3 Body Problem

Thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem.

I have a feeling this one is going to be massively divisive. Fans of the original novels will probably be furious it steps away from the books’ cold abstraction to attempt a more human connection, something that is absolutely necessary to reach the broader audience required for a TV adaptation.

But those coming expecting Netflix’s own Game of Thrones via the rep of showrunners Benniof and Weiss will also be disappointed because it brings from the books the need for an at least rudimentary understanding of science, scientific terms, even the Cultural Revolution. The pacing is also glacial.

And unlike GoT you don’t get any tits and knobs to break up the exposition.

But somewhere in the great Venn diagram there’s a little segment which appreciates the changes made and that’s where I slot in.

The vastness of the universe, mysterious countdowns, the fifth generation of Apple’s Vision Pro, puzzles and conundrums and a climate crisis analogy coupled with some solid history rarely seen in the West made for an intriguing watch.

I also saw someone complaining that all the key scientists were good-looking which is Nerd-Rage at its finest.

Best TV Drama 2023

All those writers pumping out columns about the Death of the Golden Age of TV should walk away in embarrassment. 2023 was a great year for the medium. There were lots of shows I could have included here – Swarm, The Last of Us, The Crown – but these are the ones that stayed with me for different reasons.

10. THE MORNING SHOW

(Apple TV+) A step-up from the disappointing second season thanks to a cohesive and driving narrative. This season weds its usual soapiness with some sharp commentary on the state of modern media, a timely takedown of Musk and his cronies using their fortunes to degrade things the public love. Jon Hamm comes on board to add some much-needed weight with the meaty role of a tech bro who loves flying rockets and buying and breaking things. Greta Lee is a standout as the conflicted executive and there’s great work from Billy Crudup (who gave a smart speech to graduating students at NYU’s Tisch School of Film and Drama this year).

9. THE MARVELLOUS MRS MAISEL

(Amazon Prime) This show has been a delight from start to finish and it’s not often you can use that word about modern TV. Its charm is stitched into the very fabric, through the lush production values that capture 50s New York and Jewish culture of that time and through the characters all dealing with their low-stakes dramas. There’s a feminist streak to it as Midge tries to plough her own furrow as a stand-up and TV comedy writer, challenging the patriarchy in all its forms, but it’s not laboured. This season was a good sendoff and ends with a feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket (though the flash forwards to Midge in future decades were completely unnecessary.)

8. ATLANTA

(FX) Donald Glover revealed a brilliant and mercurial mind in the way he took Atlanta from its initial premise about a rapper, Paperboy, and his manager to a show that could comment on anything large or small, with a format that twisted reality, plunged deep into the weird and unsettling, kicked over statues and smashed tradition. At times it felt like a modern version of the Twilight Zone, at others a trippy exploration of black lives everywhere. But it was always rooted in character and anchored by a superb performance from Brian Tyree Henry.

7. POKER FACE

(Peacock) “What year is this?” Agent Cooper said at the end of Twin Peaks and you could be forgiven for asking the same question here. From the get-go you’re thrown back into the 1970s through familiar typeface and stylings designed to evoke a certain feeling, even though Poker Face is set now. Yes, Knives Out’s Rian Johnson has decided to do his own version of Colombo. The same format – you get the murder up front and see who did it – and then the drama comes from how Natasha Lyonne’s on-the-run casino worker gets to solve it. Every episode is a self-contained character-driven story, which used to be an American TV tradition back in the first golden age of TV, all of it delivered with brilliant actors and lots of panache.

6. BILLIONS

(Showtime) The ending of a show is critical for its longevity. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under got it right. Dexter and House of Cards didn’t. Billions, I’m happy to say, lands perfectly. It just about survived losing its lead Damian Lewis for a season after the tragic death of his wife, but he’s back as Ax here, with a vengeance. The show’s traditional twisty-turny plot goes exactly where you expect it to, though not in the manner you thought. That works because the ending is hugely fulfilling for viewers who have followed these characters through their seven season long Shakespearean battle. Spin-offs are coming.

5. SILO

(Apple TV+) Based on Hugh Howey’s novels, Silo is set in a dystopian future where a community survives, just about, in a deep silo cut off from the rest of the world. The atmosphere of mystery is suffocating as the population is forced to accept what they’re told about the outside world by their leaders – the themes here are clear – but there’s an emotional heart to the intellectual games. Rebecca Ferguson is a tough hero, kicking against the rules, and there’s strong support from Tim Robbins, David Oyelowo and Rashida Jones.

4. SLOW HORSES

(Apple TV+) You can’t take your eyes off Gary Oldman when he’s on screen as the belching, farting, curmudgeonly but brilliant and ruthless Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, a unit for useless failed spies. The pace hasn’t slowed, the characters are maturing with each season, the humour is just as pointed. The show has done great justice to Mick Herron’s excellent novels, capturing the sly, wry tone and the sardonic view of the failings of the powerful, but it’s Oldman’s performance that holds everything together.

