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

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

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

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

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

A Confession (ITV)

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

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

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

Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX, BBC Two)

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

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

Manifest (NBC, Sky One)

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

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

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

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

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

The Mash Report (BBC Two)

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

Not feeling the need to write that one just yet.

This Way Up (Channel 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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Was The Final Problem the perfect last episode for Sherlock?

sherlock the final problem benedict cumberbatch martin freeman steven moffat mark gatiss finale last episode new series series 5 series 4 bbc one sherlock holmes

In many ways, yes. Most immediately, it’s clear that The Final Problem was dedicated to ensuring that all the best aspects of Sherlock got their moment to shine; in that regard, no stone was left unturned. Lestrade, Molly, Mrs Hudson – even Moriarty got to return, bringing with him the same frenetic energy that characterised the show in its early days. There were plenty of classic Sherlock rug pulls too; look at how it was revealed that the prison governor was under Eurus’ control for an example of the quiet intelligence that has always characterised the show. With The Final Problem we got an episode that was as tense and engaging as The Great Game, as intimate as A Scandal in Belgravia, and as intelligent as The Reichenbach Fall – surely this is an episode that, even in its own right, would go down as a classic in Sherlock’s history?

More than that, though genuinely felt as though this was an episode dedicated to completing the story we’ve seen unfold for years – note the call backs to The Great Game and The Abominable Bride, and the subtle allusions to A Scandal in Belgravia. There’s something almost holistic about the construction of this episode, drawing together the sum total of the programme’s almost decade long history, and concentrating it into one 90-minute story.

An article I wrote immediately after The Final Problem ended. Broadly speaking, I do actually stand by it still; The Final Problem was far, far from perfect, and better critics than I have already done a good job explaining the flaws inherent within it. However, I’ll always maintain that as an episode, it was an excellent conclusion to this seven-year journey.

Plus, I finally used “holistic” in an article, so I’m reasonably pleased regardless.

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Sherlock vs Elementary

elementary vs sherlock benedict cumberbatch johnny lee miller lucy liu martin freeman johnlock steven moffat mark gatiss robert doherty comparison better

Elementary is better than Sherlock.

It’s kinda weird to be saying that, especially considering what pretty much everyone thought when it was announced.

Sherlock had had a very successful first season, everyone was amazed at how brilliant it was, and everyone was applauding Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman – pretty much everyone who was connected to the production really. “Why, it’s so original and innovative to have Sherlock Holmes set in the modern day!” the people would say.

And then along comes the announcement that an American network is going to be making their own version. Sherlock Holmes in modern-day New York. With a female Watson. “Probably so they can sleep together” the people would say. The whole thing does sound a lot like gimmicky plagiarism really, doesn’t it?  At least at first.

So when I saw Elementary was on, I decided to watch it, mostly out of curiosity. To see how bad it would be, really.

And I was amazed at what I saw. At the minute, I’m about halfway through the first season – I think I’ve reached episode 14 by now? I am totally and completely convinced that Elementary is better than Sherlock. 

A big part of it is probably due to the format of it – half a season of Elementary is equivalent to all of the Sherlock we have at the minute, meaning Elementary has quantity on its side. But it’s also been quite intricately plotted – over just 12 episodes, the Holmes and Watson from Elementary have developed more than their Sherlock counterparts had in the same amount of time. And I have no doubt the Elementary characters are going to develop even more.

I’d also argue that Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation of Holmes is much more faithful to the Doyle books than Benedict Cumberbatch’s ever has been – whilst that’s not to say that Cumberbatch doesn’t always do brilliantly, Miller is more of a Sherlock Holmes than he is. (That’s probably worth another post someday)

I also think that Elementary has actually been able to perform better than Sherlock because of the different approach to the source material which it took. Rather than adapting famous Holmes stories, Elementary has taken the characters – pretty much as they were, albeit with a few changes to their backstory, and, indeed, gender – and placed them into new settings. This gives it all of that innovation and originality than people lauded Sherlock for, and expected Elementary to lack. (It’s also probably worth noting that Sherlock has only really adapted three of the original stories, meaning that what Elementary does isn’t all that different)

So, that’s why I prefer Elementary over Sherlock. I’ll probably write another post about how the Holmes (and maybe Watson) from Elementary are more faithful to the original stories… sometime next week. And maybe even individual episode reviews, I don’t know.

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