2015: TV of the Year

I made a concerted effort to watch a lot of TV this year. With so many must-see shows, many fell by the wayside, so if it’s not on the list, I either didn’t watch it or didn’t like it as much as you! But for what it’s worth, here are ten favourite shows of the year, plus the next fifteen in briefer detail, all in no particular order within their separate quality brackets. And it wouldn’t be an end of year list on this blog without an evening’s work of sloppy photoshop work too.

THE TEN TV SHOWS OF 2015

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Fargo
With series one, Noah Hawley defied all logic and sense and turned a critically acclaimed and award-winning movie by a pair of master film-makers into one of the most entertaining shows of 2014 (indeed, my favourite of that year). That series two would end up being just as good, maybe even better, is unbelievable. Wisely going forward by going back (some 30 years before the ‘true story’ first time around), a great cast all bring their A game to a tale of warring gangsters, an oblivious couple caught up in the cross-fire, and a police force trying to make sense of it all, with so much to enjoy amid the ensuing carnage. May ‘The History of True Crime in the Midwest offer more stories to come.

Mad Men
So much has changed in the televisual landscape since Mad Men first debuted (on BBC Two – remember when the BBC showed American drama?), it was no longer the sixties setting that made it feel like a product of another time. The end of Mad Men as such feels like the end of an era. And while this second half of its final series wasn’t quite as strong as the first, it finished off its run in some style. That the last few episodes would feel deliberately aimless was a reminder that dream-like, nomadic journeys of self-discovery was as much a part of its DNA as pitch meetings, office and social politics, and the evolving wardrobe of its characters. Mad Men leaves us in a better place (at least in terms of the variety of TV out there and the ease of accessing it), and it was worth sharing the ride with it.

Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad spin-off that was much talked about and hugely anticipated quickly established itself as its own thing, exceeding expectations and being perhaps even better than its forebear. I’d go so far as to recommend it to those yet to see Breaking Bad (so long as you skipped the first 5-10 minutes), as it has all the fun and tension of seeing a slippery central character trying to get out of various legal scrapes, but with not quite so much killing and nastiness which might otherwise be off-putting.

The Jinx
True crime documentaries have been as much a staple of television as the detective shows that form the fictitious flipside of the coin. But few have such access to its central suspect, let alone one as high profile (at least in the US at the time – I’d never heard of the case beforehand) as millionaire Robert Durst and his connections to a string of murders and disappearances. Even if you know the much-discussed ending (a deeply chilling final shot that recalled Ghostwatch of all things – while we’re on the subject, I’d also recommend The Enfield Haunting if you have an interest in said show), the whole series was one of the most engrossing watches of the year.

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Fortitude
Despite the publicity onslaught at the time, it seems all the media attention evaporated for Sky’s big original production with its impressive international cast (including Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Eccleston) soon after, which is a shame, as Fortitude was my favourite new drama series of 2015. What made it especially compelling was how it was never quite clear what kind of show it would become – was it a detective mystery, a serial killer thriller, a supernatural investigation, a sci-fi horror? That it ended up being all those things to an extent, and more, while maintaining a consistent tone is remarkable. If you’re partial to the likes of The Returned and Twin Peaks but with a touch of The Thing thrown in for good measure, then Fortitude’s grim, strange delights may be just the thing for you.

This is England ‘90
Another successful film-to-TV transfer, the four-part mini-series and likely conclusion to the adventures of Shaun, Woody, Lol, et al packed in many laugh-out-loud moments as well as its fair share of heartbreak and trauma too. It could be accused of turning up the misery to the point of incredulity, but having become so invested in the characters over one film and three series (not quite #sixseasonsandamovie), I think it earned its bruising toughness, counterbalanced with a sense of hope and optimism (well, not for all of them). Tears, both happy and sad, were indeed shed.

