Must See TV

It’s Oscar season again, but unlike last year, I have very little to rave about. I haven’t felt compelled to see many of the Best Picture nominees (to be fair, I may be feeling a bit resentful because the category was expanded solely to make money), and those I have seen didn’t blow me away. Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as the manager of the down-on-their-luck and more-down-in-their-funding Oakland As, was a decent movie and I’d recommend it, particularly because Pitt may be better here than I’ve seen him before. As for the other movies, I’m largely not interested. I suppose I’ll get around to seeing The Descendants in time, although I’ve heard it’s only so-so (George Clooney notwithstanding), and I read The Help over Christmas and I like the actresses starring in it, so that’s another one I’ll get around to, but I’m not exactly running to the theatre.

There’s a reason why studios stopped making silent movies when they harnessed the ability to produce sound, The Artist.

What I have been doing with the time I’d normally devote to the silver screen at this time of year is to turn my attention to the fabulous things happening on my TV. Namely Revenge, Downton Abbey and Homeland.

The first of these stars Canadian Emily Van Camp as “Emily Thorne”, the cover she has given herself to hide the fact that she is actually Amanda Clarke, the daughter of a man accused of a terrorist plot by his former employers Conrad and Victoria Grayson, power players who lived beside David Clarke and his daughters in the idyllic seaside Hamptons. Convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, David dies in prison before his daughter learns the truth, but when she does, watch out! Amanda swaps her identity and becomes Emily Thorne in order to exact Revenge on her father’s persecutors, including the fabulous Victoria Grayson, played by the ageless Madeline Stowe. What makes Emily’s blood boil for Victoria in particular is that the socialite Mrs. Grayson was once her father’s lover but betrayed and abandoned him to protect herself and her family from scandal. Everything about Revenge should come across as ridiculous, and while it is campy and over-the-top, it never pretends to be anything else. It is soapy nighttime fun. Look out in particular for Emily’s reluctant partner-in-crime, Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann). Highly addictive!

The second show on my radar is no less soapy, but it is slightly more highbrow than Revenge. ITV’s/PBS’s Downton Abbey follows the lives of two distinct classes at an English estate called Downton Abbey. The owner of the estate, the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is compelled to name an heir, and as property did not transfer to the owner’s female children, his daughters, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay), are left out in the cold. Lord Grantham contacts his next closest living male relative after learning that the presumptive heir of Downton has been drowned in the Titanic sinking on April 14/15, 1912. The new heir, a distant cousin named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), has his life forever changed when he and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) are called to accept Matthew’s birthright. Rounding out the upstairs household are Robert’s American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and perhaps most exceptionally, the Dowager Countess Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith).

The characters downstairs have their own problems, most notably a scheming footman named Thomas, played by Coronation Street alum Rob James-Collier, who has designs on becoming the next valet to the Earl and who schemes with Sara O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the dastardly handmaid to Lady Cora. Beyond their machinations, the downstairs staff also includes loyal butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan),  second footman William (Thomas Howes), Mrs. Patmore the cook (Lesley Nichol), naive Daisy (Sophie McShera) the kitchen maid, the sweet but fierce maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), and new addition John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who is hired as Lord Grantham’s new valet, much to Thomas’ chagrin.

Despite striving to maintain a sense of British propriety, the occupants of the house are embroiled in scandal, intrigue, devious plots and jealous rivalries. This is all bound together with charm, wit, and stunning costumes, set design and music, and makes Downton Abbey a treat every week.

Finally, Showtime’s newest hit, Homeland, stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent working to make amends for her failure in Iraq. While there, Carrie received a tip from an informant that a U.S. Marine had been turned, and when Maj. Nicholas Brody is rescued after spending eight years as a P.O.W., Carrie is convinced that he has become a terrorist himself. Carrie’s only real, albeit reluctant, support comes from her former mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and a friend named Virgil (David Marciano). Meanwhile, Brody returns home to his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin) and children Chris and Dana (Jackson Pace; Morgan Saylor) only to find that life has changed in the eight years he was gone.

When I first heard about Homeland, I was a reluctant viewer because the suspicions of people of Middle Eastern descent in a post- 9/11 world, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are highly charged topics, and haven’t been done much justice on the screen, small or large. However, three episodes in, I’m hooked. Danes’ Carrie is complicated, complex and both tough and fragile, while the “Is he a terrorist or not?” question surrounding Brody remains an interesting enigma. The show is  captivating, due in no small part to the talents of its cast, and I’m curious to see if any of my questions will be answered by the time the first season draws to a close.

The Academy Awards will take over the small screen in a few weeks to celebrate the best and brightest in the world of film, but the best and brightest may have been on TV all along this year.


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