What to Watch if You Are Not Into the Winter Olympics

Well, the Winter Olympics is upon us and although I love a good ice dancing competition as much as the next person, there are some other things you can watch if you are not partial to snow and ice combined with physical activity.

Catch Up on a recent TV series you been meaning to watch

With the TV schedule now bursting with new programming.  There are plenty of TV series that are on your DVR from last year (or the year before) that you have just not gotten around to watching. There could be many a reason. I for one have not watched Breaking Bad yet as I still have to overcome my watching people getting shot in the face fatigue that has come over me after years of antiheroes being nasty to people in creative ways. 

Bron/Broen (The Bridge) 
 I have written about this show before. This is the original. The US remake is fine, so is the UK one, but they do not come close to the original co-production from Denmark and Sweden. This show is promoted as crime thriller that shows the cultural differences between two neighbouring countries but it really is just a study in friendship between to the two leads. If you watch the original and are not from Europe, you do not have much of an understanding about the nods and comments to the differences between Denmark and Sweden as for one, you are reading English subtitles that does not tell you if Danish or Swedish is being spoken, but that does not matter as the performances by the leads and the emotional journey you go with them dominates the show. You can read some excellent blog posts here about the show from The Guardian, proving that a show's fandom and community can be just as much fun as the series. 

Call The Midwife
This is a British gem. Set in the 1950s in the East End of London and based on the memoirs of midwife Jenny Worth, this series focuses on the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House who look after the pregnant women in Poplar. It may come across as a gentle Sunday evening drama, but it is a wolf in sheep's clothing as they take on issue such as abortion, poverty, racism and illness.

This series about cops in Los Angeles started out on broadcast TV, but did not get the viewership required. It moved to cable and trimmed down it's cast and storylines to put out four more seasons of great TV with wonderful performances from a multicultural cast.

Top of The Lake
This limited run series from the Sundance Channel is set in a small town in New Zealand where the crime and the community blend. Co-created, co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion, the cast is led by Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter and populated by great Australian and New Zealand actors. Dive deep into this beautiful slowly revealing story.

This series is in its fifth season of the modern cowboy show. It is about US Marshall Raylan Givens who goes back to Kentucky where he grew up and has to deal with the local Dixie mafia who have members that he is either related to or grew up with. The character was created by Elmore Leonard who had Raylan appear in his novels Pronto and Riding The Rap. The tone of the series is very similar to an Elmore Leonard novel with dark humour, sly commentary on society and an antihero.

Watch a Classic

What defines a classic.  These do in my book.  I know it is about the most times they appear on greatest TV program lists and the subsequent debates that spring up online. So basically taste. These are my suggestions.

Oz and The Wire
Don't let anyone fool you. The beginning of the so-called golden age of TV was not The Sopranos, it was these two HBO dramas. Oz is short for the Oswald Sate Correctional Facility for men. It is a hard core prison and the 56 episodes covers a lot of violence and awful circumstances, however, it does tell a very human story of love and redemption. Each of the five seasons of The Wire focuses on one facet in the city of Baltimore - the drug trade and police department in season one, the dockers and seaport in season two, the city government in season three, the schools in season four and the newspaper industry in season five.

Battlestar Galactica
The remake, not the original. On paper, this should not have worked. It was based on a kitsch 1970s science fiction show that last a season, sort of. However, this remake changes the gender of two main characters challenging the female tropes in TV shows. It is also one of the most political shows of its time as it challenged the assumptions around terrorism, government and religion. oh yes, it is also loads of fun with great action scenes and characters you will love.

Pride and Prejudice
There are many dramatic versions of Jane Austin's famous novel, but in my book, the BBC 1995 mini series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, is the definitive. There are startling performances from all involved, and a high level of sexual tension between the leads.  Hard to get right but essential for a story like Pride and Prejudice.

