Sunday, 31 December 2017

Rob's Review of 2017 - Best and worst TV ever?


Well hello.

The year is over. No more of it for you humans. I've talked about my favourite little moment of the year - Jodie Whittaker revealing herself to be the new Doctor Who - here. But there was a lot more great TV this year.

Here are the things I've been watching on TV this year. It has been, for the most part, really good. There's some rubbish, too, obviously. I've included some gripes, in case you think I'm just drunk and in love with everything I see.

There are no spoilers here. I'm just passing opinion, and will not reveal anything which counts as plot information.



The Big Bang Theory



This was the year I officially gave up on this show. It's not been great for a while, but now I'm watching with a sense of increasing tedium. I literally count the seconds, sometimes, to see if they ever have the nerve to run a scene for more than a minute and a half, before panicking and cutting to something else. (They never do).

The problem that's hit the show is that sitcoms just aren't meant to last this long. The joy of a sitcom comes - for the most part - from the interactions of mismatched people. These characters are all incomplete in some way, and their incompleteness manifests itself through hilarious bickering.

When a show goes on for a while, the characters have to develop and grow. When they grow, the initial dynamic is fractured and the whole point of the sitcom is lost. Big Bang has done quite well to ride this wave - mainly through the introduction of interesting and reasonably well drawn female characters - but on the whole it now looks tired and repetitive.




Catastrophe



I love it when you come to a series late, and find out there's loads of it for you to watch. Such was the case with Catastrophe. What a fantastic discovery.

It's basically about a couple who get accidentally pregnant after a one night stand, and have to work out how to proceed. Which was all I knew before I watched it, and it didn't sound like any fun. Well, I was wrong. It's incredible.

It's laugh out loud funny, for a start. Rob Delany and Sharon Horgan wrote it and play the main couple, and they are incredibly talented in both respects. The supporting characters are very enjoyable and painfully real - they tread the delicate line between sitcom-funny and real-life-believable.

You'll find yourself talking about everyone in this as if they are real people. It's deep, dark, sad and funny and you should watch it now.




Detectorists



A wonderful and surprising show that is hard to classify. If you've seen it, you'll be nodding in agreement, and smiling, and wondering whether to go and give it another watch. If you haven't seen it, you'll be wondering what the fuss is about.

It doesn't sound great. Two metal detectorists - played by Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones - wander through their days, taking pleasure in the debris they unearth in local fields and chatting about TV. There are some elements of the traditional sitcom - romantic interest, misunderstandings, humorous oddball characters on the periphery. But on the whole it's a gentle, largely uneventful piece of work that takes its time to draw you in.

Draw you in, though, is exactly what it does. There's real love in the writing and the characters we meet are beautifully drawn. The main pair are subtle, human creations - flawed and funny, yearning for better but enjoying their lot regardless. They are surrounded by a gaggle of almost-typical sitcom bit players - one is a bit daffy, another selfish and vain, another bluff and prone to misunderstanding - but each one has surprising and gently sketched out depths. There are moments of sheer wonder and total joy. And the cinematography might be the best I've ever seen in comedy.




The Handmaid's Tale



Lots has been written about this show, so I won't go on for long here. Suffice to say, this vision of a future world, run by religious nutters, where strong women are crushed by weak men, seems almost too apt for this ridiculous year.

Brilliantly written, acted and shot. Instantly iconic. Worthy of much discussion. This is why they make television.




Master of None



Series One of this show is pretty good - a sort of small screen Woody Allen movie, reflecting the experience of Dev, a second generation Asian American trying to find his identity in New York. Aziz Ansari, who created the show and plays Dev, is an engaging and likeable presence and the world he lives in feels real and relevant.

Series Two, which I watched this year, is better. Which is to say, it is a magnificent achievement in storytelling, suffused with love and wonder, taking television into the realm of art.

It's still a comedy series, at heart, with a through line following Dev's romantic entanglements and day-to-day tribulations. But there's a bold, adventurous spirit to the way this story is told. Themes are as important as characters, here.

