Monday, 28 December 2015

TV Shows I Watched In 2015

It's that time again, folks. Here is a list of the shows that I watched this year, some of which I watched live as they came this year, and some of which I just happened to binge and thought I'd mention here. Spoilers everywhere.

This image is, in itself, a spoiler. Unless you don't
watch the show. Image from sidekickreviews
Game of Thrones - Season 5, HBO/Sky1
Written 15th August.

Another season of Game of Thrones went by, and along with it another series of controversies, odd character decisions and an unhealthy obsession with victimising women. The show managed to cover pretty much all of the most recent two novels in G.R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series while also going more heavily off-book than ever before. This led to, as in last season, a lot being left out, as well as characters being moved around, killed off and generally manipulated in such a way as to confound anyone who knew the plot of the books.
    The best and most amazing storyline was also the one that went most off-book - fresh off the heels of killing his father, Tyrion Lannister is smuggled to the continent of Essos and is encouraged by his saviour Varys to seek out Dragon Queen Daenerys Targaryen. Along the way he is kidnapped by exiled servant of the Queen, Jorah Mormont, who happens to be heading in the same direction. Unlike in the books, however, Tyrion actually makes it, leading to several scenes of Daenerys and Tyrion together. A lot of the frustration with Dany's storylines in the first four seasons was their loose connection to the plots going on in Westeros, and getting to see Tyrion in that part of the world made the mythology tie together more physically - as well as putting my two favourite characters onscreen at once.
"Bring it." From Wikimedia
     Over in controversy corner, and the show continued its trend from last season of exploiting violence towards women and girls. Sansa, who at this point in the books has stopped doing anything, is shipped over to her home in Winterfell, where she becomes the wife and plaything of the disgusting Ramsay Snow. After spending four seasons building her up and delivering her the agency she always wanted, her character was derailed in a plotline designed to act as a redemptive arc for the tortured Theon Greyjoy. This culminated in a horrific rape scene, thankfully not showing the act but regardless framing the scene by making us watch Theon's face as we hear Sansa's terrified screams. This carries forwards to the storyline in the North, where, again off-book, Stannis Baratheon decided to use his daughter for a blood magic ritual, and again we get to watch his face as we hear his daughter's genuinely blood-curdling and upsetting screaming. The list of reasons why this doesn't make sense is long, but notably: killing his daughter makes half of his mercenary army rout the field; his wife kills herself because of her guilt; and now the guy who believes himself the "rightful king" has no heirs whatsoever. Which is why it didn't happen in the books.
     Now with the death of Jon Snow (or not, it's an uncertainty carried over from the book), and a great deal of material not covered by the series (leaving a few notable holes), the future of Game of Thrones is uncertain. HBO has guaranteed that the show will get another two seasons in order to conclude its story, and they've apparently been given notes from Martin himself. Despite all of the horrible ways that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss like to hurt female characters and mess up the story, I still enjoy Game of Thrones, and I want to see it get better.

Rick's group approaches the Alexandria Safe Zone.
From Wikia
The Walking Dead - Seasons 5B and 6A, AMC/Fox
Written between 15th August and 27th December.