Six Feet Under
This show is not talked about often at present with the discussions around anti-heroes, violence and cinematic TV shows sparked by the end of Breaking Bad. I suppose it is because although it technically has an 'anti-hero' at the centre, Nate is really just a pretty normal and his unattractive qualities are as equally emphasised as his attractive qualities, and the show is really an ensemble not centred around one white middle class man. The show is also whimsical an darkly funny. It is about life and, most importantly, death.    

Clocking Off
This British drama was created by Paul Abbott ran for four seasons at the beginning of the 2000s. It is an anthology series that follows the lives of the employees and the families connected to a Manchester textile factory. It showcases the best of a generation of British acting talent with wonderful writing that captures what could be seen as a simple story about relationships and families. But there is nothing simple about these stories. The British TV structure allows for anthologies or standalone stories and this show is a perfect example of it.

Try Something Completely Different 

Something completely different means genre and subtitles as I make big assumptions about general TV tastes and offer up suggestions that may not have been given the attention they deserve.

Orange Is The New Black
This show is beloved and written about with TV critics circles and understandably so. But I am not sure how many TV watcher are aware of it. Mainly due to the fact that it is on Netflix, an US ondemand internet movie and TV media provider, so there is no traditional promotion of a network TV program that connects to the ad hoc TV viewer, and most importantly it does not have a famous movie actor at the centre of it. You could imagine the marketing department at Netflix looking at these elements and despairing and thinking with horror that their bosses wanted them to promote a show that is a combination of comedy and drama about women in a minimum security prison on its quality and storytelling alone. The horror. Thankfully, in this day and age, word of mouth stands for something. Take my word for it and watch it.   

Top Boy
This show is often called the British version of The Wire and it does sit in its shadow, but it stands on its own legs. It tells the story of the youngsters in a housing estate East London, the drugs, the gangs and the lifestyle. It is economically story telling with only four episodes in the first season. 

The Returned
I know another subtitled show, get used to it. This French show takes the zombie genre and makes it a story of loss and family relationships. The tone, look and feel of the show is just as important as the storytelling. The US, of course, are going to remake it, but like the Danish shows before it, just watch the original because the setting and the culture is just as important as the plot.

Orphan Black, Farscape, Fringe and Firefly
I am putting a bunch of shows together that come under the umbrella of science fiction. But like any genre, there is so much more to it than the science fiction tag. Orphan Black is about cloning in the modern day. It is a techno thriller. Farscape is a straight out group of aliens (with the token human) band together on a ship in out of space in a galaxy far far away.  The aliens are not just humanoide with forehead bumps, they are aliens brought to the screen through Jim Henson's creature shop and not CGI. This is very effective. Firefly is Joss Whedon's short run TV show that spawned a movie and a huge cult following. It extrapolates the future of earth dominated by two superpowers, the US and China, and how this earth government has extended across the galaxy. The show was pitched as cowboys in space and the show follows the exploits of eight humans who live on the space ship, Serenity, who live as outlaws on the edges of the civilised galaxy. Fringe is about parallel universes, technology and time travel but like of these shows it is about love and relationships. These shows resonate with viewers because of these relationships. The science fiction universe is just the mcguffin to get people there. 

Ripper Street, Doctor Blake Mysteries and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
Like the science fiction genre mentioned above, there are crime TV shows. What I am recommending here are some shows withing the historical crime sub genre. Ripper Street is set in the East End of London just after the Jack The Ripper murders and this is acknowledged and is the basis to the tone of the first series. It taps into the change in technology an medicine towards the end of the 19th Century and most importantly the change in the British police force such as the methodologies and the inherent corruption. The Doctor Blake Mysteries is set in Ballarat, a small town in Victoria, Australia in the 1950s, Blake is the local Police Surgeon and he assists in the solving of crimes. Like all historical crime, it is the setting and the commentary on society that is just as important as the plot. Another Australian historical crime series is based on the novels of Kerry Greenwood which feature high society private investigator Phrynne Fisher in the 1920s in Melbourne. Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries is lighter in tone than the previous to shows highlighted an it is sumptuous in look and feel, which is reflective of the lead character.

