A Year in TV
In recent years TV and cinema have effectively exchanged roles. When I was a child, cinema was the home of narrative driven drama, the exploration of complex social issues and at times even art. It attracted the best writer and as a result the best actors; whereas TV was the home of Airwolf. Thirty years on the opposite is now true. Cinema is often choked with bloated, bombastic franchises, largely devoid of any depth or substance. Television produces numerous multi-layered adult dramas that provide both writers and actors with far broader concepts to explore. Of course there are exceptions on both sides but broadly the analogy rings true.
Once again the past twelve months has provided far more quality television than I could possibly keep up with. Therefore I have confined myself to watching a handful of shows that I can apply myself to. Fortunately some content producers are now favouring shorter seasons, so I have managed to binge view some additional series after their initial run along with someone off dramas and miniseries. Here is a selection of some of the material that I have found entertaining and engaging in 2015.
In spring I had a gap in my viewing schedule and decided to try season one of The Blacklist. I must admit the pilot episode with its strong opening gambit really grabbed my attention. Needless to say I voraciously consumed the first two seasons. So why is this show so good? Well frankly that question needs a blog post in itself but here are a few bullet points:
The Blacklist maintains a good balance between traditional procedural stories and the ongoing mystery of Raymond "Red" Reddington.
The case and the criminals that feature are consistently inventive and provide a great vehicle for guest star appearances.
The long term back story unfolds at a measured pace and doesn’t overwhelm the episodic format.
James Spader is utterly compelling and just excels at these sorts of roles.
Thunderbirds Are Go
Rebooting a show such as Thunderbirds is a tall order. For it to work you need to be inventive and find a way for the format to appeal to both old and new audiences. It’s a balancing act between keeping the heart of the old show and establishing a new identity. However ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures have manged to do this and do it well. The production is a superb blend of CGI and miniatures, providing the show with as strong visual aesthetic. Yet despite providing a very contemporary technological environment Thunderbirds Are Go still has numerous homages to the original series.
Ultimately Thunderbirds Are Go strength lies in its scripts and characterisations. Despite running half the length of the original shows the Tracey brothers have established their identities over the first season and are extremely likeable. The stories often have a subtle moral subtext that extols the virtues of team work and collaboration. Furthermore the score by Ben and Nick Foster is suitably heroic. Keeping David Graham as the voice of Parker was also an incredibly good call. I’m very pleased that this show has found an audience and that the kids like it. Roll on season two!
The BBC has always been at the cutting edge of documentary film making. They continue to employ the best wildlife photographers in this field and showcase their work to great effect. Obviously the dulcet tones of Sir David Attenborough are an invaluable asset to these productions. His narrations are informative, enthralling and humane. This latter attribute is especially important as The Hunt focuses on the continual struggle between predator and prey in the natural world. It can be quite grim at times but such is the nature of subject. Over the course of its seven episodes viewers are shown Crocodiles ambushing the migrating Wildebeests, Cheetahs stalking Gazelle and Polar Bears climbing a steep cliff face to feed on the eggs and chicks of nesting birds.
The Hunt is a prime example of intelligent and engaging wildlife documentary film making. Too many natural history programs these days seem to be nothing more than “isn’t nature amazing” or “aren’t we clever, we built a Penguincam”. Considering the scope of The Hunt, the show manages to find the right tone. We are shown the predators stalking their prey but the kills are not excessively dwelt upon. That is not to say that the film makers shy away from the very nature of the subject. Instead they show a measured approach, ensuring that the show remains accessible to a broad audience. The behind the scenes footage shown at the end of each episode are also very insightful and informative.
Ash vs Evil Dead
I was sceptical about Ash vs Evil Dead when I first heard about the show. Not because of its pedigree which is outstanding; my concerns where with the thirty minute format, which traditionally is the province of sitcoms. However after having watched most of season one I can say that my fears were unfounded. Ash vs Evil Dead uses this relatively short running time to its benefit. Each week the story is advanced, there is a wealth of amusing banter between the cast and a blood soaked set piece. The creative freedom that cable networks afford is invaluable to this production. This show is profane, violent and has lashings of gallows humour. Sam Raimi’s original tone is still maintained and runs through each episode. Oh and Bruce Campbell is a joy to watch.
The Man in the High Castle
I first found out about this show via a billboard outside a supermarket I regularly use. At first I thought it was an advertisement for a movie, and then I noticed that it was an Amazon Prime production. A little research piqued my curiosity so I took advantage of a free trial for the video on demand service and binged viewed the entire first season. I must admit that although I enjoyed this curious story set in an alternative reality where Germany won World War II, I was somewhat wrong footed by its philosophical and metaphysical subtext and plotlines. However that in many ways is part of the shows charm as it doesn’t just pursue a traditional linear “alternative history” storyline.
As ever with dramas, the most interesting characters are the villains and those who seem to be at the mercy of fate. Both Rufus Sewell as SS Obergruppenführer Smith and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, give robust performances and at times are more interesting than the main protagonists. The production design is also a continuous source of interest with common place items, iconic buildings and everyday technology given a veneer of Nazi aesthetic or Japanese ambience. It should be noted that as this is not a network show so the content is pitched at a more mature audience. The cliffhanger ending of episode ten was very intriguing. I have high expectations for season two.