The Best TV and Web Series in 2016
This is my personal review of the series year, 2016. It is neither complete nor neutral but rather its aim is to inform the local community of some pearls of series which may be unknown in Europe. As an avid watcher of English productions, please forgive me if I put these in the spotlight here.
The three highlights of series which were aired for the first time in 2016 for me were Billions, Westworld and The Crown.
At the beginning of the year, Damian Lewis, known already from Homeland, returned to the TV screens with a strong performance: in Billions he plays the smooth fund manager, Bobby Axelrod, who is constantly being pursued by the district attorney, Chuck Rhodes, played by Paul Giamatti. This duel climaxes in the last episode when the two confront each other face-to-face. To make matters worse, the wife of district attorney Rhodes, who has known Axelrod for a long time, also works as a corporate psychologist in his company. Bobby Axelrod makes a clear distinction between friend and foe: if you sacrifice yourself for the company, you will be guaranteed unconditional support – but God help those who become a traitor. The viewer is not always privy to the details of the manager’s plans and sometimes this is also true for his staff. Many scenes play on the psychological level: especially in the financial sector appearances are often more important than the reality. In terms of the acting and storyline, a hit!
In autumn the cable broadcaster, HBO, launched a new major production: Westworld, which was rightly hyped as the successor to Game of Thrones. Like the film of the same name from 1973 (with Yul Brynner in one of the leading roles), this ten-part series is based on the book from Michael Crichton. An amusement park in the (near?) future: the viewer delves into the world of the wild west, all extras are played by programmable androids. Safety is the top priority: no android can injure a visitor. However, something appears to have gone wrong with the programming and as a result, most visitors experience more drama than they wish for. Topics such as artificial intelligence and its mastery, revolution controlled by imagined beings but also deep insights into the abyss of the human soul are highlighted in several interconnected storylines. Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as the technical head of Westworld which ends on an interesting cliffhanger staged for the second series. It is worth mentioning the great soundtrack from the German-Iranian Ramin Djawadi, the modern music from Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead or also the well-known House of the rising sun, newly arranged partly for the omnipresent automatic bar piano in the series and partly for classical orchestra. The best series soundtrack in 2016. In this article you will find more information on the ideas and implications of Westworld.
The Netflix series, The Crown, which received several Golden Globe awards, was for me personally, a surprising highlight – surprising because I am otherwise not interested at all in topics such as nobility and royal families. This series, however, has no similarity at all with media focussing on celebrities and gossip or with the naively romantic Sisi series from the 1950s. The Crown presents the development of a young woman who becomes queen and shows the often difficult decisions which she has to make, while caught between diverging interests. Claire Foy as Elisabeth II and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill can be highlighted from the excellent ensemble: the precision with which Lithgow plays the aged, grumpy Prime Minister would also have deserved an award. The battle between Elisabeth and her sister, Margareth, for the great love but also the tense relationship to Elisabeth’s husband, Philipp are an integral part of the first series. In addition, various historical events, for example, the Great Smog of London, which were here hitherto rather unknown, are presented and explained from different perspectives. A warts and all view into the life, often lonely due to the limited ability to act, of a globally known leader and their environment. Hans Zimmer is the musical director.
Further new releases in 2016
At the end of the year, Kiefer Sutherland as the Designated Survivor moved into the White House: after a terror attack on the Capitol, the Minister for Housing and City Planning is the highest ranking politician according to the successor to the president rule. Within a short period of time, he and his family are at the the centre of global attention and he has obvious problems in making decisions with far-reaching implications, be it the investigation into the attack, be it the pressure from the military to launch a counter attack against known terrorists or to put Iran in its place. Also in the power game in Washington, Thomas Kirkman has to learn quickly if he wants to sty in office. An interesting approach in any case in times of House of Cards and Madam Secretary: a more or less simple citizen has to assert himself in the world’s greatest den of lions. Because the attack cannot be solved as quickly as was initially thought possible, this offers a base for a second parallel criminal storyline. Part 2 of the first series will be launched in March.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a tribute to the 80s: alien meets E.T., totally in keeping with the time then. No mobiles, chunky computers, synthesiser music and a tense storyline which revolves around four friends, one of whom suddenly disappears on the way home. Good and bad aliens, unauthorised security services, and unscrupulous scientists – everything that made TV and cinema productions at this time successful. Above all, worth seeing for those who spent their youth in this era.
What would it be like to be able to travel back in time to alter certain events? Many authors and directors have already asked themselves this question. In 11.22.63, the series which has as its name the date of President Kennedy’s assassination, Jake Epping, a high school teacher, can only travel to and live in a certain day in 1960 – if he returns to the here and now, the story starts anew when he again travels back to the past. Only a few know the way there and back. With the aim of preventing the President’s assassination, Epping makes a number of attempts with one (as is the case with many journeys through time) unintended ending.
