Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I, Claudius

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

For four weeks, we’ve counted down The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen. Now we’ve reached Number 1: I, Claudius. A true masterpiece, from the scripting to the acting. If you are not a fan of historical dramas, it might take you a few moments to get used to the fact all the characters wear togas and many have Latin names that trip over your tongue. But the story of the Roman Empire is an intriguing one and the performances by these actors is nothing short of brilliant. Not to diminish any of the performances, but several actors stand out as first among equals for their flawless acting.

Derek Jacobi is superb as the lame and stuttering Claudius, whose physical impediments help him to play the fool. At a court filled with treachery and deceit, ambitious members of the royal family often ended up dead before they might assume the throne. By appearing a fool, Claudius was never targeted for assassination by his more ambitious peers and survived to be crowned emperor. (Ironically, Claudius championed a republic, not an empire and did not wish to become emperor). John Hurt is a tour de force as the mad Caligula. He has a field day exploiting Caligula’s penchants for cruelty, extravagance, and sexual perversity. Siân Phillips plays Augustus’ wife Livia, in a performance that is both brilliant and breathtaking. She was only 32 when the show was filmed, but thanks to superb make-up artistry, Phillips was aged convincingly from a middle-age to an elderly woman.

Some of my favorite scenes involve Livia. In one, she casually discusses the art of poison with a poisoner over lunch, and we watch as the master poisoner slowly realizes she herself has been poisoned by Livia. In another scene, Livia is eager for her son Tiberius (George Baker) to succeed her husband Augustus as emperor, only Augustus is stubbornly clinging to life. She nurses Augustus and prepares some figs for him. Augustus dies shortly after eating the figs. In this clip, a weeping Livia, standing over Augustus’ body, informs Tiberius the emperor is dead. She leaves him to tell the Senate, then turns and adds, “By the way, don’t touch the figs.” The other clip, below, links to an entire episode, “The Queen of Heaven”, where Livia has a telling confrontation with Claudius in which she admits she has figured out Claudius is no fool. “I always thought (the biggest fool in my family) was you. But I think now I was wrong,” she tells him, adding, “Wine has made you bold. Lost your stutter, too, I see.”

The series is an adaptation of Robert Graves' novels "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God". It’s told in flashbacks narrated by an elderly Emperor Claudius as he writes his memoirs, covering the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Astute viewers will spot a young Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame cast as Sejanus, prefect of the RomanPraetorian Guard.

YouTube clip "The Queen of Heaven"

Monday, February 27, 2012

Secret Army

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We’ve reached the penultimate show in The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen. Number 2 is Secret Army. I’ve just rewatched the entire series (43 hour-long episodes) and its sequel, Kessler (6 hour-long episodes) and found it as riveting as when I first saw it 30 years ago. It is quite possibly the finest dramatic series ever filmed and I would have chosen it for first place, had it not been for its rather slow start in the first two hours and its last few episodes which failed to keep up with the breakneck pace established by the bulk of the series.

Set in World War II Belgium, we meet the “secret army”: a group of brave men and women who risk torture and death to sneak downed pilots out of the occupied territory and return them to their Allied homelands. The series was based on real events, which makes the courage displayed by these Belgian resisters all the more compelling. Both the Luftwaffer, in the form of  Major Brandt (Michael Culver) and the Gestapo, headed by Sturmbannfuhrer Ludwig Kessler (Clifford Rose), are entrenched in the occupied city. Brandt interrogates prisoners over drinks and cigarettes, contrasted with Kessler’s Gestapo interrogation which often leave prisoners dead after hours of torture. The threat to members of the resistance is palpable throughout the series and many do not survive.

Lifeline, the resistance is led by 24-year-old Lisa Colbert (Jan Francis), aided primarily by Albert Foiret (Bernard Hepton), proprietor of the Cafe Candide, his mistress Monique Duchamps (Angela Richards) and waitress Natalie Chantrens (Juliet Hammond-Hill), Dr. Pascal Keldermans (ValentineDyall), and farmer Alain Muny (Ron Pember). Albert must balance his attentions between his bedridden wife (he feels responsible for the accident that crippled her) and his mistress, Monique, who lives with them above the café. Albert is a fascinating character study. Is he motivated by patriotism or greed? He seems a gentle, good man but he can kill another man without hesitation — even those on his own side in the war. Monique resents her role as a mistress to a man incapable of commitment and realizes she has trapped herself in a relationship that will never end in the marriage she desires, even after Albert is widowed.

