Saturday, December 28, 2013

TV Show Review Roundup: 'The West Wing' Season 1, 'The Newsroom' Season 1 & 'Game of Thrones' Season 2

As we count down the final days of 2013, it's time for another Review Roundup, this time to give my thoughts on some TV shows that I watched this year but never got around to reviewing at the time. The seasons that I'm reviewing will be dated for those of you who do watch these shows, but with the HBO shows, I will always be delayed on those since I don't have HBO and watch them when they're released on DVD.

The West Wing Season 1
I've obviously heard so many great things about The West Wing over the years, and I finally got around to watching season 1 this year. I have yet to watch beyond the inaugural season yet, mainly because there have been other shows I've been trying to keep up with, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones (the latter of which I'll get to in a moment). (And in a way, I don't mind since I already have enough TV shows I watch that are currently on the air.)

The West Wing is a show that I never watched when it was originally on the air. But as the saying goes, better late than never. That's never more fitting here because I am so glad I have started on this series. As a political news junkie, this is right up my alley and I was in heaven the entire time watching it.

Since I like to keep up with all the goings-on in DC, certain terms, phrases and events I already knew, which I found to be even better since I felt like I was in the know.

And on top of that, there are the fantastic group of actors who bring to life these fictional White House figures, like Martin Sheen as the President, Bradley Whitford as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Rob Lowe as the Deputy Communications Director, Allison Janney as the Press Secretary, etc. Also, while I'm on the topic, I knew before going into this series that Stockard Channing (who I only know from Grease) starred in it, but I had no idea that she played the First Lady, so that was a nice little surprise for me to discover.

To me, one of the standouts is Janney as CJ Cregg. I already loved her, but she's fantastic here in this role. When she lip-syncs to "The Jackal," it's one of the best moments ever. Don't you just want to rewatch that scene over and over and over again?

Speaking of the characters, I have to bring up Donna Moss, Josh Lyman's assistant. Well, for one, the two of them have brilliant chemistry and play off of each other so well you'd think they knew each other in real life for years and years. But what I wanted to bring up was how Donna almost acts like a part of the audience. What I mean is that she's always asking Josh or others about what certain things mean. And that's obviously the show's way of being able to explain certain things to those of us who might not be aware of what they mean.

On the one hand, that's a very good tool for the writers to employ because how else will that info get across to us? But on the other hand, I found myself confused that she didn't already know all those things. I know she's an assistant and not actually in a higher-up position, but it just made her seem not that intelligent.

If I had to describe The West Wing in one or two words, I'd have to call it smart TV. That's what it is. And that's the kind of the show I want to watch. And it's not like the producers/writers have gone into it cold without any inside knowledge. They got the help of insiders and people who were actually in politics. Lawrence O'Donnell and Dee Dee Myers are some of the names I read on the booklet that came with the DVD as contributing to some of the various stories/episodes.

This first season ended on the cliffhanger, with an assassination attempt on the President. Now, obviously he survives it because there are many more seasons to go. But it's a great cliffhanger, and I knew it was going to happen at some point, but I had no idea it would happen right in season 1--and in the finale, no less. I'm really looking forward to watching season 2 eventually. Hopefully I can find the time in 2014.

The Newsroom Season 1
Staying on the Aaron Sorkin train for a little bit longer, I also watched the first season of Sorkin's current TV show, The Newsroom. Over the past couple years, I've heard mixed opinions regarding this show. And while I can understand certain things that people have said, I really enjoyed it. Jeff Daniels plays the part of a cable news anchor really well. He's kind of unhinged and isn't afraid to just come out and speak his mind.

One of the best aspects of this show is the fact that they use real news stories, whether it's the BP oil spill, the death of Osama bin Laden, the debt-ceiling crisis or voter suppression. We as the audience get to relive these real-life moments all over again, but this time peeking behind the curtain into how news reporters and stations cover the news.

