Sunday, January 19, 2014

Binge Watching? Here's My List of the Best

As one with a pronounced addictive personality, I must exercise caution with any new and potentially dangerous interest. So it was that I approached binge TV viewing with a degree of concern. I'm not sure yet how that is working out, but I do have a short list of recommendations of TV series that separate themselves from the pack because of writing, acting, directing, subject matter and the like.

Binge TV probably isn't a new phenomenon, but it's made a lot easier by Netflix and AmazonPrime, which offer back issues of TV's best without commercials. I can watch what I want back to back to back to ... for as long as the episodes hold out or until the provider begins charging between $1.99 and $3.99 per episode, which I will not pay. I've already paid both providers fees for use and simply won't pay beyond that. It's tempting, especially in the case of a smashingly good series like "Justified," which I got three seasons of gratis, but would have to pay $2.99 per issue for if I go on. I won't watch any of these shows on network TV because of the commercials and because 46 minutes at a time isn't enough.

Anyhow, my peculiarities aside, here's my list:

1. "Justified" is the best drama I've seen on television since "Hill Street Blues" in the 1980s. It is set in Harlan, Ky., not your worn-out L.A.-style home, and the actors actually have real and not affected southern accents. The writing is crisp, creative, nuanced and often riveting. The characters are three dimensional, if a bit on the harsh side (the mean boys and girls in this one are mean; so are the good guys), and the acting is superb. You'll believe this series.

2. "Ripper Street" is a BBC series set in White Chapel, London, in 1888, just after Jack the Ripper's run when every crime seems to have a connection with the Ripper. I can't remember better writing on
television than "Ripper Street." The feel of the language is astonishing and says "19th Century" with every utterance. The issues, the look, the depth are all full, researched carefully and completely. The acting and directing are uniformally believeable and impressive. "Ripper" and "Justified" could actually be No. 1 and 1a. They're both something to look forward to.

3. "Suits" is a lawyer show and would almost certainly eliminate itself from my list because of that, but it's done so well, that it moves toward the top. It's another (like "Justified") that ran out on me and wanted me to pay for it, but it was beginning to lose steam anyway, so the decision to say "no" wasn't all that hard. In any case, the episodes most often have a continuing string and at least one case that gets solved per show, giving a level of satisfaction. The approach is sideways, as well, with the lawyers and the crooks often being separated by a very thin line.

4. "The Killing," like "24" is a single issue (the brutal murder of a teenaged girl), long-term series starring the estimable Mareille Enos, a thoroughly unlikely actress on which to hang the success or failure of a cop series. She's small, awkward and anything but handsome, but she grabs the part of a conflicted, overburdened, tenacious Seattle police lieutenant by the shorthairs and doesn't let go. When she's onscreen, nobody else matters, though this series is chock full of good acting and the storyline, often convoluted and artificially set up, is always believeable. (Based on the Swedish series "Forbrydelsen" and the BBC series "The Killing," neither available here, so far as I can tell.)

5. "Life" with Damien Lewis has one thing that other series don't have: Lewis. He is one of the most watchable actors working today and this series would drop off the list without him. Fun, complex and entertaining.

6. The Swedish version of "Wallander" with Krister Hendricksson is superb in much the same way
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" captivated. You'll have to read the subtitles, but they disappear from the consciousness almost immediately. Wallander is a brooding, colorless bulldog of a detective whose work on difficult cases is fascinating. (Kenneth Branaugh plays "Wallander" in the British version, which isn't quite as good.)

7. "London Hospital" is another BBC goodie, centered on a White Chapel charity hospital in 1907 (through 1910 if you follow the entire series). The suffering, savagery, experimental medical breakthroughs and a storyline full of characters make this one to anticipate.

8. "Call the Midwife" is--again--set in White Chapel, this time in the early 1950s and features a group of midwives who must tend pregnancies and other issues among the desperately poor in this setting so popular with BBC and its viewers. Great stories with strong women characters.

9. "House of Cards" in either the BBC or American version. Both are outstanding and give a nauseating look inside our political systems. Fine writing by people who know the political climates of these two countries.

Marielle Enos of "The Killing".
10. "The Newsroom" is generally at the top of any of these lists written by a guy in the business, but I find that after a while everybody sounds alike--excessively brilliant and witty, using the same types of jokes ad nauseum. Still, the issues are real even if the people aren't and it's fun for a while listening to just how funny these newsies can be.

Honorable mention: "Copper," set in 1864 Five Points, NYC ("The Gangs of New York" inspired) is a poor man's "Ripper Street," but often entertaining and even gripping. "The Bletchley Circle" features a group of very bright code-breaking British women in WWII. "Luther" is Idris Elba's series, the one that has launched him--though he's Black--into the discussion of being "the next James Bond." "Mr. Selfridge" deals with the early 20th Century department store baron in London who is re-designing an entire industry. "Foyle's War" is an unusual cop series set in London at the height of WWII and is quite good.

If none of this works for you, pick up a book, and you can start with one of mine (see top right, left of blog for suggestions, links, payment methods, etc.).