2015’s Top TV: A (very, very late) final round-up

Like I say every year, there is simply too much great TV. It’s a fact. Even TV network executives have noted how it is near-impossible to keep up with all the latest critically-acclaimed content that fills our screens, especially with the deluge of output from companies like Amazon and Netflix that now produce their own shows.

There also isn’t enough time to give each show its own post, so these are the rest of the best shows and episodes I watched in 2015 (in addition to the BBC adaptations and Fargo).

BETTER CALL SAUL – ‘FIVE-O’/’PIMENTO’

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Better Call Saul is on track to equal or even surpass the show it spun-off from. It’s quite a bold claim, I know – Breaking Bad was a critical juggernaut that became one of the most adored and acclaimed shows of the 21st century – but with episodes as intense and emotional as ‘Five-O’ and ‘Pimento’, BCS proves that it can easily match or outdo its predecessor.

The two shows are quite different, despite sharing some of the same DNA and two main characters. Saul is a much slower show, more interested in character building and dialogue than shootouts in the desert or moments of explosive violence, though it’s certainly capable of creating tense Bad-esque action scenes when it wants to.

It also retains the previous series’ methodical storytelling, where everything each character does makes logical and emotional sense, it’s always clear how their actions follow on from what’s happened previously and how these actions then build up to unexpected moments of shocking drama, followed by episodes that examine the fallout of these events before moving onto the next big dramatic moment. In BB, these big moments were often gunfights or a death or Walt doing something horrible. In Saul, these climactic moments occur in the form of a monologue or an emotionally-charged conversation that hits just as hard as any bit of violence from That Other Show.

The series features Jimmy McGill, a criminal lawyer – but not yet the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman that we know he becomes – struggling to kick-start his career, deal with his old law firm and help his brother Chuck, who has a strange medical condition that leaves him housebound and painfully averse to electricity and sunlight. He occasionally crosses paths with parking attendant/former cop/future Walt babysitter Mike Ehrmentraut, who exists mainly on the sidelines of BCS except for his his award-worthy showcase in ‘Five-O’.

The writers resist the urge to shoehorn too many blatant references to That Other Show into Better Call Saul and every one they do slip in naturally fits into Jimmy and Mike’s story.

The show retains BB’s stellar cinematography and dry humour and turns a character who was mostly played for comic relief into a fully fleshed-out person who is unknowingly heading for a fall, which gives Better Call Saul a tragic undercurrent that bubbles under its comedic exterior. Every happy scene with his ex Kim and brother Chuck are tinged with sadness as neither are mentioned in Breaking Bad and we are left to imagine why, which brings many horrible possibilities to mind.

SHOW ME A HERO – ALL 6 EPISODES.

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A miniseries about a city council struggling with a federal court ruling to implement new public housing may not sound like gripping, must-see TV. But Show Me A Hero turns this premise into a powerful and moving examination of racism, political greed and class warfare in late 80’s New York. It’s impossible to pick a standout episode as they work perfectly together to make an unforgettable drama based on real events that deals with issues that are still relevant to modern-day America.

The series was created by David Simon and is anchored by an incredible performance from Oscar Isaac as ambitious politician Nick Wasicsko, who runs for Mayor of Yonkers and promises to oppose the court’s ruling if elected but has a change of heart and spends his term as Mayor fighting to get the houses built, battling against rival politicians and a huge public outcry from angry voters who feel that he betrayed them.

In chaotic city hall meetings, he faces a determined mob of citizens who are furious that their white and wealthy middle-class neighbourhoods would have affordable housing that lets people from the poorest parts of the city move in next door to them. They complain that this would lower their property values and bring in crime and drugs and they just don’t want to live next to minorities poor people. After these meetings, Mayor Wasicsko is demoralised and despairing, and who could blame him. This will not be an easy process.

Half of the series follows this surprisingly-intense political battle while the other focuses on some of the people that the desegregation would help, like Norma (LaTonya Richard-Jackson), who’s losing her sight and needs a carer, and Billie (Dominique Fishback) who falls for a drug dealer, and Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera) who has emigrated to the USA looking for a better place to raise her children.

Scenes with these characters are often quietly devastating and make the dehumanising rhetoric of the racist concerned protestors sting even more. The excellent cast also features Alfred Molina, who is tremendously punchable as smug, slimy conservative Hank Spallone, and Jon Bernthal as one of Nick’s few allies, civil rights attorney Michael Sussman.

In short: It’s as good as you’d expect a show from the creator of The Wire to be.

