Sometimes, the prospect of starting a new long-running series with dozens of episodes to sit through just doesn’t seem like an attractive prospect, no matter how much praise and prestige it may have attracted, as there isn’t as much free time available to me as there used to be.
Luckily, this year offered a bountiful crop of short, succinct and satisfying dramas which arrived, amazed, and au-revoired before they could outstay their welcome..
Here are my favourite three.
A reporter from St Louis returns to her rural home-town after being told by her editor to cover an ongoing investigation into the murder of a young girl. Her boss thinks that going back to Wind Gap and dealing with her long-festering issues head-on will help her finally achieve some closure and do her no end of good. Well…
For Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, in what might be a career-best performance), confronting her past ends up being more traumatic than the crimes she’s supposed to be writing about, as Wind Gap’s suffocating atmosphere, gossipy locals and, worst of all, her nasty, overbearing mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson, impressively unpleasant in a difficult role) make her unconventional homecoming a living nightmare.
Then the police find another body.
Discovering who’s behind these murders becomes secondary to a claustrophobic character study of Camille and the toxic community in which she grew up.
However, this doesn’t mean that the crime plot is disappointing – when the killer is finally revealed, it’s shocking but satisfying and, like all the best crime drama whodunnits, seems incredibly, head-slappingly obvious in hindsight.
The show is lethargically paced, but anyone tempted to start staring at their phones would miss crucial details that flicker on-screen and disappear without making a sound. These can be jumbled memories from Camille’s past which her return has brought bubbling up to the surface, or subtly-hidden words that appear on objects around her to indicate how she’s feeling.
They are director Jean-Marc Vallée’s ingenious tricks which he uses to get us inside her head without the need for exposition or a voice-over narration. These confusing glimpses of her history and did-I-really-just-see-that tweaks to the environment contribute to the show’s slightly off-kilter atmosphere that make every encounter feel uneasy and sinister.
The eight-episode miniseries is adapted from a book by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, which may give you some idea of what to expect.
From the first episode’s dreamlike opening scene to the finale’s final post-credits shot, it’s a truly haunting, transfixing, disturbing, and thoroughly, thoroughly uncomfortable watch. Anyone looking for a feel-good binge, or who has suffered similar issues to Camille, should probably look elsewhere.
Amy Adams is far from the only Hollywood A-lister to star in a TV drama this year. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill headlined Netflix’s sci-fi comedy-drama Maniac, with Jonah playing against type as a depressed schizophrenic who takes part in an experimental trial for a drug that apparently cures all trauma, and Emma playing a grieving junkie who cheats her way onto the same trial just to get her next fix.
Each test subject is supposed to get an individually-tailored dreamlike experience that brings all their deepest fears bubbling up to the surface so that they can confront and overcome them while inside their own minds.
However, after emotions run high amongst the scientists in charge of administering the tests, a glitch causes Owen (Jonah) and Annie (Emma) to become mentally interlinked, leading to all sorts of surreal havoc when the tests begin.
This is the main hook of Maniac – it’s a playful, Inception-style jaunt through a series of different settings and genres that freewheel from 80s heist to mafia drama to fantasy epic and spy thriller, amongst others, that gives its leads plenty of chances to play different variations of their characters.
Before getting to the tests, the series takes its time to introduce us to its grey, slightly-dystopian near-future world and show why Annie and Ollie were drawn to the drug trial in the first place. The background details and minor characters in those first episodes reappear during the trials in surprising and often bewildering ways.
The show’s sense of humour can take a while to get used to, but once it all clicks it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially whenever Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) is on-screen, and it’s directed with eye-popping visual flair by Cary Fukunaga (who also did the good season of True Detective and will direct the next James Bond movie).
It’s not all goofy quirks and knockabout silliness, either – the central relationship between Owen and Annie is convincing and touching, and their attempts to grapple with their inner demons and connect with each other provide moments of genuine emotion amongst the high-concept daftness.
Benedict Cumberbatch is very good at acting.
This is a well-established fact, one so obvious that merely mentioning it feels redundant, yet when watching Patrick Melrose, it feels revelatory.
A few years ago, he publicly expressed interest in playing Patrick Melrose – at which point, presumably, a TV executive suddenly saw dollar signs and awards statues appear before his very eyes and immediately got to work assembling this stellar adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels.
As the titular character, Benedict grabs the viewer’s attention and refuses to let go, commanding the screen throughout the series and giving an awards-worthy performance without a hint of self-consciousness or vanity, pulling out all the stops to bring this complex person to life.
