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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Five shows you should be watching - Kyle's Picks

The Walking Dead, despite some critical misgivings, is quite the phenomenon among the television viewing audience, with its finale securing over 12 MILLION viewers when its finale aired. This is unprecedented for a cable television program, but the question that remains now...what do you watch next?

Shane, Hannah and myself have developed some thoughts on this subject, and we each are presenting you with five different options, either currently airing, or an older program available on DVD/Netflix. These are shows that we each consider essential viewing and why. Here are my five picks in no particular order, other than the number one, of course.

1. The Wire

Where You Can See it Now:  DVD (5 seasons) and HBO Go

What is it:  Detective James MacNulty (Dominic West) is placed in charge of a joint homicide and narcotics division investigation to bring down Drug Kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). MacNulty has to deal with a corrupt bureaucracy, dwindling resources, and shifty (at best) informants in order to catch his man. At the same time, Barksdale has internal competition, as a stick-up man named Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) is robbing Barksdale's men and reselling the drugs. This is a side of Baltimore that many have never seen. 

Why Watch it:  If there's ever been a definition of the term visual novel, it is The Wire. Throughout the series we get to know a huge cast of characters that represent all walks of life in a major city and the multi-faceted portrayals are so three-dimensional, you'll even begin to understand just why the criminals do the things they do. It's been described that "The Wire is the best Dickens novel that Dickens never wrote" and it's absolutely true. Not only in it's five seasons do viewers get a chance to engage in the dealings of street-level drug trade and the day to day work of the investigative team, but each season covers specific themes. The synopsis described above only touches Season 1 and barely scratches the surface, subsequent seasons look at the plight and desperation of the working class, the corruption of local politics in a metropolitan city, the struggles of the inner-city school system, and the journalists that cover all of the above. The scope of The Wire is massive, but at the same time it never loses focus, and its core ensemble cast is always front and center. Gripping, emotionally engaging, thought-provoking and sometimes heart-breaking, it is the finest television show that I've ever seen, and it ends perfectly.

2. Game of Thrones

Where You Can See it Now:  HBO, DVD (Seasons 1 and 2) and HBO Go

What is it:  Game of Thrones (based on the novels of George RR Martin), focuses on Seven Royal Families in the land of Westeros. The King, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), asks his best friend Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) to serve as his Hand (second in command), and begins to investigate the possible death of the previous Hand; while the Queen's (Lena Headey) family, the Lannisters begin an attempt at takeover of the throne. Across the Narrow Sea in the far land of Essos, the displaced Targaryen family siblings scheme to do the same. While the eventual wrangling over the crown and clash of swords rings throughout the country and involves all seven royal families in some facility or another, in the far north something far more ancient and evil is stirring.

Why Watch it: Game of Thrones is one of most exciting shows on the air currently. It mixes political intrigue, with sword and sorcery antics, with a rather healthy dose of sex and violence. The portrayals are incredible, with nary a poor performance in the bunch, and the ensemble format gives a viewer an opportunity to truly feel like they know the characters, despite the foreign setting. But much like the Walking Dead, one shouldn't get too attached to a character, as this is a series that is not afraid to kill off anyone, and I do mean anyone. Each episode acts as a chapter to an ongoing narrative, as each season more or less adapts an individual book. Game of Thrones is a series that defines sequential storytelling, with no episodes that stand-alone. It is impossible to jump into the series from any season on barring the first, but the rewards of watching from the beginning are well worth it. I would easily argue that the tale being spun here is finer and far deeper than The Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy tale filmed, plus it has zombies of a sort, so it makes for the perfect replacement for your undead needs. The third season is currently airing on HBO.

3. Doctor Who

Where You Can See it Now:  BBC America, Netflix (Seasons 1-6), and DVD (6.5 seasons total)

What is it: It is the longest running science-fiction television series in history, but it's surprisingly still fairly new to American audiences as a British import. Throughout its history though, the premise has been relatively simple, a mysterious figure known as "The Doctor" travels in his 1960's Police Box that he calls The TARDIS (which is far bigger on the inside) through time and space and righting various wrongs usually with some kind of companion in tow.    

Why Watch it: Of all the series I watch regularly, Doctor Who is by far the most fun. After Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cancelled, I was never able to catch onto another program that quite fit that same mold of science fiction-ish storytelling, comic-book action, and occasional dramatic underpinnings. When Doctor Who returned in 2005 from an almost 20 year hiatus (not counting a poorly conceived by Fox to bring it back in 1996), I still wasn't completely sold as the storytelling still veered too much towards the silly and maudlin for my taste. By 2010 though, when Steven Moffat took over (he of the also ingenious Sherlock series), that's when I was completely sold. Moffat's twisty narratives that tackle various imaginative concepts with an almost fairy tale like sheen have made Doctor Who a series unlike any other on television. His efforts are not hurt by the fact that, since he took on the reins of the show, he's had a very compelling and suitably alien lead in Matt Smith. It's not a show that'll grab everyone, and its cheese factor may be too much for some, but for those that can get wrapped up in its spell, Doctor Who can really deliver. The second half of Season 7 is currently airing, I would recommend starting with Season 5 and diving in.

4. Extras

Where You Can See it Now:  DVD (2 Seasons and a Christmas Special) and HBO Go

What is it:  Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) works as an extra on various films and television series in an attempt to make it big in Hollywood as a writer and actor. Saddled with an idiotic agent Darren (Stephen Merchant), his attempts almost always end in embarrassment and failure.

Why Watch it: It is arguably the funniest show I've ever seen, and is definitely my favorite project that Ricky Gervais was ever involved in (he's the co-creator and writer, along with Merchant). While there's an ongoing narrative about Andy's attempts at fame, it's episodes stand-alone and each feature guest appearances by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Wouldn't you want to see Ian McKellen describe his fears of playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films "You know I'm not really a wizard Peter..." or Robert DeNiro's fascination with a naked lady pen? It's a comedy that is very easy to get into, with humor that is smart, but not so high-brow that it abandons anyone. Comedy is very fickle that way, and I wouldn't recommend this type of show lightly. Extras is just that good.

5. Mad Men

Where You Can See it Now:  AMC, Netflix (Seasons 1-5), and DVD (5 Seasons so far)

What is it:  Mad Men covers the day to day lives of 1960's advertising executives at the Madison Ave. firm, Sterling Cooper. In 1961, when the show begins, the industry is just beginning to grow via the advent of television and the continued growth of print media. Mad Men deals not only with the tribulations of the firm in the face of growing competition, but also the struggles both personally and professionally of its brightest star, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), whose secrets begin to create greater challenges for him as the series mounts on.

Why Watch it:  I've spoken at length about Mad Men in yesterday's review of the Season 6 premiere, so I won't repeat that information here. But, what I enjoy most about Mad Men is how every year so perfectly encapsulates the radical changes in American Culture, each season bringing very clear fashion, taste, and sometimes outright personality alterations reflecting the chaos of one of America's most forward thinking periods. Mad Men is also perhaps the most thematically dense show currently airing. Each episode takes a particular thesis and utilizes its characters to reflect those ideas. Occasionally this method can be heavy-handed, but its always a satisfying experience that gives one pause and sticks with a viewer long after an episode has aired. Mad Men is a series that is very serious, and very slow, perhaps too slow for some. On the other hand, the sheer level of craft on display, as well as some very strong award-level performances make it a very tough choice on Sunday night between this and Game of Thrones. If you want to try something different from anything else on tv, Mad Men is where its at, especially if you don't have access to premium channels.

For more, check out Shane's picks and Hannah's !

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