ILT’s Guide To… What’s on the Box #1

Whether your preference is corrupt presidents or sleazy lawyers, time travel or courtroom drama – with a dose of cocaine on the side; either way there’s a lot of strong television out there at the moment. 

Here’s five of the biggest shows currently on ILT’s radar…

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American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson

Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Season Premiere: 2 February 2016 (FX & BBC) / Episodes: 10 (weekly)

Taking advantage of our current clambering for all things true crime, American Crime Story is a new anthology series that dramatically depicts the good ol’ US of A’s most popular criminal events, season by season. First up, the 1994/95 double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, and subsequent trial of Nicole’s ex-husband and primary suspect, NFL legend O.J. Simpson. A truly fascinating chain of events; the O.J. Simpson trial is a tale that’s always worth revisiting, even if it is in a manner one could easily describe as comically cheesy at times. Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, and David Schwimmer ham it up big time with larger than life depictions of their real life counterparts, and while some of the performances threaten to drag it into so-bad-it’s-good territory, so far it’s been a steadily improving glove full of intrigue-slash-zone-out-viewing and the perfect way to kill forty-five minutes.

Vinyl (Season One)

Created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter
Season Premiere: 14 February 2016 (HBO) / Episodes: 10 (weekly)

It wasn’t too difficult to get hyped up for Vinyl. An HBO examination of the early 70s New York music scene – in concurrence with the related bouts of sex, drugs, and violence that made it so infamous – promised much; especially with Scorsese directing the feature-length season premiere, Mick Jagger on board, and top rung writer Terence Winter heavily involved. Indeed, when Scorsese and cocaine get together (which seems to be a lot over recent years), the party’s usually at least worth checking out. So far, however, it’s been more of a standard night out, rather than the night to remember many had hoped for. Neither the writing nor the overall plot are much to compose a hit single about. Coupled with the fact that Bobby Cannavale, despite a strong performance (along with co-star Olivia Wilde and the rest of the cast), isn’t the biggest of names, it’s unsurprising to see the viewing figures worse than below par for an HBO production of this magnitude. Don’t write it off though – the direction and technical side are of the high standard one would expect, while the soundtrack is, of course, to die for if you’re a fan of the era. Take a chance on it, and if it doesn’t work out, you can always cast it aside with the prejudice of a true record company executive.

Better Call Saul (Season Two)

Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Season Premiere: 15 February 2016 (Netflix & AMC) / Episodes: 10 (weekly)

I doubt I was alone in being pleasantly surprised by the down to earth quality and endearing wit present during Better Call Saul’s debut season. Bob Odenkirk’s sleazy attorney was a particular highlight throughout Breaking Bad, but when plans for a Saul Goodman-based prequel spinoff were announced, cynicism trumped optimism on my part. I pictured a quick-to-grate whacky comedy in the works, an idea that apparently was considered at some point. Thankfully, however, I was wrong. With Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan once again at the helm, Better Call Saul featured the same smart, well written, uneasy dramatic tone as its predecessor. So far season two is more concentrated plot-wise, albeit a little slower than season one, with a smidgen of unnecessary filler creeping in here and there. For the most part, however, Albuquerque’s finest have once again lived up to the level of quality expected of them. Odenkirk continues to thrive in the titular role, while the supporting cast – including the wisely selected crop of familiar faces from Breaking Bad, headlined by Mike, Jonathan Banks’ criminal utility man – fits as snugly as a signature on a subpoena, or a bullet in a chamber. If you loved Breaking Bad but are yet to get on Better Call Saul, now’s the time to play catch up.

11.22.63 (Miniseries)

Based on the novel by Stephen King / Produced by J.J. Abrams
Season Premiere: 15 February 2016 (Hulu) / Episodes: 8 (weekly)

Upon reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 a couple of years back, it seemed inevitable that the author’s best work for a long, long time would end up being transferred to either the small or silver screen in the not too distant future. As it turned out, an eight-episode miniseries was the producers’ format of choice, picked up exclusively by U.S. streaming service, Hulu. James Franco stars as Jake Epping, an everyday chap charged with the rather daunting task of travelling through time in order to try and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Having read the book first, my opinion was always likely to demonstrate bias toward the text – and why not; it’s a classic example of King’s vivid character development and compelling storytelling. Indeed, the show certainly comes across as fairly thin by comparison. Of course such a rich tale was likely to have plenty of its fat trimmed in favour of the core plot, but even taken solely on its own merits, the hurried nature of the show somewhat sacrifices many of the intriguing time-travelling aspects and in-depth themes prevalent throughout the original story. Franco, too, appears to fall in line with the solid, but overall flat nature of the production, rather than hoisting it to the realms of standout. Still, from a historical point of view it’s worth a watch, and so far has been throw-away-enjoyable enough for me to see it through to the end.

House of Cards (Season Four)

Created by Beau Willimon
Season Premiere: 4 March 2016 (Netflix) / Episodes: 13
(Complete series available to stream now)

Around this time last year, I published a review of House of Cards season three, the tone of which had more than a hint of scathing disappointment about it. Our first foray into Frank Underwood’s tenure as President of the United States came across as little more than a filler-filled stopgap that smelt suspiciously of the show’s producers finding themselves at a crossroads from where they couldn’t quite decide which direction to take next. In short, the season was a let down. While the supporting characters’ arcs were a highlight – Doug Stamper and Thomas Yates in particular – Kevin Spacey’s Frank and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood all but bored us to tears by the season’s conclusion. Thankfully, however, season four demonstrates a dramatic reversal in fortune. With a concentrated, far more credible story arc in place, the writers do their characters justice this time around. Gone are dreadfully dull affairs such as the Putin storyline; replaced with far more engrossing content surrounding Frank’s continued pursuit of the Presidency, and the full circle reaction to his rather dubious actions over the past four years, as both he and those around him have no choice but to confront their demons. The direction is also noticeably improved, with hefty changes to those in the chair. The exception is Wright, whose substantial time behind the camera more than complements her continued brilliance in front of it, bringing a wonderfully delicate nuance to the Claire-heavy episodes. Spacey is on form too, throwing us back to the show’s debut season as he once again dominates proceedings, while the supporting cast, as always, does a fine job across the board. Knock knock – get it watched.

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3 thoughts on “ILT’s Guide To… What’s on the Box #1

  1. Quite a few shows there I need to catch up on, evidently! I am very much enjoying Better Call Saul for all the reasons you stated and also went in with very little optimism. It suffers when people compare it to Breaking Bad because it doesn’t have that sense of empire building, but it more than stands on its own two feet as a solid, enjoyable and well written show.

    • For sure. Thankfully it’s been so long since I watched BB that Saul is now sitting comfortably as a standalone show. You’re right on the comparison front, no point whatsoever!

      Another great show from last year was Deutschland 83, quality Cold War German miniseries.

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