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Summer TV Mailbag: Seasonal Awards! The ‘True Detective’ Drinking Game! Shows Without Zombies or Spies!

There are simply more quality shows on TV right now than I ever would have expected, a dazzling mix of unexpected freshmen and surging veterans. Let’s answer your questions about them.

I’ve been telling people this left and right for weeks now, so it’s probably time to get it on the record: This is the best summer for TV I can remember. I’m not saying the shows that have premiered over the past two months are the best we’ll see this year, or even the best ever to debut during the season when most kids are on vacation and most British actors are sneaking into Belfast. (After all, I’m old enough to remember a time when summers were reserved for Walter White and his air-conditioned RV.) What I’m saying is more modest and more fun: There are simply more quality shows on TV right now than I ever would have expected, a dazzling mix of unexpected freshmen and surging veterans. Better, the shows I’m enjoying this month are deeply pleasurable in a way that suits the season. There’s nothing brainless about summer TV in 2015 — at least not until Fear the Walking Dead premieres next month — but, the City of Vinci aside, there is something engaging and light running through the airwaves at the moment, a loose and joyful creativity that I only wish would trickle into the rest of the year. TV can and should be serious, but it shouldn’t always take itself so seriously. This isn’t supposed to be homework, you know?

Except when I assign you the task of coming up with questions for another installment of the TV Mailbag. Thankfully, many of you managed to put down your fishing poles (or whatever it is normal people hold in the summer) and tap out some worthwhile queries. Below you’ll find a True Detective drinking game, some calming words about Mr. Robot and You’re the Worst, and a list of things that television characters do far better than the rest of us mere mortals. If you’d like to ask a question for the next mailbag, send it to GrantlandTVMailbag@gmail.com. If you’d like to know what a fishing pole is, don’t worry. There’s a TV show for that, too.

If you could give awards Emmys style for just this summer, who are your winners?

Best Show?
Favorite Show?
Best Performance?
Unintentionally Funniest?
Most Missed Potential?

Thanks and GREAT JOB BARANSKI!
—David, Dallas

I love this question, particularly for its remarkable sense of timing. The actual Emmy nominations were announced last week, and when Colin Farrell shaves his mustache, it’s a sure sign there are less than eight weeks until Labor Day. So what better moment to hand out entirely subjective, utterly fictional awards celebrating the busiest and best summer season in recent memory?

BEST SHOW OF SUMMER 2015

NOMINEES:

Deutschland 83 (SundanceTV)
Catastrophe (Amazon)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Mr. Robot (USA)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC America)
Humans (AMC)

WINNER: Viewers! Seriously, I can’t remember a time when there were this many shows on simultaneously that were all so good and (this is key) so much fun to watch. Isn’t it better to give everyone a medal, pat ourselves on the back, and then hunker down in front of our overstuffed DVR? In a word: No. That sort of bland communism might fly in Deutschland’s East Berlin, but not here. So let’s name names.

I think Catastrophe is the best new comedy of the year — still love you, Kimmy! — and, at just three hours total, the zippiest binge of the summer. Halt has pulled off one of the more remarkable turnarounds in recent memory; what it lacks in fireworks it makes up for with a hardwired knack for pacing and pleasure. Humans is a strong idea done well. And Jonathan Strange is nearly as good as the book that birthed it; trust me, that’s high praise.

But, for me, this is a two-horse race — sorry, still haven’t seen BoJack Horseman — between the aforementioned Deutschland and Mr. Robot. And while I’m totally head over heels for the new-wave spy games of Deutschland, I think I have to give this one to the trippy Robot. As Chris Ryan and I discussed in this week’s podcast, Mr. Robot might be the most confident new drama we’ve seen in years. It has a completely realized aesthetic, from its highly stylized opening credits to its utterly bananas, drug-drenched dream sequences. I have no idea if creator Sam Esmail can keep this high-wire act going. It’s hard enough to tell two-hour movies from the warped POV of asocial, revolutionary lunatics — Fight Club worked, but it sounds like Woody Allen’s latest doesn’t — let alone open-ended, serialized dramas. That Mr. Robot was already renewed for a second season is both a reward and a provocation. I understand why the show’s addled protagonist, Elliot Alderson, has to stop getting high. But I hope Esmail never, ever looks down.

