Posts Tagged ‘ Borgen ’

2013-14 – Season Review

2013_2014Another television year is over. Or at least it is if you take the American-centric view of things which I tend to fall into, whereby the new season starts in mid September with the big pilot presentations. In the UK it’s a bit less marked, but there seems to be at least an element of September being a starting point for some new series, so I’m bundling everything together.

American Series
Almost Human S1
American Horror Story: Coven (S3)
Castle S6
Criminal Minds S9
CSI S14 (in progress)
Extant S1 (in progress)
Fargo S1
Game of Thrones S4
Grey’s Anatomy S10
House of Cards S2
Mad Men S7 Part 1
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD S1
NCIS Los Angeles S5
Orphan Black S2
Penny Dreadful S1
Scandal S3 (in progress)
The Americans S2
The Big Bang Theory S7
The Blacklist S1
The Following S2
The Good Wife S5
The Lost Ship S1 (in progress)
The Night Shift S1 (review coming soon)
The Walking Dead S4
British Series
Downton Abbey S4
Happy Valley S1
Last Tango in Halifax S2
Outnumbered S5
The Crimson Field (not reviewed)
The Honourable Woman
The Musketeers S1
The Smoke S1

Short series
Death Comes to Pemberley
Dr Who
Sherlock S3
Suspects (seems to air a couple of episodes every now and then, which is my excuse for not having reviewed it)
The 7:39

International Series
The Bridge S2
Borgen S3

Intended to watch but not got to/aired yet – Utopia S2, Chicago Fire S2 and Defiance S2. I’m also a bit behind on Perception and Nurse Jackie.

Purely by the numbers, I have watched a lot less television this year. By my count I’ve watched 20 full series of American shows (with four others in progress), 8 UK shows, 2 Scandinavian ones and about half a dozen micro-series (shows of 3 or 4 episodes – e.g. Dr Who this year, Sherlock). This year’s list looks very different to last year’s. For a start it’s considerably shorter, last year I watched 46 series (31 American, 10 UK, 3 international and 2 short series). But there’s also been a big turnover in what I watched.

I added 13 brand new shows, and three others which hadn’t aired or I didn’t watch in 2012-13. But then there were 13 series from last year which didn’t return this year, and another 9 that did air, but I chose not to watch The rest of the difference is made up of a few shows that I haven’t got to yet, or didn’t air significant numbers of episodes I that timeframe.

Best shows
orphanblackThe Good Wife – The consistently outstanding quality puts It a step above any other series on network television, and the fact that it makes more than 20 episodes per year marks its achievement as superior to anything on cable television. For the incredible writers and amazing cast to ‘churn’ out such entertaining and interesting stories and characters, it really shows up the rest of the television community. The series keeps growing and changing, never getting lazy or cheap and it is easily my favourite show of the year.

Happy Valley – a near perfect piece of television that blended serious and difficult stories with just enough humanity and humour to make it bearable. I’m not sure how I feel about there being a second series mind you, this one will be hard to top without losing the sense of reality.

Orphan Black is a fascinating series, that really should have been on my ist last year as well, but I was just slightly too slow watching it. Season 2 just got better and better, with a complex plot that never got too bogged down. The way the completely different personalities of the clones and their friends and families all came together was fascinating and it never lost sight of the ridiculousness of the idea, with plenty of humour along the way.

Honourable mentions: House of Cards was a harder watch in many ways this year, but was completely gripping from start to finish. The Honourable Woman was equally gripping, although I don’t think it quite lived up to its early potential. The Americans changed its tack a little, getting rather more serious and rather less wiggy and handled it very well; although I do miss the fun spy stuff.

Favourite shows
SherlockI’m going to put Sherlock on this list, although I hesitate to describe 3 TV movies as a ‘series’. But still, my pure delight while watching Cumberbatch and Freeman deliver Moffat’s dialogue in the beautifully directed style is unsurpassed. The series isn’t in the Best category because I did think it was a little flabby in places, and playing to the fans a little too much on a purely technical level, but as a fan, I couldn’t have loved it more.

The Walking Dead tends to swap back and forth between the ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ slots, and I’ll be honest that’s because I use it to create space in whichever category needs it. There’s a huge amount happening in this season, and yet there’s also masses of time given to the characters, and the second half the season when they’re split up into often unusual groups was particularly interesting. It never ceases to impress and thrill me that a zombie apocalypse show can be one of the most fascinating and beautiful shows on television.

I’m going to put Fargo in the ‘favourite’ category too. I think most of the quality of it actually came from the Coen brother’s film, but what the television series did was flesh it out with a really charming and engaging cast and some additional twists and turns that ultimately felt like a large diversion (the whole Oliver Platt storyline) but were entertaining enough on the way.

There are other shows that I enjoyed watching (obviously, I’m not such a masochist as to watch all of them just for the sake of completing a review), but to be honest, nothing else reached the level of “must watch” that I got from those series. If I were going to list a few honourable mentions – Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, NCIS LA and The Blacklist would appear somewhere. Oh, and Game of Thrones actually felt much improved to me and (with the exception of the last couple of episodes) I rather enjoyed the season.

Acting
goodwifeIf I think about the most impactful performances this year, the most interesting and dynamic characters, I think my top five would all be women. Maybe even top ten. Shows like The Good Wife (Julianna Margulies), The Honourable Woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Happy Valley (Sarah Lancashire), Borgen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany) and Scandal (Kerry Washington) have painfully real women in the lead. Even many of the ensemble shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Fargo, The Americans, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Smoke) the female roles have amazing depth and complexity. Shows like Castle and House of Cards may appear on paper to be a male lead, but their female partners are just as vital and vibrant.

