The Thanksgiving holiday afforded me some rare quality time with my Netflix account. Fortunately, there are some really worthwhile shows in my current rotation that I have been watching on and off for the last year or so. Television has finally come into its own as an even more grand forum in which to make epic performances than the movie. These shows demonstrate that trend in spades.
1. Jessica Jones.
This Netflix original TV series based upon the Marvel Comics character is a brilliant but dark portrayal of a flawed hero, who few people who aren't total comics geeks are familiar with, who has the same problems that non-superheroes facing the challenges that she has faced deal with every day.
Jones is an alcoholic retired superhero working as a private investigator. She has anger control problems, chronically bad judgment, and is haunted by the victimization she suffered at the hands of a super criminal who is still out there toying with her and ruining other people's lives as well.
NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigation Service, a scrappy underdog of the federal bureaucracy that solves navy related crimes with a mix of the gut instincts and guile of their team leader, a cute Goth girl and quirky British pathologist running their stunningly well equipped crime lab (given the low budget of the rest of their agency's operation), agents seeking second chances after missteps in their prior employment situations, and the team's remarkable ability to outwit bureaucratic obstacles that are ever present. This is a police procedural in the tradition of Walker Texas Ranger, enhanced with war porn and a slightly more cosmopolitan cast.
This is more lowbrow than most of the other shows I watch regularly, but the ensemble cast works well together and strikes an excellent balance between being amusing and not being degrading or offensive, and the pacing and witty gambits they employ are amusing. This is TV comfort food like a warm bowl of grits with a pool of butter melted on top.
3. The Flash.
OK, so I like superhero TV shows. This one is a nice, balanced feel good melodrama with a strong supporting cast and a time traveling conspiracy theory that we experience with the wonders of dramatic irony while the rest of the characters soldiers on oblivious to the deeper forces at work.
Hey, I admit that it is a bit shallow, but sometimes, you want to watch something that you don't have to think too hard about.
This loose TV series adaptation of the DC Comics Vertigo imprint comic books series is a light police procedural comedy featuring a young doctor who is transformed into a zombie and maintains her good health by eating brains she secures from her job in the medical examiners office in Seattle (incidentally, I know a guy who used to work there, although he never mentioned the zombie employees). Eating brains also allows our heroine to pick up some of the memories and personalities of the source of her dinner which she used to avenge the wrongs that caused their deaths.
The show is the brain child of the maker of the best TV show ever, Veronica Mars and has a similar dynamic and aesthetic to critically acclaimed but short lived series like Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. Fortunately, unlike those series, this one was renewed for another extra length season this past October, so there will be more to come soon.
This is perhaps my favorite new series of the lot. Who knew that a TV show about Zombies could be zany, wise, reflective, and romantic?
In this DC Comics derived TV series, young Bruce Wayne, still reeling from the death of his parents, Cat woman as a streetwise homeless girl named "Cat", Commissioner Gordon and his wife back when he was a homicide cop working a beat and his wife was just his bisexual socialite fiancee try to get by and find peace in a city overrun with organized crime, corrupt cops, and super villains from the Batman universe like the Penguin hatching their criminal careers back in the days when they were just villains who hadn't yet earned a "super" moniker.
Like the Flash, this is a balanced melodrama, but like Jessica Jones, this series has some genuine emotional depth and is rarely campy like the low budget 1966-1968 television version of the story with Adam West and Burt Ward. The integration of this prequel with the canonical Batman story is also artfully done. But, the youth of the some of the key characters, give this a lighter feel than the purely dramatic recent movie adaptations of the Batman franchise, even though it takes some visual cues from that series.
Despite the name of the city, which is generally considered an alter ego of New York City, this Gotham, as in most retellings of the Batman story, is a dead ringer for Detroit instead.
6. Hemlock Grove.
The latest season of this edgy Netflix original (a previous season resolved a love triangle with a very graphic threesome), continues to offer its dark, mysterious mix of gypsy tradition, soap opera relationship issues, vampires, werewolves, witchcraft, conspiracies, sex and violence in the tradition of made for cable TV shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones.
7. Jane The Virgin.
This earnest coming of age, late, comedy skirts the line between magical realism and the telenovela. If you liked Like Water for Chocolate, Amelie, Moulin Rouge, or Juno there is a good chance that you'll like Jane the Virgin as well.
