2015: the year in TV

ACSASGoggleRT

It’s been a momentous year for television. Mainly in the sense that I entered the world of a TV show that I love, Gogglebox, which proceeded to take over my life when I was tasked with the labour of love that was writing the official Gogglebox book for Christmas. When I say it’s a show I love, that love has not been reduced or tainted by the privileged position of having met, interacted and forged modest bonds with its participants. Do you get me?

Although I have met, interviewed, interacted with on Twitter and worked in real life wife a large number of actors, writers, directors and other key crew on TV shows, and toil silently in the backroom on scripts for most of the time (most of it, this year, in the basement of development), my most important relationship with television takes place in my living room, or at my computer. And that’s fine with me. For the time being.

GogglebookadSAS

There is always a danger when you meet your heroes that they turn out to have feet of clay. As a viewer, I always regarded the Gogglebox families and couples not as heroes, or gods, or celestial beings, but something even stranger: as close friends. Being invited across their threshholds during April and May this year to meet their pets, drink their coffee, eat their biscuits and use their facilities was a cosmic experience unlike any other in my quarter-century in the media; not only does Gogglebox infer intimate knowledge on the besotted viewer (and there are more of us now than ever before), it makes you feel as if you know your way around the houses, even though you don’t, as you only ever view them through one permanently fixed frame. Thanks to the book publisher Macmillan, I was able to go through the looking glass. It has been a rare treat, one not to be repeated. I’m proud of the book. I hope it raised some smiles this Christmas.

WolfHall

Back in front of my own TV, on the appropriate side of the glass, I watched loads of great telly. I shall list my Top 26 in no particular order, although you may have heard me say already that season two of HBO’s The Leftovers was my favourite show of 2015, just as season one of this beguiling, heartbreaking drama about loss and grief was my favourite show of 2014. The news that HBO have ordered up a third (albeit final) season made my year. It’s also right and proper to name two talented British TV writers, each responsible for two dramas in my Top 26: Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers; This Is England 90 – co-written with Shane Meadows), and Sarah Phelps (the adaptation of And Then There Were None; one episode of Dickensian, story by Tony Jordan). There are two shows with Peter Kay in. Two with the actor David Dawson in. Two with Jerome Flynn. And so on. It’s natural to genuflect to America, but we’ve still got the old magic here.

The Leftovers, HBO (thus Sky Atlantic)
Detectorists, BBC Four
First Dates, Chanel 4
The Last Kingdom, BBC Two
The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic
Fargo, Fox
Catastrophe, Channel 4
Gogglebox, Channel 4
Wolf Hall, BBC Two
This Is England 90, Channel 4
Unforgotten, ITV
Cradle To Grave, BBC Two
The Walking Dead, Fox
Dickensian, BBC One
The Bridge III, BBC Four
1864, BBC Four
The Game, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon/BBC One
Peter Kay’s Car Share, BBC Two
Masterchef: The Professionals, BBC Two
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
Game Of Thrones, HBO
The Frankenstein Chronicles, ITV Encore
Sound Of Song, BBC Four
Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
And Then There Were None, BBC One

WolfHallFargo21864painting

Having sifted 26 to the top, let’s doff the cap to another batch, all of which have entertained or informed me, in some cases both, and gripped me to the last episode (or in the case of the single drama The Go-Between, gripped me to the end of the only episode). In another year of countless first episodes dutifully watched and second episodes left untouched (From Darkness, River, season two of The Returned, Witnesses, Cuffs), sometimes through sheer bulk of telly to get through but mostly due to failure of engagement, I really appreciated those shows that pulled me back in and had me ’till goodbye.

Inside No. 9, BBC Two
Poldark, BBC one
Toast Of London, Channel 4
The Hunt, BBC One
True Detective, HBO
Broadchurch II, ITV
The Go-Between, BBC One
The Saboteurs, More4
Prey II, BBC Two
The Good Wife, More4
Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic
Lewis, ITV
Mad Men, Sky Atlantic
The Daily Show (prior to Jon Stewart leaving), Comedy Central
W1A, BBC Two
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Looking, Sky Atlantic
The Man In The High Castle, Amazon
Togetherness, Sky Atlantic
Show Me A Hero, Sky Atlantic
Silicon Valley, Sky Atlantic
The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
Dawn Chorus, BBC Four
Bitter Lake, BBC iPlayer
Fear Itself, BBC iPlayer

I must pay tribute to North One TV, the production company which keeps asking me to be a talking head on shows like The Best Of Bad TV on Channel 5, and – one for the New Year – The Greatest Animated Movies. I really enjoy doing these, as it’s basically talking about telly and films, which I’d be doing anyway! I’m not on the screen that much any more, except for the little one on the Guardian website, so it’s a pleasure to be asked.

