The Affair (Showtime) This 10-part series is a jig-saw puzzle to be sorted out by the viewer. By the end of the season finale, the complete picture is only beginning to take shape. The Affair has been renewed for a second season, and I have the feeling that things will completely fall into place only after everything is over. I was irritated at times by the scrambled chronology and different takes on the same events, as seen by the two main characters. I wasn’t sure why the story was being told that way, other than to be different. I’m still not sure, but I always found the episodes compelling, and they kept me watching. The cast is especially strong, lead by Dominic West, who has a knack for playing deeply flawed characters (which he did to perfection in The Wire and The Hour), Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson.
The Americans (FX) This is a great series. I was skeptical of the premise when I first heard about it: KGB sleeper agents raising a family in Washington, D.C. in the early 80s while they spy for the Soviet Union. But it really works, and The Americans quickly became our favorite new show when it debuted two years ago. As is frequently the case, strong performances help immeasurably. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are great as Elizabeth Jennings and her husband Philip. Noah Emmerich quietly stands out as their neighbor Stan, an FBI agent who so far has no clue that Russian spies live just across the street. Margo Martindale is awesome as usual as Claudia, the Jennings’ KGB handler, though her character has apparently been phased out.
Fargo (FX) This 10-part series really captures the tone and spirit of the Joel and Ethan Coen feature film from 1996. While not repeating the plot line of that film, the series definitely exists in the same universe the Coens created. Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, and Billy Bob Thornton are standouts in a cast that is terrific all around. Tolman’s Deputy Molly Solverson and Freeman’s Lester Nygaard are analogs to characters played by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy in the feature film. I hadn’t seen Allison Tolman before this, but she really nails it. Martin Freeman has been terrific as Dr. Watson in the great BBC series, Sherlock, and he’s equally amazing here. Fargo is violent, sad, funny, twisted, noirish, and quite moving — sometimes all at the same time.
The Game (BBCAmerica) This labyrinthine spy story, set in London in 1972 in the midst of the Cold War, has a distinct John le Carré vibe, which may not be surprising when you have MI5 agents working to uncover and understand a covert Soviet plan called “Operation Glass,” mixed with enemy agents, moles, betrayals, in-fighting, and lost loves. The central character, Joe Lambe, is played by Tom Hughes, an actor who projects a somewhat otherworldly quality, with a combination of vulnerability, intelligence, and toughness. The head of the MI5 unit, known as “Daddy,” is played by Brian Cox, a veteran actor with 198 film & television credits going back to 1965. I first remember seeing him as Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s excellent Manhunter (1986), the first on-screen appearance of Lecter. He made quite an impression in that film, very disturbing with none of the silky charm that Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter often had. The rest of the cast is equally good in this satisfying and involving series.
Happy Valley (Netflix) I’m a sucker for BBC series, and this is another great one. Created and written by Sally Wainwright, the six-part Happy Valley follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a police sergeant in a small town in Yorkshire, as she goes after Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who she believes is responsible for the rape and subsequent suicide of her daughter. Along the way there is drug-trafficking and an ill-fated kidnapping plot that spirals out of control, much like the one in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Lancashire is great as Cawood, a tough-minded cop who shows she can take a punch and then some. Cawood’s sister Clare, a recovering drug addict, is played by Siobhan Finnernan, who it took me awhile to realize was the same actress who played the scheming O’Brien on Downton Abbey. James Norton’s Royce is a monster, a truly bad man. It’s a bit of a jolt to now be seeing him as a sleuthing vicar in postwar Britain on Grantchester (PBS), a genuinely charming fellow. I guess that’s why they call it “acting.” Happy Valley is very tough and very human. A second season is in the works.
Happy Valley led us back to a previous series created and written by Sally Wainwright called Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix). There are two six-part seasons currently available, and we proceeded to burn through both in short order. Sarah Lancashire also stars in this, along with Derek Jacobi, Ann Reid, and Nicola Walker. Jacobi and Reid play former almost-sweethearts, both widowers in their 70s, who re-unite via Facebook and decide to get married. The series shows how this works out, along with the impact on their grown children and grandchildren, who have their own dramas. This is a different world from Happy Valley, though both are set in Yorkshire, but it’s just as good.