Imagine that the scripts of The Tomorrow People and the TV series Heroes were produced by the most explicit cable TV director around while he was inspired from watching Requiem for a Dream, you'll be on the right track. If repeated soft porn displays of gay and lesbian sex turn you off, this show is probably not for you. But, this big concept ensemble piece featuring eight unrelated people from all over the world who start to share telepathic bonds with each other against the backdrop of evolving conspiracies is definitely one of the most intense experiences available on television.
If you crave the explicitness of soft porn and the campy violence of karate movies, but hate the utter lack of acting, plot or any other redeeming artistic value in anything else available in those genres, this is for you. Like Hemlock Grove, this is a TV experience that simply did not exist in any form ten years ago.
There are several modern updates of the Sherlock Holmes story out there, including one based on New York City, because it is out of copyright. But, this London based mini-series of finely crafted episodes by the BBC is probably the best of them.
Back in the late 1960s, U.S. scientists designed a nuclear powered interstellar "generation" ship that could reach the nearest star under the direction of the grandchildren of the original crew a century later. This short series imagines what would have happened if the crew, forever trapped in the 1960s cultural bubble they were a part of when they left because they lack the critical mass to transform their own culture very decisively on their own, actually made that trip. Or, at least, that's what the people on the ship think in this series that has echoes of The Truman Show and Ender's Game.
Honorable Mention: Being Human
The TV series "Being Human" is about a twenty-something vampire, werewolf and ghost who end up sharing an apartment together as they try to live lives in the ordinary human world that are as ordinary as possible as they try to cope with the recent transformations that have made them into the respective mythical creatures that they are now.
Overall, its a reasonably well done slice of life melodrama that leans towards comedy. But, what is really remarkable about this series is that it has been done twice, with almost identical scripts to start with, five seasons worth of it set in greater London, and a four seasons of a parallel universe version of the exactly the same show remade in a United States setting with a U.S. cast.
I've watched several parallel episodes and I have to admit that I enjoy the U.S. version better, even though it is a scene for scene identical remake of a very decent original, simply because as an American, I find it easier to digest. It is truly remarkable how the change of setting and cast can give the show an entirely different feel with almost exactly the same plot, characters and modern setting.
Twilight/Life and Death Compared
The only other fictional experience that comes even close to "Being Human" is the 10th anniversary bonus material book version of Stephanie Meyers book, Twilight, which contains in the same hardback book volume, the full length book, Life and Death. Both books start from one of the covers and work their way to the midpoint of the hardback book volume, and are rotated 180 degrees from each other.
Life and Death is a scene by scene retelling of the "Twilight" story, but with all but a handful of the characters gender flipped from the original (it is necessary to flip almost all of the characters because otherwise many of the complex and interlocking love triangles, pentagrams, trapezoids wouldn't work properly). A few scenes from the original Twilight story, like an attempted rape scene form which our heroine was rescued following a long bout of homecoming dress shopping, had to be reworked significantly as a result of the gender flip, and some of the dialog had to be tweaked a bit to be realistic coming from someone of the opposite sex. But, mostly, the project was a quite successful demonstration of the claim that the stereotypical damsel in distress dynamic of the original book wasn't necessary to make it work.
Life and Death works well enough and is a fascinating literary experiment. But, honestly, some of the choices made in the original novel for our heroine, Bella, while they can be done with a male protagonist instead without seeming completely implausible, are choices really aren't actually the most natural ones that one would probably have made if one was working from scratch to write the book about, Beau, Bella's male counterpart in this alternative reality in love with a female vampire, instead. In contrast, Bella's choices in the original Twilight flow effortlessly from her distinctive personality, which while odd, never seems unfeminine.
Of course, Twilight is pretty much single handedly is responsible for the huge decade long contemporary vampire and werewolf fiction trend that gave rise to iZombie, Hemlock Grove, and Being Human in the list above, plus many, many more productions in novels, movies, television, graphic novels, and actual dead tree comics. You could probably fill a long post just listing all of the fictional works that it has influenced. Given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that is a pretty impressive feat for a young Mormon writer releasing her first book pieced together over the years in bits and pieces as sketches when she was a teenager.