3. A MURDER AT THE END OF THE WORLD

(FX) This crashed into the zone just as I was preparing to write this list, a show that grabs all sorts of traditions and rams them relentlessly into the modern world. On the surface it’s a murder-mystery set in an isolated house – here a hi-tech hotel in Iceland – but as you would expect from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the creators behind Netflix’s exemplary The OA, it twists into something different entirely. Symbols, serial killers, society-changing technology, a world on the brink. Anchored by an astonishing, award-winning performance by Emma Corrin as reluctant investigator Darby who grew up around dead bodies, the series also manages to be deeply affecting in the way it sketches Darby’s relationship with Harris Dickinson’s Bill. And these TV creators really don’t like Elon Musk, do they?

2. SUCCESSION

(HBO) Everyone held their breath to see if Jesse Armstrong could pull off an ending to his biting satire about the hateful, hyper-wealthy but also loveable in their miserable, fucked-up lives Roy clan. He did. Each episode is a mini play, usually confined to a single location but which crackles with the tension of well-defined characters clawing themselves one step away from destruction. The shocks come out of left field – no spoilers – but it’s the little moments that stay with you: Kendall Roy’s excruciating public speaking, always one step away from a breakdown, Roman Roy’s unexpected tears that reveal the depth of his trauma, but mainly the numerous weaslings of Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans who is a potent brew of oil and desperation. The Murdochs should watch and weep.

  1. THE BEAR

(Hulu) Proof that you don’t need heavy plot to make one of the most compelling and affecting shows of the year. The first season of Christopher Storer’s comedy-drama was fantastic. This takes it to a whole new level as we dig into the lives of the hard-pressed crew working in a Chicago sandwich shop and discover the demons that drive them all. The cast is uniformly excellent – vis all the Golden Globe nominations they just landed. But it’s the big heart and the humanity that will stay with you.

A Murder At The End Of The World

Just as I was about to start writing my annual Top Ten TV Drama of the Year, this one slipped under the wire and crashed straight in.

Made by the couple behind Netflix’s exemplary The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, A Murder at the End of the World is a twisty mystery that is propelled by excellent performances, smart direction and writing, and the showrunners’ genre-bending take.

It’s based on traditional roots – an isolated house – this time in Iceland – and a collective of suspects/victims.

But there’s no last century nostalgia here – it’s thoroughly modern in its understanding of the world we now inhabit and the rapid technological and social changes we’re all going through.

In a star-making turn, Emma Corrin is the Holmesian detective figure (though that parallel is only in her elegant intellect and attention to minute detail). She truly is phenomenal as Darby, an author and investigator who grew up around dead bodies with her pathologist father.

What elevates this is her affecting emotional connection with Harris Dickinson’s Bill, another Brit playing American.

If you enjoyed The OA there are lots of Easter eggs here, symbols and general strangeness. As you’d expect from Marling and Batmanglij, it shows what you can achieve when you stop looking back and start looking forward.

On Disney+ in the UK, Hulu in the US.

Billions

Endings are hard. Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or short story, TV series or film. How the audience is left depends on whether the story will live on, whether the readers or viewers will pick up more of the creator’s work, often whether the project gets published/made in the first place. It’s critical.

There are a couple of simple rules. The payoff must be better/bigger/more surprising than the set up (so not The Village which did the opposite just to get a twist). And it’s not good enough for the end to be logically right or arrive at the right place. It has to be satisfying for those who’ve invested their time and money (so not Dexter which arrived at the right place but without earning it).

So no to House of Cards, no to Game of Thrones. Yes to The Sopranos, yes to Six Feet Under.

And yes to Billions, which has been a fantastic series from start to finish, even surviving the loss of a star for a season after the tragic death of his wife. Shakespearean in tone, it gets to the heart of today’s struggle between vast wealth and fairness and the law and all the messy compromises involved in that battle, including the personal toll.

Huge characters, twisty-turny plots, unashamedly clever and with two amazing performances among many from Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. The ending landed, was satisfying and stayed true to the themes. Such a success for Showtime, four spinoffs are in the works.

The Bear

I thought when I’d watched the final season of Succession I’d already seen the best TV of the year, but The Bear season two surpassed it.

The story of a chef at one of the world’s best restaurants returning to take over the run-down family restaurant in Chicago is filled with so much heart it makes your head spin. The characters and their relationships are all finely drawn, their pasts, their fears, their hopes, all slowly unfolding.

Every episode of season two swells with emotion; it builds you up and breaks your heart, sometimes in the same episode.

