Summer TV is barely in full swing and fall TV is still months away — and yet 2015 has already been a packed TV year, with the premieres of terrific new shows and returning favorites burning brighter than ever before. Journey back with us through some of these highlights.
NEW SHOWS, by Margaret Lyons
Smart and dark, wry and incisive, Lifetime’s summer drama has hit every mark a freshman show can hit. Set within a Bachelor-esque reality show, UnREAL skewers reality-TV tropes not just as rote television but as damaging representations of forced femininity. Our heroine Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is just as broken as the contestants she manipulates, and there’s something both intriguing and vile about the way she squishes these three-dimensional people into two-dimensional reality-show contestants. UnREAL is cynical about television and society, and yet a tiny bit hopeful about individual humans. It finds drama in that tension; in that conflict between participating in a broken system and knowing that if you leave, things will get even worse. Rachel does bad things, cruel things, dangerous things. But her bosses are worse, somehow. Aren’t they? Or is that just the story we all have to tell ourselves so we can accept the choices we’ve made?
The show can be dirty and silly, too — it’s not a lecture, and it’s not judgmental about pleasure. Sex is fun, and people want to have it. Everlasting is addictive, and people want to watch it. Falling in love is a rush, and however phony-baloney the circumstances, we all want to try it. We all want to be told we’re worthy and special, and sometimes we need that affirmation so badly that we’re willing to sell out other parts of ourselves.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of UnREAL is how well it understands its own tone. New shows especially sometimes struggle with nailing that balance, and UnREAL has a particularly tough set of ideas to integrate: There’s the over-the-top part of Everlasting, but it can’t be pure schlock because we want to trust that Rachel et al. are making at least an okay show. There’s the raw anguish Rachel and other characters are experiencing simply because being alive is like, aaargh, the worst sometimes. There’s the soapy aspects of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. And then we get the more traditional workplace-drama moments that keep the show moving. This could be a mess, but creators Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon gently weave these threads together into something cohesive and coherent. At its best moments, UnREAL is so good it’s … well, unreal.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
As the show’s dangerously catchy opening song tells us, females are strong as hell. And Kimmy herself? She’s the strongest of all. Ellie Kemper’s electric performance gives the show its loopiest highs and its surprisingly grounded emotional anchors. The show can get pretty bizarre, and its cartoonish characters walk right up to the edge of too absurd — Jon Hamm’s cult leader character Richard Wayne Gary Wayne is both ridiculous and still menacing. The bad guys and the dummies and the weirdos all have an internal dignity. They might be wrong or misguided, or simply sheltered and underinformed, but they all see themselves as heroes somehow.
It’s a rom-com dream come true: Everything you love about a romance arc, done without preciousness or cutesy-tootsy bullshit. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who also created the show, play a couple who race through the milestones of a relationship after their one-night stand turns into a pregnancy. They move in together, get engaged, get married, even — all at an incredibly accelerated pace, and all as they’re actually falling for each other, or at least picking each other. Yes, it can be bawdy, but it’s a show with positive attitudes toward love and companionship. Life is complicated, but you don’t have to do it alone.
The prime-time soap came roaring back to life in January, and all it took was Taraji P. Henson and a wardrobe trailer full of fur coats.
In fairness, it took a little more than that, but Henson’s Cookie Lyon is the distillation of everything Empire does well. She’s over-the-top, often preposterously so, but she’s also not fucking around. Soaps have to be serious about their soapiness, and Empire is: The show burns through story lines and characters like each episode is its last chance, ramping up both the absurdity (she’s sleeping with him??) and the stakes (is he dying??). The show has its weak spots, certainly, but that feels like pointing out which part of a tornado swirls the slowest. It’s still sweeping you away.