Comparably, I’m not sure the guys are having such a strong time at the moment (I know, cry me river). There are clearly some actors having a lot of fun (James Spader in The Blacklist jumping to mind), but really meaty roles and performances seem to be more limited when it comes to the long form. to the shorter series – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Idris Elba in Luther to name a few.

One of the things that Emmy doesn’t award of course is ensemble. The Screen Actors Guild do (this year the nominees were Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Homeland with Breaking Bad taking the win). The key thing to me in a strong ensemble is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. There isn’t a single person (regular, recurring or guest) on The Good Wife that doesn’t deserve some sort of award, and yet they get even better when they’re bouncing off each other. There is no combination of characters on The Walking Dead or Grey’s Anatomy that isn’t interesting to watch with personalities subtly shifting to reflect different balances and backgrounds.

British Shows
happy_valleyAnother strong year for British shows, although I am (oddly) far more selective about the British stuff that I watch and hence have a much smaller pool for comparison. Again, the majority of these programs are driven by phenomenal female performances. They’ve also had a pretty good range, from very ‘traditional’ hard hitting dramas like Honourable Woman and Happy Valley, to more creative storytelling methods such as Suspects‘ use of documentary style, or just more fun stories such as The Musketeers and The Smoke. The miniseries model many of these shows use (or micro-series when it comes to things like Sherlock or Death Comes to Pemberley) give a high impact and very tightly constructed format that often left me wanting more.

Same old same old
castleWhile the shows I mention above have grown or refreshed themselves, there are other shows that just continue doing the same old thing, season after season. They form a sort of backbone to my television watching, they’re safe and secure and nothing alarming is going to happen. Even when Grey’s Anatomy throws giant disasters at their sweeps episodes and shuffles major cast members, it still somehow feels comfortable and familiar. Low stress. So when CSI season 14 is just like season 12, or Criminal Minds season 9 is just like season 8, I try to be content with that. It makes for boring reviewing, but comfortable watching. And at the end of the day, I’m not confident that the writers could shake things up without actually destroying the core of what I enjoyed about the show in the first place.

But those shows will always be at risk of getting bumped for something just slightly more interesting. Particularly given that many of them are deteriorating into “things to watch while I do something else” series. They’re disposable, not worth paying that much attention to. But there’s a limit to the amount of time I spend ironing and cooking and some shows run the risk of falling off into the next section of “things I just can’t be bothered with”. The Following is in the danger zone at the moment, and much as it pains me to say it, so is Castle which had an utterly tedious season of wedding planning.

Things I just couldn’t face
Supernatural - Season 5Then there were nine that I just didn’t want to watch. Nashville and Once Upon a Time were both fun, but I just didn’t feel like watching them this year. Hannibal had a short season so I stuck it out last year, but couldn’t be bothered this year. Homeland lost me and a lot of people this season, for me it was the moment that Saul, up to now the voice of calm and reason, shouted at a woman for wearing a veil because he was unable to separate extremism from religion. I dropped both Blue Bloods and Bones (after 8 seasons!) because I got fed up with the lack of growth and development, particularly frustrating in Bones where characters would just loop endlessly in circles. House of Lies I gave up on because everyone was so unremittingly nasty. Young Doctor’s Notebook and Warehouse 13 just kind of fell through the gaps. Hardest of all, I’ve stopped watching Supernatural because I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the endless misery and trauma that befell characters that I loved.

Easy access
Game of ThronesI think it’s easy to forget sometimes how lucky we are these days to be able to watch American shows so quickly. High profile shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead air within just hours of the US, and many shows air within a few weeks (often they start a long way behind but run through without interruption so by the end of the year everything’s caught up). A few years ago I had to write most of my reviews based on somewhat dodgy sources of the episodes, but now I can generally just wait a short while before being in synch with the US.

It’s also phenomenally easy to watch television however you want to watch it. Whether it’s live broadcast, via DVR, catchup service or streaming distribution on Amazon or Netflix (or, yes, various questionably legal sources too). I watched Extant on Amazon Streaming Video which I get for just a fiver a month (formally Lovefilm), I watched House of Cards on dvd, I’m catching up on Perception using Sky’s boxset service, and have Utopia stacked up on my Sky+. I can get the Sky Never Miss system to email me when new seasons of my favourite shows are starting and set them to record from my phone. It’s all SO easy!

But that does mean that when things aren’t available it feels like the end of the world. If the UK distributor decides against picking up a series you can be left in limbo. Once Upon a Time and Supernatural both lost their UK broadcasters and haven’t aired this year. Many of the new series never made it to the uk (although that wasn’t always the end of the world). Still it is hilarious when the Americans grumble about having to wait for Downton Abbey.

Overall
It’s taken me a long time to write this round-up, because quite frankly I couldn’t get very excited about it. I wasn’t overwhelmed with things I wanted to sing the praises of, or even things that I wanted to moan about (although I’d suggest going and having another look at my Mad Men review if you’re after that). The whole year just felt a bit… meh. Several of the more exciting shows (for better or worse) didn’t return this year, the established shows are just ticking along and there really didn’t seem to be anything particularly outstanding coming along to replace them. It wasn’t a terrible year by any means, but it certainly wasn’t an outstanding one.

