It’s a bit late for a Best of 2016, but what the hell, eh? A round-up of some of the most notable TV I watched for the first time this year.
I was unconvinced by Season 2 for half its run. Not that it wasn’t good, but it felt less compelling than the first season or film. It’s not until past the midpoint that I ‘got’ it. Fargo season 2 is different to its predecessors, but that’s kind of the point. I still stand by some of my complaints – the villains aren’t as captivating as Martin Freeman’s Lester, or Billy Bob Thornton’s hypnotically evil Lorne Malvo, and the hero cop isn’t as warm and sharp as Allison Tolman’s Molly (or Frances McDormand from the film, but then nobody can match up to the Best Film Cop Ever). But they’re not meant to be, as this is about different kinds of people. It’s also not about Minnesota/North Dakota in the same lovingly parodical way, because they’ve already done that.
This time round, it’s not about a terrible person lurking under a mask of politeness and cowardice. This time the ‘Jerry’ is Peg, a possibly schizophrenic woman who stumbles into a bad situation, makes some mistakes, and tries to make the best of it. She messes up, she inadvertantly hurts someone, and she tries to get away with it. But all she really wants is to make a life for herself and her husband.
It makes for a very different tone. Previously, when the villainous protagonist suffered, they deserved it for their selfishness, recklessness, and cruelty. This time round, even the admonishment of the heroes leaves the viewer ambivalent. Where Jerry and Lester were stupid and monstrous loners who hated their wives, Peg has spent her life in a cage, simply because someone she loves liked it there. She’s a fuck-up and an oddball, but who among us isn’t?
Special note: Fargo is a very violent series, but even more so than the film, it’s violent in a realistic way. That is to say, the violence in Fargo, even when foreshadowed, is shocking, ugly, messy, and oddly undramatic. You may read about some of the things that happen to people and picture gratuitous torture porn, but Fargo has a unique way of condemning bloody murder by showing how grotesque and wrong it is when it suddenly comes into our lives.
Coming out of nowhere to blow away most sci-fi I’ve seen on tv outside Hollywood, The Expanse is a series I went in on totally blind, and suffered not a jot for it. I’m dimly aware that it’s based on a comic, which probably explains its novel-like pacing and a style of storytelling that most series have forgotten about in the wake of Game of Thrones and the rise of Netflix. Every episode matters in The Expanse, every one is necessary and moves things and characters tangibly along. It’s very much a Plot series over a Characters one – things and events are moving along towards a climax, and the disparate characters, many wholly ignorant of each other’s existence, are doing their best to figure out what it is and do something about it one way or another. This is a contrast to the too-common habit of scattering people about all over the place, then dicking around for anywhere between half a series to six years before bringing them together, by which time it just feels like dice-rolling fan service anyway.
But enough contrarian griping: The Expanse is an excellent series in its own right. A sort of space noir set largely in a mining colony, which is kind of reminiscent of, but carves out its own identity distinct from classic novels and 80s/90s touchstones like Blade Runner, Total Recall et al.
It’s difficult to write about Narcos, and season two takes on a very different feel to the first. Partly there’s the sense that the first was experimental, and nobody really knew how it would pan out. The second is more focused on Escobar and his family, with narrator/protagonist Steve Murphy taking a back seat. While there was nothing wrong with Murphy, and the subplot of him becoming an abusive dick was fertile ground, it was a smart move to sideline him somewhat, as Wagner Moura gets to shine even more as the infamous kingpin.
Honestly though, this is one of those series where I don’t have anything useful or novel to say. It’s a shame there was less criticism of the American government and its idiotic Red Scare fanaticism, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to see more of Moura. But I’m impressed at how compelling the story remained, how complex its characterisation and tone. Escobar is and isn’t a monster. He’s not unsympathetic but nor is he unduly romanticised. The series and narrator alike both condemn and humanise him, which is no easy task, and it also makes no bones about the corruption and abuse carried out by the authorities – including the narrator – in his apprehension. That too is depicted with the ambivalence that anyone ought to feel. Was it right to cut a deal with these killers? Was it the lesser evil to hurt one person to stop several more? Is it ever necessary or worth it for agents of the law to break the rules or turn a blind eye? The viewer can make up their own mind. Fact is, it happened, and Narcos is about that.
Oh, and the Límon and Maritza subplot… jesus god. Season one was excellent, but I never expected Narcos to make me cry.
I wrote about this at the time, but the more I think about it the more it makes me cringe. A huge plummet in credibility for the series that established it to begin with.
Ih. I wanted to like Luke Cage more than I did. That applies to the series and protagonist alike: while Mike Colter come across as naturally likeable, the lead character is hard to garner any strong feelings for. This goes double when he’s beset on all sides by talented, complex, badass women like Simone Missick’s Misty Knight or Rosario Dawson, who as Claire continues to hold Marvel’s efforts together perfomatively as well as narratively.
Like Daredevil, it’s a series doomed to be undone by the necessity of including the more idiotic elements of the comic book. Mariah and Shades make for excellent villains, but several characters are killed off just as they’re starting to get interesting, usually to make way for a weak but loud main villain so ridiculous that even side characters are taking the piss. There’s an early scene where a villain spontaneously produces a rocket launcher to kill an unarmed, unaware civilian that invites comparison to Looney Tunes.
Worse still, we spend most of the series waiting for this, as early episodes largely just kill time as the invincible hero kind of pootles around quarter-arsedly, or treat situations as dire when everyone already knows the hero is invincible.