The secret army plays a dangerous game. The Gestapo, frequent patrons of the café, would torture and kill them if their underground activities came to light. They cozy up to the Germans to deflect suspicion and learn their secrets; however, they risk animosity from fellow Belgians, who view them as collaborators. As the war draws to a close, the risk from their own countrymen, and from Communist resistance groups, exceeds the threat from the Nazis.

All of the actors are compelling and convincing in their roles. Kessler is cold-blooded and his lack of humanity shows most clearly not in his actions as sturmbannfuhrer, but as a man through his awkwardness with human interaction when he begins an affair with an emotionally-scarred Belgian woman (Hazel McBride). In contrast, while Kessler lives for the Nazi cause and idolizes Hitler, Brandt is a military man first and a Nazi party man second. Like others, he comes to doubt Hitler, but does not act on those doubts. After his wife and son are killed in a bombing raid, Brandt rapidly deteriorates into alcoholism and despair.

When the Allies advance on the Ardennes after the Normandy landing, the dynamic changes. Kessler finds himself in constant conflict with Brandt's replacement, new arrival Major Reinhardt (Terrence Hardiman). As news of the Allied forces' imminent arrival reaches Brussels, the Germans flee and Belgian mobs rule the streets. Reinhardt remains behind, having deduced the truth about Lifeline and determined to prove his suspicions. Kessler is on the run and ultimately imprisoned in an interesting turnabout. Albert is lynched by the Communists and Monique is placed in a cage by the Belgian mob where collaborators have their heads shaved for the amusement of the crowd. Reinhardt ends up in the same prison camp as Kessler, who convenes a court martial against him. As Reinhardt faces a firing squad, he has an epiphany: “You’re all mad! Stark raving mad!” he tells the Germans. Reflecting on the toll of the war, he has not only summed up the men before him and the Nazi ideology they believed in, but the madness of war itself.

The final episode, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" is set 25 years after the war, in 1969, where Lifeline’s survivors are interviewed about their deeds. They exhibit a surprising but understandable reticence to discuss what they endured and participated in when questioned by a younger generation that envies the “exciting adventure” of the war and seeks to glorify the conflict. This episode formed the basis for the spin-off, Kessler, which follows Kessler’s post-war rise as a powerful multinational corporate leader whose Nazi past is revealed by a documentary filmmaker. Several of the Secret Army cast members have cameos in the first episode.

Secret Army is a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. As you come to care for the characters, you realize no one —  not the downed pilots, the Belgians, the resistance, nor the occupiers — is safe. The war is not glorified but rather presented as an ordeal to be survived. The reality-based tales of those who do — and those who do not — make Secret Army the most compelling drama series ever to air on television.

In the clip below, a wounded Monique must perform at the Candide in front of Kessler to allay suspicion she is part of the resistance, as her fellow evasion line allies look on. All of the songs in the series were written especially for the show.

Amazon page  (you may need a multi-region player to view this). Many of the episodes are also available on YouTube.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Now we come to my all-time favorites, as we count down The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen. Number 3 is Poldark. Set in 18th century Cornwall, England against a backdrop of copper mining, famine, and riot, Poldark begins with Captain Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) returning home from the war in the colonies (the American Revolution). He learns his family believed him killed in the war; his fiancé Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) is about to marry his cousin Frances (Clive Frances), his father has died, and the family business – a copper mine – is about to be sold.  Ross reopens one of the mines in an attempt to restore his wealth.

Ross Poldark was greatly affected by ideals of the American Revolution, and returns a rebel against his social class. His former fiancé Elizabeth, is a frosty, upper class society woman. Frances is flippant but at times obstinate. Rival George Warleggan (Ralph Bates) is one of the nouveau riche class of industrialists and bankers, looked down on by the aristocracy but nonetheless a powerful man. Demelza (Angharad Rees), a teenage miner's daughter taken in by Ross, is courageous but impulsive; she is brash and down to earth, the opposite of the fragile Elizabeth.

Based on the first seven of 12 novels by Winston Graham, Poldark is about triangles. There is the love triangle among Ross, Elizabeth, and Frances; a power struggle triangle among Ross, Frances, and Warleggan; a love triangle among Ross, Elizabeth, and Warleggan after France’s death; and a love triangle among Ross, Elizabeth, and Demelza.

The beauty of Cornwall’s hills and harbors is juxtaposed against the riots, smuggling, poaching, and child labor among the miners. It is a story of class struggle and lost love, epitomized by the ongoing feud between idealist Ross Poldark, a man born to the aristocracy who turns his back on his own class, and power-driven George Warleggan, the nouveau riche grandson of an illiterate blacksmith who resents Ross for caring so little for the class privilege into which he was born.

