Here we are a week into 2014 and I find myself reflecting on all the media I consumed last year. The games and movies, novels and shows. In particular, I think TV as a medium continues to get stronger with every passing year. As soon as we as a culture started to prefer a show you had to pay attention to rather than the "monster-of-the-week format" (that's a quote from Joss Whedon talking about what made Buffy good) it allowed us to follow long running, deeply impactful storylines, full of large casts of multifaceted characters. Essentially, what we have now are video novels where each installment is really a season, not an episode. That's a concept that got popularized by 24, but I'd argue it was the second season of Babylon 5 that really started it. B5's creator and primary writer, J. Michael Straczynski, was the first source of the phrase "video novel" I ever heard, and he was certainly a pioneer when it came to successfully executing on that idea.
So which shows from last year live up to my gold standard? If you're a TV connoisseur at all then you already know about shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones. I felt that rehashing the Emmy's list wouldn't be adding anything new to the conversation. Instead, here are a few shows that were probably off your radar, but I think are some of the best the year had to offer. Each one had its first season in 2013, and they're listed in the order of importance for you to go watch right now.
Utopia is just brilliant. I seriously loved every minute of it. As pictured, there are continually these vast, sweeping shots of brightly colored fields that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot despite their prevalence I swear. The cinematography is simply top-notch. There's incredibly tight focus. The color palette is over saturated and well thought out in every scene. The actors nail their roles. The music is haunting throughout. And it brings up some frightening concepts about the future of the human race. For a sci-fi-light show from the U.K. based Channel 4 it was so much more than I expected.
The synopsis on IMDB says:
Utopia will follow a group of people who find themselves in possession of a manuscript of a cult graphic novel. The tome is rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the last century and the group soon find themselves targeted by a shadowy organisation known only as The Network.
That's all you need to know. Well, that and maybe the fact that Misfits' "Curtis" Nathan Stewart-Jarrett stars in it, since it's always nice to see a familiar face. But seriously do yourself a favor and don't look up anything else about it. The show is worth it and you don't want it spoiled. Trust me.
I'm really proud of AMC. They started as just another cable channel that showed movies with commercial breaks all day long. It was a simple formula, and it worked to sustain them. But then they took a risk and started producing original content. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead are all evidence of what they've accomplished. Almost more importantly, by doing it they opened the doors for others. The History channel now has Vikings. And BBC America - which previously was just a region to region importer - has Orphan Black.
Just like Utopia, Orphan Black is sci-fi-light. It takes place in the near future, and there are some technological advances in its world that we don't have, mostly of a biological nature. But it's otherwise very familiar. There are conflicts and crime, families and lovers. And although the show is mostly filmed in Toronto it gives a nice shout out to the University of Minnesota, a refreshing change of locale to the Midwest instead of the usual coasts.
The story revolves around a girl who sees a twin she didn't know she had on a train station platform. Things get crazier and crazier from there. The show is not as strong visually as the others on this list, but the acting more than makes up for it. The lead, Tatiana Maslany, blew up on social networks like Twitter, where the internet masses demanded that she be nominated for an Emmy for her performance. She didn't get it, but she certainly deserved it. And a lot of media outlets called it the biggest awards snub of the year.
Her sidekick and adopted brother in the show, Felix, played by Jordan Gavaris, might be my favorite new character of the year in television. He's hilarious as the comic relief most the time, but he can also put on a doesn't-take-crap-from-anybody attitude. Both work marvellously, and I can't wait to see him resume this role.
The other notable cast member is Maria Doyle Kennedy, playing the aforementioned two's adoptive mother. She's the only one I had seen before, and her past roles are each a knockout: Queen Catherine in The Tudors, the babysitter Sonya in Dexter, and the ex-Mrs. Bates in Downton Abbey. She's at the top of her game here in Orphan Black.
Another U.K. based show, this time from iTV, Broadchurch is on the surface what I would call a "whodunnit" murder mystery. Normally that kind of show would not appeal to me at all, as I typically loathe stories that are dependent on their plot twists to be good (see Fight Club as the exception with a drastic twist that still manages to be awesome on repeat viewings, but Mystic River as a case of one that is not). However, while the characters in Broadchurch are quite obsessed with finding the murderer, the show itself is more about their interactions with each other and the challenges they face along the way. It's an excellent example of the journey being more important than the destination.
In addition to having great characters that experience a full range of emotions throughout this tragedy, Broadchurch also excels technically. With a subdued tone and wide shots, the camera is actually helping to tell the story rather than getting in the way. And there's one transition early on that is just fantastic. It's worth watching the pilot for that alone.
Broadchurch is getting both a second season and an American remake (to be called Gracepoint), but it doesn't need either. It's a complete story on its own. And for good or for bad it will make you feel something, deeply.
The most surprising network to have a show on this list is Cinemax. Yes, they made a serious drama, and it is suprisingly good. It is the most graphic show on this list, with some extreme violence, so if that makes you squeamish you my want to avoid it. But if you can get past a couple of the more gruesome scenes, the show is totally worth it.
Banshee takes place in an eponymous town in Amish country in Pennsylvania. Its new sheriff is recently freed from prison and the star of the show. His appearance causes the small town politics and relationships to quickly grow in complexity, and the story branches out from there in multiple directions that miraculously find a way to relate back to each other eventually. The action - particularly the gun fights and car chases when they happen - is quite possibly the best I have ever seen on a TV show. Cinemax really spared no expense.
I have to mention that Hoon Lee as "Job" is an equivalent character to Orphan Black's Felix in the best way possible. Every scene he's in is either hilarious or epic, and I can't wait to see more of him.
The show is also worth noting for its penchant for continuous shots that seem almost impossible to pull off. Add that to the writing, the action, and not one but two of the best villains I've seen recently (including one who - coincidentally? - has the same name as a villain in Utopia, "Mr. Rabbit") and Banshee is absolutely a show worth watching.
Into the New Year
In addition to following all of those shows (they've all been renewed for a second season) there are several new shows coming out in 2014 that I'm excited about. At the top of the list are AMC's Ballistic City, which is about a cop on a generation-spaceship, and Netflix's Sense8, which is being penned by J. Michael Straczynski and directed and produced by the Wachowskis. It's an exciting time for storytelling.