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

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

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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 | Introduction

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So, here we go. You all knew it was coming, I suspect.

From now until the 31st, I’m going to be counting down the best television of 2019 – ten of the best TV shows, and ten of the best episodes of TV shows. That won’t always necessarily be the same thing; just off the top of my head now, I can think of a couple of ‘best episodes’ from shows that aren’t on one list, and a couple of ‘best shows’ that didn’t have any individual episodes make it onto the other list.

Immediately, though, a few caveats:

  • “Best”, in this case, is a fairly idiosyncratic term, here falling somewhere between the actual definition of best, favourite, and most memorable. Which is to say that there are absolutely some entries on these lists that are, in every qualitative sense, absolute rubbish – but it is my list, so I’m still going to call them the best. (There is, at the moment, only one entry I’m debating – it definitely wins out on memorability, but it seems to fly in the spirit of the list somewhat. We’ll see.)
  • Something like 700 new television shows debuted across 2019. At the end of 2018, I said I was hoping to watch 75 new shows across this coming year. I would be surprised if I watched (and, crucially, completed – there’s been a lot of things I’ve watched an episode of and never got around to finishing) even half that.
  • So, yes, there are a couple of very obvious omissions: I still haven’t had the chance to watch Chernobyl or Watchmen, or to finish The End of the F***ing World series 2, all of which I suspect would’ve been fairly likely to make this list.
  • Having said that! I am actually only a few days ahead in writing these – there are definitely going to be a few tight turnarounds, and I am more than a little worried I won’t be able to write all twenty articles to schedule – so, on the off chance I find the time to watch any of the above before I finish the list, I reserve the right to change everything to accommodate. We’ll see, I suppose.

I’ll also have a little sidestep article, a ranked list of all the movies I saw this year – which is similarly incomplete, I don’t really watch as many films as I should. That’ll come a little closer to the end of the month (mainly so I can include Star Wars – and maybe Cats, which I am desperate to see, but probably won’t be able to convince anyone to watch with me). I think that’ll end up being a top 20 or so? I’m fairly sure I’ve seen twenty films this year. Something like that.

The other thing worth noting: I’ve limited the list to stuff that was actually broadcast in 2019. Which feels obvious, admittedly, but given I spent quite a lot of this year catching up on things from a while ago, I’m cutting out a few personal favourites there. A moment of silence for Crashing (which I wish had taken off in the same way Fleabag did), 30 Rock (my new favourite of those NBC sitcoms) and The Good Wife (which has a few episodes that could be contenders for best of the decade), all of which really do probably deserve to have made this list.

You can find my favourites from 2017 and 2018 here (in one handy list) in case you’re interested in those. I probably won’t try and put together a best of the decade list, if only because I’ve not really been paying attention properly for long enough – there’s so many huge, huge gaps in my critical framework for the decade, given I only really started doing this properly in 2016ish. (I do kinda like the idea of being difficult and doing a best of the decade piece in 2026, or maybe 2023 for this website’s tenth anniversary. We’ll see.) What I will say, though, just to stake out my position on the 2010s: any best of the decade list that omits Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a fundamentally incomplete list and can be quite easily disregarded.

That, I think, is everything – so check back here tomorrow for the tenth best TV show of 2019, and the day after that for the tenth best episode of TV of 2019, and then… so on and so forth. You get the picture.

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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