Poldark was definitely one of my favorite shows. It introduced me to Cornwall and inspired me to travel there three years after the show concluded, where I visited Truro and Falmouth, two of the series’ locales.

Poldark is one of the most successful British TV dramas ever broadcast. Find this series and watch it; you will enjoy it. The clip below shows Ross bringing home the scrungy gamine Demelza (in the books she was 13; a few years older in the show) whom he is destined to fall in love with and marry. Warning: There was an adaptation of the eighth Poldark novel, "Stranger From the Sea", that was aired in 1996 with a different cast and was terrible. Avoid it and read the novels instead.

UPDATE: Saddened to learn Angharad Rees died on July 21, 2012, at age 63, of pancreatic cancer. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

As we come down the home stretch in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, Number 4 is Upstairs, Downstairs. Set in London, from 1903 to 1936, the story of the Bellamy family (“upstairs”)  and its servants ("downstairs") unfolded over five years and 68 episodes.

At the outset of the series, Richard (David Langton) and Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) have two children, James (Simon Williams) and Elizabeth (Nicola Padgett), in their early twenties and late teens, respectively. After Lady Marjorie sails on a one-way voyage on the Titanic, James' new wife Hazel (Meg Wynn Owen) becomes the new mistress of the house. The following year, Richard's ward Georgina (Lesley-Anne Down) comes to live with the Bellamys.

The dramatic stories were made more engaging by memorable characters portrayed by superb actors. Downstairs, Gordon Jackson played the authoritarian butler Mr. Hudson, Angela Badderly (described by TV critic Cleveland Amory as more  appropriately named Gooderly for her performance) was cast in the role of the gruff but warm-hearted cook Mrs. Bridges. Series co-creator JeanMarsh played Rose, the parlor maid and Christopher Beeny played the footman, Edward.

As one of the series’ writers put it, the show stripped away the wall from an Edwardian dollhouse, exposing the societal class structure and conflicts of the age. [Spoiler] Upstairs, Downstairs was made all the more compelling by the decision to allow major characters to be killed off in response to historical events (Lady Marjorie dying aboard the Titanic, Hazel succumbing to the influenza epidemic of 1918, and James committing suicide after the stock market crash of 1929).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Coming in at Number 5 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is EastEnders. The storyline is set in Albert Square, in the fictional London borough of Walford, in the East End of London. While tourists see the West End of London, with its shops and theater district, the East End is where the hardworking middle class Londoners struggle with day-to-day life.

EastEnders is one of the U.K.’s top rated shows and is seen worldwide, including in  Europe, Africa, Asia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England, and America. In the U.S., EastEnders has been broadcast on BBC America, Dish Network, and many local PBS stations (the latter often years behind current episodes). The show has had several spin-offs. EastEnders specializes in "slice of life" drama, often gritty, but always striving for realism.  It has dealt head on with controversial issues like teenage pregnancy, abortion, incest, alcoholism, drug abuse, euthanasia, prostitution, mental illness, illiteracy, spousal abuse, AIDs, homosexuality, rape, child abuse, Down’s Syndrome, and religion.

I’ve been watching EastEnders since its debut in 1985. Ironically, I missed the first episode but have seen every one since. Originally airing two, now four half-hour episodes a week, that adds up to a lot of shows. It would be impossible for any show to maintain the level of high quality drama seen in the miniseries or shorter runs on this list. With nearly 4,500 episodes to date, you can expect many peaks and valleys throughout the show’s run. When EastEnders slips, it is mediocre. But when it shifts into high gear with a dramatic storyline, no one does drama better.

EastEnders has an enormous ensemble cast, with members often leaving and returning years later. Multiple plotlines run simultaneously and often intersect. The most dramatic episodes are usually the so-called “two-handers” where an entire episode is devoted to interplay between two characters. For its 25th anniversary in February 2010, EastEnders broadcast a live episode in which a murderer’s identity was revealed. Even the cast was kept in the dark about the culprit’s identity until the final minutes of the broadcast.

I have mixed feelings about including EastEnders on the list, since technically even though it’s an evening show, it’s considered a soap opera. But where nighttime soaps like Dallas are melodrama with larger than life characters and situations, EastEnders has always revolved around the prosaic lives of ordinary, working class people.

