Sunday, March 23, 2014

Best New TV Shows

After the success of 2013’s TV shows spotlight, it felt appropriate to do another spotlight in 2014 to catch up with more TV shows/series. The following six shows are part of this spotlight:

Justified, Season 4 (2013) 
House of Cards, Season 2 (2014) 
Orange is the New Black, Season 1 (2013) 
The Newsroom, Season 1 (2012) 
Six Feet Under, Season 1 (2001) 
True Detective, Season 1 (2014) 

With the exception of Six Feet Under, the remaining shows have been released within the last two years. The newest show is True Detective which concluded its 8 episode run on March 9, 2014 while all episodes of House of Cards Season 2 were released on Feb 14.

Justified Season 4 

Justified finished slightly behind Breaking Bad in last year’s TV show spotlight as the first 3 seasons proved to be quite remarkable. Since the ending of Season 3 offered a natural conclusion to the series, I didn’t see a relevance for Season 4. Therefore, it was not a surprise when the first few episodes of Season 4 turned out to be a let down. The structure of Season 4 certainly played a part in the disappointing start. In contrast to previous seasons, S4 consists of a single narrative arc and each episode gets one step closer to putting together all the pieces of a puzzle. The story revolves around an apparent accident that took place a few decades ago and incorporates present day events in unfolding an unsolved mystery around that incident. As the show focuses on elements of this older case, the first few S4 episodes don’t incorporate the dynamic office dialogues that lit up the first 3 seasons nor are key characters from previous seasons given much screen time.

Thankfully, half-way through Season 4, things finally start to pick up. Not surprisingly, the show gets intriguing when Raylan’s colleagues get involved and when Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) enters the frame and brings the mafia with him. The presence of the mafia sets off a series of events which embodies similar momentum that the last few episodes of Breaking Bad’s S5 had when the show appeared to be heading towards an explosive conclusion. In the case of Justified, those anticipated mouth-watering sequences do arrive and even Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson, impressive as always) makes a vital appearance.

In the first 3 seasons, there were only 1-2 episodes that didn’t belong in the overall structure of Justified. However, Season 4 contains many throw away episodes which don’t add much to the overall story. Still, the show manages to end on a high note and partially redeems itself. Season 5 is currently underway and it will be a few months before I catch-up with that.

House of Cards Season 2
Season 1 of House of Cards was a slow burning chess match where Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) played his machiavellian moves in order to become vide-president, thereby putting him "one heartbeat away from the presidency". In S1, Underwood was always in control and ensured those around him acted according to his wishes. However, all that changes in S2 when everyone is aware of Underwood’s tactics. People can see right through him and start countering his tactics. On top of that, a powerful villain emerges in S2 who attacks Underwood from every single direction, including taking down Francis’ favourite rib joint. This villain Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) had a small vital role in S1, but is the centre of all the action in S2.

The pace is relentless in S2 and episodes move at a breakneck speed with year/month long events unfolding in days. This quick unraveling of events is mostly because S2 condenses 2-3 seasons worth of material in just 13 episodes. As a result, there are many script jumps which require a huge suspension of belief. For example, Tusk is depicted as a man who bring down the entire nation whenever he desires. In order to demonstrate his power, Tusk shuts off power in an entire city with one phone call and takes America on the brink of international conflict with China. He also flows millions of dollars to either political party as he desires. Besides possessing incredible powers and an endless pot of money, Tusk is also omnipresent. Anytime someone calls his henchmen, no matter which part of the nation they are in, Tusk is present in the room. He also appears to know what exactly every character is thinking. Another example of a script convenience is a key live interview for Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) that goes on for hours, with extended breaks which allow swift resolution/action on topics that would normally takes days. There is a lot of material to cover so the script just cuts out the logical progression that would take place between two events.

On the positive side, Kevin Spacey owns the show like he did in S1. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Francis Underwood. The characters of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) are once again essential but even their characters are shown vulnerable in S2. The biggest addition to the show is Molly Parker whose character of Jackie Sharp demonstrates a blend of intelligence and grace. Jackie looks composed but can be ruthless if she desires. There are some motives about her character that are not revealed leading one to believe that she may be a key player in Season 3.

Many aspects of Season 2 of House of Cards are much more compelling than S1 but some of the events in S2 are a bit too ridiculous to digest.

Orange is the New Black 

Orange is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time served in prison for carrying a suitcase full of drug money. The opening minutes of Episode 1 catch one off guard in terms of expectations about a show set in a prison. Most prison TV shows or films show characters who are arrested, persecuted and transported handcuffed to prison. But in Orange is the New Black, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is dropped off to prison by her fiancee and proceeds to voluntarily check herself in. Of course, once she checks in, the harsh reality of prison life descends and erases any comforts that Piper once knew. Dealing with prison is complicated enough but her life is made even troublesome when she finds out her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) is in prison as well. It was because of transporting Alex’s suitcase that Piper is serving her jail term. Therefore, there are plenty of emotional and unresolved issues that Piper must navigate, in addition to understanding the power dynamics and hierarchy of prison life.

