Month: December 2016

The 10 Best Shows of 2016

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

There was an avalanche of new content that stormed our television screens during 2016, but some shows stood much taller than the rest. Here are the 10 best shows of 2016, in no particular order –

the crown on netflixThe Crown: The Crown traces the life and times of a young Queen Elizabeth as she struggles to balance the monumental responsibility that has been thrust on her, with her once ‘regular’ life. Claire Foy is stunning in her portrayal as a young woman with an immense burden on her shoulders. The show is visually arresting, tightly scripted and is proof that story-telling is, and always will be superior to big budget special effects. {Netflix}

Westworld: What happens when robots created solely for the purpose of human pleasure discover consciousness? Worse, what happens when they realize the magnitude of the abuse that they’ve been put through? A mind-bending storyline with equally confounding twists and a cast that reads like an honour roll, no show this year is capable of making you stay up at night the way Westworld is. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things: The eighties are back with this eerie sci-fi mystery that plays like a Stephen King novel brought to life. Stranger Things boasts of not only Winona Ryder (who is flawless as a distraught small town mother trying to make sense of aliens in her backyard), but also the most lovable 10 year olds in recent television history. {Netflix}

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The Night Of: Dark and gripping, The Night Of is, to borrow from the show itself, a subtle beast. Naz Khan, every bit a good Muslim boy, finds himself accused of a gory murder, and it doesn’t help that he has no recollection of events. Riz Ahmed, John Turturro and Bill Camp are fantastic in this courtroom drama that makes no mince of discussing racial prejudice and Islamophobia in the backdrop of the American justice system. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The Night Manager: John Le Carre’s riveting espionage novel is brought to life by this lavish BBC production which has some sublime acting performances. Hugh Laurie doesn’t just play, but transforms into Richard ‘The Worst Man In The World’ Roper, a billionaire weapons dealer, and Olivia Colman is brilliant as Angela Burke, the very pregnant and very determined British enforcement agent who’s out to catch him. As for Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager may as well be the show which cements his place as the next James Bond. {Amazon Prime Video}

Game of Thrones (Season 6): The sixth season of Game of Thrones premiered this year, with each episode having a bigger revelation than the next. With resurrections, family reunions and sweet revenge, the sixth season was probably the fastest moving in terms of storyline after the first, and the final episodes of the season, ‘Battle of the Bastards’ and ‘Winds of Winter’ were television masterpieces. If you’d abandoned the show a few seasons ago, now is the time to catch up. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The People vs OJ Simpson – American Crime Story: The miniseries that swept the Emmy’s this year, People vs OJ Simpson resurrects the real courtroom drama of the infamous murder trial that shook ‘90s America. The screenplay is such that it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, even though the events that transpired are now history. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Black Mirror: Black Mirror is a compilation of 6 episodes, each narrating a different (horror) story detailing our relationships, and growing reliance on technology. Whether it’s the story of killer robotic bees or a future where your worth is measured in ‘likes’, Black Mirror will have you looking at your phones very differently. {Netflix}

Better Call Saul (Season 2): Better Call Saul might only be two seasons old, but the spin-off has already outdone its much celebrated original, Breaking Bad. The series about a small time lawyer’s path to becoming an ace con-man has excellent story-telling, sharp dialogue, terrific acting, and is one of the best shows on TV right now. {Colors Infinity}

better call saul, better call saul gifs

The Americans (Season 4): The thriller series about two Russian spies living average American lives during the peak of the Cold War only got better this year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give extraordinary performances, yet again, as the show dives even deeper into the complex themes of identity, patriotism and family, with a few wigs thrown in. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

 

You can read the round up of my favourites from 2015, here.

For Children Of All Ages

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

If you’ve followed, or are a fan of Guillermo Del Toro’s work as a film director, you’d be well aware of his bent for the fantastic and the impossible. He is the man who brought Hellboy to life, and gave us the monster fest that was Pacific Rim. Naturally, news of his collaboration with Dreamworks Animation and Netflix to produce an animated series was one that caused quite a stir. The result of this collaboration, Trollhunters, premiered on Netflix this Friday.

Trollhunters takes on the story of a 15-year-old boy, Jim (Anton Yelchin, who unfortunately, passed away this year), who is chosen by a magical amulet to become the Trollhunter – a hero who must protect both good trolls and mankind from evil trolls. Jim is helped in his mission by his best friend Toby (Charlie Saxton), and Blinky (Kelsey Grammer), a good troll who takes it upon himself to train Jim in the ways of the Trollhunter. Jim must now train, and defeat the evil troll Bular (Ron Perlman) who will stop at nothing to destroy the amulet and claim both worlds.

