Best TV of 2016

Mostly Film looks back at some of the televisual highlights of 2016…

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Game of Thrones

Sarah Slade discusses climate change

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Fetch the comfy chair…

Season 6 of Game of Thrones, officially the biggest, baddest, filthiest, most enthralling saga of families warring over a spiky chair, was a little lacking in the shock value of the first season. By now we knew that there’d be lots of mud, plenty of blood and lots of sexy time, but, at the end of season 5, the main characters were scattered to the ends of the fictional earth, each embroiled in their own personal odyssey. And one of them was dead, which was…inconvenient.

This season was all about manoeuvering and moving pieces into place for the final push. The cast-aside and despised from Season 1 are now in the ascendant. Their enemies are confused or dead or lost. So now is the time to bring the Starks back together, reunite Daenerys with her dragons and her Khalasar, give Tyrion a stiff drink and allow Cersei to make life extremely unpleasant for a whole bunch of people.

So, here are the highlights…

Arya Gets Out Of Dodge

My daughter’s favourite, Arya Stark, seemed to be doomed to a lifetime of washing corpses in Braavos and getting the crap knocked out of her by The Waif, played by Faye Marsay as the meanest hockey team captain ever. An encounter with a potential victim forces Arya to re-evaluate her life choices, and she decides that being a Stark isn’t as bad as being a shadowy knife-for-hire after all, even with the cool disguises. She gets sly and stabby. The Waif joins the Faces on the Wall, and Arya heads north, stopping off at the Freys’ for a spot of dinner.  

Death? Or Soup?

Jon Snow is Aliiiiive (well…duh)

Melisandre, the Red Priestess, is sad because she spent four series backing the wrong Baratheon. Stannis was dispatched by Brienne at the end of Season  5, but only after Melisandre had persuaded him that burning his only daughter at the stake was the way to win battles instead of, you know, strategy and fighting.

Instead, she brings Jon Snow back from the dead and decides that he’ll do for now. Jon doesn’t seem all that pleased to be back in the land of the living, even after a nice quadruple execution of his would-be murderers and a new hairstyle. But then bossy little sister Sansa appears at the gates, offering a whole new set of problems and the possibility of some interesting work in a slightly warmer climate.

Best. Battle scene. Ever

It’s an interesting combination of Starkness: Jon’s heroic honesty plus Sansa’s hard-won political nous. She saves the day at least twice and gets her poetically unpleasant revenge on Ramsay.

Hodor

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Did I leave that door unlocked?

Even further north, Bran concentrates on filling in the gaps in everybody’s backstory and completely screwing up lives. He’s instrumental in Hodor’s hodorness and eventual demise at the hands of a tunnel full of pissed-off zombies. He was last seen close to the Wall, doing his dreamy tree thing, while Meera wondered if she would have been better off spearing frogs in the boglands than being zombie bait.

Bran’s time-travelling shenanigans do offer one useful bit of information.  At least it would be useful if EVERY SINGLE FAN SITE ON THE INTERNET hadn’t got there first. What do you mean you don’t know? Tsk.

And if you think I’m linking to the saddest death in the history of television, think again sunshine.

Daenerys gets her groove back

Dany was getting bored with all those slavers trying to kill her anyway, so being dumped in the middle of a Dothraki horde was the perfect chance to go back to basics. She meets up with Usha Gupta from the Archers, moonlighting as Head Dosh Khaleen, while dreadful things occur at Blossom Hill Cottage. It’s no picnic in Vaes Dothrak either, especially when Daenerys barbecues all the Khals in the temple and all her clothes burn off. Again.

Now a proper dragon rider and certified Dothraki Mofo, Dany leads the horde back to Mereen and arrives just in time to see off the dastardly slavers in fine style, and confiscates their ships – well, the ones her dragons didn’t set alight.

Look Mum! Dragons!

Cersei

…decides to OWN her new pixie crop from the Faith Militant. Poor, sweet Myrcella is toasted by the Sand Snakes. Cersei tries and fails to form an alliance between the Tyrells and the remaining Lannisters who are talking to her. Perhaps it’s all that rejection, perhaps it’s grief, or perhaps it’s because there’s nothing so dangerous as letting a sociopathic posho take the reins of power, but a very bad thing happens.

