I’ve watched a lot this year, for both work – because you need to keep up with what’s out there when you’re a screenwriter – and for enjoyment. There’s plenty I haven’t seen (not got round to Dark yet, or the final season of Bloodline) – there’s so much good TV at the moment, which is great because film has been pretty dire. But this is what got me excited in 2017.
We’ve become inured to great TV in the modern age, but the sheer scale of the Wachowskis’ series is breathtaking. Shot on location around the globe, it looks fantastic. The downside is that makes it phenomenally expensive, and they just couldn’t maintain the viewing figures necessary for that level of spending. It’s been cancelled, but there’s a two-hour wrap-up out in the spring. The plot here about warring telepathically-linked ‘clusters’ isn’t really the point. It’s all about the characters, and the really great actors behind them. And, of course, the underpinning philosophy of interconnectedness and love. Not one for the cynical.
7. THE OA
Another divisive show. Part gritty drama about suburban malaise, isolation and mental illness, part-fairytale. this is a truly unique vision from writer/actress Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. It combines elements of the supernatural, fantasy, SF and mystery and psychological crime, and keeps the viewer continually wrong-footed. Oh yes, and it also shows how evil can be defeated by contemporary dance.
6. GAME OF THRONES
HBO’s juggernaut winds to its close. The measured developments and subtle character turns are all in the past. Now it’s all about the spectacle. And that bombast is extremely effective. It’s become a fantasy WWE with everyone rooting for their favourite characters in the ultimate battle. And what’s wrong with that? Lavishly shot, well-acted, it’s such a confident production it can even shoehorn in an Ed Sheeran cameo.
Okay, I’ve already had to rewrite this once because I forgot this one (thanks, Stephen Volk) – that’s how much good TV there is out there. David Fincher directs a measured examination of the fringes of psychology, slowly unfolding to reveal the darkness at the heart of the human condition. Coolly paced, with great performances, this shows what can be done when you’re not constrained by the structures of network TV. Take your time pulling back the curtain and the result is far more affecting.
The first season detailing the Shakespearean battle between Billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and NY attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) was great, but the second season takes it to an entirely new level. One episode in particular – no spoilers – will blow your mind. Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin have taken a potentially dry subject – finance – and turned it into a battle as gripping as anything in GoT. The magnetic performances by Lewis and Giamatti only drive the spike home. I couldn’t decide if this was number three or four, so if you like feel free to switch it with…
A pretty good opening episode develops into something special and endlessly surprising in Netflix’s crime drama. Jason Bateman, acting against type in a serious role, is a cipher, as is his wife, played by Laura Linney. It gets into some interesting areas when financial advisor Marty Byrde relocates his family to the Ozarks in backwoods Missouri to pay off a debt to a drug cartel. There’s a touch of Deliverance and Southern Comfort as smart, sophisticated city folk find themselves playing a wholly different game with the less-educated but far more cunning and brutal rural rednecks.
2. THE DEUCE
The Wire‘s David Simon and his regular collaborator George Pelecanos take a look at the beginning of the porn industry in 1970s New York, their cameras sharking among the pimps and prostitutes and police on 42nd Street like Scorsese in Taxi Driver. it’s all about character here, and every single one, from those on centre stage to the incidentals, is drawn perfectly. Maggie Gyllenhall is brilliant as an independent, no-pimp hooker with more brains than anyone else in the show. And James Franco gives a career-best performance as twins – and, yes, that works. Insightful, shocking, heart-warming and surprising, it takes us into an area we haven’t been before. And a nod to the set design – it looks like it could have been made in the era when it’s set.
1. TWIN PEAKS – THE RETURN
If you go in expecting the third season of some 90s TV show, you’re going to be disappointed. This is something completely new, which just happens to have some of the same characters. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll probably write about it many times again because there are just so many levels. David Lynch and Mark Frost have made an 18-hour art movie, a meditation on reality, and the connective tissue for Lynch’s films Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, the original Twin Peaks series and Eraserhead. Yes, he’s been telling the same story all along, just from different angles. Episode eight may well be the single best hour of TV ever. The series is heavily laden with Lynch’s personal philosophy, and gets into the nature of reality. But if you’re not interested in the heavy stuff, go for the emotional ride which takes you from terror to humour, often in adjoining scenes.
Honourable mentions: The Get Down, House of Cards, Love, and Halt and Catch Fire.