WORDS: Donald Jenkins
My Top Thirteen (ish) drama series of 2016.
We all love a good box set and many of us look to social media to rave about or seek advice on what we should dedicate 10+ hours to binge on next. However, although there is plenty of choice there is also a lot of mediocrity and it's worth finding out what's worth while if you are going to invest what little spare time you have in the modern world to source your next viewing fix.
Anyways, as a series addict, here are my top thirteen drama series that I have enjoyed in 2016 (plus a few extras). I appreciate that I haven't watched everything (I have watched a lot more than 13 shows though so this is a whittled down selection) so please holler at ya boy if you think there is something vital I have missed. Also, please tell me what you think of my top 13... Do you agree/disagree? What is your top 10 or even 13?
Before we start, here are 4 series that are also worthy of mention...
The Affair (Season 3)
I'm not sure what keeps me so engrossed on a drama that basically deals with the far reaching consequences of an affair set to the backdrop of a criminal investigation seen through the differing perspectives of all those involved. I also wasn't sure how the writers were going to stretch the concept for yet another series but they have managed to creatively, with the main protagonist Dominic West ( Jimmy McNulty of The Wire) now down on his luck, paranoid and dealing with his demons that has kept me hooked in. The season is mid flow and concludes in 2017, so I may have placed it in my top 13 had it been a complete piece of work, but so far so good.
Stranger Things (Season 1)
By far one of the most hyped shows of the year was this teen sci-fi/horror, which combined great child acting, a superb and pleasant return from Winona Ryder, an outstanding soundtrack of 80's pop and retro sounding synthwave opening credits and all shot in an 80's authentic looking film print. Whilst it was very watchable as it tried to tap into our love of 80's kids movies (E.T, The Goonies) it did so by basically just ripping off all the story lines of those films alongside some big holes in the over all plot. Aesthetically very pleasing, but let down by poor story telling.
Deutchland 83 (Season 1)
The story of a young East German soldier who is sent to spy undercover on behalf of the Stasi in West Germany in the 80's. A great soundtrack and a sterling lead performance by newcomer Jonas Nay were worth a watch and made this programme the most successful exported German show ever, but the storyline dipped in places which slowed down this series that had great potential. I will still give the second season a look in.
Horrace and Pete (Season 1)
This was jointly the best thing I watched all year but falls outside the category of drama; being in fact what its writer and creator- Louis CK' calls 'a dramedy'. Part sitcom, part emotional drama, part play- Horrace and Pete is like no other show which is brought to life by a sterling cast.
Taking place in a Brooklyn bar owned by Horrace (Louis CK) and Pete (Steve Buscemi), we find out about the trials and tribulations of daily life of the bar's staff and regulars which include, the always excellent Eddie
Falco (The Soparnos, Nurse Jackie), Alan Alda (M*A*S*H) as the inappropriate but brutally funny bar tender, as well as alcoholic Jessica Lange (American Horror Story).
Those who are looking for the non stop belly laughs one would expect from Louis CK may be disappointed to find this show can often deal with some deeply expressed dark emotions and is at times, pretty grim. However, in stark contrast there is plenty of wrong humour and topical satire that help to make this CK's most ambitious project to date. Best performance in any show in 2017 was by Laurie Metcalf (Rosanne's sister Jackie in the show Rosanne) in episode 3 where she retells her compelling sexual exploits in a fascinating 15 minute monologue.
Also unlike any other show, Louis CK is selling his product direct to consumer without any TV/internet stations involved. You could support his work by buying/downloading it from here: https://louisck.net/show/horace-and-pete
13. Daredevil (Season 2)
Still running way behind the gorefest of the opening episode of seasons 7' s The Walking Dead, this was by far the most brutal show of the year. Violence ran supreme in the hands of character The Punisher excellently played by Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead) who single handedly goes on the warpath against the gangs of New York in this great introduction, which will be followed by his own series.
Whilst not as stand out as season 1, what makes Daredevil and it's sister series, Jessica Jones enjoyable is what they lack in a special FX budget they make up with their well crafted human back stories which make you empathise with the main villains as well as the heroes. This is in contrast to a lot of super hero films which I find are so fast and furious that I don't usually give a shit about what happens to the characters. Thankfully, Vincent D'Onofrio returns as Kingpin Wilson Fisk whose star performance was the main reason why the first season was so good. I can't believe that’s it's the same guy who played Private Pile in Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket!'