Cumberbatch’s astonishing portrayal of Patrick Melrose, a vice-ridden self-loathing Brit from a wealthy background who uses withering put downs and exaggerated bravado to hide his emotional scars, makes him as sympathetic as he is unpleasant, as hilarious as he is heartbreaking, often performing with such realistic vulnerability that the camera almost feels like a hovering intruder.
Over five episodes, each adapting a different book, we see him go on a three-day bender to grapple with the death of his dad (Hugo Weaving, monstrous), remember days from his seemingly-idyllic childhood which traumatised him for life (Sebastian Maltz impresses as young Patrick), become a father, attend a royal function at his old home, and perhaps, at last, achieve some sort of closure at the funeral of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, fragile and narcissistic).
Tonally, the series flits from a dark comedy of errors to a harrowing drama about abuse to a savage satire of upper-class callousness, which in the wrong hands could be a disastrous mess. Careful, insightful writing from David Nicholls, who knows when to hammer home the horror and when to slip in an acerbic one-liner, is matched with top-notch performances from all involved to make it work wonderfully well.
Without being in-your-face stylish (unlike, say, Maniac), it has a rather over-saturated look which suits Patrick’s often-addled perspective, and the lavish finery of the classy restaurants and mansions in which the drama plays out are shot beautifully.
Patrick Melrose is a masterpiece, and Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better.
Honourable Mentions: Bodyguard, A Very English Scandal.
After writing at length about how much I enjoyed American Gods, here’s the usual round-up of the rest of my favourite shows of the year,
The Good Place – “Dance Dance Resolution”/”The Trolley Problem”
After mining comedy gold from offices in The Office (US), local governments in Parks and Recreation, and police stations in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Michael Schur has tackled a more ambitious environment in his newest series – the afterlife.
The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) from the moment she’s told some very good and very bad news: the bad news is, well, she’s dead, but the good news is she’s now in the Good Place, a version of heaven where all of humanity’s best and brightest live out eternity in a blissful wonderland paired up with their soulmate as a reward for all the good they did during their time on Earth.
However, Eleanor didn’t do much good while she was alive, quite the opposite in fact, and feels that she must have ended up here by mistake.
American sitcoms don’t usually concern themselves too much with plot, as they’re often content to just act as a comfortable half-hour hangout where characters deal with their day-to-day lives at a leisurely pace while getting involved in increasingly-daft misadventures.
This show is different.
It delights in constantly surprising us with different aspects of its surreal setting and new information about Eleanor and her neighbours, then ending every episode in a cliffhanger that leaves us dying to see what happens next.
The plot is so chock-full of big reveals that talking about the second season without spoiling anything is actually a very difficult task.
What I can say is it’s absolutely brilliant, hilarious, and endlessly-inventive.
Highlights so far include ‘Dance Dance Resolution’, which doesn’t stop to take a breath as it zips through several seasons of potential storylines in one dizzying episode, and ‘The Trolley Problem’, where Eleanor and her friends try to explain human concepts of morality to a higher being through an ethics lesson that spirals out of control.
Following Eleanor’s experiences with her ethics professor ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the posh British socialite next door (Jameela Jamil), all-knowing AI assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and the neighbourhood’s supernatural architect and guardian Michael (Ted Danson, clearly having a great time in the role) is great fun and I can’t wait to see what future episodes have in store for them.
(The Good Place is on Netflix)
Mr Robot – “Runtime Error’/’Kill Process’
Picking up immediately after the ending of its divisive second season, Mr Robot quickly tackles the criticisms of that season by clearing up much of the confusion over character motivations and filling in gaps in the narrative which were infuriatingly teased but left unexplained throughout 2016’s episodes.
The psychological conspiracy thriller puts the emphasis firmly back on ‘thriller’ with a fast-paced rollercoaster of a season which focuses on a newly-motivated Elliot (Rami Malek) attempting to undo some of the damage his well-intentioned revolution has caused.
This goal puts him in direct conflict with powerful forces that have mysterious motives while his nearest and dearest hide devastating secrets from him.
Meanwhile, the show’s continued exploration of the rise of digital currency, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of privacy in the digital age makes it as timely as ever.
To call it a return to form would be a bit of an insult to season two, which I quite liked despite its issues – and its emphasis on character and backstory made a great foundation for this season to build on – but these new episodes are astoundingly good.
They’re full of memorable moments, shocking twists and astoundingly cool and clever tricks, and they maintain the show’s signature atmosphere of dread and disorientation.
