It has been a very strange year.
Not only has it been a strange year for me personally, but the state of the industry within which I work (film and television entertainment, and the coverage of both) has witnessed a seismic shift that has forever changed the ways in which we consume media. The seeds of this have been sown for several years, in the decline of the theatrical experience, the advent of streaming technology, and the emphasis on corporate IP, but the current world crisis has only amplified these concerns and thrust the entire entertainment world into flux.
As you may have noticed, there haven’t been a ton of new reviews posted over the last few months; theaters are shut down, and while I’ve tried to keep up with some of the streaming releases, I’ve spent a lot of time catching up with classic film and television. If you’re still curious with what I’ve been up to, please check out my articles on both Dallas Observer and Taste of Cinema.
While I haven’t been as active in doing new reviews as I perhaps should have been, I thought it would be appropriate to look back at the first half of this dismal year by looking at the best there was to offer. There unfortunately haven’t been enough quality films for me to string together a mid-year list, but thankfully the small screen has provided a number of quality options.
These aren’t full reviews, but rather brief recommendations and thoughts on some of the best shows I’ve watched this year. Here are my top ten television shows of the first half of 2020.
10. The Pale Horse
BBC and Amazon have really been on a role lately with their Agatha Christie adaptations, and The Pale Horse is another delightfully pulpy melodrama. There’s a classy formality to the way the show is designed; from a distance, the elegant design and polished interiors would seem indistinguishable from any costume drama, but the glossier elements help to make the sordid characters and depraved details all the more apparent.
Unlike some of the other Christie tales, The Pale Horse is less of a formal investigation and more of a studied morality tale, and a story like this requires a truly commanding leading performance. Rufus Sewell’s work here is scenery chewing at its finest, and its this rotting soul of a character that grounds the most absurd elements in a legitimate human drama.
9. I Am Not Okay with This
Hailing from filmmaker Jonathan Entwistle and comic book author Charles Forsman, the team behind The End of the F***ing World, I Am Not Okay with This is another warped tale of teen angst mixed with an element of pulpy genre fiction. I respect what Entwistle and Forsman were able to do with these shows; they’ve worked to a craft a genre-bending black comedy that allows the audience to empathize with loners who feel isolated from normal feelings, yet they’re still able to look back and satirize the ridiculous heightened emotions that come from coming of age tales.
Both shows have an element of pulp, complete with comic book style framing, sharp cuts and transitions, off putting violence, and a blunt voiceover, but where I Am Not Okay with This differentiates itself is the fantastical elements. There’s relatively little background granted to the specifics of how these powers are developed, but there doesn’t need to be; the concept of superpowers as an element of found identity has been used before, but I Am Not Okay with This shows it in digestible, bite sized chunks.
8. The Outsider
Stephen King has always been one of Hollywood’s favorite authors, but thanks to a recent series of revitalizations, King has once again become a brand that can be tossed around in the same vein as Marvel, DC, or any other popular franchise. The joy of King adaptations is that they’re so vast in scope and scale that they can be contorted into a myriad of different genres, and The Outsider is a full on serial investigative crime drama, hailing from veteran writer and novelist Richard Price.
It has all the hallmarks of a great detective story; you’ve got a stubborn detective with a tragic past (an imminently watchable Ben Mendelsohn), a suspect whose more than he appears to be (Jason Bateman in another stunning dramatic role), and a quirky investigator whose unusual skill set just may come in handy (Cynthia Erivo in another tremendous character role). These characters are etched with a specificity of human tragedy that is often lost in investigative tales, and the supernatural King elements are able to heighten, not hinder, the heart of the mystery.
7. I Know This Much Is True
“Emotionally gruelling” is a phrase I’d often associate with Derek Cianfrance, the novel filmmaker behind such artsy weepies as Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, and The Light Between Oceans. There’s perhaps no filmmaker alive who is as fascinated with the consequences and beauty of human tragedy than Cianfrance, and his sensibilities are well equipped for this miniseries, which stars Mark Ruffalo as two twin brothers. Dominick is the respected, if somewhat disregarded house painter who is tasked with letting his schizophrenia brother Thomas out of an asylum.
Ruffalo’s performance instantly catapults him to a hall of fame. It’s not that the visual innovation is unnoticeable, but the fact that each individual performance is so gripping that I couldn’t even begin to think about the amount of commitment it would take to share such emotionally wrought scenes with yourself. It’s a dour six episodes, but the human heart is so evident that it never verges on being exploitive.
What exactly is Devs? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really matter. The existential sci-fi series from Ex Machina and Annihilation filmmaker Alex Garland is interested in asking a lot of big questions about the nature of free will and whether or not predestination exists, and the result is a dizzying series of escapades and extended conversations. There’s a murder mystery at the center, but the purpose of the mystery isn’t neccessarily about the culprit as much as it is about the gap that this death leaves in the world.
The cycle of repetition that comes from viewing the world through the eyes of a creator is an interesting twist on the inherent mythos of science fiction. Generally, sci-fi stories revolve around the search for answers, yet Devs is about the loneliness that stems from knowing the truth of where things end up. I’ll be the first to admit that the show would often lose me when it got too heady or too ingrained in the Silicon Valley culture, but I remained dazzled by the journey it took me on.
