My TV watching of 2016

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I’m of the opinion that we are in a great age of TV. Multi-season, continuous narrative story telling is now truly matured and to my tastes a better experience than feature length movies. That’s not to say that films aren’t a viable story telling medium anymore, just that I find I get so much more into TV shows these days. Here I’ll go over the shows and films I’ve watched this year:

Better Call Saul Season 2

“Is it as brilliant as Breaking Bad?” is a moot point. Better Call Saul is a different animal, and in its second season it’s come into its own nicely. Both shows have a similar base line – portraying the change of their protagonist into their ‘evil’ alter ego – but they go about it in such different fashion. That’s all because of how different the two men are. Walter White’s change is much more drastic, so his story poses a much more dramatic chain of events, whereas we can already see Saul Goodman in Jimmy McGill quite clearly. His arc isn’t as extreme, but it’s nuanced and very subtle. People will say that this show is boring, but to me it’s still great fun and fascinating to see watch. His relationships with Kim and his brother Chuck are complex and a whole lot of tension is created from it. It’s just that it doesn’t manifest in explosions and killings like in Breaking Bad, but in great verbal battles one after another. The final episode of the season masterfully sets up things to come and I’m really looking forward to it.

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Daredevil Season 2

I feared that Daredevil’s second season could not replicate what made the first so interesting. The change of Matt Murdock, part-time superhero into the actual Daredevil persona was fascinating to watch, especially when it came alongside the reveal of the main antagonist. I did not like the look of his Daredevil uniform (and still don’t really) at the end though, and his final confrontation with Fisk was really cheesy.

It makes sense then that season 2 was not about replicating season 1 but to fully arrive at the type of show this will be from here on out: a full on larger than life comic world with big characters. Exactly what I feared would happen. What I didn’t expect though was that I’d still greatly enjoy it! The introductions of Electra and the Punisher were awesome, both their stories interesting to explore. Murdock himself takes a step back from the spotlight to a degree which helps make the show feel larger than it is. Things got very busy this season and the focus was a bit diluted, but it’s also great fun to watch all the different elements at play.

Oh, and the action was amazing as always.

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The Americans Season 1 – 3

Oh my god. After getting the recommendation to watch a little show called The Americans, it turned into possibly my favorite show at this moment in time. I binge watched this thing but saved the fourth season to watch shortly before season 5.

The Americans is about a Soviet spy couple living in Washington DC in the early 1980’s. They live in plain sight under false identities AND THEY HAVE KIDS WHO DON’T KNOW ABOUT THEIR OWN PARENTS’ REAL IDENTITIES.

It’s amazing that this show works so well. It shows a facet of the cold war I’ve not really been interested in – the daily life and challenges of spies living in enemy territory. At times you really have to suspend your disbelief (the FBI guy who’s directly tasked with snuffing out enemy spies moves in right across the street? Really?) but most of the time it’s satisfyingly gritty and realistic. The drama and tensions reach Breaking Bad levels at times and I love it for that. You just have to watch it, it’s one of the underrated gems in my opinion.

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Game of Thrones Season 6

What’s there to say more about Game of Thrones. It’s the biggest show, and I’m a big fanboy. Well of the books more than the show, but I still diligently watch it. Season 6 had a lot to make right after some big disappointments in the previous season. It’s undeniable that without the book material to adapt directly, the show misses the focus and nuance that gave it the substance beyond the initial impression of violence and sex.

Season 6 had some really shit moments, too. Most of all the utter train wreck that was the conclusion of Arya’s Braavos arc. It was the worst moment in all of Game of Thrones, even worse than Jaime’s fight with the Sand Snakes. But there were some payoffs long in the making that were delivered masterfully: “Hold the Door” anyone? How about R + L = J’s validation?! Big big things happened that will change everything for the final stretch and for that I feel that Season 6 revived the interest in the show. I just feel bad for G.R.R. Martin that some of these payoffs were taken away from him. Hopefully “Winds of Winter” will come out soon and have even more stuff the show couldn’t get into.

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Stranger Things

Stranger Things was the real surprise hit this year. What an amazing first season for a show! I don’t even know what to say. The characters were immediately lovable, especially Winona Ryder was award-worthy. I just love that a show that’s clearly paying this much stylistic homage to a beloved time of movie-making has the substance to stand on its own. Stranger Things had some of the best child acting and expertly orchestrated mystery story telling I’ve seen in TV shows. One wonders if the second season can live up to its debut one.

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Luke Cage

Luke Cage was good. Yeah, it was good. Honestly. I didn’t suck. I just feel it was kind of forgettable and didn’t draw me in as much as I expected. I think it’s the acting of Mike Colter. Something about the way he speaks, his cadence or something doesn’t jive with me. I felt Cottonmouth was lame, and Luke’s brother was even worse. I can’t recommend this show, so stick with Jessica Jones and Daredevil.

