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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.