The series has twenty-six episodes in total, and they’re fairly short, with each clocking not more than twenty-five minutes, making them the perfect little work break, or the perfect binge, depending on how you watch Netflix shows.

It must be said though, that there is nothing in Trollhunters that’s particularly groundbreaking by way of story or characters, which is disappointing considering that someone with the caliber and whimsy of Del Toro is directing it. Trollhunters just has all the usual Dreamworks tropes – the underdog who is suddenly thrust with a hero’s responsibility, the sidekick who also provides comic relief, the adolescent love interest, adorable creatures and a fierce villain, who are all put together with the stunning animation that has become Dreamworks’ signature. The troll worlds are beautifully constructed with meticulous attention to detail, and the Man vs. Troll fights are impressively choreographed. The dialogue is fast and has plenty of humour, again, something that’s become standard with anything that Dreamworks produces. Occasionally, there are moments that stand out, like Jim’s interest in cooking and baking, and the way he takes care of his overworked mother, but there is nothing that particularly makes you go whoa, I’ve never seen this before – especially when you’ve watched How To Train Your Dragon, which is very similar in terms of storyline and characters.

That isn’t to say that the show is not fun, though – it’s immensely enjoyable to watch. In a time when television is getting darker and edgier, Trollhunters’ simplicity is actually its selling point. It’s light, visually arresting, clean, and possesses neither the pandering that kids’ shows today are in excess of, nor the risqué jokes that adult animation shows are infamous for. Trollhunters is a show for children, yes, but of all ages.

{Trollhunters is presently streaming on Netflix}

Season Finale

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Chennai and the month of December, it would seem, just can’t seem to get along. As if the Chief Minister’s death the previous week wasn’t difficult enough, the city was hit with a storm the likes of which it hasn’t witnessed in decades. Truth be told, when news of the cyclone Vardah and its intensity were first announced the weekend before the storm hit, I was only amused. Plenty of cyclone warnings have been issued to the city over the years, and most of them have ended up travelling north and dissipating, while the rest of us enjoyed a holiday at its expense. Needless to say, my amusement quickly became mortification as the cyclone began to, quite literally, bang on our doors.

My household was, rather, is among the many neighbourhoods that has been left powerless in the wake of the storm, and mobile network connectivity is still only patchy at best. So what does a television addict watch when power and internet, the two pillars of modern TV, are decimated?

cyclone vardah
The view from our house.

I watched nature, in all her fury, bring a city down to its knees. I was one of the many fools in the city who insisted on going up to the terrace to ‘experience’ the storm for myself, and I will confess that it is by sheer luck that I am sitting here, typing this, instead of being admitted in the hospital for injuries inflicted by vagrant flying branches. I’d seen plenty of storms and cyclones on well, television, but to actually be in the middle of one, even if it was only for three odd minutes, rattled me to the bone.

Once the storm had settled, I watched the broken stumps and branches of trees which had long been part of the scenery of my childhood, cleared from the roads on which they had fallen. I watched the city bleed in shades of green and brown.

2016, in television terms, has had more twists, turns and deaths than the most gruesome and shocking of shows, and has made us hold our collective breaths in anticipation of what’s next. When December arrived, I had wholeheartedly believed that we’d come to the end of a very difficult year, but I was wrong. This month with its deaths, storms and the inhuman siege of Aleppo in Syria already has the world reeling. I can only hope that the season finale of 2016 is one that is placid and peaceful, for I doubt that the world can watch any more.

Of News and Newsrooms

It’s been a difficult week for those in Tamil Nadu, and more so, in Chennai – the state’s Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa (fondly referred to as Amma), who assumed office after winning a historic re-election only this May, passed away after being hospitalized in the city for two months. She had succumbed to complications following a cardiac arrest.
News of the cardiac arrest came on Sunday evening, sparking endless rumours on Whatsapp and other social media channels. Despite the rumour-mongers’ (and my) best efforts, it was announced that Monday was to be a normal working day.

It was around 3 PM when more news reports started pouring in of her critical state, and we were asked to leave office. We were to hope for recovery, but we were also to be safe. The entire time on the tense ride back home, I followed the tickers of the Tamil news channels. After all, the regional news channels of today are far more savvy than their counterparts of a decade ago. Even if they continue to have their political biases (but then again, which channel doesn’t?) they are equipped with the latest technologies, articulate newsreaders and smart reporters, all of which make for reliable programming.