ACBadTV

It curdles my insides to say it, but I think this is the first year for some time where my name didn’t appear in the credits for something on TV (or at the cinema, like last year, hem hem), unless you count the reruns of Not Going Out on Dave, which are on a loop. Oh, it goes without saying that I am still co-developing a TV drama, the one I was co-developing this time last year, but as anybody who’s been in development will concur, it’s better to still be developing it than no longer developing it. It’s not dead until pronounced so by the broadcaster. And, just before Christmas, another drama I was co-developing but which had been on ice all year, suddenly reared its pretty head again after a fortuitous coffee. So here’s to another year of it. All of it.

Advertisements

2014: My Top 50 TV Shows

TA155Gj

Now we’re talking. For almost four years now, I have been required to watch television for a job. It is a lovely job, even in the weeks when it is an uphill struggle to find anything to rave about into a camera at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. (You surely know me well enough by now to know that I am a bad TV critic because I have too much empathy with people who make TV programmes and thus find it difficult to slag them off for dramatic effect. So be it.) I cannot lie to you: when, in November, I appeared as a talking head on Channel 5’s Most Shocking TV Moments, I was inordinately proud to be captioned for the first time ever as “Andrew Collins, TV critic”.

ACShockingTVcritcJ

Most Shocking TV Moments was not one of the Top 50 TV shows of 2014, although it wasn’t at all bad, and was important in its own way.

Leftoversgrabj

I can definitely list 50 TV shows that I loved this year, which is a first for my cultural roundup of the year so far, currently a bit undernourished. That’s because I watch a lot more telly than I listen to records or read books. It’s best to get used to that, and not worry about it. Telly is in the best shape it’s been in for years and we should give thanks for that, while music’s in a parlous state and films are struggling to keep up with the small screen. You know it’s true. I’ve had a rethink since first publishing this list, which is a pointless qualitative exercise in any case, and instead of a Top 50 (or whatever the total is up now), I’m reverting to the Top 10, followed by all the rest, as, frankly, after that it’s a fairly random list of television programmes that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. There’s no way of measuring which was my 21st favourite and which was my 22nd favourite. (Also I caught up with two episodes of Toast after first composing the list and tried to move it up the chart, but it threw everything else out of whack and I conceded my folly!)

In its present state, it can do no harm, especially if it prompts debate or that warm feeling of “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”

TA149TA157grabTA161

1. The Leftovers, HBO/Sky Atlantic
2. Gogglebox, C4
3. Peaky Blinders, BBC2
4. Detectorists, BBC4
5. Hinterland/Y Gwyll, S4C/BBC Wales/BBC4
6. The Newsroom, HBO/Sky Atlantic
7. Game Of Thrones, HBO/Sky Atlantic
8. The Code, ABC1/BBC4
9. True Detective, HBO/Sky Atlantic
10. Gomorrah, Sky Italia/Sky Atlantic

The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies, ITV
Looking, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Missing, BBC2
Boardwalk Empire, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Happy Valley, BBC1
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, AMC/Fox
Intruders, BBC America/BBC2
Mad Men, AMC/Sky Atlantic
Toast Of London, C4
Olive Kitteridge, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Good Wife, CBS/More4
Babylon, C4
Stammer School, C4
The Mimic, C4
Marvellous, BBC1
W1A, BBC2
Boss, Starz/More4
Veep, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Penny Dreadful, Showtime/Sky Atlantic
Utopia, C4
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Honourable Woman, BBC2
Cilla, ITV
The Strain, Watch
Nixon’s The One, Sky Arts
The Legacy, Sky Arts
Plebs, ITV2
Scot Squad, BBC Scotland
Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, C4
The Bridge, BBC4
The Mill, C4
A Very British Renaissance, BBC2
The Village, BBC2
Uncle, C4
Suspects, Channel Five
The Great British Bake Off, BBC1
Dave Gorman’s Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
The Trip To Italy, BBC2
The Art Of Gothic, BBC4
The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, BBC4
People Just Do Nothing, iPlayer/BBC3
Modern Family, ABC/Sky1
Rev, BBC2
Hannibal, Sky Living
Sherlock, BBC1
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, BBC4
Louie, Fox
The Daily Show, Comedy Central
House Of Cards, Netflix

Peakygrabj

Glib conclusions? Thank the lord for HBO, and by definition, Sky Atlantic. Also, what a year for drama. And not just American drama. In the Top 10 we find an Australian drama, and an Italian drama, as well as one from the UK (Peaky Blinders, which I hymned at length for the Guardian’s Top 10 TV here), and more specifically one from Wales, in Welsh (which premiered on S4C, in its native language, in 2013, but expanded into countless other territories, from Denmark to the US and Canada, in 2014). Other notable British entries include The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (which reminds us that ITV is the equal of the BBC when it wants to be), The Missing, Happy Valley, Line Of Duty and Intruders (a co-prod with BBC America).