The fifth season of The Walking Dead, now finished, can only be described as... sedate. Which is an achievement, for a show which is pretty sedate anyway. 5A had a few interesting moments, but its story progression was fairly slapdash and lacked focus. That lack of focus continued into the second half of the season, with Beth's death glossed over with the death of brilliant supporting character Tyreese. Thankfully, the season picked up again, following our characters into the Alexandria Safe Zone. Seeing our characters back into a suburban environment was really interesting, and would have been even better if they hadn't bogged it down with an off-book romantic subplot. I did however love Rick's descent back into savagery - it felt like a logical progression that after he killed two entire groups (the Claimers at the end of 4B and the Hunters in the middle of 5A) he would flip out upon being asked to trust a group of people who had stayed out of the whole thing. The final scene of the half-season, with Morgan finally meeting Rick again after two seasons, was the icing on the cake.
     I think one of my problems with The Walking Dead, starting this year, was the fact that there appears to be no end in sight. That's not a specific problem with TWD - this occurs in all fiction in this genre, with a number of different possible endings, none of which are going to be very satisfying. It doesn't really help that the show, like Game of Thrones, is adapting its source material somewhat faster than it can be produced. Five years into the show, we're seven years into the comics, and that's not even taking into account the extra plots grafted onto the show's canon. The thing that saved Lost's last few seasons was a definite ending point, and that gave the series a sense of purpose going forward, and a guarantee of sorts that everything would come to a head. Season Five proved that this is exactly what The Walking Dead needs, and what it currently sorely lacks.
     That was, of course, until the beginning of the Sixth Season in the Autumn, at which point the show suddenly shot up a gear. Having spent 5B establishing the people of Alexandria, their politics and the threat of a chaotic group known as The Wolves, 6A set about providing key character development, juicy plots and a refreshing pace. By far the saving grace of this season was the arrival of Morgan, whose philosophical differences with the rest of the cast allowed for some realistic conflict that didn't just descend into painful, "it's inevitable that we're all going to die" nonsense. It also provided quite possibly my favourite episode of the entire show, the phenomenal parable that is, "Here's Not Here" which has Morgan in the spotlight. With these things in mind, I'm a lot more confident about the show's future, and I hope that this movement out of mediocrity lasts for a long time.
Insert joke about the West Coast here.
From Forbes

Fear The Walking Dead - Season 1, AMC
Written 3rd September.

For some critics, this six-part miniseries preceding Season 6A of the parent show travelled far too slowly. I am not one of those critics. There is a certain lackadaisical pace to Fear which it has inherited from The Walking Dead, but there are several things it holds in its favour - characters we haven't been slugging it with for five years, the new concept of watching the apocalypse happening from the start, and the sense of tension as society slowly collapses. So much of The Walking Dead consists of wandering around empty countryside, with tension only mounting when the characters decide to explore an abandoned structure or something like that - here, the tension is constantly building as the world basically crumbles around our knowing protagonists. And that, for me at least, is more worth tuning in for than seeing what weird thing Rick is gonna do this week.

Hey Nicky, you so fine, you so fine you blow my mind
Hey Nicky! From zimbio
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3, Netflix
Written 15th August.

Where do I begin? I tried my best to avoid the hype train on this Netflix series set in a women's prison, mainly because I expected I'd have a great deal of Hype Backlash. Now that I have seen it... what was I thinking? This show is just as awesome as everyone said it was! Originally focusing around rich white girl Piper Chapman and her year in prison on drug-possession charges, the series opens up into a lots-and-lots-of-characters ensemble drama which takes the format of Lost (main plot in the present with an character-specific flashback each episode) and puts it into a format which is deliberately designed around binge-watching. It also manages to portray important issues like LGBT rights, trans discrimination, police and government corruption, sexual abuse and many more in a responsible and innovative manner. (With the exception of the show's solid refusal to say the word "bisexual".)
    I love this show for so many different reasons. The characters are all well developed, with everyone (except Dee, fuck Dee) getting several shades of grey to their characterisations. My favourite character is probably Red, played by the amazing Kate Mulgrew (better known as Captain Janeway). While I actually did enjoy Piper's story in the first season, I agree with the common idea that her storyline is less interesting as time goes on, and I think it's a sign of great writers that the show evolved to focus on a wider set of characters. I'm really looking forward to Season Four and I'm glad that I finally joined the bandwagon.
Sarah and her clones face off against Project Castor.
From screenrant

Orphan Black - Season 3, BBC America
Written between 16th August and 3rd September.

