I’m still working on wrapping up my favorite stories of 2015. This post focuses on stories from TV, film, radio.
With television, I didn’t watch as much as I have done in past years. Though, going by all the many end-of-year lists by various media outlets, there was just an absolute glut of wonderful new shows. Someday, maybe, I’ll get caught up. In the meantime, here’s what I did find well worth watching, starting with ongoing shows:
‘Homeland’s’ Season 5 took things up a notch from the disappointing Season 4. And, though there were a few plot points that stretched credulity again — like Peter Quinn’s repeated bad luck (what was with that death scene?); Alison Carr’s machinations; and the on-off relationship between Dar Adal and Saul Berendson. The ending, with that weird proposal from Otto Düring to Carrie, wasn’t the best cliffhanger, particularly as we all know, by now, that anyone who Carrie gets involved with romantically meets their Maker soon enough. Yet, despite the intense criticism the show is now getting for how terrorism, Islam, and government activities are being shown, I can’t stop watching it.
‘Rectify’s’ Season 3 continued its slow unraveling of the Holden family. I don’t think I’ve come across a show, in recent times, that gets us under the skin of each major character quite as empathetically as this one. And, even the satellite recurring characters like Daggett, O’Neill, and Willis are worth watching throughout their screen-times. Each scene is beautifully-crafted and, with little dialogue, this show continues to say and do so much. Every pause, every look, every word is richly-nuanced and draws us into the world and keeps us locked into the intertwined stories. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
‘Wolf Hall’ was not a let-down. After reading both of Mantel’s books in a hurry at the end of 2014 so that I could be ready for the series in 2015, I was relieved that they did not butcher it. Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell isn’t quite who I’d imagined while reading but he did it so well that I can now think of no other Cromwell. Mantel gave her characters such terrific lines that you’d have to be a real hack to completely botch up saying them. That said, the sets, cinematography, acting, all came together to create a sum-of-parts that did not disappoint. All I could think of at the end was: please, Hillary Mantel, finish the final book of the trilogy.
‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’ came towards the end of the year. The best fiction, regardless of genre, holds up a mirror artfully so that we may see and understand ourselves and our world in new ways. So, for me, this is one of the best superhero shows in recent history. A flawed, morally complex, damaged woman who’s also gifted and whip-smart but not in that sanitized Iron Man way or that unreal Batman way. There’s an equal roster of male and female characters, though some have criticized it as too female-centric with men being used as eye-candy. Not true, as principal male characters have decent backstories. And, yes, they’re definitely easy on the eye. Still, no one says the reverse of male superhero shows/movies, do they? Overall, the storytelling is beautifully nuanced as the showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, takes traditional plot devices of rape, PTSD, alcohol/drug abuse, and so on and gives them to us without familiar, tired tropes. Also, everyone should watch everything with David Tennant in it.
‘The Man in the High Castle’ is one I just started watching. There’s been plenty of alternate history fiction about what the world would have been like if the Allies had not won World War II. Not having read Philip K Dick’s novel, on which this show is based, I can’t say how true they’re keeping with it. So, watching it as a standalone entity, I’ve been drawn in because of the rich, fertile material and the possibilities. I can’t say much about the actors or other aspects of cinematic storytelling yet. Still, it’s a compelling show and one I will finish watching.
Now, there were three shows that I wanted to like but that was not to be.
First, the long-running and long-suffering ‘The Good Wife’. Season 7 tried to bring more nuance and more drama into Alicia Florrick’s life. But, as always, there were so many plot anomalies that I watched the last few episodes more from sheer habit than sheer interest. I must admit, though, that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s presence made up for a lot.
Second, ‘Quantico’, a new show featuring a Bollywood actress, Priyanka Chopra, as the lead protagonist. Again, a good premise but too many anomalies, alongwith some ham-acting, and the “perfection problem” that many writers face in trying to make us root for their characters gave us a “Mary Sue” here.
Third, ‘Master of None’ and Aziz Ansari’s latest. I wanted to like this because of the reviews. And because it is ground-breaking in many ways that ‘The Mindy Show’, also with a showrunner and lead of Indian origin, is not. But, maybe, here, it’s a matter of my age that I could not identify with or have the patience for its various storylines.
