2016’s Top TV: A final round-up

After giving Planet Earth 2 and Mr Robot their own posts, here’s the rest of my favourite TV series from last year.

WESTWORLD – “The Original”/”The Bicameral Mind”

westworld
Copyright: HBO.

Westworld is an ambitious sci-fi western which HBO hopes will be its next Game of Thrones. With a similarly-enormous budget, it tells the story of the hosts and owners of a futuristic theme park which the richest people in the world visit to indulge their imaginations and play around in a sprawling area full of old-timey saloons, dusty plains and red cliffs that look like they’ve been lifted from a classic western.

Guests can kill and cuddle with any host they want because all the hosts are actually incredibly-lifelike robots, each with their own programmed routine that they play out day after day, with limited amounts of improvisation allowed when interacting with the wealthy wannabe-westerners that meet them. The technology for their ‘thoughts’ and the scripts for their storylines are worked on by a team of behind-the-scenes boffins including Bernard (Jeremy Wright), who uses his fascination with the intricacies of human behaviour to make the hosts as human as robotly possible.

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is stuck in a damsel-in-distress role, spending all of her days getting raped, rescued, killed, repaired and reset, ready to face a new day of trauma. Maeve (Thandie Newton) is the madam in charge of a group of whores who ply their trade at the saloon of a small town at the entrance of the park. She watches as the guests indulge their basest desires and gets caught up in the bank robbery that happens without fail every afternoon.

Meanwhile, Logan (Ben Barnes) shows his co-worker William (Jimmi Simpson) around the park and William is appalled by the way that Logan treats the hosts like expendable characters in a videogame, but Logan argues that that’s the entire point of the park: to treat the humanoid hosts as badly as he wants with no consequences. There’s also a nameless regular visitor wandering around trying to find a deeper level to the park’s theatrics because he’s become bored with the standard storylines.

It all kicks off when a new update that allows the hosts to use memories of their earlier experiences to improve their improv has unexpected side-effects – Dolores starts vividly reliving the horrors of her past and Maeve grapples with a new unsettling feeling of deja-vu. The park’s owner and co-creator Dr Robot Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins, clearly relishing the meaty material he’s been given) is working on a grand new narrative for his park and won’t let a minor technological hiccup like this stop him from completing it.

The hosts are becoming self-aware and sentient and furious, and their mysterious, menacing creator, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a bit of a god complex. Clearly, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. But how? And when?

The first season of Westworld was very promising. Its first episode was immediately engaging, immaculately-directed and exceptionally well-performed, introducing its intricate world in a way that was entertaining and fairly easy to understand. The show could easily become the mega-hit that HBO is hoping it’ll be.

Wood and Newton are both outstanding as the hosts who deal with their increasing awareness in very different ways and try to get their bearings as their pasts mix with their present. It should be no surprise that a show created by Jonathan Nolan, who also wrote Memento, has a plot that pivots around problems with recollection and unreliable memories.

The show tries to balance the fun crowd-pleasing cowboy adventures in the park with the sinister science and philosophical ‘What does it mean to be human?’ discussions in the cold glass offices of the park’s hidden headquarters. It’s a tricky mixture of moods but the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi (working on this between seasons of Game of Thrones) expertly moves from barnstorming action to creepy contemplation and back again.

Westworld likes to keep its cards frustratingly close to its chest, which results in a lot of time mid-season where characters seem to be this close to revealing the answers to its many mysteries but then decide to be coy instead. Fortunately, the feature-length finale is full of so many big reveals and bombshells that change our understanding of what was going on that it practically demands a re-watch of the whole season. And there’ll be plenty of time to do that – the next episodes aren’t airing ’til 2018…

(Oh, and beware of spoilers and theories! I accidentally glanced at some fan-theories while reading reviews and comments about the show as it aired, then was annoyed and a little surprised when many of them – even ones that I dismissed for seeming too outlandish and unlikely – ended up being 100% accurate.)

BLACK MIRROR – “San Junipero”

black-mirror-san-junipero
Copyright: Netflix.

Another excellent sci-fi that uses technology to explore the darkest depths of humanity was a big hit this year. Charlie Brooker’s timely anthology returned to find more ways to make viewers pessimistic and paranoid about their iPhones. It’s one of the most original shows of the 21st century, its genius writing has attracted top talent both in front of and behind the camera, with big stars, directors and composers from the silver screen eager to be involved and doing incredible work, but it still feels odd to say that I was looking forward to it – is it possible to look forward to something that’s always so bleak?

Watching this can be a thoroughly unpleasant experience, a brutal punch to the stomach that leaves many who view it feeling drained, depressed and unable to even think of seeing the next episode until they’ve had a long break. This last quality makes it an odd choice for Netflix, which has shows that are tailor-made for a lengthy binge, but the streaming service became the show’s new home in 2016.

This was an experimental season, playing with expectations of what viewers expect from an episode of Black Mirror, taking its usual themes about the dangers of misused tech and applying them to different genres and styles. It incorporated the hatred-through-hashtags of a social media mob into a feature-length police procedural, used a virtual reality game to do a playful horror pastiche and explored the rapid evolution of military equipment in an episode that resembled a war movie.

Its first episode, a darkly-comic satire exploring a world where online ratings are applied to real people, was a good way to introduce the show to a global audience. Filmed in soft pastel colours that masked the script’s bite, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending that’s bittersweet rather than bleak, it was a nicely-accessible ep that eased new viewers in and introduced them to Black Mirror‘s rather twisted view of the world without scaring them away.

The highlight of the season, and probably the entire series so far, was “San Junipero”, an  episode which came about after Brooker decided to mess with those who complained that his show about 21st-century-and-beyond Britain would now be too Americanised and different. He did this by writing an episode set in America. In the past.

It revolves around the romance between a shy tourist visiting a nightclub in the titular town and the confident girl she meets and falls in love with. A lot of time is spent establishing this unusual ’80s setting, the beautiful beaches and bright neon of the seaside paradise all alluringly-filmed by Gustav Danielsson and synthily-scored by Clint Mansell, and the relationship between its opposites-attract couple Kelly and Yorkie, played perfectly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis.

There are things in this episode that are rather atypical for Black Mirror, and not just the setting. There is kindness. There is joy. There is compassion. There is hope and optimism. All of this comes as a welcome relief, particularly after the harrowing “Shut Up and Dance” episode that preceded it, but there is still an ever-present worry, not created by the episode itself, but by us. After several episodes of rug-pulls and horrible twists and big reveals that make the characters’ lives immeasurably worse, it’s difficult to watch this happy couple as we wait nervously for the surely-inevitable Bad Thing to happen, hoping desperately that maybe, just this once, things will be alright in the end.

After 6 episodes of sadness and surprises which featured more nightmarish visions of the future while also breaking away from the formula the show established in its first two seasons, it feels like the show can do anything now, the possibilities are endless, which is an exciting prospect for the future of the series.

GAME OF THRONES – “Battle of the Bastards”/”The Winds of Winter”

game-of-thrones-6
Copyright: HBO.

The phenomenal fantasy finished its sixth season with a climactic battle and a finale that was quite possibly the best episode of the whole show.

Once again, the penultimate episode focussed on a big-budget bust-up in one area of the Seven Kingdoms, with a Messianic Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) facing off against the biggest of bastards Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in a field near Winterfell. The location wasn’t quite as dramatic as previous skirmishes at the Wall or King’s Landing but it gave the episode a gritty, realistic feel and quickly became a muddy graveyard of vastly-outnumbered Night’s Watch members and Bolton soldiers.

Impressive direction from Miguel Sapochnik (who also directed the next episode, more on that in a bit) turned a show full of dragons and ice zombies into a medieval Saving Private Ryan with heart-stopping moments like Ramsay’s cruel hostage negotiation, the CGI-free shot of Jon facing a stampede of cavalry, or the claustrophobic first-person view of him struggling to escape a disturbingly-large pile of corpses as the Bolton army closes in.

Game of Thrones has produced some incredibly cinematic setpieces over the years but it’s outdone itself with this episode, which opens with Danaerys saving her city from a siege by unleashing her dragons on the unsuspecting attackers. It’s a thrilling scene which would be the standout highlight of a normal episode but it gets overshadowed by the gruelling, grounded intensity of the conflict that follows.

The season closed with “The Winds of Winter”, which was essentially 60 minutes of pure, concentrated pay-off. Every storyline in the series reached an emotional high-point and featured lots of satisfying surprises and scenes which we’ve been wanting to see for years, including a final image which the show has been building up to since its first episode.

The opening 20 minutes lead up to a moment I daren’t spoil and this section alone would have catapulted the episode to the top of the Best Episodes table, its slow build of tension and unease established from the very beginning by the small, simple idea to use piano in the soundtrack for the first time (that Ramin Djawadi, what a guy). The rest of the episode keeps up this high standard, delivering scene after scene of resolution, confrontation and, of course, death (this is Game of Thrones after all).

Even the cringe-worthy Dorne storyline got a promising development, as bitchy grandmother/secret best character Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) sailed over to sort out the mess the Martells had made and give them some much-deserved mockery.