Despite some shaky moments, the third season of Orphan Black continued to demonstrate Tatiana Maslany's immense talent. The appearance of male clones played by Ari Millen threw several new factions into the mix, and proved to take the series in directions that were both positive and negative; positive in that the male clones allowed our sisters to finally discover their genetic origin and advance the mytharc, and negative because these new male characters just weren't as interesting as the pre-developed relationships. This made the beginning of the season feel a little messy, and the varying subplots didn't really mesh together until the very end.
     This season's main theme, tied into all of its storylines, was the importance of family - both actual family relationships and those forged in friendship. Alison ran for head of the local Schools board, funding it by running drugs through her mother's soap shop. Pregnant Helena was captured by the male clones (Project Castor to contrast the female Project Leda) and eventually rescued by Sarah. Sarah and her adopted mother Siobhan then followed several clues in order to find both Castor and Leda's genetic origin - Kendall Malone (Alison Steadman), Siobhan's birth mother, a genetic chimera with strands of male and female DNA.
     Season 3 was messy in places, and it didn't really find its footing until a few episodes in. But it's still not a series that can really be faulted. Tatiana Maslany is still the best actress working on television today, no question, and that didn't change. I can't really complain about the uselessness of the Castor storyline from the beginning of the season, or the random new love interest given to Cosima, when everything with T-Mas was so brilliant. From the discovery of the genetic original, to the introduction of new clone Krystal, the treatment of Rachel as she recovered from a pencil to the eye, and the amazing silliness of Alison's drug business, I kept finding something to love. I can't wait for Season Four.

Gemma Chan as Mia. From Channel Four
Humans - Series 1, AMC/Channel 4
Written 6th September.

By far this year's biggest surprise was the C4/AMC coproduction Humans, adapted from a Swedish series about an alternate Present Day in which human-like robots known as Synths have taken a valuable place in human society. Originally a focused character drama looking as the Hawkins family, the show spiralled out into a rich mythology and backstory while never losing that skill with its characters. In rifling through all of the ways in which robots have been treated in science fiction, the show managed to develop its cast of humans and sentient synths as a large set of distinct, well-developed and sympathetic by Episode Two. Add in phenomenal acting turns by Katherine Parkinson, Colin Morgan, Gemma Chan and newcomer Lucy Carless, and you've got one of the best newcomer shows of the year. (See here for my longer article on the show.)

These are two attractive people. From ibtimes
Outlander - Season 1, Amazon Prime/Starz
Written 6th September.

Carrying on the recent rise in online-only shows, this year I also watched the first season of Outlander, a show only available in the UK via Amazon Prime's exclusive premium on-demand service. Adapted from the series of books by Diana Gabaldon, the show follows 1940s army nurse Clare Randall as she is thrown back in time to 18th Century Scotland. There she is taken in by the Clan Mackenzie, a local lordship in opposition to the British throne, and she falls in love with the strapping Jamie Fraser. Forced to fight the evil ancestor of her 1940s husband, she must find a way to get home.
     Outlander often struggles with its balance of historical drama and sci-fi leanings. Like its obvious protegĂ© Life On Mars (which actually succeeds the publishing of the books which inspired the show), it's often difficult to remember the fact that Clare is displaced out of time, at least once the "Fish-out-of-water" humour runs dry. Luckily, the plot is well-placed enough that a lot of the time you don't much care, and those sci-fi elements do raise their heads again. I did find a lot of the show's nudity and sex scenes a tad excessive (this show has more nudity than Game of Thrones, although it's usually a lot less bloody and violent) and I found it questionable that the two main villains of the this first season were both implied to be gay (and the same was not true of any other character.) But despite concerns, there's something strangely compelling and relaxing about the escapades of Clare Randall, especially in the second half of the season, when the series' mytharc begins to bear fruit.

Even on the poster it looks like she doesn't wanna be here.
From the BBC
Doctor Who - Series 9, BBC1
Written 27th December.

