TV Series of Some Interest


Misérables, Les  

French mini-series created by the same team that released Count of Monte Cristo with Depardieu. The novel is huge in scope, story and depth, and even this 6 hour version is lacking some details but is amongst the best ones and comes second only to the 1934 version. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread out of hunger, finds himself in prison for 19 years due to his attempted escapes and acquires a nemesis in the form of the rigid Javert who has an over-developed passion for justice. He is released full of hate and darkness, encounters a kind bishop that changes his life, adopts a miserable woman that had an exceedingly difficult life, then her daughter who was exploited and abused by a despicable family, etc... do I really have go into the rich and well-known plot? This adaptation is mostly good with some flaws. It is faithful to the book for the most part and has time to develop most of the sub-plots. Depardieu is good as always but seems a little tired relative to his other energetic performances, and the casting for Fantine, Cosette, the Thénardier couple and a few other characters are all superb. The flaws: Except for the 1978 version with Perkins, I have yet to see an adaptation that gets Javert right and here they use a wooden, overly-evil Malkovich who seems more intent on enunciating his French than in developing the depth his character needs. The first part is too rushed and chopped and gives no sense of time passed, Marius is miscast and off-putting, the bishop is very miscast, the Thénardier family is just a little too cartoonishly evil, and Eponine's character is also a tad miscast. I suppose my love for the novel makes me picky and that this series is pretty good despite its casting flaws, but the 1934 version got most of this stuff right. Comparisons: The 1978 version with Perkins has a good Javert but a poor Valjean and it leaves out or changes (or adds) too much of the story. You should also ignore the generally lifeless 1958 version with Gabin (even though it had a great Eponine and a good Thernadier), the weak 1982 version with Ventura (that also lacks subtitles), the Hollywoodized 1935 version with Laughton, any of the overblown populist musical versions, and the 1998 travesty that butchered the story and characters. Instead watch this one, or the even better 1934 version by Bernard which won me over despite the fact that I generally prefer modern adaptations. In addition, if you love the book and just want to hang out with another fan who thinks the modern world revolves around the book, watch Lelouch's self-conscious modernized 1995 version that plays like extended annotations on the book.



John Adams  

HBO mini-series focusing on the life of the second president of the USA. As opposed to Rome, this sticks to pedantic historical facts rather than adding entertaining fiction with violence and sex. The casting and acting are superb across the board. The recreation of the period and the historical detail are magnificent and mostly accurate as far as I can tell, like history books and pictures come to life. I almost got chills when I saw George Washington move. The execution is flawless; it's the choice of subject matter and politically-correct characterizations that raise questions: John Adams allows for an unusual biopic and approach for exploring the birth of the USA, his less-than-heroic behaviour and difficult personality presenting the opposite extreme of a whitewashed glamorization. His anger and stern personality is not the problem, but the way they made him so whiny and dependent is problematic. The writers also went to questionably great lengths to make his wife as pivotal as possible, undermining his achievements and personality even more in dozens of little ways. The writing feels forced as a result, distorted towards an agenda rather than the truth. The first episode sets up the personality and feel of the period very well with a courtroom drama. The second episode is a riveting exploration of the politics behind the declaration of independence. The poor third episode features some obvious personal bias by the writers against France who understandably depict them as decadent, but also as childishly stupid. The rest of the episodes become increasingly more tedious and dull, focusing on pedantic politics or family drama, with some highlights (the audience with King George being one riveting scene). All in all, besides the biased & flawed writing, it feels like a teaser of what might have been if they had only explored the revolution as a whole with all of its colorful personalities and events instead of focusing on only one smaller aspect of it, Adams's contributions and personality notwithstanding. Granted, it's a biopic and not a war movie, but it still feels like the focus was on a less interesting aspect of the revolution, especially since the writers went out of their way to undermine him.



Thief  
Based on the single season.

An FX take on the caper series, one of three in the same year. Like The Shield, this features multiple ongoing plot-lines, developments that sometimes border on the incredulous but remain intense and mostly believable, and powerful lead performances. A group of professional thieves get entangled with the Chinese Mob, crooked cops, the FBI, etc. while dealing with family and girlfriend issues and pulling off complex jobs. A special point of interest is the unique, tense relationship between the black leader and his white step-daughter. The Shield had more interesting characters but the only real flaw in this great series is that it was cancelled after only 6 episodes, all the massively building story-lines ending abruptly. Could have been great if not for the cancellation.



Elizabeth I  

HBO/Channel4 four-hour historical mini-series on The Virgin Queen. It's interesting to note the widely different screen productions on the Tudor family, especially in the characterization. Reviewers often criticize historical accuracy in the plot details, but the personalities and motivations are always wide open for interpretation. This series covers mostly the latter years of Elizabeth's reign, her various lovers, intrigue with the doomed Mary Queen of Scots, war with Spain, and the many ups and downs with the overly young and stupid Earl of Essex. Helen Mirren as Elizabeth is stupendously complex and alive with many depths, yet I have big problems with the characterization. In this series, Elizabeth is basically an articulate 50 year old high-school drama queen, running from one emotional outburst to another in full view of her council, public and court, yelling threats of death at anyone and everyone on an emotional high, and assigning power to foolish young men just because she felt a twinge in her heart, or crotch as it may be. I can't pretend to be an expert on behaviour in the 16th century, but one would expect nobility to have a minimal level of restraint, poise, elegance and reserve. Not to mention that it makes it hard to understand how the country flourished under such a hysterical woman. That said, it is a tribute to the writers and Mirren that the character is still very complex, fascinating and watchable. Jeremy Irons is also superb as usual. The series is also almost purely from her point of view mostly from inside the palace, and we don't see any wars or much of anyone else's life. The costumes and sets look great, but even they can't compete with Shekhar Kapur visual's spectacle. There is also nasty gore when it comes to executions. In short, very watchable and interesting, but it loses to the stiff competition of Kapur/Blanchett's version.



Luther  
Based on the first two seasons.

A British cop show that grabs you and forces you to pay attention. Intelligent, intense and, like many British shows, it boasts a strong personality and a fearless edge that most US shows lack. And this is very important in a show about a loose-cannon detective in charge of extreme murders and serial killers. Idris Elba (The Wire) provides most of the character and intensity on this one, managing to elevate and distract from the flaws of the show. Similarities to Dirty Harry include the intensity, and a strong sense of principles and moral justice that is even stronger than his respect for the law and dedication to his job. He also has a dangerous, near-suicidal edge as with Riggs from Lethal Weapon that compels him to confront the criminal and murderers with a mixture of strategy and fearless recklessness. The writing mixes episodic murderers and criminals, each episode offering a very different variation and, usually, an intense criminal, with some two-parters as well as character arcs dealing with his relationships with co-workers, bosses, ex-wife, ex wife's new boyfriend, and a murderess that managed to evade him but continues to have a strange ongoing relationship with him. This last one provides for fascinating developments that alternate between interesting and ridiculous, with questionable conflicting motives and she is used too often as a contrived plot device to save some situations. In addition, characters sometimes do implausibly extreme things just for melodramatic effect, as if the writers wanted to keep pushing the envelope but pushed it too far. Another flaw is the occasional omniscience of Luther who sometimes tends to guess motives and movements correctly and immediately as if by magic. One glaring example is how they managed to filter a phone call amongst thousands just by looking for something 'weird'. Other examples is his over-confidence in his psychological theories and predictions when provoking a psychopath to a frenzy. But there is no denying the greatness of everything else, it's just a shame that the scattered implausibilities keep distracting from the immersive and dark entertainment. This show never insults its audience, but it needs a bit more discipline in the writing.



Justified  
Based on the first two and a half seasons.

A very good show from FX with naturally flowing developments and multiple story arcs reminiscent of The Shield. The character development is unbalanced however. Raylan (Olyphant) is an old school marshal and lawman in a modern world that applies justice by allowing other people to draw first before he shoots them dead, talks straight and honest, refuses to play games, or gives them 24 hours to leave town. To give this approach some reality, they transfer him to a small district in Kentucky that also happens to be his hometown, where the bad guys are local pot and drug dealers, rednecks, white supremacy freaks, and moonshine-swilling petty criminals. Since the district is so remote, the marshal gets to perform random local police work as well. In short, it's an excuse to transport a Western to the modern world. His father is a hardened criminal and so is his friend Boyd (Walton Goggins in top form again), and many of the characters are very smart, terse and practical, making the dialogue and developments a pleasure to watch. Every season tends to feature small crises as well as slowly building arcs with the bad guy of the year, and the writing is consistently good. As mentioned though, the character development is the weaker aspect. If I compare this to The Shield, every character in that show was three-dimensional and every story and character there was compelling. Whereas here, once they set up the character of Raylan, he doesn't really go anywhere interesting and is just there to catch bad guys as a mere two-dimensional sheriff, and Boyd Crowder, on the other hand, is given so many extreme personality and outlook changes, that you get whiplash watching him and it starts feeling unrealistic. The rest aren't really interesting, although there are some characters like Arlo Givens, or Mags Bennett in season two, that stand out with their three-dimensions. It's really mostly about the twists and turns, the deceptions, plotting, crimes and trickery, violence, personal agendas versus friendship and family, and the gun battles. The show is very watchable and entertaining, although it always feels just this side of great, and, in season three they add one too many deceptions, agendas and twists, losing the superb realism of the first two seasons.



Das Boot  

Das Boot, as most people know, is a war movie about the experience of WWII submariners living and fighting in the old but very tough u-boat that is starting to become outdated thanks to new Allied technology. It's WWII from the German side, and you would think that sympathy would be impossible, but the experienced officers distance themselves from the Nazis and 'bloated' or 'unrealistic' leadership, and the whole crew suffer so much, that it just becomes a gripping movie about soldiers doing their job under unusually hellish circumstances. This review is not for the superb movie, or even for the mini-series version, but a comparison of the series to the Director's Cut version. To wit, there are at least three versions of this movie: A theatrical 2+ hour cut that always felt butchered and lacking in key scenes even though it was the first version I saw. The superb 3+ hour Director's Cut which features perfect editing and pacing, with all the key scenes, mood and buildup intact. And then there is the 5- hour 'original uncut' version that was viewed in Germany as a TV series. It adds many more scenes of daily life in the U-boat, mood-setting dialogue, lots more camaraderie, most of it very raunchy (too over the top in my opinion), extended scenes, and so on. But you won't miss anything important unless you think that living with these submariners for longer will add to your experience. In other words, the pacing suffers and it becomes more of an interesting experience rather an exciting war movie, and only die-hard fans of the movie version should check it out.



True Detective  
Based on the first season and most of the second.

This is an example of how character can elevate a pretty ordinary detective series and serial-killer thriller to something much greater (at least in the first season). As with Homicide, this show focuses on the people, their character, interaction, chemistry and dialogue, and the murder-mystery and detective-work become more of a backdrop. And it's a good thing too, because, if you think about it, the serial-killer case in the first season is pretty messy and too far-fetched involving a ridiculous cult conspiracy with slight suggestions of a potential supernatural element, and the detective work tends to wander amongst many tangents, leaving some plot-lines hanging. But since the focus is more on character-development and how they work together, you don't notice as much. It also helps that the two protagonists in the first season are top-tier character actors, with the always-reliable and colorful Woody Harrelson, and a solid McConaughey. They both get a juicy role of broken people, one more than the other, driven to find the killer, getting on each others nerves but also balancing out each other's flaws and skills to make a solid team. The case takes place over a few decades, tying together old unsolved cases with current murders, and expanding further even after they think they solved it. Their dialogue and chemistry ranges from grippingly tense and fascinating, to pretentiously empty attempts at meaningful statements, but even this is part of McConaughey's broken character who has dug a hole for himself. The detective work involves a lot of systematic work following obscure leads and instincts, slowly opening up the clues with sheer persistence, which is good, but it also leads to many dangling plot-lines and they break way too many laws to get critical information they need, slightly reducing plausibility. Overall, I found the first seasons a gripping watch, very strong in terms of character development, but overrated as a detective thriller. The second season, however, gets overwhelmed with the writer's pretensions and loses its vision, resulting in a very dead season that features unnatural characters that never come to life, convoluted multiple plot-lines that are almost impossible to follow, and uninteresting crimes and people.



Young Doctor's Notebook, A  
Based on both seasons.

Although labelled a comedy, this is by Bulgakov. Which means pitch-black old-school-Russian satire and comedy coating a core of misery. This is a short, compact series based on short stories by Bulgakov about a young Moscow doctor banished to the middle of nowhere to practice medicine. The local peasants have no understanding of disease and how to handle their syphilis epidemic, tools are blunt which makes for disturbing amputations, there is nothing to do except listen to strangely obsessive 'anecdotes' from the dentist or have awkward sexual releases with the local nurse who is built like an ox, and the doctor develops a painful disease which leads him into a horrible morphine addiction. Where is the comedy, you ask? The doctor finds it in making fun of his own incompetence, and the story is told from the point of view of the doctor as an older man, who literally revisits his youth and interacts with him in near-surreal ways. Some gory scenes require a strong stomach and some may find the mix of extreme misery and comedy disorienting. Definitely a unique show that captures the Bulgakov spirit.



Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  

John le Carré's book gets a quality BBC mini-series treatment with top-quality actors (including Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson). Spy-craft has never been this dense and intelligent. In fact, at times it is too intelligent, assuming too much of the audience. The complex plot and extremely subtle dialog is challenging enough, but the extensive unexplained spy-craft jargon, strange narrative structure of flashbacks that seems to go out of its way to put distance between pieces of the puzzle, and some unexplained developments, all make it impossible not to miss plot points and details. That said, what remains is still fascinating after it starts to tie itself together after a few episodes. The characters somehow manage to be both phlegmatic and full of personality, their dynamics are rich, the dialogue is fiercely intelligent, and the spy-craft is meticulous. The plot is about finding a mole in MI6 during the Cold War, a retired spy called in to lead the investigation, and the various clues and pieces of the puzzle from different periods. But it's really about the development, details and characters. A must-see-once for fans of John le Carré or audiences that like their spy-craft a mostly cerebral affair, realistic and intelligent. But the slow pace and other flaws mentioned above are a hurdle.



Decalogue  

A ten-part mini-series by Kieslowski based on the Ten Commandments, each episode loosely related to one of the cardinal sins, telling a story with a twist on morality to provoke thought and explore humanity's dilemmas, ethical hardships and questions. If this sounds heavy, then you would be right. But it offers at least two rewards: One involves the little ethical twists presented in each thematic episode: God vs. all knowing computations and science, our relationship with parents and the line between parents and other important people in our life, murder vs. capital punishment, puppy love and romantic innocence vs. cynicism, carefree people vs. the woes of ownership, etc. The other is the series taken as a whole rather than the sum of its parts, which offers an interesting experience of humanity. A mysterious stranger with piercing eyes appears every time one of the characters is about to step over a line, and most of the events take place in the same apartment complex. But, although fascinating, this is not the masterpiece that lives up to its reputation: There are 3-4 superb episodes (especially the first one dealing with God which rivals Bergman at his best), two duds, and the rest are merely OK, sometimes going on too long for a story based on a single idea, and other times wandering into slow-moving melodrama and pointlessly depressed characters. Definitely worth watching at least once though.



In Treatment  
Based on the first two seasons.

HBO transports the format and writing of an Israeli drama show on therapy to the USA, and produces something superb (despite the show having about 15 producers). A therapist and four of his patients fill five episodes a week, with the personal life and mind of the therapist both complementing the sessions with his patients, and filling up a fifth episode as he discusses his life and thoughts with his own therapist and friend. Borders between doctor and patient are constantly crossed as the discussions and intense emotions take personal turns, and even the doctor's firm rules and willpower can't always keep things under control. Most of the show takes place in the therapist's room, with events narrated by the patients, but if you think this would result in a boring show, you are making a big mistake. The writing and acting are simply perfect and deeply impressive. Minute actions and words are used to build depth of character and consistent, detailed personalities, without having the show or the therapist point everything out, allowing the audience to observe much for themselves, and leading me to wonder whether the sessions weren't taken from real-life. That said, some of the patients aren't always as fascinating as others, the therapist annoyingly and repeatedly is attracted to the neurotic selfish sluts (something that should be explored more with his therapist), and sometimes the self-absorbed neurotic monologues can get dreary, but three things keep the show interesting: The fact that you can skip specific patients if you really need to, the overall story arc of the therapist himself, allowing you to sometimes focus on how the patient is affecting the doctor instead of the other way around, and the way the writers ensure that every week there is some crisis, breakthrough or revelation (which is not realistic but it would be boring otherwise). The sleazy sexcapades narrated by the desperately slutty patient of the season don't hurt either I suppose.

Each season takes time to sink its hooks, seeing as it takes 15 episodes to get three episodes going per patient, but the buildup is still interesting, there are always at least some interesting personalities, and the rewards of the investment are very good, not to mention that it becomes addictive fast. But this, and the fact that the stories are narrated, may explain why it isn't a big instant hit despite the superb writing and acting. I don't feel it's a re-watchable show, but it's a must-see while it's on (until you get your fill of other people's therapy). The first season is slightly more intense and interesting than the second but both are good. A fascinating and brave counterpoint to the plague of reality-shows.



Nowhere Man  
Based on the single season.

Correctly praised as the American 'Prisoner', this show features cleverly written plots about paranoia, powerful government agencies and an individual's struggle to maintain his identity and discover the truth, peeling away layer after layer of deception. The acting and direction is stunningly good, and some episodes are brilliant. But some severe flaws lower this show's ratings: Typically with such complex multi-layered shows and movies, writers don't bother to think things through and concentrate on introducing plot twists rather than on coherence. This show starts off extremely well and features some brilliant stand-alone episodes, but taken as a whole the motivations contradict each other, the deception seems to swerve in different directions with no consistency, and the resolution in the last episode fails logically, ascribing ridiculously complex machinations to simple goals that could have been dealt with using much simpler methods. Also, the show resorts to sci-fi in some episodes, undermining the intensity of the show with incredulous James Bond-like over-the-top thrillers, and a lot of the technology is unrealistic. This is still a grippingly fascinating show, but The Prisoner did this better.



Brotherhood of the Rose  

A mini-series, or basically a long TV spy movie. The quality is relatively high, telling the interesting tale of orphans, trained by an enigmatic John Elliott (Mitchum) who discover that there may be a worldwide powerful conspiracy. One orphan has difficulty coming to terms with the violent nature of his assignments and personal relationships get in the way. This is not typical TV drama however as it wraps this up in a complex tale of espionage where all actions have consequences and various international alliances form to play cat-and-mouse, etc. Reminiscent of a Ludlum tale. Entertaining, quality TV.



Utopia  
Based on both seasons.

Demented, eccentric and brutal conspiracy thriller from Britain that is unlike anything else. Don't be fooled by the genre and title though; this is not science-fiction, and does not involve any kind of utopia, except one as envisioned by sociopaths. This is also one of the most unpredictable shows I've ever seen, and it continues its ongoing stream of psychotic logic throughout both seasons, and it is this unpredictable madness, if nothing else, that will keep you watching. The conspiracy involves flu pandemics, both fake and real, and very extreme plots to control the world's overpopulation problem with genetics. There's a brilliant scientist, a group of powerful people above any international law that go around murdering and torturing anyone with a blink of an eye, including children if it will serve their purpose, and a group of eccentric youngsters that formed a club around a graphic novel that they believe reflects reality. Murder and mayhem and torture fly unchecked and rampant in this show, because so many of the people involved (possibly including the writers) are psychotic. In fact, it feels that this show would have you believe that being a sociopathic murderer is contagious, as long as you become involved in a problem as big as the overpopulation of the planet. Anything can happen in this show, and anyone can get killed, or come back to life after being presumed dead, and everyone else is running, or being blackmailed, or chasing, or trying to hide from people that will stop at nothing and who seem to be monitoring everything, anywhere. All that said, I can't say that it was particularly realistic in the slightest. As mentioned, there are too many psychotics, and people's reactions are a bit too fearful and passive taking into account that it all seems to boil down to a handful of people in power, and some of the weird murderers are only partially intimidating because they are sociopaths, but the murders are almost always so unexpected, and the tone is very twisted, clever and eccentric, so it kinda works in a crazy way, especially thanks to its relentless pace of continuous twists and unexpected violence and alliances. So, despite the lack of realism in the characters and plotting, it is definitely material for a cult show and very entertaining in a demented way.



Episodes  
Based on the first four seasons.

David Crane delivers another funny show full of sexual misadventures bringing to mind his still superior 'Dream On', except that this is a satire on the TV show business, and, as with his experiment in 'The Class', this features a continuous story-line. This British-US co-production is a very addictive balance of satire, wit, relationship drama, and trashy sex and flings. The satire pokes fun at the TV industry, including how remakes of British shows get derailed by manipulative executives and narcissistic TV stars, as well as by affairs. The funny awkwardness of the first season effectively demonstrates what shows like The Office were lacking: Punchlines. Whereas those shows thought the embarrassments in themselves were funny, this one writes actual jokes around similar situations. The wit is the usual Crane-level of hilarity. There is a surprisingly realistic relationship between the married British writers that have been imported to the US, and it portrays all the effects of a soul-sucking and sexually-casual environment, making one think that this is based on real-life experience. Tasmin Grieg (Black Books) is the best thing about the show, but their chemistry together and sarcastic lines work very well as well. Matt LeBlanc does a surprisingly great turn in a role that is basically a destructive and narcissistic version of himself, finally shucking 'Joey' off for a much wittier and juicier role. And the sex is rampant, including affairs between selfish bosses and their damaged assistants, as well as immoral actors and fans ruining marriages. What does all this add up to? As mentioned, it is very addictive and fun and definitely worth watching, but it doesn't exactly achieve greatness, although it's right on the border. Perhaps it's the incongruous blend of relationship realism with over-the-top cheapening sex and big-penis gags, as well as the many cartoonish support characters that chew the scenery. Still lots of fun though.



Silicon Valley  
Based on the first three seasons.

Entertaining HBO comedy on the hi-tech world produced and written by Mike Judge of Office Space fame. For people involved in the hi-tech world, this is a must see and an addictive watch as it has fun with the many crazy things that can happen to startups, focusing a lot on the fact that success is provided by brainy and talented technical wizards who have no idea how to handle the business side of things, especially in the cut-throat, fast-paced world of hi-tech. Two caveats: As the show progresses, it seems that everything and anything that can go wrong happens to the same company, but somehow, unrealistically, it keeps ticking thanks to sheer blind luck (and the fact that they have a solid technology that everyone wants). Also, like with Office Space, there are comic elements that are too silly, wild and unrealistic, like the hiring of a street graffiti artist who delivers pornography, and many crazy adventures with animals, some of them sexual. But even these unrealistic factors are fun and entertaining. The show follows the adventures of a group of coders that come up with a world-changing compression algorithm and platform, as they battle hugely powerful corporations, VCs with ruthless agendas, crazy billionaires, angry neighbors, soul-sucking CEOs, business pitfalls, industrial espionage, and so on. They are accompanied by an overly confident ex-coder who made some money in the past and who serves as their incubator and spokesperson. Thankfully, it doesn't fall into the PC trap of the terrible Halt and Catch Fire to give credit to women where it isn't due. Not overwhelmingly brilliant, but still a must watch for hi-tech people, and good fun for the rest of the population.



New Tricks  
Based on the first two seasons.

An episodic murder-mystery show that is overflowing with character and fun writing, and is possibly the best of its kind. The setup is great: A female detective who messed up on the job is assigned a new job in the basement handling ex-detectives that try to close very old and unsolved cold-cases as a kind of PR stunt that is not expected to yield actual results. She puts together a team of grizzly, flawed, quirky but talented retired detectives, and, to everyone's surprise they start solving cases, thanks to modern forensics and DNA tests combined with their talent, experience and knowledge. For the team, the show casts veteran British character-actors and each of them instantly bring their characters to life and take them in all sorts of directions. Their camaraderie, playful teasing and interaction with the stricter and younger boss, as well as the generation gap, all add great light comedy and character to the show, and the good writing gives them a lot to play with. In addition, this provides the show with a plentiful source for satire and interesting dynamics by comparing the generations via the age-gap, as well as via the crimes that were committed in another time and age, their different approaches to police procedures, attitudes towards women and authority, and reliance on old-school police work and personal skills rather than on technology. Thus, this show also comes off a much better version of Life on Mars without resorting to sci-fi or action-cliches. The mysteries are also quite solid. In short, for what it is, it's a very good show and worth catching whenever it's on (but its episodic format and lack of arcs make it inherently limited).



Jonathan Creek  
Based on the first two seasons.

Yup, it's another British murder-mystery series, except, rather than wallowing in drama or lurid murders, this one is loads of fun. Jonathan is a brainy, quiet young man who loves brain-teasers and who applies his devious, clever mind to devise magic tricks for a celebrity magician who handles all of that showmanship and publicity nonsense. An investigative journalist, AKA a garrulous, practical-minded and very nosy woman who uses mysterious murders to further her writing career, uses him and his skills to solve baffling mysteries. There are several variations on the locked-room mystery, as well as other seemingly impossible feats of crime with even more baffling odd clues. Their clash of personalities and their sexual attraction provide for comedy and a lot of teasing with a delicious wit by the writers, and the mysteries really get one's brain going trying to solve them before they do, always with just enough clues to let one come up with radical possibilities. Unfortunately, the solutions often involve some convoluted plan or bizarre coincidence, which, although logically feasible, never seem plausible, especially when many of the crimes could have been committed with much simpler devices. In other words, this show treats murders like elaborate magic tricks which are fun to try to figure out, but which are not quite realistic. Still, the characters and puzzles are good fun. And, for Doctor Who fans, three Doctors and couple of companions make appearances here.



Peaky Blinders  
Based on the first two seasons.

This British answer to Boardwalk Empire is the better of the two, without the flaws of that show. It also takes place in the 1920s, only in Birmingham, and it traces the rise of a criminal gang of ex-soldiers and an extended family led by a young ambitious man who is strong on strategy. It even has them shipping alcohol to Canada for the prohibition mobs in the US. This show, like Boardwalk, features rich visual settings and historical detail, except here, the protagonists are quite interesting and well cast, the writing is good, and the pace is superb. Each season explores a couple of ambitious plots to expand, while matters escalate with rival gangs, or with the law, as Tom tries to think his way out of his unravelling plans, while expanding his power. A brutal inspector (the always reliable Sam Neill) is called in by Churchill to take care of the escalating problem that has now become political, and it soon becomes personal, with escalating power games between them and revenge. During the first gripping season, the writing is superb, and the escalation between the idealistic but brutal cop and Tom is excellent and compelling, up until the ending which sees a couple of questionable personality twists. The second season is still entertaining and well made, but is less interesting for me personally since it becomes just another war between criminal gangs and various insane personalities, and the law this time is just another unrealistically insane criminal as well, as if the writers wanted us to take sides with the murdering Tom by pitting him against a corrupt cop. I never really found gang wars that interesting. It also features Tom Hardy chewing the scenery in a highly colorful but unrealistic role of an insane Jew. For fans of mob series, however, this comes strongly recommended.



Brotherhood  
Based on all three seasons.

Showtime's answer to Sopranos featuring an extended Irish family running a neighbourhood in Rhode Island. One brother is a complex politician with principles, but is not above bending rules to achieve more power to do more good. The other brother (an intense Jason Isaacs as always) is practically a psychopath criminal with a good brain, and a soft spot for his family and lover, but with a temper and sadistic streak. There's a pushy, manipulative but very much in denial mother, an incompetent brother, a cousin fresh off the boat from Ireland trying to be accepted by the family, a bulldog of a man running the local mob, and many more. Except for Isaacs, the show is not as colorful as Sopranos but it holds its own. Where this improves over Sopranos, however, is in its shades of grey and the handful of characters that do have principles but who feel under pressure to compromise them every week. This, as well as the complex dual-brother relationship, makes the show more consistently watchable than Sopranos. That said, there is plenty of brutal violence and rampant criminality as well as graphic sexual-content straight out of an HBO show. Flaws in the writing are subtle, but involve frequent sloppiness in its treatment of consequences and consistent characterization. People tend to forget significant events at the writers' whims until the season endings, criminals get away with very sloppy jobs that the law could easily pin on them, and characters keep inexplicably switching a bit too often between conflicting forms of behaviour. These are subtle however, and do not detract too much from this otherwise quite good show.



Prime Suspect                  

A very popular British police procedural series consisting of 6 mini-series and 3 TV movies over 15 years, all revolving around the same female detective, featuring Helen Mirren in a career-defining performance. This show paved the way for female detectives in entertainment. It starts off with a classic mini-series that combines an investigation of a serial killer that gradually develops its tension and frustration while, at the same time, she has to contend with an all-male team of underling cops that doesn't want a woman replacing and undermining their team-mate and friend. Although I am allergic to feminist agendas that usually portray men with broad chauvinistic strokes, this first entry does a good and realistic job with the material. In addition, the story uniquely focuses on collecting evidence rather than on a mystery killer. Other stand-outs are: The third entry dealing with pedophilia and abuse of teenage rent-boys which is the darkest of the lot; the sixth entry which features one of the best stories of the series, involving a Bosnian refugee and Serbian war criminals in the UK; and the last entry, which packs a powerful punch character-development wise, with Mirren as a broken-down alcoholic detective one step away from retirement, with a father on his deathbed and an emotional case of a missing girl. It's just a pity that the rest of the characters as well as the plot developments in this last entry are all over the place, but as far as Mirren's character is concerned, it is a masterpiece of writing and acting. The rest of the episodes are much more mediocre, and even implausible at times, and their 3.5-hour length don't help matters. But the last episode makes the journey worthwhile. Also good for viewers that enjoy a more detailed and gradually developing investigation rather than the rushed ones we usually get from other episodic shows in this genre.



Americans, The  
Based on the first two seasons.

The FX formula on how to write an entertaining thriller series finds another colorful topic to cover: The Illegals Program of the KGB that set up deep undercover agents in the US posing as 100% married Americans for decades complete with children born in the US. Entertainment that covers the Cold War nowadays would be considered a historical series at best, or passé at worst, and this paranoia would seem far-fetched to some, except for the fact that this Illegals Program actually existed and, unbelievably, such spies were arrested even in 2010! FX delivers another show with a good balance of thrills, action, sex, escalating stakes, complex and ongoing story arcs, and, best of all, three-dimensional characters in very unusual circumstances. Half of the show covers ongoing missions, collecting information, turning people in key positions that could provide them with information, uncovering plots by the CIA or FBI, and so on, and these power-games are constantly going on between both sides, sometimes even applying pressure on the same double-agent from both sides, turning them into triple-agents and so on. The means that the undercover agents use are often extreme, using sex, murder, violence, blackmail or, most often, just plain deceit, even going as far as marrying insecure people to get what they need. All of this going on for decades obviously affects their 'fake' family and their own psyches in radical ways, and that's where the other, more interesting, half of the series focuses: What happens when a fake married couple live together for two decades, have kids, and fall for each other, even while using sex and lies daily to complete missions? And what can be done with the kids who think they are 100% American? Even old flames complicate matters. Americans that have been turned also find themselves under constant pressure from their work as well as from their internal doubts. The writers keep everyone extremely busy, perhaps even too busy, new missions being assigned every week, and new crises erupting from a dozen directions at once. On the one hand, this keeps things entertaining, on the other, it may stretch plausibility just a bit at times. Another minor problem is the casting of the protagonist couple which is very weak, seeing as there is nothing remotely Russian about their behaviour, speech, reactions or looks. There is also doubt as to how they could keep talking about their missions at home without ever being overheard dozens of times by their children. Such minor flaws and others accumulate and affect plausibility keeping the show from becoming really great. But, all this aside, it's definitely an above-average and entertaining series.



Bridge, The  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

Quality Danish-Swedish co-production of a cop-show with complex season-long cases. The Bridge refers to a long bridge that joins the two countries, and the cases involve crimes, criminals and victims from both countries, necessitating co-operation between two police-forces and partnering detectives from either side. Thus the show explores some themes of culture-clash and rivalry. But the much more unique aspect is the fact that the Swedish detective has Asperger. Her Swedish coworkers are used to her rudeness, social awkwardness, high-efficiency and extraordinary mental faculties, but her Danish partners have to learn how to work with her. Before watching this, I doubted that they could make a rude and robotic detective work, but they use her like Star Trek used Vulcans: Not only by giving her a genius intellect that proves very useful in her work, but by exploring how healthy humans react to her and how they try to learn to work or live with her. This produces both a strong human interest and light comedy. It also helps that the actress is very good at it, and her supporting actors are all solid as well. As for the cases, they typically involve socially-aware intelligent killers or terrorists of some kind, trying to make social statements with extreme crimes, similar to Se7en except without the religion. As the crimes accumulate, the police find themselves in a race to catch up with the devious criminals' and their plots. Uniquely, many of the victims or witnesses are explored by introducing them and their families way before they become involved in the case, and the writers slowly weave their threads together. In short, there is much of interest here for a cop-show. The first season is quite good, introducing the characters and featuring a strong case involving a 'Truth Terrorist'. The second season is still pretty good but less compelling, with a convoluted eco-terrorist conspiracy, and an over-emotional Danish cop-partner to compensate for her lack of emotions. Obviously, the US can never let go of anything to do with serial killers, and promptly made an inferior copy of the show which I will not bother watching.



