We live in an age of lists. The 10 best authors, 10 best films, 10 best songs about love and loss and war and hope. Almost by definition, a list presupposes a kind of expertise, that the maker of the list is in a position to weed out the dross and provide a subjective but nonetheless informed short-cut to quality. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but, for me, thinking about a ‘10 best of for 2015’ is complicated by the birth of my son. I don’t have a pool of anything that isn’t newborn related from which to draw and measure my 10 best of. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, and I didn’t expect to eat as much fiction or music or cinema, or whatever it was I did before I became a father, in 2015, but 10 isn’t a big number. It’s less than one of something a month. But all I could afford were glimpses of things, their place in a list, and sometimes, in the background, the TV. So, without further ado and in no particular order, a glimpse of my top 10 TV shows for 2015.
UnReal is a dark and satirical look at the making of a reality dating show, Everlasting, loosely based on The Bachelor. It’s produced and co-written by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and based on her film Sequin Raze. Shapiro is a writer, filmmaker, artist and musician, and spent nine seasons working on The Bachelor in the US which provided her with the meat for UnReal. UnReal begins at the beginning, with Everlasting’s executive producer, Quinn, conducting the opening sequence from the master control suite. The season’s first contestant arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, and alights carrying a violin, which she proceeds to play. The bachelor gives the show’s host a kind of WTF nod as the contestant introduces herself as Shamiqua. Cut! Quinn yells. They can’t have a black contestant opening the show, she’s not ‘wifey’ enough. When Quinn’s accused of being racist she replies it’s not her, it’s America. Meanwhile, Rachel, one of the producers under Quinn’s wing, is en route to the Everlasting villa with some of the other contestants. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE, and lies on the floor of the limo amidst a forest of clean white legs and heels in a tightly framed shot that gives her a kind of claustrophobic, interred look, like she’s in a coffin. Which in many respects she is. They all are. The bachelor, the contestants, the crew. For this is a nasty world full of savagery and conflict where the only governing constant is the drug of the show, to which everybody’s bound but from which no-one can completely escape. And the Network looms large, fucking and corrupting and violating everything it touches to ramp the tension and secure its slot in its time. There is nothing else. And although UnReal isn’t as overtly vicious as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it’s on the same spectrum. SBS has acquired the rights to season two and will probably air in 2016.
Happysish is about happiness, and unhappiness, and the overpopulated terrain that lies between. It was originally called Pigs In Shit, with Philip Seymour Hoffman slated for the lead until his death in 2014. The role eventually went to Steve Coogan, and the program survived one 10-episode season before the axe. It rated poorly, received mixed reviews from critics, with many calling it smug and self-satisfied rubbish, and was perhaps one of the finest comedies to come out of the US since Community. Coogan plays Thom Payne, an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive advertising executive struggling with the 21st century. He lives in Woodstock, New York, with his partner, an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive artist, and their young son. The ad agency where Thom works is being taken over by a couple of German wunderkinds who represent the most abject and perishable aspects of creativity, and are vaguely reminiscent of the Bond villains Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever; smiling, genial, and lethal. But not all the action takes place at the office or revolves around work. Thom’s real passion is literature, and writing, and thinking – the writers and thinkers mentioned in each episode are given acting credits, like STARRING SIGMUND FRUED, CHARLES BUKOWSKI, AND SEVEN BILLION ARSEHOLES. Or the final episode which starred CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, PHILLIP LARKIN, AND JOSEF STALIN. Which go a long way to painting the melodies of the show. May it rest in peace. Five stars.
Mr Robot begins with the protagonist, Elliot, a young man dressed in a black hoodie with a handsome, intense face, sitting in Ron’s Coffee Shop watching the door. The owner, Ron, comes in and takes a table. Elliot joins him, and by way of introduction tells Ron that Ron isn’t his real name, he changed it from Rohit Mehta on buying Ron’s Coffee Shop six years ago. Rohit (Ron) looks alarmed. Who are you? he says. Elliot continues, saying he likes Ron’s Coffee Shop because the Wi-Fi’s fast. So impressed was he by the speed, he explains, he hacked the network, and discovered Rohit runs a website called Plato’s Boys, and that onion protocoling isn’t as anonymous as Rohit might like to think. Rohit demands to know what Elliot wants. Money? Elliot doesn’t give a shit about money. Elliot says that although he doesn’t jerk off to little boys, he understands where Rohit’s coming from. He knows what it’s like to be different. He’s been different his whole life, and as he gets up to leave, sirens can be heard in the distance. They’re coming for Ron, with Elliot’s anonymous tip timed to prevent Ron from contacting his systems administrator and wiping all the incriminating data. Elliot leaves. Because this is what he does. He hacks into people’s lives finding injustices to fix, inadequacies to help, and lies to out. His awkward and misplaced heroics finally lead him to an anarchist group called fSociety, and so begins their journey to bring down corporate America. Apart from Christian Slater, who plays the enigmatic figurehead of this ragtag collection of misfits, the cast, along with its maker, Sam Esmail, are unknowns. Which is massive, given it was picked up and distributed in the US by NBC. Mr Robot’s billed as a cyber-punk thriller, and owes as much to David Lynch as it does to Fight Club, Taxi Driver, and Stanley Kubrick, and proved a canny broadcasting move as it now has a cult following moving into its second season.
