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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Loose Ends

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OK, the tree is up, presents are starting to accumulate underneath it and Hanna is getting excited. In other news, the rush of publication of advance editions of Radio Times that characterises early December means that we now know what will be on for the rest of this year. So, now is a good time to take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, to revisit the titles I mentioned in my blog of 17thSeptember and to add a couple of things that have grabbed my attention in recent weeks. I can then enjoy reading all the other “best of year” lists and pay attention to the most promising upcoming highlights before settling on my own final top ten just before the year ends.

 

Back in September, I had six promising drama series on the go at the same time and expected a couple of them to make my shortlist. That happened, but it didn’t entirely turn out as I expected. To deal with them in reverse order, as it were, I gave up on Trust Unknown-2after four episodes – after a very promising start, it seemed to be drawing the story out to intolerable lengths: maybe I’ll give the Ridley Scott movie a go instead.  Bodyguard gripped to the end but was ultimately just too improbable and manipulative for my taste (and how was the dead man’s button ever a problem when his hand was taped to the device?). No Offence was its usual wonderful self, but I don’t think the third season represented any kind of advance on the previous two, so it doesn’t make it to the shortlist for that reason.

 

Which leaves two titles I was expecting to make the shortlist and one I wasn’t. I certainly did expect to be shortlisting Killing Eve on the evidence of its opening episodes – it was sharp, witty and innovative. Unfortunately, Phoebe Waller-Bridge did not write it all andUnknown the standard of some of the later episodes did not reach her level. Also, it settled into a regular, episodic and repetitive game of cat-and-mouse, which would have been fine if it had come up with a satisfactory ending but leaving things open for a second season was precisely not what I wanted (in that respect it reminded me of The Fall). I won’t be following it further.

 

I was also expecting Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising to make my shortlist and it does so, though not without a few reservations. In comparison to his previous series which I loved, it seemed short on the explosive set-pieces and visual elan I was expecting, though Unknownmaybe that is just because his style is established and no longer such a revelation. Nevertheless, it still resonates with me and definitely needs to be revisited. It was also remarkable for treating a period of recent African history at length and with little concession to western ignorance, while at the same time providing a lot of great roles to black acting talent.

 

On the other hand, I had not expected Wanderlust to end up on my list, but the fifth episode, an extended therapy session for the main character, played by Toni Collette, Unknown-3shifted it from an interesting and engaging comedy-drama about sex and relationships to something with considerably more depth, so it is there. Once Bodyguard was over, I carried on watching whatever drama tuned up in the BBC1 Sunday night 21.00 slot – The Cry was highly involving and well-constructed over 4 episodes, but The Little Drummer Girl fell between two stools of Le Carre adaptations, with neither the Bond-ish glamour of The Night Manager or the claustrophobic intensity of the Smiley series, and I gave up after two episodes (I like to think I’m getting good at spotting the duds early and subsequent feedback seems to confirm a wise choice in this case).

 

Also, in my September blog, I noted the imminent arrival of the exciting new phase in the Doctor Who saga. I have certainly enjoyed the beginning of the Chibnall/Whittaker era – the “team” of assistants works very well and the introduction of a female doctor has been successful simply by not appearing particularly revolutionary. Actually, the change of gender of the doctor is an even more modern development than it would have been five years ago. Basically, the Doctor is now transgender (Whittaker’s Doctor is constantly saying “when I was a man”) and it has been the more recent advances in transgender rights, rather than feminism, which has paved the way for this change and Unknown-2made it so seamless.  Even the move to Sunday night has worked better than I predicted, but I still prefer stories which take more than one episode and miss both the cliff-hangers and the pre-credit sequences, which seem to have been dispensed with. The most significant thing about Chibnall’s approach for me, though, is how it looks back to Sydney Newman’s original 1963 conception of the series as a vehicle for historical education (before Verity Lambert introduced the Daleks in the second story and set it firmly on the sci-fi path). In particular, the episode about Rosa Parks has to be the purest manifestation of Newman’s original vision the series has achieved in its 55-year history. The episode did have sci-fi elements, including an agent sent from the future to alter history, but programmed not to kill (nods to both Terminator 1 and 2 there!), but it did not flinch from a fine examination of the historical context of the civil rights movement, which was a great lesson for the character of Ryan as well as the young Doctor Who audience of today. I am thus including that particular episode in my shortlist for the best of the year.

