Staff Favorites of 2016 - Television

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in Netflix's 'The Crown.' (Robert Viglasky, Netflix)
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in Netflix's "The Crown." (Robert Viglasky, Netflix)

“Staff Favorites of 2016” lists The Day’s staff members’ favorite moments in the arts this year, from local exhibits and concerts to new releases on film, in music and print, and on television. Here, we share our favorite television shows from 2016.

11-22-63,” Hulu

This mini-series based on Stephen King’s novel is about a contemporary Maine school teacher returning through a time portal to 1960 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The idea obviously is inspired by the age-old dinner party conversation gambit: if you could go back in time and stop Hitler or take Pedro out of Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS, would you do it no matter the consequences? As usual, King’s marvelous book had many, many levels that wouldn’t work in the streamlined approach to TV storytelling. But James Franco is compelling as the earnest teacher, and the supporting cast and condensed plot work in entertaining fashion. Bonus for those of us old enough to remember: the production set pieces are remarkably authentic to the time. Oh, and EVERYONE smokes.

— Rick Koster

“Marcella,” BBC America

Anna Friel stars wonderfully as retired London homicide detective Marcella Backland, who’s become a stay-at-home mom. When her husband suddenly leaves her, Backland is happy for the distraction when her old partner contacts her about coming back to work: after 11 years of inactivity, a never-caught serial killer seems to have started murdering again. She’s left balancing her shattered domestic life — and her husband’s job with a possibly mob-connected corporation — with a case that drags her deeper and deeper into a dark world of online dating and prostitution. Beautifully nuanced and grippingly tense.

— Rick Koster

“And Then There Were None,” BBC America

A mostly faithful retelling of Agatha Christie’s all-world whodunit, “And Then There Were None” ratchets up the Creepy Factor as eight strangers arrive in 1939 on a remote British island after being summoned by a mysterious “Mr. and Mrs. Owens” — who conveniently aren’t there when the guests arrive. After an inaugural dinner supplied by two mysterious housekeepers, a gramophone recording is played accusing each of the guests of murder. This declaration becomes more and more ominous as the guests start dying. With no way to leave the island, the survivors band together to figure out what’s happening. The plot is ingenious, the cast is superb, and the grim mood and heightening anxiety is great fun.

— Rick Koster

“The Crown,” Netflix

I watched “The Crown,” a bio-drama about Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, right after the U.S. presidential election and right before I went in for knee surgery for a fractured patella. Let’s just say I was in dire need of an escape hatch from reality, and this beautifully shot and scripted series was a soothing balm to my busy brain (and useless leg). Season one begins right before Elizabeth inherits the crown at the age of 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. Through touching and artful flashback scenes of Elizabeth’s childhood, viewers are brought up to speed on the royal family’s dynamics, duties and drama, which very much inform her reign.

You’d think accession to an important world seat might be all glamour and excitement, but as another important leader taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. The clothes (kudos to costume designer Michele Clapton), jewels, servants, ceremony and travel bring immediate excitement. But duty to country always calls — even in the midst of marital strife, deaths in the family, wars and other conflict, one is sovereign first, and wife, sister, mother and friend second. Actress Claire Foy (remember her as Anne Boleyn in BBC’s “Wolf Hall?) ably depicts the strain of maintaining proper guardianship of her Empire while doing her best for the people she loves. Helping her along is an aging Winston Churchill, fully realized by an excellent John Lithgow. Enjoy season one at your leisure, but do check it out; season two is due out in late 2017.

— Marisa Nadolny

“The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon Prime Video

“The Man in the High Castle” debuted in bold fashion last year. Promotional imagery of Nazi Germany draped upon American icons like the Statue of Liberty got my attention quickly. What would America look like if the Axis powers won World War II? The series, based on a book by Philip K. Dick, lays out the scene in stunning detail that will chill you to the bone. In this world, set in 1962, Japan rules most of the west coast and Germany much of the east; in the middle, lies a lawless neutral zone. In season one, we were introduced to major players on both sides of the country and an unusual phenomenon: short films that depict alternate and/or future outcomes of the war. Leaders of both realms are very interested in those films; so much so, they leave a body count. The films appear to flow from an individual known as the Man in the High Castle. Hitler, right? Maybe. Watch and see. Season two dropped late this year, and intel from another mysterious film, acquired in a mysterious way, demands a major paradigm shift for all the players, lest World War III — “the last war,” according to one power-hungry zealot — break out and cede the world to one political power. I’ll let you guess which political power that is. Or, take a look at this well-executed series and count your luckies our fortune turned out as it did.