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Or so I believed.

A few hours later, when I was back in the safety of my house and family, a lone Tamil news channel came out with the stunning news that the CM had passed. It didn’t take long for a few other channels to follow, channels which I had always pegged to be trustworthy, unbiased and dependable. Naturally, I, like the other thousands of people who agitated in front of the hospital and put out eulogies on social media, believed it to be true.

Only, half hour later, we were told by the hospital that she was very much alive. The news channels immediately pretended like nothing even happened, the crowds calmed, social media outraged, and an entire city hung on to hope for an unlikely miracle. She passed away six hours later, but the question still remained – How do you declare the end of a life, a very important life, with the confidence, but without the official word the way these channels did?

Aaron Sorkin, the famed writer behind The West Wing, is also the creator of The Newsroom, a short-lived, but immensely watchable show about the happenings in well, a newsroom. There is a particular episode where the events that play out on screen are uncannily similar to the happenings of last Monday. A congresswoman is shot in the head, and one news channel declares her dead. It isn’t long before the others follow suit based on this one channel’s declaration, and without any real official confirmation. The protagonist, Will McAvoy, (who is essentially a Caucasian Arnab Goswami played by Jeff Daniels) and his team come under intense pressure from their management to follow suit, ‘stay current’, and report that she’s dead. They refuse to. “It’s a person” says one of the producers, Don (Thomas Sadoski). “A hospital declares her dead, not the news”. As it turns out, the Congresswoman survives surgery and lives to tell the tale.

Over the years, I’ve believed less and less in every news channel’s claim that they aim to report only the truth. It’s usually part-truth, part-perspective, and part-masala, which, as I’ve conditioned myself to believe, is alright if it’s inconsequential. On Monday, it was not. Those news channels’ words carried the weight of what could’ve potentially been statewide violence. Their handling of the incident raises a hundred questions, but more importantly, provides the confirmation that it isn’t, and has never been, the truth that news channels of today pursue. It’s TRPs.

A Brand New Affair

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

When you’re someone who watches as much television as I do, every evening presents you with a question – namely – ‘why am I still watching this?’ I’ve found that the more I watch, the less patience I have for television that doesn’t compel me, or simply doesn’t make me feel good at the end of the episode. The Affair, belongs to the first category. The series traces the life of a struggling, married writer, Noah Solloway (Dominic West), who jumps headfirst into an affair with a waitress, Alison (Ruth Wilson), jeopardizing not only his own life, but also the lives of those around him.

The third season of The Affair premiered last week, jumping three years from where the last season finished. Noah has just completed his term in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, and is back in the city, trying to put his previous life back together. He’s living with his sister, who’s the only person who believes his innocence, and has a part time job teaching writing at a reputed university. His wife, Helen (Maura Tierney) seems to be hopeful of reviving their relationship, although Alison doesn’t want to hear from him again. His children and his new students aren’t very fond of him either. He does, however, meet a very attractive, very French professor at the university, and in typical Noah Solloway fashion, makes his love life more complicated than it actually is. Noah also seems to be plagued with disturbing dreams and visions of his time in prison (which includes Brendan “The Mummy” Fraser as a scary looking prison guard), so even though the third season has done the time hop, we can be sure that it’ll explore Noah’s stint in prison, and how it changed him.

The reason the obviously unoriginal premise of an affair works as well as it does is because the story is woven through the perspectives of each of the characters, and takes into account their memory biases. As a viewer, you’ve to bring your own objectivity, and you never really know who ‘the good guy’ is, or even who to root for. The first episode of this season is all Noah, but the show’s creators have announced that the story will move through five characters (as opposed to the previous season’s count of four), so this is a season where you’ll be required to pay more attention than ever.

I’m quite old fashioned when it comes to viewing order, but strangely, I’ve found that watching the current episodes, and then going back to the previous ones makes you appreciate The Affair more as a show than you would if you went in order. So, if you’re new to the series, I’d recommend that you begin with the third season which is barely two episodes old, before you start catching up on the previous seasons. Each episode begins with a rather comprehensive recap, so you’re not going to feel like you’ve missed anything massive, either. I must warn you, however, that The Affair is not some kind of commentary on modern marriage. It’s dark, it’s dramatic, and drives home the point that nothing is ever what it seems.

{The Affair is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}