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 earliest 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):
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.
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.