— Marisa Nadolny

“The Americans,” FX

Want to get good and freaked out about the Cold War all over again? Oh wait, that’s already happening thanks to alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Well, consider a trip down memory lane to Cold War I, which FX renders fascinating in its series about two KGB spies in the early ’80s in deep cover as an American couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (real-life couple Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). How deep is their cover? They’ve made two American children, born on American soil, just outside of Washington, D.C. Even better, they enjoy the fruits of capitalism thanks to the thriving travel agency they own and occasionally operate between assassinations, bug-plantings, plan-stealing and evidence destruction.

Season four of this endlessly gripping series ran this spring and it sped up the already nail-biting pace of earlier seasons. Aside from the many other strings the Jenningses are pulling, now a stolen bioweapon is in play; a reliable and cruelly used asset is exposed; and — whoops! — cover-daughter Paige accidentally discloses her parents’ true identities to her pastor. Meanwhile, long-lost relatives resurface and at least one of the Jennings clan starts to lose zeal for the spying game.

Meanwhile, one finds oneself relating (sort of) to the Russians, who emerge as human as the girl next door. Perfect fare for a strange year. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

— Marisa Nadolny

“The Night Manager,” AMC

“The Night Manager” miniseries already had a leg up thanks to its origin: a novel by John Le Carré, who retired from the British spy agency MI6 to write his signature espionage works of fiction. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. “The Night Manager” concerns the conversion of a very good hotel manager in Cairo, Jonathan Pine (a mesmerizing Tom Hiddleston), to an even better British intelligence operative. An unfortunate series of events lands Pine in the cross-hairs of murderous arms dealers, but instead of running for cover, he takes on a new identity with a little help from the International Enforcement Agency in London. Now called Jack Linden (and later Thomas Quince), Pine infiltrates the gun-runners’ inner circle helmed by the cautious and dangerous Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie on a slow but effective boil). His mission takes him to Roper’s stunning Bad Guy Stronghold in Majorca and entangles him with Roper’s equally stunning lady-friend (Elizabeth Debicki). Tables turn, guns blaze, and double crosses cross themselves in this sensory smorgasbord of storytelling. (Some viewers might note that Hiddleston’s eyes match the blue of the Mediterranean Sea.) Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

— Marisa Nadolny

“War & Peace,” BBC

The 1967 Soviet production of the epochal Tolstoy novel directed by Sergei Bondarchuk is renowned, but mostly for the use of thousands of Red Army troops for the vast battle scenes. The six-part BBC version excels in all other aspects. Obviously a 1,400-page novel needs some condensing, even over six hours, but the script by Andrew Davies goes for the heart of this incomparable tale. The cast was almost exactly as I envisioned the characters when I read the book: Paul Dano as a slightly undersized but articulately conflicted Pierre, Lily James as the coltish and absolutely lovable Natasha, James Norton as the heroic Andrei and Jessie Buckley as a less-frumpy Marya, the hidden pulse of the epic. I can’t imagine better winter bingeing than watching the raucous troika rides, the splendor of aristocratic life in czarist Russia, the blood-and-guts battle scenes and the heart-wrenching human dramas.

— Milton Moore

“Westworld,” HBO

A recurring device (literally and figuratively) in “Westworld” is a player piano that chimes in with old-timey versions of songs from classical to current. It often takes a few bars to figure out what the piano’s playing — was that really Radiohead’s “No Surprises”? — or sometimes a few more to realize you just don’t know the tune. The sensation perfectly sets the tone for a series that takes the pretty, escapist Western format and changes the arrangement so that the viewer is never certain where (or when) the storybook Western scenarios scenes will lead.

Based on the 1973 film “Westworld” written and directed by Michael Crichton, this series revolves around a favorite Crichton theme: ambition and ego undone by the unexpected and uncontrollable. It’s set in a wild-west-themed park of the future that imagines what guests would do if, like today’s online trolls commenting in anonymity, they were allowed to act out their basest desires without consequence. Played out, what happens in Vegas has nothing on what goes down in Westworld.

Part of what keeps “Westworld” so addictive is its blend of the familiar with the unexpected. Beautiful filming of beautiful people ensures there’s always something interesting to look at in these Western settings that refer back to a hundred other films, but HBO thankfully didn’t leave it at that. For the close viewer who’ll spend as much time delving into the latest plot theories online as actually watching it, each episode is riddled with little clues about the truer nature of what’s going on as well. Great writing and acting (hello, Anthony Hopkins!) mean that viewers actually care that they now have more questions than answers at the end of season one, and will eagerly anticipate the opening bars of season two in 2018.

— Brian Boyd

Thandie Newton and Rodrigo Santoro in 'Westworld.' (John P. Johnson/HBO)
Thandie Newton and Rodrigo Santoro in "Westworld." (John P. Johnson/HBO)

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