After being pleasantly surprised by Series 8, I had a lot of hope for my favourite show. Moffat was still here, of course, but there was something of a development in his writing style that seemed to me to be less about making offensive jokes and more about actual character development. Series 9 was very much one step forwards, two steps back. A lot of Moffat's old tropes returned, including an arc which didn't really go together very well, and the habit of retconning important parts of Doctor Who's history. However, the show did go the extra mile in taking some steps in new directions, especially when it came to the Time Lords.
     The most notable differences in this season came with the show's new format and aesthetic. Most all but two of the episodes in the season were organised as two-parters, which brought to mind the format of the Sarah Jane Adventures. I had hoped that it would allow a lot of the stories to become more developed, as they were approaching the length of Classic serials, but that didn't really come to pass as a lot of the time each individual part had a very different tone, pace and occasionally writers than the other half, meaning there was something of a lack of tonal consistency. This tied into another aesthetic shift for the show, with Moffat falling back into his misguided desire to make the show "cool" and "modern", exchanging the Sonic Screwdriver for a gaudy set of sunglasses and Peter Capaldi's Pertwee-esque costume for a hoodie and trainers. And the less we talk about that electric guitar, the better.
     Clara finally got to leave this series, although they had to ruin it again by giving us a passable if noble departure, followed up by a less believable resurrection and an open-ended departure off into space. Series 8 had her developing from a normal-ish human being into a character somewhat obsessed with taking on the responsibilities and identity of The Doctor, and that development did continue here, albeit a great deal more slowly. Unlike the previous season, which presented this as a noticeable flaw which Clara really shouldn't be working towards, this year it was just an accepted fact about who she was, including during both of her exits. I like that she carried on that development, but I still think that it would have been so much better to just let her leave in Last Christmas like she was supposed to.
I am going to break that guitar. From BBC America
      And, finally, this year was struck with a number of arcs and recurring characters. From the second episode we got not-so-subtle mentions of "The Hybrid", a retconning Time-Lord prophecy which spluttered to an unsatisfactory ending in the finale. Part of that developing arc was the reoccurring face of Maisie Williams as Ashildr/"Me", who didn't really impress in the role, with the exception of a more subtle turn in The Woman Who Lived. These recurring aspects did tie the season together into a cohesive whole, but the result didn't really gel very well because of the vast changes in tone and the fact that most of it is brushed aside for an arc with the Time Lords in the finale.
     For a series that tried very hard to be different, it's a shame so much of it failed in the execution. For the first time we got two female writers and both of their episodes were slated by fandom, even though they were two of the best episodes of the season. The Zygon two-parter, while dangerously stupid in its politics, was at least trying to be relevant and interesting science fiction. There's a sense of stuttering, of a car failing to start repeatedly. The question is, can Doctor Who recover before it burns out the clutch? And, if rumours are to be believed, is next year the last outing for both Capaldi and Moffat?

At least Miko's story turned out not to be as terrible as I thought.
Heroes Reborn - Season 1, NBC
Written between 30th October and 27th November.

I had a lot on the table for Heroes Reborn. Despite a lot of my misgivings about its parent series, I was still of the opinion that it could have really done with one final season to conclude the story and the journeys of these characters, as well as to explore that last cliffhanger in which the existence of Evolved Humans (now "Evos") is now a public matter of fact. When Reborn began I wasn't very impressed with the the way it reused a lot of the same character archetypes and themes to say a lot of the same things, but as the series went on I began to see how tightly the story has been written, avoiding a lot of the pitfalls that Heroes itself often fell into.
       Instead of acting as yet another cycle of Heroes' repeating storyline, the focus of the series around the aftermath of an orchestrated terrorist attack means that this Universe feels a lot more adult, with characters having to face the consequences of their actions as and when they happen. There are enough old faces to make the show still feel like you're watching Heroes, but for the most part the injection of new blood has very much updated the show, developing it past its mid-noughties chic and neatly avoiding a lot of the stink that the show had picked up by its fourth season. Its biggest improvement is in its time-travel story, which manages to be very tight-knit and cohesive, dotting all the is and crossing the ts to make an exciting and yet perfectly logical sequence of events.
     I wish I could have reviewed this week-on-week, but I really didn't have the energy to do so. I'd also have liked to see how it ended - but for some stupid reason NBC have decided to leave the final three episodes of the season in January, ending this year's run with an awkward filler episode and completely demolishing any and all momentum that the show has. People are not going to tune in in January to finish this thing off, and if they do, all of the tension will just be gone. It feels a little like NBC want to sabotage this show and make sure that Heroes doesn't end up coming back full time, and that's a real shame, because once this little mini-series got going, it really deserved a fair chance.

