I watch an inordinate amount of TV, and yet, I don’t write reviews on an episode by episode basis because I know so many of you watch when you can, and, as the name states…no spoilerz! BUT, that doesn’t mean I can’t give you a general outline of shows you might not otherwise watch if someone didn’t nudge you a little bit. So with that in mind, here are some compact suggestions, considered reviews, pleading recommendations, and outright chastisements of shows that did not make the Fall Schedule, but instead found there way on to replacement/spring network calendars. There is no rhyme or reason to what I have chosen to discuss here…some started in January and have recently completed, some started a few weeks ago, and a handful had their season premieres in the last week or so. I’ll also mention a couple that that can be streamed or rented that you more than likely haven’t heard of…but should. So…
In alphabetical order:
“Almost There” (Audience Network on DirecTV):
Season 1 currently airing
I had not heard a whit about this show until one of my agents started to describe a scene while giggling. That’s more than enough for me to give it a whirl. So I watched the pilot episode and was immediately hooked – watching the next three in succession. Do you remember how much you liked “Rescue Me” when it was first on? When it was just incredibly funny, clever and watchable? Also, remember how funny Steven Pasquale was on that show? Well, it’s a lot like that with a whole lot of him. Pasquale plays a disbarred-psychiatrist-turned-professor desperately trying to find sincere companionship in Manhattan. Oh, and of course he has some wacky neighbors in his apartment building, most notably, the hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald. I swear…it’s very, very funny and I’m, not sure why it’s not on a network or service with more eyeballs. Lucky for me, I have DirecTV. Seek it out.
“The Americans” (FX):
Currently halfway through season 4
Amongst the best written and best performed shows on television, “The Americans” lost its way a bit last season, I thought. There was some INCREDIBLE work, to be sure, but what lies at the heart of the show is the specter of Phillip and Elizabeth being caught. Season 3 became a little too bogged down in ideology – even if some of the scene work was simply incredible. But season 4 has thus far been as tension-filled as TV gets, with one or two utterly shocking events. Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys continue to amaze, Noah Emmerich is both loathsome and heartbreaking, and all the secondary characters never disappoint, especially Alison Wright as the hapless Martha. And, like everyone else who watches, I am utterly in love with the spectacular Annet Mahendru (Nina). If you have not started this show…uh…what the hell are you waiting for?! And, if you were a little burnt out from last season’s philosophical treatises …come back. It’s never been better…
“Black Sails” (Starz)
Season 3 just finished airing
This was originally a guilty pleasure of mine. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean-subject matter meets Game of Thrones-violent realism? Come on! BUT…the show just keeps getting better and better. Sure, the dialogue alternates back and forth between pre-Victorian misogyny and Shakespearean sonnets, but the characters and, more importantly, the performances, are ALWAYS interesting. None more so than the two Toby’s. Toby Stephens, as Captain Flint, keeps this show soaring. His backstory is incredible and it shows on every line of his face, even if it is contradicted by everything going on in the present. He performs with such intensity and depth of emotion, it’s pretty difficult to keep your eyes off him. Toby Schmitz, as Jack Rackham, is blessed with the type of dialogue usually reserved for Peter Dinklage on “Thrones”, and he delivers those lines with just as much dripping sarcasm. But I’d be remiss not to mention that “Black Sails” absolutely revolves around it’s women. The four lead female characters on this show are the true power brokers in this world, and Clara Paget, as the pirate Anne Bonny, is simply fascinating. The series is smart, funny, exciting, beautifully shot and never dull – especially on this most recent season. Forget the subject matter. Watch this show because it’s one of the very few big budget adventure shows that gets it right in the most mature ways.
“Deutschland 83” – Germany (Sundance Network/Hulu)
Season 1 available now
A worthy companion to “The Americans”, this eight-episode thriller revolves around a young East German soldier who is recruited to act as a West German attache to spy for the Stasi. In German with subtitles, it’s a fascinating look at the immediate temptations, misunderstandings and cultural differences between the two ideologies separated by a long wall. That it doesn’t quite reach the level of quality “The Americans” possesses says more about which culture we share a language and history, than it does about which show is more intriguing. But I will say it is WELL worth the time commitment.
