The Ups & Downs of TV in 2019

As I said last week, I love watching as many films as I can in a year and ranking them in a blog post around Christmas time. Those end of year Top 10s are probably my favorite posts to do on this blog, because it’s satisfying to feel like I’m bringing a year-long project to conclusion. I’d like to do this for more than just films, but I realize that the format isn’t quite so easily replicated. It’s pretty easy to read up which films are considered critically-acclaimed, make a list, and watch them. Even if you don’t like them, it’s only a two hour time commitment, right? I couldn’t very well do the same with books, as I seem to have been a narcoleptic sloth in a past life and struggle to read about 15 books a year. Even if I could reach my dream of being able to read a standard-sized novel every week, I still don’t think I’d be able to give a comprehensive overview of a given year. Perhaps the best novels in a year are better determined in retrospect; that way the discourse has a chance to get up and running. It would undoubtedly be easy to rank the best songs in a year, as it takes no more than a couple minutes to research what songs and albums are considered good around the world. It’s not much of a time commitment either. But I don’t see such a post ever existing on this blog as I’m not a very musical person in general. What few songs I listen to I am mostly discovering either by accident or via my friends, and usually long after they were new. I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of a song or album that came out this year. I have no idea who is popular right now. I’d love to do a ranking of plays every year, but I feel like this would only be possible if I lived in central London and had both the time and money to go to the theatre regularly.

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The only form of art/media left that I consume is TV drama- hence today’s post. This will be kind of different to my film lists however. When the year begins I go out of my way to research what films are being talked about and anticipated by critics, and I’ll try to take a chance on something even if it doesn’t look like my kinda thing. Even if I’m really unsure I’ll say to myself “Do it for the blog!” and grit my teeth. I don’t do the same with TV. Watching TV isn’t a project for me, it’s just something I do when I’m tired and feel like switching off from real life. I tried to go about it like a professional critic might, but I found that if I wasn’t into something I’d just come up with excuses not to watch it. When I’m bored of a TV show I can get pretty trigger-happy; the exception being The Walking Dead of course, which for some unknown reason I keep watching. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is, this list is just my narrow slice of 2019’s TV dramas. I was going to call it “2019 in TV: The Good, The Bad, & the Fugly”.


GOOD: Mindhunter (season 2)

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This might be the only show in TV history where the guest actors outshine the main cast. Which is not to say that the main cast aren’t good- they’re great in fact. But what makes this show special, in my opinion, are its interview scenes. Without them I think the show would be good but ordinary. The interviews with real serial killers, all of them so perfectly cast and played, are without a doubt Mindhunter’s USP. These sequences are always exciting, and they make you feel like you’re watching an interview with the actual killers themselves. I thought the guy who played David Berkowitz was especially excellent. That was probably the highlight of the season for me.


BAD: Black Mirror (season 5)

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I didn’t like this season, but it’s definitely the least shit of 2019’s failures. I thought “Striking Vipers” was the most interesting episode from a conceptual point of view- and it definitely felt like a quintessentially Back Mirror story in terms of its themes- but from an entertainment perspective I thought it was pretty boring. It was kinda slow, and though it touched on some interesting ideas, it didn’t explore them deep enough to deliver anything thought-provoking. “Smithereens”, on the other hand, was exciting, well-paced, and full of good performances, but ultimately somewhat forgettable. The idea that people spend too much time looking at their phones is kind of a cliché at this point, and I’m used to this series being more edgy and groundbreaking in its ideas. But what truly earned season 5 a spot on my shit-list was the execrable “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”. I feel like this episode must be the result of Charlie Brooker losing a bet or something. The farcical plot felt really out of place on a show that’s known for its superb writing and dark subject matter. The tone wasn’t to my liking, and that’s fine I guess. I would have accepted the idea that this was an experiment in another genre if it weren’t for the fact that the plot is a complete mess. First the younger sister is the main character, but then halfway through she’s booted off to the subs’ bench as the show tries desperately to convince us that Miley Cyrus has a personality. The whole trope of a mainstream singer eschewing pop music for its vapidity to become an edgy, alt-rock artist kinda falls flat when said character is played by Miley Cyrus- who, no disrespect- is about as subversive as Mickey Mouse.


