TMINE’s about to take its traditional Christmas and New Year break. I’ll be back tomorrow but after that, normal business won’t resume until January 3rd or 4th with the Daily News et al. But a new tradition I started last year was to leave you with a specific question to keep you occupied: what were your favourite new shows of the year? As always, let everyone know your choices and the reasons below or on your own blog.
For the record, after the jump are my Top
1213 from all the countries around the world, as well as that new-fangled Internet thing, in no particular order, with the addition of one I mysteriously left off this morning. Merry Grafelnik, everyone!
Stranger Things (Netflix)
A show that snuck under everyone’s radar until it mysteriously appeared in July to everyone’s delight. A benefactor of the current 80s nostalgia, it’s an almost painfully beautiful, near-perfect recreation of the 80s, as well as 80s genre movies and TV, taking in everything from ET and Goonies through to The Thing and D.A.R.Y.L. I loved pretty much every second of it, from its title sequence and music through to the plot itself, which even though you can probably guess most of it just by extrapolating from other shows or anything by Stephen King, is delightful, with an innocence you just don’t get any more. It’s only eight episodes and Winona Ryder is in it, so give it a go.
Hyde & Seek (Australia: Nine)
Matt Nable is a Sydney cop investigating a seemingly routine case when his junior partner is killed in an explosion. Soon, it becomes apparent terrorists are involved and before you know it, everyone from the federal police through ASIO and ASIS is involved in the investigation, and Nable’s jetting off to Hong Kong and Indonesia, having to evade snipers and assassins to get to the bottom of it all.
Nable’s perfectly coiffured new ‘buddy’ Emma Hamilton sent to help out with a New Zealand link in the case is supposedly an ‘immigrations officer’ – but soon turns out to be an NZSIS officer with a command of self defence, torture, interrogation et al.
After a slightly pedestrian, derivative start, it all gets very exciting, very quickly. The conflict between agencies evolves in surprising ways by the end of the second episode. The buddy-buddy format with an antagonistic male-female Australian-New Zealand partnering, each with strengths and weaknesses, works well, right down to the cricketing jibes. The overseas transfers add a touch of the exotic to the proceedings, too.
The season had a slightly anticlimactic ending, but the show managed to steer a good course between hokey and smart, avoiding most thriller clichés, while giving us exotic locations and probably the most interesting Kiwi in non-Kiwi TV history.
Secret City (Australia: Foxtel Showcase)
Adapted from journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, and set in and beautifully filmed in Canberra, Secret City sees Anna Torv playing a top political journo who’s mysteriously sent some incriminating photos featuring Australian defence minister Daniel Wyllie when he was just a lad in China, hanging out with the state police as you do. As Wyllie is surprisingly pro-Chinese, anti-US, there’s the suspicion that he’s possibly a Chinese plant. But who sent the photos and why? And how is it all related to the murder of a young student with similar Chinese links?
Secret City is shoe-leather journalism, with Torv doggedly ploughing her way through documents and interviewing witnesses and her contacts in order to expose the truth. While not 100% accurate, the show is close enough to reality that it feels real, almost like an Australian version of State of Play. The show is happy to deal with and satirise real parties (particularly the Greens). There are references to real political situations that affect Australia, such as China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, and China and its manipulations are explicitly Chinese, not YA “Asian country” – indeed it actually managed to predict the future at one point.
Despite being a thriller, Secret City is also funny at times, particularly thanks to Jacki Weaver, who plays Labor’s straight-talking, foul mouthed power broker.
The show has a surprisingly downbeat ending, albeit one that leaves open the chances of a sequel. There was probably one too many conspiracy theories to maintain credibility, but it still managed to have a lot to say about modern politics, computer espionage, the ‘free’ press and more.
Travelers (Canada: Showcase; UK: Netflix – starts tomorrow!)
Canada, Showcase and Brad Wright have been central to science fiction television, particularly time travel shows, in the past few decades, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that that trio have managed to do something so much better than the innumerable time travel shows the US has in its portfolio at the moments.
Travelers flips most time travel stories on their head by having travellers coming from a far-off future to our present in order to prevent a terrible disaster from occurring that puts the human race at danger of extinction. However, they can’t actually physically travel through time – instead, provided they know the exact time and place someone is going to die, they can project their minds back in time into the ‘host’ and take over their body.
