A good few years ago I used to do a best films of the year list alongside my musical favourites, but predictably enough, as a parent I don't get out to the cinema as much as back then.
I do, however, watch a fair amount of television. And it really feels like this year has been a great time to be doing so. With that in mind, I'm going to run through what I deem to be the finest stuff on the small screen, with rough grouping by theme, rather than in any particular order of excellence.
What better place to start than the end; specifically the end of Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's stage-to-screen creation managed to get even better in it's second outing, bringing in the brilliant Andrew Scott as the latest love interest, to stretch the limits of morality and bad taste. The #HotPriest was a particularly good verbal sparring partner and provided a superb meta-moment when he caught her fourth wall breaking during a late night conversation. The show will be dearly missed, but I'm always in admiration of those willing and able to stop things in their prime, rather than grinding on into studio-driven mundanity.
Speaking of the double-barrelled comedy creator du jour, Killing Eve was also notable for its excellence this year. Waller-Bridge handed over the writing reins for the second season, and arguably it wasn't quite as razor sharp as the first, but the ever-deepening relationship between Jodie Comer's Villanelle and Sandra Oh's Eve Polastri is such a joy to watch that I really didn't mind that much.
Wonderfully enough, I can continue this theme of female-run programmes for a few paragraphs more. But switching sides of the channel, we move from London to New York and the brilliant bitch that is Natasha Lyonne's Nadia Vulokov in Russian Doll. Taking another crack at the Groundhog Day/Source Code/Edge of Tomorrow trope of stumbling upon and trying to overcome a loop in time, our protagonist finds herself essentially invincible; replaying the same party. Much like with Bill Murray's character though, it takes a lot of drinking, swearing and eventually soul-searching to get there.
A similarly spiky personality is Miri Matteson in Back to Life, Daisy Haggard's superb debut about someone attempting to return to suburban normality after a prison stretch for murdering her schoolmate. The series unfolds as a deftly-balanced mix of suspenseful crime drama and wry dark comedy. I wasn't expecting much, but found myself binging the entire run in less than a week.
There's definitely something to be said for the half hour format - certainly for comedies anyway - as its far less of a time commitment than the often bloated and ponderous dramas and documentaries currently clogging up streaming services. I've actually put a (probably temporary) moratorium on US Netflix crime docs, as after trudging up The Staircase and wading through the second series of Making a Murder earlier this year, I grew very tired of their tendency to drag out into 10+ parts, what could easily be squeezed into half that; or Dispatches could probably squeeze into a single hour.
I guess the final lady-led show to mention - although for all the wrong reasons - is The Handmaid's Tale. To be honest, I probably could have left this at season two, although June/Offerd's switcheroo at the end meant that I had to endure her battle against Gilead for another thirteen episodes. This has always been quite a hard show to watch, but as beautifully shot and directed it is, as compelling as Atwood's source material continues to be, I couldn't help feeling that I'd reached my limit of slow pans into Elisabeth Moss' angry eyes, or wincing through yet more cold, unpleasant violence.
The same could, and all over the internet has, been said about the final season of Game of Thrones. Of course, much of the criticism has been blamed on to producers running out of RR Martin's books to take from, and deciding to make up for the lack of decent script with ginormous battles, but to be fair, things had been getting silly for some time - case in point being the increasing inconsistency with which people moved around the fantasy map of the seven kingdoms. To be fair though, I've always thought the secret to enjoying this spectacle was not to take it too seriously - indeed, as the promotional juggernaut kept on warning of winter's arrival, my inner contrarian found Jon Snow's ever-more brooding looks, and the progressively sour-faced Tyrion Lannister, to be all the more hilarious. As for the grand finale, it was - much like the show in general - entirely predictable, but nonetheless distinctly enjoyable.
From the widely criticised to the overwhelmingly praised, and another big budgets transatlantic production; Chernobyl. Sky Atlantic made a big deal of this being their highest ranked show ever, and I'm certainly not going to argue. I already had a mild obsession with all things nuclear, so this painstakingly accurate portrayal of the biggest atomic fuck-up in history was always going to be up my alley. Once you got over the fact the mostly British cast spoke in their own regional accents, the actors really brought the tale of Communist bureaucracy and institutional paranoia to life, weaving a bit of dramatic narrative into the brutal reality of radiation exposure. To find out just how close the disaster came to being one of truly global proportions, and the quiet heroism of so many involved - opposing the state to minimise the damage - the series had me absolutely gripped. From the miners getting naked to dig that tunnel under the reactor core, to the horrifying reality of the excruciating deaths suffered by those brave firemen, this was a story that needed be to be told, and thankfully was done so with precision and grace.
The other slice of so-called appointment viewing this year was the second season of Succession. I'm not sure why so many slept on the very fine first round, but certainly the most recent run has cemented ex-Peep Show writer Jesse Armstrong as one of the best in the business. The parallels with the Murdoch family are obvious, but as the programme progressed - with its dastardly deals, sibling rivalry and corporate excess - it has become a much wider criticism of the super rich. It's kind of amazing really that a show with essentially no sympathetic characters is such fun to watch - something that's in no small part down to the consistently razor sharp and wickedly funny dialogue, which draws parallels with the memorable one-liners of Armstrong's earlier work on In The Loop.
The last in this trio of reasons I continue to pay over the odds for our Sky package - aside from Jon Oliver's excellent Last Week Tonight - is True Detective, back this year for its third sporadic season. This time the unlikely buddy cop pairing was between Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali, sleuthing their way through another twisty tale in the grimier bits of the States. It's certainly better than season two, and probably not quite up to season one standards, but I quite liked the haircut-defined flashbacks/forwards and portrayal of a descent into dementia. To be honest, I could watch, or listen to, Ali do just about anything, such is his smooth voice and screen presence, but to be fair to eighties heart-throb Dorff, he still looks great and pulled his weight here.
Staying in the US, and one of its biggest exports: superheroes. I've gradually succumbed to the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as crashy-bashy-quippy-fun as their most recent films have been, I think easily the most interesting thing to come out of Stan Lee's comic book cannon is Legion, the FX series created by Noah Hawley; he of the surprisingly good small-screen versions of Fargo. The series is based around David Haller, a psychiatric patient with telekinetic powers who meets the girl of his dreams. So far, so generic, but the beauty of Legion - and why it's frankly surprising the show made it to this third and final season - is how weird and wonderful it is. From the psychedelic effects, to the occasional song and dance numbers, brilliant soundtrack and retro-futuristic aesthetic - even if the plot becomes frustratingly vague, it's an enchanting place to waste and hour a week.
Sticking with comic book adaptations, but switching from Marvel to DC, I was slightly apprehensive to see someone taking another crack at Alan Moore's brilliant Watchmen. Thankfully though, 10 years after Zack Snyder's forgettable film version, The Leftovers' co-creator Damon Lindelof has created something of a sequel - staying in the same alternative universe, but bringing things to the present day. And I'm happy to say it is significantly superior - a stark rumination on racism in America and the role of vigilante justice, but with added squids falling from the sky and star turns from Jeremy Irons (how does he still look so good?). By the final episode I had just about caught up with what was going on, but much like the previous show, what an enjoyable way to be confused.
No great segue to the next show, but a shoutout to something I probably would have avoided had it not been for the enthusiastic recommendation from several people whose taste I trust. Euphoria is apparently based on an Israeli mini-series about teens having sex and taking drugs - filmed almost exclusively from their point of view. The American expansion certainly maintains those features, but broadens the scope somewhat, giving a both gritty and stylised look at what I assume it's like to be a 17-year-old stateside. Much like many of her ex-Disney Club alumni before her, Zendaya - as lead character Rue - does her best to put that squeaky clean past behind her, as a fourth wall-breaking lesbian drug addict. So many things were working against me liking this - the fairly generic plot, often clunky dialogue and GenZ pop music - but for all that, it looked and sounded amazing, and really pulled the viewer back in to the struggles of high school life.
Talking of that kind of age group, The End of the Fucking World returned a month or so ago. Thing is, the rough age group is about all that really relates these two programmes, with the sort of crap late eighties aesthetic and setting for this Channel 4/Netflix collaboration coming in stark contrast. In the same grey suburban Surrey we pick up where the brilliant first series left off, with Alyssa still just as blunt and James as awkward, although the show's dark comedy undercarriage built some layers of tenderness and gave a raw portrayal of bereavment and mental health problems. If you haven't seen it, I fear I haven't given it a very review - but it really is among the most unique and wonderful things to come to the box in a long time.
The last of this teen trio comes with the third series of Stranger Things - back to Hawkins, Indiana, as puberty begins to hit the posse. It was more of the same really - although that's not a bad thing - with plenty of nostalgic nods and great music. The new mall dominated proceedings, along with the eighties film trope of Russian baddies, who just so happen to be opening the upside-down right under said shopping centre. Another thoroughly enjoyable horror romp, but one wonders how far this series can go - are variations of the Mind Flayer going to keep on cropping up as Eleven and the gang go to university, get office jobs, slide into middle age?
This blog has gone on for quite a while now, so if it's alright with you, I'm going to try and pick up the pace/shorten things down a bit.
It should probably get a bigger whoop, given it's being cruelly killed off, but I think BoJack Horseman has probably run its course. It's kind of amazing quite how much milage they've got out of the old equine alcoholic, it's just that the last season or two feel like they're saying the same sorts of things in increasingly less interesting ways. That's not to say there haven't been notable highlights and enough laughs to keep me watching - I'm definitely intrigued to see how they tie up the finale - but it's time to turn this mare into glue.
Another big US comedy that's just drawn to a close is Silicon Valley, Mike Judge's cynical sitcom following a hapless startup in the land of the geeks. For a show that lost one of its best characters two-thirds of the way through, it rallied remarkably well and the last couple of seasons have been pretty decent. Given my day job has been writing about tech for the last couple of years, I am perhaps more inclined to the in-jokes, but I think the comedy here is fairly universal, with accessible and entertaining storylines.
Sticking with the tech theme, this is the first lot of Black Mirror episodes I haven't rabidly consumed within days of their drop. I really enjoyed the choose-your-own-adventure experiment that was Bandersnatch, but the most recent trio have gotten lost among the forest of more vital-seeming things listed above. That's not to say Charlie Brooker and his team are out of ideas quite yet, but I wouldn't mind him bashing out some more Screenwipe stuff instead.
Similarly, I will always love Alan Partridge, perhaps more so than any other comedy character; but the fact I'm only getting to his new thing now kind of tells you all you need to know. The This Time daily diary show format was a great way to get him back on the BBC, and the run had its fair share of cringeworthy moments, perfectly-delivered lines and hilarious situations - but it was a long way from the funniest thing on telly this year.
Also entertaining enough was the small screen reworking of Jemain Clement and Taika Waititi's vampire documentary spoof What We Do In The Shadows. Decamping the undead from Wellington to Staten Island, we also got the pleasure of British comedic talents like Matt Berry, Natasha Demetriou and Kayvan Novak. It took a few episodes to really get going, but I'd argue the series was actually funnier than the film, and fair play to them for pulling in all their Hollywood favours for that cameo-tastic finale.
Almost everything in this post I like to a large extent, but while we're rating new comedies, I'd briefly like to share my opinion on something that had a lot of hype around it earlier this year; I Think You Should Leave. Not one to be left behind by the zeitgeist, I jumped on the bandwagon for a couple of episodes, then jumped right back off, disappointed and confused. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of a fair few odd and laugh-sparse sketch shows, but this was something else. I also get that the premise is to be so awkward people leave, but I'm getting pretty sick of the seemingly endless goodwill afforded anyone who has written for, or performed on, the these days distinctly average, Saturday Night Live.
Anyway, rant over. Someone who does appear to deserve all the good things that come to him is George Clooney, who executive produced and acted in a pretty solid attempt to recreate Joseph Heller's iconic novel Catch 22 on screen. Our main protagonist John Yossarian is played very well by the dashingly handsome Christopher Abbott, bemonaing the absurdity of war as he tries to escape the theatre of conflict with his sanity intact. It was clear there was a decent wedge of money spent on this production, and I'd say it was a worthy endeavour.
Again, not sure how this links nicely to anything else here, so just a quick 'I'll continue to pay the license fee despite all your other sins' bigup to the Beeb for doing right by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's been a long time since these were read to me as a yoot, so I've enjoyed getting back into the story, which has been lavished with big names, big budgets and some very impressive dæmon special effects. Not a shonky Doctor Who bit of CGI to be seen.
And a one sentence recommendation to something I've just picked up on - the genius Tim Minchin's latest venture This Way Up - which, only halfway through and with a very late entry, could still be one of my favourite telly programmes of 2019.
A quick roll call of call outs to conclude then - I really enjoyed Jeremy Deller's attempt to teach today's youth about the conditions that created the early rave scene during his documentary Everybody in the Place; I stuck with, and in the end quite enjoyed, the slightly naff Russell T Davies future-warning drama Years and Years; I gave the sequel to the very decent Deutschland 83, Deutschland 86, a shot and enjoyed the period detail and suspense, despite it getting a bit low-budget schlock-y; the fourth series of Rick and Morty is pretty decent and even if you're not acquainted with the Rubber Bandits or Blindboy's brilliant podcast, I heartily recommend his documentary miniseries Blindboy Undestroys the World now streaming on the iPlayer; I'm also fascinated by Michael Apted's decades-old experiment checking in with a socially and geographically diverse sample of individuals every seven years - now at 63 Up; and of course the nation's grandad was back at it with Seven Worlds, One Planet - a rightly climate chaos-focused look at our continents, revealing, as ever, an incredible range of animals and behaviours I wasn't even aware of.
Even with this overly-long look back, there are still many highly-rated things I haven't seen this year - Mindhunter/Dark/The Mandalorian/Catastrophe/Line of Duty/Sex Education/When They See Us to name but a few - but there are only so many hours in an evening. So please let me know what I've missed and where/why I'm wrong, as there's nothing I like better than a proper personal recommendation or discussion on the finer points of what makes good telly.
Hell, we're on the precipice of TV splitting off into a an unsustainable multitude of different paid-for streaming services, so this could be the last time I can comprehensively put something like this together with the assumption that you'll have actually watched most of it...