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’

better-call-saul

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.

show-me-a-hero

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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2014’s Top TV

There was a lot of good TV on in 2014. There are more quality dramas and comedies on at the moment than ever before. But I am just one man. I do not have the time or the patience to watch everything.

Just like in 2013, there are still plenty of acclaimed shows that I haven’t seen or am still catching up on (for example, I finished watching True Detective just a few hours ago so that I could fit it on this list).

Nevertheless, here, in no particular order, are the best episodes of TV in 2014.

That I’ve seen.

Which is quite a narrow selection, really, but there we are.

HANNIBAL – KAISEKI/MIZUMONO

hannibal 2

Hannibal’s second season is incredible.

It’s difficult to pick out favourite episodes, partly because they’re all so good, and partly because of the fact that the episodes being named after courses in a Japanese meal makes it difficult to remember what happened in which one. They all start to blend together into a nightmarish haze, punctuated by grotesque crime scenes, tense conversations, shocking moments that I dare not spoil, and the occasional bit of dark, dark humour.

Hmm, “Takiawase” – is that the one with the corpse in a horse? No, wait, that’s “Su-zakana”. Or is that the one with a corpse in a tree? Or the one with Will on trial? Or the one where a man cuts off bits of his own face? Oh, forget it, I’ll just put the first and last episode of the season on this list, because they, and all the episodes in between, are excellent.

I praised the first season in a lengthy gush of words that could be summed up as ‘OHMYGOD THIS IS SO GOOD WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING IT?’, but I didn’t expect that it could get so much better.

The show seemed to be more confident this season, and it showed in every area. The storytelling was perfectly paced and confidently done, the case-of-the-week stories never felt like filler, were often used to highlight themes that the main story arc was exploring, and featured some of the weirdest murder victims on the show yet, which is really saying something (see above – corpse in a horse. Corpse. In. A. Horse.).

It seemed like the writers were gleefully pushing the envelope as far as it could possibly go, and in doing so pointing out the hypocrisy of the NBC censors, who stop them from showing any naked bums but do allow some of the grossest images that have ever aired on American network television.

The beautifully stylish, surreal look of the show was turned up to 11 and the musical score was more adventurous and strange than ever before.

There were plenty of moments where the bombastic sound design and the horrific visuals worked together horribly well and actually made me turn away from the screen and mute the sound, which is a rare feat, and these weren’t always because of the disturbing deaths. The show could cause a similar reaction without a single drop of blood being spilt, such as when a repressed memory came to light or during an unconvential therapy session.

Oh, and the finale. The finale deserves special mention.

Last year I wrote, in a breathless and hyperactive stream-of-consciousness way that seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight looks a bit amateurish, about the massively-distressing but ultimately inevitable climax that Breaking Bad reached in two episodes of its final season, which provoked a visceral reaction from me that I’d never had to any episode of TV before.

Now, less than a year later, I had a similar reaction again to a similarly devastating and similarly inevitable climax where everything goes horribly for our heroes. It’s impressive for a show to provoke that reaction at all, but to do it in less than half the time than Breaking Bad did is really something.

It’s bloody good, is basically what I’m saying here. It’s bloody. And good.

Unless you’re squeamish. Then maybe give it a miss.

TRUE DETECTIVE – WHO GOES THERE

true-detective

Every media publication in the universe has gone on at length about this bloomin’ show and how incredibly good it is and how it’s some of the best television in years and how brilliant the performances are and how you have to drop whatever you’re holding – food, paperwork, babies – and watch it immediately.

From all the hype, I was braced for a letdown. But the critics were right. True Detective is indeed brilliant.

It’s a bit of a slow burn at first but it’s never boring and always thoroughly engaging. This is mainly due to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who both give tremendous performances as Rust and Marty.

Rust is, to put it mildly, a bit of a pessimist, rambling on about the futility of life and the darkness inherent in all humans, much to the annoyance of his colleague. McConaughey gets plenty of great material to dig his teeth into, and he’s amazing. It’s easy to get transfixed and hang on his every word. His performance threatens to steal not just the scene, but the entire show.

As a character, Marty seems fairly ordinary by comparison. He’s an all-American family man who loves his kids and is devoted to his job. But Harrelson gets plenty of chances to shine, too, as the case which he and Rust investigate progresses and the cracks in his perfect life begin to show.

There’s murder afoot in mid-90’s Louisiana, with possible links to the occult, but it’s not our main concern. The investigation is more of an excuse to spend time with these two characters, to learn more about them and see how they change.

We see them in the present, recounting the details of the case to their colleagues, while flashbacks show how it all played out. Past Rust is stern and sober, while Present Rust is a haggard alcoholic who looks like he’s on death’s door. Past Marty is happily married, while Present Marty isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Finding out what happened to them is the show’s real hook.

True Detective has the feel of an eight-hour movie rather than a TV show, partly because of the two award-winning movie stars that headline it, partly because the whole thing’s directed and written by the same two people, and partly because of how it looks.

