Thursday, July 16, 2015

If I Had an Emmy Ballot 2015: Outstanding Drama and Comedy Series

Can Orange Is the New Black survive the move from comedy to drama?

This is it, the Emmy nominations are about a half-hour away and we’ve already covered all of the main acting categories.  That brings us to the big show:  the Outstanding Series categories – Best in Show, if you will.  As I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts my comedy viewing was a little light this year, so there are a couple of sure-thing nominees you won’t see here, like Veep or Transparent.  The drama side, on the other hand, is incredibly deep with almost twenty shows to choose from. 

As for the actual nominees, it will be an interesting year.  The academy expanded the Outstanding Series categories to seven nominees meaning we might get some fresh blood.  On the drama side, True Detective and Breaking Bad are both gone, but Orange Is the New Black will certainly take one of those two spots.  That leaves only two open drama slots barring a surprising turn against Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Mad Men.  The comedy side has a similar problem, with only Orange’s space opening up for a new show.  Transparent seems like an obvious candidate to fill that gap and I don’t see a lot of other changes, meaning only one other show can join the party..

We’ll start my selections off on the drama side with FX’s The Americans.  I wrote a decent amount about this show when I discussed Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Emmy candidates, but it should suffice to say that The Americans is one of television’s most consistently excellent shows.  Everything about it works, from the home life of Philip and Elizabeth, to the spycraft, to individual scenes like Philip’s alter-ego exposing himself to his other wife, a mark who had no idea what she had gotten involved in.  For whatever reason, this series has flown entirely under the Emmy radar, and that’s a damn shame.

I’m finding it impossible to be too hyperbolic about the success of Game of Thrones.  Every year I wonder how it’s going to sustain itself and build on the previous season and every year they figure out.  The show’s fifth season soared largely because it finally revealed its endgame.  All of this fighting over thrones and lands is meaningless.  The real war is still ahead, with the White Walkers, whose utter devastation of the Wildlings and Jon Snow’s forces was the highlight of the season, on one side and Dany’s dragons almost certainly on the other.  Anything else at this point is just sidelight.

Justified might have been television’s most up-and-down show.  When it was firing on all cylinders, as in season two, there were few shows more energetic, action-packed, and even funny, than Justified.  But when it was stumbling, it was often times a mediocre show still anchored by a few good performances.  The show’s final season was, thankfully, an “all cylinders” kind of year, with the story of Raylan Givens wrapped up about as well as it could be.  Garrett Dillahunt and Sam Eliot brought the evil this year, with their plot to take over Harlan but, really, everybody this year got time to shine.  Not many shows get to go out at their best, but Justified was pretty darn close.

The Leftovers was not an easy show to watch.  Bad things happened to good people constantly.  Hell, the entire premise – of a show set three years after two percent of the world’s population vanished for no reason – was about bad things happening to good people.  But, ultimately, The Leftovers became a show about grief, about balancing the need to remember our loved ones with the need to move on and what happens when we favor one over the other.  It was difficult subject matter, to be sure, but powerful.

I don’t know that Mad Men’s final season was its best, but the bar was set so high for the show that even a slight dip in quality puts it well ahead of most other shows on television.  This past year was, at points, disjointed, with Don trying to find meaning and purpose in his life and the world of Sterling, Cooper, and Partners in constant flux.  But, ultimately, everybody got an ending that suited them.  And the journey was pretty great, too.

I still don’t like putting Orange Is the New Black in the drama category, but here it is.  OITNB, more than any show right now, is perfectly comfortable in its own skin  Here’s a show with one of the most diverse casts on television, not because they’re consciously trying to be diverse, but because that’s what the story demands.  One of several shows this year to take a big leap forward in its sophomore season, OITNB is one of the very best series on television – comedy or drama.

A lot has been written about the “slowness” of Sundance’s Rectify, about how it takes place over a short period of time and nothing much happens.  But the truth is, Rectify, more than just about any other show on television, is about the journey.  The show seems utterly unconcerned with Daniel’s actual guilt or innocence.  Sure there’s the constant threat of him having to go back to prison, but you have to figure that’s the case for any person suddenly released from death row.  Rectify may not be everybody, but it certainly is for me.

Others Considered: Banshee, Empire, The Flash, Fortitude, Halt and Catch Fire, The Knick, Manhattan, Masters of Sex, Vikings, The Walking Dead

On the comedy side of things, we start with Brooklyn Nine-Nine which, like Orange Is the New Black, Rectify, and another show about to appear on this list, took a huge step forward in its second season.  The characters were fleshed out and grouped together in new and interesting ways while the laughs just kept coming.  Nobody’s going to mistake Nine-Nine for high-brow comedy, but it is the one show on television that consistently makes me laugh more than any other.

The CW’s Jane the Virgin is all about heart.  It was a complete surprise that a show this crazy could maintain its quality from week to week, but it did.  The telenovela plots were often outrageous, but the show succeeded largely by grounding itself in the characters, especially in the relationship between Jane, her mother, and her grandmother.  Jane was top-notch comedy from start to finish, which is incredibly hard to do on network television these days.

I don’t know that you could find a show more different from Jane the Virgin than Louie.  Its constant tone of almost dread makes a great counterpoint for its humor, which is typically about making Louie look like an idiot.  Mostly, though Louie has a way with story.  He knows how to craft his stories, whether it takes two episodes, six episodes, or eight minutes.  The economy of storytelling is marvelous.

Parks and Recreation took a victory lap in 2015, finishing its improbable seven season run in style.  The three-year time jump reinvigorated the show, giving life to new stories that helped inform old relationships.  The war between Leslie and Ron was a little difficult to watch, but its resolution was worth it all.  And the sendoff each character received was perfect.  Sure, everybody got a happy ending, but that’s the only way that Parks and Rec could go out.

The last show to take a sophomore leap was HBO’s Silicon Valley, which went from funny and clever in its 2014 to flat-out great in 2015.  Silicon Valley draws occasional comparisons to Entourage in the way its characters are always being faced with new, outside challenges, but the biggest difference is that not everything ends up working out perfectly for the Valley characters.  There’s no guarantee of a happy ending on this show, which makes the drama that much better.

As I said when discussing the supporting actors, Togetherness is a difficult show to watch.  It’s about an imperfect marriage that may or may not be falling apart and it’s unclear whether it will work out.  It’s not that either one is eager for things to be over, they just don’t know how to keep things going.  For those who can move past the subject matter, though, it’s a very rewarding piece.

Lastly, we come to Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  As I’ve said before, the premise is ridiculous, and the show likely would have tanked on NBC, where it was originally supposed to air.  But, somehow, everything comes together.  Kimmy’s gullibility meshes nicely with the Titus’s outsized personality and Jacqueline’s unbounded narcissism.  It’s not a perfect show, and still holds to a network sensibility, but it provides a lot of laughs and has a lot of heart.

Others Considered: Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Girls

So those are my final picks for the best television shows of the 2014-15 season.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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