Form and Void: Did TV’s Ostensible 10 Best Years Yield Even 5 Good Episodes?
The last top ten of the decade list you’ll ever need. Or that outlets will ever be able to properly formulate.
I think that the golden age of the hour drama was, at the start of this decade, a misapplication and at the end of it, came to resemble more of a scam. It’s best to remind ourselves that the anointment of the hour drama to a place where it would overtake films as the screen-based dollop of artistic betterment was the stated prophecy of several very serious publications and the propeller system for the launches of, thinkably, HBO and their streaming services, most of More 4’s primetime slots, the complete retooling of BBC1’s primetime slots, the near total retrofitting of Hulu from 22 minute animation and situation comedy to hour drama and the swathes of original content emanating from Netflix and Youtube, with NowTV following closely behind. So we know that the hour drama was the pinnacle form of critically and culturally approved entertainment but the productions and platforms which are currently generated are not those for arthouse fiction, they’re for pulp fiction — and it hasn’t done them that bad.
The financial reliability of consistently producing retoolings of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Lost into different settings with a heavy veil of considerably elevated cinematography is solid, if not nearly as impressive a monopoly as those which have taken shape in the multiplex over the course of the decade. But what about, you know, emotional impact and pathos and all that shit? What’s more likely, that every producer and commissioning editor on the planet is engaged in a joint narrative design project to create a hyperreality of superhero spinoffs and bad legal dramas? Or that someone, somewhere, had the presence of mind to suggest that throwing tens of thousands of rearrangements of genre, setting and the sex/race of the protagonist had kept the comics and manga industries’ nostrils above the water line for decades now?
I want to be clear in that every show you’ve watched this decade has been a labour of love to some extent — even and especially the ones which seem most transient, I know, I’ve worked on them. But the exact extent of the labour — provided by dedicated professionals constantly seeking the give the best possible rendering of scripts which have taken hundreds of hours per episode to produce — is itself a measure of how much money can be made by cultivating investment in your pilot or pilot season, whether or not it gets picked up or inflated into a multiple season franchise has no bearing; this is left to the rather inexact science of ratings. So who is best informed to tell us where the measure of quality lies? (Me, it’s definitely me who once wrote a high school essay about an episode of Red Dwarf I hadn’t seen which a friend described to me earlier that day). As we approach an event horizon in which, if 15 of the 100 hour dramas produced in a year were really good — a figure which Hollywood movies can only dream of producing consistently at this point — there’s still unlikely to be enough hours left in people’s lives to see them. It’s uncannily close to the rabid opinion splattering blogosphere’s mission objective with criticism. Namely that a format of entertainment be so oversubscribed and overproduced that some caste of intellectual Jedi would be the only ones who could possibly divine what the enthralled masses should turn to for enlightenment.
This characterisation — as it existed as a preoccupation for newspaper editors to tell the fairly tiny American middle class which cinema roadshows they should shell out for back in the fifties — might have some clout if it was even possible to reassure your readership that you hadn’t missed several of the most moving, important, seminal and innovative pieces of screen media worth writing about this last decade purely by osmosis. I, for one, make no promises to that effect. How perfect, then that most commissioning editors should agree and in turn readily prepare genre steeped, imagery based, script and skeleton crew back of the catalogue alternatives to each cinematography tutorialising, novel paced, inscrutably dark and expensively cast broadsheet head turner — so I can give each of my selections from the usual suspects of the 2010’s prestige drama a B side from within the recesses of genre scripts which somehow avoided the blades. As I explained, though, this doesn’t mean I saw everything, I’m just operating under a distribution system which pretty much makes sure I did. Nor has said system guaranteed that either the tabloid or broadsheet varieties of show I described above are, you know, good. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the latest show from 2019 on this list leaks this yin and yang into eachother and into a grey area of poor marketing and under appreciation.
True Detective: The Secret Fate of All Life (2014) / True Detective: Down Will Come (2016)
Between this show and Game of Thrones, HBO doubled down on their principal objective for the decade after airing The Wire and The Sopranos: to create a show which would ‘beat’ The Wire or The Sopranos. It’s a premise which is obviously stupid considering the ability to render character driven, novel paced epochs of script supervision whether they be set in the old West, Prohibition era Jersey or contemporary Baltimore was what magnetised critical attention to the network in the first place: that and the graphic language and violence involved in all cases. For a while there, though, they had us. The first season of True Detective was considered a broadcast from a higher echelon of primetime and silver screen beating high drama, untouchable by the myriad franchise instalments and Six Feet Under clones; up was down, left was right, derivative was now focused and straight police procedurals were regardless so rare amongst the plague of high concept one-season-and-cancelled buffoonery from commercial networks that the people were thirsty for a sup of golden nectar. Namely: characters which worked outside the exact words and rooms the script had them use, a mystery which was organic and rewarding in it’s reveals rather than being exactly as mysterious as which events the leads were conveniently allowed to witness and two lead performances bouncing like superballs off of supporting performances which thoroughly rooted a McCarthy-esque Southern Gothic vibe.
