Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pick of Television Shows Watched in 2015

I have a confession. I watch a fair bit of TV, two to three hours per
night. In my defence, most of this is planned viewing, not just whatever
happens to be on. I also avoid ads, thanks to DVDs, streaming services
and a PVR.

Why do I prefer TV shows over movies these days? A quality TV series has
pacing and complexity similar to a good novel. And just like reading a
novel, watching a series over days or weeks provides the opportunity to
reflect and develop some perspective. Movies, which are really like
short stories in visual form, can be unduly influenced by the viewer's
mood or state of mind for a specific block of time. The declining
quality of Hollywood movies doesn't help.

The recent trend of TV shows having self-contained, season-long arcs has
helped give viewers confidence to invest time. This is an improvement
over the old practice of open-ended shows spanning multiple seasons,
running the risk of cancellation before reaching any satisfactory
conclusion. The reduced importance of ratings and the emergence of
on-demand services have helped usher in a "platinum age of television":

1. Current 2015 Shows

Here are some shows which had strong seasons last year.

* Fargo
"Various chronicles of deception, intrigue and murder in and around
frozen Minnesota."
Fans of the original movie from 1996 will probably enjoy this TV series.
Quirkiness and dark humour help take the edge off the crime-based
storylines. The characters are compelling, and the scenery is bleak.
Like many people, I was a bit hesitant when I first heard about the
show, but season one was consistently good, and season two was arguably
even better. Each season is self-contained with a mostly new cast, which
keeps things fresh.

* Mr. Robot
"Follows a young computer programmer who suffers from social anxiety
disorder and forms connections through hacking. He's recruited by a
mysterious anarchist, who calls himself Mr. Robot."
I'm clearly in the target market for this show. Technology and hacking
are portrayed plausibly, and the show works both at the personal and
society level. I'm looking forward to see where the show goes in its
second season.

* Mad Men
"A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the
beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious
but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper."
The seventh and final season brings to a satisfactory close this
decade-long examination of the golden era of advertising. The show
captured many of the key moments and trends of the 1960s, highlighting
the excesses, preoccupations and inequality of the times. Complex and
relatable characters face difficult choices in their professional
careers and personal lives.

* Better Call Saul
"The trials and tribulations of criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman, in the
time leading up to establishing his strip-mall law office in
Albuquerque, New Mexico."
A prequel to the critically-acclaimed "Breaking Bad", this show examines
the gradual transformation of Jimmy McGill, the wild but reformed kid
brother of a respected lawyer, into Saul Goodman, counsel for petty and
mid-level criminals. Another show I had misplaced hesitation about. The
main and supporting characters were interesting, and the storyline was
solid. My only complaint is that the pace was a little slow.

* Humans
"In a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy
family is a 'Synth' - a highly-developed robotic servant that's so
similar to a real human it's transforming the way we live."
This show examines how we might interact with humanoid robots which were
initially meant to be servants. What happens if they become self-aware?
Would we treat them like equals or as slaves? Should they have "human"
rights? Or will we feel threatened by them?

* Broadchurch
"The murder of a young boy in a small coastal town brings a media
frenzy, which threatens to tear the community apart."
Realistic characters, with solid acting and great scenery. There's the
standard misdirection and plot twists until the case is solved. Season
one focusses on the investigation, and worked better than season two,
which covers the trial and its consequences.

* Rectify
"Daniel Holden must put his life back together after serving 19 years on
Georgia's Death Row before DNA evidence calls his conviction into
Simple but enjoyable drama, set in a small community rife with suspicion
and ulterior motives. Authorities seemingly more concerned with
protecting their pride or advancing their careers than finding out what
really happened all those years ago.

* Doctor Who
"The further adventures of the time traveling alien adventurer and his
This rebooted show hit a higher gear in 2015. I watched several episodes
twice to catch all the little details. Peter Capaldi again proves his
great range as an actor. The penultimate episode, "Heaven Sent", was a

* Justified
"Old-school U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his
childhood home in the poor, rural coal-mining towns in Eastern
The opening scene of the pilot made it clear how close to the line the
main character will go to in the name of justice. He seems obsessed with
getting out of the dark shadow of his father, a small-time criminal. His
old friend, Boyd Crowder, has become a white supremacist and wannabe
criminal kingpin. When the Dixie Mafia wants to exact revenge on Raylan
for what he did in Miami, the frenemies Raylan and Boyd have to
sometimes swallow their pride and work together.

* Orange is the New Black
"The story of Piper Chapman, a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to
fifteen months in prison after being convicted of a decade-old crime of
transporting money to her drug-dealing girlfriend."
Set in a womens' prison, this show manages to get you to empathise with
the characters, notwithstanding their past crimes and misbehaviour.
Interestingly, little attempt is made to glorify the central character.

* Brooklyn Nine-Nine
"Jake Peralta, an immature but talented NYPD detective in Brooklyn's
99th Precinct, comes into immediate conflict with his new commanding
officer, the serious and stern Captain Ray Holt."
Surprisingly amusing comedy with a great ensemble cast.

Honourable mentions:
* Orphan Black: Latest season was ok, but needs to start resolving
* New Girl: Fun time-filler.
* unREAL: What producing reality TV is really like?

Current shows not caught up on yet:
* The Americans (season 3)
* Silicon Valley (season 2)
* True Detective (season 2)
* Parks and Recreation (final season)

* House of Cards (US): The UK version was better and more focussed. West
Wing covered US politics more realistically. Veep is more fun.
* Game of Thrones: Feels like a brutal soap opera/reality elimination
contest at times. I recently started watching Vikings, which is more
respectful of its viewers and is at least based on historical events.

2. Classic Shows from Past Years

Limited time and availability mean I sometimes don't get to complete
watching shows until years after they end. Here are some classic shows
that I caught up with last year.

* Breaking Bad
"A chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer teams up with
his former student to cook and sell crystal meth."
Anti-heroes are all the rage nowadays, and this show really tested my
ability to keep watching as I grew to despise Walter White. I almost
gave up at the end of season two, but I'm glad I stuck with it.

* The Wire
"Baltimore drug scene, seen through the eyes of drug dealers and law
Not what I'm usually interested in, but it's critically acclaimed, so I
gave it a go. I found the warts and all, quasi-documentary depiction of
the lesser-seen America very compelling and informative.

* Deadwood
"A show set in the late 1800s, revolving around the characters of
Deadwood, South Dakota; a town of deep corruption and crime."
The colourful language always makes me smile. It's loosely based on
historical events, so there's that.

* Luther
"A crime drama series starring Idris Elba as a near-genius murder
detective whose brilliant mind can't always save him from the dangerous
violence of his passions."
Flawed cop who gets results. A bit like Sherlock from the wrong side of
the tracks.

* Boardwalk Empire
"An Atlantic City politician plays both sides of the law, conspiring
with gangsters during the Prohibition era."
I initially gave up on this series after the first season due to the
violence, but returned to it. Overall, pretty solid.

* Derek
"Derek is a loyal nursing home care assistant who sees only the good in
his quirky co-workers as they struggle against prejudice and shrinking
budgets to care for their elderly residents."
Ricky Gervais is not everyone's cup of tea, but this shows is both
touching and amusing. Features music by Ludovico Einaudi, which is a

* Freaks and Geeks
"A high school mathlete starts hanging out with a group of burnouts
while her younger brother navigates his freshman year."
Great comedy series that only ran one season. Launched the careers of
several name actors.