I find it intriguing that a number of dramas in the list have been based on novels: The Leftovers, Game Of Thrones, Intruders, The Strain, The Walking Dead (a series of graphic novels). Great long-form TV drama is often referred to, with critical reverence, as “novelistic”, and this seems now to be literal. I’ve often felt that a 90-minute feature film, the usual resting place for a novel, is the wrong medium; eight hour-long parts seems so much more conducive to capturing a book’s essence. (Hey, that’s why Lord Of The Rings was made into three movies.) Anyone see The Slap, another all-too-rare Aussie import, in 2011? That was a novel; it worked on telly. I guess the weird bit – and this will be true for my favourite show of the year The Leftovers – is how to produce a second series when the source has dried up.

TA151

Telly drama made the news in April when “Mumblegate” saw the BBC in the firing line – again – for the questionable sound quality of its latest original British drama, a three-part dramatisation of a novel, Daphe Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. This was mere weeks after I’d sat on the Bafta jury for Best International Programme with its talented writer Emma Frost (I really liked her adaptation of The White Queen in 2013). I enjoyed the first episode of Jamaica Inn, and said so in my Guardian review, but having viewed it on catch-up I think we missed out on the technical problems that bedevilled it for those who watched it live. Also, we watch so much mumbly drama in our house, we had no problem straining to hear what Sean Harris was saying. Others had a bigger problem, and a storm in a teacup brewed. Harris redressed the balance with his sweetly self-conscious acceptance speech for Southcliffe at the Baftas. But I felt sorry for Emma, because I am a writer, and there but for the grace of executive whim, go I.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of The World Cup on ITV and BBC in June and July, and you can re-read my enthusiastic but clueless reports, Braz1l, Bra2il, 3razil, Br4zil, Bra5il and 6razil here. That’s a lot of hours of television, right there.

WCUruEng4WCSuarez3GerArgFwin

My own contributions to the small screen have been limited this year. I was thoroughly proud to have script-edited the second series of Badults on BBC3, and – a new gig – the second series of Drifters on E4. One of my in-development sitcoms bit the dust, but not through want of effort and lateral thinking and getting Simon Day in to help gag it up.

My talking head was on the aforementioned Most Shocking TV Moments on Channel 5, also, for the same channel, I did Greatest 80s Movies, which I didn’t see, but I assume went out? More covertly, I added my two-penn’orth to Crime Thriller Club on ITV2, as I like the kind of crime thrillers that are on that channel and quite fancied talking about them with my head. Apart from that, I’ve been busying myself writing and rewriting my dystopian thriller, which is, yeah, yeah, in development. Here’s hoping it does something slightly more meaningful than get rewritten in 2015. Reuniting with Simon Day has been a positive thing, and I’d love to think we can do something together in the near future.

Telly Addict continues, of course, which is a bit like being on the telly, isn’t it? Here’s your static moment of Zen …

TA178grab

Some product

TA125It may be old news to some of you, but I saw the full-screen disclaimer, “This programme contains product placement” for the first time last week, before Jamie’s Money Saving Meals on C4. I don’t like it. It cheapens Jamie. But at least it’s honest and upfront, rather than sinister and subconscious. And it features in this week’s Telly Addict, which also looks at The Tunnel on Sky Atlantic, the Anglo-French cover version of The Bridge; Stephen Fry Out There on C4 (this programme contains product placement); the semis of The Great British Bake Off on BBC2 (for the last time); the return of AMC’s The Walking Dead to Fox; the finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2; and the ambient arrival of HBO’s Hello Ladies on Sky Atlantic.

Love, hate

TA116Well, don’t expect any clips, as Netflix weren’t able to supply any, but Gawd bless them anyway (love Netflix, hate not having any clips), as without them the only way to see the second act of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season without being American would involve breaking the law. It dominates this week’s running-late Telly Addict, which also finds time for the C4 documentary Crazy About One Direction; the promising US crime import Low Winter Sun on Fox; an approving nod to the end of series one of Love/Hate on Channel 5; and another unsavoury documentary humiliating people on “welfare”, Benefits Britain 1949, also on C4.

