Ten TV Shows to Binge-Watch this Summer - Part 2

by Audioworm

The summer is continuing nicely, so what better way to spend it than by hiding inside, avoiding that harsh sunlight, and catching up on some of the best TV out there

In the Part 1 I showed some of the more 'gritty' and serious shows out there. The crime and political thrillers that have made HBO and Netflix powerhouses of critical successes.

In Part 2 we're going to go through some of the Historical dramas racking up accolades and awards from critics and fans alike. Stretching back to age of myth and legend, all the way up to events that many of you here lived through.

The Americans

Children make Cold War drama even tenser

The Americans takes several well known, and well used, concepts and takes them into a new direction to produce a fantastic exposition of family life, the Cold War, marriage, and the American dream.

We are introduced to two deep undercover Soviet agents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), who are living the typical American lifestyle. Married, two kids, small business owners, who live in a safe and middle-class suburb. Their children go to the local schools, they take them sports games on weekends, and to the fun-fair on holidays. They bring brownies to the new neighbours, invite the neighbours around for football and beer, and on their free nights they assassinate senior members of American intelligence and place bugs on members of the Administration.

The true American dream.

Elizabeth and Philip (Russell and Rhys)
Elizabeth and Philip (Russell and Rhys)

And fighting for the 'good guys' are CIA agents Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) . Stan Beeman has spent many of the last years deep uncover within several violent skin head organisations, and this exposure to violence, as well as having to live in continuous deception has taken its toll on him, and his marriage.

Amador is a more materialistic, and extremely misogynistic (which stands out in an environment of high misogyny) agent who has suffered less hardships. He is less bothered about the moral ambiguities of their work, and is happy to just to wave a gun and flash the badge.

As the show moves through its story we are introduced to many different plot threads plucked directly from history: the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the Star Wars programme. We get to see everything from both sides, which the view we are shown cleverly chosen to keep those ignorant of the events in the dark of the events, but allowing history buffs to feel a warm smug feeling of self-importance as they see what the characters are blind to.

The show is based in the Cold War, where information was fought for with dollars and bullets. Huge amount of technological research was thrown at developing ways to spy on the other side, and agents were sent in to increasingly high risk situations for diminishing returns. We are allowed to stand back, to observe from a distance the absurdity of some of the actions and ideas, and to see how double and triple agents became so effective.

The actions of both sides have a rich authenticity to them, helped in no doubt by the show creator, Joe Wiesberg, being ex-CIA himself. He pulls from all his knowledge, and general dislike for the intelligence services, to weave an amazing narrative through one of the tensest times in Internal Relations.

Behind all this though, the show is centrally about marriage, specifically the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip.

The Jennings Household is always tense
The Jennings Household is always tense

The international espionage and global politics of the Cold War act as a backdrop for us to explore married life. The Jennings house has the same troubles and issues that any marriage has, but only with the stakes raised due to their double life as Soviet spies.

The two characters have different goals and desires, and approach situations differently. 

This causes them to clash repeatedly, which threatens to compromise their whole mission. Their children are growing up, and living in a generation (and culture) that they know nothing about. 

This is contrasted with the family of CIA agent Stan Beenan as his wife and him go through similar problems. The coldness he built up during his time undercover has made their marriage one of limited communication, and compared to Elizabeth, Stan's wife has greatly reduced autonomy, making her feel trapped in the gender norms that societal expectations have placed on her.

The various relationships, both romantic and platonic, that are born, developed, and extinguished, throughout the show humanise us to the characters on display, showing a complexity and depth than many may have not previously considered.

As a non-American watching the show I feel there were a few moments that were designed to illicit a large emotional response, but due to having no patriotic feelings towards America or capitalism these fell a little flat. The show works amazingly well even as an outsider, but be prepared for a few of these moments.

The Americans offers a deep and personal look at the Cold War, and the heights of Soviet espionage through the unique viewpoint of a deep cover family. This allows the appeal of the show to include fans of personal dramas, as well as fans of  action, espionage thrillers, historical dramas, and political thrillers. 

