This week, Americans all across the country will settle into their couches to watch jacked-up, potentially insane people attempt to score points and humiliate their opponents into submission. And when those Americans are done spending time with their families, they might also turn on a football game or two.
As Grantland’s resident television aficionado, I thought it best to offer up an alternative. The Thanksgiving holiday presents a unique opportunity for the savvy viewer, a five-day timeout right in the middle of the busy fall season. For those tired of the gridiron but dubious of the multiplex, there’s no better time to binge on an excellent series. But what to do if you’ve already played Game of Thrones, pledged allegiance to The Americans, and taken notice of Transparent? Well, consider this: Thanksgiving is also the ideal time to familiarize yourself with a passel of programs that may have otherwise escaped your attention. Below are breakdowns of four of the most intriguing, lower-profile shows of autumn. (That three of them are British is either an ironic twist on our most beloved national holiday or proof that our former colonizers are now seeking to re-subjugate the world through a steady diet of clever crime shows. Possibly it’s both.) They’re not for everyone — a couple of them might not even be for me — but they’re all worthy of your consideration, if not your tryptophan coma. At the end of each section, I’ve included a hint as to what sort of family might most enjoy the show. It’s an inexact science, but, I hope, a helpful one. At its best, TV should bring everyone together, not tear us apart. That’s what mentioning politics at the dinner table is for.
JANE THE VIRGIN
Mondays at 9 p.m.
True originality in TV is remarkable but rare. The uncomfortable reality is that there are only a finite number of feasible plots floating in the creative ether, a limited range of workable concepts. It’s a hard thing to admit, particularly for those of us tasked with finding new ways to talk about the medium. But it’s true. More than the story, what we ought to be paying closer attention to is the telling.
So consider this fair warning: There’s nothing in the DNA of Jane the Virgin that you haven’t seen before. What’s unique is that you’ve never seen it all at once. Jane is, simultaneously, a soap-streaked telenovela, a sly and tender family drama, a noisy comedy, a passable cop thriller, a metafictional head trip, and a genuinely affecting romance. It’s at once ludicrous and utterly sincere; it’s often hard to tell if the show is winking or blinking back real tears.
If pulled apart, any one of these shows-within-the-show would be a challenge to execute. That showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman manages to macramé them all together with little apparent effort and an abundance of style is nothing short of miraculous. The audacity of her achievement whistles through each scene like the wind. It’s the confidence of someone who stepped off a cliff and surprised herself by flying. It’s the joy of someone who has yet to look down.
Jane was adapted from a popular Venezuelan series and shares the original’s ludicrously busy plot. Our heroine, played here by the radiant Gina Rodriguez, is a high-achieving Florida college student who pays the bills by waitressing at a flashy Miami resort and drives herself crazy by not sleeping with her studly cop boyfriend, Michael (Brett Dier). Why is Jane a virgin? An intense talk with her abuela (Ivonne Coll) scared Jane straight years ago. A teenage mother (Andrea Navedo) known to perform inappropriate Kelis songs at children’s parties only helped harden her resolve. In the pitch-perfect pilot, Jane is accidentally inseminated with some defrosted sperm belonging to her studly boss, Rafael (Justin Baldoni). The offending doctor (Yara Martinez) is Rafael’s sister. Rafael’s wife (Yael Grobglas) is a scheming gold digger whom Michael happens to be investigating. And did I mention that Jane’s real father is the windswept star of her favorite telenovela, The Passion of Santos?
Here’s some advice: Don’t worry about the details. The show itself doesn’t. Rather than twist itself into knots to service all of these crazy particulars, Jane merely accepts them as par for the course — and then goes looking for more trouble in the rough. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was up for 22 straight hours of this sort of giddy mania, but six weeks in, the show has demonstrated no signs of flagging, and neither has my interest. There’s a warmth here that is sorely lacking in most contemporary television, an unapologetically female energy that stands in stark contrast to the grim machismo dripping everywhere else on the dial. (That the ever-present narrator’s voice is as burnished and toasty as a fine añejo tequila doesn’t hurt, either.) Jane the Virgin is a welcome reminder that TV doesn’t need to break bad to be very, very good.