House of Cards (Netflix) In a role he was born to play, Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a Washington politician who schemes with every breath he takes. Equally strong is Robin Wright as Frank’s wife Claire, who is every bit as ruthless as her husband. Together they make a modern-day Lord and Lady Macbeth, though I doubt Claire will ever worry about washing blood off her hands. This is the series that established Netflix as a major player, with Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Awards to prove it. It’s an A-list show. David Fincher directed the pilot episode and is an Executive Producer on the series. Other directors include Carl Franklin, James Foley, Joel Schumacher, and Jodie Foster. House of Cards is utterly compelling, and in a creepy way makes you feel that it’s probably pretty close to how Washington works. These are horrible people, but you can’t take your eyes off them.
House of Cards is based on the excellent BBC series of the same name that ran for three seasons from 1990 to 1995. That series can also be streamed on Netflix.
Manhattan (WGN) This excellent 13-part series is a fictionalized account of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, focusing on the civilian scientists and military working in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The setting is evocative of the many 1950s science-fiction films that took place in the desert, which adds to the somewhat surreal ambience. This is like retro sci-fi. The ensemble cast embodies the personal dramas and many storylines that play out within the confines of this hothouse atmosphere, all against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project. Manhattan has been renewed for a second season.
Masters of Sex (Showtime) This series, which began in two years ago, follows the relationship between William Masters and Virginia Johnson during their ground-breaking research into human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Michael Sheen portrays Masters as a pioneer convinced of his superiority and the importance of his study. His Masters is also petty, vindictive, tightly wrapped, and deeply repressed — which is ironic considering the nature of the work he’s doing. It’s a consistent performance that never wavers, but I frequently hoped that someone would punch him. As Virginia Johnson, Libby Caplan is
the heart of the show. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, and she’s just great. Standouts from the first season include Beau Bridges as the closeted provost of the university where Masters works, and Allison Janney as his wife. Their characters and storylines were so strong that I wish they’d been around more in the second season. Masters of Sex is an excellent series that captures the 50s and 60s without hitting you over the head with period detail.
The Mindy Project (Fox) Created by and starring Mindy Kaling, previously a writer and actor on The Office (NBC, 2005 – 2013). Though I find it irritating at times, the strong cast and performances often conspire with great writing and timing to achieve a kind of surreal lunacy that’s quite wonderful. For me, The Mindy Project is at its best when it’s most unhinged. It can also be a refreshing palate cleanser for some of the heavier stuff we watch.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her year in a women’s prison, this fictionalized series expands on that book. It concerns Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) after she’s been sentenced to 15 months for transporting a suitcase full of drug money nearly ten years earlier. There have been two seasons so far, with a third available later this year. A large ensemble of memorable characters embodies a storyline that’s both funny and harrowing. As with all the series cited in this post, the cast is great.
Ray Donovan (Showtime) This series is hardboiled from head to toe. Ray Donovan is a “fixer” in Los Angeles. For example, if you’re a pro basketball player who wakes up in a hotel room with a dead woman in your bed, Ray’s the guy you call. It’s like that. Ray can take care of anything. But he has too many irons in the fire, and his life is spiraling out of control. Liev Schreiber brings a lethal authority to the character. Jon Voight has the role of a lifetime as Ray’s ex-con father Mickey. It’s a performance with all the stops pulled out. Nothing good happens when Mickey is around. Eddie Marsan, a veteran of many Mike Leigh films, plays Terry Donovan, Ray’s angry older brother, an ex-fighter with Parkinson’s who runs a boxing club that’s the nexus for many scenes. Another standout among many is Hank Azaria as a conviving FBI agent. A wide variety of characters move in and out of Ray’s world. It’s not a happy place and it’s short on laughs. Noir is alive and well in this totally compelling show.
