIA LESBIAN ROMANCE STORY ISN’T THE TOP OF THE LIST. HOW SAD.

But, in all seriousness: “San Junipero” is good! The performers do a great job, the writing is pretty good, and the direction is well-handled. But this episode didn’t punch me in the gut with greatness in the way the best episodes of the show usually do, and I can’t help but feel like the overwhelming love for it stems primarily from the fact that it was the first episode of the show to have a happy ending, which in 2016 filled people with so much joy and enthusiasm it became overwhelming. But, don’t worry, I’m here with clarity: the episode is straight down the middle of Black Mirror installments. Let the truth be known!

7. “Hang the DJ”

“Hang the DJ” is pretty much in the same basic territory of “San Junipero,” in that it tells a fundamentally romantic story in the midst of a crazy science fiction concept. And though it’s close, I would have to say that I like “Hang the DJ” a tad bit more, which is probably considered something of a Black Mirror crime from the fanbase. But, remember: you are wrong. “Hang the DJ” is a sweet episode of Black Mirror anchored by a fantastic main relationship, and a fascinating look into the world of future–and modern–dating. Plus, the song where the episode is SUPER catchy:

6. “Nosedive”

“Nosedive” is the rare episode of Black Mirror not written by Charlie Brooker, but in no way does that take away from the greatness of the episode. It helps that Brooker brought in equally talented writers Michael Schur and Rashida Jones to pen the episode, both of who give “Nosedive” a nice satirical drive, in the midst of the typical Black Mirror tragedy. And, sure, Community might have done it first, but A) the MeowMeowBeenz episode isn’t very good if we’re being honest and B) this episode does a far better job of bringing the concept to its proper, inevitable conclusion. Add on the best performance Bryce Dallas Howard has given in pretty much anything, and some excellent visuals from director Joe Wright, and you have one of Black Mirror’s best installment. In fact, I would wager that it’s the SIXTH best one! You heard it here first.

5. “Shut Up and Dance”

Remember in 2016, when Black Mirror Season 4 came out and everyone gave “Shut Up and Dance” its proper due as an amazing episode of television? No. of course you don’t, because it didn’t happen. But, don’t worry guys, I have come to pass the only correct judgement on the episode: it’s Black Mirror’s most socially relevant episode, a hell of a ride to watch, and features the show’s most shocking and subversive conclusion. In essence, it’s one of the show’s top 5 episodes. IT HAS BEEN KNOWN.

4. “The Entire History of You”

Probably the episode people think of most when they think of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You” is so awesome that it’s the only episode of the show that got a deal for its own standalone movie. And, to that, I say why not? The central tech at the center of “The Entire History of You” is so cool that Charlie Brooker returned to the basic idea a few times throughout the show (he likes eye based, pervasive tech you guys), and the story that the tech lends itself to in “The Entire History of You” is aces. Also, lead actor Toby Kebbell! Give Toby Kebbell more things, Holllywood. The Black Mirror God™ demands it.

3. “White Christmas”

“White Christmas” had me at “Jon Hamm making potatoes in a trailer,” and the episode only got better from there. Comprised of three mini-vignettes that ultimately combined to tell one grand story, “White Christmas” is something of a deviation for the show, even by Black Mirror standards. The anthology episode concept would ultimately be tried again in “Black Museum” but, given its position on the list, it is clear the show couldn’t top its first take on the idea. All the stories in “White Christmas” represent the show at some of its very best, and the fact it comes together in a haunting, thought-provoking way only adds icing on the cake. But…seriously. Jon Hamm. Makin’ potatoes. This episode was destined for greatness from the start.

2. “Fifteen Million Merits”

By far the show’s most ambitious, most intriguing, and most pure sci-fi leaning the show has ever been, it’s kind of insane that “Fifteen Million Merits” was the SECOND episode of the show to be created. It already presented such boldness and confidence, and a willingness to take the audience on a journey that is equal parts horrifying and intriguing. The world that “Fifteen Million Merits” manages to build is extremely impressive, especially when you consider they only had an hour to build it. Props especially have to be given to director Euros Lyn, whose experience with visually complex science fiction (particularly in Doctor Who) helped give the episode its most striking look. And lead by an absolute powerhouse performance from Daniel Kaluuya (who showed his penchant for largely non-vocal performing a full five years before Get Out), Fifteen Million Merits was Black Mirror going full swing into crazy science fiction, and I loved pretty much every single moment of it.

1. “Be Right Back”

I was very much torn with my ranking of the show’s best episodes, which just goes to show how great Black Mirror can be at its strongest. Conceivably, ANY of the Top 5 could have made this spot. But, as The Grand Decider of All Things Black Mirror (TM), it was my duty to actually dub an all-time best episode of the show. And, ultimately, I went with “Be Right Back.” After all, I I will never forget the first time I watched this installment of the show.

Easily the most emotionally powerful episode of the series, the first episode of Season 2 is unforgettable, it’s exploration of death and grief so brilliantly executed in its 48 minutes that I was left breathless by the end of it…and absolutely devastated. The performances from both Hayley Atwell (as always, R.I.P. Agent Carter) and Domhnall Gleeson are absolutely fantastic, and the direction from Owen Harris is memorable and beautiful (Harris also directed San Junipero, which  is only Ranked #8 on this list. Just thought I would remind you.) The best thing I can say about “Be Right Back” is this: I didn’t see it until after I saw Her, and in no way was the concept any less powerful or unique. Hell, considering the circumstances of the phone AI love story, “Be Right Back” is even more emotionally stirring. And I LOVED Her, you guys, so that’s a pretty big deal for me. Regardless, as THE ULTIMATE BLACK MIRROR DECIDER (TM) “Be Right Back” is complete TV brilliance. And I will hear no argument otherwise!

…But in complete, 100% seriousness: my list probably divulges substantially from yours. And that’s 100% okay. I’m not wrong for having “The Waldo Moment” in my Top 10, and you’re not wrong for having “San Junipero” as your likely number one. To quote the real Decider of All Things, Oprah Winfrey…live your truth. One of the best things about this show is that it affects viewers in wildly different ways, and what some might find great others might end up hating. By its anthology nature, you’re bound to get a lot of reactions to the dozens of things the show attempts to do.

But that’s the beauty of Black Mirror, isn’t it? Any show that can do “Be Right Back” AND “Metalhead” AND “San Junipero” is one very much worth praising. I don’t know if this is it for Black Mirror, but even if the show is never perfect and veer wildly from amazing to only okay between installments, there’s nothing else like it on television. And I’ll gladly take more of it any day of the week.


Also published on Medium.

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