As is the case with many dedicated home viewers, my time for watching films is being eroded by high-quality television series, and I’m beginning to take satisfaction in deciding which “must-see” series I really don’t need to see any more of, which clears my calendar for shows I’m truly involved with. Among the series I abandoned sooner or later were Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, Broadchurch, House of Cards,
is the New Black, The Americans, Fargo. What
a relief to not have to keep up! Orange
On the other hand, there are many series I feel compelled to follow all the way, no more inclined to skip an episode than I would be to skip a chapter in a novel. I’ll start with two I loved, which I only caught up with after their runs were over. (For Metacritic rating, I give high and low marks for seasons, with a link to the first. Also, my usual link to Netflix availability, and Amazon Prime when relevant.)
Borgen (NFX) is the antidote to House of Cards, offering authentic insight into the motivations and machinations of politicians and media people, plausibly-flawed characters whom it is possible to care about. The title translates as “The Castle,” the
For a more specialized taste, I’m equally enthusiastic about In Treatment (MC-70/85, NFX, AMZ, HBO). When this show was running, I didn’t find the concept or its Israeli source appealing, and the format – one half-hour for each character each week – cumbersome, even with DVR or DVD. Once HBO Go made every episode available to watch on any schedule, it was time to sample the series. I thought maybe I’d try watching one patient through a season, just to see how I liked it. Well, that’s definitely not the way to approach this series – it needs to be watched from start to finish, even as the roster of patients changes from season to season. Though it would have been nice to see more of Gabriel Byrne as the troubled therapist Paul, who ties it all together, there is a sense of completion over the three seasons. And a great line-up of characters, with just the actors to play them, starting with Paul’s therapists in turn, Dianne Wiest and (especially!) Amy Ryan. Among the patients, Mia Wasikowska stands out, with many others from Irrfan Khan and Debra Winger to Alison Pill and Embeth Davidtz giving compelling performances. Just two people (occasionally three or four) in a single setting, conversing intently for a half hour, and then coming back to do the same thing over again. It makes, if you can believe me, for fascinating viewing.
The key to a successful tv series is establishing contact, but moreover a contract, with the viewer. The best shows sustain that contract to the very end, repay the investment of time. Next up are two that recently ended their long runs on a very fulfilling note. I’ve made the case for Justified (MC-80/91, NFX, AMZ) several times already on this blog, but I’m going to flog it one more time as a show that managed to thread the needle of authentic surprise and fan service to the very end of its sixth and final season. It wound up where we wanted it to, but with wit and invention all along the way. The combination couldn’t be beat, of showrunner Graham Yost channeling Elmore Leonard in both his crime and Western modes; producer/star Timothy Olyphant handsomely embodying his character Raylan Givens, a modern-day U.S. Marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky; Walton Goggins playing his doppelganger and nemesis (they dug coal together before winding up on opposite sides of the law, but with alarmingly similar approaches); and Joelle Carter as the woman between them, with schemes of her own. There’s a host of equally engaging characters that recur and rotate. Admittedly, Justified’s contract with viewer involves a lot of blood splatter, but somehow it all seems justified by the characters and their language, the humor and intelligence of their portrayal, and the twists of the story. Start at the beginning, as the show slowly finds it method in the first season, perfects it in the second, and sustains it through the sixth.
I found Mad Men (MC-77/92, NFX) to have many ups and downs from episode to episode, but also to have sustained itself and maintained interest to the satisfying end of its split seventh season. Again the characters, both in the writing and the acting, became familiar and important while still surprising to the viewer. It had all the pleasures of a soap opera, at a high level of finish, with a believable sense of period in both style and action. Unlike my three previous recommendations, I’m pretty sure you’ve already formed your own opinion of this show, but if not and you’re reading this, then you should give it a try.
