The Unexpecteds

I was thinking over the past year or so and realising that I’ve seen some TV that I really didn’t expect. Stuff that came out of left field and ended up capturing my imagination. Stuff that was so good, I was left binge watching, or longing to see it again for the first time.

I won’t bother to go into such talked about shows as Orphan Black, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones. These shows already have a healthy hype factor, mostly well deserved. I want to shine a light instead on those that might not be so well-known, but which are truly hidden gems. So without further ado, here is my short list of the unexpected pleasures I came across recently. Shows that have had a full season first, and newbies second. Feel free to leave your own list in the comments section. I’d love to find some new stuff to watch–even though I really shouldn’t lol.

The Returned:

A French drama about a sleepy alpine town whose dead residents begin returning home with no memory of their death. From a young man dead over 10 years, to a young girl barely a year in the ground, this show follows the struggle of the villagers and their loved–and sometimes not so loved–ones to understand what is happening and why, even as some of them are grateful for such miracles as the return of a child. I see US television is about to bastardize yet another imaginative foreign show by taking this concept and calling it ‘Resurrection’. All I can say is, I doubt they will be able to capture the level of dreamy, creepy, emotional, surreal storytelling and visuals that the French series presented so effortlessly. It wasn’t available on Netflix up to last month, but I binge-watched it on Sundance Channel over the holidays. I cannot WAIT for season two.

Top of the Lake:

Another series with stunning visuals and a surreal feel. This time we enter the world of a remote New Zealand town where a 12 year old girl has just been found to be pregnant. Before an investigation into this crime can begin, the girl vanishes, and the series follows the investigator–a former resident of Top of the Lake–and members of the town as one girl’s disappearance leads to the unraveling of the entire, sordid mess that is this often shocking and heart-rending story. Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss does an amazing job as the investigator at the heart of this series, but as with The Returned, what I truly enjoyed was the deep sense of place. As in, this is not Kansas, Dorothy. Again, this is a Sundance show that I binge-watched. Not sure if it has a second season in the offing but I sure as hell hope it does.

Defiance:

Finally, Syfy Channel produces what you’d think they’d want to produce. A rollicking alien story set on an alien planet–only the planet is Earth. Defiance is really a western crossed with Babylon Five. Set years after a allied group of aliens in search of a new home accidentally terraformed our planet, Defiance is the name of the town where a hustler and single father washes up with his alien adopted daughter. In the dizzying and thoroughly entertaining opening episode, the duo quickly becomes the new law in town, having to navigate the disparate customs and tensions between the different aliens and the humans that co-exist in an uneasy peace in Defiance. Great character development? Check! Realistic alien societies? Check! Gripping storytelling? Check! Politics and manipulation out the ying-yang? Check and check! Special Effects? Check, check, check! And finally, teenagers that don’t spend all their time whining (I’m looking at you, V)! Season two is back early this year.

Ray Donovan

The family drama to end all family dramas. Ray is Kerry Washington from Scandal–a fixer–only he has no problem using any means at his disposal and his family baggage beats hers by a country mile. A searing portrayal of a man with more walls than a Beverly Hills mansion, and hands dirtier than Macbeth, who nevertheless finds himself struggling to do well the one thing he cares about–taking care of his family. Liev Schreiber is a revelation, even if you do want to kill his kids. And sometimes his wife. And definitely his father. And…oh, never mind.

The White Queen

This mini-series based on the historical novel of the same name had amazing female leads that gave us a mostly accurate rendering of history told from the viewpoint of the women who lived–and changed–it. Elizabeth Woodville becomes the Queen of England in very short order–but staying on the throne is really hard when everyone around you wants it. You root for several characters here, and I have to say, I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the series because it didn’t end so much as come to a halt. However, the love story and the politics was totally worth it. I hope they go forward with plans for another series, following a different main character.

And now for the newbies. None of these have aired even six episodes yet, but they promise so much, I’m already hooked. That may change if they get lazy, or jump the shark, but for now, I’m waiting impatiently for each episode.

Bitten

No one is more shocked than me that Syfy has TWO shows I like on in the same year (Defiance’s second season will premiere soon). They usually make sure they keep their quality shows to one every few years. Like the gap between Farscape and Battlestar Galactica. However, Bitten premiered less than five weeks ago and has the kind of chemistry that True Blood first seduced me with.

I wasn’t keen on a werewolf series–really, they change, they bite, they have hair issues, what else is there to say? But Bitten took the troupe in an interesting direction. In this world, women are not strong enough to survive the change after the bite, so all werewolves are men. Until Elena that is. Part of the diverse pack that is the Danvers family, Elena is trying to start a new life in the big city far away from the Danvers and her former lover, Clay. But when a series of murders are carried out by a newly changed mutt (packless wolves are all mutts and are policed by the packs), not only does the newcomer threaten to out all werewolves with his actions, he is leaving his kills in an area that compromises the Danvers themselves. As the best tracker in the pack, Elena is forced to leave her new fiance to return home and help ferret out the mutt.

What really works in this series is the new twists in an old myth and the chemistry between Elena and Clay. It doesn’t hurt that this series has gathered together so many good-looking men, I’m starting to not miss Spartacus so much. Keep fleshing out the world and the relationships and this will be a winner.

Helix

Watch out Syfy, quality programming is a hard habit to break. Helix is a slightly askew twist on the popular zombie/end of the world virus story. The CDC is called in to help contain an outbreak at a viral research lab in the Artic, and the lead CDC investigator has a vested interest. His brother is the only surviving victim of the outbreak so far. But once the team arrives, they begin to suspect the outbreak is not an accident, and that the company men at the lab are hiding a great deal more than they’re telling. Quirky music and a creepy isolated setting help make this series stand out, and if they keep going away from the typical zombie scenes and issues into something even more scary (namely what the boundaries between science and playing God really mean), this may turn out to be a truly innovative and twisted vision.

Black Sails

This premiered recently on Starz. Yes, Starz premiered a pirate drama set in the West Indies, skull and crossbones and all. And the really shocking thing? It’s pretty good. Quality acting, no-holds-barred characterization and the sort of casual nudity and violence that made Spartacus so wickedly good. The pirates and denizens of Nassau are violent, crafty, manipulative thieves and murderers, and set among them is the charming trouble-making rouge, John Silver, and the tightly wound and secretive Captain Flint. Yes, there’s a treasure ship. And yes, there’s a ton of drinking and whoring.

But what I didn’t expect was the Game of Thrones level scheming, the secret loves, and a show willing to go so far every week, it makes you wonder if you have the balls to watch what you suspect is coming just over the horizon. I have some reservations about this one–I don’t quite buy Elizabeth Guthrie, and I hated the way she made the end of the last episode go down, but on the whole, I am willing to hold out for next week. Really, really willing.

Don’t expect Johnny Depp to smile his way through this one. I suspect Captain Vane would slice the lips right off him.

Honourable mentions in both single season and new shows: Masters of Sex (Showtime); Hannibal (NBC); Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow (Fox); The Blacklist (this one has problems, but I blithely ignore them every time Spader is on screen) (NBC); Arrow (now into its second season) (CW) and a whole host of others I’ll bore you with some time when this post is not already too damn long.

And that’s a wrap!

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