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The Best TV Series of 2013



The start of the 2012-13 TV season was little more than a barren wasteland. Of the few new shows I checked out last season there wasn’t any I stuck with for more than a few episodes. To say I was depressed this time last year at the state of TV would not have been an understatement.

But then something happened. Once ’12 ended and we rang in ’13 all sorts of interesting TV series began appearing, to the point that I’d call 2013 one of the better years for quality TV in recent memory.

Charles Dance in Game of Thrones

Charles Dance in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones (HBO)

I’ve really liked Game of Thrones since it premiered back in ’11, but it wasn’t until this year that I thought it was the best show on TV. And that’s not a dig on previous seasons of the series whatsoever. Game of Thrones has always been great and it’s been getting better and better with each new season of the show. Plus now that we’re a few seasons in, I think the audience is a lot more invested in the series and its characters than before since we’ve gotten to know and “live with” the series these last few years.

Game of Thrones is the rare show where every action taken by the characters has consequences; some good, some bad and some both, and seemingly no character is safe from unexpectedly meeting their demise and earning a quick exit from the show. It’s almost to the point where I wonder who’ll still be in the last episode of the series who was also in the first?

Hannibal

The cast of Hannibal

Hannibal (NBC)

One of the biggest surprises to me earlier this year was the network TV series Hannibal. Let that sink in for a minute, a network drama is one of the best shows of the year. While Hannibal has some of the trappings of a procedural cop series; flashy cases of the week, a wide cast of characters. Hannibal also breaks that same mold in that the title character of the show Will Graham (the wonderful Hugh Dancy) is actually a unique character I don’t think we’ve ever seen on TV before. His “gift,” if you can call it a gift, is that he can relate to an extreme level with serial killers while investigating their motivations for killing. But Graham begins to question his sanity when working with a pre-jail Hannibal Lecter (the equally wonderful Mads Mikkelsen) who councils Graham and begins to bend his mind to Lecter’s sick and twisted will.

Keri Russell in The Americans

Keri Russell in The Americans

The Americans (FX)

The other TV surprise this season was The Americans and unfortunately I had almost written off The Americans before I’d even seen it. For whatever reason I just didn’t think the show was going to be very good and only watched it since I watch a lot first episodes of series just be sure I’m really not missing anything. But literally five minutes into The Americans that’s about Soviet spies in Washington DC in the 1980 but is just as much about how relationships between couples work I was hooked.

Veep (HBO)

Veep is the one show in the last few years that I laugh hard enough while watching that I literally have to pause it in order to compose myself in order not to miss the next big laugh.

Taylor Schilling and Yael Stone in Orange is the New Black

Taylor Schilling and Yael Stone in Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

I think the biggest revelation this year was just how good TV series could be that wasn’t on a traditional channel, the best of which was Orange is the New Black on Netflix. The only reason this series isn’t much higher on my list is that there were so many other good series on TV this year in competition.

Mob City (TNT)

I’m not sure if it’s a genius move on the part of TNT to air the entire Mob City series over the course of three weeks, or a bone-headed one? Maybe viewers will dig watching all of Mob City quickly, or maybe it’ll all get lost in the clutter of the holidays? Regardless, I really dug this one and hope that the new year will bring tidings of comfort and of joy AND more episodes of Mob City.

Gillian Anderson in The Fall

Gillian Anderson in The Fall

The Fall (Netflix)

Another interesting series on Netflix, abet not an original production like with Orange, was The Fall. Starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Inspector Stella Gibson, The Fall follows Gibson as she tracks a serial killer on the streets of Belfast, Ireland. The interesting bit about The Fall is how the partisanship of Belfast works into everything and that we spend as much time with the killer and his cute family who have no idea that the “normal” dad is really a monster as we do with Gibson.

Underbelly: Badness (DirecTV)

I’m guessing I’m the only American who watches this Aussie crime drama import, now in its sixth year, but I thought Underbelly: Badness was a return to greatness for this series that had lagged in recent years.

Noah Wyle in Falling Skies

Noah Wyle in Falling Skies

Falling Skies (TNT)

I think I may be in the minority here when I say this, but to me Falling Skies was actually better this third season than the last. And I really liked that season too.

Young Justice (Cartoon Network)

The most overlooked show on TV the last few years was Young Justice, which ended this season. What I liked best about Young Justice was that it was the rare show, animated or otherwise, where the characters experienced actual change during the course of the series. It seems that we live in a world where once we get to the parts of the story that are actually interesting — Is Batman getting too old to fight crime? Can Spider-Man have a life outside of web-slinging? — that the story is ended and a new one rebooted so we can start at the beginning yet again.

But the characters of Young Justice actually grew and changed and matured over the too short two seasons of that show.

