Grief, homicide investigations, reincarnation (sort of), and murder aren’t the kind of things you think of when searching for something to spend a few hours with. Or maybe they are, given the multitude of murder mysteries out there in the TV landscape (none more prevalent than the granddaddy of them all, “Game of Thrones”). Yet the current seasons of these five shows…well, four, anyway…are worthy of your time, even if they deal with the subject in wildly differing manners….
“After Life” (Netflix)
Created by Ricky Gervais
You’d be forgiven for having more than a little Gervais fatigue after the baffling (but great) “Derek”; the misguided and unfunny, “David Brent: Life on the Road”; and his terrific but challenging stand-up special, “Humanity”. You might even allow that fatigue to prevent you from watching his latest Netflix series, “After Life”. That would be a massive mistake.
With “After Life”, Gervais has found the perfect scenario and outlet for his humor, his doubt regarding the religious veiws of our existence, and his ability to communicate wide swaths of emotion (giddy cackling to Jeff Ross-like disgust) as regards the world we currently live in. How does that translate to his audience? Well, each of the six densely filled, 30-minute episodes has us alternately laughing-out-loud and desperately reaching for our fiftieth Kleenex. Its writing is so tight and so successfully compressed, there’s little room to be distracted by the every-day. If anything, you need a minute when the episodes are over to regain your thoughts, snap out of the re-living of your own losses, and the introspection of how you handled them.
Surrounding himself with actors he’s worked with before, and who know how to expertly maneuver through the dangerous waters of Gervais’ writing, as well as some of the UK’s finest, there is nothing to get in the way of his character’s journey. Kerry Godliman, who also starred in “Derek”, keeps the series grounded and gives it its purpose. Acting as context, antagonist of sorts, and love interest, you find yourself falling in love with her almost from the very first words of the series. Longtime Gervais’ vets, Mandeep Dhillon (who manages to elevate a very thinly written character to the lofty heights of muse) and Diane Morgan (both ridiculous and marvelously human as the bane of Gervais’ office existence) are perfect. Longtime Brit character actor (and one-time Doctor Who), David Bradley, is brilliant as his dad. Roison Conaty kills as the sympathetic…well…the less said the better. And Ashley Jensen rounds out the main cast with her ballsy sensuality and humane demeanor.
But there are three performances that stand out. Tim Plester (Black Walder Rivers from “Game of Thrones”) gives the most gut-punching performance of the show. A kindred spirit to Gervais, he, not for a second, plays anything for laughs, which is essential for his journey. The great Penelope Winter (“Downton Abbey’s” Lady Krawley) is the perfect mouthpiece for the show’s guiding principles and of empathy, heartbreak, and healing. And, finally, there is, of course, Gervais himself. EASILY his most three-dimensional role, you will be astonished at his range…and subtlety. Not at all pathetic, as almost every other character he’s created for himself is, Tony is a prick for a reason, and you forgive him almost immediately…even while being reviled at some of his words and actions. Brilliant work.
Are there problems? Of course. The show winds up WAY too fast…and, if I’m being honest, a touch too saccharin. And the music, as evidenced by the trailer, is unnecessarily cutesy and intrusive. None of which should keep you from watching “After Life”. It vaults to my favorite show of the winter.
Trailer here (The trailer is terrible and the show lasts a three hours in total, so just watch it.)
(I mean it, terrible)
“Bosch” – Season 5 (AmazonPrime)
Created by Michael Connelly & Eric Overmeyer
The exact opposite of a tear-jerker, it’s the next installment of the Michael Connelly-based, L.A. noir, detective story, “Bosch”. And while the world of the series is DEADLY serious, there is still plenty of chuckles, most of which comes down to the cop-speak that infuses almost every breath of the show. In other words, all the dialogue is one big, “no kidding, dipshit”, with an eyebrow raise. And, perhaps, more than anything else, it’s this that has kept me around for five seasons.
Well, that and, gratefully, the plots are mostly up to the task. With the exception of season two, which was way too over the top for a show this subtle, the stories, and the stories within the stories, are deserving of the Michael Connelly imprimatur. Interestingly, this season tackles a much bigger overarching issue. While at first I worried it would be too much for the dark stillness of the show, in the end, it really came together quite brilliantly, and in a way that perfectly fits Bosch’s modus operandi…and his vast savior complex. Yes, occasionally the side stories seem completely unhinged from the goings-on of the rest of the season – especially some of the LAPD politics, but kudos to Connelly for tackling these issues in a detective show. Don’t worry, however. You’ll feel the need to know who actually ‘dunnit’ by the time you get there. And even if it’s been revealed barely two-thirds of the way through the season, you’ll want to stick around for the what comes after.
