Thursday, 7 January 2016

Maj's Favourite TV Shows of 2015 (contains spoilers)

This post should have gone out on the 31st December last year but NYE celebrations got in the way, then recovering from said celebrations, then Sherlock (twice) and recovering from Sherlock, then the first working days of the new year and here we are, a full week later.

I wanted to write this blog as a tribute to some of the shows with which I had the best of times last year. I'm not trying to put forward that they are THE BEST THING EVER, and neither is my aim to analyse them into smithereens. It's just a few blabbings about the reasons why I enjoyed them so much and so the post should be taken as such.

[The following paragraphs contain spoilers for Agent Carter, Fargo, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, River and Wolf Hall.]

Agent Carter

It's actually been nearly a year since this show aired, and the first series (yay! 2nd one is starting in just 2 weeks!) had only 8 episodes, so it isn't quite that easy for me to remember every little detail about it... BUT my overwhelming impressions follow:

  • Better than Agents of SHIELD's first series and first half of the second series, hands down. 
  • Didn't feel the need to be too dark and twisty to be good.
  • Leading lady a great character (but then we knew that from the films and her One-Shot, it was a question of not fucking it up...PHEW).
  • Leading lady very hot (holy glamour Batman Ironman!), and very kick-ass. (I'm not the biggest fan of "strong female character" translating into "an action star" but Peggy isn't overdoing it, she's just too cool to be beating up people all the time. That's not what being an agent is all about, after all.)
  • Peggy's place within the (Marvel Universe) mid-to-late 1940's was tuned just right. The tone is feminist without being unrealistic.
  • Hayley Atwell marry me!
  • Jarvis, can I adopt you?

And Then There Were None

Blimey. A one-two-three punch of a perfect adaptation of one of the most famous crime novels ever. Creepy, intense, no fucking about. If anything, this adaptation even improved on the book with little touches here and there, which brought the late 30's set story closer to modern audiences.
Wonderful acting from the whole cast, plus some eye candy courtesy of Aidan Turner.
I read the book, yet I was glued to the edge of my seat till the very end. So even though this series aired only very recently I see no reason not to put it right at the top of my TV experiences of 2015.

Fargo(series 2)

I loved the first series dearly. It was definitely at the top of my TV experiences last year, if not the toppest of them all.
The second series, which takes place in the late 70's took me a few episodes to get used to. The mob family angle, and the North-US-70's-ness of it all, but I latched onto the common element of both series - the Solversons. And even though I did end up enjoying the other parts of the story and had a blast watching them all slowly intertwine, it was the Solverson family which for me delivered the most, emotion-wise.
The surprise of them all surviving the end of the series, and Hank Larsson's semi-monologue about miscommunication being the root of conflict and violence (which the series amply confirmed during both series); now, that was something beautiful.

The Solversons, in both series, represent the good in us. They're the moral compass in the otherwise bleak and violent world. And just the element that gives Fargo its balance and saves it from being a cynical comedy of violent errors.

Fargo's other common element is making an ordinary, weak person get caught up in extraordinary circumstances with the result of that encounter bringing out the worst in them. This year this catalyst emerged in the form of Peggy Blumquist - someone somewhat stupid, dissatisfied, dangerous and pitiful in equal measure. Peggy desperately wanted to unlock her potential as a person. Turns out that potential was a gift for stabbing people.
Kirsten Dunst did such a wonderful job here, I would quite like to see her winning the Golden Globe this coming Sunday.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Look, this little series, which I largely started watching because it was written and directed by people who have worked on Doctor Who, made me read a bloody 1000 page book. Me, who has a "bit too long innit" limit at around 300 pages. Reading the wonderful novel by Susanna Clarke took me nearly the entire July and it caused me to have some pretty wonderful, magical dreams. I just didn't want it to end.

Having read the book made me appreciate the series and Peter Harness's scriptwriting skills even more. What a feat.
Of course they couldn't cram all of the book into the series...the first episode consists of probably 200 pages of the novel (don't remember the exact number now but it was quite a chunk). A lot of the context and the little things had to go to fit the novel into seven episodes, but it still worked beautifully.

This series also introduced me to Enzo Cilenti, the actor portraying Norrell's assistant Childermass who, frankly, must be one of my favourite characters in anything ever now.
Enzo made an art of leaning on things, rolling his eyes and quite generally being sexy in a rugged, and laid-back way. Well done!

