The Year So Far – Part One
Sometimes it can be tough to rate the quality of a year (in terms of film and television) when you are still in it. You look through the cinema listings and see Transformers 74 or whatever is showing on every screen and it’s hard not to fool yourself into thinking it’s a shitty year for movies. But let’s step back and take a look at how true (if at all) that actually is. We’re over half way through 2014 and yes there has been some disappointments, but it’s not without surprises and successes either.
It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t already been a fantastic year for television. A number of great shows returned for new seasons, and a couple of fresh shows threatened to steal the year out from under them.
Game of Thrones Season Four
Probably the show most people look forward to each and every year. Game of Thrones, as I’ve said numerous times, has a tendency to kill its own momentum at the start of a new season. This was the year it bucked that trend and came out sprinting. And for the most part it managed to maintain that pace until the season’s end. This was the season that completely abandoned the “Good Guys vs Bad Guys” plotting of the earlier years, and fully submerged itself in morally grey waters. Some characters sink, and some characters swim. Season Four stands alongside the show’s first season as its best, and was so good that I gave in and went and bought the books. Something I previously said I wouldn’t do.
Hannibal Season Two
The first season of Bryan Fuller’s (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) take on Thomas Harris’s sophisticated cannibal Hannibal was a mixed bag. It looked great and had two excellent lead performances, but was full of clunky dialogue and story of the week murders and murderers that pulled the focus away from the more interesting characters.
As ever the show’s visual are sumptuous. Everything looks eerily beautiful. If you can look at one of Hannibal’s exquisitely prepared meals (read: victims) and not want to have a taste, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.
Mads Mikkelsen’s take on the titular character is unnervingly believable, sitting somewhere between Brian Cox’s completely realistic interpretation of the character in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Anthony Hopkins cartoonish portrayal in Silence of the Lambs. Mikkelsen plays Lecter with shark eyes, he is always the predator, and always dangerous but we can’t help but like him. The fact that Dr Lecter interests us after years of the character’s overexposure speaks to the quality of the performance. Mikkelsen gives him layers that weren’t previously there. His relationship with Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham is one of the stranger, darker, yet compelling romances (and that’s what it is) on TV.
This year the gorgeously staged scenes remained, as did the over written dialogue and on the nose attempts at subtext, but it all built to a season finale that is impossible to deny. That last episode is a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from such are the delights of its horrors.
Orphan Black Season Two
So I was behind on this show, having not seen the first season when it originally aired, but that gave me the opportunity to binge watch the first season in two sittings and I absolutely loved it. It was a high concept science fiction show that bounced from suspense and intrigue to black comedy to horror without ever skipping a beat. Despite it’s comic book premise (a group of clones are hunted by the organisation that created them and a rival group that wants them dead) it is actually a show with some very interesting questions on autonomy and a woman’s ownership of her body. As fun as it is (and it is a lot of fun) there is real meat on it’s bones. Not to mention it’s heart. The characters are all fleshed out, dimensional women with their own agency, wants and desires, and inner and outer lives. The fact that the central characters, who are all so drastically different from one another, are all played by the same actress is mind blowing. Tatiana Maslany is beyond brilliant in this show and deserves all the recognition and plaudits she receives. She grounds it, makes us buy these characters as people and is paramount to the show’s success. Without her it just wouldn’t work.
Season Two picks up right when Season One left off and goes out of it’s way to keep the audience off balance. I can see why the show decided upon this direction for the season, as it’s labyrinth plot was lauded in its first year, but it doesn’t entirely work this time around. Characters allegiances are forever in question, and twists are piled upon turns upon twists upon turns. It all becomes frustrating and tiring as the creators, who managed to keep so many plates spinning in Season One, start to drop them. It’s the characters and their group dynamic that is the heart of the show, and Season Two’s out of control plot keeps them apart for far too long. Nothing says that better than when the characters finally get together and simply enjoy each others company. The plot falls away into the background and four sistras (and one brother-sistra) let loose and dance. Despite the problems with this season, in that moment it is hard not to love it.
The Americans Season Two
This Season improved upon the first by solidifying the relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (two undercover KGB spies living, working, and raising a family in America) and presenting them as a unified front. This allowed the show to broaden its focus and give a face to what it is the Jennings are actually fighting against. The bulk of this season deals with the murder of another KGB sleeper cell family and Phillip and Elizabeth’s reaction to it. Where does their true allegiance lie, to the cause and who they really are (and is that who they really are?), or to their fake lives and fake family (which is realer than anything else)?
The emotional and moral complexities in this show are just staggering. The Americans is smart and sexy and full of expertly staged action. It’s hard not to recommend.
Orange is the New Black Season Two
Last year Orange was my favourite show. This year it’s very likely going to be my favourite show (It’s currently tied with another further down this list). Next year it will probably be my favourite show. It’s just that good. And it is all down to character and empathy. Many shows will have a central character that is fully defined, and then surrounding that character will be broader supporting characters who get depth the longer a show goes on, and then surrounding those characters will be archetypes and characters comprised of one or two traits. Orange doesn’t do that. Though at first it appears that’s exactly what it is doing. We meet Piper Chapman as she enters a woman’s prison and we mainly follow her as she interacts with (and tries to survive) the broader supporting characters who also call the prison home. But what Season Two really hammers home is that every single inmate in that prison, as well as the guards and staff that run it, are the central characters in their own lives with their own stories, all of with are treated with the same weight and respect as Piper’s story. Piper isn’t the main character who has more layers than those around her, she’s just the character we meet first and so see those layers before we see them in the characters around her.
