The Americans

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.

The Great Escape

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The American elections are on Monday, and from what I read in the newspapers, it seems like Donald Trump has a legitimate chance at becoming President of the United States of America, and perhaps the most important leader in the free world. As if that’s not depressing enough, NASA has just released a video which shows how the Arctic ice-caps are on the verge of disappearing altogether, putting a greater question mark over life as we know it. During times like these, you can’t help but wish you were in a different planet altogether. While that’s an impossible task (at least at the moment), I can give you the next best thing: Immersive, critically acclaimed television shows that will pull you into another world, even if it is only for a weekend.

Game of Thrones – The most obvious choice if you’re looking to spend the weekend doing nothing but staying glued to your screen. Game of Thrones, apart from being one of the most talked about shows in the world, is an engrossing fantasy series that takes place in the medieval world of Westeros. If you like the ideas of becoming familiar with evil queens, men who rise from the dead, and giant fire breathing CGI dragons, this is the show for you. {Game of Thrones is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

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Westworld – If you’re more of a forward looking person, then you should try Westworld, which is based in the future. Westworld is about a futuristic theme park that is inhabited by very realistic robots. Inspired by the novel written by Michael Crichton and directed by Jonathan Nolan, Westworld’s premise lies in the very uncomfortable thought of artificial intelligence becoming so human-like, that they begin threatening our very existence. The visuals are stunning, and the show is technically brilliant, but the real success of the show are the questions of morality that form its core.
{Westworld is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things – Stranger Things, technically, doesn’t take place in another world – the story is based in a sleepy, small American town in the ‘80s. The story revolves around four children whose friend suddenly goes missing after a night of board games. The more they try to investigate into the disappearance, the more they realize that something mysterious and terrifying is taking place in their town. Stranger Things is a must watch if you enjoy Stephen King novels or are generally nostalgic about the good old days when kids had to ride their cycles everywhere and played board games instead of playstations.
{Stranger Things is presently streaming on Netflix}

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The Americans – The Americans is another show that takes on the 80s, albeit in a completely different light, for its focus is on the Cold War between Russia and America. The show traces the life and times of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings who are a wholesome suburban couple by day, but Russian KGB agents by night. It’s incredibly fascinating to watch, and that isn’t just because of the wigs, elaborate disguises and 80s spy equipment. The Americans is one of those rare shows which will twist perspectives, make you root for the apparent bad guys, and question your own moral compass.
{The Americans is presently telecast on Star World HD}

Of Awards and Underdogs

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 68th Emmy Awards came to a close the previous Sunday night (Monday morning, for you and me), pulling the curtains down on an another year of television based glitz, glamour and predictability. While most of the awards went to the same people and shows it usually did (Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth straight Emmy), there were a few notable moments from the Awards ceremony.

Rami Malek took home the Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for Mr.Robot, in a ‘surprise’ win that felt obligatory. There’s no denying that Malek was excellent in his performance as the neurotic hacker, Elliot, but it felt unfair to me because some of the other actors in his category (and by some, I mean Matthew Rhys) had given better performances over a longer span of time. Mr. Robot’s second season is already far less impressive than the first, so although the Emmys took the apparently unconventional route with this winner, it didn’t come across as deserving. The Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series was also a surprise, albeit more meritorious – Tatiana Maslany, after three years of being snubbed, took home the award for playing multiple characters in Orphan Black.

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Aziz Ansari also took home an Emmy, although it wasn’t in the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series category. Instead, Ansari, along with Alan Yang, won the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None. While Ansari didn’t get to talk much (the orchestra began playing before he could even finish his thank-yous), Yang made a comment in his speech about how there are 17 million Asian Americans in the United States, and about the same number of Italian Americans. He went on to say that the Italians have The Sopranos, The Godfather, Rocky and Goodfellas, whereas the Asians have Long Duk Dong (an Asian exchange student in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, known for his bizarre behavior and over the top clumsiness). Yang also asked Asian American parents to get their kids “cameras instead of violins”. Yang’s speech was definitely one of the more dramatic ones that the evening saw, but it comes at an important time, after all, it has taken till 2016 for Asians and South Asians to be portrayed with nuance and depth, and not as inhuman parents constantly preoccupied with their children’s grades or bumbling owners of grocery shops.

The final hour of the Emmy’s was as predictable as the final hour of most masala movies – surprise winners notwithstanding, everyone knew who the winner was even before their names were announced. People vs OJ Simpson, which was nominated in a whopping 22 categories, took home the Outstanding Limited Series award. The Outstanding Drama Series went to Game of Thrones. Veep won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Now, People vs OJ Simpson, Veep, and Game of Thrones, are without doubt, studies in television excellence which deserved to win – but why does disappointment linger? Maybe it’s because from time to time, we want a David toppling a Goliath. Maybe it’s because we watch far too much television, for if we didn’t, we would know that underdogs hijacking spotlights doesn’t really happen in the real world.

The Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

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}