Best of 2019 | Ranking the not-very-many films I saw this year

2019 films top ten best of nightingale motherless brooklyn two popes knives out brexit mary queen of scots star wars

Films!

So, I watched twenty-six films this year, according to my Letterboxd. This isn’t so much a list of the best films of 2019 – I have very little doubt that, whatever that film was, I didn’t get around to actually watching it – but rather just a ranking of the various 2019 releases I saw this go around. Which, admittedly, wasn’t very many; after all, television has always been and still remains my first love, a lot moreso than cinema. (Not that I actually watched a lot of television this year either, I suppose, but still.) As ever, I’m going to try and be a bit more on top of things across 2020 – I’m already planning on working my way through some of the more recent Netflix releases, like Marriage Story and The Irishman, in January – but I suppose I say that every year.

First of all, a quick reminder of my favourites of 2018 and 2017. I didn’t really put together proper lists – largely because I watched even fewer films then; or, at least, didn’t take track quite as well – but in 2017 my favourite films were Miss Sloane, Bar Bahar/In Between, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in 2018 my favourites were Lady Bird, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Brooklyn. Also quite enjoyed Into the Spiderverse and A Star is Born, too.

A fair few of those twenty-six films were films I’d seen before, or films that didn’t come out in 2019, so I’ve left them off the list. Of the non-2019 releases, probably A Clockwork Orange is most noteworthy; hard to say I enjoyed it as such, but I’m glad to have finally got around to it in the end anyway.

Anyway. Films!

15) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Not the worst film I saw all year exactly, but certainly the most aggravating, and the one I think I resent the most. Everything else had something to say, even when I was inclined to be critical of what the film was saying; this was an anodyne, empty film, written by committee and making concessions to entirely awful people. Worse still, it’s hard not to get the sense that the long arc of history is bending towards cinema like this. Very, very dispiriting.

What I wrote about it: A full review, just a few days ago, which you can find here.

14) Green Book

Extremely yikes! This really only nominally counts because of the vagaries of UK release dates – should’ve left it in 2018, really – but I went to see this a few weeks after it won the Oscar. Probably one of the more uncomfortable cinema experiences of the year, that: lot of the audience really, really enjoyed it. There was a group a few rows behind me properly just cackling away.

13) Beautiful Boy

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Ultimately quite a hollow film, with very little going on beneath the surface; I’m not actually particularly convinced either Steve Carrell or Timmy give especially impressive performances either. Mawkish and manipulative.

What I wrote about it: Probably one of the best interviews I’ve ever done, this – a conversation with the writer, Luke Davies, about the female characters in the film, his own history of addiction, and more.

11) Five Feet Apart / Tall Girl

These basically occupied the same sort of space, so I’m inclined to put them together (although I suppose if I were being honest with myself, I should probably admit I enjoyed Tall Girl a lot more than some of the other films I ranked higher on the list). Absolutely trash, both of them, but enjoyably so.

10) Judy

As the credits started to roll, my friend turned around and said “so, was that Judi Dench?”

I enjoyed that more than the actual film, to be honest.

9) Last Christmas

last christmas emilia clarke eyebrows henry golding paul feig rolling stone wham george michael

Why must a movie be “good”? Isn’t it enough to sit somewhere dark and see Emilia Clarke’s eyebrows, huge?

8) Brexit: The Uncivil War

It’s a testament to quite how long this god-awful year has been to realise that I watched this nonsense in 2019. Twelve months on, with a new prime minister in place, and Brexit finally about to “get done” – ha ha ha ha – it’s hard to imagine this has aged particularly well. You’ve gotta hope, on some level at least, that James Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch regret it, at least a little bit.

What I wrote about it: Here’s my review of the film, which is quite critical. I did not especially like this film.

7) On the Basis of Sex

It’s an obviously fairly derivative biopic; in more ways than one it’s quite a small-c-conservative film, and there’s just generally something quite uncomfortable about that particular strain of American liberalism and the way it’s created this hagiography of an actually very fallible woman deserving of much more criticism than she got here.

That said, though: it’s still basically an entertaining way to spend a few hours. Armie Hammer is pretty good, and I always have a lot of time for Felicity Jones. Plus, someone unironically said “no way José”, which I very much enjoyed.

6) Captain Marvel

The usual Marvel stuff, this time starring Brie Larson… but I quite like Brie Larson, so this was good fun. At time of writing, I actually haven’t see Avengers: Endgame yet – I know, I know, but I was busy that week – but I figure it’ll end up basically in this slot.

5) Mary Queen of Scots

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It doesn’t really reinvent the wheel or anything, but there’s a lot of interesting little choices across the film that make it engaging enough. I’d have liked to interview the director Josie Rourke, actually. I imagine that would’ve made for quite an interesting conversation.

4) The Nightingale

Quite an uncomfortable watch, this – albeit obviously deliberately so, and it wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does if it didn’t make you uncomfortable. Not a film I like, not exactly – and, in fact, when I first watched it I actually quite disliked it – but the more I think on it, the more impressed by it I am. I suspect of all the films I watched this year, The Nightingale is the one I’ll find myself thinking about longest.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this film for Flickering Myth, and you can find that piece here. I also interviewed stars Aisling Francoisi and Sam Claflin about the film, which was very exciting, and you can find that here.

3) The Two Popes

I liked this a lot – quite a lot more, I think, than most other people did. Not a lot more to add beyond what I’ve already said, though. I would recommend it! It’s worth a watch, I reckon.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this film for Flickering Myth too, and you can find that piece here.

2) Knives Out

Such a well-crafted film, made all the more enjoyable by the sheer amount of fun all involved are so clearly having. Hopefully, Rian Johnson will make quite a few more of these in the years to come – a new Benoit Blanc mystery every couple of Christmasses would be a nice new tradition to develop.

1) Motherless Brooklyn

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My favourite of the year. It’s a shame that this doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience, though it was probably the wrong time of year to release it anyway; I suppose it was probably meant to act as an alternative to some of the bigger movies of the month, but evidently that didn’t work out. A shame, that. I think this’ll probably have a new life on Netflix or something similar in a few years’ time – it’s quite a good film, and really deserves some sort of an audience.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this one for Flickering Myth, and you can find that here. As well as that! I also interviewed Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw about the film, which was very exciting.

So! That’s another year done. What I am extremely conscious of is quite how narrow this set of films is, definitely that’s something I need to get better at. Granted I’m a bit limited by what actually plays at my local cinema, but still, something to try and work on. Think I might try and go to LFF in 2020, actually. That’d probably be a good thing.