This is pretty high fantasy going for a series of bottle episodes, named for a pulp comic, compensating for three major reveals and two gunfights in nearly ten hours of footage but it was time well spent making its audience feel smart. I chose ‘high fantasy’ carefully but it’s not the closest comparison: the season’s strongest episode, The Secret Fate of All Life, commits to doing what hard sci-fi does for its genre but with broken pieces of a police procedural, confidently reassembled across three timelines, all with decisive, pathos-driven actions by the cast of characters as the glue. The Secret Fate of All Life had to make three fractal sets of circumstances line up to be threaded through the needles of reigniting a case which went cold decades earlier and it is absent of a single contrivance. For this execution The Secret Fate of All Life occupied the recommendations list of every publication and fan right up until its B-Side, a derided and mocked midseason ratings booster, dropped years later.
Down Will Come Is the main setpiece driven episode of True Detective’s second season. A season of maligned opinions about pretentious dialogue (was anyone watching Game of Thrones at this point?) SNL fodder jokes and shoehorned magical realism. Then again so was the first season but it actually had marketing which allowed word of mouth to take the mystery at face value and run with it, which is considerably more difficult to do when you open as many flanks as the second season of True Detective did; twice the number of protagonists, settings and filming locations which were more expensive by orders of sheer magnitude, Colin Farrell providing the most consistent American accent of your four leads (???) The list goes on. Most people had lost interest in taking the season seriously by the time Down Will Come came down, something which can’t be said of the show itself. Regardless, the episode managed a greater distillation of both plotlines and the show’s idiosyncratic balance between action, dialogue and atmospheric cinematography than anything in its first season. When compared to said first season, it is a total distillation (and yet also a bloating) of what the viewership demanded. When compared to rival shows in the same year it — well, at least it had action and dialogue and atmospheric cinematography.
Game of Thrones: Hardhome (2015) / Stranger Things: The Weirdo On Maple Street (2016)
Hardhome is one of the few galvanizers of good opinion left in the second half of Game Of Thrones’ run. (Odd, considering The Dance of Dragons, Oathbreaker, The Door, The Broken Man, The Spoils of War and A Knight of The Seven Kingdoms are all superior.) It’s conceit is a set of conversation sequences about tacit assassinations, appointments and pieces of diplomacy which then make way for a failed allegiance, exodus strategy and massacre, shown beyond the scope of the novel. The execution of which makes for some of the most impressive pieces of filmmaking to have ever taken place on the British Isles, wrangling a production that dwarfs numerous Hollywood titles and wrangling them to take part in a show that knew what it was. Which was simultaneously adherent to the rules of its universe whilst consistently striding outside of the severe limitations of the novels it was based on.
Now contrast this with one of the least brave productions ever to be mounted as a hood ornament for a broadcaster: Stranger Things. A genius move of production design: you fear you’re going to be called rote and derivative makers of, at best, ‘genre fiction’ so you make a nostalgic cluster of 80s references thread themselves along a soft sci-fi plot. Stranger things, for its considerable shortfalls, betrays a much better cast and plot behind it’s memetic front than say Riverdale or Sherlock, in the name of what we’re still not sure. If the entire overarching plot of Stranger Things took place with redressed Game of Thrones Characters in the style of an Anime Omake whilst they bought time to parse out one of the later seasons no-one would blink an eye. Every single one of the cast members, most of whom are children, which the fanbase seem to have developed entrenched personal idolatry of, are either much more interesting in their personal lives, which will always earn a yike or two when they’re fifteen years old or so clearly looking for the door as to have become the named leads in other franchises before their ‘own’ show has fully established it’s inter-season plot.