BEST FOR: The family on the right in the famous Annie Hall split screen.
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
The Cold War may have ended decades ago, but a glorious deep freeze has returned to television. Never before have we been blessed with so many spy stories — and certainly not with any so well told. Recent years have seen strong U.K. adaptations of old masters like Alan Furst and the emergence of new virtuosos like Hugo Blick, whose The Honorable Woman remains one of the most exceptional things to air on TV in 2014. On the home front, The Americans continues to astonish, subtly wiretapping the suburban dream to reveal the myriad ways in which betrayal and collusion aren’t limited to the global stage. And the year ahead promises even greater things, with starry reimaginings of John Le Carré and original thrillers featuring intriguing leads.
A great spy keeps his head down, but, in a crowded field like this one, a great spy drama needs to be flamboyant to stand out. The Game, which premiered on BBC America the other week, is merely good. It’s a cleverly constructed puzzle that wears its influences on its immaculately tailored sleeve. Set in the punishing puce-and-gray drabness of 1970s London, The Game concerns one Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), a deep-cover MI5 agent one year removed from an incident in Poland that left an asset dead and Joe’s own career in tatters. When a Russian professor comes in from the cold with news of a looming threat, Joe and the innermost circle of the U.K.’s espionage wing suddenly find themselves racing to prevent a KGB endeavor that appears as vast as it is mysterious. Is Operation Glass a smoke screen? Or will it end in a mushroom cloud? Only time will tell, and time, as they say, is running out.
Replete with talk of moles and redolent with the smell of cheap cigarettes and cheaper gin, The Game certainly has the atmosphere down. When Joe meets with his team to discuss strategy — a team that features the great Brian Cox as “Daddy,” the graying head of MI5, and the fantastically faced Shaun Dooley as an overmatched police liaison — the talk of warheads and troop levels is nearly drowned out by the clatter of teacups. There’s a delicious gentility to the proceedings, even when the Cold War threatens to ignite into something far hotter. It’s the incestuous clubbiness of Le Carré’s early novels taken to near-ridiculous extremes. Don’t panic, please. We’re English.
Of course, there’s attention to detail and then there’s obsession with it. Creator Toby Whithouse (Doctor Who, Being Human) has given us so much mood that he appears to have neglected the emotion. Outside of Paul Ritter’s henpecked dandy and Jonathan Aris’s asocial “nosy parker,” there’s very little evidence of the humanity Joe and his team are fighting to preserve. The world of The Game is a claustrophobic one, but it’s also highly familiar: dying women swooning over troubled men, global intrigue being dwarfed by personal vendettas. The most egregious aspect of The Game may well be its star. Cheekboned and handsome, Hughes makes for a dashing lead but a preposterous spy. With his Richard Ashcroft–circa–1997 swagger, he sucks up all the attention right when he ought to be sinking into the background. Whether he was hiding in closets or sweet-talking prostitutes, I never believed that his Joe was undercover. I believed he was performing. And that’s a crucial, dealbreaking difference.
Despite this, I found myself enjoying the first few episodes of The Game well enough — but then again, I’m a sucker for anything involving dead drops. Back in the days when smart spy shows were rationed, like bread in East Berlin, The Game would have been wholly satisfying. Instead, its brand of intelligence is passable but hardly essential.
BEST FOR: The family on the left in the famous Annie Hall split screen.
Saturdays at 9 p.m.
There are whole swaths of the population to whom I’d hesitate recommending The Missing. People with young children, for example, will have a very hard time watching the series. (I count myself in this group.) People who know or work with children will also likely struggle. Now that I think about it, The Missing might prove to be too much for anyone who, at some point in his or her life, actually was a child. It’s that brutal. It’s that grim.
