Friday, January 1, 2016

TV: Don't Miss These 10 Series!

I have put together who these two comics and writers are for Mr. Show, Seasons 1-4, completely backwards. It doesn't matter because I love whatever they do. First I saw David Cross play the psychiatrist on Arrested Development. He was my favorite character. I wondered what had happened to him but it turns out I just hadn't been looking in the right places. But in my defense, he is such a chameleon, there is no guarantee on recognizing him from one role to the next. Then I loved Bob Odenkirk on "Breaking Bad" as Saul Goodman and am now watching him on his own Saul show, Better Call Saul which spun off "Breaking Bad."

I was absolutely thunderstruck to discover Odenkirk had been writing "Saturday Night Live" before that, which I'd been watching and had not realized he even existed. Then I put together that he had a whole other comedy and writing career with David Cross. So, I watched "Mr. Show" AFTER all of these other shows.

These are the two most amazing, versatile, imaginative performers. Plus they both write too. I don't think I've ever underestimated two performers more. These two guys are solid gold. Watch everything they do including all of Mr. Show.

I enjoyed Season 5 of Homeland and the move to Berlin proved to be a good one. It was also very timely. At one time if I had been told that a series set in Berlin was going to spend a lot of time battling the Middle East, I wouldn't have believed it. But in today's world, this is straight out of the headlines. That Europe is pretty much of a mess with all of these Middle Eastern terror prone problems is very amply set out here. When they shot this season in Berlin, neither the Paris nor the San Bernadino terror events had even taken place. But they fit right into the Homeland world.

But we don't spend the whole show on the Middle East or it would be like reading a newspaper. All of our favorite characters are there in Berlin. Plus we have a few new ones. Two of the new women spies, one with the CIA and one for Germany, are especially good. 

Carrie is working for a private firm in security in Berlin and not the CIA. Although you'd barely know it because they come in and out of her life all of the time. This includes Quinn.

There are a number of villains this time but one villain is especially clever and everyone was watching this one very eagerly each week. You will enjoy this villain too but I can't say who it is as it is not immediately apparent. I cannot say anymore without entering spoiler territory. My advice is to watch it.

I was planning on giving up on Leftovers but decided I'd give Season Two a try. I had loved the novel and the first season was a weird sort of hybrid from the novel. I didn't dislike it but I didn't love it. However, it kept me watching. I figured they'd do more of the same for season 2. I was wrong. Now that they had done the novel in season 1, they were free to do whatever they wanted in season two. I shortly could see that the novel had been handicapping them. Without the novel, they were forced to write something original for the screen and I must say that they outdid themselves.

The vast majority of characters are back for season two so there are the same actors plus some new ones. What they do in season 2 is move to a town where supposedly no one was ever taken. Everybody in the town was still there while there were disappearances everywhere else. This has made the place the most desirable place on the planet to live. So most of our characters, sooner or later, move there. On the very first episode, Justin Theroux arrives in this other town.

Justin comes into his own in season two. He does a heck of an acting job here. There is one sequence where he is in a strange, hallucinatory type state and he does an exceptional job acting in that episode. He carries that episode almost entirely on his own.

It is rare to see series tv radically improve but in this case the show shot straight up to A+.

I loved seasons one and two of Masters of Sex but Season Three had me wondering what the writers were doing. They had something that was virtually perfect and with great actors but for this third season they decided to tinker with what was working by adding in characters who never existed in real life and make them major parts of the story. I don't expect this to be an accurate minute by minute biography. I am willing to go with artistic license but why they felt the need to go this far away from the truth, I have no idea. So why am I giving this 4 stars?

The show still has a lot going for it. First, Michael Sheen is an incredible actor and as Bill Masters he continues to give the performance of a virtuoso. He has taken a man who verges on being detestable and made us fascinated by every nuance of his character. The minute Michael Sheen comes on camera as Bill, all my complaints just wither and die.

Second, both Lizzie Kaplan as Virginia and Caitlyn Fitzgerald as Libby are not far behind him. They are both excellent, as usual. This time I have to give a slight edge to the Libby character. I have no idea what Bill Masters' first wife was like but this interpretation of her gets more fascinating with each new season. She was very compelling this season. The interactions among these three characters are always splendid.

I have to admit that I was a doubter about Season Two of Fargo. I thought that both Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton from season one could never be equalled. I was wrong. I absolutely loved it. That deadpan humor and the eccentricities of those in Minnesota and N. Dakota are just priceless. And of course it is all mixed in with crime.

The number one goofy couple is the butcher and his wife. She sets the tone for them when she runs over a mob man. The hilarious part is that he was plastered across her windshield after she hit him and she drove home with him that way. He had just finished killing a diner full of people. This is based on a woman who really did this with her car after a hit and run. Scenes in Fargo are lifted here and there from real life and also from the Coens' earlier movies.

This scene in the first episode puts everything else into motion in this tv series. For one, we meet the hit and run victim's crime family and what a family they are. A North Dakota crime family is like no other, to put it mildly. They are in the middle of a turf war with a mob family from Kansas City, of all places. Yes, Kansas City wants to take over Fargo North Dakota crime in 1979. This certainly has its moments of hilarity as well. 

The Fourth Season of Scott & Bailey shows the most startling changes in all of the characters. First and foremost, our two female detectives are not getting along. They both want the same job. They both are sick of one another's private lives and problems. There is no actual cat fight out in the street but it is a close thing. 

Next, their superior officer, a woman who has always been tough as nails and totally competent, has progressively become an alcoholic. It is seriously throwing off her ability to do the job. The two detectives have always admired her greatly so are they going to have to be the ones to turn her in to the higher ups? 

Romance blooms off and on for these two as well but one gets the feeling that long range it will always be more off than on. This is totally realistic for being in the police force as is their superior's alcoholism. This show is immensely gutsy for not ducking these issues just because our leads are all women. As usual, they are excellent at solving their cases since that is the one area of their lives where they do excel without fail. I have always enjoyed Lesley Sharpe in everything she's done for the BBC (the blonde on the box).

Hand of God Season One is one of the most ambitious and original shows I've seen in recent years. It deals with issues which are not usually seen in series tv. There is the judge himself, played by Ron Perlman. He's a law and order type but when his son went into an irreversible coma, all sorts of different things began happening to him. He began having visions, speaking in tongues, having liquid trails to follow to lead him to the guilty, and a defendant who became his right hand man. In the hands of a lesser acting talent, this could have been a complete disaster.

But Perlman is great in this role. He also walks a line between someone whom you might despise ordinarily yet at other times he elicits empathy. Dana Delaney plays his wife and does her usual solid job. The "pastor" is someone who has turned to this line of work after being an actor in a soap opera who was written out of it. I thought that was a hilarious touch to the series.
Netflix's Bloodline Season 1 really grew on me. When I finished the first episode I thought it was a bit soap opera like and overly melodramatic. But I kept watching and it grabbed ahold of me after a few more episodes. Then I could not stop watching it. 

There are two characters who really made this for me. One is the actor playing the prodigal son. He did the best job of all. It was a very complex role which required the viewers to be torn over how they felt by him episode after episode. I went over to IMDB to read about this actor and discovered that on the international scene he is considered quite the power house actor. The second character is his sheriff brother. I have never seen this actor in anything before so I don't know how much of this was acting. But he was perfect as popular high school guy jock turned sheriff who is intent on "doing his duty" even though he tends to wear blinkers. He can be a bit of a block of wood but he's perfect at being that block of wood.

The rest of the cast flows around the tension between these two brothers. I binge watched it until done. There is a heck of a twist to this series and I just loved it.

Downton Abbey was created for series tv by one person and seen through to the end by that same person. This was Julian Fellowes. The advantage to this is that there is a rare continuity seen in this series which is absent in many others. So Season Six is good to the viewer in that it is all of a piece. 

Although Lady Mary is the young person seen by many as the lead, others, including me, were even more taken by some of the characters swirling around her. First and foremost: the dowager countess and Mrs. Crawley as the two matrons with drawn swords in eternal conflict are a delight here, as usual. The most touching thing is that when the chips are down, these two will just as fiercely support one another as they have warred over their latest battle. This continues a great British literary tradition of superb supporting characters, which Jane Austen did so well with her Lady Catherine, Reverend Collins, and Mrs. Bennett (as just three standouts).

Hugh Bonneville as the matriarch's son, the earl, continues in his stalwart role. He continues to come to terms with the twentieth century. He is surrounded by such strong women though, that there is no doubt that he will be carried through all the changes by their formidable wills in action. They in turn need him as a buffer for the clashing of those wills.

There is the deft portrayal of the servant class and its rapidly changing role in British life between the two world wars. This last season especially focuses upon their demand for more education and thus more choice. At this level, the best humor also occurs. Carson's scenes as a married man, especially in his expectation that his new home be run like his castle, are priceless. You will actually see Carson cook!

What many people watch the series for, however, is the continuation of Lady Mary's and Lady Edith's love lives. Never fear. That too is handled once and for all. 
There are some fantastic plusses to this series. 

Number 1 is Colin Farrell. He is an outstanding actor and manages to improve just about every video work extant. The character he plays is not very sympathetic which makes it all the harder to play. He has so many "loser" qualities stamped on him yet I did come to care for him and wanted to see his story play out. 

Number 2. T. Bone Burnett is a fabulous musician and his music over those credits and throughout the show were works of art. Even if you hated every other aspect of this show, musical genius shone through. The opening credit sequence is worth having as its own work of art that can proudly stand with any other video performance piece.

Number 3. This had tremendous visual style. This is hard to find in tv work and prior to this has only been seen in movies. Now, unfortunately, there are the negatives.

Number 1. This plot was needlessly convoluted. I couldn't help comparing it to "Chinatown" which also had a complex plot set in southern California based on water rights. "Chinatown" was written by first rate writer Robert Towne though who is known for complex yet coherent scripts. If you are going to write something this complex, you need such a writer.

Number 2. Vince Vaughn was supposed to be the Woody Harrelson equivalent to Farrell's Matthew M from the first season. He was not able to generate that kind of magic. Farrell was generating it. The spark was there but Vaughn did not know how to ignite his character and bring him fully to life.

I can't give it the ringing endorsement I gave season one but if you can get past the flaws I've mentioned, there is a lot worth seeing (and listening to musically).

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