In recent years I’ve taken to watching a lot of TV series. Like the vast majority of people, I discover a series either through the internet or the recommendations of friends and then I watch it. All of it. My girlfriend and I tend to binge-watch entire series’ complete back-catalogue in a couple of days at this stage, though it’s getting to the point where we’re plumbing the depths of Netflix and giving just about anything a try. While we wait for new and existing series alike to grace my preferred torrent site, I’m going to do a quick post on series past – the ones you should watch and ones you should probably steer clear of if you have any taste in television.
There’s a common theme amongst the TV series I’m about to recommend in this blog post. It’s that the protagonists in pretty much every single one of them will probably manage to alienate you and make you hate them at least as often as you’ll love them and cheer them on. Without further adue, here’s some shows that if you don’t watch, you really ought to try! Do note they’re not in any particular order.
AMC’s Mad Men is a drama set in 1950s New York that focuses on ad man Donald Draper and his trials and tribulations both at work and at home. I wasn’t completely sold on giving this show a try when it was recommended to me by a friend – how interesting can the life of an ad agency executive be? I couldn’t have been more wrong. The rich and authentic depiction of 1950s American style, etiquette, and morals in tandem with revelations about Don and his apparently perfect life make this series one of my absolute favourites. The characters are as far from typecast as they come – the starring cast routinely tread the line between admirable and abhorrent behaviour and the writing is so powerful that they characters display remarkable depth; predicting what is going to happen next in Mad Men is nigh impossible because each character has both their light and dark sides without simply operating as “good guys” and “bad guys”. The script and direction makes it feel as though you’re watching autonomous decisions unfold in every scene. Prepare to love, hate, and be entirely apathetic and despondent towards Donald Draper, Peter Campbell (especially Peter Campbell) and pretty much everyone else on the show at some point – you’ll enjoy every second of it.
Boardwalk is fantastic for many of the same reasons Mad Men is. Steve Buscemi plays the enigmatic and powerful Nucky Thompson, corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City at the height of Prohibition during the 1920s. The mindblowing detail of the costume, set design and the characters’ lexicon serves to immerse and engage you to the point where you don’t even realise you’re cheering for the guy who organises crimes from racketeering, prostitution and assassination – not to mention ignoring the infamous and oft-cited Volstead Act. You’ll have your dark days with Nucky and his cast of morally dubious associates, but multi-faceted and self-interested characters like these are what makes each episode so enthralling. The inclusion of famous criminals from the era such as Johnny Torrio, Al Capone, and of course Nucky himself to some extent make the series that much more authentic and interesting for those familiar with the era and newcomers alike. Expect plenty of shady alliances and just as many betrayals and twists throughout the course of the show.
I won’t spend too long talking about The Wire – it’s practically impossible not to have heard of it in the age of torrenting and TV-binging. I will include a foreword for anyone escaping into the series for the first time – you will hate McNulty. I actively groaned and ranted any time he came on screen. He does a great job of exemplifying the protagonist that you love to hate but whose main goal you want to see achieved in the end. Maybe it was the way he claims Irish heritage (when he’s just American to anyone who isn’t American), maybe it’s his alcoholism and angsty teenager shades in some portions of the show – I can’t imagine anyone stomaching this guy as an individual character. With that tangent out of the way, be sure to put this show at the top of your viewing list if you haven’t seen it already. Much like Mad Men and Boardwalk’s portrayal of their respective eras educate and engage as much as they do entertain, the sociological and political themes running deep throughout the show are sure to inform and teach any viewer that isn’t in it just for the superficial cop and gangster elements. Above all else, The Wire dares audiences to question their understanding of “good”, “bad”, and what “crime” is – it becomes increasingly clear throughout a viewer’s experience with Baltimore that being a criminal isn’t always an opt-in, opt-out type of thing.
The Sopranos is possibly the most famous TV series of our time, and for good reason. In the same way as many other series on this list do, The Sopranos makes you side with the people who in an alternate context play the role of the villains. Tony Soprano is an exceptionally conflicted and enigmatic character – as soon as you think you have Tony or anyone else on the show figured out, you’ll realise you’ve just figured them out in one instance of their complicated and fragile lives. The focus of the show changes drastically throughout its lifespan, dealing with threats both internal and external to Tony’s family – it becomes increasingly obvious that the mythical family ties and oaths of La Cosa Nostra are paper-thin and are subject to the same power struggles emergent in the electronic age. However, the themes of family, identity, pride, and honour remain prevalent as Tony spars with his own hypocrisies.
Breaking Bad happens to feature amongst some of these other crime dramas I’ve listed – when we first meet Walter White, he is not a kingpin or even a criminal. The humble chemistry teacher begins a gradual slide towards becoming an individual who craves power more than he craves even money or his own family. Walt’s metamorphosis from a white male living a banal and unfulfilled lifestyle through the medium of violence (indirect as well as direct in Walt’s case) reminded me greatly of Michael Douglas’ character, William, in Falling Down – Walt’s transition from one set of mores and desires to another is an effective commentary on power, control, and drugs in modern America. Breaking Bad is commonly cited as being The Wire of the new decade and I’d have to agree – not in recent years has a series permeated popular culture to the extent that this show has.