In Season Two much of the focus is on new inmate Vee and the way she manipulates Taystee, Susan “Crazy Eyes”, and some of the other girls into helping her take over the prison from Red, the Russian chef who previously ran things. This puts great strain on Taystee’s relationship with Poussey. That friendship is established back in Season One, but this year it really gets put under the microscope. Poussey was previously a minor character, but as this show excels at doing, her status gets bumped up and we get to really understand, and more importantly feel, who she is. This happens every episode with a different character. In Orange is the New Black every character is equal, and that’s what makes it the success it is.
This year Piper isn’t even involved in the central plot at all, and yet she doesn’t feel disconnected from the show. She, like all of the women and men that populate the show, has her own things going on.
The unexpected mega hit of the year. This show blew up becoming genuine water cooler TV. Everyone was talking about it, which is especially surprising when you consider how bleakly it started off.
Rust and Marty (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson respectively, both of whom are superb) are two deeply troubled detectives investigating a ritualistic murder. The show isn’t so much concerned with solving the case (though that is Rust’s one true drive throughout) but in exploring the affect this type of work has on the men investigating it.
So far, so Seven, but the twist here is that the nihilistic mad man who spouts doomed laden portents isn’t the serial killer, but the cop hunting him. It gives the show an unreliable narrator that really forces the audience to go digging through what we’re shown and told to hunt out the truth for ourselves.
The show is a slice of Southern Gothic that grants us a viewpoint into an alien world of bayous and swamps, where the law struggles to take root in the stifling heat of the wild lands.
I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. The Coen Brothers are my favourite writers and directors by some distance, and Fargo is one of the greatest achievements. A show based on the film that doesn’t have any involvement from the Brothers? Count me out. I couldn’t see it working.
Yet work it did. The show is both a sort of spiritual sequel (although one plot point makes it a direct sequel) and a re-imagining that features a number of the same elements: a pregnant cop, a morally bankrupt salesman, a near mute killer, murder, a pitch black sense of humour, and funny accents. But what sets it apart from the film is its depiction of evil.
In the film all of the evil acts are performed by pathetic men. Jerry Lundegaard is desperate and weak and despicable. He gets his own wife kidnapped in an attempt to extort money out of his wealthy father in law. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the men Jerry hires and they are both remorseless killers who are in it for the money. They are also inept idiots.
In the show the evil is larger. Lorne Malvo (a terrifying Billy Bob Thornton) may as well be the devil himself. He commits evil acts for no purpose other than it is in his nature to do so. It may be his profession, but it what he is, he is not in it for the money. He is a predator and a predator has prey. But it is more than that. Malvo doesn’t just kill, he corrupts. He comes into town and through a chance encounter meets Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Lester, like Jerry, is a pathetic salesman who is having problems at home. But where as Jerry brings evil into his life, Lester becomes evil. Malvo takes him to the edge, but it is Lester who decides to jump. Lester kills his wife with his own hands. He then plans to frame Malvo for the crime, which results in another murder. But Lester doesn’t stop, no matter how in over his head he gets. He continuously outsmarts those who mean to oppose him and fashions himself from prey into predator by sheer force of will.
A darkly delicious surprise.
Rick and Morty
Remember when I said Orange is the New Black is tied for my favourite show of the year so far? Well Rick and Morty is what it’s tied with.
The show is essentially a parody of the relationship between Doctor Who and his companions and Dr. Emmet Brown and Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future. It follows the seemingly mentally unstable and constantly drunk scientist Rick Sanchez and his slow witted grandson Morty on their batshit insane adventures through time and space. The show revels in the absurd, taking nutso scifi ideas to their limits, wringing every possible gag out of them in the process. “So it’s Futurama?” Yes, there are similarities, but no. Because what Rick and Morty does that so few (any?) crazy animated shows do is commit to consequence. There is an episode where one of Rick’s inventions goes horribly wrong and the only way Rick and Morty can escape it is to travel to a dimension where that invention kills that dimension’s Rick and Morty and the old Rick and Morty take their place and carry on living their lives. It’s a meta joke about sitcoms resetting back to the status quo at the end of each and every episode, no matter how dire the consequences of the previous episode. But Rick and Morty sticks with that idea and it comes up later in the season as Morty struggles with the guilt of what they’ve done and the lives they’ve ruined across dimensions, while he has to go on living right on top of his own grave every single day. Nothing is forgotten, everything builds, adding to the continuity of the show and layering the characters and giving their actions weight and meaning.
Rick and Morty looks like a brightly coloured joke, and it is, but it is also full of existential ponderings and philosophical questions, and heart, and one of the more realistic families on TV, and just has more going on than almost anything else being broadcast today.
Plus, it is piss your pants funny.
So that’s just some of what I’ve been watching this year. If the next six months are as strong as the last six months, then 2014 will go down as one of the best years for television in some time.
Check back soon for my round up of this year’s film releases.