Dec 21, 2015

2015 in Review: My Year in TV

2015 was another year full of great stories in a medium that has become indispensable to me. I didn’t do as good a job of writing about my TV watching as in previous years, but Year in Review posts are a perfect opportunity to redress that. Here are the most memorable series, old and new, that I watched in 2015:

  • Wonderfalls

  • I finally got around to watching the series that, along with Firefly, always seems to top everyone’s “cancelled too soon” lists. This is an early Bryan Fuller show with a stunning aesthetic sense and a seamless mix of fantasy and reality. The story is about Jaye Tyler, a young Ivy League philosophy graduate who, to her family’s puzzlement, is working a job she doesn’t particularly enjoy at a Niagara Falls gift shop. Jaye is the poster child for disillusionment with adulthood, but things slowly start to shift when animal figurines begin speaking to her and instruct her to help other people. To say Jaye is resistant to this would be a bit of an understatement, but eventually she relents — if nothing else, to get the animals to shut up.

    I think my enjoyment of this series is deeply linked to how much I loved Jaye. Wonderfalls is not perfect by any means (“Totem Mole”, an episode set in a Native American reservation, is not even subtle in its racism), but it has a central character whose intelligence, caustic manner, and gradual shift towards seeing human connections as not always doomed by default I greatly enjoyed. It reminded me of Joan of Arcadia in some ways, but Wonderfalls hides its beating heart under multiple layers of well-executed sarcasm which we slowly get to peel away.

  • Lilies

  • As I said back in March, “The three sisters at the centre of this series are rich, complex characters, and Lilies makes no apologies for the fact that this is first and foremost their story and that the relationships between them are important. (...) Lilies is a series centred on women’s experiences, on sisterly bonds, and on the sort of details that tend to be written out of history, and this is something I continue to prioritise in the stories I give my time and attention to. Although there are some frustrating moments, the series also has a clear feminist sensibility, and it introduces us to three main characters well worth getting to know.”

  • Call the Midwife (S4)

  • In our discussion of Call the Midwife, Jodie and I delved into the many things that disappointed us about this season. While they were plentiful and not easy to get past (I still get furious when I remember one particular plot point), what the series gets right is still enough to keep me coming back: “Call the Midwife has a political sensibility that is close to my heart, and the stories it tells repeatedly remind us that free public services improve people’s lives in tangible, concrete, human ways. They’re not a drain on us all; they’re a common good and they help tackle inequality. This is an important narrative to put there in these troubling political times, when people in positions of power talk about ‘reducing dependency on services’ with a straight face, as if the people who make use of them have an addiction they need to recover from. Several critics have pointed out that it could do better — it’s still primarily centred on the mostly middle or upper class nurses, after all, rather than the working class woman of Poplar. While this is absolutely true, I still appreciate the series’ political subtext, and also the fact that it tells its stories in a way that feels organic and is never heavy-handed.”

  • The Wire

  • The Wire wasn’t just my favourite series that I watched in 2015 — it was also the most important and influential story I encountered all year, in any medium. I’m so grateful I discovered it when I did.

    “I wanted a story about more than individual heroes taking on the world and proving themselves superior to the rest of us in the process. Even more than that, I wanted a long and careful look at the contexts in each of us acts. However, is saying we’re restrained by our circumstances the same as saying we’re rendered helpless? What are the situations in which we are, and what are the ones in which we aren’t?

    This is one of the many questions the series explores. The Greek tragedy comparison is apt in a sense — yet I don’t think The Wire portrays the defeat of individuals by institutional forces as quite as inevitable as it might suggest. The Wire tells a story about subversion as much as it tells one about crushing defeat: time and again, in ways big and small, characters like Bunny Colvin, Detectives Sydnor and Greggs, Major Carver, the incomparable Lester Freemon, Cedric Daniels, or Rhonda Pearlman go against their institutions and do what they believe to be right. They defy the systems that constrain them, with varying consequences and degrees of success, or they work within them towards meaningful change.”

