Watch and read/read and watch

As well as catching up on past TV gems and unwatched DVDs, I intended in my retirement to catch up on my reading, too, but most of the books I have been carrying around with me of late have been about….TV! I’d like to mention three of them here, more in a spirit of reflection and recommendation than review (it’s a bit late for that, anyway).

All three have clearly been inspired by the most recent developments in television, especially American television, and the first two seek to create a canon of greatness as a context for the current glut of quality. As someone who was closely involved in the creation of the BFI’s TV100, which sought to identify the top British TV shows from our perspective in 1999, I can appreciate the complex methodologies involved. I can also understand why American critics have chosen this moment to appraise the past. I can’t help thinking of the closing line of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic book 1066 and all That; a 1930 parody of jingoistic school history textbooks which was required reading when I was a history student half a century ago and which ends in 1918 with the statement that America was now clearly “top nation” and History came to a full stop. Well, we did our canon at pretty much the time when Britain’s reign as TV top nation was ending and America’s beginning, so it’s not surprising they are starting to crow about it now.

IMG_0373This is certainly the case with David Bianculli’s The Platinum Age of Television (Doubleday, 2016), which seeks to place the recent upsurge in quality material in the context of the evolutionary development of programming throughout the medium’s history and, as such, becomes pretty much a history of TV programmes in selected genres. In 1992, Bianculli published a wonderful and (for me) highly welcome book called Teleliteracy (Simon and Schuster), which was an argument for taking TV seriously as art but was, essentially, defensive, whereas the new book is flat-out celebratory (often referencing the same programmes). Bianculli identifies his Platinum Age as beginning in 1999, the year of The Sopranos and The West Wing, but sees it as a culmination of a progressive process and identifies what he sees as the key milestones from the previous 50 years. Each milestone programme is the subject of a short essay and the book also features profiles of, and interviews, with key creative personnel (including Matt Groening, David Chase, Vince Gilligan, Amy Schumer, David Simon, Louis C.K. and more), whose responses about what influenced them validate the choice of milestones and create a canon of 90 titles over 18 genres. The number of genres and sub-genres is impressive, especially in comedy (including a list of 5 key “single working women sitcoms”) but factual television is largely ignored – the only factual title to make the canon, Ken Burns’ Civil War, is awkwardly included under “miniseries”! A few British titles also get in, but only in the context of US transmission (understandably).

The structure of the book makes it very easy to dip in and out of, though Bianculli’s apparent aim of making each essay and profile a potential stand-alone piece does make it seem sometimes rather repetitive if you read it cover-to-cover. As a history of (American) television, it is obviously very strong on programming, but I have always contended that there are three strands to TV history: the technical, the organisational and the editorial, each of which affects the other two. Bianculli certainly links the editorial with the organisational, explaining how the growth of subscription services unlocked the ability to deliver real quality content, but pretty much ignores the technical. For me, one of the key developments enabling the Platinum Age was the introduction of the 16:9 screen and the move to high-definition formats. A word he often uses to describe ambitious dramas is “cinematic”, though without really explaining why that is the case, as well as why so many talents in the field of visual storytelling are preferring to work in TV rather than movies. It’s partly the expanded timescales for developing stories, but it’s also the shape and quality of the image.

I very much enjoyed reading The Platinum Age of Television and I regularly visit David Bianculli’s website,tvworthwatching.com to see what he and his collaborators are recommending, as it is one of the most reliable guides to quality TV.

IMG_0367Published at almost the same time in late 2016, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV (the Book) (Grand Central) covers much of the same ground. It is subtitled Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time”, which has the merit of making it clear that the rest of the world is excluded – I get a bit pissed off when just a handful of British and other non-US titles are included in American-dominated lists, as though that is all that is merited (don’t get me started on the Writers Guild of America list of the hundred “best written TV shows”!). Much else is excluded as well and the authors do a good job of explaining their meticulous methodology, and the reasoning behind it, upfront. In fact, the list of 100 “greatest” is confined only to drama and narrative comedy (i.e. sitcom). Not only that – miniseries are excluded also, though “one-season wonders” (which may have hoped to be renewed, but were not) are given special dispensation in the point-scoring process to be included. As a result, series of the significance of Roots or the quality of Band of Brothers don’t make the canon, while titles of considerably lesser quality and impact abound in the lower reaches, which seems rather perverse. The authors do list 20 miniseries in a separate chapter, and an impressive list it is too, which only emphasises the anomaly.

