These days I don’t watch as much TV as I used to.
That’s not because of some great philosphical turning against television, with which I continue to have a passionate and longstanding romance – one that endured despite a rock start at age 4 when I encountered TV for the first time fresh home from Bangaladesh where there was no TV to speak of – but rather due to rebalancing my pop culture consuming priorities to return books to the mix in a far bigger way than they had been recently, and to see more movies than last year (with so many great ones on offer, how could I refuse?).
Honestly in a world where the number of scripted TV shows is increasing by the nanosecond – Variety noted in early August that 342 shows had aired – and the storytelling possibilities on offer are endlessly exciting, I would happily watch TV for hours and hours on end. But alas, I have to eat, breathe and do other things and so my list of shows that I am partway through or have ignored completely is increasing at far too great a pace.
Sorry Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, Glitch, 12 Monkeys, Mr Robot, Brooklyn 99 and countless others, I want to get to you but I simply can’t. At least not right now.
One thing I’ve had to learn to do this year is accepted this growing list of unfinished viewing with good grace and minimal stress and enjoy what I can get to and not regret what I cannot.
Sounds so Zen right? Well maybe but who’s got time to check? There are shows to watch baby!
Like these fine examples that kept me engrossed throughout the year …
Legion is one of those shows I was initially quite dubious about. It is based on a Marvel property and while I have enjoyed many of their movie outings, despite little familiarity with most of their superheroes, their TV shows had largely left me cold or uninvolved. Legion, which is bizarrely, freakishly, fantastically, brilliantly imaginative and so, SO clever, was so much more than I expected. It managed to be loopy af while still being deeply emotionally resonant and wholly affecting; hell even in the middle of weird dream sequences and trippy scenes which give Alice in Wonderland a run for its money, the innate humanity of the characters shone through, which speaks to the superb writing and acting involved. If you want accessible yet like nothing you’ve seen before, Legion should be your new favourite show ever.
I am not a fan of sports generally, let one the over-staged world of wrestling. But there was something about Glow‘s trailer than intrigued me – it was set in the ’80s which is always fun (I grew up through the decade but it ‘s always fun to see it in a retro setting), the characters looked diverse and funny. and there looked to be a lot at stake for each and every one of them. Sure it got a little cheesy melodramatic at times, but it was mostly grounded, meaningful storytelling with a huge emotional payoff that made sense of everything that had gone before. One of the year’s BIG highlights.
How can you not love the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? It’s off the wall daffy, courageously over-the-top, very, very funny, and consistently so, and packed full of memorable characters who are way more than the butt of the show’s jokes. In fact, it’s the sitcom’s attention to balancing goofy silliness with real, authentic humanity that means this is far more than a throwaway load of fun. Sure it’s freaking off-the-wall hilarious with a healthy sense of the absurd, but it’s also meaningful and sweet, all of which means you just want these wonderful people to be as happy as possible … but not completely so. I still want me a good laugh every few lines or so please!
Here’s my full review of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
I fell in love with Grace and Frankie pretty much from the first episode. The two titular characters, played beautifully by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who are broadsided when their husbands, close friends and law firm owners Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) declare they are in love and getting married, perfectly complement each other, offering a thoroughly enjoyable mix of laugh out loud humour and real, affecting emotion. Throughout the three seasons, you’ve got know them and their families well, watched as they navigated their new realities and blossomed, as life reset itself and moved in ways neither character imagined.
I have faithfully watched Grimm every season for the last 6 years. A brilliantly-realised mix of old world fairytales and modern policing with a rich thread of characterisation running through it, Grimm was consistently well-written, cleverly imaginative and gave a great deal of time and effort to weaving together mythology, our modern, largely supernaturally-unaware world and a real sense of humanity that meant this was way more than a mystery-of-the-week gig. I loved each and every one of the characters and will miss have them in all new adventures; thank goodness for reruns right?
Fear the Walking Dead is clear case of the televisual child eclipsing the parent. A spin-off from AMC’s ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead (it’s fading considerably in its latest season), it has, from the start, taken a far slower, more thoughtful and finely-wrought approach to its storytelling. Starting right at the beginning of the epidemic and transporting us clear across to L.A. from The Walking Dead‘s Southern surrounds, Fear the Walking Dead in a master lesson in rich characterisation, slow-burn storytelling and drip-fed tension that understands at its heart the humanity at the heart at the zombie apocalypse and how real people would actually respond to the unthinkable end of the world. Sure there’s violence but there’s thoughtfulness and insight into the human condition, making this one of the more intelligent, involving shows on TV.
I adore Issa! Both the actor/creator/writer of Insecure, and the lead character who has the best of intentions but like all of cringing flawed execution so much of the time. It was Issa’s innate humanness than won me over, that and she was a damn likeable person with some complicated but likeable friends. Set in the world of contemporary African-American Los Angelenos, it also contained some biting social commentary, all too aware that as a black person in a society still inimical to their equality in so many ways, there’s a whole range of life complications that white people simply don’t face. Clever, funny and incisive, this is one show that demands more chances to tell its story, which will happen in its upcoming, and eagerly-awaited third season.
Here’s my full review of Insecure.
Oh but I hate it when shows, especially ones on the up-and-up, are axed well before their time. It happened rather dramatically with Firefly, and again with Stargate: Universe and now with Dark Matter. I’ll admit, the show wasn’t all that and a bucket of ratings bonanza chips in its first season, but there was enough there to persist with, and all that hanging in paid off when seasons two and three showed tremendous improvement, not to mention way better special effects. It was really hitting its stride, part episodic TV, part grand arc narrative and it worked with characters that compelled you to turn in every week. I greatly laments its premature passing.
Here’s my full review of Dark Matter.