  • Orphan Back (S3)

  • After the first season I started watching this series for the characters rather than for the too-meandering plot; so far that has been enough. “Orphan Black is good at reconciling women in ways that feel genuine but are not simplistic, and that was particularly noticeable here. Gracie and Helena, Helena and Siobhan, Sarah and Rachel in a sense: this series has a tendency to turn conflict around and display alliances between women that seem unlikely at first but then become the most natural thing in the world. This has the effect of normalising the ups and downs of human relationships in a primarily female universe, and I find that a powerful thing.”

  • Orange is the New Black (S3)

  • Orange is the New Black, on the other hand, went in a direction I really appreciated in its third season, even if the individual characters’ stories didn’t grab me quite as much as before: “We see a major private corporation take over [Litchfield] prison, and then we watch how prioritising strategies whose aim is to maximize short-term profit (‘What matters’, the big boss says, ‘is this quarter and the next’) affects the lives of the characters we love in concrete, tangible ways. Unsurprisingly, this hits the most vulnerable especially hard: there’s Sophia, of course, but also Soso, who is suffering from depression and whose access to quality care is made far more difficult than it needs to be.

    With privatisation come labour rights struggles, and continued measures that decrease the inmates’ quality of life as the bottom line is chased — all leading to a horrifying ending with the prison’s population about to be doubled. The denouncement of prisons being run for profit is as smart as it is loud and clear, and I look forward to seeing where the next season will take us.”

  • Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (S3)

  • Pryne Fisher is my favourite, now and forever: “I really appreciate how Pryne’s relationships with other women, namely Dot and Mac, are part of this show’s emotional core. At the same time, I’m 100% into Phryne and Jack as crime-solving partners. Another thing I wrote about last year was how as much as it would have been satisfying to watch Phryne constantly thwart a Police Inspector who expected her to be incompetent, the dynamics she and Jack end up developing are much better: Jack trusts Phryne, he acknowledges her expertise, and he comes to rely on collaborating with her to solve cases successfully. It only takes about two episodes for nearly everyone in the universe of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to start taking Phryne’s excellence as a detective seriously, and that was just so restful to watch.

    There’s a wonderful scene in this season where Jack receives a phone call from a superior officer commanding him to stop letting civilians (aka Phryne) get involved in police investigations. His response? ‘You’re now a Special Constable of the Victoria Police Force’. When traditional male authority directly orders him to exclude Phryne Fisher, he forces this authority to recognise her instead.”

  • My Mad Fat Diary (S3)

  • I wasn’t sure if I wanted this show to have a third season, much as I love it, but in the end I was grateful for it. Minor spoilers ahoy: “The three episodes that form this short final season made for a thoughtful and bittersweet coda to Rae Earl’s story. And as much as I loved the perfect happiness of the season two finale, there was something powerful and subversive about watching Rae on a train, moving towards the rest of her life and all the unimagined possibilities it offers her, single but by no means alone, and with a newfound sense of her own resilience all around her like armour. The season was also a reminder that progress towards mental health is not a straight line: relapses are not a sign that everything has been lost, and the key thing is to develop coping mechanisms that work and get you through the rough patches.”

  • Grace and Frankie

  • The characters that give Grace and Frankie its title are two older women whose husbands tell them they’re in love and want to be together after decades of secrecy. It would be far too easy for the humour in a comedy with this premise to come at the expense of all the wrong things, but Grace and Frankie surprised me with its emotional complexity. First of all, I liked the fact that the two main characters are women in their seventies who develop a slow burn friendship. The show also portrays older women as sexual beings, but doesn’t frame sex and romance as a requirement for them to live their lives fully — Grace and Frankie react very differently to the fact that they’re now single, and both are given the space to prioritize whatever they choose. I also liked how even though the focus is on the two women, their ex-husbands Sol and Robert don’t disappear from the picture. We watch their own relationship develop as they prepare to get married, and we see how very different their previous marriages were. There’s no one true experience in Grace and Frankie; no single emotional reality; no correct way to react. The love and hurt that exists between these four people is unique in each configuration, as no two dynamics are alike. There are times when I wished Grace and Frankie would go further (there are clear hints that Sol is bisexual, but this is never said out loud, and there’s no consideration of the possibilities his obvious love for both Frankie and Richard raises), but I enjoyed this first season enormously and look forward to seeing where the story will go next.

  • Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves

  • The title of Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves comes from a conversation between two health professionals who are attending to an AIDS patient: one of them warns the other not to wipe the crying man’s tears without full medical garb, lest he be contaminated. In this brief but revealing scene, we see how even the smallest acts of human compassion are tainted by fear and misinformation.

    This mini-series follows a group of gay men who are close friends in 1980s Stockholm, among whom only two survive the AIDS epidemic. What I liked the most about it is that it doesn’t for a moment depoliticise what happened: it doesn’t present AIDS as a sad but inevitable tragedy, like a tornado or a hurricane. Instead, it shows us exactly how the reach of AIDS was profoundly shaped by homophobia, both in the medical profession and in society as a whole, and how these young men’s lives and deaths were made far harder than they needed to be by secrecy and prejudice. We also see how these men’s lack of legal rights meant that significant others were shut out of every crucial decision regarding partners who were ill, with estranged and bigoted families taking over instead. We see attempts to erase whole lives after death, but also acts of defiance and resistance. Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is as infuriating as it is sad, which is exactly how it should be. None of this needed to have happened in this way — the fact that it did is the result of political decisions that had a real human cost.

  • Master of None

  • Master of None is a deliberate departure from many of the assumptions of the sitcoms I grew up watching — as creator Aziz Ansari explains New York Times piece, it’s a series that questions the notion that the experiences of straight white men are universal. I loved the diversity of the cast, and I loved the fact that, for the most part, Master of None is funny in a warm, empathic sort of way. Series like this remind us that humour doesn’t have to come at anyone’s expense; that you can be generous, gracious and resist dehumanisation and still have your audience roaring with laughter; and that it’s perfectly possible to subvert the denigration of people who have historically been marginalised while still creating effective comedy — in fact, all the more effective for it.

    The brilliant episode “Indians on TV” is full of humour around the reality of racism that is the very opposite of racist humour; “Parents” is about second generation immigrants connecting with their parents, and the episode’s humour and heart go hand in hand; “Old People” likewise avoids all the pitfalls of cringe comedy to make room for real moments of human connection in potentially awkward social situations. There are moments that escape this (Rachel and Dev’s fat jokes in Nashville, for example, were at odds with the thoughtfulness the rest the series evidences), but mostly Master of None succeeds in being as empathetic and hopeful as it is funny.

  • Veep

  • Veep is, in a sense, the opposite of Master of None: its brand of comedy is more acerbic than what I’m normally drawn to, but it was a big winner for me anyway. I’m interested in stories about women in positions of power, so naturally I was drawn to a comedy about a fictional Vice-President of the United States. We get to know Selina Meyers and her team (which includes my favourite lady, chief of staff Amy Brookheimer), we watch their dynamics develop and be affected by various high-pressure situations, and we see the Veep move closer to political power and to the full weight of what it means. Expect more words in the New Year.

  • Jessica Jones

  • I might also write about Jessica Jones in more detail after the holidays — I suspect it’s too important for me to be able to resist a barrage of words. A lot has been said about this series, and I love it for many of the reasons others have pointed out: because it calls rape, abuse and manipulation by their names; because its emotional core is Jessica’s love for her best friend Trish; because it has a scene where two women who were violated by the same man actually say the words “none of it is my fault” out loud; because it deals thoughtfully with the reality of living with trauma day after day; because it’s about rape culture and the dangers of hegemonic masculinity, and it shows they come in more shapes than one.