Missing, The  
Based on the first season.

A mystery series done right, with intriguing developments, good planning, solid writing and good actors. The mystery in this case is a missing child and it takes a whole season and 8 years to solve it. What's special about this mystery series is that it isn't just a detective show or police-procedural, but also a drama about the parents that lost their kid, and their relentless efforts to solve the mystery themselves. Thus, it combines the resources of the police force with some above-the-law frantic actions of parents to follow minute clues, red-herrings and developments, with breaks of several years in between when the case goes stale, only to wake up again thanks to another obscure clue. The show weaves two primary timelines 8-years apart, with the same characters 8 years later returning to give it another shot, and their tense past and secrets slowly unfold as the first timeline develops in parallel. Visual clues regarding their changed appearances keep you clear on which timeline you are watching, and the revelations are carefully planned, raising more questions while others are answered, for an almost-satisfactory finale. Although the season ties all the threads together and solves the mystery with a solid solution, for some reason it appended a very misguided twist after the real ending, presumably to allow for a second season, except that the second season covers a completely new case. Also, the pacing will be slow for people used to other mystery and detective shows, unless you tune in to what it is trying to achieve with its human angle and complex, realistic developments. Altogether, a solid show for what it is if we ignore the final few minutes of the first season, and which may be more compelling for some than others, but it is a good one-time watch regardless.



Shameless  
Based on the first three seasons.

A dramedy about a very, very dysfunctional family, British style. This show finds outrageous new ways for the various members to screw up or to find themselves in hilariously warped situations. It's about a Manchester family of six children, each one of them with various mental issues, their unapologetically drunk and immoral father, and an extended family of horny neighbors, criminal friends, crazy brothers, and a parade of very flawed boyfriends, girlfriends, crazy ex-wives, medicated new wives, demented grandparents and so on. What makes this show great however, is that they are all real people in real situations, and the writers don't make them dumb, and underneath their immoral, irresponsible, anarchical, selfish and horny behaviour there is a good heart, except that it doesn't stop them from constantly doing terribly warped things, and shamelessly at that. So most are definitely not nice people, and they are constant screw-ups, but they have the smarts to find devious solutions to the problems they cause, and when the going gets rough, they help each other. This is a delicate balance, and the show plays it very well, at least for the first three seasons. They are all also very convincing, and you feel you are really watching a working-class family and neighbourhood. The father sometimes feels like a version of Ozzy Osbourne, except less spaced out. The shenanigans and anarchy include a lot of rampant sex with anyone at any time, improvised schemes to get money or goods (even stealing from the milkman), pregnancies, wild adventures with the local angry drug dealers, closet-homosexuality, angry ex-spouses that keep popping up, and much more, mixed together with good drama. Fun and well done, for what it is.



Riches, The  
Based on both seasons.

Another compelling watch by FX. The concept is superb and lends itself to be enjoyed at multiple levels: A family of Irish Travellers in the US, the American-Irish version of gypsies, are portrayed here as compulsive con-men and criminals, living off other people by stealing everything in sight with a bagful of cons and tricks. The whole family works as a team, including wife and children, and are proud of their heritage, skills and ideology, seeing the rest of the world as inferior 'buffers'. When this family finds itself outed from their camp, they seize the first chance they get (a very improbable and coincidental one), to steal the American Dream by posing as a recently-deceased rich couple, taking over their new house and jobs, and sending their kids to school. This derogatory portrayal aside, what the show does here with the concept is satirize the life of work, neighbours, family and school as seen through the eyes of liars that bluff their way through it. It also finds entertainment in a family of anti-heroes, and thrilling tension in the things that constantly go wrong with their increasingly complicated web of lies. Their gypsy past and enemies also keep interrupting their stolen bliss, leading to constant crises. Izzard and Driver lead a great cast, and the writing is, for the most part, quite solid and addictive. One flaw though, is in the disbelief that they are getting away with so much bluster and improvised nonsense, especially when it comes to things like pretending to be a skilled lawyer in a firm full of lawyers. That part doesn't always work so well, but the character development is superb, spurred by the constant existential crises of living a lie and living the kind of life they always despised.

The first season is very addictive and contains a lot of compelling character development, despite the sloppy cons and lies. The second season, however, suddenly swerves into chaos, as the writers drop about one hundred crises on them at once, several per episode, adding more and more ridiculous twists and turns and neglecting the characters as well as previous developments, and making a total mess of the Dale character, until it suddenly stops mid-season with very unsatisfying multiple cliffhangers. In short, the first season is pretty good and a compelling one-time watch, but it is not enough and is flawed, and the show could have developed but didn't.



Take, The  

Replace Tom Hardy in this mini-series with anyone else, and the show would just be an ordinary crime thriller with family drama and plenty of backstabbing, kinda like a Sopranos without Gandolfini. But Hardy is so electrifying in this, he doesn't just carry the show, he makes it. His role is a despicable sociopath who only turns on the charm when he is about to kill you. He is part of a criminal hierarchy, except his violent whims, street-smarts, and supremely independent attitude doesn't let him get far in the ranks, and keeps getting him in trouble. His friend Jimmy is smarter, and one day Jimmy finds himself promoted and forced to leave his unreliable friend behind, which triggers a series of escalating acts of backstabbing conspiracy and personal revenge that also involves rape, and ultimately affects their wives and children leading even them to desperate and violent acts. There are only four episodes that span a whole decade, making the whole thing feel like a highlight reel of key scenes in a longer series, especially when compared to similar but much longer and drawn-out TV series. On the other hand, it tells its story concisely and ends, leaving one feeling as if punched multiple times in the gut by a stranger with a very nasty personality.



Musketeers, The  
Based on the first season.

There is plenty of material in Dumas's many books to fill a couple of seasons of superb swashbuckling adventure. Unfortunately, the approach in this series is to only use the books as a starting point for raw plot elements, starting with the characters from the novels, the writers creating their own stories, and inserting as many plot ideas from the novels as possible. The result is a mixed bag: The adventures are entertaining, with a light touch and plenty of sword-fighting action. The casting is superb, as are the production values, presenting a very lively version of this setting and with good subtle chemistry amongst the musketeers. Trouble follows them wherever they go, in their various jobs of 'policemen', 'secret-service-men', detectives and spies, and even their wild loves and flings are fraught with schemes and secrets. Their bravery, laid-back approach to death, charm, personalities, and devotion to fun violence and adventure are all there. But there are a few major flaws: The anachronistic attitudes to things such as slavery and women, the tediously politically-correct and realism-challenged approach of making women into fierce warriors and assassins, the limited episodic structure where each 1-hour episode neatly resolves all conflicts only to start a new adventure next time, and the lack of character development. Although there is an ongoing antagonism with the Cardinal and some larger story book-ending the seasons, the format is a crisis-of-the week, and the show doesn't really offer anything more than the swashbuckling entertainment and never takes the time to build-up anything, albeit its fun in short bursts.



House of Saddam  

HBO and the BBC team up once again for another historical mini-series, this one more recent. I (and, I suspect, most people) do not know enough about Saddam to gauge its authenticity in terms of personality and motivation, but the history seems well researched and sometimes even revealing. The structure of this series is strange but interesting: a 'lesser-known' greatest hits in the life of Saddam Hussein. It offers four episodes from four key periods in his life, skipping the stuff everyone knows, and portraying the events purely from his and his family's point of view. These periods include his rise to power with terror and the beginnings of the war with Iran, the escalation of the politics and war with Kuwait, post Gulf War events including his deteriorating relationships and dealings with his now traitorous son-in-laws, and finally, his life in hiding from the US troops during Bush's invasion of Iraq. Throughout, there is plenty of family drama and tension, especially with his erratic and bestial son Uday, and his domineering mother. His friends and commanders also live a roller-coaster life due to his suspicions and brutal, unpredictable treatment based on paranoia. The acting is superb, and Yigal Naor, an Israeli, leads with a strong commanding presence as Saddam. Minor flaws include: The short greatest-hits approach described above. The typically racist American approach to casting, with every actor coming from a different country, assuming that no one can tell the difference even between Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Asian. The constant feeling that HBO is trying to turn Saddam into a dramatized Soprano or Godfather. And the fact that, like the Sopranos, he just isn't very interesting at the end of the day, simply using brutish, unintelligent, power-hungry, paranoid methods, and the show doesn't really get into their heads and offer insights. In episode three, Saddam suddenly becomes a powerfully manipulative Godfather and carefully pulls strings to achieve his vengeful goals, but it doesn't seem to match his behaviour in the rest of episodes. Still, it's a compelling one-time watch and may fill in some historical blanks as far as events go.



Thick of It, The  
Based on the first two and a half seasons.

Often described as the modern version of 'Yes Minister', and is actually somewhere in between that show and 'The Office'. It manages to blend the political intelligence and wit of the former with the awkward realism and crudity of the latter without resorting to cringing embarrassments and overly stupid and obnoxious characters. Malcolm Tucker is the PM's enforcer who whips the Ministers and their media spin doctors into shape and he is as testy, brutal, and creatively foul-mouthed as they come. This is the opposite of West Wing, in the sense that the day-to-day politics depicted in this show are far from that imaginary liberal embrace of ideals, constructive debates and lofty goals, and is, instead, the daily handling of petty arguments, the constant spinning of minute faux-pas made worse by miscommunication, agendas, human flaws and incompetence, and the constant fear of the media and public that tend to make mountains out of molehills. Ministers come and go on this show, but the civil servants, spin doctors and Tucker keep flaying each other's skins over these soul-destroying time-wasters. The comedy is not the laugh-out-loud sharp wit and satire of Yes Minister, but derives from the constant ways that things go wrong and the brutality and colorful language that ensues. It also features many obscure culture-references, and swearing that is so eccentrically colorful at times, you have to think about it, assuming the fast-pace gives you time to do this. As such, I find it less classic and compelling than Yes Minister, but still quite an entertaining watch.



Into the West  

A 6-part, 10 hour Western mini-series produced by Spielberg. The series spans a period of 65 years from 1825 to 1890 at the height of the expansion in the American West, and the climax of the wars between settlers and natives. Two fictional families (white and native) provide the dramatic anchor amidst the many historical facts and figures, their many descendants and relatives scattering in various locations and taking part in many historical events, much like the Holocaust and War and Remembrance series did with WWII. This comparison is not a superficial one, because, by the end of the series, I felt I had watched a gradual Holocaust of Native Americans by white men, who not only committed countless massacres and systematic genocide, but also forced them into ghettos (reservations) with increasingly poor terms, and even launched aggressive educational campaigns against their children to force assimilation and kill their culture, and all this only a handful of decades before the Nazis. Much of this is not new by now, but the series does a good job in its historical detail, and presents it as a continuous story instead of scattered facts, with a watchable, but not compelling, family saga as its glue. The Wheelers frequently cross paths and marry with the Lakota tribe and family, bringing to mind Dances with Wolves. Other comparisons: Centennial was bigger in scope but didn't focus on the war with the natives as much, and Little Big Man managed to do a lot in its shorter length, but wasn't as comprehensive in its historical detail. This show takes its time to become good however, slowly building its many characters, hopping and skipping between years and characters, and only becoming compelling towards the end. Another flaw is in how every white man except the Wheeler family members seems to be evil, how many Wheelers were saints compared to their peers, and every native is a noble fighter, all of which stinks of political correctness. But there is no denying history, quotes, and the many massacres of women and children.



Sons of Anarchy  
Based on the first two seasons and most of season three.

Fans of gangster shows like Sopranos and Brotherhood should feel right at home with this one. It's a show about bikers that choose to live a wild life with some elements of the old West, including violence, rough lifestyles, freedom (whatever that means), crime, and Anarchy (that's Anarchy as a social structure of free individuals without a government, not general anarchy). Kurt Sutter, who also wrote and produced for The Shield, is in charge of this one. Except that it's not as disciplined as The Shield and there isn't really anyone to root for, or any shades of grey in this one. The motorcycle club, despite its Anarchism, has a loose hierarchy of the original founders, 'prospects' with reduced privileges, 'nomads', and several charters. They run several legitimate businesses as well as criminal ones, their primary source being gun-running via their IRA sources. At first, they seem to have a policy of avoiding drugs, especially drugs and violence in their home-town of Charming, but this is soon dropped as matters keep escalating with rival gangs and interests. There is also an internal conflict between Clay, the leader, who prefers brute-force tactics and gun-running, and Jax, son of a killed founder with other ideals who didn't see a future in increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable crime. But these ideas of reform are never even raised for the first three seasons, and are soon forgotten as Jax gets involved in the endless violence, leading me to believe it was only an attempt by the writers to gain sympathy. The show still tries to make us take sides by giving the club family ties, loyalties, friendships, a moral code for friends, and, mostly, by pitting the club against even more evil gangs and rivals. But the club still lets loose with plenty of gratuitous violence, shocking brutality, and bad decisions, which makes this just another show about animals fighting animals (which means you don't really care who wins), albeit it is an addictive and colorful one with above-average writing. Another entertaining violent show by FX.

Any show that chooses and manages to snag Ron Perlman as a main character deserves points for that alone. Perlman as Clay is not as colorful as I expected, but is definitely very solid and enjoyable. Katey Sagal, surprisingly, outdoes him as the matriarch of the club. The rest are good. But it's the writers' attitude towards outsiders that needs work, with everyone in law-enforcement seemingly powerless, incompetent, bent, or psychotic. The club doesn't seem to have even minimal policies and habits that will keep them out of jail or that would keep so many of them alive, and it becomes increasingly improbable that they can get away with what they are doing. The lack of cleverness in their crime also makes things less enjoyable. Federal agents are even killed without repercussions, which makes a later event, that causes one of them to go on the run for killing an IRA agent arrested by the Feds, laughably inconsistent.

As mentioned, the writing is not as disciplined relative to The Shield, and characters switch allegiances often or alternate between smart and glaringly poor decisions at the writers whims. One glaring example is when two characters decide to kill a close fellow member and friend just because he was carrying a wire in his phone, not even considering the painfully obvious idea that he was unaware of the wire. In season two, all long-time conflicts are dropped all too easily just because a fellow member is raped, and so on. But the majority of the writing is quite good, and is character-driven, unpredictable, and not afraid to kill off main characters. Season one is entertaining and violent, season two is probably the best season with intense and relentless fast-paced developments, although they just seem to be running from one crisis to another, and season three drops the ball with too much far-fetched and convoluted writing, and endless pulp violence and gang complications.



Broken Trail  

3-hour Western directed by Walter Hill, starring Robert Duvall with a similar tone and narrative to Lonesome Dove. Prentice drafts his nephew on a tense financial deal to deliver a herd of horses from Oregon to Wyoming. They have a wide variety of encounters and adventures along the way, all low-key and realistic, including the main plot involving 5 Chinese girls forced into prostitution that they rescue from a despicable horse thief. A whore with a heart of lead isn't happy with the loss of her new toys and sends a murderous man after the slowly expanding group of cowboys and their proteges. The tone is somewhere between Deadwood and old-school Westerns, featuring a gritty, harsh and wonderfully detailed recreation of the Wild West, but led by near-idealistic moral heroes that rescue the maidens. The story takes its time and lacks greatness, but this is one of those movies that holds you in its grip with sheer professionalism and solid craftsmanship, with both superb direction and acting.



Vikings  
Based on the first two seasons.

I am not going to pretend to know anything about the historical accuracy of this series; All I expect it to do, at the very least, is to transport me to a different plausible time and culture. This is about Nordic pagans, led mostly by the mythical Ragnar, that discover how to sail across oceans, and their ambitions, thirst for battle, and lust for conquest take them to violent raids, wars and adventures in England and France (and many more countries later on in history). Villages led by Earls and populated by (mostly) free men and women gather together, form flimsy alliances in order to wage war on neighbouring kingdoms, barely long enough to pause the fighting amongst themselves. This show features some cultural scenes of pagan rituals and celebrations, sacrifices to Nordic gods, shifting friendships and alliances, family dynamics, a bunch of drama with various wives, children and loves, all of which have to live this war-mongering lifestyle whether they like it or not, including some warrior women and various family members and friends each with their own ambitions. But the majority of the series revolves around raids, invasions, wars, pillaging, back-stabbing enemies and kings, and many, many battles.

Lately, historical TV shows tend to grab a few youngsters that look like they just took some time off posting on their twitter account in order to dress up in costumes and get their paycheck. This series starts off on weak, wobbly legs for the first handful of episodes, then, thankfully, the actors grow into their roles and bring them to life, and the production and direction gradually iron out some of the sillier elements (but not all of them). Again, although the internet is full of accusations of historical inaccuracies, I am only interested in whether the society makes sense. A wife objects to a rape (but not to murder) in the beginning of the show by killing the rapist, and suddenly by magic, rape is never mentioned again for the rest of the show. There is a very silly pre-occupation with threesomes as if the writer assumes every viking male is a closet homosexual, but thankfully this is thrown away as well. Women have modern makeup and shaved legs (of course). Women object to their men having flings while on raids even though they are pagans, and their priests act very suspiciously like Christians. And the first season features an Earl who is a blatantly unjust leader and parasite on his village, and it is difficult to understand why they don't get rid of him. That's the bad. The good includes the great battle scenes, the wild attitudes and lust for raids and battle, addictive ongoing developments in the form of many internal wars and flimsy alliances, and some different approaches to justice and religion. Overall, however, although the show becomes quite entertaining and even addictive, it remains one of those things where you keep watching for its entertainment value, but keep hoping that they will do something more interesting. According to this show at least, the Vikings are quite dumb, and for all their gung-ho fearless approach to war, they never really make interesting plans, think of basic things like leaving protection for their home village, or double-cross their allies without protecting themselves first, and their villagers are massacred so many times, I fail to see how there can be anyone left. Somehow, new Vikings keep appearing in the village. Also, Ragnar is portrayed as a petulant wild bad-boy with a lust for war, and is therefore not really interesting either. All in all, the Viking society, at least in this series, act exactly like a bunch of rat parasites, raiding neighbours, murdering everyone in sight that isn't Viking, as well as killing each other, disloyal to everyone and anyone, turning traitor on any whim, and back again, and there's nary a wise man in sight. Which is why, like I said, it fails to become really interesting, and eventually you stop watching.

Compared to Black Sails, this has more consistent writing and characters and doesn't have the silly softcore porn, but it also is inferior in terms of interesting developments, story-writing and characters.



Black Sails  
Based on the first two seasons.

Starz hasn't been known for its tasteful period-series so far, embracing trash, softcore-porn, extra violence, over-the-top catty behaviour, anachronisms, and as much gratuitous depravity as possible. And so it seems most appropriate for them to tackle a pirate series, and I was actually looking forward to a show that made pirates ugly and barbaric for a change, rather than the charming rogues of Hollywood-past. And indeed it starts off very well, barring a few cheaply titillating sex scenes that lower the quality, promising great things thanks to many colorful characters and complex writing. The show includes many true-life pirates from the golden age of pirating in the early 1700s, all flocking to the real-life 'pirate republic' of Nassau, where corrupt government and controlling democratic gangs of pirates eventually led to anarchy. Here the many pirates keep stirring the pot with conflicting agendas and shifting alliances, with a potential huge treasure changing the game repeatedly. Amongst all this, is the complex character of Captain Flint from Treasure Island who is led by visions much grander than his suspicious and wild colleagues. His crew is accompanied by the clever and manipulative John Silver who is always led by self-interest. As mentioned, this evolves wonderfully at first, but then it unravels. The writers keep adding more and more developments and shifting motivations in an attempt to constantly keep the audience on its toes, and already towards the end of the first season, the characters shift one time too many and stop making sense. This becomes worse in the second season, as characters flip sides so often based on whims, unconvincing speeches or random actions, or just based on a weak writer's contrivances, that they cease to make any sense and the show becomes unwatchable. Also, the constant injection of titillating nudity, sex, lesbians, threesomes, whores and whatnot constantly cheapen the show with too-obvious attempts at drawing in a horny audience, and thus undermine the writing even further. In Spartacus, Raimi's involvement, the strong drama and characters, and the gore, made it worthwhile and entertaining trash. This one just keeps shooting itself in the foot with sloppy writing that feels like its been forced to constantly inject fake character-development twists quotas per episode and softcore sex scenes. And then there's the even more obvious gay-mafia control that manages to turn no less than three of its main heterosexual characters gay within two seasons, even though it may conflict with what happened before (not to mention Robert Louis Stevenson turning over in his grave). And finally, political correctness rears its ugly head yet again by putting a woman in charge of pirates. Granted, she does so against their will, but many of their attitudes to her feel way too anachronistic.

So on the one hand this show offers a great cast, strong characters, and complex writing, but then it throws it all away on cheap trash and sloppy management. The good is so good that it's easy to imagine this show being great while watching it, but all this potential is thrown away. There have been plenty of shows that became great without forced fast-pacing and blatantly titillating sex scenes, so all these recent shows that feel the need for it evidently have no confidence in their material. Frustrating, to say the least.



Over There  
Based on the single season.

If you're going to make a show about something controversial that is happening right now to many people, it is bound to be nit-picked to death and attacked for many personal reasons. And that is what happened to this above-average show about the war in Iraq. But the show wisely takes no political sides and doesn't even hint at anti-war or pro-war statements. The show is about the soldiers, the human angle as men are faced with a variety of situations, some of them very incidental to the war, and some having to do with culture clash or their families left at home. The characters and personalities are pretty good, the writing and stories are grim and realistic, as long as you can ignore some insignificant details. The first episode is bad, and there is another episode that falters when it forces some feminist agenda on an Arab woman and then adds some gratuitous lesbian sex, and the show becomes less interesting when it focuses on the family drama back home with cheating alcoholic spouses, but the rest is all quite good, with some thought-provoking episodes. Suicide bombers, children and families used in war, chaotic waves of insurgency, booby traps and mines, various other cultural time-bombs, wounds and deaths, as well as family issues made worse due to the distance, all make the soldiers' lives quite difficult and this show explores all of this grimly and thoughtfully. A pretty good show from FX, but don't expect Band of Brothers in Iraq though.



Tour of Duty  
Based on most of the first season.

Come to think of it, war TV series are quite rare, especially ones that deal in day-to-day combat inside a war zone. This 80s series on Vietnam can be surprisingly good in scattered episodes, dealing with a wide variety of issues and elements of the Vietnam War. It combines war action and drama, and tries to have it both ways with both honest dealings with death, as well as heroism and speeches made by the idealistic soldiers. Therefore the episodes vary from the more complex issues to do with Vietnamese as both foe and friend, to less interesting life-lessons learned per episode. Guest stars routinely join to shake up and challenge the tight-knit platoon, only to get killed, while the seasoned soldiers survive through their experience and practical skills. This sometimes gets a bit formulaic, the handful of primary protagonists somehow surviving throughout everything, which kinda hurts the realism. But it is still a very watchable show, with episodes ranging from routine to intense. Issues covered include anything from tunnel warfare, friends dying from stupid mistakes, the USO, reporters, officers with various agendas, intense sieges, repetitive ambushes, high-risk rescue operations, re-education of Vietnamese, double-agents and the inability to tell between friend and foe, and so on. Although quality varies and the show is episodic, it is above-average overall.



Unit, The  
Based on the first season.

A military TV show about the most elite of all US special forces, based on an autobiographical book, with writing from David Mamet and the involvement of Shawn Ryan from The Shield. Sounds extremely promising doesn't it? And it doesn't disappoint in many areas. As compared to the other realistic military TV show that came out at the same time 'Over There', it has some advantages and disadvantages: This show, too, mixes missions, army experiences and camaraderie, with dramas at home concerning the wives, who not only have to deal with their husbands' dangerous careers, they also have to maintain secrets under strict penalties and repercussions. The missions and action in this show are thrilling, smart, gritty and impressively professional, creative and disciplined, but they are also episodic and the soldiers' seeming expertise in every subject raises incredulity. How can the same people be the best at shooting, combat, hostage situations, disarming nuclear bombs, protecting government officials, spy games, diplomacy, taking apart satellites, running a submarine, building MacGyver gadgets to escape from a prison, etc etc. It's not just their abilities that are implausible, it's also that they are sent on all of these varied missions. It's as if this were an updated, much less cheesy version of The A Team. Then there are the home dramas that feel shoe-horned in just to appease the feminists, with the initial drama dealing with their unique challenging lifestyles being of moderate interest, but then deteriorating into affairs, and then, when that runs out of steam, into completely irrelevant stories with business deals and con men. In summary, this is a very watchable action show with some smart writing and sharp thrills, but it's also slightly overrated, with some flaws and a limited episodic structure.



Holocaust  

A mini-series drama telling the tale of a Jewish family during the Holocaust along with their friends and enemies, and, on the other side, some Nazis involved in escalating and engineering the extermination of the Jews. The biggest problem I have with most drama shows and movies about the Holocaust is that they usually revolve around secular Jews that don't live as Jews. I mean, if something as horrible as the Holocaust happened to Jews because they were Jews, one would think it would be important to explore what it is that makes Jews Jewish. This show is no exception in that regard, compounded by the problem that most of the Jewish cast are very non-Jewish, and that one of the main protagonists and love stories involve an intermarriage. There's even a laughable Jewish marriage ceremony where, the way the film-makers made this, the Rabbi married himself (and not the groom) to the bride. Also, although this show explores many terrible events and Nazi cruelty and violence on a personal level, the work camps are strangely portrayed relatively lightly rather than the hell-holes they were. On the other hand, a strong aspect of this show is the Jews' reactions to the gradually increasing violence, their denials and lack of belief in the fact that their own neighbours and friends are turning against them with such hate or detachment. Ironically, an even stronger aspect is the Nazi side of the story, exploring a difficult character in the form of a despicable German man who is basically human and 'gentle', yet finds himself coldly engineering the deaths of millions of people due to various social, personal and career pressures. The SS mentality, justification or denial of their terrible crimes reaches a fascinating peak of dark psychological dementia in this movie. Then again, the mentality of the German people at the time who welcomed Hitler as a savior of their lost pride is ignored, and this is a slight flaw. The narrative scatters the family, getting them involved in various true historical events such as the Night of Broken Glass, the Warsaw uprising, the partisan movement in Russia, the Sobibor escape, etc, thus serving as a partial history lesson. In summary, this is a strong drama with flaws, worth watching, but maybe only once. The uniqueness of Schindler's List is that it found a new and interesting way to approach this topic, but if you are looking for a straightforward Holocaust drama, this is above average and better than tripe like The Pianist, only with reservations.



Count of Monte Cristo, The  

A not-bad French 7-hour adaptation that gives this rich, complex classic the time it deserves. The first episode of four starts out quite badly however: The imprisonment and all the critical events that traumatize and setup the Count's character are rushed through in a rapid mess of flashbacks, without registering any passion or interest. Depardieu is a great actor but seems completely miscast here, too big and strong as a prisoner, and lacking introversion and broodiness as the Count. When his plots of revenge and social games start however, this series changes into a superb and fascinating tale, amongst the best French period dramas, faithfully exploring all the rich detail of the book. The changed Hollywood ending, however, is nothing short of repulsive and trite. In short, the best Dumas adaptation so far with an exquisitely beautiful soundtrack, pulled down by two very disappointing bookends.



Psychoville  
Based on both seasons.

From half of the team behind League of Gentlemen comes this highly entertaining black comedy and horror spoof. There is much more story this time rather than the more sketch-oriented and very bizarre League, and Pemberton and Shearsmith once again act in several roles, including a kind of reprise of the mother-son team of serial killers. Except that everyone in this show either seems to be a killer, is a killer, thinks of killing or finds themselves involved in killing, and they all happen to be a very colorful ensemble of freaks, hence the name of the show. There's a very angry clown Mr. Jolly who lost a hand and who is still performing for kids, only when the parents mistake him for Mr. Jelly that is; there's a nasty, blind, wart-covered man with an extensive doll collection who hires a black man Tealeaf as his assistant; Dawn French is a psycho who thinks her doll is her baby, there's a dwarf who may have psychic abilities acting in a Snow-White play in love with a dumb-blonde acting as Snow White, a fat loser with an unhealthy relationship with his mother and with an obsession over serial killers, and more. The show is one long story with constantly surprising twists and turns, as people usually turn out to be someone else or harboring big secrets, and major characters often get killed. It also references dozens of movies, usually Hitchcock or horror movies, and there is even an episode filmed in one long take in the vein of Rope. So although it is a spoof and kinda wears thin in the second season, it brings its own unique sense of black humor, funny characters and a very entertaining story arc.



Wallander (UK)  
Based on the first two seasons.

Given the UK's seeming insatiability for murder mysteries and detective personalities, I suppose that if the British would ever stoop to remake some other country's TV show, it would be one about a popular Swedish detective. This is based on a series of novels by Henning Mankell that were adapted several times in Sweden, but this UK show, in my opinion, is better than the recent Swedish production on several levels: First and foremost, it features the always dependable Kenneth Branagh in the titular role and gives him a lot to chew on. The detective here is very close to burning out every day, his experience, drive for uncovering truth, helping people and solving mysteries, and his addiction to his work, all keep him on the job, but his fatigue, loneliness, family issues, and the fact that he gets too close to the cases and often gets emotionally burned by them, bring him down into doom and gloom. The murders here are often nasty, bizarre and baffling, involving some seriously sick criminals with a wide range of motives, often paralleling some personal crises or social issue like racism, abuse of children, or murdering the elderly. In addition, as opposed to the Swedish TV show that went for more team-work, this features more indomitable talent and insights by Wallander himself. Like that show, the mysteries are episodic, developing in stand-alone feature-length movies, but the (heaps of) character development is ongoing. Also, this one opted to respect its sources by keeping the location, culture, names and signs all in Swedish, despite its English-speaking British cast. Great for people that enjoy a darker and gloomier detective series than the usual British mystery fare.



Chicago Code, The  
Based on the single season.

Shawn Ryan's short-lived attempt at another cop-show after The Shield, this one not as successful, but still interesting. Whereas The Shield featured corrupt policemen, this one goes for a straight-as-a-ruler super-cop and his ex-partner who is now the superintendent, both driven to fight corruption in Chicago's political system, primarily in the form of Ronin Gibbons, a very slippery Alderman with ties to the Irish mob. This story arc isn't as prominent as you would expect, with most of the episodes focusing on some police-work-of-the-week that often happens to involve Gibbons and the Irish mob in various ways. Some personal dramas also make an appearance, but aren't interesting as with The Shield. There is also more action, which each episode unrealistically featuring several car chases and gunfights to make the show more entertaining. One of the biggest problems, though, is with the casting and acting. Many of the protagonists and guest stars seem to have been cast for looks over personality and plausibility in their roles, and the result is often quite flat. As an example, compare Glenn Close's work, her character's battle with corruption, and strong personality in The Shield, to Jennifer Beals prettiness but complete lack of authority on this one. The writing towards the end also feels overly convenient in order to close the season with some satisfaction, and the awkward back-stories with a narrative feel tacked on. In short, a flawed show that feels very compromised when compared to Ryan's other work (perhaps due to this being handled by Fox instead of F/X?). But it is still better than several other shows given Ryan's writing that presents some intense cat-and-mouse political games and developing complexities.



House  
Based on most of the first season and several scattered episodes.

