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Television: final report card for the end of 2011

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Another delayed collection of jumbled thoughts on some of the good television programmes I watched in the latter half of 2011 since the previous posts about good television in the first half of 2011 [post 1] [post 2] [post 3].

Doctor Who
The second half of the sixth season of the new Doctor Who saw a general improvement in overall quality compared with the first half; Night Terrors was scary, The Girl Who Waited was emotional, The God Complex was well done and Closing Time was funny (and the chemistry between Matt Smith and James Corden was great). Bookending this second half were the two Steve Moffat episodes, Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song. The wonderful misdirect of the former had some of the funniest moments (my favourite being ‘Well, I was on my way to this gay gypsy Bar Mitzvah for the disabled, when I suddenly thought, “Gosh, the Third Reich’s a bit rubbish — I think I’ll kill the Führer”’) with Smith and Alex Kingston on terrific form; the only problems I had were the retcon of ‘Mels’, which I thought was a bit of a cheat, and I didn’t buy River’s decision to save the Doctor. The final episode was another rollercoaster, with lots of crazy ideas, and the Doctor cheating death and deciding to go undercover (much like the end of the second series of Sherlock, also brilliant and also written by Moffat), and the other great moment of the series when River tells Amy and Rory that the Doctor isn’t dead, and Amy realises: ‘And I’m his – mother-in-law’ (the reaction on her face is priceless). Then Moffat goes and tops it all with a wonderful Christmas episode that was Christmassy and wonderfully moving, with the ‘humany wumany, happy crying’ at the end of the episode that bought a tear to my eye. I think I might be a Moffat groupie …

Black Mirror
This was a collection of three excellent dramas around the theme of technology changing the way humans interact. The first two were by Charlie Brooker (his wife co-wrote the second) and were brilliant: the first had the hook of ‘the prime minster has to have sex with a pig on live TV to save the people’s princess, while the second was about a world where reality television is the only way out of a society where most people produce power for everyone else by exercising on stationary cycles (it was Network via Charlie Brooker’s own experiences of ranting about the state of the world). The third one wasn’t written by Brooker but was a thoughtful chamber piece about a disintegrating couple in a world where you can access all your memories in high-quality video footage directly from your brain.

The Fades
The Fades was an excellent paranormal drama on BBC3 (although nothing like its stable mate, Being Human) that built its own mythology from scratch and was novel and entertaining and funny. Created and written by Jack Thorne, it involved a lot of elements: ghosts (who are sometimes known as Fades, who still populate the earth), one of whom has discovered that he can become a corporeal zombie by eating human flesh; good guys called angelics who send the ghosts on to their next level if they become problematic; the protagonist Paul, a 17-year-old unpopular school lad, who has dreams of an apocalypse and who discovers that he is an angelic; his best mate, Mac, who provides a handy recap straight to camera at the beginning of each episode and fills the programme with pop culture references (the show is filled with references to films and comic books and geeky dissections of pop culture ephemera; they even mention Alan Moore); the aforementioned end of the world. It was six excellent episodes with engaging characters and a completely new take on the supernatural and it was almost perfect; the only negative has to be [SPOILER WARNING] when the girlfriend is killed by the annoying angelic, which is supposed to be the turning point for the characters but I thought was totally unnecessary and nearly ruined the story. The programme finished but it was obvious that it was setting it up for more stories, but I haven’t heard news on whether it has been recommissioned or not.

I was able to catch this on 5* and, although it is not great television, it is enjoyable in its own fashion – basically, X-Men meets CSI – much like Warehouse 13, with which it shares a universe but is not as good. David Straithairn is good as the Professor Xavier character, the leader who shouldn’t go out in the field and who has the same belief (humans and mutants/human and in this case alphas should live in peace) despite the evidence of the government agency his team of alphas work with and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants equivalent, Red Flag, the villainous group of the series. The show does a nice job of portraying different powers and coming up with new twists on familiar powers; it’s a polished piece of entertainment that doesn’t reinvent anything but doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve wasted your time.

True Blood
I don’t know if I’d call the third season of True Blood good but it does at least have the courage of its convictions and just go for it as a piece of fantasy drama that has a lot of talented people involved. This season was all over the place, with practically every character getting a storyline, separating the two lead characters into separate storylines, and throwing anything and everything at the wall, including werewolves and panther people and Nazi flashbacks and fairies. Completely demented and wildly uneven, but at least you could never predict what was going to happen.

Series three of Misfits was always going to feel very different with Robert Sheehan moving on to new things; in replacing Nathan, the series went too far in the gross-out humour and attitude of the new character to compensate, and it lost its balance and focus. The series wants to expand outside the comfort zone, with more people getting powers, but then uses a ridiculous plot contrivance to get the characters back in community service. The resolution of the Alisha/Simon story didn’t work for me, but the time-travelling episode won me over with Kelly meeting Hitler and saying, ‘Why do you have to be such a dick?’ before headbutting him. Priceless. Overall, I thought it was all right but not great.

Fresh Meat
This was the Channel 4 series about six university students (five freshers and a third year) who share a house off campus and it was hilarious. The creators and show runners were Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who did Peep Show, and it was funny and smart and took me back to my days at university, even though that was 20 years ago. What was excellent about it was that the three female characters were strong, fully realised and not appendages to the male characters. This was rightly commissioned for a second series almost as soon as it aired, because it was a great piece of television that also reflected current events (such as the anti-tuition fees protests in one episode).

Holy Flying Circus
This was an excellent BBC4 dramedy about Monty Python and the controversy surrounding the release of Life of Brian. Entertaining, hilarious, moving, charming and still making a point about using jokes to make a point, it was a delight and filled with meta-jokes about comedy and Monty Python themselves. Written by Tony Roche (In The Loop, The Thick Of It), it had great performances from actors who really looked the part, with special mention for Steve Punt, who is spot on for Eric Idle, Darren Boyd, who was great as John Cleese, Rufus Jones, who was spookily like Terry Jones.

This second series of the sitcom about the inner city reverend and his wife was perhaps even better and darker and funnier than the first series, which was great to start with. Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman were fantastic and the storylines were thought-provoking and emotional. Excellent stuff.

Finally, a word of warning in case: Life’s Too Short, the new sitcom from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and starring Warwick Davis, was dire. I felt so sorry for Davis, who is a likable character but has to spend this series doing his best impression of Gervais in The Office while having to suffer lots of heightist jokes. The best thing about it was the bit where Liam Neeson wants to be a stand-up comedian, but that’s it for 205 minutes of television. In other words, life’s too short to watch this.

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