Generation Kill is the latest series to grace our Xbox disc tray. This HBO miniseries is set during the 2003 invasion of Iraq as experienced by the Marine Corps’ First Reconnaissance Battalion who spearhead the invasion. The series is based on the events recollected in military journalist Evan Wright’s book which shares the same name. As a viewer, you’re anchored firmly in the thick of the action – Evan Wright’s in-series counterpart acts as the conduit through which you perceive of the highs and lows of the Marines’ life in on the battlefield. The show transcends the genres of memoir, military drama, and reality television by seamlessly translating real-life quandaries into a series that feels like a feature film. The pop-culture references, Corporal Person’s comedic singing performances and the relative youth of the main cast make the series reminiscent of a modern take on Full Metal Jacket albeit with a much clearer sentiment – war is not good for anyone experiencing it first hand, soldier or civilian.
American Horror Story
American Horror Story is very unique amongst its peers on this list for being a show that will try to creep you out and frighten you while entertaining you. To date, two complete seasons have aired – each are set in their own timeline and separate to one another apart from the grim foreshadowing of characters’ destiny in the series thanks to some clever crossovers in the starring cast between each season. AHS is probably the most impressive series for me in terms of writing and direction due to the massive range of different subgenres it manages to portray in its own chilling and boundary-pushing way. From the seemingly unending horror stories of season one’s house to the evil and unrelenting misery of season two’s 1960s mental asylum, the directors manage to exhibit a mastery over a multitude of different horror tropes and archetypes. Expect to see the story unfold through the medium of nineties slasher flick, Exorcist-influenced sequences and Amityville Horror themed night-time scenes amongst a myriad of other well-executed and never cheesy styles and methods.
The Killing holds a similarly niche position on this list in that the protagonists are cops and not shady dealers or criminal masterminds. Based on the Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime) and taking a number of paralells plot-wise from the original, the series is based in Seattle from the perspective of Detective Sarah Linden. The series opens with the revelation that a teenage girl by the name of Rosie Larsen has been found dead – drowned in the boot of a politician’s campaign car in a lake. The drama unfolds from this critical point, exploring a number of leads and equally as many red herrings in order to assemble the information vital to solving the crime. While the aforementioned red herrings put off some critics, I really enjoyed the thrill of thinking Linden was on the verge of solving the crime before it became obvious it was a dead end. Probably less universally appealing than the rest of this list but worth a look regardless!
The Corner combines documentary and drama so perfectly that if it weren’t for the nature of the camera’s presence at certain junctures, you’d forget it was a dramatisation of collected stories from one of Baltimore’s worst-off areas. The name refers to one of thousands of corners in the United States where petty criminals peddle illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and pills supplied by off-street gangsters. The drama centres around the fractured McCullough family as they endure hardship, poverty, and drug addiction across the generations on the corner of West Fayette Street and North Monroe. It documents the seemingly insurmountable odds that young people are faced with in these contexts and the ways in which even the apparent ways out of their lifestyles are barred shut by discrimination, peer pressure, existing social norms and financial burdens. I’d strongly recommend this series, especially if you’re checking out The Wire – watch them one after the other as The Corner acts as a great primer for the way things operate on the streets of Baltimore’s drug trade.
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is the clear choice from this list for any TV-binger who also has a penchant for fantasy and medieval settings. GoT is a highly political drama that blends equal parts intrigue and mystery with warring families, battle scenes and varied landscapes and cultures. While the first series can be a little slow in the pace department for those that don’t tend to appreciate backroom plotting and two-facedness, it’s definitely a series worth following. Having read all of the books that have been released so far, I’d say that the show does the book justice in most departments – that said, where it does diverge from the books are definitely the weakest parts of the show. Fantasy films and series have a tendency to come off cheesy or cliché but GoT has managed to work as a great ambassador for those that know how great the genre can be – a few dodgy performances from Daenerys Targyaren aside. The series returns to air with a new season soon, so get catching up if this sounds like your thing.
House of Cards
Netflix made a bold move making their own television series that would aim to cater to the binge-watching generation of consumers. In my opinion it was a good move on the whole – my only complaint about the show is the nightmarish Kate Mara, who was bad in American Horror Story and downright awful here too. Her presence on-screen genuinely made me want to fast-forward her away – this is due in part to her character being the worst kind of stereotypical character. She’s the kind of character that’s young, female, and sits on the floor soulfully in order to sulk at a coffee table browsing political blogs on her Macbook. She’s the kind of character whose idea of shedding naivitié and anonymity consists of tying her hair back and wearing badly fitting blazers. Thankfully, Kevin Spacey’s political machinations and southern drawl manage to effectively compensate for Kate Mara’s attempt at sabotaging the whole show. The whole series is on Netflix with the second series coming soon to the best of my knowledge, so check it out there or browse your torrent provider.