The consumer electronics industry has changed drastically in the past five to 10 years, with one of the most positive changes being the rise of television as a high art form. In the past decade or so, cable television has been at a creative level that popular music reached in its heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The best writers and actors are picking television projects over feature films for various reasons, much to the delight of TV lovers everywhere. To top it off, it's easier than ever before to discover new shows, catch up on missed episodes, and binge-watch to your heart's delight via either streaming or disc.
Below is a list of some shows that I've binge-watched recently--my picks for the best shows with the best audio and best video. These certainly qualify as "binge-worthy."
Breaking Bad (Ultra HD Streaming or Blu-ray)
Do not let the first episode dissuade you from getting deep into this show. The story of a high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico becoming a global methamphetamine dealer is worth an investment of your TV time. Picking up on the very popular anti-hero theme, you can't help but root for Walter White (Bryan Cranston). His not-so-able-bodied partner in crime and failure of a high school student, Jesse (Aaron Paul), becomes lovable in time, too. There is usually a lot of debate about the finales of these high-profile shows, and I say that Breaking Bad is in the running for having one of the best.
Their "lawyer who is a criminal" Saul Goodman earned a spin-off show, Better Call Saul, that's also worth your while. It begins as a prequel to Breaking Bad, and I have fully bought into that show, too.
With Breaking Bad, you can expect gorgeous video, compelling dialogue, and the occasional bombastic audio moment. It's great on Blu-ray but even better through UHD streaming. I am considering going back and starting over to watch again in Ultra HD.
The Sopranos (Blu-ray)
Let me just come out and say it: The Sopranos is the best television series ever created. David Chase makes you fall in love with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his whole family, even if Tony happens to be one of the Dons in The Commission. Chase captures the essence of American-Italian life in New Jersey like nobody before him--even Martin Scorsese. The show isn't always a crash-and-bang fest, but it's got fantastic cinematography and a wonderful soundtrack. For those who own plasma or OLED TVs, the scenes at the Bada Bing strip club can test your set's ability to resolve micro-detail in dark rooms.
If you start binging on The Sopranos, may I suggest that you also pop for The Sopranos Family Cookbook, as Chase and onscreen chef Artie Bucco archive nearly every artery-clogging meal shown from season one to season six. I might own ten dozen good cookbooks, and this one is the best in my collection. For the controversial finale, I cooked for about 18 people all of the dishes from the show, and it was a big hit.
Expect fantastic character development, a beautiful depiction of a dingy part of New Jersey, great use of popular music, and an addictive quality to the screenwriting that will make you want binge hard on The Sopranos--even if you watched the show on the air back in the day.
24 (Blu-ray or Download)
I asked a friend of mine--who is a TV producer (he created Everybody Loves Raymond) and about the biggest foodie I know--how he stays skinny when he's out eating at the best, most gluttonous restaurants in town and around the world. His answer was simple: he watches the show 24 while going as fast as he can on the treadmill. I took his advice, and for weeks I binged on the Kiefer Sutherland drama and got fully hooked on the seemingly outrageous plots.
The key to 24 is that it's fast paced. They tick the time down during the hour that the show is supposed to be covering. You learn to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, as they pull off technical feats that, respectfully, are pretty hard to accept today, let alone in the flip-phone era--but that's okay. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) also can travel the congestion of Los Angeles as no other human has or can today. He can get from the San Fernando Valley to Downtown L.A. in mere minutes. There's always a helicopter or some vehicle waiting for him to commandeer. I admit, I am jealous.
Expect gorgeous cinematography and lots of crash-and-bang effects. 24 feels like a real Hollywood movie and must have had one hell of a budget. The show did have a bit of a hiccup during the writer's strike, but it doesn't affect the quality of the show; it just shortened one of the seasons. Fox then brought the show back for a somewhat shortened last season. It's unclear if they will bring it back yet again. If they do, I'm sure millions of people will watch.
Homeland (Live TV or Blu-ray)
Another fast-paced show is the inside-the-CIA, terrorist-fighting show Homeland. This one is character-driven, but it builds into some good action scenes--although it's not as crash-and-bang as 24 by any means. Homeland works complex storylines into an addictive mix that leaves you reaching for your remote to start that next episode.
The lead character, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is yet another imperfect anti-hero that you can't help but develop an affection for. The situations they develop on Homeland are scary as hell and a little more believable than those of 24. Trust me, you'll quickly get drawn in to Homeland as the conflicts that the show develops draw you in more and more and more.
Although the show is very dialogue-driven, there are some crash-and-bang moments. It's a well-shot show with lots of content that can light up your TV. You will want to watch Homeland in the best quality format you possibly can find. It's not available yet in Ultra HD streaming, so the best option is Blu-ray.
House of Cards (UHD Streaming or Blu-ray)
House of Cards is a perfect show to get into for the election season. This Netflix show is smartly directed and well acted, especially Kevin Spacey (playing Francis Underwood). House of Cards shows the nasty side of American politics, including back-room deals, political maneuvering, and far more diabolical actions. The sets are gorgeous, and the cinematography is film-like.
House of Cards can be streamed in Ultra HD or purchased on Blu-ray. I will watch future episodes (assuming the show keeps going, which it seems likely to do) in Ultra HD, but most of the current episodes I've watched in basic HD, and they still looked very good.
Don't expect too many car chases and bombastic audio from House of Cards, but be prepared to be lured into the twisted world of behind-the-scenes Washington D.C.
Sons of Anarchy (UHD Streaming or Blu-ray)
I didn't expect to get so sucked into Sons of Anarchy, but creator Kurt Sutter makes the characters so compelling that it's hard to resist. The show is about the sketchy world of a one-percenter biker gang based in middle-of-nowhere Central California. The founder of the gang started the chapter after returning from service in Vietnam, but he lost his life under questionable circumstances. The show is more about his son, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), and his wife (Katey Segal), who is now married to the gang's leader Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). The gang rides the fine line between being the defenders of high morals and breaking the law as gun traffickers.
No show is willing to whack a character faster than Sons of Anarchy, so be prepared that any character you really like might suddenly die out of nowhere. Sutter plays a small role in the show, much like Quentin Tarantino does in some of his movies.
Expect to get it all with Sons of Anarchy--including rumbling motorcycle chases, beautiful imagery from a pretty cool part of the country, shootouts, meaningful dialogue, and more. Even though Sutter whacks a lot of characters, he also brings in new ones that are just as good. So, as you binge through Sons, you'll never feel put off by the character carnage.
The finale is controversial. Some HomeTheaterReview.com writers think it's the best so far. I won't get into specifics, but I'd put it up there with Breaking Bad. Overall, this show is very good and worth your investment.
There are so many more shows worthy of binging. My mom got my wife watching the show Frankie and Grace, which is about two very different women who are forced together when their husbands go from law partners to life partners. Jane Fonda plays the stuffy ex-wife of Robert (Martin Sheen), and Lily Tomlin plays the hippie ex of Sol (Sam Waterson). Needless to say, hijinks ensue, and the show is set in the perfect location for debauchery--on the beach in Malibu.
Ray Donovan on Showtime is another well-done show that my wife and I had to catch up on. It's based loosely on Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano and has a star-studded cast, including Liev Schreiber as Ray, Jon Voight as Ray's problem-causing Whitey Bulger-like Father, and Elliot Gould as one of Ray's bigger clients. The list goes on and on. The show is quite violent but packs good material to show off your home theater. It's plenty addictive.
I could go on and on, but I want to hear from you. What have you watched and loved (and why)? Are there any shows that are better suited for an iPad than a big-screen OLED? Help grow the list below in the Comments section below.
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