Editor’s Note: Click here for Part 1 in this 3-part series.
11. How I Learned to Love the Bomb: Manhattan
WGN, the Chicago version of Atlanta’s TBS that never quite made national superstation status, makes a big bid for relevance with Manhattan, a terrific soap opera set in Los Alamos in 1944, as scientists feverishly race their Nazi counterparts in the quest for a workable nuclear bomb.
While most treatments of this subject focus on the supposition that people working on the project would be consumed by the guilt of constructing something that could kill millions of people, this series refreshingly pushes those considerations to the background.
The makers of Manhattan remember that it is set in wartime, where everyone knows someone who has been killed by the bad guys—and that the bad guys themselves are working on creating such a weapon.
Instead, Manhattan’s focus is on two things—the professional competition and jealousies created among the scientists who have competing theories about how to create a bomb; and the stress—and boredom—of people forced to live with their families in a super-secret military camp out in the middle of nowhere.
A very good cast of character actors you have seen elsewhere, sharp writing and an authentic feel of time and place make Manhattan top flight—and informative—entertainment.
10. The Vampire Virus: The Strain
FX just continues to crank out the compelling dramas, with this wildly entertaining mashup of the vampire/zombie/killer plague genres. (And if that’s not enough, there’s also a Holocaust angle that is surprisingly sharp and non-exploitive.)
The Strain is also one of the most cinematic-looking series on television, thanks to director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim) who also co-wrote the trilogy of books the series is based on with Chuck Hogan.
The Strain begins with a fantastically eerie scene as a trans-Atlantic jetliner lands in New York City with everyone aboard dead, except for the pilot and 3 passengers—or so they seem. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) of the CDC finds his normal quarantine procedures blocked at the highest levels from Washington, and the “survivors” are allowed to walk—and soon, they are the walking dead.
Goodweather and his crew soon team up with Abraham Satrakian, the world’s toughest old man, a Holocaust survivor (the great David Bradley who has been in everything from Harry Potter to Broadchurch lately). Abraham first encountered this ancient evil while in Auschwitz, and has been battling it ever since.
The Strain doesn’t quite have the impact or human element of The Walking Dead, but it’s a perfect substitute for those seeking apocalyptic vampire adventure—but can’t quite stomach the gut-churning violence of TWD.
9. Dwarfing the Competition: Game of Thrones
If you are reading a column about television shows, you probably already have an opinion about Game of Thrones. This is one of the few TV series left that has that “did you see that?” next-day buzz, once generated by 24, The Sopranos and other great series.
Game of Thrones also runs into the summer season, and through 4 seasons it has lost none of its verve. Set in an alternate pagan world of the past, Thrones is basically a pagan Lord of the Rings.
It’s also the only water-cooler series HBO has left, as Showtime and FX have long since attracted all the new great TV dramas, and even Starz has been doing better with new stuff (with the sole exception of HBO’s True Detective.)
Of all the shows on this list, this is the one that I get it if people don’t want to watch. It even generated an argument in PJ Lifestyle between Andrew Klavan and David Swindle. In fact, while I never miss an episode, my fiancé can’t watch it.
But love it or hate it, few television shows these days have its raw power—or can generate such disagreement among people who usually agree.
8. Jack is Back and Less is More: 24: Live Another Day
If you don’t know why you do or don’t like 24 in general, then welcome back from Mars. So, let’s just say that this could have been called 24: Just the Good Stuff.
Paring the 24 format down to 12 hours was nearly perfect. Let’s face it, when something is spread over 6 months, the clicking tock effect doesn’t exactly work like the true hour and a half of High Noon. Jack could be wounded at 3 in the afternoon and it didn’t seem weird that he was healed by 11 the next morning—because to us the gap was September to April.
So, the CTU High romances were kept to a minimum, and yes, there was a traitor in the CIA, but that also made it an intriguing subplot. And for once, everyone involved, from the Russians to the Chinese, to a revenge-minded jihadist widow (wonderfully played by Game of Thrones’s Michelle Fairly) represented an actual real life enemy of the United States, not some fever-dream shadow group from the conspiracy fringe.
Leaner, meaner and better than at any time since Season 4, 24 Live Another Day has fans saying, come back, Jack, do it again.
7. al-Godfather: Tyrant
One of the more ambitious summer series was the FX’s Tyrant, which could be described as The Godfather meets Saddam.
Adam Rayner plays Barry Al Fayeed, an American pediatrician who is actually the expat son of the dictator of Abbudin, a secular (ish) Arab state that is a cross between Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Barry’s thoroughly American family has never been to his homeland, and he likes it that way.
Barry reluctantly decides to attend his nephew’s wedding back in the fatherland, and while he is there, his father dies, leaving Barry’s sociopath brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) in charge. Jamal is an Uday Hussein-type character, but he idolizes his little brother and he feels the weight of responsibility once he’s in charge.
Of course, Barry tries to help, thinking he can change the world and reform his homeland. Of course, he can’t.
While Barry is a bit of a stiff, and his American family is pretty shallow gruel, Jamal is a great character and Ashraf Barhom makes him fascinating. Jamal will do anything to stay in charge, but he has a father complex a mile wide and he wants to be loved—just like every other dictatorial monarch.
Tyrant is far from perfect, and not nearly as good as Eric Bolling on The Five thinks it is, but it is compelling, politically incorrect, and I’m definitely interested in seeing what comes next.
6. Ripping Bodices and Busting Heads: Outlander
After bombing with the terrible Black Sails, Starz network scored huge with another costume drama, Outlander, about a woman who finds herself somehow transported back in time from postwar England to 1700s Scotland, at the time of the Jacobin Rebellion.
Think a chick-lit version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars.
But it works. It really really works, as a wildly romantic, high-class bosom-buster with just enough violence and intrigue to make this a painless way for a guy to get points watching something she wants to watch.
Claire Randall (a pitch-perfect Caitriona Balfe) is a combat nurse who has just been reunited with her husband Frank, (Tobias Menzies, who makes another appearance on this list, even nearer the top) an Army officer, after grueling years apart serving in the war. He is researching his Scottish roots while they are on their honeymoon, when Claire stumbles through a portal in time at a Stonehenge-like site.
She finds herself pursued by a rapacious Redcoat officer who is a dead ringer for her husband, and rescued by a muscular kilt-wearing dreamboat, Jamie Frazier (Sam Heughan) who is part of the rebellious Mac Kenzie clan. When Claire proves herself valuable as a “healer,” the MacKenzies decide she will remain with them, under their “protection.”
Of course, Claire, needing a protector, and unsure whether her own time is lost to her, is drawn to Jamie—and can it really be cheating if her husband won’t be born for another 200 years?
In the wrong hands, this could be insufferable hokum, but Outlander is flawlessly executed in every department—including being just plain gorgeous to look at. It’s the reverse of the old Irish Springs slogan– It may be adapted from chick-lit, but I like it too.
Editor’s Note: Part III coming this weekend…