Weekly Watchlist #7 (14th Oct – 20th Oct)

weekly watchlist 7 the good place tahani jameela jamil rebecca front thick of it succession kendall headphones

Haven’t picked up anything new yet this week. Been a while. Recommendations always appreciated!

Motherland (BBC Two)

An improvement this week, if only a little one, because last week’s new character was sidelined a bit. (It is… a shame that this character is played by the only WOC in the cast. The actress is great, but the character is really, really misconceived. Do intentionally irritating side-characters ever work?) Even then, anyway, the episode was a bit of a disappointment. Ah well.

Riverdale (The CW, Netflix)

It’s absolutely ridiculous, but that’s why I love it. Frankly I’d be disappointed if it ever tried to be grounded again – I watch this for nonsense like Veronica making reporters watch her sing and dance before giving a press conference, or Jughead having a classmate called ‘Bret Weston Wallis’. It is nonsense! And, therefore, often the highlight of my week.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

Undoubtedly, it’s going to make my top ten for 2019 – how could it not? – but, as I’ve noted a few times over the past few weeks, I think it’s harmed by the fact it never quite followed up on the ending of episode 5 as much as it could have. Or, I suppose, maybe it’s more accurate to say ‘as much as I would’ve liked’. Given how important the relationship between Shiv and Kendall was to this episode, though, it definitely feels as though the ball was dropped, at least a little bit.

Still! That ending. Can’t wait for next year.

Superstore (NBC)

It’s still a little frustrating, and still feels like a weak cover of earlier years, but it’s starting to find the groove again. Thankfully!

The Good Place (NBC, Netflix)

So, here’s the other thing that bothers me about The Good Place: the mind-wipes. It’s never quite sat with me – especially in a show that purports to be a character-driven show – how easily and how willingly The Good Place quite literally resets its characters. There’s only ever been a partial restoration of memories once, so it’s not like these memories are going to be restored – I don’t understand how losing those memories isn’t essentially like a death?

That feels like a hugely important thing for a show that’s meant to be about its characters to grapple with – certainly I had a bit of trouble caring about any of them again at the start of series 2, as it became clear that all the development they underwent the year before was being undone – but especially so for a show that’s so heavily concerned with philosophy. How is that not something they’d get into – all these questions about selfhood and identity and what constitutes the fundamental essence of a person? It’s a strange device to use in such a throwaway fashion, and I’m increasingly realising I’ll never quite get a satisfactory answer on that.

The Thick of It (BBC Two, Netflix)

Very nearly caught up on this, just coming to the end of the third season. Really like Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray, quite a breath of fresh air for the show. Curious to see how they handle the coalition years in the next series too.

Quite a few things I’ve missed this week – fallen behind on Defending the Guilty, which is a bit of a shame. I’ll have to get back on top of that soon.

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Weekly Watchlist #6 (7th Oct – 13th Oct)

Still trying to work out a format for this that actually works, given that I’m not sure I have a lot worth saying about all the things I’m watching. Getting there, though.

House of Games (BBC Two)

I really, really like quiz shows, and this is fun enough and slightly offbeat enough to be worth tuning into regularly.

Motherland (BBC Two)

Hugely disappointed by this, I’ve got to admit – this, I think, made my best of 2017 list, so I was really looking forward to its return. Which was hugely underwhelming in the end! The issue I think was because so much of this episode was dedicated to a new, fairly one-note character, the entire episode structured around one fairly limited joke (“look, the mothers have to take care of this other mother, who is acting like a teenager”). Bit of a shame, that.

Riverdale (The CW, Netflix)

Genuinely moving, in a way I didn’t think of Riverdale ever could be.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I’ll miss this a lot when it ends for the year – admittedly I do think it’s faltered ever so slightly since those near-perfect opening episodes, but frankly Succession at 80% is better than a lot of shows at 100%.

Superstore (NBC)

Something of an improvement this week, but mainly I was just trying to work out where I recognised the actress playing Colleen from. (The answer, I’m fairly sure, is SNL. Or more likely Veep, since I don’t even really watch SNL.)