But if you happen not to fall into any of these categories — perhaps you hail from Ork or are named Benjamin Button? — there is much to appreciate here. I hesitate to use the word “enjoy” because, again, that’s not what The Missing is all about. It’s as much a work of endurance as it is a work of art. As such, it fits in quite nicely with a recent tradition of U.K. television that my pal Chris Ryan referred to as “devastation porn”: shows like Broadchurch, Southcliffe, and The Fall that mine our fragile psyches for tender spots and then, with the recombinant strength of a crumbled empire, push and push hard. Unlike American crime shows — which tend to stick to more overt questions like “Who did it?” and “Why?” — these British series ask, “What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?” And then they let it all fall apart from there.
The Missing takes place in two distinct time periods; each episode jumps freely between the two. In 2006, Tony and Emily Hughes, a normcore U.K. couple played by James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor, are on holiday in rural France with their 5-year-old son, Oliver. One night, after a swim and during the exhilarating World Cup quarterfinal between France and Brazil, Oliver goes missing. His parents, then the town, and, eventually, much of the country are soon drawn into the desperate, fruitless search. In 2014, Tony and Emily are no longer together — she’s remarried, but he has fallen completely apart. Drunk and obsessed, he haunts the bars and town squares of quaint Chalon du Bois, the place where it all went wrong. “I found something,” he announces in the premiere, and just what that might be (and where it might lead) determines the course of the subsequent seven episodes.
I’ll be honest: I’ve made it through only two of those episodes, and it’s unclear whether I possess the emotional fortitude to return for the rest. You can read this as evidence of my own failings as a viewer — hey, some people don’t like seafood, you know?1 — or as a credit to the creators. Everyone involved, from fraternal writing partners Harry and Jack Williams to director Tom Shankland and the exceptional cast, is able to bear the weight of the heavy subject matter. Actually, it’s greater than that: Together, they are strong enough to push back, making The Missing more than a wallow and something approaching a challenge. Oliver’s disappearance is every parent’s nightmare. But what’s so compelling (and, yes, disturbing) about The Missing is the way it paints every excruciating second of his absence with the same steady, realistic brush. Whether it’s a sudden cloudburst or a noisy celebration, Shankland highlights the chaos that surrounds us at all times. Through his unblinking lens, the cozy side streets of a village appear as sinister as a Möbius strip. Danger doesn’t lurk in the world of The Missing. It hides in plain sight.
Some crazy people. But still.
Once the agony of the actual abduction is in the rearview, the series does become more tolerable. There’s enough breathing room to appreciate the shaky-handed anguish of Nesbitt, the buried misery of O’Connor, and, especially, the steadying presence of veteran actor Tchéky Karyo (La Femme Nikita) as Julien Baptiste, the lead investigator in 2006 and a retired beekeeper still willing to investigate a hunch in 2014. A lesser series would have denied us the old-school P.I. pleasures of watching Baptiste — his hair gunmetal gray, his leg locked in a dragging limp — mosey about town, shaking trees and seeing what falls to the ground. A lesser series would have denied us any pleasure at all. There’s such a welcome lack of crassness to The Missing that it feels almost disruptive when the creaking exigencies of plot begin to make themselves known: the feeble parade of potential suspects, the inevitable Asshole Journalist, the laundry list of buried secrets. In these moments, The Missing transitions from a sort of psychological Kobayashi Maru into a humble TV show. And you know what? It’s not a disappointment when it happens. It’s a relief.
BEST FOR: People whose families remind them that they never want to have families.
Seasons 1 and 2 streaming now
Here’s how spoiled we are by the glut of good, ambitious television: I hadn’t heard word one about Peaky Blinders before an entire season of it materialized, like an old-timey TARDIS, on Netflix in late September. Before I had scrounged up the time to invest in those initial six hours, another six were dumped onto the streaming service’s servers just last week. My docket of early-20th-century gang violence had suddenly doubled, and I still didn’t even know what a Peaky Blinder was.
