Comedy, zombies, comedy zombies and more must-see TV
Time Out Abu Dhabi staff
After much deliberation, cogitation and
digestion, Time Out Abu Dhabi presents the essential TV box sets to keep you sane this summer.
Fringe With Star Wars: The Force Awakens now just seven (long) months away, what better time to revisit J.J. Abrams’ other noodle-baking sci-fi TV show, Fringe? Like Lost, this is a show caught between faith and doubt, but, unlike Lost, it manages to not get itself strung up by its own sense of self-importance. With its unexplained phenomena, top-level conspiracy theories, paranormal bent and occasional injection of surreal humour, it’s essentially the new(ish) X-Files.
The Sopranos The daddy of them all, or perhaps the godfather. This gangster show finally made a star of the late, great James Gandolfini, who is mob boss Tony Soprano. Tony struggles with both of his families (personal and professional) and sees a shrink to help him deal with the pressures. One of the first shows to have an anti-hero as the main protagonist, paving the way for the likes of Walter White and Don Draper to follow. Brutal, touching and often a little ‘out there’, The Sopranos is a must-watch experience.
The Killing Kick-starting a whole Scandi-noir genre (Wallander can lay claim to actually starting it) The Killing has become famous as much for lead character Sarah Lund’s woolly jumpers as the storyline. It’s a gripping murder investigation, played out slowly and precisely. If you’ve seen it, there’s not much to go back for, if you haven’t, stock up on snacks and settle in – this is compulsive.
Treme Set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, this slow-burning drama was written by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who you may remember from The Wire). Like the city itself, Treme – pronounced Tre-may – is cool and jazz-like. The story centres on a community struggling to come to terms with the hurricane’s devastation and trying to reconnect with its roots. For extra authenticity, lots of the extras are locals and real-life musicians.
American Horror Story There are old-school shocks aplenty in this show, which takes age-old horror themes and runs with them. Each series (which may or may not be linked) takes a core cast and puts them in a new scenario, with new characters. The first series is set in a house – haunted, of course – and has enough scares to turn your hair grey.
Seinfeld This is the mother of modern sitcoms, written by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (who also wrote and starred in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but more of that later). Famously ‘the show about nothing’, it was the blueprint for pretty much everything (good) that came in its wake – including Friends, The Office, Louis, and more.
Modern Family Extremely funny, this show is almost the anti-Seinfeld in its warmth. A messed-up extended family (including sitcom royalty Ed O’Neil – Al Bundy in Married… with Children) get on with their daily routines and learn to love each other and life along the way. Take away the occasional schmaltzy moment, though, and you have some brilliantly realised characters in genuinely hilarious situations with some proper zingers of dialogue.
The Walking Dead A possible Andrew Lincoln companion piece to a This Life marathon, if you really have a lot of time on your hands, The Walking Dead, the zombie-baby of The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, has undeniably had some of its thunder stolen by Game of Thrones. But before Daenerys and co came along, here was the undisputed king of TV shocks, offing its lead characters with a gleeful abandon rarely seen and a commitment to destroying the nails of its viewers with some of the most tense set-pieces ever put on the small screen. Six seasons in, it still packs a gut-punch.
Parks and Recreation Similar in look and feel to the American take on The Office, this show follows middle-management council worker Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as she battles against local government bureaucracy and her colleagues. It gave Hollywood’s current poster-boy Chris Pratt his big break, raised the profile of comedian Aziz Ansari and introduced the wonderful moustache of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) into the public domain.
Peaky Blinders This is a dark, brooding, bloodthirsty drama set in post-WWI Birmingham, loosely based on true people and events. The accents (even from the show’s star turn Cillian Murphy) are as dodgy as the characters speaking them, but don’t let that put you off – this BBC series is remarkable television. Watch it and immerse yourself in a rough and thrilling world or racketeering and grimy gangland violence.
