Weekly Watchlist #4 (23rd Sept – 29th Sept)

weekly watchlist 4 fleabag live phoebe waller bridge the politician ben platt the good place kristen bell ted danson netflix

And another one. Still working out exactly what I want these to look like, but I think they’re starting to take shape a bit better.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

Again, I’m really enjoying this, particularly as it began to fill in the rest of the cast a little more this week. I think the main thing it needs to do, and do quite quickly, is make more of an effort to characterise the lead character’s girlfriend – at the moment she’s not much more than a cipher, which would be a flaw even if a lot of the drama didn’t pivot around Will Sharpe’s character’s relationships.

Fleabag Live! (National Theatre Live)

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so conscious of how important Sian Clifford is to Fleabag until she wasn’t in it. That was my primary takeaway, anyway, and what I kept thinking throughout this not-actually-live-but-repeat-recording-of-the-live-version showing of Fleabag that I went to see this week. (The same is sort of true of Hugh Dennis too, actually, although to a much lesser extent.)

What I was also trying to work out, though, was Fleabag series 2 – I am, I think, one of the few people for which that didn’t entirely click (although I’m of the mind that I must’ve surely just missed something). It struck me that the ending of Fleabag series 2 was an almost complete refutation of the ending of series 1 – I’ll go into this properly someday I’m sure – so I was interested to see if, maybe, that was the DNA of the spikier stage show resurfacing. Not so, though; the way Fleabag’s first series adapts the stage show is obvious, and the second series remains a mystery to me.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

If all was right in the world, Jeremy Strong would get lots and lots of awards for this. He’s sublime.

Superstore (NBC)

Superstore is an all-time favourite of mine – the cliffhanger that closed season 4 has already earned it a place on the best of 2019 list, no question. It was the sort of moment that felt like it was breaking genuinely new ground for a network sitcom, positioning Superstore as a vital, urgent piece of television, the sort of thing that genuinely earns a place in television history.

The fifth series opener threw me a little, though – I’m not sure if it was behind the scenes changes, or maybe it’s just not quite possible to live up to the weight of expectation generated by a big moment like that (I’m quite consciously trying to avoid revealing it here), but I was a tad disappointed by this. Looking forward to next week anyway, though.

The Circle (Channel 4)

This is surprisingly engrossing – it’s mostly a load of nonsense, as tends to be the case with reality TV, but there’s something about the Big Brother crossed with Catfish premise that’s becoming increasingly difficult to look away from, even before they threw Richard Madeley pretending to be a 27 year old woman into the mix.

The Good Place (Netflix)

More than anything else on television at the moment, The Good Place makes me feel slightly out of step with everyone else. I just don’t like it that much! It’s… fine. It’s nice, it’s often sweet, and sometimes I quite enjoy it. It feels friendly, and that’s neat. But by the same stroke, it’s often unbearably twee, deeply, overly saccharine, and at times it’s actually quite irritating. It’s not bad, or not bad enough to be worth some attempt at a takedown – but I do feel so, so out of step with the general critical consensus on this one, since everyone’s hailing it as the most revolutionary comedy since, well, the genre was invented it sometimes feels like.

It is very conceptually striking at times, and it’s often quite inventive – what I do find sort of notable actually is that the stretch I’ve enjoyed the most, series 3, seems to be the consensus weakest season – but for the most part I struggle to click with it. I think I just don’t find it particularly funny (I’ve always enjoyed it more when I stopped expecting it to be funny, I think), and I’m always slightly baffled when some screencap goes viral on twitter.

“Stonehenge was a sex thing”, says a CGI elephant. I mean, sure, okay.

The Politician (Netflix)

This is peak Ryan Murphy, and – I say this with genuine admiration – quite neatly filled a Riverdale-shaped hole in my heart.

Favourite show of September: Has to be Succession, really.

Best new show of September: Going to go with Defending the Guilty, actually, which I’ve been quietly impressed by.

Most looking forward to in October: Oh, it could only be Riverdale, my one true love, even now.

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Weekly Watchlist #3 (16th Sept – 22nd Sept)

weekly watchlist 3 defending the guilty will sharpe loudest voice russell crowe roger ailes the cameron years david cameron on the record

Back again.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

Started watching this because it had Will Sharpe in it, mainly, and he was so good in Flowers. Actually I figured he’d be writing this too, which was a big part of why I was interested (again, really, go and watch Flowers, he wrote it, it’s brilliant) – he didn’t write it, but he’s still great in it, so it balances out I think.

I liked it, anyway, and I’m definitely inclined to stick with it. It’s quite ostentatiously pilot-y in places, paying off lines from earlier in the episode right up until the credits, and you can definitely sense how specifically constructed it’s been – but, equally, there’s an obvious level of competence to it that stops it ever feeling grating. The cast are hugely charming, too, and this has clearly got the potential to develop into something pretty memorable.