GOOD: The Mandalorian (season 1)

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I liked this show a lot- but it’s definitely overrated. I think it speaks volumes for how poorly Disney have handled the Star Wars license that people are losing their minds over this. By the extremely low standards that Disney have set, The Mandalorian is fantastic. But you have to keep that caveat in mind when discussing this show, because it’s by no means vintage television. Because Star Wars is so big, the way its merits are weighed is different. More often than not it’s judged for its fidelity to the Star Wars universe than anything else. Was it a good Star Wars story? Yes. Was it a good story? Not really. Was this show entertaining? Hell yes. Was it ambitious? Hell no. More often than not the action sequences take priority over the character development, and part of this has to do with the shortness of the episodes and how they’re paced. In addition to being short, most of the episodes are standalone adventures that get hastily wrapped up at the end, with no real connection to the overarching plot. The best episodes are the ones that feature the main storyline concerning the remnant Imperials and their plans for Baby Yoda. The middle of the season suffers from its adherence to this dated, serialized format where you know Baby Yoda will get saved at the last minute and the bad guys will get tied to a tree or something as the Mandalorian flies off into the sunset. I liked the show’s fondness for small details, because I strongly believe that immersion is created through trivial, even mundane ingredients- getting a droid taxi across the ice, discussing outdated Imperial currency, krill fishing, two Scout Troopers making idle chat on their speeder bikes as they just try to get through another lousy day. The things I didn’t like included the “video-game-y” storylines (this show has everything from fetch quests to loot grinding, and detective-vision to speech checks) and the missed opportunities for risk taking. We really didn’t need to see any more of Tatooine, especially as episodes 1 and 2 also featured a desert planet that is pretty much a carbon copy of Tatooine.


BAD: Stranger Things (season 3)

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There’s a thin line between homage and outright masturbation. And season three of this show crossed it and kept going for a good country mile, without even the courtesy of a Kleenex. Admittedly the only thing I hate more than 1980s pop culture is nostalgia for 1980s pop culture, so maybe I’m biased. But I’d never discount a show just for featuring music and fashion trends that I loathe. For instance, during the first two seasons, the 1980s felt like the setting and not the centerpiece. It was an homage- and it worked. You had a nice balance between a creepy mystery and light-hearted comic relief. It took inspiration from the aesthetics of that era and wove them into a narrative that was nonetheless original. It was palatable to modern tastes and, importantly, didn’t feel dated. But season 3 feels dated- as though it’s trying its best to seem like it was written and directed during the 1980s instead of merely taking inspiration from that era. I found season 3 of this show genuinely painful to watch. I debated giving up after two episodes but I forced myself to continue until the end only to discover that it’s nauseatingly bad all the way through. The story doesn’t seem important- every scene seems to have been designed around making its favorite characters look cool. The plot and any larger themes are an afterthought. For example, the season begins with a really contrived storyline in which we see Hopper’s character overreacting to Eleven and Mike’s relationship, and this drags on in indirect proportion to the amount of time it takes to stop being funny. Every scene felt like a cliché, from the trope of two people constantly arguing with each other unable to admit their mutual attraction to the idea that a bossy little girl being obnoxious all the time is somehow cute. The show seemed to be hinging its success on the premise that we’re so in love with its characters that we’re happy to watch them doing nothing except acting goofy for 8 hours. In the end, they all came across as forgettable, watered-down archetypes that couldn’t be more lacking in charisma if they were replaced with concrete bollards.


GOOD: The Witcher (season 1)

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I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since it was announced a couple years back, and it most certainly did not disappoint. I thought it would be good and it was good, and just like The Irishman the unsurprising nature of its quality almost tempered my excitement. The only people that didn’t think it would be good were the Alt-Right, who predictable as ever, threw their toys out the pram as soon as the show cast someone with a higher melanin count than them. It’s so pathetic I wasn’t going to bring it up, but I felt like reminding you all of that little controversy because the casting in this show is perfect. The Witcher follows three central characters: Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer, and I can’t imagine anyone playing them better than the actors we have. Each of them look, talk, and behave exactly as I dreamed those characters would in a cinematic setting. The soundtrack, production, design choices, and choreography are all top notch, but for me the performances of those central characters are what make the show what it is. I’d say this show isn’t as readily-accessible to newcomers as Game of Thrones, which was able to appeal to a wide variety of viewers by having its institutions, politics, and conflicts resemble those of the real world. And what fantastical elements it had were functionally consistent with real things; The Wall behaved like a wall, and the dragons behaved like dangerous animals. Aside from the fact that both franchises take place in high fantasy settings and have a liberal approach to the showing of bare breasts, they’re actually very different. Whereas Game of Thrones takes inspiration from history, The Witcher draws upon folklore and fairy tales. And as such the fantastical elements aren’t just window-dressing- concepts such as destiny and fate are central themes in this show’s story. The average lives and concerns of the people in The Witcher universe are much more governed by the importance of these concepts. When I watched this with my family, I had to answer a lot of questions like “Why is that guy a hedgehog?” and “Why does Yen want that genie?” so I strongly advise those who aren’t familiar with high fantasy tropes to make use of recaps and summaries after each episode. A lot of exposition is given through dialogue, so you have to pay attention during your initial viewing. Otherwise you’ll be confused about what motivates the characters, which is pretty fucking important. You owe it to yourself to stick with this drama because it’s a brilliant story, and if you give it up because you don’t understand the inbred fetus-monster or the tower of naked women or the dragon disguised as an OAP then you’re conceding defeat to those haughty nerds that don’t want “mainstream plebs” watching their fantasy IP’s.