Danai Gurira in The Walking Dead

Danai Gurira in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead (AMC)

I feel like The Walking Dead is still one of the best shows on TV, if it’s getting a bit harder and harder to watch now in its fourth season. I like the characters of The Walking Dead and it’s tough to see bad things happen to them time and time again living on a dangerous, zombie infested world. And simple put, I’m not sure how much more I can take of that. At a certain point my desire for the characters to escape their bleak world, which, according to the creator of the comic book will never happen, will collide with not being able to stomach the all the bad in The Walking Dead and I’ll bail on the show. It just hasn’t happened yet. 😉




Doctor Who, the great sci-fi hipster wanna’be



Matt Smith as Doctor Who and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as his companions

Matt Smith as Doctor Who and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as his companions

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who nearly as long as Matt Smith, the current actor in the title role, has been alive. Back when I started watching the series in the mid-1980s, it was a show barely popular enough here to air late Saturday nights on our local PBS station just before the nightly sign-off. Now, nearly 30 years later, Doctor Who has become a bonafide pop-culture phenomena where series actors are mega-celebs and the show has a world-wide audience.

Tom Baker as Doctor Who

Tom Baker as Doctor Who

I spent countless Saturday nights literally camped out in front of our TV trying not to fall asleep and make it to the end of the latest episode of Doctor Who but not often being successful.

In its original form, each season of Doctor Who consisted of five or six stories, each of which was told over (usually) four 30 minute weekly TV episodes with “oh my God is the Doctor really dead this time!?” cliffhanger endings meant to lure the viewer back each week. Here in the US, however, these 30 minute episodes were edited together into a complete two hour movie of the week that would be aired all at once. Which meant that there’d be this cliffhanger one minute which would immediately be resolved seconds later.

While Doctor Who wasn’t always popular here, it was popular for decades in Great Britain where it originated. What began in 1963 as a crude black and white TV serial would continue an ongoing series for a staggering 26 years before finally ending in 1989 after some 230+ episodes had aired.

What makes Doctor Who so long lasting is that, through the miracle of sci fi, the actor playing the Doctor is regularly swapped out with a new actor every so often. And with these new actors comes new and different takes on the character of the Doctor leading to new and different stories than what had come before. Some Doctors are serious and some are silly. Some are young and some are old. Some are nice and some are not so nice.

Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who

Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who

The current version Doctor Who is much different than the one I grew up with. Now, the character is much more teen oriented, to the point where he’s almost a hipster. And while here in the US the classic version of Doctor Who was always a niche series at best, the modern version of the character has gotten popular enough to be featured on the covers of magazines like EW.

Matt Smith as Doctor Who

Matt Smith as Doctor Who

To me, though, I loved the classic version of Doctor Who but only kind’a like the modern hipster Doctor.

That being said, this Christmas current Doctor Matt Smith, age 31, is set to be replaced by a new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, age 55. So who knows what that older version of Doctor Who will be like? Will he be more Patrick Troughton than Matt Smith? Only time will tell.

The classic version of Doctor Who was cancelled in ’89 and other than an attempt at creating an American version of the show on Fox in ’96 the character was essentially dead and gone. It took the revitalization of the series by writer Russell T. Davies in 2005 that introduced a new, modern, hipper version of the character that would launch the Doctor to world-wide popularity.

Now, Doctor Who is popular enough that friends of mine who don’t do sci-fi watch and like the show because it doesn’t seem overtly like science fiction.

Peter Davison as Doctor Who

Peter Davison as Doctor Who

The only thing that bugs me about the current version of Doctor Who is that it mostly ignores anything that came before ’05. Sure, there’s been TV specials this year about previous Doctors and even Netflix carries a smattering of old stories. But, for the most part, I get the sense that the older Doctor Who is intentional being ignored, especially here in the US.

It’s probably the same feeling that fans of the original Star Trek got when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered and mostly ignored the original show. I guess that just means I’m the old fart pining for the good old days.

Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor, Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special it set to premiere November 23 on BBC America. My favorite actor who portrayed the Doctor is, was and always will be, Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor. Visit me online at DangerousUniverse.com.

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Ender’s Hunger Games



Over the last decade young-adult books turned to movies have become one of the most popular franchises at the cineplex. The Harry Potter and Twilight films have both earned something like a staggering 3.5 billion + at the box office alone, so it’s not much of a surprise that others have jumped onto the YA book turned movie bandwagon.

Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Unfortunately, most of these newer movies, other than The Hunger Games out last year, haven’t been nearly as successful as what came before. In fact, all three of the YA movies out earlier this year The Host, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters were all critical and financial flops at the box office.