The Shanara Chronicles has to be highlighted for fantasy fans. This TV event, which started at the beginning of the year, cannot compete with Game of Thrones, but however, does offer a solid storyline with mystic and magic, good music (e.g. from Two steps from hell) and technically presentable special effects. Above all, the apocalyptic world in which mankind, after several wars, has been divided into various physical and psychical societies is interesting: a new explanation for the emergence of elves and other races which JRR Tolkien already invented for his books in the 1920s. Even if the production, which was aired on MTV, is geared towards a young audience (similar to The 100), it can still be recommended for older fantasy fans.
Less suitable for young people and also not to everyone’s taste is the series debut, The girlfriend experience, from Stephen Soderbergh. The young law student, Christine Reade, in addition to her work as an assistant in a law office, earns her living as a “bookable girlfriend”. She quickly comes into contact with powerful men and she gets into great difficulties as a result of a liaison in the law office. For me personally, the series was fascinating due to the ability of the main character to switch the “girlfriend modus” on and off from one minute to the next as well as due to the credibility with which Christine played her role as a girlfriend. A well-made profile of a woman who is not the average type.
Still worth a watch
Among the series which already had their premiere on TV/the Internet before 2016, Game of Thrones is the most well-known. Season 6 continues the high quality and there are, once again, many surprises (I will say no more than: the queen’s son) and excellent acting. However, one does notice that the series is slowly drawing to an end – and, in my opinion, it is already not so difficult to foresee it. And if you want to know what I think, send me a personal message. 😉
For fans of political thrillers, House of Cards can continue to be recommended. This year’s season draws attention to the First Lady and a very interesting intrigue surrounding the most important positions in the state. In Madam Secretary the focus is on the Foreign Minister (some similarity with Hillary Clinton can be recognised) of the USA and her attempts to resolve international crises. The series succeeds because realistic trouble spots are highlighted and also the solutions are mostly not merely simple. For those who like politics with a touch of humour, Braindead (with Monk actor, Tony Shaloub) and Veep can be warmly recommended
The second series of Narcos, which revolves around the life and pursuit of Pablo Escobar, the most famous Columbian drug boss of all time, almost reaches the high standard of its predecessor from 2015. Wagner Moura‘s performance as the head of the Medelliner drug cartel was only surpassed this year by John Lithgow’s Churchill (see above). In 2015 Moura won a Golden Globe for this role.
What would have been the outcome if the Nazis and Japan had won the Second World War? This is the scenario in The man in the high castle which plays in occupied America in the 1960s. The death of Hitler is approaching and the tension between the two superpowers is rising after an attack on the Japanese Crown Prince. Amidst these events, the efforts of some Americans to ward off the occupiers – and dubious film which appears to stem from an alternative reality.
Even if Black Sails had a very difficult start, this partially realistic pirate series, in the meantime (season 3), deserves a recommendation. The characters who in season 1 were still very superficial have – like the storyline – reached an acceptable level. As there is little competition to Black Sails, apart from Crossbones, which was rightly dropped, Black Sails can be considered a consolation for fans of Caribbean adventure films.
This year Hell on Wheels will end. The subject of this series is the construction of the transcontinental railway through the United States. The historically accurate events are enriched with the presentation of day to day problems, the battle between the various railway companies for the fastest route and the many impressions from the hard life in the 1860s.
Further historical series worth mentioning are Turn (the story of the development of the first “secret service” in the American civil war) and Marco Polo, in which Benedict Wong convincingly plays the part of Kublai Khan. Peaky Blinders centres on a gangster family in Birmingham in 1919. And if you thought that American accents were difficult to understand, you should think about subtitles for this series. 😉
Also in Bloodline, the storyline centres on a family – this time though in Florida Keys of today. Patience is called for here: as in season 1, it takes several episodes until the story unravels – but then the viewer is inescapably captivated. Dark secrets, the (only?) black sheep of the family, conflicts between work and family – the range of topics addressed is wide. “We are not bad people – but we did bad things”.
Shameless, already in its seventh season, also plays in the here and now. The Gallaghers, who live in Chicago, are just managing to keep their head above water in life and battle – with humour – at the outer edges of society with all its daily problems. William H. Macy is excellent as the alcohol dependent father, who has the absurd idea of relieving the American social system of money.
The Americans can be classified as an agent series, which tells the story of a married couple: Russian spies who officially live as an American family in the USA of the 80s and who, as convinced Soviet citizens, have to carry out a range of missions which sometimes lead to moral dilemmas for them. When the daughter who was born in America is told the truth, the series takes on an interesting development.
From the science fiction genre, only The 100 can be positively mentioned, unfortunately: the series, aimed at a younger audience, plays 97 years after a nuclear war which the people on a space station survived without injury. In an attempt to populate the earth, hundreds of juvenile delinquents are sent to the ground where they find out that not all people were eliminated in the war. Although there are further science fictions series, such as Dark Matter, Defiance and Killjoys, none really impressed me, neither in terms of the acting nor the storyline. But, as is well known, taste are different.
And last but not least, mention should be made of the series, The Black Mirror, which, after two series produced by the BBC, moved to Netflix for the third season. It is one of my all time favourites because it presents the foreseeable technical developments and their impact on future societies. Many episodes do not end in a manner that an optimistic viewer would wish for – a rare occurrence in TV flooded with happy endings made in Hollywood.
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