Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Four episodes into the second season.
The challenges in adapting George R. R. Martin's dark, sprawling fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, for TV must have been daunting. You have an enormous, ever-shifting cast of characters, in which once-minor players periodically rise to the fore and major players are sometimes cut down without warning. You have action spread out across continents, isolating many subplots that nonetheless must be woven into the story as a whole. You have an elaborate, fully imagined world, in which intricacies of history and religion fit together in complicated ways, all of which must be conveyed without drowning viewers in a sea of exposition. And those are just fundamental storytelling concerns. Creating the story's supernatural beings, constructing the many required sets and costumes, staging battles and riots, and casting children in tricky yet key roles all present pitfalls of their own.
So it's a wonder that Game of Thrones (named for the first book in Martin's series) has succeeded as brilliantly as it has, especially considering that the show runners have been taking risks: committing completely to the books' often grim tone, elaborating on relationships only implied in the pages, seeking cinematic ways to handle some of the narrative issues rather than simply parroting the text rote. It's not unfailingly "faithful," in the way people usually mean, yet this is the kind of adaptation I love, not a stenographic rendition of the books but rather a faithfulness to theme and character over raw details. This is the kind of adaption that honors both its source material and its own medium, and the result here is a grandly entertaining quasi-historic saga—in short, great TV.
Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Twelve episodes into the fourth season.
The best thing about science fiction (or any fantastic genre) is how escaping the confines of a strictly realistic setting allows the storyteller to address real issues from a fresh angle. Aliens, for example, aren't necessarily all that compelling in and of themselves (I faithfully watched seven years of The X-Files, where the little green men or gray men or black oil slicks or whatever were nearly always the least interesting things on screen, so I know this for a fact), but aliens as a vehicle for addressing how people deal with the unknown, or how majority groups deal with minorities, or how we conceptualize humanity—that's compelling. Idle fancies can be fun, but the best speculative fiction ultimately returns to earth.
Initially, Fringe was a textbook example of idle, empty science fiction: a facile yet muddled X-Files rip-off in which a top-secret division of the FBI investigates strange paranormal events while powerful shadowy figures manipulate them and their results—diverting enough but hardly promising and extremely derivative. But then, improbably, the writers settled on a brilliant explanation for the paranormal "fringe events": the slow collision of two parallel worlds. With that essential conflict at its core, Fringe has developed a gorgeously baroque mythology and, even better, used it as the foundation for thoughtful, poignant explorations of identity and personal history and guilt and love. In short, when it was just about creepy things going bump in the night, Fringe was dull; now that it's given those sci-fi elements real resonance, it's perhaps the most underrated drama on TV.
New episodes Mondays on Hulu (airs on E4 in the UK). Three episodes into the third season.
The whole "this British TV show could never air in the United States" thing is often kind of overblown, but in the case of Misfits, imported here by Hulu, that's probably a fair assessment. The show's nonchalant treatment of its characters' sex lives is its most obviously un-American trait, but the foreignness goes deeper than that. American TV almost invariably celebrates characters who are wealthy or ambitious or somehow outstanding, the best at whatever they do, and Misfits features characters who, even after they acquire supernatural powers, are doggedly ordinary—underemployed, living in council housing (or a complex so grim and run-down it might as well be), in and out of trouble with the law not because they're outright criminals but because they're aimless and rash and unlucky. And yet the show is as nonchalant about their hapless, mundane existence as it is about the obvious fact that people are sexual creatures.
That breezy freshness spills over into every aspect of the show: the charmingly flippant approach to its supernatural elements, the peculiar plots twists, the engagingly laid-back acting. It's a quirky show that doesn't make a show of its quirkiness. Sometimes the quirks skew wrong (a few plot lines in the first season left a bad taste in my mouth), but they're always compelling: entertaining first and then, once you're finished laughing—whether with humor or in disbelief—oddly thought-provoking. Introducing this brazen oddity to the American audiences is one of the best things Hulu has ever done.
Last night Sean called me into the living room to watch the New York Philharmonic on PBS.
First season on DVD and streaming on Netflix.
As procedural premises go, Luther’s is ridiculous but memorable. In the first episode, unstable police detective John Luther (Idris Elba) is interviewing Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a young woman whose parents have just been murdered, when he suddenly intuits that she is the killer. He’s not sure how she pulled it off, though, and by the time he figures it out, the evidence has been destroyed and he can’t prove it. But he knows, and he makes sure she knows he knows, which delights her because she enjoys having an audience to her evil genius. And from there, over the course of the short six-episode season, they develop a deeply weird relationship, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter but with significantly more sexual tension. Alice wants to make sure Luther remains a part of her life, so she begins offering unsolicited advice on cases, interfering in his relationship with his estranged wife, and complicating his already rocky career.
This is all pretty silly, and it only becomes sillier as it goes on. It’s difficult to believe that Luther would simply give up investigating Alice when a single piece of evidence—however key—is destroyed. It’s even more difficult to believe that their relationship could possibly be sustained as long as it is. Furthermore, Alice’s sociopathy tends to mutate according to the needs of individual episodes. It’s probably appropriate for her to be something of a cipher, but without some consistency, the character threatens to become merely a particularly entertaining plot device.
