Features Reviews Television

Top TV To Binge This Winter

Words By: Sam Herriman

So classes are over, your exams are finished and you suddenly find yourself with a lot of spare time as the cold season sets in. Yes, winter is coming already here and while you could be filling your study-free days with productive activities like picking up a hobby, exercising or washing your hair it’s much more realistic to accept that we’ll all be hunkering down in front of the TV with a blanket and a cup of tea. This year, instead of mindlessly flicking through the infomercial channel or re-watching Friends for the millionth time I’ve hand-picked some of the best that television has to offer for your binging pleasure. Regardless of taste there’s something for everyone with picks from across the genres, but I’ve also tried to keep it recent by picking shows that are either still airing, in between seasons or only recently finished.

DRAMA

Drama

Bloodline: As part of Netflix’s line-up of original programming, Bloodline was specifically designed to be binge watched. The creators – Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman – were told to imagine the 13-part series as one over-arching story, and what results is a gripping and tense – if sometimes meandering and contemplative – family thriller/drama set against the idyllic backdrop of the Florida Keys. Headlined by a commanding performance from Australian talent Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) as eldest son Danny Rayburn – whose arrival at the family reunion serves as the catalyst for the series’ events – the star-studded cast all turn in fabulous, enthralling performances. Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) and Norbert Leo Butz portray the loyal children of patriarch Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard, August: Osage County) and his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) in a show that’s both gorgeous to look at and expertly told. A stylish, moody exploration of how secrets and lies resonate through the years.
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Fellow Netflix original House of Cards, a political drama with captivating lead man Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) playing a ruthless and power-hungry politician.

Boardwalk Empire: Having just completed its fifth and final season there’s no better time to power through this HBO Prohibition era drama based on the life of infamous Atlantic City racketeer, politician and glorified gangster Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson (Thompson in the show) (Steve Buscemi Fargo, Big Fish) and his nefarious acquaintances such as Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). With the backing of Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas) (who directed the first episode) and an expansive, stellar cast led superbly by the veteran character actor Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking. Featuring about as much sex, drugs, violence and rock and roll (or at least Swing music) as you’d expect from HBO, the show is beautifully shot and well-paced, with plenty of great character moments and shocking twists and turns to keep you engaged throughout the complex and thematically rich narrative.
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The historical British crime series Peaky Blinders, which follows a fictionalised version of the titular gang operating in post-WWI Birmingham.

Scandal: There is a mystique attached to the lives of people involved in the fields of politics and law that attracts people to shows depicting those professions in droves. These are the people who ostensibly control our lives, the people who hold the power in society.  No other show exploits that mystique so adroitly as the American ABC’s Scandal, which highlights the titular scandals through main character Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, Django Unchained) and her associates, who are hired to cover up the secrets of America’s ruling class. Helmed by Grey’s Anatomy creator and broadcast television matriarch Shonda Rhimes, the series exhibits many of Rhimes’ affected traits which may be off-putting to anyone unfamiliar with her styler, but will surely be comforting to returning viewers. The show is heavy on plot and thin on characterisation – with an overreliance on stereotypes – making it a perfect show to watch all in one sitting and not think too much about afterwards.  
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Another Rhimes legal drama, How to Get Away With Murder, a season long murder mystery about attorney and law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis, The Help) and her five interns.

Orphan Black: This propulsive, high octane Canadian series is most notable for the performance from its leading lady Tatiana Maslany, who was a relative unknown before being cast in this low-budget science-fiction show, and it’s fair to say that a lesser actor in the same role could have potentially sunk the entire series. Maslany is essentially the leading ladies, as she plays a set of clones from across the globe – a homicidal Ukrainian, a street smart Brit, an uptight Toronto soccer mum and a feminist PhD student from the Bay area, amongst many, many others. It’s a true testament to Maslany’s – and the hair and make-up team’s – ability that each of these incarnations feel like wholly unique individuals, and her chameleon like transformations immerse her so fully in each character that it’s easy to forget that it’s the same person. Extra special are the scenes where two (or more) clones share the screen. There’s more than just Maslany though, with a ripping – if somewhat soapy – narrative and expertly conceived and executed set pieces, but with episode title drawn straight from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species the show works best as a thematic exploration femininity, nature vs. nurture and individuality.
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Sci-fi slow burner Fortitude, which boasts an international ensemble cast as the residents of a frozen Arctic town thrown into chaos after the death of one of the researchers.

Orange is the New Black: Probably the most binge-worthy show on this list, there hasn’t been a better time to jump on board this genre defying show set in a women’s prison, with Netflix dropping all thirteen episodes of season three last Friday. Despite the fairly severe subject matter – crimes perpetrated throughout the series include murder, rape, assault, corruption, fraud, infanticide and drug-related misdemeanors – Orange is the New Black has just as much right to call itself a comedy as it does a drama. With a defined and fully-realised setting, the show makes sure it spends time acquainting us to the diverse and extensive range of unique characters via episodic flashbacks. Although the show – based on a true story – is ostensibly about the WASPy Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she serves time for a crime she committed in her youth, the show quickly becomes about the prison itself. With a rollicking, effusive energy and engaging, multi-episode plot lines that aren’t afraid to tackle heavy subjects, Orange is the New Black is best imagined as a small glimpse into the lives of the characters that inhabit a world that will exist long before the series started, and long after it’s finished.
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A similarly genre flouting offering from Denmark – Rita – which centres on the life of an outspoken teacher and single mother.

