With Christmas holidays and a screening lull around awards season, I had a bit more time than usual over the past few months to catch up on various television series. As always, this is my vent, a chance to enjoy watching something that isn't work-related. And then here I am writing about it....
NEW & NOTABLE
War & Peace
Sumptuously produced by the BBC, this Sunday evening series couldn't be any more epic if it tried. Andrew Davies' script brilliantly brings the multi-layered plotting of Tolstoy's classic to life, anchored by riveting performances from Paul Dano and Lily James, plus a star-making turn from James Norton. The entire sprawling cast brings texture and emotion to these complex characters and their tumultuous, war-torn lives. And it looks simply amazing.
The best new show this year is this knowing sitcom starring Fred Savage and Rob Lowe as brothers - one's a lawyer, the other played one on a hit TV show and doesn't quite understand that he's not one in real life. Savage and Lowe are a terrific double act, and the writers smartly balance audience sympathies. This means that the ongoing silliness is inspired - warmly involving and knowingly referential. And it's also nicely played in a fresh way that allows the actors to laugh at each other on-screen.
With 20 episodes, this is a rather extended half-hour series, cleverly imagined by Tony Jordan as a prequel to most of Charles Dickens' novels, as the characters interact in Victorian London's bustling East End. There are some terrific touches along the way, plus standout performances from the Tuppence Middleton as the hapless Miss Havisham and Stephen Rea as a sardonic detective (both are even better in War & Peace). But many of the characters are too cartoonish to register as human beings, and some of the plot gyrations are simplistic and silly.
Tom Hiddleston got the nation's pulses racing by flashing some well-toned flesh in this adaptation of the John le Carre thriller about a shady hotel worker hired by British intelligence to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious arms dealer. The solid cast also includes Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki and David Harewood, while the show is stolen by the magnificent Olivia Colman, who brings superbly subtle touches to all of her scenes as a heavily pregnant operative. The whole thing looks terrific, and the plot is gripping right up until it turns rather corny in the final two episodes.
ONWARD & UPWARD
The X Files: series 10
After taking a 13-year break (during which there were two big-screen movies), this iconic show came back for a 10th season. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are on fine form in their iconic roles as inquisitive FBI agents Scully and Mulder. And series creator Chris Carter has some nice surprises up his sleeve through the six beautifully produced episodes. This show has always been an uneven mix of riveting mystery, murky mythology and downright clunky plotting - and this season is no exception. But when things click into place, few shows offer so many terrific goosebump moments.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright aggressively tear up the screen in this fourth season of their power-mad White House drama. Spacey's Frank is now president, but Wright's Claire isn't going to sit quietly by his side. This season is set during the primaries leading to Frank's first presidential election as a candidate, so it couldn't be much more timely. And while the whole liver-transplant plot element flickers by much too quickly, it adds a deeper, darker layer of intrigue to the goings-on. Fine support as always from Michael Kelly, Mahershala Ali, Molly Parker and Elizabeth Marvel, plus the awesome Ellen Burstyn throwing shade as Claire's estranged mother.
Shameless: series 6
The Gallagher family continues to mess up their lives spectacularly in this underrated black comedy that's getting better with age. William H Macy is on fire this season as the patriarch without a hint of a moral compass. And there are further life-changing twists and turns for five of his children, played with engaging honesty by Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney. Plus jaw-dropping developments for neighbours Veronica and Kevin (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey). It's nice to see a series that gets less fearless as it goes on. Indeed, the show features some of the best acting and writing on television right now.
Opening with a gleeful musical number showing their surprise at being granted a second season, this riotously entertaining musical fairy tale is so infectiously joyful that it's impossible not to love it. Joshua Sasse is wonderful as the charming and somewhat clueless hero, ably supported by Timothy Omundson's even more oblivious deposed king. The entire supporting cast dives in for the fun, including a surprisingly witty Vinnie Jones and a sassy guest appearance from Kylie Minogue. All in all, this is much smarter than it looks, and it leaves fans wanting more.
OFF THE BOIL
The Flash: series 2
I'm still enjoying this show, which has retained its sense of humour and strong characters amid its unnecessarily knotted plot threads. By comparison, Arrow (series 4) became increasingly bogged down in shadowy action and convoluted plotting. Aside from the awful fight choreography, the writers insist on continuing the island flashbacks, which are pointless and, frankly, ridiculous. And the overly twisted storylines leave the strong cast looking as lost as the audience. I gave up about halfway through this season. I tried to watch spin-off Legends of Tomorrow, mainly due to the actors, but the dire action and dumb plots put me off after a handful of episodes. I'm avoiding all other Marvel and DC comics-based TV series - enough is enough.
For the first time, the strain is beginning to show in this formerly sharp show, as the characters become oddly predictable in the way they spew off witty one-liners and interact with each other in increasingly contrived situations. The strength of this show has been in the way the humour evolved with the characters and actors, but this year feels strangely familiar, as if the writers are stuck in a rut, trying to find humour in situations rather than people. Essentially, this means that the show is in danger of becoming a tired parody of itself (like, for example, Two and a Half Men).
Scandal: series 5
This once-great show has abandoned the weekly scandals and edgy cliffhangers that once made it so addictive. Instead, it has become a corny soap centred around a group of power-grabbing characters who can't seem to function in the real world, are too selfish to relate to each other and all speak with that same shouty voice. All of which is turning it into a parody of House of Cards. It's still watchable due to the ace cast, but I'm wondering how much longer I'll stick with it.
JUST THE FACTS
With Jon Stewart stepping down from The Daily Show last autumn, there's been a shift in the news cycle. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver continues to lead the charge with its intelligent, polished approach, refusing to accept the official take on the big stories while focussing on those that really need to catch the national attention. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has distinctly changed, with a more stand-up style and less pointed satire. But Noah is finding his feet, and he's finally started getting stronger guests to banter with, which will hopefully hone his interview skills. The real breakout is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, much smarter and more fearless than the others, with Bee's hilariously on-the-nose observations taking no prisoners. Her segments are easily the most quotable of the bunch, and her insight is bracingly important. On a different tangent, Chelsea Does used four episodes to explore marriage, racism, drugs and the tech world. While Chelsea Handler's observations sometimes slip into goofy self-parody, she also has a way of getting beneath the surface without resorting to the usual cliches, so her take on these four issues is both funny and thought-provoking.
So many people have been shocked that I completely missed this series when it was on that I decided to give it a go. It took me about two months to work my way through all 62 episodes. The first two seasons are brilliant - great characters, wonderful writing and acting, clever direction. Then it turns indulgent, murky and far too violent before the final bunch of episodes brings everything full-circle to a skilfully well-realised conclusion. Bryan Cranston is simply perfect (no wonder he won five Emmys for this role). After only ever seeing Aaron Paul (three Emmys) in movies like Need for Speed and Exodus, I now see what a great actor he is and hope he makes smarter choices. And I hope we see more of Anna Gunn (two Emmys) and RJ Mitte too.
NOW WATCHING: continuing the current seasons for Girls, Empire, Doctor Thorne, The Real O'Neals, The Royals and Schitt's Creek; looking forward to new seasons of Game of Thrones and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.