Dennis Broe introduces his Top Ten plus Five Global Television Series for 2017 and his Top Five Trends within the Serial Television Industry.
Top Ten Global TV Series
Taboo – The year’s best series created by the actor Tom Hardy and Steven Knight, who were also behind Peaky Blinders. This is an able follow-up to that series which goes one better. The villain in this rephrasing of The Count of Monte Cristo, set in 1830s London, with Hardy as the dark prince seeking revenge, is the East India Company. This corporation with tentacles everywhere which like our own modern corporations such as Amazon - which is now seeking control of an entire city for its new headquarters - rivals or exceeds the British government. The story of the Hardy character's delicious thwarting of the company is only marred by the need to create a second season, instead of the lead character’s own crimes on board a slave ship condemning him to a Shakespearean death that would have been a logical culmination of the series.
Goliath – Who says nothing good comes out of the belly of the beast? This Amazon series created by a resurrected David E. Kelly, whose follow-up series was Big Little Lies, has Billy Bob Thornton as Verdict-style alcoholic lawyer, aka Paul Newman in that film, rallying disparate troops in his quest to best his former corporate law firm in a case involving a defence contractor’s negligence or blowback as its weapons are unleashed on the home front. Thornton underplays the role and lets the case take precedence over the character, and in so doing helps fashion a very strong series.
Wormwood – Errol Morris hasn’t looked this sharp in years. This true story, shot in half-doc, half fiction mode about a scientist who bucked the military establishment in the dark days of the Cold War relates in the fictional mode his demise and assassination and in the documentary mode how the long years of the intelligence agency cover-up that followed inflicted further grief on his son and family. Stunning serial series and Morris best work since his exposure of Texas justice in The Thin Blue Line.
Acquitted/Follow The Money – Two strong examples of the way Scandinavian noir can escape the now tried and true personal-crime-in-a-quirky-small-town cliché and instead tell a larger tale about corporations and corruption in the energy industry. Acquitted involves a wealthy corporate manager of an Asian investment firm who goes back to his home town in Norway to acquire the town’s energy company but is haunted by a crime he was pursued for 20 years earlier. He has to both clear himself and help thwart the takeover. Follow the Money features a straightforward emphasis on an Danish energy company, aka Enron, speculating in resources it does not possess and playing against the clock to conceal its shell game from investors, a story that did not end with Enron but is now the mainstream corporate tale with Amazon, for example, embracing debt rather than profit as its future.
Wasteland – HBO series from the Czech Republic that details the personal and collective misery of a town living on the Czech/Polish border in the face of a coal mining company that continues to spew devastation across the landscape. Its main story of the town’s female mayor pursuing a missing child though engrossing is also almost a pretext for a tour of a demolished psychic and physical landscape, the result of industrial waste.
Ozark – Netflix series with Jason Bateman that has a New York accountant moving to the backwoods area of the mountain range to flee a drug lord. While at first the series seemed to promise a kind of Justified treatment of a backwoods region, much like that of Appalachia, the real strength of the series lies in the Bateman characters illustrating the mechanics of money laundering. It’s a dramatic series with a darkly comic undercurrent and the accountant’s wife, played by the marvelous Laurie Linney, manages each week to underplay, even more than Bateman, a scene in the way that makes the dark task of the new failing middle class managing its lack of funds through crime and profiteering hilarious, though it would be funnier if it weren’t true.
Guerilla – Thrilling British mini-series, broadcast in the U.S. on Showtime, created by 12 Years A Slave’s John Ridley about a 70s Black uprising in London. Better and clearer than 12 Years a Slave with no white man, aka Brad Pitt, riding to the rescue and with a brutal depiction of the British equivalent of the FBI’s Cointelpro sabotaging these black radicals in an evil character borrowed from Peaky Blinders' Sam Neill who like the Irish regenerate in that series entraps the Black Panther-like protestors and directs them towards violence.
