US telly loses lustre, as Brits shine

Second Take

US telly loses lustre, as Brits shine

In 2014, the best television shows continue to demonstrate why they are more fertile ground for artistic exploration today than cinema. I’ve said some of these things before, but it’s worth emphasising again.
Television programming goes where cinema can’t go: expansive storytelling, in-depth exploration of themes and characters, intimate and neglected subjects, and audacious acting. In cinema, an actor doesn’t have the time to grow subtly and shockingly into character.

Nowadays, when friends ask me what movies they should be seeing, I find myself recommending stuff on TV more than movies. Nothing wrong with movies today — I think they are better than ever — but there’s so much that is surprising, deep and artistic in TV programming that movies actually look shallow and commercial in comparison.

There’s so much box-office pressure for movies to perform and deliver that few filmmakers can risk making the movies they want to or risk telling personal stories, or tell stories that are not rushed and formula-driven. Television, on the other hand, seems to have all the time in the world to leisurely unfold a story, develop characters over a long period of time, and explore themes with complexity and richness.

There’s the pressure of ratings, of course, but not the big money headache of movie weekend grosses and profits. Whether it’s drama or comedy or mystery, TV seems to have more edge than what’s found in popular cinema.

Having said that, however, I still find most American shows unappealing as they keep adding more seasons instead of ending it. I stick to watching British and European mini-series and serials which end with two seasons, the exception being Downton Abbey which continues to be interesting, if not riveting.

Several acclaimed TV shows aren’t as great as the reviews they are getting. For instance, I found Borgen deeply disappointing.

I continue to be not as impressed with The Good Wife, The Americans, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Silicon Valley etc. But here’s what I found worthwhile this year:   

The Honourable Woman
A potent, stylish and deeply satisfying spy drama fused to a political thriller. This British miniseries is written and directed by Hugo Blick, one of the most sophisticated auteurs working in television today. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an English-Israeli businesswoman drawn into Middle Eastern politics. In the eight parts The Honourable Woman takes to unfold, you are drawn deeper and deeper into a cat and mouse spy game between MI6, the CIA and Mossad where the developments are always surprising and rich. The best thing on television I’ve seen this year.

Olive Kitteridge
An HBO miniseries adapted from a Pulitzer winning novel with Frances McDormand playing a curmudgeon school teacher who finds it difficult and tiresome to deal with family and friends. A superb adaptation of a literary work.
The Missing
A boy goes missing in France and his father and a retired detective team up to discover what happened. Tense, chilling and even moving, this Brit miniseries has you hanging on to each episode to learn why and how the boy went missing.

Fargo
Everyone thought it was a ridiculous idea to make a miniseries out of the classic Coen brother comic crime drama, but its creator, Noah Hawley, has stunned critics and the audience with a series that feels even superior to the movie! The entire cast is quite wonderful in this sparkling detective comedy.

The Knick
Steven Soderbergh is right on target, as always, in this ultra realistic hospital drama with a difference: it’s set in turn of the century New York, and shows you what was probably the first ER — or what the emergency room was like in those days. Clive Owen stars as the doctor heading this wing. Soderbergh avoided turning it into a medical thriller and yet there’s enough suspense and excitement here to beat most other thrillers on the box.

The Comeback
My favourite comeback show is The Comeback — this was a show HBO cancelled after just one season many years ago, but in the years that have gone by, it acquired a huge fan following and is now back for a deserving new season. Lisa Kudrow stars in this satire of reality shows and network television. The Comeback was probably the first in the genre of cringe-comedy where characters indulge in humiliation. Kudrow will make you squirm as she takes cringe to new levels of, ‘Note to self: I don’t need to see that’.

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