Cersei does the bad thing

Jaime

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This is my concerned look…

…doesn’t get very much to do except besiege Riverrun and wonder what he ever saw in Cersei. But he does get to wear his sexy samurai armour and look mournful as Brienne sails away with what’s left of his personal integrity.

Theon

Just how did they survive that jump? Sansa is safe with Brienne and Theon doesn’t fancy bumping into Jon Snow and losing yet more body parts.  He returns to Pyke just in time to help his sister flee her psychotic uncle, taking all her best ships and crew with her. Yara tells him to pull himself together and stop twitching. He stops twitching and switches to mumbling into his shoes instead.

Theon Greyjoy gets twitchy.

Caution: this clip contains lots of young ladies who have mislaid their blouses

Theon and Yara finally get to Mereen, where they offer Danerys their ships and promise never to go pirating again. See where we’re going with this?

Yep…here…

So, Cersei’s on the Iron Throne, Jon Snow’s King o’ t’North, Arya has nearly finished her kill bucket list, Dany’s on her way across the Narrow Sea and the Night’s King and his army are marching on the Wall. Should be fun.

Keeley Hawes in Line Of Duty, The Durrells, The Missing

Kate Le Vann raids those tombs

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What would Lara say?

But does she play strong women? That’s what we want, right? I suppose, yes, perhaps sometimes, but it’s never what you take away from a Keeley Hawes performance. She can be scary, frail, chilly, desperate – also warm, weary, proud and, in Lindsay Denton, all of these together.

Line of Duty’s Lindsay Denton was a magnificent character, and of course it was because of the way Jed Mercurio wrote her, but I think no one could have played her as well as Keeley Hawes. I have to tone myself down when I talk about Keeley Hawes because I can sound a bit creepily obsessive, like David Morrissey as Bradley Headstone to her Lizzie Hexom, sweating too close to her in a graveyard, which is the first time I saw her, in Our Mutual Friend eighteen years ago, and I’ve loved her since then. She reunited with Morrissey this year in The Missing, and made what could have been a flatter, griefier, wifier part more insightful and angry and brave.

She’s funny, of course: in 2016 she also made Simon Nye’s The Durrells, but there’s an oddness, an edge, and always the feeling in everything she does that at any moment she’s going to decide she’s had enough, and do something reckless, and it may be good for her or bad for everyone. If she does take on a strong woman, she’ll pinpoint the weakness. Her performances are possibly too exciting to be true. We want that.

The People Versus OJ: American Crime Story

Helen Archer drinks the Kool Aid

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Got any juice, Juice?

Who would have thought that a TV show detailing a twenty-year-old murder trial would be the programme which would so potently represent this year’s zeitgeist? And yet The People Versus OJ confidently and intelligently teased from the strands of the case, and its surrounding hoopla, the toxic blend of sexism, racism and celebrity which would come so depressingly to define 2016.

With a razor sharp script which combined humour with horror, it – seemingly effortlessly – skewered a hostile media and a corrupt police department, and the power and sway of money and fame. That such seriousness and pathos could be brought to us from Ryan Murphy, the king of modern schlock, and with the aesthetic of a mid-‘80s TV movie, was surprising. But the sensitive performances across the board – including a career-defining turn from Sarah Paulson, currently having the run of her life – grounded a show which could so easily have descended into pastiche.

OJ was like a stealth bomb in the schedules, detonated for maximum impact just when we were least expecting it. As both a dissection of the recent past and a shrewd commentary on the way we live now, it was unparalleled. That it also delivered something so immensely entertaining from such a pitch-black subject matter, while never losing sight of the tragedy and injustice at its core – the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Silver, and OJ’s acquittal – marks it as the televisual achievement of the year.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Mr Moth imbibes an existential brew

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Feels like a Scottish dagger…

Douglas Adams wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as a way of recycling and refining ideas from his stint as script editor on Doctor Who (Tom Baker years, classic). He smushed elements from City of Death and the unused Shada into a convoluted time-hopping mystery that was only sort of solved by the title character. Dirk himself is portrayed as a slob, a slacker, a chaotic mess blundering into the lives of others and dragging them with him into the flow of the universe, which in his philosophy will more-or-less bring him to the right place at the right time. And, somehow, it does. Adams wrote one more Dirk Gently book before self-doubt, writer’s block and eventually his too-early death put any more out of the picture.

