Part 2: The Jury Prize
Just as I did for my Top Ten of 2019, I think it’s in the interest of the viewer to know what other series should be considered, if not the best of the decade, certainly some of the shows that would any other time, being considering as such.
After Damages disappeared from FX, I didn’t think there were any other great series left on this channel. Then I saw the second extraordinary season of Justified — the battle between the Givens and the Bennetts — and I realized just how wrong I was.
If nothing else, this series stands as arguably the greatest Elmore Leonard creation for film or TV. (Indeed, the later crime writer enjoyed the series so much, he actually wrote another story just for the writers to work with.) All of the crime sagas were generally excellent, featuring some truly remarkable villains. But it involved one of the greatest showdowns of all time between two of the greatest actors of the medium: Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall, who in the name of what he considers the law will piss on every inch of authority, and Boyd Crowder, a criminal who spent his entire time in Harlan trying to become bigger and legitimate. Never has the saying that cops and criminals have a lot in common been more accurate in their six season struggle (which I’m sure so many other people considered the weirdest bromance in history) Timothy Olyphant and Walon Goggins have done great work all decade, but rarely have they been as good as they were here.
In retrospect, the Justified finale was more satisfying than I gave it credit for being at the time, with Raylan literally giving up the white hat he’d worn the entire series in the last minutes. And the final twenty minutes had a symmetry that even the best series on TV had a hard time matching. Goggins has said he would be more than willing to do another season. I think it’s unlikely, but I gladly come back to Harlan.
The Crown (Netflix)
Like a lot of the series on the Jury Prize, it’s hard to know whether or not to rank this show as one of the great ones as it’s only halfway through its run. But anyone whose watched the third season knows that this series breathes a lot of life into figures that we basically considered waxworks for the last thirty years. And it is more than willing to take risks that some of the greatest dramas won’t.
Peter Morgan is one of the great chroniclers of the Elizabeth II and the Prime Ministers. He’s covered them in film, on stage and on TV. And if it were just for the extraordinary work of Claire Foy as Elizabeth and John Lithgow as a far past his prime Churchill, this series would be the stuff of legend. But seeing the heartbreak of so many of these figures — the early struggles of the marriage between Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the problems of Princess Margaret, so indelibly played by both Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham-Carter, the struggle with the Duke Of Windsor and the slowly dissolution of the Empire — moves you to tears. And the decision to use elder actors every two seasons is a challenge few series would even dream of — and even fewer pull off.
And considering all of the drama that has emerged from the royal family and England in the past year alone — let’s face, there’s some inner critic in some of us thinking: “That’ll make a great Season 6.”
In all my years of reviewing television for some inglorious reason, I never got around to giving any reviews for Sherlock. Part of that was due to the way creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis would release their extraordinary reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories — three ninety-minute episodes at a time every two years. Was it a series? A limited series? A group fo TV movies? I don’t think even the Emmy viewers ever could say with certainty. But the one thing we can say that is well, elementary, is that it was an extraordinary piece of work.
If for no other reason it made international superstars out of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — who utterly transformed any expectations of what Holmes and Watson — excuse me, Sherlock and John — could be after so many interpretations had made them archetypes. But by modernizing so many of their greatest stories in a way we couldn’t have seen before, making characters who had only a few lines of dialogue in the entire canon as fully dimensional — Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty and Abby Abbington’s Mary Morstan are just two of the greatest examples, and opening up new avenues for their clichés in the modern world was a true work of art.
The final minutes of the last episode would seem to indicate that the writers have reached a conclusion with the series. It’s possible, if for no other reason that the stars are really busy. But Holmes did have to come back from the dead because the fans demanded it. Either way, this was one of the great TV masterpieces of the decade, and in my mind, PBS’s greatest accomplishment.
Considering how well the second season ended — not just story wise, but for creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge winning just about every award in the book — one could understand both why this brilliant comedy ended perfectly and why millions are demanding more. This wasn’t an original Amazon series, but so far it stands as their greatest accomplishment.
Focusing on a woman only referred to as the title, Waller-Bridge took us in the first season through the dark world of a hard drinking, very promiscuous woman, who seemed to delight in poisoning every relationship she had, especially with her sister (Sian Clifford) a relationship that was held together more by mutual disdain for Godmother (the incredible Olivia Colman), the kind of nice, open woman you can’t help but dislike. It was a charming series that became absolutely extraordinary in its second season and the classic opening episode which introduced us to Hot Priest (Andrew Scott, is there anything you can’t do?) the least holy man imaginable to be presiding over a wedding. The second season focused on Fleabag’s unlikely relationship with this man who was clearly her soulmate (for one thing, he was the only one who could tell she was breaking the fourth wall) in every way except the most important one.
The series ended perfectly for everyone, except sadly, for her. Which is no doubt why so many people want Waller-Bridge want to go back on her word that this will be the final season. Considering that she’s working on so many other things (including hopefully, a return to her other great show Killing Eve) it will probably never happen. Probably. Oh God, make her see the light.
Big Little Lies (HBO)
There are a lot of HBO series that I could put on this list that could earn this spot — I have a soft spot for Barry which has already become the stuff of legend and for The Deuce which may have been one of the best single creations of David Simon. But ultimately, I turned to Big Little Lies because it did so many things well in both incarnations.
When it was just a limited series and an adaptation of Lianne Moriarity’s incredible novel, it was an exceptional piece of work featuring at least four of the world’s greatest actresses in the same spot, playing women each in their own way, quietly damaged and very desperate. It was so well set to the world of Monterey that you couldn’t imagine it being set in New Zealand originally. And as David E. Kelley continued a triumphant return to form, creating a whodunit and who-did-it that even those who read the original novel were surprised, you found yourself wanting to inhale every minute. About the only problem I had with it winning eight Emmys is that so many competitors were against each other, it seemed unfair that Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley had to lose, even if it was to Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern.
I was appalled, like many were, when HBO decided to go and do a second season. It had ended so perfectly. My doubts lasted about ten minutes into the second season premiere when we watched Meryl Streep take over the role of Mary Louise, the mother of Perry, the monster at the center of Season 1. By the time the first episode ended, it was clear that Mary Louise was as bad as her son — she just poured her violence in a different direction. Watching the ‘Monterrey Five’ deal with the fallout of the murder and the coverup was actually just as mesmerizing, particularly for Zoe Kravitz, who I really hope doesn’t get overlooked for an Emmy nod against her equally brilliant cast.
A lot of people say there will never be a third season. The cast has said they might do it, they’re just all so busy. I really hope they will, because no matter how it turns out, these woman are among the most exceptional characters the decade has produced in one full of strong female characters. The Monterey Five aren’t heroines or anti-heroines. They’re just women trying to do the best they can.