Show Me A Hero
For those intimidated or put-off by all the hype for The Wire and unsure whether to invest the time and energy would do well to check out Show Me A Hero, also from David Simon. At six episodes, it’s a fully contained and manageable story, based on real events, and while it doesn’t sound like an exciting proposition (public housing in Yonkers, New York, in the late 80’s), its cross-section of individuals directly and indirectly affected and involved with the issues has all the drama and social commentary of its bigger brother. Great use of music and attention to sound mixing too (the noise of the public debates was particularly striking).

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Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan teamed up with Rob Delaney to deliver another great comedy that’s as good if not better than Pulling. Frequently hilarious, Catastrophe had the kind of frank, disgusting but authentic dialogue that rarely emerges from behind closed doors, but, you guessed it, a beating heart under the profanity-strewn surface. Apart from some side characters that still feel out of place after two series, it was something really special. A very whistleable main theme too.

Hannibal
So long, for now, Dr Lecter. After three series with ever-shrinking audiences, NBC pulled the plug on one of the most imaginative and beautiful programmes ever made. And how do you make the most beautiful show on television even more beautiful? Take it to Florence, that’s how! It seemed its fate was sealed as soon as it went full Eurotrash and became a ‘funny’ accent extravaganza. And granted, the first few episodes felt even more languid than usual, as it recalibrated itself following the second series finale. But once friends, enemies and frenemies are reunited, it offered much to savour. That it also managed to fit in The Tooth Fairy – now in its third filmed adaptation after Manhunter and Red Dragon – and still managed to surprise and feel fresh is testament to just how good Hannibal was, and hopefully one day may be again. Fingers crossed for a movie, but not just any movie. A full-blown, over-ripe, nightmarish, gorgeous, movie musical is about the only way I can see it going. And yes, Mads Mikkelsen can sing. Kind of.

Hunderby
Despite its BAFTA and British Comedy Awards, I thought we had seen the last of Hunderby given it being tucked away on Sky Atlantic and lack of mainstream attention. But hush-ho! We were blessed with two glorious, disgusting specials in December. The relationships became ever more convoluted, the plot increasingly contrived, all in the grand traditions of the literature of course, and Julia Davis’ vulgar vernacular made my eyes fountain with laughter and locked my face in a grin throughout. Very silly and in exquisitely bad taste and all the better for it.

AND THE NEXT FIFTEEN…

Wolf Hall
Lots of people looking miserable in dark rooms and creaky corridors is how I imagine the Tudor period, so Wolf Hall is probably a rather accurate depiction of historical events.

Inside No. 9
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s second post-League collaboration after Psychoville mirrors its predecessor by following a good first series with a great second one.

Penny Dreadful
Still not essential viewing, but the second series of John Logan’s gothic mash-up found itself a sense of humour, and with it became far more entertaining.

Broad City
Comedy Central UK finally woke up to the fact that it might actually be a good idea to show some of the much-praised original programmes from the U S of A, so while Key & Peele, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Review and more remain unshown, at least we finally got to see Inside Amy Schumer and this, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s very funny misadventures as they struggle to deal with the real world in any way, shape or form.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Not read the book and I gather chunks were understandably excised, but it didn’t affect the story-telling or character as I saw it. An enjoyably weird and unpredictable tale that offered some startling stuff.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Given how much I didn’t get on with the film when I watched it for the first time only this year, I’m pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed its prequel some 14 years after the original was made. Great new additions round out an original returning cast that has its fair share of stars already, and its goofiness is infectious.

The Returned
The second (possibly final?) series was as atmospheric as ever, though had a different feel and agenda to what came before. Less focus on character and mood, more on twists and revelations, but managed a tricky balance of being both satisfying and ambiguous.

W/ Bob & David
The team and talent from Mr. Show (which I still have not seen) reunite for a mini sketch series that not only knows how to squeeze the best out of a great set-up, but has the performances to back it up. Digital!

And Then There Were None
Superior Agatha Christie adaptation with a stellar cast, so you end up feeling extra upset when your favourites from stage and screen start dropping like flies.