The premise is simple: one day, 140 million people disappear from the planet without trace, cause, or any obvious connection. This is the bedrock upon which the series is based: what if something truly inexplicable happened in our lifetime, something without precedent, like the big bang, and without inherent logic or reason? What then? How do we live with such an event, and the overwhelming unknowing of what happened, and whether what happened might one day happen again? How do we tame this wild ignorance into something we can manage and discuss over dinner? The Leftovers is one of the most important television programs on air. It asks, when faced with something so beyond our abilities to rationalise or understand, why do we turn to belief? Why do we need to believe it must be this, or that? And once determined, why the need to bunker down in camps of believers and non-believers? This is the religious imperative. And The Leftovers wonders what it is that religion fills, but like UnReal and Mr Robot, The Leftovers is a drama, not a polemic, and it doesn’t assume to know the answers. It’s about the people, the leftovers, the ones who stayed behind, and what’s possible in a world where tomorrow may in all likelihood never come.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
Another show that carries a dangerous premise is The Man in the High Castle. Taken from a novel by Phillip K Dick , it’s a revisionist take on World War II, with the Axis powers winning and dividing the US into three parts: The Pacific States of America governed by Imperial Japan, the Greater Nazi Reich which runs the length of the east coast and west as far as Texas, and a neutral band between the two called the Rocky Mountain States. There’s a resistance, and the pilot wastes no time setting up the violent tensions of occupation. Then a spanner. One of the protagonists finds some newsreel footage of Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945. Like The Leftovers, you’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatic rapture event than this. If the footage is to be believed, then everything is a lie, and somewhere, in some not too distant space-time continuum, there’s an alternative reality where the Allies won the war. It’s a bit like Winston’s paperweight in 1984. Where once ye abandoned all hope, now there is a window. Needless to say, when the occupying forces discover this footage exists, the chase is on. Which is as far as I got, so no spoiler for this little nugget.
Gotham is a noir prequel to the Batman story that revolves around the day-to-days of the Gotham City Police Department, in particular Detective James Gordon. Unlike the Leftovers, or The Man in the High Castle, Gotham doesn’t break any ground. But to its credit, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. The production is lavishly operatic, with all the tropes, stereotypes and social idioms of the comic book given a bang crash pow course in moral complexity, and the acting highwires between the histrionic and the ridiculous without ever losing its grip. Which is no small feat. However, what struck me about Gotham was the music. In the first episode, a singer auditions for a nightclub spot with Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain. Next episode the New York Dolls pop up. Iggy Pop, The Stooges. Then in episode 04 another singer auditions for the same nightclub with a pared back version of Spellbound by Siouxsie and the Banshess. Now, Souixie and the Banshees don’t get out much these days, and given what had preceded it, I checked out the credits for SOUND. Turns out to be Graeme Revell, frontman for the 1980’s punk industrial electronic group SPK. Revell’s been composing for TV and film for over two decades, with all sorts of titles to his name, from Dead Calm in 1989, to The Crow, Bride of Chucky, The Matrix and its sequels, Pitch Black and its sequels, Lara Croft, Sin City, Dennis the Menace Strikes Again, and the list goes on. I was reminded of Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance who wrote the score for Balibo, won a Golden Globe with her score for Whale Rider, and is perhaps best known for her work with Ridley Scott on Black Hawk Down, The Insider, and Gladiator. Or the French electronica duo Air who scored Sofia Coppola’s film The Virgin Suicides. Or Clint Mansell, formerly with Pop Will Eat Itself, who scored The Fountain with Kronos Quartet. Or Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network. Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. These are more than bands or musicians providing a song to top or tail a movie or soundtrack a car chase, but an industry shift away from traditional composers like Morricone and Williams to the Billboard alternative music charts.
I’m not sure what it all means, if anything, these swings in cinema and TV, with the recent crop of movie stars appearing in shows like Hannibal, True Detective, House of Cards, Fargo, the trend some say began with The Sopranos and The Wire towards a more literary narrative arc, programs that can’t be dipped into like tracks on an album but have to be watched from the beginning to the end, episode by episode. Maybe we’ve become more demanding, as an audience. Who knows? What’s good to know – even though I didn’t make it to 10 – is that quality television is starting to become more fashionable than it has for some time. Which makes parenthood just that little bit easier. Or not. Who knows?