Monday, February 22, 2016

The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching

I was put on six months medical leave back in September, and decided to join Twitter: my husband figured it would be a good way for me to stay "connected" while I was housebound. I found a lot of folks who shared my passion for television, but I also started to feel that -- with so many choices these days in terms of "what to watch" -- my new online friends were overlooking some of the very best series. I've spent the last few months talking them up on Twitter, but I thought, why not gather them and praise them here, where I wouldn't be limited to 140 characters? Herewith: five series that add immeasurably to my viewing pleasure, but that haven't yet reached the audiences I feel they deserve. Three of them are UK productions, and although they've done extremely well there, a lot of US viewers are only now discovering them. The other two are US shows that -- wonderful as they are -- have never blossomed into huge hits. But all five are so worth a look, or better, a binge.

1. Indian Summers: The best drama of 2015 didn't make it into my recent year-in-review -- because I didn't get around to seeing it till 2016. So let's correct a grievous wrong. Indian Summers was the best thing I saw on TV last year, except I didn't see it till this year: a glorious piece of epic showmanship, remarkable acting, and sumptuous production values -- the kind that TV so rarely engages in anymore. I put off watching it for a time: I saw some reviews that described it as "a slow-burner" that "took a while to get going." Rubbish. Stop multi-tasking while you watch TV: put away your iPhone, turn off your iPad, put down the knitting, the book and the broom, and give it your full attention, like we used to do when shows actually demanded it. Indian Summers doesn't unfold "slowly" at all; there's merely a lot to digest: characters, relationships, history, backstory. Plot-lines that intersect unexpectedly, sometimes with gratifying results, other times with gruesome consequences. It's 1932, during the final years of British colonial rule in India, and as the power-players take to Simla, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to rule and revel, the locals take to the streets to evoke a call for national independence. A lot of viewers compared it (sometimes unfavorably) to 1984's Jewel in the Crown; yes, they're set in similar periods, but they couldn't be less alike in terms of approach, focus or tone. (You might as well compare Young Mr. Lincoln to 12 Years a Slave, or The Way We Were to Trumbo.) It's the kind of series that engages you in both the personal and political entanglements, and although the historical events are familiar, the way they unfold -- and how they impact the lives of the principal characters -- is never less than surprising, and occasionally overwhelming. Extraordinarily well-played by a cast headed by Julie Walters (in a career-best performance, playing a nasty piece of work without ever asking for sympathy or understanding), with powerful turns by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Fiona Glascott, and Alexander Cobb. Exceptional viewing, and happily, returning to Channel 4 in 2016.

2. Marvel's Agent Carter: The best of the current comic-book adaptations, and, of course, the only one in grave danger of cancellation. So if it might not be picked up, what makes its two seasons worth investing in? Because it's a "superhero show" done right: one devoid of missteps, that only continues to improve. It strands its formidable secret agent Peggy Carter in a period dedicated to the disempowerment of women: the years following World War II, when men returned from battle to reclaim their old jobs and women were once again relegated to second-rate status. In Season 1, the show plays as a bit of a polemic; by Season 2, it lets go of the anger and simply offers itself as an antidote to the pervasive chauvinism -- serving up some of the strongest female characters to grace the small screen. Agent Carter eschews the kind of plot contrivances that started to take down The Flash barely months after it got started; it avoids the dour sameness that has set in on Arrow. Admirably earnest as it carries out its season-long missions, it's also delightfully playful: amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. It's got a trio of charismatic leads -- Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj -- and with the exception of one first-season Russian scientist I wanted to chuck out a window, some of the best villains I've seen in recent years. (And I am not one who cares for the current crop of TV villains, but the two currently powering the story-line -- and I'll say no more, so if you do tune in, you can enjoy the element of surprise -- are spot-on.) And Season 2, which wisely transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, has been a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could a villain successfully hide a ghoulish scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) The show is as no-nonsense as Peggy Carter herself, yet as beguiling as Hayley Atwell in her Forties frocks. It will be missed when it exits the airwaves, but hopefully will always be there for the (re)viewing.

3. Unforgotten: After watching BBC One's masterful War and Peace adaptation, I remarked to a friend in the UK that things like that just don't get made over here anymore: those grand historical miniseries that used to be the bread-and-butter of sweeps programming. While admitting the superiority of British television in that respect, my friend countered that we in the States have our own genre shows that the UK hasn't replicated or perfected -- chief among them, the newfangled police procedural that, in the tradition of CSI, pairs forensic science with old-fashioned detective work. And then I reminded him of ITV's gripping new series Unforgotten, which premiered in the fall of 2015 and has already been picked up for a second season. On the surface, Unforgotten is what CBS's Cold Case would have been if each murder had taken six episodes to solve, but it's buoyed by a delicious conceit at its core. Unlike the other procedurals, we don't meet the suspects only when the police come to interview them. We meet them from the start. Even as the body is being discovered, as the cold case is heating up, we're being introduced to clusters of families, friends and colleagues -- with no idea which among them might have a connection to the victim. It allows writer/creator Chris Lang some wonderful reveals along the way, and further, by the time the detectives come a-calling, we're already invested in the suspects' lives, as we watch characters and relationships established, developed and often -- as long-buried secrets come to light -- destroyed. The result is a show far more affecting than the average police procedural. And its ace-in-the-hole: star Nicola Walker, one of the most versatile yet underrated English actors, able to delineate and differentiate characters without ever stooping to the theatrical tricks lesser talents rely on. The ending of Series 1 was a little pat for my tastes, but Walker's empathetic performance, ably abetted by the winning Sanjeev Bhaskar, more than made up for any deficiencies. A rock-solid success.