And speaking of which, this is another area that I absolutely love about The Newsroom: the behind-the-scenes elements. I've mentioned before in other reviews and elsewhere how I love seeing how TV shows and movies are made (set design, special effects, etc.). No wonder I loved the Game Change book about the 2008 presidential election since I got to read all the inside scoop. (By the way, the sequel, Double Down, came out last month and my review is forthcoming.)

And with this HBO drama, again, it's right up my alley because I was fascinated to see how all the various characters would go about preparing to cover news events and everything that goes into it. When we're watching the news, we see the anchor(s) sitting there at their desk, but it's what's happening just out of the camera frame that sometimes makes for the best drama, as is evident by this show.

Game of Thrones Season 2
And now to the one and only Game of Thrones! Now that I've watched season 2, season 1 now feels like a warm-up to the real action. And everything ramps up on an even bigger scale in season 3, from everything I've heard.

I've continued with my plan of reading the book first before watching the respective season. (That'll continue in January when I read A Storm of Swords.) And while I enjoyed certain elements of A Clash of Kings, I didn't like it quite as much as A Game of Thrones. And maybe that has to do with the fact that with the first book in a series, there is a strong element of structure because certain things need to be set up and have everything follow a path. But sequels aren't always as structured, and I felt that was the case here.

But I will say that there were particular storylines and events I really couldn't wait to see on the TV shows, such as the Battle of Blackwater, which was epic! Since we're dealing with a TV budget, not everything in the book relating to the battle could be realized on screen, which is very understandable.

One of the things that is still very vivid in my mind from the book is when the ships are piled next to each other and it creates a sort of long platform. But even though things like that couldn't make doesn't mean this episode was bad. In fact, it was pretty much perfect. (The ending may have been a tad rushed, but oh well.) The green wildfire was amazing, as was Tyrion's speech. I liked the dichotomy of going back and forth between the battle and seeing all the women (including Sansa and Cersei) holed up in that room.

Besides Blackwater, there are some other things I wanted to mention. Dany is still one of my favorite characters in both the books and show. There wasn't enough of her and her dragons in season 2, but that's the way it is in the book as well, which I was frustrated with. I hope we get more of her in future books/seasons. Before watching season 2, I had heard that viewers didn't like Dany as much, but I still loved how she was portrayed and loved how strong she's become. And while the whole situation with the House of the Undying is different on the show versus the book, I found these changes to be really cool and made it a new experience for me.

With some of the other characters, I'm just going to ramble off some quick thoughts. Theon had an expanded presence, and I just wanted to punch him in the face most of the time, but Alfie Allen played the role perfectly. Renly and Loras--I don't remember there being this same-sex relationship in the book; is this something brand-new just for the show? I love Ygritte and how the actress portrays her (and pairing her with Jon is great). And how can you not absolutely love Brienne (and there's another great pairing with Jaime)?

I also wanted to mention the cliffhanger that ended the season. The book concluded with Bran and Co. coming back out the shadows, so to speak. With that particular storyline, both in the book and on the show, they were trying to make us believe Theon had them killed. But there was no way that would happen. With these types of stories, sometimes the thinking goes, if I didn't actually see the murder happen, why should I believe it did happen? And that's the case here. And I'm glad they didn't have that book ending be the same ending on the show. It just would have been too anti-climactic and not that interesting.

Season 1 ended brilliantly (in that case, it was like the book) with Dany emerging from the smoke with her dragons hatched. They obviously had to come up with something just as big to blow the audience away. And they certainly went big and bold. The final scene saw the introduction of zombies! Well, I think they're actually called White Walkers, but come on, it's hard not to call them zombies. I was absolutely blown away by the special effects of those creatures, and it makes me yearn for season 3 (after I read the third book, of course).

And this final scene I don't believe was in A Clash of Kings. It's probably in A Storm of Swords, which I don't mind because epic is the best word I can use to describe the White Walkers showing up on the screen. Honestly, that moment gave me chills. Here's to season 3, which the rest of the country has seen but I'll be watching next year.

I Recommend: The West Wing Season 1, The Newsroom Season 1 & Game of Thrones Season 2

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