An Unbalanced Year


Well, it was a wonderful TV year overall, that’s for sure, but, as I speculated in my blog of 17th July (A Year of Two Halves?), the second six months could not hope to compete with the astonishing quality of the first. January to June produced fifteen titles for my shortlist, but I have only so far added a further two in the months since, both of them from streaming platforms (and both Netflix), which seem to release their best stuff in the run up to Christmas. Maybe the broadcasters have decided not to compete with this strategy, preferring instead to fill their schedules with an over-abundance of Reality TV at this time of the year.


Anyway, I can certainly add a third more recent title, with another streaming service (Amazon this time) having only just finished giving us one of the unmissable gems of the year – the final season of Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot. This has been a consistently wonderful series and received the concluding season and finale it deserved. I was particularly struck by Esmail’s use of a device very similar to that which illuminated the year’s 310A3523-8C83-47F0-A7E5-B3062E3AC46F_4_5005_cearliest masterpiece, Fleabag – whereby the central character’s fourth-wall-breaking habits (Fleabag’s looks to camera, Elliot’s narration) are challenged by another character (Fleabag’s love interest and Elliot’s doppelganger respectively) to unsettling effect. Indeed, the finale of Mr Robot was all about making us, the audience, complicit in the action. “Is this real” was the question constantly being asked by both the characters and ourselves and the only reliable answer must be “of course not – it’s a TV series”. At the end it didn’t matter how much of what we had seen had been a construct of Eliot’s mind, because it was wildly entertaining and engaging – just as a great TV series should be. I liked the nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, too. Not just one of the year’s best, but one of the decade’s (and I’ll be back to that).


So, I have ended up with a top 18 this year, from which I have chosen the following top ten of 2019 (as usual, in rough order of their appearance and you will notice that 8 of them are from the first half of the year):



Fleabag (BBC1)


Just the two series and it’s all over, but the true genius knows when to call it a day and it went out on the highest of highs.


Janet Baker in Her Own Words (BBC4)


John Bridcut’s fitting and moving tribute to one of this country’s greatest and most distinctive singing voices


One Day in Gaza (BBC2)


A brilliantly constructed and presented documentary on a subject that is very raw and controversial – so much so that it is still to be seen in the USA, where it was jointly commissioned.


Mum (BBC2)


Another perfect piece which paced itself carefully towards a satisfying and emotional climax in its third series.


63 Up (ITV)


Hard to accept that this may be the last time we meet the characters whose lives we have followed since they were seven. Keep going, Michael Apted – we need them back in 2026.


Chernobyl (HBO/Sky Atlantic)


Hugely impressive, riveting and illuminating telling of the story of a nuclear disaster which could have been an international catastrophe.


Deadwood; the Movie (HBO/Sky Atlantic)


We thought this would be one of the great unfinished series, but David Milch managed to provide the perfect finale just in time.


The Virtues (Channel 4)


Searing and mesmerising three-parter from Meadows, Thorne and Graham – the most intense television of the year.


Top Boy (Netflix)


A very welcome return for Ronan Bennett’s’ urban epic, this time given the space to grow into something even more arresting


Mr Robot (Amazon)


The astonishing and satisfying final season of one of the decade’s greatest


Happy New Year everybody! I’ll be back early in the new one with my list of the best of the decade.


A Year of Two Halves?


Half way through the year and it’s been a real corker, at least by my own criteria: at this point last year, I had shortlisted 8 titles for my year’s top ten – this year the figure is 15! Many of those critical sources which do the same are reaching the same conclusion, though not necessarily citing the same titles as me, but there does seem to be a consensus that this is a vintage year.


In previous blogs I pointed out several things about which I was enthusiastic, but I was waiting for them to finish before shortlisting them (or not). So, I am happy to confirm that the two titles I anticipated adding to my list from my blog of 31stMay, Chernobyl Unknown-7(Sky Atlantic) and The Virtues (Channel 4), will indeed feature and very strongly so – both maintained the qualities I described to their respective ends and I think they are probably the two best drama series of the year so far. The Virtues provided an extended finale of even greater intensity than the episodes which led up to it, with the main plotlines leading to two simultaneous and harrowing confrontations with different, though unpredictable, outcomes (I won’t spoil it – do watch it if you haven’t already). And the extra information we were given during the end credit sequence of the final episode of Chernobyl was a devastating climax of its own – I’ve never seen that device used so effectively.


