Choices and Choices

Bandersnatch Black Mirror

So, the last day of the year and here, just in time, is my top ten of 2018 – but first I am able to raise my shortlist of 17, as detailed in my last blog, to a top 20 for the year, thanks to three worthy additions I have watched in the last two weeks (one of them only available for the past three days, but that one not only completes my top 20, but also makes it into the top ten, so it was well worth waiting!).

 

Chuck Lorre’s The Kominsky Method (Netflix) is a highly enjoyable, old-fashioned comedy starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, both on top form, as ageing friends. It deals with some issues I am sadly familiar with, such as the effects of an enlarged prostate and the side-effects of the drugs used to treat it. It also reminded me in several Unknownaspects of my all-time favourite American comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm: the central relationship of a performer and his agent; their bemusement at the ways of the modern world; the showbiz milieu, with guest stars playing either characters (Danny de Vito, Ann-Margret) or themselves (Jay Leno, Elliot Gould); the strong Jewish humour. It’s not earth-shattering, but it has its moments of reflection and is extremely watchable.

 

Kidding (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), written by Dave Holstein, starring Jim Carrey and (mostly) directed by Michel Gondry, arrived here too late to make many “best of year” imageslists, as it probably should have. It is visually striking (full of bold colours), with an occasionally unnerving narrative, which veers from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye and centres on a group of people involved in the production of a Sesame Street-like children’s TV show, while at the same time dealing with personal loss and life challenges. Carrey is perfectly cast as the insecure star, Mr Pickles, constantly wanting to introduce themes of death into his character’s show. It was a slow starter and took some getting used to, but the later episodes were very memorable and I will certainly be returning to it.

 

Black Mirror arrives too late every year (since it went to Netflix) to make it onto any lists, even though every season has been consistently outstanding. This year, only one episode has arrived so far, but it is something of such significance and brilliance that it is an automatic must for my top ten. I have always thought that interactivity in drama, though much touted by broadcasters for many years as a likely future development, was a non-starter simply because the whole point of drama is to be told a story, whether you like how it develops or not. But Bandersnatch succeeds because it is actually about the possibilities and implications of interactivity (and therefore a perfect fit for the Black Mirror ethos), as well as because the delivery technology has become so sophisticated that a genius like Charlie Brooker can put it to positive creative use. I think it is a big moment for television.

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And it is about much more than interactivity, with themes of personal choice versus control, of the mysteries of creativity and of the impact of chance on our lives. On this last point, there are echoes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance and I imagine the fact that part of the plot hinges on a missed train was a nod in its direction. There are also references to “wrong” choices throughout – Betamax tapes, the newsagent chain John Menzies (though our hero wisely shops at W.H.Smith). I should, however, add that any description of sequences from Bandersnatch I may give you applies only to the version I watched, and, the way the interactivity works, with regular choices of alternatives, that version was one of over a trillion possibilities, which I guess probably makes it my very own version. The “ending” (at least the one I saw, or think I saw) is excellent but after it you get even more choices and the chance to go back on the ones you made until you have had enough and press the “escape to credits” option. By that time, Netflix itself has become part of the story and its familiar interface, suggesting the BlackMirror episode Be Right Back as your next choice (again, maybe only in the version I saw) is implicated too. After all that, I’m not sure there is any need to watch it again, though something tells me I will, maybe in the company of somebody else making the choices. I’ve already told my wife she needs to see it and I can imagine it may have caused battles for the remote in many households.

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Anyway, to get back to my top ten of 2018, Black Mirror:Bandersnatch (Netflix) has crashed unstoppably into it at the very last minute, which caused me a bit of painful reassessment. The other nine, in rough order of appearance only, are as follows:

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Inside No.9(BBC2): a brilliant fourth season, in which every episode was a corker, plus the wonderful live Halloween special.

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Save Me(Sky Atlantic): the first truly outstanding drama series Sky has made, courtesy of a wonderful script and characters created by Lennie James.

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Damned(Channel 4): a stunning second season which confirms Jo Brand as the best female writer/performer we have just now.

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A Very English Scandal(BBC1): Russell T.Davies’ brilliantly witty, yet totally appropriate take on the Jeremy Thorpe affair, with Hugh Grant a revelation.

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American Vandal 2(Netflix): yes, shit is funny, but it has never been quite this funny, while, at the same time containing moral lessons for our times.

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22 July(Netflix): Paul Greengrass at his best in conveying the full horror, impact and implications of the Norwegian massacres carried out by Anders Behring Breivik.

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There She Goes(BBC4): a devastatingly accurate “comedy” about the travails of the parents of a learning-disabled daughter.

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Black Earth Rising(BBC2): a complex, intelligent and highly resonant series from Hugo Blick, centred on the Rwandan genocide.

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Homecoming(Amazon): a brilliant mystery, based on a podcast but transformed into a superb piece of TV by the direction of Sam Esmail.