How many shows feature a blow-job bib, Courtney Love and Naomi Campbell, a recurring song with truly the dumbest drip-drop lyrics in the world, grown women choking each other, and extremely convenient misdiagnoses, and then can also create an honest-to-goodness No. 1 album? This is how you make a smash hit, friends. Empire can be ridiculous, but that’s the whole point. This is how Cookie says grace: “And God, please do not withhold your blessings, even from hos that hire skanks to spy on me.” Go big or don’t even bother.
Deutschland 83 (Sundance TV)
A spy thriller centered on an young East German soldier recruited for a mission that has him living under cover in West Germany, Deutschland 83 is propulsive and confident and layered. Action sequences blend with tightly specific period details, family drama, and political grandstanding, all coming together to ensure that any one moment is never about only one thing. The narrative is tense and exciting, which frees up the characters to be charming and funny for one another, or to be sad and grouchy, or to be just so-so at spycraft. The show has plenty in common with The Americans, but it doesn’t feel or move like that show at all: The aesthetic is lighter (though often the colors feel a bit desaturated) and the attitude more buoyant and curious. The Americans is so much about dread, and Deutschland is much more a coming-of-age story — sometimes that includes dread, but oftentimes not.
RETURNING SHOWS, by Matt Zoller Seitz
The third season of Bryan Fuller’s nightmarishly beautiful serial-killer drama could be its last: NBC pulled the plug, and Fuller, unable to find a new U.S. home for the internationally funded series, has released the actors from their contracts. I’m in denial about there not being a fourth season, even though it’s a miracle that such a dense and allusive and technically experimental program could have made it this far in the first place. Hannibal just finished its Florence arc (which drew liberally on creator Thomas Harris’s Hannibal) and is about to enter the second half of its third season, a mini-series-length retelling of the novel Red Dragon, which introduced Dr. Lecter to the world (previously told on film as Manhunter and Red Dragon).
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
A nearly perfect merger of high and low humor, this series from Raphael Bob-Waksberg would be tonally uncategorizable even if it were a live-action Hollywood satire, rather than what it is: an animated series in which humans and anthropomorphized animals (led by the titular ex-sitcom star, a half-horse voiced by Will Arnett) coexist. It’s very very funny and yet somehow not funny at all; the reserves of loneliness and misery that these characters tap into has few equivalents on current or recent TV, though if you imagine something along the lines of an early Albert Brooks film, or maybe The Larry Sanders Show, you’d be in the ballpark.
The Americans (FX)
As I wrote when I awarded this series Best Drama in the Vulture TV Awards, “week in and week out, no U.S. drama is more exactingly calibrated than this blue-gray chamber piece about Soviet infiltrators posing as suburban American travel agents. Every scene, line, cut, and performance moment reinforces the characters’ emotional journeys within the episode and the season.”
Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
Amy Schumer is supposed to piss us off. We’re not supposed to be entirely sure if the joke is on somebody else or on us. The material is supposed to be unstable and a bit unnerving; it it weren’t, it would be good but not great satire. Schumer satirizes white privilege, middle-class presumption, and liberal cluelessness so subtly on her series (though not in her stand-up, unfortunately) that if you’re not a regular viewer or if you’re not paying attention, you might mistake her for somebody who’s just pushing buttons, rather than a comedic performer making fun of people who have no idea they’re pushing other people’s buttons (thus the 12 Angry Men send-up, which featured 11 different kinds of sexist men, none of whom knew they were sexist). This is a brilliant series, and after the target that has been painted on its back has faded, it will still be brilliant.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Not everything in this series about women’s prison works. Not every tonal shift from broad to subtle comedy, or from comedy to drama, comes off as its makers intend. Some of the characters and subplots are more interesting than others. Who cares? It’s so full of raucous life, so attentive to the fears and desires of characters (mainly women, many of them lesbian or trans or something other than typically straight), that watching it is like being given a glimpse into an entertainment utopia in which everyone’s stories are considered equally worthy of being told with intelligence and care. It’s only three seasons into its run and already it’s as ambitious and satisfying as M*A*S*H, the predecessor to which it probably owes the most.