Next up in these reviews of 2016 is television. Television as receivable in the UK is going through a purple patch, thanks largely to the box set phenomenon. There is as much trite tosh on conventional TV as ever there was, and I despair of supposedly informative history programmes which are little more than a bunch of Wikipedia facts with shots of pretty buildings and a breathless star presenter, but there have been gems enough to fill a treasure chest. Anyway, here’s my pick of the good, and some of the bad.
Beginning with the box set world, the best drama for me by some distance was the second series of Better Call Saul. I wasn’t sure about the first series of the Breaking Bad spin-off, which didn’t seem to have made its mind up whether to be an unfolding drama or a series of adventures documenting the fall from grace of the future corrupt lawyer. Series 2 made it clear that this was indeed an unfolding drama with its own rationale and style. While it doesn’t have the strong moral underpinning and classical backbone that so distinguished Breaking Bad, it proceeds in a measured and skillful manner through a thoroughly realised world just slightly at a tilt to our own. It blends the mundane (the legal life) with the peculiar (McGill’s electromagnetic hypersensitve brother) and the ominous (the drug cartels) with an easy control, filtered through the all too human McGill/Goodman, a man of good heart but dubious judgement. What gives the series its peculiar edge, however, is our knowing what must happen, though not yet how. We know McGill will become Goodman, that fate must deal some blow to his girlfriend and brother, and that Gus Fring is on the horizon, all because the end of the story must be where Breaking Bad begins. A great narrative of our times is unfolding, as the two series combine – and without any recourse to wizardry, elves, or dragons.
Other box sets I struggled with. Having given up on House of Cards at an early stage some while ago, I tried again and got as far as the end of the third series before annoyance took over. The story of the Machiavellian US president seems to me to be torn between melodrama and realism and not quite succeeding at either. I was equally annoyed by The Crown, indeed baffled why it has achieved acclaim from people I thought should know better. It is exactly the same sentimental rendering of the British royal story as every other rendering there has been, only with that little bit more voyeuristic detail. To me, it is like a Punch and Judy show – stock figures going through the same routines before the baying crowds, without variation or escape. Or maybe it is like a medieval mystery, offering new pieties for a secular age. The worst of the series is that it buys into the myth that royalty serves a purpose. The Christmas special of satirical comedy series The Windsors, in which Prince Charles is forced – in the face of impending nuclear attack by Europe – to admit that he and his family are pointless, was a good deal more honest.
I’ve already written in praise of Dickensian, the soap opera mashup of Dickens’s characters in a narrative that traces heir interlocking lives before the stories for which we know them begin. It began in December 2015 but continued, erratically scheduled, well into 2016, and one episode (no. 16) in particular was the best single drama that I saw all year. It was the one in which Honoria Barbary gave birth, aided only by her embittered sister Frances. The intensity of this episode, the way in which narrative strands and characters coalesced at the perfect peak, the quality of handling and the shock of the dilemma posed at the end of the programme, all made for an exceptional piece of television. That this ingenious series is not to get a second run is a tragedy.
Among several high quality observational documentaries, my favourite was the ITV programe The Secret Life of a Bus Garage. This documented the life of Stockwell bus garage as a microcosm of a diverse metropolitan society. Everyone had escaped from something and found some sort of home, if not peace necessarily, in the routine and honour of keeping the buses going across London. It focused on characters with extraordinary back stories – the Ghananian chief driving the 170 to Putney, the victim of female circumcision, the woman who took part in the Hungarian uprising and still carried the scars. It was a programme about fraternity, self-improvement, the management of a system, and the mystery of individuality.
In a similar style – shots of the everyday interspersed with the people speaking in situ, sparing use of commentary, a sense of a slice of life honestly caught – was the BBC’s two-part The Last Miners. This was about the final days of the last deep coal mine in Britain, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire. It gained much attention, as powerful record of a working class falling victim to forces that would leave us with a less kind, less decent world, but I felt some resistance to it. It overplayed its hand (not least in the surging use of classical music) and left me arguing with its assumptions rather than being persuaded by them. But it is a film that will be remembered, and watched years from now, as a memorial to a way of life that is already alien.
A documentary that captured the times in a particularly acute way was The Gun Shop, shown in Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand. This has the simple premise of showing us the customers of a gun shop in the American south as they bought guns, tried out guns, and explained why it was that they bought guns. There were two particularly striking things about it. One was how nice everyone was. All of the characters, whether selling or buying, seemed warm, thoughtful, reasonable people, with whom we instinctively sympathised. Two was how afraid they all were – of criminals, of terrorists, of the police, but chiefly of others like themselves, armed as they were. Fear and salvation and fear again lay in the gun. Shown just before the US presidential election, it shone a sad light on a society trapped in a vortex, heading who knows where.
Other memorable documentaries? The edition of Panorama in which veteran reporter John Simpson summed up a career and four decades of turmoil across the word in a mere thirty minutes, that told us much about our times. The interviews with inadvertent killers, horrified by what damage a thoughtless second of violence could cause, in One Killer Punch. The insight into how the world can be differently reported in The Hip Hop World News. Life and Deaf, a perception-altering documentary about the world of the deaf, made using BSL (British Sign Language). And Planet Earth II, I guess, just because it achieves its primary goal of keeping us in awe of nature and the world around us. David Attenborough produced two great series at the start of his ‘Life’ cycle – Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984), which constructed complex arguments about the nature of life. Subsequent series have retained an underlying structure of sorts (usually determined by type of environment) but have become dominated by ever more startling footage that exists for its own sake. Shock has replaced intelligence.
Two other television highlights were parts of sports programmes. One was Dan Walker’s beach-side links for BBC Four’s Olympic Games coverage, which I praised here at the time. Walker embraced the hazards of reporting on the passing world, while continuing to introduce sports coverage, in a DJ-inspired form of broadcast which I thought was innovative, and certainly highly accomplished. The other, relating to the Paralympics rather than the Olympics, was Alex Brooker’s semi-impromptu paean to Alex Zanardi – the motor racing driver who lost his legs in a crash, only to return to elite sport as a hand-cyclist – for Channel 4’s The Last Leg (which also gets my vote for the best news-based series of the year). This was television at its best – immediate, vital and inescapably honest. If you’ve not seen it, do take three minutes of your time to do so. It will be worth it.
I’ve set aside Shakespeare on TV for the next post in this series…