Borgen: Season 3

BorgenI write this review with a heavy heart, for I have watched the last episode of Borgen. It really doesn’t seem fair that when mediocre and unremarkable series drag on for decades, after just 30 episodes we have to wave goodbye to this wonderful series. A lot has been said about the current ‘obsession’ with Scandinavian dramas, but it’s lazy and ridiculous to overlook that Borgen gets praise, viewers and coverage because it’s a great show, not because it has subtitles. When speaking about shows like The Killing or The Bridge, there’s a bit more scope for comment I think, because they are doing very similar things to what other UK and US shows are doing – the serialisation is a bit more unusual, but fundamentally it’s the Scandinavian bit that’s unusual in the the story of a slightly unusual cop chasing a slightly unusual killer. But Borgen – the closest comparisons are The West Wing which has been off our screens (if not our dvd players) since 2006 and The Thick of It which isn’t really in the same genre. Well, and I guess House of Cards actually, but that feels sort of ethically different, it’s about the dirtiness of politics, not the hope.

Unfortunately, while I still adore what Borgen is striving for and greatly admire it’s successes, I have to acknowledge that it never quite reached the heights that it set itself in the first season. The second season could best be described as “uneven” and the third season had a fair share of stumbles too. Around the mid-point of the series I did find myself not really pouncing on new episodes, frustrated at the direction some of the characters and stories were taking. Too often the writers fall back on rather lazy “Tab A goes in slot A” style writing – a tedious mid-life crises and workplace affair, cheesy bullshitting network executive, the trials of being a single working mother. Many of those storylines just didn’t rise beyond their clichés.

At first I was putting the breast cancer storyline with Birgitte in the same class – successful woman side-swiped by a condition out of her power, but actually in the end I felt that was one of the better written stories. It connected into other stories and gave Sidse Babett Knudsen even more opportunity to really shine. It still had its clumsy elements (if it says 1 on the pill bottle, don’t take 3 before going on live television), but it beautifully demonstrated Birgitte’s simultaneous weakness and strength, making her a real person rather than a figure on a pedestal.

Politically the direction of the season was interesting as well. Putting Birgitte outside of politics and then fighting to get back in gave a new perspective. It allowed a refocus on the issues, where season 2 had gotten bogged down in the political manoeuvring. The structure of Danish politics (or at least the version shown on screen) is also fascinating, an entire structure built on coalition. We could probably learn something from that, even if it’s just a warning.

Despite its many stumbles, Borgen is still one of the best shows on television at the moment. The cast is phenomenal, and the balance of human and political drama reminds me of The West Wing in all the very best ways. At it’s core it has such a sense of hope and positivity, I like the characters, I like what they stand for and I want them to succeed, but they’re not unrealistic and make plenty of mistakes. For a show to end while still at the height of its success is disappointing to its fans, but may be better than slowly waning away. It’s hard to say goodbye though.

2012-13 Season – the best and the worst

2012_2013As the new season has officially started, it’s time for my wrap up of the 2012-2013 season! From the list below it really looks like I’ve watched 46 television series this year, which frankly even I find amazing, given that last year I was astonished that I’d gone from 28 to 39 series. Admittedly 10 of those series are still in progress and a couple might not get finished, but even without those, it’s still probably somewhere in the order of 700 episodes.

The Americans: S1
Blue Bloods: S3
The Big Bang Theory: S6
Bones: S8
Borgen: S2
Broadchurch: S1
The Cafe: S2 (in progress)
Castle: S5
Chicago Fire: S1
Criminal Minds: S8
CSI: S13
CSI: NY: S10 (in progress)
Defiance: S1
Doctor Who: S7
Downton Abbey: S3
The Fall: S1
The Following: S1
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): S3
Fringe: S5
Game of Thrones: S3
The Good Wife: S4
Grey’s Anatomy: S9
Hannibal: S1
Homeland: S2
House of Cards: S1
House of Lies: S2 (in progress)
Hunted: S1
Last Tango in Halifax: S1
Luther: S3
Mad Men: S6
Merlin: S5
Nashville: S1
NCIS: LA: S4 (in progress)
The Newsroom: S2 (in progress)
Once Upon a Time: S2 (in progress)
Orphan Black: S1 (in progress)
Les Revenenants (The Returned): S1
Scandal: S2 (Review to come)
Smash: S2 (in progress)
Supernatural: S8 (in progress)
The Thick of It: S4
Utopia: S1
Vegas: S1
The Walking Dead: S3
Warehouse 13: S4 (in progress)
Young Doctor’s Notebook: S1

There are also a few miniseries I watched (mostly British) – Dancing on the Edge, In the Flesh, What Remains (to be reviewed), The Secret of Crickley Hall and Southcliffe.

Best Shows
The Walking Dead title screenThe Walking Dead – I think this may be the show I obsessed most about this year (although see Scandal later on). I pounced on every episode as soon as I could, read analysis, studied trailers, frankly it’s a bit embarrassing. But what makes me really happy is that the show warrants its place in the best list, not just the favourite. The quality of this show is outstanding, from the breathtaking direction to the elegant writing and heartbreaking acting. There were a few miss-steps with the plot, but overall, this show is right up there with the likes of Battlestar Galactica for raising genre to a new level.

GoodWifeThe Good Wife – It’s hard to think of new superlatives to describe The Good Wife, from the very first episode of season 1 this show has been consistently good, interesting and entertaining. Sadly that consistency also applies to the ongoing poor usage of Kalinda, but if that’s the only problem with the show, then it’s still leaps and bounds above most of its companions on the schedules.

House of CardsHouse of Cards – It’s notable that of the three best shows I’ve selected one is on Cable, one is on Network and the final one is on neither! Thanks to Netflix it’s now possible to get exceptional television series completely independent of the television channels. House of Cards was smart, challenging and exceptionally well made and throws a real challenge at the traditional broadcasters.

Honourable mentions – I’m only 2 episodes in, but Orphan Black is rather amazing and reminiscent of the also stunning Utopia. Broadchurch was outstanding, blending believable responses to horrific events with a British humour and A Young Doctor’s Notebook was surprisingly weird and engaging.