(On a side note, if you would prefer to watch a film about a similar subject, then watch the 2007 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner, “The Lives of Others” – sensational)
Season 1 just premiered
This show, at least based on its pilot, is exactly what you would expect…only better. Andrew “Dice” Clay has always been two entities. There is Andrew Clay, a very funny, self-aware comedian and wonderful actor (see “Vinyl” for proof), and then there is “Dice”, the misogynist persona that became a cultural phenomenon so quickly, the former could never control the latter. And it is the median of this balancing act that makes the show work. It’s just enough Andrew to be charming (his relationships seem sincere…and his actions are earnest), and just enough “Dice” to be brutally uncomfortable. The pilot episode involves the nature of luck both in a casino and in a chapel hosting a gay wedding. I found it to be laugh-out-loud funny, but, as in all things, your mileage may vary. Special mention to Clay’s sidekick, “Milkshake”, played with deadpan sincerity by the always excellent, Kevin Corrigan. Give it a shot.
“Doc Martin” (ITV/Acorn)
First six seasons on Netflix/Amazon Prime – Most recent season available via Acorn TV subscription via AppleTV or Amazon Prime
The Anti-“Dice”, “Doc Martin” might be the most “quaint” or “provincial” show ever made. In fact, it’s been so effusive in its cuteness I lsot interest over the last couple seasons – watching only when I was bored, and to keep up in hopes it would find its way again. Then, for some reason, I recently watched the first episode of Season 7, and to my utter surprise, it was again filled with substance. Their was ACTUAL drama in the relationships… failures, hurts, slights…and this little adjustment allowed the funny to flourish. Martin Clunes “Doc” is a brilliant construct, and now that he is once again free to react to situations, instead of create them, he’s at his best! Aside from a bizarre guest appearance by Sigourney Weaver, which felt more like she wanted a paid vacation in the Cornish countryside than a worthwhile casting choice, the remaining characters are imbued with real stakes in season 7, and are played with more intensity. If you, like me, were over the preciousness and precociousness of previous seasons, come on back. I found it (and the season finale) to be incredibly satisfying.
Season 1 available now
I waded through four episodes of this Will Arnett vehicle. Alas, I gave up. I just stopped giving a shit…mostly because I couldn’t for the life of me tell if I was supposed to find Arnett’s character awful (and thus, hilarious – like Gob), or sad, lonely and empathetic. Regardless, I’m not sure Arnett knows either, and, as a result, it becomes a show about a group of semi-despicable late-thirty something AA members who spend all their time trying to sleep with age-inappropriate millennial girls (Ruth Kearney and Lina Esco – both stunning) by using sayings from the AA Big Book as bait. Add to that, the jokes are incredibly place-specific…BLOCK specific, in fact…Abbott Kinney two blocks north of Venice Boulevard on the east side of the street. That would be fine if the jokes were about the characters’ neighborhood agorophobia, a la “Seinfeld”. But no, the jokes are about how crazy it is that there are people in the world who choose not to live there. I found the whole endeavor tiresome. Or maybe it hit a little too close to my experiences as a single person in L.A. (minus the AA part). Regardless, “Flaked” is the very definition of meh.
“The Girlfriend Experience” (Starz)
Season 1 currently airing
A dreadfully dull series based on the dreadfully dull 2006 Soderbergh-helmed film. The pilot episode was so boring , I could hardly stay awake. Now, you have to WORK to make a series about the intersection of fantasy and commerce this dull. It’s very…sleek and wistful…like the film. But it’s all so detached, that there is nothing to bring the viewer in. Perhaps it will get better in subsequent episodes, but our heroine, Riley Keough, who is quite lovely, is incredibly unlikable and robotic. And even the inclusion of the great Paul Sparks is not enough to bring this sleeper to life. Unless you like your television sex served up ICE cold, you can skip this.
“Generation War” – Germany (Netflix)
Full mini series available now
This wonderful three-part mini-series from 2013 most closely resembles a German “Band of Brothers”, but this series follows those who were living in Berlin throughout the War, giving us a 360 degree view of how the war affected all youth, not just those who saw deployment. It will challenge our long-held views, reminding us that those drafted in to the Wehrmacht were not all Nazi sympathizers and that the great “Nazi horde” included people a whole lot like you and me…born in to the wrong place at the wrong time. It is wonderfully written, superbly shot and, if subtitles are any indication, very well-acted. I add it to this list because, now that it is available to stream on Netflix, it should be required viewing, as far as I’m concerned. If you have a few hours, just turn it on and enjoy.