‘Runtime Error’ follows Elliot and Angela (Portia Doubleday) in real time as he has a bad day at work and she struggles to follow instructions, tracking them in a way that makes the whole episode look like one long uninterrupted shot.
Far from being just a gimmick, this is an impressive and immersive way of building tension during a crucial day in the life of these characters – it’s thrillingly-executed, ambitious and just a hell of a lot of fun, even as the tension keeps relentlessly building over 45 long minutes.
Then ‘Kill Process’ sustains this tension by constantly cutting between several characters as Elliot tries to avert disaster and the FBI closes in on its targets until the suspense is almost unbearable, with a few gags and unexpected moments of slapstick comedy included to give viewers a bit of a breather.
The aftermath of these episodes dominates the rest of the season, as Elliot and Angela struggle to deal with what they’ve played a part in causing and the show flirts with the possibility of introducing sci-fi elements before quickly grounding itself firmly back in reality.
The cast still deliver brilliant performances, the direction is as stylish as ever, the writing is on point, the soundtrack is eclectic and Mac Quayle’s electronic score complements the action perfectly.
Most remarkable of all is that, three seasons in, it’s still very difficult to tell how this show will end, but I’m on board for whatever the future has in store.
(Mr Robot is on Amazon Prime Video)
Legion – “Chapter 7”
Legion is like watching an eight-episode psychedelic fever-dream.
The series sticks the viewer firmly inside the head of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who begins to suspect that the voices and visions he hears and sees, the same voices and visions that have lead to him being sent to a psychiatric hospital, may actually be real.
He might not be insane, but he may be insanely powerful.
David starts a relationship with another patient (Rachel Keller) just before he is caught up in a battle between a sinister government agency who wants to experiment on him and a misfit band of rebellious mutants who want to help him control his powers.
Film and TV are saturated with stories about superheroes these days, but Legion is unique.
It’s bursting with style, creativity, and confidence, flicking between reality, memories, nightmares and something else altogether at such a dizzying pace that it is, at first, a bit difficult to keep track of what’s what.
Thankfully, this is not a show that obfuscates and confuses just for the sake of it.
Things settle down slightly as David gets a better grasp of his abilities and the plot, which is fairly straightforward when all the visual pyrotechnics and unreliable narration are stripped away, reveals itself.
Each episode has an audacious showstopper of a sequence designed to leave jaws on the floor and minds well and truly boggled, and the main cast all give excellent performances.
It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive shows on TV right now.
(Legion is on DVD, Bluray, and NOW TV)
Doctor Who – “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls”
Taking a year off has done the show a world of good, as it returned reinvigorated with new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a fantastic-as-ever performance from Peter Capaldi.
Through Bill, the familiar tropes of the show seemed fresh and exciting again, as the writers managed to find plenty of inventive ways to introduce the Doctor’s new travelling partner to his time machine, his alien features and his complex morality.
I immensely disliked Matt Lucas’ character Nardole when he was first introduced two Christmas specials ago and the news that he would become a regular was met with a loud sigh, but he proved to be a fine addition to the TARDIS team.
He’s a well-written and likeable robot-human thing who is in the unusual position of being the Doctor’s travelling partner, his intellectual equal and, occasionally, his boss.
This season was intended to be a soft reboot, a good jumping-on point for new viewers, like Matt Smith’s first season was, and it does a wonderful job of showing how diverse and ambitious this show can be, enticing new viewers and reminding old ones why they like it so much.
Its first half features a string of great episodes that show Bill struggling to get used to the implausible sights and sounds she’s experiencing with this eccentric, wild-haired old Scottish man.
Even the episodes with plots that sound God-awful on paper (killer puddles, deadly emoji robots, etc) are surprisingly decent, and a few of the rest are the best in recent memory.
Victorian caper ‘Thin Ice’ is a perfect example of what a stand-alone Doctor Who episode should be, with a cool and unusual setting, a mysterious monster, good jokes, and well-performed character drama caused by a conflict between the differing perspectives of the Doctor and his companion, while space-zombie chiller ‘Oxygen’ has an intriguing premise, good twists, and – gasp – actual lasting consequences for the Doctor.
But these episodes, as good as they are, aren’t the ones mentioned at the top of this entry. With ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’, Stephen Moffat, in his final year as showrunner, has managed to outdo himself.
His tenure has been far from perfect and he’s written some cringe-worthy dreck over the years, but these two episodes show off everything he’s best at: cleverly-constructed out-of-sequence storytelling, impressive quotable speeches that show a keen understanding of the Doctor’s character, and well-devised concepts that are not just ‘scary for kids’ but scary full-stop.