Favourite Shows
scandalScandal – I haven’t written my review of this yet, because it would mean admitting that rather than waiting for the weekly episodes on the television, I was so addicted to the show, I saught out an alternate source and watched the whole season pretty much back to back over the space of a weekend. The story is utterly ridiculous, but I found it incredibly addictive. Shonda Rhimes has recreated the Grey’s Anatomy magic, it doesn’t matter how bad it is, I can’t let it go.

americansThe Americans – It’s almost impossible to talk about this show without comparing it to Homeland, which appeared on my best shows list last year, but is significantly absent this year. The Americans gets right everything that Homeland got wrong in season 2, it never took itself too seriously, never sacrificed consistent character development for cheap cliffhangers and remembered that spies (even in the 80s) are cool!

BorgenBorgen – Last year Borgen was in the ‘Best shows’ category, this year I move it to ‘Favourite’ because although I still adore it, I just didn’t think it was as good. I had a lot of trouble with the storylines and characters this season, many set off down unfortunate paths which ultimately led to dead ends and frustrations. But despite that, it’s still hugely entertaining, with sparkling dialogue, beautiful direction and an unfailing ability to draw me in.

Honourable Mentions – hmm, the fact I’m struggling to find ones of note is a bit of an indicator that this years shows have really gone to the extremes of “great” and “meh”. Nashville was reliable ridiculous fun (far far more successful than the increasingly awful Smash) and Last Tango in Halifax was endearingly easy watching. Oh, and there have been great moments in the first few episodes of The Newsroom, but those moments of brilliance are unfortunately surrounded with some real mediocrity (and that’s being charitable).

Actors
bBroadchurchI think there should be some kind of awareness that there is great acting going on in the oddest of places. Awards are generally given for great acting in great shows. That really is a bit chicken and egg, is the acting great because of the writing, or is the writing great because of the acting? For shows like The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Broadchurch, The Americans and The Good Wife, the quality just feeds back and forth elevating both to wonderful heights.

The Thick of ItThe more impressive achievement I think is great acting taking place in mediocre or even awful shows. The cast of Homeland did an admirable job with truly terrible writing as did some of the cast of Hannibal. The Thick of It had serious structural problems from a watch-ability point of view, but it did mean everything built up to the stunning inquiry which offered each of the actors an opportunity to give a masterclass in characters. Peter Capaldi was of course the star (and the only problem I have with him being Doctor Who is that he’ll have less time to do work like this), but everyone in the cast was incredible in that episode.

lutherThen you’ve got the type of performances that complete transcend and transform the shows they are in. Performances from Idris Elba (Luther) and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) seem like they’re in entirely different leagues to everyone around them, bouncing off the screen with originality and charisma and really are the only reason I watch the shows. I came to Nashville because I love Connie Britton, but was surprised that I stayed with it in equal parts for was wonderful performance from Hayden Panettier. Between the two of them they made the ridiculous soap opera watchable.

Grey's Anatomy CastWhen it comes to relying on her actors to sell ridiculous storylines however, Shonda Rhimes is queen, I forgive Grey’s Anatomy its many sins because of actors like Chandra Wilson, Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh. I forgive Scandal for being demented because of actors like Kerry Washington who portrays Olivia Pope with such hardness and such softness, Jeff Perry who makes Cyrus the kind of manipulative bastard you want to share popcorn with and Guillermo Diaz who makes you want to give Huck a cuddle even if he is a terrifying psychopath.

Disappointments
Mad MenMad Men – If not for the fact that the next season will be the last, Mad Men season 6 would have been the nail in the coffin for me. I’ve just got no interest in watching a show increasingly dedicated to the unpleasant and repetitive character that is Don Draper. He goes round and round in destructive circles, holding back the other characters and the show itself from really developing.

Once Upon a TimeOnce Upon a Time – I’m struggling to find the enthusiasm to watch the whole season of this I have backed up on my Sky+ box. I think there are just too many characters (particularly given almost every character has a fairy tale alter-ego), too many worlds and too many storylines. I don’t care enough to watch every week, and without that regular viewing I lose track and therefore care even less.

fringeFringe – I’m sorry, but the final season of Fringe just wasn’t as good as the previous seasons. Jumping to the future threw everything off for me, it wasn’t as much fun, I wasn’t as engaged and it felt less original. It did however at least offer a solid ending to the show, so I am still grateful for that.

Things I Didn’t Watch
SonsOfAnarchyIn many ways the 2012-13 season was notable for the things I didn’t watch. Several shows that I’ve previously loved, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch. Glee and NCIS both got dropped because I was fed up with the inconsistent writing. I tried out Hawaii Five-0 to fit the NCIS spaced gap, but though I love the dynamic between the two leads, it wasn’t enough to keep my attention through the mind numbing plots. I also dropped Veep because I just didn’t find it funny enough to overcome the frustrations with stupid characters.

My reasons for stopping watching Girls are rather more profound. Like Veep, I didn’t think it was funny and I found the characters frustrating, but I had an extra level of repulsion to the series because it seemed to be claiming some greater reality than something like Veep. Lena Dunham, either through her own claims or those of the media appears to think this is what young women in New York are really like. Given that I think the characters are pretty hateful people, if that’s truly what this section of humanity is like, then I want nothing to do with them, even through the abstract medium of television.

This year’s high profile casualty is actually more about the fact that the writing is too good. Sons of Anarchy is a superb television show, but by making me care so much about the characters, the relentless misery heaped upon them has just become a bit much. As their situations become increasingly hopeless I found myself dreading each episode until eventually my anxiety overcame the quality and I remembered that I didn’t have to watch if I didn’t want to. It’s the same reason that I’m unlikely to watch Breaking Bad beyond the first season, that was enough for me to understand how good it was, and enough to for me to know I just didn’t want to watch something that hard.

