Welcome to MostlyFilm’s review of 2013, which we like to think of as pleasingly eccentric, rather than randomly boshed together. We’re here all week (try the brisket). We kick off with a review of the year in TV, with musings from Ricky Young on zombies, The Tramp on Elementary, Sarah Slade on the reality TV successes of the year, Viv Wilby on a reality near-miss, Ron Swanson on US comedy and drama, and Indy Datta on web TV.
The Year in Zombies – Ricky Young
2013 was a fine year for resurrection on telly, and for zombies in particular – helped plenty by everyone being bored shitless with vampires these days.
AMC’s The Walking Dead continued its long, slow shuffle towards ‘not being terrible’, but we’ve talked about that before. Two other dramas this year showed us what it might be like if the dead turned up again, but each focused on people’s hearts rather than their braaains.
March saw BBC Three’s In The Flesh, newcomer Dominic Mitchell’s immediately engrossing three-parter about a small Northern community’s various ways of dealing with those who’d previously died, but now live on while suffering from Partially Deceased Syndrome. Filled with well-executed ideas, featuring plenty to say about hysteria, fear and compassion and with great performances from a cast of old and new faces, In The Flesh avoided the fate of stable-mate casualty The Fades and earned a deserved second run in 2014.
We’ll have to wait slightly longer for the next series of French chill-fest Les Revenants, but it’ll be worth it. Channel Four’s first foreign-language import in over a decade, Fabrice Gobert’s atmosphere-drenched show (based on a not-very-good 2004 film of the same name) distinguished itself from the recent crop of gratification-hiding mysteries with the obvious care taken in creating its peculiarly memorable tone. Everything – lighting, sets, casting and especially Mogwai’s buzzing, chiming soundtrack – kept the viewer riveted to an unsettling, mesmerising world where lost loves, forgotten angsts and exorcised hatreds all had to be squeezed back into unready lives. That the final episode managed to be thrilling, cathartic and still keep viewers guessing about the last eight hours they’d watched? Yeah, some people moaned about the lack of easy answers, but those fuckers don’t deserve good telly.
Two other lumpen, hideous golems stalked teatime television this year, staring glassily into space, repeating gibberish over and over again while making everyone they encountered wish for a swift, clean death, if only to put an end to the agonising horror. But that’s enough about Pointless.
The Year in Purist-Goading Sherlock Holmes Updates – The Tramp
A recovering drug addict, with a brilliant mind and no social graces, reluctantly accepts the female companion foisted upon him by his rich but absent father to help him get clean; and together they solve crimes. That’s Elementary in a nutshell. Perhaps you don’t feel that this sounds like a fun adaptation of the Conan Doyle Holmes mysteries, but trust me it is.
Where Elementary scores, and the BBC’s Steven Moffat masterminded Sherlock fails in my view, is that it understands the ingredients that made the source material work and, equally importantly, what would jar in a modern setting, in a way that gives it the confidence to make bold changes. So the switch in gender of John Watson to Joan Watson serves to underline the opposite yet complementary nature of his/her character with that of Holmes. Jonny Lee Miller is excellent as Holmes – with a clipped entitled Brit accent, a dash of the selfish artist, a drop of the petulant bad boy and the subtle wide eyed twitch of an addict or insomniac. He plays Holmes as a man who crushes his inferiors underfoot not because he can’t help himself but because his ego and father issues demand it. Lucy Liu, an actress who excels at being still, and who is at her calmest, eye rolling best here, offers him a companion upon whom he can really rely; a reliance that he finds both comforting and exasperating.
One of Elementary’s strength’s is the way that they have made the relationship between these two characters plausible – a vital hinge upon which any Holmes adaptation pivots. Watson’s reasons for remaining with Holmes is an area where many adaptations fail, Martin Freeman’s Watson for instance sticks around, as far as we can tell, mainly because of a lack of imagination. Here Joan Watson is portrayed as a bright spark in her own right, benefiting from an emotional intuitiveness and empathy that Holmes lacks. More than a companion, she’s a pupil looking to fulfil her own intellectual curiosity and need for a new challenge.
The other key thing a Holmes adaptation must get right is the mysteries, and once again Elementary masters what Moffat’s Sherlock fails to deliver, with its crime of the week and season-long arc structure reliably more satisfying than Sherlock’s short runs of self-contained single films. The inclusion of a strong supporting cast is the final piece in what I feel Elementary gets right – with Aidan Quinn, Vinnie Jones and Rhys Ifans to name but three.