FAVORITE SHOW OF SUMMER 2015

deutschland83SundanceTV

WINNER: Deutschland 83. Thank you, David, for giving me this cozy cheat! I am dazzled by Mr. Robot but I am gaga for Deutschland 83. What can I say other than it hits all my buttons — Cold War spy jinks, high style mixed with sly comedy, the professional as knotty metaphor for the personal, cold beer, and a killer soundtrack — with the delicacy of Howard Jones tickling the digital ivories. For those who have complained that The Americans is poisonously bleak, think of this as your antidote. More than ideology, what fuels Deutschland is youth: It’s what allows Martin the young East German soldier embedded in the West German army and played by star-to-be Jonas Nay to fall in love with his honeypot targets and to run toward the explosions he’s responsible for igniting. Deutschland chronicles an era three decades in the rearview, yet its heartbeat races like that of a teenager. Nothing this summer, other than air conditioning, has made me happier.

BEST PERFORMANCE OF SUMMER 2015

NOMINEES:

Rami Malek (Mr. Robot)
Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire)
Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire)
Abigail Spencer (Rectify)
Colin Farrell (True Detective)
Speedboat #2 (Ballers)

truedetective_s3_farrellHBO

WINNER: Colin Farrell. Yes, we all know the problems that have weighed down True Detective’s second season: It’s too slow, the writing is too clunky. Without an A-list director hogging the frame, creator Nic Pizzolatto’s storytelling weaknesses have been exposed. Without a seemingly supernatural mystery to unpack, the reasons to keep watching are few.

But there is one performance worth tuning in for, regardless of whether the Yellow King has lost his throne. As crooked cop Ray Velcoro, Colin Farrell has been a revelation. It’s not that the much-maligned actor soars in the part so much as he sinks, deep down into Ray’s nicotine-stained skin. Detective Velcoro does plenty of bad things in the first few hours of TD2 — he curses out his kid, he stomps on a rival dad, he tosses back Johnnie Walker Blue like water. But somehow, throughout all the sin, Farrell keeps his eyes wide as if he, too, is a spectator, as if he can’t quite believe how far he’s fallen and how hard it will be to get up. Like everyone else, I wanted to watch Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. But I kind of want to save Farrell’s Velcoro. I want to see him solve the case, sure, but I also wanted someone to clean out his mustache like a faulty air filter before he shaved it, and to wring out his booze-soaked clothes like a mop. I have no idea where all the hullabaloo in Vinci is headed. But Farrell’s high-profile investigation into the dark side of his character’s heart is already a success.

UNINTENTIONALLY FUNNIEST PERFORMANCE

NOMINEES:

Vince Vaughn (True Detective)
Kelly Reilly (True Detective)
Dwayne Johnson’s Neck Muscles (Ballers)
Tim Robbins (The Brink)
Everybody (Sense8)
Everybody (The Strain)

truedetective_s3_kellyreillyHBO

WINNER: Kelly Reilly. Look, I don’t like to poke fun at people. Actors are generally the most exposed and least culpable individuals in any filmed enterprise. When they fail, it’s usually because the scripts aren’t good enough or the direction is weak. Not even giving their all is enough to right an already sinking ship. Yet while True Detective’s inconsistent style has marooned much of its cast during this bumpy second season, it’s absolutely annihilated Kelly Reilly, a talented British actor who can’t seem to get a break Stateside. (You might remember her from her network debut as the lead in ABC’s truly insane Black Box though her agent desperately hopes you don’t.)

In pleasant Euro trifles like L’Auberge Espagnole and its sequel, Les Poupées Russes, Reilly was engaging and bright. In True Detective, though, she appears to have been unplugged. Yes, the role as Jordan, wife to Vince Vaughn’s melancholy crook is thankless. The majority of her screen time involves listening to her husband preach and then curling herself supportively around either his shoulders or a gin and tonic. But I remain utterly perplexed by every choice Reilly is making, from her Lunesta-tinged body language to her mumblecore accent choice. I know that this season’s trio of cops is otherwise engaged, but could some of them take some overtime and find out what happened here? Other than the unpunishable crime of bad parts happening to good actors, of course.

