So, Where Were We?

It’s a Sin

I haven’t written a blog about TV since May, for reasons which I have explained in previous postings, but I haven’t stopped watching as much as I can, so a general catch-up is well overdue and this will probably turn into a sort of review of the year. There are some significant things included on the best-of-year lists which have already started appearing and which I have yet to catch up with – Mare of Easttown and Succession among them – but I have 18 shows I want to comment on and, who knows, a shortlist may begin to emerge from which I can choose a top ten at the end of this month. I will look at these items in pairs, as there are some felicitous comparisons to be made along the way.

Covid has not only restricted and altered the programme-making process – it has also become, unsurprisingly, the subject matter and plot driver of some excellent new contemporary drama. Two of our finest writers, Dennis Kelly and Jack Thorne, responded to the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown with fine one-off pieces. Kelly’s Together (BBC2, June) mined the comic as well as the dramatic possibilities of an estranged couple thrown together and trapped in each other’s company by the constraints of lockdown. Sharon Horgan and James MacAvoy were terrific, whether striking sparks off each other, or confiding in us, the audience. All the frustrations and, inevitably, the tragedies of time under lockdown were there but it was much more – an intimate study of a relationship and human psychology.

The tragic part of Together was the death of Horgan’s character’s mother, alone in a care home, seen through Horgan’s helpless reaction to it. Jack Thorne’s Help (Channel 4, September), on the other hand, took us into a care home at the height of the first wave and made us look directly at the desperation of the situation. Not that it was all grim – like Together, the main focus was on the interaction of two characters and it also involved two very fine actors: Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham. But it was the section between the second and third breaks which lives longest in the memory – a single-take sequence in which Comer’s inexperienced care home helper tries valiantly, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to save the life of a resident reaching the final moments of the disease, while at the same time attempting to get help on the phone and run the care home on her own. It is a quite stunning and gripping 20 minutes of drama and brilliantly directed by Marc Munden. Together and Help are easy picks for the shortlist.

Two more of our very best writers gave us two of the best limited series of the year: Russell T. Davies’ It’s a Sin (Channel 4, February) and Jimmy McGovern’s Time (BBC1, June). Nobody but Davies could have dramatized the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in such a way – full of his trademark shifts from the acerbically witty to the devastatingly sad in the blink of an eye. Clearly a very personal project, it nevertheless hit a chord with its depiction of a helpless health service struggling to respond to an unprecedented threat. The final episode was extremely moving and also contained a stunning performance from Keeley Hawes – BAFTA will have a job on their hands to choose between her, Comer and Horgan next year. Fine acting was also at the heart of Time, from Stephen Graham (again) and Sean Bean, who seems to have undergone a wonderful late-career renaissance thanks to his collaborations with McGovern. Two more certainties for the growing shortlist.

Slavery and the history of racism have provided the background for a number of series, both fictional and factual, in the past few years. Watchmen and Lovecraft Country are two of the most prominent fictional ones, though they did not portray the actual experience of slavery directly. Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad (Amazon, May) does do that, but in a way which is both horrifyingly real and symbolically magical. Most notably, the “railroad” itself, which in reality was a network of sympathisers who helped runaway slaves escape from the southern states, is also presented as a physical entity – literally a railroad running in tunnels. This fantasy element elevates the series from a howl against a historical injustice to a piece of masterly storytelling, though without losing sight of the history which underpins it at any point, which is quite an achievement. Another achievement is that the white characters are not the (understandably) cardboard cut-out villains of the earlier series, but fascinating character studies in their own right, most notably Ridgeway, played by Joel Egerton. On the factual side, the three-part Exterminate All the Brutes (Sky Documentaries, April) should have been an instructive companion piece, being based on a major book about the slave trade and historical racism in general. In parts, it was just that, but director Raoul Peck also introduced regular anachronistic fictionalisations which made little sense and interrupted the flow of the narrative. Whereas such fictionalisation was a strength of The Underground Railway and elevated it to greatness, in Exterminate All the Brutes it was a jarring distraction which fatally undermined the effect of the documentary. The former is an obvious inclusion in the shortlist – the latter doesn’t make it.