Oh, yes. I finally got a chance to watch the first episode earlier this year… a quarter century after it first aired. Only two characters remain from the show’s inception: Ian Beale and Tracey the barmaid. Ian has been a major character, but Tracey has had all of five minutes worth of dialogue in her 26-year stint on the show. She broke her long silence in 2008: when asked by another character why she has been so quiet, she replied, she wants to keep herself to herself because she thinks they're all "stark raving mad."

It’s impossible to select a single clip from 2,250 hours of programming to represent the series, so the YouTube link below has an autoclip function that will automatically display 107 clips viewers have chosen as the show’s most dramatic scenes. Each clip has a brief summary below it to put it in context.

YouTube clip   autoclip to 107 top clips (summary in paragraph below each clip)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fugitive

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 6 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is The Fugitive. Without a doubt, the best American weekly TV drama was The Fugitive, which ran from 1963 to 1967. David Janssen played Dr. Richard Kimble, who returns home to find his wife murdered and a one-armed man slipping out the back door. The series was based on the infamous Sam Sheppard murder trial.  The jury believed Kimble murdered his wife, Helen, and he was sentenced to death. Enroute to the state prison by train in the custody of Detective Lt. Gerard (Barry Morse), Kimble escapes after a train wreck. For the next four years, viewers tuned in as the fugitive Kimble took odd jobs across the country, becoming embroiled in the lives and dramas of strangers, always one step ahead of his pursuer, Gerard.

Like Jalvert hounding Jean Valjean, Gerard is relentless in his pursuit of Kimble in this modern day Les Miserable. Occasionally, Kimble gets leads on the one-armed man, whose name we later learn is Fred Johnson (Bill Raisch). Most TV series of that era ended their run without any closure. This was a purposeful move, as producers wished to be able to resell the series in syndication and it was thought if viewers knew the final fate of the characters they would not watch the series. This was absurd, of course; never more so than in the case of The Fugitive, where every episode was a dramatic gem that stood on its own.

Perhaps recognizing this, the decision was made to end the series with a two-part finale that would resolve the dangling threads and bring closure to the fates of Kimble, Johnson, and Gerard. I was nine years old when I sat glued to TV on a Tuesday night in August when part one aired. I gasped when I saw Lt. Gerard finally catch up with and arrest Richard Kimble. “I'm sorry,” Gerard tells him, “you just ran out of time.” The episode ended with a handcuffed Kimble escorted by Gerard once again on a train, as narrator William Conrad announced the fugitive was on his way back home to Indiana… to an appointment with death! No! I thought. It wasn’t supposed to end this way!

Wednesday morning, all anyone could talk about in Mrs. Wilensky’s second grade class was the previous night’s episode of The Fugitive. Everyone had a theory on what would happen in the final episode and none of us could bear to wait a week to find out. When the second part aired the following Tuesday night, it became the most-watched television series episode in history, up to that point: 45.9 percent of American households with a television set (78 million viewers) cancelled their plans and stayed home to watch The Fugitive.

[Spoiler] With Gerard’s assistance, Kimble tracks down the one-armed man, cornering him in an amusement park. Johnson shoots Gerard in the leg and, realizing Kimble is innocent, Gerard hands Kimble his gun. Kimble fights Johnson atop a tower, and the one-armed man confesses to killing Helen Kimble. But Johnson takes the gun from Kimble and is about to shoot him when Gerard fires a shotgun at Johnson. The one-armed man falls to his death and no one but Kimble heard his confession. A reluctant Gerard prepares to take Kimble back to prison, but a new witness to the murder appears to exonerate the fugitive.

As iconic as the finale may be, every episode of The Fugitive is worth seeing. In the clip below, you can watch the opening act of Part One of the finale.

Friday, February 17, 2012

House of Cards Trilogy

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 7 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is the House of Cards trilogy, consisting of  House of Cards, To Play the King, and The Final Cut. Machiavelli could have taken lessons from Francis Urquhart, the fictional British politician in this trilogy. Ian Richardson is brilliant in the role, as he schemes to become leader of the governing party and prime minister.

The series finds inspiration from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III, both of which deal with power, ambition, and corruption. Urquhart frequently speaks to the audience through the camera, as seen in the clip below, breaking the fourth wall. The clip of Frances Urquhart (abbreviated as F.U., not unintentionally) is utterly brilliant and a bit jarring: I can’t recall ever being lectured by a character as he is using a urinal. Awkward? “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment” (as F.U. would say).

Definitely the finest political drama ever made.

