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2014: The Glorious Bubble of Scripted Television 

End of December, and time to take stock and make lists. Here I go again with a series of posts to discuss my favorite media experiences of the year.

I begin with television, our intimate, ubiquitous, omnivorous medium, which of course now includes digital-native content. (Here are  my 2011, 2012 and 2013 choices).

My focus here is mostly scripted TV, and my, oh my, there is a lot to consider – as many as 350 new and returning scripted series ordered for the 2014-15, and that doesn’t include digital-only networks, which are investing hundreds of millions in new product. Says Variety: “Industry executives are quietly starting to use the B-word” (bubble) with worries that the bubble will inevitably burst.

What’s behind this surge? (besides greed)... well, it’s us – the audience – a “staggering level of engagement viewers now have with favorite programs,” according to John Landgraf, who heads cable’s FX Network. 

1) Transparent (Amazon Studios) – The irony in this outrageous dramedy of Angeleno family dysfunction is that the most “normal” person in sight is the guy in a dress, namely the divine Jeffrey Tambor, born as Mort Pfefferman, but finally coming out as Maura, a transvestite. His ex-wife, played by Judith Light, is the apotheosis of the Jewish mother, and together they raised a brood of world-class neurotics. Episodes unfold as each of the three kids – Sarah, Josh, and Ali – learn of their father’s new life, and we (the audience) learn via flashbacks of Mort’s journey from college professor with a secret to full-fledged commitment to his emotionally appropriate gender identity. Be forewarned, you have never heard dialog like this on TV, I mean never. Nor had I, at least, ever experienced quite the tone of melancholy, joy, sadness, pain and craziness all jumbled up into a coherent and satisfying package. Bonus: authenticity in the representation of Los Angeles’ many neighborhoods.

2) The Americans (FX) – Season 2 got even better, as we dive into both sides of the spycraft culture in 1980’s Washington, D.C. under Ronald Reagan. Our KGB agent couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings and their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, are tangled in a complex web of missions and actions, believably tied to the real world Cold War struggle we all lived through, but unable to escape their own personal demons, just to spice up the action. The cast is breathtaking, and so are the wigs. I’m particularly fond of Margo Martindale as the ruthless old KGB handler, though we got much less of her this season. The palpable uncredited star of the show is the deadening suburban culture to which both sides have been sentenced and from which the world of spycraft offers an escape. This is a world of truly harrowing assignments, tarnished ideals, persistent doubts, lies, double- and triple-crosses, and yet, love and an odd, asymmetrical form of beauty seeps into scene after scene. This is spy love without the cynicism. 

3) Peaky Blinders – Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix/BBC) – A crime family to rival the Corleones, the Shelby clan are Irish ex-pats living in Birmingham after the first World War, clawing their way up from a hardscrabble neighborhood to London over the course of 12 glorious episodes. Led by Cillian Murphy, a monster mobster with one a beautiful screen face and an awesome haircut, this BBC production is typically pristine, with design and photography that often simply takes away the breath -- perfect for a nice weekend binge, which is what Netflix enabled me to do when I was down with a flu. Performances by A-class actors like Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor provide almost as much pleasure as a propulsive narrative tale of intrigue involving British toffs, Irish (both orange and green) IRA terrorists, spies, counter-spies, labor agitators, Bolsheviks, and dueling gangs of Jews, Irish, and Italians.

4) Silicon Valley (HBO) – Mike Judge nails the geek gestalt of today’s tech start-up culture with laugh-out-loud insanity. Just when these characters teeter beyond the edge of stereotype, we get something so wonderfully specific and crazy that, well, we just laugh out loud. The pinnacle of the season was, of course, the finale, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” which combines so many geek tropes and fanboy obsessions that to simply describe the scenario defies belief, but, believe me, it was delish.

5) True Detective (HBO) – The first few episodes created a kind of nationwide communal frenzy, due in part to the frisson of having two movie stars on our TV screen doing such great and peculiar work, and the sheer energy of Pizzolatto’s writing. This may be the last major series in which we can stand quite so many flashbacks – for we had both major characters being interviewed by a detective, and their individualized takes on the past criminal events they were both involved with. This design of narrative structure, of course, underscores the ambiguity of memory and the consequences of untruthiness, and it works here better than most. Much has been made of the high-falutin’ dialog delivered by McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, and I for one enjoyed the hell out of it. But for me, it was Harrelson’s more subtle and restrained performance as an angry, guilty, and deeply flawed cop that grabbed me. The stylistic coherence of a consistent director and cinematographer throughout the entire series furthered our experience of a singular cinematic form of storytelling, exemplified by the long follow-shot in Episode 4, when Rust (and the camera) tracks the bad guys for a full six minutes in one take. By the end, the quirkiness began to feel a bit Baroque, especially as all the narrative tricks had to get tied up to make any sense. But altogether, this is one of those game-changers for television.

6) Fargo (FX) The first surprise was how tonally spot-on Noah Hawley’s reimagining of the Coen Brothers comic noir crime turned out to be. The movie and miniseries are similar in setting and character type, while telling a different story. The uniformly excellent cast present as serious, but play as hilarious, especially Martin Freeman as white-bread insurance agent Lester Nygaard and Billy Bob Thornton as the philosophically vicious villain Lorne Malvo, among others. I loved the nearly operatic orchestration of Biblical infestations of Oliver Platt’s grocery store, designed to trigger his guilt complex for finding a shitload of money in a snowdrift. And the inept gun fight in a snowstorm. And the tipsy and sexy window with the nasty brain-dead kids who seduces Lester. Really, every bit of storytelling is gorgeously designed as little set-pieces that left me, at least, gasping with laughter and admiration.