So, for anyone outside Netflix’s marketing department, was there ever a time when Stranger Things knew what it was? Yes, in the episode The Weirdo On Maple Street. Do the events and emotional moments of what ‘it’ was still fit in a Tumblr post? Yes, yes they do but as the contact point for John Carpenter-esque atmospheric horror and post Twin Peaks suburban drama it served the current generation of fans who are as old as the leads pretty well. It’s a tight recollection of the characters involved in the mystery and the forty miles of bad road they face, as frustratingly unable to overcome staple points of teen angst and anxiety as they are a seemingly invincible opponent. Subsequent episodes and seasons repeat this thematic cue with varying levels of depth but never truly move beyond it. If this episode did pique your interest in Carpenter/Cronenberg era weird cinema then please push your curiosity beyond the credits of the third season finale.
Westworld: The Bicameral Mind (2016) / His Dark Materials: Betrayal (2019)
Again, as with Stranger Things before it, Westworld had flexibility built into its narrative. What was it supposed to be? Another genre bending high concept pseudo horror, like the first Critchton adaptation. It’s huge deviation from expectations and from its source material is a credit of ambition not desperation but it did nothing to cure, nay, only worsened, serious pacing issues and poor cast weighting as the show went on and on with a mythology which could apparently only be explored with a season and a half of backtracking but which actually came to be explained by two philosophical concepts — one of which is in the title here. Like the other Side A listings in this piece The Bicameral Mind chose to punctuate the literal unveiling of implicit and subtextual themes and schemes with an actual large scale violent confrontation between the characters and with quite brilliant execution, too.
I’ve long been an advocate of mining action scenes involving characters we care about for their visceral emotional tension like this, is there a lesser thought of show that does this better? Yes Betrayal, the season finale of His Dark Materials, a show which is, even by the plodding standards of BBC primetime drama, bloodless, sexless, amodal in pace and of scattered technical standard. The bite to the bark of its Ur-Facist conflict which had winded it’s way down to various corners of two dimensions, four cultures and fewer action scenes than half of a Fast and Furious movie finally kicks in with character lead actions which don’t consist entirely of mic drops and suspiciously garnered superpowers. Betrayal is a record of characters failures pitted against marshal and moral superiority, just in time to stumble upon technology which makes mockery of these notions, anchored by excellent visual effects sequences. How much more effective drama was to be extracted out of using these beats to punctuate the cause and effect of characters clear, understandably motivated actions, rather than simply line processing plot points into plot twists for the sake of ‘subverting expectations’? For a show so muddled, Betrayal clearly learned from a certain other British American fantasy co-production and chose the route of developing and sophisticating its world and its ability to show it, all before literally showing off a big shiny light to draw attention away from Ruth Wilson’s character, lest she run off with the entire show.
Years and Years: Episode 1 (2019) / Chernobyl: 1:23:45 (2019)
Years and Years is utterly typical of the perfectly pitched and promoted ‘A Side’ hour drama that BBC audiences could hardly move for in the second half of the decade. It marked the return of an envelope-on-the-door-step writer, of several seminal character actors to the British small screen where they first attached themselves to their audience oh, and, it’s going to be a high concept format in the vein of Black Mirror — a show which had jumped the shark and grown the beard several times over. Years and Years is, spoiler warning, quite fucking bad. A myriad set of assumptions and character telepathy required to set next week’s circumstances into motion in order to pay one of the most well cast rosters of character actors money can buy to simply react to said circumstances, be mean to eachother or indulge in a genuinely alarming and moving sub-plot about xenophobia and deportation which, like 80% of the other subplots, is as predictable as a metronome and is filmed with a budget that likes to rocket between several million dollars per episode to about 30p — sometimes in the same scene. It is a monument to Russel T Davies presence within the BBCs Christmas card list, after they fought so hard to keep Sharon Horgan and Charlie Brooker on it. Because this idolatry for semi-auteurs worked so well for Doctor Who, didn’t it?
At Years and Years core is, however the germ of a piece of narrative design that has always been fantastically rewarding: can we create Nostradamus scenarios of near-future conflict and dystopia with reference to real world history, conflict and institutions, furnishing our narratives with concrete examples of the political and scientific forces they’re putting at odds in a palpably real way? The hour drama, for all it’s love of novel-like episodic pacing has a long way to go before it manages the operatic assembly of factions, philosophies and living, breathing locations which made Deus Ex’s cold open get successively more rewarding with each rewatch at the beginning of each playthrough. Instead of asking us to swallow a bitter mix of domestic drama and middling, sometimes high stakes political drama in one shot, a better show might take a bookended time period (the title of the show in question here seems to be a nonchalant response from Davies when a producer asked him how long the narrative will need to play out with even the tiniest stretch of plausibility) and with a bookended time period that other, better show, would not get bogged down in the structural shittery of insert fantasy show which plays out like a Shonen anime here and get on with some dramatic sophistication.