So one episode follows various background characters, detaching itself from one narrative to follow another as someone passes by and drifting through the night on the back of their different stories. Another episode flits between Dev's various experiences of Tinder dating, making insightful commentary on the way romance has yet to catch up with technology. One standout episode takes us through several years of Thanksgiving Days, observing how a black, gay woman might navigate her family relationships as the years pass, and cultures and attitudes shift.

There are standout moments that have stayed with me all year, which I'll not spoil here. But one of them, featuring a cab ride, lives in my heart in a way that TV rarely manages.




Rick and Morty



This felt like a weird, left field discovery when I first watched it. An oddball piece of non-conformist television which seemed like it was made for me and people like me. The premise was delightfully insane, the jokes were smart and geek friendly and the concepts underpinning the show were so bold that it could only ever appeal to a small group of like minded fans.

Then, it turned out to be massively popular - the stuff of T-Shirts and memes and slogans in everyday conversation. Dammit. I was almost cool, for about 90 seconds. Of course, its popularity immediately became a problem. Once you have a big enough fandom, you will have a chapter of that fandom that is desperate to be a loud, stupid dickhead about everything. Ugh.

Thankfully, the show itself remains an astonishing and daring piece of television. There is darkness and provocative material, sure. But unlike, say, South Park and Family Guy, there's always a point to it, beyond being shocking and 'adult'. Rick and Morty glistens with moments of art and beauty and intelligence and horror. It shows us aspects of the human condition and of the culture we have created, all from the craziest angle possible. People are wonderful. People are jerks. Sometimes they seem to be both at once.

It's also one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Fans don't deserve something so good.




Twin Peaks



How could they possibly succeed in making another series of Twin Peaks? I could only see two ways of doing it, and both would be a disaster.

Number one - try to make it seem the same. Well, that's no good. The point of Twin Peaks was that it redefined how to do television. So if you make it the same, you've missed its point.

Number two - try to make it different. Well, that doesn't work either. How would that be Twin Peaks? Despite all the ways in which modern television has learned from the original series, there is still a unique flavour to those early episodes, and that's the flavour we want. A weird, dark flavour. A thump of the heart that accompanies those opening, ascending  bass notes of the theme.

So. Turns out they didn't do either. Or maybe they did both. It's hard to be sure. They certainly did something.

You may have worked out by now that I have no idea how to describe the sheer impact of this series using normal human words. Good spot. All I can say is, I truly loved this year's new episodes of Twin Peaks. They were playful. Terrifying. Funny. Confusing. Sad.

And revolutionary. Find someone who has seen the new series, and just say, "Episode 8". Or, if you are feeling brave, "Got a light?" Watch their face. See how it flickers with fear and wonder. See how their mouth sort of smiles at a happy memory, while their eyes dart around in case the fabric of the universe comes apart around them.

It's very good. Or should that be doog yrev?




The Walking Dead



I've been with The Walking Dead since the comics began, over a decade ago. And for the most part I've loved this TV show. When others said it was too slow, I found pleasure in watching a story that takes its time to explore a post-zombie world. While people were saying it was too reliant upon gratuitous violence, I was laughing hysterically as Daryl whipped a chain through three zombies at once, sending their heads flying.

This year, though. Sheesh. What on earth has happened to the writers? How can they be sitting in the writers room, looking at their plans, and thinking, "This is excellent television that people will enjoy"?

This last season - season 8, I think - has been utter garbage. Having set up the threat of Negan and his massive army of Saviours (a plot thread I had been really enjoying), this series proceeded to piss it all up the wall.

The timeline is all over the place, as if they've decided to show the season in a completely random order. The geography of the world makes zero sense, with no logic to how the various places relate to each other spatially. As a result there is no clear communication of what the stakes are, or where people are going, or what they will do when they get there.

The base story material is fine. This is just an exercise in narrative incompetence that takes the show's success for granted and, as a result, fails to consider how the audience might be feeling at any given point. An abject failure.