Dr. Gregory House M.D. (a superb and surprisingly intense Hugh Laurie) is the undeniable star of this medical show. He is a brilliant diagnostician working for a hospital with a team of younger assistant diagnosticians who are assigned all of the challenging and mysterious cases. This aspect of the show is like a medical CSI, except it feels much more realistic. The heavy medical jargon is balanced by well-placed layman descriptions and special effects to teach us about obscure medical facts, diseases and cures. The even bigger aspect of this show however, is House's personality. He is not merely challenged when it comes to people skills, he is simply too misanthropic to care. He loves the mystery, adopting cases aggressively that show promise of challenge, and then doesn't rest until he has solved it, thus saving many lives. The rest of the cases, all involving humdrum diseases, get ignored or scoffed at, and the patients are sometimes even made fun of. His boss's continuous attempts to make him do his time at the walk-in clinic thus produces the comic relief of the show, as he repeatedly comes up with various ways to avoid this work, or has fun with the suffering patients. Brutal truth is always his policy, sometimes resulting in steam-rolled lives, but other times producing life-saving solutions as the patients and their families are forced to realize what they are up against and what they are doing wrong. Another of his policies is that patients always lie. So he usually doesn't bother talking with them, studying their symptoms from his office, sending people to break into their homes to find possible causes of their ailments, or tricking the patients to receive treatments they don't want. All of this results in a very difficult man, but his life-saving results are so undeniable that most of the management and staff simply have no choice but to tolerate him as best they can. Obvious parallels to Sherlock Holmes or Hawkeye Pierce can be drawn.

Unfortunately, the structure is episodic and even formulaic. But this is the best episodic and repetitive show you are likely to see. Practically every episode starts with a person becoming sick with strange symptoms, House makes several attempts at diagnoses, some of them wrong, some of them needing adjustment, until the final conclusion where everything clicks together and he finds the solution. He often makes extremely difficult decisions that nobody else wants to make, such as trying out two possible solutions on two different babies, knowing that one will die, in order to save 5 more babies. He constantly rants about the need to do something even in the face of doubt, uncertain diagnoses, and lack of proof, but sometimes he is also too confident and aggressive in his educated guesses, and has to be tempered by the staff as best they can. His leg injury, limp and addiction to pain medication provide recurring dramas, as do some recurring characters, and his troubled relationship with the management. But otherwise, the show is episodic, with every mystery solved and closed in time for the end of the episode. The writers keep pulling out the most obscure diseases they can find, and have House stumble along the way to a solution using ambiguous or a partial list or symptoms, sometimes causing damage along the way. This is what I mean by formulaic, and yet it's amazing how much mileage this show gets out of it. House is riveting also due to the acting and also thanks to the intelligent writing, and the writers keep coming up with fascinating cases, scary decisions, amusing shenanigans and patients in the clinic for House to abuse, and the occasional character-building drama.



Northern Exposure  
Based on the first two seasons and most of the third.

A very warm show about a New York Jewish doctor who finds himself in the middle of nowhere in a small Alaskan town full of eccentric characters. This is a show about a town where nothing interesting happens yet life is never boring. The characters are colorful, fun and lovable, the writing is intelligent, the drama is creative without going for anything ridiculous, and the result is often a little heart-warming magic. Quirk, personality, little unusual dramas and even touches of magical realism all make this show the unique memorable phenomenon that it is. And the more you watch it, the more you feel like you are hanging out with real people and you look forward to doing so. Amusing, magical, warm, real and gentle for the first two short seasons, then the third season tries to over-extend itself to 22 episodes and it shows. On the one hand, it does grow increasingly milder and easier to shrug off, Chris becomes more pretentious and Maggie becomes annoyingly neurotic, childish and selfish. But it is always a pleasant watch, and even when the characters inch towards the over-quirky and neurotic, the writing usually finds something amusingly insightful to say about them, and Adam is a great addition in season three.



Call the Midwife  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

In many ways, this show is a medical drama, except there is no hospital and it's a lot more personal and warm. This is a human drama about a group of midwives in the poor East End of London in the 50s. The BBC reproduces this period with detail, and, thankfully, doesn't inject any revisionism or gender politics that a typical US production would have stooped to. The midwives are mostly nuns and live in a convent, together with some atheistic or less... monastic midwives, one of which is surprised to find herself in a convent. Episodes cover several story-lines, dealing with various crises or dramas that emerge from their profession, as well as personal dramas, other community work they find themselves performing with the nuns, and plenty of character development. The stories are based on real-life memoirs. The many characters are all very fleshed out and colorful, and Miranda Hart steals the show with a funny but much less silly role than in her 'Miranda' series. The men in the show are mostly harmless, and there is no male bashing despite this being kind of a 'chick-flick' show. Quite the opposite. In short, quite good for what it is.



Lark Rise to Candleford  
Based on the first season.

Actually surprisingly good for a 'chick flick' period drama. I call this a chick flick because of three reasons: The men are strictly in supporting roles, the drama is gentle and concerns itself mostly with typically 'female' concerns, and, in this show, the micro-world of two neighbouring towns is practically run only by women. On the other hand, the writing is quite balanced and is not misandrist as one would expect in this day and age, allowing men their dignity and personality, even though they always give in to their women and women almost always get the last word. Laura has come of age and has taken her first job in the market town a few miles away, which is a step up from the very intimate village where she grew up. Her job is at a post-office run by a self-assured woman, who also happens to be an old flame of the local married magistrate even though he is in a different social class and married to an upper-class lady from London. Many other members of the towns and community get time to shine, including Dawn French as an overly happy and irresponsible mother, two spinster busybodies who run a clothes shop, Laura's Dad with his pride and outspoken leftist views, an old couple that run a beekeeping business, and an old outspoken housekeeper. The drama flows through a wide variety of different issues, sub-plots and small crises, always with warmth and down-to-earth gentleness. The attitudes and the ubiquitous feminine control are questionably anachronistic, but this can be overlooked. Light, but warm viewing.



Alfred Hitchcock Presents  
Based on most of the first season.

I can only guess the extent of the effect and influence this pioneering anthology show had since the 50s when it was aired, but there is no denying its quality that holds up even today, even more so than the Twilight Zone. The genres covered are mysteries, crimes, suspense thrillers, capers, etc. often with a surprise twist at the end, some of them involving a black sense of humor. The quality is quite consistently good relative to other anthologies, probably because of the firm hand of Hitchcock who knows all about quality and solid writing. The best aspect of this show is actually the introductions and epilogues by Hitchcock himself, who appears out of his trademarked silhouette, introducing or commenting on the episode with delightfully droll, dry and wry humor. His sponsors are constantly the target of subtle and playful humor as he bookends the advertisements with humor, and constantly makes fun of the sensitive audiences' and censors' sense of morality by changing dark, tragic or violent endings into obviously ridiculous happier ones by adding his own endings in his epilogues ('the criminal was promptly caught and is now paying for his crimes in jail'). I'm not a big fan of anthologies, but this is definitely amongst the best and it holds up quite well.



NewsRadio  
Based on the first one and a half seasons and many scattered episodes.

Office sitcom based in a news radio station with fun, very colorful characters and sharp writing. The light but inventive and fast-paced comedy is about anything from rats in the office to secret affairs, and the characters are subtly drawn, likeable and charmingly performed. There's a smart but weak-willed director that everyone takes advantage of, an amusing eccentric boss (Stephen Root), difficult anchor men, a crazy secretary, and Joe Rogan from Fear Factor and UFC does a funny turn as an aggressive wizard technician. Above-average comedy with sharp dialogue and humor, the sharp actors are obviously having fun with it, and the writing is entertainingly colorful. Not overwhelmingly great, but always fun to watch while it's on.



TURN: Washington's Spies  
Based on the first two seasons.

The American Revolution, surprisingly, isn't covered often. This one approaches it from the point of view of some spies, and it starts early on in October 1776 when things were really heating up after the British recaptured New York from George Washington's rebel army. A ring of spies slowly forms to help Washington with useful information after his defeat, one who is a farmer and son of a magistrate who is loyal to the King and who lives in a community/town of Setauket which is controlled by the British. I am not a historian and cannot comment on the historical accuracy of this show, so I approached it only on plausibility and whether it was interesting and entertaining. The first season is quite weak: After a strong setup and interesting, complex characters, it feels like the writers and characters are mostly treading water with minutiae, or constantly inventing new minor crises for each episode to fill that episode with 'content', while the real plot is happening elsewhere. For example, there's a whole episode spent on a decision to use gravestones for defense (it is never clear why they would even be efficient or needed), provoking the town to near-mutiny, and they spend days agonizing over ten gravestones when they could have found a much faster and easier alternative. And the majority of the show takes place in a small town where a cruel British officer becomes obsessed with petty intrigue and power-games, thus greatly reducing the scope of this story. This is worsened by the constant injection of tawdry affairs and love triangles (with liberated women and shaved legs of course). Motivations are often murky, ephemeral or overly-complicated that feel more like writers contrivances than human behaviour. The opening music theme is terrible, and, of course, the Americans continue the childish tradition of making most of the British into evil characters, rather than portraying them as soldiers protecting their country's investments.

The second season improves and expands the scope or the story as well as the characters and comes up with proper thrilling story-lines, as well as complex dynamics and twists. But I still found myself not enjoying the show even though it seemed like it was well done. I concluded that it was a variety of issues: The primary one being that all of the characters seem to be motivated by lust, greed, pride, sadism or fear, and there seemed to be no idealism in sight despite the fact that there was a new nation at stake. Even Washington's characterization felt like a narcissist and I did not understand why they were following his leadership, and one episode even assigns him dementia. Thus, they all run around putting out fires or starting them mostly without contemplation, seemingly causing the war over personal grudges or desires. One woman even gets four male competitors, two from each side, leaning dangerously close to soap-operatics. Now I don't prescribe to the notion that history and past figures are all romantic and idealistic, but without even some idealism, what are they fighting for? That said, there is much to admire in this show and it may appeal more to others. Having failed to grab me after two seasons though, I gave up.



24: Live Another Day  

A quick cash-in riding on the original for some extra money, or does this mini-series revisitation have something new to offer? The only thing new here is the 12-hour format, which by itself instantly improves the show by not forcing the writers to keep coming up with ridiculous padding, extensions and sub-plots. Unfortunately, this isn't enough and the rest is uninspired rehashing of plot elements used ad-nauseam in several previous seasons. It is thrilling and serves the usual breakneck pacing and endless twists from previous seasons, but this is superficial and unrealistic entertainment at best. Once again the CIA/CTU has more double-agents and security holes than a sieve, terrorists are some random non-denominational hi-tech wizards with a quota of hot chicks in their ranks as well as double-agents in every agency up to the white house, one crisis solved only leads to another bigger one from other gangs of terrorists who coincidentally hatch their plan on the same day, computer hacking and surveillance is practically instant, and so on. Still, the momentum and thrills keep you watching and entertained 'til the end.



David Copperfield (1999)  

BBC production of this classic novel with many stars in small roles. It was Dickens's favorite novel, featuring many autobiographical elements, and is probably also my favorite novel of his. It is a saga about David, who is thrown about by fate between many different happy and abusive homes, and gets to know both good and wicked people of all sorts, all of which also continue to make his adult life complicated and full of ups and downs. It features several classic characters, including Uriah Heep, a humble and devious crook. This series' biggest problem is its short length, the sprawling story compacted and abridged so much, that the show feels more like a highlight reel containing climaxes of each chapter, giving its audience whiplash rather taking the time to tell the story and its gradually growing developments. Another issue is the broadly drawn black or white characters in the first half. Otherwise, this is passably warm entertainment and serves as a reminder of the original and better story with all of its details.



Foyle's War  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

Quality British historical detective series set during WWII that has lasted for a surprising amount of time. It's quality over quantity, with only scattered episodes over the years, each episode a feature-length movie. Foyle (a superb Michael Kitchen) is a highly principled and determined Detective Chief who wishes he were contributing to the war, and ends up fighting the war in a completely different theatre: Those crimes at home that persist despite the war, or, more frequently, the unique crimes created because of the war. Crimes involving German and Italian citizens, racism, looting, side-effects of fear or spying activities, and people that think they can get away with it because there is war. The unique setting provides for a lot of unique moral challenges and situations, and Foyle's personality balances strict law-abiding principles with humanism. The period details are superb from what I can tell, the acting is wonderful and it features top quality guest stars as well. The length of each episode means that it may be a bit slow-moving for some, especially when compared to other detective shows, but it also allows for more color, character and immersive detail. The structure is episodic with one or two mysteries per episode, although there is some minor character development as well. The writing is subtle and the mysteries are well conceived and handled. In summary, although it didn't compel me to keep watching for too long, there is a lot to praise and enjoy here, and it is definitely one of those shows worth catching when it's on TV.



Lewis  
Based on the first two seasons.

A spin-off of Inspector Morse, that venerable and long-running British detective series, featuring the crotchety and snobbish Morse's more laid-back assistant Lewis, who has now taken over and is given an intelligent, easygoing and sharp young detective partner-assistant of his own. The British really love their detectives, as is evident by the many literary figures as well as the many mystery TV series including the various incarnations of Sherlock and Agatha Christie's heroes, Morse, Foyle, Frost and others. But whereas the Americans increasingly veer towards action, lurid murders and serial killers, or flashy CSI work, the British stick to what they do best: Depth of character, complex mysteries, and sharp police-work. The star of this series, in my opinion, is the refinement in the wit, character and intelligence, leading some to claim this as a superior spin-off. The acting is superb as well, featuring complex personalities that slowly emerge amidst the feature-length murder-mysteries. Practically all of the mysteries involve members of Oxford University in one way or another, making you wonder how there could be anyone left in the university after so many years, and the charming city is featured often as well. The murders unfold slowly but always with interesting details and developments that stay several steps ahead of both the detectives and the audience, resulting in surprises for both us and the detectives. Although this may be more realistic in a sense, personally, I prefer it when we are given more clues to chew on earlier in the game, and the murderers don't always convince as murderers here, the writers often emphasizing the (sometimes convoluted) mystery over psychology. Still, it is a quality, intelligent and enjoyable series, peppered often with literary quotes and references to enhance the intellectual enjoyment.



Ripping Yarns  
Based on both seasons.

Michael Palin's Blackadder featuring this most likeable of Pythons in dual roles per episode, each episode spoofing a cliched period-story. Episode story-lines include a coming-of-age boy-in-a-harsh-British-boarding-school story where teachers get spanked and the master of the school is a haughty teenage bully, a prisoner-of-war story featuring a man who attempts to escape 560 times, a Hammer-style horror story about an evil claw and fun diseases, a murder-mystery where everyone seems to have done it, etc. The humor feels like half of the Python canons are firing (Terry Jones co-wrote), but the episode-long stories dilute the Pythonesque energetic madness. A fun, entertaining but diluted Monty Python followup.



Fresh Meat  
Based on the first two and half seasons.

Another rudely honest, uniquely funny and quirky comedy by the team behind Peep Show, only this time featuring a more varied and colorful group of youngsters in their first year of university. As with Peep Show, they are all awkward and horny schlimazels that constantly find themselves in various social misadventures often revolving around sex, awkward flings, unrequited lust and the like, but there are also plenty of hilarious situations concerning the dorm-house they are all sharing. Each character is fully fleshed out, complex and very unique as only the British can do, from the arrogant, foul-mouthed and posh-minded brat, to a sexually-aggressive street-smart drug-addict girl, the hilariously bizarre Howard, and a couple of lovebirds that constantly find new ways to pile up more and more awkward obstacles between them. The humor is quite unique with constantly unexpected dialogue, making this a potential cult show for bohemian teenagers.



Lilyhammer  
Based on the first season.

The Norwegians kidnap a Sopranos character and put him in a show with Norwegians, boosting the tourist trade. Just kidding. A New-York mobster rats out his new despicable boss and opts to hide out in a remote Norwegian town he saw during the olympics. He soon finds that his mobster skills come in very useful even in this town, and bullies his way through the bureaucracy and the local condescending difficult people, collecting a small gang of friends that have no problem with immoral dealings. The local family-oriented police force have no idea what to do with him. A very watchable comedy about personalities and culture-clash that you can just kick back and enjoy. The story-lines are continuous, and in some ways, I enjoyed this more than The Sopranos, although it is a very different show obviously. It's nothing amazing, and the writers tend to use luck, coincidence and easy solutions for everything, but it's still very watchable.



Due South  
Based on most of the first season.

Charming Canadian cop dramedy, or, more correctly, a series about a very upstanding, polite, skilled, confident but naive Canadian Mountie stuck in Chicago with a cynical policeman, whom he helps to solve crimes. It's a bit like a Canadian Crocodile Dundee, if Dundee were a virtuous law-man with a high sense of morality and justice. There are episodic mysteries, great camaraderie and chemistry between the two polar opposites working together, some fish-out-of-water comedy where charm and upright behaviour often wins the day, with episodes that range from silly but well-written fun, to more serious-minded drama and action. Although it's not terribly realistic, what with him being out of his jurisdiction and getting away with a bit too much do-gooder actions even against Chicago crime and finding convenient solutions for everything, but the writing is top-notch, amusing, witty and fun, and the actors are charming. Nothing ground-shaking, but good to watch when it's on. And they also get to make fun of how Americans view Canadians.



Lipstick on Your Collar  

I do believe Dennis Potter has actually created a romantic comedy. Of course, not in the typical Hollywood style though, and it's still very much Potter, but the overall mood is light-hearted with a happy ending, which is unusual for Potter. This six-parter revolves around a circle of people during the 50s: The various eccentric military officers and clerks at the War Office against the backdrop of the Suez crisis, one of the wives who happens to be a blonde bombshell everyone drools over, the sadly broken Welsh couple one of the clerks is staying with, an American girl who likes literature and theatre, and a pathetic old organist who becomes obsessed over the blonde. The show keeps things interesting from the first to the last minute with superb characterizations and many clashes of personalities, balancing comedy, misery, romance and drama very well. This includes crushes, broken marriages, human despair, funny first dates, British political existentialism, humorous clashes between military discipline and eccentric flippancy, and sudden outbreaks of song and dance. As opposed to Pennies from Heaven though, this musical lip-syncing doesn't become repetitive or overused and is even quite amusing. Entertaining and rich, but light.



Californication  
Based on the first three seasons.

Hank Moody is a writer in California, pining for his soul-mate woman and daughter, but finding himself addicted to dozens of various other women who seem to throw themselves at his feet. He also has a stunted career and occasional writer's block. At first, this seems like a Dream On clone (without the hilarious comedy), both shows featuring a writer who has an endless series of outrageous sexual escapades yet pines for a family that barely tolerates him. But this show soon grows into its own, developing character and ongoing, season-long dramedy story-lines punctuated by outrageous sex. Hank has a strong, caustic, sarcastic, vulgar, but charming and easy-going personality and weak willpower; the other main characters include his woman who both loves and hates him, a sullen, annoying, rocker teenage daughter, a horny agent and his amazingly open-minded horny wife, a repulsively vicious 16 year Lolita brat, and others. The show is addictive for a while, it gets points for personality and allowing a complex male character to dominate the show, and it successfully combines vulgarity, cheap outrageousness, entertainment, sophistication and wit, thus becoming the show Desperate Housewives wished it were. Flaws include some over-reliance on sex and vulgarity, and the fact that most of the females don't feel or behave like real women, but more like characters in male fantasies, ridiculously forgiving, open and sexually hooked on Moody. Fun and well-written for the first two seasons, but not re-watchable. However, the third season made me feel I was watching a bunch of embarrassingly pathetic white-bread folk acting like trailer trash in a filthy soap for sex-obsessed juveniles, and the women lose all semblance to reality. Enough is enough.



Hung  
Based on all three seasons.

Only HBO would pick up a show that tells the tale of a well-endowed man who becomes a gigolo. I wasn't sure what to expect, and this could have gone wrong in so many ways, but the writers did a very good job making this a well-balanced human interest dramedy while still stroking the obvious entertaining gimmick. Ray Drecker is a man down on his luck with only one marketable talent. He befriends another loser at a motivational conference, a female poet who, after her very short initial disgust, agrees to pimp him with some unusual marketing tricks. His neurotic ex-wife who divorced him for money, his twin goth kids, a sociopathic business-woman, an annoying lawyer neighbour and his horny wife, and various clients with issues, all fill this series with color. The writing balances the perspective from both the female and male sides very well, and it creates three-dimensional people in absurd situations that develop realistically. Like Californication, this draws viewers in for the sex, but keeps them watching for the characters. The first two seasons are decently watchable and amusing, but nothing more. The third season turns towards the ridiculous, piling on the improbable adventures and mishaps as they keep on trying to make their business partnership of pimp and gigolo successful by way of a center for women's happiness and orgasms, except they encounter a real pimp, a ruthless businesswoman, complications with friends and family, and competition in the form of cheeky and immoral crazy youngsters. The third season is schlocky, but entertaining.



Edge of Darkness  

An unusual and interesting British thriller mini-series. A policeman's activist daughter is killed under suspicious circumstances, leading to an investigation by her deteriorating father who uncovers complex machinations, politics, conspiracies and crimes, all revolving around nuclear power and various government policies. Alliances and enemies grow increasingly unclear, as he networks with the law, politicians, powerful business, a charming and lively CIA agent provocateur, and an extreme environmental activist group. Good writing, acting and directing, although the writing sometimes straddles the border between complex and convoluted and the story takes a long while to gather momentum.



Bourne Identity, The  

3 hour 80s mini-series based on the Ludlum novel, and an improvement over the 2002 movie unless you prefer an emphasis on action and higher budgets. Bourne is fished out of the sea without a memory, trying to piece together the clues of his past which seem to include assassinations, large sums of money, spy-craft, a fascination with killing and various other skills. This series sticks much closer to the complex and more detailed books and takes its time developing character, situations and relationships, making it superior to the movies, but pretty TV stars like Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith don't sell a spy thriller and danger as much as we'd like. Mostly good and entertaining, but lacks greatness.



Boston Public  
Based on the first season.

David Kelley does to education what he did for law and serves his typical over-the-top but well written drama, this time in a high-school. He collects every issue related to education known to man and condenses them in one school, with week after week presenting tragedies, crises, deaths, fights, racism, violence, as well as funny and outrageous situations, heaping it all on the shoulders of the faculty. Since many of the issues are real, this makes the show compelling, but the dense packaging and a dose of unrealistic sensationalism may turn viewers off. Kelley is also extremely good in raising challenging situations with grey areas that make you think what you would do in the same situation. For example, a teacher fires a gun with blanks to get the students' attention, a teacher has sex with a student under forgiving circumstances, a fat female student is encouraged to wrestle, one student makes a hit-list of people he'd like to kill, etc. The cast, except for two unfortunately boring main characters, is mostly outstanding in that they are all different and colorful, making this an ensemble show. A good drama that keeps you watching, it's just a pity there isn't more comedy or strong, addictive characters.



Treme  
Based on the first season.

David Simon's follow-up to The Wire is a different, but still extremely well-written show, with only one or two common themes. The topic is New Orleans three months after Katrina. The show is several things: It is a sympathetic look at Katrina victims, a love-letter to New Orleans the city, a post-disaster drama of the kind you usually don't see in disaster movies because it takes place three months after, an exposé of a corrupted or inefficient system causing the average man on the street to suffer (this aspect is similar to The Wire), and it is a complex character-driven drama. Various characters are used to paint this tapestry of New Orleans: A life-loving, musician, party-animal DJ, a passionate teacher-cum-writer (John Goodman) that tends to be very opinionated about everything New Orleans, a woman and her lawyer searching for her brother who was lost in the prison system after Katrina, a female chef and her struggles to run a business and make great New Orleans food while the city is still in shambles, a Creole trying to maintain various New Orleans traditions while fighting with the police, their families, and various musicians and support actors. There is a lot of music, culture and food, with many scenes just allowing the musicians to play complete songs, and there is a pervasive love for the city even though the disaster and the various government branches keep undermining them. The writing is top-notch and realistic, and the acting is great. The only caveat with this show depends on whether you feel some kind of link with these people, the city, or the music, or whether you enjoy watching a show that is purely about simple people and character arcs without what is normally considered entertainment values. Personally, I found it a good watch and flawless relative to what it was trying to do, but not compelling. Others will undoubtedly like it much more.



Ray Donovan  
Based on the first two seasons.

Although the description makes this show sound like a detective or lawyer or problem-solver for L.A. celebrities, it's actually a family-mobster-style of a show without the mob. It's about a very very screwed up family somehow involved in an incredulous amount of crimes and murders, consistently screwing everything up time and again and making things worse. Ray works for some big-shots and celebrities that somehow constantly find themselves in need of his bullying tactics involving blackmail and cover-ups, but his teenage kids or older brothers always seem to get themselves in even bigger trouble, while Ray's father, whom he hates, is out of jail and making everything that much worse, so all he does every day is prioritize between multiple crises. Which is why this show is never believable. It never breathes, and just keeps generating more and more crises. It's telling that the seasons endings, and some episode endings, merely involve some kind of release from the tension. Ray isn't likeable, his job is worse than a maid, cleaning up after despicable people, and the rest of the characters are basically animals as well that can always be relied upon to do the wrong thing or to be abused by someone else. Thus, the show keeps generating its thrills and complications, but there's never anyone to root for, or much character development beyond making some of them victims of sexual abuse so that they'll mess things up even more, so you're likely to be more interested watching animals in a safari. Law-enforcement is non-existent, with only a couple of individual FBI agents stirring the pot, except they have their own corrupt agendas and everyone seems to be getting away with everything all too easily. The women are even more implausible, most of them passive, submissive and dependent, sticking by their man no matter what he does or says, even when their men treat them like disposable trash and sex-toys. Which is puzzling given the female writer, although this does improve in the second season. Still, despite all this, the show can be quite entertaining as pulp violence and trash, the variety of good actors help, and the constant plot developments are somewhat addictive... for a while.



Sopranos, The  
Based on the first two seasons and some scattered episodes.

Take The Godfather, extract only the family drama elements and turn it into pulp, mix it with the gritty street-crime of Goodfellas and a dose of Analyze This and you have Sopranos. It's a show about a family of mafiosos where you can watch a capo eat breakfast, curse out his kids who are having problems with school, then go out to strangle someone, deal with mafia politics and work out his psychological problems with a shrink. Sometimes it feels like a stretched-out, inferior TV version of Scorsese crime movies, other times it wallows in dysfunctional family pulp-soap drama, but the combination often results in something new: A complex and rich drama about the life of a mafia family man. Typically for HBO, this show demands an investment with its interweaving season-long story-lines and many colorful characters, and it rewards the persistent viewer. It does wander aimlessly at times and the seasons gradually become more soapish, but its also offers colorful, entertaining writing, one highlight being an unusual relationship with a borderline, evil and manipulative grandmother. Overall, this is a good show, with great acting (Gandolfini deserves every praise) and complex writing, but there's something monotonous and aimlessly unstructured about it that makes me lose interest. Maybe it's the fact that there's no-one to root for or to sympathize with. Unlike the humanity of the Godfather, or the style of Goodfellas, this is just a bunch of animals cursing and fighting each other day after day.



Strike Back  
Based on the first two seasons.

British spy-action series that, like 24, emphasizes intense action and thrills. Unlike 24, the structure is two episodes per mission, with a villain of the season appearing in several missions for a final confrontation at the end. This avoids the convoluted writing of 24 and the need to extend a crisis way past the point of plausibility. The majority of missions seem to involve a risky rescue, but there are plenty of other tasks, especially in season two, involving bombs, infiltration and terrorists. The base is a secretive 'Section 20' of MI6, and, like 24, has plenty of traitors. Unlike 24 however, even the good guys are quite incompetent and keep failing to back up their agents, which gives the agents more chances to turn macho and take matters into their own hands.

The first season is quite good and maintains a high level of plausibility as well as intense situations, with the agent finding himself in extremely dangerous situations attempting rescues. It's an action series that provides three entertaining and intense movie-length missions. The second season practically becomes a different show. The lead is replaced with two wise-cracking action-heroes, one American, and has them constantly against impossible odds, they somehow always manage to get out on top, surviving wounds and platoons of enemies, even literally catching bombs and kicking grenades around, and, the show suddenly decides to provide a constant stream of hot chicks, nudity and steamy sex scenes to keep the testosterone flowing during lulls. In short, although the action is still very entertaining, well done and fun, it loses its realism and merely becomes a show for guys that need a testosterone fix.



Hell on Wheels  
Based on the first two seasons.

Western that takes place in the true wild west in mostly uncharted territories, where men are attempting to build the first railroad tracks across the nation from East to West. The show blends fictional characters with real ones. There's a greedy businessman backed by politicians running the whole project, helped by an idealistic surveyor and his wife. It takes place right after the civil war, so tensions are still extremely high between Southerners and Union soldiers, as well as between the newly freed slaves and their former owners, not to mention the wild and hated Irish immigrants, and the angry natives waging war against the invaders. All of these people find themselves in the same place, most of them working together for desperately needed wages, the monumental task of building the railroad moving forward painfully step by step together with all the expected logistical challenges. Altogether, a hellhole with constant violence and tensions. The show starts off very well, with pretty strong characters and a sense of the time and place. Unfortunately, the writers drop the ball towards the end of the first season and throughout the second season by taking most of the characters off the rails to unnatural places. Everyone suddenly starts behaving inconsistently and unrealistically, and one can't help but feel that the writers have sacrificed their characters just so that they can give them more artificial sins and problems to deal with. Two of the most fleshy and colorful characters, The Swede (Heyerdahl) and the Reverend (Noonan) are simply made 'insane' and given random nasty things to do to add to the problems. What a waste. It also doesn't help that the writers keep dipping into racism and race wars over and over, and that the protagonist is pretty bland in terms of character even though he is given a lot to work with. In summary, there's a lot of good here, but not enough disciplined writing.



Generation Kill  

A collaborative mini-series on the war in Iraq. The source is a Rolling Stone reporter's first-hand view of the war from when he attached himself to a marine battalion during the first few weeks of the invasion. Evan Wright, together with the Wire/Corner writing team of Simon and Burns wrote the series, the show was directed by notable British TV directors, and produced by HBO. Military advisers were used also as actors and audiences. The result? A realistic, well written series that is more like early Homicide than The Wire, in the sense that it sacrifices insight and entertainment for realism. The jargon is so heavy I couldn't understand half of what they were saying even with subtitles. It takes several episodes to get to recognize any of the beefy soldiers as personalities. The view of the chain of command, military tactics, and how it all affects different people with different levels of competence and willpower fares better, and this is the most interesting aspect of the show. But some of the dialogue seems artificial: some feels like quotes and notes, and a lot feels like soapbox and rants, mouthpieces for the writers. The soldiers behaviour often feels way over the top, with extreme bloodthirstiness or crassness (making sexual remarks about a little girl?) as well as extreme bleeding-hearts that absurdly rant or protest about mistreatment of people during the war while obeying orders and killing civilians due to stupid mistakes. That said, the battle scenes are extremely well done, and the acting is superb. In short, a mixed bag, a very well made series in many ways, but also not particularly rewarding, entertaining, dramatic or insightful.



Shark  
Based on most of the first season.

Think of this one as Law and Order with personality. The personality in this case, is James Woods. He plays the role of a sharp, successful, immoral defense attorney who makes a terrible mistake that causes a death, then switches sides to the prosecution, bringing all of his aggressive talent to the DA's office to help prosecute criminals with high-priced lawyers. The structure is episodic, with one case per episode which is usually interesting and pretty well argued, but not quite at the level of The Practice. One flaw here is that his bullying tactics seem to work too well too often. The heart of this show belongs to his relationship with his smart teenage daughter, who, at first, is too perfect, but causes him to remember his morals and humanity time and time again while he is caught up with winning. Over the course of the first season, she then makes more typical teenage mistakes and rebellious acts, making the relationship more natural and complex. This could have easily been cliched or corny, but the writers do a nice job on this character arc. All in all, above average and very watchable, but not brilliant.



Spooks  
Based on the first three seasons.

Although the only thing this British show has in common with 24 is the fast-paced spy vs. terrorist tech-thrills, comparisons are revealing: The spy-plots are episodic and are therefore resolved too neatly and quickly as opposed to the season-long arcs of 24, but they avoid the convoluted, unbelievable and forced writing of that show. Strangely, the less interesting personal story-lines involving lovers, family, co-worker tension and treachery are what span multiple episodes. The spy-craft is obviously somewhat glitzy and aimed to thrill, but this show consistently retains a level of detail, realism, subtlety, and surprise and is much more dialogue-oriented than 24. Plots involve a wide variety of threats to national security as well as internal politics between MI-5 and MI-6 and American liaisons. And, like Blakes 7, this show isn't afraid to kill its characters. In short, a good show full of surprises and variety, worth watching despite flaws, but the most limiting aspect is its episodic and compressed structure which doesn't work as well with this kind of material. Also, episodes vary greatly in quality.