Why? Because Titus Welliver is brilliant in the role. It takes a while to get used to his crockpot-paced slow burn mixed with his jazz-loving good-guyness, but each season, he becomes more comfortable in the role. And in this fifth season, he has disappeared into Harry Bosch. Positively seething with a mixture of anger, grief, unacknowledged PTSD and a big ole dose of disdain for the people he deals with, he still manages to show the small moments of familial love and playful teasing that make up a human being.
It doesn’t hurt that he has a brilliant supporting cast around him. Jamie Hector as his partner, J Edgar, is back again, and thank god. He behaves and responds as you would imagine you would in the same situation; alternately shaking his head in disbelief and supporting his partner in every emotional way necessary. We’ve pretty much watched Madison Lintz grow up as Bosch’s daughter. She is occasionally exasperating, but in exactly the way a teen would be. More importantly, there is real love in the relationship. Amy Aquino, one of the great character actors, is a nice change from the Homicide Lieutenant we usually get in these shows. Strong, funny, and caring, you almost wish she would say “Let’s be careful out there”, but she never needs to. Gregory Scott Cummins and Troy Evans, better known as Crate and Barrel, continue to make the most of their brilliant written characters. And this season they finally have the amount of screen and story time you’d wish for. And, lo and behold, Mimi Rogers is back, and, not for nothing, kicks ass.
And lest I forget, the dark side of Los Angeles remains a central figure. Just as dirty, bleak and phony as ever, it is, nonetheless hypnotic. I did notice that the blue sheen that pervaded season four (not coincidentally when Michael McDonaugh was the cinematographer) has been replaced by a sort of hyper-color palette. That’s probably the wrong phrase. A better way of putting it might be that each color is very much that color…even when it is pitch black. It’s a welcome change since that fluorescent effect is becoming way over-utilized in our filmed entertainment options (see “Ozark”).
So…if you’re thinking that I’m gushing a bit, I am. It’s certainly not a perfect show, but this season comes as close as it has thus far, and it is well worth your time to get to know the guy.
Season 5 trailer here
“Endeavour” – Season 7 (coming this summer to PBS)
Written by Colin Dexter & Russell Lewis
If you’re not watching “Endeavour” at this point, I’m not sure what I can tell you to get you there. One of the very few ninety-minute film presentations from ITV (or the BBC, for that manner) still remaining, “Endeavour” has been, and continues to be, terrific. It nails period like very few television shows, it remains true to its original stylistic and environmental choices like Krazy Glue (with the exception of the bizarro third season), and offers brilliant performances and scripts. Oh, and two of the three mini-mysteries that make up season seven just might be their most intricate and satisfying.
Make no mistake, these whodunits are incredibly British. And in complete contrast to “Bosch”, what you see is what you get. There is very little of that show’s darkness…even if the stories are equally dark. As they are entirely in and about the town (and university) of Oxford, they are absolutely genteel in comparison. The show takes droll to heights never before seen – and it works. Best of all, it stays true to the arcs of its characters from seasons past. As a result, we feel we know these characters, a feeling without which we might not go along for the ride. Not that I’m saying the stories rely on this familiarity. They’d work just fine as stand-alone made-for-television movies. But the combination makes them all the more intense and whole.
The usual suspects…err…main characters return. Shaun Evans, as the young detective Endeavour Morse, remains every bit the brilliant opera-obsessive prig we’ve come to know and root for. Roger llam’s DCI Thursday is back again. He’s been written with a bit too much sorrow and mirth this time ’round, perhaps, but the show wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without his terse asides. The gorgeous Sara Vickers is back to give Morse another kick in the heartstrings. And the King’s Landing Maister we love to hate, Anton Lesser, is back as the hopelessly out-of-touch, Police Superintendent Bright, whom we love to root for. Best of all, the show seems to realize how much we love James Bradshaw’s Dr. DeBryn, and, as a result, has given him MUCH more screen time. Less successful, but ultimately fine as Reginald Box, the new sheriff in town, is Simon Harrison, but even that may simply come down to just how different his character’s style is from those we know…and how obvious the writing for him is.
“Endeavour” may not reach the lofty heights of “Luther” or “Sherlock”, nor capture the emotional angst of “DCI Banks”. But given that none of those shows are currently airing, you could do SO much worse than Endeavour!