Christmas Specials on TV

Christmas Specials are difficult to get right. The story needs to be able to stand alone and to further the plot lines of the program. The are a couple of ways of doing this, the story can either make a massive change to the series with a big event or it can touch base with beloved characters and not alter the overall season storylines too much. The three British TV programs that had Christmas Specials this year, that I watched, one did a big change and two touched base.

Doctor Who - The Time Of The Doctor

The Big Event - The Battle of Trenzalore, where the Doctor dies, but a 13th regeneration happens.

What This Means for the Storylines - this is a big change to the Doctor Who lore. The Doctor was only able to have 12 lives and then the show was to end. But this is the reign of Moffatt and if we have learnt anything under his tenure is that rules are there to be changed or broken.

The Result - This was not the best farewell for Matt Smith's Doctor. I am sure it made sense to someone, but I stopped following the plot and just waited to see how they were going to McGuffin the regeneration. There is one thing that made me feel something other than impatience and a little bit of boredom - the call-backs to River Song and the Amy Pond cameo. What it showed me was how little we have come to care for Cara, not because of the actress, who does a good job, but because we have not spent time with her as a character. She has only really been a symbol and not a fully fledged character. Here is hoping the next series does that for her.

Downtown Abbey - Season 4 Christmas Special

The Big Event - Cousin Rose's presentation at the Royal Court and her coming out Ball in London in 1923.

What This Means for the Storylines - There is a visit from Cora's mother, again, played by Shirley McLain and her brother Harold (Paul Giamatti), more of Mary's men, a big decision by Edith and a continuation of various plots from season four, involving Bates and Anna, Thomas and Baxter, and Mrs Crawley's new paramour.

The Result - unlike the shocking ending of the previous year's Christmas Special, this year, there is humour, a massive slice of Royalty, intrigue and lovely frocks. The episode was like putting on a comfortable pair of PJs and having a cup of tea. Nice and cosy and a nice way to spend 90 minutes.

Call The Midwife - Christmas Special 2013

The Big Event - An unexploded bomb from World War Two is found in the foundations of a building near Nonnatus House causes an evacuation of the convent and other houses on the street.

What This Means for the Storylines - A little bit more self contained than Downton Abbey, this Christmas Special had a call out to the National Health Service, a wedding, a birth, and the return of the Scout troop.  Shelia (nee Sister Bernadette) came to terms with leaving the convent and deciding to marry Doctor Turner, we said farewell to Nonnatus House as it was declared unsafe to live in due to the bomb, and we learnt a little more about Trixie's past.

The Result - Definitely the most Christmas of the specials the quiet achiever that is Call The Midwife bathed us in well rounded characters, a little bit of social history and the importance of the NHS. It was a lovely way to spend an evening.

Spoilers - Hot Topic for Call The Midwife

The latest episode in the third season of Call The Midwife showed a backstreet abortion by a married mother of eight who could not afford to or emotionally and mentally face the prospect of having a ninth child.   The BBC received complaints about when the program, the pre-9pm slot, and the very uncomfortable scene (which was not graphic, but very emotional) that will surely spark a discussion.   The episode emphases the pre-pill days of 1958 in the UK and the impact this has on an impoverished family in the East End of London. 

Here are some interesting comments from a selection of UK media outlets

The Telegraph - From reviewer Ben Lawrence

The Daily Mail - tabloid infused news

I agree with Natika Halil, Director of Information FPA (Family Planning Association) who is quoted in The Daily Mail article.  She said:

‘Back-street abortion is shocking and upsetting but this was the grim reality for women in Britain before abortion became legal in 1967. FPA started running contraception clinics in the 1930s and what happened to women like ‘Nora’ in Call the Midwife is well documented. 

'While it can be difficult to read or watch, the issue mustn’t be airbrushed. Some women died and many others suffered terrible health conditions as a result and this reminds us of a situation we must never go back to.’


