Historical

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}

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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.

Royal Pains

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The lives of the British Monarchy have been the subject of endless fascination for generations. One would think they’ve no relevance given the times we live in, but the celebrity treatment of the Royals, which began with Princess Diana, has well and truly exploded today. Forget Prince William and the Duchess, Kate Middleton – even their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, are not spared from the constant public scrutiny of not just their behavior, but even their outfits. You’ve got to hand it to the Royals though, their public appearances are always so put together, so polished, so perfect, but the inner workings of their family are kept tantalizingly private. Occasionally a scandal breaks out, but the finer details are buried deep and stowed away, far, far away from the rest of us. Consequently, there’s a Royal rumour mill that never loses steam, and a slew of ‘inspired’ films and television series that try to offer some perspective on their lives.

the crown on netflix

The latest, and perhaps the most promising endeavor in this regard, is Netflix’s newest drama series, The Crown. What makes this series special, isn’t that it’s Netflix’s most expensive production yet (they seem to be topping their previous record for spending every three months now), or even that it is written by Peter Morgan, who was also the writer behind the 2006 film starring Dame Helen Mirren, The Queen, as well as Frost/Nixon. The Crown is special because, for the first time, the Royals seem to have approved of the show- Peter Morgan had revealed at a Press Conference that they were ‘very, very, aware’ of it, and that it might not be too long before Netflix manages to get the Queen’s opinion of it.

The Crown is a drama that seeks to explore the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the first season, which comprises ten episodes and releases in a few weeks, begins at the very beginning. The year is 1947, the second World War has just about come to an end, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) has been re-elected as Prime Minister, and Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) is getting married to Prince Philip (Matt Smith). In the middle of all this, King George VI (Jared Harris) is ailing – he is frequently coughing blood, which his faithful attenders dismiss as a symptom of “the cold”. It isn’t long before he discovers that it isn’t the cold, but cancer, and realizes that he must do all he can, while he can, to prepare his barely 25 years old daughter for the throne. The Crown explores the impact that the adherence to duty, to royal duty, has over family and relationships, and the immense burden that is placed on a young woman’s shoulders.

Claire Foy plays young Queen Elizabeth, which is interesting because this series would be the second time she’s playing an important English queen on television – she was spectacular as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, and her performance in The Crown doesn’t seem any different. Matt Smith is also wonderful as Prince Philip, a man who is caught between the boundless love he has for his young wife, and hating the monarch that she must become.

The Crown is the story of a Princess who became Queen, but make no mistake – it isn’t a fairytale.

{The Crown releases on Netflix on November 4th}

Diet Coke

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There was a point in time while watching Narcos, when I had to pause and look up the events that were being played out on screen, just to see if they had actually happened for it all seemed so incredulous and unbelievable. Did Colombia really go through such a prolonged period of drug related violence? And did all the devastation really root from one man’s crazed ambition?

Narcos resurrects the life and times of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord whose business and political aspirations led to government unrest, assassinations, and overwhelming violence across the country, which lasted for most than a decade. Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is a smuggler from Colombia, who knows his way around the local officials who are impediments to his business. Each time he’s confronted, he gives them a choice – Plata (silver) or Plomo (lead, referring to the bullets in his gun), and the fear he invokes, coupled with the economic situation in Colombia, ensures that the officials’ choice is almost always Plata. It isn’t long before he controls certain transport routes in the country. Around the same time, Mateo “Cockroach” Moreno (Luis Gnecco), a chemist whose specialty is the manufacture of cocaine, comes into his acquaintance.

Cockroach wants Pablo’s help to sell coke in Colombia, but Pablo, the visionary, decides to take the business to the United States. The initial smuggling of coke which happens through blazers with hidden pockets, expands into one that requires shipments delivered through private planes, and before he knows what’s happening, Pablo finds himself with so much money that he has to bury it in fields, and even starts distributing it to the poor. Pablo also takes the initiative to form the Medellin cartel, consisting two other important players in the drug business – the Ochoa family, and Gonzalo “The Mexican” Gacha (Luis Guzman), for it is important to keep one’s friends close, but even more important to keep your enemies closer.