‘World Enough and Time’ starts amusingly enough, with Moffat cramming in a few more self-referential ‘Doctor Who?’ gags while he still can, then it abruptly turns into a nightmare that gets darker and grimmer and bleaker as the minutes tick by before ending on an iconic final shot and a heartbreaking cliffhanger.
‘The Doctor Falls’ is about as cheery as its title suggests, putting the Doctor and Bill in a situation where it seems actually impossible for them to succeed and there’s an inescapable feeling of inevitable death over the whole episode because both writer and viewer know full well that Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor is on the way out.
All this doom and gloom is occasionally interrupted by one baddie merrily chewing the scenery and some touching moments from a surprising source.
Capaldi’s time as the Doctor has seemed oddly brief compared to his immediate predecessors, despite having as many full seasons as Tennant and Smith, but it’s great that he’s going out on such a high.
(Doctor Who is on DVD and Bluray)
Better Call Saul – “Chicanery”/”Fall”/”Lantern”
Another year, another stellar season of Saul. After opening with a couple of episodes that seemed like they were intentionally trying to frustrate those who complain that BCS is far too slow, the show ramped up to a long-awaited mid-season showdown between the brothers McGill.
The rest of the season explored the aftermath of that courtroom battle, which saw the first proper manifestation of Jimmy’s ‘Saul Goodman’ persona.
This was also the year that Better Call Saul became more like the Breaking Bad spin-off it was expected to be when it was first announced, with more characters from the original show popping up and playing key roles – the most notable one being Gus Fring.
I sometimes wonder whether this series would work for someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul still does because it manages to skilfully introduce more explicit ties to its predecessor without letting them take over the show and steal the spotlight from Jimmy.
Though Mike’s meetings with Gus and Nacho’s dealings with the Salamancas are gripping and also work as fanservice that doesn’t feel gratuitous, Jimmy’s slow transformation into Saul is still very much the focus.
In “Fall”, Jimmy is finally the amoral asshole he was always going to become, using his persuasive charm to manipulate and deceive one of his clients as the audience watches, stunned at his complete lack of empathy or remorse and finding themselves suddenly starting to hate this lovable wise-guy they’ve followed for three seasons.
This episode and the finale, “Lantern”, are a rough one-two punch that act as a dramatic reminder that, despite its slower, low-key feel, Better Call Saul can be just as shocking, upsetting and devastating as Breaking Bad when it really wants to be.
(Better Call Saul is on Netflix)
Fargo – “Aporia”/”Somebody to Love”
While it was good to have Fargo back, something just wasn’t clicking at first.
The characters were the sort of motley crew that wouldn’t feel out of place in either of the previous seasons, there was the requisite moment of shocking violence to kick off the plot, and the performances were all top-notch, especially Ewan McGregor playing the dual roles of Emmit and Ray Stussy.
During the slow early episodes, there was a well-executed episode-long diversion to another city that was like a short story tangentially-related to the tale the rest of the season was telling, which seemed like the sort of cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decision I’d be going gaga over in previous years.
But not this year. I was appreciative but distant, not fully engaged in the story this time around for reasons I couldn’t explain.
Then, around the half-way mark, something changed. The stakes were suddenly raised, dots were joined, ill-thought-out actions were having horrible consequences and I suddenly found myself caring immensely about characters I had previously thought of as quirky but fairly flat.
At the same time, the theme of the season was being hammered home with little-to-no subtlety but at least now I had a better understanding of what the show was trying to say, and it was saying it through the snaggle-toothed, bleeding-gummed mouth of the villainous V.M. Varga.
David Thewlis’ deliciously disgusting scene-stealing performance as this human ooze is a sight to behold.
His larger-than-life loan shark rambles about irrelevant trivia to sound clever and disarm his victims before telling lies so effortlessly that they became accepted truth through the sheer conviction of his slimy delivery.
Truth is the theme of the season, as the show confronts the lie it inherited from the film it’s based on which has appeared at the start of every single episode: “This is a true story.”
It examines how easily the truth can be distorted, moulded and transfigured for the malicious ends of the powerful and the greedy (no real-world subtext here, no sir), and how, sometimes, the truth is knowingly disregarded and deemed unnecessary when the lie is more convenient.
This analysis is wrapped in the riotously-entertaining second half of the season which features more of those cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decisions that I normally go gaga for – and this time I did.
