Shows That Didn’t Quite Make The Top Ten
When listing his Best Films of the Year, Roger Ebert had a habit of presenting a Jury Prize — the kind of awards film festivals present for movies that just weren’t great enough to be considered the best. I’ve often thought television could learn a thing or two from this. So, here are five series I watched that very easily could’ve been considered among the best of the year.
I made the foolish mistake of ignoring the first season of this daring series about the ballroom scene of New York in the late 1980s. But just twenty minutes into the second season of Ryan Murphy’s farewell show for FX, and I was hooked. I have absolutely nothing in common with any of the characters that inhabit the African-American gay/trans community, but I could pick up really quickly on how angry they were at a world that ignored a virus slaughtering them, and a world that didn’t even investigate when one of them was murdered. This is a remarkable series, almost completely free of the campiness that filled so many of even the best of Murphy’s work and none of the energy or brilliant talent. Billy Porter fully deserved the Emmy he got for his work earlier this year as Pray Tell, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of him on award daises the next month. And the rest of the cast is just as riveting to watch. It says a lot about a show with this much darkness that it opens with the words ‘The category is LIVE!” and watching the rest of the cast work, I can see they’re determined to do just that.
This is Us (NBC)
Don’t get me wrong. I still think that this is one of the best series on the air, but I’m beginning to think the writers are becoming just a little too fond of watching the McCallister family suffer. Rebecca developing memory problems that will ultimately render her speechless, whatever history happens between Kate and her boyfriend, whatever happens that leads to Randall and Kevin not speaking in the future — it’s starting to become a bit much. But that doesn’t change the fact that its still willing to do some of the most brilliant TV on any format. ‘The Waiting Room’ episode in Season 3, and the Season 4 premiere were among the most incredible works the series has managed to do yet. And watching Uncle Nicky finally manage to triumph after years of struggling with his addictions and his PTSD was one of those moments that only This is Us is capable of. We cry and laugh for these families through all of their problems, and despite the flashforwards we see, I really hope that there’s room for some kind of happiness in between.
Better Things (FX)
One of the more unpleasant shocks of this year’s Emmys was the complete shutout of Pamela Adlon’s incredible, sorrowful comedy series. As Sam Fox turned 50 and had to face increasing amounts of disarray — her children continuing to ignore her best hopes, Phil continuing to treat her and her family as if they were something she’d rather forget, the problems she had with her father than were a consistent trauma, and just the struggles of getting older — Adlon was majestic when it came to showing simple dismay at, well, everything. Considering that she starred, wrote and directed every episode this season, I can’t for the life of me figure out why the Emmys shorted her. They found room for Natasha Lyonne and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Adlon’s as good. But then again, maybe that’s more of the suffering that she manage to internalize into some more exceptional comedy and tears. Sam managed a moment of triumph near the end. I think there’s room for more for Adlon.
City on a Hill (Showtime)
Showtime has done its fair share of genre busting television over the last decade, but in the past year, it has demonstrated that it is more than capable of taking a familiar trope and turning in gold. This cops and robbers drama set in 1992 Boston, one of the most gang-ridden and corrupt periods for the town followed the unlikely partnership of Decaurcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), an ambitious black prosecutor, and Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon doing some of his best work in any medium) an FBI agent so corrupt that he needs a big bust just to stay afloat a little longer. It doesn’t take long for Ward to realize just how dirty Jackie is, and it doesn’t take the viewer long to see how fully Jackie’s protected himself. Paying equal attention to the family mired in bank robberies and crime, we find just how messy this world and how soon it may be cleaned up, though people like Jackie will fight to their last, whiskey soaked breath. This series had one of the best casts of any show this year (Sarah Shahi, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy) many of them doing their best work in a while. It’s hard to see how they can do a second season as good, but if they do, this could be Showtime’s The Wire. It’s good to see Tom Fontana back in form.
Were it just for presence of ‘Jeopardy’ James Holzhauer, a Vegas gambler so skilled he nearly broke every conceivable record, this long time favorite would be on the list. But with the Jeopardy All-Star Challenge, bringing back some of the most memorable Jeopardy players of all time, some of the more brilliant champions in years — including Jason Zuffrenetti, who bridged the 35th and 36th with a nineteen game winning streak, and the quiet dignity and presence of Alex Trebek, whose health struggles this year have made him something close a hero for just doing what he has done so well for more than thirty-five seasons — something a competitor in the Tournament of Champion chose to acknowledge with the simple words: “We love you, Alex” in a moment that went viral — this classic game show reached heights that it hasn’t managed it years just for being the same. The contestants are the only reality show stars I will ever acknowledge, and no matter what happens in his future, it deserves to be remembered for more than in its unforgettable think music.