MOST MISSED POTENTIAL

NOMINEES:

The Brink (HBO)
Ballers (HBO)
Another Period (Comedy Central)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
True Detective (HBO)
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FX)

WINNER: True Detective. As if there could be any other choice. Sure, I wish the lightweight Ballers had the guts to get a little more serious, just as I wish the dreadful The Brink had the jokes to be even the slightest bit funny. Another Period is a clever sketch uncomfortably stretched out into an entire show. Masters of Sex is losing it in its third season. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is fine, but as a believer in the redemptive power of (fictional, filmed entertainment about) rock music, it’s not nearly loud enough.

But the thing about True Detective is that it really ought to be better. I say this not as a fan of the first season — because as most people know, I wasn’t — but as a fan of crime fiction in general. There is a huge opportunity to bring hard-boiled detective stories to the small screen, and it’s hugely frustrating that Pizzolatto appears to be the one writer entrusted to do it. He’s not untalented — in fact, I enjoyed his novel, Galveston, quite a bit. But, through five episodes of TD2, he’s proven himself unable to articulate the particular blend of menace, artifice, and art that makes California noir so compelling. It’s actually to his credit that he’s so fearless about playing with familiar archetypes: the crooked cops, the semi-straight gangsters, the cults, the beaks. These are the raw materials mined for nearly all classic noirs. The problem is that he hasn’t shown much imagination in the way he’s used them. I went into this season hoping for Chinatown and so far we’ve gotten Epcot. It’s possible the last three episodes will improve. But I’d be surprised if my disappointment doesn’t linger.

While we’re on the topic of True Detective

Have you and Chris Ryan came up with a good drinking game for True Detective yet? I think that’s the only way I can get through the rest of the season.
—Evan S., Ottawa

You’re in luck, Evan. Grab a 12-pack of Modelo and a bucket of Johnnie Walker Blue. Let’s do this thing.

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The True Detective Drinking Game

Every time Lera Lynn sings: Drink

Every time Ray drinks: Drink

Every time Ray gets wet (off of any of his bad habits): Drink

Every time Ray refers to his son as “my boy”: Drink

Every time the show introduces a new judge/reporter/lieutenant/lawyer in a suit: Drink

Every time Rachel McAdams talks about penis girth or butt stuff: Vape

Every time Rachel McAdams pulls a boot-knife: Drink vape liquid

Every time a man hands a woman an envelope: Drink

Every time someone complains about or directly addresses “The Mexicans”: Beber

Every time a crook uses the vocabulary of a thirtysomething English major (e.g., “louche” or “apoplectic”): Imbibe

Every time Vince Vaughn changes the parameters of a deal: Drink

Every time Vince Vaughn changes the parameters of his expression: Drink

Every time Taylor Kitsch suddenly RAISES HIS VOICE TO EXPRESS PAIN: Cry

Every time Kelly Reilly drinks: Have a sip of water. Jesus. Take care of yourself.

Please give me your short list of topics for a 30 for 30–esque documentary series on the last few decades of TV. —Nate, San Mateo, California

Gladly! Here are my 13 titles for the past 13 years of TV.

Flatliners: How Shonda Rhimes Turned Obnoxious Actors Into Dead Characters

Guys, Where Are We?: Behind the Scenes of the First Season of Lost

American Classics: How AMC Went From Afterthought to Emmys

California, Here We Come: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of The O.C.

The Glue Factory: Why HBO’s Luck Failed

That’s What the Money Is For: Surviving Matthew Weiner

Extra Credit: The Unkillable Community

The Bad Friend: Archie Panjabi, Julianna Margulies, and the Feud That Almost Derailed a Drama

White Tiger: Ben Silverman’s Reign of Error at NBC

You Can’t Handle the Truth: The Real Story of Homeland’s Second Season

Absolute Power: House of Cards and the Making of a Hit in the Age of Netflix

The Monster at the End of the Dream: Nic Pizzolatto, Cary Fukunaga, and the Battle for True Detective

You Can’t Be Serious: How “Comedies” Like Dads Get Made

I’m getting really tired of shows about murder, robots, superheroes, spies, zombies, prisoners, and the like. Are there any shows I’m missing that are about life? I’ve already watched Togetherness and Transparent and loved them. I’m talking a show like Friday Night Lights. Do those exist anymore?
—Alex B.

