Small screen's big hits of 2013

Small screen's big hits of 2013

Second take

It’s almost commonplace now to note that a lot of contemporary television feels superior to cinema. More complex, more layered, more entertaining and more surprising.

If you remember, not too long ago, Anthony Hopkins went on record to say how he stayed up nights watching Breaking Bad, series one to six, back to back. And felt compelled to write a letter to Bryan Cranston and team at 3 am, saying he hadn’t seen better acting in his life. And that the series had started out as some black comedy and finished with the grandeur of some Shakespearean tragedy. Every year a clutch of exciting, innovative new TV series further advances the case for television’s superiority over cinema.

But there is also such a thing as too much TV, even good TV, and that’s something I felt sharply this year. For instance, if a promising series stretches to too many seasons, it falters and loses its initial power and appeal. The first two seasons of Breaking Bad held me, but by the third season, I was beginning to lose interest and had no desire or curiosity to get to its sixth-season climax. Game of Thrones in its continuing seasons doesn’t feel as compelling as its first. Homeland 3 has drawn similar reactions from the same critics who praised the first two seasons: that it had lost the plot and was taking too many illogical turns.

Like movies, TV series too are full of missed opportunities — for every good made for TV movie or miniseries like Game Change or Burton and Taylor there’s a Clear History. I was impatient to see this new Larry David comedy from HBO. Early reviews said that he was basically playing another version of his curmudgeon Curb Your Enthusiasm character, except this one was less Jewish and more middle class. Parts of it were funny in the way Curb... is, but most of it is middling, forgettable material.

I was disappointed with several more that scored high with critics — Hannibal, Girls, The Good Wife, Top of the Lake, Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black and Scandal. My deepest disappointment has been with Ricky Gervais and his recent work. The Office and Extras were works of original comic genius, but Life’s Too Short and Derek were barely watchable.

Mad Men was positively unwatchable by the third season. Though it had its moments, I didn’t care much for The Fall, perhaps the most-talked-about thriller after Broadchurch. I didn’t see the original European hit series The Bridge, but the American remake was fairly engaging though I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. I didn’t expect to like The Mindy Project one bit (mainly because Mindy Chokalingam aka Kaling as Kelly Kapoor in The Office was so witless and stereotyped), but in this series created by Kaling, she shows she can be funny and endearing, not to mention, really sexy.

Among the year’s better shows were several shows from the UK — Orphan Black, The Guilty, Downton Abbey - Series 4, Masters of Sex and The Hollow Crown.

My TV favourites this year:

Borgen 3: Danish coalition politics. Nobody imagined that the inner workings of a multi-party government would make for such gripping television, but Borgen is a TV favourite around the world. Birgitte Nyborg, a fictional stateswoman, is more famous than any real-life politician.

The Americans: A top-notch espionage drama with an unusual setting: a Russian couple go under deep cover in America in the 50s, posing as suburban Americans. The husband feels they should defect and surrender to American capitalism, while the wife holds on to her early ideals, resisting to become an American. Meanwhile both the KGB and the CIA are getting closer to their true identity.

Broadchurch: One of the best detective shows on TV that keeps you riveted and guessing until the end. Nobody can do detective dramas better than the British, and this one had superior writing, characterisation and atmosphere. A dead child and more missing children destroy the peace in a small seaside town. Two dedicated detectives investigate a murder whose exploration lasts the whole season, making fascinating revelations in the process.

Veep: At last, a real laugh-out-loud sophisticated comedy from HBO. After Curb Your Enthusiasm, I waited in vain for something as funny and it arrived finally in the unexpected form of a razor-sharp political comedy.

Julia Louis Dreyfus plays Vice President Selina Myers, an incompetent politician with a even more bumbling staff. Its success is due to its creator, Armando Iannucci, famous for the hit Brit political satire, The Thick of It. Funny ensemble acting and some delicious lines puts Veep above any comedy I’ve seen recently.

House of Cards: Finally, this political thriller, once again a remake from a hit British show that starred Ian Richardson as a scheming politician. Here, Kevin Spacey takes his place, and I must confess, my expectations were low for this American version, but as you watch more episodes, it becomes just as engrossing as the original.

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