But let’s be fair – lists are always going to raise hackles and Sepinwall and Seitz are very open about the process and its limitations. And lists are fun, too – this one provides plenty of scope for some fine writing about the shows in question and in-depth critical analysis of why they matter and what makes one “better” than another. The fact that there are two critics arguing with each other as well as their audience adds to the sense of a debate well-articulated. Interestingly, despite the different scope and layout of the two books, there is only one title in the top 20 of Sepinwall and Seitz’s top 100 which is not also in Bianculli’s canon of 90, which makes for a major consensus, though there is plenty of divergence thereafter.

IMG_0366These books weigh in at almost 600 and just over 400 pages respectively. My third book is a mere 200 pages (and they are pretty small pages at that!), but contains plenty of engaging argument and memorable wit, because it is by the great Clive James. Now housebound because of severe illness, James has returned to the sort of TV criticism we enjoyed in his weekly Observer columns in the seventies. I remember staggering home under the weight of both the Observer and Sunday Times and their endless supplements, just so that I could read the TV columns by both James and Dennis Potter. James’ Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press, 2016) sees him catching up with the last two decades of TV output via box sets and streaming services, so again, many of the expected titles are covered, though this time with James’ inimitable comparative references to classical literature, movies, philosophy and so on – only he would cite Nietzsche, Camus and Bubbles from The Wire in the same sentence. He also takes in Scandinavian noir, feminist comedy and much more on the way, but the highlight of the book has to be the chapter on Game of Thrones, in which he spends almost as much time listing the reasons why he should never have watched the series as those why he finds it so compulsive, concluding that its spine is “the daring of its analytical psychology”.

All three books provide plenty of commentary on things you will have seen and plenty of compelling reasons to watch things you haven’t, or maybe didn’t even realise you needed to – and, with so much available, these are the best guides. For me, the inescapable conclusion from all three is that I absolutely MUST watch The Sopranos, in full, from beginning to end.

“Glorious summer” returns!

twin peaks

 

OK, so the first blog post is supposed to introduce yourself and what you aim to do with your site, but that’s all in the “About” section, if you are interested, so let’s jump straight in:

Time was when the summer television schedules were empty of worthwhile new shows. Sport and repeats were the order of the day, plus those dreadful seaside entertainment shows which proved the rule that the companies weren’t trying because everybody, including themselves, was out enjoying the (marginally better) weather and long evenings. This was, however, a twentieth century thing.

In more recent years, summer seems to have become one of the most important seasons for the scheduling of quality television – at least the stuff I like the best. Let’s face it – the best TV is often not the greatest ratings fodder, so a channel wishing to point to a strong record in providing innovative content and still maximise its ratings is likely to place such material at a time when the biggest audiences are not available anyway. I certainly believe this is the case with Channel 4. When their finest series of the last decade, Dennis Kelly and Marc Munden’s Utopia, rated poorly in its first season, the second was shifted to the summer of 2014 before the show was shamefully cancelled, presumably because it was felt not to be justifying the expense, despite being precisely the sort of exciting and innovative thing C4 should be doing. Much the same goes for The Mill, aired in the high summers of 2013 and 14 before cancellation. Interestingly, Humans, the show which was pretty much a direct replacement for Utopia, followed the opposite trajectory, being premiered in the summer of 2015, then moved to autumn once established. Southcliffe, premiered in August 2013, was one of C4’s most striking recent mini-series. Meanwhile, C4’s closest rival, BBC2, followed suit by scheduling Hugo Blick’s second mini-series, The Honourable Woman, for the summer of 2014.

