The 5 Best Gifts TV Gave Us in 2015!

With over 400 scripted series on television and countless reality shows, there really is something for every spread across broadcast, cable and digital platforms.  But quantity does not equal quality.  With Christmas right around the corner, here’s my list of the 5 Best Gifts TV (including digital platforms) gave us in 2015 (in no particular order).

  1. Live Scripted Performances on NBC – In the pioneering days of television almost every program was performed live, but in recent history live performances have mostly been relegated to awards shows, reality show finales, the Super Bowl and 2 soaps during sweeps months (“One Life to Live” & “General Hospital”) and sitcoms like “Roc,””Will & Grace” and more recently “Hot in Cleveland.”  But in the spring of 2015, NBC aired a one hour live edition of its struggling sitcom “Undateable.” With musical performances from British pop star Ed Sheeran and guest stars including “Scandal’s” Scott Foley, the show served up it’s funniest episode up to that point prompting NBC to order of third season of all live episodes.  “Undateable” has become the most creative, daring and by far funniest sitcom on broadcast television this season.  While the live production isn’t without it’s technical problems, which have vastly improved, it all still works.  Watching the cast make each other laugh and use timely, real world references is just plain fun, something most returning sitcoms are missing this season. During the past few years NBC has also been staging live productions of classic musicals during the holiday season.  While “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” fell flat, this year the the network wisely chose to update “The Wiz” featuring new-comer Shanice Williams as Dorothy and an all-star cast (Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, and Ne-Yo). “The Wiz” was a success on all fronts. It was expertly directed, choreographed and performed. The success of “The Wiz”should signal a change in the way NBC approaches its live musical productions. With FOX airing a live production of “Grease” this winter I’m hoping other networks look for creative ways to deliver more live scripted programs, especially on the one hour drama front. I would love to see a live episode of “The Good Wife” set in a courtroom during a big trial.
  2. “Empire” (FOX) – “Empire” premiered it’s first season in January of 2015 and became an instant hit and pop culture sensation.  Oscar nominee Taranji P. Henson gave the break-out performance of the year as mother and ex-con Cookie Lyon, but it should be noted that Terrence Howard’s underrated and under appreciated performance and patriarch Lucious Lyon is giving other classic primetime soap villains JR Ewing (“Dallas”), Alexis Carrington, (“Dynasty”) and Angela Channing (“Falcon Crest”).While season 2, which premiered this fall hasn’t benefited from the strong narrative of season 1, and has had some story missteps (Jamal sleeping with a woman, sigh…) “Empire” overall delivers soapy goodness.
  3. “Looking” – Season 2 (HBO) – In 2015 HBO delivered the second season of “Looking,” the half hour dreamed about a group of gay men in San Francisco facing challenges in romance, family and career. The show delivered a sexy and nuanced love triangle between Patrick, Kevin and Richie which I’m sure the writers planned on diving deeper into in season 3 if there was one.  Unfortunately HBO decided to cancel the quiet series that didn’t make as much noise as the creatively challenged “Girls.”  The second season of the show was also notable for introducing HIV positive character Eddie and being the first tv show to have a characters talk about PreP (Truvada) a drug the FDA has approved for use to help prevent HIV infections in conjunction with other safer sex practices such as condom use. HBO ordered a two-hour wrap up movie of “Looking” to air in early 2016, but it still stings that a thoughtful show about gay men as leads had such a short life.  Luckily, for fans of the show and for those yet to discover it, episodes of “Looking” will live on HBO GO (HBO’s digital platform) forever. And if we’re really lucky, the “Looking” movie will do well enough for HBO to revisit the characters with more tv movies.
  4. Mature Audiences Matter on Digital Platforms – With the broadcast networks still chasing the 18-49 demo, digital platforms such as NETFLIX and AMAZON PRIME proved that stories featuring older characters still matter and can draw an audience. Shows like “Bloodline” (NETFLIX), “Grace and Frankie” (NETFLIX), “Transparent” (AMAZON PRIME) proved that older, mature characters are still compelling and can carry story.  With few exceptions, broadcast television has abandoned storytelling for older characters unless they’re male leads on procedural dramas or supporting characters.  Digital platforms have embraced these characters and delivered high quality series centered around them. A few weeks ago I was watching “The Golden Girls” and realized that today that show wouldn’t exist on broadcast television and if it did, it would be a watered down version not nearly as relatable or timeless as what we got in the 1980s.  Digital platforms have created a space for the diversity in story-telling that doesn’t exist on broadcast television.
  5. Regina King wins an Emmy! (“American Crime, ABC) – Regina King is that rare actress who started out as a child star and was able to stay out of trouble as she transitioned into an amazing adult actress.  I always thought her performance on the NBC/TNT drama “Southland” should have been earned her multiple Emmy nominations but it was her performance in the limited series “American Crime” that earned her an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.  With every performance, whether on tv or the big screen, comedic or dramatic, King gives strong and nuanced performances.  Based on the reviews and buzz she could find herself back in the race for her performance in HBO’s “The Leftovers.”  King returns for the next edition of “American Crime” in 2016.

