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Archive for August, 2014

The Best Drama on Television

Part II

In this post I will describe television series of the highest quality. At the end of this Blog I will rank them as to the very best. As with Part I this was a very difficult task.

Category 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a few decades may remember some of the greatest television series ever produced. These series below both captivated and captured our imagination during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990’s. What comes to mind immediately were fine highly acclaimed series like: “Rich Man, Poor Man”, “ I, Claudius,” “Roots,” “Holocaust,” “Centennial,” “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds,” “The Winds of War,” “ North and South,” and “Lonesome Dove.” Since 2000 there was “Spartacus,” “Band of Brothers,” “and, The Pacific.”

Here we are in 2014. And here are my choices for Category 2: At the top of my list and, indeed, one of the very best ever made, is Homeland. This is followed by Person of Interest, Longmire, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards.

     Not mentioned here in this group of outstanding dramatic TV series was another outstanding TV drama about soldiers during the Iraq war. It was produced in 2005. It went only 1 season of 13 episodes. But the series, Over There, was one of the most emotionally profound, thought provoking, human-oriented TV dramas ever produced. Although shown 9 years ago, I still highly recommend you watch it. You won’t be disappointed. And yes, I cried watching tender moments of this war drama. I suppose it’s the warrior in me (Vietnam). I guess I kind of identify with and appreciate the sacrifices so many of our war veterans (from any war) have experienced.

 

Homeland

     Homeland is an American political thriller television series developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa based on the Israeli series Hatufim (English title: Prisoners of War), which was created by Gideon Raff.

The series stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a Central Intelligence Agency officer with bipolar disorder, and Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody, a United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper. Mathison has come to believe that Brody, who was held captive by al-Qaeda as a prisoner of war, was “turned” by the enemy and now threatens the United States.

The series is broadcast in the U.S. on the cable channel Showtime, and is produced by Fox 21. It premiered on October 2, 2011. The first episode was made available online more than two weeks before television broadcast, with viewers having to complete game tasks to gain access. The series was renewed for a third season of 12 episodes, which premiered on September 29, 2013. On October 22, 2013, Showtime renewed Homeland for a fourth season to air in 2014.

The series has received: critical acclaim, and has won several awards, including the 2012 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and the 2011 and 2012 Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series-Drama, as well as the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, respectively.

Season 1 (2011)

     The first season follows Carrie Mathison, a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who, after conducting an unauthorized operation in Iraq, is put on probation and reassigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Virginia. In Iraq, Carrie was warned by an asset that an American prisoner of war had been turned by al-Qaeda.

Carrie’s job grows complicated when her boss, Director of the Counterterrorism Center David Estes, calls Carrie and her colleagues in for an emergency briefing. Carrie learns that Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine Sergeant who had been reported as missing in action since 2003, has been rescued during a Delta Force raid on a compound belonging to terrorist Abu Nazir. Carrie comes to believe that Brody is the American prisoner of war whom her asset in Iraq was talking about. However, the federal government and her superiors at the CIA consider Brody a war hero.

Realizing it would be nearly impossible to convince her boss to place Brody under surveillance, Carrie approaches the only other person she can trust, her mentor, Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on American soil. Eventually, Brody attempts to kill the Vice President as a suicide bomber, but falters at the last moment after an intervention by his daughter Dana. This causes Carrie to become more doubtful and paranoid by her belief that Brody is a terrorist.

Season 2 (2012)

The second season follows Carrie and the CIA working with Brody to capture Abu Nazir. Discovering a video of Brody’s confession during a CIA operation in Lebanon, Carrie and Saul, along with analyst Peter Quinn, work to turn Brody into a double agent. Brody yields to the CIA interrogation and is now an asset for the CIA, sending information to both sides.

The downside of being a double agent as well as a rising Congressman with the Vice President’s support brings Brody closer to Carrie while worsening his relationship with his family. Mike tries to find the truth behind Tom Walker’s death. Egged on by Abu Nazir, who is now in the U.S., Brody silently kills the Vice President while the CIA tracks down Nazir’s contacts and kills Nazir himself using Brody’s information.

Seemingly free of being Nazir’s man, Brody celebrates with Carrie at the CIA headquarters, and both survive the explosion that killed Director Estes and many others. Having been framed for the bombing due to his earlier video confession, Brody flees the U.S. with Carrie’s help. Carrie and Saul, who was burying Nazir’s body at sea, are left to pick up the pieces.