Boardwalk Empire

Nucky "Throw Money at Problems" Thompson

Prohibition of alcohol, the introduction of the Volstead Act, is considered by some as one of America's greatest embarrassments. An attempt to placate the moral panic, spurred on by the increasing abuse of moonshine, and satisfy the religious right. It brought about one of the most violent times in America's short but bloody history with the rise of organised crime groups fighting over lucrative territory and product.

Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) rules Atlantic City
Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) rules Atlantic City

Boardwalk Empire is loosely based on the real life story of the Atlantic City Treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), as he presides over the bootlegging and speakeasy empire he has built. As the city official in charge of all money moving in and out of Atlantic City he has made a fortune from being the most corrupt official since Benjamin Harrison.

Every shop pays him protection (and an agreement to pay less taxes), every casino has revenue funneling to Nucky, all the importers pay him to look the other way, and the local stills sell him alcohol to ship around the country. 

He was a rich and well-connected man, who made a lot of money from the sale and consumption of alcohol before the Volstead Act, and he isn't going to let a little thing like a Constitutional Amendment stop that. Through contacts in Canada he imports whiskey along the coast, with the use of a resourceful associate Albert "Chalky" White (Michael K. Williams) who is brewing and watering down spirits, and bridges are built with the Sicilian Mafia in New York, Pennsylvania, and Chicago to allow the alcohol to quench more thirsty Americans. 

We see how Nucky wheels and deals with the worst scum of the criminal world, and with the Leader of the Free World, all within minutes of each other, and all to maintain is uncontested control of the city that has made him so plump from Prohibition.

Boardwalk Empire - Babette's Supper ClubBoardwalk Empire - Bathing BeautyBoardwalk Empire - Vaudeville!
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The show expands beyond the direct world of Nucky Thompson and introduces us to a whole cast of fantastic and colourful characters. Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) is an Irish immigrant living in an abusive household, but she finds solace in the Temperance movement and the League of Women Voters. She begins off as an extremely timid character, just trying to keep her children safe, but throughout the show finds her strength and voice from various locations and events.

Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is the nephew of Nucky, and the son of The Commodore (Dabney Coleman) and the then teenage showgirl GIllian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). Being raised in a household with only a 13 year age gap between his mother and himself left many fractures and issues.

Jimmy Darmody was looked after by Nucky as a child, meaning their relationship bears more resemblance to father and son, than uncle and nephew, and this is how Jimmy enters the crime game. Jimmy's story introduces us to some of the biggest and boldest names of the Prohibition era. If there's a 1920's gangster you've heard of, Jimmy will come across them.

The final character worth mentioning is Prohibition Agent (Prohi) Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). The Prohibition movement was spearheaded by the moral and religious panic which Van Alden represents. Disturbingly devoted to his Lord, with a tense and awkward relationship with his wife (whom he met through the church). 

He views everything about Atlantic City as the Devil's work, with temptation existing in every form (alcohol, sex, etc.) and at every corner. He is tasked with ending the flow of alcohol into Atlantic City, but becomes obsessed with Schroeder and Thompson, believing there to be a great conspiracy at work. The fact that there is a conspiracy doesn't help Van Alden find any evidence, and his superiors begin to doubt his sanity and composure.

Boardwalk Empire takes you on a colourful and gripping journey through some of America's most turbulent times, and with fantastic performances by the entire cast (Buscemi and Williams are stand outs from a stellar line-up) you are sucked into the world of violence and debauchery, and you never want to leave. 

The show consistently glamourises the criminal world, with glitzy parties and extravagant dinners, before slamming the violent and vicious consequences of this world. You will see the murders, both random and calculated, required to sustain a lifestyle of such opulence. 

The show is in its final season, so you have five seasons of stunning television to devour. 


Berserker. Shield Wall. Goats

Vikings is a show that shouldn't work. It's an Irish/Canadian production about Norwegian legends, with English, Australian, Canadian, and Swedish actors, airing on the History Channel. Despite all of this; it works.

