Professor Dennis Broe offers his Top Ten TV series of 2016.
Last year at this time it was a pleasure to report that the Comcast-Time-Warner merger had been halted. In this year of the Trump corporate giveaway, it is sad to watch the Charter-Time Warner merger approved so that essentially two companies Charter-Time Warner and Comcast control cable access to the American home with the result that the Charter Time-Warner cable rates rose immediately and transport speed slowed. It is also sad to report that the miracle of OTT (over the top) television watching where viewers cut their cable cord and stream from a variety of sources is beginning to look simply like the process of readying TV watchers to pay for what was in the old days free TV.
The streaming services and particularly Netflix, the most successful among them, meanwhile have begun to look and program like the television networks of old. Netflix inundates its subscribers with new series, however, the repetitive and knockoff quality of its average series are, rather than suggesting the utopia of a new Golden Age of Television, instead harking back to the “vast wasteland” of network TV and to cable’s 900 channels with nothing to watch.
Nevertheless, it was a stellar year in Global Television for the advancement of the serial form of storytelling as showrunners consistently used the form to explore social and class tensions in the past and the present. The serials chart in a sublimated way, through complex narrative patterns, the inequalities and injustices that they were only too well aware of in dealing with the corporate ethos of their own industry.
Top 10 Series
Strange Empire – As so often in television, the best series do not last, which is no reason not to honor them and this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Western tracing the attempt of three women to shake off the masculinist shackles of the West on the Montana-Canadian border was cancelled after a stunning first season that kept getting more politically intricate as it detailed the economy of a mining town where the owner consigned women to prostitution and men to wage slavery. A must-see.
Mr. Robot – Maintained consistently the air of menace hanging over the corporatization of the virtual world we are now co-inhabiting with our other lesser reality, but never quite matched its opening salvo with the supposed paranoid bursts of two generations of conspiracy theorists. Christian Slater, in his reworking of his ‘80s teen persona as harbinger of the awfulness of corporate mind control in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, merges literally with the superb Rami Malek’s Anonymous-styled hacktivism to produce a contemporary critique that was as much global corporate truthtelling as conspiratorial rant.
Rebellion – Best series of the year hails from Ireland and charts the events leading up to and following the 1916 Irish Rebellion in Dublin, as the Irish consensus to fight the imperial First World War for their British Masters broke down. The most remarkable and liberating part of the series is its intense focus on three women engulfed in not only British domination of Ireland but also in Irish antagonism to their defining themselves as equal partners in the struggle.
Peaky Blinders – This British indie series is far more than the usual American gangster rags to riches tale. Set in Birmingham in the 1920s, it details the coming to prominence of an Irish gang whose ruthlessness was forged in the World War I slaughter that leaves its members traumatized. Swimming in the same sordid pool are labor agitators ready to lead a working-class rebellion, the budding Sein Fein Irish independentists, and a jealous Irish Protestant Cop, Sam Neil in the role of his career as the hand servant of a Winston Churchill who wants to destroy the whole lot. Gripping period drama. The noir version of Downtown Abbey and not for the squeamish.
The Americans – Best years, those confronting the all-out Reagan Russian paranoia, are perhaps behind it as this series about US-Russian Cold War tensions in the 1980s told through the eyes of a married Soviet spy team, has attempted to increase the tension in the domestic area by involving their pampered, rebellious but ultimately boring daughter Page in the intrigue. Still though, the smartest American series about the moral costs on both sides of Reagan’s upping the ante in an American attempt to win the Cold War.