    I found Jessica Jones difficult to watch, and Killgrave at times more terrifying than I could cope with. In the end, though, what drew me to it was the same thing that made me want to look away at times. What is so violent about Killgrave and what is healing about Jessica’s relationships with her friends — Trish and Malcolm most of all — are two sides of the same coin. Killgrave is completely unconcerned with Jessica’s personhood. What he calls love is an awful, cold, dehumanising thing that involves erasing her self, her will, everything that makes Jessica who she is and replacing them with his fantasy version. Killgrave isn’t interested in Jessica as an individual, but merely in the role she could play in his life, provided he has complete power over her. The people who love Jessica, on the other hand, are people who are willing to truly see her. They’re people who witness and reaffirm her account of her own life and then stand by her side as she makes her own decisions, good or bad — not unquestioningly, but with the infinite care, respect and love that can only come when you fully acknowledge someone else’s humanity.

    I didn’t list shows like Supergirl, Agent Carter or Show me a Hero simply because I haven’t had the chance to get to them yet — and the same goes for countless backlist series, some of which will no doubt become new favourites in years to come. Here’s to a 2016 filled with more great stories.


    1. Yay so many good ones!Fond memories of Wonderfalls, I was so happy when I discovered another Fuller show I hadn't watched. Now I selfishly want him to stop with Hannibal and get back to doing awesome shows (that get cancelled way too early)!

      1. I've yet to watch Hannibal, but maybe one day! Dead Like Me is another one that sounds like something I could enjoy.

    2. Torka aldrig tårar is the best, sweetest, saddest, most maddening, saddest, best TV I have ever watched. Did you know there are also books? They're great, probably even sadder and more political. Also, I've seen rumours that svt is making a sequel to TATUH, us Scandinavian queers aren't entirely sure if we'll survive, tbh.

      Btw, wasn't Paul's funeral just the most amazing?

      1. It was - it reminded me of Angel in America's "we won't die secret deaths anymore". Thanks again for recommending this - I hadn't even heard of it until you mentioned it and it was amazing.

    3. It has been too long since I watched Wonderfalls, and I need to rewatch it. I think it has such a good ensemble cast -- Jaye's mother, in particular, is a treasure. And the line "She wants to go out clubbing" "Baby seals?" has entered my family lexicon. :D

      1. Yes, I loved the whole cast! I'd probably have mentioned more things if not for the fact that it was my first series of 2015, so it's been nearly a year since I watched it :P If I'm not mistaken, it was you and Jeanne who put it on my radar, so thank you!

    4. Regarding Sol, I'd say that identifying as gay, a gayness that includes previous feelings for women, is certainly a possibility without identifying as bisexual. While I might go more for "queer" as a term to encompass a sexuality that doesn't fit the men/women binary, and some might opt for bisexual as a sexuality that includes a men&women binary, I think it is completely possible to identify as gay without dismissing romantic feelings and sexual desire for women. That is, if one considers "gay" as an identity rather than simply denoting the gender(s) one engages in sexual acts with.

      I've been thinking about this! :D

      1. I was thinking about it only in terms of bi erasure in media, but that's a really good way to look at it and I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts <3 <3 <3

    5. I've now officially added GRACE AND FRANKIE to my to-watch list. Why are there so many great-looking shows, Ana? And why isn't it possible to watch TV faster so I can get through more of them?

      1. I know, right? A problem for our times :P

    6. There is so much good television out there and I can't wait to watch it. Veep, especially: I so adored The Thick of It.

      1. I need to watch that, especially after enjoying Veep so much.

    7. Season 3 of Orange is the New Black feels like the weakest - for me. It does have its moments, like Black Cindy's conversion to Judaism, which felt like a scam to get kosher food until that very raw confession to the rabbi on why she wants to convert. Sometimes the show just feels like a series about people not doing very nice things (okay, yes, it's set in a prison) :)

      Have you caught Daredevil yet?

      1. I haven't, but Jessica Jones made me want to, especially because Claire shows up in the final episode and I really liked her.


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.