What am I looking forward to next year? Heard a lot of good things about Clemency, although god knows when that’ll pick up a UK release date. Artemis Fowl I’m actually kinda cautiously curious about, if only because I used to really love the books. Little Women, too, I’m looking forward to, although I suppose really that’s a 2019 release I just won’t get around to until next year. Not unlike a lot of the films I’ll end up watching in 2020, I suspect.

Related:

The best television of 2019

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The End of Time Part One

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Even if I change it still feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away… and I’m dead.

What I’ve been trying to work out is if I would’ve known the Time Lords were coming back or not. It leaked ahead of time, I know that – a screenshot from the wrap video leaked to the tabloids – and I remember seeing that screenshot online somewhere… but I’m also fairly sure, watching it at my grandparents’ house, that I was quite surprised by the actual return of the Time Lords.

Here, in any case, we’ve almost squared the circle. It was around this time I would’ve first started getting into something resembling a wider Doctor Who fandom – reading forum posts, if not writing them; someone definitely tried to get me to sign a petition to recast Matt Smith, although that was in real life. It wasn’t until Asylum of the Daleks, or thereabouts, that I started to actually try and write Doctor Who reviews (before the blog even existed!), and it was a little while later that I started the Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor series… which is now, more or less, coming to an end with the conclusion of the Tenth Doctor era. I’ve little doubt I’ll have more to say about that next week – this is more or less it for these reviews, because I’m not gonna pick it up again until Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor – but, the point, anyway, is that this is all reaching its endpoint.

Much like the series itself! Huge, big ending point here – which is easy to forget, in hindsight. Yes, the revived series had already gone through one regeneration, but that was just the last of several flourishes from a show still establishing itself; the departure of David Tennant, after four years in the role, was something else entirely. Obviously it’s hard to know for sure, but I do sometimes wonder if the show would’ve continued as long as it has if Christopher Eccleston had stayed on another few years. Not because it wouldn’t have been popular – almost the opposite really. If the idea of a changing lead hadn’t been re-established, would it have been too late to introduce it in, say, 2008, after three full series and a few specials featuring Christopher Eccleston? Maybe.

It was something I had in mind, at least, while I was watching this: just how much of a big, cultural event it was. A decade on, the Davies/Moffat handover was probably more meaningful than the Tennant/Smith one, sure – but in 2009, without the lens of history to contextualise it, this might as well have been the end of the show. (Sometimes I do think of it that way, actually – it’s not so much that I like Doctor Who, per se, but that there’s a handful of related shows, all of which are called Doctor Who, each of which I like, some more than others.)

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Like a lot of these episodes, there was a lot I didn’t quite recall – basically anything after the end of series 3 I’ve not really rewatched particularly since it was first on. I’d guess this was maybe only the third or fourth time I would’ve seen The End of Time Part One? Something like that. Really, this exists more in my head from what I’ve read about it in The Writer’s Tale: I was a little thrown by the opening scene because I was expecting something else… which I realised a while later was actually a cut section from an earlier draft that RTD mentioned ditching in the book.

I’m also not entirely sure what the general perception of this one is, actually. Do people like it particularly? The only thing I really remember is a lot of old tumblr nonsense about how the Doctor here being worried about regenerating is an unforgivable departure from the way it was treated in the classic series. Admittedly a departure, yeah, but it’s hard for me to feel like it was anything other than the right choice – given, as we’ve established, quite how big an event it was. More to the point, though, the show shouldn’t ever really be beholden to anything that came before it if they’ve come up with a sufficiently good idea for something. Which, more or less, I reckon this was. Of course regeneration is going to be a big deal! It’d be a mistake to treat it otherwise.

Although admittedly the execution was a bit off in a few places, wasn’t it? There’s a lot of it that’s kinda naff. The Master with his electric glowing hands? More than a little bit silly – especially when he used those glowing hands to fly. The cactus that looks like Rory Stewart? Actually, I found it quite entertaining that he looked like Rory Stewart, but probably wouldn’t have done a decade ago. Murray Gold’s music? It’s a great score, as ever, but the arrangement itself is bordering on oppressive – the sound mix is way, way overdone. Even the scene with the Doctor and Wilf in the café, in effect the dramatic heart of the episode, doesn’t actually play anywhere near as well as I remember it doing.

So, this is one of the biggest Doctor Who episodes ever – and I think you can reasonably argue that it is – but it doesn’t sound like any of it is actually any good. Then what? Well, that kinda brings us back around to the question that’s been underlying this ongoing series of reviews since the start, doesn’t it? I like this thing so much, this Doctor Who thing, but how much of that have I been staking on personal nostalgia? Is this show actually any good?

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But, actually, silly question, because I don’t care. I know, I know, we’ve gone over this once or twice before – but, hey, this is one of the last times I’ll ever actually do this, so why not, right?

Historically, anyway, I’d turn around and point out all the fun little details that I do actually quite like. David Tennant, usually a big one. Little aspects of the design or directing. A joke. (I actually quite like the car fob bit with the TARDIS, but hey.) Maybe a guest star – it’s kinda fun that the High Priest Ood is played by Logan Roy, isn’t it? Imagine an Ood doing Logan Roy dialogue. Fun image. (“Everybody wants a kiss from that Ood”. No?) Or, perhaps, there’s something slightly deeper going on: in this one, for example, there’s some neat background stuff going on with the references to the recession etc, the Master’s victims are homeless people, all that. It’s not a lot, but you know, it’s something.

But, this time, since it’s the last time I’m mounting this admittedly probably unnecessary defence, different track. Because I’m starting to think that’s just conceding the premise a little bit. I’m reminded of something Steven Moffat said in an interview once – that his love of Doctor Who never really translated into it being a particularly good programme. Which is often true! And that’s something I have been conscious of a lot recently, and will no doubt be conscious of again in… a week exactly, actually. (Well, we’ll see. I still live in hope.)

Thing is, though, I still love it anyway. Because rubbish though bits of it were, it’s fun! And that’s enough! Especially at Christmas, but really just generally too. I think if, a decade on, I’m still finding it fun, that’s a pretty good thing.

You know, I’m pretty sure that cliffhanger was a surprise, actually. And I’m pretty sure it gave me chills a decade ago… just like it did this time.

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Film Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

The Force Awakens is about Star Wars as a feeling. It’s a loving recreation of everything that once captured the imagination, dusting off the old iconography in an attempt to evoke those same emotions again. The Force Awakens is about hearing the stir of a John Williams score, watching a battered X-Wing take on the Death Star, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon. “We’re home”, says The Force Awakens, nostalgia writ large.

