In the olden days — like, say, a year or two ago — TV critics held a slight edge on the folks who made year-end movies and music best-of lists. New albums keep dropping well into December, and Hollywood holds back some of its biggest pictures for the holiday break, but television? Shows debut in the fall, wrapped up in the spring and took the summer off. That's the way it was, for decades. Then the streaming services arrived, and started uploading entire new seasons just about anytime — including this past weekend, when Amazon delivered 10 new episodes of its award-winning dramedy Transparent. Even with advance screeners and the like, critics have been scrambling to binge.
But hey, with a show this excellent, who’s going to complain about a little last-minute, deadline-busting “work?" For anyone who loves artful, innovative television, the return of the Pfefferman clan was the no-doubt big event of the week, even when the airwaves were thick with finales: some for the midseason, some for the season, and some forever. This week's Top 5 TV will hit all those high points ... though not before pausing briefly to geek out over the surprise introduction of one of superherodom's greatest characters and praise the return of a familiar decider-in-chief.
5. Supergirl meets an unexpected new/old hero (CBS)
The Tiffany Network's entry into the superhero sweepstakes has been more "promising" than "can't miss" thus far, with a breezy tone and a winning Melissa Benoit lead performance compensating for a mythology that still seems paltry. (Don't get us started on last week's epsiode, which botched the debut of old-school DC Comics favorite Red Tornado. A red-skinned android who can make cyclones with his arms — that should’ve been so much cooler.) But this week's installment, titled "Human for a Day," made up for past stumbles, as it followed the heroine courageously standing up to criminals even though she'd been drained of her powers.
And then came the long-awaited unmasking of the seemingly sinister government agent Hank Henshaw. The producers threw a curveball at longtime comic readers; for weeks, we'd expected the Fed to be exposed as the comic book villain known as Cyborg Superman. Instead, he confessed to being a telepathic alien shape-shifter — specifically, J'onn J'onzz, a.k.a. "The Martian Manhunter." Suddenly, Supergirl's producers have added one of DC's oldest and most noble heroes to the mix, as well as proving that they can spring a good playing-the-long-game surprise. The rest of this first season suddenly looks a lot stronger.
4. Dubya throws his hat back into the ring on SNL (NBC)
Saturday Night Live has already scored a couple of coups this election season: getting Hillary Clinton play a bartender in a sketch with Kate McKinnon; calling on Larry David to do a Bernie Sanders impression so spot-on that it's now impossible not to hum the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme every time the candidate appears on television. (And then there was the whole "Donald Trump hosting” thing, which was … not the show's finest hour.) But on Saturday, the late-night show pulled off maybe its best presidential surprise yet, in a cold opening that reintroduced "the people's politician": Will Ferrell playing George W. Bush. For five glorious minutes, the former SNL MVP brought back his halting Texas accent, to do what amounted to a celebrity roast of the leading Republican candidates, from Rubio to Cruz. ("Sounds like a Miami law firm. If you've been injured on the job, call Rubio and Cruz.")
The bit had everything Ferrell fans love about his Dubya: He flashed some smug frat-boy swagger while mocking his "brother" Jeb's new exclamation point ("I don't like the taste of broccoli, but it doesn't get any tastier if you call it 'Broccoli!'"). And he even threw in a random comment about Tex-Mex food, saying, "I enjoy the slow-roasted carnitas at Chevy's. Laura always orders the Baja Sampler with the blue crab enchiladas." In short: It was a terrific old-school SNL sketch, and one predicated on the somewhat discomfiting idea that if G.W. really did run for president again, he'd be more appealing than anyone else the G.O.P. have to offer right now.
3. You're the Worst pulls out of its sprial in season finale (FXX)
Creator Stephen Falk made the show's fans sweat a bit during the sitcom's sophomore run, by putting the cranky, proudly irresponsible L.A. couple Jimmy and Gretchen through an emotional wringer, set in motion by a recurrence of the latter's clinical depression. The payoff arrived in the season's penultimate episode, with Gretchen bursting into grateful tears over Jimmy's decision to stay with her rather than running off with another women. With her numbness having finally subsided, the season finale felt like an overdue return to the show's happier days, as everyone went back to misbehaving because they wanted to, not because everything's falling apart.
Directly paralleling the first season-ender, "The Heart Is a Dumb Dumb" mostly took place at a party thrown by the persistently awful Becca and Vernon, where an excess of alcohol and honesty turned a carefully stage-managed birth announcement into high farce. All the fast-paced drunken mayhem was a gift to all the YtW-lovers who can appreciate the show's serious turns, as well as those who tune in to hear the butthole described as "the bronze medal" (because it's the third-best hole), or to hear a pregnant character declare she has "a baby in my pussy." Between the tender karaoke rendition of "Don't Know Much" and an ending that saw Gretch and Jimmy saying "I love you" for the first time, this episode was like a sweet shot of liqueur after a heavy meal.
2. Getting On goes out in flames… literally (HBO)
Unlike The Leftovers and Enlightened, which both developed some cult cachet in their second seasons, HBO's "gray comedy" Getting On never built much buzz, even though it stayed consistently good throughout its 18-episode run. The series finale, "Reduced to Eating Boiled Magazines and Book Paste," didn't try too hard to wrap anything up, because this was never that kind of show. (Although it did end with nurse Dawn accidentally burning down her geriatric ward.) Instead, director Miguel Arteta and writers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer mostly emphasized the slow decline of the daily routine at Billy Barnes Hospital, described by embittered elder-care physician Dr. Jenna James as "like a teen slumber party with dying."
And yet, for a show mainly interested in finding grim humor in the drudgery and bureaucracy of the healthcare industry, Getting On could always be counted on to deliver the occasional out-of-the-blue moment of clarity. The finale was mostly about the very common, frustrating feeling that nothing about the way things end is ever fully in our control — not with our jobs, relationships, government, or lives. But as Dr. James prepared to give Dawn one of her kidneys, she comforted her friend by saying, "There is no justice, but there is mercy, because that's what we can give to each other." It was a rare, much-appreciated glimmer of hope ... and a graceful goodbye.
1. Transparent 2.0 opens with one perfect shot (Amazon)
The first season of writer-director-producer Jill Soloway’s cutting-edge dramedy was quirky and shaggy, like something angling to win a prize at the Sundance film festival. But the second season? It's geared more toward Cannes, with an increased level of narrative sophistication and cinematic flourish — up to and including the show's initially inexplicable, later profound flashbacks to the decadence of pre-WWII Berlin. After spending its first 10 episodes exploring the simultaneous midlife crises of the upper-class Pfefferman family, the crown jewel of Amazon's scripted programming is using its next round to show how making radical changes (regarding your gender, marital status or life choices) doesn't mean that a person has figured everything out.
The ambition of the show's new angle is obvious from the opening five minutes, which consists of one long shot of the entire family, lining up to take a wedding photo and all talking over each other. Without getting too flashy about it, Soloway uses the introduction to catch fans up on what's happened — but she's also subtly setting up a contrast with another long take at the end of the episode, which pans across a suite of hotel rooms to find the individual Pfeffermans isolated into little boxes. Already one of the best series on TV (streaming or otherwise), Transparent has improbably improved, becoming more aesthetically exciting and energetic. And it's all to a purpose, underlined in that first scene, which shows how a moment of togetherness and celebration can quickly take a turn.