TV Highlights 2017

The golden age of TV can longer be considered a period or a phase; the high standards that were established by the cream of the crop at the turn of the century have spread and every year the quantity of high quality output increases. As a medium it has surpassed cinema and in 2017 there was plenty of original television content distributed through big screens in living rooms, laptops and mobile devices.

For many years since the new age, some of the best of the comedy came through well developed characters in long running dramas, with laugh out loud moments in West Wing, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos and still in Game of Thrones. But following on from the best thing on 2016 being a comedy with a dramatic thread through its centre, with the BBC’s Fleabag, so it was again in 2017 with the second season of Netflix’s Master of None.

The first season in 2015 was fresh, thoughtful, funny and vibrant with colour and sound; the second season started stunningly, with a black and white episode, The Thief, a homage to Italian cinema that both further developed the central character, Aziz Anzari’s Dev, as well as being a perfect situation comedy based on misfortune. A timeless concept, as classic as the Likely Lads but with beautiful cinematography. As an opener to a season it bridged the gap from the final episode of Season One in seconds, including a shot of an email on a smart phone, while subtly introducing a major new character. For this website, it was the best episode of anything in 2017.

And from there the series continued to triumph, with a central plot that kept dramatic tension while its comedy remained totally contemporary in both its dialogue and subjects of its episodes. It was confident enough to have one episode with effectively totally new characters, in a modern twist on New York Stories, while it was clearly polemic in its outlook, from the award winning Thanksgiving episode to the foreshadowing of Dev discovering a TV producer friend routinely sexually harasses his staff, aired months before the New Yorker blew open the Hollywood house of cards built on bullying and conspiracy. And perhaps best of all was the soundtrack, a character in its own right that complemented the storylines; the long tracking shot with Dev in the back of a cab as Soft Cell played as an outro was the musical TV highlight of 2017.

Music and style were also highlights in the best US dramas, with the third season of Fargo full of flair and swagger in its storytelling, cinematography and design. With a magnificent cast it was as good as any drama aired in 2017 and in its own right totally justified the idea to adapt the film for the first season.

Darker still was the adaptation of Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale by Hulu and also broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K. Adapted to a modern, contemporary setting, the brutal religious police state was totally believable and unflinching in its portrayal. A producer as well as the lead actor in A Handsmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss continues to have an outstanding TV CV despite the follow-up to Top of the Lake not reaching the standards of the first.

The short seventh season of Game of Thrones was as high in quality as always, with great comedy dialogue as the pieces started coming together to set-up a six episode end game. It was aired on the same evening in the States as the most significant TV drama of the year, Twin Peaks: The Return. Back 26 years after it arguably transformed the medium of the square box, its early new episodes had the hallmarks of David Lynch films, with much of the action away from Twin Peaks itself, set at a slow pace but with a stunning soundtrack. It continued to be complex and challenging but became addictive, memorable and often funny. It required additional reading of in-depth fan pieces and blogs to help make sense of Kyle MacLachlan’s four characters and the entering of parallel universes, but it was worth it.

Also returning, after a shorter absence, was Curb Your Enthusiasm. If its previous eighth season, six years earlier, was its best, the ninth, while still funny, didn’t hit the same heights and in contrast to Master of None, which for example can deal with a moral dilemma of etiquette in an Air BnB in one funny line, Curb now seems slightly laboured in contrast handling similar subjects for laughs.

It was a shorter wait for the second season of Stranger Things, a highlight of 2016. The follow-up continued in the same vein, introducing new characters while still heavily influenced by the films of the eighties period it was set in. New period dramas with heavier content were set in the seventies, in the form of David Simon’s The Deuce, which had the feel of The Wire but ended abruptly after eight episodes, and Mindhunter, which started memorably with a hostage negotiator watching Dog Day Afternoon.

