TV

Top 10 of 2021: TV SHOWS

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I’m finishing 2021 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best TV of 2021, which has been a surprisingly difficult mission given the sheer volume of television that has raced at us following the ebb and flow of Covid restrictions.

It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, TV choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the TV shows that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.

Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…

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Doctor Who, TV

Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)

We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.

Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.

We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.

After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.

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TV, Writing

First Impressions – STAR TREK: PRODIGY – ‘Lost and Found’

If you had said to a Star Trek fan three years ago that the best show of the franchise’s new era would be animated, they would probably have laughed you straight out of the airlock.

Lower Decks completely upended that perception, banishing the ghost at the feast that long was The Animated Series from the early 1970s, a kitsch and dated reworking of The Original Series. Mike McMahan’s series combined occasionally raunchy, modern adult comedy with a loving and kind reverence for 1990s era Trek that has grown in confidence, humour and stature over two seasons. It has established animation as a key string to modern Trek’s bow in a way few expected.

Star Trek: Prodigy is expressly designed to carry the torch forward and, in many respects, the pressure and expectations are different. Many fans knew what to expect from McMahan, given his comic pedigree on the TNG S8 Twitter feed and later writing experience with Rick & Morty; he was a known entity who did largely what people expected of him with Lower Decks, but brother team of writer/showrunners Kevin & Dan Hagerman are, to an extent, an unknown quantity.

On the basis of the two-part pilot, Lost and Found, they have gone straight for the comic adventure jugular, crafting an effective and beautifully animated origin story for the nascent crew of the U.S.S. Protostar.

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TV, Writing

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

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TV

TV Review: THE CLEANER (Season 1)

A mordant darkness pervades The Cleaner, an appropriate sitcom for our time in some ways. Bloody, at times grim, but it will give you a hug by the end.

Adapted from an original German comedy series, about a roving freelance crime scene cleaner who mops up—literally—after all manner of bloody demises, The Cleaner both has the cool efficiency of a European comic concept and yet is every inch tethered to the well-honed funny man persona of Greg Davies, who could not be less technical & poised if he tried. This is not meant as a sideswipe; Davies is an incredibly funny man and can absolutely carry a TV show, but his style is almost incongruous when placed alongside the strange ghoulish undercurrent The Cleaner, by its very nature, has. This is a show that finds broad humour in the darkest of circumstances.

Davies plays Paul ‘Wicky’ Wickstead, the aforementioned cleaner who is entirely in the mould of every other character Davies has played since his breakout role as sarcastic & hardline teacher Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, whether his acerbic grumpy family man Ken in Cuckoo or his eccentric middle-aged loser Dan in Man Down, and indeed Wicky takes a cue from the stand-up comedy persona Davies has fashioned over multiple tours – the down to earth, homely layabout with intelligence, wit, a powerful lack of ambition and more than a little obsession with the music and pop culture of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In essence, Davies plays a variation on the same theme in every show he does, but he makes it work due to his self-deprecating sense of knowingly weird charm.

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The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Work Experience’ (1×02)

In some ways, Work Experience exists as an extension of the first episode of The Office, in how it frames itself around a similar story structure.

Just as the tour that David Brent gives incoming temp Ricky works as a device to introduce Wernham Hogg and the culture within the office, here the action is framed around a similar tour being given to Donna, a new office assistant who Brent has taken on temporarily as a favour to his friends Ron & Elaine (the real life names of Stephen Merchant’s parents incidentally). Whereas Downsize was designed to use this device as a way of setting the scene of the office and Brent’s personality, Work Experience is predominantly focused on exploring the culture inside the office and, particularly, the institutionalised level of sexism that becomes apparent with the arrival of Donna and thanks to images being shared of pornography adapted for comedy purposes.