Pablo’s ascent has him believing that he can do anything, he can be anything, including the President of Colombia. His cousin and closest friend, Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba) warns him that his political dreams are bad for the business, but Pablo is beyond reason. He positions himself as a philanthropist with a dream for Colombia, but his history catches up with him, and he’s shamed out of parliament for being a drug dealer. The humiliation is too much for Pablo, and he unleashes a brutal war on the streets, bringing Colombia to its knees, and giving the government no choice but to support extradition of convicted drug lords to the United States, and empowering the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Colombia.

Although history will serve as a spoiler to how Pablo’s life eventually turned out, the show’s execution is flawless. It’s thrilling, it’s got a great deal of black humour, and it’s impossible to stop with watching only one episode. The screenplay explores the lives of both the drug lords, as well as the men and women on the other side. Wagner Moura’s portrayal of both Pablo, the ruthless drug lord, as well as Pablo, the gentle family man, is impeccable. Although the narration isn’t one-sided, the show has a narrator in the DEA Agent, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who has been brought into Colombia to help the American government tackle the drug menace. Steve Murphy, and his partner, Javier Pena (the extraordinarily handsome Pedro Pascal), along with the Colombian General, Horacio Carillo (Maurice Compte) are crucial players in the fall of Pablo Escobar. It’s interesting to know that the real Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, who’ve long retired from their Narco hunting days, were hired as consultants to show to ensure that the series is true to the real chronology of events. Season one of Narcos explores the first decade of Pablo Escobar’s reign, and the newly released, and just as brilliant second season, takes on the three years that Pablo spends in hiding. The show is as addictive, and possibly as pleasurable as the drug that forms the core of its story. You’ve been warned.

{Seasons one and two of Narcos are currently streaming on Netflix}

The Let Down

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

On paper, The Get Down ought to be the greatest television show of the year. It’s Netflix’s most extravagant production yet, with a whopping $120 million that has been pumped into the show. The show is acclaimed Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s television debut, and is co-created by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who has won a Pulitzer for writing Drama. If you’ve watched any of Baz Luhrmann’s films, like Moulin Rouge, or The Great Gatsby or even the nineties smash hit Romeo + Juliet, you’d know Luhrmann’s penchant for creating entire worlds, and it is no different with The Get Down. Luhrmann has brought to life, New York of the 1970s, more specifically, the neighbourhood of South Bronx, where the story is set.

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Ezekiel (Justice Smith) is an orphan who is currently under the care of his aunt, and her boyfriend. He’s a bright kid, with a special talent for poetry, but he would rather spend his time trying to win the beautiful Mylene’s (Herizen Guardiola) heart, than on academics, after all, it’s not like anyone at the Bronx is studying – the neighbourhood is plagued with poverty, corruption, gang violence and despair. Mylene wants to leave the Bronx and become a star, a disco star, but her father (Giancarlo Esposito), who is a pastor in an orthodox, Pentecostal church will not have any of it. One night, Mylene decides to sneak out of the house to participate in a dance competition at Les Infernos, the greatest disco club at the Bronx, where the winner gets to meet with a famous music producer. It is also at Les Infernos that Ezekiel has a run-in with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a legendary graffiti artist as well as an aspiring DJ. Shaolin discovers Ezekiel’s talent with words, and takes him to “The Get Down”, an underground party in the Bronx, that’s headed by Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), one of the first pioneers of the hip-hop sound. It is here that Ezekiel realises that there is a world beyond Mylene, and the possibility that hip-hop might not only be his ticket out of Bronx, but may well pave his way to greatness.

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The Get Down is a story about music, about two young people discovering themselves through music, and about the socio-cultural impact that music has on history. It’s obvious that the story is well researched, from the music, to the clothes, to the language, to even the graffiti that is splattered across the walls. The detailing in the sets is impeccable, and the show looks every bit as expensive as it has been touted to be. The acting talent is impressive too – Justice Smith, especially, is fantastic as the sensitive poet who is torn about his future.

Theoretically, The Get Down has all the makings of a great show, but on screen, it’s just chaos. There is just way too much that is thrown at the viewer, and despite all that is happening on screen, the story never seems to get anywhere. It’s also hard to ignore the caricaturing – Shaolin wears a belt with Bruce Lee’s face on it, and there’s (vaguely) Asian sounding music that is played each time he comes on screen, not to mention the exaggerated Kung Fu fighting. I understand that they’re trying to portray someone as mythical, but this comes off like a joke. The Get Down, like any other Netflix show, is designed for binge-watching, but it’s far too arduous to even watch two episodes in a single sitting. I couldn’t go through more than three, and the very thought of three more episodes tires me. I suppose the folks at Netflix felt the same way, for only six out of the twelve episodes of the first season have been released, with the second set of episodes coming out in 2017.