To end this section on a positive note however, even though I didn’t get along with this season of American Horror Story (I just didn’t feel any connection to any of the characters) the clever thing about the way the series is structured means that I can try it again next year when it moves on again to a new set of characters and stories.

Local Talent
utopiaEvery year I pledge to watch more British television, and this year I actually managed it! A lot of it suffers from, what Sky’s director of entertainment eloquently described as “po-faced stick up your backside morose drama”. When done well that sort of thing is hard but fascinating to watch, but when done badly it’s just dull. Southcliffe fell into the latter category unfortunately, The Fall was doing well until it failed to reach a conclusion that just left a bad taste in the mouth. On the plus side Utopia was quirky, brutal, intriguing and beautiful to watch, and Broadchurch was utterly engrossing and entertaining from start to finish. It’s a good job David Tennant was so good in that though, because The Politician’s Husband was horrific and I know at least one person who’s Tennant crush has been permanently damaged by the dialogue he was forced.

Downton AbbeyA lot of dross was also put out claiming to be ‘pure entertainment’ with Mr Selfridge and The Paradise both trying to capture the ongoing magic of Downton Abbey and failing catastrophically. Hunted was entertaining, but nowhere near interesting enough to make me want to watch a second season. Sky’s offerings of The Cafe and Young Doctor’s Notebook are far from what I’d expect from the juggernaut, both understated and unusual.

Borgen: Season 2

BorgenTen episodes of Borgen fly past when they’re aired two a week, and while I do enjoy the intensity I wish they’d space them out a little more because just as I remember how superb the show is, it’s gone again.

The life of the prime minister is never gonna exactly be a walk in the part, but everything does rather seem to conspire against Birgitte, and she doesn’t make life easy for herself either. More than once I found myself shouting at the screen “No Birgitte, don’t make that ultimatum”, “No, Birgitte, don’t invite the attractive chauffeur in to fix the sink. No! Bad Birgitte, put him down!”. More so than in the first season it’s not just with hindsight that decisions are unfortunate, often you could see exactly where it was all heading and could scribble out the rest of the key events by the time the teaser had finished.

I wasn’t all that keen on several of the storylines. Too many episodes were more focussed on foreign affairs than home issues and even though the national repercussions were discussed I would prefer a more internal focus. Looking at Denmark’s presence in Afghanistan was interesting (although maybe not the best way to kick off the season), but I lost a bit of interest with the European Union stuff and was frustrated at losing two episodes to seeking peace in a made up African country in the middle of a civil war. Oh and yet again there was a Very Special episode flashbacking to Kasper’s child hood which has a very different tone to the rest of the series and just doesn’t really gel with the rest of the episodes.

I’m not even sure how I feel about the characters, they’re certainly interesting and have motivations that are understandable even if I don’t agree with them, but there aren’t many of them that I like. Kasper and Katrine circle endlessly round each other making poor decisions, the politicians are mostly selfish and petty, some of the media come across slightly better but others are truly hateful and various family members seem incapable of empathy. Even Birgitte spends much of the season as a quite unpleasant Politician, selling out people that she appeared to be friendly with, ignoring family issues and generally completely blinkered towards keeping her increasingly unstable job.

So why do I love the show so much, if I’ve got all these issues with it? Well it doesn’t really matter if you like characters if they’re believable and well written, uninteresting storylines can be overlooked if the dialogue sparkles and predictability doesn’t matter if the director finds interesting framing, lighting and beautiful sets. Even Birgitte redeemed herself in the last couple of episodes, until I was cheering her outloud at the end of the final episode. The last few scenes had the kind of eloquence, team work and elegance that is unmistakable to West Wing fans.

Borgen remains one of my favourite shows. It makes me laugh, it makes me think, it makes me care, and it makes me look things up on Wikipedia. 10 episodes is nowhere near enough, I can’t wait for the next season.

The 2011-2012 Season

I’ve been dragging my feet on my season round-up post as I’ve been trying to polish off a few more series. But all the new stuff is starting, so the time has come to just get on with it! I’ve watched 39 series this year, last year was 28 so that’s a pretty terrifying increase! A fair number of the series are only a handful of episodes though (for better or worse) so I figure the number of episodes is about the same, somewhere around the 600 mark.

American Horror Story – S1
Awake – S1 (In progress)
The Big Bang Theory – S5
The Big C – S2
Blue Bloods – S2
Bones – S7
Borgen – S1
The Bridge – S1
The Cafe – S1
Castle – S4
Criminal Minds – S7
CSI – S12
CSI:NY – S8
Downton Abbey – S2
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): S2
Fringe – S4 (in progress)
Game of Thrones – S2
Glee – S3 (in progress)
The Good Wife – S3
Grey’s Anatomy – S8
Homeland – S1
House – S8
The Jury
Luck – S1
Luther – S2
Mad Men – S5 (In progress)
Merlin – S4
NCIS – S9
NCIS: LA – S3
The Newsroom – S1
Once Upon a Time – S1 (in progress)
Outnumbered – S4
Sherlock – S2
Smash – S1
Sons of Anarchy – S4
Supernatural – S7
Terra Nova – S1
Veep – S1
The Walking Dead – S2
Warehouse 13 – S3

There are a few other bits and pieces that didn’t make the list, mostly documentaries, many of them really rather excellent – Inside Nature’s Giants, David Attenborough’s Kingdom of Plants filmed at Kew Gardens, Frozen Planet, Wonders of the Universe to name a few.

