The 15 Best Episodes of TV in 2017…
So Far, part 2

The 15 Best Episodes of TV in 2017…
So Far, part 2

Featuring Some Very Different Versions of the Afterlife and a Buttload of Struggles with Abuse


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5. The Leftovers, S03E07: “The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother)”


We’re all gonna die. Sucks, right? The Leftovers – TV’s most mystifying response to the inelegant realities of life – recognises this and raises the stakes. What if some of us didn’t die? That’s not to say that those people who don’t perish would live forever, but they would instead simply… vanish. If that were so, what would that tell us about life and death, if there’s another possibility? Is there any difference between a spiritual non-existence and a physical one? Am I incapable of progressing this discussion without asking more rhetorical fucking questions? My answer is a soft, empathic sigh followed by a farting shrug. And – while it does so with more flair, creativity and visual panache – that’s basically how The Leftovers answers all of life’s big questions.

In this, the show’s penultimate episode, protagonist Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, superb) does what he’s already done twice before: he dies. He does so in order to travel to the realm he first encountered back in Season 2, when he drank poison to fight his inner demons in the afterlife (don’t look at me like that, how could I make this up?). Of course, because he is able to come back from this plane of existence, there’s some debate as to whether it really is the afterlife, purgatory, or simply an elaborate hallucination concocted by his weary, dying mind over and over again.

But that’s neither here nor there: while in the everafter, Kevin is forced to confront his identical twin – literally facing himself and his deepest fears – and cut out his own heart, set to the longing pop majesty of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows“. It is, all at once, confounding, beautiful, painfully unsubtle and unforgettable, which is The Leftovers in a nutshell.


4. Fargo, S03E08: “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”


Fargo doesn’t play by the rules of most TV. It wants to tell a story, granted, but that story often aligns with the sensibilities of the feature film it’s based on and, likewise, the Coen brothers who conceived of it. From The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man to Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ movies rarely follow straightforward narratives. They set up characters just to disappoint them and stifle their intentions; they propel stories along a path towards natural climaxes that never arrive. Noah Hawley, who adapted Fargo for the small screen, understands this and demonstrates the concept at its purest in Season 3. The end result is (predictably enough) up for interpretation, both from a plot perspective and as to whether it succeeds on its own terms.

So call me old-fashioned, if you must, but the best episode of this past season is the one in which shit actually happens, when the plot achieves a frantic pace from the get go and maintains it – at least on some level – for its entire length. Nikki Swango (a fiercely capable Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is being hunted by the henchmen of one V.M. Varga (David Thewlis, haunting). The three menacing thugs, while clad in creepy animal furs, run the prison transport carrying Swango off the road and attempt to break in and murder her. She escapes into the woods, handcuffed to the fellow prisoner sitting next to her, a towering deaf hitman (the always welcome Mr. Wrench from Season 1).

From that point forward, everything takes on a Green Roomindebted horror vibe, featuring a grisly, glorious payoff in the form of an improbable axe toss and messy as fuck decapitation. Throw in a coy Ray Wise as the Angel of Death in a bowling alley (that might be some sort of celestial waiting room for the damned) as well as some of the strongest acting in the entire series (especially from the distraught Ewan McGregor) and you’ve got Fargo at its most Coen brothers-esque: unpredictably, bafflingly bloodthirsty.


3. The Good Place, S01E13: “Michael’s Gambit”


TV shows with a central mystery are hard to pull off. It’s not only a struggle to keep the audience interested without giving too much away, there’s the fairly decent chance that no reveal you offer in the end will live up to the hype you’ve generated. Lost – the go to example of a show failing to stick the landing – suffered such a fate and say what you will about Westworld‘s many twists, it took a long fucking time arriving at them. Now, inject that “mystery box” concept into a sitcom structure, meaning that you need to keep your audience laughing and guessing week after week. The degree of difficulty increases dramatically, which makes the fact that The Good Place has handled itself so deftly in its first season particularly impressive.

Taking place in an idealised afterlife (called “The Good Place”) with waaay too many unexplainable flaws, something’s always been a little fishy about The Good Place, as it were. Then, in the January finale, the other shoe finally dropped [SPOILERS]: turns out The Good Place has actually been The Bad Place all along. This whole time, ostensible angel Michael (a deviously funny Ted Danson) has pretended to be a benevolent guide to these departed souls, when in fact he’s been pitting them against each other, exploiting their insecurities and hangups in order to torture them. The reveal itself – obvious though it may seem – is jaw-dropping, but it’s the rapid fire comedic chemistry of the entire cast that makes “Michael’s Gambit” such a triumph.

Kristen Bell’s Eleanor keeps trying to transcend her douchiness while (mostly) failing, William Jackson Harper’s Chidi keeps getting stomach aches from his chronic indecisiveness, Jameela Jamil’s Tahani can’t stop name dropping (she snogged Ryan Gosling at the Met Ball a couple of times) and Manny Jacinto’s Jason won’t stop complaining about the lack of bros to share his budhole with (that’s budhole). Of course, as each of these traits combine to make The Good Place a land of misery for all involved, Eleanor works out that there’s no way this could be paradise. And it’s that moment she puts this theory to Michael, where he cackles like a deranged Bond villain, that will live on in sitcom infamy as both hilarious and goddamn terrifying.