So, surly the producers of the remaining two YA movies left to be released this year have to be a little worried about the prospects for their movies? Especially since these two movies are scheduled to be released less than a month from each other.

Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham

Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham

The one movie I have the most concern about at the box office this fall is Ender’s Game, out now. To be honest, Ender’s Game isn’t technically a YA book. It was originally a sci-fi short story turned novel not originally meant for kids. However, the Ender’s Game movie has all the hallmarks of a YA book to movie.

In Ender’s Game, sometime in the past an alien species dubbed the “Buggers” have invaded the Earth and were nearly successful at wiping out mankind before genius commander Mamazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) was able to defeat that alien army.

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian

To avoid a repeat at the attempted extinction, the governments of the Earth have allied together and search for the best and brightest of military minds, no matter how young. Flash forward a few decades and Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a pre-teen genius who’s picked by the military forces of the Earth to receive this advanced military training at “Battle School.” There, Ender must come to terms with being the best of the best and showing everyone else up, while at the same time learning how to lead others in playing at a simulated war against the Buggers.

Which, in today’s marketplace sure sounds like a hit to me. Except I don’t get the feeling that the movie’s been marketed very well and it doesn’t seem like the audience is excited about this one as they are other YA movies. Worst of all, the producers of the movie have been fighting a wave of negative publicity because of comments the author of the book made about gay marriage a few years back. (Spoiler alert, he’s against it.)

So, not only do the producers of Ender’s Game have to deal with louts like me wondering if the movie’s going to be any good or not but they’re also dealing with the threat of picketers at movie theaters as well.

Speaking of revolts, the movie I have the least concern about at the box office this fall is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, out November 22.

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim as Katniss Everdeen

The second of four movies, the last Hunger Games book is going to be split into two more films, this time Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are pulled back into another Hunger Games as a clause in the rules means that on the 75th holding of the games previous winners can be forced back into the arena and fight. It’s a way for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to remind the populous that no one is safe, not even previous victors, and that he is in total control.

Except that Katniss’ defiance of the President in the first story has sparked a growing revolt that if the President can’t control might mean the doom of his regime,

The first The Hunger Games made something like $400 million at the box office and I have no doubt that the second one will go on to make much more.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the movie, the Ender’s Game novel, though a bit dated nearly 30 years after its initial release, is still pretty darn good. While Catching Fire is a good book, The Hunger Games series of novels are a series of diminishing returns. The first one is brilliant, the second good and the third a bit of a slog.

More: Why would anyone want to be a part of The Hunger Games?




Disaster Du Jour: Maximum Overdrive



Gruesome poster for a DVD release of Maximum Overdrive

Gruesome poster for a DVD release of Maximum Overdrive

I can declare that Maximum Overdrive is almost, very nearly, but not quite, a great movie. It’s close to being in the same league as the original Night of the Living Dead and Halloween films but comes up just a bit short. Writer/director Stephen King is nearly able to give Maximum Overdrive an underlying message to make the movie more than just the sum of its parts while at the same time delivering the gore and scares but in the end falls short.

In Maximum Overdrive, when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet all the machines on the planet spring to life, go crazy and seemingly have the singular goal of murdering everyone in sight. If it’s not the mower cutting the dad instead of the lawn then it’s the pop machine shooting out sodas at unsuspecting little leaguers or the semis prowling the interstates looking for their next unsuspecting car to squish.

Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington

Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington

The movie follows a group of random survivors who find themselves at a truck stop just off the interstate and learn that if they want to survive they must feed a never ending fleet of big rigs lined up on the road needing gasoline to fuel their destruction of the human race.

Maximum Overdrive is the kind of movie where if you can accept that one of these semis can silently creep up on a man, then have the magical power to accelerate to a speed fast enough to catch said person off guard and run them down then you’ll probably enjoy the movie. If you are not down with that logic, it’s probably best that you find your entertainment elsewhere.

One of the murderous trucks

One of the murderous trucks

I was most certainly down with the logic of Maximum Overdrive.

Essentially, Maximum Overdrive is a re-imagining of Night of the Living Dead but with trucks in the place of the zombie ghouls. Seriously, no joke. Here, instead of the survivors holing up in an abandoned farmhouse, they hole up in the Dixie Boy truck stop. And instead of the group coming to rely on African American Ben (Duane Jones) for survival, they rely on ex-con turned short order cook Bill (Emilio Estevez).

Deliciously campy Maximum Overdrive poster

Deliciously campy Maximum Overdrive poster

Where King is nearly able to transcend the genera is that he’s almost able to tie in the idea that our dependence on machines and oil makes us slaves of the machines and not, as we like to think, the other way around. There’s an interesting little speech Bill gives at one point about the gas at the truck stop that’s “practically uncut” like drugs, but it comes off so ham handed and over the top it’s more of a comedic than a dramatic one and it fails to give the movie any deeper meaning.