BAD: The Affair (season 5)

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Season 4 already began this show’s downward spiral but it was Season 5 that was determined to keep drilling until it hit bedrock. The tragedy of this show is that its final season doesn’t resemble its excellent beginnings, and seems more akin to a cheap soap opera than the edgy drama I fell in love with. The early seasons focused on the affair between Noah and Alison and the way it impacted on their respective families. But that focus gets lost as the show enters its latter half, and focuses on new characters unconnected to the central conflict. In my opinion it should have focused more on Noah’s kids and explored how the affair affected their lives. That way the show could have expanded organically whilst still being able to trace all its threads back to that single event, thereby giving it a real sense of weight and significance. Instead the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself or its characters, and pursues clumsy storylines with characters that behave in unbelievable ways. I also thought the significance of Noah and Alison’s affair was further negated by having almost every character on the show cheat on each other at a moment’s notice. It seems to suggest that pretty much anyone, given the chance, would cheat on their partner, and as cynical as I am about the human race I just don’t buy it. The chance for an interesting commentary on the psychology of cheating is missed as the show instead adopts this clichéd message that “love is complicated”.


BEST: Chernobyl

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This was, by every measure of artistic success, the greatest TV event of the year. I didn’t think a drama centered on a threat you can’t see would be very interesting, much less scary- but boy was I wrong. This show grips you from the very first scene to the very last with its superb writing, weighty performances, and haunting musical score. Not one scene is out of place, and at no point during its run time did I find myself anything but immersed in this tragic story- or better yet, tragic stories. Because what really made this miniseries special is the way it examined in intimate detail the lives of everyone connected to this one event. We get the perspectives of firefighters, miners, nurses, displaced families, scientists, politicians, civil servants, and the various workers inside the plant itself. We see every level of society and it’s both horrifying and fascinating to watch the problem spread into each one. It’s just such a unique story, and not having been alive at the time of the accident, I find it hard to believe all of this really happened. There’s an interesting postscript at the end that sheds some light on the factual version of events and the real life counterparts of the characters, which I thought was a nice touch. In conclusion, this was a staggering achievement in storytelling, and it wasn’t hard to give it first place.


WORST: Game of Thrones (season 8)

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I don’t take any pleasure in lambasting Game of Thrones because I absolutely adored this show up until its final season. I can’t think of a more spectacular fall from grace in any medium. When Mass Effect 3 came out there was a similar negative reaction to the ending and calls for it to be rewritten. While I didn’t particularly like the ending, I still loved the game as a whole and it didn’t ruin it for me. I felt able to separate its underwhelming conclusion from the overall experience. But I can’t do that with Game of Thrones. And that’s because it’s not just a matter of it not being a satisfying ending. It’s not a case of fans hyping it so much that “no one was going to be truly satisfied”. There is a legitimate critique to be had for the way Benioff and Weiss handled this show- in particular its pacing and character development. It would take too long to list everything bad with the final season, so instead I’ll just focus on its biggest and most egregious atrocity: The Battle of Winterfell. In one episode Benioff and Weiss managed to taint the first seven seasons of the show forever. How can you reasonably enjoy re-watching the series when you know that the mystery of the White Walkers, Jaime’s character arc, the Lord of Light, and Jon Snow’s resurrection don’t count for anything? The threat of the White Walkers was meant to be the one thing that would eventually force the various partisan factions of Westeros to put aside their differences and work together to create a better world. It was meant to supersede politics, but instead it gets hastily resolved by way of Maisie Williams channeling Nightcrawler so that we can go back to partisan politics again. That’s what bothered me more than anything else- the fact that nothing of real consequence seemed to happen. I feel like taking down the White Walkers should have come at a great cost, and should have involved the important characters drawing upon their experiences thus far to do their bit. Jon Snow in particular should have done something important. But in the end his character encapsulated the final season: a complete waste of time.

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