2. Review, S03E02: “Co-Host; Ass-Slap; Helen Keller; Forgiveness”

(Comedy Central)

Most people’s laughter is dependent on where they are and who’s around. What might just make you smile or weakly chuckle could provoke fits of snorting glee when in a crowd or even with a small group of friends. I tend to fit this mould, feeding on the people around me and laughing more heartily if there are others to share and contribute to the giggles. Review is the exception. This show almost hospitalised me several times this year, and I was mostly watching it alone. During those times, my body was seized by irrepressible, violent convulsions that could technically be construed as laughter, while I turned the colour of a radish that’s just been caught masturbating and made the same noise an elephant seal makes when it drops its last taco. Real talk, I thought I was gonna die, but I was enjoying myself too much to care.

That’s the dangerous beauty of Review, and never did it make me more concerned for my own safety than in its second last episode “Co-Host; Ass-Slap; Helen Keller; Forgiveness”. As life reviewer Forrest MacNeil continues his quest to experience and evaluate all that this world has to offer, he falls deeper into his delusions of grandeur, reaffirming the rightness of his cause every step of the way despite all evidence to the contrary. For examples of this, I could tell you about his brief stint as a “Co-Host”, where it becomes obvious that everyone else involved with the show has an actual life outside of it, which is further demonstrated by Forrest’s indignation at new host A.J.’s refusal to carry out an “Ass-Slap” review because she felt it wasn’t appropriate. Or there’s his later choice to interpret the “Forgiveness” review as an opportunity to forgive his long-suffering ex wife, who (needless to say) thinks Forrest hasn’t quite grasped who has fucked up most in their relationship.

But all of that pales in comparison to the “Helen Keller” segment. As pictured above, Forrest is asked to review the life of Helen Keller, the famously deaf, dumb and blind woman who flourished despite her impairments. As you can see, he doesn’t choose the most sensitive route to tackle the experience. So yeah, it’s wildly silly and not really all that clever on a surface level, even if it is in keeping with Forrest’s overcommitment to the stupidest possible ways he could carry out his reviews. But hear this: I genuinely can’t look at that picture without having to suppress girlish giggles. Watching Forrest make his way through the world in a frumpy wig and helmet, with tape over his ears and enormous glasses (complete with a frilly dress with a “Helen Keller” nametag) is maybe the funniest thing to ever happen on television. It’s the kind of sight gag that miraculously gets funnier the longer it goes on, and is made even moreso by the circumstances: Forrest has forgotten he’s on trial for murder (which he committed in Season 2) this very day and so takes the stand as Helen Keller, none the wiser that his fate lies in the balance. Cry if you need to, but without the release of laughter you might actually combust watching this.


1. The Young Pope, S01E09: “Episode 9”


I have watched, or am actively watching, over 100 TV shows in the past decade. With that said (and your judgement duly noted), I can comfortably say that not a single one of them is as hard to pin down as The Young Pope. There may be stranger shows, less forthcoming ones and many that operate on a similarly elliptical level, both in style and the manner of their story. But The Young Pope is just so goddamn… Italian! Created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), this show exists in the sublime world of hyper realism that was so firmly established by Italian cinema in the 20th century. It’s the kind of world where a man can have a pet kangaroo, and it either means everything, or nothing… or both! It’s a specific kind of film (and now television) making that links absurdity, tragedy and ambiguity into a zone that is unmistakably its own.

However, what’s telling is that The Young Pope‘s most effective – and, consequently, deeply affecting – episode is also its most straightforward. “Episode 9” spends most of its time with Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) while he’s in New York trying to find a way of prosecuting an Archbishop who has engaged in paedophilia on a mass scale. A supporting character for much of the show, Gutierrez is an outlier within the church for a couple of reasons: he’s gay and an alcoholic. Skeptically speaking, this probably doesn’t make him that much of an outlier, but the difference is that everyone knows about it. Sadly, he was also molested as a young boy, which makes him particularly committed to his task at bringing the abusive Archbishop to justice.

Meanwhile back in the Vatican, Pope Pius XIII, aka Lenny (a supremely dickish Jude Law) is sitting down with his dying mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) with whom he has been at odds since assuming his position as Pope. The two stories intersect masterfully, and while there’s still a hint of otherworldliness to proceedings – including an obese American woman who needs to be airlifted out of her apartment and a flashback to a deathbed miracle – it doesn’t overwhelm the story like in so many of the previous episodes. What’s even more memorable is the way in which the catharsis of each narrative is compounded by playing them of one another. Just as Gutierrez is finally able to track someone down willing to testify against the Archbishop, Lenny is told by Spencer that his parents – who abandoned him as a child – are still alive. Each man, Gutierrez and Lenny, is shown at their most emotional: Gutierrez sheds a weary tear of relief, while Lenny breaks down, reverting to the sobbing young boy who was made an orphan so long ago. It’s captivating, devastating and, its own self-contained way, the best story told on television all year.

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So Far, part 2

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