Category Archives: TV

Favourite TV shows of 2014

Fargo 2My favourite TV show this year was Fargo (FX/Channel 4), an unexpected treat featuring a plot more convoluted and characters more relatable than anyone had any right to expect. Like HBO’s True Detective, the anthology format gives high hopes for keeping things fresh in later seasons.

BoJack

BoJack Horseman (Netflix) was another show that oughtn’t to have been so good. The Netflix binge-watching approach worked in its favour, with a central storyline and the ability for single episodes to take diversions such as the incredibly bizarre ‘Downer Ending’.

Glue

My far my favourite UK show was the rural murder-mystery Glue (E4), demonstrating that youth dramas could be just as complex as any gritty adult programme. The twists were satisfying and characters were allowed to fade into the background once proven innocent.

The most frustrating misses this year were True Detective (HBO) – with six enthralling episodes followed by two that, for me, undermined most of the character development that came before – and Sherlock (BBC) – in which the writers fell prey to serving the huge online fanbase rather than the story. Finally, while uneven, Doctor Who (BBC) generally hit the spot, with Peter Capaldi and the raft of new writers excelling but the old guard dragging their feet.

Favourite TV shows of 2013

Returned

The Returned (Canal+, Channel 4) was hands-down my favourite TV programme of the year, and up there with my favourite ever. Its glacial pace, the steady gaze of the camera, terrific performances, Mogwai’s perfect soundtrack, made every situation gripping. Not since Twin Peaks have I felt such a familiarity with each location in a TV series. The ending may have baffled, but I have high hopes for the next season, whenever Canal+ choose to broadcast it.

 

Count Arthut

Count Arthur Strong (BBC) is a very traditional sitcom, the likes of which would be hard to imagine being commissioned before Miranda Hart’s repopularisation of the form. Despite the show’s long gestation period, the first episode is as perfect a sitcom script as I’ve seen. Middle episodes flag a little, but the warmth of Steve Delaney’s Arthur allows for some surprising turns, resulting in heartbreaking scenes in episode 6.

 Adventure

An Adventure in Time and Space (BBC) Easily my highlight of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary year. Mark Gatiss found the perfect throughline in William Hartnell’s reluctance and later warming to the role of the Doctor. David Bradley’s performance was eerily perfect and the reconstructions of classic scenes were exactly the type of nostalgic trip that I’d been hoping for.

 

The summer months of 2013 were bizarrely filled of weighty, risk-taking television. Jane Campion’s The Top of the Lake introduced us to seedy New Zealand rednecks with a mystery that remained fascinating until the disappointing final reveal. Channel 4’s Run ventured into experimental territory with four interconnected tales, each reflecting different aspects of London communities. Christopher Guest’s Family Tree was a genial ramble led by Chris O’Dowd and featuring aimless cameos from everybody funny ever. The final half-season of Breaking Bad began to creak at the edges but still retained all of its promise until the final episode where it inevitably frayed at the edges, unable to support the weight of its own complicated lore. And Arrested Development Season 4 remained a vast disappointment, despite being more-or-less everything that a long-serving fan might have wished for.

The things I most enjoyed in 2012

End-of-year lists are always self-indulgent, but this is more self-indulgent still. I wanted to capture all the things that were new to me this year that summed up what I most enjoyed in 2012. I realise that this is only really of interest to me.

Albums

Feelies

Transverse (Carter Tutti Void, 2012) was the single album of 2012 that stands alongside my favourites from other years. I missed New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges (Colin Stetson, 2011) and An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (The Caretaker, 2011) in 2011 but they became firm favourites this year – Colin Stetson for Tube journeys and The Caretaker as a background to writing. Biokinetics (Porter Ricks, 1996) became my soundtrack on countless rainy train journeys, a heartbeat layered on top of the hum of travel. World of Echo (Arthur Russell, 2001) gradually became less an album heard than an album felt. My go-to album for relaxation this year was the reissued UFO (Jim Sullivan, 1969). And Crazy Rhythms (The Feelies, 1980) and Midnight Cleaners (The Cleaners From Venus, 1982) were the two albums that made me upset at time wasted before having heard about them – my favourite pop albums of 2012.

Live music

Boredoms

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars) at All Tomorrow’s Parties was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced. Boredoms at the same ATP festival was one of the bravest and maddest, featuring five drummers and a tree of guitar necks hit with a stick.