What became clearer over the season is that while Travelers may be a spy show with a bunch of sleeper agents waking up from their normal lives to undertake secret missions, it’s also as much about relationships and character as anything else. In particular, what saves the show from being a gloomy, self-important piece of sci-fi is a combination of the performances and the characters. Eric McCormack of Will and Grace is cast against type as an FBI agent, and his character manages to give the show a much needed sense of humour – although a show that uses children as communication devices with the future isn’t taking itself too seriously. MacKenzie Porter’s closed performance makes her formerly learning disabled host come smart doctor a source of intrigue, while Reilly Dolman’s douchebag school quarterback turned kind engineer gives the show heart and gentility.
Nevertheless, despite this firm focus on the human, the show is also a top-notch sci-fi show that mines its central idea for all its worth, innovating and giving us truly thrilling moments. Science-fiction ideas are used sparingly and subtly and the show really fleshes out its current and future worlds over the course of the season. Only a couple of the first 10 episodes ever fall even slightly flat, so watch it.
Baron Noir (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon)
Baron Noir is a remarkably prescient and impressive political series that somehow managed to anticipate both this year’s Brexit and the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership competition and relocate them to France, taking in all of left-wing French politics along the way.
And when I say ‘all’, I mean all.
The show is about the mayor of Dunkirk, Kad Merad, an old-school socialist who’s spent years fighting (sometimes literally, with a baseball bat) for the poor, oppressed working classes. He’s best friends with fellow socialist and presidential candidate Niels Arestrup, to the extent that he’s willing to steal money from social housing projects to help fund his campaign. However, soon there are ructions between the two friends and before you know it, Merad and Arestrup – both sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by new-wave technocrat Anna Mouglalis – are pulling strings and levers behind the scenes of French politics to block each other and further their own, the party’s and the country’s interests, all while trying to avoid ending up in prison through Mutually Assured Destruction.
While the opening episode of the show gives the impression that it is going to be about corruption – and certainly that is an element – most of the season is about political dirty-tricks and manipulations at every level of politics: everything from how to disrupt a local council election through how to manipulate the media and use party rules to counter your enemy’s plans through manipulating the Assemblée nationale all the way up to the EU and how to play it off against your own national interests by threatening to leave it to ‘ensure your country’s sovereignty’. Advised behind the scenes by real-life French politicians, it’s a real eye-opener, not least because it actually manages to film inside the Palais Bourbon itself, but also because of the differences between French and British politics – it’s a long time since anyone had to take Troskyites and communists seriously here. Well, it used to be, anyway.
If Baron Noir has a message, it’s that there are no friends in politics yet if you do screw over your friends in the short-term, chances are that things will go badly for you in the long-term – you just have to know how to balance all the options and bring people back on side. Merad spends most of the season in a whirl of plots and counter-plots, playing one person against another, usually with their knowledge, often by giving inspiring speeches about the left and the need to look after the oppressed/fight the National Front – think Jeremy Corbyn if he had charisma and leadership skills.
Beautifully shot and acted with some cracking music, the show nevertheless isn’t without flaws. Merad is implausibly attractive to women of all ages and there’s one relationship involving him where not only the audience but the couple themselves are surprised it’s taking place at all. It also meanders a little, dropping interesting plotlines and characters, and focusing too much in later episodes on that housing project, which so dominates the first episode.
But if you want a House of Cards that’s not only European but better than Netflix’s, Baron Noir‘s your boy.
Episode reviews: first season
Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau) (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon Prime)
Set in the undercover section of France’s equivalent of MI6, the DGES, Le Bureau des Légendes sees Mathieu Kassovitz playing a top undercover operative who’s been working in Damascus for the past six years. He’s mysteriously summoned back to Paris at short notice, where very quickly problems emerge with ‘Cyclone’, the DGES’ top operative in Algeria. A devout Muslim, Cyclone is nevertheless mysteriously arrested for drink-driving and is taken away by Algerian police, before promptly disappearing. Has he been rumbled as a spy or has he been turned and engineered his own disappearance?
There are multiple wheels turning within wheels in Le Bureau Des Légendes. Despite being ordered to break off all ties with her, Kassovitz invites his married lover from Damascus (Zineb Triki) to visit him in Paris. His superiors wonder whether he has ‘Post Mission Disorder’ and can’t shake off his old life. But more importantly, Triki might have secrets of her own that jeopardise Kassovitz.
At the same time and seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Kassovitz is training up a new operative (Sara Giraudeau) to go undercover in Iran. There’s also a new psychiatrist (Léa Drucker) monitoring everyone and Kassovitz has to deal with his now grown-up teenage daughter, whom he left without explanation. And there’s a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara somewhere who are definitely up to something, but by the end of the third episode, may themselves not know what that is. Just to make everything even less clear, episodes are sometimes told in flashback while Kassovitz is attached to a lie detector – all without explanation.
