Cast Against Hype

Reflections on film and other forms of storytelling from a Swedish wannabe-storyteller…

Tag: Orphan Black

Spies, Drugs and Seriously Disturbed Characters – My Top 20 TV Shows of the Decade

The Walking Dead. Mad Men. Not included. So, there. For some reason I’m still stuck somewhere in the third season of TWD and just barely got around to watch a few episodes of MM. Maybe I will do something about that later. Still, there is so much. Too much. To watch. Here’s what stuck with me more than most of all the stuff out there. Some stories are apparently finished while others are still being told. The final verdict on some of these epics might change for the better – or worse. But, for now, this is it. 

1. Breaking Bad (2008-2013, created by Vince Gilligan). It simply shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Could you even describe the basic premise and the general circumstances without scaring off most potential viewers? Bit by bit, it turned out a lot of us were inexplicably drawn into the tale of a middle-aged, burnt-out and bitter chemistry teacher on his new path as career criminal. The show just got better and better. And finally – the best. 

– So we made the list? Second best? Let’s get the barbecue going, then! Credit: hbonordic.com

2. Game of Thrones (2011-2019, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss). It was the biggest show on earth, like. And still, the final stretch became such a profoundly polarizing experience that different factions of fans seemingly were prepared to go to war with each other. Personally, most of the last season actually worked for me. But it’s obvious that the creators had created an impossible task for themselves. They couldn’t bring the whole world together. On the other hand, who can? All in all, however; the complete story, the visuals, the characters and the world-building was a monumental piece of work to behold, marvel at and sometimes, argue about.

3. The Americans (2013-2018; Joseph Weisberg). Sure. They do spy a lot. Och oh, do they deliver a particular kind of 1980’s nostalgia. But above all, this is the story of family and friendship. How to nurture your most important relationships when circumstances are extreme and you never can be completely honest and truthful. How do you save your soul? And what is the deepest meaning of identity?

Only fourth place? Well, the only way is up, baby! Credit: hbonordic.com

4.  Billions (2016- ; Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin). Big money, huge egos, lack of impulse control and lots of vengeance… We might not be exactly like them, but they’re still us. 

5. Penny Dreadful (2014-2016; John Logan). Gothic retro-horror where they by all reasonable standards crammed in too many ingredients and ideas and bloody kitchen sinks… But still, it worked. The show dared to take itself seriously throughout. And they didn’t have a lot of reasons to smile, so they simply didn’t very often. What it was, was a brutally beautiful journey into darkness and back again. For some, at least. 

6. The Knick (2014-2015; Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Steven Soderbergh). Yes, I know. Most people missed it. And the allure of dangerously pioneering medical science in a New York City circa 1900 might be limited to a small crowd. Still, Clive Owen starred. Steven Soderbergh directed everyone of the 20 episodes produced. The result was something special. 

7. Narcos (2015- ; Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato). Spectacular scenery and urban melting pots. Profitable business and brutal conflict. A piece of modern history that could have been told in a number of different ways. This has proved to be an almost constantly intriguing one.

8. Black Sails (2014-2017; Robert Levine, Jonathan Steinberg). Spectacular spectacle but what’s the story, really? That seemed to be the initial audience reaction. And the showrunners never seemed visibly concerned about making it too easy and relatable, for which I’m thankful. They went ahead and followed a particular vision all the way, displaying death-defying attitude and creating a bittersweet aftertaste that I wouldn’t have expected when they first set sail.

9. Fargo (2014- ; Noah Hawley). People and places shifted between every season. But the atmosphere and the tone remained intact. Though, it was near impossible improving on the second round and its portrayal of feuding families in the 1970s; the devastating effects of greed on everyone, from hardened criminals to seemingly ordinary folks.

Staring down the opponent. Sometimes it’s a working strategy. Will ”Westworld” wipe out all competition in the coming decade? Credit: hbonordic.com

 10. Westworld (2016- ; Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan). Did I properly understand everything so far? Probably not. ”Westworld” is still such a powerful creative cacophony of impressions and ideas that it’s hard to resist and maybe even more difficult to let go of afterwards. 

11. The Bureau – Le Bureau des Légendes (2015- ; Eric Rochant). Oh, the French. They also make spy dramas. At least this one, which is so impressively obsessed with every detail in the spying game, and so anxious to show you the real consequences of it that it quickly becomes addictive, once you’ve figured out that it does actually exist and where to find it.  

12. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ; Bruce Miller). First season – devastatingly powerful. Second round – almost as good. Third one – not sure yet. Haven’t seen all the episodes, and maybe they’re starting to get slightly sidetracked. Still… Strong stuff. 

