28 September 2013

A Series Discussion

A couple of years ago, I discovered a good way to watch mysteries. It's actually a good way to watch many different genres--though most of my time's spent with mystery/crime/suspense. I'm talking about the wide availability now of TV series on Netflix and other outlets, via either snailmailed DVDs or streaming video. So far, I've found the best of these to be made-for-cable series (especially those created by HBO) but I've also seen some great productions from places like A&E and BBC. Two excellent series that I've watched recently--House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black--were produced by Netflix itself.

In the past I've posted often about favorites of mine: authors, novels, short stories, novellas, movies, sequels, remakes, directors, actors, villains, sidekicks, even soundtrack composers. Today I'm at it again. Here, in no particular order, are twenty TV series that I've watched and thoroughly enjoyed over the past few years. (Again, most are mystery/suspense offerings, but I've included a few comedies, fantasies, Westerns, etc.) I've not included those that I didn't like, or that for one reason or another I just stopped watching after the first episode or so, like Continuum and Vegas and Shameless. By the way--and as always--I'd be interested to hear your take on the following shows, and any recommendations you might have for series I have not yet discovered.

Here are my favorites:

Longmire (A&E) -- The adventures of Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the title character is the reason for watching: he's a dedicated, complex, and conflicted guy, a bit like police chief Jesse Stone.

The Newsroom (HBO) -- A behind-the-scenes look at modern-day newscasts, set in the offices of the fictional Atlantis Cable News channel. I think Jeff Daniels won an Emmy the other night for his portrayal of anchor Will McAvoy.

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) -- Based on the book by Piper Kerman, this is a comedy/drama about life in prison, seen from the viewpoint of a thirtyish woman arrested for transporting drugs. Surprisingly good.

Rome (HBO) -- Okay, I know this is way off the usual fare--but it's an outstanding series about Rome in the first century B.C., filmed mostly in Italy. It ran for only two seasons.

Dexter (Showtime) -- Proof that a serial killer can be the hero of a show. The secret? Unlike Hannibal Lecter, this dude hunts down criminals that evaded justice. Another quirk is that this weird vigilante's day job is blood-spatter analysis for the fictional Miami Metro PD.

The Wire (HBO) -- One of the best-made TV productions ever. Set in Baltimore, this series presents an truly authentic view of police work through the eyes of both cops and drug dealers. A little slow getting started, but it's well worth it.

Downton Abbey (BBC) -- Who says I don't put some variety into these crazy lists of mine? This is a show I thought I would hate, and watched only because I knew my wife would love it. I found it fascinating. A chronicle of the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in early-twentieth-century England.

Weeds (Showtime) -- The polar opposite of Downton. This is a hilarious comedy/crime drame about the zany adventures of a suburban widow who decides to start growing and selling marijuana. Sort of a low-voltage version of Breaking Bad. I watched all eight seasons via Apple TV, almost back-to-back.

24 (Fox) -- How many ways can counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer find to save the world (or at least save the nation)? Plenty of them. I especially liked the always fast-moving plots and the real-time narration technique.

Veep (HBO) -- Another comedy, this one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the U.S. Vice President. Better than you might think--and I'll watch anything anyway that features Seinfeld alumni.

House of Cards (Netflix) -- The betrayals, blackmailings, and backroom politics of U.S. Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). A unique feature: he sometimes "breaks the fourth wall" and speaks directly to the camera.

The Sopranos (HBO) -- Simply the best of the best. Gandolfini did one of the finest, most convincing protrayals I've ever seen by an actor. No description needed.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) -- Has there ever been a more unlikely leading man than Steve Buscemi? Doesn't matter--he's great. He plays politician/gangster Enoch (Nucky) Thompson in this authentic look at Atlantic City during the Prohibition era.

Game of Thrones (HBO) -- Seven families battle for control of the mythical continent of Westeros. Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. A well-done production, and another that I didn't think I'd like before seeing it.

Copper (BBC) -- A super-authentic historical mystery series. This is the story of an Irish cop in New York City's Five Points district in the 1860s. Dark but interesting.

Californication (Showtime) -- The life and times of Hank Moody (David Duchovny), a novelist who suffers from writer's block and a Porscheload of other problems as well. There's something in this series to offend just about everybody, but (God help me) I like it.

Breaking Bad (AMC) -- The story of Walter White, a brilliant high-school chemistry teacher who's diagnosed with lung cancer and starts cooking and selling crystal meth to pay the bills. I'm only two episodes into this one, and it's already good.

