This could be television’s golden era. Once considered film’s younger, less talented sibling, the graveyard for writers, actors and directors who couldn’t cut it in Hollywood, television is now growing up and showing it’s big-screen brother what it can do, and what it can do is better than film.
I’m an avid consumer of both film and television, and while I still enjoy a good movie I think television is finally showing us what can be done with strong storytelling in a serialised format. When quality writing, acting and directing come together television can deliver us well-crafted stories over many hours in which we grow to know the characters more intimately and see more thoroughly woven sub-plots than is possible over a two-hour film. The result is that television drama is more cutting than film, the comedy is funnier, the worlds more real.
There are some great shows on TV and I’m sure you’re already watching some of them, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Sherlock, Luther and more. These are all terrific shows, there’s no doubt of that, but for whatever reason, lack of notice, distribution, the channel it’s aired on, some of the best shows seem to fly under the radar. What I wanted to do with this post is share some of the best shows of the year that you’re probably not watching but should be.
1. Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a Netflix original series designed, similar to their other original series House of Cards, Hemlock Grove and the fourth season of Arrested Development, to be binge watched facilitated by Netflix releasing the entire series at once. This is great news for viewers as it shows a network adapting to the way in which people are now consuming television content, and Orange is the New Black is the best of the Netflix Originals.
Of all the shows I’m going to talk about Orange is the New Black is probably the most well known. OITNB is a comedy-drama, the story of Piper Chapman, a snobby hipster from Brooklyn who is sent to a women’s prison for a drug trafficking crime she committed ten years earlier. As a naïve blonde white girl she soon finds herself at odds with prison life.
The show’s premise certainly opens the trapdoor and risks falling into the pit of cliché with a ‘fish out of water’ story of pretty white girl sent to prison who manages to integrate herself with those she initially feels alienated from. Luckily for us the show’s creator and head-writer Jenji Kohan (who also created the brilliant Weeds) and the rest of the OITNB cast and crew don’t let that come close to happening. Instead as the show progresses we not only watch Piper’s transformation but also become deeply involved with the rest of the inhabitants of the prison including a number of women from minority groups not often the focus of television shows.
The characters in the show, from the crazy stalker who tries to make Piper her ‘prison wife’, to the transgender hairdresser, to the nun, the Russian cook and the born-again junky, often feel like caricatures of real people when we first meet them but over the course of the show they are masterfully stripped away to reveal the person they actually are.
Witty, deep and enjoyable, OITNB should be a prison sentence you’ll happily sit through.
Have you ever wondered exactly how much Vikings look like the lead singers of heavy metal bands? The answer is a lot according to the History Channel’s first, rather unimaginatively named, drama series.
Vikings is a show based on the 13th century Norse sagas detailing the life and times of legendary Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbruk, a man who would come to be known as the scourge of England and France. Created by Michael Hirst, the man behind The Tudors and screenwriter of Elizabeth, Vikings is a romp through the brutal society of the Norse. From what I’ve read there’s been some people pointing out the places that Hirst has taken a few liberties with historical fact but I think that’s fine, ultimately with a show like this we want to be entertained and on that Vikings delivers is spades, or axes as the case may be.
Admittedly Vikings didn’t grab me with the first episode, it hooked me enough that I kept watching but the plot developed somewhat slowly, the characters seemed a little thin and the accents forced, but persisting with this series showed it’s worth. It seemed to take a few episodes to find its sea-legs but then this show started blasting along the surface of the water in a longship.
Vikings provides moments of quiet in which we feel as though we’re watching the day to day lives of people living in these times but these moments are punctuated with brutal violence and the willingness to embrace violence when Valhalla is waiting for you. As the series progresses we start to see the blending of good and evil in a society where a loving father will happily lead a voyage to rape and pillage another country.
Stick with Vikings beyond the first couple of episodes and I think you’ll find the reward.
3. Top of the Lake
Set in the fictional small town of Laketop on New Zealand’s South Island, Top of the Lake is broadly a crime thriller, the story of a missing 12-year-old pregnant girl and Detective Robin Griffin (played by Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss) who takes on the case. Though it’s much more than a standard procedural. In the vein of Danish masterpiece The Killing, Top of the Lake takes a slow approach to unravelling not only the mystery the series centres around but also the deep flaws in each of the characters living in Laketop. The series touches on topics such as rape and incest and examines the balance of power between men and women in the town.
As well as being terrifically written and directed Top of the Lake uses the New Zealand landscape as a character in its own right, much as it was in The Lord of the Rings. However, where the landscape of The Lord of the Rings was fantastical, brightly lit and larger than life, in Top of the Lake it is almost bleak, cold and brooding. The hauntingly tranquil setting of the series plays incredibly well with the cruelty and danger that lurk within it.
Top of the Lake is a show that is filled with long silences and quiet scenes but we’re well aware that just below the surface something is screaming.
4. The Bridge
I couldn’t help but compare the previous entry, Top of the Lake, to Danish show The Killing. The quiet examination of crime and complex characters seems to be a hallmark of the run of brilliant noir crime shows coming out of the cold reaches of Scandinavia at the moment and while you may have heard of or watched The Killing already (if you haven’t you can add that to this list) The Bridge is one you might not know about.
The Bridge is a Swedish/Danish show in which a women’s body is discovered halfway along the Oresund Bridge, the bridge that links Sweden and Denmark. Two detectives, one Swede and one Dane must work together to investigate the murder. The show highlights the cultural differences between two countries that are so close together but still have different views on the world, this is particularly interesting for those of us who live on the opposite side of the globe and have little exposure to Scandinavian culture (watching Vikings doesn’t count). As an added bonus for English-speaking viewers there’s the fun game of trying to pick whether the characters are speaking Swedish or Danish at any given moment.
The Bridge is another example of excellent drama that is in no rush to hurry to its end. It’s also not out to thrill us with car chases and action sequences every ten seconds desperate to pander to an audience they think has the attention span of an ADD puppy on speed. Instead, the bridge is long and brooding and trusts in its audience to find the interpersonal drama enough to be satisfying, which it is.
There has been a US version of The Bridge produced in which a body is discovered on a bridge between the United States and Mexico, I’m yet to see it but I imagine, similar to the US remake of The Killing, it will be good but perhaps lack the little something that seems to come from the Nordic versions.
Rectify is the story of Daniel Holden, a man released after spending 19 years in prison for rape and murder when DNA evidence overturns his conviction despite his supposed confession. What Rectify isn’t is the mystery of whether Daniel is actually guilty (it features but isn’t the main plot) or the whodunit investigation of who the killer really is, instead Rectify follows the first week after Daniel is released back to his small hometown in Georgia where most people knew the victim and many still consider him guilty. The point of Rectify is not necessarily the murder itself, or who perpetrated the crime, but rather how we as a society deal with violent crime and those who have committed or are accused of committing these crimes.
Similar to Top of the Lake, Rectify is a slow burn show that spends the majority of its time in quiet contemplation of its issues. Daniel seems to wander through the town like an alien or time-traveller; someone who is completely out of place with the world around him, a strange, quiet man whose personality doesn’t help endure him to those who think he’s guilty. The show spends a lot of time developing the characters around Daniel, his mother and sister, even the police and prosecutor who still want to see him convicted.
Rectify focuses on the drama that occurs outside the typical crime show, it’s what happens after the struggle to release the innocent man is won, and it proves to be the deeper drama.
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