Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Series I finished watching

Warning: Contains very mild spoilers for all series mentioned. 

I have watched quite a bit of series. Many of them I finished or don't see myself stopping to watch soon, and since I made this marvelous post about Series I Stopped Watching, I feel that a counterweight is in order. Not of all of it is good, but at least I finished it and didn't stop in the middle. The order in which they come doesn't say anything about preference, only my memory. Some of the shows are still running, so in fact, the jury is out whether I'll finish them. If not, I'll move them. So, there comes the stuff I did finish, and now I will take the time to tell you why, and you may stop reading anytime and consider what you've read up to this point as wasted time. Let's go.
Band of Brothers. HBO's classical miniseries about a unit of paratroopers in 1944 and 1945 has received much critical acclaim. It provides enough time not to fall for the usual constraints of war movies (the prerogative to make them as exciting as possible) and to give much more sense to the realities of war than movies usually do. The level of detail is also great. On the downside, the characters are, with a few exception, more or less cardboards and mere vehicles of exploring different combat situations on the western front in these years. The lack of focus makes it hard to actually care for the people dying.

Battlestar Galactica. The one SiFi-show you need to watch, Battlestar Galactica combines great (although short) space battles with much politicking and, unfortunately, mystery seeking on board a space aircraft carrier. The show consciously parallels many features and developments of early 21st century American politics, including the invasion of Iraq and the influence of religious extremism, avoiding to take a too clear-cut position on the issues and resolving them firmly set in the BSG universe, therefore giving food for thought without patronizing the viewer, a feat Aaron Sorkin seems incapable of.
Better Call Saul. This prequel to Breaking Bad surely didn't start with high expectations, as everyone just asked "Is this really necessary?" And while the answer is still "Probably not", I'm glad that it exists because the series is a blast. Seriously, what they did is amazing. While not without flaws, they avoided the obvious mistakes of making this Breaking Bad fanservice and opted for a different tone and storyline than for what you'd expect, which is just about right.

Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is one of the best series ever, period. It has a great cast of characters with real and credible development, the most cohesive storylines ever, going through the logical conclusions with incredible determination. It's filming style is impressive, providing unique perspectives and interesting compositions. If you haven't watched it yet, go out today and start to do it. I mean it.
Boardwalk Empire. Boardwalk Empire is a period piece, revelling in the costumes and set design. What suffers from it are obviously the characters, who are more functions than real persons, as well as the suspense. Like so many mafia stories, Boardwalk Empire has a rather slow pace in telling its stories, but it's worth it. Again, we have a multitude of characters interwoven with each other and going on their business, creating a really good feeling of a connected, existing and breathing world that is not only there for the characters to inhabit.
Caprica. The prequel to Battlestar Galactica only made it to one season of running time after being cancelled, and it's easy to understand why. The story is all over the place, the characters are very moody and broody and difficult to sympathize with, the style is bleak and some of it looks like from a 90s MTV video. On the other hand, the show explores some great questions and themes and commands interesting characters, although their arcs are sometimes a bit mishandled.

Daredevil. The Marvel series (currently) runs over two seasons and aims for a pulpy feeling, with seedy characters and a narrative grounded in a Hell's Kitchen real estate fight, only with mobsters, ninjas and superpowers. As long as you don't ask where the hell so many ninjas come from, you're fine, because the fight scenes are pretty good. Unfortunately the writing takes a bit of a dive with the arrival of the Punisher in season 2, and the plot starts to get repetitive. 

Deadwood. The Western series mirrors the historical development of the small town Deadwood in today's South Dakota, where the pioneeres build up their own fortunes or dig their own graves outside US jurisdiction in the closing days of what is today known as the Wild West. Far from simply idealizing "ye olden times", the show grapples with difficult themes such as prostitution, violence and local politics in this unique setting. There are many characters whose attitudes (and language) are difficult to undertand, but many of them command a charisma that make it compelling to watch even if you lost track of who wants to achieve what before they catch a bullet in the belly.

Deutschland 83. This homegrown product of a country that is traditionally unable to make things that even resemble good series is kind of a surprise. While in no ways perfect and extremely flawed in regards to plot holes, structure and pacing, the show manages to deliver on great suspense and to capture the flavor of the 80s in divided Germany. Watching it is interesting for Germans and Non-Germans alike because it offers you a view into a world that you most likely didn't know about before, in the German case provided you're about 35 or younger.

Fargo. Really great series with a weird and surreal edge, true to the spirit of the Coen brother's original. I found the first season to be better than the second, but both of them really are worth the watch. In both, you have criminals entering the everyday lives of everyday people in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The series has great acting and is stunning in its portrayal of stupid people, which is harder than it sounds. 

Firefly. Joss Whedon's classic SiFi series was unfortunately cancelled after only 14 episodes. It's not that it was perfect and really great material; the show has many flaws, such as the very low budget, the lack of development over more than one episode, the only superficial worldbuilding and others. But it's teeming with fresh ideas and a swaggering bravado that has no equal in the genre. Firefly is a fun ride, nothing like the serious dramas mentioned above, and it excels at just being fun. Not every episode reaches this goal, but enough to make it great.

