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”

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

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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

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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.

Hannibal

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Hannibal season two premièred on Sky Living this week, so let’s have a look at this disturbing, atmospheric drama’s first season.

The most striking thing about Hannibal is how it looks. It’s easily one of the most stylish dramas on television. The crime scenes and creepy bits are appropriately dark and dreary, but there are splashes of vibrant colour – the green grass, the blue sky, the blood-red, um, blood – that make even the nastiest murders look oddly beautiful. This jarring contrast is part of what makes the show so unnerving to watch. It also helps that Hannibal has some of the most disgustingly-creative crime scenes ever shown on TV.

The very first episode has a woman impaled on deer horns in a field (an idea that True Detective seems to have nicked for its own case), the second has corpses covered in mushrooms, and later episodes have a couple with their backs flayed open to look like skin wings, and there’s also a totem pole – a fucking totem pole – of corpses. And it’s all framed and filmed in such a way that it looks… nice? Like a painting, or a twisted piece of modern art. It’s horrific, but you can’t look away. I genuinely can’t believe they got away with showing some of this stuff on a non-HBO TV channel. Maybe the television executives were distracted by how pretty it looks.

So, for a show about a psychopathic serial killer, it’s very colourful. Even ordinary, everyday places that normally look mundane and uninteresting are bright and stark and eye-catching. Even some of Hannibal’s meals look appetising, until you remember what they are. Often, the show doesn’t quite look real, it looks like surreal art, or a dream.

Sometimes it is a dream. The visions and nightmares of honorary FBI agent Will Graham, an expert in the methodology of serial killers, occasionally interrupt an otherwise-ordinary scene- a cheap jump-scare, but an effective one.

Will’s special skill is getting into the mind of a killer. He walks onto a crime scene, has a look around, then imagines himself committing the crime, as a way of getting into the actual killer’s head. Knowing how and why killers kill people is a valuable skill for the FBI, but as we see, it doesn’t half mess up your mind. Poor Will is sent to crime scene after crime scene to work his magic and solve the case, but he can’t sleep at night and images of what he’s seen and imagined haunt him.

Luckily, help is at hand. His boss (Laurence Fishburne) has paired him up with a psychiatrist to help him deal with the stress and the horror of his new job. The psychiatrist is a quiet man, smartly-dressed, with a calm, soothing voice, and an accent that no one can really place. He looks a bit like Le Chiffre. His name is Hannibal Lecter.

Mads Mikkelsen is a very good Hannibal. His performance is not loud or crazy- quite the opposite, in fact. He lies and manipulates and pretends to care about his client, hiding his true madness under a blank, stern face that is damn-near unreadable. Most of the time, he’s in the background, quietly observing, studying, while Will does his stuff, or talks to him during one of their many therapy sessions. The slightest change in his facial expression can reveal so much about his true feelings. It’s difficult to imagine him doing that famous noise Hopkins’ Hannibal does in Silence of the Lambs.

He seems completely ordinary, and it seems completely plausible that none of his colleagues would have any idea that he’s such a psychopath. If his name didn’t rhyme with ‘cannibal’, if it was, say, Dave, you’d never suspect a thing. Though he does let a few ‘I’d love to have your parents for dinner’ jokes slip in now and again.

Hugh Darcy’s Will is also excellent. Jittery, anguished, but determined to do his job, he is the real star of the show. His therapy sessions with Dr Lecter are always a highlight of the episode, and watching him fall victim to Hannibal’s manipulation over the course of the season is heartbreaking, as he slowly becomes a broken man.

Will and Hannibal’s interactions are the real meat of the show, they’re the main course. The horrible-homicide-of-the-week cases are just side-dishes. The killer is almost always obvious and the case is wrapped up fairly quickly, leaving plenty of time for Hannibal and Will to discuss the aftermath and for us to see how much these cases are affecting Will’s already-fragile mental state.

The rest of the cast is good, too, with some great guest stars popping in during the first season (Hey, that’s Gillian Anderson! Hey, that’s… Eddie Izzard? What’s Eddie Izzard doing in this?).

Continue reading “Hannibal”