Max Landis is not a well-liked man, and his record as a screenwriter is patchy – his biggest hit to date is American Ultra, a story of latent powers and shadowy government forces that didn’t quite go off as it should – but he is prolific. The opposite, in many ways, of Douglas Adams. With that in mind, I was wary on hearing that his name was attached to a new adaptation of the Dirk Gently books. The previous attempt, with Stephen Mangan in the title role, was not much cop. What Landis would do with a very English sort of story was worrying. When early publicity shots turned up showing a young, perky, well-groomed Dirk… well, it didn’t look good.

By jettisoning everything about the Dirk Gently novels except the name and philosophy of the central character, Landis has created a series that has nothing to do with Adams’ original work yet stays remarkably true to its spirit. There are elements of the supernatural, of science fiction; the convoluted, time-hopping plot is handled with the light comic touch of the books. The villains are idiots, the heroes a mix of wise fools, noble jerks and outright psychopaths. It refines and recycles Landis’s ideas of latent powers and shadowy government forces. Samuel Barnett plays Dirk as young, perky and troubled; where the Dirk of the books was informed by Tom Baker’s Doctor, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency bears the fingerprints of Matt Smith’s time in the TARDIS. Another series is already on the horizon, and given the barnstorming conclusion of this one… well, it’s looking good.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Viv Wilby has a Bunch of fun

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Snap, Crackle and Pop

“When someone is facing a potentially awkward or embarrassing social situation, that’s when you stick in a song,” as Stanley Donen might have said if he’d been talking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

The songs are probably what you’d focus on if you had to give someone a 30-second elevator pitch about this show. Two or three per episode, all of them pin-sharp pastiches of every musical theatre and pop style you can think of. If that fills you with unwelcome memories of Smack the Pony, then most of the time Crazy Ex-Girlfriend wrong foots you; just when you think you’ve got the joke, it builds or twists or subverts it.

Mostly, the songs explore the psyche and predicaments of Rebecca Bunch (played by co-creator Rachel Bloom), a high-functioning depressive lawyer who ditches the stresses of her New York corporate life for the more laid-back environs of West Covina, California (incidentally, the show is very good on the slightly stultifying crapness of SoCal towns). Her real impetus, however, is a doomed (or is it?) bid to get together with Josh Chan, a sweet but immature surfer-dude with whom Rebecca had a brief teenage romance 10 years earlier and who she is convinced is The One.

And it’s not all about the songs! The dialogue snaps and crackles, the jokes come thick fast, and supporting characters and subplots you actually care about.
There are serious themes here too: feminism, friendship, mental health, sexuality, like the sunnier, sweeter Californian cousin of Girls. An additional pleasure is its cheerful ethnic diversity: inter-racial relationships are the norm rather than the exception.

At 18 episodes, season 1 feels a little flabby at times, but pulls things back for a strong finish. Season 2, currently being drip fed on Netflix, is taking things in an intriguingly fresh direction, complete with brand new theme song. I’m hooked.

The Night Of

Jake savours a Redball

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Where did I put the Vaseline?

How about  a cop show where the protagonist sleeps like a log and is happily married? This is what the policemen in HBO’s latest procedural long for. Not something HBO has any interest in, apparently, opting for a reworking of the BBC’s Criminal Justice series from 2008, with added orange and teal.

The Night Of is reminiscent of Murder One, the Steven Bocho procedural from the 90s, which took its time exploring the intracacies of the judicial system. Nasir Khan (Riz ‘Rogue One’ Ahmed) is a supposedly virginal student, who, using his father’s taxi, picks up a young woman and enjoys a night of sex, drugs and knife-based fun.

Game over…

Aside from the superlative production values, there are two standout performances: Michael Kenneth Williams as the veal-loving King of Riker’s Island and John Turturro as an eczema-riddled ambulance-chasing lawyer. In a nod to the Coen Brothers, Turturro’s feet, and their reaction to a cat, play a large part in the proceedings. Forget Swords and Sandals; Sandals and Cling-Film is the new oeuvre…

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Calling Dr. Scholl

Redaction is the pervasive theme: cynics begrudgingly display idealistic tendencies and ingenues prove to be manipulative, bordering on sociopathic. Without a shoulder-pad in sight; class, race, hygiene, husbandry and the legal system are dissected with razor-sharp chopsticks.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Ricky Young feels funny and serious

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Wait a minute… *where’s* best website?

