“The Honorable Woman” (SundanceTV)
Why you should watch it: “The Honorable Woman” confronts contemporary geopolitical conflicts with razor-sharp intelligence and immense emotional resonance. The series centers on Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a London-based heiress to an Israeli arms manufacturer, who’s hoping to promote stability in the Middle East through an ambitious telecommunications program. “The Honorable Woman” works as a gripping foray into Western idealism and unshakable history, identifying with keen sensitivity the futility that characterizes typical Western approaches to these conflicts.
Creator Hugo Blick settles on a tone that’s equal parts mysterious, thrilling and tenderly humanistic. Even in the age of auteur television, his accomplishment still deserves special mention: he individually writes and directs all eight hours of “The Honorable Woman,” infusing each chapter with gorgeous imagery and lyrical dialogue. And Gyllenhaal (in her first major television role) is at her very best, alternating between sexy and stoic, idealistic and pessimistic, vibrant and drained: she anchors the miniseries’ pitch-perfect feminist zing, while also brilliantly interpreting the contradictory nature of the narrative through performance.
Where you can watch it: “The Honorable Woman” is streaming on Netflix.
“The Missing” (Starz)
Why you should watch it: From hits (“True Detective”) to misses (“The Killing”) to the occasional phenomenon (“The Jinx”), the season-long crime serial is one of TV’s favorite new trends. But don’t let that dissuade you from checking out Starz’s transcendent “The Missing,” a penetrating account of two parents’ search for their missing child. Originally shown on the BBC in the U.K., “The Missing” is an incredibly confident piece of work: it keeps red herrings to a minimum, and manages to engage without interruption despite an overriding focus on its characters and their despair. In the leading roles, James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor do devastating work, while the script from Harry and Jack Williams manages to effortlessly, consistently ratchet up the tension. Yet, for this writer anyway, it’s Tom Shankland’s flashy, moody direction that is the main reason to give this eight-hour thriller your full attention. What initially might look like a gloomy, rainy exercise in the vein of “The Killing” eventually reveals itself as a highly complex tonal piece. “The Missing” runs the gamut of emotions and jumps to different locales and timeframes, but kept within an assured and singular directorial template, it simply hypnotizes, beginning to end.
Where you can watch it: If you’re a Starz subscriber, you can watch “The Missing” either on-demand or online. It’s also available for purchase via Amazon Instant and iTunes.
“Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Why you should watch it: “Wolf Hall” premiered on PBS two weeks ago to universal acclaim. This piece of historical fiction is set beginning in 1529, with King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis of “Homeland”) wishing for a papal annulment and swiftly putting Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and attorney Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) in charge of getting it. At six hours, “Wolf Hall” is based on the eponymous Hilary Mantel bestseller about Cromwell, who emerged as an architect of the Reformation and as Henry VIII’s powerful lieutenant — that is, until his services were longer required. The anticipated production is decadently-staged and densely-plotted, but things are kept in startling perspective by Rylance in a towering performance. “Wolf Hall” outdoes the many similar PBS productions that led to it — including, yes, “Downton Abbey” — by seamlessly weaving the facts into the drama, mining a fascinating dramatic narrative through careful and textured historical perspective. And if none of that matters to you, we know what will: the most glorious assortment of hats ever put-together on screen.
Where you can watch it: You can watch the first two episodes here, before catching the rest of “Wolf Hall” weekly on PBS, Sunday nights at 10.
“The Book of Negroes” (BET)
Why you should watch it: “The Book of Negroes” tells a vital story and brings new value to The BET, a network hardly known for prestige miniseries. Based on the novel by Lawrence Hill, it follows the life of Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis), a West African who was sold into slavery in South Carolina. Over the course of six hours, the American Revolution leads her to freedom via Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and finally England. “The Book of Negroes” is, at times, a flawed affair, an example being when it dedicates excessive time to an unengaging romantic subplot. And it would be enough if this adaptation was merely decent, since it smartly delves into a sorely-untold aspect of American history. But “The Book of Negroes” holds an intense power, with the cumulative viewing experience nothing short of visceral. As told from Aminata’s point of view, the perspective here is as uncommonly complex as it is definitively feminist. And despite the horrors and hopelessness surrounding her, Aunjanue Ellis delivers one of the TV season’s most surprising and impressive performances. She not only maintains Aminata’s dignity, but breathes fiery, passionate life into the character — an achievement, by the way, that’s sufficiently reached by this graciously uncompromising miniseries in its entirety.
Where you can watch it: “The Book of Negroes” can be purchased via Amazon Instant or iTunes.
“Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
Why you should watch it: Exquisitely cinematic and yet profoundly literary, “Olive Kitteridge” is a sweeping, existential and intermingling account of family, community and time. This four-hour HBO production (adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel) spans 25 years in the town of Crosby, Maine, focusing on Olive (Frances McDormand), a grouchy, cynical school teacher with an ineluctably depressive side. She goes through life with a kinder-than-deserved husband (Richard Jenkins), observing her relationships and community gradually change from a cloudy distance. In the hands of indie-film director Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), “Olive” is emotionally exhausting and achingly sad. It is caustically comedic and gently sardonic. And it’s also breathtakingly beautiful, from the evocative coastal Maine landscape, to the shatteringly poetic words of writer Jane Anderson, to the uniformly magnificent performances. (Whether it’s McDormand and Jenkins as the miniseries’ leads, or Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Murray in smaller parts, the material gives about a dozen great actors a chance to shine.) The everlasting power of “Olive Kitteridge” is derived from its radiant and lifelike beauty, darkly funny and downright painful as it may be.
Where you can watch it: Across HBO platforms, “Olive Kitteridge” can be watched on-demand, via HBOGo or with HBONOW.
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