 
Game of Thrones. The adaptation of the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series has its problems (especially the handling of Catelyn and Jon comes to mind) and can only be really enjoyed as one really, really large movie rather than a series of episodes, but the sprawling cast of great characters, really good actors, good production design and genuinely clever ideas in deviating from the original plot make this series highly recommendable. For more information I advise to read into Blue Buddha Press' "It Is Known" series, to which I contributed one book myself.

Jessica Jones. Daredevil's little sister is a freakishly strong private detective who tries to break the spell that a supervillain named Kilgrave has over her, protecting herselves and other victims in the process. The themes the show tries to develop are mature and very undercovered in fiction of all sorts, but unfortunately, the writing isn't up to the challenge and delivers really bad dialogue and crappy plotting at least half of the time. 

John Adams. It's not a big accomplishment to finish a series that has only seven episodes, of course, but they feel like at least fourteen. That's not to say that they are bad, but I think it wasn't the best call of HBO to really depict all of John Adam's political life. The sequences in Europe are dragging on endlessly, especially since Adams is sick a very long time, and dignified people talking only rescues so much, no matter what great actors portray them. I really love the first two episodes that concern themselves with the Boston Massacre and the Declaration of Independence, but it's somewhat downhill from there.
Lost. Lost is surely the one show that I regret finishing. My wife and I really did want to know how it ended, despairing more and more about the new and totally unmotivated characters (the Japanese guy, the demigods, etc.) and especially the deranged plotlines that the creators were starting to heap onto each other in a desperate attempt to avoid resolving the old ones. Look, a hatch with numbers! Look, a camp of the Others! Look, time travel! Look, another dimension! Look, the afterlife! Eh, what? And still we don't know anything. It doesn't help that the show has some really sucking characters that will strain your nerves by repeating themselves over and over and over and over and over again. Looking at you, Shepard and Kat.
Mad Men. The series covers the 1960s as kind of a bourgeois panorama shot, following the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of ad men (the titular "Mad Men") through the social upheaval of the decade. The show is fascinating for its multi-layered focus on themes, carefully constructing set, costumes, character and plot to fit it, elevating it to literature levels. It is also interesting for the lack of change in the characters who are stuck in a changing world and utterly fail to cope with it - getting overrun by the changes of the 1960s is no fun experience for these 1950s-style wannabe-patriarchs growing old.
 
Making a Murderer. This Netflix documentary covers the disturbing story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, who were accused of murder and convicted in a trial that is thoroughly critisized in the series. The immersive qualities and the suspense are laudable, but not for no reason it came under criticism for distorting the facts for a strong pro-Avery bias, so enjoy with caution.

Marco Polo. This Netflix series really, really wants to be Game of Thrones. If you thought that its great model had its fair share of moments of gratuitous nudity and violence, wait until you see those whorehouse- and harem-scenes in Marco Polo and witness everyone and their brother be really proficient in martial arts. It's pretty entertaining and gives you a vivid picture of the era, though, so it's recommended. 

Orange is the new black. This is a really weird series, moving back and forth between comedy and tragedy, making you care for characters in one minute and laughing about them in the next. The series starts off as entertaining but becomes increasingly gripping, especially in seasons three and four. You should watch this for the emotional rollercoaster ride it presents alone.
Rome. Like Deadwood, Rome mirrors historical developments, in this case the rises of Caesar and Augustus. Unlike Deadwood, however, the plot is faster paced and easier to understand, in large parts thanks to an almost ridiculous amount of gratious violence and nudity. Historians agree that the show is not as faithful as it tries to be by far, but it is certainly one that comes closest to actual Classical Rome. It helps that it has interesting and in the case of Pullo even likeable characters, another thing that Deadwood lacked (which made it difficult, not bad, mind you). There's no reason at all not to check out Rome. It is a great series, and it's unfortunate that it was shelved by HBO after only two seasons due to the unparalleled production cost of about 100 million dollar per series.

Sherlock. Before watching Sherlock, I wouldn't have thought that the story of a genius detective might get me excited. However, Sherlock does the trick. It's not that they would develop Sherlock into a real character (Robert Downey Jr.'s version has more depth), it's the blatant statement that they don't even bother. Sherlock is a hyper-genius on his field, larger than life, all his traits amplified. This works because of really clever plots, great dialogue and superb acting by the leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The routine does get a bit stale in season 3, however, and the show needs to develop a bit in order to stay interesting.

Star Wars Rebels. This is a surprisingly great series. Despite being made for kids, which shows in the episodic structure and the generally low stakes for the characters, it grows astonishingly dark and complex and offers great characters with even greater voice-acting. I don't care much about the episodes that deal with the Force and all the mystery stuff, but whenever they're actually doing rebel things, it's just great. 

Stranger Things. This is more of a mini-series containing of eight episodes as I write this, but the blend of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King works really well. The story takes place in 1983 rural Indiana and lets three kids search for their friend who's trapped by a monster in a parallel dimension. There are dirt bikes, D&D gaming sessions and government conspiracies underwritten by great actors, so what are you waiting for?