The first season starts shakily with a couple of unconvincing villains, but soon finds its ground with some surprising and intense developments. Good thrills, excluding some details that don't bear close scrutiny. The second season provides a similar mix of good and bad episodes, with some laughably bad computer-oriented details, some cheating that unfairly tricks the audience, and some very intense and gripping episodes. The third season is probably the best, but also presents the usual mix of moderately good, weak, flawed, and intense episodes. Three main characters are replaced with model-looking actors which doesn't help plausibility, there is a bit too much bleeding-heart drama and sudden pangs of conscience, another poorly written computer-related episode, some ongoing drama with personal relationships, and a couple of superb episodes. Overall, the episodic structure is holding this show back and big issues are solved too neatly and quickly now to suspend disbelief, but the show remains quite watchable and entertaining.



Centennial  

Huge, ambitious mini-series that tells the tale of a fictional town in Colorado, tracing its 200 year history through the lives of individuals, from its Native American roots until modern times. It starts with traders/trappers first visiting the land and building relationships with the natives, then moves on to the first settlers, the army, the wave of settlers and entrepreneurs, the war with the natives, the development of a city and its local rich men, and the developmental issues faced by modern generations with ancient family ties. All episodes and people are linked, giving an unbroken chain of history and familial generations. The first 5 episodes are superb, with unforgettable, powerful characters (Pasquinel being an inspired standout), a fascinating, complex relationship with the natives who are portrayed very sympathetically, and a tense, chaotic deterioration of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it then runs out of inspirational steam and settles into typical, unmemorable Western tales of settler disputes, ranches, cowboys, con-men, Indians, murders and sheriffs. But when the final episode ties it all together, you get a rich historical feel and attachment for the city. Other minor flaws include the distracting makeup and overly-groomed hairdos (Chamberlain's hair is ridiculous), and some environmental preaching.



Six Wives of Henry VIII, The  

Slightly overrated but intermittently interesting and sometimes brilliant historical production by the BBC. One 90-minute episode for each wife of the King, which sometimes provides too little or too much time, depending on the complexity of the tale. The biggest problem with this show is that the first two episodes are poor, and the last episode is relatively weak. Catherine of Aragon is poorly acted (terrible accent and bad melodramatic outbursts) and too full of plodding court minutia and petty power games. Anne Boleyn's story is marred by terrible incompleteness, dealing mostly with her downfall and not a very insightful interpretation at that. A much better version would be Anne of the Thousand Days. Jane Seymour's superb story is full of heart and gets the character drama arc moving on a strong roll. Anne of Cleves is largely a silly comic story about a disastrous alliance with a disgusted German noblewoman, but also surprises with intelligence and some hidden depths. Catherine Howard provides more good character development for the King, and portrays her as a wicked child in over her head. And finally, Catherine Parr's episode is a scatter-shot, sometimes interesting, but relatively weak episode that deals with the King's final and most practical marriage and death. The King's character arc is the strongest aspect of the show, acted superbly by Keith Michell as he develops from aggressive, lustful and vain, to increasingly gentle, lonely, bitter but still vain. Machinations and historical details fill the show as well as the drama of his relationships. Sets are typically cheap, costumes are pretty good, makeup is weak, the casting is mostly good with some exceptions, much effort was made for the actors to visually match their historical portraits, and the historical accuracy is superb. Overall, a mixed bag but definitely worth a watch.



QB VII  

Mini-series based on a Leon Uris book which was loosely based on real events that happened to him after he wrote Exodus. The centerpiece of this film is the two- hour courtroom drama over a man accused of being a doctor in a concentration camp who performed cruel experiments on Jews without anaesthetic, including the removal of testicles and ovaries. The case actually involves the accused suing the writer for libel and this would be somewhat implausible if not for the fact that it actually happened. The real-life doctor in this case was Dr. Wladislaw Dering. The courtroom battle is fascinating stuff, and Anthony Hopkins gives a superb performance as always as the accused man. Unfortunately, the series also involves 3 hours of mostly uninteresting back-stories, dramas and soap, telling the tale of the doctor since his escape from Poland, and his life as an altruistic but strangely driven doctor, as well as the life of the self-destructive writer who had a messy love life and a loathing for his Jewish identity until he finally grew up and decided to write about the Holocaust. The setup adds only minimal impact to the courtroom drama, it meanders and goes on too long, albeit it does include some location shooting in Israel, concentration camps and Holocaust footage. Worth watching once.



Brigada  

15-part Russian mini-series about a tight criminal gang of ex-soldiers that quickly rise through the ranks from petty violence to organized and powerful crime-lords, developing complex connections and relationships with the law, mafia and politicians. It doesn't have the grand themes of Godfather, or Scorsese's style, and the criminals, despite their charming and colorful personalities, are just incorrigible and calculating criminals and are therefore not too likeable, but this is part of its realism. The writing doesn't spell everything out, assuming intelligence in the audience, and each episode is rich with complex developments, violence and drama. Friendship is put to the test, love and a unique and surprisingly good marriage are also strained, with many complex machinations, back-stabbings, assassination attempts, and rivalries keeping things interesting. The small budget and limited amount of actors make this feel a bit too small at times, and the methods the criminals use aren't always clear, but the biggest problem for me is the lack of a grander theme or style. Takashi Miike and others made dozens of these kinds of movies, with wild young gang members turning to professional criminals as they grow up, straining their friendships, and this is just a longer and more involving Russian version of this genre. However, if you like realistic, down-to-earth mafia movies and want to see a Russian angle, definitely pick this up. Superb acting, realistic fighting, plausible writing, bad subtitles.



Veronica Mars  
Based on the first two seasons.

Lately, confident women on the screen are usually synonymous with bitches, and the casting sacrifices personality and brains for attitude, sexy bodies or political correctness, but on this occasion they actually get it right. The only flaw with Veronica's personality is that she may be too confident and is lacking in vulnerabilities. Touted as the new Buffy, this very well written show boasts another high school drama with a kick-ass heroine, only this time it's a clever Nancy Drew working with her PI father, both solving cases using wit, creativity, fast-thinking, resourcefulness and a few well-placed connections. The mysteries she solves include anything from a secret admirer or missing dog, to con-jobs, fraud, blackmail, and the murder of her best friend. Episodic stories mix with season-long arcs and the longer mysteries develop periodically without being overly drawn out. Kristen Bell together with the top-notch writing are the stars of this good show. The only flaws are the unrealistic amount of conspiracies, secrets, back-stabbings, crimes and dramas that exist in this teenage world, the emphasis on teenagers, and the fact that there is almost never any sense of danger. A very interesting show that keeps you watching but doesn't cross the border into compelling greatness as Buffy did, needing more pathos and danger instead of more complex crimes. I suppose this would be a greater show if I were in the target younger audience, but the writers are so good they elevated the teenagers into something adults can watch and enjoy.

The second season actually increases the complexity, fast-paced developments and snappish dialogue with slightly increased humor and this is both good and bad. The show becomes more mentally challenging what with the season-long detailed developments, the writing that never spells everything out for you, and the fast-pace, but it also becomes more unrealistic and convoluted with a weak ending. This is by far the most crime-ridden community on the planet, and even a simple theft may involve a frame-up by an angry gang member seeking revenge, a corrupt teacher, a libel case, as well as a complex method for sneaking out the loot. In summary, as long as you can check realism at the door, this is a very interesting show. Although I haven't seen the third and last season, most fans seem to agree that it takes a nose-dive with its episodic structure and different personality. Overall, the mysterious extremely low ratings the show got and the tone of many internet reviews reek of some kind of campaign to sink this obviously good show.



Forsyte Saga, The  
Based on both seasons.

I approached this remake without having read the classic series of novels or watching the 1967 series which is generally regarded as being superior and an important television event. Since most complaints about this series seems to be on how it suffers in comparison, I suppose a fresh view on it wouldn't hurt. The saga is a sprawling period drama taking place over three generations from 1870 to 1920 in England. The theme is generally about old-school respectability, stodgy and closed nouveau-riche upper-class families, versus following your heart. The vast majority of this story follows a very bad marriage (and its aftermath) between a stiff and awkward man from the rich Forsyte family, and a poor woman who was pressured into it. Soames is a 'Man of Property', who treats his wife as such, making a doomed marriage even worse when he turns obsessive. Her inevitable affair doesn't improve matters obviously. Even their next generation of doomed lovers suffers from this nasty feud, as he is unable to let go. In parallel, there is the story of another Forsyte man who left his fortune, unhappy wife, and family to pursue his love with the governess. This all sounds like a period-soap-opera, and sometimes it does feel like one, especially towards the second half of the series, but if anything, this is a soap with depth of character, restraint, good acting and production values, and with somewhat interesting themes. The character arcs in the first half are particularly compelling especially thanks to an uncle, who is wise enough to seek out and create peace and warmth where he can make it, amongst the 'refugees' of the family feud. Quite good first half, weaker second.



Everybody Loves Raymond  
Based on the first three seasons, the sixth season and many scattered episodes.

A good but unoriginal, very funny but not particularly sharp sitcom about a dysfunctional family. The show gets its laughs mainly from two things: Colorful characters you can relate to and often outrageously funny situations inspired from real life. The dumb, weak-willed husband and bossy wife has been done many times before, as has the constantly bickering and cruelly teasing couple in Married With Children, but the comedy is superb nevertheless. That said, this kind of show depends on its characters and here lies the problem: All five main personalities have seemingly repulsive dysfunctions, but they all find the comedic angle to their characters except one: Frank is the cynical selfish jerk of a grandfather but he gets the majority of the laughs, Marie is an overbearing grandmother (modeled after Mother Jefferson) who uses her cooking and power over her children to control everyone, Robert is the giant mopey Eeyore who is jealous of Raymond for getting all the attention, Raymond meanders between very funny, annoyingly dumb and a pathetic wuss, and Deborah is a straightforward arrogant, selfish, hypocritical bitch wife who throws tantrums, beats up her husband, destroys people's property, terrorizes her husband and uses sex as a weapon, and she plays this all naturally thereby making the comedy screech to a halt every time she appears on screen. A great show ruined by one character.

This is one show that actually improved gradually over the years, with the first two seasons being unworthy and weak, and the peak occurring more or less during its sixth year. Start with the middle three seasons.



Lucky Louie  
Based on the single season.

HBO's sitcom doesn't feature anything new except vulgarity, with a poor, bickering but loving couple that can be compared to Honeymooners, a typically extremely idiotic man and a smarter woman (although she's pretty clueless as well), and some random friends and neighbours, including a stoned eccentric energetic brother who sometimes seems to be modeled after Kramer from Seinfeld. The result is a very mixed bag. It's got a heart behind all the nastiness and the loving couple are good people, thus shifting the vulgarity and constant tension into comedy. The raunch allows for biting comedy with hard edges and extreme subjects (sex, foul-mouthed friends, slut daughter, racism, etc) that you won't be able to see anywhere else, but also often feels shoehorned in just for the shock value. The acting isn't too natural, the writing varies a lot in quality and laughs, and characters range from hilarious to forced. In summary: A mixed bag, but the loud laughs generally outweigh the weaker aspects.



Louie  
Based on the first season.

After the short-lived Lucky Louie sitcom on HBO, Louis C.K. picks up where he left off, this time on FX (that allows him a surprisingly free hand), and develops his own brand of comedy. It's a blend of brutal honesty, awkward situations, vulgarity, and downright funny humor that can only come from honesty. Similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm mixed with Seinfeld, this series features Louis C.K. in a role parallel to his own life dealing with life's little strange adventures, mixed with segments of his stand-up routine, his shared custody and life with his two kids, and various celebrity guest appearances. Appropriately, Ricky Gervais appears as his doctor-friend who can't stop making bad jokes about Louis contracting horrible diseases. A lot of this stuff is too gratuitously crass and filthy for my taste, and other stuff just falls flat in its over-the-top and unrealistic awkwardness, but every once in a while, Louis hits gold with a gut-busting scene of honest-to-life brilliant comedy. There's a scene where a druggie neighbour calls him a huge bummer, and that's what some of this feels like: misanthropic desperate humor from a depressed and vulgar comic, but, when he finds something witty to say about his situation, the material shines. It's just a pity that the hit ratio is so low, but these moments make watching the show somewhat worthwhile. For a better sitcom with brutal honesty, try Titus.



Murder One  
Based on the first season.

Legal and courtroom drama series that isn't written by David Kelley for a change. Ted Hoffman is a fascinating but difficult idealistic lawyer, noble and unflappable but strict, demanding and inflexible. This works much better here for Bochco than in NYPD Blue thanks to Benzali and the writing. The show starts with an increasingly complicated murder mystery as well as some misguided, uninteresting episodic cases, but soon drops the episodic writing in favor of the grand mystery, drama and scheming, filling most of the season with one long story arc. The show develops cat-and-mouse games between lawyers and a seemingly psychotic, intelligent and unpredictable Richard Cross, many interesting twists and developments as more facts are uncovered, and some drama as the case becomes a big event which causes tension in the family. Unfortunately, the ending is disappointingly pulled from the left field and isn't satisfying, but the trip is worth it.



Police Squad!  
Based on the single season.

Short-lived precursor to the Naked Gun movie series by the same team that brought you Airplane, etc. Too good for television of the time, with their usual rapid-fire and deadpan silly jokes, puns and sight gags, demanding attention from the viewer. Frank Drebin is the bumbling yet extremely lucky detective out to solve cliched mysteries. Running gags include guest stars who never survive the beginning credits, a god-like shoe-shiner who seems to know everything about everything and is happy to share his knowledge for money, faceless Al who is too tall to fit in the frame, a cruel and perverted forensic scientist, and the hilarious end credits where actors fake a freeze-frame. Some gags were re-used in the movies, some jokes fall flat and the timing seems a bit off sometimes, but it's very entertaining overall.



Simpsons, The  
Based on most of the first seven seasons and some scattered episodes.

A landmark in animation TV, pioneering adult-friendly cartoon entertainment for the whole family. Homer Simpson is an idiotic, childish but lovable dunderhead who loves beer and all forms of food, has a job overseeing safety at the local nuclear power plant despite the fact that he has no clue what an atom is, and although he loves his family, his hollow brain often gets him and his family into trouble. His loving wife Marge is a sensible super-mom, holding everything together, his son Bart is a Dennis the Menace troublemaker, and his daughter Lisa is a precocious, responsible, bleeding-heart genius. His neighbour is an insufferably perfect religious man, his boss is an evil tycoon, his beer-mates are losers, his wife's sisters are evil, hairy, chain-smokers, etc.

The voice artists are the best part of this show, featuring perfectly hilarious and by-now classically recognizable voices. The plots and writing vary greatly, ranging from mild or dull to brilliantly hilarious. Often-used gimmicks are a wide variety of guest celebrity voice-stars, the spoofing of other movies, and a cartoon within the cartoon featuring an over-the-top violent splatter version of Tom and Jerry. The show is also credited with featuring the first classic dysfunctional family but that credit goes to Married With Children and the family is too loving to be truly dysfunctional. Although this is another misandrist show featuring dumb men and smart women, the truth is that Homer and Bart get the vast majority of the laughs so this is irrelevant. Besides the uneven writing, another flaw (especially during the first few seasons) is the tendency to wrap everything together at the end of the episode into a moral lesson, sometimes even becoming preachy.

Most seem to agree that the first two seasons were weak and mostly unfunny, the peak being seasons 3-8 and everything after that taking a nosedive. But the writing is so uneven that not only does every season shift both up or down in quality, it even varies between episodes. That said, the best season by far would probably be season six, followed by season four.



Black Adder        
Based on all four seasons.

A slightly overrated, internationally popular British show with Rowan Atkinson in four different roles during four different times in history ranging from the medieval to WWI. The Black Adder is an arrogant, self-serving, conniving, sarcastic but witty man who is always out to conspire or weasel his way out of something. The exception is the first inferior series where he acts as a wormy, whimpering character. He is always accompanied by Baldrick, who possibly has a negative IQ rating, and serves as a punching bag for the Adder's cruelty and insults as well as to make the rest of the characters seem intelligent by comparison. Mostly enjoyable sharp-edged caustic humor with historical satire but I was disappointed with the amount of humor derived from simply insulting the whole cast of over-the-top idiotic characters repeatedly. Inventive and entertaining, but the characters come off as clownish instead of sharply funny.



Corner Gas  
Based on the first two seasons.

Hit Canadian sitcom (not many of them are there?), sometimes dubbed the Canadian Seinfeld. Not because of the similarity in characters or location, since it deals with simple hick Canadian folk in a tiny town where nothing happens, but because the comedy is about little nothings and the kind of amusing and amused people that have nothing better to do. It starts strong with a sharp wit, delicious sarcasm, fun surprising dialog, and dry humor, but then rapidly starts relying on more and more silliness from the hick locals. So whereas Seinfeld had the cartoonish Kramer, this one has a whole bunch of silly & dumb hicks, their characters taken unrealistically over-the-top for some easy laughs. It's still fun and amusing though, despite inconsistent quality in the writing, but lightly so and in a cute way rather than with the wit that it promised in the first few episodes. The ensemble of characters is its strength, ranging from the comedian Brent, the city-girl Lucy who doesn't fit in and who somehow keeps finding her foot in her mouth, Brent's constantly angry and ranting father and the strong personality that is his mother, the amusingly incompetent and bored police partners, the dumb Hank, and best of all, the cynical Wanda who finds herself wasting her intelligence in such a limited location where nothing happens.



Homicide: Life on the Street  
Based on the first three seasons.

A show that broke TV show conventions by going for gritty realism. A team of homicide detectives are the stars of this show as we accompany these characters during their day-to-day work, conversations, office dramas, crises, and personal issues. The murders are always seen after-the-fact, there are no car chases and Hollywood action and we see the plots unfold through the detectives' eyes. Office politics and personal dramas are thrown in as well. The effect is often a show that is both dull and interesting at the same time, as we live the life of a homicide detective, never doubting its authenticity, and get to know all the characters well. Every few episodes, the drama reaches an intense peak and a brilliant, fascinating episode is born.

The first season is mostly dull and focuses too much on the mundane and the wandering banter between the cops. The plots and everything else takes a backdrop to the characters, which, although strong and very well acted, aren't colorful and varied enough to keep things interesting and create friction. The second season finds a better balance but is too short with only four episodes.

The good third season reaches a balanced peak with the producers pushing for more romance, drama and episodic mysteries but the show retains its gritty feel and character-driven drama arcs. The downward trend of episodic, less realistic drama continues however and according to some fans, thanks to too many cast changes, season 5 and onwards loses the character-driven realistic brilliance and becomes just another episodic overblown drama with flat characters.



Corner, The  

An HBO mini-series written by the writers of The Wire, telling the tale of a drug-infested black neighbourhood and its occupants, focusing mostly on one family. Drug-addicts and drug-dealers wallow in their addictions and depressing life-styles, occasionally actively fighting their troubles but mostly making bad decisions. Like The Wire, this is gritty, very realistic, well written, and it takes its time, but is not as rewarding. As far as portraying it how it is without resorting to glamorizing or cliches, this gets extremely high marks. However, if the intention was to generate sympathy for these thieves, criminals and addicts, then the show is a failure, their life mostly being undermined by their bad decisions, selfishness and spoiled attitudes. The only insight I got from the show is that poverty has almost nothing to do with it. Still, it's very well acted, directed and written and serves well as a morality play.



Knick, The  
Based on the first season.

A quality medical/hospital drama by Soderbergh. The format is similar to other shows in the genre, except that it contains more continuous story arcs and character development than usual, and it takes place during the early 1900s. It looks and feels historically accurate, and the medical jargon, equipment and procedures are at the high level of a top-notch season of ER. Which means that the doctors here are performing primitive surgeries, scary experiments and butcher jobs, even though they are all cutting-edge for their time. Of course, audiences may look at these procedures with horrified condescension, but I think today's doctors are identical in everything except knowledge. They are still performing brutal procedures without understanding consequences, and becoming arrogant about it just like the doctors from 1900, and they are still performing the wrong, or unnecessary procedures and prescribing dangerous medications for the wrong reasons or for no reason. And I have no doubt that in a few decades, there will be another show that explores the horrors and drama of 2015 surgery procedures. That said, the show is very good, assuming you enjoy this genre. In addition to the expected wide variety of dramas with patients, the doctor's personal lives, or lack thereof, there is also an exploration of rampant racism when a black doctor joins the staff, and the ongoing problems of their chief surgeon being addicted to cocaine and other drugs that were all legal at the time, and which were even held as standard medication in the hospital. There is also a mercenary 'ambulance driver' who turns it into a business, illegal abortions, and other similar phenomena of the period. One small flaw is the electronic soundtrack that never really goes with the time period and causes a weird disconnect effect. And also, you have to be into this genre to begin with. If you like this sort of thing though, it's recommended.



Barney Miller  
Based on the first season.

Above-average, neglected 70s sitcom situated mostly in a police precinct. Barney is the captain, but this is an ensemble show, with the great Abe Vigoda in a comic role, the dry quips of Jack Soo, and many others, some of them cops, others supporting family members. Most of the episodes take place in the precinct itself and the guest stars are various colorful criminals or other people in law enforcement. The writing is witty, dry and sharp, providing the cast with fun quips and dialogue, and the human angle, like with Taxi, comes from getting to know the criminals and their various colorful personalities or little life-dramas. Mostly light but good fun.



Avengers, The    
Based on some scattered episodes from all 9 seasons.

Classic British crime/spy show from the 60s that is still entertaining today. Separated into at least three or more distinct periods with a different tone and style, much like Doctor Who. It also lost many of its earliest episodes like Doctor Who did. But, unlike that show, this one seemed to change and revolve around the female side-kick who rapidly got promoted to partner. It started in black and white, with John Steed, the unflappable, quick-witted, charming, flirty, fast-on-his-feet crime-fighter-cum-secret-agent, starting off as a mysterious crime-fighting secondary character, quickly evolving into a gentlemanly spy protagonist. This show ran during the same period as the early James Bond movies, and even shared women with them. But although it featured entertaining action, charm, and spy-tech, the focus, at first, was more on wit, panache, brainy spy procedures and cat-and-mouse games, evolving into more outrageous, campy action and sci-fi. Decades before the female-heroine ass-kickers trend of modern TV shows, this show boasted a tough and capable female partner who could fight, make snappy comebacks, flirt and pull off any spy maneuver dependably. She also wore notorious outfits often made of black leather.

The first 4 seasons were relatively more serious and stiff, featuring crime-drama and thrilling mysteries, but always playful in its spy-craft, and witty or flirty in its characters. The strongest point during this period was by far the writing, dialogue and wit, featuring clever and fast-moving developments, Sherlock Holmes like deductions, and mystery-solving denouements. Although it took a while to settle down with its choice of sidekicks, Honor Blackman is usually associated with this period.

With the introduction of the ever-popular Emma Peel (named after the phrase 'M-ale appeal'), the show also increased its budget, started showing in the USA, and turned to color after a year. The writing and atmosphere changed with a much bigger emphasis on entertainment in the form of camp, outrageous plots like ticket collectors with schemes to take over the country, bizarre situations, sci-fi elements like invisibility and machines that miniaturize or send criminals back in time, or just plain strange fun like the ability to pull out a whistling steaming tea-kettle from a bag. The writing is less dense and clever relative to previous seasons, and the intelligence of the characters is now sacrificed for the plot and action, but it is still interesting, creating a good balance between campy entertainment, silly but inventive plots, thrilling spy-craft and clever mysteries.

Presumably, mass popularity was due to Emma Peel as the show didn't survive her departure for long. Although the fanboys are right and Emma Peel had special charm, looks and personality, there was much more to the show besides her and she was only part of the show for a third of its running time. The last season featured a capable but relatively less charming and less experienced Tara King, more flirts but less chemistry, and more of the typically fun spy yarns and action with liberal doses of silliness. Good, but a step down.

The show underwent a brief revival in the 70s with the underrated "The New Avengers". The chemistry was lacking, the flirts were lame, a male sidekick was too wooden, but the writing went back to the solid early years with dense, thrilling spy-craft and mystery that doesn't assume stupidity in the audience. They also started shooting more on location, giving the show less of a studio feel.



Crazy Ones, The  
Based on the single season.

David Kelley tries a shorter-format sitcom on a new topic for him: Advertising (with an obvious reference to 'Mad Men'). But although the topic is new, the humor and characters are rehashed: Robin Williams acts as the almost-has-been king of advertising surrounded by up and coming youngsters, obviously modeled after Denny Crane from Boston Legal. And then there is a gossiping slut secretary copied-pasted from Ally Mcbeal, and several stories and situations that Kelley has used before with the usual silly humor that has adults sometimes behaving like neurotic kids. The pairing of Robin Williams with the quick-witted Sarah Michelle Gellar as his daughter is nice though. The show starts very shakily, feeling very much like a tired shtick, as Kelley does his rehashed stuff and a tired Robin tries to find a place for his same-old improvisations in the sitcom format and within the goofy characters. After several episodes the characters start finding their place and gain some dimensions though. The episodes range from overly silly to passable fluffy entertainment to the occasional more meaty dramedy and character development, but very often it feels like Kelley is cramming his previously-used 45 minute material into a 20 minute sitcom without leaving the jokes and characters room to breathe. Passably good only because of the actors that sometimes succeed in making something entertaining of it.



Boston Legal  
Based on the first two seasons.

Yet another legal dramedy from David Kelley, this one based on some strong characters from the last season of The Practice. Denny Crane (Shatner) is an aging, philandering, arrogant, right-wing, chauvinist super-lawyer mostly riding on his reputation but still with many tricks up his sleeve, Alan Shore is a brilliant, complex and unconventional but rebellious, trouble-making lawyer who sleeps with everyone in the office, there's a marine, uptight, Ken-doll look-alike male in an ironic counterpoint to Ally's Barbie doll Georgia, and several secondary female characters. In other words, this is the male-oriented version of Ally McBeal with complete casting counterparts. The legal cases range from the typically outrageously entertaining or sensationalist, to serious political-oriented cases where Kelley sometimes gets on his liberal soapbox or presents interesting discussions. Compared to his other shows, this feels like Kelley on auto-pilot, copying some elements and cases from Mcbeal without the fresher comedy, it is inferior to Practice in its legal and dramatic realism, and unbalanced by a heavy and preachy left-wing bias as opposed to previous shows where Kelley excelled in presenting both sides. But, it also sees Kelley having looser fun with a show, with whimsical and outrageous writing that is both entertaining as well as silly and unfocused. Shatner makes a strong, interesting comeback.

The first few episodes are brilliant. Extremely refreshing strong male characters who aren't afraid of women, unconventional and outrageous comedy based on personalities, wit and good acting, and some interesting cases and discussions. Within a few episodes however, this show goes bad. Denny Crane is turned into a pathetic, silly man who couldn't convince a judge his shoelaces were untied. Cases are solved in ridiculous ways, the liberal preaching becomes too annoying in a couple of episodes, and the comedy becomes too silly. In other words, a sudden swerve to the worst of Ally McBeal. This show does to chauvinism what All in the Family did to racism: it makes it too pathetic to be funny, with forced quirk and cheekiness taken over-the-top to the point of unfunny silliness. The second season gradually recovers, reining in a lot of the silliness, developing fleshier, less cartoonish characters but also introducing one outrageous and ridiculous plot element or case after another. The preaching grows worse and worse however, the legal cases are no longer balanced, and the judgements are always ridiculous. Overall, a show with wildly fluctuating quality that is generally quite entertaining but with several near-fatal flaws.



Rubicon  
Based on the single season.

The pilot looks like it's going to be a paranoid thriller with near-surreal proportions of conspiracy and paranoia, a world where wild conspiracy is the norm of life. But then it swerves into a normal spy thriller a la Three Days of the Condor, where intelligence analysts that normally sit in the office, suddenly find themselves in actual danger under a convoluted conspiracy. This show is several things: A 24-like thriller where the analyst team provide intel for an assassination and then have to track down a terrorist that is sent as retaliation, except it doesn't have the action of 24. The second part is the conspiracy that is slowly being uncovered piece by piece by Will Travers, at first with endless layers of clues and mysterious dangers that don't mean anything, until the pieces start falling into place. This partially redeems itself by the end of the season, but for the first half, it's like some conspiracy freaks took over the show and bombarded it with convoluted details that can't see the forest for the trees. In line with this show being a paranoid-nerd-spy show, the intelligence is high, but the realism flies out the window at times, and the character development is poor. For some reason, a man working for intelligence is surprised when he is being followed and bugged, character development is restricted only to things that can distract them from their work, like a minor drug-addiction problem that never makes any sense, and messages are sent in the most obscure methods possible just to feed the conspiracy state of mind. The ending of the single season solves the mysteries, but doesn't quite provide closure. In short, a mixed bag, maybe worth watching once for fans of shows like Nowhere Man.



One Foot in the Grave  
Based on the first three seasons.

A British precursor to Curb Your Enthusiasm featuring a cantankerous old man forced into early retirement and his sarcastic, frustrated and bitter interactions with everybody around him while life keeps throwing one curve ball after another at him. At first, the humor revolves around a man not used to staying around the house all day and dealing with senior citizens or society's attitude towards them, but soon afterwards, the show's formula focuses on outrageous situations like dead cats in the freezer, snakes in the bedroom and naked models, with things going terribly wrong compounded by Victor's detrimental reactions and fate's quirks and ironies. The humor relies a lot on Victor's perfectly acted rants, raves, flabbergasted reactions, and lack of patience, but the situations themselves are so brilliantly set up that they raise the show into higher quality comedy. The writers have a knack for coming up with ridiculous but realistic situations, and they experiment often with different structures and kinds of humor. The first season is funny but not extraordinary, the second season features many truly hilarious moments, and the third season is weaker.



Good Guys, The  
Based on most of the single season.

If you're tired of all the ultra-serious cop series that keep coming out, and are harboring any nostalgia for the 70s when cop-shows were about irresponsible action and fun, then this may be up your alley. An uptight cop (Colin Hanks channeling his father) that prefers working according to rules and who get himself in trouble by criticizing people, is partnered with a has-been hero who breaks every rule in the book, hates computers and uses them to scratch his back, and acts based on macho-instinct. They are assigned the most minor crimes available that nobody else wants, except that somehow they always turn out to lead to major crimes. Either that, or their irresponsible behaviour somehow escalates the crime. Having friends in the police force and getting results only barely manage to help them avoid getting fired. Cue lots of buddy-cop friendships and banter, a lot of hitting on every hot woman they meet, car chases, explosions, shoot-outs, etc. You know the drill, except it's kinda tongue-in-cheek, played strictly for comedy and not for realism. Some tension with ex-girlfriends provide a minimum of ongoing character development, but the structure is episodic crime of the week. Nothing great, but it's fun.



Sledge Hammer!  
Based on many scattered episodes from both seasons.

Feels like they were aiming for a Naked Gun style TV comedy series, but what they got, thanks to the actors and writers, is part entertaining spoof on action movies and action heroes with hilarious one-liners, and part silly cartoon-characters and slapstick. Sledge is an over-the-top action hero cop who regularly gets suspended every week, talks to his gun, and solves everything with his gun including fixing broken machines and getting suicidal people off the ledge. He is an unapologetic chauvinist, gets excited over gratuitous violence, and will shoot even jay-walkers if they ignore him. Damn he's fun. He is partnered with a female cop who learns to live with his faults, and she is no slouch in fights either. Criminals are cartoonish and played for laughs, and much comedy is made over how he makes his chief's life miserable. Although one would think this kind of humor can only last for a few episodes, the writers squeeze everything they can out of this material, finding hilarious new ways to use a gun or to abuse criminals, and adding judges, lawyers, and internal affairs cops to butt heads with him, and adding an endless stream of quotable one-liners to balance out the silliness. In the weaker season two they add more silly and fantasy elements. Fun, if taken for what it is and taken in small doses.



League of Gentlemen, The  
Based on the first season and some scattered episodes.

Unique and insane British show that is part sketch-show like Monty Python, part bizarre sitcom. The setting is a British town of 'Royston Vasey' occupied by a large variety of highly eccentric characters (acted mostly by the same three talented people in very convincing costumes). Some are recurring, others are one-offs for episodic sketches. Recurring characters include the serial killing pig-nosed strange owners of the 'Local Shop' who play bizarre sadistic games on anyone who isn't local, a man staying with an OCD couple with psychotic twin daughters and a collection of toads, Barbara the transsexual taxi driver who constantly describes his life and surgeries in graphic detail, a job-centre run by an overbearing instructor who wants to keep her trainees out of a job so she can keep training them, a butcher that deals with secret deliveries of unknown packages, the constant extreme abuse of animals in gross ways by various characters, and many more. Like most shows of this ilk, the result is a mixed bag of laughs, entertainment, silliness and boredom, but the overall effect of this show is quite originally zany. For fans of extreme British shows like Python, Young Ones, Bottom, Goodies, et al, the only thing these have in common is that they are unique and have a very weird sense of humor.