Borgia (HBO) -- This is almost as much a crime show as a historical drama. Set amid the nonstop corruption and violence of the Italian Renaissance, it deals with the infamous Borgia family and its struggle to gain and retain power. You'll never see another Pope like this one. (Not to be confused with the Showtime series The Borgias, which I've not yet seen.)

Fringe (Fox) -- Sort of a J. J. Abrams version of The X-Files. A female FBI agent teams up with an institutionalized scientist to investigate unexplained phenomena. The title refers to their use of "fringe science" to solve mysteries involving a parallel universe.

Magic City (Starz) -- Another behind-the-scenes story, this one about the world of hotels and gangsters in Miami Beach in the late 1950s. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job as Isaac (Ike) Evans, manager of the fictional Miramar Playa hotel.

In my opinion, the top five of these are HBO products: The Wire, The Sopranos, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome. I absolutely loved those--although I should use present tense in the cases of The Newsroom and Boardwalk, where there are apparently (and hopefully) more seasons upcoming.

Other series that I enjoyed a great deal over the years, and that I faithfully watched every week on TV rather than later on DVD, were Hill Street Blues, ER, and Lost. And six that I somehow never got around to seeing regularly but that I now wish I had, were Heroes, Six Feet UnderThe West Wing, Mad Men, 30 Rock, and Castle. So many shows, so little time. For what it's worth, I still think the alltime best-written comedy series were Cheers, M*A*S*H, and Frasier.

Anyhow, there you have it. I think I've now managed to list my favorites in every visual and printed medium except maybe video games.

Anybody remember Pac-Man?


  1. John, as always, I'm fascinated by how idiosyncratic individual tastes are. About half your favorites are mine too; the other half I gave up on either before or after one to three episodes.

    West Wing, my all-time favorite, was a delight to watch straight through again on Netflix. I'll watch anything by Aaron Sorkin, so yes, The Newsroom, though the second season wasn't as good as the first. Loved Rome and Six Feet Under, both on HBO. The suspense in the first season of 24 was unparalleled, but that show jumped the shark and then some a few seasons in. The Sopranos and Downton Abbey, absolutely.

    I'm also a fan of British crime series, especially when I loved the books. Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis (even better!), Midsomer Murders, Dalziel & Pascoe (only on CD at Netflix, not streamed). In American crime series, I'm currently going through Monk--Tony Shalhoub's performance is another of the great ones. And I enjoyed watching Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect all the way through again.

    I also belong to Hulu Plus, which carries some shows (and seasons) that Netflix doesn't. I'm currently riveted by The Good Wife. The drawback on Hulu is frequent commercials.

    Oh, and how could I forget Nashville--can't wait for the second season--and True Blood?

  2. One more: Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Bilbo Baggins--I mean Martin Freeman. Eagerly awaiting another season.

  3. Thanks, Liz, for the thoughts and recommendations. I honestly don't know why I never got around to watching some of those you mentioned, especially The West Wing, but hey, it's not too late to start, right? Monk is another that I'm sorry I never tried. And for some reason I've never gotten into British crime series. (I'm taking notes, here . . .)

    The big reason I love watching these series "after-the-fact" is that--if I find I like them--I can see several episodes (or even several seasons) back to back. Or, as you said, give up on them right away.

  4. And I forgot to mention one of yours I liked: Longmire. I haven't seen the second season, though. I watch streamed videos on my iPad and DVDs on my iMac. My husband monopolizes the TV, especially during football season, but it's a lousy TV anyway, not even flat screen. I've also watched the first DVD of Castle and The Mentalist, haven't yet decided if I'll want to stick with either.

  5. John, if you can find them, you would love the original HOUSE OF CARDS on UK television during 1990. There were also two sequels, TO PLAY THE KING and THE FINAL CUT. All chilling and darkly humorous.

    Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire novels, is a member of our MWA chapter. At the last Left Coast Crime Conference, I got him and Lou Diamond Phillips (Henry Standing Bear) to personalize one of Craig's novels for my neighbor, a fan of the show. Both guys are good people and down to earth.

  6. R.T., thanks for the suggestions. I'll look for all three of those.

    I have one of Johnson's Longmire novels (Hell Is Empty) but have not yet read it. It's interesting to find out that you know him. Oddly enough, this series is one of the only times where I've really enjoyed the work of Lou Diamond Phillips--I think he's great in this show, and perfectly cast. I'm also impressed by Robert Taylor in the title role. I'd never heard of him before.

