The Lists: 2015 TV

I am belligerently positive about a lot of things and TV drama is one of them. We’re in the opening years of what’s either the second golden age of TV drama or a Silver Age which will be even better. And thematically appropiate given just how much fun The Flash has been in its first year and a half.

There’s been a parade of genuinely brilliant shows this year including a season of Doctor Who so gleefully inventive and weird it left the also immensely impressive previous season in the dust. Then there were the others, from Daredevil and The Librarians to The FlashFortitude and the rapidly growing stream of diverse, interesting stuff Netflix and Amazon are producing. Frankie and Grace was particularly great as are the pilots for Good Girls Revolt and the cheerfully nasty Edge the Loner, both of which I’d love to see picked up. Likewise while I haven’t got to Man in the High Castle or finished Mr Robot quite yet I’m delighted to see them getting picked up for a second year. Of what I did see this year, these five were the standouts.

The best TV show about the survival of abuse ever made. It’s easy, and justifiable a lot of the time, to criticize the Marvel Cinematic Universe for racing for the lowest and most entertaining common denominator. Two series into the planned five, the Netflix Marvel shows are gleefully doing the exact opposite.

Jessica Jones is a superhuman, abuse survivor and Private Investigator. She lost years of her life to a horrifically abusive relationship with Killgrave, another superhuman whose ability allows him to control others. Jessica killed for him. She killed him. She escaped carrying psychological scars and crippling guilt into her new profession as a P.I.

Then Killgrave returns.

Jessica, played with fractured laconic aplomb by Krysten Ritter is on the back foot almost constantly and the threat of Killgrave is built up through lighting and direction long before he makes his presence felt. When he does he’s a dark mirror of the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant playing the role with the same maniacal focused charm and absolutely none of the compassion. He’s cold and brutal and immature, a violent, panicking child trapped in a man’s body.

The pair of them are electric, turning in career best performances and relishing the complex, meaty scripts. Surrounding them are the hapless bystanders drawn into the conflict; Jessica’s neighbours in her apartment building as well as career lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker, Officer Simpson of the NYPD and Luke Cage, a bartender with a secret all his own. All of them are complex, deep, interesting characters. All of them are horribly scarred by even coming close to Killgrave. All of them are real, nuanced and interesting people who you care about.

No Marvel show has had a cast this good before, no Marvel show has BEEN this good before. As close to a perfect season as you’ll get Jessica Jones is a modern noir classic and a sign of just how good the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be when it shows up for work. Season 2 cannot be confirmed fast enough.

If you want to hear more, and there’s so much more to discuss, then listen to this. It’s a three hour podcast from the brilliant School of Movies discussing the show. Marguerite and I were part of the panel for it and it was intense, immense fun and only scratched the surface.

 

A six episode season exploded onto Amazon in the closing stages of 2015 and I’ve rarely seen a first season make a more emphatic statement. Set in a very post-apocalyptic, reconstructed Southern US, the show starts as a Western of sorts and then upends every single expectation you have.

Narratively it’s got a story that feels like long-form anime but is shot through with Western and Chinese opera stylings and beats to create something entirely different. Following the staff and family of one of the Barons who rule the Badlands, it lays out a complex world with the same grace and elegances of movement that lead character Sunny (Daniel Wu) uses to dispatch his legions of opponents.

The difference is, the show lets itself enjoy it.

The head Clipper, or soldier, for an increasingly demented Baron Quinn (Played with laconic scenery wrecking joy by Marton Csokas), Sunny is a supremely principled, gifted killer. Then he rescues a young boy, MK, from slavers and his world starts to expand. Or fall apart. Or both.

Very nearly everything I saw this year impressed me. Almost nothing impressed me as much as Into the Badlands did. The show is a tightly knitted machine of truth and consequence, each character pulling on the threads that bind them and not seeing or caring that it wraps someone else up even tighter. Everyone, from MK to Sunny’s partner and town doctor Veil, to Quinn and his wives and his son have an agenda. None of them mesh and the show is as tense in its political sequences as it is in the exuberantly brutal fight sequences.  It’s attentive, precision storytelling of a kind a lot of series aim for and very few hit.

Into the Badlands never misses. Once.

 

Isn’t it lovely when a show puts two words together like that and does right by both of them?

A gloriously inventive two hour look at the anatomy of a T-Rex, this is the gooiest piece of TV I saw this year. The team of Doctors they brought in saw the T-Rex for the first time when they arrived in the studio and their reactions, gleeful amazement, were pretty much mine too. What followed was a splendidly gore soaked couple of hours that included the removal and dissection of an eye, pulling eggs from the carcass’ reproductive system and one pathologist climbing inside the chest cavity to better remove the beast’s colossal heart. Gloriously messy this really was both fun and educational.

 

If there’s one thing you cannot fault the Wachowskis on, it’s ambition. Their films have, for me, frequently been beautiful failures but every single one pushes the envelope as far as it possibly can. Sense8 is no exception. The only difference is here, with extra hours of story to work with, their ideas have room to breathe.

The result is extraordinarily successful. Sense8 is the story of 8 people who become a hive mind. Sun is a Korean businesswoman who channels her growing frustration through an underground MMA career. Capheus is a matatu driver in Nairobi whose endless charm and positivity is challenged by a brush with the local underworld. Nomi is a trans woman and hacktivist in San Francisco who lives happily with her girlfriend Amanita. Kala is a pharmacist in Mumbai engaged to a kind, understanding man whom she in no way loves. Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London and on the run from a horrific past. Wolfgang is a Berlin locksmith and gangster whose rage at his abusive childhood is funnelled into incredible focus and ruthless calm. Lito is an immensely successful actor living in Mexico City and, in secret, with his boyfriend. Will is a Chicago PD officer with an unsolved case in his past and a terrible ordeal in his future.

The idea of the ‘Cluster’ is sketched in as the series opens and as it goes on, the characters begin to use their connection in ever more innovative ways. At one point Will and Sun save Nomi from being arrested. At another, Will stops Capheus from being killed in a shootout. At a crucial moment later on, Capheus saves all their lives by knowing how engines work. On their own these people are interesting. Together they’re extraordinarily powerful, their normal skills becoming superpowers simply because of how many bases they all cover. The final episode of season 1 in particular is a masterpiece of action and problem solving as Will infiltrates a facility aided first by Nomi and Amanita for intel, then Lito for infiltration, Sun for close combat, Capheus for mechanics and so on.

The idea is complex but the genius of the show is in how straight ahead it’s presented. All eight actors are in each location and, as behind the scenes footage shows, simply switched out when the camera is off them. Its low tech, Raimi-esque direction and it’s usually elegant and often brilliant. Especially as whichever personality is required is the one we see. So, when Will needs to charm himself past a scientist we see Lito. When he needs to get past four guards it’s Sun who we see demolish them and when Will gets where he needs to be, we see him again. Eight lives experiencing one life. And we see it all.

Sense8 is extraordinary in every sense of the word. Epic, intimate, funny, sweet and absolutely unmissable.

There was some debate this year about whether Supergirl and Jessica Jones were both necessary pieces of television. I’ve heard stupider ideas put forward in the last twelve months but none spring to mind right now.

Like all good stories, there are lots of things going on at once in Supergirl. The one which hasn’t been universally successful is the traditional ‘villain of the week’ story. That’s something no superhero TV show has got right to date and in fairness Supergirl comes closest. Not only are the villains all wrapped in a neat common origin but their presence also have long term consequences. And who knew we’d be looking at J’emm Son of Saturn as a catalyst for a major twist in anything at the start of the year, eh?

The show’s characters are where it soars. Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is a near impossibility; a smart, compassionate male lead who is comfortable with and open to his emotions. It’s the most interesting take on Jimmy I’ve ever seen and he’s not alone. Cat Grant, far too often a walking Dynasty knockoff is reimagined here with extraordinary success. Calista Flockhart plays her as monstrous, certainly, but there’s never a hint of caricature. Cat is gifted, ruthless and absolutely focused. She’s also clever enough to not only use how people see her to get what she wants but to make sure they underestimate her. Her clear affection and respect for Kara, Supergirl’s civilian identity is one of the highlights of the show and her recent discovery of Kara’s identity was as surprising as it was welcome.

But the show’s lynchpin is Melissa Benoist and the clip above shows why. She does extraordinary work and the physical differences between a superhero and their secret identity haven’t been this well realized since Christopher Reeve’s day. Her Kara is nervous and twitchy, always moving a little too fast and a little hunched over. Her Supergirl moves like a force of nature, immense strength and care in every step and syllable.

Even better, Benoist excels at showing us what Kara isn’t quite prepared to see; just how angry she is. She’s a character robbed of her duty and her family and the terrified, enraged teenage version of her is still very close to the surface. The show is at its best when it explores both that and the fundamentally hopeful nature of its lead as the second half of the first season looks set to do. A world away from Jessica Jones, just as it should be but every inch as clever and every inch as necessary.

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