The idea of a "traditional" TV season is all but dead, thanks to time shifting and online sources, never mind the crush of DVD compilations. And really, TV has been divided down into quarters, as 13 week storytelling (even 6 or 9 week stories) have come over from Europe as a valid "season" of a show.
So is old style, 22-24 episode seasonal storytelling outdated? Too much? I can't say - there are shows I wouldn't dream of dropping everything to watch each week, and stories not worth telling long form... but having spent another year glued to Supernatural, I can't say the form has no uses left, either. What I can say is that episodic television is enjoying a renaissance unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime - the variety of quality, smart, interesting options to watch has never been more varied; the creativity on display rarely more inventive; and the ability of storytelling to move audiences rarely so accomplished.
This is a highly selective, personal list. I'm not big on conventional choices or top ten faves. And I certainly have a fondness these days for comic books fantasy and sci-fi, as do many of us (yet somehow, no love for Game of Thrones). So here, just to put it out there, a few things I've watched and loved from Fall into Spring:
- Supernatural (Season 10, on DVD; Season 11, the CW). Nothing else like it has ever lasted this long on TV. And who else could tell a story from the point of view of the car ("Baby," this season's fan fave) and pull it off? After confronting heaven, hell and everything in between, it's been hard to know how the chroniclers of Sam and Dean Winchester could find fresh ground - yet here they were, going back to the beginning of time to revive The Darkness, a malevolent force bent on erasing all of creation (and, as luck would have it, God's sister). If things got a little off kilter at times - a little airless, a little too meta by half - the various gems along the way were a reminder that in many ways the show still has much to discover. Then, too, the quality of the performances from the leads to the passing guests - ensembles should always age this well. And "God is Chuck" is a piece of legend and lore worthy of the mythology of the show.
- Lucifer (Season 1, Fox). Supernatural was so impressed, they threw it in as a toss-off: "maybe I'll move to LA and become a detective." But Fox's midseason mystery fantasy entry had, unsurprisingly, a lot of charm and sexiness, not to mention some better than to be expected writing and acting as well. (And not nearly as surprising is Lucifer himself, Tom Ellis, who had already done a lovely, similar turn as a junkie doctor on Rush in a one season USA stint). Preposterous? Sure, and at times, the mundane plotting wasn't up to the lurid, daring intensity of the premise... but it worked a lot better than it had any right to, and just enough to leave people panting for more.
- The Flash (Season 1, DVD; Season 2, the CW). Of comics on TV, The Flash has raced past all of its neighbors (the CW: comics and ghouls! And a couple of wacky ladies!) to establish itself as the genre's star. Much of that appeal is on the back of Grant Gustin, seemingly from nowhere (actually from Glee, where he honestly put the star back into musical comedy), as an utterly sincere, guileless young man suddenly able to save the world. Extrapolating on Season One's jumble of gobbledygook science, time travel and parallel universes, The Flash could easily fly off the rails at any moment (and, in its own trip to heaven/nirvana, nearly did), but the show's upbeat approach and willingness to believe (and relative consistency) covers sins other shows wouldn't necessarily survive. Three flashes, two bad flashes, and many multiple roles later, the cast looks game, the mythology holds, and the race is on.
- RuPaul's Drag Race (Season 8, Logo). A short, tight run for the crown this year was helped immensely by an even more jaw dropping array of talent and beauty on display than before: by the time the season had weeded its way down to stunning Naomi Smalls, sassy Bob the Drag Queen, and the breathtaking looks of online star Kim Chi, it was clear that drag, and Ru Paul's faith in her chosen art form, needed no defense. That battle had been won, years ago, as demonstrated both by the opener's "100 drag queens" premise, to the finale's opening shot of RuPaul and her Superstars. Eight years later, the possibilities seem endless for a man in a dress. Any one of this year's three could have been - and will be - a superstar, but Bob's selection was a reminder that the goal here is TP - the Total Package. And Bob's Taraji by way of Viola Davis skewering of an Empire diva was, in itself, off the charts. And only the beginning.
- Rosewood (Season 1, Fox). Police procedurals ebb and flow, but never really go away - just ask SVU. And somehow, simply by insisting on diversity casting, Fox has managed to breathe fresh life into a premise as old as Quincy - the crusading medical examiner, this time as a black man. Morris Chestnut surely has one of the best roles on television, and he's playing the heck out of it... not to mention seducing the camera with his eyes. If it's not quite all it could be, it's a lot more than we're getting anywhere else.