And well done to the entire cast and crew. I will be coming back to this world as long as I'm alive, can promise you that. TV at its best.


The series which made me cry the most this year. Was it the best crime story ever? No, but who cares. It had so much heart! Bloody fucking hell, the heart!

I went into it assuming it's gonna be one of those gritty Norse crime series, all doom and gloom and rain and perverse violence.
Starring Stellan Skarsgard, who despite having a fucking wide acting range, I could easily picture as a morose badass crime-solving people punching Swedish Arnie, if need be.

  • Instead I got a vulnerable, deeply grieving weirdo. A weirdo who, however, was quite different to all the other detached weirdos on TV at the moment. Never saw someone so closed-off to the "normal" world being portrayed in such a raw-open way. Skarsgard was the reason I even started watching it, and what he delivered might have been one of his best performances ever. And one which cut pretty close to the bone.
  • Instead I got the Globe theatre and quite a few Shakespearean references, 60% of which I probably didn't even catch on the first viewing because my knowledge of The Bard's work, if improving in the past few years, is far from comprehensive.
  • Instead I got a cathartic dance sequence to the tune of I Love to Love. (As you do).
  • Instead I got two wonderful, deep and rich acting performances by Nicola Walker and Lesley Manville.

Of all the shows in this post, River could possibly be the most misleading one. But believe me, it is so much more than a crime show. If you haven't watched it yet, you definitely should give it a try (in which case...sorry for the non-case spoilers).

Wolf Hall

Where do I begin? No really, where??? I feel like I spent a large part of 2015 in the 1530's.

So, let's start at the beginning, shall we.

I wasn't going to watch this. Henry VIII? Meh. Had positively enough of him after The Tudors.
I don't think I even knew it centred around Thomas Cromwell, and only heard about the series via Mark Gatiss's Twitter. Gave it a chance only after having seen a few yay! Wolf Hall! tweets on my timeline.

15 minutes into the first episode: what. how. I'm actually liking Cromwell. And, after getting myself entirely engrossed in the plot of the first, who is this guy playing him??
(Once one has watched all of the episodes of New Who, recent Marple and Hercule Poirot one acquires the impression one knows all the British actors who have been active in the past 30 years. One, of course, is quite wrong.)

I've rewatched each of the 6 episodes at least 3 times so far, something I very rarely do, not even with Doctor Who. I read the books on which the series was based (and just as with Strange & Norrell I'm impressed by the way they managed to translate the length, scope and language of the novels into a 6 part series). I even read a pretty good fan fiction uniting Tom Cromwell with Mary Boleyn (it's very much in the style of Hilary Mantel's books, so if you enjoyed them and don't despise AUs, check it out.)

And I discovered Mark Rylance.

Mark of course is...most Wonderful in Wolf Hall, I could write several essays on his eyes alone. And one or two more on the way his Cromwell speaks. And at least one other about all the swaggery strolling. And a cheeky blog post about how nice he looks in 16th century hats. 

But really, the whole cast is just absolutely superb. 
Anton Lesser (who has popped up in 70% of all British TV shows recently, and they're all the better for it) makes a marvellously arrogant and hypocritically righteous Thomas More. 
Jonathan Pryce plays cardinal Wolsey in such a way you can both understand how his downfall became possible, but also why Cromwell loved him so deeply that he felt compelled to avenge him years later. 
Damian Lewis brings Henry VIII to life like no-one else before (and babies, I've seen a few tries).
And then we have Claire Foy. Foy didn't get quite as many critical nods as Lewis and Rylance, but I definitely think she'd deserve just as many.  Her Anne is arrogant, scheming, cold, and sometimes outright mean, and yet, when her demise comes, and when you see her last moments, the blood in your veins freezes. She didn't deserve that.

There is literally not one element of the series I disliked (after I initially finished watching it I thought the flashback scenes to that fateful anti-Wolsey panto were too numerous and repetitive, but having read the book I understand why they were all there). The pace, the lighting, the subtlety of it all. They all made me feel like I was there. Now, that's a perfect historical drama.

Plus it has kittens.


Within the next week I would like to write a few more words about the "runner-ups", the other TV shows I enjoyed, though they might not have managed to hit both my emotional and intellectual bullseyes as well as the six shows I wrote about here.

And there might be a music-related blog post coming as well. It's been quite literally ages since one of those.


If you have any comments, feel free to share them below. 
Thanks for reading!


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