Also in my 31stMay blog, I mentioned that I was enjoying Russell T.Davies’ Years and Years (BBC1), but without any confidence that it would feature on my shortlist. The closing episodes made me change my mind, as the way it finished fully justified the somewhat over-the-top approach it had taken throughout. It turned out that the whole story had been extracted from the brain of the character Edith (Jessica Hynes), who was Unknown-3wired up to a mind-reading device in a futuristic scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (BBC/Channel, 4 1996). And Anne Reid’s soliloquy about automated check-outs really hit a nerve – I always queue for the human-operated tills in my local Waitrose and refuse any offers to help me with the automated section – now I can say “didn’t you see Years and Years?” as well. If you look at it as political satire rather than drama, it has a much greater resonance.


Going a bit further back, I confirmed in the comments section of my 13thMay blog that Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life is shortlisted, so the declared shortlist reads:


Les Miserables (BBC1)

True Detective (Sky Atlantic)

Moon and Me (cBeebies)

Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2)

Three Identical Strangers (Channel 4)

Fleabag (BBC1)

Back to Life (BBC1)

Mum (BBC2)

Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)

The Virtues (Channel 4)

Years and Years (BBC1)

63 Up (ITV)

Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4)

One Day in Gaza (BBC2)


…..which makes 14, the 15thshortlisted programme being a recent release which I had not blogged about yet.


Back in February last year, the first of my “TV Catch-Up” blogs considered the classic HBO western series Deadwood (2004-6) and one of the reasons I gave for watching it complete at that time was the tantalising prospect that a concluding movie was in the pipeline, all those years after its screen life was prematurely curtailed. Well, that has now arrived and was aired on Sky Atlantic at precisely the same time as it went out in the US, that is 2am! As a way of wrapping up the story, it worked spectacularly well. There wasn’t as much consideration of the building of American society, which was one of the factors which made the three seasons so memorable, but there was as much as you could hope for in the limited time allowed. The style, the distinctive use of language and the characters had hardly changed, but the (fictional) ten-year gap since the end of season three was masterfully handled by David Milch and his wonderful cast – it was great to be back in their world and very little in the way of catch-up was required. The ending was a great nod to classic western tropes and, alas, the last thing we will get from Milch – one of the true giants of TV drama. Given that this is one of the greatest American series of them all, a fitting finale was always going to be one of the highlights of the year. Just as with 63 Up, it earns a place on the shortlist as much as for what it has been as for what it was this year.


So, I already have an outstanding list, five of which (not saying which ones) I regard as absolute nailed-on certainties for my top ten of the year. However, if the second half of the year is only half as good as the first, then I may have some very difficult decisions to make. It couldn’t be, could it?


Well, we are in a bit of a summer lull at the moment, with only Catch 22 (Channel 4) demanding my regular attention, but that is to be expected. I was, however, glued to my screen all day last Sunday for the Cricket World Cup Final and I still can’t get my head around whether that was one of the great pieces of TV of the year or whether it was the incredible nature of the contest itself which makes it seem so. I think I may return to that next time.


TV Catch-up #1: Deadwood


One of the best aspects of retirement for me is the opportunity it affords to catch up with or to revisit outstanding TV series, either from my DVD/Blu-ray collection or video streaming services. Watching something several years after its debut allows one to appreciate its significance as part of television history, to read critical commentary around it and to compare it to contemporary production. I’m no great binge-watcher, especially of great drama – I find that the impact of the best material demands time to sink in, so I rarely watch more than two episodes at any sitting. I also like to leave a period of time between seasons, as would happen if I was watching it on debut, rather than jump straight in to the next season when I come to the end of one. As a result, the process can take some time and, of course, I am catching up with other things, movies and TV, at the same time.


One of the series at the top of my list to see in full was Deadwood (HBO), David Milch’s ground-breaking western series which ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006. There were several reasons for this: firstly I had heard from so many people whose opinions I value that it was one of the best, if not the best TV drama of all (including former Peabody Director Horace Newcomb, who rated it his number one) as well as reading similar judgement in books by David Bianculli and Sepinwall & Seitz; then there was the pedigree of work by David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-2005) – one of my all-time favourites (I never missed an episode and intend to revisit it all some time); and there was the tantalising prospect that concluding episodes may yet be made, which, at the time of writing, remains just that (though the chance of it happening is far from certain and the recent sad death of Powers Boothe can’t have helped). I had picked up a set of the complete three seasons for under a tenner in an Amazon sale, so was set to go.