Back on the top TV list you go, Fargo.
(Fargo is on DVD, Bluray, and Netflix)
Honourable mentions: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – “The Miserable Mill” (both parts), Blue Planet 2 – “The Deep”, Marvel’s The Defenders – “Royal Dragon”, Game of Thrones – “The Spoils of War”, Bojack Horseman – “Thoughts and Prayers”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy.”
This genre-defying series based on a Neil Gaiman novel follows a convict (Ricky Whittle) who is released from prison early after his wife dies.
That tragedy soon becomes the least of his worries when he meets a mysterious stranger (Ian McShane) on the flight home who offers him a job as a bodyguard.
Shadow Moon (yes, that’s the convict’s actual name but bear with me) is then drawn into a world he doesn’t understand, a world where old gods that came to America centuries ago, brought into the country by immigrants who believed in them, now wander around lost and bored and far from the height of their powers.
In the meantime, humanity has channelled its belief into man-made concepts like media, technology and globalisation, creating new gods that are quickly becoming unstoppable.
The show explores old myths from foreign lands and creates new ones right in the middle of 21st-century America: a fateful game of checkers against the god of war, a meeting between a salesman and a djinn that gives both of them new purpose, and a mortal’s chance encounter with a love goddess which ends with her swallowing him whole.
Before working on this, the series’ co-creator Bryan Fuller had just finished turning a crime thriller about a cannibal into a grandiose, mythical confrontation between good and evil and now he’s turned his eye towards adapting a book about an epic confrontation between actual, honest-to-god Gods, which is the sort of subject matter that fits perfectly with his love of the melodramatic, stylish and surreal. Everything is turned up to 12, because 11 just isn’t enough.
Despite having a rock-solid suspension of disbelief that has withstood all sorts of high-concept nonsense over the years and remained intact – six increasingly-insane seasons of Lost, dozens of dumb Doctor Who storylines, the arty-farty third season of Hannibal – I found it difficult to get on board with American Gods at first. As the credits rolled on episode one, I stared at the screen speechless and baffled, but not in a good way.
It was the two mid-season episodes “A Head Full of Snow” and “Git Gone” which fully sold me on it.
The former went from a touching exploration of death to a rooftop conversation that’s filmed like a fairytale to a tense high-stakes rematch to an unexpected love story between two strangers to a comical heist to a moment of pure wonder, all without skipping a beat. It was a seriously impressive and seamless series of scenes that fully displayed the show’s high ambitions and abilities.
Then “Git Gone” resolved the moment from episode one that had caused my previously-mentioned bafflement in a way that was unexpected, satisfying, and absolutely hilarious.
There are a lot of things about American Gods that viewers may find difficult to accept, but belief is a central theme of the show and this disbelief, if anything, helps us relate to the show’s protagonist, who is just as bewildered and overwhelmed by what he’s witnessing as we are.
He is the stoic centre around which the crazy and colourful cast of characters revolve and though he’s perhaps the least interesting character, he is the most important.
Shadow’s endless road trip around America with his eccentric employer makes up the fairly-thin plot of the show, which often prefers to leave the pair entirely and show us little unconnected vignettes about the old gods’ journeys to the country and what they’re getting up to these days.
This is why, after eight lengthy episodes, it still feels like the story’s barely getting started and we’ve only gone a few chapters into the 600-page book that the show’s based on, but it’s hard to complain when the performances are this good and it’s so easy to be enchanted by American Gods‘ dreamlike visuals.
It’s happy to leave us wanting more, and I’m happy to wait as long as Michael Green and Bryan Fuller don’t stretch this out for too long – oh, they’ve left the show.
Yes, as 2017 began to draw to a close, the pair abruptly exited after creative differences with the show’s network. Apparently, the budget was ballooning into the tens of millions without attracting the audience that would make that expenditure worthwhile
It remains to be seen how this will affect the show – most of season two’s scripts have already been written and it still has the same talented cast and crew, but it won’t quite be the same without Green and Fuller’s style and sensibilities.
I regret to inform you that Netflix has made the baffling decision to turn A Series of Unfortunate Events into a different sort of series. The books, in which Lemony Snicket selflessly chronicled the tragic true tale of the Baudelaire orphans, have sold millions of copies and people all over the world have disgracefully delighted in the sorrowful story of these poor children. There is a great deal of misery contained within these volumes yet the books were sold as children’s literature, probably due to a malicious marketing mix-up.