The Last Jedi, meanwhile, is about Star Wars as a set of ideas. It interrogates what Star Wars is, taking it apart before putting it back together again – while, yes, subverting expectations along the way. It was a visually striking, thematically engaging attempt to grapple not just with what you love about Star Wars, but why it’s worth loving it – and how anyone can be the hero. “This isn’t going to go the way you think”, says The Last Jedi, willing to try and steer Star Wars somewhere new, ending on perhaps one of the most romantic images of the saga.

The Rise of Skywalker, then, is about Star Wars as a set of internet comments and forum posts. It’s a hollow, anodyne film, constructed by committee and lacking any real vision. In fact, it’s scarcely a film at all; rather, it’s an inexplicable act of cowardice, a conscious attempt to avoid any creative decisions that might be considered brave or interesting – or, in fact, any creative decisions at all, so frequently are choices made then quickly walked back. Quite why this proved the case is difficult to ascertain; it’s not like the quality of these films particularly correlates with their profitability, after all.

If the much-maligned Star Wars prequels had any cinematic merit or cultural weight – and they do – it is for their eccentricities, the sheer idiosyncratic oddity of a trilogy of films so entirely shaped by and beholden to the vision of one man. They’re not “good” films, no. But they all are worthwhile in ways that The Rise of Skywalker could never be: the prequels, at least, have an identity, have a personality. With its frantic recitation of Wookiepedia trivia and producer mandated plot points, The Rise of Skywalker is an exercise in artifice. It’s hard to imagine a more soulless, glum piece of work – made all the worse by how it positions itself as the ultimate conclusion to and final word on a series that, even at its nadir, could at least lay claim to its own set of distinctive quirks. At one point, Star Wars was a risky venture from a bold young filmmaker; now, it’s just one of several managed assets, another intellectual property mined by a monopolistic mega-corporation for maximum profit.

There will be spoilers in the following review; it’s difficult to avoid a detailed discussion of the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, if only because – somehow – JJ Abrams has managed to create a film that is almost entirely exposition, while still needing more exposition. Given that the plot is more or less all the film has to offer, efforts have been taken to obscure any big revelations from herein on – that said, if you’d rather not know about Jar Jar’s cameo, probably best to stop here.

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What’s most striking about The Rise of Skywalker is how deeply, deeply cynical it is. As already noted here and elsewhere, it feels like it was written by reddit comments, micromanaged long past the point any individual artistic notion might survive. At times, this is simply patronising and awkward. For example, the film ends with Maz Kanata, for some inexplicable reason, giving Chewbacca a medal. Diegetically inexplicable, anyway: if you’re in the know, it clearly references a longrunning meme about the original Star Wars, where both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive medals from Princess Leia at the end, but Chewbacca doesn’t. In The Rise of Skywalker, this is presented entirely devoid of any context, a symptom of a wider obsession with solving plotholes that don’t really exist and providing an answer to every question everyone ever posed about Star Wars online. It’s genuinely quite difficult to tell how the scene would play to someone without that depth of immersion in the paratext – and it’s not the only scene like that. The Rise of Skywalker has very little trust in its audience, offering not exciting new ideas, but instead only the dim pleasure of recognition.

That would be one thing if, say, an over signified cameo from Denis Lawson was the extent of the film’s cynicism – if it began and ended with a jaundiced litany of corporate artefacts, getting all the toys briefly out of the box before putting them right back where they belonged, it’d be a lot more palatable. No, The Rise of Skywalker is instead altogether more feeble, making lamentable concessions to the worst type of fan by sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico. After being introduced in The Last Jedi, Tran received intense racist abuse, essentially for the crime of being an Asian woman in Star Wars. Tran is in The Rise of Skywalker, yes, but only nominally – her role is limited mainly to brief chunks of exposition, and a scene at the beginning, heartbreaking for what it represents, where Rose says that she’d rather not take part in this film’s adventure, actually, because she’s got some star charts to read instead.

There is a lot in The Rise of Skywalker that reads like giving up, an attempt to iron out any distinctive wrinkles Rian Johnson might’ve left behind him. If this attitude was limited to plot details, that’d be one thing – disappointing for some, perhaps, but on the whole basically forgivable, simply a by-product of serial storytelling with multiple authors. That it extended also to an open attempt, on behalf of the most powerful entertainment monolith around, to appease a group of internet racists? That is genuinely quite pathetic, and all involved should be deeply embarrassed.

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Also disappointing is the sheer paucity of imagination. Abrams’ previous effort, The Force Awakens, was oft accused of hewing too closely to the structure of the original Star Wars. It wasn’t an unreasonable criticism, though the film perhaps deserved a degree more leeway; it at least tried to recontextualise those familiar plot beats, to fashion something that, if not entirely new, at least offered a different spin on things.

The Rise of Skywalker makes no such effort. It feels like the very worst of fanfiction – or, actually, the very worst of licensed tie-in fiction – entirely unable to step out of the shadow of what came before. There’s no effort to widen the scope of what Star Wars can be, to move beyond fetishistic reverence for Lucas’ original films (or, at least, the ones that a very narrow stratum of vocal fandom approve of anyway). For all that everyone relentless mocked the campaign to remake The Last Jedi, clearly they needn’t have bothered: here is The Rise of Skywalker, ready to retcon and refute anything anyone ever complained about in the YouTube comments section. In fact, the whole film seems paralysed by a lack of confidence, hedging against every choice it makes – The Rise of Skywalker ends up as though caught in a loop, repeating itself over and over again, taking two steps back with each one forward to make sure nothing really changes.

Ostensibly, this is about tying up loose ends. That is basically nonsense. Setting aside the fact that The Last Jedi actually closes in a far neater position than The Force Awakens did – the latter ended on a cliffhanger with the three leads separated, after all – The Rise of Skywalker manages to create more questions than it actually answers. Part of this is down to its hectic pace and convoluted plotting; it’s difficult to succinctly explain, for example, quite how sloppily it’s revealed that Leia once trained to be a Jedi and had a lightsabre of her own, kept hidden for someone who might later prove worthy. Suffice to say, it’s an awkward beat, easy to forget, and ultimately only a contrivance to give Rey another lightsabre. Questions about how Palpatine survived Return of the Jedi, how he found the time to raise a family, somehow still everything about Snoke – there’s plenty that, strictly speaking, doesn’t make sense, even by the already loose standards Star Wars is held to. Whether Abrams et al thought they’d delivered a watertight script, or, less charitably, if the film was written with one eye on later Disney+ releases filling in the gaps remains to be seen.

