2014/15 Season

I’m getting worse and worse at actually writing stuff promptly. So my end of year wrap up comes after several of the 2015/16 shows have already started. Oh well, better late than never. I’m only talking about US shows here, I think I’m going to move the UK series so that I look at them at the end of the year. Frankly that’s pretty arbitrary but I watch so little UK television that adding it to the list just looked embarrassing. Also I’m focussing more on the returning shows as all the new things got their own little article last week.

Things I’ve watched

The Affair: S1
American Horror Story: Freak Show (S4)
The Americans: S3 (in progress)
Aquarius (in progress)
The Blacklist: S2 (half)
Criminal Minds: S10 (failed to review)
CSI: S15
Defiance: S3 (in progress)
Downton Abbey: S5
Forever: S1 (half)
Game of Thrones: S5 (half)
The Good Wife: S6
Grey’s Anatomy: S11
Jane the Virgin: S1 (review pending)
Justified: S6
Mad Men: S7 Part 2
Madam Secretary: S1 (half)
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S1
Marvel’s Agents of Shield: S2
NCIS: Los Angeles: S6 (failed to review)
The Newsroom: S3
Orange is the New Black: S3 (review pending)
Orphan Black: S3 (just starting)
Penny Dreadful: S2
Perception: S3 (failed to review)
Scandal: S4
Stalker: S1 (failed to review)
Transparent: S1
The Walking Dead: S5

So that’s 27 series, although four of them I only watched part of the season before giving up and four are still in progress. I think that’s probably about 340 episodes? It felt like I watched less television this year, but actually it’s up on last year’s count of 20 series. I think though that a lot of what I watched was just less memorable so it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched as much. 20 episodes each of Criminal Minds, NCIS LA, CSI and Scandal all add up pretty quickly, yet take up remarkably little space in my brain.

I watched six new shows to completion this year, an additional two I made it half way through and actually Orange is the New Black and Justified were both new series for me too which I binge watched from the start and then caught up to the current season. So 10 shows that appear on this year’s list but weren’t on last year’s. In the other direction there were 9 series that I watched last year which didn’t return. Five I chose not to pick up again: Castle (I just got bored with it), The Big Bang Theory (I just missed the start and never felt like catching up), The Following (just too ridiculous), Extant (I don’t think I even got through the whole first season) and The Lost Ship (couldn’t be bothered) . Two I haven’t got round to yet: House of Cards: S3 (it’s in my new Netflix queue) and The Night Shift: S2 (still no UK distributer). Almost Human was cancelled and Fargo didn’t broadcast any new episodes.

The more I think about the list of shows I’ve watched, the more underwhelmed I am with the year. Did I miss something? Have I watched so much TV that I’ve over-dosed and its lost its appeal? I just don’t think anything this year was outstanding. Even the shows that I list below for plaudits are mostly ongoing series that have just continued doing what they do, well. Where were the paradigm shifts? The big evolutions? The watercooler moments? It just feels like a very flat year.

Best Shows
Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardOrange is the New Black was a show that I’d wanted to watch from the get-go, but couldn’t justify the Netflix cost for. I finally caught up on the first season on dvd and then binged the second and third over a week or so when I finally gave in and signed up to Netflix. The lightness of the humour and the positivity of the relationships is starkly contrasted with the bleakness of the characters’ situations. The acting and writing is wonderful, the slow reveals of characters’ pasts through flashbacks is particularly clever and the whole thing is fresh, original and utterly compelling.

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified was a great discovery for me, which I should thank Sky Boxsets for. I caught up with the first five seasons in just a few weeks and then got to watch the final season as it broadcast. I loved the whole series, but was particularly impressed that rather than fade away, the final season was actually one of the best. It focussed back on the main trio of characters and played out the uncertainty of “good”, “bad” and “somewehre in between” to the very end. A masterclass in how to close out a series.

americansThe Americans has been slow to reach the UK so I’m only about half way through, but it continues to be absolutely fascinating. The focus is alwasys on the emotional impact of the secrets and lies all the characters have to tell, which is good for me because I often struggle to remember the details of the various conspiracies and am far more interested in watching the phenomenal Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell acting. I feel a bit of a cheat putting something on here that’s only half way through, but it seems unlikely it will take a nosedive now!

