I am not a fan of television in general, I would rather go out and do something than watch other people doing things. However, I have found that my midday break which may or may not include a meal is an excellent time to decompress and go in for some mainstream entertainment. I used to fill this time watching documentaries trying to further my education and expand my horizons and all that. Then, we discovered Netflix.
We signed up because I thought it would be great to be able to pick up those obscure films and documentaries that I love but the local video stores had never heard of, much less carry. It has been awesome for that and has saved us a bundle, as I am no longer buying those films. Even better than the films, though, has been the great selection of television shows I had missed out on. So here are some of my TV discoveries over the last couple of years. It is a little BBC heavy, but what can I say, they make great television that shows respect for the viewer’s intellect. I am also a little surprised to see how many sci-fi shows are on here, I would not have classified myself as a sci-fi fan, but there they are. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:
BallyKissangel– This great BBC drama/comedy tells the story of a Catholic priest who is relocated to a small Irish town. Great characterizations and just a fantastically entertaining show. It was filmed on location in Avoca, County Wicklow, so the visuals are stunning. It does a great job of presenting life in the countryside without falling back on caricatures. Although this ran for six seasons, and I enjoyed them all, the real gem here is the story arc in seasons 1 and 2.
MI-5 (aka Spooks)- This BBC drama tracks the adventures of the officers of the UK equivalent of our FBI. Once again, great characterizations, timely topics and a willingness to look into the dark side of things. God bless the BBC for respecting it’s viewers intelligence.
Doctor Who– I missed out on the Doctor Who craze the first time around, although I remember seeing it and not getting it at all, I guess I was too young. The new adventures of the Doctor have made me a total fanboy. Very well-written, great characters who do logical things and a flair for fun that, frankly, surprised me in a BBC series. Season 1 is excellent, with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor features one of my favorite all-time television scenes (“This time everybody lives.”), but the series really takes off with David Tenant stepping into the Doctor’s shoes in season 2.
Torchwood– This Doctor Who spinoff is a quirky bit of fun that can be surprisingly dark at times. The BBC hits another homerun with this one though. It is described as a supernatural CSI: Wales meets the X-Files. Torchwood was created by Russell T. Davies, who also created the new Doctor Who series. Apparently, Torchwood, an anagram of Doctor Who, was the working title of DW in all the paperwork leading to the relaunch of the show. Sometimes it goes way over the top, but a great show nonetheless.
Dexter– Showtime produces this great series that features a forensics tech at the Miami Dade police department, who is a serial killer on the side. Definitely dark, but a great watch. They do a decent job of delving into the psyche of a sociopath who is trying to fake his way through society. They also pull off the antihero thing very well, having him only kill other serial killers who have escaped justice, a la The Vampire Lestat. Another great plus, is that htye film on location in Miami, so you can watch for your favorite spots. Big fun for me, since I have been able to spot our place there in three different episodes.
The Shield– Speaking of anitheroes, Michael Chiklis’ character Vic Mackey in The Shield, is the prototypical antihero, the corrupt cop with a heart of gold. Although, the quality comes and goes over the course of seven seasons, the story arc is a beauty. Following the lives of several characters as they move forward trying to deal with a couple of bad decisions made in the very first episode. This series does a great job of showing just how far things can snowball, and how being reactive changes the game.
Rescue Me– Dennis Leary heads this one up and I have always been a fan of his work, particularly his dramatic stuff. He is a much better actor than people give him credit for. At it’s root, Rescue Me is the story of a NYFD fire hall post 9/11. It follows the characters as they deal with moving on rebuilding the department, handling survivor’s guilt and doing the everyday business of fighting fires in the big city. Along the way they touch on everything from teen pregnancy to drug and alcohol addiction to sexuality and gender issues. On top of that, this show captures the camaraderie and over the top banter that goes on between men, when we think no one else is listening.
Firefly– Joss Whedon’s exploration of a universe where the culture of old earth is an odd mixture of Chinese and Wild West. While it doesn’t immediately sound like something you would be into, I have to say this is one of the best shows to ever make it (briefly) onto the small screen. Whedon uses a cast of stereotypical western characters, but then he turns the stereotypes on their heads by creating wonderful new settings and adventures for them to fall into. Some of the best dialogue written in the last decade found it’s way into this show. I have never been on the Whedon bandwagon, he often does good work and sometimes does incredible work (see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog), but with Firefly he created something really special. This series only lasted 13 episodes, but I find myself watching them over and over. The fanbase for this series has been so strong that it also spawned a full-length feature film, Serenity.