Continue reading “2015’s Top TV: A (very, very late) final round-up”

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One Year On

This Friday, the 10th of October, will be the one-year anniversary of this blog. Hooray!

This blog began as an excuse to go on at length about how good my favourite shows are without anyone being able to interrupt me (see: the Community and Doctor Who posts that have been so numerous that they now have their own categories) and to highlight the best new shows that have recently aired.

Well, that was the idea anyway, but I chose to make the first post on this blog about a promising new TV show called Agents of SHIELD, and it turned out to be complete rubbish. The show did, not the post. Well, maybe the post, too.

Luckily, every show that I’ve written about in the twenty-five posts since then has been rather good, and I’ve also had a look at a few classics that are no longer on the air, and plenty of shows that I’m still catching up on.

The updates aren’t quite as frequent as they were when this blog began, and there’s so much good telly on nowadays that a few of 2014’s biggest shows have passed me by (like True Detective and Fargo) but, when I do update, I hope that the posts are worth a read and that my lame attempts at humour provoke a chuckle or two.

Hopefully one of these blog entries causes you to check out a show which you’d never heard of before that ends up becoming one of your new favourites. Like Hannibal. Or Orphan Black. Or The Shield. Or Friday Night Lights.

Oddly, despite me being a Brit, most of the posts here are about American TV, only a few are about British shows, and even less are about British shows that don’t have ‘Doctor’ in the title. I’ll try to redress that balance in the next few months.

I’ll also keep trying to improve my writing. Another reason for starting this blog was to get better at articulating my thoughts and explaining why I hold certain opinions about something. So far, I think I have improved, and I’ve even managed to entertain a few people along the way.

After initially expecting this to be read by approximately zero people, it’s been a nice surprise to have received a few likes and a few comments – positive ones, even! – and over a dozen followers. Many thanks to all of you, hope you still like what you read and feel free to leave a comment to tell me what you think and what I’m doing right or wrong.

Future entries? Well, before the year is out,  I’ll be catching up on True Detective – it’s only 8 episodes, dunno why it’s taken me so long to get to it – and the Fargo miniseries. Also, since it was announced mere hours ago that Twin Peaks is returning in 2016, I think it’s time for me to finally crack open that boxset that’s been collecting dust on my shelf and see what all the fuss is about.

What else? Uh… actually, probably best not to plan too much. Usually when I try to plan ahead it doesn’t end well and long-promised posts never turn up, but I will actually do these ones, promise. And more!

Thanks for reading.

-Dan.

Community 105: Advanced Improbable Resurrection

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My last post about Community ended with a hopeful “Welcome back Dan Harmon. Welcome back Community“. Although the show had been almost-cancelled several times over the years, there were several reasons why fans could be optimistic about its future, for a change.

The show had returned for an unlikely fifth season, which had included some of the series’ best episodes, and the show’s creator had been re-hired, in a move which was unprecedented in the history of television. Ratings were decent, reviews were positive, and NBC had even adopted the fandom’s #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag for the show’s official marketing campaign, which suggested that a sixth season and a movie was actually possible.

Then it was cancelled.

It was a bit of a shock. NBC had got our hopes up and then cruelly dashed them. But there was a glimmer of hope. Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns the show (NBC just aired it and paid some of the production costs), was reportedly desperate to find the show a new home elsewhere. It was a race against time – the cast’s contracts for the show expired in a few weeks, and there weren’t many options.

Netflix was pestered with requests by fans, but they decided not to have it. Hulu, which owned the online streaming rights to Community in America, seemed like an obvious place for the show to continue. However, with a week to go before the cast’s contrasts expired, Hulu made a statement saying that they would not be picking up Community for a sixth season.

At this point, everyone had given up hoping for more Community and were slowly accepting that this quirky, clever little comedy was finished.

It was great that it had managed to get this far. No-one had really expected it to last this long anyway. The whole ‘six seasons and a movie’ thing was just a silly joke from the show that fans had turned into a message of support for the show itself, and used as a rallying cry for when the show was in trouble, which had been quite often.

The phrase became particularly prominent when fans flooded social media with the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie after Community was abruptly pulled from NBC’s television schedule halfway through its third season. Being taken off air usually means ‘cancelled’, but the show’s most dedicated (ie: slightly obsessive) fans protested wherever they could. The hashtag trended worldwide every Thursday (when the show should have been on the air), flashmobs were organised outside NBC’s headquarters in New York City and, after a couple of months, the show returned to the airwaves.

