As part of our look back over the seven years of MostlyFilm’s life, theTramp focusses on the small screen, and in particular what the big telly trends were in 2017.
Streaming has been good for TV. It seems that with increased competition, and streaming services still finding their groove and so experimenting in ways that the old guard really haven’t for years, the bar has been raised for everyone. And whilst executives and commentators muse on the need for immediacy that drives binge watching and what it means for the future of drama, I thought I would muse upon the TV highlights of 2017 for me, and perhaps in the process inspire you to discover some shows or performances you have otherwise missed. Please do share your favourite moments in the comments below too.
2017 really was the year that female characters were offered a chance to be more and do more in TV drama – something film will hopefully start to emulate more as executives realise that male and female audiences will watch something if the characters and narratives are strong enough.
Strong female characters have always been there of course, and praised too – in part because they shone out like the rare gems that they were – but in the last year it has been harder to pick outstanding moments because there have been so many of them and long may it last too. However, this is a review of my favourite moments of the year so here are a few that shone brightly for me.
Reese Witherspoon enjoying every moment as the mother you should hate but ended up loving in Big Little Lies. Elizabeth Moss and her expressionful face in The Handmaid’s Tale. Kathryn Hahn as the unlikable, selfish, complex, searching and ultimately beguiling lead in I Love Dick. Emily Browning, Gillian Anderson and Yetide Badaki stealing every scene they graced in American Gods. Ruth Negga owning Preacher, despite her two charismatic co-stars. Krysten Ritter making beautiful tough not brittle in Jessica Jones and reminding me of Robert Mitchum. Pearl Mackie breathing new life and a freshness that was undeniably all hers to Moffat’s increasingly over-wrought and tiresomely complex Doctor Who. Phoebe Waller-Bridge making real women funny and relatable in Fleabag. Tig Notaro in the always nice One Mississippi. Saffron Burrows’ subtle but strong turn in Mozart in the Jungle. Diane Morgan in Motherland – show me a mum who isn’t inspired by her parenting cheats. And, of course, the stunning Thandie Newton in Line of Duty.
It may be my age but I can’t help feeling that an awful lot of films and literature seem to have lost the art of great narrative. As a lover of stories well-told I think this is rather a shame, but thankfully TV has been there to pick up the baton and run with it.
Game of Thrones has been so lauded that it suffers praise fatigue, yet the way that the show has woven multiple narrative threads together and created a geo-political drama in the process, albeit one with dragons and ice zombies, is worthy of praise. Some were disappointed with the latest series, as the makers take the leap from converting the author’s books to developing the narrative themselves that was perhaps unsurprising. Certainly it felt as if there was less action in the series as the many individuals narratives finally collided, bringing the battles that have been threatening to come for so long. But it still sets the gold standard.
American Gods and Twin Peaks were both there to challenge Game of Thrones’ pole position. For the former, I remain unconvinced that the sum is quite adding up as yet to a whole. The pace feels stilted, although not across all segments. Perhaps now the ‘reveal’ has been offered the next series can find a more consistent rhythm? Twin Peaks meanwhile followed the beat of its own drum, reminding all of us who watched the first series all those years ago quite why it had such an impact on TV drama, and showing those who missed it the first time around what ‘challenging’ and ‘character driven’ really means. I can think of few TV moments as powerful and moving as that shared by a mother, a little boy and Harry Dean Stanton – Lynch really is an auteur for whom television offers room to breathe, and if we could see more from him on our screens I would be very happy indeed.
Have we reached super saturation point yet? I confess I have. Netflix expanded its Marvel Universe in 2017 by bringing us Luke Cage and Iron Fist, who along with their own outings joined Jessica Jones and Daredevil in The Defenders. They also brought us The Punisher. Meanwhile Amazon continues to support the hugely entertaining Preacher, for my money the most unlikely TV show to be made and recommissioned and an absolute delight – if an ultra-violent, darkly comic and often tasteless one. As well as The Tick, which aims to be lovable, winning, kooky and somewhat satirical – it certainly manages most of these and has the usually supporting Peter Serafinowicz top to tail in skin-tight blue to boot.
Then of course there’s Legion, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, the once again entertaining DC Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, The Flash, Riverdale, Teen Titans, Gotham, Inhumans, Powerless, Lucifer, Supergirl, The Walking Dead, The Gifted and Runaways – have I missed any? Possibly. The trend to super and comic doesn’t appear to be abating so I expect to see even more in 2018, though I confess I’m no longer fan enough to watch them all. But Preacher and Lucifer remain on my unmissable list, and The Tick and Powerless were unexpected delights.
If The Detectorists isn’t showered with awards for its latest and last season, there is no justice in the TV world. Mackenzie Crook may not be the greatest director on TV (am I the only person who isn’t sure if the past flash backs are intended to be humorous?) but I do hope that The Detectorists won’t prove to be his last foray as a writer and performer. Andy and Lance (Mackenzie and Toby Jones) deserve their place alongside other great TV character duos like Steptoe & Son, Del Boy and Rodney and Arkwright and Granville. If you have yet to watch the show I suggest starting with episode one of the first series and watching all the way through to the end. The first two seasons can be found on Netflix in the UK at the moment. Once you’ve watched them I’m sure you’ll happily pay to watch the next two on Amazon.
And whilst I found the writing more insulting than not and the plot so ridiculous as to render the show devoid of thrill, I accept that I stand mostly alone in that opinion and it is undeniable that in Doctor Foster, and with the help of star Suranne Jones, TV has found its modern wronged woman. More in charge than Glenn Close’s Alex in Fatal Attraction, yet equally unhinged, men and women found themselves wincing not at boiled pet rabbits on the stove, but dinner party chatter that breached conversational etiquette and British reserve, and spousal baiting designed to alienate children from one parent in favour of another. It was too successful not to be recommissioned and in 2017 season two – revenge of the husband – offered equal opportunity bitterness and spousal loopiness. Perhaps season three will offer their son his turn to chill audiences?