Curb Your Enthusiasm  
Based on the first two seasons and some scattered episodes.

Although this stars the co-creator and writer of Seinfeld, only the writing style and subject matter (comedy about nothing) is similar, the actual show being more like the offspring of The Office and Fawlty Towers with elements of One Foot in the Grave. Larry David acts as himself in a life that parallels his own, only here he is a cantankerous, annoying man who always says or does something stupid only to have it bite back later in an ironic way. The acting feels partially improvised and everyone on the show acts their own characters, so it feels a little like a reality show, but the ironic situations are carefully scripted. The result is a mixed bag, with many of the episodes leaning towards the painful embarrassment of The Office rather than the brilliant hilarious rudeness of Fawlty Towers, but it serves both. The writing grows increasingly raunchy and outrageous, putting David in many wacky situations without losing its basic sense of reality, and letting him make everything consistently worse until the final payoff where it all comes together. Although I'm not a fan of this type of humor that is so prevalent nowadays, and the way everyone neurotically make mountains out of molehills often gets annoying, but this is probably the best show of its kind, and the payoffs at the end make it a fun watch.



Undeclared  
Based on most of the single season.

I guess lightning doesn't strike twice. This is a follow-up to Freaks and Geeks sharing much of the same crew, except it takes place in college, and it's more of a standard sitcom without the more dramatic elements of Freaks, and with shorter episodes. There are some moments here and there that make it slightly above-average, but otherwise it's just a mildly funny sitcom. A group of freshmen start their adventures in college, discovering many things about life and love, with the addition of Steve's dad who is recently divorced and who is tagging along for the fun thanks to some personal crises. There are a bunch of geeks and awkward teenagers starting to learn how to be adults, and who don't know yet what to do with their new freedoms. But there are also the hot guys and girls that seem to have no problem hopping from one bed to another, making the less popular but more thoughtful youngsters' lives more frustrating.



Sybil  

Three-hour mini-series (basically a long TV movie) based on the true case of Shirley Ardell Mason who supposedly had sixteen personalities thanks to a traumatic childhood. This adaptation stars Sally Field in a career-making portrayal, and is a psychological drama filmed practically in the style of a 70s horror movie as the shrink digs into her dark past and works for years to try to merge her personalities. The movie starts with a chance discovery by the shrink after a visit to the hospital, during a period when her personalities grow more chaotic and uncontrollable, causing very awkward encounters with children at her teaching job, her neighbour-lover, and her father's new wife. Field gets to act out every emotion in the book, and the movie is frantically talky, and while she doesn't completely lose herself in the role, it's a good job. Of course, it's not possible to judge how accurate this behaviour is without knowing someone with MPD (which I don't), but her revelations felt a bit too engineered by writers for my taste, injected into her babbling just for audiences.



Rich Man, Poor Man  

Classic 70s epic mini-series and family saga with a young Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte. They act as two brothers with polar-opposite personalities, one an ambitious, upright and logical business-man who very gradually allows his focused ambition to wreck his life, and another as a physical, wild, impulsive man who ignores his noble heart and better judgement and always gets himself in big trouble. They are sons of a hard German father with a dark past, and a depressed and uptight mother. Their saga, adventures and character development (spanning decades after WWII) are consistently interesting throughout the series, and the show explores many social and psychological themes. It doesn't resort to cheap soap dramatics like others of its kind and era, and the acting is good, especially by Nolte. Flaws are some tendencies to melodrama and constant puzzlingly bad decisions by the characters. I can't say I was very impressed, but, overall, this is an above-average series that stands up rather well and is quite watchable.



Wallander  
Based on most of the first season.

Swedish detective series based on a series of popular crime novels and the Wallander character by Henning Mankell. The novels had all been adapted previously into several movies and short-lived TV series in Sweden. This show combines material from the novels as well as new material suggested by the author. I can't claim any familiarity with this world, but I was expecting more personality than what this show offered. Wallander is a burnt-out detective with a colorful past, including some traumatic events and bad personal decisions, who is working in a medium-sized town. His relationship with his daughter is rocky, and the fact that she joined the police force and is working with him is much cause for tension. As portrayed in this series, he is somewhat unstable, and has bouts of anger and impatience, but no more than many people. Although intelligent, the mysteries are actually solved more by teamwork than any talent, eccentricities or brilliance on his part, although he does, at times, contribute unique insights. So he didn't make much of an impact on me. The murder mysteries, however, often involve twisted killers with various motivations and lurid events, and are often unpredictable and usually pretty well written, sometimes containing social commentary on current issues in Sweden. Some of the mysteries were shown as movies in cinemas, the rest are strictly TV movies, and the quality varies a little as well. The mysteries are strictly episodic, but the character development is ongoing. Either way, I don't see what the fuss is about. Watchable and solid detective series, but nothing really stands out.



Broadchurch  
Based on the first season.

British crime-detective-show, with a season-long mystery and murder-case. The setting is a small town where everyone knows each other, and the worst crime is usually drunk-driving or drugs. The various reactions to a murder in their midst is the best aspect of this show, exploring several of the locals that were connected to the victim or their family in one way or another, including the local paper, priest and several business-people. An outsider detective going through a bad period finds himself straddled with the case, using the locals to help him investigate. A meticulous investigation uncovers other secrets, leading to several red-herrings, shaking up the town over and over as too many rocks are turned over. It's all done quite well, especially the drama, although the investigation is down-to-earth and realistic, and is therefore never too exciting, and the ending is not quite satisfactory on a few levels.



Southland  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

Yet another cop show. It's hard to imagine a cop-show doing anything new at this point, or surpassing The Shield or The Wire, and this one doesn't even seem to want to be unique, just to provide solid writing and characters with realism. It deals with the day-to-day life of a police squad, their work that varies from humdrum calls from annoying people to violent shoot-outs, their personal lives and how they are affected by their jobs. Many shows did this before. This one is above-average, but features nothing compelling. The writing seems to mix realism with implausible entertainment. Cases and problems don't tend to develop naturally on this show, and instead almost always seem to climax into violence right away for some closure and entertainment at the end of the episode. There are some developments that span multiple episodes, but these are exceptions. The character development is OK, but, once again, not compelling. Episodes typically interweave quite a lot of cases per episode, making the show feel fast-paced, perhaps too fast-paced, as characters and developments don't get to breathe enough. It starts off shakily (the writing in addition to the cameras), but soon stabilizes in the middle of the first season. Not bad, not great.



Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire  

BBC docudrama blending a documentary narration with the dramatization of the most important events and people in the era of the Roman Empire. 6 episodes, each taking place in a different period cover the rise of the people against the senate, civil war under Ceasar, Nero's reign, the Jewish rebellion/war, the strengthening of Christianity under Constantine and the first major fall of the Empire. The reconstructions are very well done, the historical details seem mostly OK with a few exceptions, the acting is good but sometimes superficial or over-the-top, and the stories are interesting, exploring the main reasons and backgrounds for each event. Flaws include the fact that it covers highlights of 500 years in 6 episodes, making the series feel like a best-of compilation rather than anything deep, and some characters, behaviours and events don't always have a ring of truth to them. Better than the soapy I, Claudius but complementary in terms of scope.



Bleak House  

8 hour superb adaptation of the sprawling novel by Charles Dickens. The huge story covers dozens of characters, each with their own stories and dramas, their lives intertwining and often revolving around Bleak House and a long legal battle over its inheritance and conflicting wills. Good and evil characters clash, and it builds up to high drama that flirts but doesn't cross the border into soap. This adaptation offers flawless and strong performances, even by Gillian Anderson. My only problem is that I am not a big fan of Dickens as he tends to get lost in insignificant details, light drama and slow development. This adaptation is similar, taking several hours to gain momentum, but when it does, it never lets go.



Traffik  

I didn't like Soderbergh's remake, finding it mostly dull, implausible, PC and even preachy, and I expected this mini-series to be better. It is better, but is not without its flaws as well. The goal seems to be to explore the world of drugs from the farmers, traffickers and suppliers to the users, politicians and law enforcers. It does this by telling a few stories that intertwine as the characters' paths cross. The Pakistan story shows a poor farmer who consistently chooses a life of crime to support his family and gets himself entangled with a local powerful drug trafficker. This story is filmed superbly on location and really gives you a good feel of this world, but the protagonist lacks depth and the writing seems to want to generate more sympathy than it deserves just because the man is poor. Then there's the drug lord who gets arrested and his housewife takes over his business so that she can keep her valuable paintings. This is as implausible and disaffecting as the movie version. The double-story of the British minister who is inspecting Pakistan to approve financial aid while he discovers his daughter is hooked on heroin is much more involving and interesting, but Julia Ormond seems to be phoning it in in her role as a drug-addict. In short, a mixed bag, with both great and weak elements, some good drama and gritty, complex realism but also a sense of a point that got lost in translation.



Boardwalk Empire  
Based on the first season.

HBO's shtick is starting to feel old hat in this competent, visually-sumptuous but uninspired crime series. HBO has a talent for reproducing historical periods and it seems to have crossed this gift with an obvious attempt to reproduce The Sopranos. The result is a series about the criminal explosion in the 20s during prohibition, focusing on Atlantic City but also covering the extended criminal network in New York and Chicago, with celebrity criminals like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano shown during the start of their careers. But it seems that all of the hard work was invested in the detailed reproduction of the era, including sets, clothes, songs, dances, shows, cars, furniture, attitudes and even women with natural-looking breasts. The writing, on the other hand, is competent but mechanical and uninspired and it never manages to bring the characters to life. Steve Buscemi is always fun, but casting him as a crime-lord with a complicated heart who is meant to carry a show is a bit of a stretch. Other characters, like Margaret Schroeder, simply never make any sense. The developments are the usual and endless twists and turns of criminal one-upmanship spliced with drama involving friendship, ambitions, betrayals and the many wives and lovers, most of which are abused, used or neglected in one way or another. There isn't an honest man in sight, women are all conniving, and law enforcement consists of a single obsessed and angry man who never gets anywhere because the rest of the force is either corrupt or incompetent. But the writers are not content with that and choose to turn him into a religious freak because, in this world of criminals and sex, you can't be religious if you aren't twisted. The pace is somewhat slow, but the writers pepper every episode with enough shocking violence, sex or graphic nudity in an obvious attempt to retain its audience. The end result is eventual boredom that seems inexplicable considering the complexity and visual richness on screen. But it's worth a shot if you can't get enough of crime shows or if you like 20s props.



Smiley's People  

BBC's follow-up to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on another novel by John Le Carré and also featuring Alec Guinness. It's another moody, cerebral spy game, once again bringing Smiley out of retirement to investigate the murder of an old spy and cover up any obsolete cold war remnants that may emerge from the event and surrounding scandals. As compared to Tinker Tailor, this one has more field work (not action), and is less densely cerebral and difficult, and the story just isn't as interesting, involving a lot of personal drama made complex by cold-war leftovers and a seeming drive to make everything as complicated as possible. It's mostly detective work as performed by spies, and, with a few alterations, could have easily become a series about a PI investigating the death of an old friend. That said, the acting and dialogue is superb. Often boring due to the story itself, but still watchable and interesting.



Heist  
Based on the single season.

Ocean Eleven, the TV series. A group of professional burglars and criminals get together to pull a big caper involving multiple jewelry stores, but before they can pull that off, they need to get cash, equipment, and information as well as deal with distractions, cops, policemen, other criminals and their personal lives. The action and crime elements are pretty good and quite entertaining, albeit unoriginal and mostly stolen from other movies, the banter is fun, the acting is OK. Each episode covers a new challenge before the big heist, but overall this is one long story arc development. The show was building a good momentum when it was brutally cancelled mid-season and ended with a cliff-hanger and many open threads.



ER  
Based on most of the first season and many scattered episodes.

The king of the hospital shows featuring emergency-room drama with intense medical action and technical jargon, character drama and slowly increasing soap drama. It started off pretty strong with a good balance of character, exciting technical medical procedures, patient crises, and drama. The actors were all good, the approach in general was to avoid too much sentimentality, offering medical know-how and great guest stars as patients, each with their personal story, but always serving as a forge for the personalities of the doctors and nurses. The intense schedules and challenges of the ER room were explored, the doctors dealing with relatively small personal dramas in the seconds or minutes between the never-ending stream of life-threatening crises, challenges and intense medical action. But even during the first few seasons, the show was mostly episodic and didn't push too many boundaries, staying within predictable range and offering only mediocre character story arcs. Then the drama deteriorated into soap after a few seasons, the cast was replaced, and the stories became more desperate, at first moving the medical action out into the streets and then into other countries. Amazingly, it held on for dear life for fifteen seasons even though it deteriorated after about 4-5 years. However, there were always the special individual episodes that managed to transcend the formula and deliver something intense or profound, and very special mention must be given to one of the best hours in TV history: Love's Labor Lost, a devastating and unforgettable tragedy of an episode.



State of Play  

Six-part British thriller reminiscent of All the President's Men in the way resourceful journalists uncover detail after detail of a complex government plot, and work hard to put all the pieces together with corroborations. In this case, the first triggers are the murder of a black boy under suspicious circumstances, and the sudden death of a government employee, the energetic team of journalists encountering one twist after another as the cast of participants grows and constantly change their stories, uncovering rotten links between big business and the government. The buildup and writing is superb, but the sloppiness grows until the final twist which ruins everything and is obviously not thought through very well.



As Time Goes By  
Based on the first two seasons.

Boasting a couple of the most nuanced actors in England, this light, warm and intelligent comedy explores a renewed relationship between two old, I mean older, people who had a stunted romance 38 years ago and who are now cynical, wiser, crotchety but slowly warming to each other again. Despite this description however, this is never soap or sappy romance, and it wins you over with very realistic, fleshy, subtle and witty writing and acting. Another plus is the fact this is an ongoing story arc with developing characters rather than an episodic drama. A unique, subtle, witty, enjoyable but soft-edged show



Goodies, The  
Based on the first season.

A trio of inventive Brits from the same school as Monty Python star as a group who will do 'anything, anytime'. They are hired to save the crown jewels, improve the image of policemen, babysit a strange girl, take over the post-office, etc. The comedy is a mix of slapstick, anything-goes, cartoonish antics, and some witty dialog, with an emphasis on the absurdly impossible such as the group putting the whole nation to sleep or attempting to pull Great Britain 5 miles into the Atlantic. This earned them the reputation of being surreal but the show is more inventively cartoonish than satirical, albeit entertaining in their own way. Crazy, silly fun that could only have come out of the 70s.



Porridge  
Based on the first two seasons.

A setup in a prison designed to give Ronnie Barker and his fans as many foils for his wise-cracks as possible: His fellow inmates include various crazy or soft-minded criminals, as well as a naive youngster who is in prison for the first time. The guards include a strict, barking, military officer, and a good-natured but weak-willed and easily manipulated older guard. Barker, as Norman Stanley Fletcher, always has a biting, sarcastic and witty remark up his sleeve as he tries to make his life in prison a more enjoyable stay. The episodes explore a colorful variety of story-lines, from trying to have a frustrating day alone in a prison cell, to clever con-games with other inmates and guards. The humor ranges from mildly amusing and entertaining, to sharp and hilarious but rude one-liners such as when Fletcher is told that the warden had to use rough prison toilet paper and he responds with 'that should wipe the smile off his face'. A slightly above-average Britcom.



Mary Tyler Moore Show, The  
Based on the first season and most of the third season.

Classic sitcom that was praised as a feminist breakthrough because it features an independent woman in the lead role dealing with modern life on her own. She works in a male-dominated second-class news-room, is single and lives alone, has neurotic or obnoxious female friends and has to deal with dating and several interested men. Although nowadays this would bring to mind a chick flick about a neurotic woman, this show is actually charming and light, featuring a very likeable lead character that tries to please everyone while remaining strong. The comedy mostly involves her interactions with a pushy but warm boss, an arrogant but amusingly incompetent anchorman, and her neighbours: a neurotic but sharply sarcastic single woman and an aggressive married woman. Starts out strong and witty with superbly entertaining guest characters, but rapidly becomes mild after half a season. Later episodes vary as well, and the show mostly grabs you with its addictively charming characters and wit, but it generally lacks an inspired, hard or unusual edge. Light fun.



Seinfeld  
Based on the first season and many scattered episodes.

Watchers of this extremely hyped show tend to split into two camps: Those that are rabidly fanatical about what they think is the greatest sitcom of all time and those that get bored. The show is about... nothing. Seinfeld and friends go through their daily lives, making comedy about mundane things like finding your car in the parking lot, taking showers and going to work. In between the sitcom comedy, Seinfeld does his stand-up routine which is usually funnier than the actual show. Seinfeld is good as a stand-up comedian but in a show he's, at best, mildly funny. The supporting characters are better (although Kramer is too cartoonish) but the show as a whole seems too self-aware and even full of itself. The uniqueness of this show is that it focuses on selfish, petty-minded, manipulative people that make every little event into a complicated game, and somehow they make it all funny. Frankly, I don't see what the fuss is all about either way. It's clever at times, occasionally boring, and only moderately amusing the rest of the time.



Frasier  
Based on the first season and many scattered episodes.

An amusing but overrated show, and an improved spin-off of Cheers, featuring relatively intelligent writing and sharp dialogue for an American show. The lead character is a highbrow, arrogant, radio psychiatrist who has to deal with his blue-collar father who lives with him, his British nurse, his eccentric uppity brother Niles, and a dog. The humor usually revolves around misunderstandings and the clash of these personalities all having to live under the same roof. It may feel pretentious or hard to get into at first, but these characters grow on you after a while until it reaches the stage where you sit back to enjoy the unusual, light and sharp wit every time the show is on. Mildly amusing at best, but with a charm of its own.



Odd Couple, The  
Based on most of the first season.

One of the more popular incarnations of this comedy setup, after the many theatrical runs and the great movie with Matthau/Lemmon. This sitcom features a pretty good duo of Randall and Klugman as the two divorced men living together, one a neat-freak, pedantic hypochondriac, the other a loudmouthed, randy, unorganized slob. Their opposite personalities in this series often cross the border into cartoonishly artificial, but they are still quite funny. They stick together because they need each other to balance out their deficiencies, but they get in each other's way and annoy each other so much, that they are constantly fighting or threatening to break up. This kind of setup makes for a certain kind of comedy, and tends to wear out its welcome for me after a while, especially with the repetitive plot-lines that feature one of them ruining yet another date or carefully laid-out plan for the other. Generally amusing and full of personality, but limited.



Dick Van Dyke Show, The  
Based on most of the first season.

An old-school classic sitcom from the 60s that is so wholesome, soft, funny and well-done, that it's impossible not to like. The show is so soft and ordinary however, that it's mostly for families, or people who want harmless, light fun without a sharp edge in sight. It's like a skeleton or template for all sitcoms. Dick Van Dyke lends his charm and talent for comedy, timing, and physical clowning in his role as Rob Petrie, a writer for a comedy show. He is married to the equally charming Mary Tyler Moore, has an annoying but cute and eccentric kid, and works with a man who can only talk in sarcastic one-liners and zingers, and a sharp-tongued woman who is one of the guys. As usual for a sitcom, the stories involve anything from home crises, family and marital misunderstandings, to workplace confusion, with the occasional musical act or slapstick from Van Dyke. The writing is pretty sharp and surprisingly funny even today but always very light and family-oriented.



Remington Steele  
Based on most of the first season.

Laura Holt (Zimbalist) is a talented detective suffering from the world's general bias against women in such roles, so she invents a fictional male figurehead for her company. Remington Steele (Brosnan), a suave con man with a criminal past, uses the fictional role once for his own ends, only to find that their combined talents help solve problems faster, and that each get something out of the arrangement. Trouble is, there is mutual attraction and sexual tension, combined with the fact that they just don't get along with each other, with Laura bossing him around behind the scenes, and Remington stealing the credit or sometimes using the arrangement for his own selfish goals. This setup provides for endless fun, banter, character clashes, sexual tension, etc. helped by the irony of real-life parallel circumstances as Brosnan gradually took over the show which was supposed to be mostly hers, and also greatly helped by some very good writing. The mysteries are creative, complex and witty, the dialogue is sharp, the comedy is fun, and the acting is great. The only big flaw is the sitcom approach: the repetitive and very formulaic episodic structure and a lack of experimentation, story or character arcs. This show was responsible for Brosnan losing an earlier entry into the James Bond franchise, and the slightly inferior clone: Moonlighting.



Casanova  

Dennis Potter's mini-series based on the writings, life and times of Giovanni Casanova, the most famous of hedonists. Potter chooses to explore this man in his usual fashion by weaving together memories while Casanova is undergoing an ordeal, in this case, his imprisonment. Casanova finds himself going mad in a terrible prison as he plans his escape, thinking back to the women he seduced, the women that stole his heart, and his various adventures with the occult, society and men in power. Snippets of his life after prison are also weaved together with the memories, fantasies and dreams. I must admit to being somewhat disappointed, expecting insight and a compelling portrait to come out of this structure, seeing as this is Dennis Potter's work, but the result is just a slightly above-average dramatic biopic. The casting is superb, although the passionate acting does sometimes get somewhat overwrought, and the production and feel of the show is quite good. The biggest flaw is the very repetitive overuse of the same flashbacks, each episode augmenting this sin. In short, an interesting drama, but not great.



Orange Is The New Black  
Based on the first one season.

From the creator behind Weeds comes another dramedy series about a criminal housewife, or, in this case, an ordinary young woman who finds herself involved with a criminal element. She finds herself in jail thanks to a wild lesbian fling ten years earlier with a drug dealer, much to the horror of her current male fiancé. This one is much better than Weeds thanks to an ensemble of colorful female prisoner characters that are presented with all their flaws and rough looks, warts and all, and it is also very different with its approach to its protagonist making her quite unlikeable in her self-obsessed behaviour. The writers develop both the characters and story, as the relationships in the jail grow increasingly complicated and tense, blending multiple prisoner back-stories with jail drama, lesbian shenanigans, tensions with the guards, and shifting prisoner alliances. It also involves plenty of nudity, lesbian sex and horny guards, bordering on women-in-prison exploitation. It features good actresses and it can easily hook you if you're into this kind of thing. That said, I am not sure what women prisons are really like, but this show portrays it like a high-school with a dorm where the prisoners are basically free to roam around in different rooms without guards and even to the yard and back, except they can't leave the premises. Seeing as many of the prisoners are murderers and some are quite unstable, I find it very hard to believe that a prison like this could function. Also, for most of the first season, the tension is girly stuff: Prisoners constantly back off with only harsh words, and the worst they do to each other is deny food or companionship. Their nightmare is to be sent to 'solitary', where they sit in a lit locked room and talk freely through a vent to their fellow prisoners. In other words their solitary is a real prison, and yet our protagonist breaks down after only one day there. Talk about laughably weak prison characters... So on the one hand this has edgy female characters, on the other hand it features a strangely light jail setting, chick-and-lesbian-drama, and mostly marshmallow prisoners.



Marco Polo  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

An epic series with a lot of potential, but it doesn't quite come to life and seems to lack inspiration. It takes place in the kingdom of Kublai Khan at the peak of Mongolian power when the Khans have practically taken all of China (among other things). Marco Polo, the Venetian adventurer, finds himself abandoned in Kublai's court as a servant, but quickly rises in favor due to his gifts of speech, respect and perception. War, betrayal and many shifting alliances keep them all on their toes. The show has superb locations and a rich production, and is beautiful to look at. But the writing and vision are lacking. I do not know enough to critique this one for historical accuracy, but the show definitely suffers from many obvious anachronisms. The women here reach the fantasy proportions of Xenia, with petite-skinny women taking down male warriors three times their size in wrestling as well as kung-fu, and bedding their men like aggressive Amazons. The show also employs many kung-fu cliches, and the fact that everyone speaks accented English makes it feel often like a dubbed second-rate kung-fu flick. The culture is so 'alien', that it makes it that much more difficult to ignore the ubiquitous English spoken with a variety of unnatural accents. Add to all this lots of gratuitous nudity and sex that is too obviously inserted for titillation, and it's difficult to take this show seriously. The plot and character development ranges from moderately interesting to muddled. Kublai Khan is made into a petulant, immature and limited man who seems to achieve most things only thanks to his wife and the foreigner's help. This is no Shogun, which also dealt with a lucky foreigner gaining favor in a brutal foreign land, except there, there was respect for Japanese intelligence. This show also lacks intelligent characters, most of them saying what's on their mind instead of thinking things through or being careful, which is strange in a royal court with so much politics. In summary, the show is visually superb and has epic moments and episodes, especially in the season finales, but is held down by pedestrian writing, borrowed cliches, cheapening exploitation, unnatural dialog, anachronistic behaviour and feminist fantasy. It doesn't embrace its exploitation like Spartacus, nor does it offer inspired and intelligent characters and writing, so it's neither here nor there.



Roots  

A companion piece to Centennial in the sense that it explores an unbroken chain of family generations to provide a sense of history. Only in this case, the viewpoint is entirely African-American, starting with an African tribe and the proud Kunta Kinte as he is kidnapped and shipped as a slave on a horrible sea-voyage, his refusal to be broken by white men, the family he raises in America, the dramas of his children's children, and so on, the revolution and civil war portrayed as mere rumors and stories as far as most black men were concerned, and the emancipation being a long painful process. Historically, the book this is based on was undermined, and doesn't have much to offer. There isn't much in the way of insight and gripping drama either, since the approach is too simplistic, with almost every black person being an idealistic good person, the African village is the cleanest Eden you have ever seen, and only the white people are given some variety and complexity in their evil, with even the more benign ones supporting the evil in one way or another. For a historical saga however, it's a moderately entertaining story, and can serve as a good method to link black people to their historical roots despite its fictional details. Overrated, but not bad.



Extras  
Based on the first season.

The makers of The Office deliver another comedy based on pain, awkwardness and embarrassment, only better balanced this time. Ricky Gervais occasionally does his usual scenes where he shoves his foot in his mouth then follows with his knee, thigh and hip, but he is relatively normal and socially adept compared to some of the characters here, among the worst being the celebrities who make episodic cameos and surprisingly let themselves be ridiculed or exposed sometimes to brutal extents. The show is about extras on movie sets constantly pretending to be more than they are, trying desperately to get friendly with actors and producers to get a line, or in the case of the female, to get herself a boyfriend. Once again, political correctness is abused, with the main characters getting themselves in trouble with gays, women, blacks, Christians, the handicapped, etc. Sporadically funny, painful, a scathing satire or dull.



Good Wife, The  
Based on most of the first two seasons.

Over-hyped, flawed but quality legal series that starts weak for the first half-season, then grows in complexity. Obviously stolen from the Clinton headlines, the setup is a good wife who endured humiliation from her politician husband after a scandal involving corruption and sleazy affairs. She tries to recover her dignity going back to work as a lawyer in a high-priced law firm, but is constantly hounded by repercussions of her husband's scandal and far-reaching political connections. Although this setup may make it sound like a feminist show, it doesn't resort to male-bashing. It is feminist in the sense of female empowerment however, with a woman in every level and job generally outdoing her male peers, even as a private investigator. Putting that aside, the show starts weakly with bland characters and an episodic case-of-the-week format designed just for her to solve and win where others have failed, but then the characters grow more complex and loosen up, as the many story-arcs emerge, and the cases per week also become more interesting. There are complex politics at the office with financial failures forcing the partners to make big changes and decisions. There are the almost-ridiculously complex political machinations of her husband as he tries to get back on his feet, that somehow also become involved in the majority of the cases she handles, either via help gotten through their many connections, the conflicting agendas, or angry political opposition. And there are the various personal dramas: Her love interest at the office, the many flings of her fiercely private, bisexual private investigator, her tense relationship with her husband, and various problems with her two teenage children. All this keeps things moving at an interesting pace greatly helped by some tricky cases, and lots and lots of legal jargon and tricks. One of this show's strengths is the creativity with its legal playground. That said, one of its primary flaws is the fact that it is dishonest and unrealistic, seeing as the majority of the cases has her defend innocent people (and winning most of the time), just to give the audience something to root for. Where there's smoke there's fire, and this show would have you believe that the vast majority of people requiring high-priced defense lawyers are innocent people being abused by the system. Even when she finally defends a real murderer and wins, the writers have him come back in a second episode to get his just desserts in jail, as if they can't let their audience think that she fights for bad guys in her line of work. So basically, this show doesn't treat its audience as mature adults and just provides an 'empowered woman' to root for. Also, this show, while watchable, suffers when compared to The Practice. The characters there were blue-collar and fleshy rather than botoxed and rich, their clients were often evil, and the cases involved a great balance that presented both sides strongly with interesting issues, rather than setting up bad guys vs good guys (and handing our heroine most of the good guys). In summary, over-hyped and very flawed, but still watchable.



West Wing  
Based on the first and third seasons.

An intelligent TV series overpowered by its clever writer. The show is about a liberal/Democrat president of the USA and his staff, and their daily work running the country and dealing with some interpersonal dramas. The shows are fast-paced, often using its trademarked walking-down-long-corridors-arguing-politics-accompanied-by-rapid-banter scenes. There is subtle, clever humor, a slew of well-acted clever characters, and the president is performed by the powerful presence of Martin Sheen. And yet, for some reason I tire of the episodes after a while, because the clever writer over-powers the show and doesn't let the characters and situations breathe naturally. All the characters are too similar to each other and equally clever, serving as mouthpieces for the writer rather than forming an ensemble of characters, and the show revolves too much around the writing and dialogue without letting individual charm and personality through. The politics tend to get too liberal, PC, smug and self-righteous as well. A challenging, interesting but throttled show.



Newsroom, The  
Based on the first season.

It makes sense for Sorkin to set his next dramedy in a newsroom, seeing as all of his shows are basically soap-boxes for his political opinions. In any case, it fares better than Sports Night and Studio 60 simply because of the more natural setting for this kind of thing, and the quality is closer to West Wing. The first episode starts with a bang, as a celebrity news anchor declares his controversial opinion on the woeful state of the US public and its media, and he is promptly manipulated by very supportive producers into rethinking the news show and room into something idealistically liberal over which they can be proud, unhampered by ratings and commercial bias. Of course, the powers that be don't take this too well. Discussions on current issues both live and in the office, are weaved with office and media politics, as well as personal dramas, quirky personalities and complicated office romances. At times, I thought that this was a Sorkin show done right, with the characters coming off more as individuals this time, with a good balance of intelligent discussions and personal drama. And some scenes truly soar as everything clicks together. But it's really a mixed bag. For every brilliant portrayal of a team of personalities working hard against the world towards their ideals, there are a couple of scenes featuring Sorkin drama at its worst: Unnatural rapid-fire dialogue that feels like the director is standing over the actors with a metronome, setting a rhythm rather than letting them talk like human beings. And many scenes where Sorkin, once again, uses them all as his mouthpieces to rant (mostly against Republicans). He even makes the news anchor a Republican in name only, then has him frequently preach against Republicans. It also doesn't help that many of the issues are current, obscure and ephemeral, making this feel like a talk-show pretending to be a drama series. Nor that, as part of this idealistic news manifesto, they decide to make the news anchor unabashedly state his opinions live and preach to the world, thus giving Sorkin a bigger soap-box. In short, a mixed bag, but worth watching for Sorkin fans.



30 Rock  
Based on the first season.

Over-hyped but kinda fun sitcom written by Tina Fey from SNL, and it shows. It's about the writers and actors behind a sketch show, and the weekly woes of running the show plagued by prima-donna insane actors, various personal crises, a complicated power-boss (a fun Alec Baldwin), and a gaggle of quirky, fussy writers. The show's strengths include the roller-coaster fun interactions and power games between Tina (the show's producer) and Baldwin as her boss, and the occasional snappy dialogue. But this isn't always as witty or fleshy as shows like Episodes or NewsRadio, simply because the approach to most of the characters is very broad, especially most of the guys, and the cast mostly come off as caricatures or silly 'types' from sketches rather than real people. This weakens the sitcom, which is almost a sketch-show in disguise. A mixed bag, with fun comedy and banter constantly giving way to mere silly fun, and the quality of the episodes vary. An amusing show that could have been more.



Men Behaving Badly  
Based on the first, second and fifth seasons.