Why anyone would think that a show involving a deadly house fire, an enormous serpent, killer leeches, dangerous lumber mill machinery, and terrible disguises would be suitable family entertainment is beyond me. It would have been far wiser and more commercially viable to make an 8-episode adaptation of the charming animated film The Littlest Elf instead.
A comic actor played the wretched villain Count Olaf in a film of the Series that plagued cinemas nationwide in 2004 but his repeated attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ fortune are no laughing matter and I daresay that, in their attempt to profit from the orphans’ misfortune, Paramount have something in common with the despicable count.
Now, another misguided attempt at adapting this miserable material has been made and Netflix has gone to great lengths to replicate the tone of the film. They even managed to clone Emily Browning and cast her as Violet again under the name of ‘Malina Weissman’.
The film attempted to condense the plot of the first three books into 90 minutes but the series is stretching this sorry affair into three seasons, prolonging the suffering of these brave, intelligent children. And casting a real baby as Sunny and thus forcing her to be part of this unpleasant production surely counts as some form of child abuse.
There are no photos of the elusive Mr Snicket that aren’t blurry or taken with a long-zoom lens from a great distance but casting Patrick Warburton as Lemony was an ingenious move by the show’s creators since he looks and sounds the exact opposite of how readers pictured Snicket in their heads, which will confound the many police officers and government officials looking for him.
A lot of care has clearly gone into this adaptation, with its storybook-style set design, very fine direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, perfectly acceptable performances, and high amounts of of whimsy – a word which here means ‘silliness and humour added in order to make the cruelty of this whole saga less upsetting’ – but nevertheless, anyone who decides to give this show a try should take its theme song’s advice and look away.
As a wannabe TV critic with nothing better to do, I have a self-imposed duty to sit helpless and watch every minute of these unfortunate events unfold in front of me but there is nothing forcing you to do the same. Be wary and be watchful, but do not watch this. There are plenty of other Netflix Originals available to view that would be more wholesome and worthwhile than this one, like the cartoon with the talking vegetables or the one about the snail that goes fast.
Do not be fooled into thinking that this is all some elaborate attempt at reverse psychology and binge it anyway or you will soon be surely dismayed to discover that A Series of Unfortunate Events contains exactly what it says on the tin.
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 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”
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”
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 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”
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.
Though it has a rather daft title, Mr Robot is one of the best new shows on TV. Its first season was thrillingly tense, fast-paced and confidently stylish. Its second was slower, less eventful and divided opinion, but I still loved it. But before we get to that, here’s a spoiler-free introduction to this gripping conspiracy-thriller.
The series follows Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek), a lonely cyber-security engineer with a drug habit who prefers getting to know people by hacking into their emails and social media profiles than by talking to them face-to-face. We join him just before he meets Mr Robot (Christian Slater), a charismatic anarchist who persuades Elliot to join his hacking group fsociety, which plans to hack into E Corp, the biggest corporation in America, and erase everyone’s debt.
Mr Robot is a show that wears its influences on its sleeve. Elliot and Mr Robot’s fuck-society, boo-consumerism dialogue often sounds sounds like it’s come from FightClub but tweaked and updated for the 21st century, its portrayal of sociopathic wealthy businessmen is reminiscent of American Psycho and its precise, carefully-composed shots are like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.
It also has an interesting gimmick: Elliot speaks to us and looks at us (via the camera) because he sees us as an imaginary friend that he created. When we’re with him, we see things from his point of view. He calls E Corp ‘Evil Corp’, so whenever the company is mentioned in his presence, he hears everyone calling it Evil Corp. His paranoia, anxiety and drug-induced hallucinations affect the show’s look and blur the line between what’s real and what’s in his head.
We also follow his oldest friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), E Corp employee Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his cold, calculating wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), all of whom have their own issues to deal with that Elliot doesn’t know about.
Season one was a tough time for poor Elliot. While preparing for his big hack, his personal life fell apart and he became increasingly paranoid and unsure of his own mental stability. He also felt betrayed after we failed to warn him about a twist that became very obvious to us but was a devastating shock for him. He doesn’t seem to realise that it would be literally impossible for us to tell him anything, but I guess we shouldn’t hold that against him.
The second season began with Elliot struggling to recover from his mental breakdown, working on his complex relationship with Mr Robot and dealing with some severe memory loss. The rest of fsociety were struggling to move forward without their leader, Angela was struggling with her frightening new bosses, the Wellicks were struggling to stay together, and FBI agent Dominique DiPierro was introduced to hunt down the hackers but struggled to cope with the overwhelming mess that she’d stumbled into.