At the same time, the growing availability of, and demand for, quality shows from the US, Europe and pretty much everywhere else provided plenty of extra material to schedule, often with the imperative of tying transmission in Britain close to that in the States, as our interconnected world makes fandom a global phenomenon, as we have seen this year.

The result of this was a series of summers from about 2012 to 2015 where I found myself avidly following up to four or five really-high-quality dramas at any one time during June, July and August, something that doesn’t often happen in the traditional peak viewing seasons in autumn, winter or spring. This also coincided with my time on the Peabody Board, so I was on the lookout for the best American shows – and there were plenty in supply. The list of overseas titles premiered in summer during this period contains many of my recent favourites, among them the brilliant and haunting Les Revenants from France, The Americans (initially on ITV, but later relegated to subsidiary channels) and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (season 1).

2016 was a little sparse and it seemed that normal service had been resumed, but this summer just gone was an exceptional one for new TV dramas. Anyway, that’s a rather lengthy preamble, attempting to give coherence to a blog which is basically just about some of the things I’ve been glued to over the past three months.

broken

First up was Jimmy McGovern’s Broken (BBC1), starring Sean Bean as a catholic priest dealing with a variety of social problems suffered by members of his congregation, as well as his own demons. Like McGovern’s previous series The Street and Accused, it used a linking device, the priest and his congregation, to present a number of individual stories and address pressing current issues including poverty, racism, gambling addiction and homophobia. As always with McGovern, the characters are swiftly and memorably established, the casting is outstanding and the issues are not allowed to overwhelm the human dimension, so our response is a highly emotional one. The various strands were each played out over a number of episodes and the priest’s own story over the whole series. In a year in which communities under extreme stress has been the theme of several striking dramas (Three Girls, Little Boy Blue, The Moorside) McGovern’s contribution is still the standout piece. Surprisingly upbeat ending, too.

fargo

I was certainly looking forward to the third season of Fargo (FX/Channel 4) and was not disappointed, though I didn’t think it was quite up to the (extremely high) standard of the first two. There are few more entertaining shows on TV – so confident in its abilities that it can take what seem like ridiculous risks and get away with them. The standout performance this time round was from David Thewlis as a sardonic villain, but one slightly jarring note was that we were yet again presented with a main character of a female cop intuitively understanding a case but dismissed by her blinkered senior officers. The wonderful Carrie Coon did her best in a role already nailed by Frances McDormand and Alison Tolman, but it was a bit déjà vu. Incidentally she received an Emmy nomination for the part, but was overlooked for her incredible work in The Leftovers (more of which later) – bizarre!

I was also looking forward to The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/C4), having read some enthusiastic reviews from the States. It certainly started well, establishing the future fascist state and its own distinctive visual style, but then it didn’t seem to go anywhere and failed to engage me with the characters, even the central one played by Elisabeth Moss. I’m afraid I gave up after the 5th episode, when I read that a second series had been commissioned. A story like that needs the prospect of an ending and I was not prepared to commit to it for the long haul. Moss, however, fared much better in the return of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (BBC2), subtitled China Girl, though that should have been the main title, as the setting moved from New Zealand to Sydney and there wasn’t a lake in sight, though plenty of water. As with the first series, it was full of memorably drawn and strong characters (especially Gwendoline Christie as Miranda) and contained striking set-pieces and dream sequences. Again, the police case at the heart of the story was not the main point – this was about the impact of fertility (or otherwise) and having children on the lives of the characters. Another similarity was the presence in a key supporting role of a leading Hollywood actress who had previously worked with Campion on film (Holly Hunter in the first series, Nicole Kidman in this one) and both were made to wear grey wigs (not sure what to make of that!). This was so clearly the work of an auteur that I was surprised that Campion had not directed the whole thing herself, though I must admit that I would not have realised it if the credits hadn’t told me otherwise.

state

Another of our great auteurs, Peter Kosminsky, was back with his 4-part mini-series The State (Channel 4), about a group of idealistic British muslims who travel to Syria to join Islamic State and end up, inevitably, either disillusioned or dead. The research was impressive and the performances and direction as excellent as one would expect from a Kosminsky project. I would have liked more (or something) on what inspired the characters’ journeys in the first place, as they come across as impossibly naïve, but what we did get was riveting.

