Best of 2019 | #8 – Stath Lets Flats

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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.

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Best of 2019 | #9 – Defending the Guilty

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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.

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Circle

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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!

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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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