  7. I thought it was funny to read this post today, John, as my kids only recently showed me how we can stream NetFlix through the Wi-Fi to their PlayStation and into our T.V. LOL Since then, I’ve been a true NetFlix fan.

    I’ve found it fun to watch episodes of Midsomer Murders, that I missed earlier on PBS. And, my wife in particular likes Rosemary and Thyme.

    Of all the British mysteries, however, I’d have to rate Morse at the top of my list. Have to admit, the series led me to the books and I’ve NEVER regretted that either; (author) Colin Dexter is terrific imho.

    One series I’m disappointed NOT to find on NetFlix (because it’s too new, I believe) is Endeavor,which chronicles Inspector Morse’s early days as a detective. I really think it’s terrific, and that actor, Shaun Evans, portraying the title character is perfect for the role.

    If you enjoyed Downton Abbey (I liked the first season, but then lost interest myself), you might check out Monarch of the Glen, about an elder son reluctantly recalled home to take charge of his family estate in Scotland. I’m in the third season, and still enjoying it.

  8. Dix, those are now on my list--many thanks. I've actually been meaning to watch Morse for some time, and just never got a round tuit.

    I'll certainly check out Monarch of the Glen, because my wife is sure to love that one as well. Let's hear it for marital harmony . . .

  9. Interesting column, John. I've been hooked on Breaking Bad since day one and can't wait to see how they end it tomorrow night. I also love Game o Thrones. Read the books and they're a great fantasy series, but very bloody and violent. I loved Hill Street Blues too and look forward to the new season of Downton Abbey. I'm glad I told you about Longmire. Have you read any of the books yet? Walt's character seems more mystical than Tom Selleck's. The TV series doesn't follow the Longmire books real well, but I like both. Enough of my blathering.

  10. Thanks, Vicki -- yes, I owe you for telling me about Lomgmire. I've not yet read the novels, but I look forward to them.

    There are so many appealing things about that series: the setting, the GREAT characters, and the challenging mysteries they solve each week. I even like the fact that--like all good series these days--there's an overall storyline that we learn more about each week and has yet to be resolved.

  11. I love the characters too particularly Walt's played by Aussie Robert Taylor and of course his sidekick the Cheyenne bartender played by Lou Diamond Phillips. I'd read that they filmed the first season around Santa Fe-possibly on that huge ranch where they film so many movies. I would assume they're still filming around Santa Fe. Wyoming isn't known for it's great weather-especially in winter. And being a native New Mexican I love the scenery too.

    It's fun trying to figure out where they filmed scenes for Breaking Bad. I used to live in Albuquerque. I'm pretty sure the show about the US Marshalls (with Mary McCormick) on USA had parts that they filmed in the old Federal building where I used to work. That was kind of cool.

  12. I don't think I saw "Justified," on your list, John. Have you watched it? It's a great show too. That's the one Margo Martindale won the Emmy for. Loved her in it. Timothy Oliphant is great in it too.

  13. Whoa, I completely forgot about Justified--but I'm justified in forgetting it because I probably just watch way too many series!!

    Yes, I liked Oliphant in that show, Vicki--liked him in Deadwood too. I also enjoyed another Elmore Leonard series, Karen Sisco, about ten years ago, but not as much as Justified.

  14. I have never used Netflix. Do love Longmire, Justified, and Mad Men. Has anyone mentioned I, Claudius? An oldie but a goodie, and kickstarted the careers of Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Sion (?) Phillips, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart... Technically not a crime series, although more people are murdered per episode than just about any cop seires.

  15. Rob, I, Claudius was indeed a good show, and yet another that fell through the gaping cracks in my memory.

    As for the mortality rate in some of these non-crime series, I agree that they give the cop series a run for their money. More murders were committed in Borgia in the name of Mother Church than in gangster epics like Boardwalk Empire or police shows like The Wire.

  16. Wow!!! I have to figure out what I'm doing while the rest of you are watching tv. I am missing out, having seen very, very, very few of the shows mentioned.

  17. See, Terrie, what you have to do FIRST is have insomnia. Then you sit up, watching episode after episode on NetFlix, till you fall asleep.

    Pretty soon, you’re all caught up! LOL


  18. Terrie, Dix is right. It helps to be a nightowl.


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