The Get Down is supposed to be a story about the gritty beginnings of Hip-Hop during the age of Disco, but instead of an honest, unembellished portrayal of the genre, we get an overwhelming, cluttered, extravagant mess – a let down.

{Season 1 of The Get Down is currently streaming on Netflix}

The Spies Next Door

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are a suburban couple in eighties America. They help their children with the homework, they get ice-cream together, they even bake brownies for new neighbours – so really, they’re just your average, All-American husband and wife, except they’re not. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are trained, skilled and deadly KGB agents who work for the Soviet Union during the Cold War while leading deep-rooted lives in Washington DC. Oh, and remember the new neighbour who they baked brownies for? He’s Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counter-intelligence agent.

The Americans traces the tumultuous life and times of the Jenningses as they are torn between serving their country, and themselves. What makes the series absolutely fascinating to watch, is the fact that it’s set in the eighties. Not only was it a time of intense political intrigue, but also a time when supercomputers, location tracking bugs and cars that could talk had no potential to exist. The spy games that the couple play involve good old disguises (wigs included), kidnapping, morse code, skin burning chemicals and the occasional sexual favour. A lot about The Americans is reminiscent of Homeland, especially in the ways that the past and the present collide on screen, but The Americans is definitely on the more dramatic, for it is as much about a war, as it is about marriage, and at times, family. The Jennings’ marriage was a match that was made in the upper echelons of the Soviet spy directorate, but despite the great masquerade of it all, there are moments of genuine tenderness and love that seep through their secret lives.

The creator of the show, Joe Weisberg, interestingly, is a former CIA agent. A lot of the show’s story line is based on the stories and experiences that he collected during his time there, as well as a lot of research. The Americans is excellent television, not only because of its fast, almost frenzied pace, but also because despite the surreal plot line, it captures human frailty in a manner so accurate, that it is painful. The leads, Keri Rusell is extraordinary as Elizabeth Jennings, the spy capable of breaking a man’s ribcage with her bare arms, but is still capable of being outraged by the fact that her 13 year old daughter bought underwear without her. Matthew Rhys is also brilliant as Phillip Jennings, the surprisingly soft-hearted agent who is constantly torn between serving his motherland and going against everything he was taught to believe in, and make his blissful false life, real.

What I found most enjoyable about The Americans was how it almost forces the viewer to root for Elizabeth and Phillip, despite the fact that they’re the bad guys. The fact that you want two Soviet spies to somehow wrangle themselves out of the dangerous situation they (willingly) got themselves in and just happily ever after with their two kids is a solid triumph on part of the show. It will even have you believe that spies, on most days, are just like us.

{Season 4 of The Americans is presently being telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

The Abominable Bride

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s only been a week into the first month of 2016, but I do believe that I’ve already watched the best of what television has to offer this year in the new “holiday special” episode of Sherlock. Sherlock, is the modern adaptation of the classic detective story by BBC which premiered in the year 2010, and has seen resounding success across the globe, with good reason: the screenplay moves at a blistering pace, and more importantly, the completely unexpected casting, which compels you to not accept anyone else as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson other than Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (no, not even Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law).

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The holiday special episode is a one-off release, perhaps to assuage fans who’ve been waiting for the fourth season (due to release in 2017), after the third season ended on a cliffhanger in 2014.
While I’ve been infatuated with Sherlock for four good years now (I discovered it rather late), I found the last season mediocre at best. The writers had given the razor sharp, ruthless detective, emotions, which made made him slow, made him care, and made him human. This irked me, for one of the qualities which made Sherlock so worthy of the idolatry was his cold-blooded, and hardboiled nature. After all, why would you idolise anyone who is similar to yourself? I wasn’t alone with this complaint, and given how unrelenting Sherlock was in The Abominable Bride, it looks like the writers have taken note.