So, that's my TV review of the year. Obviously, I'm being very selective, because your time is precious and anyway, I have to make a shelf. Other TV shows I could have mentioned fit into three basic categories:


They Sucked, but I can't be bothered saying why

Iron Fist, Electric Dreams


They Were Fine, but didn't inspire any strong feelings

American Gods, Luther, Luke Cage, Preacher, American Horror Story


They Were Great, but in similar ways to those already discussed, so all I'd do is just say very similar things

W1A, Black Mirror, Westworld, Better Call Saul, Fleabag, Fargo, Uncle, Game of Thrones, Star Trek Discovery, Stranger Things, The Trip, Motherland. Doctor Who.


So there you go. Watch those. Or don't. It's your life. But the good news is this: TV is bloody brilliant at the moment, and we are very lucky humans. Except when we're watching Iron Fist.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Rob's review of 2017 - let's start with a Good Thing


2017 is coming to an end despite it surely being set in the far future.

And it genuinely is starting to feel like the future. I went to get a burger the other day and was faced, not by a human, but by a massive touchscreen thing, onto which I had to signal all my food choices. Obviously there was a human as well - she had to tell everyone how to work to robot food choicey thing, because we were all totally confused by it - but in principle, it was very much like being in Demolition Man.

Anyway. Another year is wandering to its close, and so I'm compelled to list some of the good and bad things about it, as if I was Time's manager and had to give it an appraisal.


Let's get straight in with something good.




Here's a moment that utterly delighted me this year.

One Sunday, after they'd been showing some tennis thing happening, the BBC cut to a bit of woodland. And through that woodland walked a mysterious figure.

And we knew, because we'd been told in advance, that this figure was going to be the new Doctor Who. What we didn't know was this - who would be playing the best person on television ever?

I was very excited indeed. A new Doctor Who is a thrilling thing to a massive geek like me. And there was a growing feeling that this time the producers were going to take the jump, and cast a woman rather than another bloke.

On my screen, the figure reached out to take the TARDIS key. We saw a hand - female? - and a close up of an eye... yes, it looked like...

She pulled back her hood. Sure enough, there stood the first female Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker.

It's hard to say quite why it excited me so much, but it really, really did. An amazing, bold, audacious decision from a massive organisation that might easily be forgiven for playing things safe.

It chimes wonderfully with one of the overall narratives of this year - a slow recognition that our culture is Masculine at a molecular level. Our language, our conventions and our attitudes all proceed from a base assumption that maleness = normal. Power is male. History is male. The people who make a difference are male, and that includes pretend people who travel through time in blue boxes.


Some rational opinions from people 
who have decided what's normal and what isn't.


It's a narrative that does none of us any favours. Certainly not the 50% of the human race who have been deemed 'non-normal' and have to cope with the inequality that brings. And not people like me, who find common notions of masculinity very uncomfortable indeed, and a poor fit for the complicated nonsense that goes on in my head and my heart.

We saw the narrative at play in the reaction to Whittaker's casting, as a small bunch of tiny minded people screamed their protest at how 'unrealistic' it was to imagine Doctor Who being a lady. Because he's heroic, isn't he, and a scientist, and a genius and all those things that, generally, men get on with while the ladies make tea and/or scream at the monsters.

We saw it again with the new Star Wars film - don't worry, no spoilers - and indeed in any cultural product where the dominance of white men was challenged by alternative ideas. It gets called 'forced equality' or 'agenda setting' or - all together now - 'political correctness gone mad'." Because we're so used to whiteness and maleness being 'normal' that any deviation from it seems unnatural and weird and forced.


Look at this! Women are literally dominating everything!



So this is my moment of the year. A mysterious figure takes down its hood, and there, where once stood a man, stands a woman. A moment that says, at heart, none of our personas are fixed. We have masculine traits and feminine traits. We're different on a Monday to how we are on a Tuesday and we're different with a group of friends to how we are at work or visiting our parents. We were different five years ago and we'll be different again.

The idea that we are fixed, static personalities, is nonsense. We are varied and complicated and contradictory. Most of all, we are free. We don't need be told how to be a man, or a woman. This wonderful, time travelling alien, standing in a wood and looking into our eyes, says that change is possible and wonderful and inevitable.