Le Bureau Des Légendes is admirably concerned with realism and tradecraft. Although it occasionally uses the likes of Drucker and Giraudeau to Basil Exposition everything to us, it does do its best to give us a look at how spies probably work and approach security in the 21st century in a way that most other shows ignore. Mobile phones are banned in the Bureau in case of remote exploits turning them into listening devices and operatives have to clean their own desks so that no one who doesn’t ‘need to know’ needs to enter the Bureau. But that’s basic compared to things like mapping mobile phone signals and using behaviour analysis of the data to get an indication of likely events.
As you might expect from the double meaning of bureau/office, this is a show that’s mostly about talking and office work. Big chunks of it are people sitting around discussing what precious information they have from far away can mean, as well as internal and external politics with other agencies, divisions, superiors and allies. Although the second episode does give us a car chase of sorts through central Paris, it ends as a car chase in central Paris probably would end, rather than à la The Bourne Identity‘s. The show also does have the occasional moment of humour, such as an odd little side-plot involving a mouse getting into the Bureau and Drucker’s analysis of her superior’s multi-coloured tie.
It’s not 100% realistic, but in toto, it’s truly magnificent, global espionage thriller that’s taut, intelligent, surprising at every turn and actually seems to know what it’s talking about. The 10th episode is slightly disappointing in that rather than rounding off all the plot threads nicely, it leaves them hanging for the second season – although, to its credit, that’s clearly been the plan all along, rather than a last-minute renewal bid, and you can see why there’s been this one seemingly unrelated plot running throughout. Brilliant stuff, heartily recommended.
Ófærð (Trapped) (Iceland: RÚV; UK: BBC Four)
Despite its pacing issues, probably my favourite Nordic Noir since season 1 of Bron/Broen (The Bridge). Small-town Icelandic police officer Ólafur Darri Ólafsson has to deal with winter and his personal problems, as well as the bigwigs of Reykjavik and a ferry full of annoyed passengers, when a chopped up body is found in the sea. Is the murderer one of the passengers, who is the victim and is it all linked to something in town?
Thematically, it’s all about the claustrophobia of an artic island in winter, people having to get on with one another because there’s nowhere else to go, and quirky police who’ve never had to deal with anything except parking tickets and stolen cameras having to deal with people trafficking, gangsters and vicious murders. There’s also the inevitable concern of not wanting foreign investors to be scared off by the crime.
Ólafsson is a strong, bear-like presence against the beautifully photographed and breathtaking Icelandic landscape. The characters feel like real people responding to real problems. There’s a lack of master criminals. There’s also some great acting, some beautiful scenery beautifully shot, and lots of emotions. Overall, it felt like a proper crime story, rather than the traditional murder-mystery we’ve had to deal with with a lot of Norse Noir.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (US: BBC America; UK: Netflix)
A continuation of sorts to Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its follow-up, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, but definitely not to the BBC Four show, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency sees Dirk (Samuel Barnett) relocated to Seattle where he’s hired to investigate the death of reclusive millionaire Julian McMahon… by McMahon, six weeks before he’s murdered.
One of the few witnesses to the murder is bellboy Elijah Wood, who has his own problems with his drug dealer landlord, his hallucinating ill sister Hannah Marks , a corgi, and the police who are following him, including Richard Schiff. But when Barnett breaks into Wood’s apartment because it looks interesting, Barnett decides Wood is prime ‘assistant’ material and the two end up holistically intertwined.
It has to be said that the show is odd. Very odd. Very odd at odd moments. Just as everything looks like it’s settled into one form of odd, a time traveller will appear, a holistic assassin will start macheteing people at random, four guys in a van will start sucking someone’s soul or bullets will ricochet off a pipe and kill the kidnapper in the flat above. New odd is here – get used to it for the next five minutes because there’ll be another one along in a minute. Ooh look, it’s a musical number!
Which is in keeping with Adams’ writing, while having almost nothing to do with it. On top of that, there’s an American quality to it all – Barnett is less a schlubby ne’er do well in a silly leather hat, more an American’s idea of an eccentric Brit via Harry Potter. There’s also a distinct air of ‘improving one’s self’, with Wood’s embracing of Barnett’s holistic philosophy leading to his life becoming significantly better, and the familial side of things with Marks and Wood is almost heartwarming in an American stylee.