12. House of Cards (Season 4)
A vast improvement on the previous season and a half, this American adaptation of the classic political British drama resumes exactly where it left off right in the thick of the U.S primaries and the start of the (very topical) main election race to the Whitehouse.
The story arc that made the first season and a bit so compelling resurfaces as various forces excavate the skeletons in politician Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) closet and bring down his bloody empire.
Even if a shred of this is true to the behind the scenes story of an American President then we have a genuine need for concern, as Frank will do anything to ensure his secrets are buried and that nobody stands in his way. Treachery, power play and down right maliciousness are the order of the day, as usual.
11. Orange is the New Black (Season 4)
A much needed return to form, Orange bounces back from the comedy soap opera that was season 3 into black comedy drama territory we know and love along with a credible political statement to boot. The shows well rounded characters help the audience to digest what was a damning indictment of the current state of play in the industrial prison complex, including the effects of prison privatisation, state and inmate racism and a truly heartbreaking story that enabled viewers to empathise with the reasons why the Black Lives Matters movement exists.
10. Westworld (Season 1)
A truly epic series, HBO have done well to develop the vision of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi book and the subsequent movies of the same name in this excellent big budget reboot.
The story revolves around a futuristic theme park where its punters participate in a total emersion experience where they become cowboys in the old West. The main characters are a mixture of staff members, who all have different conflicting views on how it should be ran and 'hosts'; life like robots who are starting to develop some level of consciousness about how they are puppets being used for the guests' amusement.
The great cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel , Thandie Newton and Jeffery Wright aka Valentin Narcisse in Boardwalk Empire), are on location in a Wild West setting mixed with futuristic lab scenes with interesting themes that deal with the notion of what makes singularity consciouness, as well as great twists in the story making this an impressive first season. That being said, the story did annoyingly meander at times, could have easily been condensed to 8 episodes and the shows concept will need to expand beyond the western frontier in subsequent series if it wants to keep viewers attention.
9. Game of Thrones (Season 6)
The creators of this long srunning show took a leap of faith as they stepped beyond what has been publically published by author of the series; George Martin to enable the show to go on. The result was one of the best seasons for some time as many of the story arcs that have been bubbling along for several seasons came to a head.
There were the usual amount of deaths of significant characters and the return of some back into the fold. Whilst I prefer GOT more when it deals with the deceit and personal politics between characters, this season's highlight was an epic battle in episode 9, demonstrating that their special FX budget has increased somewhat to create a visually stunning, almost POV charge into the most brutal of showdowns.
8. The Missing (Season 2)
What was one of the best series of 2014 returns with ace French detective Julien Baptiste in a new child abduction case with parents played by David Morrissey (The Governor from The Walking Dead) and Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty). Whilst the first season had clearly drawn inspiration from the Madeline McCann case and the consequences it had for the parents in their search for their child. This season creates a tangled web of a story over several time lines based across different locations (Germany, Iraq) that is linked to a foreign British military community. The series is told in a very dark scandanvian nordic noir literary style, with seemingly unconnected strands linking together, only revealing what they want you to know at each stage of the story. Whilst it is truly gripping storytelling, the plot was at times highly inconceivable. Which I don't think spoilt this must see drama, it just lacked the perfection of season 1.
7. Outcast (Season 1)
American horror series based on the comics by Robert Irkamn who is also responsible for The Walking Dead. Set in small town America, the story revolves around demonic possession and character Kyle Barnes who has been outcasted by the local community for his past behaviour. Whilst TWD and its spin off Fear the Walking Dead drift between countless meandering episodes of melodrama with occasional brutal episode to keep you hooked in, Outcast was great beginning to finish. 10 well paced episodes combining supernatural phenomenon, bible belt Evangelicalism, exorcism with healthy doses of religious scepticism
and victims dealing with the repercussions of real life crimes. Great performances from the not obviously recognisable Philip Glenister (DCI Gene Hunt from Life On Mars) and Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek Next Generation) playing a truly sinister creepy ass bastard.