Nothing looks like a set, every location seems real and lived-in. From the wide, sweeping shots of Louisianan marshland to the close-up, moodily-lit interiors full of dust, smoke and haze, the show is dripping with atmosphere. Almost everywhere is decayed and old, faded, rusted and dim. The place is as much of a character as the actual characters.

‘Who Goes There’ is where the show’s slow-burn storytelling explodes, ending in an intense, unbroken six-minute shot following Past Rust as he tries to salvage an undercover operation gone wrong and escape alive. Compared to the leisurely pace of the previous episodes, it’s a jolt of adrenaline that makes you fear for Rust’s safety despite knowing that he’s still alive in the present.

It’s a sequence I watched over and over, each time marvelling at how on earth it was done. The amount of effort and co-ordination and perfect timing that must have been needed to get it right is just mind-boggling. The fact that the next episode is just as good without resorting to anything as flashy is also impressive.

Oh look, I’m rambling again. Safe to say, it’s worth a watch.

And now for something completely different.

Continue reading “2014’s Top TV”

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.

Inevitable Doctor Who blog post

doctor-who deep breath

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and have somehow avoided the massive publicity blitz that the BBC has carried out over recent months (including organising a world tour, ubiquitous advertising on BBC One (even during half-time at the World Cup final), several articles about the show appearing in every major newspaper and online publication, choosing to air the première in cinemas nationally, and putting Peter Capaldi’s face on as many billboards and magazine covers as humanly possible), you’ll probably know that Doctor Who is back.

It’s no surprise that the BBC is promoting the hell out of it, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest cash cows (rivalled only by Sherlock), and after the 50th anniversary special it’s more popular than ever.

In much of the pre-première hype, the writers and the cast kept emphasising how ‘mysterious’ and ‘dark’ the new guy was, and how different he’d be, and how jarring this different Doctor would be, both to his companion Clara and to the viewers at home.

The promotional images emphasised this change to a new moody, brooding Doctor. Instead of the cheeky-chappie face and mischievous grin of Matt Smith, there’s an angry, bushy-eyebrowed Scotsman glaring at you. Instead of a bright purple jacket and goofy bowtie, he’s wearing a plain waistcoat and trousers, all black.

In the trailers, he wonders whether he’s a good man and contemplates his past mistakes, while Clara looks on confused and wonders if she even knows who he is any more.

The message is clear: This is going to be very, very different.

And, for much of the super-long episode, which was even longer than last year’s Day of the Doctor anniversary special, it was quite different to anything from Matt Smith’s years.

The bombastic music was toned down to a bare minimum. The colour scheme was dark and washed out. The tone is noticeably different. The 79-minute running time allowed many scenes to be much longer than they would normally be, giving the episode a slow, leisurely pace. There was a general lack of of scenes featuring the Doctor running around frantically and shouting expository technobabble while the music loudly drowns out his dialogue that normally fill an episode of Doctor Who. Instead, there were plenty of long, quiet conversations with the music little more than a whisper.

Many of these dialogue-heavy scenes were spent giving Clara Oswald some much-needed character. When she was introduced last year, Clara was regarded by the Doctor, and the audience, as more of a mystery than a person. He didn’t know who she was and what she was like, so neither did we, and after he did figure out who she was, he was then preoccupied with other matters, like revisiting the Time War (Day of the Doctor) and fighting a centuries-long battle on a distant planet to keep Gallifrey safe (Time of the Doctor), so Clara got sidelined and, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, was still quite boring and bland.

Here, she finally gets some personality. Struggling to cope with the Doctor’s new face, new personality and new, well, everything, she panics and complains and, in her chats with Madame Vastra and the new Doctor, is established as a bit of a passive-aggressive control freak with a fierce inner strength. The scenes with her and the Doctor arguing with each other are highlights of the episode, as is the scene where the Doctor talks to a homeless man about his new face, which is where we get our first real impression of what the new Doctor will be like.

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2013’s Top TV

2014 is fast approaching, and it’s that time of year where everyone looks back at the past 12 months and says ‘That was bloody good, wasn’t it?’. This sentiment is stretched out over hundreds of minutes and hundreds of words in numerous ‘Best BLANK of 2013’ programmes and news articles, including this one.

So, why not, let’s have a look back at the best episodes of the best television shows of the year*.

*(that I’ve seen. This leaves out plenty of shows that aired in 2013 which are probably really good, but I haven’t caught up on all of them yet. Anything I’ve missed? Mention it in the comments. Go on, it’ll be fun.)

Oh, by the way, be verrrrry careful, this article is going to be a spoiler minefield. If you haven’t caught up on some of the shows mentioned and want to avoid getting spoiled, heed the warnings, skip over a few paragraphs, and you should be fine. Anyway, in no particular order…

FRINGE – LIBERTY/AN ENEMY OF FATE

fringe finale

This feels like so long ago, I almost forgot that this aired in 2013. This bizarre, gruesome, heart-warming sci-fi drama ended in the first few weeks of the year with an instant-classic finale that concluded a fantastic final fifth season. Loose ends were wrapped up in a neat little bow, every character got one last moment to shine, and there was a tease of ambiguity in the final moments to leave just enough open for interpretation for fans who weren’t quite ready for the show to end.