COMEDY

Comedy

Transparent: If Orange is the New Black is the drama that has equal claims to being a comedy, Transparent is the comedy that has equal claims to being a drama. In what is really a landmark series for television and for one of societies most marginalised and misunderstood groups, Amazon’s Transparent is an important show, and one with a sneakily literal title. The wealthy, Los Angeles based Pfefferman family are a dysfunctional collection of lovably flawed human beings, and at the head of the family is Mort (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development), a respected university professor who has recently come out as transgender. As the Pfefferman’s adult children (Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffmann) slowly discover and adjust (even slower) to life with Maura (formerly Mort), other threads of their lives unravel as they confront secrets from the past, and truths they have hidden from themselves. This is a brilliant, affecting program that celebrates the complexity of humanity, faults and all. 
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Six-part Brit series Detectorists, which treats the mundane subject of metal detecting – and the earnest buffoons who insist by it – with tenderness and heart.

Please Like Me: While most TV shows contain elements of autobiography – with the creator or the actors finding truth through real life experiences – few seem as directly torn from personal history like Australian comedian Josh Thomas’ debut series Please Like Me. Thomas, playing a slightly fictionalised version of himself, and his friend Tom (Thomas Ward, an untrained actor and Josh’s real life friend) are two friends living together in Melbourne. Please Like Me is patient, at times enjoyably stagnant, and most importantly cares deeply for its characters. We join Josh’s life as he is exploring his emergent homosexuality, and the effect it has on his family and friends as he adapts to a new identity. The series benefits greatly from Thomas’ honesty and endearing self-doubt, and although at times the fact that he is writing for a character based on himself the he is playing can lead to a few moments of narcissism, but the show is so delightful you can’t help but fall in love with it.     
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HBO’s Looking, about three gay friends living in New York, each at different stages of their romantic journeys.

Moone Boy: Much as Please Like Me is the autobiographical series of Josh Thomas, Moone Boy has arisen from the singular vision and personal history of creator/star Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd). Set in the tiny Irish town of Boyle – O’Dowd’s real life howetown – Moone Boy is a whimsical and rose-coloured reflection of Ireland (and O’Dowd’s perception of it) in the late 1980’s. David Rawle plays Martin Moone, the youngest child of the mostly female Moone family, whose perky optimism and slightly askew perspective on the world is personified in his perpetual imaginary friend Sean Murphy (O’Dowd). O’Dowd’s use of personal experience gives the entire series a sense of grounded reality, which places the presence of an imaginary friend and the frequent animation cutaways firmly within Martin’s mind. This gives the audience a greater sense of understanding and relatability to Martin’s character, rather than being distractingly twee. Much of Moone Boy’s appeal is its charming and infectious sense of innocenc,e which is used to great effect during the otherwise bleak storylines (unplanned pregnancy and a dire economic outlook chief among them). It’s also hilarious, in a typically Irish, dour sort of way.
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Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where Ellie Kemper (The Office) stars as a woman who spent fifteen years forcibly trapped underground adjusting to life in the 21st Century.

Silicon Valley: Arguably the out and out funniest show on this list in terms of laughs per minute, the deliciously profane yet intelligently wrought HBO comedy Silicon Valley – from Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge – is such a finely constructed show that even the slower episodes are still a joy to watch. Centring on hapless tech genius Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his fledgling start-up company Pied Piper, the series is much too serialised to be considered a traditional sitcom, but is rather the very definition of modern comedy. With Middleditch complemented by an outstanding cast of experienced comic practitioners including Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks), Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods and T.J. Miller, the central ensemble is quick to establish a familiar and quick-fire rapport which makes each new episode feel like you’re hanging out with good friends. Far from being a simple happy-go-lucky comedy, Silicon Valley heaps a never ending stream of shit on the Pied Piper team as bigger companies, bigger egos and bigger wallets try to destroy the potential success of a multi-billion dollar company, and the naifs incapable of turning that potential into reality.
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A similarly profane HBO comedy Veep, which substitutes tech companies for US politics as Julia-Louis Dreyfus (Seinfeld) stars as Vice-President Selina Meyer.

Inside No. 9: This creepily chaotic and consistently hilarious BBC dark comedy is the latest from two of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman creators – Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. In what’s become the in vogue style of producing television shows, Inside No. 9 is an anthology series, although unlike True Detective and American Horror Story which change characters and locations each year, Inside No. 9 features a completely new setting with entirely new characters every episode, with the only connecting element being the presence of Shearsmith and Pemberton and the number 9. What results is essentially a series of short films that remain fresh and funny from episode to episode. With settings like a sleeper train coach, a haunted mansion and a suburban house each episode is quick to establish the rules of this new world before throwing them out the window and starting again next time. At times genuinely terrifying, touchingly reflective and profoundly insightful, the show never forgets its roots as a comedy  and the skill of Shearsmith, Pemberton and the rotating cast of guest actors to adapt to whatever genre was picked that week is a privilege to watch.
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The show within a show, ABC’s Review with Myles Barlow, a similarly dark comedy where the intrepid host reviews ‘life’s labyrinth of choices,’ regardless of the consequences.