The Chase (ITV)

I watch this every day, more or less – even on the weekends, when it’s not actually on properly, I’ll tend to watch a syndicated repeat. I would hate to know how many hours of my life I’ve spent watching The Chase, to be honest. And how little I’ve actually learned from it! But I’m definitely getting better at it. Eventually, I will go on The Chase, I will take the higher offer, be caught within two questions, and never watch it again.

Which would be one way to break a habit, I suppose.

The Circle (Channel 4)

Still gradually working my way through The Circle, albeit fairly behind the actual broadcast schedule – six episodes a week is frankly too much of anything. It remains unexpectedly compelling, though; it’s the first reality show of its ilk that I’ve been genuinely into enough to actually want to watch six episodes of a week. (Or, well, try to anyway.)

The Good Place (NBC, Netflix)

This episode wound me up a bit, admittedly. I’ve always gone back and forth on Tahani, whether I find her charming or irritating; I’m increasingly starting to think, though, that while Tahani is still this cartoonishly bourgeoisie character, The Good Place is never quite going to make “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” land as its central thesis. (Assuming that remains its central thesis, admittedly.)

The character needs to develop beyond the initial archetype – I’m not saying there isn’t some depth to her (well, I’m not saying that at the moment, anyway), but while The Good Place still sticks to that initial joke, I’m not sure it’ll ever quite be what it seems to want to be.

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Weekly Watchlist #5 (30th Sept – 6th Oct)

weekly watchlist 5 phoebe waller bridge saturday night live fleabag posh malcolm tucker peter capaldi superstore the thick of it

Slightly shorter one this week!

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

I liked it already, of course, but when they used my favourite Wolf Alice song? That’s when I loved it.

Saturday Night Live (NBC)

I’ve never quite bought into the whole “Fleabag is too posh” line of criticism – not as much as I probably should have, anyway – but the sheer level of contempt on display in that Love Island sketch made me quite uncomfortable, actually.

(The rest of it, obviously, was predictably throwaway fare. Still, Taylor Swift was pretty good.)

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

One thing I quite enjoy about Succession is all those cutting little jokes about journalism. “Here’s ten reasons why you’re never getting paid”. Yeah. Yeah.

Superstore (NBC)

An improvement over last week, definitely, although I’m still getting the feeling that something is just a little off – which is odd, really. There’s no way, surely, that the head writer moving to more of a producer-only role should have this much of an impact – it’s a way too auteuristic model of understanding a network sitcom, of all things, and anyway his replacements have been working on the show since the start. But at the same time, something definitely feels not quite right. I wonder if maybe it’s me, and simply knowing that something has changed behind the scenes is enough to make things feel different. Hmm.

The Good Place (NBC, Netflix)

One day I’ll get it. It’s still, you know, fine – although definitely hurting itself by sidelining William Jackson Harper, who’s always been one of the best bits of the show.

The Thick of It (BBC Two, Netflix)

Been watching this in my spare time, mainly because I’ve never seen it before, and I figured it was worth catching up on just so I could understand all the references people made. It’s quite fun. Probably there is lots to be written about what it tells us about politics in hindsight, to, uh, varying levels of insight, but mostly what stood out was a throwaway line about how scandalous a Tory MP doing blackface is… in the same week that Desmond Swayne was all over the news openly boasting about having done blackface in the past.

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

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

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

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

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

Fleabag Live! (National Theatre Live)

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

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

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

Superstore (NBC)

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

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

The Circle (Channel 4)

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

The Good Place (Netflix)

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

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

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

The Politician (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back again.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

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

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

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

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

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

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

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

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

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

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

Dragons’ Den (BBC Two)

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

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

Elementary (CBS, Sky Witness)

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

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

Have I Got News for You (BBC One)

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

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

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

Liberal Democrats Conference (BBC Parliament)

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

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

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

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

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Confession (ITV)

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

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

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

Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX, BBC Two)

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

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

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

Manifest (NBC, Sky One)

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

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

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

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

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

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

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

The Mash Report (BBC Two)

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

Not feeling the need to write that one just yet.