Battlestar Galactica– As a child of the 80’s I was fond of the original, but the new version blows it out of the water. Great acting, really strong writing and an interesting story arc that asks many relevant questions. I feel like they sometimes get lost in the story and occasionally they get a little too political and preachy for my tastes. Subtle storyline references to current events are the mark of excellent writing, beating us over the head with “torture is bad” and “boy, isn’t this ship similar to Guantanamo” messages is the mark of writers trying to be relevant. However, those moments are rare enough. There are many arguments about when, where and even if this series has jumped the shark, I will reserve judgement until we see the final season, but even with all the WTF moments this is a great series. UPDATE: Well, the saga is over and that judgement I previously reserved has now come due. The bottom line is, I am happy with the way they resolved the series. There were still several WTF moments, but taken as a whole they tied things up very neatly and even convinced me that this was “The Plan” from the beginning. A fitting end to one of the better shows on the small screen.
Deadwood– The original story arc of Deadwood was one of the best things on television. In season 1 they created something incredible, right up until Wild Bill leaves. After that, they had some great characters, great dialogue (if you can get past the historically accurate, but salty language), and a great setting, but they had no story to tell. I still enjoyed it, but it was pretty clear that this one was pitched as a mini-series that was expanded beyond it’s inspiration. Still definitely worth checking out.
Smallville– First of all, I have to make it clear, I am not a big Superman fan. Don’t misunderstand, I loved the Christopher Reeves movies, but the character is just too over the top for me. With that disclaimer out of the way, I loved the first couple of seasons of this show. Smallville, is the story of Superman, before he became Superman. It follows Clark Kent through highschool, and later college, in Smallville. It basically treats his super powers like puberty, just something he has to learn to deal with. Rather than getting bogged down in hero stuff the show focuses on trying to fit into society, being different and honesty and trust issues. Clark’s inability to share his secret with those he loves most is a recurring theme. Plus, you get to explore a nice backstory where Clark and Lex Luthor are friends whose ways part, slowly. Which also gives a nice exploration of the evolution of evil, Lex thinks he is doing the right thing, even as his acts become more despicable. The series begins to fall down after season 4 but it still has some bright spots. This one is often over-the-top, but what can you expect, it is Superman.
Californication– I have laughed out loud more during this show than anything else on television. David Duchovny’s exploration of self-centered, self-loathing Hank Moody is incredibly funny and while some of the situations seem extreme, in another way they seem like just another day in my life. Fighting for the woman he loves while making sure to never expose himself too much emotionally, while dealing with feeling of worthlessness because he has never lived up to the expectations his first book created, finding solace in women and booze while disappointing his daughter, I mean what is not to love about this guy. On top of that, this show deals with sexuality in a remarkable frank, but honest, way. They say the things we all think, which in turn makes it easier for us to talk about them afterwards, plus that means there are lots of sexy people doing sexy things.
Saving Grace– I just picked up on this one. Kinda quirky, with Holly Hunter as a rode hard and put up wet hell raising Oklahoma City cop who meets her guardian angel, Earl. Lots of great humor, some fantastic dialogue, great insights into addictive/self-destructive behaviors and theological and philosophical discussion to boot. This show also features a phenomenal supporting cast with some of the finest “character” actors you will ever see really getting the opportunity to shine. It also touches on the Oklahoma City bombing and how it changed the city and the lives of these characters, lots of survivor’s guilt to go around.
Survivorman– Les Stroud out in the wild with only his cameras and his wits, gotta love it. Since we love to hike and play out “in the wild” watching this is as close as it gets to being there. I discovered this show at my in-laws over Thanksgiving a couple of years ago and my brother-in-law (also an avid hiker) and I sat up all night watching a Survivorman marathon. Really great stuff. However, this one is better watched one episode at a time, with some distance between watching. A dude by himself with a camera, tends to say similar things when faced with similar situations. Too much Survivorman in one sitting ends up with you equating Mr. Stroud with your grandpa, you know, the guy who tells you the same stories over and over trying to teach you something.
Jekyll– This one is not a series, but a mini-series, but it was so good I had to include it. This is a modern BBC retelling of “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. James Nesbitt is phe-freaking-nomenal in the lead role. His portrayal of both sides of Doctor Jackman’s personality is unbelievably good. Seriously, actors would do well to study this character and his approach to the duality of man. He can turn on a dime and just looking at his body language it is clear which side is in control. Couple this incredible performance with a really strong story, that brings the tale up to date and you have a mini-series that is not to be missed. This is one of those rare ones that I watched twice and then watched all of the supplementary materials, really great piece of work.