What I watched on TV this summer

Now that the summer is ending, and the fall tv season is around the corner, I wanted to look back at what I watched over the holidays. Though I technically watched all these shows on my TV, none of them were actually broadcast over the summer. The shows I enjoyed (The Night Manager, Black-ish, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Get Down, and Stranger Things) were all either streamed on Netflix, or downloaded from iTunes. I almost feel bad for the broadcast networks–let’s hope they really step up their games this fall.

The Night Manager

At first I was not going to watch this BBC/AMC series, which is an adaptation of a John LeCarre novel (mainly because I had a terrible — painfully trying to stay awake for the whole thing — experience watching the Gary-Oldman-starring adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). However, a friend told me that this series was good; and I am really starting to enjoy Tom Hiddleston (he’s replaced Daniel Craig as my new model of style and coolness — despite his tabloid-bait relationship with Taylor Swift). He plays the title character, a hotel night manager (and former soldier) who gets recruited by a government agency to infiltrate the organization of an international arms dealer (played by Hugh Laurie from House). Despite the potentially action-packed premise, the series is not full of explosions and gunplay but rather more about subtle interactions and dialogue between characters. Sometimes I really enjoy those kinds of shows, but they need to have the right blend of style and substance, which this show definitely does. The characters are nicely written and the dialogue often has a delicate cat-and-mouse feel to it, so you are never quite sure what each character knows or suspects. There are just a sprinkling of nail-biter scenes, but suspense is only one of the many things that the viewer experiences from this show. As far as style, the visuals are amazing: scenery is lovely, and the villas and hotels are a slick and luxuriant backdrop. If you ever found Hiddleston the least bit charming, this role will win you over without doubt. Even the Bond-esque opening credits where bombs and guns morph into pearls and champagne are totally winning (4.5 out of 5)

Black-ish

I know this sitcom is two years old, but I sadly never gave it much of a chance before. It first appeared the same year as Fresh Off the Boat, and while both were family comedies featuring a minority cast, I found the first episode of Black-ish a lot more difficult to relate to than FOB (since I’m of Chinese background). Fast-forward to this summer, when iTunes cleverly offered the entire second season of Black-ish as a FREE download! Since the price was right, I decided to give the show another try, and loved it. In many ways, it’s a lot like a new version of The Cosby Show — which it even acknowledges with a spot-on spoof of the Cosby opening credits. It’s also about a comfortable, middle-class black family and their day to day experiences. Anthony Anderson plays Dre Johnson, an advertising exec, and Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife Bow, a surgeon. They have four kids, including a wonderfully precocious pair of twins. As the name of the show suggests, themes of black culture and identity play a significant part in the show, however, viewers of other ethnic backgrounds will enjoy the episodes. Considering they deal with potentially touchy topics, the scripts are really well written, smart, sensitive, and pretty funny. While the characters can be broad and cartoonish at times, they are also very well-rounded. My favourite character, hands-down, is the girl-twin Diane (played by Marsai Martin). She is smart and mature beyond her years, but also edgy and cynical (despite a cherubic cuteness) — when her mom asks her what she “loves”, her answer is “revenge” — Haha! Gotta love it. After watching season 2, I paid for season 1 and I’ve already watched both seasons twice through. It saddens me to admit that I actually like this show more than FOB, but let’s just say that now I have even more TV to enjoy — long live the family sitcom!
(4.5 out of 5)