Unbelievably, it lasted for two more seasons after this. It had ended on a high note. The last episode didn’t quite work as a series finale, but it was much better than season 4’s god-awful final episode. Let’s just be grateful it got this far.

The expiration deadline came and there was still no news. Not that anyone was really expecting any. It was done. It was over. Community had overcome some crazy obstacles in the past that other shows would have never managed to get past, but it would take something truly insane and out of left field to save it now.

Continue reading “Community 105: Advanced Improbable Resurrection”

Community 104: Seasonal Retrospectives for Beginners

QUICK SCHEDULING NOTE: I ended my last post on this blog discussing the shows I hoped to cover in the near future. Well, as you can see, a few weeks later, none of them have been covered, due to reasons too boring and plausible to mention here. Hannibal and True Detective are coming at some point, eventually, but the two House of Cards series probably aren’t. Updates will be back to the usual once-a-week-ish from now on, promise.

Now back to your irregularly-scheduled programming.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on this blog about the critically-acclaimed American sitcom Community. The first blog post is a general introduction to the show and its characters. The second blog post is a list of the series’ best episodes so far. The third blog post is a review of the first four episodes of the recent fifth season. This post will be a look back at the entire fifth season.

Oh, by the way, Community season five is airing in the UK on the Sony Entertainment Television channel (no, I’ve never heard of it either) Thursdays at 10pm.

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Three months ago, expectations were high. The man responsible for one of the most ambitious, creative, clever and just-bloody-hilarious sitcoms ever made had miraculously returned to his pride and joy to try to steer it out of the slump which it had found itself in after he was booted away from it for a year. But would he be successful? Would he return his show to its former glory?

In a word: Yes.

In a few more words:Yes, yes, absolutely, yes.

Before the fifth season premièred, Dan Harmon promised that the show would return to being more grounded and character-focused, in the vein of Community season one. This was welcome news after the embarrassing imitation-Community of season four and the fun, but utterly bonkers, season three, where the plots became crazier and gimmick-heavy and the characters became increasingly one-dimensional.

To some extent, he was right. Community’s fifth season arrived with a double-bill of episodes that reintroduced the characters after a time-skip and gave them all a credible reason to return to Greendale, then focused on Jeff becoming a teacher and Abed taking a film class. Plots in later episodes revolved around school textbooks, organising the next dance, a teacher working with other staff members to get a noticeboard put up, and Jeff helping his colleague Professor Duncan get a date. No gimmicks, no high-concept parody, just simple, school-focused storylines where the group bickered and bantered and dealt with life at Greendale. Very season one.

But to some other extent, that promise went out the window after episode two. This season has had some of the weirdest episodes of the entire show. Almost half of the fifth season’s episodes had some sort of high-concept element to them. The serial killer/David Fincher episode, the episode where a game of ‘The Floor is Lava’ turned the campus into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the episode where a social networking app turned the campus into a futuristic dystopia, the second Dungeons and Dragons episode, the second bottle episode, the animated ‘G.I. Joe’-style episode, etc.

Normally, this would be a cause for concern. Committing to a different theme, or ‘gimmick’, for a full episode, for several episodes in a row, has been hit-and-miss for the show in the past. Fortunately, the ones this season were almost-universally great (the exception being the serial killer episode, which I wasn’t a big fan of) and did what the best ‘gimmick’ episodes do- use a fun set-up to explore the characters and make a lot of great jokes.

The lava/post-apocalypse episode created an entire mini-civilisation, with its own made-up back-story and lore, impressively quickly, and featured a fantastic send-off for Troy. The future dystopia was quite possibly the maddest episode the show has ever made. It examined what happens when the idea of likes/retweets/upvotes/reblogs/etc is applied to real life, wrapping a parody of futuristic sci-fi movies around a witty satire of Internet culture and a conflict between Jeff and Shirley.

Particularly impressive were the sequels to two of the show’s most popular, critically-adored and highly-praised episodes, ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ and ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’. Going back to an extremely successful idea and deciding to do it again can be very risky. Everyone’s expectations are sky-high, and the episodes could have ended up seeming like pointless rehashes that should never have been attempted.

However, the show has done sequels to similarly-adored episodes in the past, and they became some of the best episodes ever. The one mis-step, the fourth (!) documentary-style episode, was from the Harmon-less fourth season. Harmon’s back in control now, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that ‘Calligraphy”s sequel managed to surpass the original, while the second D-and-D episode came very close to topping the first. But it was a surprise. A wonderful surprise.

