True Detective (2014-present)
Neither the feverish incoherence of True Detective’s second season nor the muted overcorrections of its third can dull the brilliance of the original, whose mix of lurid murder mystery and beer-drunk existential meditation was not quite like anything else on TV when it aired in 2014. In its wake, there has been no shortage of crime dramas that reach for quasi-mystical profundity. But none have the bottled lightning of creator Nic Pizzolato’s collaboration with director Cary Fukunaga, who helped craft a spectral Southern Gothic atmosphere that more than made up for Pizzolato’s sporadic weaknesses as a writer.
Most of the show’s imitators lack the skill and campy awareness that Matthew McConaughey brought to his role as the reluctant cop and amateur philosopher Rust Cohle. Surrounded by empty Lone Stars in a drab wood-paneled office, Cohle answers questions about a years-old case by offering seemingly unrelated monologues to his unimpressed interlocutors, ignoring queries about dates and evidence files and expounding instead on the cyclical nature of history and the essential loneliness of humanity. McConaughey’s performance acknowledges the terrible truths of these ideas while also conveying the fundamental absurdity of the script’s attempts to explain them. In his deep-fried delivery, a line like “Time is a flat circle” lands both as a grave revelation and as the punchline to a cosmic joke. This duality is crucial to the appeal of True Detective as a whole, right down to the season one finale, in which the show dismantles its own carefully constructed occult mythology and gently chides you for getting so wrapped up in it. Death is always senseless, even when the killer leaves some pretty compelling clues behind.
Season two is better than you remember, though perhaps not in the ways that Pizzolatto intended. It’s like he was shooting for Raymond Chandler and accidentally came up with Thomas Pynchon: the frayed and tangled storylines, which never approach resolution or even recognizable continuity; the bizarre pacing, impossible to keep up with but also unbearably slow; the manically uncanny performances, just a few degrees removed from the real. The disorder of the form expresses Pizzolatto’s ideas about the unmoored experience of contemporary life more truthfully and vividly than the actual content does. In its attempts to keep you interested in an inconsequential tale of municipal corruption and violence, True Detective season two challenges the very notion of narrative, with each of its clumsy turns questioning the baseline assumption that events should flow and develop from one to the next in discernable fashion. Does Colin Farrell discover the Birdman before or after Vince Vaughn has a vision of his dead father in the desert? Where do all those highways lead? Is this a TV show or an amphetamine-induced waking nightmare? Do the words these people are saying mean anything at all? The answers are unimportant. Rust Cohle would approve. —ANDY CUSH
Read our review of True Detective Season 3 here.
Mozart in the Jungle (2014-2018)
Only at a particular Wild West moment in the peak-TV era could a show about a fictional New York City orchestra dealing with the eccentric and self-destructive behavior of a young and capricious foreign conductor (Gael García Bernal) be greenlit by a major corporation, with an expensive star-studded cast, and last for four seasons. Yet Amazon took a chance on Jason Schwarzman and Roman Coppola’s niche half-hour comedy, seemingly giving the showrunners complete creative free reign.
For those who could bear the whimsy and the subject matter, Mozart in the Jungle’s absurd comic romp was singular among contemporary television shows. Its fundamental conceptual inaccessibility was offset by a bizarre and charming ensemble cast (amazing side turns from Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell, Danny Glover, and more) and a welcome lack of self-seriousness. Despite its winks to classical music fans, with passing references and cameos by some of the industry’s most famous figures—from Emmanuel Ax to Joshua Bell and Nico Muhly—it made itself eminently comprehensible, making it possible for viewers with no background in the subject matter to settle into its world.
Mozart in the Jungle featured some continuous throughlines—most importantly, a soap opera romance between Lola Kirke’s protagonist Hailey Rutledge and Bernal’s Rodrigo—but Schwarzman, Coppola, and their co-producer Paul Weitz mostly ignored standard season trajectories and boring tonal continuity, giving equal attention to wacky new B-plots and concepts that made each episode feel like a show unto itself. Mozart’s orchestra began to travel all over the world, fracturing and come back together, grappling with economic and systemic forces which were always threatening to dismantle it for good.