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Westworld

Oh Westworld. You started off so amazingly well. The premise is as crazy as it is interesting, it has Anthony Hopkins delivering a scene stealing performance on the regular (and other actors were fantastic too) and a style that just oozes self confidence. A big criticism of the show is unfair: fan theories spoiling the joy of watching the actual show. Sure, the show’s mystery invites people to spin their theories and in the amplifying environment of the internet, people would almost inevitably correctly guess the twists and turns of the story. But to read up on and actively take part in the theorizing the viewer’s choice.

What irked me about Westworld was how much the show was up its own ass at times. For the most part I enjoyed it, but there was little “fun” in this show. It was a quite relentless onslaught of serious people being serious, watching them do awful things and wondering to myself if the whole place shouldn’t just be burned down. The final reveals were satisfying to a degree, but it ended up as a setup for the typical robots vs humans conflict we’ve seen a million times. I hope season 2 offers some genuine surprises and fresh ideas, but I won’t hold my breath.

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Bojack Horseman Season 1 + 2

This year I discovered Bojack Horseman when looking around Rotten Tomatoes. My interest was piqued when I learned that Aaron Paul, Alison Brie and Wil Arnett were in this show. At first though I was underwhelmed. It felt like the same kind of zany humor from stuff like Family Guy or South Park. I never could get into those type of shows. But Bojack Horseman revealed its best two characteristics soon enough: amazing visual puns and a real emotionally thoughtful core for its characters. Soon enough you find yourself empathizing for Bojack’s plight, even if you don’t like him as a person. It was refreshing to see a cartoon-for-grown-ups with a continuous narrative structure, too.

The laugh-out-loud moments make out the bulk of the show for sure, but every now and then it will deliver an emotional gut punch for good measure and things get very real. This is when I feel Bojack Horseman is at its strongest, and I feel like I can take something away from it beyond the immediate fun of watching a comedy. Definitely recommended.

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Silicon Valley Season 3

Silicon Valley continues on in its quest to be the Big Bang Theory for actual nerds. At this point it’s lost its freshness I have to say, but the quality itself hasn’t dropped. Now it’s all about the characterization and resolving of story threads. I had great fun watching this, and even though it’s kind of the little brother to Game of Thrones, sometimes I was looking forward to another Silicon Valley episode even more.

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Watching old sitcoms

This year I’ve really worked my Chromecast and have been rewatching beloved old Friends with my family. For the most party the show’s comedy is still as punchy as it was back then, and only in some parts it shows its age. Watching it again I’m more removed and analytical, and it’s quite obvious to me now how episodes are structured, how the jokes are built up and landed. Even so, I still had great fun. I could go into some stuff I that made me stop and think like how Monica’s obesity is generally accepted as having made her a lesser person or how the guys are often insecure about their manliness after doing girly stuff. But for the most part it’s a really progressive show too: Ross has a smart black girlfriend at one point, there’s homosexual characters (Susan or Pheobe’s husband) who don’t get made fun of and so on. So it’s really not a big deal at all, it certainly aged far better than most of its 90’s peers.

Then we moved on to How I Met Your Mother. I never finished it, stopping somewhere around season 6 or 7. HIMYM always felt like the spiritual successor to Friends, but it really is only at first glance. It’s a much less subtle show, purposefully constantly pulling on-the-nose jokes. I enjoy the strong authorial voice (and I don’t mean the literal voice of Bob Saget) but even though HIMYM is 2 seasons shorter than Friends, I feel it drags on. Just get to the goddamn mother!

Anyway, the dialog and acting in HIMYM at times gets really sincerely cringey but my biggest problem is with Barney. He starts off as the shallow comic relief character that Joey was in Friends, just WAY more over the top. I had a lot of fun with this for the first couple of seasons, but then they tried to develop him into a 3-dimensional human being. The transition is grating and doesn’t feel earned. Barney turning into a man with feelings and emotional depth is a biggest turn around than Walter White turning into Heisenberg was! And that show took 5 season with it as its sole focus!

Big Bang Theory is the next show and I’m currently in season 3. I get that Big Bang Theory gets a LOT of deserved hate on the internet. The stereotyping is real, man! And the jokes are often simplistic or out-right not jokes at all. BUT: there’s (at least in the first few season) a real adoration on display for science and engineering. I can’t help but enjoy the enthusiasm the quartet of Leonard, Sheldon, Rajej and Howard for all these little pet projects they have, be it building a killer robot, using proxies all over the internet to transmit a signal for the light switch or fixing a space toilet. It’s also a really family friendly show like Friends was (and how HIMYM wasn’t as much) so I can enjoy this with my family all the more.

For me, I can easily look over the problematic laughing-at-geeks of Big Bang Theory because I know that there are shows like Silicon Valley that are just better. What I’m not looking forward to is how BBT will soon turn into a relationship drama of a sitcom in the later seasons. I’ll have to wait and see though.

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