The only piece of essential telly for me this year (aside from the previously-mentioned Veep and the regular Monday jolt upon spotting Jeremy Paxman’s alarming hair on University Challenge) is the same as last yearLast Week Tonight With John Oliver.

Now, I’m hearing eyes roll across Europe at that, and I can understand it, a bit – most people’s exposure to him is in shortform YouTube clips pressed upon you via BuzzFeed or the Tweeter, getting all excited when ‘John Oliver Had This To Say About X, And He Killed’, or ‘John Oliver Slaying Y Will Blow Your Mind!’.

It all seems a bit, well…. screechy. And if he had slayed or killed as many people or things as the internet has said this year, I’m not sure he’d really be allowed on telly.

But yes, having a white, male, former vice-president of the Cambridge Footlights (who would be the #1 choice to play Sergei off of the Compare The Market ads if they ever go live-action) shoved in your face every Monday for 35 weeks of the year? I can see how you might not necessarily feel a pressing need to investigate further. Plus, ‘cos the longform show itself is on premium HBO, so if you’re in the UK you have to resort to crime to do it.

Well, it’s worth the risk. Aside from the regularly-startling foreign reporting and its delight in taking down the idiocy of most cable news services, LWTWJO spends over half its running time every week highlighting and making jokes about (but never making light of) subjects that other comedy shows – hell, other news outlets – often wouldn’t touch; deeply unsexy, seemingly boring institutional injustices that invisibly ruin the lives of the disadvantaged every single day. And being funny and serious without coming across as an alternately smirking and po-faced bell-end is an incredibly difficult trick, as this segment of today’s MostlyFilm article will prove to its disadvantage.

So, let’s pinch a bit of his schtick and get our teeth into something, then run with it until we build a pretty hysterical head of steam – – IF, in this Year Of Our Lord 2016 you think endemic abuse of voter ID laws, Hollywood’s crazy-long history of white-washing, insane state rules around abortion, special-taxing districts, internet encryption, the absurdity of Congressional fundraising, the ongoing empowerment that deregulation gave to the credit industry, the debt-buying industry, the car-loan industry and the sub-prime lending industry, lead poisoning, the fall-out from Puerto-Rico’s fiscal crisis, the parlous state of scientific research and journalism, understaffing and underfunding of emergency service numbers, knowingly mis-sold retirement plans, The Idiocy That Was Brexit, doping in sports, what the death of local news means to investigative reporting, mismanagement in charter schools, reform and accountability with regards to an over-armed and under-trained police-force (annoyingly not linkable), ongoing US detention in Cuba (nor this one), unofficial but worryingly real school segregation, modern Ponzi-like marketing-scheme scams, the origins of and devastation caused by the US prescription opioid-addiction crisis, the leading fuckwits on the left, the leading fuckwits on the right, the clueless and pointless fuckwits in the middle or segment after segment after segment on the living, breathing bowl-of-dicks now a month away from owning the nuclear codes aren’t topics for a late-night comedy show, then fuck you; you weren’t going to like it anyway.

Besides, when I called out this show for praise last year, there wasn’t a bona-fide narcopathic lunatic in the White House. When Last Week Tonight returns in February, god knows there’s going to be.

Satire pretty much never changes anything, sadly, and satire certainly didn’t stop Donald Trump being elected President. But if America’s shatteringly thin-skinned President-Elect is on (lying) record as being shatteringly thin-skinned about one particular piece of satire, then as far as I’m concerned, that particular piece of satire needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, only massively more so. Staying angry is the only response. That was this year’s finale’s message – don’t put up with this. You don’t have to put up with this.

Because if there’s one person in the world who doesn’t remotely care about deeply unsexy and boring institutional injustices that invisibly ruin the lives of the disadvantaged every single day, it’s that motherfucker.

Merry Christmas.

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Mostly Film offers a sneak preview of 2017 delights later this week.

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