When I was a kid, I remember the cinema being the pinnacle of elite entertainment. For sheer spectacle and ambitious storytelling, it was all about the Big Screen. The variety was expansive and there’d always be a movie to draw me and the rest of the Bromley massive to the local Odeon on a weekend.
But my viewing preferences, along with millions of others, have made a massive U-turn over the last ten years. Granted, there will always be an impressive crop of films around Golden Globe / Oscar season, together with a handful of big-budget, powerhouse blockbusters during the course of the year to get entertainment fans revved up. But everyone knows that television is where the real action’s at right now. With massive film stars like Matthew McConaughey, Halle Berry, Kevin Spacey, Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi and Jessica Lange making the exodus to TV, it’s clear there’s nothing remotely small about the small screen anymore.
The scope of story-telling on TV lately, and the quality of what’s being produced, has been epic. On-demand streaming platforms like Netflix have revolutionised the landscape, and we no longer have to allow for a week to pass before our next episode installment or wait for months until British networks find a home for a US import. We get what we want, when we want, as often as we want it.
Premium cable and satellite television networks have also had a hugely positive effect on the quality of TV. As is the case with ITV1 here in the UK, the 5 big commercial broadcast TV networks in the US – ABC, CBS, NBC, The CW and Fox – have advertisers to appease. Therefore, the more gritty aspects of the human condition – sex, drugs, violence, profanity – cannot be fully explored in their programming. And this can stunt the storytelling potential. Furthermore, audience measurement systems – ratings, audience share and total viewers – are more of a consideration to the commercial network bigwigs. Thankfully, the prosperity of cable networks has resulted in a massive payoff for fans of scripted drama.
Channels like AMC and HBO, producing content like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Detective and Boardwalk Empire, have blown the competition out of the water. Shows like this have more artistic free reign, the creative latitude to please the fans rather than the suits. They tend to have a shorter episode run than the standard 24-episode season on major networks, making it easier for viewers to commit to them in a time-poor week. Moreover, these shows are given time to find an audience and for the audience to invest in the characters. This is extremely important when we consider programming like Breaking Bad, which didn’t really hit the Zeitgeist until more or less the end of its run. The public outpouring of love for the show didn’t really materialise until its final season and I fear that if this kind of show aired on a major network, the axe would have fallen if weekly ratings didn’t immediately eclipse the 10 million mark.
For me, the real game-changer in the world of TV was in 2001: the first series of 24 was released, I had the box-set and it was my first introduction to full-on binge viewing. The real time narrative structure was electrifying, the production values were sky high and it was proper ‘event TV’. Flash-forward to 2004 and the pilot episode of Lost was released. Costing between $10 and $14 million to film, it was the most expensive pilot episode ever made up to that time, truly cinematic in scope. Many great shows have come and gone since then but right now the choice of programming on TV has never been finer.
I feel as though it’s always the same shows that get championed in Top 10 lists and Best Of roundups so right now, I’d like to spotlight ten TV gems (some of which are grossly unsung!) that need to be etched onto your radar. These are shows that are currently airing on TV right now – so, Sopranos and Breaking Bad fans, hold fire, this is the only reason why they haven’t been shortlisted. Next time you’re about to embark on a long-haul flight or find yourself sick in bed at home, get your hands on the box-sets below and start bingeing!
- THE GOOD WIFE:
Some people might infer from the title that this is one for the female demo. They couldn’t be more wrong. This show boasts the best ensemble cast on TV right now and I have never come across a programme that gets better and better further into its run. This is not some run-of-the-mill legal procedural. Instead, creators Michelle and Robert King have developed a world rich in compelling story arcs that are completely on top of – and in some cases, ahead of – the news agenda. Everything from police brutality to hacking to Bitcoin funded black markets have been dramatised in this show’s courtroom. Season 5 was exceptional and the writing has consistently been second to none. And the Brits in this show are pure class. Alan Cumming’s comic timing and indignant facial expressions steal every scene he’s in and Archie Panjabi has been a revelation to watch over the last 5 years. There are a handful of archetypes that Indian/Pakistani actors typically get cast to portray in western TV and the character of Khalinda Sharma defies every single stereotype going.
- THE WALKING DEAD: A band of survivors are constantly fighting to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world that’s overrun with zombies. But you don’t need to be a hardcore zombie genre fan to become hooked on this drama. The human threat in this universe is just as menacing as anything that the Walkers represent. To quote leader Rick Grimes (played by the incredible Andy Lincoln), in this world, people “measure you by what they can take from you”. Unlike the medium of film, where character arcs have to be resolved within a limiting 2-hour time-frame, TV like this gives us the chance to emotionally invest in these characters and watch them grow over time. It can be dark and nihilistic, but it’s also deeply provocative, has you on the edge of your seat like no other and really forces you to think about the choices you would make. It’s breaking viewing records in the US – 17 million weekly viewers for a show on a major network is considered a runaway success, let alone for a show on a cable channel. The fact that it hasn’t won a major Emmy or Golden Globe award yet is a travesty, but it’s time will come, of that I’m sure.
- HOMELAND (spoiler haters, please disengage): Many critics think that the writers should have dispensed of Brody and wrapped this series up at the end of Season 1. I get why they didn’t. Damian Lewis could peel an apple for 10 minutes and he’d still command your undivided attention – he’s that good. His chemistry with Carrie throughout the entire run has been mesmerising. No one does batshit crazy like Claire Danes (and perhaps Helena Bonham Carter…), and the scenes where we see her character spiral are particularly memorable. Season 4 was a real reboot for the show and many fans were left wondering whether it had any mileage left once Brody was out of the equation. With the exception of the tepid finale, Season 4 proved to be a high-octane new direction that proved the show still has plenty more engaging stories to tell. The episode where Haqqani and his men storm the US embassy in Pakistan was nail-biting and getting to see Saul ‘in the field’ was an added highlight.