The short answer: No. At least not really, not since Parenthood cried its last tear. Also, I promise I didn’t submit this question myself under an assumed name. Here’s the thing: While no one bemoans the lack of quiet, ordinary lives on television louder than I — I really am an expert bemoaner — I also understand why they’re absent. With a million channels broadcasting a billion scripted series per year, it’s harder than ever to capture audience attention. And if you want to capture big, elusive fish, you are likely to reach for the biggest, sharpest hook. Hence the robots, zombies, and spies — though I’m still waiting for the first show to really delve into the psyche of robot zombie spies.

If you’re watching Togetherness and Transparent you’re off to a good start. In fact, I think the strongest emotional storytelling on TV has taken refuge in an unexpected place: the half-hour comedy. Sure, the jokes are broad, but the character work on shows like FXX’s You’re the Worst and Amazon’s Catastrophe is as artful as anything in this year’s nominees for Best Drama. (Another option? HBO’s late, lamented Looking.)

In terms of dramas, I’d suggest checking out Showtime’s Shameless. It can get a little busy and the stakes waver between impossibly high and pitiably low, but showrunner John Wells (ER) knows that even wild plots should always serve the characters, not the other way around. But above all else, I recommend SundanceTV’s Rectify. (The show’s third season is airing now. The first two seasons, 16 hours in total, are streaming on Netflix.) Like Friday Night Lights, it’s a drama that shows uncommon generosity and grace in its depiction of small-town life. And unlike nearly every other drama on TV, it’s not concerned with noisy crimes. Rather, it’s about what happens after the bodies have been buried and the time has been served. Its protagonist, Daniel Holden, has been freed from death row after serving nearly two decades for a murder he may or may not have committed. Thanks to the uniqueness of his circumstance, Rectify is able to treat ordinary existence as something more radical than outer space. As Daniel adjusts to the strangeness of daily life, the most mundane details throb with an otherworldly beauty: the sound of an old mixtape, the summer light through the trees. In TV’s desert of extremity, Rectify’s quiet is an oasis.

Hey, since you bring up You’re the Worst

What is FX doing to this poor show? It worked great coupled with Married and was in prime position to explode with Season 2. Now they moved the release date to September and seems like they’re pushing it to the back of the schedule. Any silver linings to the September release?
—Mike, Smithtown, New York

Everyone: Deep breath. There is no conspiracy plot here. FX wants You’re the Worst to succeed. You know how I know? Because the show was renewed. It’s as simple as that.

Now, is it odd that the show has been bumped to little brother network FXX? A little, and I understand why some fans might look at it like a demotion. But the truth is, FX needs FXX to succeed, and one of the ways it can guarantee that is by kicking some strong programming its way. You’re the Worst skews younger and jokes dirtier than FX’s other comedies. This makes it a strong fit for FXX, a network best known for running reruns of The Simpsons and, soon, Parks and Recreation. And you have to look at the high upside to FXX’s admittedly smaller profile. It’s a lot healthier for YTW to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond than it is to be a beloved minnow in FX’s roiling ocean. Context matters in cable TV in 2015 just as it did in 2005. AMC was never going to cancel Mad Men, because the critical and cultural response was more valuable to its brand than Nielsen ratings. You’re the Worst isn’t Mad Men — though there is a lot of drinking and screwing and the lead looks dapper in a hat — but it matters to the company nearly as much as it does to me.

So again I say: Breathe. Take a swig from that bottle of whiskey you stole from a wedding. You’re the Worst is premiering September 9, right after the season premiere of The League. Everything I’ve heard from people affiliated with the show is that the new episodes are just as funny as the old ones. (Even better, there will be more of them: Season 2 is 13 episodes, three more than Season 1.) Spirits are high. Oh, and those old episodes? You can finally binge them to your heart’s content on Hulu, beginning August 10.

What’s it going to take from us fans to make sure they don’t screw Mr. Robot up? (Trying to be proactive here.)
—Ashton C.

I love it when you guys go all mama bear about your favorite shows. I know you’ve been burned before, but in this case, there is no fire. There isn’t even any smoke. Mr. Robot has aired only five episodes. They’ve all been terrific and, as noted earlier, the show has already been renewed for a second season. So clearly the powers that be — in this case USA — are onboard. I mean, they’d almost have to be, considering the way Mr. Robot tosses the visual conventions of TV into the blender and aims at corporate America with a blowtorch of cynicism and disgust. As I said on the Hollywood Prospectus podcast this week, either USA gave zero notes to creator Sam Esmail or he gave zero fucks. Probably both.

