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What to Binge Watch This Christmas and New Years

The winter holidays are almost upon us, meaning there are soon going to be lots of hours that we’re stuck at home with nothing to do.

Don’t attempt to make contact with family and friends.

This is the perfect time to get ahead of the curve on new TV shows so you can be a trendsetter in 2015.

Here are some suggestions of what you can plow through in a weekend. 

Transparent (Amazon Prime)

A lot of critics have been gushing about it since the fall, and they’re all absolutely right — Transparent is one of the best shows on TV.

The show’s elevator pitch is that the patriarch of a family (Mort/Maura) comes out as transgendered late in life, but the show is really about the American family. While that’s a time honored TV tradition, outside of comedy there haven’t been many shows on this subject — the last drama of any significance was probably The Sopranos. (In fairness Transparent is probably best classified as a dramedy).

And unlike many of its predecessors Transparent focus on the family somewhat late in its lifecycle. The children are adult who’ve been out of the home for years, but they’re still somewhat dependent on their parents.

The parent-child relationships in Transparent have a lot of parallels to Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Maura’s children are self-absorbed, have little affection to their parents, and have hit that point in life when they feel smarter and superior. And with Maura specifically, they see her as an ATM, believing that they are entitled to her money.

I imagine that anyone who watches the show will be forced to contemplate their own relationship with their parents or children. And that’s what great TV should do — leave you think well after the episode ends.

As selfish as the children are, Mort/Maura is hardly beyond reproach. One episode that blew my mind was a flashback episode where one of Mort’s daughters wants to cancel her bat mitzvah at the last minute. She tells Mort she doesn’t want to go through with it because she doesn’t believe in god. He does the right thing — cancels the bat mitzvah — but for the wrong reason. The bat mitzvah is the same weekend as a drag retreat in the woods that he wants to attend (this is years before she comes out as transgendered). With the bat mitzvah canceled, he can go.

Instead of having a peer-to-peer discussion about this, as soon as Mort sees the opening he takes it. You cannot help wonder how their relationship may have been different if this was turned into a teachable moment where they discuss faith and he acknowledges his daughters right to have a voice in what she believes (and she later resents how swiftly the decision was made to cancel the bat mitzvah).

The show is also a victory for pay TV. Transparent would have never survived on broadcast TV or basic cable due to ratings. If it was never picked up by Amazon it could have easily been turned into an independent film that nobody would have seen. But being behind the Amazon pay wall gives it time to cultivate an audience without the pressure of needing big ratings, and the potential for a massive audience is still there. It’s yet more evidence that Netflix, Amazon and HBO are the place to go for complex stories.

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The Americans (FX)

With a third season due to air soon, The Americans still hasn’t received the attention it deserves, coming up short at the recent Golden Globe nominations. It too has a great elevator pitch: set in the 1980s, two very deep cover KGB agents live in Washington, DC fighting the cold war behind enemy lines. They speak flawless English, and as far as anyone knows — including their children — they are multi-generational Americans named Phillip and Elizabeth who are travel agents.

The show has plenty of espionage and intrigue — no shortages of fake IDs, wigs, prosthetics, manipulative sex, etc. — and story lines are far more plausible and realistic than other spy shows. But the heart of the show is the family too, specifically how maintaining their cover requires them to raise their children as Americans, embracing values they reject and are fighting a war against.

In the last season Phillip and Elizabeth had to cope with their daughter wanting to be religious and attending church as well as other religious activities (as Marxist-Leninsts they reject and deeply distrust organized religions).

Both Seasons 1 & 2 are available on Amazon Prime. Now’s the time to catch up before Season 3 starts on January 28.

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Black Mirror (Netflix)

Netflix and Amazon Prime have opened up the floodgates to European TV; Black Mirror is the latest show making its way stateside. Though described as The Twilight Zone set in the near future, focusing on how technology and mass media changes the human experience, a more apt description are stories told in the Philip K. Dick vain. The Twilight Zone is known for its plot twists and surprise endings (“It’s a cookbook!”), and you don’t get that with Black Mirror.

In fact, episodes conclude more or less as you’d expect they would. But like The Twilight Zone independent of each other (different stories, characters, and actors).

If I have to pick one episode to represent the series, it would be: The Entire History of You.

In the near future you can have a device implanted into your head that allows you to record everything you see. Not exactly an original idea — and Google glass is a step in that direction — but the episode is about a husband who suspects his wife is cheating, so he obsessively reviews recorded clips of her, looking for evidence and inferring it. Whether his suspicions are justified or not, the technology feeds his paranoia, interferes with his ability to communicate with his wife, and completely alienates him.

Instead of living life — moving forward — he spends all of his time obsessing over moments from the past. In a sense it’s not all that different than how people use Facebook to check in on what their spouses are up to.

Black Mirror just arrived on Netflix, so now is your time to get in on the ground floor.

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