Season 3 (2013)

The beginning of season 3 presents the aftermath of a terrorist attack committed by Abu Nazir’s people. Carrie is blamed for the CIA’s failings as Senator Lockhart grills Saul, now Acting Director of the CIA, in front of the Senate Committee. However, it turned out to be part of a bigger plot, as Saul had Carrie seemingly disavowed by the CIA to lure a senior Iranian intelligence officer Majid Javadi (who financed the Langley bombing) into becoming a CIA asset.

He later relayed the information to Carrie that the main perpetrator of the bombing was still in the U.S., and the CIA acted to bring the real bomber and the officer’s lawyers in for questioning. As the Brody family struggles to live within their means amidst Brody’s terrorist status, Brody himself is in hiding in Caracas, Venezuela, effectively being held prisoner by his captors until Saul’s arrival. Following a gunshot wound to the torso, Brody becomes addicted to the heroin given to him as a painkiller. Saul eventually rescues him, detoxifies him, and recruits him for a mission: to go to Iran and use his notoriety as the “Langley Bomber” to get close to the current head of the Revolutionary Guard, Danesh Akbari, and to assassinate him. During the initial assassination attempt, Brody publicly declares that he is seeking asylum in Iran, but is unable to get close enough to Akbari to assassinate him. Assuming that Brody will never have another opportunity to complete his mission, senior CIA officers order Brody’s assassination. However, with help from Carrie, Brody escapes and is able to arrange a meeting with Akbari, claiming to possess sensitive information about Javadi.

During the meeting Brody strikes Akbari and suffocates him. Carrie takes him to a safe house. Lockhart, with a direct order from the President, gives up their location to the Revolutionary Guard in order to increase Javadi’s chances of being promoted. Brody is then publicly hanged as Carrie watches in the crowd. Four months later, Lockhart (now CIA Director) offers Carrie (now eight months pregnant) the job of station chief of CIA’s Turkey operations (after a maternity leave). Carrie accepts the position but her request to place a star on the memorial wall to commemorate Brody is refused. In the final scene, Carrie is seen discreetly drawing a star on the memorial wall herself.

 

Person of Interest

     Person of Interest is an American crime drama television series broadcasting on CBS. It is based on a screenplay developed by Jonathon Nolan. The series revolves around a former CIA officer (Jim Caviezel) recruited by a mysterious billionaire (Michael Emerson) to prevent violent crimes in New York City. Season three premiered on September 24, 2013. The show was moved from its season one and two time slot, Thursday at 9:00 p.m., to Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. CBS renewed the show for a fourth season on March 13, 2014 which is set to premiere on September 23, 2014.

Season one opening voice-over by Mr. Finch

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a Machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant’. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator; if your number’s up… we’ll find you”.

In the beginning, John Reese, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, is living as a vagrant in New York City after the death of the woman he loves, and is presumed dead. He is approached by Harold Finch, a reclusive billionaire software genius who is living under an assumed identity. Finch explains that after September 11, 2001, he built a computer system for the government that uses information gleaned from omnipresent surveillance to predict future terrorist attacks. However, Finch discovered that the computer was predicting ordinary crimes as well. The government is not interested in these results, but Finch is determined to stop the predicted crimes. He hires Reese to conduct surveillance and intervene as needed, using his repertoire of skills gained in the military and the CIA. Through a backdoor built into the system, Finch receives the Social Security number of someone who will be involved in an imminent crime, at which point he contacts Reese. Without knowing what the crime will be, when it will occur, or even if the person they were alerted to is a victim or perpetrator, Reese and Finch must try to stop the crime from occurring.

They are helped by NYPD detectives Lionel Fusco, a corrupt officer whom Reese coerces into helping them, and Joss Carter, who in early episodes investigates Reese for his vigilante activities. Although Reese arranges for Carter and Fusco to be partners in the NYPD early in the series, for the entirety of the show’s first season, neither is aware that the other is also working with Finch and Reese.

Periodically, the team also enlists the aid of Zoe Morgan, a professional “fixer” who applies her skills to particularly difficult tasks. The series features several subplots. One significant story arc involves “HR”, an organization of corrupt NYPD officers who are initially in league with budding mob boss Carl Elias and later with the Russian mafia; in earlier parts of this arc, Fusco is forced to go undercover. Another important storyline revolves around Root, a psychopathic hacker who is determined to gain access to the Machine.