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

What I like most about Euphoria is the moments when it realises it doesn’t have to be realistic. I mean, granted, it’s never that realistic – it thrives in the space that separates optimism and cynicism, fantasy and nightmare, never quite the parents’ worst fears nor the teens’ great expectations, injecting both with a note of scepticism and, lets be honest, deep pretension – but still. Recognising that it often already veers on the exaggerated, because stories about teenagers always do, leaning into that is where its most impressive – so sidestepping any obligation to realism to instead commit to a 70s crime drama spoof, or indeed a Larry Stylinson sex scene, is where Euphoria is at its best. (Although, that said, I’m never fond of those House-esque ‘inside the body’ medical shots. Don’t bother, they’re never worth it.)

It still isn’t perfect. (Well, Zendaya is, but everything around her somewhat less so.) I’m not sure if I’d like it to lean a little further into the almost anthology-esque style of the openings focused on each character, or to go the other way and integrate the plotlines a little more – or, indeed, if that’d make a difference at all. But it’s been a mostly strong if occasionally shaky series so far, and I’m interested to see how the finale ties that all together.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I say this after every episode of Stath Lets Flats, but I think A Stressfully Date is the best episode of the series so far. I mentioned already how impressive Jamie Demetriou’s knack for physical comedy is, but so are all those idiosyncratic little word choices – “like a red metal” is basically meaningless, but in context, it’s sublime.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I would watch a Tom/Cousin Greg spinoff. Or, really, just more of them every episode. Consistently my favourite part of any given episode, alongside all my other favourite parts of any given episode.

The Cameron Years & The David Cameron Interview (BBC One & ITV)

Putting these ones together because in many respects they were functionally identical – actually, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Cameron’s sections in each were recorded on the same day, as part of the same press session?

Anyway, I wasn’t especially impressed – neither were anywhere close to interrogative enough, they were far too passive to be of much note. Specifically the BBC version, actually; I wasn’t especially impressed by the choice to remove the journalist’s side of the conversation, presenting it solely as Cameron’s own narration, straight to camera. Not a huge amount of room for insight – it’s probably the longest advert for a book I’ve ever sat through.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

The second episode is where I started to understand The Loudest Voice better, I think – its 9/11 episode is an often frantic, at times chilling piece, and I think here starts to make the case for this series as something approaching a vital piece of drama.

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Weekly Watchlist #2 (8th Sept – 15th Sept)

weekly watchlist 2 jo swinson liberal democrat conference dragons den deborah meaden elementary season 7 lucy liu succession stath lets flats 2

A slightly shorter installment this week – I’ve been out and about a bit more, and reading a book. (About television, obviously.)

Dragons’ Den (BBC Two)

I know, I know, but I love it, I don’t care. I love Evan Davies’ awful jokes, I love the aesthetic of their strange, loft conversion/abandoned warehouse board room, I love the daft pitches, I love the interplay between the Dragons and the moments it suddenly goes frosty, and I love watching the back and forth, insisting I could do better even though I don’t really understand any of what they’re talking about. (I mean, I realised the other day I don’t even understand how they exercise their controlling stake in the businesses – are the Dragons given, like, board seats? Voting rights? What?)

I know that this is basically not all that different from any other reality competition, just with a veneer of intellectualism (achieved through a more overt acknowledgement of capitalism? Is there maybe something to that?), but, again, I don’t care. I suppose this is my guilty pleasure TV show, but, again, I don’t care.  Always watch it when it’s on, and I pretty much always have.

Elementary (CBS, Sky Witness)

What I’ve found interesting about this season – the seventh and final, a shortened run unexpectedly commissioned, all involved expecting the sixth season finale to be their last episode – is how reliant its been on callbacks to earlier episodes. Quite a few episodes have been structured around returning characters, albeit often rather more obscure, less significant ones – it’s a brief reappearance from a gangster Sherlock got a clue from three years back, as opposed to, you know, ‘the return of Moriarty’ or the like.

Not entirely sure what that says, admittedly – are they maybe creatively spent at this point? Maybe, but I’m not wholly convinced; I suspect it’s more likely that scripts were restructured to incorporate throwback characters once it became clear that Elementary would be back for a victory lap after what would’ve been an already perfect finale. Season 7 hasn’t, admittedly, been Elementary’s most original or innovative – but then, that’s never really been the appeal anyway.

Have I Got News for You (BBC One)

One of the cleverer things Years and Years did – but also, arguably, the most quintessentially Russell T Davies thing it did – was contextualising the rise of Emma Thompson’s right-wing populist very explicitly in terms of her television appearances. Specifically, Have I Got News for You. Couldn’t quite tell if Viv Rook’s appearance on the panel was filmed specially for the show, or if it was constructed out of archive footage – could quite easily be the latter. It’s a fairly unsubtle criticism of HIGNFY and all involved, after all.