The first season is very smart and intrically woven, taking its time to transcend from being simply bonkers, inexplicable fun to becoming a smart, character-based comedy drama as well. Everything really comes together at the end and the season, too… right until that final 10 minutes. Oh well.
High Maintenance (US: HBO)
Originally a Vimeo web series and maintaining a lot of that feel, High Maintenance sees its co-writer-creator Ben Sinclair playing a pot-delivering, New York cyclist who encounters new and odd customers in every episode.
While billed as a comedy, it’s probably better to think of it as a frequently amusing series of vignettes both skewering and feeling pathos for characters that range from a katana-wielding strongmen who seems reluctant to pay to a son whose mother has died and becomes a shut-in hoarder – until the power of pot rescues him. With Sinclair an in-story Rod Serling, there’s frequently a twist in the tail with each vignette, but also be prepared for a lot of cringe comedy along the way, as the drug-focus of the piece means the show goes to some dark and uncomfortable places along the way.
Overall, one of the loveliest, best observed, character-based anthology shows on TV.
The Magicians (US: Syfy; UK: 5*)
Adapted from the New York Times best-selling books, The Magicians actually starts off pretty badly – a sort of American Harry Potter with added sex and swearing to make it look grown-up. Even worse, all the characters are hateful – mean girls and bullies, acted by people who seem to have wandered in off the street rather than acting schools. It’s also filled with hammy attempts at comedy that are as obvious as they are unfunny, something that isn’t helped by everyone smirking whenever they have to deliver a funny line.
Yet some truly imaginative bits of reality- and mind-warping magic, horror and humour in the show, including a Taylor Swift musical number, kept me watching and by the end of the season, it had revealed itself to be a genuinely interesting bit of television – a show that really knew what it was doing and hyper-aware of genre and of dramatic conventions.
One that’s a really slow burn at first, but that really begins to reward the viewer who can get to the halfway point at least.
Shooter (US: USA; UK: Netflix)
Shooter sees Ryan Phillipe once again take on a role to which he’s slightly ill suited – a former marine sniper. Wounded in action by the Chechnyan sniper who killed his best friend, he’s perfectly happy with his wife and daughter, until his former CO turned secret service agent Omar Epps approaches him for help. Said Chechnyan sniper has threatened to kill the President and Phillipe is one of the few people in the world with the skills to work out how he could do it and so prevent it. Except things are not quite as they seem…
Based on the 2007 movie of the same name, which in turn was based on Stephen Hunter’s book Point of Impact, Shooter initially follows the film and to a lesser extent the book pretty faithfully, but quickly goes off the reservation, with Phillipe hunting Epps, CIA operative Tom Sizemore and others to clear his name, aided by FBI agent Cynthia Addai-Robinson and wife Shantel VanSanten.
Shows with conservative politics are relatively rare and Shooter is clearly aimed at viewers of that disposition, right down to our hero’s family saying grace before meals. Its dedication to honourable men and women, doing honourable things in service, is a refreshing change, too, even if we know a great big conspiracy is potentially looming round the corner. Its big, big, big love of guns (aka “defenders of freedom”), which it inherited from its source material, is also a little different, even if does come across like a product review page in Guns & Ammo at times.
The show fixes most of its problems by about the second episode, giving us a lean thriller that clearly knows its stuff and expects its audience – principally in the ‘flyover states’ – to know it, too. Its weak link is Phillipe, who just isn’t a marine, no matter how you cut it, and its fight scenes show it – although they do at least get better by episode six.
One for those who love a reasonably grounded, military thriller with plenty of gun-based action and which admires and respects those who serve.
And one that I left off the original top 12 for some bizarre reason (what was I thinking?)…
Son of Zorn (US: Fox)
Zorn is a a macho, manly kind of guy. He’ll only take orders from a woman if he believes she’s really a man, he’s that manly. He’s also a cartoon who bears a very strange resemblance to He-Man, but one day he quits his cartoon home to reunite with his former wild child ex-wife (Cheryl Hines) in Orange County, California, so he can be more a father to their child. Unfortunately, he’s a cartoon barbarian and his culture is not their culture, so they’re all going to have to find ways to cope if they’re to survive. Literally.
Coming from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie), it’s unsurprising that this is a good deal funnier than you might expect. But it’s less about the format and more about the detail with Son of Zorn, which works as both a parody of the likes of He-Man and fantasy in general as well as of modern manners and workplaces. It’s frequently hilarious and wildly imaginative – a must-see if you like comedy.