A momentary departure from the customary blog gravitas to share my slightly guilty evening R & R pleasures of the past year, TV shows I gratefully escaped into in 2017:
- Legion How did a TV show based on a Marvel comic about mutants, with an exec-producer credit for sleazebag Bryan Singer, make it to the top of the list? The short answer is Noah Hawley, who imaginatively reinterpreted Chris Claremont’s comic book (as he did with the Coens’ Fargo) to transcend the source material, and then some. Easily the best filmic adaptation of a superhero comic and, due to early priming, I am a sucker for superheroes. Hawley takes the genre into new visual-aural highs and thereby taps its potential for surrealistic virtuosity and puts Lynch’s sombre and self-conscious weirdness to shame. Episode seven especially is on par with anything I have seen on TV, this or any year.
- Mindhunter Make it past the first episode, which is oddly stilted and gives the impression that Fincher has sold out to a disinformational franchise, or a weird Dragnet parody. The show picks up with episode two and then gets better and better as it develops. As a psychodrama, it’s on par with Fincher’s best work, and actually a notch or two above it. There is very little action (ignoring the silly opening sequence), and the show relies almost entirely on intelligent dialogue, nuanced character interaction, and psychological insights. Which may be why it hasn’t been better received?
- Halt & Catch Fire This show really came fully into its own with the final season and especially the last couple of episodes. The most fully human TV show I know of. Beautifully drawn characters, struggling to find ways to work together within the creative/business milieu of early Internet. Geek heaven.
- The Young Pope Another underrated show, probably because it is just improbable at every level, and improbably good. The show doesn’t aim for realism but for dark satire, and of all the shows this year (yes, including Twin Peaks) it is probably the most visionary, i.e., the most clearly the work of a single sensibility (Paolo Sorrentino) that nonetheless manages to avoid the trap of self-indulgence. Career performance from Jude Law, an actor I never cared for before.
- Peaky Blinders This would be nearer the top but I felt like the sixth and last episode sank to melodrama ~ and worse, revenge fantasy ~ for the sake of a tidy and emotionally satisfying resolution. Nonetheless, at its best this show is perhaps the richest thing on TV right now; visually and in terms of character and dialogue it has the classical form, subtlety and depth (not counting the edgy modern soundtrack) of a British Godfather.
- Fargo The third season is a little too self-consciously straining for art for my taste, and I preferred the pulpier and more richly colored season two. But this is still outstanding television, and far more intelligent and multi-layered than the (overrated) film that inspired it. Ewen McGregor’s stunt of playing twins (aped later in the year by James Franco in The Deuce) is a bit distracting, and the show doesn’t really benefit from a star presence. But David Thewlis is an outstandingly repulsive villain, and the show has a rare gift for blending the ominous and sinister with the quirky and humorous.
- Better Call Saul My wife’s favorite show, and overall I think better, though less gripping, than its parent show, Breaking Bad. This is perhaps the most sheerly enjoyable and affable show on TV, largely thanks to Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy and, in the parallel storyline, which is if anything even more engaging, Jonathan Banks as Michael Ehrmantraut. The show is remarkable for its warmth and affection for (and from) its characters within the unsentimental, even cynical, milieu of Breaking Bad-land.
- Top of the Lake Outstanding second season, a notch above the first; tightly plotted, flawlessly acted, nuanced depiction of prostitution and sexual exploitation, mercilessly free ~ relatively! ~ of liberal messaging.
- Alias Grace Far superior to the higher-profile, and overtly liberal-messaging, Handmaid’s Tale; period drama about psychic possession a.k.a dissociative identity disorder, a compelling depiction of the “occult” power of women-as-victims, with a suitably alluring central performance by Sarah Gadon. All episodes written and produced by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, making this the equivalent of a six-hour movie.
- Big Little Lies The same can be said of this seven-part miniseries, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), written by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), and based on the book by Liane Moriarty. The series has some similarities to The Slap, another book-based TV show about upper middle class American parents battling over the welfare of their children within the context of runaway liberal ideology. In other words, a high-class soap-opera about everyday domestic insanity among the well-to-do in the US.
- The Deuce This one took longer for me to warm to it, being as how it’s about the sex and porn industry and its main appeal seems to be the painstaking nostalgic recreation of 1970s New York and a somewhat self-ingratiated, but eventually winning, double act by James Franco, who is both hard to like (with his highly dubious occult Hollywood associations) and hard not to like (charisma’s a bitch). In the end, the loving attention to detail, impeccable performances, and relentlessly seamy milieu, prove irresistible. This is David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, a show I never really got into (though I got further with it than I did with The Sopranos.)