And it works well. The story follows the semi-mythic life of Ragnor Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Viking Jarl credited with leading the first Viking explorations of the Kingdoms of Britain. The show had the option to just be hours and hours of glorified violence, but instead went for a more personal, humanising touch with this vicious but mighty Viking legend. Before we even set foot on the shores of Northumbria, we are introduced to Rangor's circle of influence. His wife, Lagertha the Shield Maiden (Katheryn Winnick), is a kick ass warrior who spills blood as easily as any of the boys.

His brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), is a beast of a human. The rest of the tall cast looks tiny next to his forboding figure, and Rollo is one of Ragnor's greatest supporters when they begin their conquest of Britain. There's his son Bjorn Ironside (Nathan O'Toole/Alexander Ludwig), who starts the show as a child, but grows into 6ft of muscular death. The final member of his inner circle is Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), the ship builder and explorer, who is obsessed with the Gods' will.

As the show runs on we come across more characters from both legend and history, as they cross paths with Ragnor and his rise to a legendary status. These supporting characters are themselves a rich tapestry of motives and dreams, with everything from the King of Denmark and his desire for a young wife, to the daughter of a God and a giant-slayer who wants her own dominion to rule over.

All of these complexities and intricacies are tied together by a fantastic cast, who nail their performances. Travis Fimmel balances the skilled battle prowess of Ragnor, with the complicated family life that waits for him in Norway. Skarsgard performs repeatedly when it comes to Floki's neurotic genius. The genius that makes him the greatest shipbuilder of the century, also make him twitchy, rash, and mentally unstable.

It is hard to explain what makes the show such a joy to watch, as it covers so many bases. Those who love interpersonal and political drama (as in the shows of Part 1) will love the dialogue between Ragnor and Lagertha, as well as the discussions between the various Jarls. Action fans will bathe in the glory of the highly visceral fight scenes. These were men and women who fought with shields and hatchets, there is nothing clean about death from those hands.

History buffs will be surrounded by a story that crosses fact and legend into a beautiful story arc that still surprises you, even when you know what is to come. For example, if you look up Ragnor Lothbrok it gives you a list of his attributed sons, who were very much real people who went on real adventures and conquests (one of them basically went on a 'Lads on Tour' trip to the Mediterranean and conquered and pillaged until he got bored), but when the show begins you see a few of them, but without their legendary titles.

It is only throughout the show do you begin to see why they have the names they do. You meet Bjorn Ironside as a young child, and it is until he grows up do you understand why he would get such a metal name.

Vikings recently finished its second season, and a third is in production, so now is the perfect time to catch up and join the hype and excitement that is awaiting the Q4 release of Season 3.

Those are my three favourite Historical TV shows, but do you agree? Do you think I have committed a travesty by ignoring your favourite? Have you watched the above shows and disagreed with me and my opinion (you're wrong though)?

In the upcoming Part 3 we will look at some best TV still running on TV right now, before getting to the best show to binge watch.

Updated: 07/02/2014, Audioworm
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JoHarrington on 07/12/2014

Audio: 'You're doing a Masters next year, so you'll have plenty of time then.' LOL!

JoHarrington on 07/12/2014

I hadn't realised that you'd posted more. I'm interested in The Vikings. Are they real legends do you know?

Audioworm on 07/10/2014

@Jyreeil They are all superb shows. Boardwalk especially as it is electing to end to prevent itself from just dragging on to subpar television.

@Ember I'm a Brit, so it sounds like the American Dream to me :D The Vikings is very much a show worth watching as an evening marathon. One or two episodes an evening for a few weeks to allow yourself to become bathed in the legends.

You're doing a Masters next year, so you'll have plenty of time then.

Ember on 07/10/2014

I haven't heard of any of these shows. I loved your descriptions on them though, with The Americans, I had to laugh because that is definitely how your average true American lives the American dream...yep! And I loved you saying why The Vikings shouldn't have worked and the description that followed XD But it does sound interesting.

I HAVEN'T GOT TIME FOR THIS MANY SHOWS. Probably because I haven't actually got a summer break :c lol

Jyreeil on 06/24/2014

I think "The Americans" is the only one I might have heard of, but I never knew much about any of them.

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