Every character was lost, confused and losing hope, while viewers were left in the unique position of having the main character of a show they’re watching intentionally hiding important plot information from them because he no longer trusted them.
All this made for a very different second season, much slower than the first, more conspiracy than thriller. It risked alienating viewers as it put more focus on characters who know far more than they’re letting on, whose scenes were often cryptic, vague and surreal. It was even frustrating at times as it very successfully tried to make us as disoriented and unsure of what was real as its protagonist.
According to Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, season one was originally the first act of a film screenplay that expanded into a TV show, so this season is act two – but only the first part of act two, the part where there’s a lot of setup and plenty of back-story but not a lot of plot progression. By the time we finally have a fairly clear understanding of everyone’s goals and motivations and what exactly is going on, the season’s over.
However, there was plenty to love about this year’s episodes.The lengthy scenes showing Elliot struggling with his sanity allowed the show to really go nuts (ahem) with its visuals, which were already bold and inventive, and gave us a deeper understanding of its complicated protagonist.
The show maintained and intensified its melancholy, stifling atmosphere with its trademark mixture of Mac Quayle’s distorted electronic droning and bleeping on the soundtrack and the way it frequently films characters in the bottom corners of the frame, overwhelmed by their surroundings.
Occasionally, this dour mood would be interrupted by the abrupt bursts of shocking violence and stomach-churning tension that made season one so propulsive. Few shows can create such a strong feeling of unease and dread as Mr Robot can when it wants to.
The season one episodes ‘Brave Traveller’ (or “eps1.5br4ve-trave1er.asf” to give it its proper title. Yes, the show’s episode titles are fake filenames, which must have really confused anyone who torrented it), ‘White Rose’ (“eps1.7wh1ter0se.m4v”) and ‘Mirroring’ (“eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.qt”) would have easily made my 2015’s Top TV list if I’d seen them when they premiered. They feature moments of unrelenting tension, out-of-nowhere shocks and a feeling of imminent doom that borders on apocalyptic, all rooted in the small-scale personal drama of a mentally-troubled hacker. There are similar scenes in season two…but saying where exactly would spoil the surprise.
Luckily, the show didn’t lose its wry sense of humour amongst all the gloom; one surprisingly sweet scene this season showed Elliot dreaming of his ideal, but impossible, future where everyone he knows finds peace and happiness and joins together to support him – its soundtrack is a lullaby version of Basket Case.
It’s worth mentioning again how good Mr Robot‘s lead actor is. Rami Malek is given some very difficult material (‘OK in this scene, Rami, we’re going to pour fake concrete down your throat so just pretend to choke and panic and stuff – shhh, no, don’t worry, it’ll be fine…’) and does it incredibly well. For all its wonderfully cinematic direction and creativity, the show would not work at all if we didn’t care about Elliot. Malek makes us feel a lot of sympathy for this character and when he starts another monologue-heavy one-way conversation with us and glances at the camera, it never feels gimmicky or stupid. It feels oddly genuine.
After earning our trust in season one by pulling off a stunning gut-punch of a first season, Sam Esmail tested our patience with this one, but sometimes a show can make me forget about my problems with it by sweeping me along with its sheer confidence and audacity. I didn’t always know where it was going, or why, but I was happy to stick with season two as it gave off an air of ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, now check THIS out’.
Still, I’m not going to lie, I did breath a small sigh of relief when the finale arrived and confirmed that there was actually a point to the rest of the season’s introspective meandering. Now the stage is set for a new season which will hopefully perfect the balance of slow, surreal character drama and unnerving set-pieces that make Mr Robot such a great watch.
Best Episodes: “eps2.3_logic_b0mb.hc”/”eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx”
It’s been quite a rough year but, thankfully, there was a welcome respite from the endless stream of bad news – a weekly 60-minute dose of highly-concentrated awe and wonder that would uplift and inspire even the most jaded and disillusioned viewer.
For 6 wonderful weeks, Planet Earth returned to our screens, causing many a jaw to drop and eye to water as it showed more amazing footage from many of the most extreme and environments of the world – even man-made ones. The fact that, after decades of documentaries which have pored over every inch of the planet with cutting-edge tech, there are still so many routine behaviours and remarkable events from the natural world that we are only now seeing for the first time is incredible.
Each episode featured several little vignettes following a dazzling variety of different animals and creating a narrative out of nature. These scenes were intensely emotional, full of tragedy, thrills, death and beauty, while also frequently showing how much of a prick nature can be.