During season two, another organization of powerful business figures, Decima Technologies, is revealed to be attempting to gain access to the Machine. Carter vows vengeance against HR after they have her boyfriend, Detective Cal Beecher, murdered. Reese and Finch recruit Sameen Shaw, an ISA assassin on the run after being betrayed by her employers. Shaw learns about the Machine in the season two finale and subsequently becomes a member of Reese and Finch’s team.

In the third season Carter delves deeper into her investigation of HR, eventually uncovering its leader; but ending up getting killed. Reese briefly leaves the team in his grief. The team also battles Vigilance, a violent anti-government organization devoted to securing people’s privacy.

The Machine

The Machine built in two unoccupied floors at Ingram’s company, IFT. is a mass surveillance computer system programmed to monitor and analyze data from surveillance cameras, electronic communications, and audio input throughout the world. From this data, the Machine accurately predicts violent acts. Under control of the U.S. government, its stated purpose is to foresee terrorist attacks, allowing the government to forestall terrorist activity.

However, the Machine detects future violent acts of all kinds, not just terrorism. Originally unknown to Finch, his partner, Nathan Ingram, created a routine called “Contingency” on the eve of the government handover, to access the non-relevant data. Ingram and Finch are seen accessing this program in the episode Zero Day. In the episode, Finch is appalled that Ingram has the data sent directly to him and shuts down the routine, reactivating it after Ingram’s death. He presumably modified and updated the Contingency routine as well. Then, he begins to pass on the “irrelevant” non-terrorism data to him over nearby public telephones via coded messages in the form of Social Security numbers.

Over the course of each episode, the viewer periodically sees events as a Machine-generated on-screen display of data about a character or characters: identification, activities, records, and more may be displayed. The viewer also sees a Machine-generated perspective as it monitors New York. Commercial flights are outlined by green triangles, red concentric circles indicate no-fly zones around tall buildings such as Congress, and dashed boxes mark individual people.

The Machine classifies the people it watches by color-coding the boxes: white for no threat or an irrelevant threat, red for perceived threats to the Machine, red-and-white for individuals predicted to be or currently violent, and yellow for people who know about the Machine, including Finch, Reese, Ingram, and Corwin among others; Root is assigned this box during the first two seasons, but is able to communicate with the Machine and act on its behalf in season three, thus giving her a unique black-and-yellow box designating her as the Machine’s “analog interface”. The white-boxed “irrelevant threat” targets include the persons of interest that Reese and Finch assist.

As the series progresses, a wider governmental conspiracy emerges. Known as “Northern Lights”, it revolves around the development and utilization of the Machine. It is headed by a mysterious figure known only as “Control”, an unnamed official who deploys teams of Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) operatives who are identified by the Machine using a blue box; classified as “assets”, they have no knowledge of the Machine, but work within its own parameters. They are used to eliminate perceived terrorist threats on the recommendation of a department known as “Research”. “Control” also used the team to eliminate key personnel who are aware of the Machine’s existence.

In the third season, Control physically makes her first appearance, and the organization Vigilance exposes the government’s Northern Lights program to the public, forcing Control to shut it down. The cyber-terrorist group Decima Technologies steals Samaritan, a creation of Finch’s MIT classmate Arthur Claypool that is similar to the Machine, and plans to use it against the Machine.

 

Longmire

Here is a taste of this fantastic and entertaining show from season 1:

 

Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) of Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County (pronounced ab-suh-ro-ka), while preparing to run for re-election, has delegated most police duties to deputies Branch Connally (Bailey Chase) and “The Ferg” (Adam Bartley). Connally has also entered the election to unseat Longmire. Walt’s adult daughter Cady (Cassidy Freeman) is concerned that her father refuses to move on after the death of her mother.

Cady and Branch are secretly dating. Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackoff), a transplanted Philadelphia homicide detective, arrived in Wyoming six months prior and is now one of Walt’s deputies. Walt’s longtime friend Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) assists with any dealings with the local Indian reservation.

The first season shows random flashback scenes detailing Walt and Henry traveling separately to Denver, Colorado, where Walt attacks someone in a meth house. Denver Police Homicide Detective Fales (Charles S. Dutton) later arrives in Wyoming to talk to Walt and Cady about her mother’s death. Cady is shocked to learn her mother was murdered, as Walt had told her she died of cancer. Fales tells Walt they found the man suspected of killing his wife buried in a shallow grave. Walt denies killing him. Longmire has now completed 3 seasons.