But I appreciate the way Ashton asks what can we, the fans, do for a show like this — meaning, what can we do right now when things are just getting good, not later when the only resort is a hashtag and a halfhearted mail-in campaign. (Send your morphine pills to 30 Rock!) Other than, you know, watching the show, the best thing we can all do for Mr. Robot is to stay calm. The expectation game in TV is truly out of control, and this is especially problematic for a new series from a rookie creator with a distinctly nontraditional point of view. The wild enthusiasm I’m sensing for the show comes with a potentially dark flip side: It’s the sort of excitement that can easily curdle into resentment at the first creative wobble. Which is to say, Mr. Robot could lose its reservoir of goodwill long before it loses the backing of its network. Here’s something to remember while thrilling to the sight of Christian Slater resurrecting his career: Mr. Robot is going to stumble. All shows do. Maybe not next week, maybe not until next season. But it will. The question is, when it does, will the devoted audience be willing to help pick it back up again?

Here is my list of skills that TV characters seem to be statistically better at than the general population. Anything to add?

  • Escaping handcuffs
  • Secretly learning Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, etc. (you speak Tagalog?!)
  • Driving without looking at the road
  • Hacking security camera feeds
  • Wilderness tracking (they went this way)
  • Pickpocketing keycards
  • Performing self-surgery
  • Hot-wiring vehicles
  • Holding it in (bathrooms are for dead drops and discreet hand-to-hand combat)
  • Arm wrestling someone twice your size
  • Digging (graves, typically)
  • Withstanding torture
  • Searching historical archives
  • Guessing passwords
  • Finding babysitters

—James W.

James, you’ve outdone yourself — or you’ve spent the past decade feverishly rewatching Lost. I think you’ve just about got it covered. My only additions would be these:

  • Surviving car crashes (side-impact preferred)
  • Communing wordlessly with deer and/or other wildlife
  • Ripping shirts in order to fashion tourniquets
  • Pulling said tourniquets tight with teeth
  • Realizing the person you’ve been talking about is standing right behind you just a moment too late
  • Gulping down straight whiskey without coughing
  • Sobering up
  • Not being hungover
  • Showering/applying makeup in unlikely circumstances
  • Getting pregnant
  • Delivering babies in places other than hospitals
  • Siring precocious, annoying children

Speaking of … !

What do TV writers have against second children, first sons? So many good shows have had intelligent first children daughters and dopey, forgettable sons. The Sopranos had A.J. (perennial failure), Homeland had Chris (big-screen TVs!), Mad Men had Bobby (played by how many actors?), and The Americans has Henry (breaking into neighbors houses to play video games). As a second child, first son — I take offense.
—Brian G.

Brian, I understand how personal circumstance and recent history has made you feel this way. It’s understandable. Honestly, it’d be better to increase the number of only children on TV even if it meant a drastic reduction in casting opportunities for milquetoast, karate-and-soccer-practicing young men. But I think the problem isn’t gendered the way you suspect. I think it has more to do with age and order. Because when I look back at TV through the decades, what I see is a much more pernicious tradition of dumbing down second kids no matter their sex. Think of Family Ties (Alex P. Keaton: oldest and smartest. Mallory Keaton: liked shopping?), Happy Days (Richie Cunningham: all-American. Joanie Cunningham: married Chachi.), or Friday Night Lights (Julie Taylor: precocious and artistic. Gracie Taylor: an alien sent to enslave or destroy us.). Older kids can at least interact with the plot. Unless you strike pay dirt with casting, younger kids are there for corny reactions and to be shipped off to summer camp as quickly and frequently as possible.

If anything, the past few years have been a corrective to the long-standing mistreatment of second female children. (And, probably, a logical extension of the fear and insecurity over male power that informed the creation of macho antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper in the first place.) The lesson here, as always, is don’t make your characters have kids. Unless you know you’re casting a Kiernan Shipka or a Holly Taylor — and odds are you’re not — it’s better to save everyone the trouble.

And since we’re talking about kid actors …

Tell me Texans’ first-round pick Kevin Johnson doesn’t look like Glen Bishop from Mad Men. Cannot be unseen. Props to my wife for pointing that one out.

NFL DraftJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

—Marc, Madison, Wisconsin 

And props to your wife for ruining my night — and the 2015 NFL season. Here’s hoping summer never ends!

madmen_glenbishop_footballAMC