Friends Turning a ripe-old 21 this year – and doesn’t that make you feel old? – David Crane and Marta Kauffman’s epoch-defining TV classic still populates the screens of a million hairdressers around the world, even if no-one’s still going in asking for ‘a Rachel’. Famously, its six leads were each on a million bucks an episode come the final series. They earned it. You couldn’t find a more perfectly cast relationship dynamic if you tried. Even if they’re now on a break.
House of Cards This Kevin Spacey-fronted, David Fincher-directed-then produced show was a game-changer. The first, and we think best, Netflix drama was released all in one go, acknowledging and encouraging binge-watching. It’s the perfect show for it – gripping, tense and illuminating. It focuses on Spacey’s ruthless politician Frank Underwood and his wife Claire (the excellent Robin Wright) who will stop at nothing to get what they want. What do they want? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Mad Men We’re making no bones about it, this is our favourite show on this list. It reintroduced ’60s suave into popular culture. People started taking their stylistic cues from main man and advertising ace Don Draper, who we see battle his way through the ’60s as a flawed genius on New York’s Madison Avenue. Much more than a clothes horse of a show, Mad Men covers topics including the myth of the American Dream, civil rights, women’s lib, and countercultures. Some say it’s slow. We say it’s effortlessly laid-back.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon is now far better known as the man who birthed The Avengers, but before he was redefining the parameters of the modern blockbuster, he spent his time tearing up the TV rulebook. Buffy, televisual masterpiece that it remains, may have been about monsters on the surface, but underneath it established a new benchmark for TV character development and dialogue. And in ‘Once More, With Feeling’, its famous musical episode, it produced just maybe the best hour of TV ever made.
Curb Your Enthusiasm This is another groundbreaking show from Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David. Larry plays a version of himself in this improvised series. The gonzo-style camera work and lack of sheen won’t please everyone, but it does us. Larry is a simple man who likes things done his way, but keeps falling foul of society’s mores. Unconventional and hilarious.
The Wire It’s not always easy viewing or easy to follow, but The Wire is one of TV’s greatest ever shows. Over its five seasons, it covers all of America’s ills and hopes, and presents them unlike anything else. Created by David Simon, you’re presented with Baltimore and shown it from the perspective of police, lawmakers, criminals, the government and the press. Unmissable.
The West Wing Long before Frank Underwood walked the corridors of the White House, the cast of The West Wing were doing their thing, which was mainly walking and talking, quickly. Aaron Sorkin’s show shed light on the machinations of the US government and has a resolutely left-wing bias. The heart-swelling music and ‘good guys win’ message seems a little dated now, especially in the wake of the darker House of Cards, but this is still prime TV.
Boardwalk Empire Gangsters, good clothes and good music. This is a seriously stylish programme, starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon and Michael Pitt. Buscemi is Nucky Thompson, one of the main men in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Martin Scorsese is involved so you know it’s got pedigree, but there’s a real danger of style taking precedence over substance for much of the first season. Stick with it though, you won’t regret it.
Hannibal With Season 3 airing on OSN from August, now is the perfect time to indulge in two series’ worth of deliciously gruesome homework. It’s packed with recurring characters from Thomas Harris’ source novels and cast impeccably – Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, the tortured cop on the trail of his serial killer doppleganger Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). We already know where it’s all leading (Season 7 will bring us full circle to the start of The Silence of the Lambs), but this has always been a show about the ride, not the destination.
Homeland Did he, didn’t he? Was he, wasn’t he? The endless to and fro of Damian Lewis’ tortured (in both senses) war vet was never really the point of Homeland. Which was handy, given his arc concluded in Season 3. Now at Season 5, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon’s brilliance lies in their building of a female lead for a smart audience. Claire Danes’ FBI agent Carrie Mathison is a conflicted, impetuous, intelligent and broken creation.