13. Homeland (2011- ; Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon). You can say a lot of things about this show; mixed messages, contrived plotlines, improbabilities and a not always likeable or comprehensible heroine. Well. They do know to tell a story and keep up the pace. And at its very best it is thought-provoking in the best way possible. 

14th place? Well. After all, we’re just leftovers… Credit: hbonordic.com

14. The Leftovers (2014-2017; Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta). Heavy going. It is undoubtedly one of the most innovative, original shows this millennium so far. It demands something of you, sometimes you just need to take a break and get back to it later. And once again prepare to be blown away and profoundly disturbed, before the next…break. 

15. Orphan Black (2013-2017; John Fawcett, Graeme Manson). In some ways the most impressive individual performance of an actor these last years. Tatiana Maslany incorporates a number of clones with distinct personalities during five seasons of almost constantly highly entertaining science fiction/relationship drama for our times. 

16. La Casa de Papel – Money Heist (2017- ; Álex Pina). Talking about entertaining. Spanish criminals battling the law in a scheme that might have borrowed some ideas from Spike Lee’s ”Inside Man” to begin with, but moved on to paint a larger canvas and force you to consider your sympathies over and over again. 

17. The Bronze Garden – El Jardín de Bronce (2017- ; Gustavo Malajovich, Marcos Osorio Vidal). Two miniseries so far of this Argentine mystery-thriller-drama beginning with the disappearance of a child and her father’s relentless search for the truth. Atmospheric, haunting and deeply human. 

18. Barry (2018- ; Alec Berg, Bill Hader). Funny guy, that Hader. He basically decided to make his own main character the most serious, least overtly funny guy in the show. Because he doesn’t need to be. He is suffering. So are most other characters in here, but still, together they pack such a mean comedic punch while being dead serious, that the show creates a universe of its own. Still ongoing – where will it end up?

19. Jane the Virgin (2014-2019, Jennie Snyder Urman). ’After all, this is a telenovela…’ Well, sort of. Playing around with genre conventions and basically every storytelling tool ever invented, while portraying some really relatable characters in sickness and health, infatuation and insidious scheming, it was impossible not to like. 

An award to kill for, you said? By the time we’re finished we’ll be number one – trust me. Credit: hbonordic.com

20. Killing Eve (2018- , Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Weird relationships. Indeed. Assassins and law-abiding officers facing off with unpredictable outcomes. Feels like the bigger story is still in its initial phase. What will come out of this in the end?

 

Almost Made It: The Honourable Woman (Hugo Blick), Luther (Neil Cross), Bosch (Michael Connelly, Eric Overmyer), True Detective (Nic Pizzolatto), Taboo (Chips Hardy, Tom Hardy), The Expanse (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby),  Mindhunter (Joe Penhall), American Gods (Bryan Fuller, Michael Green), Chernobyl (Craig Mazin), The Good Fight (Robert King, Michelle King, Phil Alden Robinson).  

Honourable Mentions: Bloodline, The Path, Banshee, Berlin Station, Masters of Sex, The Walking Dead, The Newsroom, The Brink, Outlander, Mr. Robot, Hannibal, Club de Cuervos, One Day at a Time, Sherlock, The Night Of, Bodyguard, Ray Donovan, Fortitude, Orange Is the New Black, Boss…

Superspies, Spectacular Designs and Suspicious Behaviour – My Favourite TV Shows of 2016

Simply put: Here are my personal favourites from last year’s vast supply of TV shows. Fiction category, to be precise. You might find a few that strictly speaking were released late 2015, but which I might have started watching in 2016, or whose presence here are justified for other reasons. All in all, so many shows with comparable qualities were available that I included twelve entries, followed by a couple of honourable mentions and such. Oh, I also mention the channels where I had the opportunity to watch these series here in Sweden. And at least one of the creators/showrunners.

1. ”The Americans” (Joseph Weisberg / Netflix). Four seasons have been broadcast in the US, right? Here in Sweden we are a bit behind… But the third season was the best so far. Who are we supposed to sympathize with, which side should we choose? All of them! No one! Just make sure the most important characters stay alive for a few more years. We need them.

2. ”Fargo” (Noah Hawley / HBO Nordic). I was kind of late discovering the first season, which I started watching sometime last winter, after which I went on to the next one. You know, where it’s all taking place during the late 1970’s. If the first round was really well made, the second one seemed more or less sensational to me. If only I could explain exactly why…

3. ”Penny Dreadful” (John Logan / HBO Nordic). Spectacular – and somewhat unexpected, since it wasn’t properly announced as such – finale concluded this gothic style ’let’s throw every conceivable horror character into the same bowl and do something much better with it than anyone has the right to expect’- show. A bombastic and bittersweet end to a creation which will be missed.