Over-the-top stupid and crude men versus reasonably smart and practical women. Two male flat-mates, a nurse girlfriend and the upstairs sexy neighbour everyone wants to have sex with interact in this British comedy that mixes wit, boorish behaviour, absurdity and silliness, and repulsive hygiene. The result is a mixed bag. There are funny insights into relationships and some witty banter as well as weak sexist, misandrist humor that only gets its laughs out of portraying men as having an IQ of 15 and eating pizza out of a garbage can. If the gender roles were reversed and we would see smart men treating dumb women like children and smacking them around it would never air. The flat-mate's character also doesn't always work when he is at times ridiculously dumb or sharply cynical according to the writer's whim. Later seasons relied even more on stupidity and are wilder, but the first season features a different, weaker actor as the flat-mate.



Dharma & Greg  
Based on the first season.

TV doesn't get much more cutesy, light and fluffy than this. Dharma is a perky, happy, laid-back daughter of hippy parents, Greg is a down-to-earth lawyer son of waspy, stern, traditional parents. They meet, fall in love and get married on a whim in the first episode, then live through the consequences for the rest of this sitcom. There's a clash of interests or viewpoints in every episode, but cuteness and love saves the day. Thus, this becomes the sitcom equivalent of a romantic comedy and chick-flick. As you can imagine, this show isn't for everyone. Personally, I enjoyed some of it as the comedy can get quite funny at times, but the characters are too broadly drawn and cute to really have any impact. Light fun at best.



Worst Week of My Life, The  
Based on the first season.

A British answer to Meet the Parents, a sitcom with a continuous storyline where everything seems to be going wrong for a man about to be married. Some are funny, many are just rude or embarrassingly cringe-worthy, and some are dumb, like somehow managing to throw a dog into a cement mixer without noticing. The in-law parents are superb and the best things about this show: Geoffrey Whitehead is a stern judge showing his disapproval and annoyance in very subtle ways, and the mother is a hysterical perfectionist who seems more obsessed over minutiae than real crises. The psychotic stalking ex-lover is cartoonishly over-the-top, even going so far as to drug and rape men. Episodes usually build-up towards a few great punchlines as the set-ups build and then topple together, but things go so badly for him, that after a few episodes it just becomes depressing and you feel sorry for him. Funny only if you enjoy cartoonish, outrageous and implausible humor, otherwise it's just moderate fun.



Raising Hope  
Based on the first season.

The cuter second-cousin of My Name is Earl. I.e. the humor is still broad and silly and involves poor white-trash, but is more fun. Jimmy is a loser 21 year old who impregnates a cute serial-killer and gets stuck with her baby. His father cleans pools and gardens for rich folk, while his mother cleans their homes. Both are practical optimists and get along great, but they aren't too happy with having to help the hopeless Jimmy and his baby. They all have to live in a home belonging to the senile grandmother, and much comedy is made over her constant awkward and embarrassing behaviour like assuming her grandson is her husband, running outside naked, shooting holes in the walls, or scotch-taping her face for a face-lift. Another large portion of the comedy involves lots of outrageously irresponsible parenting by everyone involved. There's Jimmy's crush, a quirky ukulele-playing baby-sitter who also takes care of dogs and old people, Jimmy's insane grocery co-workers, and so on. Amusing stuff that grows on you, with occasional hilarious moments, but too silly to be great.



Keeping Up Appearances  
Based on the first season and some scattered episodes.

The definitive Britcom about snobbery and superficiality revolving around the overpowering Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "bouquet") and her long-suffering family. Hyacinth is desperate to escape her working-class roots, acting fastidious about rules and etiquette, keeping up appearances at all costs, harassing her husband who has the patience of Job, and hiding her family of lecherous father, slut sister and dirty bum of a brother-in-law out of embarrassment. Funny, but somewhat single-note humor.



Bottom  
Based on scattered episodes from several seasons.

An outrageous, over-the-top, one-of-a-kind British comedy by the makers of Young Ones featuring two of the most endearingly repulsive social outcasts. Edward Elizabeth Hitler (no relation) has a drinking problem and loves to smash things up, Richard Richard is desperate to get rid of his virginity but is too greasy, creepy and annoying to ever get close. They live together and frequently fight, hurting each other in surprisingly violent bursts of craziness. Toilet humor and male juvenile behaviour at its absolute worst, but the over-the-top treatment gets belly-laughs. Not for weak stomachs.



Good Life, The  
Based on the first season.

Classic British comedy about an adorable, energetic couple that decide to leave the rat-race and try to become self-sufficient by growing their own produce and farm-animals in their back-yard in the middle of the city. Their amused neighbour and his annoyed uptight wife add to the comedy. Cute and playful comedy but nothing ground-shaking.



Spin City  
Based on most of the first season.

A limited, cute, but very mild sitcom with Michael J. Fox in the role of a deputy mayor in charge of a staff that has to constantly cover-up for things the dim-witted mayor has done wrong, especially insensitive remarks to the public. This shares the spotlight with the usual workplace sitcom comedy involving their personal lives and romances. The fact that the deputy is sleeping with an aggressive reporter and that they have to constantly lie to the neurotic press secretary to get him to lie to the public, only makes things more complicated. The wacky but light-hearted workplace comedy makes the show feel like a political version of Newsradio only with less wit and color, and the repetitive political plot-lines result in some mildly amusing episodes at best.



Hill Street Blues  
Based on most of the first season.

Yet another cop show that is being praised as the best cop show on Earth. This one is somewhere between Starsky & Hutch and Homicide: The tone, light comedic touches, whimsical writing and action, and some exaggerated characters put it firmly in the 80s, but the pioneering approach of using an ensemble of actors, dense writing, relatively more realism, and multiple interweaving plot-lines is what gave it a reputation as being ahead of its time. Each episode covers a couple of crime-catching thrills, a tiny bit of action, many various comedic vignettes, and some ongoing jokes such as when the maniacal Belker keeps arresting a pick-pocketer, biting him, then arguing with mom on the phone while the criminal sniggers. But the focus of the show is on the many colorful characters, rather than on police procedures, from the respected, strict and hard-working Furillo, to the cartoonish, militant, weapon-crazy Hunter. Dialog, character, conflict, interaction with each other or with screamingly neurotic ex-wives, dealing with personal fears, flaws, ideals or alcoholism are all emphasized so that you care for the main characters, especially when they are in danger or even die. Very good for its time, especially for character development, but its non-edgy 80s tone keeps it in the moderately entertaining zone, and I do prefer my cop-shows with more crime fighting.



Big Love  
Based on the first season.

HBO tackles polygamy in the form of an extended family drama. Bill has a booming business and three wives in three homes who share him using a schedule. He is an outcast of the separationist Mormon compounds due to his secular ambitions, and also of the rest of his community for illegally practicing polygamy. He therefore keeps his lifestyle a secret. The show doesn't feel realistic however and is very unflattering to Mormons who are depicted either as criminal, sociopathic religious leaders, annoying fundamentalists, or basically secular people whose religion consists mostly of having multiple wives. Polygamy also gets a bad rep (but this is probably realistic) due to the hardships of supporting multiple women financially and emotionally while they bicker amongst themselves. I.e. estrogen overload.

The show has its share of "who cares" soap opera moments and it does take quite a few episodes to really get interesting, but it hooks you in with good writing and season-long multiple story arcs, with slowly building crises and difficult situations. When the leaders turn into mafiosos and criminal elements intrude into the big Mormon family, it starts turning into a ridiculously unrealistic Sopranos clone. Moderately interesting and entertaining, but not amazingly so.



Twist of Fate (AKA Pursuit)  

A mini-series, supposedly based on some true facts, about a Nazi who escapes the aftermath of WWII by getting plastic surgery and hiding in a concentration camp as a Jew. He soon gets caught up with the Zionists however and finds himself in Israel, rising in the ranks. Consequences finally catch up with him many years later. Interesting, but somewhat far-fetched drama.



Human Target  
Based on the first season.

Action-junkies should definitely check this one out, especially the ones nostalgic for preposterous but fun 80s shows like The A-Team. An ex-assassin turned good-guy, works in a specialized job protecting people by putting them in danger. This isn't as clever as it sounds and is just another way of saying that he is over-confident in his abilities and puts his clients up as targets so that he can flush out the bad guys. This over-confidence is obviously justified when he has every skill known to man, and is better at it than everyone else, even when against impossible odds and scores of professionals, as well as somehow seeming to know everything about everything. The structure is mostly episodic client-of-the-week. He teams up with an ex-FBI agent, and a very gifted and eccentric wild man, and watching the snappy banter and creative solutions to problems is the main reason for the fun of this show. One person always seems to have more tech resources and hacking skills than the whole unit of 24 put together, and, of course, there's a parade of hot chicks, some of which can beat him up or hack their way into any computer. This is the kind of show that makes James Bond look realistic, and Die Hard is just gritty and down-to-earth next to this one. But the rapid pace, great action and banter keep it entertaining.



Ripper Street  
Based on the first season.

Another year, another British detective & murder series. There were Jack the Ripper references in the modern-day Whitechapel, but this one takes place a few months after the actual murders in the 19th Century. Although the show isn't about the Ripper murders, the detective, Reid, is based on the actual detective involved in the Ripper investigations who supposedly made use of some advanced forensic techniques for the time. The city and the police are only just starting to recover from the fear of their celebrity serial-killer, especially given the fact that he was never caught, and the detective, his family and professional acquaintances are all still trying to move on, licking their wounds while the press pounce on every murder as a potential comeback. This is the backdrop of the series, but the actual episodes cover a murder-of-the-week format involving various crimes and violent people, often somehow connected to the local whorehouse. This episodic structure is limiting, and the character development is slow and minimal. That said, the BBC once again exercise their gift for historical details and research and this is the strength of the show, as well as the elegant language (which is much more natural and elegant than what was used in Deadwood). Unlike the historical detective series Foyle's War, however, this one is less laid back with relatively more violence and thrilling nick-of-time climaxes, and even some flashy forensics. Although Reid pioneered some use of science in police-work, and I am not a historical expert, I felt that the show was constantly trying to reproduce the modern-day detective shows, police-work and crime with 19th-century replacements. As such, this show's Reid thinks and works too much like a modern cop to feel authentic (although it's not as bad as Murdoch Mysteries). In summary, generally good historical setting and detail with some subtle anachronisms, good acting, but a limited episodic structure and not-so-interesting characters, makes for an only slightly above-average murder series.



Brooklyn Nine-Nine  
Based on the first season.

Cutesy sitcom from another SNL alumnus, this one set in a police station where everyone is basically a caricature from a sketch rather than a three-dimensional person. There's Andy Samberg as a wise-cracking, immature super-detective, a tough girl who is always aggressive, the weird girl, a warm-hearted geek who doesn't know how nerdy he is, a huge black man with a fluffy-soft personality, and Andre Braugher acts against type as a gay man in a comedy, except he plays it as the strict chief of the precinct and the straight man to everyone else's silliness. It's not as bad as it sounds, and it varies from funny to silly, the cast having light fun in a wide variety of situations. Mildly entertaining.



Still Game  
Based on the first season.

Scottish sitcom with a pair of Scottish comedians acting as old men living in a crappy part of town and who have nothing better to do all day than smart-mouth everyone and everything, collect meager pensions, and deal with a wide variety of eccentric locals. There isn't more of a setup than that, allowing the sitcom to explore whatever story it wants, from dealing with a neighbour's death who owes everyone something, to a tentative romance that gets in the way of their friendship, to inviting a huge old pal over in order to clean up the town of vandalizing youngsters. The humor ranges from very light chuckles, to the occasional inspired hilarity, and in between the jokes, they manage to find a bit of pathos with their various friendships. Overall, an above-average and entertaining show, but nothing great despite its cult following. The main barrier to this show, however, will probably be the thick accents, and even with subtitles some dialect may not be understood.



Suits  
Based on the first season.

A suitable title for a show about superficial and smug lawyers. These are the kinds of lawyers that everyone hates, using any means to win, including not-quite-legal tricks, always playing games of one-upmanship and strutting around, except that this show makes them the protagonists and wants us to like them because they have witty banter and the lawsuits are not ours. Well it does work, but only up to a point. This show is about gloating lawyers who, at first, get into trouble when faced with a challenging case or legal problem, then always find a way to beat it in time for a gloating ending. It also involves some office politics, fiercely competitive games even between co-workers, some complicated romances, and the story of one young hot-shot who becomes a lawyer without passing the bar. That last part is actually a big weakness, seeing as he was hired willingly by a lawyer who seems to have no problem risking his career for some young guy he never met carrying a briefcase full of weed. Another stupidity in the setup is that this show should actually be classified under superhero fantasy, seeing as the hot-shot youngster has a superpower that doesn't exist: Remembering every word he ever read and being able to understand, use and quote anything within seconds (that's not how photographic memory works in case you were wondering). All that nonsense aside, the banter is fun and quick, and the cases are fast-paced. It all depends on how much smugness you can take before you had enough. Other legal shows feature lawyers pulling tricks out of their hats that are cleverer than this, but this show loves to emphasize anything remotely clever that it does, over and over, just like its characters. The character development, as you can imagine from the above description, is there but minimal, since there is only so much you can do with smugness and constant one-upmanship. A mixed bag, overrated, but mildly fun.



Third Watch  
Based on most of the first season.

An ER clone, and not a bad one. The biggest difference is that this show wants to have it all, combining cop show, paramedic show and fire-fighter show, revolving around a small, inbreeding group of people that deal with life and death every day as well as their various personal dramas. The acting and characterization are above average and make the show very watchable week after week, and of course, the multiple sensational crises and police action every week help make it entertaining, sometimes even riveting. But there are no story arcs, and crimes are solved very easily week after week, and the character development kinda slides from one thing to another rather than sticking to compelling character arcs, which of course can get soapy at times, especially when everyone starts sleeping with everyone else. Still, as a weekly show, it's not only watchable but can even get quite good in some episodes. The writing, however, is about two steps down from ER, lacking that show's medical know-how and scattered brilliant episodes. In short, pretty good, and very watchable here and there when it's on, but not great.



Whitechapel  
Based on the first two seasons.

Now here's a British murder series that should appeal to many Americans, given its preoccupation with historical serial killers. The first season covers a case of a modern Jack the Ripper copycat, complete with the same false clues and confusing conspiracy theories. The second season features a crime gang that is bringing the Kray Brothers legend back to life in order to gain respect and control the city. The third season covers the Ratcliff Highway murders, and so on. A young detective favored by the bigwigs and planned for fast-track promotion finds himself in over his head when he is assigned these cases as well as the job of leading much more seasoned detectives. An enthusiastic crime historian is used for advice by the police, and the cases become a race against time as they investigate the crimes using historical facts as well as the usual forensics and detective work. Cases take up a whole season, but the seasons are short. The characters are acceptably good, the writing ranges from OK to mediocre, using the occasional lazy or coincidental solution. Nothing great, nothing really bad, but it should appeal mostly to the crime-history buffs.



Slings and Arrows  
Based on the first season.

A niche Canadian dramedy about the theatre that found many fans, but may not appeal to people without a minimal theatrical or Shakespearean background. The first 6-part season tells the tale of a theatre going through many changes, trying to stage a new version of Hamlet. The cast and events parallel many details of Hamlet, so it helps to know it well. But the story can also stand on its own: Oliver, the artistic director meets with a ridiculous accident, this causing the mad Geoffrey Tennant to come back to the site of his past triumphs and humiliations, who is now also haunted by his ex-mentor Oliver. As if death wasn't enough, evil and commercial-minded managers, clueless middle-management, selfish, neurotic, bitter actors and actresses and various personal complications all threaten to derail the production, but they stick to it and try to work out their various issues while trying to figure out a way to make the production successful. The writing is quite good, but for the first half, it is difficult to get into a show populated with self-obsessed actors and managers, full of theatre in-jokes. It all accumulates and improves in the second half however, and the many parallels and references to Hamlet are interestingly done.



Benny Hill Show, The  
Based on scattered episodes from several seasons.

A long-running and very popular British variety show run by Benny Hill who sings, mimics celebrities, performs sketches, naughty comedy or silly slapstick. As with any show of this type, there are hits and misses and good and bad years. Most famous for political incorrectness in the form of bawdy comedy and misogyny but this is an unfair reputation as he is making fun of men, dirty men and silly fantasies of men all the time. The slapstick is where he shines, usually speeding up a comedic sketch, dressing up in hundreds of different costumes and personalities. Low-brow, silly, entertaining comedy with frequent moments of brilliance.



How I Met Your Mother  
Based on most of the first season.

A successful Friends clone involving a group of 20-30 year old friends having silly life-adventures, and helping or hindering each other in their various romantic liaisons. Barney is the most entertaining character, a bachelor with endless crazy ideas, rules and games for achieving his next one-night-stand or adventure, and there are the repeated attempts at a relationship between two of the friends, like in Friends. The comedy is light but fun, featuring writing that is a bit less crazy and silly than Friends, but maintaining the same fluffy and entertaining tone that feels a bit less childish. The 'gimmick' here is that the episodes are actually stories told in the future to some teenagers about how he met their mother, which usually doesn't add anything to the show, but they have fun with new twists on this theme in some episodes. Light and fluffy fun while it's on TV, but nothing really stands out.



Home Improvement  
Based on the first season and scattered episodes.

Another one of those stand-up comedian as lead actor sitcoms, and yet another in the long line of shows that became popular since the Honeymooners, where the husband is a dimwit and the wife is sensible and can do no wrong. This show's uniqueness includes the show within the show about tools and Tim's love for building, tweaking or fixing things, often with disastrous results. Another entertaining aspect is the blatant celebration of all things male (more power!) and chauvinism and this would be a strong point if not for the fact that the show uses every opportunity to show how childish, idiotic, irresponsible and impractical all male behaviour is. In other words, this is almost like the American version of Men Behaving Badly. The banter and arguments between man and wife is often quite funny and even edgy, without things ever turning nasty (although the husband always ends up apologizing for a happy ending), the kids (all male) are wild and delight in tormenting their younger brother, and there is some balance in the form of a wise but eccentric male neighbour (his face always hidden by a fence) whose advice is always twisted into something funny. Entertaining and amusing but limited, mostly repeating the same plot device of husband screwing things up or making things worse with his home improvement ideas.



Lonesome Dove  

Over-praised Western mini-series. The special aspect of this series is its hard and gritty approach, with not-so-moral protagonists, violence, harshness, stubborn characters, prostitution, and many deaths of various causes. In other words, this is truly a wild West with attention to detail and gritty characters. On the other hand, it takes forever to set up these characters in a dull first-part, and then it meanders through various episodic adventures as the ex-rangers decide to take a long cattle drive from Texas to Montana, and it only gets somewhat interesting halfway through. Also, the characters may be hard-edged, but they lack energy or development, giving the whole series a laid-back, resigned-to-fate, mythical atmosphere. The adventures often lead to deaths, including marauding Indians, murdering horse-thieves, vicious nature, and an evil outlaw, while everyone longs for the love that got away, or shares male bonding moments with subtle looks and few words. The second half is pretty good, but Deadwood is much better. Duvall is good, and Tommy Lee Jones seems to have rewritten his part in this series for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.



Cosby Show, The  
Based on the half of the first season and scattered episodes.

A throwback to the innocent family-oriented sitcoms of the old days but with modern family problems and featuring an all-black, well-off family for a change. The comedy revolves around family issues, children, growing up, headstrong teenagers, light clashes between husband and wife, etc. in a variety of situations. If anyone can make clean family comedy fun, its Bill Cosby. But the cuteness, values-oriented writing, impeccable parenting and well-adjusted kids kinda gets old after a while, and the comedy slightly steps back over the seasons in favor of preaching. The show often plays it too straight and frequently feels that it's all about role models, or a community motivational speech in sitcom clothes. Cosby ranges from hilarious to OK, the older sister is too bland, the rest are acceptable. Overall, this is cute, light fun but nothing more.



Four Kings  
Based on the single season.

A Friends-type comedy about four 20-something guys that live together in a huge apartment inherited from their grandmother. They're of the age where they're still outgrowing the fratboy mentality but halfway towards maturity, and their chemistry and friendship work well. The male-oriented humor is light, offering fun banter, some chuckles and light laughs, but not much else. Fun to catch while it's on but they pulled the plug on this one very fast.



Worst Week  
Based on the single season.

Americanized remake/rewrite of Worst Week of My Life with some interesting adjustments: The man doesn't carry the brunt of the catastrophes and mishaps this time, his bride-to-be is more loving and supportive which is good, and the in-laws are eventually made into co-conspirators as things go wrong for them as well. This allows the writers to come up with more accidents and misunderstandings without heaping it all on one man, but even so, it just becomes ridiculous after a few episodes, with everything becoming very predictable as anything that can imaginably go wrong, does. This kind of outrageous slapstick simply can't work for more than a few episodes as plausibility goes out the window pretty fast, then it just becomes too silly. The actors are all well chosen, likeable and fleshy so that we sympathize with what is happening, but the writers make the groom too dumb and impossibly clumsy just to make him cause more accidents. For example, how on earth can anyone confuse a pot in a kitchen for a urinal in a bathroom even if it is dark? Entertaining and funny at first, but soon becomes more and more tiresome and predictable, cramming three incredibly bad weeks into a single season instead of one week like they did in the UK. It's sometimes like a slightly better version of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, or an over-stretched sequel of Meet the Parents, and it makes you appreciate the writer's control and grounding in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The original British version is better, but that's no surprise.



Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The  
Based on half of the first season and scattered episodes.

Will Smith is a loose, charming, unsophisticated, trouble-making street-youth that finds himself living with his rich, spoiled, and uptight aunt, uncle, British butler, cousins and celebrities in Bel-Air. Almost all of the comedy and writing revolves around this simple setup and clash of personalities, making this classic 90s show very limited, but Smith's charm makes it fun. The show walks a fine line between catering to Smith's ego (where he can almost do no wrong) and balancing the rest of the fun characters. There are also some touching family moments and cliched social messages about racism and black awareness. Fun but limited.



Thin Blue Line, The  
Based on the first season.

Rowan Atkinson as an anal retentive police chief trying to manage his team of mostly weak-willed policemen. He also has to deal with his frustrated wife who works as a sergeant in the same station and whom he treats with cold or finicky logic, while competing with the local CID detective squad led by a loud-mouthed braggart. Delivers some really hilarious scenes, but is mostly mediocre or bland humor, especially when it concerns the other cast members. Not Atkinson's best stuff.



Friends  
Based on many scattered episodes from many seasons.

An overrated but often funny comedy about 6 friends. There's a spoiled rich girl, a neat freak, a ditzy hippy, and the men: an unlucky, suffering professor, a confident, fun-loving ladies-man, and an odd comedian. They become friends, lovers, ex-lovers, spouses, ex-friends, and lovers again, etc. They're all pretty and handsome, nothing truly challenging ever happens so they make drama out of stupid little things and behave like children with endless immature hangups, superficiality and hysterical behaviour. It's a world where adults behave like teenage girls. This kind of approach would normally produce a silly chick-flick if not for the good character interaction and occasionally hilarious humor. A silly show saved and made popular by its talented, funny writers and fun actors, but you can't get too much quality out of 30 year olds behaving like teens.



NYPD Blue  
Based on most of the first season.

Another one of those pioneering shows that became popular due to its cutting-edge approach, but the actual product is not as exciting, especially compared to some current shows. The best things about this cop show are the ongoing story arcs, the development of characters and plots over multiple episodes, the harsher and more realistic language and characters, and the way some plot-lines don't end happily. The writing isn't always great however, with some subtle cracks showing where realism is sacrificed towards a writer's goal of making the characters seem more capable and indestructible than they ever could be. This shows itself most blatantly in the first season's main character of John Kelly who always takes the moral high-road, never makes mistakes and always preaches to everyone else - all of which gets boring after a while. Ironically, Caruso is touted as the main cause of the first season's greatness but I found his acting more blandly acceptable than anything special. That said, it's still a medium-to-good cop show, but one that has been superseded many times over by The Shield or even Homicide.



Dad's Army  
Based on the first and third seasons.

Classic and popular British comedy about a group of old men and army rejects forming a defense force during WWII in England. The comedy revolves around the pompous commander and his troupe of colorful characters, some with old-age problems and personal lives, habits or day jobs they prioritize over the silly rigmarole of army life. The sergeant tries to make real soldiers out of them for his glory but is also let down by his own weaknesses. Most of the comedy comes from the obviously inept and under-equipped men trying to act like real soldiers. Gentle but charming comedy that's always good for a few chuckles. The first two black and white seasons are relatively weaker but it hits its prime soon after that.



Klovn  
Based on the first season.

'The Danish version of Curb Your Enthusiasm' is a precise description of this one. Frank is the jerk who constantly gets himself in trouble with everyday embarrassments and outrageous situations that he somehow always worsens with his childish behaviour. The protagonist here, compared to Curb, is relatively more naive and childish rather than a complete jerk, and his behaviour stems more often than not from stupid choices. His misadventures include anything from giving in to pressure to inject heroin into his friend, to finding himself stealing a car after turning down its stereo volume and being chased by the owners, to being caught by his wife outside of a whorehouse where he took his father to get his first blowjob. It's somewhat funny if you like this kind of stuff. But, personally, I'm really sick of this awkward-humor sitcom format that has been done to death in so many shows, and worse: the man here is yet another idiot man-child while his wife is always the sensible one who treats his every request with disrespect. So this is only amusing if you can get past the tired misandry.



My Name Is Earl  
Based on most of the first season.

Another cartoonish comedy in the vein of Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle, etc. where the characters are so broadly drawn, they make kiddy comic books look realistic. But there are still mild laughs to be had in this komedy of karma. A dumb, laid-back, trashy redneck finds out that life keeps dealing him bad cards because of all the bad things he has done in his life, so he decides to correct them one by one. He makes a long list, and tries to find creative ways to fix his past, sometimes with unexpected results, improvised adjustments, or eye-opening developments. His entourage includes his brother who has the mentality of a 3 year old, his vixen-cum-trashy ex-wife, her really laid-back black husband, and a Latina maid-friend from the motel they stay at. That's the high concept of this show with an episodic, creative but limited structure. Some episodes are mildly amusing and entertaining, especially when they make good use of irony, the rest are too silly, relying too much on trash-slacker humor and the overly-dumb brother character. Light and silly, but unique.



Malcolm in the Middle  
Based on the first season.

A smart kid grows up with a dumb but funny dad, a control-freak mom, and three highly problematic brothers. It's the dysfunctional family story again, told through the eyes of an intelligent kid who finds himself in the most outrageous situations wherever the family goes. Mischief, danger, disaster, destruction and scatological humor fly while the mom tries to hold everything together. It's amusing, cartoonish, sometimes hilarious, but the narration from the point of view of a kid makes me lose interest after a while. Sometimes feels like a live-action Simpsons.



Aliens in America  
Based on the single season.

Light 'Everybody Hates Chris' type comedy clone featuring an unpopular kid in high-school whose life becomes even worse when a Pakistani exchange student moves in with his family. The show makes fun of American ignorance, stereotypes and stupidity when it comes to foreigners, but with a soft touch, always keeping the humor light. Adhir Kalyan is charming, very likeable and fun as the Pakistani, but he shares the spotlight with typical high-school shenanigans, popularity contests, insecurity crises, cruel and superficial kids, etc. The parents are annoying cliches of bossy mom and stupid dad. In other words, another lightly amusing, ordinary, somewhat cartoonish high-school comedy that also hops on the annoying trend of ending each episode with a little life-lesson.



Three's Company  
Based on most of the first two seasons.

Another popular show copied from the British and 'Americanized'. Two young female flat-mates find a strange man in their bathtub and make him their flat-mate when they learn he can cook. In order to get the landlord to accept him, they pretend he's gay. This is the setup, the humor revolving around various amusing situations, misunderstandings, flirts, sexual innuendo, teases and insults, a lot of slapstick and physical comedy, the fact that one of the flat-mates is an extremely dumb blonde, and the landlords: an older couple consisting of a stingy man who is tired of his wife, and a horny wife who always wants attention (a precursor to Married with Children). This isn't sophisticated stuff to say the least, but it's funny nevertheless, mostly for people that enjoy simple but entertaining laughs in shows like Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond, with some physical comedy added on.



Doc Martin  
Based on the first two seasons.

British dramedy about a city doctor that leaves London after a career-killing phobia rears its head, and goes to live in the village where he grew up, to work there as the town doctor. Except that his personality is stiff, rude, abrupt, brutally honest, and generally challenged on any social level. Almost all the locals range from eccentric to downright insane, and this clash between intolerant doctor and barmy locals provide the never-ending comedy. Various ongoing personal problems and love interests supply the drama. The villagers include a gaggle of giggling teenage girls, an angry ex-schoolteacher with cancer, a highly insecure policeman, his strong-willed aunt with family secrets, and a man who talks to a six-foot imaginary squirrel. He hires an impossibly irritating and incompetent receptionist in season one who is such an over-the-top brat, she makes the season hard to watch since it's implausible that he would keep her around for any reason, but she is replaced in season two with someone a little more acceptable. And so it goes, each episode with a new handful of personal or medical crises created by various eccentricities, while the doctor forges on exasperatedly. This is no House, since the writing tends much more towards over-the-top eccentricities and quirky comedy, but it is acceptably watchable and moderately enjoyable on its own terms.



King of Queens, The  
Based on most of the first season and several scattered episodes.

Yet another married-couple sitcom, repeating the same formula that has been used for 50 years. This couple is blue-collar, live in Queens, and has taken in a highly eccentric father-in-law. The husband and wife are amusing and fun in a down-to-earth way, but the show has so many annoying cliches: The worst is that the husband is an idiotic man-child yet again while the wife is mostly a normal person with some typical female neuroses, and bossy or manipulative behaviour. The writing resorts to the repeated formula of husband doing something extremely stupid and childish and trying to hide it from his wife, while the cartoonishly annoying father-in-law makes it worse. When this insulting and misandrist cliche isn't going on, or when they aren't having a realistic but unfunny argument, the show can actually be quite funny thanks to the actors' charm and funny situations. But they really need to stop making these things - it's beyond tired.



Oz  
Based on most of the first season and some scattered episodes.

In-your-face brutality and nastiness in the form of a male prison drama. Hispanics, blacks, Nazis, Muslim militants, Sicilians, outcasts, gays, and guards always clash, fight, murder, rape, and switch sides in every episode while the main characters try to come to terms with various crises. The male nudity and constant rape, is as explicit as TV ever got and the events are usually unpredictable, the writers having no qualms about killing off any character on the show at any time in gory ways. While this is all very entertaining in a cruel and over-the-top way, it starts getting repetitive and there is only so much murder, double-crossings and rapes you can watch. Also, the drama gradually becomes more melodramatic and over-the-top, and the way the prison is run is very unrealistic. To top it off, there is the extremely annoying pseudo-philosophy and idiotic narration spouted out between scenes by a strange character in a rotating chair. A junk show to tune in to once in a while for outrageous entertainment.



Young Ones, The  
Based on the first season.

A unique, over-the-top British show about four college students living together and getting into trouble. One is a vandal punk, another a suicidal hippy, Mike is slightly more serious, and Rik is a hyperactive rock fan. They never study, their Russian landlord and his family keep popping up to extract rent, and crazy things keep happening to them like finding an atom bomb in the kitchen, getting decapitated, finding oil under the cellar, being trapped in a flood and having cannibalistic urges, talking furniture, etc. In other words, this show is zany, unreal, madcap, utterly unique frat-boy humor, but often feels much more out-of-control than truly funny.



Lie to Me  
Based on most of the first season.

Yet another technical crime-solving episodic show with a high concept: Reading body language and micro-expressions as a means of solving crimes, problems and mysteries. This one features Tim Roth as the protagonist and main character, promising another potential House, and his personality does indeed give the show an edge, except he seems better suited as a bad guy. Shawn Ryan is on the producer credit list, but not as a writer, and this didn't turn out to be of importance. The writing is episodic mystery (or mysteries) of the week, which limits the show, and the arcs are limited to minimal character development. In short, the structure is like House. The problem here is that the use of this concept is a mix of fact and fantasy, and you can tell when the show is lying to you. Body language can be revealing, but not as neatly, easily and conveniently as this show would have you believe. Some of the writing makes it difficult for our heroic body-language-readers with false clues and bad conclusions, but these are minor exceptions. The majority of cases are solved with a mix of cleverness and implausible convenience, psycho-gobbledygook, and contrivances. The readings also often feel simplistic, and the micro-expressions are emphasized and made obvious for us dumb audiences. In short, a mixed bag, interesting for a few episodes, and only minimally entertaining for the rest.



MacGyver  
Based on most of the first season and some scattered episodes.