But it’s not just an issue of pacing. Rather, the problem comes because the film seems to be built around ‘moments’, around set-pieces strung together as a MacGuffin quest not a million miles away from a video game. The Rise of Skywalker feels perfunctory, like a contractual obligation – the point at which stories from a galaxy far far away might finally have been exhausted.

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Admittedly, yes, the film started from a difficult position. While it’s been debated exactly how much the trilogy was planned ahead of time, and how much leeway individual directors were given, one thing seems basically clear enough: the plan, originally, was for each episode to focus on a different member of the original trio. Episode VII was about Han Solo; Episode VIII was about Luke Skywalker; Episode XI was meant to be about Leia Organa, but for Carrie Fisher’s tragic, untimely death.

Carrie Fisher’s role here – insofar as this slightly ghoulish, digital resurrection can be dubbed a “role” – is… awkward at best. It was always going to be, of course. A script clearly written backwards from the dialogue they had available was never going to feel especially naturalistic: it most closely resembles, as others have pointed out, that one episode of Community where they stitch together a Star Wars knockoff from a few unfinished clips of a crime drama. There’s something quite sad about the whole affair, really. Every moment Carrie Fisher, or the approximation of her they built, is on screen serves only as a reminder of who we lost; that she gets top billing at the end is nice, for a moment, until it quickly isn’t. It’s hard to earnestly suggest this was an adequate solution; sacrilege though it might’ve been, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that Leia should’ve been recast, that Meryl Streep or Stevie Nicks should’ve fulfilled the role and let the trilogy end as originally planned. (Or even, perhaps, the movie should’ve started with Leia’s funeral – and Palpatine’s apparent return from the dead been more closely tied to this, questions of life and death proving the motivation for Kylo Ren as it once was the motivation for his grandfather in Revenge of the Sith.)

Even outside of that, though, The Rise of Skywalker faced a troubled production. Colin Trevorrow was let go from the project early on; the script was rewritten many times by many different writers. (It’d be interesting to know exactly when Palpatine’s return was decided on – it seems like it’s got Jack Thorne’s fingerprints all over it, given the similarities to his stageplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, though admittedly could just as easily have been Abrams’ idea.) In the end, Abrams came to the film late, and had less time to work on this than he did on The Force Awakens. More likely than not, the film would’ve benefitted if held to December 2020; as ever, though, commitment to shareholders supersedes commitment to making good art, and the deadline was met.

That, perhaps, might explain why even the things Abrams is usually good at falter here – in contrast to the often-vibrant direction of The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker offers a decidedly more muted world. For whatever reason, Abrams’ visual stylings aren’t up to his usual standards; grand space battles struggle to cohere, new planets fail to make an impact, and the final battle with the Emperor quickly devolves into a CGI mess. There’s a sense that a lot of shortcuts were taken across The Rise of Skywalker, and the film suffers for it.

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What’s more aggravating, though, is that this lack of ambition extends too to the characters. For all that The Force Awakens relied a little too heavily on nostalgia, it was, to its credit, conscious about not letting the legacy characters overshadow its new heroes too heavily.

Here… less so. That pervasive, fawning adoration for the original trilogy often undercuts the characters themselves – when C3PO has a more coherent emotional arc than leads Finn or Poe, something has gone quite wrong. It’s frankly fascinating that John Boyega seems to think Finn was better served by The Rise of Skywalker than The Last Jedi – certainly, the promise the character held in The Force Awakens is squandered here, despite briefly touching on his origins as an imperial defector once again. It’s much the same for Poe, too, whose plotline here serves only as a suffocating attempt to make sure everyone in the audience knows he definitely did have a girlfriend at one point.

That said, the character most let down by The Rise of Skywalker is Rey. Or, rather, Rey Palpatine. Surely the most compelling idea in The Last Jedi was that Rey was simply Rey; special because anyone can be, not because of who her family was. There was something quite profound to the idea that a hero could come from anywhere: there’s nothing profound about this. As Lindsey Romain has pointed out, “making Rey a Palpatine is more in service to the plot hole crowd than to the character herself” – somewhere along the line, Abrams et al lost interest in their main character, instead much more focused on imitating the Star Wars we’ve already seen before. Indeed, even if nothing else, The Last Jedi at least proved a decisive break from repeating the beats of George Lucas’ work – surely no one would earnestly argue that The Rise of Skywalker compares to The Empire Strikes Back? As it is, this final act in the story is confused at best, and incoherent at worst – not a million miles away from, say, Return of the Jedi seeing Yoda explain to Luke that, actually, his father Anakin Skywalker was still alive, and Darth Vader had in fact been lying. Admittedly, the final line, where Rey chooses to become Rey Skywalker, is nice: if The Last Jedi says anyone can be the hero, then The Rise of Skywalker is saying anyone can be a Skywalker, anyone can pick up that legacy, even if they weren’t born to it. Yes, it’s a weak echo of Steven Moffat’s Extremis, but then quite a lot of The Rise of Skywalker seems to be an effort to remind people that Moffat is quite a good writer anyway.

Kylo Ren fares somewhat better – though this, largely, is down to Adam Driver’s own skill, elevating the rough material he’s given. Where he’s even given material at all, that is: for the last twenty minutes of the film, Driver actually has no dialogue at all, instead creating the Ben Solo character from small gestures and irreverent expressions alone. In the end, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential Kylo Ren represented in 2015, hewing a little too closely to the story of Darth Vader’s own redemption. Although, even on that level, it doesn’t quite work – more a Damascene conversion than anything borne of real conflict. That angsty, toxic masculinity washes away: The Force Awakens’ modern villain now instead a more familiar archetype. As with much of this film, there’s a sense that another, more interesting interpretation was lying just out of reach.

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Is there anything worthwhile to The Rise of Skywalker?

In fairness, some things do shine through. The ruins of the Death Star are a neat location; a fight on an ocean moon forms a clever parallel to the iconic duel on Mustafar. Rey gets a yellow lightsaber; that’s pretty cool. Particularly striking, albeit brief, is a shot of a star destroyer falling on Jakku, not far from the wreckage of another – the one Rey called home in The Force Awakens, itself a remnant of the original trilogy. Admittedly it makes little sense, but that doesn’t matter, instead neatly underscoring the cyclical, generational nature of it all. Still at the end, it’s like poetry: it rhymes. No doubt on repeated viewings, more details would reveal themselves; a certain shot, a particular inflection, a piece of design, all increasingly worth of appreciation. Much as it struggles under the weight of ‘Star Wars’ the idea, The Rise of Skywalker will likely ultimately benefit from the fact that it will always have someone willing to revisit it, willing to find something worth celebrating.