It makes a lot of sense for Ricky Gervais & Merchant to do this in the second episode, having established the setting, because the culture and tone employed in so crucial to understanding The Office and what the documentary captures about not just Wernham Hogg but office culture as a whole. Donna is young and attractive, if seemingly quite working class and with zero interest in a role she has clearly been corralled into doing, but the treatment of her is instantly appalling in a manner that the show recognises as such while mining as much comedy out of the built-in misogyny as possible. This is often the delicate balance The Office treads, and for the most part stays on the right side of – depicting cultural trends and behaviours in a corporate business environment that shouldn’t be present but have been allowed to perpetuate.

Work Experience doesn’t necessarily go down as the showiest episode of The Office, filled with truly memorable moments in the series’ run, but it’s a key establishing piece for the audience.

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Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – Season 3 (Overview)

By the third season of Alias, the series was established not as a breakout piece of television but rather a cult show with a dedicated but not stellar fan base in terms of ratings share.

2003, the year the season debuted, was signalling the continuing slow death march of network television. Cable prestige television was continuing to take hold and while we remain a decade out from the arrival of streaming services, Alias nonetheless plied its trade in a network model where ratings dominated. Alias, in that regard, was not the titanic hit ABC might have hoped for a show designed to appeal to both the youthful, female empowering crowd of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fans of genre-based, mythological storytelling such as The X-Files. A year later, Lost would immediately and vastly eclipse it in that regards.

What Alias did have was a solid core group of fans heavily invested in the life and times of Sydney Bristow, her exploits within the CIA, and the ever developing romance between her and fellow agent Michael Vaughn. Season Two, halfway through the season, responded to an edict by ABC to essentially detonate the knotty, serialised concept Alias began with, and streamline Sydney away from the life of a double agent enmeshed in complicated storytelling. Phase One not only freed her, and the show from that, it gave those rabid fans what they had wanted from early on: it out Syd and Vaughn together as a couple and consummated their romance.

Across the first season and a half, Syd & Vaughn had a very strong line in “will they/won’t they?” storytelling, echoing as far back as Moonlighting in the 1980s and carried through into Mulder & Scully in the 1990s, amidst numerous other examples. Alias decided early on comparatively what almost every other show in this position decides: they will. And they did. And across the latter half of Season Two, as the series ran head long into the natural consequences of that first season and a half of storytelling, joyously revelling in the Rambaldi mythology and characters like Arvin Sloane and Irina Derevko as out and out villains, it satiated fans by allowing Syd & Vaughn to exist in a romantic relationship, firmly in love and committed to each other.

What fans, especially ‘shippers’, can sometimes forget is that what is good and pleasant for a character does not always equate to compelling drama. Where do you go when Syd & Vaughn are happily engaged as a couple? Marriage? Children? Logical possibilities, yet Alias is a series built on the ability of Sydney being able to jet around the globe killing bad guys, fighting goons and generally saving the world. How do children fit in that paradigm? Season Five will answer that question but at this stage in Alias’ life, there would be a reasonable consensus that it might be too soon to either marry Syd off or give her a child; indeed had Jennifer Garner not become pregnant, it likely never would have happened at all, particularly given the events of Full Disclosure this season.

Season Three, therefore, works to upset the balance of their relationship as the primary emotional raison d’etre of this new season. The Telling memorably provided audiences with a rather stunning, unexpected cliffhanger; Syd wakes up after her climactic fight with Allison Doren in Hong Kong to find she cannot remember where she has been for the last two years, everyone believes she was dead, and Vaughn… is now married to someone else. Instant horror for audiences invested in their romance. Instant drama for everyone else, aware that this changes their entire dynamic. This speaks to the constant push-pull between pleasing your established fan base, the people who tune in and make your show a success, and creative satisfying both the series and what it wants to say.

Alias, in that regard, deserves credit for what it tries to fashion Season Three into.

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The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

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TV, Writing

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.
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Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

First Impressions: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS – ‘Second Contact’

As Star Trek: Lower Decks finally premieres in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, A. J. Black takes a look at the first animated Star Trek series in almost half a century…

Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.

Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.

This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.
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