I love that. It moves me more than I can say. And the fact that my daft old TV series took a stand this year, on something so fundamentally important, makes me want to cry with pride


Friday, 22 December 2017

Loving the Alien: Part Seven




It's time for the final episode of my Doctor Who story. Rejoice!

Previous episodes can be found in the sidebar.





CHAPTER TWENTY


Noel the Silent was terribly, terribly depressed.


For one, there was the whole ‘looking like a monster’ thing. Everyone who met him screamed. Absolutely everyone. Even the morbidly obese people who came into the complex every day. These people must have felt like throwing up every time they looked in a mirror, but still they totally lost it when they walked in and saw Noel. It was dispiriting.


Then, of course, they would spend some time with Noel, and get to know him, and tell him their secrets. And that would be lovely, and they would be happy, and Noel would start to believe in the beauty of the universe and the importance of friends.


And then they would look away, and they would forget all about Noel. And then they would look back and they would scream again and they would shout, “Help! A monster!”


Sigh.







He pulled himself together and pressed the buzzer. The door to his office slid open and in waddled his latest client - a huge, sweating man with a terrible multi-coloured shirt. The client took one look at Noel and screamed.


“Please be seated,” said Noel as pleasantly as he could, gesturing to a large, padded, reinforced seat in the middle of the office.


“Right – sorry,” said the client, shuffling his massive frame towards the chair. “They showed us a picture of you before but…”


“But you forgot, yes. Never mind.” Noel reached down with one long, spectral arm and pulled a flask of Adipose Solution from the crate. “Here.”


The client took the flask and lowered himself into the chair, wheezing and groaning as he did so. “Do you guys freak yourselves out, then? I mean, like, in the mirror? Are you like, whoah, who’s that?”


Noel’s fingers twitched and the slightest blue spark glowed around his fingers. No – must not fry the clients, no matter how unoriginal their observations. The rules were very clear about that. “No sir – we are immune to the forgetting. Now, if you could drink the Adipose Solution and we will begin the confession.”


The client opened the flask and started slurping away at the liquid within. As he did, Noel became aware of something peculiar. Something was moving behind the ventilation grill above the door.


“So anyway…” said the client. “Where do I start?”


“Um,” said Noel, “Just all the bad things you’ve done. Whatever might make you feel guilty.” He peered closer at the grill. A tiny white face appeared through the slats. Was that… was that Flimbleby?


“OK.” Said the Client. “Well, for one, I literally never flush the toilet in a public place. No matter how big the poo…”


That definitely was Flimbleby behind the grill. The little Adipose who had escaped with the Artist Woman. What was he doing back? Noel felt a little flicker of happiness. For some reason the Adipose didn’t forget the Silence, so he and Flimbleby had become quite good friends.


“…and when I’m driving I like to get right up behind people and blast my horn. I drive a really sweet BMW…”


Flimbleby gave Noel a wave. Hmm. The Client was going to be ages. Unless…


Noel interrupted, pointing at the Client’s shirt. “Is that something on your shirt?”


The Client looked down. “What? No, I don’t think so.” He looked back up at Noel. “Aaarg! A monster!”





Noel stood up and lunged over the desk. “Woooooo!” he cried. The Client scrambled to get out of this chair, falling onto the floor and scrabbling towards the door. He turned the handle, sobbing with fear, and crawled out into the corridor.


Noel shut the door and reached up to the grill. He popped it open and grabbed hold of Flimbleby.


“Hello Noel!” said the Adipose happily. “It is me – Flimbo! I have come to rescue you!”


“I am delighted to see you, Flimbo. I’ve been so depressed. How can you rescue me?” Noel set his little friend down on his desk. He was smiling, not that it was very obvious on his nightmarish face.


“Well, first you need to rescue my friend, Doctroo. He is amazing and he will help.”


Noel looked around his office. He really did hate this job. Maybe it was time to move on.


Through the door he could hear the moans of the Client, the popping of flesh and the tiny giggle of newborn Adipose.


“I can do that,” he said.





CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE



Rafe Pembroke gazed out at the binary sunset, humming happily to himself. This had been the greatest idea of his life. And he had to do literally nothing. People were queuing up to have their guilt erased and their fat walk away and they paid through the nose for it. The Silence believed they were on some noble religious mission, so they were no problem. And now he’d even realised how to turn a profit from those troublesome Adipose. Pembroke Soap. The future.


There was a noise at his door. A high pitched noise… was it giggling? And the crackle of electricity…


Suddenly the doors burst open and in flowed a tide of tiny white Adipose, all laughing hysterically. Hundreds of the creatures charged into the office, covering everything like a giggling white carpet. At the door Pembroke could just make out Steve and the other Silent guards, struggling under the weight of dozens of Adipose.


Steve the Silent shook himself violently, sending Adipose flying in all directions. He uncurled his long limbs, preparing to fire. The little balls of fat ran away, squealing. Then, before Steve could fire, he exploded into millions of pieces.


Noel strode through the door, blasting another guard with an electric bolt. Behind him walked The Doctor, carrying Flimbleby. Pembroke turned to run, but the floor was made of Adipose. He skidded and slipped, trying to get to his secret door. But it was no good.


He fell, and found himself carried by an army of Adipose. They took him to the feet of Noel and The Doctor.


“Look…” spluttered Pembroke, “Why don’t you just let me go, and we’ll forget all about this…”


Noel looked down at him. Pembroke could have sworn his alien face was smiling. “Yessss….” Hissed Noel. “Forget…”


And that was the last time Rafe Pembroke remembered anything, ever again.
 



CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


Helvetica Jones looked across the forest outside her cottage. The sun was low in the afternoon sky, and it smelled like it would snow.


The cottage door opened and out walked The Doctor. He handed her a mug of tea and stood beside her, enjoying the view.






“Those things I did…” she said. “I can’t remember them. I was that horrible woman, destroying those things…”


“You were the same person you are now. A person who loved art. And wanted to engage with it. And what more beautiful way to engage with something than to break it?” The Doctor took a sip of his tea. “All art is violence, you used to say. I guess eventually just touching things wasn’t enough for you.”


Helvetica turned to face him. “But those things are gone forever. I smashed them to pieces, then went to that horrible place to have my memory wiped and my fat sucked out, and carried on as if nothing had happened.”


“Nothing that can’t be made again. Art isn’t there to be worshipped.” The Doctor swigged down another mouthful of tea. “Oh – except Bowie. I went and fixed that. I was in danger of losing half my music collection.”


“You met Bowie?”


“Well, technically we both did. You tried to kill him, I hit you with a broom, David and I spent the rest of the weekend in Soho. I think I may be the only one of the three of us who remembers any of it.”


Helvetica giggled and drank her tea. The cottage door opened again, and out scampered Flimbleby.


“Hello! Hello! All your cake is gone!”


Helvetica bent down and picked up the Adipose, brushing cake crumbs from his mouth. “You can have all the cake you want, Flimbleby. Without you that dreadful place would still be running.”


“I am amazing!” proclaimed Flimbleby, spitting currants in her face.


“Which reminds me!” said The Doctor. “I have a reward for all of us. David was very grateful for my intervention.”




CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


A blue light came up on the stage, illuminating a tall, thin man with floppy hair. Flimbleby bounced up and down on seat. He had never been to a music show before. Either side of him, The Doctor and Lady Helvetica leaned forward in their seats.


The man on the stage started to sing, and it was the most wonderful sound. His voice was floaty and mysterious, like if the night-time had a voice.






“Lift me up plees! I cannot see!” he squeaked. The Doctor lifted him up gently, and held him so he could see the stage. The man stood in the darkness, doing the beautiful singing, as if he was singing to Flimbleby himself.



                             “But if you pray, all your sins are hooked upon the sky…
                                     
                                               Pray and the heathen lie will disappear.

                                Prayers, they hide the saddest view.

                                                 Believing the strangest things, loving the alien…”



Flimbleby bit into a sausage and smiled. He was the happiest Adipose in the world.





THE END