With the new year comfortably fading in the rear view, we’ve all got enough time to collect our thoughts and look back on all those things we loved and lost and felt made our lives better in some measure. These can be people, experiences, and other such bullshit, but let’s not forget those most important things: the media we consume. From Jan 1 to Dec 31, here’s the shortlist of the Most Superlative Superlatives from this past year of our lords and lordesses, 2015:
- Most Touched (By a Space Angel): Peggy Blumquist, Fargo
The truth is out there. Yet no one embroiled in Fargo’s second-season games of deceit and hidden motivations has a strong grasp on the truth—no one but inscrutable hairdresser Peggy Blumquist. Played to perfection by Kirsten Dunst, Peggy is a standout character in a deep bench of standouts, a trapped housewife who wields her deadly delusions like a master swordswoman. As the bodies pile up around her—about 30% (lowball) directly resulting from her inability to process the hit-and-run of Rye Gerhardt as an empathetic human would—she barely bats an eye; in a season loaded with lens flares and iconography hinting at possible alien visitors, no one is more alien than Ms. Blumquist.
Even Hanzee and Mike Milligan, whose non-white heritage would mark them as outsiders even if you ignored their otherworldly malevolence, don’t hold a candle to Peggy in the “Who Is The Most Symbolic Alien” contest. Hell, showrunner Noah Hawley even literalized her ungraspable nature in the season’s penultimate episode. When actual aliens touch down in the middle of a climactic firefight, their presence enthralls all characters present—all but Peggy. Her following line, delivered to her husband with the hasty nonchalance of a grandmother hushing a tea kettle: “It’s just a flying saucer. We gotta go!”
Peggy’s motivations, ultimately revealed in the final episode, came from a legitimate source of feminist angst, albeit processed through an utterly inhuman cipher. But before we knew the full picture, when the space invaders were right there before our eyes, no one was more inscrutable than Peggy Blumquist. And nothing could possibly make more sense in the world.
- Most Nice Guy: Kevin Kilgrave, Jessica Jones
Among several other things, 2015 will go down in history as the year that hating horrible, entitled, power-tripping males went mainstream. Between Martin Shrekli, Bill Cosby, [Insert Name of Police Officer], and human mothball Donald Trump, this past year occasionally felt like the Abuse of Authority Olympics came to town and refused to leave. For worse and even worser, shitty guys and all the bad they do were an inescapable part of this year’s zeitgeist, and nothing understood that better than Jessica Jones.
Yes, one of the year’s most pulse-quickening superhero TV shows eschewed escapism by slotting a slimily realistic shithole of a man as its primary antagonist, and dealing with the trauma he begat on the personal level. That’s the thing about David Tennant’s Kilgrave: if not for the whole controls-peoples-minds thing, he would be eminently recognizable as a run-of-the-mill modern day Nice Guy. His grand machinations aren’t built on a desire for bloodlust or conquest; he’s simply in love with a girl, committed fully to the selfish ideal that he is entitled to her requited love because look at all the nice things he gave her! (Incidentally, while she was under his mind control. Just incidentally!) After all, Kilgrave had never been told “no” in his life, literally.
Kilgrave bares his warped heart in the midseason two-hander “WWJD?” As stunning a slab of television as anything else that aired this year, the episode holds a mirror up to the social and sexual expectations men hold about women, exposing how his romantic ends don’t justify the creepy (or murdery) means. Tennant exposes the archetypal “Nice Guy,” who earns his woman by staying true to himself and convincing her that she loved him all along, as a hypocritical, manipulative fraud. Mind control is science fiction, but the psychological metaphor is potent, making for some of the most unsettling and true-to-life TV to air this year.
- Most Popular Mental Illness: Depression in You’re the Worst, Show Me a Hero, and Bojack Horseman. Oh! And Kendrick Lamar, and…
As long as folks have been believing that pain breeds creativity—as haphazardly accurate as that trope may be—depressive art has logically followed. You got your Van Goghs, you got your (Elliott) Smiths and your Lows, even your odd Christopher Moltisantis. Yet as long as art has plumbed the depths of The Dumps, there has never been a banner year for depression like 2015 had been. Whether you tuned into Aya Cash’s beyond-nuanced performance of a thirtysomething stuck in a particularly gummy major depressive episode on You’re the Worst, or listened to Kendrick Lamar unleash a barrage of self-loathing on “u,” or cried through Oscar Isaac’s unhinged spiral into the mental abyss on Show Me A Hero (like I did… three times), it was hard to escape the existential dreads in 2015’s media.
Most remarkably, so few of these forays into abject despondency were half-assed or glib. It was as if all the shadowy Hollywood heads jointly took a psychology and realized that being depressed meant more than just lying in bed, eating ice cream, and waiting out the bad feels like driving through a raincloud. Portrayals of folks in depressed states cut deeper and covered wider swaths of the illness than had ever been reckoned before; things suddenly seemed realer, and most importantly, more empathetic.