Good TV westerns are now a great rarity, though they dominated both the peak-time and Unknown-2children’s schedules (and my own viewing) when I first started watching TV in the late 1950s. ITV had just begun and imported a large number of American titles, with the BBC following suit to compete. My particular favourites were The Lone Ranger (ABC, 1949-57), Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-62), Maverick (ABC, 1957-62), Bonanza (NBC, 1959-73) and, above all, Rawhide (CBS, 1959-65). However, the genre all but disappeared from TV (and, indeed, the cinema) from the late sixties onwards. There were many reasons for this – socio-political, cultural and economic – though there were the occasional revivals in both cinema (mostly thanks to former TV cowboy Clint Eastwood) and TV (1989’s Lonesome Dove), but then nothing of real impact until….


Deadwood does not just make an impact as a western, but as a wonderful piece of drama which just happens to be a western. It is recognisably the work of one of the co-creators of NYPD Blue, with which it shares a number of characteristics: a strong sense of location; episodes which follow a number of strongly-drawn characters over the course of a day and advances multiple plot lines in brief and telling scenes; a reprehensible anti-hero who is the most memorable (and most memorably portrayed) character in the show, as well as the spirit of the piece. What sets Deadwood apart from other dramas is its use of language: not that it is authentic to the period, but that it creates the illusion that it may be. It is actually poetic, quasi Shakespearean in places, as well as being full of the highest “naughty words” quotient in TV drama history. Characters often speak aloud to themselves, in what amount to soliloquies, without it seeming unnatural. Master of this style is William Sanderson as the scheming town mayor and hotelier E.B.Farnum, whose awareness of his own failings is beautifully and movingly expressed.


Of course, the main focus is Ian McShane’s magnetic performance as saloon-owner and general “Mr Big” Al Swearengen – a name that seems too perfect, given his responsibilityUnknown-1 for so much of the f-ing and c-ing in the dialogue, but one which belonged to the real-life individual on whom the character is based. Indeed, most of the characters in Deadwood are based on the town’s original inhabitants and the narrative is closely tied to the historical reality and to examining the development of social, political and economic structures which emerged from the anarchy of the pioneering west; and within this narrative, Milch and his terrific cast create characters who have both a historic and contemporary resonance, which is why it works so well.


Much has been written about the abrupt ending of Deadwood, following the incredibly tense third and final season, and the possibility of a coda being made, but it was certainly, yet again, not part of a western revival. It seems that the reappearance of westerns are now one-offs rather than fixtures in the TV and movie landscape. In 2012 we got Hatfields and McCoys (History Channel), which also featured a notable attempt at historical reconstruction, including authentic-sounding dialogue, but we have had nothing to rank alongside Deadwood until….


Godless (Netflix, 2017), written and directed by Scott Frank, does have certain themes and plot points in common with Deadwood: from the growth of capitalist interest in the Unknown-3activities of the mineral pioneers, through the importance of the press in the development of the west and its mythology to the depiction of lesbian relationships. However, having watched it immediately after finishing Deadwood, its differences are more striking: it has much more in the way of open spaces, whereas Deadwood is almost completely confined to the town, which gives it a claustrophobic feel (rather like that of NYPD Blue); it also has more in the way of traditional western tropes (the “cowardly” sheriff redeemed at the end; the mysterious stranger who acts as a mentor to a young boy, before riding off into the sunset; a climactic shootout worthy of Sam Peckinpah) despite the “twist” that it features a large number of female protagonists; basically it looks like an extended movie rather than a TV series (shot in a 2.39:1 ratio; complete at just over 7 hours, or less than twice the running time of Heaven’s Gate). It is also mightily impressive and enjoyable and a significant addition to the western canon on both film and TV.


And with the highly-regarded Hostiles yet to come, anybody would think another western revival was underway. As on previous occasions, it probably isn’t, but I’m already looking forward to the next time we think it may be.