Honourable mention: Defiance got off to a surprisingly brutal but very interesting start. There’s so little science fiction on television outside the super-hero genre that it’s a huge relief that this one doesn’t suck.

Favourite Shows
greys anatomyGrey’s Anatomy – only 4 of the original cast are left by the end of season 11. Each time someone leaves I think the show will struggle without them, that their gap will be unfillable, but each time the characters and relationships mature and evolve, not to replace the missing person, but to grow around the gap and evolve the show into something new. I love how the characters have grown, how the relationships mature and how nothing in the past is forgotten, but all makes a part of the present. Yes, it’s a daft soap opera with unbelievable stuff happening, but if you accept that key premise, everything else makes perfect sense. It’s like a comfortable blanket at the end of the day.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoMarvel’s Agent Carter – while Agents of SHIELD did improve this year it’s still got a lot of problems and the pressure of being a headline show for both ABC and Marvel isn’t helping it. Agent Carter however didn’t have any of the pressure or any of the problems and quietly came along with a phenomenal central cahracter and hugely entertaining story.

Honourable mention: Jane the Virgin was a breath of fresh, if extremely cheesy, air.

Same old, same old (in a mostly good way)
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead – The relentless pace of The Walking Dead never stops (ironic, given the increasingly shambling nature of the zombies). In the space of twenty odd episodes an incredible amount happened and it’s only through the efficiency of the writing and the talent of the actors that all the characters manage to develop and every nuance is clear. I do wish that we could catch our breath a little, and that the characters could actually find some brief respite and happiness, but I guess that wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.

pennydreadfulPenny Dreadful continues to be an under-watched and under-appreciated gem. The period detail is stunning and the interweaving of various literary characters is fascinating. It’s definitely a show that benefits from watching in chunks though as it is quite easy to lose track of the many different threads.

Mostly honourable mention: Orphan Black has got off to a strong start to season 3 (I’m about 3 episodes in) but its storyline is becoming more convoluted and I hope it’s not going to get lost.

Same old, same old (in a middling way)
CriminalMindsCriminal Minds – I didn’t even bother to review Criminal Minds this year because I honestly have nothing to say and very little recollection of what happened. I mean, I guess it’s safe and familiar (as much as that’s weird to say about a graphically brutal series about serial killers) and it’s not that I want it to be cancelled or dramatically changed, but 10 seasons later it needs some energy.

csiCSI – the final season trundled along much as the last half dozen or so had gone. Unremarkable stories, increasingly losing touch with the actual science and credibility that the show was founded on. Mind you (spoiler alert) having just yesterday watched the final feature length episode, the last season comparatively the creative highpoint of the show.

Middlingly honourable mention: NCIS: Los Angeles continues to have fun with its characters but struggle when it comes to memorable and engaging plots.

Same old, same old (in a bad way)
scandalScandal – oh good lord. It just keeps getting stupider and stupider. The core relationships are all stunningly unhealthy and I endlessly wonder why any of them (friends, colleagues or lovers) stay together when they’re clearly all phenomenally bad for each other and in fact the rest of humanity. I think I might be done.

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones – I’ve finally given up. There’s way too many characters that I really don’t care about, too many drawn out plots that aren’t going anywhere and a complete absence of any real fantasy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Dishonourable mention: not even James Spader was enough to make me stick with The Blacklist as its convoluted mess of a story left me completely confused and utterly uninterested in who was trustworthy or not.

What happened there?! (in a very bad way)
goodwifeThe Good Wife – I hate seeing The Good Wife down in this section, but the more I think about it, the more frustrated I was by this season. I’d been really looking forward to seeing what would happen with Cary and Alicia’s firm, particularly with Diane joining them… and I was cheated out of it by a ‘too fast’ change of direction that saw Alicia running for State’s Attorney. The ongoing ridiculous arguments with the old firm was just pantomime and Cary’s legal problems were just contrived and frustrating. There’s still a lot of good about the show, but all the major storylines were miss-steps.