Staying with documentary, Steve Mc Queen and James Rogan’s Uprising (BBC1, July) actually was the perfect companion piece to last year’s Small Axe films, covering much of the same ground using archive footage and eyewitness interviews and emphasising what an excellent series the dramas were. The two things should have been transmitted at the same time (and probably will on future repeat), but on its own, Uprising was a very good and effective archive documentary. Similarly, Blair and Brown: the New Labour Revolution (BBC2, October) had all the relevant archive footage and talking heads, including the two main protagonists. Brown came across as too buttoned-up to give the answers you wanted, while Blair seemed open and responsive, but that was how he always came across, even when he was lying through his teeth, so a big pinch of salt, please. Both series were very watchable and instructive, but neither sufficiently extraordinary in terms of documentary form to warrant shortlisting.

Turning to music, Asif Kapadia’s 1971: the Year Music Changed Everything (Apple TV, May) contained a great amount of wonderful archive material, great music (of course) and fascinating backstories, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. Firstly, it was way too long at 8 hour-long parts and repeated itself endlessly. Secondly, it utterly failed to convince me of the premise in its title. Maybe it was the year that music reflected everything, but that could be argued of many years. The only thing it changed was music itself, but the same stricture applies. And where was Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep Cheep? Much more to my liking was a wonderful and somewhat unheralded BBC4 documentary on the work of the great music documentarist, Christopher Nupen, who certainly was somebody who changed everything, at least in the field of presenting classical music on television. Listening through the Lens (October) was the perfect title for this tribute to a film making genius and the tributes from the likes of David Attenborough and Melvyn Bragg, as well as generous extracts from his films made the case for that description fully. I loved it and am putting it on the shortlist.

Making connections between the remaining titles I want to talk about is getting tough, but The Outlaws (BBC1, October) and The Cleaner (BBC1, September) were series written by and starring Britain’s two tallest comedians. Stephen Merchant’s series was the best thing he has done without Ricky Gervais and succeeded at the tough trick of combining comedy with a thriller narrative. It had a gallery of great characters and was very well performed and created by all concerned. Greg Davies’ piece, though occasionally successful, was inconsistent. It struck me that he was trying to create something along the lines of Inside No.9, with macabre storylines and different guest stars each week. Of the two, only The Outlaws makes the shortlist.

The next two series were things which I was eagerly looking forward to the return of, but which disappointed to the extent that I gave up on them half-way through. Fargo season 4 (Channel 4, May) was just too convoluted and sure of itself to engender any real engagement. The series has created its own style and cannot escape it even when it has taken it as far as it can, which I guess was bound to happen eventually. At least we had two wonderful seasons and one not bad one. Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life (BBC3, August), though, had only got to its second season before it found nowhere new to go.

I should also have given up on Your Honour (Sky Atlantic, March), but there was enough interesting material to keep me going despite the ludicrous coincidences we were expected to accept. In the end it was just ludicrous. Then American Rust (Sky Atlantic) started a few weeks ago with a similar plot device (an officer of the law is caught in a moral dilemma through personal involvement with a case), but there is, again, enough in the characters and dialogue to keep me going for the time being. I may yet give up on it as well, especially if there are many more shots of Jeff Daniels leaning on things.

My final pairing is two continuing and recently returned classics, still going strong and still drawing me in. Doctor Who: Flux (BBC1) was the best story from the Chibnall/Whitaker era and had the best single episode (Village of the Angels) since Peter Capaldi was alone in that tower. I’ve said it many times, but it is always at its best when dealing in multi-episode stories – though not, in this case, outstanding enough to make the shortlist. Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sky Comedy), on the other hand, is miraculously back to its very best – every episode has had me howling with laughter and that is enough to put it on the list.

So, my shortlist now looks like this:

Can’t Get You Out of my Head



It’s a Sin


The Underground Railroad

Listening Through the Lens

The Outlaws

Curb Your Enthusiasm

So, we have 9 and there is some pretty good stuff there. I am confident there will be something between now and the end of the year to bump it up to 10 or beyond. Landscapers (Sky Atlantic) has started promisingly and I have a couple of other things to keep an eye on over Christmas.

Happy Christmas and good viewing, everybody.

“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.