 

Breaking Bad

     Breaking Bad is an American crime drama television series created and produced by Vince Gilligan. The show originally aired on the AMC network for five seasons, from January 20, 2008 to September 29, 2013. The main character is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the beginning of the series. Walter wants to secure his family’s financial future before he dies. Teaming with his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) he turns to a life of crime selling methamphetamine. The show was set and produced in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Throughout the series, Walter produces and sells meth to earn money in order to secure the financial future of his family: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), and children Walter. Jr (RJ Mitte) and Holly (Elanor Anne Wenrich). The show also features Skyler’s sister Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), and her husband Hank (Dean Norris), a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who is determined to solve the case involving the meth empire. Walter teams up with lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who helps him get into contact with drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). In the fifth season, Walter heavily involves himself with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Frazer).

     Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By its end, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television. The show received numerous awards, including ten Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satellite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and a People’s Choice Award. In 2014, Breaking Bad entered the Guiness World Records as the highest rated show of all time.

Season 1 (2008)

The first season was originally intended to be nine episodes, but due to the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike only seven episodes were filmed. The first season premiered on January 20, 2008, and concluded on March 9, 2008. The complete first season was released on Region 1 DVD on February 24, 2009, and Region A Blu-ray on March 16, 2010.

A struggling high school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), is diagnosed with inoperable, advanced lung cancer. On a ride along with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walter sees a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), fleeing the scene of a meth lab. He later contacts Jesse and devises a scheme to become partners in an attempt to combine their skills to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine. Walter says he wants to provide financial stability for his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son, and to pay for his expensive cancer treatment. During Walter and Jesse’s first days of selling Albuquerque’s finest meth, they encounter a series of problems with local drug dealers. He continues to produce meth despite these setbacks using the alias ‘Heisenberg’.

 

House of Cards

     House of Cards is an American political drama television series, developed and produced by Beau Willimon. It is an adaptation of a previous BBC mini-series of the same name and is based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. The entire first season, thirteen episodes, premiered on February 1, 2013, on the streaming service Netflix. A second season of thirteen episodes premiered on February 14, 2014. On February 4, 2014, ten days prior to the first available streaming release of the second season, Netflix announced that the show had been renewed for a third season.

Set in present-day Washington D.C., House of Cards is the story of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district and House majority whip who, after being passed over for appointment as Secretary of State, initiates an elaborate plan to get himself into a position of power. The series is primarily about ruthless pragmatism, manipulation, power and doing bad things for the greater good. The series also stars Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Corey Stoll in lead roles.

On July 18, 2013, Netflix earned the first Primetime Emmy Award nominations for original online-only web television. House of Cards received nine of Netflix’s fourteen total nominations. Among its nine nominations were Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Kevin Spacey, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Robin Wright and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for David Fincher.

The show also earned four Golden Globe Award nominations on December 12, 2013. House of Cards received the first major acting award for an online-only web television series when Wright won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress-Television Drama Series.

Season one

The series opens with congressman Francis Underwood displaying his ruthless practicality by killing a suffering pet dog with his bare hands while explaining to the audience how there are times when we require someone to do the unpleasant thing yet the necessary thing. Along this theme we follow Francis “Frank” Underwood, a power hungry Democratic congressman from South Carolina and House Majority Whip.

After securing the election of President Garrett Walker to gain appointment as Secretary of State, Underwood is devastated to learn that he is being passed over. Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez tells Underwood that the president wants him to promote his agenda in Congress and will not honor their agreement. Seething inside, Underwood must quickly gain control of his anger and hide his disappointment to present himself as a helpful lieutenant to the president and his agenda. In reality Underwood begins an elaborate plan behind the president’s back, with the ultimate goal of gaining power for himself.

His wife Claire runs a charity, but her intentions are not explicit. She seems to use her charity for power and influence and yet the ultimate purpose for its need is unknown. In the opening episode, she deems the successful charity organization that she has put together to have too limited a footprint. Keen to be on the international stage, she decides to change her organization to one that supports international well digging to provide clean water. This is met with great misgivings by her office manager. Claire directs her to fire eighteen of her employees, cutting the staff in half. At the end of the day she checks in to ask how the process went, and then informs the manager she is being let go as well. It is clear from the outset that Claire is cold-hearted and ruthlessly pragmatic, with as deep a desire for power as her husband.