This Way Up (Channel 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

I was trying to work out, before I wrote this post, how many television shows I’d actually watched all year. I am not completely sure the final tally was correct – my memory is awful, and it’s been a long year with a lot of television – but I think it came out to around 60 or so. (That’s mostly new shows, or new content at least, I didn’t include the programmes I rewatched. No idea how many it’d be then.)

Hoping to watch about 75 new programmes across 2019. That feels broadly achievable, I think – even if it’s still only going to be a fraction of the amount of actual television that’s put out. There’s so much of it! It’s like I’m drowning. In a good way, though. Or at least as good a way as drowning could feel, I suppose.

Anyway. Before we get into the 2018 list, here’s a quick recap of my 2017 list, since I never wrote a blog post about it in the end:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale
  2. The West Wing
  3. American Gods
  4. The Good Fight
  5. Doctor Who
  6. Legion
  7. The End of the F***ing World
  8. Babylon Berlin
  9. Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister
  10. Motherland

The eagle-eyed among you will notice a couple of shows that didn’t premiere in 2017, but that’s when I first watched them, so it counts. (The inverse applies to The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin, both of which had their debut in the UK in 2017 rather than 2018 – hence being on that list rather than this one.)

Looking back, I still feel basically alright with all of these choices. Legion surprised me a little bit, actually, but I suppose I did enjoy it quite a bit at the time, especially while I was still watching a lot more superhero television. And, actually, I’m a little uncomfortable with the inclusion of Motherland, much as I did love it, because of Graham Linehan’s involvement with it.

Anyway. Here, then, is the list of my favourite television shows of 2018.

10). Derry Girls

At the time, I was going to write an article about authenticity, and about how Derry Girls has such a strong voice, and that’s why it was quite as funny as it was. I never did get around to that piece in the end (as long-term fans who can recite everything I’ve ever written surely know) but now… well, it’s true, obviously. But I wonder if perhaps that doesn’t overemphasis certain aspects of the show, over-simplifying its strengths and making it seem as though the jokes are only good because of the accent they’re delivered in.

No, Derry Girls was – and is – so good because of the strength of its ensemble, the precision of its structure, and often quite how willing it is to push a joke and keep going. Granted, you could probably argue that it’s first and last episodes were the most impressive and memorable, with the stretch in the middle never quite hitting those heights – but then, that last episode is home to one of the best TV moments of the year, after all.

(The accents do help, though.)

9). Save Me

save me lennie james suranne jones stephen graham sky atlantic jason flemyng

It’s not a show I necessarily expected to put in my top ten at the end of the year, actually, but when I came to compose this list, it was difficult not to include Save Me, I quickly realised. It’s the only straightforward crime drama on the list, and the only missing child programme, in a year when I watched (and wrote about) quite a few of them – just off the top of my head, Innocent, Kiri and Safe all spring to mind. Each of those shows had their strengths, but none of them were particularly special – I gradually lost interest in that sort of crime drama across the year, really.

Save Me stands apart because it managed to do what I didn’t think was entirely possible – it took that basic standard of the crime drama, the missing child premise, and executed it with such confidence and such skill that it made the whole thing feel new again. There was no deconstruction of the genre, no attempt to juxtapose it with something different, just a ruthlessly well-constructed drama, set apart only by its building intensity. I’m looking forward to the next series – I’ve got my doubts, admittedly, about Save Me’s potential as a long runner, but I was so impressed by Lennie James in this that I’ll be paying attention to whatever he does next.

Here’s what I wrote about Save Me at the time.

8). Flowers

flowers will sharpe olivia colman sofia di martino julian barratt daniel rigby channel 4 seeso mental health depression best tv 2018 top 10

I watched each of Flowers‘ two seasons this year, across the course of about a week. It’s difficult to capture exactly what’s so good about Flowers, I think – it’s a show that very much has to be seen to be understood, in a way I think quite unlike everything else on this list. “Olivia Colman is brilliant, Julian Barratt is brilliant, and Will Sharpe is brilliant” is true, of course, but not in a way that necessarily tells you a lot. “This is a brilliant crime drama” conveys a certain understanding of what a piece of television is and what it’s good at – it’s difficult to even explain what Flowers is exactly without being deeply reductive.

