The 15 Best TV Performances of 2016

In many ways, this is a harder list to do than a list of the best TV shows of the year. Often a great TV show is filled with great performances from everyone involved. So if I have 20 great TV shows than I probably have 100 great performances.

But I can’t really do a list of 100 – although the first draft of this list had 40 performances – because who has time for that? And that kind of list is also not really about “best” so I decided to give myself an arbitrary cutoff – 15 – that I immediately cheated on.

Whatever. It’s my list.

By making this 15(ish) I forced myself to really hone in on the performances that really moved me in a profoundly emotional way this year, rather than just pick technically great performances that left me a little cold or that I admired in an intellectual way.

But it’s worth just listing a few of the folks who missed the cut.

Runners-up (in order):

  • Rutina Wesley, Queen Sugar
  • Naturi Naughton, Power
  • Constance Zimmer, UnReal
  • Yael Groblas, Jane The Virgin
  • Robert Buckley, iZombie
  • Kylie Bunbury and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Pitch
  • Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
  • Fred Savage, The Grinder
  • Marcus Scribner, Black-ish
  • Daniel Gillies, The Originals

So with that, onto the 15 (or so) performances that I personally think are the best TV performances of 2016.
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Best TV Shows of 2016

I don’t know that I have much to say other than I watched a lot of TV in 2016, most of it was damn good, and increasingly this is because we are finally getting black TV that is for, by and about us.

So without wasting any more of your time, here are the 20 shows that I think are the best TV had to offer this year.

20.  The Magicians – For my money, this show worked almost entirely because of Arjun Gupta as Penny.
19.  Suits – The show finally made Mike pay for his crime and turned out its best season since season two.
18.  Survivor’s Remorse – This show gets deeper and more slyly profound every season.
17.  Fresh Off The Boat – Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen kept me in stitches.
16.  UnReal – Season two was messier than season one, but it was also much more ambitious and a beautiful, brilliant indictment of white liberalism’s limited ability to address race.
15.  Insecure – One of the finest first seasons of a comedy in years and the best depiction of friendship on TV.
14.  The Carmichael Show – Somehow, this show manages to not feel like work despite always being about something important.
13.  Luke Cage – A perfectly cast show that found a way to make Luke Cage relevant in the 21st century.
12.  The Good Place – High concept, lots of laughter. You can’t really ever go wrong with Kristen Bell.
11.  Pitch – Smart, fun and filled with fascinating characters that make baseball compelling.

And the 10 best TV shows of the year…

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My 2016 Primetime Emmy Wishlist

Photo Credit: Television Academy

Photo Credit: Television Academy

There is so much good TV that nearly any average TV viewer could probably do an Emmy wishlist and put together something that another average TV viewer couldn’t really fault. This is a good thing.

But the glut of goodness does mean that the structural biases and barriers of the Emmys are more present than perhaps they’ve ever been simply because the single biggest factor in getting an Emmy nomination is having gotten one before. The sameness of these awards are partly a function of the way TV is made (shows run for years), but my suspicion is that this (admittedly reasonable) factor is mostly a crutch for Emmy voters who are frequently behind the 8-ball on TV innovation and biased against whole swaths of shows (sci-fi, soap, multi-cam comedy, most anything specifically produced for people of color/or on a POC network).

So why not put together my own dream list? And that’s what this is. This is simply a list of who I would love to see get nominations.  I have no illusions that the Emmys would ever be this awesome and diverse in its tastes.

I kept each category to 6 nominees as is pretty typical of the Emmys. Let me know what you think in the comments.

One note – I didn’t pick episodes for writing or directing because I don’t really have access to all of the episodes and for categories like that I feel like I would have had to rewatch everything to make honest, informed choices. But I think we can all probably agree that the writing and (especially) the directing on American Crime was remarkable.

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What Michael B. Jordan’s GQ Interview Reveals about Race

Talking about diversity and representations of blackness can be frought terrain, even now when we are seeing so many more black men and women in key roles in front of, and behind, the camera.

I thought about this immediately when I read Michael B. Jordan’s recent GQ article. I knew immediately after reading it that it would cause a stir. And not just because of the ongoing internet outrage phenomenon – though that’s certainly a part of it – but because most of us have insufficient language for describing the desire for fuller representations of blackness in art and entertainment.