4. ”Game of Thrones” (David Benioff, D. B. Weiss / HBO Nordic). The latest two seasons haven’t been the definitive high points in the story arc so far, but even a slightly-below-maximum-round of this, TV drama’s biggest spectacle right now will still qualify as one of the best things to watch. And of course, the themes involved, concerning power struggles and what it takes to reach the top (or merely survive), will never grow old.

5. ”The Knick” (Jack Amiel, Michael Begler / HBO Nordic). Well, the second season was released late 2015 and finished late december then. Not sure if it was available here exactly at that time. Anyway, this Steven Soderbergh-directed hospital epic is sort of a unique little piece, that deserves repeated reminders of its existence. Brief, as it may have been. I am not certain anyone knows if there will be any more episodes. And maybe there doesn’t have to be. Clive Owen contributed a virtually magnetic presence during this whole purgatorial pilgrimage through trial and error in the world of medicine.

6. ”The Night Of” (Richard Price, Steven Zaillian / HBO Nordic). Innocent or not? And what happens in the process with a person who is believed to have committed a heinous crime and is being processed through the judicial system? And what about everyone else around? John Turturro was particularly memorable here, as a somewhat underrated and disrespected lawyer with a variety of personal problems to deal with.

7. ”Narcos” (Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro / Netflix). The hunt for the notorious drug runner Pablo Escobar continued, leading to a climactic denoument in this reality-inspired show, taking place in Colombia mostly in the early 1990’s. The question is how to go on after this, but apparently they have a plan. Other comparable cartels obviously existed – and exist.

8. ”Westworld” (Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy / HBO Nordic). Complicated and multi-layered storytelling that didn’t live up to everyone’s expectations. Mine were mostly met, even though they too were a bit unrealistic. Who am I? Who are you? What’s being human all about, really? Genuinely hoping for an even more elaborate and profound continuation eventually. Until then, some acting nominations for Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright would be in order. And that overall visual design has to be rewarded one way or another.

9. ”Billions” (Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin / HBO Nordic). How to get rich and letting others die in the process, sometimes literally. Damian Lewis versus Paul Giamatti as a successful but ruthless and sometimes reckless Wall Street investor and a stubborn State prosecutor, respectively, was an entertaining battle that we hopefully haven’t seen the last – or best – of, yet.

10. ”Black Sails” (Robert Levine, Jonathan E. Steinberg / HBO Nordic). They keep on sailing. Without apparently changing anything of vital importance in the concept that could make it more easily accessible and a smoother ride. Respectable, potent and powerful epic, starring some more or less mythological pirates in the Caribbean a couple of centuries ago.

11. ”Bloodline” (Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman / Netflix). The second season was perhaps generally regarded as less convincing and engaging in its plotline than the first, but seriously; what compelling characters, what a dense atmosphere, what captivating overviews of the Floridian landscape, what a Shakespearean family tragedy…

12. ”The Path” (Jessica Goldberg / HBO Nordic). A fictional cult. Internal intrigue. Nothing is completely self-evident. What exactly is their worldview and is it something society at large should fear or not? Constantly ambiguous and unpredictable interactions between the principal actors Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy.

Honourable mentions: ”Orphan Black” (Netflix) might have been at its best in its very first season, but maintains a level of mischief and excitement that keeps it from losing its appeal for me. And Tatiana Maslany’s versatility has to be praised as well. Scifi show ”The Expanse” (Netflix) is somewhat difficult to grasp and accurate describe, but it does have its own voice and other attractive elements. Criminal drama ”Quarry” (HBO Nordic) seemed really promising at the beginning and I cannot quite explain why I haven’t finished the whole first season yet. But I will. ”Mr. Robot” (SVT – the Swedish non-commercial television broadcaster) might have made things more messy than they needed to be, but remains intriguing and compulsive nevertheless. ”Banshee” (HBO Nordic) has been a guilty pleasure for me a couple of years and managed to go out with a… Not sure if it’s a bang. But somehow true to itself. ”Midnattssol” (translates as ”Midnight Sun”, on SVT), a Swedish-French thriller set in the far north of Scandinavia was definitely uneven, but managed to capitalize on the magnificent natural surroundings of Kiruna, taking advantage of its exotic qualities and tell a story of broken people trying to solve what looks like a string of connected homicides with decidedly unpleasant methods involved.

 

Also available in Swedish at Fair Slave Trade, another blog forum of mine.