PREMIERE WEEK ALL-STARS: EMPIRE and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

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This past week a number of new and returning series premiered on the broadcast networks.  Two of those series EMPIRE and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER returned for their highly anticipated second seasons. Each show stayed true to form and made the most out of their sophomore debuts.

EMPIRE came roaring back, picking up a few months after last year’s finale which left family patriarch Lucious Lyon behind bars after being charged with the murder of a longtime friend. His sons Andre and Hakeem along with their mother Cookie were planning a hostile takeover of the family business after Lucious named middle son Jamal as the heir to the Empire. A lot happened in the premiere at a quick pace, tying up some storylines, presenting the core characters with new challenges and introducing Marissa Tomei in what could turn out to be an Emmy-winning guest starring performance.  I won’t spoil any plot points for those of you who still need to catch up but it was a satisfying hour.  There will be 18 episodes this season up from the 12 produced for season one.  With the increased episode order, I hope the writers will flesh out stories a bit more and not rush to pack so many story points into each episode. That aside, the season two premiere of EMPIRE was compelling, fun and full of energy and emotion. It looks like there’s a lot in store for the Lyon family this season. EMPIRE airs on FOX Mondays at 9pm EST.

HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER also used its season two premiere to wrap of its season one cliffhanger, which was a smart storytelling move.  It’s good that the writers chose not to prolong the reveal of Rebecca’s murderer, allowing the show to introduce a more compelling season-long mystery by the end of the hour. It looks as though HTGAWM will keep the fast forward/flashback storytelling structure this season.  It worked well in season one, although it was sometimes difficult to keep track of where they were in story. Because we are now used to this storytelling device it should be easier to follow the story.  Again, I won’t spoil any of the episode’s big reveals, but the show certainly delivered a fast-paced and well performed premiere. If there was any doubt that Viola Davis deserved her recent and historic Best Actress Emmy win, this episode serves as a great example of the strong, nuanced performance Davis delivers as Annalise Keating. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER airs on ABC Thursdays at 10pm EST.

Check back as the season progresses for more of my thoughts on the second seasons of EMPIRE and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.

2015 PRIMETIME EMMY PREDICTIONS

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It’s time for the 67th Annual Emmy Awards. This year the categories are filled with a lot of diversity and history could be made if either Viola Davis or Taraji P. Henson become the first African American woman to win the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series. Click here for a printable Emmy ballot.

Below are my picks for the major categories:

