Intelligent entertainment: TV shows you absolutely must watch
Okay. Enough of current affairs, parliamentary debates, and dead politicians. As this is – nominally, at least – a media column, let’s do something about the entertainment media.
When people ask me which movies I’ve seen of late, my answer is nearly always the same: not very many. Oh yes, I will go to the cinema, see the new Bond picture or something equally spectacular. But for the most part, my entertainment these days consists of TV shows. I watch them on DVD, but that is only because I am so low-tech. Most modern people simply download them from the Internet. Which, of course, begs the question of how long TV channels that show foreign programming can survive in India. Most of us now have access to all the shows we want. We watch them at our convenience. We watch entire seasons at a time without having to wait for the channel to show us the next episode. And we watch them without ad breaks, scenes deleted by the channel censors, or words bleeped out.
Here’s what I have been watching over the last few months.
Damages: This must be one of the most brilliant shows of recent times. Ostensibly, a legal thriller, it is actually about a battle between two women. Glen Close, as magnificent as always, plays the senior lawyer and Rose Byrne, is the protégé who turns against her. The technique is extraordinarily advanced for a TV mini-series, and the story flits between past, present and future with a relaxed ease. There are five seasons and I have just finished watching the fifth and last. Now that the show is over it might be worth getting all five seasons and watching them back to back.
Aaron Sorkin is a legendary American scriptwriter. His triumphs include The Social Network, A Few Good Men, and most famously, The West Wing, one of the best TV shows ever made. The Newsroom is Sorkin’s take on TV news which is struggling to survive in an era when all news has gone down-market and dumbed down. It is not as successful as The West Wing, mainly because Sorkin is not subtle and is heavy-handed in his imposition of a liberal agenda. But it is still one of the best things on TV. Season one is now complete.
If you are familiar with the British political comedy series, The Thick Of It, then you will recognise the style of this American show because it is created by the same people. It is a darkly satirical look at the underbelly of the American political system through the eyes of a female Vice-President, played by Julia Louis Dreyfus, best known for her role in Seinfeld.
This one has been around for a while so there is a chance that you may have seen it already. When I saw The Wire, I had no idea that Idris Elba was not American but was actually British. Elba came home for this cop thriller, which launched with an okay first season. But it is the second season that is really outstanding, grim and gripping at the same time. And unlike The Wire, you can actually understand what everyone says.
The jury is still out on whether Indians will take to Australian shows. It isn’t the accents that put us off: Masterchef Australia is a huge hit. It is more the unfamiliarity that gets us. We are used to America and England but Australia seems disorienting because it is full of White people speaking English but occupying a completely different space.
I have to admit that I struggled through the first episode of The Slap, a mini-series based on the best-selling novel of the same name. But I am glad I kept going. It really is spectacularly well-made, rich with feeling and emotion and tells a story that is both deep and entertaining.
Okay, it is hokum. It is the same kind of pseudo-historical costume drama crap as the Tudors. But this saga of a villainous Pope and his naughty family in medieval Rome is entertaining in a trashy sort of way. Season One was better than Season Two but each episode is worth watching for Jeremy Irons alone. There was a time when Irons was regarded as a serious actor. But in this show, he overacts and hams it up so wonderfully that it is hard to keep a straight face when he tries to grieve on screen.
It starts well. The premise is a good one. A young woman whose father has been destroyed by a wealthy family returns to the privileged enclave of The Hamptons to take revenge on her father’s behalf. The problem is that unlike an HBO-Showtime series where the average length is around 12 episodes, Revenge has been made for network TV and so, the story has to be stretched out for a full season of 20+ episodes. Inevitably, the action begins to flag and by the end, the show is a bit of a mess. Still, it is not bad in a time-pass sort of way.
One of the characteristics of the new Britain is that everything is grotesquely over-praised. So, the new James Bond movie is one of the best films ever made. The revival of Dr Who is a work of genius. Torchwood is a classic. And so on.
This version of the Sherlock Holmes stories that updates the action to the present-day is immensely watchable and wonderfully clever. But it is not as good as British critics say, so don’t start watching with too many heightened expectations.