6. Black Mirror (Season 3)
Black Mirror's move to a new platform on Netflix also signals its best season to date. These six one-off well crafted dystopian tales from both sides of the pond are so chilling because they are only just slight exaggerations of the worrying times we are currently living in. It's creator, Charlie Brooker is no stranger to predictions, as several of his previous stories have come to fruition in the real world (E.g Black Mirror season 1, ep 1, Nathan Barley). Harking back to shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and the film Creepshow, this series has many stings in its tales which are to be found in the realm of modern developments such as, virtual reality submersion gaming, social media score ratings and cyber bullying.
5. The Night of (Season 1)
An 8 part American adaptation of a UK mini series called Criminal Justice which sees the life of a somewhat innocent and naive Muslim young man; Nasir Khan (excellently acted by Riz Ahmed) turned upside down when he is linked to a crime one evening on a night out in New York City. This shows the repercussions of a man trying to navigate the criminal justice system to the backdrop of the Islamaphobia he faces in modern day U.S.A. John Turtorro (O Brother Where Art Thou) plays lawyer John Stone who brings light relief to the dark tale as he combines his criminal investigation with dealing with his own awkward health problems. Slick, slow building with plenty of nice twists, great pay offs and excellent character acting, including the always awesome poetic utterings of Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire, Chalky White from Boardwalk Empire).
4. Happy Valley (Season 2)
After a long spate of the BBC turning out some average dramas, this show further demonstrates that the BBC can once again be at the forefront of producing some of the greatest dark, gripping, story telling series. Alongside 'The Missing' and 'Line of Duty' this police drama will have you constantly second guessing what the hell is going to happen next. The story centres around crimes that take place in the picturesque Yorkshire Calder Valley known as Happy Valley and police sergeant Catherine Cawood (expertly played by Sarah Lancashire- Raquel from Coronation Street). The story superbly mixes a new crime story which involves various interesting protagonists with the story arc of the last series, and those characters with their somewhat shitty past life experiences. What sets this show apart is it really looks at the emotions of all those involved; good and bad and gives you a good sense of how they have arrived at this point of their dilemma.
3. Better Call Saul (Season 2)
I'm totally bored of folk moaning about how this programme isn't like Breaking Bad. That's the whole point. The prequel to BB starts by picking out the most comedy like character from the original series (Saul Goodman )and matching him up with one of it's meanest and coolest characters (Mike). What follows is a great black comedy that has two stories running simultaneously but rarely overlapping, featuring two starkly contrasting but fascinating individuals taking part in adventures that veer away significantly from the highs and lows of the meth business. It's a bit like the 90's cartoon show about an alley cat called 'Heathcliff' where for half of the show you followed his story and then for the remainder you enjoyed the exploits of a slicker cat called 'Riff Raff'. A bit like two shows for the price of one. What makes it good then? There are off beat and well written dialogue, twisting plots told with unexpected subtlety, the return of those great camera angles that made BB so well shot and also a number of great new characters that make you feel happy and guilt free to revisit Albuquerque, New Mexico without popping into see Walter White. If you were put off by the first few episodes of season 1, stick with it, it's worth it.
2. Trapped (Season 1)
Surprise gem of the year comes from Iceland, which like it' s other imported Scandinavian Nordic Noir counterparts 'The Bridge' and 'The Killing' it centres around murder and corruption set to the backdrop of the bleak Northern skies. It doesn't get more bleak then this when a cruise ship gets halted in a small Icelandic shipping village when a dead body washes up on shore. The programme expertly builds tension as the characters are stuck in a frozen remote wasteland tying to navigate the twists and turns of a criminal investigation. The show is brought to life by a great cast of quirky and believable characters, most notably the lead town sheriff - the huge bear that is Andri (Olafur Darri Olafsson who has since been in the British drama the Missing 2), female police officer Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjansdottir) who in real life is a comedian and whose charisma adds a lot to the show as well as the real menacing character of the show- the weather.
1. Line of duty (Season 3)
The police drama that will have you shouting at the screen at bent coppers whilst being manically gripped to your seat. Building on the story arc of the previous season, this gripping and at times brutal drama focuses on the bureaucracy and corruption within the police force as well as close to the bone, topical and sinister scandals within the British establishment. Strangely ironic that it's a BBC drama. The show had great performances by Vicky Mclure (Lol from This is England) and Keeley Hawkes (The Missing 2). Whilst it's slightly over the top in places, the attention the show places on the procedural nature of police investigation superbly adds to the tension and your viewing frustration as to how it's all going to be resolved.