Orange is the New Black is one of the best balanced shows made in recent years where each character is given an equal voice and adequate screen time. Plus, the writing is very strong and balances the brutality of prison life with enough moments of humor and compassion that allows one to care for each character. Piper is the focus of the series but the show does an excellent job of giving other characters ample screen time. The flashbacks, which are used to fill in the backstory of the characters, help make this show so rich and layered. In the flashbacks, a different and much nicer side is shown for each character which contrasts with their rougher persona in prison. Such a contrast illustrates how prison life transformed their core personalities. The reason for each character’s presence in prison is not revealed right away but gradual episodes fill in a portion of their past. This allows viewers to guess possible crimes but sometimes, the truth is more shocking than one’s imagination.

Season 2 will be released in the summer of 2014.

The Newsroom (HBO show, not the Canadian one)

HBO’s The Newsroom takes a fabulous premise of filtering real life events via fictional characters. This means, certain key events from 2010-2011 are used to propel the dramatic tension in the show. We get to see the frantic chaos that could have unfolded when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill story first broke out. In a similar manner, the Egyptian Revolution and the capture of Osama Bin Laden are also given vital parts in the show. Also, The Newsroom deals with the ever present topic about how TV ratings impact coverage of relevant news and journalistic integrity. Of course, since this is an Aaron Sorkin show, it means characters talk without breathing and their words turn into actions even before the other person has processed the idea. Such back and forth snappy dialogues make for an addictive entertaining show but this method also distances the show from any semblance to reality even though the show’s goal is to depict real events.

Like House of Cards S2, the first season of The Newsroom packs too much in its 10 episodes. If some of the stories had been cut out, then the show could have taken the time to properly depict events. The show also tries to include a few romantic elements which really don’t any depth to the characters but instead weaken the show. There is much to admire in The Newsroom but sometimes the overblown ability of the characters to solve problems is hard to fathom.

True Detective
On the surface, True Detective looks to be heading down a path that has been covered by many films before: two cops with radically different personalities become partners to hunt down a serial killer. But after a few episodes, it becomes apparent True Detective is something entirely different. Even though the cops appear to be at polar opposites, the show takes time to outline their personalities. In addition, the show gives ample time to the swamp and other Louisiana surroundings making the locales a central character, something which takes away the focus from the two cops, Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson). As the season progresses, Rust and Marty appear to be minor characters compared to nature and become even smaller when the swamp area is viewed from above. Hints are given as to the larger scope of the show and this is clear near the end with talks of the universe and even a glimpse of a wormhole.

The entire show was shot on 35mm and that decision plays a vital part in the rich visual language of True Detective. It is quite rare to talk of TV shows from a visual perspective but True Detective extends beyond the narrow frames one finds in other TV shows. A perfect example of how the show shatters a normal TV show frame is depicted in Episode 4 with the now famous 6 minute tracking shot. Besides the tracking shot, episode 4 elevates the show to a higher level. This starts when Rust dives back into the underbelly of a criminal world, thereby plunging the show into dark territory. Interestingly, even though the show deals with dark material, for most of the episodes, it is daytime that appears to be terrifying. This point is hammered home in the nail biting finale where horror exists in the day while nighttime offers comfort.

Season 2 of True Detective will have a new director, new lead actors and likely a completely different setting. That is good news because whoever comes in to direct S2 can work from a blank canvas and not be tied down to events in Season 1. This gives the show much more flexibility than other TV Series.

Top Shows ranking 

Arranging the six shows in order of preference:

1. True Detective, S1 
2. Orange is the New Black, S1 
3. House of Cards, S2 
4. Justified, S4 
5. The Newsroom, S1 
6. Six Feet Under, S1 

As chance would have it, a show titled Six Feet Under lands up on the 6th spot. Six Feet Under S1 has plenty of witty dark humor and that is impressive given the grim setting of a funeral home. But the show premiered back in 2001 and feels more dated than the other shows.

In terms of story, Orange is the New Black is the best overall show but the visual language of True Detective is enough to edge it to the #1 spot. Plus, there are some irresistible moments of cinematic magic in True Detective.

Overall, best TV seasons 

As an experiment, I wanted to do a rough comparison of 29 complete seasons of the following 13 shows that I saw.

24, S1 and S8 
Boardwalk Empire, S1 
Breaking Bad, S1-5  
Game of Thrones, S1-2 
Homeland, S1
House of Cards (USA), S1-2 
Justified, S1-4 
Mad Men, S1-6 
The Newsroom, S1 
Orange is the New Black, S1 
Six Feet Under, S1 
True Detective, S1 
The Walking Dead, S1-S2 

Taking each season on its own and comparing the overall Excellence Per Minute (+EPM) & Soap Opera Moment (-SOM), the following is a rough preference order:

1. Breaking Bad, S4 
2. Mad Men, S4 
3. Breaking Bad, S3 
4. Mad Men, S1 
5. Breaking Bad, S5 
6. Justified, S1 
7. Justified, S3 
8. House of Cards, S1 
9. True Detective, S1 
10. Orange is the New Black, S1 

It is not a surprise that Breaking Bad (3 mentions), Mad Men (2) and Justified (2) occupy the top 7 spots in this list. House of Cards, True Detective and Orange is the New Black are excellent new additions to this list.

Next shows to be watched

The first half of Mad Men’s final season starts on April 13. Also, in the next month, I will be viewing the first two seasons of The Americans.