With movies, again, there was a mixed bag. And, as always, the best movies come out, as award-bait, in the latter half of the year. So, I have an entire list of these 2015 releases that I have yet to watch. Still, in no particular order:
‘The Big Short’ is another of Michael Lewis’ book-to-movie adaptations and it is just as immensely watchable with its brilliant casting, dialogue, and rendition. Financial crises don’t make for the most riveting plotlines or conversation points but this managed to do and say so much. I loved this explanation that the director, Adam McKay gave of how the movie is both funny and traumatic during NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ interview: “So the first half of the movie does have that kind of energy and there are some laughs, and it has, like, motion to it that’s really great. And then the second half I always viewed is where it becomes the tragedy. You think these guys have warned the village about the tsunami. They’re up in the hills and then they realize the tsunami is 10 times bigger than the hill they’re standing on. So someone referred to the movie as a traumady.”
‘Manglehorn’ was actually a 2014-made movie but released in 2015. Most people I know missed it. But, for me, this was one of the finest set of performances from two of the best actors alive: Al Pacino and Holly Hunter. Every frame with Pacino is a masterclass in acting. I could, I think, just watch an entire two-hour movie with him just looking into the camera. And, Holly Hunter. My God. This woman can elevate an uneven script and an almost-nothing role into something stunning that will haunt you forever after. It’s a slow-burn, though, so it will take a certain sensibility to sit through. But, immensely rewarding for that.
‘Room’, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, delivered. I was worried about this one because of the hype and all the cutesy pictures of its two main characters all over the interwebs. Also, I love this book so much — I read it entirely over a single weekend with just brief bio-breaks. The movie did not disappoint, though. So much thought had gone into how to show each scene from the kid’s angle. And, the entire supporting cast, led by Joan Allen and William H Macy, did an excellent job.
‘Masaan’ is one of the handful of Indian movies that made the international festival circuit and got rave reviews. Not your typical Bollywood fare, of course. But, it shows a real India that balances upbeat aspirations and gritty reality — something that the Indian movie industry hasn’t mastered yet as movies tend to veer sharply towards one or the other end of that spectrum. And, life, as we all know, exists in the space in between.
‘Ankhon Dekhi’ is another Indian movie made by the same production house as the one earlier — Dhrishyam Films. A stellar, theater-based ensemble cast makes this one immensely watchable. And, the story unfolds in a sort of tragic-comic way that allows it to do the same thing as ‘Masaan’: balance upbeat aspirations with gritty reality. Some critics have said there’s a lack of continuity/fluidity in the narrative, but I didn’t find that to be so at all. Still, this is one of those movies that ends with more questions than answers, so, if that’s not your bag, you might not take to it as much as I did.
Movies that I haven’t got around to watching yet: Spotlight; Bridge of Spies; Carol; Trumbo; Sisters; The Danish Girl; 45 Years; Brooklyn; Truth.
With podcasts, which I tend to listen to everyday, there were just too many amazing ones. So, rather than list individual episodes, let me give you my favorite five podcasts for 2015:
‘You Are Not So Smart‘ — This was a new indie discovery for me this year. David McRaney, started it as a blog and says this: “The central theme of You Are Not So Smart is that you are unaware of how unaware you are. There is an old-and-still-growing body of research across several disciplines with findings that suggest you have little idea why you act or think the way you do. Despite this, you continue to create narratives to explain your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and these narratives – no matter how inaccurate – become the story of your life.” My favorites this year: Reframing and Mindfulness.
‘Desert Island Discs‘ — BBC Radio 4. A long-running, much-loved show. So many favorites here that it’s hard to pick. And, the hardest thing is that, because I catch the podcast version now, I don’t get the full music picks due to copyright reasons. Still, I love the conversations. This year, I enjoyed most: Gurinder Chadha; Judi Dench; Keith Richards; Mark Rylance; Imtiaz Dharker; Lisa Jardine;
‘Free Thinking‘ — BBC Radio 3. Rana Mitter hosts this with, typically, a panel of individuals from different walks of life discussing a particular topic. The show used to be called ‘Night Waves’ when I lived in the UK in the early-to-mid-noughties and couldn’t get enough of Radio 3 and 4. It’s spirited dialogue, witty banter, and enlightening discourse, all together. Whenever I get to the end of an episode, I’m always like, “No, talk some more.” My favorite this year was probably ‘Rule-making and Rule-breaking for Men and Women‘. But, really, so many more.
‘Fresh Air‘ — NPR. Terry Gross is a consummate interviewer, no argument. Still, 2015 is when I found myself skipping several episodes. That said, the highlight of the year had to be the Gloria Steinem interview.
‘Writers and Company‘ — CBC Radio. I listen to several different books-related podcasts. Eleanor Wachtel runs the best out there, I think. My favorite episodes this year were ‘Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips and Aleksandar Hemon on reading and writing‘ and ‘25 great books from 25 years of Writers & Company‘.
With that, I’ll stop for a breather. But, I will be back shortly with my favorite 2015 book reads.