“House of Lies” (Showtime)
Season 5 just premiered
Man, talk about an inconsistent show…I’m talking from season to season, episode to episode and scene to scene. Sometimes it’s a hilarious workroom comedy, other times it’s a psychological drama about the nature of greed, and still other times it’s a voyeuristic softcore porn fest. That said, I’m awfully fond of some of its finer moments, which happen with enough regularity that I continue to watch. Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell may be the leads, but the reason I come back is because of the interplay between them, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson. Their chemistry makes for some very, very funny stuff and the “His Girl Friday”-esque speed of the very mature dialogue, is remarkable. “Californication”-esque, even. The aforementioned psycho-social commentary isn’t a detriment, but it’s hardly revolutionary, and the sexual content, while certainly not unpleasant, is not shocking enough to add much to the discussion. No, if you watch this at all, it’s because of the four main characters, and their ability to cut each other down with such delicious words.
“Orphan Black” (BBC America)
Season 4 just premiered
Sigh. I loved this show its first two seasons…but last season felt like they brought a bunch of ‘shrooms in to the writers’ room and said, “let’s see how weird we can make this!” So, instead of focusing on Maslany’s bizarre and varied creations, we were sidetracked by ridiculous and overly complex scifi plot craziness. So, imagine my surprise when the first episode of this new season actually rediscovered that which makes this thing go…her considerable acting chops! I have no idea if this will continue throughout the season, but it seems promising and was long overdue. Listen, if you watch this show already, you’re hooked. If you don’t, then you should, because even when it loses its way, there is Maslany (and her three, four, five or six characters) to keep you thoroughly engaged. And the plot, secondary characters and production values are just superior enough to make “Orphan Black” appointment viewing in the spring.
Season 2 just premiered
No, I did not read the book. Yes, I loved much of the first season. The acting is fine, although everything about the show is better when Tobias Menzies (Frank/Jack Randall) is onscreen. But, for me, the second season (based solely on the premiere episode) does not bode well. What made the first season go for me was the “will she or won’t she go back” mystery. When that is not the focal point…yawn. And now that we’re in France and away from the vistas of the western Highlands (and if you’ve never been, what the hell are you waiting for?), I’m just not as intrigued. I’ll probably force my way through for a bit longer, but it’s a short leash. (and, not for nothing, the theme song may be the worst in television history)
“This Is England 86”, “…88”, “…90” – UK (Channel Four)
VPN required to stream all three seasons
There’s an amazing film from 2006 called “This Is England”, which is a fictional account of how kids with no hope of a future were seduced by the skinhead movement during the Thatcher years. It’s one of the best British films in recent history and led to three television series on Channel Four in the UK. They, like the film, are brilliant, funny, heartbreaking, violent, loving and most of all, very, very human. The acting is sublime and the dialogue is honest and mesmerizing. But the stories of these people…like in many of the greatest character driven shows (“Six Feet Under”, “Friday Night Lights”, etc)…feel very personal. Additionally, since we are not privy to all the years of their growth, following them, as we do, in the specific years of ’83, ’86, ’88 and ’90, it is left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks, which work to the stories’ advantage – as do the shifts in pop culture (from the post-punk to raves). As with “Generation War” and “Deutschland”, I’m sure we are missing some of the poignancy and nuance, since we are not of the show’s world, but if you can find it…don’t miss it. At the very least, watch the film!
Season finale airs this Sunday
Yes, I reviewed this already…but that was a comparison of Scorsese’s pilot versus the first weekly episodic offering. Having now seen everything but the season finale, I can safely say this is a drama well worth the effort. Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde and Juno Temple are reason enough to stick with it, but the story finally gets out of its own way. And even though Cannavale’s Richie Finnestra, is often unbearable to watch, and every direction as it relates to his character follows suit (I mean, enough with the crash and zoom every time he takes a bump of coke), you do develop a relationship with his company, if not him. Even the conceit of having music acts shadow-perform songs that fit a particular plot or mood, which under Scorsese’s direction seemed brutally hackneyed, have become some of my favorite moments of the series. But, truly, Romano and Wilde should be prominently mentioned come Emmy nomination season. Finally, the Elvis Presley scene may be one of the strangest and most heartbreaking scenes ever shot. Kudos to Shawn Wayne Klush, whose Elvis is as three dimensional as you’ve ever seen him. If you gave up on the show, spend a little more time with it. I’m really grateful I did.
Written on 4/16/2016