Amidst the trend of 80s super and unusual spies/crime-fighters like Knight Rider and A-Team, MacGyver stands out: Although the A-Team used the gimmick of building weapons with miscellaneous found objects first, MacGyver took this to a whole new level, in essence creating a show about inventiveness and using the mind as a weapon. He consistently refuses to carry guns, using only a swiss-army knife and anything he can find to achieve his goals and save the day. This was so impressively demonstrated, the word MacGyver has become a common verb. The show also boasts a firm base in science and facts. But all this isn't as good as it sounds: For one thing, that's like saying that a movie is based on a book. Just because there are real facts involved, it doesn't make the stunt plausible. For example, using a water hose to lift and move a rock doesn't provide support for the rocks on top of it, and squashing the barrel of a flare pistol to create a rocket thruster is obviously very questionable. Other times, the setup seems contrived just to show off an overly complicated trick, and then there is the whole idea that he can always find what he needs on the scene and that the tricks always work for him. But there is no denying a lot of the inventiveness of this show. The plots are very varied, and Macgyver fights anything from Burmese drug lords to con men, hit men, racists, foreign armies, and lab disasters, working for the government, the Phoenix Foundation or a friend. As with its peers, the show is cheesy and features a parade of terribly realized 'foreigners' and actors, but Richard Dean Anderson is OK, there are some great episodes and the MacGyver moments make it somewhat worthwhile. Some interesting trivia: Terry Nation of Doctor Who fame produced and wrote some of the episodes.



Numb3rs  
Based on most of the first season.

Yet another episodic CSI clone but with a gimmick: Criminal cases are solved with the help of math in various ways. Detective work and forensics combine forces with academic minds, solving crimes as though they were puzzles with the help of equations. Although this sounds interesting, it doesn't take long to realize that this is a gimmick even before seeing this show. I expected some flashy, superficial use of equations and mathematical jargon that neatly solve cases in the nick of time, and that's more or less what I got. Mathematical models for highly complex situations are plucked out of thin air that somehow always fit, some parameters are chosen all too quickly, that not only always end up correct in most of the cases, but also somehow give the crime-solvers enough confidence to deduce that errors must be in the facts and not in the math, despite their own often used claim that they are dealing with probabilities, and conclusions or predictions are made in relatively very little time. In addition, mathematical concepts are often raised to make it appear that the math is solving the crime, but when you really think about it, most of the important parts of the puzzle are actually solved using common sense and the equations are only there as academic exercises. The show is even worse when it veers into computer jargon or tries to give the mathematician unsurpassed and unrealistic skills in every field imaginable just because he has a brain. All that said, there are two things that make this show watchable: One is that the writers did the best they could to make this mentally interesting. They raise possible applications of real math, show interesting parallels between reality and real mathematical concepts, and generally imbue the show with an academic air of mental gymnastics. In other words, despite the complete lack of realism, the show has a brain. The other thing about the show is the inclusion of celebrity family and academic friends that lend the show all of its humanity and color, including Judd Hirsch as the father and an increasingly great Peter MacNicol as the eccentric physicist that gives the show much needed snippets of humor.



Burn Notice  
Based on the first season.

A US spy is given 'burn notice' for mysterious reasons, and he finds himself abandoned, discredited and controlled by forces in the US government to the point that he is unable to find a new job. So he takes on tricky jobs in Miami helping friends or clients that find themselves in big trouble with criminal elements, including various mobs, professional criminals and drug cartels. His ex-spy, ex-IRA, trigger-happy super-hot ex-girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar) and another ex-spy (Bruce Campbell) help him with his cases, and his mother, who lives in Miami, makes his life difficult. Half of the cases appeal to him and his samaritan heart, so he takes them on as a favor, even though it means tackling incredibly dangerous opponents. Yes, this show is never believable and is as ridiculous as the above description sounds. In addition, the hero is quite bland, and Bruce Campbell doesn't do much, although his hordes of fans are obviously calling this a cult show for no good reason. But the main appeal of this show is its inventiveness and the fact that he has to solve these challenges with low-tech brainpower alone given the fact that he has no money or government backing. Cellphones are overused, there are improvised MacGyver-esque solutions, and many con-jobs and clever setups are employed as well. This alone makes the show watchable, there's welcome light humor, and of course, Gabrielle is a pleasure to look at. The structure is mostly episodic case-of-the-week, and there is a story arc concerning his attempts to track down who burned him and why. But this arc progresses one painfully tiny step at a time and every time he gets something it only turns out to be more convoluted than before, so you soon realize this is just a red herring and audience manipulation, ignore it, and focus on the weekly cases. Passable, light entertainment.



Moonlighting  
Based on scattered episodes of the first two seasons.

The TV show that launched Bruce Willis's career right before he appeared in Die Hard. Cybill Shepherd is an ex-model down on her financial luck, who discovers she owns a failing detective agency run by the wisecracking Willis. They agree to team up after they discover they work together well, with Cybill motivating Bruce to work harder with a mixture of sexual tension, financial threats, and plain old bossing around, but they both instantly develop a love/hate relationship with each other. Cases pop up and are solved one per episode, often involving some kind of twist as their clients aren't who they claim to be, and usually ending with some thrilling action. The show is formulaic in other ways as well, with Cybill starting off annoyed over something, Bruce firing off smart-alecky retorts and jokes that only make things worse, leading to many arguments, until they ease off for a happy ending. The bickering is sometimes funny due to their personality clash and Bruce's wisecracks, frequently repetitive, and sometimes annoying, making their performance feel one-dimensional at times. The strictly episodic structure is also a flaw and their relationship almost never changed until they got together and then the ratings dropped. But it's generally a mildly fun mixture of thrills, personality clashes and madcap, silly comedy. The show was famous for sometimes breaking the fourth wall, with Bruce and Cybill referring to the screenwriters and the audience, and some episodes experimented with references to literature classics. Also arguably an inferior Remington Steele clone since it copied the setup of female boss detective and arrogant scoundrel male employee.



City of Men  
Based on most of all four seasons.

Although technically a spin-off of the movie City of God, this is a very different creation. It's a very loose ongoing series that focuses on 'ordinary life' in the favella, the Brazil crime-ridden slum, centering on two eleven-year-olds as they grow older over a period of four years. Each rapid-paced 30-minute episode tells a little tale or adventure involving anything from deals and shaky friendships made with the local machine-gun-toting gangs, attempts at getting together with girls, interactions with the richer folk in the nearby neighbourhood (which may as well be a different country), and their many schemes, efforts or cons to try to make a buck. It starts interestingly with a gritty feel of a documentary as you get the feel for this way of life, then keeps getting looser, less interesting, and more playful and sillier with its stories and little adventures. Some episodes feature a life-lesson without it getting preachy, others just have fun with pickups, friends, schemes and parties and numerous little crises caused by the warring gangs, invading police, gun battles, and general chaotic lifestyle.



Boomtown  
Based on half of the first season.

An overrated cop show with a gimmick: Crimes are explored through the eyes of several participants, including policemen, detectives, a lawyer, a reporter, a paramedic, various criminals and other involved people. I expected a Rashomon-like approach or at least contrasting perspectives, but instead got a poorly implemented gimmick. If you take any cop show and separate the scenes involving each individual character then add chapter titles, you'd get this show, and the show wouldn't gain anything from it except to make the plot needlessly non-linear. It also gets distracting and tiresome after a while. The focus, at first, is mostly on crime-fighting plots and police procedures as if it were trying to create a variation on the Law and Order franchise, but since the editing revolves around the people, it becomes increasingly more dramatic with snippets of personal dramas and flashbacks that explore even temporary characters' pasts. Sometimes this strikes a good balance with the action, but the episodic nature of these dramas and the lack of compelling story arcs don't let this grow either. In short, a weakly structured and mediocre, gimmick cop show that is only sporadically entertaining. The Wire took the concept of capturing a complete picture of crime miles ahead of this.



I, Cladius  

A historical BBC mini-series covering the beginnings of the Roman Empire period from Augustus to Nero from the point of view of Claudius. Some of the details are based on fact, others on speculation or non-authoritative historical sources (for example the poisoning of various members of the Imperial family by Livia). This in itself may or may not put off history buffs but the real problem in my eyes is the simplified and sensationalist approach to characterization. Augustus seems like a nice guy but not a ruler, Claudius is idealized, Livia is demonized, Nero is a buffoon, Caligula is too obviously insane, etc. Any historically alleged sensationalist events are explored gleefully as fact and depicted over-the-top in tabloid fashion. The drama, especially in the first half of the series, often wallows in soap rather than insight. The lack of scenery, grand scale, insight, or Shakespearean dialog doesn't help matters either. All that said however, the series is sometimes interesting and Caligula (John Hurt) livens up the show.



Borgen  
Based on the first season.

Danish political drama that features a female prime-minister, mostly episodic political crises in the vein of West Wing, and season-long character development in the form of some family drama and the love interests of a reporter. The quality of the episodes varies: Some feature interesting crises and political machinations, where the problem usually grows increasingly hopeless before someone figures out a desperate or manipulative solution. Other episodes are weak and uninteresting. Her relationship with her husband provides some OK but not-quite-compelling drama, however, the reporter character and her various love interests and problems are badly written and chaotic. The political solutions sometimes feel contrived, with her opponents conveniently caving in at the last moment for no compelling reason, and the intelligence of the show is acceptable but not as impressive as with West Wing. In short, a barely above-average political show.



Agatha Christie's Poirot  
Based on several scattered episodes from a few seasons.

I was never a big fan of Agatha Christie's mysteries, finding many of them contrived, convoluted, coincidental or all of the above. Several mysteries involve two or more crimes coincidentally performed during the same event, Christie typically carefully builds the clues and motives so that they point to multiple suspects, and although we can figure out scattered methods and motives, we are none the wiser regarding the big picture and who actually did it, simply because Poirot usually holds back one critical clue or detail that only he knows and reveals at the grand denouement. And then, when all is revealed, the coincidences, psychological plot flaws and convolutions often threaten to unravel the whole story. In short, I rarely felt satisfied at the end of an Agatha Christie's story, and the denouement scene in front of all of the suspects at the end of every mystery tends to become repetitive. Still, there is fun to be had with the puzzles, and some mysteries are better than others. This show contains definitive adaptations of probably most of her Poirot stories, and actually manages to improve on the novels thanks to David Suchet's definitive and charming performance as the finicky, strange, pedantic but brilliant and charming detective. He does to Poirot what Jeremy Brett did to Sherlock Holmes. In fact, he brings the character to life perhaps even better than Christie ever did. The production values, settings and acting are also usually very good. But the mysteries contain the flaws I mentioned above, although 'Five Little Pigs' is one enjoyable exception I found where Christie mostly plays fair. Episodes were typically hour-long, with feature-length TV movies devoted to the more notable and complex novels.



Matador  
Based on most of all four seasons.

Danish classic serial drama and saga spanning 20 years, taking place during the 1930s and 40s. Similar to Heimat in some ways but more intimate, realistic, and less formal, this is a very detailed and well-written series with dozens of characters that manages to have a sense of irony, justice and high-drama, but also a true-to-life approach. The heart of the story is the clash of the conservative rich elite that have been throttling a growing town, and a newcomer entrepreneur with a strict moral discipline and strong work ethic who starts by opening a competitive clothes store opposite the elitist monopolizing store run by snobs. He brings his own financial resourcefulness after being shunned by the local bank who is in cahoots with the local elitist rich, and slowly builds an empire. The show balances lots of wheeling and dealing, politics, many many story-lines involving various family dramas, births, deaths, affairs, romances, and the many clashes between the two families or opposing political social circles, all strained much further by WWII and the occupation of the Nazis. Although it can get a bit soapy and it does move quite slowly throughout it's 27-hour running time, the rich cast of characters, good writing and the detailed family saga did and should appeal to many. Although I tuned out after a while, I can appreciate its qualities.



Cranford  

This mini-series should be referenced in the dictionary under 'chick-flick'. Based on three stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, this is another Victorian female-oriented drama that is not as soapish and overwrought as Wives and Daughters, but still lacking the deeper themes of North & South. It's a complex, rich tapestry of characters and stories, taking place in a town called Cranford where spinsters, old maids, widows, maids, and noblewomen reign, and men are only there to do the carpentry, doctoring, hunting, serve as love objects, or just get in the way of the women and their habits. Gossip and propriety have been let loose and have grown rampant like a plague, but the series doesn't look down on this, and instead portrays their lives with sympathy, respect, class and depth and allows each and every one of them to emerge as complex, often eccentric or charming characters. An endless stream of medical emergencies or deaths provide the drama, that is when they aren't undergoing a crisis involving a rare piece of lace swallowed by a cat, or yelling at men for bringing progress into their quiet town. The actresses and actors are all top notch, and bring the many characters to life with all their humor and pathos. The stories are so numerous they seem like vignettes, but it does eventually build up for a somewhat satisfying finale. The long journey severely tested the patience of my testosterone however.



Only Fools and Horses  
Based on the first and third seasons.

An overrated classic Britcom about a streetwise, show-off con-man and his younger, slower, more inhibited brother who wheel and deal and try to make quick money with dodgy goods or schemes every episode while trying to impress the women. They live with their grandfather and bicker constantly. It's amusing and somewhat witty at times, but isn't as clever as its reputation, relying too often on cheap laughs, insults or obviously dumb behaviour, and the laughs are scarce since you can see the punchlines coming most of the time. Most seem to adore this show however (its rated #1 in England) and it feels inspired by Steptoe and Son - but I don't particularly enjoy the characters. Needs more charisma.



How to Make It in America  
Based on the first season.

To compare anything to Entourage is to sink a show, and this show, although a mild and unexciting dramedy, does not deserve that. Two average twenty-somethings in New York have aspirations for actualizing the American dream. To this end they come up with half-cooked plans for making money via clothes, combining energy, street-hustle, luck and stubbornness to reach their goals. It doesn't always go their way though and they have to improvise, adjust, or go back to the drawing board to deal with numerous challenges and obstacles. They acquire money from various sources including their rent money, an ex-con cousin, and a Jewish friend, and their dreams inch forward painfully slowly while they deal with their love-lives or ex-girlfriends in their spare time. Although unexciting, this remains very watchable because it is kept real and the guys are giving it their best. There is no glamor, and although the ex-con angle involves criminals, nothing outrageous happens. Watchable but mild.



Miranda  
Based on the first two seasons.

Normally I wouldn't imagine myself enjoying a show with a comedienne who acts as an obnoxiously awkward, immature, irrevocably silly, socially challenged and horny loser with a penchant for revealing icky details about herself in public or falling over objects. But it's a big compliment to Miranda Hart that she manages to make a lot of this silly material funny thanks to great comic timing and a down-to-earth disarming personality. I mean if she were even the slightest bit smug, this would never work. That said, the comedy in this series varies greatly, and ranges from the dumb predictable jokes, broad physical comedy and characters, over-the-top silliness and even some fart jokes, to energetic fun, inspired funny reactions, snarky honesty, self-deprecating humor, fun silliness, and sometimes even rolling-on-the-floor hilarious awkward behaviour. In short, it's a kind of not-quite-chick-flick show that will most likely polarize audiences depending on how her personality strikes you and whether you can get over the more silly bits. The episodes revolve around the huge and clumsy Miranda, her petite friend and manager at her joke-shop, her crush on the hunk chef at the restaurant, her mother who desperately tries to get her married and who leads all-too-active sex life, and various other very colorful friends. The first season favors the dumb stuff a bit too often, but the second season improves a lot, and that's when I decided to quit while they were ahead.



Vicar of Dibley, The  
Based on the first season and some scattered episodes.

Dawn French is the new Vicar of Dibley, a small town full of eccentric characters who are at first shocked to see a woman running their church. Dawn French is a lively, boisterous but very warm character and one would expect this show to be full of feminist tirades or hard-edged comedy, but disappointingly, it's a very gentle, run-of-the-mill, moderately amusing comedy about how she interacts with her dumb, strange or insane parishioners and the day-to-day issues that rise in a small village. Warm, amusing but mild.



Father Ted  
Based on the first season.

Three priests, one violent alcoholic with a penchant for cursing and punching people, one fairly normal, and the other incredibly idiotic, are assigned to a tiny island in Ireland in the middle of nowhere with nothing interesting going on. A very pushy housekeeper forces them to drink tea and take walks, and they are visited regularly by nuns and people with very strange personalities. The acting is over-the-top and the situations and dialog very silly. Delivers amusing antics, and the cursing deviant priest is always good for a few chuckles, but it's too silly in general.



Pillars of the Earth  

Mini-series based on the popular historical novel by Ken Follett which I haven't read. Unfortunately, the series, although interesting, fails to compel, mainly due to very poor characterizations. This epic story takes place in 12th century England, when the only heir to the throne dies mysteriously and leaves chaos, war and power games as the the next potential heir becomes a disputed issue and opposing alliances are formed. But the real meat of the story focuses on the town of Kingsbridge and uses the project of building a new magnificent cathedral even in the midst of poverty, brutality and war, as a metaphor for human perseverance and aspiration. This only becomes clear towards the end though, the rest of the series focusing on nastiness, evil people, conspiracies, extreme selfishness and raw ambition, with barely a couple of likeable people in the whole show. The scores of characters and plot developments would take too long to summarize, so suffice it to say that this is an epic story. But McShane as a Machiavellian 'priest' is cartoonish and so obvious in his motivations and ambition that he never convinces, especially when he punishes himself before God or conspires with other people who still see him as a holy man for some reason. Sewell as Tom Builder seems stoned and phones it in. Several other characters and their motivations are crudely drawn and don't make sense. Some developments feel disjointed or rushed, and others fail to make sense. For example, why did burning down the church allow them to stay and build a new one? They could have kept the old church and rebuilt it, or built a new one next to it for food and lodging in just the same way. And why would Bigod become so obsessed with stopping the building when it is obviously a petty matter and he had much more ambitious schemes on his plate? The settings are nicely done, the story had lots of potential, but this series failed to grab me.



Elizabeth R  

A BBC 70s production similar to Six Wives of Henry VIII dealing with the life of Queen Elizabeth I. It starts with the sickly child King Edward VI who leaves a mess behind after his death, with succession disputes and only female heirs. It follows her imprisonment and battle for the throne with Queen Mary I, her endless pressures to marry, her various loves, the war with Spain and Mary Queen of Scots, and so on, until her death. The production is limited and theatrical, even a bit more so than Six Wives, with pretty good costumes, but weak makeup, and limited outdoor scenes. The writing and dialogue is formal and rich, but not poetically Shakespearean. Some actors (such as Slater as Mary I) act overly theatrical and stilted, and this mars the show, as well as the many lengthy scenes that are simply not consequential or compelling. The first episode also assumes too much knowledge in its audience and its narrative is therefore confusing. Some episodes and scenes are better than others, and Glenda Jackson is quite good as a stern, intelligent and strong-willed queen. Overall, it should appeal only to audiences that enjoy low-budget theatrical productions and talky historically-accurate series. I thought it needed a lot of editing and more naturalism.



Karaoke  

Dennis Potter's swan-song, featuring more interweaving layers as in Singing Detective, only not as tightly woven or interesting this time. The concept of Karaoke as a pre-destined script for people who want to sing is used as a metaphor as well as a plot device. Daniel Feeld is a writer for TV whose writings lately seem to have bled into reality. People around him start to use lines from his script, characters appear with the same names and backgrounds, and suddenly, the people involved in creating the TV show find that the themes in the screenplay can be applied to their real lives. Feeld, in the meantime, is battling a rapidly degenerating stomach disease, drawing chilling parallels with Potter's life at the time of writing. The metaphysical explorations of a writer's relationship to his subject matter, created reality, and the question of whether art imitates life or vice versa make this an interesting series. On the other hand, it takes half the show just to get off the ground, and the actual story (shown in snippets) is not so interesting. Good acting and colorful characters, interesting themes, but not constructed so well.



Equalizer, The  
Based on most of the first season.

80s episodic action-thriller show (some early work by the producer of 24) with a neat concept: An ex-spy with a guilty conscience and a talent for solving big dangerous problems decides to retire and lend his talent to people in need. He works as a volunteer, hero and samaritan to anyone in over their heads in danger from various criminal elements where no help is forthcoming from the police. He tackles anything from stalkers that haven't broken any laws, to corrupt cops, to kidnappings, to normal people somehow getting entangled with killers, criminal gangs, mobs, or deadly spies. The writing varies greatly from silly and implausible 80s action and huge problems solved all-too-neatly at the end of every episode, to some occasionally sharper episodes with clever problem solving and quick thinking. Edward Woodward in the role of McCall carries and makes the show, however, oozing personality and confident authority, and you have no problem believing he doesn't care about his life and that handling dangerous criminals is peanuts compared to his previous life work. Episodic, with limited writing skills, and highly implausible neat solutions, but still quite entertaining.



Action  
Based on the single season.

Before Extras came along, there was this short-lived comedy series that brutally satirized the cut-throat and sleazy business of Hollywood. Peter Dragon is a Bruckheimer-like producer of mindless but successful action movies with a nasty personality backed by arrogance. His last movie flopped and his new movie that is supposed to save his career brings one disaster, crisis, failure and outrageous situation after another. He finds himself working with a Jewish writer whom he hates, he hires a prostitute, his actor is a junkie, his actress turns up fat, etc. Although the season is a continuous story, each episode deals with Hollywood from different angles, including scandals and ridiculous gossip, to cut-throat business, sleazy deals for product placement, prima donnas, gay politics, publicity cover-ups, abuse of writers, and sexual or exploitative relationships, all handled with brutally cold rudeness and crudity. The show is mostly for watchers of Hollywood gossip as it throws scores of nasty references to celebrities, and even surprises with celebrity cameos in shocking and inappropriate roles (e.g. Sandra Bullock as a slut). Moderately entertaining and occasionally witty, but, like Arrested Development, it is much less funny and clever than it thinks it is.



Cheers  
Based on most of the first season.

Classic but overrated and typically 80s sitcom with colorful characters and an audience that laughs at every phrase of dialog. The setting is a bar where everyone is like a family. Lead characters include the skirt-chasing, shallow owner, a snobbish, chatterbox swot of a woman, another waitress who is a spitfire, sometimes abrasive single-mother, and a slow-witted pushover ex-baseball-coach. The writing is amusing with occasionally hilarious episodes, but is generally mild and the female lead tends to get annoying. One standout is the funny love/hate attraction between the shallow owner and the snob who both can't stand each other yet can't stop flirting and insulting each other to no end.



Wire in the Blood  
Based on most of the first two seasons.

One can really overdose on all of these murder-mystery shows, as well as on its sub-genre of serial-killers and the detectives and profilers chasing them. It's a very crowded genre and this British show doesn't add much that is new. A socially-challenged psychologist is hired by the police to help them catch unusual murderers and serial killers. Cases usually take two episodes, and are therefore movie-length. There's a largely uninteresting relationship with a female cop, as well as with his trainee-students, and, like with many American shows, the cases often involve their personal and professional lives and the people they know. If they focused more on his character it could have been more interesting, but his quirks and eccentricities, and his problems when interacting with people seem to come and go on the writers' whims. The writing varies: Some deductions and insights can be pretty brilliant, others repeat the same problems that plague most of these shows: Wild speculation that leads to instant results, or insights that he could never have gotten from the measly clues. In the first episode, he introduces himself to the policemen saying that his work is largely speculative. The writers should have taken a page out their own book. But there is the occasional good writing that is reminiscent of the benchmark in this genre: Cracker. And they do allow him to make some mistakes here and there, so it's not a complete waste of time. Be warned though that the killers and violence can get quite grisly and dark. In short, too influenced by American shows, and mostly formulaic, albeit with enough strong moments and good acting to make it above-average.



Millennium  
Based on most of the first season.

By the makers and writers of X-Files comes this study in evil and murder. Frank Black is a psychic ex-FBI who specialized in profiling and catching serial killers but is now doing it for personal reasons. He also works for an ultra-professional mysterious agency named Millennium that consults for law-enforcement. The show is dark, heavy, serious, violent and moody, but unfortunately, it is also monotonous and the episodic nature of the show doesn't help. Whereas X-Files had variety, this just features one uninspired brooding story after another involving a twisted killer. Some stories border on the supernatural, featuring cults and religious freaks and the procedural detective work element is undermined by the psychic deus-ex-machinas. It muses on evil and twisted psychology but never digs into anything properly. Watchable but uninspired.



Office, The  
Based on both seasons.

A very unique show that gets its so-called laughs not by being funny but by being painful, awkward, embarrassing and annoying, portraying the worst of familiar cringe-inducing office behaviour. The show is filmed with shaky cameras, the actors are always aware of the camera and seem to be improvising, all this lending a realistic feel to the happenings. The manager is an overly confident character who thinks he's funny, efficient and popular but in reality is barely tolerated, and annoys or embarrasses his employees daily as they try to make the office productive despite him. His assistant is a childish, uptight strange teenager who thinks he's a tough army man, the secretary is constantly harassed and a victim of crass male behaviour, and several other characters fill this dysfunctional office. Back-stabbings, childish teasing, jealousy, womanizing, bureaucracy and other issues develop awkward and tense atmospheres until things break down.

The first season tends to get dull often. The second season becomes much more brutal and gripping after a merger emphasizes the problems with the manager's tactics. A painful show but masochistically addictive.



Strangers With Candy  
Based on the first season.

After a pilot that is jaw-droppingly bizarre, this unfunny but cult TV show merely settles for the oddball and crass, mixing There's Something About Mary frat-boy toilet-humor with twisted teenagers in high-school Southparkian comedy and a dash of Zucker-Abrahams zaniness. Jerri is a 47 year old ex-drug addict that tries to pick up her life where she left it 32 years ago... in high-school. She has to deal with the usual teenage problems like popularity, homecoming queen jealousy, snitching, homework, parents, etc. only from the perspective of a trashy drug-abuser straight out of a John Waters movie. The teachers and parents are off-the-wall eccentric and even surreal, taking showers in their offices, sitting horribly frozen in their chairs like a corpse, and saying what their subconscious wants instead of what they are thinking. The plots are over-the-top silly involving things like informing on a fellow student for being a retard, the humor is extremely politically incorrect and deliberately offensive, joking about racism one second and uterus scraping the next. A show with a logic of its own that must be seen to be believed.



A-Team, The  
Based on most of the first season and some scattered episodes.

It doesn't get more 80s than this. Silly action-comedy with colorful male characters, an old-school hurrah for testosterone, no character development, and an unrelenting emphasis on action-entertainment. The A-Team is a group of four outlandish, problematic but very capable ex-soldiers on the run from the law due to a misunderstanding. They evade the law while accepting various challenging missions from anyone with some money or a good cause. John 'Hannibal' Smith is the quick-witted leader with a talent for disguises. "Howling Mad" Murdock is insane as a hobby, has a talent for piloting and machinery, and lives in an insane asylum which he has to break out of to go on missions. 'Faceman' Peck is a charmer and con-man who acquires anything the team needs, and then, of course, there's Mr. T as the bad-ass, muscle-man "Bad Attitude" Baracus who has to be drugged to go on plane trips and is kind to children. They fight small armies, cults, gangs, terrorists or criminals, get the equipment they need using improvisation, build some weapons on the fly, yet somehow never kill or even seriously injure anyone. Colorful and silly entertainment that ranges from mildly fun to stupid fun. I wasn't even drawn to this as a kid, but it's an OK time-waster mostly due to the actors having fun.



Pride and Prejudice  

Often praised as the definitive version of the classic novel by Jane Austen but I feel this to be over-eager. The novel is the archetype of romantic comedy, boasting strong characters and superb dialogue, and explores themes of pride as an obstacle to relationships. A country family with five unwed daughters, a marriage-obsessed mother, some bumbling suitors and a moody, arrogant rich man create their own obstacles towards the ultimate goal of marriage in a comedy of manners. Although the screenplay is faithful to the novel in many of its details, it's the characterizations that are flawed, most being pushed indelicately over-the-top. Lizzie is a little too smug to be likeable in the end, Darcy is too angry and full of contempt. Mrs. Bennet is annoying and Mr. Collins is comical without inhabiting a real person. Still, this is a fairly good adaptation, but for perfect casting, rich production values and even some welcome, judicious editing, see the 2005 movie version.



Jesus of Nazareth  

I suppose this would be an impressive mini-series for Christian believers, seeing as it is a mostly reverent adaptation of the New Testament. But what can it offer the rest of us? It adds no insight, no interesting characterizations, takes no risks, and just tells the story faithfully from its seemingly single source. Jewish sources and viewpoints on Jesus by the rabbis of the time are obviously non-existent. The casting is full of stars and superb actors, the production is quite good and faultless, it tells the story comprehensively and carefully from the beginning to the end, including his birth and teachings, as if the New Testament was a screenplay. But it is pedestrian and superficial, like a family-friendly picture book to accompany the New Testament, and therefore doesn't have anything to say, only to show.



Mayor of Casterbridge, The (2003)  

A&E 3 hour mini-series based on the Thomas Hardy classic and great novel that deals with an angry, bitter and proud man who keeps ruining his life. I can't help but compare this version to the superb Dennis Potter version and this one suffers greatly as a result. The actors are mediocre at best, some of them miscast, and the most critical one, the Mayor himself, doesn't have the depth needed to fill the shoes of such a complex man who needs to be both angry and sympathetic at the same time. I don't feel that the film-makers understood the characters and scenes, and in such a moving tragedy and deep character study such as this, all of these flaws are fatal. Even the relatively higher production values do the opposite of helping this version, the original capturing the rural and poor lifestyles more convincingly. In short, a weak series made impressive only because of the story it is based on. Watch Potter's version instead.



IT Crowd, The  
Based on the first season.

Nerd and computer humor is a rich source of endless hilarity which hits close to work, as demonstrated by the likes of Dilbert. So I was extremely disappointed when a show popped up that allegedly revolves around IT people, yet is so broadly drawn that it bears almost no resemblance to the world of IT. Computer geeks may be highly eccentric and socially challenged, but they are not stupid, neither are they the cartoon characters that this show makes them out to be. Two hopeless IT losers work in a hellish basement from which they give tech support that consists mainly of telling people to plug their computers in. A girl who knows nothing about computers is sent to manage them, and together, they try to make their way through life, dating and work crises. A good setup, but the writing is so stupid and over-the-top that the show and the characters are more cartoonish than funny. Things like a goth kept prisoner in the server room, synchronized PMS amongst tech-men and German cannibals don't improve matters, but I must admit that the show is so over-the-top and silly that it generates some laughs. By the creator of Father Ted, and it shows.



Bates Motel  
Based on the first season.

Telling the back-story of a classic and popular serial killer may seem like a commercially good idea, especially after Dexter proved the success of serial killers on TV, but it is misguided. The mystery of Norman Bates is always going to be much more interesting than what any TV writers can come up with, and padding it out to a series simply can't work. That said, there are some elements that are interesting and pretty well done in this show, some that are bland, and some that are just bad. Norman Bates is a teenager here, acted nicely by Freddie Highmore with a good balance of sensitivity, emotional behaviour and a dark, obsessive side. He just moved into the motel with his mother, and there's a black sheep of the family in the shape of a rebellious, angry brother. The heart is Norman's very unhealthy relationship with his mother, obviously. There is too much closeness, too much dependency, smothering, and a very suspicious view at females, especially after a bad fling with a superficial teenage girl who uses him. A lot of this is done quite well, except that most of it is ordinary teenage woe and wouldn't turn someone into a serial killer. And with this, the show cheats, by making him already a repressed and emotionally-challenged killer to begin with. So those expecting an 'origin' story will be disappointed. Evidently, this show posits that killers are born, not made. And then there is the poor aspect of this show, turning the town they live in into a fantasy land of criminals, where everyone and her dad seems to be involved in crime involving drugs or the sex trade. Murders are a dime a dozen, and the Bates family's lives keep getting more and more complicated to ridiculous proportions. In summary, it's a mixed bag, and there is some entertainment value, but there is nothing compelling here thanks to much misguided commercial exploitation and silly padding in an attempt to make it more thrilling.



Bored to Death  
Based on the first season.

A slowly improving show that maintains the tone of Curb of Your Enthusiasm, but features a more Woody-Allen-loser type of protagonist rather than a Seinfeld-jerk personality. Jason Schwartzman (who looks like Roman Polanski's nephew), acts as a pot-smoking slacker pining for his ex-girlfriend who decides to post an ad for amateur private investigation services. He turns out to be pretty good at it, but usually not with the outcome he expects. His neuroses compels him to befriend or hit on both his clients and perps, his eccentric boss (a funny Ted Danson) keeps calling him for help with his latest outrageous crisis, while his cartoonist friend, who is always hungry for sex from his controlling wife, assists. The situations and adventures include things like a Russian romantic criminal, angry skateboarders and hiding a herpes sore. Not as well structured as Curb, and tends to remain mostly uneventful, but it gets a little funnier with every episode.