Twin Peaks Backwards-talking dwarves, log ladies and cherry pie: they don’t make them like they used to. Famously, David Lynch’s cult classic was canned after two series in the ’90s, after ABC insisted he reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer and the ratings subsequently evaporated. Now, with TV having finally caught up with his forward-thinking phantasmagoria, Lynch has 18 new episodes in development. If he can get close to recapturing this perfect mix of the surreal and the utterly terrifying – hello, Bob! – we’re in for a treat.
True Detective Like American Horror Story, True Detective is an anthology series, with Season 2 (on OSN now) replacing its first season’s detectives – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – with new recruits Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn. The umbrella concept remains the same: America is a dark and scary place, with crevasses that run deep and bloody. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Entourage It’s ironic, given that this Hollywood satire was based around the (thought ludicrous) idea that anyone would ever make an Aquaman movie, and that if they did it would gross $113 million on its opening weekend, that (a) they are now making an Aquaman movie (starring Jason Momoa and directed by James Wan) and (b) the movie version of Entourage just got released in cinemas, to spectacularly average receipts. Our advice? Forget the new movie and wallow instead in Doug Ellin’s hilarious TV original, peppered with A-list cameos and unleashing onto the world Jeremy Piven’s marvellously tyrannical movie producer, Ari Gold.
The X-Files Indelibly burned into the nightmares and dreams of many who caught it first time around, The X-Files, Chris Carter’s iconic TV series, boasts some of the downright scariest TV episodes ever made, and a central pairing who generate sparks off each other. David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder (the believer) and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully (the sceptic) will re-team for a new series in 2016. For now, enjoy them again in this essential sci-fi milestone.
Sherlock Making Sherlock Holmes cool again (kind of), the BBC’s Benedict Cumberbatch-starring smash hit has run for three series so far, with another due next year. The modern take of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the brilliant detective and his friend/flatmate/assistant Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who also oversaw Dr Who’s remarkable comeback. Should you get this? It’s elementary…
Breaking Bad ‘I am the one who knocks.’ The menace of Walter White lives on some two years after the curtain came down on Vince Gilligan’s black comedy crime drama set in small town Albuquerque. The breathless, maniacal transformation of its leading man from quiet and apologetic teacher to murderous overlord is one of the small screen’s most tangled and intriguing journeys. The show's spin-off, Better Call Saul, has proved equally popular with fans.
Band of Brothers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s workings of Stephen E. Ambrose’s true-to-life depiction of life within Easy Company stands up, some 15 years later, as one of the best dramatisations of war. Using the modern recollections of survivors, as well as the journals and letters of those involved, it follows the US Army’s 101st Airborne and their deployment as part of Operation Overlord on V-J Day.
Cheers It’s a well-known fact that Cheers has the best theme tune of anything ever, so there’s your first reason to watch it. But once you’re past the wonderful opening credits and into everyone’s favourite Boston bar, it somehow gets even better. It’s a bar, with regulars and staff, which opens up the opportunity for all kinds of weird and wonderful characters and relationships. It made stars of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson and Kelsey Grammer (this is where Frasier first appeared) and the performances are routinely great, while the dialogue is quick-fire and hilarious. Cheers has stood the test of time.
24 Ah, 24. Ludicrous, action-packed, terrorism-smashing 24. Popular on its initial release in 2001 for its real-time structure – each episode was one hour, each serious, 24 episodes – that saw Kiefer Sutherland getting through a really bad day, by the end of the eighth season, Sutherland’s Jack Bauer had been shot, tortured and captured about 5,000 times. As it progressed, it became even more outrageous – and remember the action in each season all happens in one day. Fun, silly and enjoyable.
Game of Thrones A kind of fantasy-infused The Tudors, with the gladiatorial action (and not just inside the amphitheatre) of Rome, Game of Thrones is, in case you’ve been living under a rock, based on the as-yet-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R. R. Martin. Its casual disposal of major characters throughout the first five series has kept fans enthralled and turning the Twittersphere blue in equal measure, and earned it a reputation as the most brutal drama ever to hit the box. If you’ve missed it, catch it. Now.