Released in 2014, Mozart was one of Amazon’s initial run of original shows, and the beneficiary of a briefly and strangely utopian period for TV. It is perhaps the clearest example of a corporation throwing everything at the wall in an attempt to cash in on streaming, the fact of its quality a happy near-side-effect of this particular technological and economic boom. The received wisdom of the streaming business has calcified since then, as Netflix programming continues to dominate the conversation and the pressure to produce shows that slot into clear genre categories continues to increase. Sadly, it’s difficult to imagine a big-budget, low-key oddball like Mozart getting funded today. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Read our essay “On Mozart in the Jungle, The Man in the High Castle, and the Twilight of Television’s Golden Age” here.
Happy Valley (2014-2016)
It’s difficult to pull off crime fiction in which the audience gets to know the killer and the detective at the same time, in parallel storylines, without accidentally diffusing the tension of the mystery itself. It’s even dicier when you’re trying to make the killer seem believably human, and even sympathetic. Happy Valley is the better of two major British Netflix-distributed procedurals to take this risky approach across a season-long arc, along with the more popular and star-powered The Fall. A scrappy portrait of cop and criminal rubbing up against each other in a claustrophobic section of West Yorkshire, Happy Valley draws its power the rare intensity of Sarah Lancashire’s performance as police sergeant Catherine Cawood. Lancashire’s character is funny, tough as nails, and reluctant to show vulnerability unless she is pushed to the absolute edge of what a human can tolerate.
Of the many contemporary TV police detectives whose judgment is compromised by past trauma, Cawood’s backstory is one of the most devastating, involving the suicide of a teenage daughter. James Norton plays her adversary, the moody, paranoid, and baby-faced ne’er-do-well Tommy Lee Royce, who often seems too loutish and irritating to be capable of unabashed cruelty. The story of Happy Valley gives Cawood an opportunity to find closure and perhaps revenge for her daughter, and the tension of remaining professional and psychologically glued-together in the face of this possibility, as well as Royce’s unusual dynamism as a villain, animate the show’s action.
Writer and showrunner Sally Wainwright is a modern gem of British television, having made one of the country’s best procedurals after creating one of its most humanistic dark comedies: the septuagenarian love story and family drama Last Tango in Halifax. And Lanchasire is a triumph, giving one of the strongest leading performances by any actor in a drama series in recent memory. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
The Leftovers (2014-2017)
At first, it seemed like a recipe for disaster—or at least, eventual disappointment—that Damon Lindelhof had produced another cryptic dramatic television show. But with his speculative HBO epic The Leftovers, the polarizing writer and director responsible for Lost not only managed to deliver a satisfying and modest three seasons of television; ultimately, the show turned into perhaps the most structurally adventurous drama ever produced by the network. As an adaptation of Tom Perrota’s episodic 2011 novel, Lindelhof’s series initially played out like an extended Twilight Zone concept with hard-to-parse Christian overtones, but went far beyond its initial premise in its second and third seasons. Lynchian free-associative imagery and plotlines were certainly part of the bargain, but Lindelhof successfully tread the fine line between intriguing subjectivity and self-indulgence. The bottle episode became one of the show’s primary modes of operation, leading to installments that felt like chapters in a postmodern novel rather than serial television episodes. (This was especially in the third season, with its vestiges of the Kevin Finnerty Sopranos episodes). By committing to an uncompromisingly non-linear method of storytelling, Lindelhof trained viewers to stop expecting plot lines and mysteries to be worked through conventionally, or worked through at all—challenging the idea that cliffhangers should always be followed up on, or characters’ motivations elucidated. The power of the characters, speculative concepts, and mise-en-scènes made his most alienating choices feel justified.
After all, the feeling of strands left untied is the subject of The Leftovers, as well as the impression it often leaves you with as the credits roll on an episode. It takes place in a version of our world where most of the population is searching for order and purpose amidst chaos and omnipresent collective grief. Some of its characters keep attempt to live their lives as if the Sudden Departure never happened, continuing to trust in the conventions of family, morality, and societal infrastructure that used to tie their lives together. Ultimately, they can’t rein their impulses in; in their own ways, they are forced to accept that they have become something different than they were. Watching them—most rewardingly, the excellent Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon’s character—gradually work around to that conclusion, and find their own curious form of peace with it, is the show’s most crucial trajectory. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Read our 2017 essay, “In Season 3 of The Leftovers, Everyone Is Waiting Around to Die,” here.
