My top TV shows of 2014

Golden age indeed. These days, TV is up there with film in terms of quality of story, well written and believable characters and – in some cases – almost cinematic production values. And this year was a mightily good year when it came to a night on the sofa with the latest ‘must watch’ show.

From crime and fantasy dramas and zombies everywhere, to Victorian witches and oversexed vampires, here are the shows that rocked my world and floated my boat this year.

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Penny Dreadful: season 1
With a cast including Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Harry Treadaway and Josh Hartnett, this show surpassed expectations with a host of intriguing characters and powerhouse performances, particularly from Green. Every time she went into possessed demonic mode the show went up a few notches.

Fargo: season 1
Martin Freeman as a timid insurance salesman from Minnesota up against Billy Bob Thornton’s enigmatic mobster hitman. As an idea for a TV show this was perhaps an odd gamble, yet one that paid off. No doubt down to the superb writing and outstanding performances. Freeman again proving to people just how good he really is.

The Leftovers: season 1
There’s so much beauty in grief and suffering, yet it’s rarely shown in such a captivating manner. Here it was brought to life by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta – with a fine lead performance from Justin Theroux – in a story that charted the lives of a group of people, following the disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population.

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Game of Thrones: season 4
As the Starks, Lannisters and all other families grow further apart, each on quests of their own, the story and world of Westeros and beyond expands. This makes it tougher and tougher for the show’s writers and creators, still they deliver, with possibly the most visually stunning and emotionally engaging season so far.

Walking Dead: season 5
As it stands, we’ve only had the first half before the show hit its mid season break. It’s been good though, watching Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes slowly but surely lose his humanity, as he’s faced first with cannibals then just the general dregs of mankind that seem to now inhabit the earth and plague him at every turn.

The Strain: season 1
File this under ‘guilty pleasure’ TV. From the creepy and fantastical minds of Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro, this show (which started life as a novel, then a graphic novel) has vampires portrayed as parasites, causing chaos in New York as a small band of average heroes try to stop them, with varying degrees of success.

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Homeland: season 4
With Brody (Damien Lewis) out of the picture Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) took centre stage this season as Chief of Station in an increasingly volatile Pakistan, on the hunt for terrorists. With drones, torture, kidnap and diplomatic backstabbing, this latest outing proved to be a marked return to form.

Forever: season 1
More guilty pleasure TV, this time in the form of a sort of mashup of Highlander meets CSI with Ioan Gruffudd’s immortal medical examiner solving murder cases in New York. Given the morbid subject, it’s an upbeat and easy watch. Thanks in part to the breezy chemistry between Gruffudd and his detective partner, played by Alana de la Garza.

True Blood: season 7
The final hurrah for this show was something of an anticlimax – or a least more of a sombre tone than its predecessors. However you have to give it credit for the seasons that went before, yet it just didn’t have the same verve and bite (ha!) after the show’s creator, Alan Ball, left after the fifth season.

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True Detective: season 1
McConaughey at the height of his powers turned his attention to TV for this deeply intense, brooding miniseries. One where he played the maverick detective to Woody Harrelson’s more straight arrow (albeit, with problems of his own) cop, both tracking down a serial killer over a period of many years.

24: Live Another Day
Despite a concern knawing away at you that this show probably should have ended some time ago, it’s risen from the ashes… so we’ll have to live with it. For the latest season it halved the number of episodes for a leaner, tighter story, with Jack Bauer legging it around London looking for people to beat up.

Homeland: The Drone Queen

A world without Brody. There’s no denying Damien Lewis is a very fine actor. I’m a big fan and his departure at the end of the last season of Homeland did leave a void, but it was almost like his character, Nicholas Brody, had become bigger than the show. With him gone everyone can settle down a bit and get on with things.

Particularly Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), now station chief in Afghanistan. The episode (and latest season) starts with her hesitantly authorising a missile strike. Her team watch a big screen stoney-faced as buildings blow up. They then bring out a cake for her birthday with her nickname, ‘The Drone Queen’, written in icing.

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This disturbingly blasé approach to ‘the war on terror’ won’t be lost on the audience. In fact, it won’t be lost on the characters. Carrie may have hardened up to the realities of her job or just be putting on a good show of it, but someone coping less well is the former hitman with a heart of gold, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), now stationed in Pakistan.