7) The Honorable Woman (Sundance/BBC) is an espionage thriller set In London and the Middle East centering upon a wealthy and philanthropic Jewish family – Maggie Gyllenhaal as sister Nessa and Andrew Buchan as brother Ephra – whose secrets lead to the kidnapping of a child. These are the children of privilege who are trying to use their money and power to chart a “middle way” between the mortal enemies in Palestine, the source of much of the family’s fortune. The unraveling of the why, and who knew what when, not to mention a boatload of serious character defects, put one in mind much more of the flawed LeCarre characters than the central heroes that most TV shows serve up. There are a lot of surprising revelations as the story (and the lives of the main characters) unravel.  And a truly fearless performance by the gifted Gyllenhall.

8) The Leftovers (HBO) Deeply mysterious, often annoying, frequently gripping drama that doesn’t seem to care if it’s not a popular way to tell a story, The Leftovers offers the kind of tale that is usually delivered through science fiction, that is a “what-if” scenario played out as psychological drama. What if 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared? We never find out why this thing happened. But, like 9/11 or the bubonic plague, the aftermath is shattering. Three years later in small town in upstate New York we have shattered families, remembrance cults, government bureaucrats quizzing survivors for benefits, and runaways in the hands of false and horny prophets. The protagonist is the chief of police, having replaced his own father who lost his mind and whose wife has gone over to the cult. I have no interest in “the rapture” or other supernatural fairy tales of certain religious groups, but I do have an interest in finely written and daring drama, and this certainly filled the bill.

9) Sons of Anarchy (FX)– The last and seventh season was, to me at least, compulsively watchable as the chickens come home to roost, following Gemma’s murderous rage spree at the end of last season, and Jax’s relentless commitment to avenge Tara’s death. I loved it, flaws and all, and there were many, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve enjoyed the literate, ultraviolent biker culture served up by psychotic showrunner Kurt Sutter over the years, but I really didn’t fall for the “Shakespearean” bullshit being slung about, especially during the execrably self-promoting after-show, watchable only by hopeless fanboys and people who like commercials. Of course, there’s the intensity of the human interactions. These people really know how to hate, and therefore, how to love; it’s primal, senseless, crazy human storytelling, with a kind of nobility that’s only possible when the characters as well as the producers inhabit a world of their own making. In other words, it’s better fantasy than fantasy genre stuff.

10) The Missing (Starz/BBC) – I love good procedurals, and this one had interlocking police threads from different phases of a multi-year story to juggle, along some seriously disturbing people and plot twists. I began to stop caring somewhere about 2/3 into it, though, in part because, kind of like “Damages” a few years back, I just didn’t have the energy to piece together the little out-of-sequence bits into a coherent whole. And then, when we finally get the solution, well, meh. That said, the actors and the atmosphere were first-rate, and I did make it through to the end, more than I bet will be true for the network try and time-shifting narrative, e.g., How to Get away with Murder.

11) Homeland (Showtime) Like most other fans, I was thrilled when this excellent contemporary spy thriller left the poorly rendered dysfunctional family crap behind and returned to form in Season 4, though with a somewhat sputtering start. Once Carrie got focused as Station Chief in Islamabad, whoa boy, what a ride. The centrality of fellow agent Peter Quinn and a new cast of Pakistani spy figures added immeasurably to Carrie’s woes, as did the subplot of the mole and numerous switchback plot elements. At its heart, and why this year was so much better, is the explosive and luminous performance of Claire Danes, a truly great actor.

12) Not scripted, but still damn good: Sonic Highways (HBO), in which Dave Grohl and his band Foo Fighters travel to cities across the U.S., find an emblematic recording space (usually, but not always an iconic studio), and spend a week prepping a single song that represents Grohl’s own journey as a sort of musical archeologist. Season One brought us to Chicago, D.C., Nashville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Austin, and New York City. Grohl documents his conversations with a wonderful array of artists and music business figures, tumbles it with interesting historic clips, songs and images, and layers it into the admittedly self-reverential music performance that ends each episode. These little gems don’t purport to provide a comprehensive history of each city’s musical heritage, but dang, there are some really, really interesting facts and relationships explored, enough to keep this retro fan tapping my foot and making Spotify playlists galore. 

I also enjoyed this year, but couldn’t quite bring myself to rave (perhaps I’ve run out of superlatives: HBO's Veep; FX's You're the Worst; Sundance’s Rectify (intense), HBO’s Olive Kitteridge (pristine); HBO’s John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (passionate); the HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart (anger and fury all over again); Showtime’s Masters of Sex, especially episode three, “Fight”; AMC’s truncated half-season of Mad Men; FX’s Louie, Girls (HBO), The Knick (Cinemax); , BBC’s The Game; Orange is the New Black (Netflix); Justified (FX);  Game of Thrones (HBO); and, guilty pleasure that it is: FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show.

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    This is a universe of really frightening assignments, discolored beliefs, diligent questions, lies, twofold and triple-crosses, but then, cherish and an odd, hilter kilter type of excellence saturates scene after scene.
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