Films

Shout

I loved working through Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915), influential in technical respects but with its own weirdly dreamy qualities. The imagery has stayed in my mind longer than any other film. The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) was my hidden treasure of 2012, perfectly tailored to everything I like about films, and a great companion piece to Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). The latter was perhaps not the best-crafted film released in 2012 (surely The Master), but the one I responded to the most enthusiastically. I thought my high expectations for F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) would make it a disappointment, but it was totally surprising despite the fact I expected surprises. The same applies to That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977), especially the first 15 minutes or so, with a remarkable story structure. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) was an epiphany, the first Bergman film that I’ve had an emotional reaction towards and predating David Lynch by 20 years. The Bespoke Overcoat (Jack Clayton, 1956) and Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) featured the most sympathetic performances, within beautifully humanist films. And Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), performed with a live soundtrack by Steven Severin, was the trippiest film experience, with Rose and I half-awake with woozy colds.

 

Books

LovedOne

I’m pickier with books than films, perhaps due to time investment. I’ve liked and/or appreciated lots of books this year. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Collins’s The Moonstone and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther come close, but the only book that made me bubble over with enthusiasm was The Loved One (Evelyn Waugh, 1948), a perfect and perfectly concise novel.

TV

Carlos

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) was the most compelling thing I saw on TV this year, making a case for longer treatments of complex events than films can offer. It also had the best soundtrack. The Olympics opening ceremony (Danny Boyle, 2012) was the broadcast that made me happiest, possibly due to watching it with a hangover and letting the spectacle wash over me. Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (2012) felt like the best kind of ‘event’ TV fiction, and among the best scripts that Steven Moffat has yet produced. Black Mirror: The Entire History of You (2012) was the TV episode most tailored to my interests – fingers crossed for more Twilight Zone for the C21st. Breaking Bad Season 4-5a (2011-2012) was the most moreish TV experience once the show broadened out in scale, having earned our sympathy for the characters. The Thick of It Season 4 Episode 7 (2012) was the most surprising TV episode, using comedy characters to hint at something huge and dreadful just off-screen.

 

Theatre

SergeyBoris

The puppet show Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure (Flabbergast Theatre) at the Edinburgh Fringe made me feel like a child and made my face hurt from smiling and laughing.

Art

Saville

It’s rare for visual arts to get me in the guts. The Jenny Saville retrospective at Modern Art Oxford did just that. And the Speed of Light night-hiking/neon joggers/sound art performance at the Edinburgh International Festival was an event that was at once hilarious and baffling.

GetGlue is a foisting machine

In the last week or so I’ve been playing around with GetGlue, a new recommendation and social networking site that covers all media (i.e. film, TV, books, music, general topics). After my abortive research into film recommendation sites – and I really should update my earlier post, as I ended up leaving Jinni in favour of Criticker, which still has plenty of failings – this feels like it could become the site for me.

There are several main draws to GetGlue. The first seems trivial but is central – you gain virtual stickers for various activities – for example, rating 50 TV shows. These stickers show up on user profiles, working as boasts similar to Xbox achievements. There are also mentions of becoming applicable to receive ‘hard-copy’ stickers for free, but this doesn’t seem to be the big sell.

The other USP is that GetGlue distinguishes between recommendations and ‘checking in’ – i.e. letting users know what you’re currently watching, reading, listening to or thinking about. This feature’s obviously inspired heavily by Facebook updates, and indeed you can publish each comment directly on Facebook (or Twitter) – you could actually use GetGlue as a portal for social-media updates related to your likes or dislikes.

Finally, and the feature that’s got me hooked, is the ability for users to become ‘gurus’ of particular subjects, achieved through posting reviews and users voting. Guru status bestows the user with page-editing privileges and also the ability to hardwire particular recommendations to that page. The temptation to foist obscure but related books, films and music onto casual browsers is huge, I’m discovering. I’m disproportionately proud to be guru of 10 things, currently: The Last Man on Earth, The Drums’ Summertime!, Dungen, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Lonnie Donegan, The Research, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Electrelane’s The Power Out, The Hired Sportsmen and 13 & God.

As with my earlier comparison post, here are my thoughts about GetGlue, distilled:

Pros:

  • Impressively wide catalogue due to links with specialist websites e.g. Last.fm and imdb
  • Ability to add to index from selected sites
  • Covers music, film, books, topics
  • Clean, clear interface
  • Guru status offers Wikipedia-like editing rights, plus ability to make recommendations
  • Stickers encourage exploration and are strangely compelling
  • Distinction between ‘checking in’ and liking things
  • There’s a linked iphone app
  • Links to Facebook and Twitter

Wishlist:

  • User profiles by default show a Facebook-like ‘stream’ rather than a definitive overview of that person (favourites are more enlightening but are buried away)
  • Favourites can’t be split into media type, so can become messy and unrepresentative
  • Can’t reorder favourites or lists
  • ‘Saved’ items could be made into more useful ‘to read’/’to watch’ lists, so could become a reminder tool
  • The iphone app only allows you to ‘check in’ rather than rate favourite items
  • Recommended items are literal-minded and uninspired (e.g. if you like an album by an artist, you’ll like other albums by the same artist), and only relate to a single item rather than a combination of items
  • Inability to add extra comments to a page once you’ve reviewed – even if you’re the guru
  • ‘Check in’ seems different to ‘currently reading’ etc – it’d be nice if user profiles could show media that the user is currently immersed in…
  • Only three tiers of rating: ‘favourite’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ (perhaps, though, this is a ‘pro’, as it’s much lessy fussy than, say, Cricticker)
  • Can’t embed stream or favourites in non-Javascript blog (like this one)
  • Can’t easily browse recommendations – quite limited categories (e.g. 1970s)
  • This is entirely trivial, but I’d love to see the stickers feed into a meta-game or measureable tally of ‘progress’ – probably irrelevant for most people though!

You can see my GetGlue profile here.

Doctor Who – The Lack of Time

I’ve been resisting this.

Since its return in 2005 I’ve followed Doctor Who, on and off. Like many fans of the ‘classic’ series, I wasn’t too sure about the form the regenerated show had taken. First Christopher Eccleston’s wild pantomime and then Russell T. Davies’ increasingly sloppy series arc plotting kept me holding the show at arm’s length.

Again, like many fans of the original series, I had high hopes for this year’s sort-of reset, with highly dependable Steven Moffat in the script editor and executive producer role, and Matt Smith as the Doctor. And, I feel that we now have what we wanted. Series 5 has far more of the hallmarks of classic Doctor Who, it appears to be gradually unravelling RTD’s more questionable decisions, and I see in Matt Smith flashes of Patrick Troughton and even (he was my Doctor) Sylvester McCoy.

But it’ll never be quite right, and I think I now see what’s wrong.

At first I thought it was just the cliffhangers. Watching the recent 2-parter ‘The Time of Angels’ / ‘Flesh and Stone’ and last week’s ‘The Hungry Earth’, it’s obvious that Doctor Who revels in leaving the audience hanging. In classic serials, much of the time in each episode was spent engineering a tantalisingly open ending (often hastily resolved in the next episode, I’ll admit). It’s a huge shame that the showrunners allow themselves this luxury in just a few stories each series.

But more and more, I feel sure that the real obstacle is the 45-minute run time for each episode. Recent, much-hyped, episodes such as ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘Vampires of Venice’ have felt rushed beyond belief, allowing 20 minutes to set up the scenario, 15 minutes mid-crisis, then madly racing about to wrap up the story within the final 10 minutes.

Far more successful have been the 2-parters, for good reason: approximately 25 minutes set-up, 50 minutes crisis, 25 minutes resolution. The scripts have room to breathe and there’s time for character interaction rather than just plot-furthering.

Equally successful, in my opinion, are many of the ‘minor’ episodes in recent years. While perhaps now seen as a scene-setter for the full invasion at the end of Series 1, for me the most effective recent Dalek episode has been Rob Shearman’s punchy, lone-Dalek story, ‘Dalek’. ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Blink’, ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and ‘Amy’s Choice’ are all terrific and, I‘d say, some of the best standalone episodes that the new series has to offer. But they’re very unlike most classic Doctor Who serials: they play to the strengths of the time restriction. The number of stories in the past that restricted themselves to this time limit can be counted on one hand (I think): for example, ‘Black Orchid’, ‘The Edge of Destruction’ – both similarly curbing the ambition of the stories to fit the timescale. Conversely, many New-Who stories have appeared to cram a full 90-minute tale into half the time.

Russell T. Davies and now Steven Moffat have taken the approach of introducing series arc, presumably to counter the briefness of each episode, to allow a story to take shape over several episodes. RTD’s arcs were largely spurious – lazy signposting that led to surprise, deus ex machina conclusions; Steven Moffat’s first attempt may yet prove more coherent. As well as the series arcs, both script editors have ensured that characters, especially the Doctor’s companions, have matured and adapted to circumstances. Much of the discussion on fan forums and podcasts revolves around character relationships and revelations (‘Does Amy prefer the Doctor to Rory?’, ‘Is River Song really the Doctor’s wife?’), which is all well and good. Modern Doctor Who is excellent at exploring the mythology of the programme, and, increasingly, prodding at characters’ motivations, including the Doctor’s.

But it’s a shock to realise that what Doctor Who doesn’t do at all well any more is adventure.