The protagonists of Bojack Horseman can only believe “it gets easier” after they accept they will always be broken inside. Aya Cash as Gretchen makes us feel her utter paralysis, as she delivers the tongue-lashing on the century at her best friends in one moment, then loses the ability to communicate entirely in the next—and throughout, the fact is constantly stressed that she can never be “fixed.” Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko captures the downfall of a man on edge in the series’ denouement, wearing the wide-eyed paranoia of an insomniac who wants nothing more than to scream but can only huddle and cry. Uncompromising in their sincerity, these performances headlined a bumper crop of great art that tackled mental illness this year.
- Bonus Award for Most Accurate Portrayal of Men’s Rights Activism in a Show About Talking Animals: Bojack Horseman
A more substantive post about Bojack Horseman episode “Hank After Dark” and its scathing indictment of rape culture once stood here, but then I realized it sorta had too much in common with #4 on this list. So I’ll just leave this screenshot here and let its genius speak for itself:
- Best Sex Scene/Best Death Scene/Best Everything: The Americans
Finally, I get to a point. The point where I have to admit that, no matter how much I want to continue talking about all the great things that defined quality in 2015—Mad Max’s hi-redefinition of the action movie experience, Inside Out’s remarkable capacity for pathos, Courtney Barnett’s deadpan opus Sometimes I Sit and Think Sometimes I Just Sit, Gravity Falls’ steadily stellar second season, everything and anything Steven Universe but I’m sure you would throw up if I wrote yet another post about THAT—this list has gotta end somewhere.
And it has to end with The Americans.
This cold war drama of Russian spies posing as an American family has always been terrific, but in this past year, they kicked it up another notch to be the most compelling drama on TV. Outstanding performances from a chemistry-rich cast, tense-as-a-tightrope plotting, and an unbeatable soundtrack elevate The Americans into the big leagues, but it’s the character moments that make it stand among the very best.
To grab your interest, I’ll start with a sex scene so steamy, five minutes of husband and wife flesh-on-flesh so erotic that I was amazed they were allowed to air it on basic cable. That’s right, I’m talking about when Phillip Jennings pries out Elizabeth’s rotting tooth.
The scene is a masterclass of austerity, using heavy breathing and audible silence to simultaneously convey horror and eroticism; Elizabeth is at her most vulnerable in the pliers-wielding arms of her husband, but he waits for her eyes to consent before doing what needs to be done. Without any words, we understand how far their relationship has come, their delicate balance of mounting trust and existing tension. That’s what “for better or worse” is all about, and the scene conveys intense intimacy better than the horizontal tango ever could.
Six episodes later, a one-off character gives her life so that recurring all-star Mail Robot (does that robot have an IMDB page? It should. How do we make one?) may be resurrected. In season highlight “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep,” The Americans once again capitalizes on the power of austerity; Elizabeth gradually assassinates Lois Smith’s Betty—who was only in the wrong place at the wrong time—while exchanging life stories, revealing more personal details to the dying woman than we had ever learned prior. As usual, viewers are hand-delivered tension, subtle terror, and That Good Good Drama like a steaming hot pizza with all your favorite fixings.
The writing alone makes for an impeccable nail-biter, but there’s little question that this centerpiece scene would be The Best (caps intended) without the phenomenal talents of the woefully unacknowledged-by-various-academies-and-guilds Keri Russell and Lois Smith. Russell plays Elizabeth as the more dedicated soldier of The Americans’ central couple, stolid in her devotion, and Smith alone is able to chip away at her armor and poke some fingers in the cracks. In its third season, The Americans explored the separations between life and work, values and death, as it tested to see how far the Jenningses would let their job become their (and their children’s) lives; Betty, however brief her time on the show may have been, effectively called into question these boundaries, delivering modest speeches that dismantled the motives of even the most diehard KGB soldier. The slow, silent breakdown ends up healing itself like a bone, manifesting within Elizabeth as a doubled-down rage in the season’s final shot, but Russell’s moment of weakness—and Lois Smith’s preceding war of emotional attrition—remains the acting highlight of the whole year.
And should I get into the confrontation with Paige? Or the thrilling, Fleetwood Mac-scored kidnapping? With scenes like these, you don’t even need a show to surround them. Still, The Americans brought its A-game for every second, fleshing out its supporting characters while still having the energy to take narrative risks that permanently changed the face of the show at an episodic rate. Prior seasons took the traditional route of winding threads into a season finale climax, while season three had at least three bridge-burning narrative crescendos spread throughout.
Cinematic in tone, confident in storytelling, unique in content, grotesque, beautiful, and even secretly progressive in its sympathetic portrayal of damn pinkos, The Americans embodies everything that was good about TV in 2015. Both Reagan and Stalin would be rolling in their graves if they knew.
More Moments for the Road:
- Emily makes a snake boy and other golden round things in Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow
- Papyrus unleashes his blue attack in Undertale
- Kelly Ripa is the America’s Sweetheart we deserve in Broad City
- Steven Universe steven universes all the universal stevens in Steven Universe
- A disinterested giant shrugs off rampaging wights in Game of Thrones’ by-a-Westerosi-mile season high point “Hardhome.”
- Courtney Barnett doesn’t want to go out but wants to stay home in her hilarious, affecting new album. Oh, you can probably file this one under #3, too!
- A mummy skateboarder does the ultimate ollie in Ludroe’s “Dagger-Proof Mummy” in Image’s sci-fi anthology Island.