What TV shows do CEOs watch?

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The Binge
by Jessica Zafra

Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chair and CEO, Ayala Corp.

Current favorites

• Rectify

• Deutschland 83


• Mr. Robot

• Boardwalk Empire

• The Honorable Woman

• True Detective

• Vikings

• Justified

• Top of the Lake

• Game of Thrones

Honorable mentions

• Downton Abbey

• Hell on Wheels

• Wallander (both Swedish and English versions)

• The Killing

• The Good Wife

• Luther

• Narcos

• The Fall

Great unsung shows from the past

• Carnivale

• Deadwood

All-time greats

• Breaking Bad

• The Wire

• The Sopranos

• Mad Men

BASED ON THESE recommendations, I looked up Deutschland 83, a German mini-series by Anna and Joerg Winger that aired on the Sundance channel. I started watching the first episode late at night, which was a terrible mistake because it makes a compelling argument for abandoning sleep.

Still from Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83 invites comparison with The Americans: both shows are set in the early 1980s and their protagonists are Communist moles working in the West. They also feature a lot of pop music from the ’80s, though Deutschland 83 leans towards the cheerful Eurotrashy synth-pop that was presumably popular behind the Iron Curtain. The opening theme is “Major Tom,” Peter Schilling’s tinny rejoinder to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and if you guessed that Nena’s “99 Luftballons” would be in there, how clever you are. On the other hand, the show also uses New Order and The Cure, and you can guess what happens next based on the musical cues. (They’re playing “Our love’s in jeopardy”… could it be that their love is in jeopardy?)

Which show is better? That depends on whether you prefer instant gratification or cumulative dread. The Americans is about the long game — the moles have been living in the US for two decades — while Deutschland 83 takes place over a few intense weeks. Jonas Nay stars as Martin Rauch, a young East German soldier who is recruited by his aunt (Maria Schrader), an intelligence officer based in West Germany, to impersonate Moritz Stamm, aide to a general in NATO’s missile program. Rauch is unwilling and untrained, but his mother needs a kidney transplant and his spymasters can arrange it. He makes up for his inexperience with resourcefulness, quick thinking, luck and charm — this is handy for seducing the secretary of a NATO analyst.

Between Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and the KGB’s paranoia about an American first strike, the world is on the brink of World War III. The anxiety over impending doom is lightened by humorous bits — spies trading Nescafé for favors (Apparently East Germany had terrible coffee, which to me explains the fall of the Berlin Wall), Martin’s first encounter with a Walkman, the East Germans’ first encounter with a floppy disk. As if potential annihilation weren’t engrossing enough, there are unfaithful girlfriends, rebellious children, forbidden books (possessing a copy of 1984 got you jail time), gay lovers, kinky generals, and enough subplots to ensure that you never take your eyes off the screen. (You really can’t, unless you speak German and can manage without subtitles.)

Then I saw the premiere of Narcos, the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar and the cocaine industry. We’re so used to big, operatic cocaine dramas — Scorsese, Michael Mann, Brian De Palma — that the flatness of Narcos is jarring at first, then oddly refreshing. The production looks cheap and the acting is wooden, just begging for Al Pacino to walk in from Scarface and invite you to say hello to his little friend. The voice-over narration by Boyd Holbrook as a DEA agent is a string of clichés delivered in monotone. I expect more signs of life when his partner, played by Pedro Pascal (the late Red Viper in Game of Thrones) gets more than three seconds of screen time.

Into this blah-ness steps the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar, and he takes over by virtue of having a personality. Like Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, Moura makes his character seem absolutely reasonable, which makes him scarier. Narcos is the origin story of the cocaine trade — how the US-backed government of Salvador Pinochet drove the industry out of Chile and into Colombia via a seedy little businessman named Cucaracha, and how Escobar broke into the North American market via Miami. (This makes me want to watch Miami Vice to see if it holds up.) Minus the flash and the customary scenes of people hoovering lines of powder and the lifestyles that the $60-million-per-day coke trade bought, Narcos looks like a business plan with a high body count. I’m going to watch this.

Meanwhile, the Deadwood movie seems to be happening at last — great news for the viewers left dangling when David Milch’s HBO series was suddenly, stupidly canceled. Swearengen lives! Ian McShane has reportedly been cast in the sixth season of Game of Thrones — I can’t see him being a secondary villain (Did you see the odd but wonderful Kings?), so I imagine him as the Mad King.

Still from Deadwood
Still from Deadwood

Game of Thrones is not so much my favorite TV show as my virtual life, and even I am shocked that it won the Emmy for Best Drama. For Season 5, its weakest. The show also got directing and writing awards for “Mother’s Mercy,” which had a great scene — Cersei’s walk of shame — and the worst writing of the entire series. (Jon Snow is really not dead, and I don’t get why the producers kept insisting that he was.) Peter Dinklage, who was scintillating in Season 4, also won Best Supporting Actor for a season which started with Tyrion Lannister in a box and closed with Tyrion reciting exposition.

That Emmy for Best Drama could be compensation for past slights, or recognition of Game of Thrones as a global cultural phenomenon. Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Game of Thrones is now played at weddings. Good luck to the bride and groom.