Continue reading “Community 104: Seasonal Retrospectives for Beginners”

Community 103: Reintroduction to Beloved Fictional Characters

This is the third in a series of blog posts about the wonderful American sitcom Community, which recently returned for its fifth season. Here’s the first blog post, which is a general introduction to the show and its characters. Here’s the second blog post, which is a list of the series’ best episodes so far. This post is a review of the first four episodes of season five.

So. It’s back.

As anyone with an interest in the show knows, there’s been plenty of cautious optimism and weary anticipation towards the critically-acclaimed comedy’s new season. The creator of the show is back (Yay!), but one of the show’s main actors has quit (Boo!). There’s a lot of great guest stars on the way (Yay!), but another of the show’s main actors is leaving soon (Boo!). Will this be any good? How will the show go on in the aftermath of the controversial fourth season? How will it deal with not one, but two main cast members leaving?

Well, judging by the episodes that have aired so far, things are looking good.

Community - Season 5

REPILOT

First, Jeff returned to Greendale and so did the rest of the study group, but it took a while for things to go back to normal. Jeff, after graduating from Greendale as a more mature, more sincere and a generally better person, went back to being a lawyer, but this time he tried his best to be honest and helpful.

A year or so later, we meet him in his office, homeless and skint, when he is offered a chance to make money. But to do this, he’ll have to regress to his pre-Greendale ways and become a manipulative, selfish jerk again to get his way.

When he bumps into his friends during a brief visit to Greendale, he finds that their careers have been going just as badly as his. Annie’s promoting pills, Britta’s a bartender, Shirley’s business failed, which caused her husband to leave her, Troy is aimlessly waiting for Abed to make money so he can piggyback off his success, and Abed’s film dreams have crashed and burned.

It’s quite a dark episode, metaphorically and literally – the lighting is dim and gloomy –  and the group’s first meeting around the study table turns into a heated argument after each member reveals how much their lives have sucked since they left the community college.

The group’s mood swings between supporting Greendale and hating it. Jeff points out how they’ve all changed since coming to the school, arguably for the worse, pointing out several problems that fans (including me) and critics have had with the characters becoming too cartoony. Season 4 is hastily written off as a period where a year-long gas leak caused everyone to act differently, which is a great, cheeky dig.

The group re-enrol at Greendale, but Jeff attempts to turn their underlying resentment of the school into a lawsuit. Fortunately, he has a change of heart after hearing some surprising advice from Pierce (!) who has an unexpected cameo as a hologram, inadvertently dealing out Obi Wan wisdom to Jeff.

Meanwhile, Abed is, of course, comparing Jeff’s return to Greendale to the plot of a TV show. Abed compares Jeff’s role to JD in the ninth season of Scrubs, where JD returned to Sacred Heart to teach instead of learn. Jeff laughs this off – a teacher? Jeff? Oh, please – and Troy criticises JD’s actor for leaving 6 episodes into that season*.

*(Troy’s actor is leaving five episodes into this season. Foreshadowing meta-ness! Ah, it’s good to have you back, Community).

Any reference to Scrubs is going to make me smile like an idiot, even if it is referencing the terrible ninth season (are the writers self-deprecatingly suggesting that this season of Community is going to be as bad as that one?), but this joke has a brilliant punchline later on. JD himself, Zach Braff, narrates the end of the episode using one of his old Scrubs monologues – a monologue from season nine, no less! For a few seconds, my old favourite comedy crossed over with my new favourite comedy, and it was just THE BEST.

Anyway, the rest of the group, still miserable and hateful towards the school, decide to burn the study room table. Jeff stops them and they decide to take new courses. Jeff ends up accidentally burning the table anyway, and reluctantly accepts a job as a teacher at Greendale. It’s a new era, a new start, a new table, a new Community that is an awful lot like the old Community. Hooray!

To read about the other three episodes, click ‘Read More’!

Continue reading “Community 103: Reintroduction to Beloved Fictional Characters”

Community 102: Advanced American Tomfoolery

Hey, Happy New Year!

A few days ago, I wrote a general overview of Community and it’s awesomeness. Since I’m not done telling you how good this show is yet, here’s another blog post, this time highlighting the best episodes of the series so far.

If you’re new to Community, just start from the very beginning and watch the first, let’s say, seven episodes. If that hasn’t hooked you, then skip ahead to any of these to see this hilarious, clever comedy at its very, very best.

DISCLAIMER: Entirely subjective, opinions may vary. Episodes listed in no particular order.