But it is brilliant, in its own idiosyncratic and distinctive way. Of the two seasons, I think the second was my favourite – after however many years of watching more and more television, and trying to watch and engage critically, I’ve become more and more attracted to the stuff that’s unlike anything else on television. Flowers series 2 is definitely that, a more confident elaboration on its predecessor, and an obvious choice for one of the best TV shows of the year.

Here’s what I wrote about Flowers at the time.

7). Superstore

superstore nbc america ferrara colton dunn ben feldman nichole bloom justin spitzer best tv 2018 top ten the office community season 4 5 cancelled renewed march return

I started watching Superstore years back, actually, when it first aired – NBC put the first three episodes on YouTube for three, which I thought was a really clever way to draw eyes to the show, but then there was no way to watch it here in the UK. It’s finally turned up on ITV 2, though, and I absolutely loved those first three episodes, so obviously I made sure to sit and watch it each day it was on.

There is a lot to be said about Superstore, I suspect, and how and why it’s so good – like America Ferrara and the jokes (its second series had a better Brexit gag than any British show across the past two years can lay claim to) and the chemistry between the cast and the tone it strikes each week and the way it takes corporate America to task in a way, I suspect, rather unlike a lot of other workplace comedies.

For me, though, what’s probably the defining memory I have of watching Superstore is coming home in an absolutely foul mood and all of that just falling away, because Superstore is just so good and so wholesome and so wonderful.

6). The Good Fight

the good fight christine baranski audra macdonald rose leslie cbs

Perhaps most notable, in this context at least, as the only show from the 2017 Top Ten to survive into the new year – indeed, and I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying it, I’d be very surprised if The Good Fight didn’t also make it onto the 2019 Top Ten. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.

The Good Fight is, in a joke I’ve tried to avoid making before, really, really good. There’s an elegance and a confidence to it, and it’s so much fun to watch. Christine Baranski is inimitable, Sarah Steele is a treasure, and Rose Leslie is so good I feel bad every time I remember she’s a Tory. (Zing!) I’m hoping 2019 is the year I finally get around to watching The Good Wife, but more than that, I’m really looking forward to Series 3.

Because it really, really is just that captivating.

Here’s what I wrote about The Good Fight at the time.

5). Succession

succession hbo brian cox jeremy strong jesse armstrong adam mckay peep show will ferrell julie gardner murdoch best tv 2018 top ten

I’d like to say I was an early adopter for Succession, appreciating it from the start, unlike the droves of people who abandoned it and then returned to it later. Of course, it didn’t air in the UK until months after that narrative had already formed in America, so I was going into the show expecting to dislike it at least a little initially. So, technically, I can’t quite say I was there for the show from the start.

I’m pretty sure I would’ve been, though, because I loved that first episode, and Succession had me in the palm of its hand till the end. And what an ending it was! Oh man. I sort of wish it had aired in the UK at the same time as it did in America, because I would’ve loved the chance to write about the whole series at the same time when everyone was still, you know, actually talking about (one of the more frustrating things about being a critic based in the UK is how totally America still drives the pace of the cultural conversation) because the way that series concluded was… well, there’s a few reasons why this show made it to the Top Ten, but that ending is the reason why Succession is as high up on this list as it is.

Here’s what I wrote about Succession (well, nominally about Succession, at least) at the time.

4). Wanderlust

wanderlust bbc netflix toni collette nick payne zawe ashton steven mackintosh sophie okonedo sex marriage monogamy best tv 2018 top ten hd

Wanderlust started on BBC One in the same week as Press, and I watched them both on the same day. I watched Wanderlust first, because I was expecting to like Press more – the general premise of Press being far more my ballpark than Wanderlust’s, my familiarity with Mike Bartlett and how much I’d enjoyed Trauma, and there were a few actors I liked in Press as well. Plus, Wanderlust seemed to be in the same vein as a lot of recent BBC family dramas (dramas about family, that is, I would hate to have watched Wanderlust with my family) that never quite gelled for me. In the end, I suspect I probably would’ve liked Press quite a lot more than I eventually did if it hadn’t been airing alongside Wanderlust, because the comparison was not at all flattering.