OTHER

Other

Rick and Morty: Spawned from the mind of Dan Harmon – the creative genius behind Community – the animated Rick and Morty is the most bizarre, insane and balls-to-the wall brilliant show. About an alcoholic mad scientist and world’s worst granddad Rick, (Justin Roiland) and his meek, constantly terrified grandson Morty (also Justin Roiland) who go on wacky sci-fi adventures, the show quickly descends into uncontrollable madness each episode. Also present are Rick’s family – his daughter Beth (Sarah Chalke, Scrubs), her husband Jerry (Chris Parnell, Archer) and their daughter Summer (Spencer Grammar), who he treats with contempt and derision for wanting to lead boring, normal lives. Rick and Morty is surprisingly touching at times, as their adventures turn into allegories or meditations on the more existential questions in life. The whole thing is also weirdly meta and improvisational, which – coupled with a very rough animation style – lends the series an air of childish exuberance, despite its occasionally confronting adult content.
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Gorgeously animated and devilishly irreverent spy parody Archer, asking the question – what would James Bond be like on a regular day at work?

Over the Garden Wall: Pixaresque in its sensibilities if not in its animation, the Cartoon Network’s 10 part miniseries is a quirky, poignant adventure story about two half-brothers Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood, Lord of the Rings) and Greg (Collin Dean), who find themselves lost in the woods. Wirt and Greg are joined on their journey by a snide, secretive bluebird Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey, Two and a Half Men) and a host of other colourful characters as they try to find a way home. Accompanied by an appropriately buoyant score (with plenty of catchy tunes) this highly allegorical and delightfully folksy tale emerged from the mind of Adventure Time creative director Patrick McHale, and his infectious childlike sense of wonder permeates throughout the series. At only 11 minutes per instalment Over the Garden Wall never outstays its welcome, and works as the perfect show to watch with a younger sibling and/or cousin. Although it’s ostensibly designed for a younger, more susceptible audience, even the most hardened of viewers will be captivated by this delicate, melancholy and often very funny little tale.
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The progenitor of the animation revolution, Adventure Time, remains as joyous as ever.

The Jinx: A chilling true account of three murders (allegedly) committed by Robert Durst, this 6-part HBO documentary received wide spread coverage earlier in the year for some of the shocking truths it uncovered. A twisty true crime story like no other, Durst is a captivating subject, with beady black eyes, a collection of nervous tics that animate his face and a gravelly voice with oddly off-putting intonation. Director Andrew Jarecki wrings every ounce of detail from Durst from over 20 hours of interviews, and -intercut with re-enactments, interviews with other relevant parties and graphic displays – what results is a tightly, constructed and intensely riveting examination of an enigmatic man.
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A French miniseries entitled Soupçons/The Staircase, about the trial of American novelist Michael Peterson who was charged with murdering his wife.

Planet Earth: If you haven’t seen this 2006 BBC nature documentary narrated by the venerable David Attenborough you would’ve at least heard about it. Some think of nature documentaries as dry exercises in wildlife cinematography, but Planet Earth is different. A soaring, stunning 11-part series that explores a different environment in each instalment, from ‘Great Plains,’ to ‘Mountains,’ to ‘Ocean Deep,’ it’s a show that’s as breathtaking to experience as the planet it explores. Nearly a decade later the series is as timely as ever – as much a testament to the filmmaking as it is to the enduring beauty and power of Mother Nature.
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The two other instalments in BBC’s ‘Planet’ trilogy, The Blue Planet– which explores the vast complexities of the ocean – and a journey through the Polar Regions with Frozen Planet. Both are more limited in scope, but just as powerful in execution.

Survivor: This may seem like an interesting choice to put on this list, but after 30 seasons the paragon of reality television remains as binge-worthy as ever. Unlike other reality shows where the appeal is in the skill presented (cooking, construction etc.) and which therefore doesn’t lend itself to repeat or even binge-watching, Survivor is presented as a season-long (between 13 and 15 episodes) narrative framed as a game show. Each season blends the familiar format as a structure for a brand new story with brand new characters all competing for the grand prize of $1,000,000. What’s makes Survivor the premiere reality show is that there is nothing but the story and the characters, and the story is written from within the show – with real situations and real emotions making way for over-arching themes to emerge that are unique to each season, and it’s all presented in a way that is as logical yet nuanced and complex as the best of scripted television. Although not every season is a winner, (avoid 14, 22 and 26 at all costs) when Survivor is firing on all cylinders (seasons 6, 7, 12, 15, 17, 28) it can prove to be unparalleled entertainment
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The globe-hopping reality show The Amazing Race, which has a similar storytelling power as Survivor.