Internet Movie Database listing: House of Cards; To Play the King; The Final Cut      
Episode guide: House of Cards; To Play the King; The Final Cut       

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Playhouse 90

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 8 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is Playhouse 90.  A product of the Golden Age of Television, Playhouse 90 cemented its reputation as TV’s most distinguished anthology drama series. From 1956 to 1960, Playhouse 90 broadcast 133 90-minute dramas. The series began its broadcasts with live shows, but later switched to videotape. Except for a Christmas episode, they were all shot in black and white.

Each week, Playhouse 90 brought top-notch actors, producers, directors, and scriptwriters into American homes. Actors included Tab Hunter, Vincent Price, Kim Hunter, Nehemiah Persoff, Mary Astor, Rod Taylor, Peter Lorre, James Mason, E.G. Marshall, Jackie Coogan, Cliff Robertson, James Whitmore, Dick York, Sterling Hayden, Werner Klemperer, Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Art Carney, Everett Sloane, Jack Klugman, Rip Torn, Boris Karloff, Richard Basehart, Hope Lang, Leslie Nielsen, Darryl Hickman, Robert Vaughn, Burt Reynolds, Harry Guardino, Earl Holliman, Jack Albertson, Buddy Ebsen, June Lockhart, Tony Randall, Lloyd Bridges, Piper Laurie, Lee J. Cobb, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ben Gazzara, Ricardo Montalban, Jack Lord, Dan Blocker, Ann Bancroft, Charlton Heston, Gale Gordon, Eddie Albert, Raymond Burr, Maureen Stapleton, Buster Keaton, Jack Lemmon, Edmund Gwenn, Lee Remick, and John Drew Barrymore.

Plays were adapted form works by Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and William Faulkner. Several original stories were written by Rod Serling, including “The Comedian” starring Mickey Rooney as an abrasive, manipulative TV comic and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starring Jack Palance, which won 6 Emmy Awards in 1956. Several teleplays were subsequently filmed a major motion pictures, including Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”.

The caliber of acting and writing combined with the outstanding production values made Playhouse 90 one of television’s finest drama shows. You might be able to find some episodes in “Golden Age of Television” collections or online.

YouTube clip  (Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”)

Monday, February 13, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 9 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is Roots.  All right, maybe you have seen this one. I watched it with my college journalism gang when it was first broadcast. The show made television history for many reasons. It was one of the first miniseries and ABC took a tremendous gamble by pre-empting a week of prime time programming to show Roots every night. The gamble paid off: the finale remains the third-highest rated U.S. television program ever broadcast and Roots received 36 Emmy Award nominations, winning nine. It spawned two sequels: the miniseries Roots: The Next Generations and a Christmas movie, Roots: The Gift. It also launched an American obsession with genealogy. The series was notable for tackling a controversial issue, slavery and its associated racism, and was the first TV series to feature a predominantly black cast, propelling several black actors to fame.

Roots is a generational saga, telling the story of the African youth Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) — who is captured by other Africans, sold to slavers, and taken to America in chains — and his descendents. Kinte is sold to a plantation owner and, like a caged lion, yearns for his lost freedom. He later marries a slave, Belle, and fathers a daughter, Kizzie (Leslie Uggams). The girl is befriended by the daughter of the plantation owner’s wife, who teaches her to read and write. Kizzie is sold to a plantation in North Carolina and raped by its owner. She gives birth to a child who grows up to be known as “Chicken” George (Ben Vereen) because of his skill as a cockfighter. The series ends with George telling his grandson about his own grandfather, the African Kunta Kinte.

It’s a captivating story portrayed by a top-notch cast. My only criticism is it presents a rather simplistic view of a complex period in American history, leaving the impression all white people were vile and evil. The whites are all rapists and sadists; there are no kind or humane slave owners (even though half the nation’s population was composed of slave states) and the blacks (with the exception of the Africans who sold Kunta Kinte into slavery) are all portrayed as virtuous victims, befitting descendents of the “noble savage”.  After a few hours of viewing, you might well find yourself asking, as did Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah, if even 10 righteous (white) men existed in this time and place. The noble savage motif was often used as a literary device to convey the notion men are essentially good in a state of nature, such as the African jungle (Kunta Kinte) or the western plains (American Indians) compared to the corrupt men of the civilized world. It is, of course, an idealistic and romanticized fiction. There have always been good and bad men in civilized cultures, just as good and evil individuals have always existed in so-called uncivilized societies. I’m sure there were black sadists and rapists and decent white folks, but apparently not in Roots. Of course, the producers were going for controversy and shock value at the time, and they achieved it.