Episodes – This Showtime series ended this year with Matt LeBlanc, playing a heightened version of himself, a slightly savvier Joey from Friends then returning to the kind of show this series viciously mocked. Not since The Larry Sanders Show has there been a series which so skewered the inhuman culture that surrounds the rampant greed of network television, where money is king. Season Five was a bit of an afterthought but Season Four contained a brilliant late flourishing of this stunning satire.
You Are Wanted – German series available on Amazon about the supposed paranoia of a real estate executive whose identity is stolen. He discovers that the paranoia is real as we are all in danger not only of having our identity pilfered but, because of our susceptibility to the symbolic economy which keeps convincing we are nothing but the number of clicks we perform each day, having much less identity to assume in the first place. A point which the cypher-like lead character makes clear.
Salaam Mosco – Russian series just being released in the West which details the conflicts, misunderstandings and prejudices of a polyglot Moscow through the misadventures of its two cop protagonists, a quasi-racist Russian and his Muslim partner. A sometimes comic, sometimes absurd look at the fissures on which tensions in post-Soviet Russia express themselves, and an antidote to the current othering of the country.
And Five Honourable Mentions:
The Romeo Section –Season 2 of the Canadian Broadcasting Series got back on track and started looking more like creator Chris Haddock’s superb Intelligence, as the agents run by a university professor track a terrorist attack possibly engineered by the spy services themselves.
The Code – Seasons 1 and 2 of this Australian series both detail in some degree the way the Australian state acts in collusion, first with the defence industry to cover up the murder of an Aborigine, and then to repress an independence movement in order to maintain its mining of the region. Tends to pull its punches by the end and soften its critique, but its journalist and autistic hacker, two-brother team keeps it interesting.
Gomorrah – Like the book and better than the film, this series on the Naples Camorra, also produced by the book’s author Robert Saviano, details each week the personal corruption but also the public economy of the mob. Interesting, fascinating but extremely bleak.
Catastrophe – About midway through Season 2, this Amazon Series took a turn for the better, embracing in a more truthful fashion the dysfunction of its two older protagonists who start a family more out of lust than love. Season 3 continued that dysfunction and made it the best anti-family, family comedy on television.
K2 – The high profile Korean series this year was Stranger but this action series about a mercenary who challenges the corrupt interplay between the largest Korean corporations and the government, while falling in love with the Korean president’s daughter is more dynamic. Bigger budget but more direct than the sometimes too obtuse Stranger, involving formidable truthtelling about the country’s political elite.
Top Five Trends in Serial Television
- The attack on net neutrality by Trump’s FCC, which if it succeeds will likely increase pricing for online streaming and make the streaming services look more and be priced more like cable TV.
- Netflix expenditure in creating new content; $6 billion this year and already announced $7 billion for next year which will include 13 Global Netflix series. The question is though, how will this content translate? Will it be exciting innovative series, or just Netflix creating knock-off content that is its own version of popular films or TV series, such as Frontier, Netflix’s serial rerunning of The Revenant. The unspectacular Italian series Suburra which turned a film and a book about corruption into a skewed-young dance music celebration of budding masculinity does not bode well, as the service begins to look more and more like a slightly higher-end mainstream network.
- Continual critical dominance of streaming services over network TV with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale winning the Emmy for best dramatic series.
- Dominant female roles and stories of male dystopia and liberation. Not only The Handmaid’s Tale, but the Margaret Atwood follow-up Alias Grace, and even the more mainstream Western Godless, a reworking of The Magnificent Seven as the tale of all-women’s town battling male bandits. The series still delivered male gunplay at its ultimate moment but even the male characters had a softness and vulnerability that was female-inflected.
- Returns of unsuccessful series. The X-Files barely registered as an event once it unrolled though that will not keep it from being revived again. However more deeply disconcerting was Season 2 of Top of the Lake, which began promisingly but dissolved its recounting of female trafficking in an ambiguous haze that proved ultimately disappointing. The most extreme case though was the utterly unwatchable Twin Peaks. A series of disjointed but powerful images could not conceal its lack of an overarching theme, which was a major strength of the original, boldly employing network television to expose incest at the heart of the American home.