Part of why I watched Wanderlust was the expectation that it’d probably be unlike most of what I usually watched – an expectation that was met and surpassed, because Wanderlust blew me away. It was touching and charming and Toni Collette gave one of the best performances of the year (I know there’s some talk of awards nominations for Hereditary, but she really should win something for Wanderlust – several somethings, really). Not only that, Wanderlust probably also boasts one of the single best episodes of television of the year; I’m still thinking about the fifth episode and its central conceit, even now, months later.

3). The Assassination of Gianni Versace

american crime story the assassination of gianni versace andrew cunanan darren criss ryan murphy tom rob smith cody fern review emmys

I think maybe people didn’t like this one that much? They’re all wrong, of course, but I was surprised to note that, because the strengths of this seem so self-evident to me. Darren Criss was brilliant, the script by Tom Rob Smith was brilliant, Cody Fern was brilliant in a supporting performance that really wasn’t celebrated enough. It was intense, and it was difficult to watch, and to be honest I doubt I’ll ever sit and watch it again – but by the same measure, I’m so glad I did, because it was such a standout series.

Genuinely, I think if you’re someone who likes television (and indeed movies and visual media and so on) and you went through 2018 without watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace, your experience of television this year was incomplete. That’s a big, big omission, and it’s worth going back to watch it as soon as you’re able – you won’t regret it.

Here’s what I wrote about The Assassination of Gianni Versace at the time; I put this piece in my portfolio as well, if you’d like to check that out, but I should probably get around to updating it sooner rather than later.

2). A Very English Scandal

a very english scandal hugh grant jeremy thorpe ben whishaw norman scott russell t davies stephen frears review both victims bbc one amazon

As is often the way with a Russell T Davies programme, this was obviously one of the best of the year pretty much as soon as the first episode finished airing. (I don’t wholly remember what was on at the same time as Cucumber, but I’m fairly certain it would’ve been one of the best of that year, too.) But, you know, don’t just take my word for it if you don’t want to – though I can’t think why you wouldn’t – it’s been appearing on plenty of year in review best lists for a while.

Rightfully so, because this is brilliant. It’s fun and anarchic and clever and I can keep listing adjectives, but honestly, it wouldn’t do it justice. I’m fairly sure it’s still on iPlayer – go, search it out. Watching these is a much better way to spend the next three hours than whatever you’ve already got planned. For even more fun, read Davies’ script at the same time as you watch the show; I did that with the third episode, and that really highlighted the strengths of the piece in a new way.

Here’s what I wrote about A Very English Scandal at the time, which I think is quite plausibly one of the best things I’ve ever written, and certainly one of the best of this year.

1). Patrick Melrose

patrick melrose benedict cumberbatch edward st aubyn sky atlantic showtime edward berger david nicholls best tv 2018 top ten

I’m still annoyed I didn’t find the time to write about this as it aired. I wasn’t expecting a lot from it, actually; the trailers in the week leading up to it gave the impression that Cumberbatch would be doing a sort of quasi-Sherlock caricature, which didn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the show.

When I watched it, though, I was blown away. It’s surely the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career – faintly reminiscent of Sherlock in a few clear ways, yes, but what Cumberbatch does with the material is far more complex than any comparison might suggest. “Benedict Cumberbatch’s best work” is a high selling point on its own, but that this performance was found in such a stylishly directed character study – a piece about love and loss and addiction and trauma, and coming to terms with them all as much as is possible – as Patrick Melrose is genuinely quite something.

If you’ve not seen it, seek it out; it’ll become very clear very quickly, I think, why I thought Patrick Melrose was the best TV show of 2018.

Honourable Mentions, Runners Up, and Notable Omissions

There are a few different programmes that are worthy of note, even though they didn’t quite make the top ten.