Justified: Season 6

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified for me is a star that burnt hot and fast. I picked up the series at the very start of the new year, finding the box set on Sky while on Christmas break and hurtling through it in about two weeks. Then I watched season 6 as it aired in the US (yes, I cheated) and in less than 4 months, the series is over. I found myself bereft, going from an obsession that had me thinking in a Kentucky accent to a dead stop. I felt like I was suffering some kind of whiplash.

What gets me through my grief though is the fact that the final season was so GOOD. The knowledge going in that it would be the last season enabled the writers to craft a final set of episodes that other writers should look to as an exemplar of how to finish a series with dignity.

Unlikely my watching of the rest of the seasons I actually watched this one week-by-week and am tempted to now go back for the marathon as I think it will work even better as one event. The season isn’t 13 episodes loosely held together with an arc, instead it is more like a 10ish hour film broken into bitesize chunks. That does mean that week by week episodes can be a little frustrating, slow and seemingly uneventful, but if you hold it all in your head you see how the layers are building.

When I reviewed all the previous seasons together I said that really it was the story of Raylan and Boyd, two people fundamentally the same who took different forks in the road at one point and when their paths eventually crossed again found themselves on different sides of the law. What the sixth season makes clear is that it’s not just about them, Ava is fulcrum to the characters and suddenly spending so much time with her on a seeming diversion to prison in season 5 comes back to deliver. It’s not Raylan or Boyd that drive season 5, it’s Ava. And that is a truly fascinating revelation.

The final season still doesn’t manage to address the under-use of the supporting actors completely. We once again spend more time with new ‘villains’ than we do with the background heroes of the US Marshalls office. Rachel, Art and Tim get a bit more to do, but it’s still in the background and a disappointing under-use of potential.

While season 5 was a low point for the series, season 6 is a definite high and the last episode is an absolute masterpiece in how to finish a series. I had a level of anxiety throughout the series about who would get out alive and whether the characters we’ve cared about would get the endings they deserve. Staying spoiler free… I was very satisfied. It was the right ending without playing too much to fans who want a happy ending or too much to any desire for a dramatic or unfinished conclusion.

I can’t recommend this series highly enough. The first five seasons are available on Sky Box Sets service at the moment and season 6 is coming very soon. I think it’s one of the best investments of 60 hours that you’ll make. I’m so glad I found it, and actually am quite glad I found it so late so that I could watch it at a pace and not have to wait. My grief at its ending is tempered by my satisfaction at its masterful conclusion and very very few series manage that achievement.

Justified: Seasons 1-5

Justified_2010_IntertitleBack in 2010 I reviewed the pilot of Justified and was rather on the fence. I thought it was pretty good, but it didn’t really inspire me to keep watching. I said I’d keep an eye on reviews and maybe pick it up later. Well, after many years of positive reviews I spotted the first five seasons available via Sky on demand and I finally got round to watching it. “Not really wanting to watch any more” quickly turned into “it’s 2 am, I really shouldn’t watch another episode”, and I burnt through 65 episodes in about 2 weeks, missing a considerable amount of sleep in the process.
What makes Justified so good? The dialogue. It’s like nothing that I can think of. It uses a style of speaking that is completely bizarre, that seems to have no place in a show set in present day and yet fits perfectly. I don’t even know how to describe it. At times it is incredibly verbose, poetic and meandering like Shakespeare, but at other times it is hilariously minimal. A character cutting through all that poetry with a perfectly timed “well, shit”. The monologues can at times get a little too much, but frequently just when you’re getting tired of it, an actual character will also get tired of it and break things up with either a crass interjection, a key observation, or if all else fails, a shotgun blast.
It takes a good cast to carry that off and really the series comes down to two actors – Timothy Olyphant as the ‘good guy’ and Walton Goggins as the ‘bad guy’. You continually have to remind yourself of those labels though because the characters really don’t want to stay pigeon holed. The heart of the show is that these two come from the same background, took different turns at some point and ended up on opposite sides of the law. But in reality, they’re not as far away from each other as they like to think. As the series goes on Goggin’s outlaw is increasingly motivated by love and protecting his family while Olyphant’s lawman seems to be more focussed on his idea of justice than any strict definition. You could write whole essays on the way the two characters are sometimes aligned and sometimes opposed, and how characters like Ava (Raylan’s girlfriend, Boyd’s sister-in-law) and Raylan’s father are pulled into that.