Master of None
Aziz Ansari wrote the book on modern romance (literally), so it’s no surprise Master of None (co-written with Parks and Recreation’s Alan Yang, and originally developed with the much-missed Harris Wittels) would be a witty, articulate and accurate depiction of relationships (and much more besides) in this day and age.

Doctor Who
I still think this gets better year on year. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman settle more comfortably than ever into their roles, and the good-bad story ratio was the highest it has been post-comeback.

The Great British Bake Off
Nadiya – QUEEN. Comfort food telly of the highest order.

Ash vs Evil Dead
I have a feeling I may end up writing a more in-depth review once I finish off the series, but, a few misgivings aside, this is a largely successful (and quite frankly still amazing that it ever happened) resurrection. Lively, boisterous, and very, very bloody.

Rick & Morty
Maybe not as strong as the first series, but still a remarkable, rule-breaking animation that can run rings around supposedly serious sci-fi fare. With extra dick and fart jokes.

Peep Show
As the El Dude Brothers ride off into the sunset, let’s just stop to appreciate just how such a cringe-inducing, uncomfortably accurate comedy of social embarrassment and despair with a bizarre first-person gimmick became one of the longest running sitcoms in British TV history? Just as good as ever.

2014: TV of the Year

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1. Fargo

Of all the TV prospects this year, what looked as though it would have the steepest uphill struggle was an adaptation of a much-admired Coen Brothers classic, an untouchable source as you could likely find. So it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find that Fargo was the best new show of the year. Writer Noah Hawley starts off with a familiar set-up and character approximations reminiscent of the film, and references are sprinkled here and there. But the story here goes off in different directions, yet it still manages to encapsulate everything about the tone of the original. This is just another weird, funny, violent tale in the world of Fargo. And what’s better than getting something you didn’t think you wanted but now can’t imagine not ever having?

Some elements and threads don’t quite work, sure. But these can be largely overlooked thanks to some of the best performances of 2014. Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk and Colin Hanks were all brilliant, while Martin Freeman surprised as one of the slipperiest customers imaginable, proving even seemingly ordinary people can be capable of doing very bad things. However, it was Allison Tolman who was the breakout star, and as much as you enjoyed watching the bad guys try to get away with their crimes, it was impossible not to root for her. A resounding success.

2. Hannibal

After a frustrating first season, the second time round for Hannibal fulfilled its potential and then some. Dark and disturbing in its beauty, it’s deliciously ripe dialogue and characterisation is executed with such relish, especially whenever Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy lock antlers, that even its often ludicrous plotting is just part of what makes it such a joy to watch. Stripped for the most part of its meandering subplots and ‘killer-of-the-week’ constraints of the first season, season two is a sleeker beast, while the music, sound, and imagery remain as impeccably crafted as Hannibal’s culinary creations. And even for this hardened gorehound, there were at least two scenes that made me yelp and squirm like few before it. As sophomore seasons go, this takes some beating.

3. Mad Men

It’s easy to take Mad Men for granted these days. In a certain regard, it feels like a product of a bygone era, not just in terms of its setting, but a lot has changed in the television landscape since it made its debut. Yet, with its first half of its final season, it delivered as strong a string of episodes as it ever has. Devoted fans will have found much to unpack with some pivotal moments in history providing the backdrop for characters we have grown to love/appreciate/admire/despise (delete where applicable) as they ready themselves for a final hurrah. And for all the slow burn and subtlety of Mad Men’s opening seasons, so much is being paid off with this current run of highly entertaining episodes, that even in the unlikely event that it goes downhill from here, the journey has already been its own reward.