Anyway. I’m not actually watching full episodes of the show – is it even on at the moment? No, I just can’t stop watching this clip of Boris Johnson, appearing on Have I Got News for You so long ago that Angus Deayton was still the permanent host. It’s been on my mind, for obvious reasons (as has the SNL episode Donald Trump hosted in late 2015) – feels so, so uncomfortable in hindsight. Well, “hindsight”, it’s hardly ancient history. But you know.

“You’re making Boris into a figure of fun!”, says Paul Merton. I wonder if they’ve ever felt responsible, even a little bit.

Liberal Democrats Conference (BBC Parliament)

I’ve been watching this with interest over the weekend – not exclusively, but certainly its taken up more of my time than near enough anything else. (And, probably, more than it deserved.) I’ve always tried to pay attention to what the Lib Dems are up to – I’ve lived in a Lib Dem constituency for my whole life, more or less, and for a time my local MP was the party leader.

Can’t say I was overly impressed, though, particularly with their handling of Phillip Lee’s defection; Alistair Carmichael’s speech about it was deeply patronising, I though, and Jo Swinson’s was much the same. (Huge respect for the party member who heckled her, though.) Bothered me enough that I emailed the new candidate for my constituency – if nothing else, in a Lib Dem/Tory marginal seat, there’s a high chance I’m gonna end up voting tactically here – to find out what she thought.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I’d be very, very surprised if this didn’t make my top ten for 2019 at the end of the year – it’s one of my favourite things on at the moment, and absolutely one of the best comedies of the past few years. It’s a shame it hasn’t found quite the same scale of audience as Derry Girls – understandable, granted, but a shame nonetheless.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I was, I think, somewhat less enamoured by Tern Haven than most. Not, obviously, that I disliked it – Succession is still my favourite part of the week – but there was something a little frustrating about how it followed the previous episode. I’d be inclined to argue that the closing moments of Safe Room, that conversation between Kendall and Shiv, is one of the best (if not the best) scene from across the series as a whole so far… and yet it doesn’t seem to have been the pivotal, dynamic changing moment it first appeared. I’d have liked to have seen a little more follow up from that, I think; I’m sure it’ll be returned to in time, but for now, at least, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t seem to have informed the Kendall/Shiv relationship as much as I anticipated.

Anyway! That’s what I’ve been up to this week – also read (most of) Emily Nussbaum’s book, I Like to Watch, which I quite enjoyed. Thinking a little more about how exactly to make this work as a regular column type thing – maybe a running list of the best of the year? Recommendation of the week? Best of the month? What I’m most looking forward to for the next month? I don’t know exactly, still ironing out the kinks a little bit. But we’ll see.

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Weekly Watchlist #1 (1st Sept – 7th Sept)

weekly watchlist 1 succession this way up a confession martin freeman aisling bea jeremy strong sarah snook reviews british tv television alex moreland

A new thing I’m trying out, which I figure is basically self-explanatory. I watch a lot of stuff, a lot of which I never actually end up writing about, so this seemed like a good way to keep track of it all – with aspects of it, I suspect, ending up as first drafts of ideas that might turn into full articles.

I am not exactly sure how consistent this is going to be, whether it’ll definitely be every week, if I’ll write something about everything I end up watching or maybe just list some, whether it’ll go beyond television to include anything else I might watch – we’ll see, basically.

But, anyway. Some short-form thoughts on some stuff I saw this week:

A Confession (ITV)

I’m increasingly uncomfortable with true crime dramas like this, and I have been for a while now – the sort of programme that takes real tragedies, stories that belong to real victims, and reducing all that pain and suffering down to a collection of ITV clichés about a stoic policeman who’s sad about not seeing his wife enough. “Based on a true story” ends up little more than a marketing flourish for a Martin Freeman star vehicle, rather than an acknowledgment of the people at the heart of this story.

What struck me particularly about A Confession, though, was this long, sweeping shot of scenery, set to mournful music – exactly the sort of thing Broadchurch lifted from scandi-noir crime dramas, positioning A Confession, quite pointedly, alongside these fictional dramas. It feels like the wrong approach – particularly, actually, for a drama adapting this story, which surely should be about examining the nuances of the legal system rather than aping the structure of a straightforward whodunnit.

I’ll stick with it, albeit only because I think I could probably get an article out of it.

Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX, BBC Two)

Such an impressively, compulsively watchable series – which always sounds like faint praise, but I think actually that’s a more meaningful feat than its necessarily recognised as, especially given the deluge of competitors a series has to distinguish itself against these days – and I’m really kicking myself that it took me so long to actually get around to starting the second series.

