Please don’t ask about Game of Thrones or, Lord help us, House of Cards (is anyone else bored with beautifully shot scenes of dull people killing each other?). Below are the 10 best shows in what’s been a terrific year, mostly thanks to Margaret Atwood. I’ve yet to be convinced that television is better than film, as many wise people continue to argue. But it’s certainly much better for comedy, so much so that I feel a little embarrassed for Hollywood. Comedies hold their own very well against serious dramas on the small screen(s), I feel, and my list reflects that. The same can’t currently be said for film.
One caveat for my list: I haven’t watched Twin Peaks yet; haven’t had time to even watch the original. As a huge David Lynch fan, I acknowledge that this makes my list even less authoritative than it usually is. Never mind; these were my outstanding experiences of the year:
1) The Handmaid’s Tale
So disturbing that it took months to shake, this appalling vision of a future in which women are harvested for their wombs, based on Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel, has of course already been signalled as a Trump-era classic, summing up the pessimistic feelings of liberals the world over. But in the end, I’ll remember it more for the scenes of small moral triumph: the spitting out of a cookie that’s been patronisingly offered by a superior, driving a car into law enforcers, riding on top during sex, most significantly the dropping of a stone (those who’ve seen the show will understand). Equally, after the years have (hopefully) erased some of the damage that Trump has wrecked, I hope that we’ll remember our own small moments of moral triumph. In particular the Women’s Marches and ‘Me Too’ movement, which proved that millions of people refuse to put up with repressive bullshit. So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale will always be a troubled reflection of the times in which it was made. But it’s also an achingly felt, militantly proud manual in how to resist patriarchal fascism.
2) Alias Grace
The great Margaret Atwood again. This adaptation of her book about a real life 19th century murder case doesn’t hit as hard as The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s not as cinematic, but it remains an engrossing success. Adapted by the great Sarah Polley (director of Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell – two of the best films of the decade), it continues her enduring fascination with how we construct narrative, wittingly and unwittingly, in order to obfuscate truth. The story is an endless riddle, in which a prisoner, Grace, weaves her spell on various men and relates a past in which she may or may not have been a murderer’s accomplice. Did she do anything criminal? If you expect tidy answers, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an exceptional performance to captivate you for 6 episodes then look no further than the great Sarah Gadon, whose electrifying eyes pierce the screen and dare you to work out whether her character’s play-acting or not. Grace could be a femme fatale and an abhorrent, deliberate murderer. She could be the victim of masculine abuse, and accidentally complicit in terrible crimes. Or she could just be psychotic. Perhaps, as this series brilliantly suggests, she could be all three. So it doesn’t follow a neat feminist arc – this is real life, or at least an approximation of it, which means it’s at once more disturbing and complicated.
3) The Vietnam War
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hour documentary, 10 years in the making and with a budget of $30 million, is so comprehensive it makes previous efforts to document the Vietnam war look facile. Many classic fictional films have been made about the conflict. But I would sacrifice Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter for just one episode of this. The series looks set to become a definitive document, like Shoah managed with the Holocaust, through the simple yet essential virtue of interviewing the widest array of people involved: American troops, the NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, Vietnamese civilians, American protesters, and journalists all get a say. Their voices merge into a complex and frightening portrait of a conflict that was prolonged through a series of catastrophic choices – on many sides. The episode about the Tet Offensive is harrowing beyond belief. It’s as convincing an example of man’s irredeemable nature as The Act of Killing and indeed Shoah before it. Still, the series as a whole manages to conclude, painfully and incompletely, as a work of humanism.
Lena Dunham achieves a rarity for a comedy series, hell for any series: a last season that’s the show’s best. The ensemble cast have never been sharper comedically or more unsettingly antipathetic towards each other – their lack of chemistry was always the point. Adam Driver continues to steal every scene he’s in (the show never was just about Girls). And in its final episode, the show’s ever-frank depiction of the female body helped to set up the most honest depiction of the difficulties of early motherhood that this young male has ever seen. What a finale.
As sensitive a look at the title’s emotion as any I’ve come across this year. The longform series works magic for Judd Apatow’s trademark scenes of long, mindless, sexually frank chatter. And the central characters are convincingly damaged goods. They cause pain to themselves and each other without ever (completely) losing a kind viewer’s sympathy. It’s a triumph that never insults the audience’s intelligence… until the last episode, sadly, when some of the plot’s sillier machinations dictate a suspension of disbelief that renders its central lovers shallow at a crucial juncture in their relationship. Otherwise perfect.
6) Master of None
Aziz Ansari’s brainchild takes the ‘will they won’t they’ dynamic of countless sitcoms to new heights in a one hour penultimate episode special. The chemistry between Ansari and his Italian belle, Alessandra Mastronardi, reaches new peaks – she’s engaged, and they recoil from acting on their impulses. I won’t ruin what happens for you: you must see it for yourself. Rest assured, it’s a great reminder that cliched plot elements can be made to feel fresh again through winning performances and a refreshing lack of irony.
7) The Deuce
Just like Francis Ford Coppola, David Simon knows that the story of American capitalism is the story of America, and also the story of America’s deeply ingrained failings. But also like Coppola, he knows that the illegal trades of the country form a less alienating way of telling that story (people can distance themselves from mafiosi thugs), so he’s moved on from the drug slinging and political corruption of The Wire to depict ’70s prostitution and the rise of the porn industry. As a writer, he remains a bit too fascinated by tough men acting tough. But he redeems himself with an interest in tough women acting tough, even, contradictorily, as they’re promoting their own abuse in the sex trade. Strangely (and perhaps perversely), it’s a lot more fun than The Wire, despite its dark subject matter: it has a pulpy flow to it, and lively performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco keep spirits high. But it’s not quite as deep.
8) The Crown
You don’t have to be a royalist to enjoy this show any more than you have to sympathise with real-life thugs to enjoy The Sopranos. Because The Crown is another excellent family drama – the best on TV right now, I’m convinced. Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship wouldn’t be any more interesting than millions of others were it not for the fact that, in her majesty’s words, they can never get divorced because of the awkward matter of their peculiar social standing. And it is peculiar; these are flesh-and-blood human beings like the rest of us, yet by birth they are deemed ‘superior’. One of the many things this series highlights so well is just how odd it is that we romanticise and hold to a different level of scrutiny these figures who, beyond their fabulous wealth, ultimately bathe in the same water as the rest of us. Their marital and interpersonal problems are as common as muck – infidelity being the key, as is so often the case. However, the solutions that they’re required to formulate are, by necessity, anything but normal. Such is the fascination of this show, heightened by the intensity of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the melodramatic lead roles, and the gorgeous period design, which makes the old-fashioned world feel so vibrant and real.
9) Blue Planet II
Oceans cover over 97% of our amazing planet, so really you have no excuse not to spend 7 hours of your life watching this spectacular achievement.
10) The Trip to Spain
More of the same, of course. Which is no bad thing. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan could pretty much travel anywhere, they could keep talking ad infinitum, and I’d still be hanging onto their every Michael Caine-inflected word.