MODERN WARFARE (Season 1, Ep 23)

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This is probably Community‘s most famous episode, and for good reason. Though the series had experimented with genre parody before (most notably in the Mafia movie homage ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ a few episodes earlier), this is the first example of the show doing something completely different to any episode that came before it, committing so totally to an idea that, for twenty minutes, the show looks and sounds completely different. It’s a stylish, funny, pitch-perfect action movie parody, and a sign of things to come.

What makes it stand out is that this isn’t just done for the hell of it. OK, there is an element of ‘Well, fuck it, why not?’ to the episode, but it also changes character relationships significantly, and events in this episode effect the rest of the series. It’s far from a tossed-off, half-thought-out idea done for shits and giggles. There’s more to it than that.

The show would return to the paintball well for an epic two-parter that is half Western (part one), half Star Wars (part two) parody, which is just as stylish, creative, plot-important and spot-on as this one. It features the group facing off against Sawyer from Lost and a paintball machine-gun-turret. It’s brilliant.

BEGINNER POTTERY (Season 1, Ep 19)

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To focus entirely on the wackier episodes of Community would do the show a disservice. If it had chosen to stay more like it was for most of the first season, with episodes based around whatever class Jeff was taking rather than a crazy parody of something or other, it would still be a fantastic show, full of episodes like this one.

Jeff takes a class on pottery as it has a reputation for being a really easy way of getting credits for a diploma. He becomes unexpectedly competitive when a good-looking, charming classmate gets all the attention from the teacher (Tony Hale, Arrested Development) and his fellow pupils.

Meanwhile, Pierce tries to prove his skills in a sailing class (done in the middle of the parking lot, as Greendale is not near any body of water), but his incompetence may cause his friends to fail the class with him.

We see a new side of Jeff in this episode. Far from the cocky, suave lawyer he presents himself as, here he is reduced to a desperate, obsessive mess who starts talking like Jeff Goldblum. Pierce, meanwhile, gets a chance to offer some surprisingly wise advice as he faces failure over and over again. The whole sailing sub-plot is entirely worth it for that and a brief, but memorable, sight gag near the end.

Continue reading “Community 102: Advanced American Tomfoolery”

Community 101: Introduction to Quality Television

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(from left to right) Troy, Annie, Abed, Shirley, Dean Pelton, Ben Chang, Britta, Jeff, Pierce.

The best American sitcom of recent years returns this week for its fifth season. After the turbulent behind-the-scenes drama and increasingly-low audience numbers that Community has experienced over the years, that seems incredibly unlikely. A comedy this odd, this clever, this dense, this self-referential, would, under any normal circumstances, have been swiftly cancelled three seasons ago. But, thank goodness, it has survived. A cast member is absent, with another set to leave soon, and the creator of the show has been fired and re-hired, so the show has gone through some rough patches. But this season might just be the return to form every fan has been hoping for.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. There will be plenty of people who have never seen this show, or even heard of it, who might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You could ask someone on reddit or something, but they might not give you a good answer, instead using catchphrases or a joke that would be completely meaningless to you. ‘Community is so good, it’s streets ahead of any other comedy!’ they might say. ‘But what’s so good about it?’, you might ask. ‘If you have to ask, you’re streets behind, LOLOLOL coolcoolcool.” they would reply, unhelpfully.

So, here’s my attempt to explain why this show is so good, and so worth your time. Let’s start from the beginning…

Community is an American sitcom about a sarcastic, smug lawyer called Jeff, who is forced to go to the local community college to get a degree after it’s discovered that his current degree is a fake. He sets up a study group as an attempt to get close to an attractive classmate, but this backfires when another classmate invites several other people to the group.

After lots of dismissive remarks and cynicism, Jeff gradually starts to warm to this odd group of misfits that he’s accidentally befriended, and finds the dysfunctional shithole of a community college that he’s enrolled in to be quite charming (“Greendale may be a toilet, but it’s our toilet”, he says, in one of the many big speeches that he gives).

Then it gets a bit weird, but we’ll get to that.

This show is what you get if you take the goofy surreal humour and absurdity of Scrubs, mix it with the self-referential meta humour of Arrested Development, the pop culture references and parodies of Spaced, and the fun, friendly atmosphere of, well, Friends.

Occasionally, it’s also extraordinarily ambitious and bizarre. At its best, it will often dazzle you with its imagination and cleverness, while also making you laugh like a lunatic, or even feel a little bit moved by the surprisingly heartfelt emotion it displays. The show is a lot like its main character – underneath all the attempts at being sarcastic, clever and ironic, there’s a big, soppy heart that just wants to be loved.

Continue reading “Community 101: Introduction to Quality Television”