The stage is all set for Game of Thrones‘ final act. With just two shortened seasons left, the end is in sight and not many main characters have managed to get this far. Now to wait and see whether Westeros will be overrun by White Walkers or scorched by dragons, and who will sit on that damn Iron Throne, if there’s anyone with a pulse left by the last episode.

BETTER CALL SAUL – “Nailed”/”Klick”

better-call-saul-season-2
Copyright: AMC.

Better Call Saul is on track to equal or even surpass the show it spun-off from. Oh, did I say that last time? Well, it’s still true, especially after a season like this one which built on its first to give a compelling exploration of the fractious relationship between the McGill brothers, nudge Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) further along his path to becoming Saul in a way that feels completely organic, and spend more time on its secret weapon Kim (Rhea Seehorn) who often reaps the consequences of Jimmy’s actions.

BCS is a patient, methodical show that is happy to take its sweet time with every scene but is rarely dull. It likes to play with how we see its characters, giving depth to those who seem one-dimensionally mean, revealing flaws in its good-ish guy protagonist, constantly changing how we view Chuck (Michael McKean), and making it clear that it’s not just Jimmy who’s different to his Bad self – Mike (Jonathan Banks) isn’t yet the ruthless hitman we meet in the original series.

We spend so much time seeing the everyday minutiae and silent inner struggles of these character’s lives that when something momentous does happen, it hits like a truck. One worrying scene in “Nailed” ends with a sound that made me recoil and cover my mouth in horror, and a disorienting, agonisingly-long take of a character being prodded and questioned by doctors while on a gurney is one of the most distressing scenes I’ve seen all year. The finale ends with one of those Important Conversations that are this show’s bread and butter, capped with a quiet click (or “Klick”, I suppose) that has the same impact as a gunshot.

The show also has a subtle silliness which appears in both Jimmy and Mike’s storylines. Though Mike tends to deal with grisly violence and action-heavy material, his old-codger weariness and blunt attitude provides more than a few laughs.

Saul‘s behind-the-scenes crew is made up of many of the same people who worked on Breaking Bad, which means that its writing, direction and music are all reliably high-quality. The references to its predecessor are still slipped in seamlessly and, excitingly, “Klick” heavily implies that a huge one is coming in season three.

SENSE8 – “A Christmas Special”

sense8-christmas
Copyright: Netflix.

Sneaking onto the list at the last minute is Sense8, which returned for a feature-length special this Christmas. Functioning as both a reintroduction to the series and a setup for season two, the special revealed what had happened to its psychically-linked characters over the last year.

The series has sometimes struggled with juggling its 8 very different storylines that follow characters in seperate parts of the world, each with their own supporting cast of other characters and varying wildly in tone and genre. However, this special expertly jumped between plots and gave everyone a significant moment in their own stories. It was just nice to spend time with these characters again after such a long absence. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them.

The best part of Sense8 is when it uses its high-concept premise – 8 people born on the same day can communicate with each other telepathically, sharing emotions, knowledge and skills, even taking over each other’s bodies at will – to bring its characters together.

Masterfully-edited from gorgeous footage filmed several weeks apart at different locations on opposite ends of the globe, these scenes, whether they’re small conversations between two sensates struggling to work out what to do next or big show-stoppers like the birthday celebration, the fight, the Christmas Eve choir service and the scene where everyone, uh, comes together, are impressively well-executed and staggeringly ambitious.

No other show would even attempt most of this stuff, but the massive budget and creative freedom given to the Wachowskis by Netflix for their passion project allows them to do whatever they want. The results are stunning and often deeply moving.

There are dozens of highly-acclaimed shows nowadays which are dark or gritty or full of death, violence and despair, focussing on troubled protagonists with grim lives facing one crisis after another (e.g: well, every other entry on this list) and that’s fine in moderation but it can get a bit much.

Thank goodness, then, that a show as relentlessly optimistic and sentimental as Sense8 exists, a show where its diverse protagonists have a superpower that is basically extreme empathy, where every problem can be solved by teamwork, friendship, emotional support and the psychic equivalent of tag-team wrestling.

Even when its overly-earnest dialogue becomes mawkish, even when its efforts to connect and intertwine these storylines become confusing, it’s worth watching just because a show this bold, heartfelt, weird and so heavily focussed on the goodness in people and their potential to do great things together without race or gender or sexuality being an issue is sorely needed right now.

Honourable Mentions: The Night Of – “The Beach”, Veep – “Mother”, Stranger Things – “Holly, Jolly”, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – “Kimmy Meets A Drunk Lady!”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?”.

 

Thank you to everyone who’s read all of this and I hope you’ll stick around because I’m gonna keep this blog going and see what top TV 2017 brings.

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