Sometimes it’s a good job the dialogue, style and lead characters’ relationships are so utterly compelling because other elements can occasionally lose their way. Once again this is a series that started out telling small stories and gradually became overwhelmed with season long arcs. When it works, that’s fantastic and you get to spend a season with the wonderfully scheming Margo Martindale heading up a family of varyingly dim-witted criminals. But when it doesn’t work you have season 5 spending half its time with Ava isolated from everyone she knows and a new group of criminals come in with some very confusing motivations. The regular actors who make up the rest of the US Marshall’s office must be the least seen actors in television! That’s a real shame, because they provide the contrasts that add depth – where Raylan is always winging it, Rachel is by-the-book; where Raylan shoots fast and often, Tim shoots precisely and once; and where Raylan rushes to act by himself, Art plans ahead and takes his team with him. When those characters are sidelined like they were in season 5, it’s effectively leaving Raylan the only ‘good guy’ and he’s not really a very good representative.

I’ve become pretty obsessed with this show in a very short period of time. The whole style of the show pulls you in until you start thinking in a Kentucky accent, talking in meandering monologues and swearing like an outlaw. I kind of wish I’d waited just a little longer to catch up with the show, because now I’m forced to wait for season 6. Entering the final season of a show like this is a little scary, because you know there’s no necessity for the characters to make it out in one piece. For a show that’s built around making you connect with these characters it’s a sad prospect to have to say goodbye to them.

Bits and Bobs

I think I’m going to start a new type of blog post (although I also reserve the right for this to be the only time I use this structure). Often I’ll find myself watching things during the week that aren’t quite worthy of a whole post by themselves, but that it seems a shame to ignore completely. This will also give me the opportunity to point things out on iplayer or various other catch-up services in time for you to watch them. I may even occasionally link to bits of news that interest me. Basically, it’s a random collection of bits and pieces!

The Driver
driverI’ve watched two out of the three episodes of BBC’s drama The Driver, starring David Morrisey. It’s a good story and David Morrisey is always a very watchable actor. It’s the sort of thing that’s perfectly suited to this sort of very short burst, I don’t think I could take the intensity or sense of doom that fills it for any longer. I’m not expecting a happy ending!
Available until 6th November on iplayer

The Detectorists
detectoristsAbout as far from the Driver as you can imagine is this nice little easy going half hour show on BBC4. It stars the wonderful pairing of Toby Jones (Marvellous, The Girl, Infamous, Harry Potter…) and Mackenzie Crook (Almost Human, Pirates of the Carribean) as some very ordinary metal detectors who may be on the verge of a huge find. It’s somewhere between comedy and drama and is just wonderfully easy to watch.
Episodes 1 and 2 are on iplayer and new episodes air on Thursdays.

The Code
An Australian drama sucked me straight in with its first episode blending together politics, journalism, hacking and a small town mystery about two missing teenagers. It reminded me a lot of State of Play with the interweaving of small and large plots linked together by a journalist. I’ve no idea how it’s all going to come together, but it’s a great set up.
Episodes 1 and 2 are on iplayer and new episodes air on BBC4 on Saturdays.