Ripper Street – This Amazon/BBC series set in the poorest section of Industrial Revolution London in the decade after Jack the Ripper surprised by never focusing on the serial killer aspect of the Whitechapel district and instead concentrating on the class tensions unleashed by both American and British ownership interests, the actual serial killers, who saw the slum residents as expendable. Fifth and final season again brought back the specter of the Ripper only to resolve that never-emphasized plot line in a way that stayed true to the concentration instead on the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Silicon Valley – The funniest comedy on television is also the most biting satire as not only the supposed moral high ground of the tech industry is skewered as it becomes more nakedly a collection of simple gold digging enterprises but along with it the neo-liberal ethos whose upside of entrepreneurial energy is constantly being contaminated by its now more dominant downside of massive wealth accumulation. Mike Judge in fashioning a minutely detailed study of one industry’s evolving corruption has equally fashioned an allegory of the way the television industry works as well as the way artists as a whole, represented by the Pied Piper start-up unit, constantly both rise above and are drowned by the waves of the corporate tsunami that engulfs them.
Night Manager – This BBC/AMC series while yes being an entertaining actor’s throwdown between The Hollow Crown’s Tom Hiddleston as everyman outraged by corporate barbarity and House’s Hugh Laurie as clandestine arms dealer concealed behind philanthropy and boasting stunning Mediterranean sets is also as with most John LeCarre adapted work a recounting of how difficult it is to get justice for corporate wrongdoing in both a government and business world where money dictates morality. So much better than its evil twin, the corporate patronizing Showtime actors duel Billions where Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis simply wallow in their own sordidness which the series admires.
Rectify – Sundance’s first original series very much brings an American independent film sensibility to television in the way this series, about the prejudice of a small Georgia town toward a supposed wrongly accused murderer set free after 19 years, lets its characters breathe in imbuing television seriality with an ease in emphasizing small moments and a deliberate thinness to the intrigue that focuses on minute character development in understated ways. As a critic pointed out, one episode ends with two of the characters literally watching paint dry and the moment is resplendent. Well-developed portrait of small-town prejudices that in the year of Trump we know have, far from being transcended, become ascendant.
Jordskott – This Swedish series, about a cop from Stockholm who returns to her natal town and to the forest surrounding it where nine years before her daughter had disappeared, is a kind of The Kingdom meets Top of the Lake mystical investigation into the destruction of nature by capitalist enterprise and the mysterious ways Nature fights back. The title itself without a corresponding word in English indicates a throwing or pummeling of the earth and in the guise of a police procedural this is what the series explores. Best, as it is termed, Scandicrime series of the year. Now being purchased widely and will be coming your way in 2017.
The Romeo Section -- Canadian spy series by the magnificent Chris Haddock, though too much American influenced after his stint on Boardwalk Empire, still recalls his spy masterpiece Intelligence, a systematic dismantling of the idea that the security state was installed to protect us. This series pulls its punches and too much romanticizes its intelligence operatives but is still a gripping reminder of the former series.
Trapped – Icelandic noir about gang imported murder in the midst of a blizzard in a remote town that is about to become a booming global port. On the strength of this Hollywood hired Baltasar Kormakur to direct Everest but they missed the boat in that the detailing of the town’s growing corruption is the strength of the series, not the director’s ability to handle snow.
11.22.63 – J. J. Abrams’ television return had James Franco as a time traveler set on thwarting the Kennedy assassination as a pretext for exploring facets of the Kennedy Legacy and of the conspiracy surrounding the assassination. More comfortable than gripping but still welcome renewal of traditional liberal television for the streaming TV era.
Midnight Sun –French/Swedish co-production starring A Prophet’s Leila Bekhti as an inner city, or French banlieu, cop sent to Sweden’s far north to investigate the death of a French citizen in the land of the indigenous Sami or Laplanders which also houses European defense installations and mining companies, both of which could be involved. Nice combination of Scandicrime with French banlieu values in an intriguing co-production.
The Break – Belgium noir that in its detailing of the concealed racist small town sentiments behind the murder of an African soccer player could not be a more timely exploration of how anti-immigrant feelings erupt into violence in a Europe where immigrants far from a burden on the economy are a desperately needed work force to combat the growing expenses of sustaining the continent’s aging population. Spearhead of a noir resurgence in the economically devastated Wallone or French portion of Belgium.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.