BEST SHOWS
Borgen. “The Danish West Wing” is an overused label, but it’s so accurate it’s hard to resist. It’s not just the subject matter that draws the comparison, but the quality of writing and production and, sadly, the ability for it to break your heart as characters realistically, but depressingly make the wrong decisions.

Fringe. For complicated housemate related reasons I still haven’t seen the final two episodes of this series, but I can’t see how they would do anything that would mean the series drops from this list. Fringe continues to evolve into a spectacularly complex, yet completely followable series while never forgeting to actually entertain its audience with self-aware nods to the ridiculousness of the situations.

The Good Wife. A brilliant cast, fascinating storylines, sure and steady character development all polished off with sparkling dialogue makes a package that’s just a complete and utter joy to watch. In a world of mediocre network procedurals, this one is so far ahead it’s clearly in a different league.

Homeland. Another show that’s complex yet accessible. The gradual reveal and development of characters is fascinating and I was on the edge of my seat all season not knowing which way anything was going to go.

Mad Men and Awake could potentially be added to this list, but I am less than half way through each.

FAVOURITE SHOWS
The Newsroom. This show was the one I’d been most looking forward to, and I’m slightly devastated that I can’t include it in the ‘best’ category. But despite massive flaws with the characters and a preachiness that even I find rather troublesome, it’s still one of my favourite shows of the year. That may be blind Aaron Sorkin obsession, but I don’t care.

American Horror Story. A huge collection of characters and stories intricately interwoven and elegantly revealed over the span of a carefully structured series. It felt both innovative and yet thoroughly grounded in the history of the genre. I’m especially happy that each season is completely self contained, so nothing is dragged out or has the chance to get dull.

Smash. It’s original and fun, balancing cheesiness and melodrama with engaging characters and a surprisingly real feeling storyline. I’m really looking forward to next season, particularly given they’re getting rid of all the annoying characters.

Once Upon a Time. Another new show that’s original and fun. The storyline is incredibly complex yet revealed so elegantly that there’s never any difficulty keeping up. It’s beautifully designed and just a lovely series to watch.

ACTORS
I sort of covered my thoughts on actors in my Emmy post, so here are some broader thoughts.

House . Hugh Laurie gets the most praise publicly, but the whole cast of the series are absolutely superb. Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson completely and utterly broke my heart, Peter Jacobson (Taub) cracked me up, Olivia Wilde (Thirteen) stole the very few scenes she was in, and Jesse Spencer (Chase) produced one of the most satisfying character developments I’ve seen in a long time.

Homeland . One of the few things that myself and those that vote for awards actually agree on, the superbness that are Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. I however would go a lot further and also heap praise on the supporting performances by Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin.

Sons of Anarchy. Award voters clearly have some kind of blind spot when it comes to Sons of Anarchy, because year after year they completely fail to register the incredible performances throughout the cast, but in particular from the female leads Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff

Katharine McPhee (Karen) and Megan Hilty (Ivy), Smash – I loved the dance the characters went on, competing with each other but respecting each other’s talents; sometimes gracious, sometimes bitchy. And boy can they belt out tunes! Also Jack Davenport (Derek) had some of the funniest lines of the year!

Fringe . The cast are good as their primary characters, but what’s impressive is that most of them then go on to play the same person in the alternate universe, each of them the same person but with slight variations. It’s astonishing, they are the same person yet completely different, it’s mind twisting and fascinating. I can’t imagine a greater challenge as an actor. While Anna Torv and John Noble rightly get a lot of praise, the performances of Jasika Nicole (Astrid) and Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee) are just as subtle. Poor Joshua Jackson must feel rather hard-done-by without an alternate version to play with. He is pretty though.

The Good Wife – so many great performances and characters that I love from both stars, supporting characters (I could watch Josh Charles and Christine Baranski do the Will and Diane show all day long) and a dream list of guest stars (Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Matthew Perry – all playing deliciously slimy characters).

GOOD THINGS
Booth and Bones getting together on Bones. I was completely against it, but cheerfully admit I was wrong. Having them jump from no relationship at all to living together and having a baby brought a breath of fresh air to the series. It was handled with such lightness and charm, with both characters bending to accommodate the other, but not making any fundamental changes… beautifully written and acted. Here’s hoping Castle can do the same.

The end of House. A series going out gracefully and winding everything up with a collection of satisfying resolutions for all the characters. House has never been about the medicine, but about the puzzles and about the people, while I may personally wish that Wilson had a different conclusion, it all fed in so perfectly and everyone ended up where they were supposed to be.

Creativity! It felt like there was some variation with what’s on TV, not just an endless stream of interchangeable procedurals. Shows like American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and Walking Dead (finally) are investigating what it’s like to bring non-traditional genres to television, and shows like Smash, Luck and The Newsroom brought different subjects to the screen.

Female Characters! There are plenty of people out there who have and will write far more eloquently on the plight of women in television, but this year has felt like a relatively good year. Shows are full of strong women doing their jobs, raising their families and doing so as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Shows like The Good Wife, Smash, Once Upon a Time and Grey’s Anatomy have dominantly female casts, and almost everything else has a nice balance. Even something like Downton Abbey with its period constraints provides some wonderful roles for female actors.

BAD THINGS
Lighten up! Supernatural is superb, but it really really needs to lighten up a bit! It’s turned into something I have to force myself to watch, rather than something I really look forward to. The same argument could be made for Sons of Anarchy. Relentless depression is just not entertaining to watch, I’m not saying they suddenly need to be all sunshine and puppies, but just every now and then, let them catch a break.

NCIS . After 9 seasons, I realised there’s no point in watching this any more. The plots are utterly disposable and the characters are disastrously erratic. The last two seasons I’ve relegated it to ‘ironing watching’, but I’m even giving up on that (the show, not the ironing sadly).

