8. Westworld (Season 1) on HBO
The first episode of Westworld I watched was the finale, and I was under the impression that it was the pilot the whole time. The more of Westworld I've watched since then, the more wish I had stopped there. For all the finale wasn't a particularly good show—the HBO house style is ass—it at least presented a potentially compelling world to be fleshed out. Finding out that it was the fleshing out of its world was really disappointing; finding out that Westworld is a show about fleshing out its world in the most plodding, boring way imaginable was even more so.
7. Stranger Things (Season 1) on Netflix
What I mostly remember about Stranger Things now is that it was pretty boring. The kind of thing that did well by most of its aspects, but in a way closer to 'mediocre' than 'great' more often than not. The Upside Down is probably the best example of that, but so is the incorporation of games and the whole aesthetic. I remember enjoying Cameron Kunzelman and Aaron Bady's essays about utopian play in the show, as well as Ethan Robinson's calling bullshit on the Intelligence Community aspects. I also remember making a list of 10 non-80s aesthetic influences, and writing half an essay about how much I thought the D&D sequences in particular were little better than the cryptofascism of the whole show encapsulated. I also said at one point that I had written my Stranger Things thinkpiece four years earlier in a review of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, and I think that's still probably true. Watch that movie instead it's way better.
6. Infomercials on Adult Swim
Adult Swim's Infomercials block is most famous for being what brought "Too Many Cooks" into the world, and it's not so much a show as a place for short films to be shown. I spent a good amount of time this year watching the entire run of films in this block, usually for something to do while eating breakfast. I'm still not a huge fan of "Too Many Cooks," and the majority of things that get played in it, but there are a handful of very good things hidden there. And, somewhat surprisingly, the shorts aired in this slot this year contain some of the best stuff Adult Swim has put into the block.
Specifically, this year had the pretty solid parody of 90s school/robot films in "M.O.P.Z.," a short film about a lazy janitor in a ludicrously dirty school who builds himself a robot. On TV it ran 11 minutes, sped up to quadruple speed; you can find the re-slowed version on Youtube and it runs about 45. "Live at the Necropolis: The Lords of Synth" pretends to be found footage from a cosmic duel of synthesizer music that parodies some very early pioneers, and for everything it lacks in compelling character or story (beyond the initial joke) it makes up for with impeccable style. Mostly, though, this sneaks onto the list because of Alan Resnick's "This House Has People In It," a security-cam short about a family whose day goes really bad when their teenage daughter is found not to be sulking but actually stuck to the floor, and sinking. The way that "House" nestles itself right into that uncanny point between horror and comedy and actively breathes it is impressive, and the way that the actors really go all out in losing their shit is kind of perfect. It's useful, too, because the scenario doesn't really lend itself to communicating any affect; you don't want to laugh or scream so much as feel an incredible discomfort, and having an actor storm around screaming manages to both amplify that while providing some sort of weird catharsis at the same time.
If it's not exactly a TV show, that's okay; I'm literally listing off everything I watched in this format from this year that I remember. And if some of the other shorts aren't great—things like "Giles Vanderhoot" and "NewsHits" are much too straight-comedy for my taste, and "MulchTown" was interesting but felt way too Dogme '95-lite—that's okay, too. Any real list would definitely have dropped the two before this anyway. So call this a cutting off point, if you'd like, and treat it as a top 5; the rest of these shows are traditional shows and all things that I liked quite a bit.
5. Lady Dynamite (Season 1) on Netflix
After over a decade of actively distancing myself from comedy, I ended up exploring it again for the first time in a long time this year. A handful of stand up specials was most of it, but the best was Maria Bamford's Netflix show Lady Dynamite, even if it was itself kind of a disappointment. Some of that was down to my own expectations that weren't even justified by pre-release stuff or discussion I heard around it while it was out. The rest, though, is that I think it's a pretty decent show, with some aspects that are strong, but it's largely not all that special.
The thing I hoped that Lady Dynamite would do would be to shed light on the material fuckedness of comedy; the way that The Aristocrats did against its own desires all those years ago, and in a way Lady Dynamite did seem poised to do just that. The semi-autobiographical series hinges around Bamford's hospitalization which is explicitly talked about in terms of pressure from the entertainment/comedy business and her return to it; what better setup to talk about the incestuous, gatekept field that so aggressively inculcates any successful participant with ideological claims about things like free speech than someone who was deep in it, blinked in its face, and then returned?
On the other hand, though, that's hardly Bamford's job, and it isn't like what she does do isn't needed in the field. Her show's structural representation of mental health has been pretty widely praised, and she is genuinely one of the better comedians in terms of that kind of stutter-heavy comic timing that I do appreciate quite a bit. Even the show's most ham-handed moments—her episode-long jokes about her own failure to deal in a nuanced way with race or sexuality, especially—can at least be read against the Party Lines of Comedians that boil down to that bogus idea of equal opportunity offenders.
I still do want her—or anyone, really—to tackle what a shitty place comedy is. Someday.