And yet, for all that, I rather like the BBC’s twisted little drama. The knotty storylines, with their hairpin turns, are darkly intriguing (if often rather gruesome), and the series convincingly cultivates a sense of true danger, offering absolutely no guarantees that everything will work out by episode’s end. Luther is brutally effective but effective nonetheless, and with its manic-depressive detective and friendly neighborhood sociopath at the center, it has a strange, loopy charm.
Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Twelve episodes into the second season.
One of the things animation does best is to minimize the shock of action that, if performed by flesh-and-blood characters, would be completely horrifying. You see that even in kids’ cartoons. The violence of classic Tom and Jerry shorts, for example, is dismaying if you think about it too hard—but you generally don’t. The animation softens even the harshest of blows.
Not by any stretch of the imagination is Archer appropriate for children, but even it benefits from its medium. The animation gives cover for it to indulge in crazy, sick-puppy humor—not so much dark as anarchic—without becoming unpalatable. Perhaps that sounds unflattering, but I don’t mean it that way. Shock humor for its own sake is tiresome, but Archer is far too clever and enthusiastically loopy to fall into that trap. It might not be a warm, but with its bravura voice acting and perversely endearing eccentricities, it finds humor in the most delightfully inappropriate places.
Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Four episodes into the second season.
I have a weakness for the police procedural, but even I have to admit that it’s not exactly the most creative or challenging of genres. It’s comfort food: a generally predictable, self-contained story tied up in an hour by a few familiar, simple characters. Not much to it. Sure, procedurals occasionally attempt some overarching threads, but those almost always feel tacked on and irrelevant. I might be fond of the detectives—effectively bonding with them is part of the point of a good procedural—but I simply have never cared about Lennie Briscoe’s meth-addict daughter on Law & Order, Catherine Willows’s strained relationship with her father on CSI, or Kate Beckett’s murdered mother on Castle. Those storylines feel too artificial, too contrived, too “We need to give Jerry Orbach something for his Emmy reel.” That’s the kind of thing that made me a bit of a purist (prone to dramatically overstating my case) when it comes to the genre.
The genius of Justified, the FX drama now in its second year, is that it takes the bones of the procedural and fleshes them out in a way that feels organic rather than manufactured, even by my dogmatic standards. The protagonist is a deputy U.S. marshal working a variety of cases in eastern Kentucky—capturing fugitives, transporting prisoners, guarding judges, handling assets seized by the federal government—so it is, undoubtedly, a procedural, just like its lesser marshal-centric siblings In Plain Sight and Chase. Yet Justified transcends the genre, elegantly knitting together character threads and an overarching plot with the single-episode storylines. Sometimes those one-off stories—which are often beautifully constructed in and of themselves—comment on the larger action and sometimes directly affect it (and it’s not always easy to distinguish which is which at the outset), but the result is a procedural-that’s-not-a-procedural—or perhaps simply a procedural that has expanded my notion of what a procedural can be.
For the past two years, Sean and I have lived with absolutely no cable service.
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the CW. Fourteen episodes into the second season.
The Vampire Diaries started out as a guilty pleasure for me because—sue me—I like vampire stories, and sparkly abstinent Mormon ones don’t count, and Sean and I don’t get HBO anymore. As time has gone by, though, I’ve begun feeling less and less guilty—and more and more sincere—about my appreciation of the supernatural drama. It’s smarter than it looks, for starters. The writers are clearly working to avoid the whole passive damsel-in-distress thing that tends to crop up when mortal heroines fall in love with blood-sucking creatures of the night, and they’ve been surprisingly successful in doing so. They’ve also avoided many of the pitfalls surrounding the good boy/bad boy dichotomy of teen dramas, muddying up the binary to entertaining effect and making both characters more interesting in the process.
But this is how snobs like me always try to prop up a guilty pleasure. We defensively point out how sharp and clever it can be, despite the trivial veneer, intellectualizing the thing into some stuffy paragon, and that’s not what I want to do with Vampire Diaries. The show is sharp and clever, but not shockingly so. It doesn’t transcend genre, and it makes no pretensions to—vampires are just vampires here, not symbols in an allegory. But you know what? That’s totally fine. There’s something to be said for a TV show that’s simply trying to use fun characters to tell a fun story: suspenseful and hot-blooded, emotional but never broody or (god forbid) maudlin, just plain fun.
Series I finale aired Sunday, January 30, on PBS. All episodes streaming at pbs.org through February 22.
I opened my first draft of this post by describing the British TV series Downton Abbey—which I enjoyed tremendously—as a soap opera for Anglophiles. The phrase was meant to be self-deprecating (and not entirely serious), but the more I thought about it, the less I liked that glib remark. The show has its share of melodrama, certainly, but the term soap opera didn’t sit right with me.
The distinction, I believe, is this: soap operas demand not only heightened, exaggerated plot turns but also heightened, exaggerated emotions and characters. And for the most part, that description doesn’t apply to the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. One particularly jaw-dropping plot twist might be bizarre and lurid (and damn, is it ever), but the fallout from it feels very human, very true, and that’s typical of Downton Abbey. Creator Julian Fellowes isn’t above indulging in a few melodramatic flourishes, but the underlying storytelling always feels grounded in characters too substantial and sincere to allow the show to be dismissed as soap opera.