Ready, steady, cook

breaking-bad-red-lab

Let’s write about Breaking Bad. When I gathered up the best telly of 2012 for my roundup, a couple of people asked why I had omitted Breaking Bad? Good question. Well, this is why: I didn’t really watch Breaking Bad in 2012. Although we do have history.

I’d already devoured Seasons One and Two on DVD, having missed the first, when it premiered here on FX, because – admire my honesty here – the trailers didn’t grab me. Those astonishing images of Walter White in his underpants, in the New Mexico dessert, wielding a gun, and the pitch about him being a chemistry teacher? I didn’t think this was my kind of programme. Drugs? Pants? An actor I did not know. (Never watched Malcolm in the Middle.) It seemed too … wacky for me. So I gave it a miss.

I was encouraged to rectify this fatal error by other people, probably on this very blog. So, if I recall correctly, when FX re-ran Season One (hey, they’d paid for it), I caught up at Episode 2 and was hooked pretty much instantly. I bought the box set, so I could watch from the beginning, and I did, right the way through. This was a show so good, you could watch it again immediately. Then Channel Five did the right thing, and picked it up for Season Two, but self-defeatingly hid it late at night on imprint FiveUSA and ran it over consecutive nights. I taped and watched it all, feeling all of a sudden like I was in on a secret. (No spoilers, but Two is the one with the pink teddy bear, an indicator of the show’s swaggering, overarching confidence.)

Season Two is everything Season One was, and more. (I’m assuming you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go and see it. Seasons 1-4 are now boxed.) And after that, UK television stopped showing Breaking Bad, a case of criminal negligence that has yet to be rectified. As it hits its fifth and final season in the US, it is a long-running, award-winning, lauded drama series of which only 20 episodes have ever been broadcast in this country. A cable insider me told that it was just too expensive for a niche channel to buy, considering the tiny audiences it drew here on FX and Five. (Even the hype that now trails it has had no appreciable effect on the numbers for Seasons 1-2 re-runs.) There is a suggestion that AMC have priced it out of the market.

At the beginning of 2012, I found myself in a sort of sado-masochistic relationship with what might well have been my favourite programme, had I been able to legally view it. It had, by then, gone overground in terms of column inches, overtaking The Wire and Mad Men in chatterati approval ratings, and yet, not even shown on an obscure cable network in the UK. In the States, where it has a home, the aforementioned AMC, it had reached Season Four. I hadn’t even seen Three. In May last year, it finally became available on Region 1 DVD and I leaped at it. But, weirdly, for me, I found it difficult to get back into, knowing that we would always be one season behind.

BreakingBad3DVDBreakingBad4DVD

Well, in the gaping maw between Christmas and New Year, we rescued Season Three from cupboardly exile, and started again; we saw 2013 in with it, pretty much. With unusually large periods of free viewing time, we were able to watch it as nature intended: back-to-back, binge-style. (Each episode is around 47 minutes long; a commercial “hour”, and they cram a lot in.) We did Three in a couple of days’ flat, ordered Four, and then watched that in two sittings. Gripped. Transfixed. Hooked. In constant awe at how the writers and directors keep up the pace and the intrigue. Although many directors pass through, BB has a distinct house style. Shot on 35mm, and characterised by the blinding oranges and yellows of a boiling New Mexico skyline, you know you’re watching Breaking Bad if a POV camera angle puts you at the bottom of industrial vat when chemicals are decanted into it.

Photo Credit:  Ben Leuner/AMC

Often, an episode will begin with an extreme close-up, almost abstract, from which clues may be gleaned, but only 47 minutes later will you fully understand the significance of this elliptical, impressionistic flash-forward. (In many ways, the whole of Season Two plays this trick. There’s also a clue in the titles of four episodes of Two that, taken together, hint at the story arc’s conclusion.)

I would seem odd to go too much into the plot, but it all kicks off with mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher and family man Mr White (Bryan Cranston) learning that he has terminal lung cancer and opting to cook a batch of pure crystal meth in order to take care of his family – wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), and as-yet unborn baby Holly – financially. He hooks up with ex-student Jesse (Aaron Paul), a known amateur meth cook and dealer – as well as a user – and the mismatched pair attempt to pull off the scheme without alerting Walt’s family, or the authorities, emblemised by his gung-ho DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a stand-up guy who becomes their unwitting nemesis, as well as being close family. Here’s my thinking:

If creator Vince Gilligan, alumnus of The X-Files, had successfully pitched his genius idea as a film, this story would have played out, to some kind of conclusion from which everybody learned lessons, in around two hours. That’s just over two episodes. I’m sure it could have been done, but how much better, culturally speaking, that he pitched it as a serial drama, and was able to make seven episodes. (It would have been nine if not for the writers’ strike.) It did not conclude. We were left wanting more of Walt and Jesse and Skyler and Hank. So, Gilligan and his writing team upped the ante. They turned Season Two, with its full 13 episodes, into an epic, in which, well … some very interesting things happen, and Jesse, in particular, goes on an emotional journey. (There’s no better word for it.)