Overall, Roots is an excellent drama, a compelling story, and a showcase for many talented black actors who had few venues available in the 1970s.  Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. In the clip I've selected, Kinte has been captured after his escape. He still proudly clings to his name, Kunta Kinte, the last relic of his former freedom. The plantation overseer whips him, determined to break his spirit by forcing him to accept “Toby” as his slave name.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Garrow's Law

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Continuing our countdown of the Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, we come to Number 10, Garrow's Law. William Garrow was a real-life British barrister in the late 1700s, a time when the accused were at the mercy of the court — and the court was not very merciful. These were times of speedy trials — many court hearings lasted only eight minutes, often followed by horrific death penalties (hanging and then being drawn and quartered, or being burned alive). As many as 20 trials a day would take place at the Old Bailey (the London criminal courthouse). Garrow was a poor boy who became a lawyer and then devoted his career to defending the indigent, the ignorant, and the weakest members of London society, often without regard to whether he was paid. He may have been the first pro bono attorney, offering free legal aid. He pursued justice while building a reputation in the press and cultivating enemies in high places. It was Garrow who changed English law, refined the art of cross-examination, and coined the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”.

Each episode features a case inspired by historical legal proceedings recorded in the Old Bailey Archives (You can read actual cases from the Old Bailey trials online). According to the show's writer, Tony Marchant, Garrow invented courtroom drama. "As a writer, I simply read his outbursts and marveled at the man who was scared of nobody, and who verbally savaged so many." Garrow's passionate and strident oratory made him the most famous — and feared — barrister of his day. Aidan McArdle play the prosecutor Silvester, the Hamilton Burger to Andrew Buchan (Garrow)'s Perry Mason. But unlike Perry Mason, Garrow loses cases, as when he watches his client, a mute 10-year-old boy, condemned to the gallows.

As the TV series reveals, Garrow's private life was as interesting as his courtroom antics. He fell in love with the wife of an important politician and member of the government and ultimately married her. (In real life, the object of Garrow’s desire was the man’s paramour, not his wife). The series is still airing and has just wrapped up its third season. Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Los Plateados

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We continue our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You've Never Seen with Number 11,  Los Plateados. Admittedly, one wouldn’t expect to find a telenovella in a top drama list. Novellas are Spanish soap operas, but unlike American soaps, they are structured like novels, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The typical novella is poorly written, sometimes written days or weeks before episodes are broadcast, leading to hackneyed dialogue, plot holes, and clichéd endings. But on rare occasions, a novella will rise above its genre. Such is the case of Los Plateados.

Los Plateados is Spanish for “the silver-plated ones”. This historical fiction drama takes place against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. Robin Hood style bandits would steal silver shipments, robbing the rich to give to the poor, giving rise to the appellation “the silver-plated ones”. This particular group of sibling bandits fought for honor and justice, and to avenge their father’s death. The eldest brother, Gabriel Campuzano (played by Latin star Mauricio Islas) leads them on an attack against their enemy Emilio Gallardo (played to perfection by Humberto Zurita) only to fall in love with Gallardo’s fiancé. It is a pleasure to watch Zurita’s nuanced performance, as he turns what might otherwise have been a two-dimensional villain into the most compelling character in the show.

There are too many fascinating subplots to describe, but I’ll mention one minor yet memorable one, which you can watch climax in the YouTube clip below. Gallardo had an affair with a servant and she became pregnant. He agreed to house her and the child and support them, because she had borne him his only son (male heirs being a big deal in that culture), so Gallardo acknowledged the bastard, who is now a teenager. The servant forced her child to live a lie, for Toñito was born a girl and she has dressed her and raised her as a boy, fearing they would be kicked out on the streets if Gallardo learned she had borne him a daughter and not a cherished son.

Toñito has a crush on the nephew of a couple that work for Gallardo and he becomes attracted to her, yet confused since he thinks Toñito is a boy. Once Toñito reveals her secret to him, they become secret lovers. One day, his uncle catches them kissing, and thinking his nephew is kissing another boy, he beats him mercilessly. The boy refuses to explain, protecting Toñito’s secret. His aunt begs the uncle to stop beating him. A crowd forms, and Gallardo comes out to see what is going on. The uncle explains he caught his nephew kissing Gallard’s son, and Gallardo is as enraged as the uncle. (Obviously a homophobic culture and period).

Toñito appears with a pistol and dares to aim it at her father, warning him not to harm the boy she loves. She loves her father but he has always found his “son” to be unmanly (no surprise there). While she’s torn by having to threaten his life, Gallardo is proud Toñito is finally acting like a man, but he tells her to put down the gun. She breaks down, releasing a lifetime of repressed frustration, anxiety, and rage. “Isn’t this what you want? I’m macho now. I’m your son now.” Then she rips off her shirts, revealing her bandaged breasts, and shouts to everyone’s surprise, “I’m not your son! I’m your daughter!”