On first watch, though, the film eventually becomes entirely unmoored from questions of “quality” – it’s just pure, unrepentant nonsense. There’s some enjoyment to be had from that, certainly; this film is no doubt going to be a fixture of internet memes much like the prequels. It is, in a way, the Riverdale of Star Wars movies (although Riverdale at least has a degree of self-awareness that this lacks). By the time of the Reylo kiss, all that’s really left is to admire the film for so unwittingly stumbling into a surely endless discourse cycle that’s unlikely to leave anyone happy. With regards to the kiss itself, it’s an odd artefact; in isolation, it feels strange, somehow both inevitable and not anywhere near as electrifying as it could’ve been. Taken alongside the rest of the film, though, and it’s clearly another concession to internet fandom – albeit without realising that it’s an appeal to an entirely different group, a compromise surely neither will be pleased with.

That, in the end, is The Rise of Skywalker: a cloying, even sycophantic corporate product, so desperate to be liked it never really stops to tell a story. Yes, some people will enjoy it, and honestly, genuinely: good for them. Surely one of the best defences of the prequel films – setting aside everything that might be said about their auteurist idiosyncrasies – is that the children who grew up with them really did love them, and many still do. For what are, in essence, family films, it’s hard to really begrudge anyone that. Much the same is true of The Rise of Skywalker, whatever faults it might have. At the end of the day, it’s just a movie.

What is altogether more troubling, though, as a note to end on, is this.

Disney, at this stage, isn’t so much a corporation as it is a cultural monolith. It has a monopoly on the zeitgeist. If any film franchise is too big to fail, it’s Star Wars: their quality and content ultimately has very little correlation to their profitability. Yes, dedicated fans will squabble online, but they’ll still watch it no matter what – and so will the other hundred percent of the audience. Disney didn’t need to make these concessions; Disney didn’t need to almost entirely excise Kelly Marie Tran as a gesture towards a group of vocal racists. Obviously, Disney is not and has never been a bastion of progressive values, and expecting otherwise from any company is naïve at best, but this feels rather different.

So. If a company that wields as much influence as Disney feels the need to bow down to what is, essentially, the latest iteration of Gamergate… what does that mean next?

Related:

Film Review | Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Film Review | The Two Popes (2019)

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Best of 2019 | #8 – Stath Lets Flats

stath lets flats jamie demetriou natasia ellie white al roberts kiell smith-bynoe channel 4 letting agent brexit

Last year, Stath Lets Flats didn’t make my top ten. I included it under honourable mentions – almost, but not quite, good enough for the list. This year, I think it might be one of the straightforwardly funniest shows I’ve seen all year.

Yesterday, I was talking about Derry Girls as being one of the most distinct comedies on television at the moment, comparing it to Fleabag and This Way Up. I almost said it was more distinct than Stath Lets Flats, too, before something gave me pause. Where Derry Girls is recognisably different from its contemporaries and easily distinguished from its predecessors, Stath Lets Flats is, well, unrecognisably different. It’s not hard to highlight influences on either – Derry Girls is a little bit like The Inbetweeners, and lots of people have pointed out that Stath Lets Flats is a bit like The Office or Alan Partridge. (I would contend that Stath himself is maybe not a million miles away from Mr Bean, actually.)

But where it’s relatively easy to explain what Derry Girls does distinctly – quite how specific its voice is – for the most part, its humour and its rhythms are pretty easily understood. Stath Lets Flats, on the other hand? It’s often quite difficult to articulate exactly how funny it is after fact: it isn’t so much that explaining the joke ruins it, but that it’s really hard to explain the joke in the first place.

Part of the appeal – the easiest bit to explain – is Jamie Demetriou. He’s front and centre in Stath Lets Flats – obviously he is, as creator, writer and star. One of the first things you notice about Demetriou is how tall he is; the next is how good he is at physical comedy. It’s not subtle, exactly, but it is a constant feature in the background – lanky and gangling, watch how he folds in and out of cars or fumbles his energy drink. In fact, the recurring energy drink joke that opens the second episode is probably the best example of what Stath Lets Flats is and what it’s good at. If you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably not going to enjoy the show full stop.

The other thing about Stath Lets Flats is the language. This is where it gets a bit more difficult to articulate exactly what’s going on with Stath, because just on a basic level, the way the title character talks is almost entirely like any other character on television. Sam Wolfson called it “almost his own language, a creole of north London slang, Greek idioms and the patois of ineptitude”, which is a neat way of putting it, but still doesn’t quite capture the almost lyrical nonsense of Stath Lets Flats. Sarah Manavis wrote probably the best piece of Stath’s dialogue I’ve seen so far: how the recognisable slang chafes against unexpected vocabulary, a tenuous, disjointed echo of something you’re faintly familiar with. It’s not, as Manavis points out, a million miles away from internet shitposting. Or, put another way? If The Good Place is the sort of programme that would try and fail to make a joke about 30-50 feral hogs, Stath Lets Flats is the sort of programme that would make a joke that taps into the same sense of humour – and make it work. It’s probably the only sitcom on television that could make that claim: a whole mode of comedy, otherwise completely untapped on screen. That’s something special, no matter how you try and sell it.

The eccentric, off-kilt lead is but one part of an eccentric, off-kilt ensemble of course. The obvious standouts are Natasia Demetriou and Al Roberts – their almost romance and sweet chemistry is one of the best parts of the show – but often it’s the less prominent supporting characters who really shine, like Kiell Smith-Bynoe as Dean, the closest thing to a straight-man the show can manage. My personal favourite, though, has to be Ellie White (Natasia Demetriou’s frequent collaborator and comedy partner) who, as Katya, is a perfect foil to Stath. Probably one of the most obvious improvements between the first and second series – other than the sense that all involved are now a lot more confident in what they’re doing – is the fact that Katya shows up more often in series 2.

There’s been an instinct, amongst some, to suggest that Stath Lets Flats is a parable for the Brexit age. It resonates, yes, and it’s not hard to see how or why – I’m fairly sure the cast and crew did a twitter thread about how each character voted a few weeks ago, though I can’t find it now.