4. 24

Against all odds, and probably against all good advice, 24 returned for a special mini-season four years after Jack Bauer last winced and grimaced his way through a terrorist threat. After three seasons that ranged from mediocre to rotten, the world had moved on. And so had I. Or at least that’s what I thought, as 24: Live Another Day (a nonsense Bond-style subtitle that never seemed to be used outside of TV listings) was a complete return to form. Moreover, it directly benefited from a halved run of episodes (no stalling for time or launching new lengthy arcs). As silly as ever (drone strikes and Wikileaks the hot potatoes of the day) but also self-aware, the staff this time knew exactly what the audience wants from the show and didn’t disappoint. 24 was always designed to deliver blockbuster thrills on a TV budget, but few seasons have ever offered quite so many fun and exciting action sequences as this one. And the added bonus of a London setting meant we get the thrill of hearing Jack Bauer say ‘West Ealing’ and ride the Underground and get to play the “he’d never drive across town in that time” game LA residents have previously enjoyed. If it wasn’t British enough, Stephen Fry played the Prime Minister for god’s sake. I must have laughed out loud three or four times each episode.

5. The Knick

As Boardwalk Empire reached its final season (still not seen any – one day though!), the hunt is on for the next vaguely old-timey period drama with sex and violence to take its place. Peaky Blinders was an early contender, its second season more focused than its first, now with added Tom Hardy – though it still feels like its overcompensating when trying to play with the ‘big boys’ and ending up just sounding a bit silly as a result. Penny Dreadful had an impressive cast and creative team for its gothic horror mish-mash, but never quite lived up to its premise. Rather it was The Knick that emerged the most impressive candidate. True, the whole season felt more like it was setting the scene for future episodes than offering plots to really sink your teeth into (he’s the troubled but brilliant doctor with a drug habit at the forefront of new advances in medicine at the turn of the 20th Century, but here comes a new African-American surgeon!). But there was still enough intrigue, energy (with director Steven Soderbergh’s cool clinical direction and Cliff Martinez’s pulsing electronic score) and entertaining period detail (look at them marvel at X-rays!) to keep me engrossed. And perhaps in season two they’ll finally reveal what the hell Clive Owen’s accent is supposed to be.

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6. Black Mirror: White Christmas

A late entry (and a one-off at that), but not only was it good to have Black Mirror back, this might have been the best episode yet. While its twists and turns ranged from the fairly obvious to the slightly ridiculous, that didn’t stop it from being as amusing/upsetting as ever. Charlie Brooker’s writing, with its matryoshka doll-like structure and smart integration of future-tech without weighing the dialogue down with unnecessary exposition, remains the main draw, but excellent performances from its cast, especially Rafe Spall, Rasmus Hardiker and Jon Hamm in supreme charismatic slimeball mode, made the wait for a new Black Mirror instalment well worth it.

7. Utopia

Beginning with a corking opening episode set decades earlier (that worked brilliantly as backstory, recap and a standalone thriller in its own right), Utopia 2 retained its dark oddball charm for another bout of grim comic book conspiracy. Though the second series was perhaps more epic in scope, it felt tighter and more ‘close quarters’, realising that a story need not be overly convoluted to be exciting. Either way you look at it, its cancellation was too late (it should have ended after series one) or too soon (it should not have ended with a cliffhanger). With David Fincher currently working on an HBO remake, let’s hope it matches the tone, look and sound of the original that made it so unique. But my advice would be to not wait around and get on the ground floor now.

8. Game of Thrones

Along with The Walking Dead (which enjoyed a very good run of episodes in 2014 with the last half of season four and the opening few of season five, but fell apart to an extent before the mid-season finale), Game of Thrones has solidified its position as one of the most popular shows in the world right now (if torrenting stats are accurate). However, with its key characters far too scattered round, even to someone unfamiliar with the source material it felt for the first time that the writers were trying to stretch storylines and fill up the time with detours and cul-de-sacs. A shame after a propulsive and exciting third season. Yet, if Game of Thrones became more about individual moments, it made sure those moments would be hard to forget, devoting great chunks of running time, even whole episodes, to single pivotal sequences. One of the few dramas that can pass as event television nowadays.

9. True Detective

Though never quite as good as the hype suggested – and these were my thoughts pre-backlash – its vision, inventive structure and performances made True Detective truly compelling. Eventually, for all its symbolism and pretentious monologues, it all boils down to a fairly conventional serial killer thriller. And yet few shows even across multiple seasons have managed to get quite so deep into its leads nor deliver quite so many memorable scenes as True Detective managed in eight episodes.