Glee. I still haven’t managed to get to the end of the season having realised that I’m increasingly just fast-fowarding episodes. I just got sick to death with the terrible writing which completely undermined the charm of the characters and the talents of the actors. It just stopped being fun.

Still no spaceships. Can no one make this work?

Too short! Sherlock and Luther both had only 3 episodes, each ‘double’ length. It’s not enough. There’s the obvious problem that like a small child if I like something I want more of it, but it also really hampers the ability to get invested in characters and stories, just as you’re settling in, it’s all over and the voice over man is saying “will return in 2014”.

PS
In preparing this article, I went back and looked at my summaries of last years shows and I have to highlight the following phrase in my summary of 2010-2011’s new shows:

Superheroes are out – there was a flurry of superhero shows and none of them were any good. People keep trying to find the magic of the early season of Heroes and the massive success that’s being found by Marvel and DC Comics at the cinema, but no one’s managed it yet. Here’s an idea, stop pissing off Joss Whedon and get him to do one, after he’s done making millions with The Avengers that is.

I rejoice in my ability to predict the future and can’t wait to see what Joss does with S.H.I.E.L.D.

2011-2012 – New Shows

36 pilots this year. As usual the vast majority of them are American series, but there’s a couple of British ones in there and almost as many Scandinavian ones!

Things I watched
American Horror Story – something very different for television, not always brilliant quality, but addictive
Awake (cancelled) – (not yet finished), clever and challenging.
Borgen – superb. The plots and characters didn’t go the way I wanted them to, but it was extremely well written, acted and produced.
The Bridge – great premise, not particularly well realised. Some fun and interesting characters let down by a disappointing plot.
The Cafe – utterly charming, although maybe only because it’s set in the town that I spent all my summer holidays and it re-creates it to a tea.
Homeland – fascinating (although occasionally frustrating) twisty plot and superb acting.
The Jury – properly awful ITV drama, but my excuse for actually watching it is that it was only 5 episodes and I had a cold.
Luck (cancelled) – incredible footage of horse racing surrounded by a too complicated plot and utterly incomprehensible characters.
The Newsroom – (not finished yet), swerving wildly from breathtakingly good, to really rather rubbish.
Once Upon a Time (not finished yet) – a nice idea, charmingly done. It’s not going to set the world alight, but it’s really rather lovely for Sunday evening relaxed viewing.
Smash – something different! Hugely entertaining with the exception of a couple of terrible characters who have sensibly been cut for next season.
Terra Nova (cancelled) – it had problems, but as Saturday evening ‘fun for all the family’ it was pretty good.
Veep – Some good dialogue, but I don’t like comedies about stupid people. I only really watched it because it was a short season.

Last year I only picked up eight new series, this year it’s thirteen so it’s been a better year on numbers, and actually the more I think about it, the more positively I think about the new season. It doesn’t feel like a spectacular year, but it’s got a few quiet stars, but once again they’re all on cable channels in the US (Homeland, American Horror Story, even The Newsroom), network channels are really struggling to find anything remarkable.

Things I might watch
House of Lies – quirky and entertaining pilot, with some charismatic performances and no problems with being unlikeable.
Scandal – show about legal ‘fixers’ working in Washington DC from the people that brought you Grey’s Anatomy. For some reason I failed to review the pilot, but it had potential. Yes, it was cheesy and predictable but the fast paced dialogue was entertaining and the characters and storyline had potential. Doesn’t seem to be airing in the UK though.

Things I might have watched if they weren’t cancelled
Alcatraz (cancelled) – a sparkles pilot just didn’t inspire me but I could see some potential, I was going to give it a chance, but then it was cancelled
Prime Suspect (cancelled) – fascinating central character and good line up of actors, with an interesting directorial style to it all.
The Playboy Club (cancelled) – Surprisingly entertaining and interesting, but pretty much doomed
The Secret Circle (cancelled) – Teenage witches in a small town with plenty of mysteries. It was pretty cheesy but I found myself somewhat charmed (pun intended!).

Things that weren’t bad, but I just didn’t like
GCB (cancelled) – I did laugh and enjoy pilot, but I hated myself for it a bit so didn’t really want to watch any more, then it was cancelled so I didn’t have to decide.
A Gifted Man (cancelled) – a well put together pilot, interesting concept, well written directed and acted. But I couldn’t see any way the story wouldn’t end badly for the characters and I just didn’t want to watch that happen.
Grimm – it reminded me of lots of other things, all of which had been done better than this. It felt small and boring.
New Girl – As comedies go, I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t really feel like watching any more.
Touch – too manufactured and artificial and not very well written.

Things that were rubbish
The Body Farm – badly written, badly acted and less scientifically sound than CSI Miami.
Charlie’s Angels (cancelled) – awful. Just awful.
The Finder (cancelled) – I only watched the backdoor pilot in Bones, but it was packed with irritating tropes (bloody awful accents, know it all characters, intellectual tough guy)
Hart of Dixie – cliché ridden awfulness.
Hell on Wheels – utterly un-engaging.
Pan Am (cancelled) – a bit boring and too plastic and artificial feeling
Person of Interest – charisma vacuum characters making ridiculous decisions and delivering cliché ridden dialogue
Revenge – utterly unsympathetic, hateful characters
Ringer (cancelled) – Terrible pilot with crappy production and a daft premise.
The River (cancelled) – Fun concept, delivery was painfully awful. The pilot was a double episode and it was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to watch the second half and never got round to reviewing it.
Titanic – I was rooting for the iceberg.
Unforgettable – An ironic title given it was pretty unremarkable, it’s a good cast but cheesy dialogue and cliché premise and plot left it not making any impression.

Finally some creativity!
I was critical last year that it didn’t feel like there was any creativity in the line up, everything was either a thinly veiled recreation of another successful show, or at best a ‘bog standard’ example of a genre that wasn’t represented on TV (Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Someone seems to have listened to me, because this year did offer up some refreshing originality.

Shows like Smash, Once Upon a Time and Awake all had novel ideas or settings at their hearts and even though they weren’t always successful, I did at least want to cheer them on for giving it a try! American Horror Story set about bringing the horror genre to TV in the same way Walking Dead brought the zombie genre, but did a lot better job of merging the genre and the platform and made something really fascinating. Mind you, there were still some unremarkable procedurals and ‘rehash’ shows out there, Pan Am (and to a lesser extent The Playboy Club) tried to capture the period appeal of Mad Men and fell on their faces.

I’m right, everyone else is wrong
One thing that I find interesting is looking at the shows that I liked that got cancelled (annoyingly) and the shows I hated that stuck around (unfathomably). One show I was disappointed to see cancelled was Terra Nova which I suspect was rather miss-pitched as a primetime weekday evening show, when really it fits best in the early Saturday evening family slot (which the American’s don’t really seem to get like the UK does with Doctor Who and Merlin and the like). The other was Awake, which was an intriguing concept well played by Jason Isaacs (hello!) but was maybe a little slow for mass audiences. Mind you, I can’t really judge that harshly those that didn’t watch it, as I haven’t actually finished the series yet.

On the flip side I guess I’m saddened, but not surprised that some of the horrifically cheesy, cliché ridden shows found an audience (Hart of Dixie, Revenge). Why anyone wanted to watch Jim Caviezel suck all the life out of the room in Person of Interest is a mystery to me though.

Don’t believe the hype
Looking back at the upfront coverage, it seems that the big shows had the odds stacked against them. “Eagerly anticipated” programmes with big budgets and big names attached struggled to find the ratings to match their budgets – Steven Spielberg’s Terra Nova, JJ Abrahms’ Alcatraz, DeNiro’s NYC 22 (such a failure I didn’t even notice it go by), Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return in Ringer, the spin off for Bones, all fell flat. Only slightly more successful were the new Shonda Rhimes show Scandal and while Smash lived out the season it was far from the eponymous hit that was expected, and I’ve never seen a show create a more confused critical reaction of loving and loathing it than Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

Meanwhile, the darlings of season are based on an Israeli show and from the critically hounded creator of Glee. Homeland dared to be smart and used extraordinary actors to keep audiences on the edge of the seat, while American Horror Story did exactly what it said on the tin and wrapped its story up miniseries style.

Oh UK
I’ve really tried to find more UK shows to watch this year, but there’s been precious little of interest on UK channels. In addition to the stuff I’ve mentioned above which was at least bad enough to bother reviewing (Titanic – why and how are you so rubbish?!) I tried out probably half a dozen others and didn’t even get as far reviewing, often not even as far as the end of the first episode. Recent examples include ITV’s Last Weekend which was so full of foreboding it was laughable, and BBC’s Parade’s End which was mumbly and dull. As a rule I found the UK shows I watched either too impenetrably complicated for my little brain or killed by terrible production values.

It’s quite telling that I watch more Scandinavian shows than I do British ones. Well done to BBC for airing them at least, but I’m not sure what it is that’s stopping the UK channels making stuff this good. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be very grateful!

Borgen: Season 1

Borgen is a brilliant piece of television. It sounds stupid to say it out loud (or out-type) but due to my own narrow mindedness I’m always surprised to find all the quality that I’d expect from a major US production in a Danish show. But the question of whether I recommend it is a somewhat trickier one.

One side of the argument is an enthusiastic positive, because it’s an absolutely wonderful series. Each episode is exquisitely well constructed with a good mixture of drama, character and humour, with elements of the stories gradually building throughout the series to create complex but utterly logical characters and plots. It looks fantastic, the acting is superb and I was completely obsessed with watching and discussing it every week, craving new episodes like an addict.

But the counterpoint is that it’s a bit hard to recommend you watch something that will break your heart.

I fell in love with the characters and the story from the very first episode. I described Birgitte as “a shining light… charming and funny, driven but insecure, a completely real human being”. But of course part of being a real human being is having the ability to screw up your life quite royally. By the end of the series she had turned into the slimy ‘normal’ politician that she ousted from power, trading her principles and her friends all to maintain power and control. As her spin doctor eventually pointed out, if her only aim is to stay in power, what does she want the power for?

Meanwhile her home life suffered too and the wonderful relationship between Brigitte and her husband fell apart as her political life encroached further and further onto their life together as a family and his life independently.

Watching everything fall apart was depressing, but completely credible. You can see why every decision is made and understand why Birgitte loses sight of what started out as so important. Maybe it felt a little rushed, but I think that was more due to watching two episodes a week and rushing through a year of political events in just five weeks. Analysing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ things broke down was fascinating, I passed probably almost as many hours trying to understand the balance between home, work and principles (for all the characters, not just Birgitte, the themes applied just as much to Katrine and Kasper) as I did watching the episodes.

So don’t misunderstand me, my hesitation in recommending the series isn’t because it’s flawed, if anything it’s because it’s too good. It makes you care about the characters and see hope for better politicians, and then it breaks your heart. I wanted this to be a new West Wing, with battles won and lost but generally positive progress on the war. Borgen however started out full of hope and basically dashed that hope and made you feel a bit naive for dreaming in the first place. Excellent – yes, but also somewhat devastating.

Borgen season 1 is often repeated on the bbc and is available on dvd