Best of the 2010s – My Favorite Television Part 4

555 (2017)
John Early and Kate Berlant became two of my favorite comedic talents during the 2010s. They met while doing stand up in New York and shared the same sensibilities. That leads to some of the best videos on YouTube and eventually, this limited series on Vimeo. 555 is five episodes centered around people who work in the entertainment industry. They are at different levels from a child actor to two self-centered executives to actors in a class. The other common thread is that these people are insanely self-absorbed and will passively-aggressively try to one-up each other to the point of absurdity. There is a beautiful line that gets crossed in every episode where it goes from awkward to the stupidest people in the world trying to impress each other. No one else can hit this type of comedy as well as Early & Berlant, and I want more.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
This was the television event of my life. I watched Twin Peaks as an 8-9-year-old kid when it aired initially and in college rediscovered the series, falling in love with it all over again. When David Lynch announced it was returning to Showtime and we were getting 18 episodes, I was over the moon. There was a very good chance things could go wrong as we have seen with so many revivals lately. But Showtime let Lynch do his thing, and it turned out brilliant. This is a show that is not intended for a broad audience, but for Lynch. He’s making what he likes, and you’re either in or out. I was all in and spent those weeks during the summer of 2017 enthralled with every chapter. I could have never predicted the power of episode 8, something I had never seen on television before and likely never will again. I couldn’t have foreseen that shocker of an ending, refusing to answer our questions and leaving us lost in time and space like Cooper and Laura. The masterpiece of the 2010s, an actual work of art, something television rarely gives us.

Crashing (2017 – 2019)
Pete Holmes grew up in a Christian home, adhering very closely to his family’s religion. He got married when he was 22 and was divorced by 28. He sought a career in comedy that had him touring the Christian comedy circuit early on. Eventually, Holmes broke into the New York stand up scene and truly began his career. In the semi-autobiographical series Crashing, we meet Pete right at the moment his marriage falls apart, and his career in comedy becomes his main focus. The title comes from the fact that our protagonist has no stable home and keeps sleeping at the apartments of friends in the business who feel sorry for him. Over the three seasons, we get to see Pete come into his own both as a comedian and a person. He finds that his religious beliefs are more malleable than he initially thought and even confronts his mother over this. Crashing is very funny but knew how to have a poignant moment without becoming saccharine or phony.

Detroiters (2017 – 2018)
Comedy Central killed this poor show just as it was hitting its stride. Sam Richardson (Veep) and Tim Robinson (SNL) star as Sam & Tim, lifetime residents of Detroit who are now in charge of Tim’s late father’s ad agency. The duo has a very aggressive style of selling their ideas to their clients and often end up going way overboard. What’s different about this male friendship is that they are super positive and supportive of each other. It’s not the type of annoying male ballbusting cliche we see so often in media, and it’s one of the many things that made Detroiters stand out from the crowd. There are no big satirical ideas at work, just classic silliness with two characters behaving like grown children. The world of Detroit is also fascinating, and you will learn a lot, just wait for April in the D.

Big Little Lies (2017 – present)
Big Little Lies is great because its cast is great. Without them, it would be another soap opera drama series, but the performances elevate the material in the best ways. Reese Witherspoon headlines, and she’s good, but it’s the work of Laura Dern that is the standout for me. Dern’s performance as Renata Klein is so strong and funny and layered. She seems like the sort of character that would be the villain to the other women, but the story isn’t interested in exploring that tired old angle. Renata is antagonistic but quickly becomes allies with the women and proves to be a loyal one. The second season brought in Meryl Streep as a true villain for the women. She does such a fantastic job of being simultaneously charming and then poisonously vicious. In true Streep fashion, this is a complicated character that you can’t so easily compartmentalize into being a “bad guy,” and I ended up having deep empathy with her while thinking she was totally wrong.

Dark (2017 – present)
This German series is everything I love about time travel stories, particularly the tragedy of retrocausality. We’d like to believe if we could travel through time, we’d change things for the better. Dark presents a scenario where our very act of breaking the bonds of time sets in place those very horrible events we would fight to prevent. The series begins with the suicide of artist Michael Kahnwald, leaving behind his wife, Hannah, and son, Jonas. It’s Jonas who begins to uncover the truth behind his father’s death and their small town. Things get stranger when a child of a family friend goes missing in the woods, connecting to a series of abductions that happened 30 years earlier. By the end of season one, you will feel like you’ve been punched in the gut only to have season two pick right up and further complicate things. I am hugely excited for the third and final season to see where the loop ends.

At Home With Amy Sedaris (2017 – present)
Comedian Amy Sedaris won me over in the 2000s when I discovered her Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy. She’s back on TruTV with a hilarious comedy show disguised as a homemaking series. Sedaris was inspired by local hospitality shows she watched during her youth in North Carolina and adds her own touch of surreal humor. Amy plays herself as well as nosy neighbor, Patty Hogg, and her bizarre child Nutmeg, as well as local alcohol expert & lush Ronnie Vino. Joining Sedaris is Ruth, the Lady who Lives in the Woods, Tony the Knife Guy, and Chassie Tucker (comedian Cole Escola in drag and being amazing). There is no shortage of special guest stars each episode, and the series still has some framing with a craft or special dish being cooked, but now it gets to the jokes and plot much quicker. If you are interested in something off-kilter with a particular type of comedy At Home has all of that.

