We're halfway through the year, so it's time to assess what made an impression on my TV watching brain so far. (Note: These are individual episodes that hit home for me, emotionally; my top 5 TV series might be slightly different.
In alphabetical order:
Better Call Saul, "Chicanery"
Or, Michael McKean's Emmy reel. At the start of the courtroom scene that dominates the episode, Chuck McGill mocks his brother's pre-trial maneuvers, smugly telling Jimmy there will be no Perry Mason moment when he cracks like an eggshell on the stand. Well, as usual, Chuck underestimates his brother and overestimates himself. We've lived with these characters for years now, and we know that when he's working a con, Jimmy has an uncanny knack for exploiting his mark's psychological weaknesses. The episode beautifully lays out the mechanics of Jimmy's courtroom strategy, ending with the cell phone battery--and Jimmy gets his Perry Mason moment. The pain and resentment erupt like a geyser, and McKean plays it like Chuck desperately wants to stop talking, but his hatred has been buried for too long and just has to come out.
The greatness of the episode, though, is that the BCS creative braintrust won't allow us to enjoy Jimmy's victory. Nobody wins: Jimmy loses his brother here; Chuck is exposed as mentally ill in public, his professional reputation irrevocably damaged; and Kim will carry the guilt from her role in this long past the end of the series.
blackish, "Being Bow-Racial"
Usually, black-ish is firmly in the POV of Anthony Anderson's Dre Johnson, who constantly worries that, as his family moves into affluent (read: white) society, they'll lose their connection to what Dre considers their black identity. But if any one member of the family truly lives on the fissure between the black and white worlds, it's Dre's wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross).
"Being Bow-Racial" is the rare episode that switches viewpoints, putting Bow and her conflicts front and center and relegating Dre to the background. When her eldest son brings home a white girlfriend, it triggers painful memories of growing up as the child of a white father and black mother--an outlier in white society, but not quite fitting in with black society either. The flashbacks to high school and college-age Bow are both funny and slightly horrific, as we watch young Bow flail about, trying on various clichéd black identities, drowning in the malign neglect of her white classmates.
It's only when she talks to her father, Paul (Beau Bridges), that she finds her center again, grounded in love and dedication to the life and family she's created with Dre. The episode is a tour de force for Miss Ross, who conveys Bow's emotional turmoil and still somehow gets the laughs.
Bob's Burgers, "Bob Actually"
A small masterpiece of comic writing. Five separate plotlines (at least) in 21 minutes, and they all land, some in spectacular fashion. BB fans have been waiting for the Louise/Rudy kiss for at least three seasons, and the entire episode shows how the Belcher kids have subtly matured over the length of the series. Gene's bittersweet encounter with the Italian cafeteria lady/chocolatier, Tina's boldness with Jimmy Jr. (although I still think she deserves better), and Louise's glorious kiss (and follow-up slap) would have been impossible in Season 1. And Bob actually got Linda a decent Valentine's Day present! Amazing! (Yeah, he looked ridiculous, but the dance routine wasn't half bad.) A top 5 episode for the series--and considering Loren Bouchard and Co. are working on Season 8, it's a testament to the consistency of the writing, the brilliance of the cast, and the still-untapped potential of the characters.
Downward Dog, "Getting What You Always Wanted/Lost"
The philosophical centerpiece of Downward Dog is the ad campaign that Nan (Alison Tolman) proposes in the pilot: what if we loved ourselves the way our dogs love us? What if we accepted ourselves as beautiful, exactly as we are? The rest of the series says: easier said than done. Downward Dog explores how our dual protagonists --Nan and her dog, Martin--deal with the compromises, the expectations and the self-delusions that keep them from accepting themselves.
In the final two episodes, Nan and Martin seemingly achieve major breakthroughs: Nan's campaign succeeds wildly, and Martin finally summons the courage to confront Pepper, his feline arch-nemesis. But neither triumph sits well; both Nan and Martin wonder if defining themselves as corporate go-getter or lone wolf is something they really want. So when both Nan and Martin are lost--Nan metaphorically and Martin literally--they reach out to their connections. They fall back on their messy, inadequate relationships -- with Nan's dad, with Jason (series secret weapon Lucas Neff), with each other -- "because in 100 years, all anyone will remember is the love." A sticky sentiment to end the series, but Downward Dog earns every bit of it. Here's hoping for a Season Two... somewhere.
Feud, "You Mean All this Time We Could Have Been Friends?"
A lot of people might have picked the Oscar episode for this slot (and that epic backstage tracking shot is damn impressive), but I always felt uncomfortable with how much fun the show (and the viewers) had with the sniping between Davis and Crawford. (Jack Warner wasn't the only one indulging in 'hagsploitation'.) Better to strip away the glamour, kill the spotlight and see our stars when there are no more plum roles to fight over.
Bette Davis may have outlived her rival, but the finale belongs to Jessica Lange's Crawford, trying (and failing) to bring professional dignity to the bargain basement schlock of Trog, then shuttering herself in her Manhattan apartment to assess the mental and physical damage from becoming "Joan Crawford"--and in her last days of madness, maybe coming to terms with her legacy and people like Hedda and Jack, who helped make her famous and destroyed her in equal measure.
In the end, we have their films and the legend--but was it worth the price? Ryan Murphy can't answer that question, and to his credit, he doesn't even try.