Alice in Borderland is a phenomenal piece of work from Netflix and one of the best things the streamer has done recently. After a mysterious event, a group of people find themselves in a series of games that they have to win to survive.
Simple premise, but it hides what is thoroughly 21st century storytelling in a way that so few have mastered. Neither high brow nor low, it manages to be endlessly thrilling, hugely affecting emotionally and ultimately deeply profound.
It’s deceptively clever in that it’s intelligence is not overt and only really comes to light as the final credits roll. This is something that UK and US network TV can’t do with it’s 20th century one size fits all approach.
Based on Haro Aso’s manga it’s gory in a way that only the Japanese seem to do, but the focus on character throughout makes this element less of a point. Jeopardy is at everyone’s shoulder all the time, as it is in life. The echoes of Alice in Wonderland are there for a reason.
Imagination is stitched through it, again in a way that UK/US broadcasters no longer do. Their shrinking audience prefers people shouting at each other in kitchens. The show looks fantastic – undoubtedly loads of greenscreen but none of it is obvious – and all in the cast excel. Huge attention to detail. I bet it cost a lot.
I never really binge shows, but I whipped through the second season in two days. That’s the story wrapped up, a novel not a serial, with all the themes sharpened and landing hard.
In this ongoing Golden Age of TV, this last year has been the best. Normally the top ten choice is relatively easy. This time there were many shows vying for the top spots.
Of those not included here, honourable mentions go to House of the Dragon, Paper Girls, Billions, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, The Dropout, WeCrashed, Pistol, Borgen Power and Glory, The Umbrella Academy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlanta, The Crown and Russian Doll.
Biggest disappointment: Ozark which, after escalating brilliance, died in the final episode. It got exactly where it needed to go, but did it in a flat, unimaginative and unfulfilling way.
10. All Of Us Are Dead
(Netflix) This Korean zombie drama offering makes it into the list for a herculean, near-impossible sustaining of tension. If you binge it back to back, you face near-thirteen hours of nerve-shredding action. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
9. Better Call Saul
(Netflix) Years in the making, the final season of Saul Goodman’s odyssey still managed to pull some surprises as it crossed paths with the Breaking Bad timeline that spawned it and moved into an uncertain future for the character. Mature, serious and elegant in its pacing, the series cements Bob Odenkirk’s reputation as an actor of depth and style.
(HBO) The second series didn’t quite reach the heights of the first, but it still managed to be both funny and tackle deep and affecting issues of the fear of losing potency and the different but connected trials that face the young. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder made fantastic sparring partners.
7. Shining Girls
(Apple TV+) Lauren Beukes’ SF novel about a time-travelling serial killer gets a classy adaptation that digs deep into the themes. Elisabeth Moss, who seems to be everywhere, does a good job was the protagonist.
6. For All Mankind
(Apple TV+) This alternate history of the space race has improved with each season. Here in the third we’re in the 90s and on Mars. As always with these things, it’s fascinating to see the web of changes, social, political, cultural, that extends from one change to historical reality, in this case what would happen if the Soviet Union got to the moon first.
5. Slow Horses
(Apple TV+) Two six-part seasons of the masterful spy drama based on Mick Herron’s excellent novels. Witty, sardonic and characterful, it follows a team of failed spies who’ve been shipped out to ‘Slough House’ as punishment, under the mocking eye of Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb.
(HBO) The old folk-baiting drama about the ‘terrible’ things teens get up to – lashings of sex and drugs, surprise, surprise – rises to a new level in its second season. The Shock Horror is just the surface and there’s some real emotion and psychological dissection lying behind it. Top marks to Zendaya and Sydney Sweeney.
3. The Offer
(Paramount +) A drama set around the making of The Godfather might sound dry, but this is an effervescent affair. It’s essentially the Mafia vs the sociopaths who run Hollywood – who wins? It perfectly evokes the 70s era with some remarkable casting choices to capture the real-life characters of the time. The stand-out is Matthew Goode as studio boss Robert Evans.
2. The White Lotus
(HBO) The second season of Mike White’s twisty-turns character-based drama that examines terrible people in paradise. This time the guests of the eponymous hotel chain are staying in Sicily amid a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. All the cast excel, but Jennifer Coolidge is amazing as always, and special mentions for Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli, Tom Hollander and Will Sharpe.
(Apple TV+) The most imaginative, offbeat and mysterious show in many a year. Severance occupies a space somewhere adjacent to Twin Peaks. A new procedure splits consciousness into two. You go into work and when you leave you forget everything you did during the day. When you return to work the next day, you forget everything you did in your private life. You have two lives, both of them uncontaminated by what you do in the other half. But there is so much more going on here. It’s quirky, intriguing, frightening, at times moving. There’s nothing like it on TV.
The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped on Netflix shortly before Halloween, is an amazing achievement, and not because of the scary elements (of which there are many).
Matching the show’s duelling timelines – now and then – it’s gone back to the past, to the age of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, when horror was made for grown-ups, with deep themes and symbolism, where the supernatural was a metaphor for real-world concerns.
And after so many years of dumb, funfair ride horror, it was so refreshing to discover something that had real depth.
What is The Haunting of Hill House about? Not ghosts, not really. They sweep by on the surface, terrifying and driving the plot, but it’s what they really mean that is truly horrifying.
A be-hatted spectral figure whose face can never be seen, always a few steps behind you – that’s a scary image. But as a symbol of addiction, that honestly makes the blood run cold. Depression, mental illness, family breakdown, childhood trauma, these are the ghosts that really haunt Hill House – and that is why the series is so affecting. Emotional – sad, uplifting – rather than just creepy.
It talks about the human, not the supernatural.
I could go on at length about Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force. It’s a show that people will be talking about for ages, because of that meaning and depth married to a chilling tale.
Some complain about the ending. I think it’s perfect for a series that is a drama about people. It’s all a matter of perception, which is one of the themes The Haunting of Hill House plays with so effectively.
And it has an attention to detail in its construction that you rarely see in a tale in this genre (which these days producers cynically think is there for a not particularly discerning audience). The layering of the mystery, the resonances that leap back and forth across the entire series, the excellent performances (particularly from the three female leads who knock it out of the park in their individual story episodes), these are things you usually find in TV dramas aimed at, well, discerning viewers.
One of the things you quickly learn as a writer is that viewers and readers never really want what they think they want. They desire what they could never have predicted. That’s why you never listen to ‘fans’ when you’re putting something together for a general audience.
When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).
The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet. Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline. They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows. Streaming providers are winning. Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.
It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.
Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard. If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.