Fresh Off the Boat (2015-present)
Since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl left the small screen in 1995 after just one season on ABC, Asian-American culture has barely been represented on network television in a three-dimensional way. Sure, there have been notable characters (shoutout to Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, Lucy Liu on Elementary, BD Wong on SVU and AHS, Mindy Kaling on The Office and Mindy Project, among others), but the experience of being Asian in America is rarely a focal point. That is why Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy series created by a female Asian showrunner and starring an entirely Asian cast, felt like such an anomaly at the time of its premiere in 2015, and why it remains so important.
Premiering on the same network 20 years after Cho’s groundbreaking series, Nahnatchka Khan’s show gave a primetime TV audience a rare glimpse into the daily lives of a specific group of Asian-Americans. Set in the ‘90s and inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the family at the center of the show (portrayed by Constance Wu, Randall Park, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, and Ian Chen) is Taiwanese-American and living in suburban Florida. The show explores many Taiwanese and Chinese traditions, and shows U.S.-raised children trying to assimilate even as their parents insist on keeping traditional Asian culture and values alive at home—and sometimes at school. How many American scripted shows—sitcoms or dramas—have devoted entire episodes to “sitting the month,” Chinese New Year, and the difficulties of applying for citizenship? How many feature major characters who only speak in a non-Western foreign languages, or showcase foods that might make the non-Asian viewers scratch their heads in confusion?
Fresh Off the Boat showcases and embraces these cultural practices, juxtaposing them with more distinctly Western traditions and rites of passage like Halloween, the first school dance, and getting a driver’s license. Obviously, this causes some tension: the teenager who loves rap and Shaq is the black sheep of the family. Now entering its sixth and likely final season, Fresh Off the Boat deserves credit for characterizing the daily experience of a sizable group of Americans that are incredibly underrepresented in popular culture, and doing so with plenty of sensitivity, heart, and humor. —ANNA CHAN
Making a Murderer (2015-present)
The clearest prototype for the high-end true crime programming that has overtaken TV and streaming in this decade is Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, a hypnotic 1988 documentary that investigates a murder from different perspectives in an attempt to exonerate a man who had been falsely convicted. By early 2016, the first three defining documents of the modern true crime renaissance—2014’s investigative podcast Serial, 2015’s HBO miniseries The Jinx, and Netflix’s 10-episode epic Making a Murderer of the same year—had become major cultural phenomena, attracting a level of internet-forum watercooler discussion to rival the most popular scripted series of the time. Eventually, someone asked Morris for his take on the bumrush. The legendary documentarian told Slate he was enamoured with and even “jealous” of Making a Murderer, which he categorized as an “extended essay using found footage.” He explained: “I found it extraordinarily powerful, and ironic, because there really is no investigation...It’s reporting other people’s investigations.”
Whereas The Thin Blue Line, Serial, and The Jinx sought answers to their rediscovered cases—to dig up new evidence and present it dramatically, to re-enact events in myriad ways in hopes of locating a hidden truth—Making a Murderer mostly just presented existing information. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos reported the series over 10 years, chronicling the trials of convicted murderers Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, but also telling a story about their families, Avery’s coming-of-age and struggles as a younger man (very much related to the final case), Wisconsin’s Manitowoc County as a whole, and several dark and grimy corners of the American legal system.
Ultimately, Making a Murderer does not work towards exonerating Steven Avery or Brendan Dassey, or push us decide whether they are guilty or not. Instead, it shows us how local law enforcement did many things outside its purview in the process of getting them to jail and keeping them there. (The second season, which is overall a significantly weaker project, does shed light on Dassey’s almost comically difficult struggle to be released while his case is being reevaluated.) The show offers a variety of convincing possibilities for how and why a small town police force might rush to close an investigation preemptively and perhaps improperly. It leads the viewer toward seemingly inevitable conclusions, but it uses its runtime rigorously, documenting each step of the legal process and fairly characterizing its subjects.
Ultimately, as Morris puts it: “One thing that you do learn in an investigation is that we’re all prisoners of narrative, and we can’t escape from narrative.” Making a Murderer gives us more compelling potential storylines than perhaps any other true crime series of the modern era. For better and for worse, it’s also one of this decade’s most influential documentaries. Since the release of its first season, it has helped inspire a range of shows and films, from poor imitations to projects that have actually worked to help wrongfully convicted incarcerated people. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON