TV

Top 10 of 2021: TV SHOWS

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I’m finishing 2021 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best TV of 2021, which has been a surprisingly difficult mission given the sheer volume of television that has raced at us following the ebb and flow of Covid restrictions.

It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, TV choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the TV shows that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.

Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…

Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)

We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.

Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.

We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.

After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.

First Impressions – STAR TREK: PRODIGY – ‘Lost and Found’

If you had said to a Star Trek fan three years ago that the best show of the franchise’s new era would be animated, they would probably have laughed you straight out of the airlock.

Lower Decks completely upended that perception, banishing the ghost at the feast that long was The Animated Series from the early 1970s, a kitsch and dated reworking of The Original Series. Mike McMahan’s series combined occasionally raunchy, modern adult comedy with a loving and kind reverence for 1990s era Trek that has grown in confidence, humour and stature over two seasons. It has established animation as a key string to modern Trek’s bow in a way few expected.

Star Trek: Prodigy is expressly designed to carry the torch forward and, in many respects, the pressure and expectations are different. Many fans knew what to expect from McMahan, given his comic pedigree on the TNG S8 Twitter feed and later writing experience with Rick & Morty; he was a known entity who did largely what people expected of him with Lower Decks, but brother team of writer/showrunners Kevin & Dan Hagerman are, to an extent, an unknown quantity.

On the basis of the two-part pilot, Lost and Found, they have gone straight for the comic adventure jugular, crafting an effective and beautifully animated origin story for the nascent crew of the U.S.S. Protostar.

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

TV Review: THE CLEANER (Season 1)

A mordant darkness pervades The Cleaner, an appropriate sitcom for our time in some ways. Bloody, at times grim, but it will give you a hug by the end.

Adapted from an original German comedy series, about a roving freelance crime scene cleaner who mops up—literally—after all manner of bloody demises, The Cleaner both has the cool efficiency of a European comic concept and yet is every inch tethered to the well-honed funny man persona of Greg Davies, who could not be less technical & poised if he tried. This is not meant as a sideswipe; Davies is an incredibly funny man and can absolutely carry a TV show, but his style is almost incongruous when placed alongside the strange ghoulish undercurrent The Cleaner, by its very nature, has. This is a show that finds broad humour in the darkest of circumstances.

Davies plays Paul ‘Wicky’ Wickstead, the aforementioned cleaner who is entirely in the mould of every other character Davies has played since his breakout role as sarcastic & hardline teacher Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, whether his acerbic grumpy family man Ken in Cuckoo or his eccentric middle-aged loser Dan in Man Down, and indeed Wicky takes a cue from the stand-up comedy persona Davies has fashioned over multiple tours – the down to earth, homely layabout with intelligence, wit, a powerful lack of ambition and more than a little obsession with the music and pop culture of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In essence, Davies plays a variation on the same theme in every show he does, but he makes it work due to his self-deprecating sense of knowingly weird charm.

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Work Experience’ (1×02)

In some ways, Work Experience exists as an extension of the first episode of The Office, in how it frames itself around a similar story structure.

Just as the tour that David Brent gives incoming temp Ricky works as a device to introduce Wernham Hogg and the culture within the office, here the action is framed around a similar tour being given to Donna, a new office assistant who Brent has taken on temporarily as a favour to his friends Ron & Elaine (the real life names of Stephen Merchant’s parents incidentally). Whereas Downsize was designed to use this device as a way of setting the scene of the office and Brent’s personality, Work Experience is predominantly focused on exploring the culture inside the office and, particularly, the institutionalised level of sexism that becomes apparent with the arrival of Donna and thanks to images being shared of pornography adapted for comedy purposes.

It makes a lot of sense for Ricky Gervais & Merchant to do this in the second episode, having established the setting, because the culture and tone employed in so crucial to understanding The Office and what the documentary captures about not just Wernham Hogg but office culture as a whole. Donna is young and attractive, if seemingly quite working class and with zero interest in a role she has clearly been corralled into doing, but the treatment of her is instantly appalling in a manner that the show recognises as such while mining as much comedy out of the built-in misogyny as possible. This is often the delicate balance The Office treads, and for the most part stays on the right side of – depicting cultural trends and behaviours in a corporate business environment that shouldn’t be present but have been allowed to perpetuate.

Work Experience doesn’t necessarily go down as the showiest episode of The Office, filled with truly memorable moments in the series’ run, but it’s a key establishing piece for the audience.

ALIAS – Season 3 (Overview)

By the third season of Alias, the series was established not as a breakout piece of television but rather a cult show with a dedicated but not stellar fan base in terms of ratings share.

2003, the year the season debuted, was signalling the continuing slow death march of network television. Cable prestige television was continuing to take hold and while we remain a decade out from the arrival of streaming services, Alias nonetheless plied its trade in a network model where ratings dominated. Alias, in that regard, was not the titanic hit ABC might have hoped for a show designed to appeal to both the youthful, female empowering crowd of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fans of genre-based, mythological storytelling such as The X-Files. A year later, Lost would immediately and vastly eclipse it in that regards.

What Alias did have was a solid core group of fans heavily invested in the life and times of Sydney Bristow, her exploits within the CIA, and the ever developing romance between her and fellow agent Michael Vaughn. Season Two, halfway through the season, responded to an edict by ABC to essentially detonate the knotty, serialised concept Alias began with, and streamline Sydney away from the life of a double agent enmeshed in complicated storytelling. Phase One not only freed her, and the show from that, it gave those rabid fans what they had wanted from early on: it out Syd and Vaughn together as a couple and consummated their romance.

Across the first season and a half, Syd & Vaughn had a very strong line in “will they/won’t they?” storytelling, echoing as far back as Moonlighting in the 1980s and carried through into Mulder & Scully in the 1990s, amidst numerous other examples. Alias decided early on comparatively what almost every other show in this position decides: they will. And they did. And across the latter half of Season Two, as the series ran head long into the natural consequences of that first season and a half of storytelling, joyously revelling in the Rambaldi mythology and characters like Arvin Sloane and Irina Derevko as out and out villains, it satiated fans by allowing Syd & Vaughn to exist in a romantic relationship, firmly in love and committed to each other.

What fans, especially ‘shippers’, can sometimes forget is that what is good and pleasant for a character does not always equate to compelling drama. Where do you go when Syd & Vaughn are happily engaged as a couple? Marriage? Children? Logical possibilities, yet Alias is a series built on the ability of Sydney being able to jet around the globe killing bad guys, fighting goons and generally saving the world. How do children fit in that paradigm? Season Five will answer that question but at this stage in Alias’ life, there would be a reasonable consensus that it might be too soon to either marry Syd off or give her a child; indeed had Jennifer Garner not become pregnant, it likely never would have happened at all, particularly given the events of Full Disclosure this season.

Season Three, therefore, works to upset the balance of their relationship as the primary emotional raison d’etre of this new season. The Telling memorably provided audiences with a rather stunning, unexpected cliffhanger; Syd wakes up after her climactic fight with Allison Doren in Hong Kong to find she cannot remember where she has been for the last two years, everyone believes she was dead, and Vaughn… is now married to someone else. Instant horror for audiences invested in their romance. Instant drama for everyone else, aware that this changes their entire dynamic. This speaks to the constant push-pull between pleasing your established fan base, the people who tune in and make your show a success, and creative satisfying both the series and what it wants to say.

Alias, in that regard, deserves credit for what it tries to fashion Season Three into.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Resurrection’ (3×22)

Resurrection is the strangest and least effective season finale Alias ever delivers, existing as a visible consequence of how the latter half of Season Three has been structured.

Ostensibly, it has all of the accoutrements you might expect from a finale of television for a cult, genre network show. In the opening five minutes, the CIA Rotunda—our base for the last two seasons—is attacked and partially destroyed, if not as comprehensively as their future operations centre APO in Reprisal. Our villains hit the nerve centre of our characters world, attacking the very institution they represent, and almost murdering Marshall, a character so beloved and sweet, any kind of violence towards him can only be described as pure evil. The episode then focuses on resolving the central emotional and physical conflict at the heart of the season – Lauren’s betrayal of Vaughn, and where Sydney sits as the woman in the very middle of it.