Downton Abbey
Downton_AbbeyThree episodes in and Downton seems a little more energetic this series. I can actually think of things that have happened, which is a lot more than I could say of previous years. Mary is irritating me less, she seems to have started moving with the times a bit more and her occasional flashes of feeling and connection to the people around her (I liked the bit with Tom last week) makes her more interesting. I hope they move Edith’s character on and give her something positive soon though.
Episodes are available on itv player

Great British Bake Off
8077683536_38efd98443_mI can’t really not mention what seems to be the television event of the year, particularly given that I’m a bit of a baker and am a big fan of the show. It’s clearly more popular than ever, with ratings of the final topping those of the World Cup Final but for me, I don’t think it was the best series. I found the recipes far less inspiring than usual, particularly the technical challenges, and I got increasingly frustrated with the artificial time pressures (you can’t ice a hot cake!). The contestants, hosts and judges however were all lovely as usual, and in the end I think the right person won. (Ps, that’s a picture of my own version of the GBBO title cake)
Most of the episodes are still on iplayer but they’re disappearing soonish.

Cat Watch 2014: The New Horizon Experiment
5347376050_4707fb35ac_zI’m slowly catching up on this three part update to last year’s amazing cat-stalking documentary and it’s every bit as interesting, original and cute as the previous show. It’s a good job my housemate is allergic to cats because frankly within just 10 minutes of gorgeous close ups and slow motion shots I was overwhelmed with a desire to fill the house with moggies. (That’s my dad’s cat in the photo).
All three episodes are available on iplayer until 9th October.

Coming up next week
I’m incredibly excited about the start of season 5 of The Walking Dead, 9pm Monday night on FX. There are three interesting looking new shows starting this week. On Monday at 9pm on Channel 5 is Gotham, following young detective James Gordon as he investigates the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. It’s one of the top picks for the year’s crop of new shows in the US and my expectations are pretty high. The Knick starts on Sky Atlantic on Thursday at 9pm, set in a New York hospital in 1900 which sounds like a fascinating idea and as it stars Clive Owen and is directed by Steven Soderbergh I’m quite optimistic for the delivery. I’m less optimistic about The Great Fire on ITV, 9pm Thursday. I’ve also spotted that Justified is available on Sky Box Sets on Demand, a series that I’ve wanted to catch up on for a while.

Pilot Review: Justified

The show centres around Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens, a character created by Elmore Leonard (who’s also an exec producer). He’s something of a throwback, like a Wild West sheriff all about justice, not necessarily the law, speaking softly and drawing fast. It’s enough to make you get poetic. Timothy Olyphant Deadwood, Hitmanis superb; award winning level superb. It’s very easy for ‘strong silent’ types to be dull and flat, but Olyphant (and the writers of course) manage to create a multi-faceted, multi-layered character in just 45 minutes.

The existing team of marshals Givens is joining in Kentucky seemed competent but with only a few lines of dialogue each, they didn’t really get to flesh out their roles. The strength came in characters who I thought were guest actors for the episode, but seem to be in it more long term. Walton Goggins (The Shield) as the primary ‘villain’ of the episode was great, really giving Olyphant someone to play off. And Joelle Carter chewed her way through a Southern accent to make an interesting character too. Both do an impressive job ploughing through some chunky monologues, but no amount of talent could quite hold off my cries of ‘get on with it’.

The story, I’m not so sure about. I think the plot and (I’m assuming) crime-of-the-week will only be there to support the characters and the setting. You could almost count the small Kentucky town as a character in its own right, another throwback– coal mines, white supremacists and religious fanaticism. I suspect this show might be about US Marshals in the same way that Friday Night Lights is about football, i.e. not so much that it really matters.

The comparisons with Deadwood are obvious, Olyphant’s character could easily be a descendent of the Sheriff he played in Deadwood and it looks to be setting up the same sort of themes of law of the badge vs. law of the land. It’s a lot more family friendly though, I’ve seen far more objectionable stuff on CSI. I was impressed with Olyphant’s character, but to be honest the rest left me somewhat cold. There are some interesting tense moments, not knowing how the characters are going to react, but these are interspersed with some really painfully dull speeches that just drone on. While I suspect it’s going to be critically popular, I didn’t really see anything in the pilot that really made me want to tune in next week, but I’m willing to admit I may be wrong on that, so will keep an eye on the reviews and maybe pick it up later in the season.

Links: imdb, wikipedia, TV.com

Reviews: TV Squad, The TV Addict