Since then, so much has happened, and yet, Gilligan has kept the whole story local. We’ve been across the border to Mexico, and Hank’s been to El Paso, but for 46 episodes, we’ve never strayed too far from the White household, Jesse’s aunt’s home, the school, the hospital, a fried chicken joint of massive significance and other local landmarks. Just as a soap invites us into a fictional ecosystem, so does Breaking Bad. Minor characters – Jesse’s meth-head pals, Bogdan the owner of the car wash, Skyler’s boss Ted – hove in and out of the foreground. Seedy but well-connected local lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), gun-for-hire and fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) have all graduated from guest-starring roles to main cast. As such, BB moves in natural, organic, concentric waves. Because of the deadly nature of the game, we never know who’s going to be killed next. It’s certainly always feasible that it might be Walt or Jesse. You never know.

breaking-badS4Walt

I love the writing, in that I love the planning, and the storytelling. But I also love the dialogue. Whether or not it’s true to the way people in Albuquerque speak, I don’t know, but the white kids speak like black kids, just like anywhere else, even though the most significant ethnic group is surely Latino. You get a lot of Spanish subtitles, especially when you go deep into the Mexican drug cartel. But even these family-oriented gangsters feel fresh after so many of the Italian-American variety. I read an article that gave BB a kicking for being racist. What? Because its white characters are essentially good, and its Mexican/Latino characters are bad? Simply not true. Gus, a Chilean, is wise and fair and, within the boundaries of the criminal class, principled. Jesse and his white pals are losers, and idiots, by and large. I won’t go on.

Breaking Bad is not a show to knock down. Its cast is gloriously multi-ethnic, and it’s clear that casting choices are made on merit, not on star power. Aside from Cranston, and Gunn (who was in Deadwood), and to a degree Odenkirk (who’s well known in the US for stints on SNL and other comedy formats – he’s also a writer), it does not deal in stars, even for cameos. When Steven Bauer crops up in Season Four as a patriarchal drug lord, it’ll take you a few goes before you identify him as Pacino’s pal in Scarface. I read that Jesse was supposed to be killed at the end of Season One, but as soon as Gilligan saw the chemistry – ha! – between he and Cranston, they decided to keep him in. In this sense, it does operate like a soap.

Something I’ve noticed while watching Three and Four is the regularity with which characters are given monologues, stories to tell, at length. A writer’s dream. Whether it’s Jesse at an AA meeting, describing a box he made in woodwork, or Mike warning Walt about “half measures” with a tale from his days as a beat cop dealing with a domestic disturbance, or even the unnamed Group Leader revealing around a campfire how he killed someone, the writers love to suit up and cook pure anecdote. (This is terrific for the actors, too – indeed, Jonathan Banks really brought his character alive in that scene in Season Three.) It must be such a great show to act in. And all those award nominations! Cranston and Paul seem to be the most eagerly recognised by their peers, but we must remove hats too in honour of Banks, Gunn, Norris, Mitte, Odenkirk (way to give depth to an initially clownish figure), Esposito, and Betsy Brandt (Hank’s kleptomaniac wife, who gets her best season in Four). I fear they may all struggle to get better roles in the future.

I’ve not even bothered to argue whether or not it’s a comedy or a drama: it’s a drama. There are moments of comedy – black comedy, at least – even farce, but these never detract from the gravity of the situation. And people die. They die horribly.

There’s a scene in Season Four – no details – where a character breaks into an office by throwing a brick through the glass door, but the bottom panel of the glass door, via which he enters. There is pure physical comedy in the way he effects this, but the situation is life-or-death, so there’s no time to laugh. You just appreciate it, and file it away. Because you’ll be watching it again. (That’s why I do not resent paying for Breaking Bad.)

BreakingBadad

So, here’s where we’re at. Unless you live in America, or have Netflix, or don’t care about piracy, you’re playing a waiting game. The first batch of Season Five have aired on AMC, with the second batch to air this summer? That means we won’t get the DVDs until the end of 2013. Thanks, UK broadcasters, for being stingy. Thanks, AMC, for hiking up the price. Thanks, UK viewers for failing to watch it when it did air, thus enabling UK broadcasters to wave their calculators rather than make a qualitative decision. Mind you, some things are so good, they’re worth the wait.