With a contemporary setting Ozark, the Netflix original with Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as leads, promised quality and didn’t disappoint, with black humour thrown into a gripping drama. Bateman was also a producer and director of episodes and the pace was just right, with a cameo from Peter Mullen as a menacing farmer drug baron with a wife who makes Lady Macbeth look like Cinderella. It has been compared to Breaking Bad in terms of plot, but its first season is far superior for a number of reasons, not least because the lead character has some redeeming qualities and also there are a number of strong female characters.

From the everyday story of a money laundering family who attract empathy, another drama where the nuclear family of four is looking to escape from town is the Sky original, Tin Star. There are some similarities in the make-up of the family, with an independent teenage daughter and a protective mother who will treat the shot gun as a friend, but the premise is more ambitious, trying to take a few ideas – police spies, pollution and criminal corporate activity – to develop a thriller. An excellent cast led by Tim Roth and Genevieve O’Reilly, brilliant direction (including a brilliant flashback episode that is a perfect penultimate chapter) and an unrelenting script overcome any credibility issues.

Sky, through Sky Arts, Sky One and Sky Atlantic, continue to invest in creative talent and arguably the best British drama of the year was The Tunnel: Vengeance, the third and final chapter of what has become on original show in its own right, and its first season adaptation from The Bridge. The two main characters, the direction and type of plot are still inspired by the Danish/Swedish original, but as the 2016 second season proved, it has its own ideas and its final six episode series was excellent.

The dialogue is definitely tailor made for the current day British-French dynamic and the timing of the one liners, especially by Felicity J Montagu (of Alan Partridge fame) were perfect. The cast was much more reflective of British society than the fare regularly delivered on terrestrial channels while some of the criminal hallmarks (gas marks, lynch mobs and spyware), seemed influenced by the third season of Black Mirror, which was no bad thing.

Meanwhile, the fourth season of Black Mirror landed on Netflix at the end of 2017, with the highlight being the episode Crocodile, which had the cinematic feel of Hated in the Nation, the finale from Season 3 that could have been a feature film in its own right. That Jodie Foster and Tim Van Pattern were directors in this season indicate the calibre of the series and make up for the overlong opener, a Star Trek pastiche which could have been rejected as an episode of Inside No.9.

The best episode of the third season of Inside No.9 itself was actually broadcast at the end of December 2016, which fell in to the rare genre of Christmas snuff. The rest of the series couldn’t live up to that genius, but the fourth series has the opportunity in 2018.

Also on the BBC was Line of Duty another great drama, like The Tunnel, which came to an end. The playbook of major characters always being in danger to be bumped off and an over the top finale had become more predictable by its fourth season but it delivered as a police conspiracy drama and was all the better for all its characters having serious flaws in their behaviour.

Another thriller on the BBC was an import from Spain, I Know Who You Are, an adaptation from a book, that was delivered in the fast paced style of the first season of The Killing, in its same Saturday evening double-bill slot on BBC4. There were two seasons, with the first ten-parter ending on a cliffhanger that was completed with six more episodes. A great job by the casting director, with a multitude of characters all brought to life with actors perfect for the distinct roles, overcame the daftness of the plot.

Not so much jumping the shark but caught in a gridlock was The Walking Dead, which still hasn’t properly got back into gear after its excellent sixth season. A departure from the plot of the comic books, revealed in the mid-season eight finale could lead to its recovery but it is reliant on concluding the Negan storyline.

There were flashes of quality in its spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, specifically with video footage revealing the back-story of the right-winger who was making money preparing for civil war pre-apocalypse and in the dialogue, spoken by her son, which suggested the new ruthless violent world has allowed Kim Dickens’ lead character, Madison, to be her true self. Lennie James joining that cast for 2018 in a timeline pre-TWD, is likely to make FTWD worth sticking with.

With the big budgets and investment elsewhere it is harder for the BBC, whose funding has been hit as a political act, to compete. But it still did the staples well in 2017, not just with Blue Planet II, but also its coverage of US politics, the World Athletics in London and on a more basic level, the simple format of the panel comedy show, which it has nailed with Would I Lie To You. But its most inventive sit-coms come online though the return of Partridge from Sky (which also took The Trip), mean it will have something in the 2018 round-up.

MG

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