BEST ACTOR, DRAMA

JON HAMM, MAD MEN
KEVIN SPACEY, HOUSE OF CARDS
LIEV SCHREIBER, RAY DONOVAN
JEFF DANIELS, THE NEWSROOM
KYLE CHANDLER, BLOODLINE
BOB ODENKIRK, BETTER CALL SAUL
I’m going with the sentimental vote in this category. It’s shameful that Jon Hamm hasn’t won an Emmy for MAD MEN. His  heartbreaking performance in the series finale should finally right that wrong.
BEST ACTRESS, DRAMA
VIOLA DAVIS, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
ROBIN WRIGHT, HOUSE OF CARDS
CLAIRE DANES, HOMELAND
TARAJI P. HENSON, EMPIRE
TATIANA MASLANY, ORPHAN BLACK
ELISABETH MOSS, MAD MEN
This is by far the toughest category. My gut tells me that voters will want to take the opportunity to award the first Emmy in this category to an African American actress, both of whom are well deserving. My fear is that Davis and Henson will split the vote. I think with all the buzz surrounding Henson’s performance as Cookie on Empire, it’s her award to lose. If Henson and Davis do split the vote, Tatiana Maslany could take home the gold for playing multiple roles on ORPHAN BLACK.
BEST ACTOR, COMEDY
ANTHONY ANDERSON, BLACK-ISH
WILL FORTE, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
MATT LEBLANC, EPISODES
JEFFREY TAMBOR, TRANSPARENT
WILLIAM H. MACY, SHAMELESS
LOUIS C.K., LOUIE
DON CHEADLE, HOUSE OF LIES
This is another strong category, but I think Jeffrey Tambor has the edge.  With Louis C.K. winning the Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy Series at the Creative Arts ceremony this past weekend, he could be the spoiler in the category.
BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY
JULIA-LOUIS DREYFUS, VEEP
LISA KUDROW, THE COMEBACK
AMY POEHLER, PARKS AND RECREATION
AMY SCHUMER, INSIDE AMY SCHUMER
EDIE FALCO, NURSE JACKIE
LILY TOMLIN, GRACE & FRANKIE
Everyone loves a comeback and Lisa Kudrow certainly had the comeback of the year. Kudrow earned her second Best Actress nomination for her role in THE COMEBACK ten years after she was nominated for the first season of the show.  Lisa Kudrow gave such an honest and vulnerable performance making her quite deserving of the award. Julia-Louis Dreyfus could of course win, again, for VEEP. Or, if Academy members are feeling edgy and daring Amy Schumer could be take the gold.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, DRAMA
PETER DINKLAGE, GAME OF THRONES
JIM CARTER, DOWNTON ABBEY
JONATHAN BANKS, BETTER CALL SAUL
ALAN CUMMING, THE GOOD WIFE
MICHAEL KELLY, HOUSE OF CARDS
BEN MENDELSOHN, BLOODLINE
The two front-runners in this category are Jonathan Banks, for the BREAKING BAD prequel BETTER CALL SAUL and Ben Mendelssohn for BLOODLINE.  Both actors give strong performances, often stealing focus from their respective series leads.  I give the edge to Mendelssohn whose performance as the tortured younger brother in a family full of dark secrets, gave energy to every scene in which he appeared.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, DRAMA
JOANNE FROGGATT, DOWNTON ABBEY
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS, MAD MEN
EMILIA CLARKE, GAME OF THRONES
LENA HEADEY, GAME OF THRONES
UZO ADUBA, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
CHRISTINE BARANSKI, THE GOOD WIFE
I think this category goes to Lena Headey for her role as Cersei Lannister on GAME OF THRONES. Her naked walk of shame in the season finale stands as one of the most iconic moments of the series. Uzo Aduba could be the upset. Last year she won the Emmy for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her role in ORANGE IS THE BLACK. With the new rule changes, the show is now in the drama category and Aduba had great dramatic material during season two. If Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are overlooked in the Lead Actor and Actress categories, the Academy might honor Christina Hendricks, giving the show its only acting win during its seven season run.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, COMEDY
TY BURRELL, MODERN FAMILY
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY, KEY & PEELE
ADAM DRIVER, GIRLS
ANDRE BRAUGHER, BROOKLYN NINE-NINE
TONY HALE, VEEP
TITUS BURGESS, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT
Titus Burgess stole the show with his star-making turn as Titus Andromedon in THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT. A win in this category gives voters a chance to acknowledge the Netflix comedy. Pino Noir!
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, COMEDY
NIECY NASH, GETTING ON
GABBY HOFFMANN, TRANSPARENT
ALLISON JANEY, MOM
JULIE BOWEN, MODERN FAMILY
MAYIM BIALIK, THE BIG BANG THEORY
KATE MCKINNON, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
JANE KRAKOWSKI, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT
ANNA CHLUMSKY, VEEP
I think Anna Chlumsky takes this one for her amazing monologue where she gives President Salina Meyers a dressing down that was years in the making. Chlumsky can play confident and neurotic at the same time and is never over-shadowed by the amazing Julia-Louis Dreyfus.
BEST COMEDY SERIES
LOUIE, FX
MODERN FAMILY, ABC
PARKS AND RECREATION, NBC
SILICON VALLEY, HBO
TRANSPARENT, AMAZON
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT
VEEP, HBO
It’s time for MODERN FAMILY to be dethroned and LOUIE is just the show to do the honor.  The edgy drama from FX won the Best Writing for a Comedy Series award this past weekend and the unorthodox comedy deserves the win.
BEST DRAMA SERIES
BETTER CALL SAUL, AMC
DOWNTON ABBEY, PBS
GAME OF THRONES, HBO
HOMELAND, SHOWTIME
HOUSE OF CARDS, NETFLIX
MAD MEN, AMC
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, NETFLIX
This category is a battle between MAD MEN and GAME OF THRONES.  I’m going with MAD MEN. In its final moments it delivered a water-cooler moment when it was revealed or alluded to that series lead Don Draper would go on to create the iconic “I want to buy the world a Coke” ad. GAME OF THRONES had an action packed finale and the scope of its production is award worthy, as demonstrated by its multiple wins at the Creative Arts ceremony.  But, my final vote goes to MAD MEN.
FULL DISCLOSURE:  I am a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
The Emmy’s air on Saturday, September 20th at 8pm EST on FOX.
Who are you picks to take home the gold? Let me know in the comments below.
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