- THE LEFTOVERS: Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers focuses on a society that has survived an unexplained global rapture, where 140 million people across the world disappear in a split second. It shines a light on the people who are struggling to make sense of all this loss in the aftermath. This series really divided viewers. Some viewers found it too bleak and nihilistic to commit to but I really enjoyed it. It takes a little time to acclimate to the oppressive mood and melancholic tone but it’s really worth sticking with. The propulsive, climactic season finale was breath-taking and I’m so pleased that HBO has commissioned this for a second season run. Plaudits aplenty for Justin Theroux and Gone Girl breakout star Carrie Coon.
- EMPIRE: Give it a couple of months to find a slot in the UK programming schedule and for the buzz to make its way over here and I guarantee you that this musical soap opera is all you’ll be hearing about. Loose parallels with King Lear set the tone for the series. Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyon, hip hop mogul and CEO of Empire Entertainment. He is diagnosed with ALS at the same time he is about to take his company public, prompting his sons to compete for control of the family business. This show was made for the social media generation, with dialogue that perfectly lends itself to hashtags and Retweets. Taraji Henson is like a tornado on screen, and her ballsy, fearless portrayal of Cookie Lyon, together with her delivery of some cracking one-liners, will no doubt earn her a place in the TV hall of fame. With a score produced by Timbaland, it’s the first time that original R&B and hip-hop have been made for TV and all 9 episodes that have aired so far have increased in viewership week on week – it has been decades since any other series has achieved this. Every year, one show in America is given the coveted Super Bowl slot. I predict that Empire will hands down win this in 2016. Courtney Love, Estelle, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J Blige, Gladys Knight and Rita Ora have already nabbed roles in the first series, and I’m sure that every popular music artist under the sun will be lining up to nab a role for season 2 now that it has turned out to be such a smash.
- RAY DONOVAN: Liev Schreiber stars as Ray, a fixer for a law firm with its fair share of rich, famous, misguided and felonious clients. The shenanigans are further compounded by Ray’s seriously dysfunctional family. If you think your family is messed up, you haven’t met the Donovans. It can be really uncomfortable to watch at times but there are also moments of levity, thanks to John Voight’s star turn as irreverent grandfather of the family, Mickey, whose pot-induced hallucinations are the highlight of season 2.
- HANNIBAL: When I first heard that Thomas Harris’ iconic characters were going to be adapted for television, I was skeptical. But Bryan Fuller and his cast have created something truly special here. For a show full of seriously deranged, sadistic, sociopathic characters, it’s kind of disarming how much visual beauty can be found in the most sinister of actions. We all know that Dr Lecter likes to cook and eat his trophies, but instead of repulsing the viewer, Fuller directs some of the most beautiful food photography sequences you’re ever likely to see. Marks & Spencer – the shots even trounce your best offerings. In fact, this show is all about the senses – from its bold, distinct visual style that continually unsettles the viewer to the ‘cooking’ scenes that wreak havoc with your sense of appetite, it’s quite remarkable that a show with such extreme content actually airs on a major network. And if you think a Dane can’t pull off the role of Hannibal Lecter then think again. Mads Mikkelsen’s incarnation is charming, stylish and seductive, he can get anyone to do anything and this is great to watch.
- JANE THE VIRGIN: On paper, the plot sounds lame, preposterous even: Jane Villanueva is saving herself for marriage until her life is upturned when she is accidentally artificially inseminated. But get past the title and you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The characters suck you in like a maelstrom. They’re so charming and endearing, before you know it, 40 minutes have passed and you find yourself gurning at the screen like a chomp. There’s no point in trying to be really ‘arty’ and clever with a show unless the viewer ends up caring about the characters. If you don’t invest in them, there’s no point, and this is where this show excels, perceptive writing brought to life by characters imbued with real heart. And the show boasts the best use of a narrator I’ve ever come across. This has become the first show to win a Golden Globe for The CW and it’s going to make an absolute star of leading lady Gina Rodriguez.
- THE AMERICANS: This show is everything – period drama, a show about marriage and family, stylish thriller…And it’s buoyed by the incredible chemistry between leads Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. You actually find yourself identifying with and rooting for two Russian sleeper KGB operatives posing as an American married couple in the Washington suburbs. It perfectly captures that sense of Cold War paranoia and anxiety, I just wish my history lessons 15 years ago were this enjoyable. The characters are complex and conflicted, treading the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, and this makes for compelling TV.
- THE 100: The alumni from Neighbours and Home & Away are killing it in Hollywood right now, and Eliza Taylor’s work in this show is up there with the best of them. If you like your post-apocalyptic dramas, with a bit of Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure, then you’ll love this show. 100 ‘delinquents’ from a giant space station are sent back to Earth to see if it’s inhabitable following a devastating nuclear war nearly 100 years earlier. And what ensues is an absolute blast to watch. If you haven’t seen the pilot episode yet, make it a priority, it will definitely persuade you to keep watching.
Do you have a story to tell? Do you want to raise your profile or the profile of your business? If the answer is "yes" then click the tab below to speak to one of our leading PR professionals for a free consultation.