In one short, dramatic clip, we have a microcosm of the culture and the societal norms of the era – machoism, misogyny, homophobia, violence, the subjugated role of women, the expectations placed on men (especially first born males in a primogeniture-based society). We see love, romance, self sacrifice, deceit, conflict, and an incredible range of emotions and motivations. And each subplot contained the same intensity.

I know I said I wouldn’t include any westerns on this list, but I think Los Plateados qualifies more as historical fiction than as a typical western. It also has a great theme song. You can hear and watch the opening theme (“Por Amor a la Verdad”).

 Below, you'll find links to the show's listing at the Internet Movie Database and the clip described above, hosted on YouTube. 

Amazon page: None, but you can watch the entire series on YouTube. Also, check your TV listings; Telemundo may rerun it.

Update: I just discovered Los Plateados episodes available on this site (via YouTube) with the option for English subtitles (although the translation is a bit flawed).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tom Brown’s School Days

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We continue our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen with Number 12, Tom Brown’s School Days. There have been many adaptations of Thomas Hughes’ classic novel, but the one I’m referring to is the five-episode miniseries first broadcast in the U.S. on PBS' Masterpiece Theater in 1973. Set in the Victorian era, young Tom Brown suffers the trials and traumas of an English boarding school, proving bullying is not a recent phenomenon. Adding to Tom's troubles, he offended a wealthy and corrupt man whose son attends the same school. The upperclassman resolves to make Tom's life a living hell and break his spirit. The hardships of the era (including canings of schoolboys) paint a vivid social critique of Victorian England, yet hope appears in the guise of the new headmaster, Dr. Arnold, a progressive reformer.

A true coming of age story, this version (shown two years earlier in the U.K.) was more faithful to the novel than most. The acting leaves a bit to be desired (Anthony Murphy strikes me as a modern day Freddie Bartholomew) and at times veers toward melodrama, but the story is riveting and entertaining historical fiction.

Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. The clip I've chosen is from the second episode. Tom has just arrived at Rugby, and we meet his soon-to-be best friend Ned East and the archetypal bully Flashman. Since school bullying is a major issue these days, I think Tom Brown's School Days, both the novel and this miniseries, would resonate with Young Adult readers and viewers.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Life on Mars

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You've Never Seen)

We continue our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen with Number 13, Life on Mars. I’m referring to the original UK series, not the lackluster American remake.

Detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) has a near fatal car crash in 2007 and wakes up in 1974. Is he dreaming? In a coma? Dead? Or is something else responsible? Tyler has to solve the biggest mystery of his life while reprising his role as a police detective in the politically incorrect racist and sexist 1970s. Tyler uses his knowledge and techniques of the future to solve crimes in the past, as viewers try to discern clues about his present dislodgement in time.

Philip Glenister steals the show as DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Gene Hunt, who views police brutality to be a job perquisite and often clashes with Tyler, who calls him “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.” Hunt takes it as a compliment. Tyler favors forensic evidence and modern investigative techniques to Hunt’s heavy-handed style. Still, the two develop a grudging  mutual admiration and friendship.

Most of Hunt’s witticisms are unprintable here, but these may suffice: “If you were Pinocchio, you would have just poked my eye out!”....  “He's more nervous than a very small nun on a penguin shoot.”....  “Drop your weapons! You are surrounded by armed bastards!”  When Hunt orders a detective to arrest the landlord of the Trafford Arms, the detective asks on what charge. "Think of something on the way," Hunt replies. Later, he notes, "In a bizarre twist of fate, the landlord was arrested this afternoon... on suspicion of cattle rustling."

The answer to Tyler’s time travel mystery isn’t revealed until the finale of Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars, (yes, both series titles come from David Bowie songs and his music can be heard throughout the series). Ironically, Tyler does not appear in the sequel. I would include this show on the Top TV Dramas list if for no other reason than the last episode of Life on Mars (Season 2, episode 8). The last 20 minutes were the most original, dramatic, emotional, and mind-blowing I've ever seen on television.  Even though it didn't completely answer the question that had nagged viewers for two seasons, it was riveting drama.

