Here we go, another year in peak TV. The well continues to broaden and deepen, with great directors and movie stars dropping into the once quaint suburb to stir some shit up. This year seemed to be about vulnerability, about trying to understand who we are from a place that’s not always quite safe. Here are the most interesting steps on that journey this year:
This Netflix show swings for the fences, an obvious 80’s pastiche that bears more than a passing resemblance to those adolescent adventures of the era, and is pretty much trying finish JJ Abrahm’s Super 8 lunch. Character development was a huge weakness of Super 8, with several kids under foot, each given about two lines of dialogue each to make their case for relevance. Spending four times longer with the residents of Stranger Things small town, we get actual dweebs and wanna-be socialites with enough texture to seem real. A mysterious girl shows up in town right on the heels of a child disappearance, but the unraveling of the mystery which drives the show is often complemented by emotional discovery taking place across town. As strangers meet, the balance between vulnerability and understanding is repeatedly tested. Something as innocuous as a father daughter relationship is reframed as a toxic power struggle. A grizzled town patriarch serves the town while carting around his own damage. A macabre meet-cute is mired by cross purposes. All of this swirls around a pretty cool looking supernatural tale that meters itself out pretty slowly, even at a brisk 8 episodes, which at its core involves a group of kids deciding whether to trust or avoid the weird new kid. Stranger Things isn’t a hearty dish, but it has been organized on the plate almost perfectly.
Best Reality TV
OJ Made in America
The basic story of a control freak who snapped and murdered his wife doesn’t seem to have a lot of twists and turns left to bring to light twenty years later. What is interesting though, is the environment that created OJ the American Hero and later OJ the killer victim, which as the title indicates is a uniquely American tale. Contextualizing OJ with the Watts race riots and 80’s consumerism, the insane national attention to the trial begins to make sense. OJ isn’t the vulnerable one here (at least not by 30 for 30’s measure), it’s the American people desperate to hang onto some piece of the dream of progress. This goes double for the maligned black community, which has few alive and successful heroes after centuries of institutionalized racism and outright assassination. Poignant and obviously relevant to today’s fractured American community, OJ’s Made in America documents a moral social protest for a man who probably didn’t deserve it.
Best Show To Make You Feel Erudite
Maria Bamford is both very funny and extremely off-kilter. One of her comedy specials takes place in her parent’s house, where they serve as both the audience and the butt of several jokes. If you’ve seen her on Kroll Show or trying to become an actor with Tobias on Arrested Development, you know she tends to play someone who clearly has some mental malady. The reason for her disturbed humor is revealed by her latest show Lady Dynamite, a Netflix collaboration with Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz. Bamford is bipolar II, a manic depressive who’s been institutionalized for a psychotic break. Sounds pretty funny so far right? Right? Guys? Actually, rather than shy away from her personal history she steers right into it. The arc of this season recounts in Chris Nolan style three timelines before, during, and after her stay at the mental hospital, slowly unraveling the cause and coping. It’s not a drama though, instead it’s a deranged anything for laughter meta fest that passes the mic to Patton Oswalt in the first episode because he’s probably better at that whole standup-in-the-tv-show thing anyway. Maria’s vulnerability gives the show an emotional core that makes crazy clever jokes hit harder, helped by tons of high talent drop ins like Andrew Daly and Sarah Silverman. Special attention should be paid to side-kick manager Bruce (Fred Malamet) who catches the pedophile joke dynamite and slays with his shyster incompetence. Maria keeps it funny and manic without approaching the disarrayed noisiness of a three minutes too long zany SNL skit, even when portraying giant fighting robots. Perhaps this is because it always has the message about mental stigma to reground with, or maybe because it always has a clever awareness in each moment. Hard to predict and rewarding, Lady Dynamite is comedy television on the bleeding edge.
Best Least Essential Genre Parody Show
In my opinion there are two major categories of comedy. One is the acerbic whipsnap of a well written joke, which the above entry is full of. The second kind is to search for laughter by living in a particularly strange or outsized character, either lovingly imitated or newly created. So although Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s love song to documentary film may not seem like a natural side project for the duo, it is actually right in their comedic sweet spot. Both love imitation, manifesting characters physically. Watch the video out there of Fred imitating different rock drummers for fun and it will start to look like a compulsion. And what better source of weirdo’s than the strange but true film genre of documentary, which painstakingly hunts down and records the tics and ideas of interesting people, usually damaged enough to make the story interesting. The obvious comparison is to Christopher Guest’s body of work (such as Spinal Tap), but this show flips through many different documentary styles and can have quite unexpected narrative styles in contrast to Guest’s character dioramas. Documentary Now is generally always firing on all cylinders as a hilarious parody but Armisen and Hader also take great pains to get into these characters, to create space with their impression and not always in the service of a joke. Documentary Now makes the central characters emerge from the tics and accents, displaying the vulnerability that might be driving them to act the way they do, just like all the best documentaries.
Originally published on Synthetic Error January 20, 2017