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.

In The Flesh: Series Two – Sloppy Seconds

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There Will Be Spoilers

Series two of BBC Three’s undead drama series In The Flesh has drawn to a close. With twice as many episodes on offer, writer Dominic Mitchell had more of a chance to explore the world he created and give the audience a deeper insight into its characters. Unfortunately, by expanding its vision, In The Flesh has diluted what made it quite so engaging first time round.

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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.