[Spoiler] Tyler abandons his friends and lover amidst an ambush and gun battle in 1973 in order to return to 2007. Sitting in a boring police procedural meeting, someone points out he has cut his finger on his pen. He is surprised; he hadn’t felt it. He recalls asking the bartender in 1973 how you know something is real and his reply was you just feel it. Tyler bursts out of the room, climbs the stairs and stands on the rooftop, breathing in the fresh air and taking in the view of the city. His expression changes. He has made a decision. He knows what he has to do. He runs. Toward the horizon, toward the blue sky, until he nears the edge and then he leaps. The screen goes black. And then…  But why give it away? Watch the series for yourself (make sure you watch the original U.K. version and not the American remake, which had a completely different ending).

Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a fan Web site, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. The clip I've chosen is from the finale and takes place after Tyler has returned to the present and it ends five minutes short of the conclusion of the series.

Friday, February 3, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We begin our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen with Number 14, Cadfael. I came into this series cold, knowing nothing other than Derek Jacobi starred in the title role as a detective. Having recalled Jacobi from his outstanding performance as the Emperor Claudius in I,Claudius”, I would have tuned in to watch him read the phone book, so I knew I had to watch “Cadfael”.

Cadfael is a Welsh monk in the Middle Ages who manages to become entangled in mysteries. Think Sherlock Holmes with a cowl in a monastery in medieval England. The series is based on 21 books by Ellis Peters, who was actually a woman named Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Brother Cadfael found his calling as a monk late in life, providing him a deeper characterization than his peers at Shrewsbury Abbey. He had been a soldier in the Crusades, a sailor, and now, 20 years later, he has entered the Rule of Saint Benedict in the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul. He is a healer and a man of peace, but unlike his brothers, has killed men. As he puts it: “I have seen death in many shapes, I've been a soldier and a sailor in my time; in the east, in the Crusade, and for ten years after Jerusalem fell. I've seen men killed in battle. Come to that, I've killed men in battle. I never took joy in it, that I can remember, but I never drew back from it either... [Now] I grow herbs and dry them and make remedies for all the ills that visit us... To heal men, after years of injuring them? What could be more fitting?

Peters wrote, “My monk had to be a man of wide worldly experience and an inexhaustible fund of resigned tolerance for the human condition. His crusading and seafaring past, with all its enthusiasms and disillusionments, was referred to from the beginning. Only later did readers begin to wonder and ask about his former roving life, and how and why he became a monk.”

Described as “a compassionate seeker of truth and justice in chaotic medieval England,” Brother Cadfael is a man of God, a man of science, and when necessary, a man of action. As an herbalist, the medieval monk applies his knowledge of herbs to his deductive reasoning to solve murders. A skillful observer of human nature, Cadfael finds himself cast in the role of doctor, medical examiner, detective, and diplomat. Since he became a monk late in life, Cadfael is more familiar than his brethren with the secular world beyond the monastery gates and his modern, pragmatic attitudes and progressive ethics often conflict with his superior Prior Robert (Michael Culver) and Robert's annoying lackey Brother Jerome (Julian Firth).

Set in the 12th century, between 1135 and 1145 during the battle between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the English throne, Cadfael is historical fiction. The show ran for four seasons, broadcast in the U.S. on the PBS series Mystery! Each episode was 75 minutes and drew from the novels.

Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a fan Web site, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. The clip I've chosen is from the episode "Virgin in the Ice" and we find Brother Cadfael meeting Olivier de Bretagne, a Syrian-born squire, who describes his origins and the father he's never met. He explains his mother's glowing description led him to embrace his father's Christian heritage instead of her Islamic faith. As the boy asks if Cadfael knew his father during the Crusades, Cadfael slowly realizes Olivier's mother Mariam was his lover from his time in the Crusades in Jerusalem, and that the youth before him is his son.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Vast Wasteland

When we speak of writing, we often think of the print media, but some of the finest writing has also been found on stage and screen, and on rare occasions, on the small screen. Television, as former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow once said, is a “vast wasteland”:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”

Minow said that 50 years ago and it is as true today as it was then. Worse, because the westerns have disappeared and so-called “reality shows” have spawned in their place. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon said “Ninety percent of everything is crap” so maybe we can apply that rule to television writing as well. But what of the other 10 percent, what Minow called the very, very few?

During the month of February, I’ll chose my picks for Top TV Dramatic Writing. I won’t include comedies, westerns, SF, or anthologies (although if I did, The Twilight Zone would be a top contender). Instead, I plan to introduce you to 14 of The Top TV Dramas You've Never Seen. I’ll give a synopsis, tell you what made the show stand out as excellent drama, and include links to its Internet Movie Database listing, listing, fan site, YouTube clips, and Amazon page (if it is available for purchase).  So tune in next time.