Top 10 Favourite TV Programs for 2012

This is the time for those pesky Top 10 lists for the year.  I am not going to do the ‘best’ as I don’t watch everything – I have never gotten into Breaking Bad, I am on a break from Sons of Anarchy (the 4th season was just too violent)  and I think Homeland is good but not great.  So here are my top 10 favourite programs for 2012:

10. Justified (USA) Season 3
How could that they top that awesome second season? Well they did. The big bads for the season were Detroit mobster, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) trying to get in on the local Oxy action, and local ‘mayor’ of Noble’s Holler in the segregated part of Harlan County, Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson).  However, the season was all about family, their betrayal and loyality, both Raylan’s and Boyd’s.

9. Archer (USA) Season 3
This is the funniest and sharpest spy adult cartoon on the planet.  There is great voice work by H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash and Jessica Walter and you actually start to care for these crazy characters and their insane lives. 

8. Fringe (USA) Season 5
Fringe is one of the best shows on at the moment.  It is an ode to creativity and strength of conviction.  As soon as the series creators realised the show was not going to get ratings that make it a ‘hit’, but they did have an avid fan base and support from Fox Network, they had the licence to tell the stories they want.  Fringe’s final season is proving to be completely different from what came before and simultaneously true to previous seasons.  The trio of Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Walter (John Noble) are fantastic actors and they anchor you through the incrediable leaps of faith required in good science fiction.  I suspect that this shows legacy will be ‘All You Need Is Love’.

7. Being Human (UK) Season 4
What do you do when one of your lead actors decides to leave the show to go to New Zealand to make The Hobbit? You give him the best send off in the final of the previous season, start to close the story arcs of the remaining lead characters in the beginning episodes of the latest season and seamlessly introduce and reboot the series.  Beautifully done.

6. Call The Midwife (UK) Season 1
Midwifery in London’s East End in the 1950s.  Not your typical topic for great Sunday night TV.  But this charming BBC series based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth is a winning combination of comedy and drama.  Showing us the true worth of the British National Health Service and introducing the comedian Miranda Heart to a great dramatic role.

5.  The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) Season 1
The Bridge was the first joint creative and financial set up between Denmark and Sweden.  The story is driven by a criminal investigation instigated by the dumping of a body on the Oresund Bridge joining Sweden and Denmark.  One investigator from each country, this detective double act is a winning combination of verging on Aspergers Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), the lead homicide detective in Malmö and friendly Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), the lead homicide detective in Copenhagen.  The first season is a compelling crime story with great twists and turns and loads of adrenalin.

4. Game of Thrones (USA) Season 2
This adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels, this second season is bigger, better and with more characters.  It builds up to the Battle of Blackwater, with all its magic, betrayal, love and scheming, however it is the character duets that stand out in this season.    The wonderful work between Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, head of the Lannister family and Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, the younger daughter of Stark family of Winterfell who is disguised as an orphan boy and in his service as she tries to get back to Winterfell from King’s Landing ; Rose Leslie as Ygritte, a Wildling and Kit Harrington as a new member of the Night Watch and Ned Stark bastard,  Jon Snow; Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth, a female warrior and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her prisoner of war, Jaime Lannister; and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister trading barbs with Lena Heady his elder sister and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Cersei Baratheon.

3. Mad Men (USA) Season 5
There was some backlash over the amount of time spent on Megan (Jessica Pare), Don’s second wife this season, but to me it was logical that she was seen in stark contrast to Betty (January Jones) and her icy coldness of previous seasons.  Although their screen time was not as much as Megan, it was decisions made by Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) that had the greatest impact.  Season 6 will be very interesting indeed.

2. The Killing (Denmark) Season 3 or 4 depending who you ask
Technically it is Season 4, but as 1 and 2 were shown at once in the UK, the Brits call it Season 3.  Now coming to an end next week in the UK, this season and this series is great television.  It will go down in the TV Annals as one of the best crime dramas made with a mesmerising central performance by Sofie Grabol as Detective Inspector Sarah Lund.

1.  Sherlock (UK) Season 2
Just four words – A Scandal In Belgravia.  Enough said.  Best 90 minutes of TV for 2012.