Star Trek: The Next Generation

What would summer be without an “epic rewatch”, right? Well, this year I chose to binge through my second favourite show (I already did Friends last summer). A while back I had picked up the entire eight-season run of TNG from iTunes and I was happy to enjoy the adventures of the Enterprise crew in all its 80s glory. (For anyone who doesn’t know this show, it was the first revival of the Star Trek franchise that began in the 80s with a new crew, featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard — played by Patrick Stewart, an android Lt. Commander Data — played by Brent Spiner, and a whole bunch of other characters as they visited many planets and had thought-provoking and exciting adventures. For many of us, it was a gateway into the universe of science fiction.) It was so much fun to revisit many of my favourite episodes. Besides that, by binge-watching, I managed to get a better feel of the continuity that ran through the series as well (even though this series came before the popularity of the continuing story arc). I was able to watch more closely as the various relationships between the characters developed, and even watched young ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) grow up on board ship. One of the things that this rewatch showed me (that I hadn’t paid as much attention to before) was how great a leader Captain Picard really was. Episode after episode he had to make very challenging decisions, balancing the needs in front of him with his guiding principles and those of the Federation that he served. As portrayed by Stewart, he’s still one of the most admirable characters I have ever seen. Despite the occasional big hair or big gestures, the melodrama of planet after planet of humanoids, and characters falling in love in a matter of days, the show really does hold up. Any datedness of costume or corniness is easily overlooked (as it was when it first aired) in favour of enjoying some smart, memorable sci-fi. (5 out of 5)

Stranger Things

Speaking of 80s and sci-fi, a show that definitely snuck up on me this summer was Stranger Things. I knew little about this show before I started watching it, but by the first episode I was intrigued and totally hooked. This Netflix-original series was the talk of early-summer as everyone discovered and loved this show about a bunch of kids in the 80s (first a group of pre-teen boys; then also a group of older boys and girls). Once one of the young boys mysteriously disappears from their smallish town, things definitely start to get stranger. Other people disappear, and a mysterious young girl shows up, running away from some kind of lab facility where she’d been captive. Winona Ryder plays the mother of the missing boy who appears to be losing her mind from grief. While the story was very fresh and interesting on its own, the other amazing aspect to the show was how dead-on it reflected the 80s. From the style and the props (Was that a Trapper Keeper I saw?), all the way to the style of the narrative (I wonder if Steven Spielberg ever called up his lawyers about this show), I felt like I was actually transported back to the 80s as I watched it — and certainly in a good way. While Ryder did an admirable job losing her marbles, the revelation was definitely the kids — all previous unknowns — who stole the show. The three boys reminded me so much of my own group of D&D playing friends (or at least an idealized version of them). This show was not only a love letter to the supernatural family films of the 80s, but also a tribute to the glories of young nerd-dom — complete with two amazing bully-comeuppance scenes. This show rocks so hard and (no offense to House of Cards or Daredevil) it finally justified my Netflix subscription in my heart. (5 out of 5)

The Get Down

Lastly, Stranger Things must have given the keys to the Netflix company time machine to another totally different kind of show, The Get Down, which went back to the heyday of Disco, and the dawning of Hip-hop. When I heard that this show was going to be produced by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet fame), I knew that I wasn’t going to miss it. Now first off, let me say that I am not a huge fan of hip-hop. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that there is a certain coolness about the culture that surrounds it. In trademark Luhrmann fashion, this story centres around a troubled pair of lovers: Zeke Figuero, an orphaned, brooding teen poet; and Mylene Cruz, a spunky minister’s daughter with an angel’s voice and dreams of a disco career. Set the pair against a tempestuous backdrop of the Bronx in the late 70s, where poverty, corruption, and ethnic tension are a social and political powder keg. However, this show is not a gritty, edgy drama, but more of a glitzy, flamboyant fable. On top of the classic story arc, I was happy to get a crash course in the fundamentals of hip-hop: from how to compose a crew, to how to mix and spin the records. Surprisingly it made me appreciate the music and subculture a whole lot more (amazing how so many world-changing art forms came from the ghettos!). Just like Stranger Things, Netflix takes a name from the 80s (in this case Jimmy Smits) and drops him into a cast of relative unknowns (I especially enjoyed Justice Smith as Zeke) and gets some really good performances from them. As usual with Luhrmann productions, they are just oozing with style, and The Get Down was no exception — especially the musical scenes, naturally. I thought the criminal scenes borrowed a bit too much from Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino (not that I don’t love both those directors, just that I wish Luhrmann created his own style of gangster), but gladly that was not the focus of the story. Nevertheless, this show is fresh and unique — I can’t think of anything else like it on TV — and very enjoyable to watch (Where else can you find a name as cool as Shaolin Fantastic?!). (4 out of 5)

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