Enjoying the Golden Age of TV: Gems of 2018, Part 1

It’s a generally accepted fact amongst TV critics and viewers that we are living in a “Golden Age of TV” for the past few years, with a wealth of densely scripted, lavishly produced, intensely acted TV content running on cable channels like HBO and AMC Networks and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. It’s extraordinary that this description covers not just conventional dramatic shows like House of Cards but also genre fare like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead; with rare exceptions, sci-fi, fantasy or horror shows rarely ever attracted top drawer writing and acting talent until the 90’s when we got The X-Files. Since then, and particularly in the past 7-8 years, we have had several long-running shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead that have consistently picked up awards in acting and technical categories year after year.

I typically prefer one-off TV movies and short mini-series as there is a guarantee of a definite end vs. the risk of meandering plotlines, lack of closure (The X-Files and Lost) or “jumping the shark” (season 4 of Falling Skies). Among the multi-year shows, I have limited myself to just a handful – Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Crown, Madam Secretary and The Leftovers (which I started watching only after learning that season 3 was its last, as I previously feared it would go on and on like Damon Lindelof’s other creation, Lost).

Having said that, 2018 has been a particularly good year as I tried my luck with four new TV shows, all of which were worth the investment in time and have been renewed for a second season.

  • Star Trek: Discovery (season 1, 15 episodes): The first new Star Trek show in more than a decade, it started in Sept 2017 and ended in early 2018, so gets into the 2018 list. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this ‘alternate universe’ messing around with Star Trek canon, particularly the concept of the ‘spore drive’ and the re-design of the Klingon (truly frightening and repulsive). I did however quickly become invested in the fate of the main characters – Michael Burnham played superbly by Sonequa Martin-Green, Saru (played by Doug Jones, the ‘go to’ actor for any alien character under prosthetics) and others. Michelle Yeoh had a brief but impactful role as Capt. Philippa Georgiou. As with all Trek shows, it explores some serious socio-political issues and has some of the most intense scenes of any Trek show. I really like the title sequence and the theme music by Jeff Courage which incorporates elements from the original theme. Season 2 will premiere in Jan 2019.
  • Yellowstone (season 1, 9 episodes): I have already written about this show previously. Not quite as satisfying as Taylor Sheridan’s big screen work, the writing feels hurried and less grounded compared to his movies. Like a modern version of Dallas, it looks like the characters are starting to do more and more outrageous things. Still, the powerhouse cast is eminently watchable – Kevin Costner is Montana ranch owner John Dutton, Kelly Reilly is his emotionally damaged man-eating daughter Beth, Luke Grimes and Wes Bentley are his equally damaged sons Kayce and Jamie, Cole Hauser is the fiercely loyal ranch foreman Rip Wheeler, Danny Huston plays real estate developer Dan Jenkins, the nemesis of the Dutton family and Gil Birmingham is the politically ambitious chief of the Native Americans who live adjacent John Dutton’s land. Season 2 will air sometime in 2019.
  • The First (season 1, 8 episodes): I briefly referred to this show in my post about First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic, as I watched it around the same time and there were some parallels in terms of the themes and story beats (not tone). This is indeed a very ‘grounded’ and serious depiction of the challenges faced by the first manned mission to Mars, with my only complaint being a few self-indulgent moments which become a bit too ‘arty’ and drawn out. Sean Penn is intense and magnetic.
  • The Terror (season 1, 10 episodes): This show is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, a fictionalized account of two Royal Navy ships (HMS Terror and HMS Erebus) which were lost in the late 1840s while trying to find the elusive Northwest Passage through the Arctic to Asia. Subsequent research indicates that the ships were trapped in the Arctic ice and the 129 seamen on board perished a slow and painful death over several months. The novel added a supernatural element to the story – in addition to dealing with the bitter cold, disease, malnutrition, hunger, cannibalism and mutineers, the men are hunted down by a native demonic spirit (called ‘tuunbaq’ by the Eskimo), which takes the form of a giant polar bear. I had read the book many years ago; it is bleak but engrossing. The TV show visualizes the bleakness and the harsh conditions superbly, almost unbearably. The acting is truly top-notch, the cast includes seasoned British character actors Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies (who will play Prince Philip in The Crown season 3), Paul Ready, Ciaran Hinds and newcomer Adam Nagaitis, who plays the despicable mutineer Cornelius Hickey. Although I knew the tragic fate of the men in advance, the show is still compelling because of the acting, the incredible production design, the historically accurate depiction of the inhuman conditions faced by arctic explorers of the time and the morbid fascination of waiting to see who dies next (and how!). The first season completes the story, but now the producers have decided to use the show’s title to tell a new, unconnected story in season 2, taking the same approach as The American Horror Story anthology series. One day, I must compile a list of visually striking opening sequences of TV shows; The Terror will feature in the list, I think.

In my next post, I will cover the memorable TV movies and mini-series that I watched in 2018. Incidentally, all the movies are American and all the mini-series are British!

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