 

Another single episode which very much caught my imagination was the brilliant Inside No 9 Halloween live special. I wasn’t taken in, as many were, by the “loss of sound”, but wrongly assumed it was a way of deliberately withholding information vital for the story. Of course, the story itself turned out to be a red herring, but there is no second-guessing Pemberton and Shearsmith. The 4thseason, shown in January, is already on my shortlist, so the special only serves to cement its place.

 

Meanwhile, on Amazon, I have just finished watching Homecoming, which is superb. It is based on a podcast and boasts an excellent cast, well-led by Julia Roberts, but it is the direction by Sam Esmail (creator of Mr Robot) which makes it stand out. It is a mystery thriller with a Hitchcockian edge, set in a sinister present-day rehabilitation facility and a future timeline in which the Julia Roberts’ character, Heidi Bergman, cannot recall Unknownwhat had happened and the crisis point is approached gradually from both directions. The future scenes are shot in a restrictive, claustrophobic frame, while the full-frame scenes include split screen sequences and, together, the shooting styles represent a very clever way of advancing the narrative. The series contains what has to be my “TV moment of the year” (big spoiler alert here, if you haven’t seen it!): at the moment when the future Heidi realises the truth of what happened the restricted screen expands into full widescreen – which sounds trite when I write about it but is a stunning effect when you watch it. The ending of Homecoming is also very satisfying but is not the ending – you have to sit through the entire and lengthy end credits (which I always do) to get to an extra scene which sets up a second season. Very neat! (makers of Killing Eve etc. take note!). It’s the best thing on Amazon since…well, since Mr Robot, and a must for the shortlist.

 

I have rarely blogged about news – mainly because I take my time composing these pieces, whereas news blogging needs to be immediate, for obvious reasons. However, I would like to add some news to my shortlist. Channel 4 News has had a particularly good year and the standout story was the full week of headline grabbing and headline making investigative reports into the Cambridge Analytica sandal, back in March. Great undercover reporting and excellent follow-up pieces leading each night’s bulletin.

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So, to recap, I now have a shortlist of 17 for the best of 2018: Inside No 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned, Homeland, The Funeral Murders, Channel 4 News coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, A Very English Scandal, Mother’s Day, American Vandal 2, 22 July, There She Goes, Black Earth Rising, Wanderlust, Doctor Who: Rosa and Homecoming. It would be neat to get the shortlist up to 20, from which to choose my top 10 before the end of the year, but looking through all those copies of Radio Times, I’m not sure that will happen. There is a new Jimmy McGovern on tonight, though, and you never can tell with Christmas schedules. I also have a few things “on the go” at the moment, including Kidding (Sky Atlantic), The Sinner and Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out (both BBC4 – and, yes, I know The Sinner is on Netflix, but I’m watching it on BBC4). I also realise that the last mentioned is a throwback to the show which introduced Reeves and Mortimer to TV almost 30 years ago, so I feel I can’t in all good conscience include it on my shortlist for 2018, but its simple stupidity makes me cry uncontrollably with laughter, so I may just have to.

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Anyway, have a Happy Christmas everybody, enjoy loads of great viewing and I’ll be back before the year is through.

Two Lights in the January Darkness

 

 

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Having so recently joined in with the “best of year” list-making festivities, it seems a bit perverse to be speculating on what may make 2018’s list when we are only just over one month into the year. But, as awards season begins and prompts further looking back at the last year, the new material emerging at this time of year can get overlooked when it comes time to assess the current year’s offerings. So, if only to act as a useful reminder when the Christmas tree goes up again, here are a couple of things from January which will already be in contention for my best of 2018.