Underwood begins a highly intricate plan to obtain a cabinet position, acquiring pawns he can manipulate in his power play. He begins an extramarital relationship with Zoe Barnes, a young political reporter, and then makes a deal with her in exchange for the leak of damaging stories about his rivals in the House. Meanwhile, he manipulates Peter Russo, a troubled congressman from Pennsylvania, into helping him undermine Walker’s pick for Secretary of State, Senator Michael Kern. Underwood eventually has him replaced with his own choice, Senator Catherine Durant. Underwood also uses Russo in a plot to end a teacher’s strike and pass an education bill, which improves Underwood’s standing with Walker.

Because the new vice president is the former governor of Pennsylvania, a special election is to be held for governor. Underwood helps Russo get clean and props up his candidacy, but later uses call girl Rachel Posner to break his sobriety and trigger his downfall shortly before the election. Distraught, Russo decides to make amends for his failure by coming clean to the press about his role in Underwood’s schemes. As a result, Frank stages his suicide and leaves him in a closed garage with his car running. With the Pennsylvania special election in chaos, Underwood convinces the vice president to step down and run for his old position of governor – leaving the vice presidency open to Underwood, as was his plan all along.

Walker appears to have other plans. Underwood ends up vetting a surprising choice for Vice President, billionaire Raymond Tusk. Tusk later reveals that he is actually appraising Underwood for the position. Meanwhile, after Underwood brings their affair to an end, Zoe begins piecing together clues about Underwood’s scheming. The season ends when Underwood receives and accepts the nomination for vice president.

Season two

With Frank on the verge of being sworn in as Vice President, Zoe and her colleagues, Lucas Goodwin and Janine Skorsky, continue to dig for information, ultimately locating Rachel Posner. Frank’s aide, Doug Stamper, brings her to a safe house while Frank lures Zoe to a DC Metro station and, unseen to security cameras, pushes her in front of a train. Zoe’s death galvanizes Lucas to continue the search alone and he solicits the help of a hacker to retrieve Frank’s text history from AT&T. However the hacker is actually working under Doug Stamper to entrap Lucas, leading the reporter to be ultimately caught in an FBI sting and pleading guilty to cyber terrorism.

Claire becomes close with the First Lady and they support a bill to reform the military’s prosecution of sexual assault after Claire reveals in an interview that she had an abortion as a result of being raped in college by a man who has just been commissioned as a general. She learns that the President’s marriage is strained and offers the First Lady the aid of a spiritual advisor and marriage counselor.

Though Raymond Tusk wields major influence over the President, Frank aims to drive a wedge between them. He meets Xander Feng, a Chinese businessman and ally of Tusk to engage in backchannel diplomatic negotiations which he intentionally scuttles, though he uses the chaos of the situation to make it appear as if Tusk is equally responsible for the failed talks. This sours Sino-US relations leading to a trade war over rare earth minerals and a spike in US energy prices. Tusk openly opposes the President’s efforts to deal with the crisis and begins having tribal casino funnel money into Republican PACs in retaliation. When Frank discovers that the source of the funneled money is in fact Xander Feng, he gets Feng to end his partnership with Tusk in exchange for a lucrative bridge contract.

The Department of Justice discovers that Doug Stamper was videotaped at the casino and begins to investigate the relationship between Feng, Tusk, and the White House. Seeking to establish trust with the special prosecutor, Frank manipulates the President into volunteering his travel records which reveal his visits to the marriage counselor and raises questions about whether or not the illicit campaign donations were ever discussed. Wishing to avoid disclosure to the public of his personal issues, he has the White House counsel coach the counselor which the special prosecutor interprets as witness tampering.

As the House Judiciary committee begins drafting articles of impeachment, both the President and Frank offer Tusk a Presidential pardon in exchange for implicating the other. Tusk sides with the president at first, leaving Frank no other option than to regain the president’s trust as a friend. The president calls off Tusk’s pardon deal as a sign of friendship to Frank, whereby Tusk reciprocates by incriminating the President by saying that he knew about the deal with China. This leaves the President no choice except to resign. Frank is sworn in as the new President of the United States.

 

Final Choices for Best of the Best

This is the hardest part when evaluating the best drama series on television. But after much deliberation I have come to a conclusion.

 

Category 2

#1   Homeland and Breaking Bad tied

#2   Person of Interest

#3   House of Cards

#4   Longmire

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