Somebody Feed Phil (2018 – present)
Starting with PBS’s “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” writer-producer Phil Rosenthal embarked on an ongoing world tour of food and culture. The co-creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” leaves pretensions at the door and simply greets each new city with full enthusiasm. His joy in encountering people is infectious, and you can’t help but feel good watching. Now you’re not going to get the deep insights about culture or profound ruminations about food you’d find with someone like the late Anthony Bourdain. That’s not the purpose of this series. Instead, Somebody Feed Phil is like the host himself. He’s affable, inviting, and will help ease any apprehensions you might have about dipping your toe in the water. Phil’s humor is best summed up as “dad jokes,” and if you’re okay with that sort of corniness, then you’ll have a good time.

Joe Pera Talks With You (2018 – present)
This is my favorite comedy of the 2010s, a complete overhaul of formulas that pushed humor toward the cynical. Joe is a soft-spoken, kind-hearted guy who embodies the best things about the Midwest. He’s not into overt displays of machismo and would rather ruminate on the best beans for making a stew or review the geologic history of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s surrounded by a world as earnest and warm as he is. This comedy recalls figures like Bob Newhart. Pera claims one of his biggest influences is his grandfather, and it’s easy to see how Joe models himself after an older man. Despite all of this warm familiarity, the program still surprises me at every turn, beginning with a focus in one area and allow an episode to transform before your eyes. There is no other comedian on television, quite like Joe.

Barry (2018 – present)
I never expected to have Bill Hader make me cry, but here we are. The premise sounds cheesy: a hitman goes to L.A. and gets sidetracked into becoming an actor. But Hader has taken that idea and run with it to create one of the best shows on HBO at the moment. It’s near the end of season one when Barry has just had to kill someone close to him, that we really see what a blend of comedy and drama the show will be. Hader’s performance, exuding a wide swath of emotions, guilt, heartbreak, complete anguish, is profound. In season two, he showed us what more he could do by directing the standout episode of the season. Barry has a hit go south pretty badly, and Hader behind the camera delights in digging the hole deeper, bringing us to the realm of the surreal. Barry is a show that makes you laugh and breaks your heart in thirty minutes.

PEN15 (2019 – present)
The brainchild of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, PEN15, has the adult actresses playing their middle school selves. It’s a perfect blend of nostalgia and cringe, forcing us to relieve both very specific and extremely relatable childhood embarrassments. There are painful moments where the characters are forced to abandon things that were comfortable & safe from their childhoods and abandon them for what’s perceived as cool in the adolescent mind. You’ll find yourself thinking of that moment when you tossed away a precious toy or blanket because the thought of being humiliated by your peers was too much. Erskine and Konkle find the humor and pathos in these small moments, passed over by parents busy with their lives but devastating to the child experiencing them. The comedy here is the same vein as the classic Freaks and Geeks, warmly regarding youth but pulling no punches about the downside.

The Righteous Gemstones (2019 – present)
Danny McBride & Jody Hill didn’t miss a step and followed up Vice Principals with this sprawling epic comedy about a family of televangelists. As always, the duo subverts our expectations thinking we know what the show will be based on the premise. From episode one, it becomes clear that we’re strapping in for a show that is going to run for a long time, building the world one piece at a time. This is probably the first series from the two that has such big moments of drama, genuine emotion, and peril. And the comedy feels even tighter and based less on gags and built into the characters. You get to know the characters through the humor, and the humor is, in turn, informed by the characters. Every scene builds out the members of this family, and I am curious to see where Righteous Gemstones goes next.

I Think You Should Leave (2019 – present)
Tim Robinson, despite his short stay on SNL, stood out for me with his bizarre sense of comedy. It might seem one-note, typically a man getting caught in a lie or exaggeration just digging the hole deeper and deeper. People become disinterested as everyone silently agrees; this guy is lying and trying to cover his ass. But the man won’t let it go. That’s the foundation of the jokes, but then we get wild variations on this, all centered around the idea of a person who just cannot let their insecurity go. There are other bits along the way, a focus group for a new car that goes way off track, a vengeful seat neighbor on an airplane, but I argue Robinson is at his best when his comedy returns to that manic, insecure character.

Los Espookys (2019 – present)
This was a delightful surprise in 2019. Los Espookys is a multilingual comedy about a group of friends creating fake horrors in an unnamed Latin American country. They are hired by people who need to scare someone for a variety of reasons (steal an inheritance, drive tourism to a beach resort, fake a disappearance for a vacation). What the show is really about is following these eccentric and silly characters as they do their job but also live their lives. The series co-creators Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres play Tati and Andres, respectively. They are arguably the best characters in the series, exemplifying the weirdness that Los Espookys can conjure up. It feels like a vibrantly original creation from a pair of brilliant minds, less concerned with following the rules of reality but establishing its own surreal landscape.

Watchmen (2019)
Damon Lindelof followed up The Leftovers with something thought impossible, a sequel to Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen graphic novel. The result was a beautiful exploration of that world through new eyes but with some familiar faces. Where Cold War paranoia informed the original, this time, race and American white supremacy are the core of the narrative. Lindelof opened up the writers’ room to a diverse group of talent, and that only managed to create a much stronger series. Some of the best single episodes of a series in the 2010s happened in this latecomer to the screen. An episode spotlighting the past of Hooded Justice stands out as a brilliant piece of tv. Lindelof managed to revisit moments from the comic but refrained from becoming nostalgic by showing it through the eyes of a new character with a different voice. It doesn’t appear a second season is in the works, and that is fine by me, this can stand as a perfect & complete narrative.

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