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