- American Gods This one is a bit hit-and-miss, sometimes superb (eg. episode 6, “The Murder of Gods”), sometimes meandering and shapeless. I am not, repeat not, a fan of Neil Gaiman, as I find his material just a bit too self-consciously cute, and lacking in bite. From the little I have read of the novel, this show seems to improve on the source material. Having Ian McShane (of Deadwood) doesn’t hurt either.
- Silicon Valley. Goofy, funny, charming, thoroughly likable gang of geeks.
- Game of Thrones I skipped season 6 after one episode because it sucked so bad and because season five was so obviously below par ~ once they began to depart from the books. When I saw S07 had only seven episodes, I figured more care had gone into production and so I resumed. I was pleasantly surprised that it had regained some, though not all, of its mojo.
- Three Girls This is about Rochdale exploitation of schoolgirls by Pakistani organized traffickers; it seems fairly straightforward and factual and is does something like justice to the subject matter. Not great TV but solid and respectable treatment of powerful material.
- Line of Duty This show, now in its 4th season, is an odd blend of a seemingly formulaic British cop show with an obvious, and surprisingly effective, attempt to address the ongoing revelations around organized crime, including sexual exploitation of children, within the British establishment. Each season is more or less self-contained (though there is a carry-over of storylines), and depicts the increasingly desperate antics of a corrupt police officer attempting to cover his or her tracks (this time it is Thandy Newton, freshly escaped from Westworld), but only digging themselves deeper and deeper into a rut. Somewhat pedestrian in its melodramatic handling of the material, it’s a nonethless suspenseful and sometimes moving show.
- Wormwood I put this at the end because it’s the only documentary here and shouldn’t be made to compete with fiction shows. At the same time, I felt slightly disappointed overall with Errol Morris’ portrait of Eric Olson, the son of murdered intelligence agent Frank Olson (thrown out of a window in 1953 during the early days of MKULTRA). On the one hand, it’s fascinating and sometimes moving, amply depicting the damage done to Olson as an indirect victim of CIA skulduggery. On the other hand, the blend of dramatic reenactment (with an all-star cast) and documentary footage and interviews never quite gels, and if the show were bread dough, it wouldn’t ever quite rise. Also, for shedding light on the CIA’s mind control operations, it barely scratches the surface
I watched five out of six of the new Black Mirror (after being almost totally unimpressed with last season). The first episode, “USS Callister,” directed by Toby Haynes, is thoroughly enjoyable, a blend of ingenious sci-fi with an almost pitch-perfect pastiche of Star Trek old-style sci-fi. The second, “Arkangel,” directed by Jodie Foster, is only mildly interesting. The third, “Crocodile,” directed by John Hillcoat, is probably the dumbest BM episode ever (which is saying quite a lot); hard to believe Charlie Broker’s reputation is what it is when he writes things like this; I guess the message of this one is that do-good liberals are potential psychopaths, but the execution is singularly unimaginative. The fourth, “Hang the DJ” is the best after episode one and works as both an emotional drama and a sci-fi head-scratcher. The sixth and last, “Black Museum,” is a sort of comic-book compendium of consciousness-transference horror stories that starts out fun (if grisly) but ends up as a black (in both senses) revenge fantasy, exposing the sickly sensibility at the core of Broker’s vision, which seems to come down to depicting the most sadistic scenarios he can imagine and then seeing if he can top himself. Overall, I’d recommend exiting the black museum after episode one.
Some recommended European shows (limited list, there are so many of these):
- Magnifica 70
- Deutschland 83
- The Bureau
- The Same Sky
- Follow the Money
- The Bridge
- I Know Who You Are
The Shows that Failed to Help Me Forget
These ones I gave up on, either this year or previously:
A Handmaid’s Tale
Mr. Robot (watched one-and-a-half seasons)
Narcos (watched two seasons)
House of Cards (I think I made it through two and a half seasons)
Movies, uh… I am not sure if a single movie I saw this year, if it had been a TV show, would have made it onto the above list. There are a few later releases (Blade Runner 2049, The Square, The Shape of Water, Killing of a Sacred Deer) that I haven’t yet seen but have hopes for. I did enjoy The Meyerowitz Stories, A Ghost Story (sort of), Good Time, Three Billboards, and Brawl in Cell Block 99. There are probably a couple more I forgot about. Was 2017 the worst year in movies ever?
Most all-out batshit-stupid, high-expectation movie I made it all the way through would have to be mother! which no mother but only sophomoronic movie critics or pot-smoking adolescents could ever love.