Oh but Orphan Black was a clever, CLEVER show! Ending with its fifth season just a few months ago, it’s brilliance was in a captivatingly good premise mostly perfectly-realised and the astoundingly great performances of Tatiana Masleny as a host of clone sisters who sit at the heart of a devilishly complex, of the moment conspiracy. Balancing knife-edge action, engrossing narratives and an immense amount of heart – that final all clones dancing at the end of season 2 was breathtakingly clever and some emotional in its own way – Orphan Black was an absolute triumph no matter how you slice it.
My housemate was begging me to watch this show for the longest time, and after bingeing the two seasons on Netflix, with sadly no immediate offer of a third, I can see why. Chewing Gum explored what it is like for a young woman on a council estate in Britain, from a family of strict religious conservatives, to explore her sexuality, for femininity and find possible true love (or not). It was enormously clever and insightful but crazy fun, a little surreal and over the top but always possessed a huge amount of hilarious heart. To be honest, it did end perfectly at the end of season 2 but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t embrace a third season with instantly open arms.
The Good Place is such a revelation, a throwback to a time when sitcoms actually went to the trouble of giving us well-wrought characters and a witty, clever premise and let the jokes flow from those two influences rather than hackneyed, over-engineered attempts at lame set up-and-execute punchlines that evaporate as soon as they’re uttered. The cleverness of this show is that it manages to be thoughtful and philosophical while being very, very fun, a balancing act that they pull off with aplomb each and every episode.
There’s no such thing as normal. Social conservatives may well argue the point with me but anyone who’s bothered to consider humanity’s vast fabulous diversity will acknowledge that normal is a concept with no sustainable validity in the real world. Atypical, the story of a person with autism, 18 year old high school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist), teaches this lesson with nuance, charm and humour. While it never diminishes the distinctiveness of Sam’s condition, it certainly makes it clear that Sam is no less or more human than the rest of us. He is inquisitive, sweet and passionate, and gravely serious much of the time, his family are a flawed delight with the show consistently balancing drama and humour to insightful effect.
I am a Star Trek fan from way back. Not The Original Series far back but Next Generation vintage, and I have long held its mix of utopian ideals and gritty realpolitik which found its zenith, in my humble opinion, with Deep Space Nine. A close second now is Discovery which far exceeded my expectations, delivering up classic Trek combined with some startling good, gripping story arcs. Set 10 years before Kirk et al, it is visually lush, character rich with narratives that are deeply immersive and emotionally resonant. Did I have time in my schedule for another TV show? Not really but is it worth making time for a show this good? Absolutely.
Lordy but season of The Flash was an arduous ordeal. Dark, depressing, with a thousand horrible happening seemingly every episode, I got to the end of it and wondered if I really wanted to persist with the series. But then I realised what I loved most about the show, one of two Greg Berlanti-produced DC comics shows I regularly watch (the other being Legends of Tomorrow) is the characters and the tight bonds between them. They were sorely tested in season 3 but they endured, and season 4 has rewarded my viewing tenacity and devotion by mixing a lot of much needed lightness and humour back into the superhero battle between good and evil.
Schitts Creek is so wonderfully funny. I mean, FUNNY. Taking a well-worn idea, the fish out of water concept, in this case a rich-turned-poor family forced to live an idiosyncratically odd town, their only remaining asset, and breathes new quirky hilarity into it. The characters are invested with both oddity and humanity, the jokes, damn good ones, flow thick and fast and there’s as much emotional resonance as there is comedic absurdity. Schitt’s Creek is a gem and I am loving it more than I can possibly adequately express.
Here’s my full review of Schitt’s Creek.
I will be the first to admit that Superstore is no Frasier or The Good Place; it’s an average run-of-the-mill sitcom and you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Largely because Superstore does what many of the average sitcoms fail to do which is use their characters well and ensure they are more than the sum of joke-setting-up parts. It has also has a tremendous amount of heart which means that even when things go seriously wacky, and they do, narratively and visually, you still feel emotionally engaged with this sweet, clever, and handily for a sitcom, funny show.
I am not a king of nostalgia. I love revisiting the pop culture touchstones of my youth but I am not consumed by them, and given a choice I will pick the latest and greatest every time. Stranger Things is that curious creature, and I am not talking about the Demogorgon, that is bright and boldly original and yet happily wears an entire back library of brilliant influences very proudly. Throw in a rip-roaring narrative, characters you emotionally cement to, and some awesome visuals and music and you have one of the most engrossing, justifiably-lauded, binge-immersive shows of the year.
You can’t beat a well-made fantasy film or TV series (think Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, not The Shannara Chronicles). Game of Thrones is currently the unbeatable king and queen of the heap, a thrillingly convoluted, intense tale of the struggle for power and influence in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and beyond. It is also, and here’s The Walking Dead angle, a titanic battle between the living and the dead, which if you think about it is pretty much the ultimate battle of all. This last season was derided by someone as not substantial enough, that it failed to add anything new to the story; what these allegations miss is that we’re officially in the final two-season wind down and adding too much in now would imperil a satisfying ending to things. As far as I’m concerned it’s as good as ever, a brilliant journey to fantastical realms that is still very raw and human.
I have to confess when I first heard about Z Nation, my enthusiasm for a zombie apocalypse parody show was minimal. True, it’s ripe territory for such an effort, but given it was coming from The Asylum (they of Sharknado fame), I wasn’t particularly hopeful. But you know what? It was not only good from the get-go, it’s gotten even better since, full of surreal, off-the-charts crazy shifts, insightful commentary on the human condition and some real, actual honest-to-goodness emotional resonance. I know right? So good is it in fact that it’s become required Sunday night viewing for my boyfriend, my housemate and I, a rare moment of levity and goofiness before the week, thankfully sans the zombie apocalypse, kicks off in earnest.
Here’s my review of Z Nation‘s pilot episode.