5. Fargo Season 2
Fargo’s 1979 setting enabled creator Noah Hawley to make grander statements in his show’s sophomore effort. The topics raised by State Trooper Lou Solverson’s (Patrick Wilson, excellent) investigation into the murder of a judge include the impact of a country’s stability on its inhabitants, the commercialisation of crime and various philosophies regarding random fate and the point of life itself. However the show is so well written and performed by its fantastic cast that these issues are only the foregrounding for a wonderfully insane tale of murder gone wrong in the vein of the original film. Although the show is certainly not subtle in its references to the politics of the time, it is hard to care when it delivers highly stylised action and terrific dialogue on a week to week basis. There’s no week spot in the entire cast with Bokeem Woodbine, Zahn McClarnon and Kirsten Dunst delivering electrifying performances. On top of all that, it even managed to fit neatly into the 2006 setting of the first season in a fresh and unexpected way. Below is the link for The A.V Club’s Polite Fight which analyses various elements of each episode in more depth.
4. Better Call Saul Season 1
Better Call Saul managed to do what many thought was impossible. Despite being a spin-off of the most successful show of all time, it never paled in comparison to Breaking Bad. Set in 2002, it follows the story of small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), six years before his appearance on Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman. The show is unpredictable and does not bind itself to a rhythm. An episode could be a crime thriller, a legal battle or a quirky dramedy. In a weaker show this change of tone could be distracting but Better Call Saul is anchored by the charismatic Odenkirk. Whether he is negotiating how many limbs his clients should get broken by gangster Tuco Salamanca or hosting bingo night in a retirement centre, Jimmy is a joy to watch. Better Call Saul also deserves credit for producing an hour of television worthy of Breaking Bad’s famed Ozymandias with Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks, Emmy-worthy) heart-breaking prequel episode Five-O. Michael McKean deserves praise for his role as Jimmy’s brother Chuck and the Kettleman’s (imagine if Ned Flanders’ family turned to crime) played by Jeremy Shamos and Julie Ann Emery are undeniably great characters.
3. Fortitude Season 1
What appeared at first to be Sky Atlantic’s attempt to capture the appeal of Nordic Noir such as The Killing or The Bridge evolved half-way through into something far more deranged and disturbing. Fortitude revolves around the investigation into the brutal murder of Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), a British scientist working in the close-knit community of Fortitude in Norway (Fortitude is a fictional town, with the show being shot in Iceland). His death coincides with the discovery of a mammoth’s corpse under the ice which threatens to put Governor Odegard’s (Sofie Grabol) plans for a glacial hotel for tourists into disarray. The investigation by local sheriff Dan Anderson (Richard Dormer – fabulously curmudgeonly) is further complicated by an external investigation by DCI Eugene Morton (the wonderful Stanley Tucci) into a seemingly accidental death which also occurred within the town. The best element of Fortitude, besides its icy, evocative setting and fine performances, is its pervasive sense of dread. It plays with the format of the murder mystery in an unexpected way. From the synopsis provided above, one would expect that the murder and the accidental death are linked but that is not what happens. Instead, the reasons behind the deaths are far more malevolent and brutal. Fortitude’s last string of episodes may stretch credibility for some viewers but I found it fresh, invigorating and one of the most original shows in recent memory.
2. Mr Robot Season 1
The most critically acclaimed show during the summer months of 2015, Mr. Robot revolves around Elliot (Rami Malek, terrific), a hacker suffering from depression and a morphine addiction. By day, he works for a cyber security company. By night, he is a member of fsociety – a group, led by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Cristian Slater – back on Heathers form), whose goal is to create a digital revolution. Mr. Robot, despite drawing on multiple sources such as Fight Club and Taxi Driver managed to remain compelling each week in its run. Its anti-consumerist ideologies feel timely in the wake of the worldwide recession and it never ceased to be compelling, edge of your seat entertainment as its plot became more and more unpredictable. However above all this, the show is just gorgeous to behold. Pilot director Niels Arden Oplev (hired off the strength of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) set the template of the show by creating an almost glacially chilly atmosphere. The cinematography is gorgeous and evokes the almost hyper-realistic sheen of David Fincher’s recent work on Gone Girl, The Social Network and even his own Dragon Tattoo remake. Creator and frequent writer-director Sam Esmail weaves together multiple arcs effortlessly and the last episode’s after-credits tease for the second season (featuring a breathtaking tracking-shot) leaves the audience wanting more.
- The Leftovers Season 2
The Leftovers stunned critics and audiences alike with its amazing second season. It feels like a result of series creators Damon Lindelof (co-creator of Lost) and Tom Perrotta (author of the original novel The Leftovers) listening to viewers’ responses in regards to the first season and attempting to make a change for the better. Gone are the cryptic mysteries which reminded many of Lost, as well as the Holy Wayne arc which caused the first season to drag. Series two is essentially a reboot with Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux – amazing) and his family abandoning Mapleton, New York for Jarden, Texas. Jarden has been renamed Miracle because in a world where 2% of the world’s population disappeared in an event known as the “Sudden Departure”, no one vanished from Miracle. However, the moment the Garvey’s move to Miracle, a young girl disappears. The drama mostly stems from the notion that Miracle, which signified safety and hope to a world gripped with terror that the same event could happen again, is perhaps as unsafe as anywhere else. Did the missing girl depart or is something else to blame?
The series central mystery is very intriguing and extremely well-paced. However along with the search for the missing girl, there are stand-alone episodes dedicated to other characters. Off Ramp focuses on Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) attempting to start a support group for those who, like her, became a member of the sinister Guilty Remnant – a cult whose only goal is to never let anyone move on from their losses in the Sudden Departure. No Room at the Inn is centred on Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) attempting to care for his wife who was left paralysed after a car crash caused by a driver’s departure. These episodes feel urgent and disturbing, while also deftly advancing other strands of plot and giving the viewer a real sense of this damaged world. Kevin’s dad (Scott Glenn) states “the fucking laws of nature have been upside down of late” and the stories and performances highlight this. Every character in the show suffers in some form from what happened. Kevin hears voices and his girlfriend Nora (Carrie Coon, Ben Affleck’s sister in Gone Girl) believes she is a lens (someone who when present causes others to disappear) and blames herself for her family’s departure.
Season two is less grim than season one without losing the sense of melancholy than drives the show. There are elements of black humour, particularly from Patti (Ann Dowd), the dead ex-leader of the Guilty Remnant who appears to Kevin. Music also plays a larger role than before, perhaps the reason why the show feels less bleak. Not only are there terrific uses of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” (perhaps a better use of the song than Fight Club) and Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”, the reason the town is called Miracle is revealed through a choir hymn and karaoke plays a huge role in the shows’ climax. Max Richter’s score is the best on TV in 2015 – haunting and emotionally cathartic. The roster of directors assembled are also terrific with Craig Zobel (Z for Zachariah), Keith Gordon (Fargo Season 2), Tom Shankland (The Missing) and Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) all managing to make even the smallest, minute details appear cinematic. I could not finish a review of this season without commenting on its eighth episode International Assassin, the most audacious, polarising and borderline insane episode of television in recent years. According to the A.V Club, International Assassin was beaten in its time slot by a re-run of Law and Order: SVU, which makes it all the more impressive that HBO chose to renew the show for its final season on great reviews alone. It seems cable is truly the place for artistic freedom.