4. Elementary: Now in its fourth season, and I still see folks dismiss it as "just another CBS procedural." It's not. It's a delicious hybrid -- part absorbing character study, part sturdy whodunnit, enlivened by the crackling chemistry between Jonny Lee Miller (as Sherlock) and Lucy Liu (as Joan Watson). Creator Rob Doherty avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he used the setting to inform the character. A superior Season 2 episode opened with Sherlock addressing his Narcotics Anonymous support group with uncharacteristic wistfulness: "I often wonder if I should have been born in another time. My senses are unusually -- what one could even say unnaturally -- keen. And ours is an era of distraction -- it's a punishing drumbeat of constant input. This cacophony which follows us into our homes and into our beds, it seeps into our souls, for want of a better word. For a long time, there was only one poultice for my raw nerve endings, and that was copious drug use. So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder: if I'd just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused, a more fully realized person?" And that's the particular genius of Doherty's Elementary. Outfitting and surrounding Doyle's late-Victorian creation with the wonders of modern technology doesn't simply make him more diabolically clever; it also makes him as tortured and stressed, as angry and isolated as eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a friendship that helps him heal. And heal he does, as the character has grown remarkably in four seasons. Elementary had one misstep in Season 2: an attempt to drive a wedge between Sherlock and Joan that failed because of casting and chemistry. But otherwise, it's a show that's gotten more confident with each passing season, and easily the best performance I saw by an actor in 2015 was Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman while he was using. As we head into the second half of its fourth season, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble, newly added as Sherlock's father, a slight cause for concern. It's a show that's never dominated the TV landscape the way it deserved to, but if you've never watched, I'm told it makes for swell binge-viewing.

5. Grantchester: When ITV's Grantchester first aired in 2014, I called it the year's best show. It returns next month, and there's no reason to think that Series 2 won't top my list again. Grantchester is an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- but in proportions I've never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Each episode a mere 45 minutes, each one offering up a new case as it pushes the ongoing story-lines forward -- but the continuing plots never feel slight, and the detective work never feels slighted. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, but the show's success rests largely on star James Norton's sturdy shoulders. I've seen Norton in a half-dozen roles now (most recently as Prince Andrei in War and Peace), and he's never failed to impress, but Sidney Chambers plays to all his strengths. He's a vicar in 1953 England, still mired in memories of the war: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. Yet he's also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental -- except when it comes to himself, and then he's unforgiving. "I'm supposed to be setting an example," Sidney bemoans in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman have led him to another indiscretion -- and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preaches, make him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic. Crime-solving comes easy to Sidney Chambers; it's life that's hard to master. And as played by Norton, a warm and expressive actor whose features seem sculpted for the small screen, you see someone fully suited to sharing God's plan, even as he searches for his own answers. Norton makes Sidney Chambers a memorable and refreshingly complex hero, but his performance aside, the most remarkable thing about Grantchester -- remarkable for any show challenging convention and redefining the genre -- is how assured it is in its execution. There were no missteps in Series 1. Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester is a show to cherish.


Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you prefer more detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you prefer sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, look back at WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

6 comments:

  1. Of these, I've only seen Agent Carter and, as you know, I love it! I know of most of the others, as many are British, and have Indian Summers on my list. Watched the opening Elementary and really didn't enjoy it. Perhaps I should try another one.

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    1. Glad to hear Indian Summers is on your list; as noted, I can't recommend it highly enough. Really think you'll enjoy. As I mentioned, I saw reviews call it "slow," but I found it absorbing from the first episode; it does demand that you really give it your full attention, but the results as so worth it. And do think about restarting Elementary. A friend in the UK only watched the first few episodes, then stopped. Last summer, I got him binging and caught up, and he's been hooked since. It takes a few episodes to break away from the pure "procedural" format, but over time, the character and relationship growth is extremely satisfying.

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  2. Just found your blog this morning and I've already watch half of the first season of Grantchester on your recommendation. It gets better with each episode and is a beautifully made series. Happy to see Season 2 is coming up on PBS.

    I think I'd like Unforgotten, but I don't have access to ITV. Maybe it will be shown in the U.S. at some point.

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    1. So delighted you found my blog, Ann, and so pleased you enjoyed Grantchester. I happened on it totally by chance, but was instantly taken -- and like you, found the first few episodes got steadily better. For me, it really "found" itself with Episode 4; after it aired, I called a friend and said, "I have never been so depressed," because both the case-of-the-week and the personal stories were so powerful and genuinely upsetting. At that point, I think the show really came into its own. Regarding Unforgotten, I suspect there are no plans to air it in the US, which is a shame; it would make a great Masterpiece Mystery. I missed it on ITV, but was able to watch this winter, as someone had uploaded all six parts to Daily Motion. Although I'm disinclined to watch things that have been uploaded by third parties (as I deal with copyright issues so much in my "day" job), I've learned that if the network allows them to stay up, it's typically because they have no plans to air them elsewhere -- so I did watch Unforgotten, and loved it. It might still be up at Daily Motion.

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  3. At first I thought Grantchester was going to be like a "Murder, the Vicar Wrote" (the odds of so many murders in a small town makes me skeptical - and the reason I gave up, maybe too early, on Longmire), but, as you say, by episode four it started going to places I did not expect. Very powerful indeed. Now I'm going try Happy Valley, which James Norton is also in. And I'll look for Unforgotten at Daily Motion, thanks.

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  4. Grantchester is a wonderful character driven mystery. I like James Norton very much and I think Robson Green is a treasure that many Americans have yet to discover. I hope this show propels his career in the states and we have more opportunity to see his work!

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