Back to the lesser known and still in progress, I’m a dedicated follower of Rectify (MC-82/92, NFX, SUND), which just completed a third season that compels me to mount my soapbox. It’s certainly my favorite among series currently running, of which few viewers are aware. C’mon, people, get with it! Part of the problem is how hard the show is to describe. There’s a rape and murder deep in the backstory, and a crime waiting to be solved, but that’s not what the series is about – it’s about family and faith, community and connection, freedom and bondage, guilt and redemption, the light and the dark, beauty and sorrow. A melancholy melodrama, slow and mournful in its telling, though marked by wit and poetry, it’s the story of a man, played by Aden Young, who has spent more than half his life on death row, for the murder of his teenage girlfriend, before being cleared by DNA evidence. Like Rip Van Winkle, he confronts a world he barely recognizes, in small-town
. There are fine
performances by men as well, but three actresses stand out, Abigail Spencer as
his dedicated sister, J. Smith-Cameron as his puzzled but sympathetic mother,
and Adelaide Clemons as the stepsister-in-law with whom he forms a deep bond. It’s a moody minimalist masterpiece, and
deserves your time and attention. I’ve
bought in, made a long-term investment in Rectify, and been well-rewarded,
eager for more. Georgia
I’m also counting on more of Wolf Hall (MC-86, NFX, PBS), so author Hilary Mantel and the BBC better get to work. The story of Henry VIII and his troublesome marital arrangements has been told many times, but this version is unique in viewing the proceedings through the watchful eyes of Thomas Cromwell, usually taken to be one of the villains of the piece, but here embodied with great sympathy by Mark Rylance, marvelously observant and subtle in reaction. Damian Lewis convinces as the great but flawed king, and Claire Foy’s imperious Anne Boleyn is an eye-opening contrast to her wonderfully meek “Little Dorrit.” Complicated and slow-paced, this version eschews swordplay and bodice-ripping, for more complicated games of political and erotic power. Digital cameras that allow shooting by candlelight in actual locations convey the presence, and the radical difference, of the past, in ways that rival Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
The presence of many of the same actors highlights both the parallels and the divergences between Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones (MC-80/94, NFX, HBO), one the real deal and the other a guilty pleasure. This too is a series you’ve probably already made up your mind about. Not generally a fan of the sword & sorcery genre – in book, game, or cinema -- I was won over by the committed presentation of this series, which does maintain its contract with the viewer, in its range of characters, spectacle, surprise, and wit. I like to watch, but I don’t take it seriously, all appreciation granted with ironic “quotes” around it. I do expect to follow the story into further seasons, but it will never rank with my very favorites.
Having lost some of its luster as the ne plus ultra of quality TV, HBO packages their best shows together, with GoT in tandem with Veep (MC-72/90, NFX, HBO) and Silicon Valley (MC-84/86, NFX, HBO), each of which came into its own in the recent season. Both shows are topical, true, and funny, with excellent ensemble acting. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is now Prez, not Veep, in the fourth season, and the show stepped up in rank as well. And tech start-up Pied Piper, led by the deliciously nerdy Thomas Middleditch (I had to look up the actor’s name, he’s so fully at one with his character), has had its ups and downs, breakthroughs and flops, over two seasons, and in the process illuminated many aspects of its eponymous culture.
But for me, the HBO highlight of this year was Olive Kitteredge (MC-89, NFX, HBO). The title character is played by Frances McDormand, and I hardly need to say more – she is superb. But with its source in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-award novel, and direction by Lisa Chodolenko, a lot of women can take credit for this beautiful rendition of a woman’s story, a flinty character in a well-portrayed
community, who emerges as sympathetic and funny,
without ever losing her rough edge.
Richard Jenkins is also affecting as her sweet and accommodating
pharmacist husband; Zoe Katz as his dim but endearing assistant; and even Bill
Murray as a fellow grump with whom Olive makes a late-life connection. Lots of subsidiary town characters appear, as
in Strout’s series of stories, over the four hour-long episodes. I liked this series so much, I was led to
read the book, which proved very good and not at all spoiled by seeing the tv
show first, but rather enhanced. I liked
that book so much, I went on to read Strout’s Abide with Me, for her delicate
understanding of ordinary people and everyday life. Maine
[You’ll find a lot more shows reviewed, and some strongly recommended, if you click through.]