Dramas That Helped Me Escape The Drama Outside
It’s easy enough to say that there has been so much drama in the world around us that it’s hard to imagine wanting to watch any show that makes us want to see even more. But the fact there have been more than a few series in the last four years that have made us be very glad that Peak TV is still going on.
I’m going to deal mainly with series as opposed to limited and anthology series (I’ll deal with them in a future article). I’m also going to focus mainly on shows that aired the majority of their episodes over the past four years. The Americans was one of the greatest shows in history, but the lion’s share of it aired prior to the 2016 election. (Though it’s really hard to deny how relevant it has been to this era)
Better Call Saul
Counting the season just prior to the election, this prequel to Breaking Bad has does something that few prequels or companions to other series ever do. It became a great series in its own right. As we watched as Jimmy McGill (why hasn’t Bob Odenkirk won an Emmy by now?) descend into the world of corruption that will lead him inevitably into become Walter White’s consigliore (and as we see in the black and white sequences at the beginning of each season, force him into a nightmare that keeps getting darker), we see some remarkable things. Not just how hard Jimmy tried to rail against his nature before giving in to his inner con man. We also saw how his brother Chuck’s disdain scarred him in ways we couldn’t imagine. (Michael McKean’s finest hour in the medium.) We saw his unlikely soul mate, Kim, being repelled by his unethical nature, and yet unable to tear herself away from. And as we learned how the saga of Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring truly began, we forgot that they would become victims of Heisenberg as we saw just how involved Gus’ feud with the Salamanca’s really was. We also met some truly amazing characters: Nacho, a simple dealer whose efforts to get out from under increasingly monstrously thugs lead him deeper into darkness, and Lalo, possibly the most deadly Salamanca we’ve met yet (and yes, we saw what Hector was like before the stroke). I have no idea how this series will end (even though, by implication, we know how it must), but it deserves to climax with all the Emmys it can muster as the greatest prequel series of all time.
Peter Morgan has already proven that he is one of the greatest filmmakers and playwrights in the world, as well as a true master of British politics. But not even the glorious Frost/Nixon or The Queen could have prepared us for this series that looks into the reign of Elizabeth II from the very beginning. His ingenious decision to change casts every two season as age advances on the royal family has led to a different level of great performances each time, from Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the first two years, to Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter in the next two. But even more remarkable has been his decision to slowly expand the nature of the series with each season. The first season that dealt mainly with Elizabeth and her relationship to Winston Churchill has expanded to study not just the immediate family, but also the children. You will never look at Prince Charles the same way after seeing Josh O’Connor’s portrayal of him. And each year, they explore elements of the British monarchy that even some historians may have overlooked. Last season’s ‘Aberfan’ dealing with a major crisis, and Elizabeth’s failure to react to it is a modern classic. I can’t wait to see Gillian Anderson take on the role of Margaret Thatcher, or how Morgan and his writers will handle the final two seasons they’ve already cast. Oh to be in England, now that Colman’s there.
This is Us
Yes, I know how much this series has been mocked for how it plays on the heartstrings and tear ducts, but let’s be honest: it works. And it works because we care about the Pearsons. For the first year and a half, the world wanted to know just what led to Jack’s death and when we finally saw it happen, it was the event of the season. (I imagine there are still people out there who still blame slow cookers.) As the world of the Pearson clan has expanded, we’ve found out more and more: that Jack and Rebecca were not the saints their children thought they were, that Randall (Sterling Brown, master craftsman) the good son was neither that nor a perfect husband, and took a long time to resolve his flaws — which given what we’ve seen in the last season, is still there. We saw how Kevin’s jealousy of his brother led to a monster fight, and that Kate is still simmering over the worst possible relationship. And of course, there’s the stuff we don’t know: How will Randall and Kevin make up? Where is Kate is the flashforward we saw at the end of Season 3? How long will it take before Rebecca’s mind finally disappears? (That will be a blow I’m not sure I could take.). Anyone who says that the network drama can produce anything as good as cable or streaming needs to watch this series for awhile, and then shut up.
Big Little Lies
This was one of the great triumphs in the immediate aftermath of the election. Watching five of the greatest actresses in history working for one of the greatest writers for women was a tonic we all needed. Lianne Moriarty’s best selling novel was set in New Zealand, but David E. Kelley transferred it so effortlessly to Monterrey that it’s almost impossible to imagine it any other setting. We watched as Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline befriended Shailene Woodley on the road, an act which would inadvertently start a feud with Renata (the incredible Laura Dern) ostensibly about their children but really about so many other issues. We saw as Madeline feuded with her ex-husband’s new wife Bonnie over even more trivial issues. And most wrenchingly, we saw the troubled marriage of Celeste and Perry White (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard deservedly won Emmys for their work) perfect on the outside, but so badly broken that you wondered what it would take for Celeste to break free. We knew about the horrible crime from the beginning, but I don’t think anyone who read the novel could imagine the shock when it came.
When it was announced by HBO they were going to reunite the cast and writer to do a second season, like many people I had grave doubts — the show had a beginning, middle and end, so why try and mess with it? My doubts lasted about five minutes into the second season premiere when I saw the work of Meryl Streep as Mary Louise, Perry’s mother, suspicious of how her son ended up dead, and who had the ability with just a few words to get to the soft spot of every member of the now named ‘Monterrey Five’. All of the actresses upped their game considerably in Season 2, no one more so than Zoe Kravitz as Bonnie. The woman responsible for Perry’s death, she spent most of Season 2 dealing with her guilt and her past in the form of her own mother, who was just as much a strain on her life as Mary was on Perry’s. The performances from the entire cast were masterful, and I don’t understand why the Emmys neglected them.
There’s been no discussion one way or the other whether there will be a third season of Big Little Lies. Unlike the end of Season 1, I say the conclusion of the second cries out for it. I know everyone in the cast is very busy, but I would really like to see another one. Certainly before the kids leave grade school.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of my favorite dramas dealt with a billionaire trader who breaks all the rules and the attorney sworn to get him. But that summary doesn’t do justice to the clash that has been going on between Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) for four and a half seasons.
Chuck is as much a man of means as Axe is, and seems to use this as an edge to go for justice. Axe didn’t come from money, and tries to play as a man of the people. It has been fascinating to watch how much both men are willing to torpedo their lives to get what they want — Axe started out as a happily married man with two sons, by the end of Season 3 he was divorced and no one was in the picture. The more fascinating story is Chuck’s — his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff) is the performance coach as Axe’s company and has chafed at her husband’s desires not so much because she finds them wrong, but because they might hurt her position. The most interesting change came in Season 4 when Chuck and Axe became allies, but Wendy ended up pushing her husband aside, and by this point in Season 5 is isolating herself more and more from Axe.
Even four and a half seasons, it’s still not clear how this fight will end. Will Chuck win? Will Axe?” Or will someone else — perhaps Taylor, the nonbinary trader who both sides have been trying to use and whose unemotional façade reveals all kinds of turmoil? (Asia Kate Dillon deserves a boat load of Emmys themselves.). This has been the most fascinating chess game on television, and we’re still not sure whose winning. Except, of course, the viewer.
For my next article, I will deal with some of the exceptional anthologies and limited series that have aired during this time.