This is without a doubt a rich man’s problem. But TV is increasingly a young striver’s game. Who else has the necessary time to watch all of this stuff? Even so, Peaky Blinders might just be worth the investment of a few stray hours. It’s hardly revolutionary, but, like the industrial laborers in its 1919 Birmingham, England, setting, it gets the job done. I found Peaky to be a rare example of Netflix’s binge strategy paying off in a major way: With one episode flowing into another like the River Trent, it’s hard to resist being swept away. Peaky Blinders is the sort of series that demands little else but submission. You’ll either watch every episode or none at all.
The titular Peaky Blinders were a notorious street gang that roamed the English Midlands in the fallow period between world wars, their name apparently derived from a tendency to sew razor blades into the peaks of their trademark caps. The series recasts the fractious band as more of a fractured family. Arthur Jr. (Paul Anderson) is the hairy, snarling face of the Shelby clan, but it’s his little brother Tommy, played with trademark menace and remove by Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins), who is the brains. Under Tommy’s often inscrutable leadership, the Blinders are now punching well above their weight: fixing horse races, targeting underworld kingpins, and drawing the ire of the national government. The series begins with Winston Churchill dispatching C.I. Campbell, his most ruthless investigator, to Birmingham in search of some pilfered munitions. (The pilferer? Tommy Shelby. But, in his defense, his goons were drunk and snatched the wrong box.) As played by Sam Neill, Campbell evinces the type of focus and control that could easily be mistaken for rigor mortis; he doesn’t just get his man, he squeezes the very life out of him.
As good as the actors are, Birmingham itself is the real star of Peaky Blinders. In the show’s quieter moments, between the beers and the blades, it’s possible to feel the relentless heat radiating off the brick walls of the town’s many forges and factories. Director Otto Bathurst captures great balls of flame billowing out of the windows and onto the teeming streets. The specifics of the city are distinctly English — lots of talk about the crown and Catholic loyalties and the Irish question — but the bitter vibe is recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent time in a working-class burgh that, as the famously peevish bridge in Trenton puts it, continues to make while the rest of the world takes.
It’s another sign of our groaning TV bounty that there have been enough pre-WWII dramas for certain hallmarks of them to feel predictable, if not clichéd: the pretty barmaids with hearts (and hair) of gold, the chain-smoking adolescents, the inevitable discussion of extralegal abortions. In the early going, Bathurst has an unfortunate tendency to tart up the violence with stylized slow motion and anachronistic drums. The goal is to make Peaky feel cool, but the effect renders it slight.
Steven Knight — the man behind the upcoming FX series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy2 — is at his best when he pushes the show deeper into the psychological murk of its setting. Tommy Shelby, like many of his generation, served his country nobly in the nightmare trenches of the Somme. Plenty of others didn’t come back at all. Those who did return were all wounded one way or another. (It’s one of the show’s most interesting ideas that, during the war, it was women like Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly who kept the gang together.) Tommy’s best friend Freddie (Iddo Goldberg) has become a wild-eyed, risk-taking Communist. Another pal, Danny (Samuel Edward-Cook), suffers terribly from shell shock. Tommy’s own calculated ambition is fueled by fear as much as by ego. He says he’s trying to better his family, but he’s really desperate to put himself back together.
Hardy also makes an appearance in Peaky Season 2, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.
I remain unconvinced that the world particularly needed another backward-looking crime saga. (Through two episodes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Nucky Thompson was liable to show up on a transatlantic whiskey run.) But one of the benefits of our munificent television moment is that there’s a show for just about every taste, and a great many shows with no taste at all. With 12 well-crafted episodes already lurking on your Netflix account, Peaky Blinders just may be the extra serving of stuffing your Thanksgiving lacks. Come hungry or don’t come at all.
BEST FOR: Detroit Lions fans and their poor, long-suffering loved ones.