The Americans. This one was a pleasant surprise. The first season was good, suspenseful and entertaining, but it wasn't until halfway into the second season that the show actually became GREAT. And I mean that in capitals. The show is astonishingly good, taking its time to tell stories and delving deep into characters and procedurals with a very understated yet intense acting style. You need to check this out.

The Last Kingdom. There's only one season available at the point this is written, but a second is already comissioned. This series is actually quite good, albeit a good deal from a great series. It's very entertaining and, with noticable hiccup around episode 5, very well paced. There is a manageable slew of characters that are relatable, and I adore the sheer stupidity of our main character. He's an incredible dork, but good with a sword, so he survives the bullshit he gets himself in. Watch for good entertaintment. 

The Pacific. The successor to Band of Brothers fixes the main problem by squarely focussing on three characters on the Pacific theatre; however, the decision to use historic characters rather than simply create some proves troublesome. Oftentimes, we watch more living monuments than people, and it is even harder than in Band of Brothers to get a feeling of time and place. However, there are some really gruesome details in there, and the depiction of the daily war routine is, as in Band of Brothers, really intriguing. 


The Walking Dead. This is one of the worst guilty pleasures around. The series often borders the insanely stupid and boring, with almost non-existent character arcs and the misperception that characters talking endlessly about the same stupid stuff for four seasons in a row would make up for that. Unfortunately, the show is also bound to moments of great fun and excitement, especially if the zombies finally do show up and "the group" (how I hate that term) stops the stupid talk for just a second to split some zombie heads. This rescues the show from the really bad into the mediocre, and drags me on.

The West Wing. While The West Wing suffers from much of the problems that many Sorkin productions have: a tendency of underdeveloping characters, a serious incapability of creating female characters and an overzealous celebration of workaholicism and elitism. But on the other hand it offers well researched and realistically feeling political machinations, clever plots, grand dialogue and a genuine idealism. And that makes up for a lot.

The Wire. Another HBO classic, The Wire takes you into urban Baltimore and deep into the bowels of the city, to the real bad neighbourhoods where gangs sling drugs and the police is unable to get in control. So far, it's your average crime-and-police-show, but you'll quickly notice that in reality, it's far more than that. It's a sociological study, taking you deep into the subcultures it explores, widening the scope with every season and refraining from easy black-and-white-patterns that make so many of these shows so primitive. The Wire is also difficult, but rewarding, at least if you discount the fifth season which is kind of stupid.

1864. This is the first time I have engaged in a Scandi-drama (yes, I know, Borgen. It's still on my list). As a historian, I have of course a personal interest in its unusual subject matter, the war of 1864 between the German Federation and Denmark. And yes, it's not overly correct on the details, but it captures the general topics. Visually, the eight-part-miniseries is gorgeous, but structurally it's a bit over the place and overly reliant on stereotypes. It also shares some similarities with the typical Irish history movies like "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" in that the sun is always a bit brighter in Denmark, if you get my meaning. Nonetheless, the show is uncompromising and high-aiming, and while falling short of its mark well worth a try.

Also check out "Series I stopped watching".

11 comments:

  1. Thx a lot for this overview, Stefan. I've seen a few of this series too (e. g. GoT, BE, HoC, Deadwood, Rome and Lost (only until the middle of the third season, lucky me it seems ;-))) and will give Firefly, The Wire and BG a try in the nearer future 'cause of your recommandation. Greetings from Quedlinburg, Hardy.

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  2. Heartsbane of HornhillMarch 19, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    Stefan, have you seen any of the war miniseries HBO aired. Band of Brothers, The Pacific, & Generation Kill.

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    1. I knew I forgot something. I add them.

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  3. Hi Stefan, I have also completed most of the series on the list and agree with alomst all of your views. I am surprised to see that you have not watched The Sopranos. One show I would strongly recommend to you is Fringe, it was an underrated show that was both interesting and enjoyable. One of my favorite shows of all time.

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    1. I did watch the first season some time ago. Have to pick it up again at some point, but never quite got around to it.

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  4. Is Galactica worth it really?

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    1. If you are in the genre, definitely. Just watch the pilot. If it appeals to you, the rest will, too.

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  5. The final season of BG had one major plot thread I really disliked, but it was an excellent show even with that bit. The weekly airings developed into big viewing parties at our place. I probably wouldn't have hosted the GoT viewings without our great experiences with BG.

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    1. Unfortunately, I seldom manage larger viewing sessions, so it's me and my wife or me alone.

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  6. I like your list and your comments, and I mostly concur.
    For me, West Wing is still one of the best series ever, and I can't say how often I watched the sixth and seventh seasons about the Santos campaign from start to finish - truly great and entertaining stuff.
    I am happy to see you praise "The Americans" so much, this is imho one of the best series ever, period (my love of it may be influenced by my growing up in the eighties).
    To mention one series where I disagree with your appraisal: Breaking Bad. Whereas it's definitely worth watching, I found it slow and almost boring at times, despite some truly great episodes (my girlfriend loves the show, so I watched it with her). And don't get me started on Skyler ...
    A tip for you that you may like: for me, the better Sherlock is in Elementary - check it out!
    Greetings, Tudeh

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