Luke Cage matters because he’s a proud black man in modern America, surrounded by smart, brave, compassionate women of colour, and the series reflects this. It is explicitly about the struggle for the soul of a black neighbourhood, filled with references to black music and history and reverence for civil rights heroes of old. Even the villains mostly have roots in defiance and struggles for independence and power, and this informs their relationship to Cage – even this small black community is not the uniform block of “the black people” it’s often portrayed as, and has its own internal struggles regardless of the opinions of the rest of the country, or even the city. As a white British person my opinion is frankly irrelevant, but I do feel like this series could have done more, and given the events of recent years, copped out in its limp commentary on police brutality. However the series is received, we need a lot more heroes who aren’t generic white Americans, and I’m glad Marvel finally stepped up to try.
Like Jessica Jones though, the main problem is that it’s doomed to form part of the Defenders series or film or whatever, a project that will inevitably water down everything that made Luke and Jessica interesting. And as for Iron Fist, christ. Even if I wanted to see Supercracker versus the Magical Evil Asians, Daredevil did it already.
Important but highly flawed. A series mostly about women, about abuse and consent and a manipulative villain who gaslights and charms and plays innocent and plays the martyr? Yes, goddamn do we need more of this. Jessica Jones broke important ground (you need only look at the people who insist that Kilgrave wasn’t a villain, for whom there are not enough faces or palms on Earth), but its first episode is by far its best, and most of its run is a complete waste of time even if you ignore the screamingly obvious fact that you need to just kill the fucker Jess, for christ’s sake.
The latter can be justified as a meta-commentary; half the point of the series is that for all her strength, Jessica’s abuse has left her traumatised and one effect of that is making shitty decisions when faced with the man who abused her. But the series as a whole just kind of dicks around with meaningless subplots for hours, and descends into a series of cheap, violent set pieces brightened only by the appearance of Rosario Dawson.
A second season could be interesting, but its best plot is finished, and as mentioned above, the rest of the B List Superhero Squad are boring as and I have zero interest in their future.
After the excruciating season 5, GoT was forced to spend half its run this year just recovering its stride. The result is a series that’s still enjoyable, but has become a very different and mostly disappointing beast making a noisy histrionic splash in extremely shallow waters. Its biggest dramatic moments were skilfully filmed but utterly hollow and often roaringly stupid: the long-touted “battle of the bastards”, for example, was a tour de force of excellent technical work rendered worthless by abysmal writing.
Largely a victim of its own success, there’s very little its creators can do, but it is guaranteed an audience of sunken cost fallacers, and will continue to enjoy fawning 10/10 scores from lazy critics who would have panned it six or seven years ago because it wasn’t fashionable.
I am going to write about this in detail, but for now: YES. I enjoyed Season 1 a lot, and Season 2 has some issues, but is throwing its all into its characters, and successfully so thanks to great performances from Jodelle Ferland, Anthony Lemke, and the brilliant Zoie Palmer, who has stolen my small flinty heart.
Another science fiction series based on a comic, it has a more character-driven feel by design. Six people wake up on a spaceship with no memory, bound for a small colonial planet for unknown reasons in a galaxy they can remember little about. The first series dealt mainly with the immediate dangers they were in, then the mystery of who they used to be. This year’s effort tells us what happened after that cruel cliffhanger, which because I am nice I will not spoil. The fallout from that is tidied up a little too neatly, the shuffling around of characters will ruffle some feathers, and the whole Space Japan Likes Swords And Honour And All That Shit thing is more than wearing thin. But for me its strong characters and their chemistry are enough to outweigh those faults. Especially the android. I lied earlier: it’s not the series I’ll write about, it’s the android. She is the best.
Oh, and one of the guys they’re fighting, and therefore almost certainly going to kill, looks like Chris Martin. I will watch 50 series of Dark Matter if that’s what it takes to see him get spaced.
Good but ultimately unimportant.
Yes, that’s all I’m saying. You liked it? Well of course, it’s good. You didn’t? Well that’s fine, it’s ultimately unimportant. We have just created the ultimate review.
I will say this, though: Firstly, Lucas is a hero and is gonna have a horrible time when his shithead friends start dating horrible women. Secondly, Winona Ryder got to play pretty teenagers in the 80s and now she gets to play pretty 40-somethings in the 80s. If her agent is reading: I will help her bury the bodies if that’s what it takes. Email me.
Defying my expectations somewhat, OITNB is still great, and even succeeded this year in reigning in the highly tedious Piper enough to make her subplot tolerable. Its strongest suit is still its willingness to engage with social issues more so than most big series dare. And of course the cast, who despite a surfeit of talent are unquestionably headlined by the brilliant Samira Wiley.
Where it falls down is a little less tangible, but partly it’s the sense that some things are being strung out – Laverne Cox is nowhere to be seen, while it’s unclear why Piper is still in prison at all – and some dramatic scenes were over-sensationalised and felt a little false. There’s nothing this year matching the subtle, heartfelt soliloquy from Taystee regarding her newfound faith, and several shots, most notably the very final one of the season, fell with a resounding clunk. I’m still looking foward to more, though.
Brooklyn Nine Nine is an excellent series that I’ll write about in detail in future. However, while still very strong, it didn’t quite make it this year because the newest seasons (3 and 4) haven’t been as good. If you’ve not watched any of it, however, Seasons 1 and 2 would be Comedy of the Year in almost any contest.
I stand by my review. Spartacus starts feebly but soon picks up, and develops into a gleefully melodramatic shag-and-stab-fest. It’s Rome with too much coffee, 300 without the nastiness. While it doesn’t match up with some of the incredible TV of the last few years, it’s by far the most sheer fun I’ve had watching a series all year.
I just started watching Power. You should too.
Right, that’s 2016 done then. And thank fucking christ for that. It’s been a great year for television and an unspeakably awful, frustrating year for almost everything else, so I sincerely wish for all of you that 2017 is a year of atrocious TV. Because that’s how it works.