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Walter Bishop (John Noble, best known for setting himself on fire and jumping off a cliff in Lord of the Rings) and the rest of the Fringe team face off against the Observers using a plethora of old Fringe cases, and attempt to change the future to stop the Observers invading the past. It’s all very wonderful and bittersweet and slightly insane, and there’s plenty of emotional final goodbyes, references to previous seasons, and moments where, for the first time in a long while, the team are actually winning against the bald, emotionless buggers. A surprise visit to the alternate universe is the icing on the cake. This is how you do a satisfying series finale.

BREAKING BAD – TO’HAJIILEE/OZYMANDIAS

ozymandias

This is how you do a satisfying series finale. Oh, sorry, I’m repeating myself, but it’s true in both cases. Breaking Bad had an enormous amount of hype and anticipation surrounding its final season, and the show’s writers pulled out all the stops to match the ludicrously high expectations everyone had. Its final eight episodes saw the show consistently trying – and succeeding – to better itself as it rocketed towards the grand finale it had been building to since the very first episode. Watching week-by-week, it would seem impossible for the show to get any better, then a week or two later, it would floor you by doing just that. And then it would do it again. And again. Several of these final eight episodes rank among the best the show ever did.

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My Favourite Christmas Episodes

Christmas

Christmas. Christmas! CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAS! It’s almost here! So I’ve grown up, so people tell me I’m too old for an advent calendar, so Santa’s not real*, so what? It’s still a great time of year, but if you’re struggling to find some festive cheer, why not curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a mince pie and watch these, the best Christmas episodes ever shown on TV ever.

*(Oh dear, I hope there aren’t any young kids reading this. Ah, well, Santa’s not real! Deal with it.)

BIG DISCLAIMER: These are the best Christmas episodes that I’ve seen. I’m still working my way through some TV shows, and there are of course many which I’ve never seen, so you may have a personal favourite from one of those shows that isn’t on this list. But don’t be angry, maybe mention it in the comments instead. It would be nice to get some recommendations from everyone reading this. If anyone’s reading this. Is anyone reading this?

Anyway, shall we begin?

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The Day of the Doctor/An Adventure in Space and Time

doctor who 50th

While waiting for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who to begin last Saturday, I did not envy Stephen Moffat. He had a near-impossible task to complete. He had to write an episode that would pay tribute to the show’s past without turning into a boring retrospective, lay down the foundations for the next decade or so of Doctor Who, introduce and establish a new, previously-unknown incarnation of the Doctor, re-introduce an old fan-favourite Doctor, continue the storyline of the current Doctor, quickly and efficiently mix all 3 together through some time-travel trickery, show the much-discussed-but-never-seen Time War even though surely no budget in the universe could do it justice, throw in a few surprises and twists and give Clara something to do. In just over 70 minutes. Oh, and, ideally, he should make all this fairly easy to follow for people who’ve never seen the show before – due to all the hype and the promotion the 50th anniversary received, there was bound to be a potentially-huge new audience tuning in.

Amazingly, he seems to have succeeded. 10 million people tuned into the UK broadcast of the special, and a quick surveying of the online reaction reveals near-universal praise for the episode. This is no easy feat – Who fans on the Internet can be notoriously difficult to please, and they’re usually complaining about how the show’s gone downhill since Moffat took over/Tennant left/Eccleston left/it was resurrected in 2005/Tom Baker left (delete as appropriate).

There were nonetheless a few complaints that I noticed, just the usual ‘this is utter nonsense’, ‘this is too complicated, I have no idea what’s happening’, etc. To the latter, I call bullshit. Unless you were staring at your phone for the first 20 minutes, or talking over everything, I fail to see how you could be lost. My mum, who knows the general gist of the show, tuned in to see what all the fuss was about, and even she seemed to get what was going on. The first few minutes can be a little confusing, due to the episode switching between three different storylines with three different Doctors in three different time periods, but a clever bit of visual shorthand – a fez and a time portal – makes it clear where in the episode’s narrative the characters are.

This is the part where I would normally put a brief plot summary, but since Doctor Who‘s plots often involve a big amount of time travel and messing with the past to change the future – in this episode especially – they’re a right pain in the arse to sum up in text, and they end up sounding far more complicated and convoluted than they appear when we’re actually watching the story unfold.

So let’s talk about John Hurt instead. John Hurt’s in this! John Hurt! He’s playing the ‘don’t call me the Doctor’ Doctor, who’s helping the Time Lords fight a seemingly-endless battle against Daleks that somehow gained access to time-travel tech. He steals the most powerful weapon in the universe, The Moment, a weapon that can go through space and time and lay waste to entire civilisations, planning to destroy both Daleks and Time Lords to end the horrible war. The weapon also has a conscience, so it can judge him and punish him for choosing to use it. This conscience takes the form of Billie Piper as super-powerful Bad Wolf Rose*, who urges the not-Doctor to see what his future selves are like, and what effect his use of the weapon would have, before he goes through with his big decision.

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