The second series of Elementary (now playing on Sky Living) had a fun, if wobbly, start in London before returning to New York (a location to enrage the Holmes purist, but which it felt so right to return to). For me, a long term Holmes fan (Rathbone remains my favourite, Brett the closest to the character I imagined in the books and Downey Jr the most unlikely and least like Sherlock), this show has proven addictive, compulsive viewing. As Cumberbatch returns in the New Year to camp up Holmes for the BBC I recommend you treat yourself to the season one Elementary box set for Christmas. After all, if Christmas isn’t about Holmes sweet Holmes when is?
The Year in Reality – Sarah Slade
My top 5 reality shows of the year (ignoring ‘scripted reality’ shows like Made In Chelsea, featuring real people reacting to situations dreamed up by producers to introduce “tension”) are (Cowellesque pause):
The Great British Bake-Off – How nice it was to have an all-women final, with Calm Competent Kim, Nervy Creative Frances, and Sad-Eyed Ruby of the Lowlands. They made buns, bread and cakes, and had little hug-ins at the end of each episode. Sue’s innuendo machine went into overdrive, and Mel cuddled and scolded and mothered like a good ‘un. The Cath Kidstonesque big tent is looking a little tatty these days, and I’m sure that it’s time for the producers to introduce new rounds to try and spice things up a bit. This year it was gluten-free baking. Next year, who knows? Zero gravity meringue mixing?
I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here – Why do I like this? Why? Why? How many castrated kangaroos roam the Australian bush, victims of our insatiable urge to torture the blonde one off of Westlife (3rd chair from the left. Not the one who looks like a plumber) and the nice man who designed Princess Diana’s wedding dress. Nothing this year came close to Gillian McKeith’s comeuppance in 2010, but we got to learn the Carlton dance, and Steve Davis fell over a lot. Which is interesting.
The Apprentice – Compulsive viewing for any corporate drone. Where sales monkeys go when they say they’ve resigned to explore new opportunities, and then disappear. So far, the only visible return on Lord Sir Alan’s investments is the nail file invented by Tom Pellereau (2011). At some point, we can look forward to 2013 winner Leah’s Beauty Box in a station kiosk near YOU. We’ll see in 2014 if she’s been practising on Alan Sugar’s grumpy tabby face. As usual the glossy young entrepeneurs claimed to be tough, ruthless sales machines – and as usual it turns out that they’d have a hard time getting a job servicing photocopiers.
Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model – Skinny young women pout, preen and cavort at the whim of shark-eyed judges. If it serves any purpose at all, it is to demonstrate to my young daughter that modelling is a horrible career choice; and all the free clothes in the world could never make up for all that naked posing in semi-derelict buildings, or being mothered by Danii Minogue.
Masterchef: the Professionals – This show is all about flared body parts: the divine Monica Galetti’s eyebrows, which have a life of their own, and Michel Roux Jr’s ever-expanding nostrils. Bright young chefs do cheffy fiddling and contorting of foodstuffs into edible works of art and endure trial by Fussy Name Chef, a trip to abroad to get shouted at by Mad Foreign Chef, and at the end of it, one of them gets a trophy, or something. Unilke the other shows on this list, this is about the joy of watching professionals at the top of their game, doing something they love. It’s like poetry on a plate, as Gregg Wallace says nearly every week.
The Year in Sewing – Viv Wilby
Fittingly, for a show about sewing skills, Great British Sewing Bee followed the pattern set by The Great British Bake Off with tailor-like precision.
The same Tuesday evening slot; Claudia Winkleman, on presenting duty, provided the witty asides and requisite encouragement; two judges — a vastly experienced and slightly venerable woman and a man with a beard who you feared would be strict and scary; and the usual mix of contestants – the Brummie mummy, the camp fitness instructor, the posh granny, the hipster girl – among whom, as with Bake Off, the show attempted to foster camaraderie and warmth rather than cut-throat competition. Like Bake Off, three challenges had to be completed: a test of basic competency; a ‘blind’ and time-limited alteration challenge; and a final ‘showstopper’ in which they’d be asked to construct a complex garment to fit to a model.
This slavish copying, however, proved to be the show’s biggest weakness. Dressmaking, which requires time, patience and precision, doesn’t fit easily into the deadline-driven formula of a reality TV competition. There was also the relatability factor: anyone can whip up a victoria sandwich or a batch of biscuits and most of us have probably had a go at one time or another, but give me a sewing machine, a paper pattern and a pair of pinking shears and I genuinely wouldn’t know where to start.
And, for a craft-based show, there was little opportunity for the contestants to showcase their creativity. Success was in symmetry and strong seams, not in design flair, although there was fun to be had in seeing the contestants’ tastes and personalities reflected in their pattern and fabric choices: Sandra’s frumpy florals, Ann’s conservative elegance, Tilly’s vintage vibe and Stuart’s mad Captain von Trapp jacket. But challenges that explicitly test creativity as well as skill would be welcome, as would (given the longer time horizons involved in sewing) more collaboration and teamwork between contestants.
Despite these niggles, Sewing Bee was by no means a bust. There’s great pleasure to be had in watching creative people do creative things, the contestants were all immensely likeable and, in the ridiculously handsome and well-dressed judge, Patrick Grant, a potentially big break-out star. It will be back with us next year and I’ll watch again. I only hope it has the confidence to stop copying the fashions of its big sibling and try out a style of its own.
The Year in American Imports – Ron Swanson
My 2013 in TV has been a great one, with the end of one of the best shows ever created meeting all but the most unreasonable of expectations. Breaking Bad became the most-talked about TV show in the UK, even without appearing on broadcast TV, and the hype was more than deserved. The final eight episodes were so beautifully and intricately plotted that it’s left a huge gap for someone to fill.
Thankfully, there are loads of shows worth your time, including a couple of old favourites I’ve written about before here. How I Met Your Mother, is currently doing amazing things in its final season. A show that has been so concerned with storytelling and time lines has its final season taking place over the course of 56 hours. Meanwhile it is integrating its newest cast member, using a handful of different techniques, including flashbacks, flashforwards and flash, erm, sidewayses? So far, so good, and while it’s always possible that the final execution could fall flat, there is no show I’m more confident in hitting its emotional marks, something that even in its lowest ebbs, it’s been able to do, pretty much flawlessly.
This half-season of Parks and Recreation has been terrific, too, but I want to talk about two specific minutes at the end of its double headed season opener, set in the UK; arguably the show’s greatest sequence, in which the notoriously curmudgeonly Ron Swanson is sent on a treasure hunt by the wonderful Leslie Knope. In spite of his determined dislike of anything that isn’t America, his response to her act of great kindness in sending him to the beautiful highlands of Scotland is an example of what this show does best – portrayals of pure, unadulterated friendship.
The pick of the new US comedies is Brooklyn Nine Nine, Parks and Rec creator Michael Schur. A comedy set amongst a detective squad, with an outstanding ensemble, including Andy Samberg, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews and Andre Braugher, this is consistently one of the funniest shows on TV. Crews, in particular, is brilliant. It debuts in the UK on E4 next year.
I’d like to mention a couple of other comedies – one which doesn’t get nearly enough attention – New Girl, whose second season was as perfect as sitcom seasons get, and the dearly missed Happy Endings. You’ll never be forgotten. (Happy whatnow? – ed)
My new TV crush, however, is Scandal. The show is just coming to the end of its second season on More4 in the UK, and it’s just awesome. It melds brilliant character drama, of the complexity of all but the best cable drama series, with an operatically batshit crazy plot, which has so far involved affairs with the President, people in positions of power murdering Supreme Court justices, despicable villainy and some of the hottest, most incandescent chemistry I’ve ever seen on TV between the gorgeous Kerry Washington (our heroine, Olivia Pope) and Tony Goldwyn (THE PRESIDENT, OMFG). I’m a little obsessed.
The Year in the Future of Telly – Indy Datta
Nobody knows what’s going to happen, of course. You might think that traditional TV executives are, if not oblivious, then at least rather complacent, when they assume that today’s multiscreen kids will mature out of the media habits they’ve spent their lifetimes learning. On the other hand, you might note that new talent who get their start on the web still aspire to be commissioned by old-fashioned broadcasters (for example, the comedy duo Broad City, who graduate from YouTube to Comedy Central early next year).
At the corporate level, Netflix want to be the disruptive player, saying they aspire to become HBO faster than HBO can become Netflix, but does their big money commissioning strategy run the risk of emulating the worst of traditional television commissioning (starfucking, creative conservatism) rather than bringing the best of web TV (experimentation, nimbleness, cheapness) to the mainstream? My best guess for the near future is that, for traditional narrative content, corporate money from traditional media and arrivistes like Netflix (and Google and Amazon) will be key.
In a world where a doge meme that took 5 minutes to create is inherently more likely to be shared than a short drama that took months to write and film, narrative programme makers will largely still rely on the big boys to pick them up before they get significant exposure, so maybe nothing’s going to change, and if you want to imagine the future of telly, it will just be Kevin Spacey stamping on a human face forever.
But there is cause for optimism, nonetheless – it’s cheaper to make video content than it’s ever been (and it’s cheaper to do it well than ever before, which is a key distinction), so there will always be people creating new stuff just for the hell of it. And some of it is great. While I enjoyed the shit out of Game of Thrones yet again this year, and laughed my end off at Count Arthur Strong and Toast of London, nothing on broadcast TV in 2013 has compared to the excitement I felt at the periodic appearance of new instalments of Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance (an episodic comedy-drama about the lives of various New Yorkers who share nothing in common but their grass dealer, played by Sinclair). So, to round off this review of 2013 in television, here’s an episode of my favourite show of the year.