But that’s almost missing the point. Stath Lets Flats doesn’t need to be “about” anything to be worthwhile – indeed, Jamie Demetriou said it’s about everything apart from Brexit. It’s valuable because it’s one of the most idiosyncratic, most original, and funniest shows of the year. No wonder it made this list.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #9 – Derry Girls 2×05, “The Prom”

derry girls the prom lisa mcgee channel 4 saoirse monica jackson nicola coughlan dylan llewlyn jamie lee o donnell louisa harland

Derry Girls, obviously, made the top ten list in 2018. I didn’t make a list of best individual episodes of television last go around, but Derry Girls surely would’ve found a spot on that list too – in fact, actually, Derry Girls probably had one of the best individual scenes of television in 2018 as well.

(Incidentally, I’ve just noticed the Netflix version of that scene doesn’t use the Madonna track, but a different piece of altogether more generic pop music. Totally flattens the scene, puncturing any impact it might’ve had. I do hope it’s not like this on the international version – like, there’s no way that would stand as a highlight of 2018 on television, it’s not even a tenth as good as the original as broadcast version.)

It’s brilliant, of course, and surely the best argument that British TV comedy is having a moment – it’s vivid and vibrant, witty and sincere, and so compulsively specific in its concerns and its charms. I think Derry Girls is likely to be remembered at the forefront of that comedy revolution – moreso, perhaps, than its contemporaries like Fleabag or This Way Up – because of quite how distinct it is. Not the most original programme, no – what is? – but the one with the most distinct voice (both in a comedic and a literal sense). At some point around the first series, I’d meant to write a piece about how authentic it felt. That’s true, of course, but it’s less about how authentic it is, and more about how compulsively specific it is – everything so acutely tied to one place, so entirely filtered through one lens.

I had a rule, in compiling this episodic list, that no show could be represented twice. There were a couple of moments where I wasn’t entirely sure exactly which episode I wanted to highlight from a given show – but for Derry Girls, it was always very obvious. In fact, actually, The Prom was one of the first selections I made for this list. A lot of that is quite idiosyncratic. I’m always talking about how comedy is something I find difficult to write about – so instead I just lampshade it and write about writing about comedy – because humour is often so subjective and so personal. That’s true, obviously, and across this list it’s never more true than here: The Prom is a collection of all my favourite teen comedy tropes, from Michelle bringing two dates to the dance to James taking Erin after she was stood up. Plus, it also had some Doctor Who references, which is obviously always a plus. Really, it’s just a huge amount of fun: the cast is brilliant, and they always are, but I think for my money they’re never better than they are here. In a way this is almost peak Derry Girls, and absolutely my favourite episode of either series.

Somewhere, vaguely, at the back of my head, I’ve often thought that I’d like to write television: that this criticism and commentary is a sideline, a stopgap, a precursor to an actual career. It’s a lofty goal – a dream – and something I am probably more inclined to be realistic about now than I used to be. Still, though, it persists. (The Oscar is now planned for 2030 rather than 2025.) When I think about what I’d like to write, though, it’s not a million miles away from Derry Girls – and, specifically, not a million miles away from The Prom. If I end up having written something even half as good as this, I’d be pretty pleased.

It’ll be interesting to see where Derry Girls goes from here, and for how much longer. This sort of sitcom always has something of a shelf life imposed on it, by both the age of its characters and the age of its cast – The Inbetweeners and Some Girls only managed three series each, while Drifters managed four. More likely than not, we’re closer to the end of Derry Girls at this point than we are at the beginning. That said, creator Lisa McGee has said she’d like to end the series with the Good Friday Agreement – which took place in 1998, three years after Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Derry at the end of series 2. Maybe there’s scope for five series of Derry Girls after all? Four series and a movie? A movie feels plausible – The Inbetweeners got two, Bad Education got one, People Just Do Nothing is going to get one – so perhaps that’s where Derry Girls is heading.

Either way, hopefully there’s much more to come – it’ll be nice for Derry Girls to hang around as a staple of these lists, the best of 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #9 – Defending the Guilty

defending the guilty will sharpe katherine parkinson mark bonnar alex mcbride

I started watching Defending the Guilty because of Will Sharpe.

If you cast your mind back to this time last year – Theresa May was still in Downing Street, it feels like aeons ago – then you’ll remember, obviously, that Flowers was one of my favourite television shows of 2018. I raved and raved about it, about how brilliant it was and how much I loved it for being unlike anything else on television, and resolved to watch anything that Will Sharpe was involved with from then on.

Defending the Guilty, admittedly, is actually not entirely unlike everything else on television. It’s fairly easy to point to antecedents that it shares DNA with – the creators themselves have spoken a little about how they were influenced by both The Thick of It and Green Wing, and it’s not difficult to see how. Much like The Thick of It (a show I watched for the first time this year, actually), Defending the Guilty punctures the image we have of lawyers – it’s no more The Good Wife than The Thick of It is The West Wing, essentially. As creator Kieron Quirke put it, “lawyers on TV are presented as philosopher kings doing their damnedest against impossible odds, but the reality is [they’re] sort of morons”. That said, though, comparison to The Thick of It obscures what Defending the Guilty is like, at least a little. “The Thick of It but with lawyers” implies something far, far more caustic and acerbic than Defending the Guilty – which, in reality, is a far more charming, indeed often quite sweet, comedy than that analogy suggests.

The series focuses on a group of four trainee barristers in competition for permanent tenancy at the chambers, caught between strained friendship and obvious rivalry. Will Sharpe shines here as an awkward and empathetic lawyer coincidentally also named Will, but he’s just one brilliant actor amongst several. Katherine Parkinson is brilliant as Will’s rather more cynical mentor Caroline; if we’re running with the Thick of It comparison, she’d be the spiky Malcolm Tucker analogue (although, again, it’s much more complicated than that). At a certain point, I’m inclined to just start listing – Gwyneth Keyworth is so good; Hugh Coles is brilliant playing posh and substanceless; Mark Bonnar is having great fun – because Defending the Guilty really managed to put together a great ensemble. Much as I started watching it for Will Sharpe, I very much stayed for everyone else.

And, it goes without saying, Defending the Guilty is deeply funny. Often though that’s in quite an understated way – it’s far more willing to rely on the absurdity and general silliness of the law, rather than mile a minute dialogue with a punchline every other sentence. It works better that way: there’s a consistent, heightened humour maintained throughout, always very funny even if it has comparatively few laugh-out-loud zingers. (Not that it doesn’t have any of those, of course.)