No trailer yet, but here’s the Season One trailer
“The OA” – Season 2 (Netflix)
Created by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling
So you say you dug the craziness of “The OA’s” first season. Well, then, get a load of season two! While it lacks the freshness of that season’s constant discovery, it more than makes up for it in its three concurrent, and, ultimately related, narratives this time ’round. And while, I too, was a fan of the first, I often felt it placed style over substance, and chose shock value that occasionally over-reached. Not so, season two. These narratives are suspenseful and tick off all the mystery-genre boxes, while not losing that sense of the unknown.
This season is about solving mysteries. Toward that end, those three inline stories involve OA’s epic struggle against evil, a cabal of students searching for meaning after the horror of the first season’s last episode (a search that leads to a modern Odyssean voyage across the country), and a video-game-come-to-life, noir-esque search for a missing girl by a private dick. If that seems like it’s a bit much…well…it is. And some are more successful than others. For instance the latter narrative is the most successful in terms of story-telling. In fact, whenever the show would veer too far away from San Franciscan detective, Karim (perfectly played by Brit character actor Kingsley Ben-Adir), my mind began to wander. Of the three tales, it has, by far, the least amount of talking, explaining and contextualizing. It moves…has a drive and isn’t stopped cold by some new twist in the discovery of the multi-dimensional universe the rest of the show lives in. In fact, it feels a bit like an episode of “Black Mirror”, especially when it finally reaches its zenith – and end…both of which are fantastic.
The cross country travel is aided more by its terrific performances than its story. Brenden Mayer steals the season, but the other five actors are right behind him. They each face their own self-realizations along the way, but none are more powerful or honest than Mayer’s. Brandon Perea also has a wonderful scene as he struggles to accept his truest self. And, of course, Phyllis Smith is terrific, even if her story jumps the turnstile in the last couple episodes, leaving you thinking, “wait, did I miss an episode?”
Interestingly, the least successful of the story lines involves OA, herself. Meandering, unfocused and ultimately unsatisfying, these moments spend a WHOLE lot of time telling us what’s happening…instead of showing us…a pet peeve of mine. Further, some of the stuff it DOES actually show us is straight up absurd…with no great underlying meaning. In other words, be prepared to roll your eyes during one specific scene. And while it tries like hell, and, to be fair, occasionally succeeds, there is only so much tension that can be built in that environment. And worst of all, the ending of THIS storyline feels incredibly false…or did to me. None of which is the fault of the performers who inhabit it, including returning cast members Jason Isaacs, Emory Cohen and show creator and matriarch, Brit Marling. They are all superb, as is a truly creepy Vincent Kartheiser, who, in his few episodes, leaves quite an impression.
But, it must be said, that while I’m being incredibly harsh about specifics, this is still extremely intelligent, interesting and, in many spots, captivating television. It’s visuals are gorgeously conceived and it does challenge our assumptions about the genre. Just be prepared for a very different experience from that of the premiere season.
Oh…and it’s WORLDS better than…
Second season trailer here
“True Detective” – Season 3 (HBO/HBONow)
Created by Nic Pizzolatto
I suppose all you need to know is that I watched this three weeks ago, and without the aid of multiple synopses, I can’t remember anything about it beyond the performances of Mahershala Ali, Scoot McNairy, Stephen Dorff and Carmen Ejogo.
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad. Lord knows this season is practically “The Sopranos” when held up against its second season. But, as shouldn’t be a surprise, this go ’round is much more concerned with keeping it creepy, rather than engaging. Pizzolatto is certainly consistent in his belief in style over substance. And, for some people, that may be enough. Me? I found it straight up meh. The first season was brilliant because it had both that horrific creepiness and characters whose idiosyncrasies grabbed you and wouldn’t let go. The current season sure could’ve used some of the latter. It’s straight up dull in many spots and never lives up to its time-shifting premise. The mystery is never mysterious or dangerous enough. The shifts don’t particularly reveal anything, and, worst of all, the characters are drab.
None of which are the actor’s fault. Mahershala Ali tries like hell and portrays the different times in a man’s life with ease and success. But the writing is almost identical in each era, so…why? Stephen Dorff has none of the charisma of Woody Harrelson or the conviction of Rachel McAdams. The minor characters are fine, but utterly stock. Even the great Scoot McNairy is stuck in wailing dad-land. Of the main characters, Carmen Ejogo comes closest to being a real entity and she manages to make the show slightly more interesting. Some of the minor character performances are terrific, none better than Michael Greyeyes. If only the rest of the cast had been offered enough in the writing to allow them to match his commitment to his character, emotional state and past…
Of the five shows discussed here, this is easily the one to miss, unless you are a True Detective fanatic. You’d have to be. But to be sure, there are four other shows mentioned here that are a much better way to spend a few nights!
Season three Trailer here