4. Wayward Pines (Season 2) on FOX
The first season of Wayward Pines opened with a pilot episode directed by M. Night Shyamalan and adapted a series of novels that seem, to be frank, really shit. In clear debt to Twin Peaks (although it might be more honest to say that it feels more like the attempts to recapture Twin Peaks immediately after its success, most notably Oliver Stone's cyberpunkish television event Wild Palms) and holds onto that for too long. Wayward Pines, you see, is a little town our protagonist finds himself in after a car crash, and it's already a little too kitschy Americana before he realized that it's surrounded by a massive electric fence. The first season largely concerns the question of what's going on with the town, and the world around it. It ends pretty definitively, and unless my memory is wrong, was meant to finish that way, more event television than an ongoing series.
The second season, which aired in 2016, doesn't exactly hit the ground running because of this. With the protagonist and the town's leadership dead, it needs to figure out how to introduce not only a whole new structure to the town, but a new protagonist at the same time, and to simultaneously establish conflict between the two. It also develops an almost entirely new supporting cast.
But in a year where we got not only The Man in the High Castle on television (which I haven't seen, else this would be a top 9 list, or read) but actual full-on fascism, my gut is that there actually isn't a better show to point to about fascism from this year. It's mostly visual throughout the season, but toward the end it becomes brutally obvious that it is intentional, to the point that it's almost cringeworthy. This is, I think, to its benefit; at one point, for instance, one of the townspeople mocks a soldier for wearing a brown shirt, making the parallel direct. The soldier responds in a kind of brilliant way: he simply informs the townsperson that they have a full file on him, and so know his troublemaking past and that he will not change. I can't think of anything much more full fucking Nazi than that, other than one of the twists at the end which, well. Folks who want to see a neat television show that is messy and not at all prestigious, look away, because there's no way to beat around the bush here. I'd seriously recommend doing so! But here's the spoiler anyway: the show directly and violently defines Nazism as oedipal. Not metaphorically. It's a fucking Thing.
Otherwise, Wayward Pines does a pretty good job (for my taste at least) in managing its chaos (or, more accurately, failing to), and presents a goofy, stupid world that's enjoyable to play around in for a while.fkl;.
3. The Shannara Chronicles (Season 1) on MTV
My full review of The Shannara Chronicles is here.
The secret argument I want to make is that Shannara is a series that is infinitely more crucial to the existence of the Fantasy genre than Tolkien's books. Part of that's contrarianism, sure, but most of it's about the realities of distribution and marketing and how risk-aversion in publishing isn't a consequence of a breakout success but its replication. Some of my love of The Shannara Chronicles is because it lets me keep thinking about that potential piece of writing, but most of it is because it's a fucking weird show about a shitty boy that isn't ostentatious about his shittiness, which does a good job of making fun of itself and of keeping together the things it needs to. That scene in the preserved Prom where Ohmsford finds the collection of D&D dice is so good, man.
2. Scream (Season 2) on MTV
Wes Craven's death during the production of the first season of Scream made me want to see if it was a show worth watching—that and knowing that I would likely be reviewing The Shannara Chronicles when it came out, which meant I wanted to get a sense of MTV's current style—and it sure is. The first season did exactly what it ought to have done: it paid lip service to both the metafiction of the series and to the updating it needed to do (viral videos and cell phones), and then it got to business telling the sort of story that holds up its loose ends for the viewer's pleasure, and that makes excuses to frame neat sequences in exciting ways.
Season two picks up a couple months after the end of the first, and it also does something it needed to: it gets the first kill out of the way, and then spends the bulk of the season just living with the characters. It's hardly flawless and sometimes even a little ugly where it oughtn't be, but it's such a nice way to spend some time, and so in keeping with Craven's body of work (especially Scream) that I can't help but be a fan of it. Not the slow burn as such, but the goofy bullshit of it; the same way that films like Deadly Friend or Music of the Heart make it clear that Craven often wanted to make things that didn't rely on horror, and how Scream 4 and My Soul to Take made it clear that he held things close and was excited about them even when they might not pay off, the second season of Scream feels like a thing to be cherished in all its mess and care. That the season ends with a double-episode "Halloween Special" aired months after the rest, and which is basically a Scooby-Doo movie, is sort of the point: there's a quality of stumbling through capital, real and social, that defines Craven's work (and was thematized in his houses) and this season starts to really feel like that.
1. Gravity Falls (Finale) on Disney XD
Gravity Falls' series finale was the only episode that aired in 2016, and it's good enough to put any list that didn't include it to shame. The series—(animated) Twin Peaks for kids is the usual, and fairly representative, elevator pitch—caught me with its National Treasure parody episode, and kept me with it by being a genuinely pleasant thing to watch. It isn't the mystery that kept me going, or the characters (although the characters are pretty fucking wonderful) but the way that the show has a sense of purpose and joy to it. And, at the risk of repeating myself, it isn't purposive in the sense of things like Establishing Character Arcs or Advancing The Plot, either; just to set up its moments with little stories, and to live in this little town for a moment. I really love it for that.
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