The overload of quality television shows no sign of waning anytime soon, even if critics are collapsing under the burden of it all and ordinary people are starting to push back, overwhelmed by the crushing combination of so much choice and so little time.
Allow me to identify three standout drama series from the ever-growing list. BBC America's London Spy, the second season of ABC’s American Crime (currently the most powerful drama on broadcast television) and the first season of FX’s formidable new franchise American Crime Story are setting the bar awfully high for the year to come.
London Spy is a gripping and consistently surprising if unrelentingly sad five-part drama best saved up for a binge, as the wait between episodes could be exasperating. We’re only a few weeks into 2016 and Ben Whishaw (top, center) is already giving one of the performances of the year as a directionless young gay man who falls in love with a Mr. Right who turns out to be catastrophically wrong. That doesn’t even begin to describe this wholly unique tale, which features similarly award-worthy turns by Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling (right, whose career is suddenly in overdrive) in supporting roles. It's BBC America's best show since Orphan Black.
In American Crime, which is currently halfway through its sophomore season and is also binge-worthy, Felicity Huffman (top, left), Regina King, Lili Taylor and newcomers Connor Jessup, Trevor Jackson and Joey Pollari (as the three kids at the center of the story) are delivering performances of uncommon power in a deeply disturbing drama about the sexual assault of a young man at a party and its wide-ranging aftermath, which twists and turns and expands by the week.
Series creator and executive producer John Ridley (the smartest man in any room based on my conversation with him during the Television Critics Association tour) has expanded his focus on race relations (which powered the first season of this show) to include the challenges and conflicts faced by that invisible majority, Americans Without Money.
Ridley seems to be one of the very few producers out there bold enough to acknowledge that every problem this country faces tracks back to the almighty dollar. With apologies to Dave Eggers, Ridley’s Crime is in every way a staggering work of heartbreaking genius.
Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story is in its freshman season presenting The People v. O.J. Simpson, a retelling of the still raw and sadly still timely story of the O.J. Simpson double murders and the subsequent trial that galvanized the nation an unfathomable 20 years ago. (Cuba Gooding, Jr., right, stars.) This is a first-class production in every way with its depiction of a series of events that are as timely and troubling now as they were then.
If I'm not yet as gripped by it as virtually every other critic and blogger out there, most of whom are treating O.J. as the coming of another The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, it may be because I’m finding it a challenge to separate what I remember of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the painfully prolonged trial that followed from what I’m watching now. So many of the real people involved were larger than life with extreme personalities that, for me, memories of what they all said and did continue to overshadow my appreciation of this handsomely executed limited series. (The real-life drama was in many ways, to borrow from another of Murphy's productions, an American horror story and, at times, a freak show.)
I’m not at all sure what I would make of O.J. if I were too young to remember the real story or to have cared about it when it played out in real time. We all lived with it each and every day for the better part of two years, from the murders and legendary Bronco chase in June 1994 (an experience shared as it happened by tens of millions of Americans) through the trial that began in November 1994 to the controversial verdict in October 1995. In total, the entirety of Simpson's story was the television experience of the Nineties, domestically and to some extent globally as well, and the Program of the Year in both 1994 (the year Friends and ER made their debuts) and 1995 (when pre-emptions for the trial so compromised the broadcasters' soap operas that daytime drama as a genre never recovered).
The participants were (for worse, rather than better) the celebrities people obsessed over around the world (never realizing that the Kardashian kids were a part of it, or that their family members would continue to gestate into public figures, such as they are). They sold magazines, they fueled CNN like nothing before (MSNBC and Fox News Channel did not yet exist), they dominated network news programs -- especially newsmagazines, one of the hottest programming genres of that decade -- they sold books and they brought an early uneasy energy to a brand new medium at the time, the Internet (where I first saw the horrific photos of Nicole Brown Simpson's and Ronald Goldman's bloodied bodies).
And speaking of the real-life personalities who became caught up in this monstrous mess, District Attorney Marcia Clark, one of several polarizing figures involved, is here played to perfection by the invaluable Sarah Paulson. At the top of this column I said that Ben Whishaw was giving one of the performances of this still very new year in London Spy. I could not say that he was giving the performance of 2016 because Paulson is equally powerful in O.J. I don't know what the rest of the year will bring, but I'm already imagining Whishaw and Paulson walking away with every award imaginable for lead performances in the Limited Series arena.
Coming so soon after the beatings of Rodney King by officers of the LAPD and of Reginald Denny by a bloodthirsty gang -- both captured on video --- and the widespread rioting that left much of Los Angeles looking like a war zone, the entire O.J. Simpson saga kept Americans on edge for the better part of two years. The total experience remains impossible to forget for those who took it all in as it played out.
For everyone else, The People v. O.J. Simpson is an important presentation entertainingly told of a story that puts into perspective problems with which we continue to grapple, including race relations, the mania of the media and egregious flaws in our judicial system. And then there's the money thing (see comments about American Crime above). If scenes depicting the special privileges and inexplicable pampering Simpson received at the time of his arrest because he was rich and famous don't agitate you little else about this production will. I mean, imagine if an ordinary individual were suspected of committing so heinous a crime. I guarantee none of the parties involved would be so accommodating.
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