The following shows were new to me last year. I should note that I have somehow not yet seen Jessica Jones (Netflix) or the second season of Fargo (FX), both of which I’m sure would be on this list.
Better Call Saul (AMC) This prequel to the hugely successful Breaking Bad (2008-2013) had an eager audience of fans primed and ready, and it certainly delivered. The first season shows us Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill on his way to becoming Saul Goodman. By the end of the last episode, Jimmy still hasn’t taken that name, but he’s getting there. A pleasure of this series is seeing more of Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, one of the strongest characters in Breaking Bad. The second season of Better Call Saul begins on February 15.
Bloodline (Netflix) If you’ve seen this series, you know how good it is. Set in the Florida Keys, Bloodline concerns the Rayburn family and the snake pit of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy them. Flash forwards reveal a little more each time and give warnings of what’s to come. The excellent cast includes Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Chloë Sevigny, and Ben Mendelsohn. Australian actor Mendelsohn is amazing as Danny Rayburn, the black sheep of the family who periodically returns to charm and threaten and screw things up. Bloodline has been renewed for a second season.
Daredevil (Netflix) This superhero series is for people who wouldn’t normally watch anything with superheros in it. Based on a Marvel Comics character who first appeared in 1964, Daredevil is darker, grittier, and more reality-based than you might expect. The first season is a 13-episode origin story of how Matt Murdoch, a blind lawyer in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, becomes the crime-fighting Daredevil. It’s a long, bloody, bone-crunching process. Matt is far from invulnerable — not even close. Despite enhanced hearing and martial arts skills, he frequently staggers away from encounters badly beaten and in need of stitches. The cast is excellent, including Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil; Rosario Dawson as a nurse who finds Matt near death in a dumpster and patches him up; Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) as the secretary in Matt’s small law office; and especially Vincent D’Onofrio, truly frightening as Wilson Fisk, the villain of the piece — it’s a powerhouse performance. The second season begins streaming on March 18.
In the following clip from the second episode, Matt fights his way down the length of a hallway in one continuous shot. The camera stays in the hallway, even though much of the action takes place off-screen in rooms to the side. It takes a long time for Matt to get to the end of the hall, because these guys won’t stay down. It’s not the usual way to shoot such a scene. The result is very tense and quite breathtaking. This was when I knew the series really had me.
Dicte (Netflix) Dicte (pronounced Dee-ta) Svendson, a former crime reporter in Copenhagen, now works on a local newspaper in her home town. The series is as much about her messy personal life as it is about the criminal cases she investigates as a reporter. It’s very engaging and the cast is excellent. There have been two seasons so far, both available via Netflix. The following is an opening credits clip.
Grace and Frankie (Netflix) Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are very different women who probably wouldn’t spend time together if their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), hadn’t been law partners for 20 years. At the start of the first episode, Robert and Sol announce at a restaurant dinner that they want divorces from Grace and Frankie, and also that they’ve been lovers and plan to get married. When Sol moves out to live with Robert, Grace reluctantly moves in with Frankie at her beachfront home. In the midst of all this, the couples’ grown children struggle to deal with these changes. Sheen and Waterston don’t seem entirely credible as a gay couple, though I suspect their many years in other roles — especially Waterston as Jack McCoy on Law & Order — got in my way; this is quite a departure for them. Fonda and Tomlin are great together. Their interplay is very funny and often quite touching. The second season begins streaming on May 6.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) John Oliver was a writer and performer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart before taking over his own weekly 30-minute show. The first ten minutes or so are used to recap events of the previous week in satiric fashion. The show really stands out in the final 20 minutes, which are usually devoted to taking a single topic and really working it. These topics have included fantasy sports, televangelists, and sex education. Oliver has a strong voice. He’s very funny, but he’s not really joking. The new season of Last Week Tonight begins on February 14 at 11:00pm (EST).
Here’s a segment about pennies and how they cost more than they’re worth to make.
The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) Based on the 1962 novel by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, this series posits an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. Germany controls the eastern half of the United States, which is called the National Socialist States of America, while Japan has the Japanese Pacific States, west of a neutral zone known as the Rocky Mountain States. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but The Man in the High Castle has an abundance of provocative ideas. The series is set in a recognizable 1962, except that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole and swastikas are on display in Times Square. It gets a lot of mileage out of merging the mundane with the horrifying. The production and cast are top notch. Rufus Sewell is excellent as an American-born Nazi officer in New York, trying to locate films being transported by resistance members that show a different history — one in which the Allies won the war. What the hell is this? A parallel universe? Don’t expect any real answers in this first season. The final scene of the last episode is a real WTF moment. As a fan of Fringe and The Twilight Zone, I definitely want to see where it goes from here.
Mr. Robot (USA) The title got my attention right away. Set in a version of present-day New York City, the series’ protagonist is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a depressed cybersecuirty engineer with a social-anxiety disorder who’s also an expert hacker. Christian Slater co-stars as possibly the titular Mr. Robot. He attempts to recruit Elliot into a secret organization dedicated to bringing about financial collapse by erasing all debt globally. Something like that. Mr. Robot is a very stylish house of mirrors. It’s a fairly linear narrative, but twists and whiplash turns keep us off balance and make us question what’s real and what is not. Rami Malek is an intense presence, with burning, bugged out eyes. We’d previously seen him in the eight season of 24 (Fox) and The Pacific (HBO), both in 2010. He makes an impression. Mr. Robot reminds me of William Gibson’s novels, science fiction in the everyday. A second season begins this June or July.
Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime) I signed up for Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series (along with The Man in the High Castle and Transparent). It’s been a good investment. The jungle of the title is New York City and the world of a symphony orchestra. Lola Kirke plays Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring oboist. Gael Garcia Bernal is Rodrigo De Souza, a hot young conductor hired to replace Malcolm McDowell’s Thomas Pembridge as conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Hailey and Rodrigo have to navigate their way through politics, in-fighting, manipulation, and bloated egos. Mozart in the Jungle is fascinating, comic, with great music. There have been two seasons so far, both of which can be streamed on Netflix.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central) In January of last year, The Nightly Show moved into the time slot previously held by Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. This might seem like a hard act to follow, but in the intervening year, The Nightly Show has created a strong identity. Like John Oliver, Larry Wilmore came over from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he was known as the “Senior Black Correspondent.” Wilmore is carries on Stewart’s point of view, with a focus on racial issues in particular. Contributors on the show who have emerged as personalities in their own right include Mike Yard, Grace Parra, Robin Thede, Holly Walker, Rory Albanese, and Ricky Valez. Like John Oliver’s show, this is serious underneath the funny. The Nightly Show airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30pm (EST).
Here is a recent segment in which frequent guest Neil deGrasse Tyson schools a rapper who believes the earth is flat.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime) I began recording this series when it debuted in 2014, but only watched the first episode. I intended to continue watching, but was distracted by this and that. The season ended and I still wasn’t watching, but I didn’t delete it from our DVR queue. A week before the second season began last May, I finally burned through all ten episodes. Penny Dreadful is a deadly serious monster mashup set in Victorian England, created and written by John Logan. Characters include Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, Dr. Van Helsing, and assorted vampires and witches. Josh Hartnett plays an American cowboy named Ethan Chandler, who turns out to be a werewolf. His real name is Ethan Lawrence Talbot, which, for horror movie fans, references Lon Chaney, Jr’s Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, whose daughter Mina was married to Jonathan Harker before she was turned into a vampire. Having these characters from horror films and novels interacting in the same narrative is great fun for fans of this kind of material. Penny Dreadful is both goofy and clever, and dripping with atmosphere. It’s presented with a completely straight face and it works. The third season begins on May 1.
River (Netflix) I wasn’t sure about this one at first. A cop who sees, hears, and converses with dead people? Really? We’ve seen this before. But the series is more than that and gets deeper as it goes along. It didn’t take long to hook me in. River is a six-part series created and written by Abi Morgan. Stellan Skarsgård stars as DI John River, with Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax and MI-5) as his recently murdered partner, DS Jackie Stevenson. Adeel Akhtar is River’s new partner, DS Ira King. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent. River makes it his mission to understand and solve Jackie’s murder, which includes frequent conversations with her. Needless to say, it’s not an easy journey.
Show Me a Hero (HBO) Based on a 1999 non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, this miniseries was written by David Simon and William F. Zorzi and directed by Paul Haggis. In my opinion, Simon’s HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) is, one of the greatest sustained narrative works ever put on television — or anywhere else, for that matter. (Breaking Bad is a close second). I’m interested in anything Simon does and he does not disappoint. Show Me a Hero deals with the resistance of a mostly white middle-class neighborhood to a federally-mandated, desegregated public housing development to be built in Yonkers, New York. Oscar Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, the newly-elected mayor of Yonkers who finds himself in over his head when he tries to comply with the court order. There are no clear heroes or villains. Catherine Keener is especially good as a woman strongly opposed to the housing plan who slowly comes to a new understanding. Show Me a Hero takes its title from a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Transparent (Amazon Prime) In this great series, set in Los Angeles, Mort Pfefferman (great last name) announces to his family that he identifies as a woman and will henceforth be known as Maura. How his wife and grown children — and Maura herself — deal with this change forms the comedy and drama of this timely show. Jeffrey Tambor, fully embracing the role of Maura is terrific. After some resistance, I’ve come to really like his wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and his youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Guest actors have included Cherry Jones, Anjelica Huston, and Bradley Whitford. Transparent is funny, sad, human, and quite lovely. Both seasons are available for streaming.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) This unhinged comedy was co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Fey previously created and starred in 30 Rock (2006-2013), with Carlock as show runner. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a similar tone and anarchic spirit. Ellie Kemper (The Office) plays 29-year-old Kimmy as she navigates life in New York City after being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana. Kimmy and three other women were kept in an underground bunker for 15 years by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). It gets a lot crazier than that. Kimmy is positive and upbeat beyond all reason as she tries to deal with her new world. A new season will be available for streaming on April 15.
The following titles are carry-overs from last year.
The Affair (Showtime)
The Americans (FX)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
The Fall (Netflix) & Grantchester (PBS) See my previous post on these two.
The Good Wife (CBS)
Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix)
Mad Men (AMC)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
The Simpsons (Fox)
Finally, here are some shows derived from comic books and a horror novel about vampires. They probably don’t have the substance of the titles listed above, but I find them very entertaining, which is no small thing.
Agent Carter (ABC)
The Flash (CW)
Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC)
The Strain (FX)
Too many shows, not enough time. Thank God for DVR. — Ted Hicks