10. Doctor Who

With the goodwill generated by the series’ 50th anniversary and the highly entertaining Day of the Doctor special, Peter Capaldi’s installation as the new Doctor had a lot riding on it. But while the opening episode (directed by the usually capable Ben Wheatley) was something of a mess, it seemed to right and correct itself remarkably well. Much of this is down less to the storytelling per se as the perfectly pitched but always shifting relationship between the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman, now freed from a gimmicky arc). If Doctor Who had fallen out of your favour in recent years (though it has easily been more consistent now than it ever was after its reboot) or if you’ve even never experienced its charms and peculiarities, this series was a good starting point as you’re likely to get.

And something about comedy…

Being sorely behind on current running American comedy series and somewhat cruelly denied by Comedy Central UK failing to show many of its US counterpart’s key offerings (Review, Broad City, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Key & Peele), only a few Stateside shows got my attention. Enlightened’s second series finally got shown and was a fine send off for a show that burned brightly in its short lifespan. Of the new shows I did see, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver proved to be essential viewing, while Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley also impressed. And the third series of the increasingly disturbing Check It Out! With Dr Steve Brule might just be the best thing Tim and Eric have ever done, John C. Reilly’s Brule now easily established as a great comedy character.

Meanwhile, Vic and Bob’s House of Fools and Matt Berry’s and Arthur Mathews’ Toast of London proved the art of very silly comedy is not dead. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle returned for a third time for its strongest series so far, now with added Chris Morris. Cuckoo lost Andy Samberg, but gained Taylor Lautner who became an unexpected highlight. And The Trip to Italy, while admittedly and openly a retread of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s previous culinary expedition, still had me crying with laughter. Nick Helm’s sitcom Uncle surprised with its poignancy amongst the ‘bad role model learns to be good through child forced upon them’ tropes. And once you got past the generic title and set-up, The Walshes from Graham Linehan and Diet of Worms, had a very high gag hit rate.

We need to talk about Torchwood

Team Torchwood - the smug eejits

We are now six episodes down, four more to go in this new series of BBC’s Doctor Who spin-off, now co-produced Stateside with Starz, and despite being past the halfway point, Torchwood: Miracle Day remains a baffling experience, not so much in terms of the mystery behind the central conceit, rather “What were the producers thinking?”.

Now I’ve never been a fan of Torchwood. I watched the odd episode in the first two series and just thought it was a bizarre mish-mash of CBBC plotting with HBO sex and violence. However, with the 5-part Children of Earth mini-series, it seemed Russell T. Davies, Julie Gardner, et al had upped their game, making the most of its alien invasion plot, bringing in Peter Capaldi for some much-needed class, and managing to be tight, focused and action-packed thanks to the condensed run of episodes. Of course, it was still prone to silliness and some muddy plotting, but it seemed the worst of Torchwood’s overwrought emotion, naffness and immaturity was behind it. That was until Miracle Day.

Unfortunately, any hopes that by transferring the action to the USA, with extra budget and ‘name’ stars, would see the show make an attempt to compete with the big American geek shows were entirely misguided. The problems begin with the set-up – all of a sudden, death becomes impossible. Everyone who would have ordinarily died keeps on living, and from that point on, the population keeps growing and growing. Only the previously immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) can now die, so it is up to the previously disbanded Torchwood to reform and discover the cause of the ‘miracle’.

It’s a wide-ranging earth-shattering concept, with vast implications, questioning every aspect of humanity. Sadly, we have to follow Torchwood through it, who come across as the most smug, annoying group of supposed ‘defenders of the earth’ since Captain Planet’s posse of elemental ring-wielding teens. Some male writers admit to having trouble writing female characters. The same difficulties can be found with some female writers for men. It seems the writers of Torchwood have no idea how to write for human beings. With the amount of shagging, arguing, joking and incompetence the team find themselves in, it’s amazing they ever get any work done – it all just seems to exist as a poor attempt to flesh them out as individuals, but it’s cack-handed shorthand for three-dimensionality that isn’t there.