- The Americans (Seasons 1-3, Amazon Prime; Season 4, FX). I am very late to the ball on this one, having heard good things over the years, but never diving fully into the "Russians living here as ordinary Americans, spying on us" in the Reagan eighties. As it turns out, the whole thing is wildly riveting. Big ideas about identity, and loyalty and who can you trust bouncing against the intimate dramas of family and coming of age and life in a changing time. Add in a top flight cast, and stir. There's no better explanation of the power of binge watching than finding a gem like this, in the middle of the game.
- The Man in the High Castle (Season 1, Amazon Prime). Phillip K. Dick's writing has ascended into the pantheon of Hollywood's go-to sci-fi fantasy projects, but I'm not sure his work has ever (even Blade Runner) been as well represented as this "what if the Axis won the war" fantasia. Envisioning an America divided up between Germany and Japan - with the Rockies as a rough terrain no-man's land - The Man in the High Castle's depiction of alternative history is masterful, subtle, and feels true, no mean feat when it's all made up. Political thriller, time tampering mystery and much more, The Man in the High Castle promised much in its pilot, and delivered in 13 episodes dropped, as online series do, into the mix all at once. And so well received, we we even get more.
- The Road Warriors and AM Joy (MSNBC) Political coverage is a nightmare this year, both reflecting the mess on display, and of course, helping to create it. There's not a lot of good - and I'd hate to overlook the bright spots of competent panels on CNN, the Chris Matthews interview of Trump, the occasions of pithy insight from Maddow... but there's a lot of bad - the general meltdown of Fox, the Trump cheerleading of Morning Joe, the horror that is Wolf Blitzer. And in the midst of all of it, MSNBC decided to do a wholesale makeover of its whole schedule, from bringing back Brian Williams (eh), to losing Melissa Harris-Perry in a storm of angst and academic drang. While the finished product is still touch and go, it's hard not to appreciate some of the effort to think out of the box - from reviving Joy Reid into MHP's spot on weekends, every bit as insightful and yet less didactic; to a weekday roundtable of the top women reporters covering campaigns, including Kasie Hunt, Katy Tur, Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker, all doing great work, along with Steve Kornacki (cute, though the "white guy with the data crunching" thing is both hackneyed and a little insulting). While CNN flails and Fox retreats into the old angry demographic, MSNBC may well be figuring out how to do 24 hour news and analysis that isn't a complete head shaking mess.
- Masterpiece Mystery (PBS). No, I'm not going to give a self congratulatory pat on the back to Downton, basking in its easy tropes about wealth and class and British manners - sudsy soap operas will always have an appeal, especially using the hoariest of cheap gimmicks and plot twists to keep the audience coming back for more. No, let's celebrate what Downton has wrought, such as it is - a reliable engine for well produced British television to find a classy home on Sunday evenings. Sure Mystery used to stand on its own, but folded into Masterpiece isn't so bad either, and as much as anything is helping to give the enterprise legs beyond the chase for another blockbuster ("Wolfe Hall" is hardly cutting it, nor "Poldark" nor a half dozen more). Sure Grantchester (riding the well worn trick of casting Robson Green) and Endeavour (riding the well worn afterglow of Inspector Morse) aren't exactly plowing fresh ground, but classic detective work is rare these days, and while Kenneth Branagh is a bit of a dud as Wallander, the respect for source material these days is especially strong. A bit less Call The Midwife, a lot less Mr. Selfridge... and no more Darlene Shiley (Masterpiece's main donor, buying herself a vanity spot in the network's plea for donation cattle call)... and we're all good.
- SNL (Season 46, NBC)... Or as we used to call it, Saturday Night Live. Rarely has it been funnier. Rarely has the cast been this deep, and never more diverse. If it's still hit-or-miss on the sketch humor - and still too much miss - the good has rarely been this great: Kate McKinnon's "maybe this time" version of Hillary Clinton, those sparkling videos and song parodies ("First Got Horny 2 U", or "Hello" as Thanksgiving uniter), and even the sly understated (at best) humor flying between Colin Jost and Michael Che on Weekend Update. And Leslie Jones is fierce!
Honorable Mentions: Modern Family (only cause I'm not really watching it consistently; but in reruns my goodness is it funny), Schitt's Creek, Happy Endings (The best 40 episodes of random comedy cruelly left behind) The Real O'Neals, Telenovela, Shameless, Archer, Legends of Tomorrow, Limitless, Madam Secretary, Penny Dreadful, Billions, Empire, Grandfathered... and anything that's on up against judges scoring singers or dancers.