Yes, there are only two so far and the first of them is a returning favourite. Season 4 of Inside Number 9 (BBC2) has to be the best yet, and that’s saying something given the established quality of the series. I doubt that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton will ever be able to top The Twelve Days of Christine from season 2, which was just about the most perfect 30 minutes of TV drama imaginable on all levels, but, this time round, they have given us a full six outstanding pieces of writing and storytelling. Though it resists genre classification, all the usual elements were there: mystery, comedy, horror, pathos, despair and the trademark plot twists – plus some terrific dialogue (most notably in the Shakespearean comedy set in a hotel corridor, Zanzibar, which kicked off the season) and some great set-pieces (the retro comedy routine in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room). The “ten minutes earlier” shifts in Once Removed allowed for multipleimages plot twists in the same story, while the plot shift in To Have and To Hold was amongst the most disturbing things the duo have given us (in a story which was already pretty bleak!). Maybe And the Winner Is… was comparatively lightweight following the outstanding impact of the first four, but it still contained plenty of laughs and showbiz barbs, and the series finished strongly with a new and very “Number 9” take on a familiar horror trope in Tempting Fate.

A fifth series will be coming and there seems little reason why the quality should not be sustained – the format is very flexible and the half-hour slot works so well, as does the opportunity it affords for telling guest roles. It really should be cleaning up at the awards shows, but, as its creators have observed (and alluded to in And the Winner Is…) the fact that it does not easily fit into a genre category works against it, as, I guess, does the 30-minute duration. As I noted in a previous blog, though, if something is the right length for what it is attempting that is all that matters, and succinctness can be the greater skill. This applies to the acting performances, too, and Inside Number 9 contains many outstanding ones. Maybe each edition should be treated as a separate entity – the movie-style posters created for them hint at the scale of their ambition.

Excellent acting was also on show in my other early contender for 2018 honours – Channel 4’s Kiri. Sarah Lancashire was obviously the prime focus, though her character Unknown-1of an embattled social worker did not dominate the series, which examined the effects of the murder of a black child, fostered with a white family, on a wide range of individuals and was essentially about attitudes to race, spoken and unspoken, in modern Britain. Lia Williams as the white foster mother, Lucian Msamati as the girl’s grandfather, Wunmi Mosaku as the investigating police officer and young Finn Bennett as the foster family’s natural son also shone, and the piece was strikingly directed by Euros Lyn, but it was basically the work of writer Jack Thorne which was the key element.

As with Thorne’s previous series for Channel 4, 2016’s National Treasure, Kiri was in four parts and examined its narrative from multiple perspectives. It also dealt with a contentious social and political issue in a way which humanised the problem and found no easy answers. But the greatest similarity with its predecessor came at its ending, which left a great deal unresolved. The trial verdict in National Treasure was not particularly conclusive and the characters’ lives were left in limbo, which was an appropriate and satisfactory way for it to end. In Kiri, we did find out who killed the title character, but the potential for a miscarriage of justice remained, while the characters were, again, left high and dry. Unlike National Treasure, there seems plenty of scope for the story of Kiri to continue, but the possibility of a second season has been dismissed by Thorne and Channel 4. Inconclusive endings seem to be part of Thorne’s style (and nothing wrong with that). He is reported to be considering writing a series about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which could form the third part of an impressive issue-based trilogy (gender, race and class politics?).

Of course, there were plenty more new series starting in January but, as so often happens, few of them enticed me beyond the first one or two episodes. I didn’t get very far with either McMafia or Hard Sun (why is it that you know a drama series scheduled for BBC1 on a Saturday night isn’t really going to be any good?), while two episodes of Sky’s Britannia convinced me I had seen enough. As a result, I have managed to catch up with a fair amount on DVD and Netflix, and that will be the focus of my next blog.