Actually, speaking of its tone, that’s one of the things I most enjoyed about Defending the Guilty. Or, more specifically, how that tone manifested and was maintained: through the soundtrack. I loved the soundtrack – I took to it immediately, of course, but using my favourite Wolf Alice song in the third episode earned Defending the Guilty its spot on this list. I really mean that! At times it almost feels like they might be overdoing it – the needle drops come thick and fast – but then it becomes clear that actually, no, they know exactly what they’re doing. If anything defines Defending the Guilty, it’s the music (and it’s really, really good music).

Admittedly, the series isn’t perfect. I’ve spoken about it a few times over the past few weeks, and I’ve often highlighted the same problem: for a series largely predicated on the potential breakdown of Will’s relationship, nowhere near enough work goes into developing his girlfriend as a character. Indeed, she remains a cipher for most of the series, less a character in her own right and more of an accessory to the lead. You could sort of argue that’s the point – the series doesn’t have room for her much like Will’s legal career is pushing her out of his life – but that’s a slightly contrived defence of a fairly basic flaw.

Still, though. Defending the Guilty was a deeply charming little show: sweet and engaging, funny and introspective, all with a killer soundtrack. It doesn’t seem especially likely that it’ll make a lot of best of 2019 lists, but it was routinely one of the best parts of my week: if you can walk the line between self-assured silliness and thoughtful probing of cynicism and idealism in the justice system, playing Wolf Alice in the background, then you’re going to find a spot on my best of 2019 list.

I only just about managed to get this done in time, and even then it was a bit late – ideally this would’ve gone up in the morning, but you know, the election. In theory, tomorrow you’ll be able to find out my ninth favourite individual episode of television across 2019. I am reasonably sure I’ll be able to get something written on schedule.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Well, fuck. Now what?

uk general election boris johnson conservative majority now what charity help

I keep thinking about 2015.

It was the first General Election I followed properly – though I was still a little too young to vote – and for most of the campaign I’d assumed Ed Miliband would end up Prime Minister. Maybe that’d be as leader of a coalition, maybe not, but either way: Prime Minister Miliband. Enter the Miliverse. Join the Milifandom.

But, no. I remember watching his resignation speech the next day, hearing his voice crack, hearing him thank people, and I remember thinking it was sad.

And then I think about 2016. Nigel Farage, standing in front of a poster playing on Nazi imagery; Nigel Farage, declaring Brexit won without a single shot fired, just days after the politically motivated murder of a remain-supporting Labour MP by a white supremacist; Nigel Farage, a great big gurning grin on his face, victorious. 52-48, at the end of deeply ugly and bitter campaign we still haven’t properly reckoned with, and I’m starting to worry never will.

Same thing again a few months later when November rolled around. I’d woken up early to do some work – didn’t get it done, obviously, too focused on the news. Got the bus into school. It was raining. Huddled around Jerry’s laptop, watching the news. Everyone turned up already knowing the result – apart from one girl, who’d overslept and hadn’t caught the news. That’s what I remember about 2016: watching her find out Donald Trump was President of the United States. I suppose it’s a bit like those Japanese soldiers who didn’t realise the second world war had ended, except not actually anything like that at all.

2017 was a little better. A little happier. A loss, yes, but a caveated one, a qualified one, one that pointed to better things next time. Just if you held out a little longer.

Well, evidently fucking not.

This is shit. Absolutely, horribly, brutally shit. There’s time for post-mortem later, and I suppose we’ll be relitigating this campaign right up until the next one – and frankly, probably, afterwards – but for the moment, that doesn’t matter.

People are going to die because of the electoral choices made today. We already know that 130 000 deaths can be attributed to Conservative austerity measures; we already know that the UN deemed these policies a breach of human rights. Most of the past nine years, the Conservatives have been in coalition, or otherwise constrained. They now have a significant majority. They have a manifesto that you could open to any random page and find something that will kill people: a commitment to further austerity; a policy that amounts, essentially, to the ethnic cleaning of traveller communities; further privatisation of the NHS, however stealthily done, however disguised; the list goes on. The country is going to be shaped to the political will and imagination of people like Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Sajid Javid.

The time between now and May 2025 is going to be grim.

I donated to a couple of these charities last night, and shared the list below in a few different facebook groups.

It’s not an exhaustive list, obviously, but they’re each charities that’ll help the people most likely to be affected by a Conservative majority. If you’re able to, it is probably worth chipping in a little bit to some of them, or sharing the list yourself. Obviously it shouldn’t fall to the individual to take care of those who would otherwise become the casualties of an underfunded state, but, well. Needs must? I dunno. It’s good to feel proactive, I guess. It made me feel a little better.

The next five years are going to be rough. They’re going to need direct action, and they’re going to need activism, and they’re going to need us to work together. And, you know, fuck, maybe that isn’t enough in the face of the concerted efforts of the entire right-wing press. But, well, we can’t give up. Gotta keep going.

It’s not just necessary – it’ll be worth it, too.

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Electoral Boogaloo

vote labour jeremy corbyn uk general election 2019 polling card ballot

I was going to have a party tonight, actually. I’d spent a while idly – well, no, I spent absolutely ages putting quite a lot of effort into coming up with party food puns, some more successful than others. Haribo-ris Johnson. Doritjo Swinson. Jeremy Corbynoffee Pie. Laura Pidcocktail Sausages. Westminstrels. Political Party Ring Biscuits. Prawn Butler. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s, depending on how the exit poll looked. John McDonald’s, for a slightly easier option.

Anyway, not doing that, mainly because I wouldn’t be able to make a very good banoffee pie. Still, when 2025 rolls around, and Prime Minister Angela Rayner is up against LOTO Rory Stewart, I will be sure to make both a flan and a stew.

I’m voting Labour, obviously. Since I’ve been eligible to vote, it’ll actually only be the second time I’ve voted for them, and the first General Election too – in 2017 I was living in what is genuinely one of the few Liberal Democrat/Conservative marginals in the country. The bar charts were right for once: Labour genuinely couldn’t win there.

This time around, though, I’m in a Labour safe seat. Which, frankly, I’m glad of: yes, technically, last go around my vote made more difference, and I really probably should’ve put at least a little bit more thought into postal voting at home to make sure the Liberal Democrat candidate definitely wins, but in 2019 I really do just want to vote Labour. I want to vote for a manifesto I believe in, rather than against one I don’t. As a choice, it ultimately hasn’t been particularly difficult – a Labour government would be genuinely transformative, and is in fact genuinely necessary. It’s not just about Prime Minister Corbyn – although he is obviously manifestly better than a cruel, venal Prime Minister Johnson. (Or, not that it’ll ever happen, Prime Minister Swinson – I’m convinced that Jo Swinson is one of the most cynical and morally vacuous politicians on the national stage at the moment. You only have to look at her handling of Phillip Lee’s defection to the Liberal Democrats to see that there is no single principle she holds, or marginalised group she claims to support, that she won’t abandon the moment it becomes politically expedient.)