Keepers is a powerful, if unnecessarily long (really you could tell the story in two or three episodes tops) look at child abuse, the Catholic Church, the impact that murder has on a small town and its residents and the slippery nature of memory. Netflix wowed us all with Making a Murderer – Keepers is nowhere near as strong but it still packed a punch.
No matter how strong the streamers are in factual content and documentary series the BBC will remain king whilst Attenborough has a hand in its natural world content. The Blue Planet, once again, had us all spellbound. If you doubt the power of the small screen, just ask anyone who watched it what they think about plastic pollution’s impact on marine life and our oceans – in just a few moments Blue Planet showed how worrying it is for us all, in a relatable way that campaigners have tried for many years to deliver, bringing the issue alive for the media and in so doing grabbing the attention of politicians too.
Gangsters and Bodice rippers
2017 offered viewers more Poldark, with evil sneering George who somehow manages to stop just short of panto villain and the darkly brooding Ross, a man with a brow so furrowed it’s incredible that the lines aren’t permanent. For those less enamoured by windswept cliff sides and dank dark mines with topless toffs digging alongside their common-man counterparts, there was more to choose from. Outlander, the so preposterous it’s brilliant, time travelling love/revenge/Scottish history romp returned to Amazon and is as daft as it has ever been. Harlots had Samantha Morton and equal opportunity nudity, as well as a selection of truly wondrous wigs – the wardrobe department looked like they had a blast, the lighting department too.
Taboo hit screens in 2017 too and divided audiences. For every person who found Tom Hardy’s striking hat at an odd angle wearing returning adventurer James Keziah Delaney magnetic, there was another who found him tough to fathom and fast gave up trying. Personally I’m rather enjoying Tom Hardy’s experiment with ‘historical’ television drama. His Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders went from somewhat grating to best character in it – bar Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Shelby. And speaking of Peaky Blinders, my what a blast that last season was. After the third season, with its coke snorting, hard partying Brummy boys meets bright young things and corrupt homeless Russian aristocracy with Finnian uprising side-plot, I thought the show had lost its edge. Where, I wondered, could it possibly go next if not further down?
How wrong I was. Season four is where Peaky Blinders has found its pacing. In the sublimely ridiculous street gun battle between Brum native Shelby and American gangster Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody hamming it up more than Aidan Gillan as a gypsy; now there’s something you don’t get to see every day), in the Birmingham slums between the hanging bed sheets, I found myself grinning with delight. This is ambition. This is British drama taking on American tropes with true gusto. It is bold, brave and brilliant and I would like more please, not least because I’d miss the show’s lingering gaze upon the face of Cillian Murphy and many renditions of Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand (Jarvis Cocker and Iggy Pop’s version was this season’s best I think).
Is enough time dedicated to TV that brings a smile to your face and just makes you happy? I’m not sure it does, so let me share with you the show’s that did that for me in 2017. The Detectorists I’ve covered, but mention again because rarely do characters prove such a tonic for viewers – truly a delight and one I won’t spoil for anyone yet to watch it, those who have know what I’m talking about. But whilst The Detectorists were an old friend as it were, new to me this year was the wonderful The Good Place. Season one seemed to have passed many people by, but those who watched it loved it and word spread. The show that takes Kristen Bell to heaven as an interloper and casts Ted Danson as an ancient and omnipotent being struggling with mishap and mayhem may not sound like your thing, but I defy you to watch three episodes and not fall in love with it. Season two manages the not inconsiderable feat of being even more fun than the first.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also returned to Netflix last year, and whilst I confess that this series had more duffs than hits for me, it still made me smile throughout. There’s something to be celebrated in a central character so annoyingly likable that the rogues around her are redeemed just by seeing themselves through her eyes. Plus, the Lemonade skit sequence really was a comedy highlight.
The USA is very good at character driven ‘friends’ light situational comedies, the UK less so: yet The Detectorists (sorry another plug) and The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon prove that the Brits, when they get it right, get it very very right indeed. The Trip, to Spain this time, moved homes in 2017, from the BBC to Sky Atlantic – which is an indication of the impact that Government cuts and meddling are having on the British people’s broadcasting company (see also Bake Off). Coogan has said that he loves the way that some viewers forget that this is a drama, not a documentary. But the fun of The Trip is believing you are a fly on the wall and that these two men really do spend their time trying to out-impression each other and sharing each other’s midlife, male dramas that smack of nothing but foolishness, on their part I might add. It also comes with food porn of course and stunning scenery, what more could one ask for?
Well how about the restoration of your faith in humanity? Yes of course I’m talking about the Bake Off! By moving to Channel 4 for money, leaving the BBC that had invested time slots and good cash to help build it into the behemoth that it had become, viewers were angry and the much loved presenters all left – bar blue eyed Paul who was, the internet agreed, all about the money. Maybe he was, but the format is simple yet strong enough to survive even the angriest of viewers and Noel Fielding is surely the most unlikely lovely baking show host TV has produced yet. Experiencing the comradery and friendship that the Bake Off tent seemingly engenders works even with ad breaks and Liam was, even if we viewers couldn’t taste his bakes, clearly cheated of a place in the final.
What were your TV highlights of 2017? Doctor Who? Black Mirror? The League of Gentlemen’s return? Lucifer? Godless? JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike brought to life? French & Saunders’ return? Share with us, we’d love to know.