Helpfully, we do still get the surviving members of Torchwood who have had several series to develop a backstory, but are unfortunately just as irritating as ever. Captain Jack still appears to be just a vessel to shamelessly crowbar in cock-hungry winks and smirks when he’s not running around looking endlessly pleased with himself. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is supposed to be the grounded normal one, but she flits between “I’m mad I am!” goofiness and misappropriated badassness that never sits right.

Our two new recruits are CIA agents Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). Phifer looks a little lost for the most part, clearly trying his best to deal with the ropey dialogue and ham-fisted bursts of rage, but his efforts are sadly misplaced, whereas Esther is just useless. Okay, so she’s playing the whole caught-up-in-this-mess angle, unprepared and underequipped for the task, but they couldn’t have found a drippier wet blanket to join their gang if they tried. Her ‘big moment’ so far has been ‘accidentally’ sectioning her sister, forcing her kids into care, and then getting really upset about it, leading her to compromise their VERY IMPORTANT MISSION by crying all the way through it.

Only Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as the cynical and manipulative PR guru and Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes emerge with anything like a shred of dignity, being that they got the juiciest roles. And though Pullman manages to capture a slimy menace as a child molester and murderer, that he is allowed to be released from prison having survived his death sentence just because of some vague legal threat, only to become revered as something approaching a demi-god, is a few too leaps of logic one can cope with. Guest stars such as Wayne Knight and former Ghostbuster and fellow Shark Attack series veteran (alongside Barrowman) Ernie Hudson pop up, but it’s mostly a sorry bunch. Except for perhaps couldn’t-give-a-shit office worker Rachel, who in a handful of scenes has become one of the most rounded characters purely because she acts like a real person and not some gross blundering caricature (great job, Liz Jenkins).

We do get hints of sects and groups formed in the wake of mankind’s immortality and the reactions of governments, politicians and world leaders (through typical lazy news-report exposition), but the bulk of the series is just Torchwood pissing about, peppered with infantile attempts at executing Mission: Impossible-style break-ins and break-outs. It’s hard to know where really to begin with the absurd plotting, while wild tonal shifts exist between individual shots, let alone whole scenes. It would be useful if there was a little logo at the bottom of the screen to indicate whether what you are watching was meant to be silly or serious.

Soft Boiled: Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles)

One particular sequence involving an argument between a doctor and the incredibly hammy manager of a death camp started with a debate about unhygienic laundry facilities and ended with the manager shooting her several times while an onlooking soldier squealed and whimpered. It was the most manic escalation of drama I’ve seen compressed into 30 seconds. In last night’s episode, the same guy (who looks like he has a rubber head and teeth operated by the animatronic department from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) then attempts to cover up the crime by activating red alert, and when queried on the missing doctor’s whereabouts, indicated that not only had she left without telling anyone but said he was doing an incredibly good job, delivered with all the believability of D-grade student forging an A+ on their test scores.

At the end of the episode, all Torchwood’s work trying to uncover the truth of these death camps is brushed aside by the US government as being just a necessary act to understandably dispose of the effectively dead, making Torchwood seem just like a band of ineffectual self-centred terrorists, who’s idea of ‘searching for the truth’ is literally displayed as “SEARCHING: THE TRUTH” on their hi-tech computer screen. And next week’s episode suggests it’s not going to get any better.

With Miracle Day, Torchwood has officially reached its nadir – and this from a show which offered us the spectacle of a Cyberlady covered in barbecue sauce being attacked by a pterodactyl while her boyfriend cried. There’s so much wrong with it, pointing the finger at any one individual is churlish, but while Russell T. Davies is clearly not responsible for everything, he must have surely watched each episode, said “Yes, that’s exactly what we want”, and let it be shown. Torchwood’s only real use now is to serve as a reminder of what a bad Doctor Who episode is like, as since Steven Moffatt took over, they seem to have all but dried up. Funny that.