 

A last few thoughts on my list: if Bandersnatch had not arrived so decisively (and so late), I would have included Doctor Who: Rosa in my top ten and am disappointed that I had to leave it out. I’m also disappointed not to have included any factual pieces in my list, but nothing could compete, in my mind, with the strength of these ten titles.  I had a couple of doubts which I dispelled to my own satisfaction: firstly, is 22 July really a piece of TV or is it a film? – I decided to include it because of the TV pedigree of the director and because it “felt” like a single television drama, and, by the same criteria, I excluded The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (also Netflix), which I loved, because of the cinematic pedigree of the Coens and because it “felt” like a film, despite its episodic nature; secondly, I have already admitted in an earlier blog that my reaction to There She Goes is completely informed by personal experience, but I still feel it is a very important piece and one which I am in a position to judge in terms of authenticity as well as its intrinsic qualities as comedy/drama.

 

So, all that remains is to wish everybody a Happy New Year and good viewing in it. The building of the 2019 shortlist starts tomorrow, with some potential candidates already on the radar for the coming days, though last night’s impressive opening episode of Les Miserables means it may already be underway.

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Half-time Analysis

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Apologies to my small band of regular readers that there has been some considerable time since my last blog, but the World Cup and a family holiday have intervened since I last wrote. Now that the football is coming to an end, I will blog about it as a television experience next time, but first I thought I would take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, as we have just passed the halfway mark in the year.

 

So far, I have identified six titles as contenders for my end-of-year top ten: Inside Number 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned and Homeland. That was as it stood when I blogged in May and I can find four other titles to make a half-year top ten, but only two of the extra four, one documentary and one drama, are going to make it onto the running shortlist.

 

I don’t have any documentaries on my list so far and two are worth noting. Vanessa Unknown-2Engle’s The Funeral Murders (BBC2) aired back in March and was a harrowing description of two awful days in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, told frankly, compassionately and impartially and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Above all, it highlighted why the Irish border issue is not just one of the difficulties of the Brexit process but by far the most important issue. And last Friday, there was a splendid doc on the life and career of Olympic ice skater John Curry, The Ice King (BBC4), full of archival material and rare recordings of his work, though the fact that all the interviews seemed to be archival as well made it look a bit limited. The Funeral Murders is the one to make the shortlist.

 

I noted in an earlier blog that I was enjoying The Looming Tower on Amazon, and indeed it kept me fully engaged to the end – well-made and well-acted; an interesting Unknown-1story well told – but ultimately maybe just a bit too conventional to be regarded as something special. On the other hand, Russell T.Davies’ A Very English Scandal (BBC1), a three-part dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the seventies, was very special indeed. Davies’ triumph was to make a light, comedic piece out of an episode which, while full of laughable incompetence and colourful characters, also contained some pretty dark elements, and he did it without trivialising those aspects in any way. One line summed up that approach for me – a Liberal Party bigwig regretting that the Thorpe scandal had hit the party just when it was beginning to gain some momentum through the likes of Cyril Smith and Clement Freud. Wicked stuff! And Hugh Grant, while playing the comedy as we knew he could, was a revelation in portraying the deeper complexities of Thorpe. The fact that the case hit the headlines again at the time of transmission, through the news Unknownthat the incompetent assassin Andrew Newton is still alive, when the police thought he was dead, only added to the sense of event television, as did the screening of Tom Bower’s edition of Panorama, scheduled for the night in 1979 when the expected guilty verdict should have been delivered, but shelved when it wasn’t. The inclusion of Peter Cook’s contemporary satire of the judge’s biased summing up during the end credits was a master stroke, too. A Very English Scandal is very much one for the shortlist.

 

In more general terms, my growing feeling that long-form television drama has now passed the high point of its most recent “golden age” has been supplied with more evidence. I have blogged last year about giving up on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce after 5 episodes of each because they didn’t seem to be going anywhere and even Radio Times, which has championed Handmaid, has now commented that the second season of that much-honoured series was too unremittingly bleak. Most recently, I did watch all of Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic), which was mercifully brief at five well-produced and brilliantly acted episodes, but without any discernible point to it. I’m sure it was the best ever depiction of heroin addiction, but, once it was established that images-1Melrose’s self-destructive character was the fault of his abusive father and negligent mother, there was nothing else to it. It rather reminded me of a previous lavish five-parter, also featuring a fine performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and also based on a series of highly-regarded novels, Parade’s End (BBC, 2012), which ultimately did not add up to the sum of its parts.

 

And now I am faced with the Australian re-make of Picnic at Hanging Rock (BBC2, Wednesdays), which struggled to grab or hold my attention through its first episode. I found Peter Weir’s film version a bit tenuous, albeit highly atmospheric, so I can’t see myself making it through much more of the new series. We are promised a lot in the way of character backstories, but you have to be engaged by the front story for that to be in any way worthwhile.

 

In the meantime, the half-hour comedy-drama continues to provide the most innovative work, as, for me, it largely has done for the past decade. Bigger is not necessarily better.