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I’m three episodes into Euphoria, and I’ve had my doubts so far – charming though Zendaya is, the opening two instalments felt like they were much more about making bold, provocative statements of intent rather than telling any particular story, and anyway, I’m not so sure how much I actually enjoy watching teenagers going through, well, heavy shit.

But then the third episode was a considerably more idiosyncratic, and interesting, piece of television; any programme that can pull off a Larry Stylinson sex scene or intercut a lecture on dick pic etiquette with footage of Charles Manson is something I’m inclined to stick with at least a while longer.

Manifest (NBC, Sky One)

This is pretty awful. It’s a show about a plane that disappeared, and then reappeared five years later, and to be honest it almost feels like a programme that would be more at home five years ago – in the end, it’s just another Lost wannabe. I’ve watched six episodes of this now, even though it is pretty awful; it’s not even accidentally compelling the way The Resident was. Probably gonna give up on this sooner rather than later.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

This is consistently the highlight of my week (honestly, any moment I spend not watching Succession is a moment where I am frankly not as happy as I would be if I were watching Succession), and I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up in the number one spot when I end up putting together my best of 2019 list.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I’m stunned at Jamie Demetriou’s skill at physical comedy. He’s so, so good.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

Early days yet with this one, but I’m gonna stick with it – I’m always quite interested in stories that take place in the late 90s and early 2000s, covering events I was alive for but never really wholly conscious of at the time, and the journalism angle helps as well too obvs. Haven’t quite worked out how I feel about Russell Crowe’s performance though yet, particularly the prosthetics – I can’t tell if I think they accentuate or detract from his portrayal of Ailes – but we’ll see. And, you know, if nothing else, it’s only 7 episodes.

The Mash Report (BBC Two)

Some years ago, I wrote an article about how The Mash Report wasn’t very good. Nor was the article, granted, but still, when The Mash Report started, it was pretty dire. Since then, though, I’ve dipped in and out of the show, just in case it improved massively while I wasn’t looking and I could write an “I was wrong about The Mash Report” type article.

Not feeling the need to write that one just yet.

This Way Up (Channel 4)

I finished this at the tail end of August, but I liked it a lot and might not get the chance to say anything about it otherwise, so here it is anyway. I think, actually, if Fleabag didn’t exist, this would probably have a lot more acclaim? It’s difficult, obviously, to draw comparisons, and you don’t want to do that stupid thing the Guardian’s doing at the moment by comparing literally everything with a woman in it to Fleabag.

But! I do actually think there’s a bit of merit to the comparison in this case, if only because there’s a thematic similarity, in terms of how they deal with loneliness (Fleabag is hugely about loneliness and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise), and mental health, and so on. Actually, This Way Up is almost a little more specific, which I appreciated, contrasted with what Fleabag is inclined to leave implicit. It’s probably not unfair to say This Way Up owes a debt to Fleabag, but it’s a small one, I think, and probably more in terms of the slightly boring, commissioning angle, where the head of every channel is looking for the next Fleabag. But also, that kinda undercuts Aisling Bea, who is great, so I don’t really care for that line of thinking.

What I would say is that This Way Up is probably better at being a more – and this sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, I’m not – traditional, straightforward comedy. Fleabag, I’ve recently started to think, is a drama that’s taken on the shape and style of a comedy (in contrast to Succession, which is a comedy that’s taken on the shape and style of a drama – I’m wondering, actually, about genre as structure first and foremost, about a television language that’s been defined by relatively arbitrary strictures imposed onto the format, which is why a half-hour drama like, uhm, I’ve forgotten the one I was raving about a while back, but it’s why a half hour drama can suddenly feel like such an exciting and interesting thing, you know? Although I suspect part of that is also just a reaction against the sort of televisual manspreading, to steal a phrase, of prestige television, of Game of Thrones going on for hours and hours and hours – and Succession is actually working with that in a sort of meta sense, because it’s all about excess and opulence and disgusting wealth, so even though it’s obviously a comedy using the language and style and form of a prestige drama is how it heightens that)

That bracket got long enough that I thought I should start a new sentence. Anyway, what I was going to say is, This Way Up is dealing with similar themes to Fleabag while still being an actual comedy – Fleabag is, I might be inclined to argue, just (“just”, but you know what I mean) a very funny drama. I think finding a space for these ideas, finding a space for that subject matter, to handle it with sensitivity and levity all within the context of a sitcom, is actually arguably far more quietly revolutionary than the prestige dramedy of Fleabag.

(I definitely just did the thing I said I wasn’t going to do. Hmm.)

You can look at other Weekly Watchlists here. If you liked this article and you want to support what I do, you can leave a tip over on ko-fi, or back my Patreon here.

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