Pity the poor baby iguanas who scuttle out of their sandy homes to face an ambush of snakes before they can reach their parents (these scenes were so nerve-shreddingly tense they put many big-budget thrillers to shame). Be glad you’re not one of the mountain goats who have to clamber along crumbling, razor-thin paths on a cliff face to reach the only source of water on the ground, where predators lie in wait. Marvel at the snow leopards fighting for a mate in the Himalayas. Laugh at the sloth who swims across a surging river to reach a potential partner and gets rejected.
The thrill of Planet Earth II comes from knowing that all of it is real, these things happen on a regular basis and there are millions of other moments that occur when the cameras aren’t there, many of which may be even more amazing than what the world-class crew managed to capture.
Filmed (but not broadcast) in 4K ultra-HD, the show’s higher resolution made tiny details that were previously unnoticeable crystal-clear, like a foetal tadpole breaking out of its egg early to flee from a deadly wasp while it’s transparent frog father tries to protect the other eggs.
It also allowed the show to broadcast eye-poppingly-pretty panoramic shots of a large island populated by hundreds of thousands of penguins, frosty mountain valleys that transform into lush green forests, a plague of locusts flying across Madagascar, and a peregrine falcon perched on an aerial overlooking Manhattan.
It looks nice, basically. When writing a review of this series, it’s very tempting to just type ‘It’s great because, well, LOOK AT IT!’, stick a load of pictures underneath and call it a day, but that would be lazy. There’s more to this than just eye candy.
For me, the most intriguing part of Planet Earth II was the final episode, which looked at city wildlife. There had been moments in other episodes where, in-between all the animal facts and gentle narration, Sir David Attenborough would briefly explain how humans had been making the world much worse. E.g: A parade of crabs now get attacked by crazy yellow acid-spitting ants literally called ‘crazy yellow ants’ which humans introduced to the crabs’ island, a jungle in Madagascar has been deforested so much that it’s cut the local lemur population in half, etc, etc, oh dear, oh dear.
Perhaps, I thought, the “Cities” episode would be where he’d really let loose, wagging his finger at the camera and scolding viewers for irreversibly ruining the planet with all the pollution and greenhouse gases we create that damage the habitats shown over the course of the series. It would be entirely justified, if a bit of a depressing way to end the show.
But the programme kept a light touch on its lecturing and the actual episode didn’t mention climate change once, instead giving an unexpectedly hopeful view of how humans can coexist with the natural world.
The camera crew applied the same film-making techniques they used in jungles and deserts to film skyscrapers and streets, which was a memorably odd viewing experience that gave us an exciting new perspective of very familiar territory.
There was also plenty of humour to be found in seeing animals learning to cope with humans and vice versa. Monkeys ran along rooftops to steal food from a market in Mumbai, making the locals furious, and a lonely bird in Townsville used colourful scraps of discarded rubbish to build a display to attract a mate, which even included a small felt heart.
An incredibly-edited timelapse of a city at night full of glowing neon and bright lights lead into heartbreaking footage of baby turtles on a beach struggling to find their way as the light pollution from the nearby town disoriented them. Millions of viewers watched in horror as the helpless creatures wandered away from the moonlight, which is supposed to guide them to the sea, and onto busy roads and into sewer drains. This was the only time the episode focussed on the drawbacks of city life on wild animals, which, all things considered, shows remarkable restraint from the producers.
It was a very positive hour of television. It revealed the mutually-beneficial relationship between a pack of hyenas and the residents of an African town: the hyenas get meat from the butcher shop and the locals like them because they peacefully ward off bad spirits. It showcased futuristic architecture in Singapore that created a jungle environment out of an enormous steel framework filled with flowers and trees. There were flocks of birds which flew and danced in mysterious patterns above Rome for reasons even Sir David couldn’t explain. The episode ended with an optimistic and inspiring piece to camera from the legend himself, a wonderful send-off to an unprecedented episode of this unforgettable documentary.
Last but not least, the final ten minutes of each episode had a Diaries segment dedicated to the problems faced by the camera crew on their ambitious treks to remote parts of the world. These sections were just as fascinating as the footage they filmed, answering the question that everyone asks while watching documentaries like this: “How the hell did they film that?”. The answer, it turns out, is with months of preparation, plenty of clever improvisation, tough travelling and, sometimes, quite a lot of luck.
A documentary of this calibre only comes around once a decade. Cherish it.
Best Episode: It would be cheating to say ‘all of them’ so I’ll highlight “Cities”.