2017’s Top TV: The Best of the Rest

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”

the good place
Copyright: NBC/Netflix.

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’

mr robot season 3
Copyright: USA/Amazon.

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
Copyright: FX.

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”

doctor who capaldi
Copyright: BBC.

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”

better call saul 3
Copyright: Netflix.

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”

fargo season 3
Copyright: FX.

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.”
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2016’s Top TV: Mr Robot Season Two

mr-robot-season-2
Copyright: USA Network

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 Fight Club 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”