  • Chief amongst them are Sharp Objects and Black Earth Rising, both of which I loved; the only reason they didn’t make it onto the list, frankly, is the fact that I still haven’t actually had a chance to finish them.
  • (I preferred Black Earth Rising to Sharp Objects generally; Amy Adams would definitely be among the top ten performances of the year if I was making a list like that.)
  • I should probably also include Killing Eve here; I wasn’t quite as enamoured by it as everyone else was, but it was still obviously a highlight of the year. Oh, and I was also rather more enamoured by Westworld than everyone else was.
  • On the comedy front, I’d mention Stath Lets Flats, a very odd little show on Channel 4 that I enjoyed despite (and because of) how very odd it was, and Everything Sucks, which was so wonderfully charming. I was really disappointed when it was cancelled. Also, thinking about it, Brooklyn 99, which I’ve only really gotten into properly over the past few months; I was very pleased when it was un-cancelled.
  • And watching Riverdale is consistently one of my favourite things to do each week, because it’s just so mad, and so much fun because of it. No, I will not be taking any comments on how much I love Riverdale, this is my final word on the matter, thank you.

Disappointments

What disappointments were there in 2019? Well, I can think of a couple in my personal life, but let’s sidestep those and stick to the stuff that matters. And the stuff that we’ve been talking about for the past thousand words.

  • I think if I were inclined to be deliberately inflammatory, I might include Killing Eve here – not because it was bad, because it obviously wasn’t, but after Fleabag (one of the best television shows ever, frankly) and quite how rave the reviews were in America, I was expecting a little more. But, you know, that’s just being difficult, and unnecessarily so, frankly. Killing Eve was great.
  • No, in terms of disappointments there’s a couple of obvious contenders. Difficult not to talk about the two shows that fell out of the rankings from last year – The Handmaid’s Tale and Doctor Who, both of which were, unfortunately, vast steps down from their prior offerings. (I’ve not had a chance to catch up on Legion series 2 yet.) I wrote a little about The Handmaid’s Tale at the time, and I never really shut up about Doctor Who.
  • There’s also Jessica Jones, another programme that was a big step down from its stellar first season – indeed, the first series of Jessica Jones is one of the best pieces of ‘superhero’ media there is, and the second is… really not. I suspect the third season is going to be the last. I am not sure I’ll even watch it.
  • And, of course, there’s Who is America, the Sacha Baron-Cohen thing, which was just a load of nonsense really.

What I’m looking forward to in 2019

Let’s not end on a negative note, though! Positivity is a much better way to try and end the year. So, here’s a couple of shows that I’m looking forward to in 2019; I will, almost inevitably, forget something. Probably the one I’m looking forward to most, actually.

  • First and foremost, each of the various returning shows from this list – and my 2017 list, come to that. Quite a few of them will be back – The Good Fight, Derry Girls, I think Save Me, and hopefully Superstore series 4 will turn up on UK television sooner rather than later. From 2017’s list, the main one jumping out at me is American Gods; given all the nonsense that’s gone on behind the scenes, I’m more than a little worried about this series, but part of me is still really looking forward to it, however cautiously.
  • New shows! Gentleman Jack springs to mind first, because – since meeting her – I look forward to anything with Sophie Rundle in it. Otherwise, there’s MotherFatherSon, which I’m interested in because it’s written by Tom Rob Smith, who was also behind The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Plenty of others too, I’m sure.
  • I also, looking back through this list, probably need to try and branch out a bit more. It’s a very white list (and, actually, a pretty male one too) – not getting around to Atlanta this year and not finishing Black Earth Rising definitely didn’t help, but equally, that’s still only two shows. So, yes, something to try and pay a little more attention to over 2019.

Of course, there’s also plenty of stuff from this year I still want to catch up on, like The Long Song or Little Drummer Girl or This Country or Homecoming or Maniac or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or… oh, man, there is just so much TV, isn’t there? So much.

Have a wonderful 2019, everyone.

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On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

succession hbo brian cox jeremy strong kieran culkin sarah snook alan ruck matthew macfadyen nicholas braun jesse armstrong adam mckay

Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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