International TV

I don’t know about you, but apart from classic TV made in the US, I’ve always enjoyed exploring shows from other countries, predominantly from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Israel, South America and Europe. Pride & Prejudice made me fall in love with Colin Firth in 1995, Bleak House turned me into a Dickens addict 10 years later and that same year, Slings & Arrows reassured me that my stage experiences were not unique. Some of these international shows have since been made available on DVD, others were remade in the States including The Bridge, The Killing, Hatufim (US: Homeland), Be Tipul (US:In Treatment) , Mistresses and House of Cards.

It’s a matter of personal taste whether or not you like a reboot. In some cases I did not, in others I did. No matter how much I have liked (or disliked) an original show though, the remake often missed a crucial ingredient, something the American version never seems to quite get. It’s not only the appeal of a foreign setting and culture or the sound of a different language, it’s the different approach to storytelling, or better, differing aesthetics. Each year, the market is flooded by American productions with silly or crude characters and storylines that all too often jump the shark. Despite this unfortunate development (unfortunate at least to me, not the industry itself it seems), my heart beats for a good TV series and I’m happy that this up-coming season, two new American productions actually got my attention: Madam Secretary starring Téa Leonie and Matthew Perry’s update of The Odd Couple.

Madam Secretary may fill a gap I’ve longed to fill since The West Wing ended, The Good Wife lost its vibe and The Newsroom did not live up to my expectations. Judging by the first look trailer, this show may be my kind of treat, the kind of show that has the potential follow into the footsteps of my favorite Danish series, Borgen.

Borgen has what a lot of international shows of my liking have in common: a wonderful cast, a smart female character, crafty writers, witty dialogue, intelligent storylines and a distinctive design. For three seasons, Borgen was highly addictive without leaning on the soapy side like Britain’s Downton Abbey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy ITV’s period drama, Maggie Smith is starring in it after all. But given the choice, I prefer stories without unnecessary malice or personal drama blown out of proportion.

Memorable Finales

For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.

Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.

A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.

With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.

The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.

A Heart for British Drama

It would be wrong to suggest I love them all, that I’m generally drawn to British drama. I do admit to having a weak spot for Victorian England, however, for British classics and, increasingly, for new vintage TV produced in the United Kingdom. I may be confused about inaccuracies at times or frustrated with the never-ending tendency to transfer our contemporary morals and issues to bygone eras, but apart from these adjustments to modern viewing patterns, I am rather fond of British productions. Bleak House, Downton Abbey, Marple, North & South, Pride & Prejudice… There have been many memorable (mini) series over the years. BBC’s The Hour is my latest find, now in its second season and a real treat for anyone who likes to revisit the past through modern eyes.

Set in London in the 1950s, the show offers a look into the genesis of a news program that pushes boundaries on the air and behind the scenes. Starring Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West and Anna Chancellor as The Hour‘s main pool of characters, the series has a slow start but takes off in episode two as soon as the variety and significance of the supporting players shine through. Picking up on cultural influences of the time, the series is suspenseful and entertaining, but (in best millennial tradition) also mildly depressing. With its cold war storyline in season one and increasing social criticism in season two, The Hour may wish to reflect on the questions and struggles of the Beatnik generation, a successful attempt for an audience who likes to dress but not think nostalgically.

Fetch Your Reading Glasses

It’s summer time, so I’m outside reading. My favorite season always affects the amounts of books I’m enjoying, for pleasure or research, doesn’t matter – in the end, I always enjoy even the most tiring topic. So, call me a book worm, but here are ten  recommendations for those of you who share my favorite summer pastime on the beach, in your garden, on the front porch or your balcony. I could list a ton more but I’m trying to practice moderation. So here they are, my ten picks – I hope you’ll find something to enjoy:

Fiction:

Non-Fiction: