Happy end-of-year holidays, everybody. Before the new year arrives, here is my list of the top ten TV things of 2017. One of the great things about doing a blog is that I can leave it until the last moment, just in case something outstanding turns up in the dying embers of the year departing. Another is that I am free of the need to balance my choices across channels or genres, or even to restrict myself to British output. The only thing I am being strict on is that the titles I include must have been first transmitted or released in 2017 – the result being that I have ended up with a list of broadcast TV. I only began using streaming platforms after my retirement and have spent most of my time on Netflix and Amazon this year catching up on things which I had not previously seen. So, while I loved shows like Stranger Things (Netflix) and One Mississippi (Amazon), and would certainly have wanted to include them in my list, I have so far only watched the first seasons from last year. Hopefully, I will be up-to-date by this time next year.
In previous years, when I have been preparing year’s best lists for the BFI or the Peabody Board, the one thing I have valued above all others is innovation and new talent, such as that behind the shows I mentioned above. But the list I have ended up with for 2017 contains so many established names – David Lynch and Mark Frost, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Jimmy McGovern, Louis Theroux, Jane Campion, David Attenborough – that I wonder if this is because TV is running out of new ideas or because I am becoming nostalgic and reactionary in my retirement! It’s probably just a coincidence that these familiar figures were responsible for my favourite work of the year.
The titles in these sorts of lists are often presented “in no particular order”, but this year saw two series which I can only describe as monumental and which have to be mentioned first. They also had a couple of things in common, despite being from very different genres. Back in 1990, two series from the United States stood out in terms of their genre re-defining impact. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks changed what a TV drama series could be, while Ken Burns’ The Civil War did the same for the historical documentary.
Quite astonishingly, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) managed to re-define what a TV drama in 2017 could be as brilliantly as that original series did back in 1990. It was the unmissable highlight of the year over 18 hour-long segments, though David Lynch, who directed it all as compellingly as he has ever directed anything (episode 8 was particularly stunning), said he preferred to see it as an 18-hour film and it did, indeed, make several “best film” lists (see my previous blog).
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC4) also weighed in at 18 hours, but not in the version transmitted on BBC4, which was about half that length. Having now seen the full version on DVD, I cannot imagine why we didn’t get the full PBS version. There is nothing superfluous about the material which didn’t make the cut, nor anything which would be of interest to a US audience only. It is all wonderful documentary making and, being twice as long, the full version is literally twice as good. It’s the best thing Burns has done since The Civil War (and he has given us some great things in the years between).
Two drama series I have really loved reached their third and final season this year and are thus absolute musts for my top ten of the year. Firstly, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (HBO/Sky Atlantic) came to a conclusion worthy of this shatteringly emotional series. If you wanted the central mystery solved, then it was. If like me, you wanted it left a mystery and a catalyst for a superb study of loss, grief and the search for meaning, then it was that, too. For me, this has been the best series of the last 5 years and one of the best ever.
Also concluded satisfactorily was the Danish series The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR/Sky Arts), created by Maya Ilsoe. Unlike previous Danish dramas, like The Killing or Borgen, this has been tucked away on a niche channel and, although press and online sources drew attention to the first two seasons, the third was virtually unheralded. The plotlines were occasionally a little melodramatic, but this was a series to be watched above all for the acting, which was both intense and subtle throughout, but utterly brilliant from the whole cast, especially Trine Dyrholm as Gro and Carsten Bjornlund as Frederick.
Well, I seem to be going through my list in pairs, so let’s move on to two British dramas, which are also linked thematically. Several series this this year have dealt with crises in deprived communities, including The Moorside (BBC1) and Little Boy Blue (ITV). But nobody does this sort of thing better than Jimmy McGovern and he was back with Broken (BBC1), another of his wonderful ensemble pieces. The drama centred around Sean Bean’s catholic priest, struggling to help members of his congregation deal with poverty, racism, gambling addiction and other social evils, while at the same time confronting his own demons.
Equally impressive was Three Girls (BBC1), which tackled the difficult subject of the Rochdale sexual abuse scandal with sensitivity and incisiveness. Writer Nicole Taylor and director Philippa Lowthorpe (whose documentary background was a key element) produced a work of rare insight, but the main kudos go to the three young actresses who played the girls, alongside established stars like Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp.
Now for two British documentary series. Louis Theroux has, in recent years, changed his approach to the people whose lifestyles and problems form the basis of his documentary output. Whereas he previously used a faux naivete to encourage his subjects to reveal themselves, he now befriends them and displays a genuine empathy towards them, which allows him to speak frankly. In his latest series, Dark States (BBC2), he revisited familiar territory in the USA – drugs, prostitution and gun culture, but in a way which enabled him to get much closer to the heart of the issue. The one on heroin addiction in West Virginia was particularly impressive.
Probably the most spectacular and astonishing images of the year were to be found in Blue Planet II (BBC1), which can only be described as awesome. Although the reassuringly familiar tones of the evergreen Sir David Attenborough still guide us through the natural wonders on show, these programmes are now on another planet compared to the natural history programmes of previous years. Images and music combine to make sequences that can be enjoyed time and time again.
My final two choices, alas, do not make a convenient coherent pairing. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC2) was, like its predecessor, a police drama which wasn’t. The case in question was simply the catalyst for an examination of the impact of children (or their absence) on the leading characters lives. Campion’s work is full of memorably drawn characters and her collaborations with leading actresses (Elizabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman standing out here) are particularly rewarding.
And so, I reach my final pick and there has been no comedy yet! (I didn’t tell you: there has to be comedy – it’s a rule!). In my first blog I was bemoaning the lack of memorable comedy this year, but a little help was soon at hand. Most of it, in keeping with my theme for the year, came from established sources and much of it from revivals. Earlier in the year I did try This Country on BBC3, which had the great merit of fresh new talent, but mockumentaries about gormless youngsters are becoming a bit of a cliché. So are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (this year to Spain), but a very enjoyable one nevertheless. Some of my biggest laughs of the year came from the much-anticipated revival of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but only three or four of the episodes were classic Curb (I particularly liked the one with Bryan Cranston as Larry’s therapist). It was good to have Mitchell and Webb back together in the appropriately titled Back (though how Robert Webb agreed to a script which played entirely to David Mitchell’s comic strengths, I don’t know). Mitchell also featured in another of my favourites, Upstart Crow, which is the best thing Ben Elton has written since Blackadder (and the Christmas special a few days ago was very nicely judged). I also enjoyed the first season of Motherland, written by the overworked Sharon Horgan, together with Graham and Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, and the final one of Mackenzie Crook’s wonderful Detectorists. But none of these merited my final place, which goes to another revival of one of my all-time favourites: not, alas, last night’s Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (now you see why I left this so late), which had a few wonderful moments but was not what I had asked for. The truly great comedy revival of the year was last week’s three-part League of Gentlemen (BBC2), which managed to be entirely consistent with the memory of the original show, while updating it for Brexit Britain. It was also as brilliant, as creepy and as hysterically funny as ever, without relying on nostalgia for effect. A bit like Twin Peaks in that respect, actually.
So, that’s my 10 for 2017, but I’ll say a final word about Doctor Who. In my opinion, Peter Capaldi has been the best Doctor since Patrick Troughton. His final series was not as great as the previous one, but the last episode was terrific and the Christmas/regeneration Special was a worthy tribute to the wonderful thing the show has been and a fitting introduction to the modern thing it will become.
So, Happy New Year everybody and good viewing. Here we go again.