Luther is captivating but running out of ideas. From the BBC
Luther - Series 4, BBC1
Written 27th December.

Erm... Hi? I've loved Luther since it started, I think it's an amazing, unique take on the detective genre which combines gruesome villains with a charismatic lead, playing off of a number of detective show cliches while never actually feeling held down by them. It fell into a nice format of four hour-long episodes in two rhyming couplets, which worked, keeping the character's intensity in short bursts. The third season ended on an open-ended but satisfying moment, keeping it open for star Idris Elba's desire to take the series to cinemas. That's what makes this incredibly short two-parter seem a little... well, weird is the word. It's nice to see you, Luther, but why is this such a flying visit?
     Given the brevity of the series, I was expecting something huge from the two-parter, something which would fundamentally change the format of the series. While we shifted some of the cast around, replacing Warren Brown with Rose Leslie and starring a brand new messed-up killer who eats his victims and then leads the police to each of them with a trail of identity papers. It was a balance of moments both introspective and painfully tense, but it didn't really have the barnstorming, triumphant surge which made Luther work - there needs to be the catharsis that comes with watching Luther beat the shit out of someone. The second half also wandered off into very strange territory, and even with Luther's extraordinary stories it stretched my sense of disbelief. I would have much preferred that this be the first two episodes of a brand new series instead of this strange "event" show which didn't really feel like it made that much of a lasting impression.

This show would be at the top if this was a "Top 11 Shows" list.
From denofgeek
Jessica Jones - Season 1, Netflix
Written 27th December.

A late addition to this list, but I couldn't talk about 2015 without mentioning Jessica Jones, the latest of the Marvel spin-off TV shows appearing on Netflix. Running alongside the series of blockbuster films and two TV shows on Disney's ABC channel, Marvel moved its vast Cinematic Universe over to Netflix earlier this year, with the 13-episode series Daredevil starring Charlie Cox. I wasn't really interested in that series, but I was interested in Jessica Jones, a series about a superhero-turned-private-eye starring Kristin Ritter and David Tennant. And let's get this out of the way, because it's going to be the most controversial thing I say on this list - Jessica Jones is the best thing that the MCU has produced.
     The main themes behind Jessica Jones , are incredibly important, as they discuss a topic very rarely addressed in mainstream media - female agency. Jones' main villain, Kilgrave, is a super villain whose ability lets him make anyone do whatever he wants them to, and he used this to both physically and psychologically abuse Jessica for a number of years. The series doesn't shy away from the language surrounding the topic - Kilgrave is a rapist, he's a murderer, and he's also the most charming person in the room. The show is a testament to both Ritter and Tennant - Ritter for portraying the anger and strength of a survivor of abuse, Tennant for managing to deliver the most realistic portrayal of an abuser I've ever seen on television.
     But the brilliant thing is that those issues aren't the be-all and end-all - there are a lot of amazing action scenes, some great mysteries and intrigues, a heart-breaking romance subplot that doesn't feel insultingly shoehorned in. There's a charming noir feel that the series maintains with very little effort, but it also feels modern and engaging and almost beyond clichĂ©. Of all the shows on this list, this is the one that I have to recommend the most highly - it's clever, consistent, breathtaking in its topics and just one of the best TV shows to come out in 2015.


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