The summer was dominated though, by the work of probably the greatest auteur ever to essay a TV series, David Lynch. Starting in late May and ending early September (and premiered simultaneously in the UK as in the US, which meant 2am!), Twin Peaks (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) pulled off the quite astonishing feat of expanding the possibilities of what a TV drama could be as profoundly as the first series did back in 1990. I’m writing this while listening to the album of music featured in the series, mostly the songs which signalled the end of each episode – only one of its signature innovations. There have been many petabytes of review and theorising about this series, much of which I have enjoyed reading, but do not intend to add to because the series should just be enjoyed and marvelled at for the experience it is, rather than explained (not that any explanation is really possible). I just loved the extended scenes and takes, the silences, and, in the absence of any decent comedy at the moment, I found so many hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments in every episode.

leftovers

But, if Twin Peaks is the greatest thing on TV so-far this year, which I believe it is, it is still not my favourite thing (and, as an archivist, I trained myself to recognise that difference). The summer release I most looked forward to was season 3 of The Leftovers (HBO/Sky Atlantic) and it even managed to exceed my expectations by bringing this magnificent series to a fully satisfying and very moving conclusion. Fortunately, Sky made the entire final season available for download as well as transmitting it weekly, so I was able to enjoy it in one go, without it clashing with my weekly instalments of Twin Peaks and Fargo. Watching an episode of Leftovers after one of Twin Peaks, as Sky had scheduled them, just wouldn’t have worked. The greatest things just need time to sink in.

I mentioned earlier that The Returned (Les Revenants) is a particular personal favourite and I regard The Leftovers as an American equivalent. There was an American re-make of The Returned and they made a complete hash of it by transposing it too literally, when what was needed was to find something with domestic resonance, which is what happened with The Leftovers. Both series present a supernatural mystery and examine its spiritual effects on a community of disparate characters. Both are treasured by people of different religious persuasions, as well as by hardcore atheists like me. I always cry at Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (and did again at the Proms a couple of weeks ago!) despite not believing for one moment in resurrection (indeed, maybe because of that) and I have the same sort of response to both The Returned and The Leftovers.

Most of the critical and on-line theorising about The Leftovers concerned the ending and, in this case, I would like to add my four penn’orth, so please skip to the end of this para if you haven’t seen it yet. The fundamental question was whether Nora was telling the truth in her narration about her experiences after passing through the machine to the parallel existence where the “missing” 2% lived, and whether Kevin really believed her, as he said he did. Reflecting on Nora’s story, so many potential inconsistencies arose, that I am inclined to think it is not the truth, despite the neat way it would solve the mystery. However, I also think it is possible that Nora genuinely believes it to be true and that Kevin genuinely believes her, too. This would fit with the central theme of the series, which is the different ways in which people interpret life’s mystery, and the fact the series’ two most sceptical characters finally find something to hold on to, whether it is true or not, is very satisfying. Personally, in the words of the opening song, “I choose to let the mystery be”. Whatever, it is a beautiful ending, beautifully played by Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, who led an outstanding cast throughout.

So, that neatly wraps up my first blog, which I’m afraid has been rather too long – most of these series would justify a separate post of their own. One last reflection: apart from The Leftovers, I watched all these series as they were transmitted, leaving little time for Netflix or Amazon or DVD/Blu-ray viewing. That’s how good a summer it was. Now that the autumn schedules are with us, with their more predictable offerings, I expect those platforms to provide a greater proportion of my viewing and maybe blogging.

Thanks for reading – back after a short break.