Whilst I’m reluctant to let sophistication be the buzzword which constitutes another vague substitute for a measure of quality, it’s a worthy question, isn’t it? Why do some shows which have less money and fewer episodes seem to have bucket loads of it whilst my favourite ensemble cast binge buster doesn’t? It’s a blurring of structural and narrative concerns which has even managed to convince the primetime Emmy awards committee to create another set of awards for that other kind of show: the Limited Series. Vaunted, critically lauded, short enough to be risk taking, long enough to cultivate a greater impression of depth than arthouse films, just ripe for socio-political snapshots of our world. Well, both Years and Years and Chernobyl are Limited Series and one is shit and the other is really good. In particular, Chernobyl’s pilot, 1:23:45, presents a scenario where everyone knows the beginning and end but only has an imaginable impression of the level of horrors involved and how the domineering Soviet authorities in question allowed them to breach reality. Chernobyl parses these details out not with the priority on subverting expectations or elevating star character’s level of badassery in the face of such insurmountable adversity but on interconnected humane stories, wrought under the same circumstances but not with the same ending. Between the regional accents and the spots of black comedy the characters may be recognisable enough as people waiting at the bus stop right now (if you live in Milton Keynes) but Chernobyl carefully inserts these human failures and corruptions into a town with all the visual ques of a barely terraformed planet or a post-apocalyptic future. It balances the privilege and responsibility of getting to tell this section of history so precisely as to allow extremely little to interfere with it’s tone and atmosphere, as opposed to the gonzo sprint to the finish line heaped up by Westworld and Game of Thrones in the preceding twelve months. Is it possible to centre a fictional set of events with the same neurotic sensitivity and would it come across as pretentious or actually quite fun?
Twin Peaks The Return: Gotta Light? (2017) / Watchmen: Little Fear of Lightning (2019)
The best handled structures in TV this decade blended mass marketability and novelty with character work, mystification, visual pop and nostalgia. Their creators new a magnitism to these factors would occur but instead deprioritized these in favour of making new memories which would reshape how we thought of beloved people and places and further enrich what came before. They also did not do this in from a commercial point of view, those few times they did play with structure or chronology. In both Watchmen and Twin Peaks The Return entire beloved characters are cut, locations are idiosyncratically buzzed between, timelines are constructs of lesser perceptions and morality is equally a plaything.
It’s just that, for all my praise of The Return, there seemed to be more fun in it with Watchmen, an inescapable impression as it rocketed from one concept and setpiece and outlandish plot development to the next that we may never see it’s like again, as it was happening, in episodes that recounted how it got to be happening, whilst also satirising the hyperviolent silver age plundering sensibilities of similar comic book shows and big name adaptations, in an episode framed like a circular time loop, scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with a complete gender and race flip in the main cast — not for no better reason than they could but because when they did it was better, it was the better way to attach the justified yet deprived pathos and anger of the superhero to a social caste or credence — that is, attach it to black Americans and watch this unshakeable grounding pull a world ending conspiracy back down to earth. But there’s no doubt this thing got it’s lessons in genre flipping and tempered weirdness from Twin Peaks. Perhaps from Watchmen subsequent hour dramas can learn to do whatever the fuck they want to begin with and work backwards through humane, painful memories and subject matter to make even the zaniest plotline understandable by an enviably large audience. Perhaps the material being written in scripts rather than said material’s structure could be where the balance of risk taking and discipline is placed. If we just have excretions of a franchise where we had parts of a story the next decade is going to be just as disproportionately shit.
Ahem, did you say something about a list, Headington?
Oh, aye, have at it:
10. Utopia: Episode 3 (2013)
9. Twin Peaks The Return: Got a Light? (2017)
8. Killing Eve: You’re Mine (2018)
7. Black Mirror: San Junipero (2016)
6. True Detective: The Long Bright Dark (2014)
5. Chernobyl: 1:23:45 (2019)
4. Fargo: Morten’s Fork (2014)
3. True Detective: Night Finds You (2014)
2. Game of Thrones: Blackwater (2012)
1. Watchmen: A God Walks Into A Bar (2019)
Notice how very few of the episodes we came to think of exemplary or well timed or as definitive of their series, the examples I gave up there in the piece, are their amongst my own personal favourites.