For all of Westworld’s visual inventiveness, eye popping action sequences, and long winded conversations on the nature of humanity and consciousness, it’s primary success is in demonstrating the essentially puzzlebox nature of serialized television. It’s a show that challenges its audience to keep up, teases them to look for details, and for the most part delivers answers that are compelling and satisfying. Each season of Westworld has taken a different approach to unwinding its narrative, but all have succeeded in taking isolated character narratives (that individually work as cool genre pieces) and fitting them into a larger direction that contextualizes their coexistence.
The third season of Westworld is perhaps the most novel reinvention yet, featuring a slick, futuristic neo-noir thriller beset by corporate politics and an emerging war between man and machines. Instead of telling the story out of order, the third season masks each of the main characters’ intentions as they break into a larger world, one that’s more expansive, yet no less hedonistic than the hellish theme park where they were conceived. Newcomers Aaron Paul and Vincent Cassel help to ground the narrative with a much needed dose of humanity, taking the form of the disgruntled blue collar worker and the shrewd capitalist, respectively.
4. Bojack Horseman
Bojack Horseman is perhaps the show of the moment. For the last six years, Bojack Horseman has been the show that not only put a twisted turn on the world of media diffusion and Hollywood celebrity worship, but a sobering study in how the mental health crisis affects people on every level of the totem pole. It’s also the rare show that’s been able to evolve as it goes along, both in keeping up with emerging trends and doubling back to deepen, and ultimately criticize its own existence.
So it makes sense that the conclusion of Bojack Horseman would be a bittersweet affair. When looking back at the second half of the sixth season that aired in January, I’m mixed on how I felt; it’s not a joyous conclusion that wraps every character arc up, nor is it the completion of the downward spiral that many expected for Bojack and crew. Rather, it leaves things in media res, and I think reflecting on the idea that life goes on is a rather poignant way to cap this journey. The optimism of Bojack Horseman isn’t in deceiving us into an easy solution, but in reminding us that change can occur.
3. The New Pope
The 2016 miniseries The Young Pope is one of the defining cinematic achievements of the past decade, regardless of the medium. I confess I did not view it in time to rank it on my list of the best shows of the decade, but believe me when I say that it would be high up there. Legendary Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino painted his abrasive, eccentric, yet moving study of a crisis of faith haunting the highest authority with a sense of grace and patience that is rarely seen on television, so suffice to say expectations were high for the follow up series The New Pope.
The New Pope doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but it emulates many of its best values. Sorrentino is a flashy filmmaker, but he’s not all style, and just as the story of how Lenny Berlado (Jude Law) grew from an uproarious powderkeg to a introspective cry for community in The Young Pope, The New Pope deconstructed a fierce papal power struggle into a sobering take on what we want from a leader. It remains as completely strange and aesthetically overwhelming as anything I can remember, and manages to continue the perfection of The Young Pope with ample creativity.
Ozark has been a very interesting ride over the past few years. The first season was so jaw dropping because of how quickly it worked to its conclusions; instead of languishing within the familiar beats that most shows would take several seasons to go through, the series rocketed forward with a relentless pace that never left its characters to dry. The second season was a more challenging affair, as it was forced to reap the consequences of being a show that was so intent on being shocking, but the third season returned with an element that sparked new life into the world of the Byrdes: humanity.
More interesting than the world of drug cartels, money laundering, and insider trading are the people that work in it, and Ozark has always been about a morally questionable guy who drags his family into an unwinnable situation. The strength of the series is seeing Marty (Jason Bateman) adapt to his situations, and this season is focused on the essence of his marriage as Marty realizes that his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) may be the real monster. It works within the confines of the show’s structure better than ever before, and the introduction of wildcard Ben Davis (Tom Pelphrey) is the perfect addition of propulsive energy and raw pathos that the show needed to survive.
1. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
So here’s a funny story: in the summer of 2008, my family moved from New Hampshire from Texas. I don’t recall too much about our trip, but I vividly remember the first movie we saw in a new state was the theatrical film Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I was already a pretty massive Star Wars fan at that point, but seeing it on the big screen was pretty cool, and as I began my first month at a new school, the first season of the animated series began airing, greeting me with a new 22 minute installment of the Star Wars saga every week.
Looking back, I cannot overstate just how important this show was to me. Not only was it a consistent end of the week treat for five years, but something that sparked, and continues to affect my approach to creativity. The groundbreaking ways in which Dave Filoni and crew were able to develop the vastness of their universe through experimentation and years of planned character work was quite a path, and it was for many years the single most important creative aspect of my life. So perhaps it is fitting (or maybe the will of the force) that the postponed final season wrapped up the week I graduated college.
What The Clone Wars always excelled at was complimenting the preexisting universe while intertwining its own new additions, and the final season handles this balancing act beautifully; it’s cool to see how the events of the show lead up into Revenge of the Sith, but it works because the characters of Ashoka Tano and Captain Rex have become fully fleshed out characters that deserve proper conclusions. At the end of the day, the show ended up following two former idealists who realized the reality of their circumstances, and watching a former Jedi and clone soldier make their way into an unknown future is perhaps the purest embodiment of George Lucas’s blissful hope for the future since Luke Skywalker gazed at the Twin Suns back in 1977.
The final twelve installments of The Clone Wars are a perfect encapsulation of the variety of stories that can be told by this creative team; you have a brothers in arms story that looks at how comradery allows us to escape the frivolous nature of our circumstances, a smuggler’s erand about some of the background players who will never know the events they’ve dabbled in, and an epic conclusion that brought the humanity back to the story’s canonical conclusion. I will be forever grateful to this show for the countless memories, and I’m happy to say that it went out on a high note.