 

”Orphan Black”: Science Fiction With a Whedonesque Sense of Humour

Clones. That’s what it’s about, something of which we will be made aware pretty early on. One of them becomes a witness to another one committing suicide, during the opening scenes in the pilot episode of a show that we started following in our household through one of these increasingly popular streaming platforms, from where virtually all real TV drama seems to emanate, or at least is distributed these days. When the last, concluding moments of the first season are over, it’s obvious that the showrunners have decided there’s more to tell. And indeed, they’ve also managed to create a demand for it.

Science fiction. Simply put. Although with a palpably present time-oriented framing, high pulse rate and a dark, sometimes bordering on sinister sense of humour which helps the show avoid the possible risk of ending up being too serious, distanced and aloof. ”Orphan Black”, produced by BBC America and created by two distinguished gentlemen called John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, is definitively not a strictly kitchen sink realist type of drama (even if you might spot a dirty kitchen sink, literally, now and then). Initially I do experience some issues with the whole ‘suspension of disbelief’ required to really ‘get it’… Just a little. You know – some reactions by the characters involved, when confronted with distinctly life-threatening situations and profoundly life-changing intel, might seem slightly… Off. Not sufficiently connected to the real world most of us inhabit. But I get over it rather quickly. It’s not difficult seeing the upside to just ‘get with the program’, ‘go with the flow’ and accept the show’s reality as presented. The personalities as they are. The constantly forward-moving and generally unpredictable plot. Because it pays off. There’s something Joss Whedonesque at work here, which should appeal to fans of, say ”Firefly”, even in the absence of anything resembling spaceships.

But a lot also boils down to how a certain Tatiana Maslany succeeds with her mission. Her missions. Already in the first episodes we’ve seen her personify a handful of characters, although some of them really rapidly, due to the nature of the plot. Let me reveal: there will be more. And if you like, you can amuse yourself by analyzing exactly how some scenes were planned, staged and executed. Look for some basic information about that on Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia. We’re talking about the numerous occasions where clones interact in a seemingly seamless and natural (though not always peaceful and amicable) way, with two or more characters played by the same actress. Body double, several takes and layers in what’s referred to as a ”very time-consuming process” are apparently part of the modus operandi. And it all looks strikingly natural and credible under the circumstances.

If the drama itself wasn’t so absorbing, these achievements wouldn’t amount to a whole lot anyway. But it is. The contrasting characters; including the clones in the shape of Maslany as well as the supporting cast. They click. Above all, the axis around which all else revolves, the streetsmart small time crook Sarah, who seems to have a rather flexible idea of ethics and the whole right and wrong thing. Watching her own double, or at least in that moment, someone so eerily resembling herself it could have actually been her, throwing herself in front of a passing train, Sarah’s first immediate instinct is to grab hold of her possessions left in the platform, and in the process just accidentally taking over her life. Just for a while, to get a kickstarter making it possible  to start a new life, but of course it will get more complicated than that. Not least because now she has to act the part of a traumatized policewoman, the mysterious look-alike who for some reason couldn’t go on living. But the situation keeps changing and the wheels turn so fast that Sarah’s own quite well-developed survival instincts really get put to the test on a frighteningly frequent basis. In order to be able to see another day at all…

The only thing Sarah knows about her childhood is that she doesn’t know anything about her biological parents. She’s been raised by a British woman, who’s now in custody of the young daughter Sarah hasn’t quite shown the capacity to adequately care for. Yet. Our increasingly fascinating antiheroine’s main sidekick is the likewise orphaned, openly gay ‘brother’ Felix. There you have another potential character cliché – the theatrical, flamboyant, always talkative and ‘funny’ gay friend, you know. And Felix might be all of those things, but somehow actor Jordan Gavaris takes the opportunity to do something interesting with it, casually delivering sarcastic comments while specializing in (if often really reluctantly) saving Sarah and other acquaintances when they’re in trouble. Which, given the circumstances, happen virtually on a daily basis. While also contributing immeasurably to the entertainment value on the whole.

So, what does the show tell us about the technological advances and groundbreaking, controversial experimental science, ethical dilemmas and the value of human life? These questions have to, almost by definition, get incorporated into a concept like this one. And so they do, although not in a preachy, predictable manner but rather inserted in passing. The way the show is constructed and executed demands that we get some answers now and then to the questions which in the spirit of ”Lost” arise constantly along the way, but also that not all plot threads are followed to their logical conclusion and explained too quickly. You must, as the famous mythological storyteller, the Persian queen Scheherazade of ”One Thousand an One Nights”, create a demand for more. As I said in the beginning, they do. And there is. More.

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