No, it’s a vote for a party with sufficient political imagination and ambition to conceive of a world where better things are possible, where suffering isn’t treated as an economic necessity or intractable reality, where genuine change can happen. Of course that’s something I want to believe in, to vote for, to try and bring about.

Anyway, I’ve been looking up what I said last go around – in messages, on blogs, that sort of thing. Mostly I seemed worried. Also bemused at a Conservative-leaning friend – I know, I know, but I think she’s grown out of it now – who opted to vote Green as a protest in her Labour safe seat. No, I still don’t get it.

I am less worried now. Actually, I’m feeling unexpectedly, serenely confident. It’s based on not much at all; probably it’s just a coping device. I’m not expecting a majority – at the moment, I suppose the best we can probably hope for is a Corbyn-led coalition, but the Conservatives as the largest party. It’s not ideal. But, hey, you never know. Polling seems not to have accounted for a potential surge in youth turnout – I know, I know, but I’m hopeful all the same – and people do seem genuinely motivated. So… maybe…?

Either way, though, I am determined to be a bit more on it from now on. In fact, I finally joined the Labour party this go around. I’d always valued the fact I wasn’t a member of a particular party – my thinking, essentially, that I don’t feel any specific connection to a party, and I’d rather just vote for the most viable left-wing party wherever I ended up registered. Not anymore, though. For the moment, at least, I want to be part of something. So now I’m a member of the Labour Party.

Anyway. I haven’t actually voted yet! I’ll be off to do that in a few hours. Got my red jumper on. And my red socks. Here we go!

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

the good place the answer daniel schofield valeria migliassi collins ted danson william jackson harper michael chidi best of 2019 top ten review

For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast. Not only the most attractive ensemble this side of Riverdale, the cast of The Good Place are surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Circle

the circle tim wilson viewers favourite winner paddy smyth georgina emma willis best television 2019 top ten

The Circle is not actually any “good”, per se.

It’s somewhere between Big Brother and Catfish, basically – a riff on the reality TV format for the Black Mirror age, I think someone once called it. A group of eight strangers are brought together in a block of flats, never allowed to interact face to face, but getting to know each other through what is essentially the equivalent of social media. Some of them are who they say they are; some of them, obviously, are not. As the weeks progress, people are voted out – blocked – and new contestants enter. In the end, it’s a popularity contest caught somewhere between authenticity and artifice (and authentic artifice, and artificial authenticity), with the eventual winner getting however much money Channel 4 budgets for each go around. (And then, probably, going on to become a social media influencer type with lots of brand sponsorships and so on, using all the new life skills they learned inside The Circle.)

Typically, when defending reality television, the argument is that it tells us something deeper about the human condition. It’s not hard to imagine a version of that line of reasoning drawn from The Circle: give a man a mask and he shows you his true face, and all that. Surely the show can tell us something about class, about race, about gender, about how they each intersect – about society – when all of these things are here willingly chosen, in turn reduced to (or exposed as) a construct?

Well, maybe. I am actually not convinced that is entirely true of The Circle, or, if it is, that’s certainly not its main appeal. Trying to reconceptualise it as a social experiment, or something far more highbrow than it actually is, seems to be missing the point a little bit. (Frankly, the moments any contestants tried to make points about race or privilege in any meaningfully introspective ways fell short – the format just can’t sustain it.) The Circle isn’t something that looks crap at first glance but then, gradually, reveals itself as a hidden gem: no, it is actually fairly consistently crap.

But it’s endearingly crap.

There’s something compulsively charming about The Circle, a difficult to define quality that makes it far more engaging that it really should be. Even if it’s not innovative, it’s definitely unpredictable. This man isn’t a builder – it’s his mum, pretending to be her son, to try and find him a girlfriend, on national television! The other players have somehow guessed this already, based on very little at all! What! There’s something weirdly captivating about this show – sure, it’s on for too long, and Emma Willis emphasises the Big Brother connection a little too much, but it’s just the right shade of quirky to sustain itself.

Case in point: a brief appearance from Richard Madeley pretending to be a twenty-seven-year-old woman called Judy. Richard Madeley – who occupies the exact right space between ‘technically famous’, ‘a bit odd’, and ‘affordable’ to be the perfect celebrity catfish for The Circle; next year it’ll probably be, like, Iain Stirling, and he will not be as good, because a proper comedian will be trying too hard and that’ll puncture the carefully curated illusion of it all – flirting with Zoe Ball’s son, all at a slightly off-kilt, disaffected remove, is not even remotely like anything else on television. It’s nonsense, of course, but unrepentantly so.

The appeal isn’t even in the individual contestants, not really. They were all entertaining in their ways, yes: Tim’s eccentricities, Jack and Beth’s burgeoning relationship, the sheer boldness of James-pretending-to-be-single-mother-Sammie the whole time. But, actually, they don’t matter: after all, they are basically normal people, and they’re essentially interchangeable anyway. (As evidenced by how quickly each were replaced, week on week!) Really, they’re only interesting under these particularly strange set of circumstances – once they’re on the outside, they’re just social media influencers, as though suspended in some sort of Circle-limbo forevermore. It’s hard to imagine anyone really wanting to stay up to date and in the loop about what these guys are all doing – after those few intense weeks, they’ll all just fade from the memory, in the end just as ephemeral as a tweet themselves. That having been said, The Circle had one last curveball to throw. Turns out Tim, the viewers’ favourite, the charming Robin Williams-esque monk turned theology professor, is a former UKIP parliamentary candidate, and YouTuber with strong opinions about how Pewdiepie isn’t antisemitic. Again: nothing else like it on television!

Admittedly, The Circle is something of an outside choice for this top ten list. It’s probably the most idiosyncratic pick, and certainly the most difficult to justify by any definition of actual quality you might hold to. But it does, just about, manage to claim the tenth spot – not (solely) because it’s my list and I can do what I want to, but across 2019 it’s been one of the few genuinely communal television experiences I’ve had, watching it with new housemates, and in turn it’s been one of the most fun. If this list is anything, it is largely a list about what’s been memorable about television in 2019 for me – and I will definitely remember The Circle.

(Also, Georgina definitely deserved to win.)

Check back tomorrow to find out my tenth favourite individual episode of television for the year!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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