For the past several weeks, TV critics and creators gathered in Beverly Hills for the annual Television Critics Association press tour, where the networks previewed the upcoming season and everyone talked a lot about the state of the medium. One of the big topics of conversation was whether the recent boom in original programming has led to an unmanageable glut. In short: Are we so bombarded with quality these days that clearing out our DVRs is becoming a chore?
That’s a valid question. Yet looking down our “Top Five TV” list below, we see outstanding shows that wouldn’t exist if content-providers didn’t have so many holes to fill. So in our weekly appreciation of the boob tube’s best and buzziest, it seems as good a time as any to express gratitude toward the basic cable shows that are better than anyone could’ve expected, and to hail the personal and political statements that have found a welcoming home. There’s a lot of TV out there. If they keep hitting this high a bar, then Viva Le Glut.
5. Mr. Robot airs its most circuit-frying episode yet (USA)
Up until this past Wednesday, the hacker drama’s antihero Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) has presented himself as a morally righteous, socially anxious super-hacker, cautiously affiliated with the anarchic, anti-corporate organization “fSociety.” But it’s also been obvious that he’s a little nutso, and is either hallucinating or misunderstanding much of what he describes in his narration. So when this week’s “White Rose” (or, more accurately, “eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v”) pulled several series-changing switcheroos in its last 10 minutes, they weren’t wholly unexpected. But holy crap, were they stunning.
It turns out — spoilers ahead — that in Elliot’s narcotics-clouded brain, he’d forgotten that fSociety’s aloof, alluring coder Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is actually his sister, and that the group’s probably imaginary leader “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater) has the face of their late father. And then, as a twist on the twist, Elliot blamed us, the viewers, for not telling him what was going on, since we’ve clearly known from the start that something was off (and since apparently he can hear us yelling at our TVs). The whole sequence was mind-bending, completely changing our understanding of the hero’s mission.
Creator Sam Esmail has conceived something stylish, allusive, and tricky here — the kind of series where the villain’s wife speaks of murder and then scrubs away at a stubborn stain, so that everyone will be hip to the Shakespearean pretensions. But while the showrunner and his protagonist have been treating the audience as their savvy co-conspirators, they’ve also turned on us savagely every now and then, to shake us out of our complacency. No one’s meant to remain passive while watching a damaged young man try to blow up civilization as we know it.
4. Humans and Rectify wrap up strong seasons (AMC/SundanceTV)
Tales of artificial intelligence tend to poke at our sense of what it means to be alive. Though Humans is about robots (kind of like how Mr. Robot is about humans), it’s hard to recall a more humane TV moment this year than a faulty android comforting his fatally wounded master by reciting shared memories, before dispassionately saying, “You have died, George.” And in this week’s season finale, there’s a strong sense of loss as the show’s central family says goodbye to the rebel machines who’ve made their lives so complicated. Here’s hoping that Humans‘ already-ordered second season will continue to explore the connections — both positive and negative — between biology and technology, how parents program their kids, and how there’s not much difference between a faulty piece of code and a deep character flaw.
It’s also reassuring to know that TV’s seemingly infinite platform has room for the offbeat and the brainy — including Sundance’s Rectify, a hard-to-classify hybrid of low-boil indie film and daytime soap opera. Per usual, creator Ray McKinnon keeps the pace slow and his rural Southern characters reflective. By the end of the this week’s finale, it looks like both the legal system and ex-con Daniel Holden (Aden Young) are ready to move on from the rape and murder case that put him in jail as a teenager. Yet even now, with three full seasons in the books, he still ponders how the world has changed during his two decades in prison. What makes the show so irreplaceable is that it’s the only drama on cable that finds more poignancy in a guy getting his first ATM card than in him getting cleared of a crime.
3. When clip-shows attack!, Rick & Morty (Adult Swim)
If you’re a fan of Community and you’re not watching Rick & Morty… um, why the hell not? This week’s “Total Rickall” might just be the ideal first episode for newcomers, because it’s packed with co-creators Justin Rolland and Dan Harmon’s mutual love of high-concept science-fiction and self-referential pop culture. When parasitic aliens invade the Smith household, the family begins having fond recollections of past adventures, each of which spawns a new beloved character: a talking pencil, a British butler, an Amish cyborg, and so on. Soon, the cutesy newcomers are crowding the living room, and the Smiths are in danger of getting sucked into a vortex of pleasant, albeit fictional memories, until mad scientist Uncle Rick prods them to start shooting anyone who they don’t feel bitter and resentful towards.
It’s a gag-a-second episode tumbled together with Star Trek‘s “The Trouble With Tribbles” and an even sourer aftertaste than most of the show’s episodes — which means it’ll probably only appeal to those who don’t mind staring straight into the sucking void of a veteran TV writers’ soul. But for those who are just that perverse… again, what have you been waiting for? Watch this show!
2. Billy Eichner lowers his voice, Difficult People (Hulu)
No slight intended to Julie Klausner, who’s the highly witty creator, writer, and star of Hulu’s new original series, but the biggest revelation after the first three episodes of Difficult People is how funny her co-star Billy Eichner can be when he’s not shouting. The duo play a pair of New York pals who’ve built a following on-line for their snarky comments about celebrities (they’re less-famous versions of themselves, in other words), and similar to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cringe-comedy springs from how these irascible folks deal with the minor problems of modern life.
Originally developed for USA — then dropped when the network reconsidered its comedy plans — the show is now being posted weekly on Hulu, and thank god for it. The third installment, “Pledge Week,” watches as Julie and Billy fear they’re not getting invited to events because they’ve hurt the feelings of too many famous people. They try to turn nice, but keep getting frustrated by encounters with what they call “participators”: ordinary people who sing along at concerts or volunteer to be part of a magic act. Eichner argues that non-pro performers should stick to Halloween and karaoke, or when he tries to figure out why he wasn’t invited to a Simpsons cast party and mutters, “I bet I said something provocative about Yeardley Smith on Instagram at one point.” He’s biting and self-pitying all at once. He’s lovably lousy.
1. Politics get personal, Show Me a Hero (HBO)
F. Scott Fitzgerald fanatics will recognize the a quote that gives David Simon’s new six-hour miniseries for HBO it’s title: “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” Here the tragic protagonist is Nick Wasicsko, who in 1987 became the 28-year-old mayor of Yonkers, New York, just as the city was hit with a court order demanding ample affordable housing — against the wishes of many of the neighborhoods’ longtime residents. Inside Llewyn Davis‘ Oscar Isaac makes the perfect neophyte politician: optimistic, ambitious, good-humored, and occasionally a little sleazy. With two episodes down and four to go over the next two Sundays, it’s already stressful watching Wasicsko lose his spirit as he gets pilloried by furious constituents.
The real star of Hero however, is it’s writer-producer — better known as the creator of The Wire, Treme, and Generation Kill. Alongside co-writer William F. Zorzi and director Paul Haggis (yes, the man behind the divisive Oscar-winner Crash), Simon has taken Lisa Belkin’s book about public housing and turned it into a nail-biter. The miniseries spends some time with Yonkers’ poorer residents to provide context for what’s at stake, but mostly it illustrates how politicians rile up the populace to get out the vote, only to find that angry mobs can be their worst enemies. One despairing image — in which the city council sits powerlessly across the bottom third of the screen while the top two-thirds is filled with shouting voters — sums up our current democratic process with sharp wit and sharper verve. It’s a classic-in-the-making from the get go.