His conscious began to knaw away at him last season and his moral crisis continues here. His pain is clear to see and appears to be in direct contrast to the rigid exterior Carrie has built up for herself.

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One of the other main stalwarts of the show, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is now a private contractor advising the US government on the current conflict. He’s also questioning his stance and decisions made in the past, perhaps in a more reflective way, but it’ll be interesting to see how his influence on Carrie plays out now that he’s not directly calling the shots on behalf of the government.

For a season opener it’s not all moody introspection though. There’s a tense and dramatic sequence involving the (possibly corrupt) station chief in Pakistan, which sets up the story for (probably) the next few episodes in an intriguing way.

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Carrie, as ever, remains a conflicted and eminently watchable character, and with Brody out the picture she’s back to centre stage. No doubt a few new characters will emerge to put her off her stride and make her question her choices.

Either way, it feels like this show has somewhat turned a corner and it will be interesting to see where the writers take the story. The opening episode focused on the American’s use of drones, as did the whole of the latest season of 24, but this show is almost the opposite in terms of tone and style. So how they build on this premise will be key. If the first episode is anything to go by, it looks like a running theme to develop could be the degree to which each character questions his or her decisions.

The conflict of the moral compass you might say.

There’s no doubt after the first two seasons Homeland holds itself to a high standard. The last season suffered a bit of a wobble but I’m keeping an open mind on this one.

Nicholas Brody: Wanted – Dead or Alive!

homeland-season3So…Homeland returns for a third outing. Carrie is back, looking a little less harrowed. Well, only a little. Off her meds, or on to new ones or something like that. Let’s just say, whilst not fully unhinged, the door is hanging on by a hinge at present, but could go either way. Easily one of the best written (and played) female characters on TV in recent times.

Saul is back, reluctantly taking the helm at the CIA. An organisation now in tatters, with other government bodies looking for excuses to pull the plug. As a result, he looks a lot more harrowed, stuck making the tough decisions, with half an eye on so-called ‘friendly colleagues’, wondering whether he’s getting stabbed in the back.

Brody is MIA (again), leaving his family to pick up the pieces (again). Daughter Dana – whilst seeming well-adjusted on the surface – appears to have been through the biggest ordeal, as the episode picks up her story again during rehab, saul homelandhaving tried to take her life following the events at the end of season 2.

Shady operative-turned-assassin, Peter Quinn, is in full focus in this opening episode, ordered to infiltrate a compound Scarface style and take out a very bad man in under 10 minutes. It goes (mostly) to plan but, as you’d expect, takes us to some dark places. I was half hoping a coked-up Al Pacino to burst out and utter that immortal line.

So, all in all, a perky start. However…

Third time round the writers have got their work cut out, ensuring the various character story arcs don’t all snowball in different directions. The first episode hasn’t even touched on the whereabouts of Brody or Abu Nazir.

One thing for them to remember (should they need reminding) is to avoid letting this show veer too close to the action fuelled roller coaster that was 24. Times have moved on since then and the first (if not so much the second) series proved that Homeland was (and hopefully still is) an intelligent, slow burner, b6f713e9b7c677e3_homeland_303_4882.R.previewwhere you have to put the work in to thread the story together.

Key to this is the tour de force performance of Damian Lewis. The sooner he’s back in the picture the better. Although, with half of America now gunning for the ex-Congressman, his ability to lie his way out of trouble could be sorely put to the test.

Whatever way this season unfolds, I imagine it will be the hardest one yet in terms of receiving widespread acclaim. Season 2 rode high on the success of season 1 meaning that, if season 2 was largely accepted as the difficult second album achieved, that leaves this as the impossible third album in the making.

I say in the making, I’m hoping they’ve finished writing it and that it promises to be the best season yet. The bar, however, remains almost impossibly high.

Homeland season 2: First episode review

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nazirWith anticipation I settled down the other night to watch the first episode of season 2 of Homeland. From the first episode of its original season I was an instant fan.

To be honest I was sold on the concept before I even saw the show. It’s clear why, in today’s cut-throat world of US TV where shows get axed before they’ve even had a chance to get going, Homeland got the nod for a second outing, due to its intelligent plot, great cast, strong script, and the fantastic reception it received.

