Top TV: 2019

Delhi Crime
Basing his show off one of 2012’s most heinous crimes against women in India, director Richie Mehta creates a hard-to-look at police procedural that may go soft on the police, but churns your innards with the acid of inhuman patriarchy and male brutish behavior that enables such horror. Shefali Shah, Rajesh Tailang, and Rasika Duggal lead a sterling cast in a show that makes you question everything in it and in real life: is the solving of such crime any cause for celebration? Or is it just a pause to think why such acts continue to be committed with wanton disregard for women and their dignity? Are we collectively going to list the goriest acts of violence against women every year in the new decade? What’ll it take to prevent another one from happening? Is there any hope at all? For now, there’s just an ice cream stick for succor.

Writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck let loose the nuclear chain reaction of April 26, 1986 in Chernobyl to devastating dramatic effect. Accused of—and criticized for—ramrodding historical inaccuracies into the show, Renck and Mazin nevertheless create a show that’s gripping, moving, and terrific drama. To explain the complex workings of a nuclear plant to lead to the disaster isn’t an easy thing to do, but the duo do it with the ease of fairy tale tellers (which is exactly what some claim the show is—a grim fictionalized tale). But where the show truly scores (like the terrific contact-trace medico-drama-thriller Virus) is spotlighting the unwavering sacrifice that men and women signed up for, even in the face of inevitably excruciating ends, showing humane courage and grit to ensure the toll was curbed swiftly. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson shine in this mini-series that’s troubling for yet another reason. As Mazin said in an oft-quoted tweet, “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.” He could well have been speaking of the growing tribe of modern-day mendacious governments.

The Family Man
Despite suffering a mini-meandering attack in its penultimate episode, The Family Man by writer Suman Kumar and writer-directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. is a winner of a show. And one that’s possibly gotten ‘franchise’ written all over it. Comparisons to parallel spy shows are inevitable, and the diff that The Family Man comes out with is its entertaining USP that’s grounded on tongue-in-cheek family terra firma. The man in question is Srikant Tiwari, one of the millions of middle-class men struggling to deal with life, family, Mumbai city, and work. Played by Manoj Bajpayee with furtive, wrung-out, and guilty energy, his act raises the show a couple of notches on the binge-scale. And when that work involves India’s security and deadly terrorists and friendly, dismissive colleagues (Sharib Hashmi, superb and underplayed) on one side and family involving a wife (an effective Priyamani) beginning to chart out her own professional path that’s strewed with a stray landmine and children who’re maddeningly right and incisive (Vedant Sinha and Mehak Thakur are brilliant), it’s a set up that’s bursting with laugh out and suspenseful situations. The writer and his directors sting with contemporary political relevance, lacing the show with schadenfreude familial humor. But more than at Tiwari’s discomfiture, you laugh more because…you’ve been there, done that.

When They See Us
The most hard-hitting, moving, and hard-to-watch show of 2019, and also the most relevant. Created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay, this mini-series charts the heartbreaking story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case—the brutal assault and rape of a white female—and the five boys who were arrested and confessions coerced from them. It’s a brutal look at the failure of justice, racism, and politics. With tremendously affecting performances, it’s also a tender, empathetic, and courageous embodiment of the fear and challenges of being a parent—which requires displaying all of these qualities. From 1989 to 2019, the question we must ask ourselves is this: how much has really changed?

Killing Eve (Season 2)
The psychotic obsessive and compulsive stalking dance between the fashionista assassin Oksana aka Villanelle (played with delicious madness by Jodie Comer) and British secret agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh, oh-so-nuanced and superbly troubled) continues across Europe and dead bodies. The darkly comic racy journey gets even more grotesque and complex, upping the flashy noir, inverted feminism, and murderous romance. Add to it the haunting background score (David Holmes and the band Unloved), an unknown assassin, and a new handler and you know you’ve already been set up for another bloody misogynistic season.

A deeply moving and troubling mini-series based on a true story. And yet, why are we shocked and affected by this story? It’s because for a change, the mini-series focuses on the trauma of a rape victim who’s forced to rescind her ostensibly implausible story of having been violated in her bedroom. And with no one to support her (except for foster moms) it’s her story against a stern law enforcement system (Eric Lange as the initially disbelieving and later mortified Detective Parker is superb) and an unsympathetic societal system. It shakes you to the core because it shows exactly how a rape victim is forced to undergo humiliation and repeated flagellation of their souls and self-respect by the system. And then, it gets in two women detectives, both troubled and flawed, but real people, who dig up the case. As Detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall, Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are absolutely top class. Their verbal and life-and-job-introspecting volleys are a treat. Add to the mix Kaitlyn Dever as the victim, whose haunted, abused, visceral act will be with you long after the show ends, and you have a profound winner. The sunlit, phone-relayed baton message at the end melts your eyes in a salty condensation. Because there’s power in forgiveness and gratitude. But only after justice is done.

Mind hunter (Season 2)
Season 2 of the superb series (directed by David Fincher, Andrew Dominik, and Carl Franklin) continues to explore the mind of serial killers, this time treading into the dark territory of the Atlanta Child Murders (potential spoilers in link) where the victims are all black, all male, and yet the cases treated as unrelated. Until Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, still mesmerizing with his penetrating, inquisitive stares) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit step in to the politically-charged scene. With Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the third team member, stepping up in work and ambition, there’s terrific tension in the team and without. If season 1 focused on Ford’s troubled arc, this time it’s Tench and Carr time, both handling personal troughs while negotiating professional crests and lows. Holt McCallany is outstanding, his chain-smoking act causing you to fibrillate. Because the worst nightmare-come-true is when your work horror mirrors your personal earthquakes.