Newhart  
Based on scattered episodes of the first two seasons.

80s sitcom with Bob Newhart, funnier than his 70s shrink sitcom, but only mildly so and once again with broadly-drawn characters. The setup involves a city couple that moves to a small town in Vermont, taking over a historical inn. The local, colorful and eccentric folk provide fodder for the ongoing misadventures and comedy. They include their staff that consists of a simple-minded caretaker who doesn't seem to know much about anything, and a spoiled heiress who for some reason works as their maid. There's also the slick-talking, lying owner of a burger joint, and three rednecks called Larry, Darryl and Darryl with strange hobbies. Besides the fact that their staff doesn't seem capable of doing anything, the inn never seems to take up much of their time as they always find other things to do like hosting a TV show. That aside, and the fact that the locals seem more like cartoon characters than anything resembling reality, there are several amusing moments per episode and it's kinda fun. Mildly.



North and South      

Epic 80s series about the American Civil War split into three mini-series totalling 24 hours. The first series covers the era leading up to the war, the rising tensions between North and South revolving around the issues of slavery and financial independence, during the period when the US was stealing Texas from fellow colonialists in Mexico. The second series (the best of the lot) covers the war itself, and the very poor third mini-series covers the reconstruction after the war. The majority of the show covers the drama of two extended families from both north and south, after two men from each household became life-long friends at West Point, only to find themselves at opposite sides of the war years later. Different family members represent the many different kinds of viewpoints at the time, leading to backstabbing feuds, enemies, romances, and friendships. So, in between the historical details, figures and events, and the many social upheavals and issues of the day, we get a grand family drama that frequently becomes very soapy. There's a slut-bitch of a sister who schemes and uses every advantage she can find straight out of a very bad soap opera, as well as some 100% evil characters, and saintly characters without flaws. In between these cardboard characters, there are the much more interesting characters of Orry (Swayze), a proud Southern man who finds his ideals and more moderate views challenged despite his good treatment of slaves, as well as his friend in the North who sometimes finds it difficult to be so close with a slave-owning friend. Also, and thankfully, this is not a liberal love-fest, with Kirstie Alley as a fanatic abolitionist who puts her family often in danger, and even an angry black man who takes his violent reactions too far. There is also some battle tactics, politics, profiteering schemes, lots of romance, personal feuds, military drama, action, and more. In summary, this is an awkward mix of bad soap opera, good historical drama, and both good and bad characters, which can easily alternate several times in the same episode from trash to epic saga. As such, it reminded me of the series Winds of War/War and Remembrance, also due to its improvement in the second series, and also due to its mix of banality and epic history, but, unlike War and Remembrance, it did not recover enough, nor favor its better elements enough, to emerge a classic.



Winds of War, The  

80s epic mini-series based on Wouk's novel revolving around an extended family during WWII. This series covers the period from Hitler's expansions until Pearl Harbor. The narration has several family members, friends, lovers and in-laws drift all over the world due to circumstances or personal drives, finding themselves taking part in many historical events while the world leaders plan and discuss the future. The father is an American naval officer and his perceptive eye catches the attention of Roosevelt who sends him to attempt an agreement with Hitler and Mussolini, a son gets involved with a Jewish family in Europe who soon find themselves wandering between countries trying to escape the conquering Germans, and the writing all-too-often takes advantage of hindsight to make its heroes seem all-knowing. Thus, the series attempts an epic drama that explores WWII through personal viewpoints and lives. While the historical backdrop, the many political and military discussions, and some war-related scenes are strong, the biggest problem here is that the balance is all off. All too often, the show feels like the cast of Dynasty has been transported into a WWII movie with a couple of especially despicable and selfish female characters that contribute to the soapy drama involving a love triangle as well as a love quadrangle. Also, most of the acting is merely adequate, and the characterizations simplistic, which means mostly uninteresting characters. Bellamy is very good as Roosevelt, Churchill gets a nice representation, Mitchum as the father of the extended family is his usual dry self, and Hitler gets a badly cartoonish and over-the-top performance. In short, an epic series that is too flawed to enjoy. The sequel War and Remembrance is a huge improvement.



Blackeyes  

A Dennis Potter TV series dealing with the war of the genders, exploitation of women and celebrities, and the implications of creating and manipulating fictional people by writers. Blackeyes is a model, a doll pushed around and manipulated by everyone. On one level, Blackeyes is in a dramatic tabloid-esque story of a model's life gone down the drain. On another level, she is a fictional character created by a literary eccentric writer who makes her do slutty things. On another level, other characters in the TV series all want a piece of her and seem to be able to manipulate the story for their own purposes, one man projecting his romantic fantasies on her, another exploiting her seemingly wanton character and beautiful body, and an exasperated female character seeing herself in Blackeyes, exploited and abused as she was in her childhood. And on yet another level, the narrator comments, spits, laughs, influences and yells at all the goings on. Who is really in charge and who will Blackeyes choose? This is another complex Potter creation with many interweaving layers, but unfortunately it is extremely drawn out, without enough material to keep it interesting for four episodes.



Spaced  
Based on most of both seasons.

British cult comedy featuring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes of Shaun of the Dead fame doing what they know best: making a comedy about losers that relies heavily on spoofs and pop-culture references. Tim is a failing cartoonist, Daisy is a failing writer, they pretend to be a couple in order to rent a good flat with a moody landlady and a tortured artist as a neighbour. Together with the weapon-crazy Mike and other friends, they imagine crazy adventures out of mundane circumstances. The comedy is mostly understated and revels in spoofs or obscure references with eccentric and surprising turns, resulting in a kind of creative laid-back comedy for lazy slackers on drugs. I appreciate the unique charms of this show, but, once you get past this uniqueness, the comedy is merely mild, and most of the spoofs and references don't really add much except to give movie geeks a chance to show off their movie knowledge. Some are funny, some are used to enhance the situations, but the rest are mere recreations or movie quotes that add nothing to the show. So unlike the rabid fans, I found it mildly entertaining at best.



WKRP in Cincinnati  
Based on most of the first season and some scattered episodes.

A precursor to NewsRadio from 1978 with a similar ensemble of colorful characters and a laid-back, silly but fun, inventive attitude. The humor isn't as witty or sharp though, relative to NewsRadio, but there's still fun to be had. WKRP is a failing radio station run by an incompetent, easy-going, conservative manager who fears the owner of the station: his mother. Andy Travis joins them to try to turn things around by making it a rock-n-roll station, but the various incompetent or strange employees make this plan difficult. Dr. Johnny Fever is the permanently baked but cool DJ, Venus Flytrap is a black DJ dressed like a pimp, the sales manager is arrogant and incompetent, the news director is a nervous conspiracy-freak geek, and the receptionist is a blonde bombshell everyone lusts after with some surprising smarts behind her looks. Only mildly amusing, but the colorful cast and writing provide a consistent level of entertainment.



Bangkok Hilton  

4.5 hour Australian mini-series with Denholm Elliott, and a young Weaving and Kidman. The story reminds one of Midnight Express, except this one has Kidman imprisoned in Thailand and facing death by machine gun because she unknowingly carried heroin for a friendly stranger. The story is turned into a longer epic by adding a back-story about her lost father, a lawyer who had political, military and personal problems after WWII and who had a brief love affair with her mother, and now finds himself facing his personal demons with his daughter's deathly troubles who has to attempt more drastic solutions. It's moderately well written and acted, and it's a good yarn while its on, but it's not compelling.



Veep  
Based on the first season.

Although not strictly a remake, this is HBO importing Iannucci to America and asking him to write more of the same of his brand of political humor from 'The Thick Of It', except that not only is it adjusted for America, but also watered down and dumbed down. Which is a surprise for HBO. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, doing her usual self-deprecating terrible person thing, is the vice-president, and seems to spend her whole career dealing with tiny stupid molehill crises over stupid mistakes or public perception issues that escalate into mountains, until her tense foul-mouthed team finally get a grip on things, kinda. In short, it's the same approach to politics as 'The Thick Of It', except that the problems are sillier, and the insults are miles away from the creativity of that show. It still has its really funny moments though, and is watchable when nothing better is on. But why go for the watered-down version?



No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The  
Based on most of the first season.

HBO and the BBC collaborate again, this time on some detective novels set in Botswana. The time-honored setup of an amateur female detective is used again, only this time in Africa with all its quirks and laid-back simplicity of country-life. The mysteries and detective work are acceptable and realistic but nothing at the level of Sherlock Holmes or Monk, or even the cleverness of Veronica Mars. The tone is light, with dangers being solved quickly and cleverly by the fearless and confident woman, and the personalities are quite rich. One flaw is the fake accents and the occasional inability by the protagonists to convince us that they aren't city-girls. Another flaw is the slight misandrist agenda that makes a point of including a cheating/deceiving/sleazy man in every episode while the women are all saints. HBO has proven their flexibility by making a soft-edged show for a change, but the gay mafia strikes again with the injection of a token gay hair-dresser even in a tiny town in Botswana, and there is not a single token white man in sight. The structure is mostly episodic and, overall, the show is only moderately entertaining and light.



I'm Alan Partridge  
Based on the first season.

Actually the missing link between Basil Fawlty and Ricky Gervais in The Office, this features another obnoxious protagonist in a sitcom that is, at times, a funny show about a really annoying tosser. He doesn't stop talking, full of himself and seemingly unable to resist sharing every bit of rubbish that comes to his head. He often says the wrong things, or insults everyone around him without realizing it, he is a weak-willed sycophant when it suits him, and a rude wanker when it doesn't. Alan Partridge is a loser who used to be in television but nobody liked his show or ideas, and now he is on the radio during the graveyard shift. His long suffering personal assistant does everything for him, and the staff at the travel motel where he stays try to stifle their disgust and laughter whenever he appears. Often it gets too annoying to be funny, but sometimes it hits the right balance and is quite funny.



Mind of the Married Man, The  
Based on the first season.

HBO's Sex and the City for men, and actually a second attempt at this kind of show, after the much, much superior Dream On. There are several immature, sex-obsessed co-workers here who hang out, share their wife-problems with typical guy-oriented commentary, or discuss (show off) their latest sexcapades, thoughts and fantasies. Now, I know a few men that behave like this some of the time, so this gets points over Manchild in the realism department, but it made several big mistakes: The emphasis is all warped, with these kinds of chats employing a small part of a typical guy's social life, but taking up 100% of this show. It also focuses only on the unlikeable or pathetic breed of men, and tellingly, the one good husband and seemingly healthy male in the show is given no time whatsoever. This may work if it were actually funny but, as opposed to Manchild, you'd be lucky to get one chuckle per episode, the majority of the time spent on exploring the life of one pathetic man who is a pathological liar even though he is too weak-willed to actually do something bad, or good, driven purely by childish fear and lust. So the bottom line is that this isn't Sex and the City, but just another in the long line of Raymond-esque sitcoms that depend on pathetic man and a henpecking, condescending, sometimes mean wife for comedy, and a poor one at that. This gets some points for amusing dialogue and for approaching some modern men's innermost thoughts with honesty, and trying to make a male-oriented show with ongoing character development and season-long character building, but it's mostly a failure.



Maude  
Based on several scattered episodes.

A spin-off of All in the Family featuring a female mirror image of Archie Bunker: A militant, ranting, liberal, opinionated, angry feminist who constantly rants, threatens people who don't agree with her, bullies people into her worldview and makes comedy in between. It's better than All in the Family and a little bit more subtle, but, being written by Norman Lear, it is frequently issue-heavy, and the episodes with soapbox ranting or stereotypical straw men (both the dumb conservative neighbour and the foaming liberal) tend to get annoying rather than funny, despite the shoehorned laugh track. The most notorious episode was one that dealt with abortion back in 1972. Bea Arthur is good in her role and a strong character, and there is still entertaining amusement in between the rants and soapbox agendas, but her constant headstrong, bullying attitude can get tiresome. At least Lear lightened up for Jeffersons.



Honeymooners, The  
Based on many scattered episodes from the classic (fourth) season.

An overrated but amusing pioneering classic that is still popular due to its important cultural icon status. Ralph Kramden is a boorish, chauvinistic, dunderhead, big-mouthed bus driver married to a sensible but nagging housewife. His neighbours are a childish, eccentric sewer worker and his wife, and all are suffering in poverty, trying to come up with silly schemes to make money or to live a better life. The quintessential sitcom, even setting the pattern for stupid man vs. sensible woman, and although the personalities clash, argue, trick and manipulate each other, there is always a light atmosphere and the feeling that they love each other. The wife's wise-cracking stabs at Ralph are the funniest aspect of the show and the characters are fleshy and fun, but most of everything else is too predictable, the punchlines telegraphed miles ahead and the jokes often becoming too silly.



Gavin & Stacey  
Based on the first season.

A romantic comedy with a bland romantic center surrounded by an eccentric and quirky circle of socially-impaired and horny friends, and nervous, quirky relatives. So it's actually the couple that feel like supporting actors or sane foils for the mad comic ensemble. Gavin met Stacey over the phone through business, and the show covers their first meeting and build-up towards the marriage and its aftermath, with sexual clashes or various complications between their neurotic friends and family. Some of the mess involves nervous parents, a friend having constantly cheap sexual flings with Stacey's best friend, the fact that Stacey got engaged five times before, and a culture clash between the English and Welsh families. It's mildly amusing, but nothing more.



Girls  
Based on the first one and a half seasons.

HBO does a Sex and the City for the New Yorker millennial generation with a heavy emphasis on awkward, flippantly-perverse sex, and narcissistic, spoiled behaviour, coupled with a more realistic and unglamorous approach to girls, without even the pseudo-glitz of SatC, and the result is not pretty. But it does have its share of amusements, with very fleshy three-dimensional characters, and even a heart, perhaps thanks to the involvement of Apatow. It also makes a point of repeatedly displaying chubby naked bodies every chance it gets. Four 20-something female friends share their lives, apartments, and ups and downs in their many disastrous relationships. Each one is a complex character that cannot be described in a single sentence, and this is one of the main strengths of this show. Despite their complexity, however, it can't be said that they are interesting enough to watch extensively, and they will quickly wear out their welcome with their self-obsessed lives, lazy and spoiled approach to jobs and relationships, and their bored tendency to fill their lives with drama like drama queens rather than with actual meaning. As an example, every time they broke up with loves and friends (which happened very often), it took me a while to realize they had actually broken up, as it was difficult for me to understand how people can give up on everything so absolutely and quickly, and over such banalities. The low-key comedy revolves mainly around their messed-up lives, relationships and flings, and the comedy lacks wit, but is often amusing neverthless, at least during the first season. Dunham is the writer as well as the primary character in the show, and she makes sure to exploit the situation by writing a parade of hunks to fall for her, have sex scenes with her, and compliment her every chance she gets. This sacrificing of realism to hormones is another of its flaws. The many sex scenes are often unsexy or even disgusting or awkward, but with some of the scenes, that is the point. Another flaw is that the primary male character of Adam seems like an amalgam of a few elements that don't go together. I.e. one can see his many character traits including those of sensitive guy and cruel creepy pervert as being drawn from life, but not all together. The second season just becomes tiresomely trashy, spoiled and histrionic until you can't stand to look at them anymore. In short, a mixed bag, with more bad than good.



Mozart in the Jungle  
Based on the first season.

Classical music dramedy, New York style. Which means lots of sex shenanigans and neurotic behaviour, eccentric people, pretentious artists, drugs, a city full of assorted nuts and desperately empty people, and some classical music taking a backdrop to this saga that seems more suited to a rock-band. The show is based on a book and real-life memoirs by an oboist in NY. It starts with the changing of the guard in the New York Philharmonic, from an old-school maestro (McDowell) to a passionate rock-star Latino who sees inspiration in almost anything. His wife is worshipped by many but is an insufferably pretentious and angry 'artist'. Hailey is an amateur oboist dreaming of playing in the Philharmonic, and the new conductor hires her in one of his inspirational fits, bringing on the wrath of his lead oboist. Her on-off boyfriend is a dancer in Julliard, there's an altruistic slut in the orchestra sleeping with everyone to help or connect with them, and, thanks to the new conductor, eccentric whims are given free reign. The show is a mix of insufferably pretentious artists, moments of whimsical inspiration, quirky city-comedy, and unfocused trashy drama. Much like the conductor, despite some amusing moments and quirks, this disperses its energies in wasteful wankery and loses its soul.



Kings  
Based on the single season.

This is one of those shows where all they had was a good concept, without bothering to develop any of its potential. In this show we get an alternate reality where the modern world is run by kings and religious guidance. Unfortunately, the writers show a complete lack of imagination by duplicating the US except with a king instead of a president, and most of the show up until the last few episodes could have worked exactly the same with a president as chief executive. And as far as the religious aspects are concerned, the writing is as bad as it gets, with a complete lack of basic understanding at best, or with laughably stupid or offensive writing at worst. The actors supposedly are believers, but treat and talk to or about God as if he were a tool that can provide favors if they're lucky, or something that gets in their way. I suppose they think it is a whimsical and petty Greek god. But then why refer to biblical names and places? The most telling episode involves a court case where they argue that because a man has everything working out too well for him, this proves that he is a traitor and a fake because there cannot be such coincidence, and yet the whole show they pay lip service to God's will and ascribe events to providence. Taking into account the above, the show should be complete garbage, but Ian McShane is a big plus and is riveting, and the Machiavellian intrigue in the first half is good, drawing you in for the rest of the season. Although even that deteriorates to chaotic writing and messy character development in the second half. In addition, the actor who plays David acts out every emotion by looking constipated. So, in summary, only just barely interesting with very poor writing, and a very disappointing waste of an idea.



Life  
Based on most of the first season.

The cop-show genre is so overcrowded it's very difficult to get interested in anything new unless it's truly extraordinary. This one is OK, but not special enough. It's mostly episodic murder-of-the-week mystery, with a slow-moving grand convoluted mystery involving the detective himself as he slowly collects scattered clues. The uniqueness here is that the detective has just been released from 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, which has done some extreme things to his personality. He is a strange mixture of Zen mind-over-matter focus, and unstable emotions leading to law-breaking eruptions, especially when cases become similar to his own frame-up. His focus makes him highly observant, but he is also a loose-cannon, causing much consternation to his partner and boss. Sometimes it's a little hokey, others it's interesting and gives the show a slight edge. The episodic structure doesn't help.



Law and Order  
Based on half of the third season and several scattered episodes.

A long-running, pioneering episodic show that mixes cop show with courtroom drama. The show is purely episodic, lacks story arcs and never progresses, and features very flat characters without character development. The strength of the show lies in its mystery plots and fast-moving detective work by both the police and the lawyers. Episodes almost always follow the same formula where a sensational killing and detective work leads to an arrest, then in the second half the lawyers find more evidence that changes the story or even the accused. One-dimensional and formulaic, but entertaining if you happen to catch it on TV. This franchise can also be seen as the precursor to the dry & forensic TV shows a la CSI and its dozens of clones, except this one is more plausible and relies less on flashy jargon/gadgets and more on plain ol' police and investigative work.



Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany  

Technically one long movie typically viewed as a mini-series of movies, and also the first series of three, this series clocking in at about 14 hours. The second series, at 25 hours, holds the record for 'Longest Film Commercially Shown In Its Entirety'. This is a dramatic series with meticulous historical detail, with various small and big historical changes seen through the eyes of a remote village and its many occupants. It this sense, it is similar to Centennial but smaller in scope, and to Yimou's 'To Live', except that movie rushed through history using highlights of deaths, births and marriages and this movie takes its time with everything in between, it is perhaps also similar to Siberiada, except this is less artsy, and finally, it can also be compared to 1900.

The series covers the period after WWI in 1919 and ends in 1982. It tells the tale of many characters that grow up in a village so remote, it seems to be lagging behind a few decades in terms of progress. The village slowly grows into a proper town as technology and social changes start to reach them. A woman named Maria seems to be the heart of the story, and although the movie takes place mostly in this town, some of the characters spread out to Berlin or America, only to come back to their birthplace, bringing change with them. History is explored via minutiae and long-distance echoes and effects without actually seeing the big events themselves. New technology, new ideas, social attitudes and behaviours, music and dress, war, Nazism, etc. are all experienced from afar, depending on how powerful their effect was at the time. The many people's lives, loves, personalities and dramas are all explored via vignettes, the family tree constantly growing, ending in a nostalgic episode that ties it all together.

For the first few episodes, the series is too fractured, the dialogue is unnatural, and sometimes the whole thing feels theatrical rather than involving. It takes a long time to get to know the many characters, and the movie starts with vignettes, skipping years here and there, slowly gathering momentum. There is a peak of involvement during the middle episodes of the rise of Nazism and WWII, and then it winds down again into fractured vignettes. In short, this series requires an investment, the payoff is not that great and it lacks grand themes or sweeping drama, but this is still somewhat quality drama with rich historical detail and will appeal to an audience that appreciate this sort of thing.



Noble House  

The second adaptation produced by James Clavell based on his own huge novel. At first, this seems like it's going to be the modernized business version of Shogun: Large corporations battle for power and control in Honk Kong against a backdrop of somewhat alien cultural rules. The Tai Pan is under attack by both local aggressive competition and an outsider attempting a takeover. Various women, love affairs and natural disasters complicate matters further. The business wars, plots and machinations combined with Clavell's typical attention to cultural detail would make for good entertainment, but the modern setting isn't as interesting, and the biggest plot device regarding a half-coin that gives the bearer power is contrived and weak. The real problem however, is that all this rich and shameless backstabbing and plotting veers dangerously close to soap-opera Dynasty land, and when the series starts focusing on the love affairs, it falls right into soap land along with its terribly corny soundtrack. A mixed bag, and most definitely not on a par with Shogun.



Downton Abbey  
Based on the first season.

Somewhere in between a period drama in the vein of Jane Austen, and a soap opera like Dallas. The writing frequently hops back and forth between these two incompatible genres. Lord Crawley is the lord of the country estate Downton Abbey, and when his heirs die on the Titanic, it means that a lowly Manchester lawyer cousin will inherit, much to the consternation of most of the noble family. His mother, the manipulative, catty, conservative, conspiring dowager, tries to fix matters so that they go her way. The other half of this show involves the many servants and their various dramas: A timid maid, a cook that is slowly going blind, the quietly suffering Mr Bates, the evil homosexual who is always causing trouble and trying to get Bates kicked out, and so on. The attempts and rivalry between the daughters that all need to be married off provide more soap as well as Austenite dramedy, and the benevolent Lord is there to take the high road and settle matters between all of these tiresome bickerings and dramatics. All of this takes place before and during WWI, with good historical detail but some anachronistic behaviour between the masters and servants. In summary, as mentioned earlier, this is a strange mixed bag of quality drama and tiresome catty soap, and it's therefore impossible to enjoy fully.



Inbetweeners, The  
Based on most of all three seasons.

Yet another teenage sex comedy about geeks trying to get laid, this one British featuring four friends that, although they distant themselves from the cartoonish freaks in the school, they are too awkward, socially challenged and disgusting to hang out with the rest. Freaks and Geeks this isn't, but neither is it the over-the-top melodramatic and unrealistic Skins, but that's not saying much. For every funny joke and entertaining situation, there is another juvenile silly one involving bodily functions and fluids, and their social awkwardness frequently veers into implausibly comic just to get more comedy out of their embarrassments. The show, with the exception of Will's character, falls into the common mistake of assuming that just because geeks are awkward, they also have to be cartoonishly stupid and unaware of their mistakes. So this one is like a British Farrelly Brothers and mostly for people that enjoy teenage toilet humor. Humor is made of their various abuses in school, their attempts at fitting in and being cool, and their good-natured attitude about it all, but also about vomit, sluts, testicles hanging out, a pedophiliac teacher, farting and unexpected nudity, Jay's endless boasting and lies about filthy things he did to girls, masturbation, sperm, an embarrassing lack of knowledge about sex, and so on. Sometimes funny, mostly juvenile.



Peep Show  
Based on the first two seasons.

Like an internalized Curb Your Enthusiasm, this one features the inner thoughts of two losers and their ongoing attempts to get laid and enjoy life, and we get to hear their thoughts and endless stream of insecurities as a form of comedy. This sort of thing that makes comedy out of brutal honesty can only be pulled off by the British, obviously, and it's a specialized series that will only appeal to a certain kind of person, probably guys that want to feel relatively better about themselves. The two twenty-somethings are an office-worker and an unemployed musician that share a flat. They chase after anything female with pathetically desperate behaviour, causing them more trouble and embarrassments than successes, and their social awkwardness and personality clashes don't help matters either. Acting is a bit weak and stiff, and the characters are a bit too over-the-top stupid and pathetic, but there is some laughs, fun and empathy.



Goldbergs, The  
Based on scattered episodes of the first season.

I wasn't expecting a light family sitcom, but this ended up being a throwback to shows like Cosby Show, Wonder Years, Everybody Hates Chris, etc. and nostalgia doesn't just make an appearance, it's the core of the show. It's based on the creator's real family videos and memories from the 80s. There's an overbearing mom who smothers her kids to truly embarrassing proportions, appearing everywhere and trying to control everything, ignoring the fact they aren't small children anymore. The dad is a typical clueless sitcom moron who calls everyone else a moron, but has a good heart. There's the two unstable teenagers, a cool grandfather who encourages their bad behaviour, and a nerdy kid that videos everything. There's plenty of dysfunction and amusing things that get way out of hand, but every episode ends with a lesson learned, very often by the parents. And it takes place in the 80s where everything was obnoxiously colorful, energetic and simpler. In short, some funny moments, lots of cliches, making this a somewhat weak sitcom, but it could amuse the family or the nostalgic in short bursts.



Power  
Based on the first season.

A crime-show modelled after Sopranos, Brotherhood, et al, with season-long story arcs and multiple plot-lines, including drama and complications involving various family-members and lovers. This extended crime network consists mostly of blacks and Latinos, and at the center is a solid partnership between two old friends that are currently at the top of a city-wide drug-distribution network, but also under pressure from the larger cartels. In addition, 'Ghost' is getting more involved with a legal front, a very successful night-club, and is beginning to have plans to move away from the drug world. The FBI is indirectly on their tail, and one of the agents is a past love, the one that got away. This is the setup, leading to complications, suspected back-stabbers, mysterious hits from unknown competition, affairs and family tensions, wild girl-friends, and high-stake business deals. The writing and acting is above-average, and the actors have a presence, and it should appeal to its target audience. Except that there really isn't anything that is clever here. For example, their flailing attempts at tracking down their competition is just a series of wild shots in the dark, and they just keep making bad guesses or bad decisions. Not that all criminals need to be smart, but it doesn't make the show too interesting. In addition, one of the main plot-lines in the first season involves Ghost's secret and escalating affair with the FBI agent who is trying to track him down (a contrived coincidence), except he doesn't know what she is up to (there is no reason why she is keeping her job a secret), and she doesn't know who he is (an even more impossible contrivance since she knows everyone he works with and everything they do yet somehow never saw or got a description of him). And then there is the glamorizing of the criminal life, and a higher-than-usual level of flashy and boring materialism. In summary, slightly above-average, but a mixed bag and mostly weak.



Gomorra  
Based on the first season.

Overrated Italian gritty mafia series with lots of violence. The realistic violence and the acting are both very good, and the writing makes use of multiple ongoing plot-lines. Unfortunately, this is no Godfather or Goodfellas or even Sopranos. For one thing, the characters are all one-dimensional and lacking an ounce of charm. Not that gangsters should all be fun to be around, but everyone here is dull to watch. A more serious problem is that most of them are dumb hotheads. They keep a cycle of violence going which can't possibly be good for business, and they lash out and murder anyone on whims instead of thinking things through. This causes damage to the entertainment value of the show in two ways: Since most of the characters are dumb and almost never come up with interesting plans and only know how to use brute force for everything, the show becomes dumb and uninteresting. And it also makes the likelihood of this mafia's survival increasingly implausible. This also isn't helped by the puzzling fact that this mafia doesn't seem to have any connections with law enforcement or politicians that help get them out of trouble. In addition, most of their business is just drug-dealing like some corner gangsters. The first half of the first season is pretty bad, depicting a hothead cycle of violence amongst competing drug-gangs. The second half becomes more interesting as things become more complex, with the wife and problematic son taking over, trying to make new deals, and with betrayal amongst their ranks. But they are still largely unthinking reactionary brutes that keep causing damage to their own business, which doesn't provide much incentive to keep watching.



Rectify  
Based on the first season.

It starts well, with a man being released from jail after spending two decades in death row, going through several appeals, only to be released based on ambiguous DNA evidence. The show is about how a man from such isolation and extreme psychological state could possibly re-integrate into society. It leaves the question of whether he really committed murder unanswered and ambiguous, dangling a did-he-or-didn't-he over the audience and then moves on to the drama and character study. The numbness, the psychological prison that suddenly serves no purpose, the lack of tools with which to handle freedom and people, the lack of human interaction for so long only to be inundated with so many people that have different opinions on him, his loving family, the big wide open world that has modernized, etc. Trouble is, while this can work as a mood piece in a movie, a TV series needs more. After a couple of episodes, it settles into a repeat-cycle where nothing really happens, and it's just drama about how he deals with the world and how the world deals with him, while the mystery is pretty much abandoned. Pretty soon it just feels pointless and uninteresting, despite the good acting.



You're the Worst  
Based on the first two seasons.

I'm not sure I ever saw a show with so much potential deteriorate so fast in so many ways. The first few episodes are deliciously refreshing, edgy and funny: Two single, toxic anti-social but smart losers cross paths and tentatively get together in the loosest sense of the word, slowly getting addicted to each other's company even though they hate everything remotely resembling normalcy or romance. Being an American show, I expected their rudeness and bad behaviour to be made into something cute rather than staying true to their characters and getting by on wit like a good British show would do (e.g. Black Books). And indeed it eventually succumbs to reducing their characters' rudeness into lovable quirks, but, for the first few episodes, it delivers superb comedy and wit. And then, rapidly, the supporting characters become caricatures, the protagonist lose their realism as the writers desperately try to find inconsistent behaviour shifts with which to keep them occupied, they resort to some rom-com cliches, episodes increasingly feature some of them behaving like obnoxious 14-year old girly rich slutty brats on cocaine that only text and gossip all day, and this combined with the overly silly behavioural quirks reminded me of a bad season of Scrubs. Even the graphic sexual content is wild at first, then too desperate. Way to take the express-lane to shark-jumping, guys.



Parenthood  
Based on scattered episodes of the first season.

Actually the second time the movie was expanded into a TV series. The Steve Martin movie was good for what it is, it said what it had to say and was done. To expand a dramedy about parenting into a series can only mean a lot of padding and extended drama, and would only appeal to a certain crowd. And that's what this show is like: A dramedy about an extended family with a wide variety of parenting and kid problems, some of them loosely inspired by the characters in the movie. Some of it is good, some is bland and falls in the 'who-cares' category, some involves hokey cliches and uninspired drama. There are several teenagers with the usual teenager problems, a kid with Asperger, one irresponsible adult suddenly finds himself with a five-year-old kid, etc. But a frequent problem with this show is that most of the parents seem to be high-strung, dealing with issues using yelling, immature behaviour, nervous neurotic behaviour, lots of blabbering, and so on, making mountains out of molehills and treating the kids like bombs that are always about to explode. Some episodes are better than others and the show does have its moments, but who needs this when we all have our own families to watch.



Blue Mountain State  
Based on the first season.

Unapologetically crass and dumb, this show takes a page out of American Pie, Animal House, Porky's, and so on, and makes a TV series out of it. Except that it doesn't have charming nerds as protagonists, or the quirky characters that made Animal House a success. This is the pure frat-boy and jock version of those movies. Sure, there are endless parties, drugs, egos, and alcohol, but this is all about the daily outrageous misadventures brought on only by the fact that everyone is too horny, dumb and full of testosterone to say no to anything. Episodes deal with painful ways to pass drug-tests, horny grandmothers of teachers that can help them get passing grades, 'virgin' girlfriends that will do anything to get their jock in shape for the game, sex toys and sexual diseases, rings lost at stripper bars, mythical wars with the lacrosse team, a cougar with a fetish for urine, and so on, including of course everything to do with body fluids and functions. Booger makes an appropriate sleazy appearance as a father pushing his daughter onto one of the athletes. Each episode tries to outdo the other much like the football stars themselves. It is what it is, serving very limited entertainment strictly for people with an excess of testosterone that want to stop thinking for a while.




© 2000- by The Last Exit Table of Contents