Enjoying the Golden Age of TV: Gems of 2019

Twelve months ago, I published a 3-part post about my favourite TV shows and mini-series of 2018. It’s that time of the year again to look back at my top shows of 2019, a few of which I’ve just started on.

In 2018, I discovered two great new shows – Yellowstone and The Terror – and one that was in its fourth season – Poldark.  So my hopes were high for a similarly bountiful 2019.

The year didn’t start off that well.

  • First, I bailed on Star Trek: Discovery midway through the 2nd season, just unable to deal with the immaturity of the lead characters.
  • Then in April, I started off on Netflix’s scifi/superhero black comedy, The Umbrella Academy. Although I liked the premise and tone of the show, the characters didn’t really appeal to me. So after watching the first two episodes, I skipped straight to the season finale, which admittedly was pretty epic. But I’m still not sure if I will watch the remaining episodes or invest in season 2 when it comes along in 2020.
  • By the end of May, my 8-year journey with the Game of Thrones was complete, but my personal enjoyment of the final season was dampened by all the negative social media reaction.

At this stage, I was starting to wonder when I would get to watch something that gave me unadulterated satisfaction. Well, my prayers were answered and I had a great run from June to September:

  • Soon after, a wave of positive buzz led me to watch the HBO/BBC One co-production – Years and Years – which unspools a very believable (and tumultuous) future history of the UK as experienced by the middle-class Lyons family over the next 15 years. The only quibble I had was how so many members of this ordinary family all got personally involved in some extraordinary events through the course of the show…a bit too much action for one family!
  • In June, I returned to the Dutton ranch in Montana to catch up on the latest scheming and wheeling-dealing in season 2 of Yellowstone. The second season really dialed up the stakes, with more melodrama and violence on show and I find that I’m now fully invested into this world of dusty cowboys, crooked politicians and ruthless billionaires. In particular, I loved the story arc of loyal ranch foreman Rip Wheeler, played with brooding intensity by Cole Hauser.
  • In July/Aug, it was time for the fifth and final season of BBC’s period drama Poldark, a very satisfying end to a beautifully photographed show with an engaging cast. This show is really my guilty pleasure, not high concept or weighty like a lot of the stuff I usually watch. I’ve now read the first of the Winston Graham books, I’ve definitely got Cornwall penciled into my list of places to visit in England and of course, I’m a big fan of series leads Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. I am looking forward to seeing Ms. Tomlinson in the upcoming three-part BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds later this month. And in 2020, we will see her in Joss Whedon’s new HBO scifi series The Nevers, set in Victorian England about a group of women with special abilities.
Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner in Poldark
  • Around this time, I also watched the critically acclaimed 2018 German-language World War II thriller Das Boot, a sequel to the award winning 1981 film of the same name. Starring Vicky Krieps (Daniel Day Lewis’ co-star in The Phantom Thread) and Tom Wlaschiha (who played assassin Jaqen H’ghar in Game of Thrones), the show switches between the claustrophobic confines of a German U-boat and the cat-and-mouse game between the French resistance and the Nazis in the seaport of La Rochelle in occupied France.  
  • In September, Netflix released Gideon Raff’s intense 6-episode mini-series The Spy, featuring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. I loved the period setting and the depiction of society in the Middle East during the 60s, not to mention the outstanding acting from the entire cast, especially Sacha Baron Cohen, who is utterly spellbinding as a real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen, whose dedication to his task draws him deeper and deeper into his enemy’s world.
Israeli spy Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen, 2nd from right) infiltrates the highest levels of the Syrian political establishment in Netflix’s The Spy

As the year draws to a close, my viewing prospects appear to be very promising:

  • I’ve just finished watching the 3rd episode of HBO’s Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s sequel to the seminal graphic novel from the 80s (also adapted to a pretty good movie by Zack Snyder in 2009), which arguably raised the superhero genre from the realms of pulp fiction to literary legitimacy. Of course, based on my past experience with Lost and The Leftovers, I know that Lindelof is unlikely to provide any convenient closure at the end of this one-and-done season. But the show is so good that I couldn’t care less. Powerhouse performances from Regina King and Don Johnson light up the first two episodes, but episode three belongs entirely to Jean Smart who plays hard-as-nails FBI agent Laurie Blake, a key character from the original comic book. And while it’s possible to enjoy the show without having read the book, the true rewards come to those familiar with the source material, as the characters and their connections to each other and to the graphic novel become progressively clear. Six episodes to go and assured joy till the 15th of December.
  • Apple TV+ launched last week and I promptly signed up just to watch Ronald Moore’s alternate history drama, For All Mankind. Set at the end of the 60s, the show is based on the premise that the Soviet Union continued to lead the space race, which then required the Americans to make some fundamental changes in their space program. Ronald Moore won accolades for his writing work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs and also for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). His work is notable for its innate belief in the ability of humankind to persevere and overcome obstacles. It seems fitting then, for him to be the showrunner on a show which reaches for the stars. For anyone who has enjoyed watching Apollo 13 or HBO’s 1998 series From the Earth to the Moon (which incidentally I am re-watching as a counterpoint to this show), this is just right for you! As with Watchmen, I have six episodes to go and guaranteed entertainment until 20th December.
The Soviets get to the moon first in For All Mankind available on Apple TV+
  • I am currently reading The Secret Commonwealth, the 2nd novel of Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, which is linked to his signature work, His Dark Materials. How timely then, that the 8-episode HBO/BBC co-production of His Dark Materials has just launched this week. I watched the first episode last night; the first thing that hit me was the ‘rightness’ of the casting (Dafne Keen from Logan as Lyra, the adorable Lewin Lloyd as Roger, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and a rather creepy Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter) and the visualization of the daemons, especially the oh-so-cute Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon. There are seven more episodes, which will keep me happy till 22nd December!
  • Last but not the least, I finally started watching Amazon’s highly rated (and R-rated) deconstruction of the superhero genre, The Boys, which premiered in July. The show can be described as a black comedy and is set in a world where superheros are popular in public but morally corrupt in private. “The Boys” refers to a group of vigilantes who try to take down the worst of the superheros; Karl Urban is their leader, Billy Butcher and Jack Quaid (son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) is the ‘noob’ who becomes part of the group. Since the show is based on Garth Ennis’ comic book series, I am well prepared for the sex and graphic violence. Seven episodes to go, and since they are already available on Amazon, a high likelihood of binge-watching it one of these days!

Coming later this month are two more shows to look forward to.

  • The Mandalorian, produced by Jon Favreau, headlines the launch of Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and extends the Star Wars universe into live action TV for the first time. The show is set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and is headlined by Pedro Pascal (who played Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones) and mixed martial artist Gina Carano.
  • And after a seemingly never-ending wait, we return to Buckingham Palace for season 3 of The Crown, this time with an all-new cast, including award winner Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham-Carter as Princess Margaret. This season will cover the period between 1964 and 1977.

So that’s the full stack of my 2019 TV viewing experience. Given I prefer to watch movies to TV shows, this is the most packed TV viewing schedule I have had in years. But as everyone knows, in the Golden Age of TV that we’re currently living in, the budgets, the talent and the production values for a lot of TV shows are at movie scale.

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