Particularly when we fall for the trap that white supremacy presents us:

“I want to be part of that movement that blurs the line between white and black,” and tells me this: “I told my team after I finished Chronicle [the successful low-budget sci-fi movie that first partnered him with Fantastic Four director Josh Trank] that I only want to go out for roles that were written for white characters. Me playing the role will make it what it is.”

…Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that he would like the same breadth of opportunities as the white actors he takes as career models. The two he has mentioned most often are Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling. “They made smart choices,” he says. “They played people, not being ‘a white actor playing a person,’ them playing a person. When I play a person or profession, it’s black this, black that. It’s obvious that I’m black, but why do I have to be labeled as that?” And the best way to guarantee himself a better path, he says, is to be involved when the material is conceived: “Instead of taking something conceptually written for a black guy, I want the stuff that was written for a guy.” (emphasis added)

The emphasis I’ve added really gets to the central problem with Jordan’s point of view – it is rooted in the false notion that white people get to play “raceless” roles.

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Will Smith’s Next Steps

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

It was perhaps inevitable that in promoting his new film, Focus, that Will Smith would have to address the relative failure of his last film, After Earth.

I don’t think anyone who has followed Will Smith’s career or grew up watching his work would be surprised that he conflates commerce with art.

I got reinvigorated after the failure of After Earth. I stopped working for a year and a half. I had to dive into why it was so important for me to have number-one movies. And I never would have looked at myself in that way. I was a guy who, when I was fifteen my girlfriend cheated on me, and I decided that if I was number one, no woman would ever cheat on me. All I have to do is make sure that no one’s ever better than me and I’ll have the love that my heart yearns for. And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of After Earth, when I had to accept that it’s not a good source of creation.

But I think what is most striking about Will’s newfound perspective on his career is that he fails to acknowledge that he’d sort of already begun the process of complicating his public image and making strange choices before After EarthHancock and I Am Legend were blockbusters, but they were also deeply subversive films that complicated (if imperfectly) the “Big Willie” persona. Seven Pounds, also a relative failure, marked the first instance of some of the weird philosophies that Will reportedly appreciates in real life showing up in his films.

After Earth, then, was just the culmination of a series of increasingly odd choices for a movie star that most people enjoyed seeing in limited ways. It was a low-concept family story at odds with its ill-conceived high-concept trappings. It was a Jaden Smith movie with Will in a clear supporting role that arrived at just the moment that the Smiths as public figures were becoming the focus of ridicule, ire, and amusement. The film’s quasi-philosophical subtext only exacerbated this.

I think the film didn’t work totally, but got a raw deal (the central relationship was sensitively and capably etched) as often happens when major movie stars make imperfect films that fail to make the money they were “supposed” to make. But it’s important to state that Will Smith took a chance that Americans would come out to see a major sci-fi motion picture with a Black family at the center. That, to me, is an admirable move for an actor at his level whose appeal was based on the silly notion that he’d transcended race.

So what does that mean for what Will will do next? I think it’s probably likely that his idea of “dangerous” choices going forward could be less dangerous than what he might be suggesting.

Right now, it seems like more of the same: big movies, movie star charisma. Focus is the opening salvo, but the previews suggest the film relies mostly on Will’s charm and Margot Robbie’s baffling “It Girl” status. It’s too soon to tell on that front, but a dangerous choice might have been to push for a black woman to play Robbie’s role. Suicide Squad is a risk only in the sense that fanboys and fangirls are waiting to unleash their claws on Warner Bros’ bizarre handling of DC Comics properties.

I’d like to see him play a bad guy in a way that forces him to go beyond mere charm. Speaking of charm, I’d like to see it put to good use in a black romantic dramedy with someone like Regina Hall, who could match him in dramatic and comedic acting. I’d like to see him do something small like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness that wasn’t so consumed with deracinated characterization. I’d like to see him throw his still-considerable weight behind other black filmmakers.

And I’d hope that the relative failure of After Earth doesn’t put him off of black sci-fi films. We still need someone to produce an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due story.