5. Life is Beautiful: Dr. Who
Before they brought Holmes and Watson into the 20th century in the excellent personages of Benedict Cumberbach and Martin Freeman, the Sherlock team first produced this marvelous update of the ultimate geek cult classic, Dr. Who.
For the uninitiated, The Doctor is a time-traveling alien, last of his species which was known as Time Lords, who generally is incarnated with some sort of accent from the British Isles, and travels through time and space in a blue time capsule that looks like a blue British police call box circa 1963 (when the series debuted on the BBC.)
The Doctor is of an undetermined age, and regenerates every so often with a new body and slightly different personality. This season, he is played by Peter Capaldi and is, to his initial consternation, an older and grouchier, Scotsman. In the most recent seasons he has been played to great effect by Christopher Eccleson, David Tennant and Matt Smith.
The Doctor travels with an appealing and adventurous sidekick, generally a young and pretty British woman.
Like The Doctor himself, this show has heart to spare, generally with the characters saving some civilization from extinction. While Dr. Who is consistently life-affirming, the show recently aired one of the most blatantly pro-life episodes in the history of television.
Forget wondering if a baby might ruin one’s career, in this case, the dilemma was whether to kill the last of an alien species in utero, even if letting it hatch meant risking the future of Earth itself.
Utterly whimsical and completely addictive, Dr. Who has a sense of wonder and humanity that is unique in modern television.
4. Homeland—British Style: The Honorable Woman (Sundance)
Despite a clumsy title, The Honorable Woman is in the running for the best television drama of the year—including the best ever to deal with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Even before the credits roll, two Jewish children in a posh restaurant are splattered with blood as their father is assassinated by an Arab waiter. Later, we meet the grown Nessa Stein, as the head of a foundation founded with her late father’s money, trying to make peace by promoting business ties and building infrastructure in the Palestinian territory.
Nessa and her brother Ephra are both harboring secrets that have to do with Nessa’s year long captivity five years before at the hands of a Hamas terrorist, both about what happened to Nessa during captivity, and what he did to secure her release.
These have profound repercussions in the modern day. Brother and sister are not always on the same page, and the CIA, MI-5, the Mossad and various Palestinian terrorist and political groups try to use them for their own purposes.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as Nessa, whose outward self-righteousness masks a sea of internal conflict; and she is perfectly matched by Andrew Buchan (the enigmatic father in Broadchurch) as Ephra. Stephen Rea shines as a shaggy MI-5 officer trying to pick his way through the minefield of conflicting loyalties and politics; as does Outlander’s Tobias Menzies as Nessa’s bodyguard.
Ultimately, however, despite the ambiguities and cynicism, The Honorable Woman has no confusion about civilization and savagery; and while it has a clear eyed look at the flaws on both sides, it does not do so in the service of moral equivalence.
3. Life After Death–Row: Rectify (Sundance)
Quiet tension is the best way to describe the atmosphere of Rectify, about a man released to his small Georgia hometown after 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend.
Daniel Holden (a superb Aden Young) is cleared of rape charges thanks to DNA evidence. Daniel’s fiercely loyal sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer) has spent her entire adult life trying to clear her brother, and now has to cope with building an actual life.
But the local State Senator made his career prosecuting Daniel, and is still convinced he was the murderer, and is pressuring the new prosecutor to re-try him. Whether he still believes Daniel is fully guilty or just needs to is something we don’t know—and he probably doesn’t either. This divides the town over Daniel’s guilt and whether to accept him back.
Adding to the tension is that the audience does not know everything Daniel knows about what happened that night. This is not a show that network television might set up in black and white about a clearly innocent man returning to his hick hometown of bitter clingers. This is set in the South, but it is about fully realized human beings at every turn.
At times, this show is uncomfortably intimate, as though we are spying on a family going though an unbelievably tough time. However, it is always a rewarding, honest, and redemptive hour of television.
2. No Amnesty on This Border: The Bridge (FX)
The award for Most Improved Show must go to FX’s The Bridge. Set on the violent border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, the first season of The Bridge was a challenge for some viewers because of a somber tone and deliberate pace.
That’s too bad, because very few shows on television have tackled the ready-made drama of the no man’s land developing on America’s border. In fact, recent news stories make the seemingly high body count in The Bridge seem like an understatement.
The Bridge began with a TV high concept, the bisected body of a judge found laying across the marked border on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. An honest-as-he-can-afford-to-be-Mexican cop Marco Ruiz (the always commanding Demián Bichir) is teamed with a too-honest-for-her-own-good El Paso detective Sonya Cross (National Treasure’s Diane Kruger) to work this cross border mystery.
I’m sure somebody in the early story development mentioned that Ruiz has a lot in common with the Mexican cop in Traffic, and Cross might as well be the soul sister of Carrie Bradshaw in Homeland; but that’s okay.
Rounding out the cast is the great Ted Levine as Lieutenant Hank Wade, the cop in charge of the El Paso homicide unit, and Thomas Wright, who nearly steals the show as a peculiar Holy Fool straight out of Russian literature—a quirky hick who rescues young women from the depredations of the border bandits.
This year, the cast was joined by Bourne femme Franka Potente as a quirky assassin who is cleaning up loose ends in a war that has broken out between two cartels.
In season two, the narrative became much tighter, and the intensity of the story approached Breaking Bad-class filmmaking with characters and a setting not seen anywhere else in television or the movies. This is the bleakest portrayal of the southwest borderlands since Sergio Leone teamed with Clint Eastwood.
Unfortunately, FX — which has to be given some props for sticking with this singular project for a second season despite low ratings — decided to part ways with the show. The producers are shopping for another network and seem hopeful. Come on, Netflix, make my day.
1. Beverly Hills 911: Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Not since Tony Soprano has an antihero dad with a twisted family dynamic appeared on the television scene with the power of Ray Donovan.
Created by the brilliant television writer Ann Biderman, (Southland) this Showtime production features the mighty Liev Schreiber as the title character, leading an excellently vivid—most notably Jon Voight having a ball in perhaps his best role as Ray’s Irish gangster father.
Ray Donovan is a fixer for Hollywood celebrities. Working for a lawyer to the stars, Ezra Goodman (Elliot Gould), Ray spends his days and nights making messes go away for the rich and famous, from actors to rappers to athletes—sometimes of their own making, and sometimes not. Sometimes his methods are legal, and sometimes not.
Ray seems to have a code and limits, but we—and perhaps he—are not sure exactly what they are. He seems to think of himself as a basically good man.
If Ray has a distorted idea of authority and his role, he comes by it honestly. He is the son of Mickey Donovan, a Boston Irish gangster of some repute, who abandoned his family; and the alpha male among three brothers in a family recovering from being abused by their priest.
The Donovans’ somewhat comfortable existence in L.A. is thrown into disarray when Mickey arrives after his release from a long prison stint, and Ray discovers to his dismay, that it was at the invitation of his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson of Deadwood).
While this is largely Schreiber and Voigt’s show, only Justified comes close to Ray Donovan for providing meaty character roles for its fine cast, which are too numerous for a capsule review. As in Justified, the show is populated by people who are defined by their family and circumstances, and their struggles to escape them.
But while shocking violence and betrayal is not uncommon in this show, perhaps the most gripping and unsettling episode came midway through the season when all of the Donovan relatives—including Mickey’s African-American mistress and her son—converge on Ray’s house for a birthday party. And you think you’ve got problems…