The episode begins with a quick flashback to the previous seasons, after which, “alternatively”, we are taken to 19th Century London, where Sherlock Holmes is a famous detective whose adventures are chronicled for the newspaper by his trusty aide, Dr. Watson. There’s a new case, too – a woman, dressed up as a manic bride, stepped out into the public and created chaos, before shooting herself in the head. The police have come to the spot, and taken her body to the morgue. Six hours later, the same woman, Emelia Ricoletti, comes back to take the life of her husband. The case remains unsolved, only to get resurrected several months later, presenting Sherlock the opportunity to take another crack at it.

The pace of the episode is breakneck, and you don’t lose interest even for a single moment, which is rare in ninety minute episodes. Cumberbatch’s acting is as incisive as his cheekbones, and Martin Freeman, is perfection as the loyal, well meaning and occasionally bumbling Watson. The dialogues are top class, full of jokes that deserve a second and maybe even a third watching, and proving that the Victorian setting wasn’t going to slow the episode down in any way. An hour in, the episode tilts to the present, and takes off from where it ended the previous season. This may sound complicated on paper, but rest assured that the writing ties all loose ends in an immaculate manner. Overall, this holiday special was an absolute treat to watch, and the perfect springboard for the fourth. 2017 couldn’t come quicker.

{Sherlock: The Abominable Bride will air on AXN on January 10th at 12 Noon}

The King’s Great Matter

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I was about twelve years old when Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone movie was announced. It was the year 2001, and only four books had been published in the seven book series – all four of which I had read, re-read and loved, much before there were talks of taking the novel to the big screen. There were only a few friends in school who had read the series, and once we got tired of discussing the books between ourselves, we would collectively stalk the fan websites to get our fill of anything and everything related to Harry Potter. When the films were announced, I faithfully followed the hype, developed a rather premature crush on Daniel Radcliffe and ended up seeing the film the first week it released in theatres.

The next following weeks at school though, it seemed like everyone knew about Harry Potter, and the characters weren’t exclusive to the few of us anymore. I developed a condescension then towards the “haven’t read the book but I’ve watched the movie” type of people. This condescension didn’t last too long though – I am now well and truly one of them.

wolf hall on bbc, wolf hall, hilary mantel

Any literature, when adapted well for the screen, is a joy to watch for people who are already familiar with the story, but even more so for those who aren’t. Hilary Mantel’s award winning Wolf Hall trilogy, has been on my “to-read” list for a very long time now. This year, BBC adapted the books into a six episode mini-series for television. The story itself is based on real happenings, popularly known as “The King’s Great Matter”, which transpired during 16th Century England. King Henry the VIII needs an heir to the throne, but unfortunately, his wife of twenty years, Lady Katherine, has been unable to produce one, and so, Henry decides to abandon his existing marriage, and marry Anne Boleyn, who he is infatuated with. However, the concept of divorce then, wasn’t just alien, but also illegal. The only way for Henry to legally alienate the Queen is by annulling the marriage, something that he cannot do without papal consent. His Cardinal, Wolsey, struggles for eight long years to get the order from the Pope, but to no avail, following which Henry exiles him. The entire series of events, as well as what happens next, is narrated through the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, the Cardinal’s lawyer, and right hand man. Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, a “nobody”, as he is referred to in the series, who works his way up in the ranks to become the King’s confidante as well as an important political figure during that time.

The casting in the series has been exceptional – the show is full of faces you’d recognise if you watch Sherlock, Homeland and even Game of Thrones, such as Mark Gatiss who plays the thoroughly entertaining Stephen Gardiner, Damian Lewis as the conceited yet strangely likeable King Henry, Claire Foy as the haughty and resolute Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce who does a remarkable job of playing the wounded Cardinal Wolsey. You’d think that it would be impossible to pick an outstanding performance in a cast like this, but Mark Rylance, who plays the politically deft and determined Thomas Cromwell is in a league of his own.

The way the story ends for Anne in the series is no different from how it ends in history – she is executed on counts of witchcraft and incest, but watching the events unfurl on screen takes your breath away till the very last minute. I do hope that the show’s director, Peter Kominsky and writer, Peter Straughan earn many awards for Wolf Hall. The series is perfectly paced, skilfully written, and an overall triumph in adaptation.

Hilary Mantel is due to release the final book in her trilogy very soon, and I for one, cannot wait to join in on Thomas Cromwell discussions when it does. After all, I may have not read the book, but I have watched the series.