Sherlock (PBS) Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman couldn’t be better as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this modern-day updating of the classic stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock was created and largely written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both of whom are also involved with the Doctor Who series (where Moffat has been the showrunner and lead writer since 2010). I came late to this series (yet another great one from the BBC), but I truly love it. One of the neatest things about it is the way Sherlock incorporates present-day technology in the reworking of the original stories. Holmes definitely exists in the 21st century, but he’s also the traditional Holmes. I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch as British prime minister William Pitt in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006). He’s become a real star during the last several years, turning up with increasing frequency on magazine covers and in many productions such as Parade’s End (HBO mini-series, 2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and The Imitation Game (2014), as well as voicing the dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s last two overblown Hobbit films. I think his current status as a hot commodity was mainly launched by the intense popularity of his performance in Sherlock. And he’s become quite the sex symbol, in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the asexual vibe his Sherlock gives off. Martin Freeman is a great Dr. Watson, often angry and frustrated with Holmes’ behavior, leagues away from the bumbling Watson seen in the Basil Rathbone films. Andrew Scott as Holmes’ nemesis, Jim Moriarty, is a truly frightening character, completely nuts, and as smart as Sherlock, which makes him even scarier.
My favorite moment in the entire series so far (to date there have been three seasons with three episodes each to date, all available for streaming on Netflix) is when Sherlock gives his “Best Man Speech” at the reception for Watson’s marriage in “The Sign of Three” episode from last year. Here is Sherlock at his most alien and his most human. It’s a powerfully emotional scene, and very funny to boot.
Silicon Valley (HBO) Co-created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, this series follows the efforts of six young men to get a startup off the ground in Silicon Valley. The more or less central character is Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), a socially-inept programmer who has created a music app called Pied Piper, which is subsequently found to contain a radically advanced data compression algorithm. The team plans to present Pied Piper at something called TechCrunch Disrupt, a competition for unfunded startups. These characters are classically nerdy, simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, none more so than Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the deluded heart of the show. The following scene from the season finale is my favorite of the entire season. In it, Erlich says that, despite a serious setback at the competition the day before, “We’re going to win even if I have to go in the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience.” This absurd non sequitur inspires them to try to figure out how this would even be possible. They apply the same rigorous logic to it as they would to anything they were trying to solve. To me, it’s not at all salacious or vulgar because of the way it’s dealt with. The content may be juvenile and ridiculous, but to the team it’s just a problem to be worked out. (When you click to play, this message appears: “Watch this video on YouTube.” Click on that line and the video will play in all its glory.)
True Detective (HBO) As dark and bleak as it gets, hardcore and hardboiled. Created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, with all episodes directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, this eight-part series stars Matthew McConaughey and Wood Harrelson as Louisiana State Police homicide cops. Both actors have never been better, which is saying something. The relationship between Rust Cohle (McConaughhey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) during their involvement with a serial-killer case over the course of 17 years is at the heart of the story. Rust’s coldly pessimistic world view confounds and often angers Marty as they confront a sad and mournful landscape that has a profound evil breathing just beneath the surface. The following scene goes a long way to define that relationship.
Veep (HBO) I first became aware of Armando Iannucci’s lacerating dialogue in the feature film In the Loop (2009). In that film, Peter Capaldi spewed an endless barrage of breathtaking profanity in everyone’s direction. Veep, created by Iannucci, proudly extends that tradition. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, the foul-mouthed Vice President of the United States. She’s great in the role. Standouts in the excellent cast include Tony Hale as Gary Walsh, Selina’s personal aide, and Matt Walsh as Mike McLintock, her Director of Communications. Selina is constantly screwing things up, usually with the help of the people around her. The writing is amazing. It’s a very funny show.
Holdovers from my “Best TV of 2012” post (due to severe procrastination, I didn’t do a wrap-up for 2013):
Downton Abbey (PBS)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Mad Men (AMC)
The Simpsons (Fox)
Most of these shows are available for streaming from one source or another. — Ted Hicks