In fact, to go off subject for a second…
The amount of shows in recent times that seem to get built up immensely with a vast marketing campaign – so I subsequently watch and become invested in them – then get canned after one or two seasons is really beginning to annoy me. Some recent examples below:

  • Terra Nova – massive hype around this and it gets cancelled after one series. Poor ratings and expensive production to blame. A shame, as there were some interesting characters developing. Maybe we’ve just seen it all before with Jurassic Park, Avatar etc. I did like one of the lead actors though, Jason O’Mara – reminded me of a young Mel Gibson.
  • The Event – another show that didn’t last long, despite the hype. Perhaps it trod too closely to 24. Or with the constant jumps back and forth in time, it was trying to be Lost. Screenrant summed up its flaws well.
  • Falling Skies – initially I’d heard a rumour it had been axed, but a third series has been confirmed. I’m pleased. It’s got some good characters and the story moves along at a decent rate to keep you engaged. Plus it’s got Moon Bloodgood – an actress who, if you took away the consonants, her name would be ‘oooooo’. Sorry!

I think shows like Lost changed the scope for what could be accomplished on TV. It raised the stakes and delivered a level of complexity that was perhaps new to audiences. That said, I think it’s also responsible for a lot of shows not getting a chance to play out. Like many others, I enjoyed the first two or three seasons. It then started to get weird, confusing and infuriating, with story strands, characters and teasing suggestions that were never followed up. I stuck with it to the bitter end, only to be greatly disappointed and relatively underwhelmed. I think, as a result, audiences don’t have the patience now. Or maybe they just demand more from their TV shows post-Lost. At least I do!

Anyway, mini rant over. Back to Homeland.
A large part of the success of this show is because it doesn’t pull any punches, it’s gritty and uncompromising – the back story told in flashbacks that fleshes out Brody’s character (the excellent Damien Lewis) is well told, suspenseful, and intriguing.

brodyTV has moved on from 24 and Jack Bauer beating up anyone and everyone in sight. In much the same way that Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond moved on from slick, glossy CGI explosions to give us the raw, visceral and conflicted Daniel Craig.

Homeland shares more with shows like The Wire. Intelligent, complex yet not convoluted, but – most importantly – doesn’t paint a gung-ho, kick-ass picture of America, its politics and foreign policy.

In terms of casting, I was impressed. I’ve been a fan of Damien Lewis since Band of Brothers, which I could endlessly re-watch. For me, Claire Danes (as character Carrie Mathison) was the biggest surprise. I had this memory of her as a relatively unmemorable actress – at least in Romeo & Juliet and Terminator 3 – and she was a revelation, becoming progressively more unhinged as the story revealed itself. Damien Lewis played Brody perfectly. The slightest twitch of his eyes or change in mannerisms kept you constantly second-guessing his intentions.

So, finally, on to season 2, episode 1!
In terms of plot, Carrie, out of hospital having had treatment for bipolar disorder, is tentatively trying to rebuild her life. Brody is moving up the political ladder, from Congressman to possible Vice President. Brody then gets pulled back into Nazir’s world to once again do his bidding. Similarly, Carrie gets pulled back in by the CIA to make contact with one of her old sources that has information on an attack on America.

Brody’s life remains complex. His wife discovers – through their daughter – that Brody is a Muslim and reacts, shall we say, in an unsympathetic way. There is also an interesting relationship that’s begun to develop between Brody and his daughter (Dana) in the latter half of the first season, which has continued. Dana arguably talked him down from blowing himself up at the end of the first season and could be influential in his future decision making, particularly in terms of how Nazir sways him. We’ll have to wait and see.

carrie mathisonCarrie continued where she left off in the first season, unhinged, erratic, but still driven by her job. There is a scene near the end of the first episode of this new season, where she is being chased by an armed man, disarms him and makes her escape, with a wild, manic glint in her eye. She remains an incredibly interesting character – and the one most able to foil any terrorist plot, despite her mental state.

So, there are many reasons to be upbeat about this new season. It hasn’t toned down – or more worryingly overdone anything. Many shows feel the need to make everything bigger and better the next time around. More of the same is in order, as there’s still lots of story to tell. It’s a refreshing show to watch and follow, I’m excited. If you haven’t got involved, get season 1 on DVD, catch up then join us all on season 2. If Homeland is good enough for Barack Obama, then it’s good enough for the rest of us!