It’s almost like King was on the verge of saying something interested but pulled back at the last moment hence the comedy rather than drama.

Emilio Estevez in Maximum Overdrive

Emilio Estevez in Maximum Overdrive

That being said, I did think Maximum Overdrive was a fun movie, if plagued with logic problems. Like, how exactly does one of these semis that’s sprung to life drive itself? Is there some weird ghost driver or is it something in the mechanics? And why do some machines spring to life and not others? If  (spoiler alert) all the machines are under the control of this force, how do the Russians use one of their satellites (aka a machine) to stop a coming alien invasion and deactivate the murderous machines?

It would help the movie too if the characters weren’t so broad and ill-defined. There are several characters here who have the annoying habit of shouting most of their lines — “WE MADE YOUUUU!!!” springs to mind. The most well drawn character of the bunch is “Bubba” (Pat Hingle) who seems to be having a ball with his character of an unapologetic slimy southern gun-loving cigar-chomping owner of the Dixie Boy. If only everyone else were having as much fun here as Hingle.

Still, Maximum Overdrive is a decent enough movie that’s probably best enjoyed watched in the dark, late at night preferably with a group. Maximum Overdrive is available on DVD. Grade: C.




The Online TV Revolution



When I first started writing this column nearly a decade ago, legally watching TV shows online wasn’t possible. Slowly, over the years, that started to change and TV series that had already aired on traditional channels became available on iTunes and then Netflix and Amazon in a kind of online syndicated format.

But this year Netflix and Amazon* started something new; they debuted new series on their platforms that skipped the traditional networks altogether. While there’s nothing new about original content online, what’s different here is the amount of money being invested in these series, the quality of the shows and the names involved with them.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

Debuting last February on Netflix was House of Cards. Starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara and co-produced by David Fincher, Netflix reportedly spent $100 million+ to acquire two seasons of this series. In Cards, Spacey plays U.S. Representative Frank Underwood who craves political power and will stop at nothing as he claws his way towards a future in the oval office. Wright plays his wife Claire and Mara an up and coming reporter whom Frank doles out information to, helping his cause and helping her career.

The case of Arrested Development

The case of Arrested Development

After a long absence from TV, in May the fourth season of Arrested Development became available on Netflix. Bridging the seven year gap since Arrested last aired on Fox, the new Arrested presented the Bluth family in a new light and in a new decade. While they once were a family in charge of a successful and profitable construction company, the Bluth Company collapsed in the great recession leaving the family in disarray.

I’m a huge fan of Arrested and though some thought the Netflix series wasn’t as good as when it was on Fox since they were formatted differently — the fourth season played out like one long story with episodes leading into one and other, referencing other episodes, overlapping at points — I liked it a lot.

The cast of Orange is the New Black

The cast of Orange is the New Black

In July one of my favorite shows of the year Orange is the New Black  premiered also on Netflix. Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), this series follows character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman sentenced to 15 months in prison for carrying a suitcase full of drug money through an airport a decade before the start of the show. Things go from bad to worse for Chapman as she has to kisses her upper-middle class existence goodbye and experiences a culture-shock at the prison gates. Inside, she must deal with all sorts of different types of people in her new surroundings and finds out that her ex-lesbian lover (Laura Prepon) who got her into the drug trade is also serving time there too.

It’s the series with the most heart of just about any show I’ve ever seen and is unlike anything else out there. And I can’t think of another series that has a mostly female cast and is a drama rather than a soap opera.

While these new Netflix shows do have all the trappings of traditional TV — they run either 30 minutes or an hour depending on the format, all have opening and closing credits and run 13-15 episodes, about the same as traditional TV — there is one important difference here. All episodes of Netflix shows are available on the premiere date. Meaning that while some viewers will watch all of the fourth season of Arrested in a single weekend others, read me, spent more than a week working my way through it. And with a series like Orange I decided to watch no more than two episodes a week, meaning that it took me a few months to get through it.

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Along with these series both Netflix and Amazon have more series from dramas to comedies and even animated series in the works too from creators like Chris Carter of The X-Files and the Worchowski siblings of The Matrix.

My one question to Netflix on all this is how long can they keep paying creators like Spacey and Fincher hundreds of millions of bucks for series and still charge a flat rate of just $8 per month for all you can stream to its subscribers? It’ll be interesting if this cost rises sooner…or later. Visit me online at DangerousUniverse.com.

*So far, Amazon has aired a few pilot episodes for series, but hasn’t yet debuted a full-fledged series on their platform, though several are scheduled.