The reason Resurrection is vastly less successful than either Almost Thirty Years or The Telling is that it fails, unlike those episodes, to balance such personal drama with a broader escalation of the mythology, and simply descends into a rather aimless mire of grim violence and retribution than leans more toward a 1970s Michael Winner revenge fantasy picture than anything Alias would normally produce. Almost Thirty Years brought the burgeoning mythology full circle and provided Syd with the prospect of losing Vaughn. The Telling brought the Rambaldi hunt to a crescendo and then devoted a final act to a deeply satisfying, thrilling and cathartic battle between Syd and the woman who had killed and doubled her best friend. 

Resurrection sees the Rambaldi story peter out, parked for a future season, before the episode dives headfirst into a dark, bitter, aimless climax topped off with a twist that, even before what comes next, makes very little sense.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Legacy’ (3×21)

For all of the jigsaw pieces that make up the Rambaldi puzzle, Legacy works to boil the mythology down into a simplistic revelation.

Once again, Rambaldi’s endgame is about a message rather than a physical gain. Il Dire at the end of Season Two, though we didn’t know it at the time, was designed to reveal a simple truth to Sloane, and all we had in The Telling was Irina’s assertion that he believed he was supposed to realise the ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Words. Knowledge. Sacred information.

Legacy repeats this but rather than Sloane assembling a machine, his conduit is now a person in his daughter, Nadia, injected here with a magical elixir designed to ‘remotely’ channel that ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Again, the answer leads to another question, in the boon they later search for in Resurrection and later The Descent, but the legacy of Rambaldi appears to be coming, appropriately, full circle. Once the puzzle pieces are assembled, all roads seem to lead back to the prophet himself.

This is quite appropriate for Alias in how, from the very beginning of the Rambaldi mythology in Parity, he has been positioned as the series’ God-figure; an unknowable creation, off stage, influencing everything the main characters do. Sloane’s faith, Irina’s past, Sark’s extremism, and on and on – everything traces back to the ‘search’ for Rambaldi, the search for a secular God who holds information, knowledge and great power.

Legacy, however, suggests said power does not just come from within, but from the very bloodline associated with Sydney herself. Season Three concludes the transmogrification in this episode of Alias’ mythology from an outward quest for truth into an internal search for knowledge, as Nadia’s channeling and the continued revelations about Irina’s history regarding her birth unfurl to connect the extended family at the heart of the drama to these mythological stakes.

Legacy, like many of these late Season Three episodes, still has way too much happening for its own good as a compelling piece of drama, but it does contextualise the snowballing effect of the Rambaldi quest.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blood Ties’ (3×20)

There is a darkness that pervades Blood Ties that feels quite rare for Alias.

At this stage, the season is at the height of complication turning into resolution. A cavalcade of revelations regarding the Rambaldi mythology have been unfurled over the last few episodes, a barrage of detail that the first two seasons didn’t come close to unloading. Blood Ties adds even more layers, revealing quite who the Passenger is in terms of Rambaldi’s mythological context.

We know Sydney has a sister and here we meet her and get a name – Nadia, played by Mia Maestro for the rest of the season, the entirety of the fourth and once or twice in the fifth. Lauren is fully exposed here and stops pretending she’s not a pantomime villainess, breaking away from the CIA fully to become what she tried to hide earlier in the season – Sark’s partner in crime. Almost everything is now out in the open and the dominoes are starting to fall.

There is, within this, a real nastiness buried inside Blood Ties which reflects the road Alias has travelled from the rather pulpy, bright and colourful series we saw particularly at the beginning to a show buried under a huge amount of revelation and laboured with a great deal of bruised and battered characters. Chiefly, this is realised in how Vaughn, already having to try and hide how angry and emotionally wounded he is by Lauren’s betrayal, being physically tortured by in part the woman he used to love.

We also see how Syd is cautious at the prospect of meeting Nadia, lacking the optimism and hope she felt when getting to know Irina, expecting betrayal. Even Sloane goes into the dark heart of the US government, exposing a cabal who he blackmails through a threat of revealing their dark deeds and the “unseemly predilections” of their children. We are a world away from the Alias of Syd running around in three inch heels while napalm explodes around her.

Though Blood Ties manages to be quite effective in places, stating true to its brooding nature and offering several momentous scenes, it nonetheless feels like a show Alias, on some level, never wanted to become.