This run also has several classy guest stars, including Jaime Lee Curtis with a performance far beyond the one that won her an Oscar.

A masterpiece.

Alice In Borderland

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.

Best TV Drama 2022

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.

8. Hacks

(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.

4. Euphoria

(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

Pictured: Juno Temple as Bettye McCartt, Miles Teller as Albert S. Ruddy, Matthew Goode as Robert Evans, Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo and Dan Fogler as Francis Ford Coppola of the Paramount+ original series The Offer. Photo Cr: Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ © 2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

(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.

  1. Severance

(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.

Boom time For The UK Film Industry

Off the radar, the production centre of the global film and TV industry has moved across the Atlantic to the UK.

Within two years, there will be more studio space and facilities than Los Angeles, attracting the biggest movies and TV shows. Wicked, Wonder Woman 3 and Amazon’s billion dollar Lord of the Rings series are already in production.

The industry has been pulled in by top level tax credits of 25%, world-beating visual effects houses, highly trained crews, state of the art studios and that there’s diverse environments for location shooting in a relatively small space – cities, mountains, seascapes, moors, rolling countryside.

The boom has been spread across most of the nation (Scotland hasn’t decided to join in for some reason) with new studios in Manchester, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham, Derby, Dagenham and Oxford and vastly expanded facilities at Elstree, Pinewood and Bray.

There’s now a massive demand for new people to train for the range of crew – from cameras and sound to make-up and set design.

The next step is to start boosting home-grown productions that offer opportunities for creatives.

Best TV Drama 2021

2021 was another year which marked a march away from the relevance of network TV towards the dominance of streaming. In this age of complexity and nuance where there is no longer a broad shared culture, the SVODs have the upper hand: they can produce shows tooled for any particularly micro-tribe.

It’s not going to get any better for network TV.

Here are the best shows I saw this year…

10. For All Mankind

Once Apple TV+’s alternate history series about the Space Race revealed what it was *really* doing midway through season one, it took on a completely new dimension. As much a secret history as an alternate history, this show is equally about down here as it is out there. It reveals exactly what we lost by not pushing forward with space ambitions after the moon landings. Like all Apple TV+ shows, the storytelling has a solid old school charm, with some great characters and performances, and immense production values (again, a regular for Apple shows).

9. Only Murders In The Building

A frothy confection that is instantly engaging thanks to the chemistry among the three principles – Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. It plays nicely with the conflict between old and young generation, pointing up the strengths and weaknesses of both, rather than taking any sides. And as you would expect from a Steve Martin vehicle, the dialogue sparkles: “The only thing your generation is scared of is colon cancer and societal change,” as Selena Gomez says to her older comrades. Not the only true crime podcasters investigate real crime series you’ll find this year, but certainly the best.

8. You

This has been a year of regular series steadily improving in quality and You is no exception. The best of the three seasons, There’s a great dynamic between Penn Badgley’s psychopathic world’s worst husband Joe and Victoria Pedretti’s equally psychopathic Love, with both of them digging new graves in suburbia. Stitched through with black humour, the stakes are raised continually with plenty of twists and turns. Pedretti does her best work here.

7. The White Lotus

A show about terrible people doing terrible things – I don’t know if that trope’s arisen because we like to revel in our moral superiority or to gawk at a slow-motion car crash, maybe both. The White Lotus is packed with brilliant performances, each one simmering in turn while creator Mike White slowly and sadistically turns the blade on each one of them as they gather in a Hawaiian hotel.

6. The Good Fight

Not enough people are watching the only satire on TV, and a great one at that, which has skewered every aspect of the Trump presidency and the subsequent fallout. This year I watched both the pandemic-truncated season 4 – with the soon-to-be classic Jeffrey Epstein episode – and season 5’s post-January 6 nightmare for America. Ostensibly a legal drama, this show is really a dissection of US society with a focus on who actually pulls the levers of power.

5. The Crown

The best season of the Royal drama – though not the best Queen, although Olivia Coleman does a passable job. There’s an almost unbearable sense of tension building throughout these episodes. With the addition of Diana and Charles’ affair with Camilla, the Shakespearean tone comes to the fore, every scene heightened with the knowledge of what is to come. Emma Corrin as Diana, Josh O’Connor as Charles and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher are all fantastic.

4. Mare Of Easttown

Hatchet-faced people investigating a grim crime in a depressingly hope-free post-industrial town, so much, so UK network TV. But this series is elevated by the excellent writing and show running of Brad Ingelsby and the performance of Kate Winslet which turns it into a detailed and ultimately inspiring character study of a woman who’s lost so much – not the least her hope for the future – and yet still does her best for her community. Mare of Easttown isn’t about the crime, it’s about human beings struggling to get on and it has a big heart tucked away.

3. Squid Game

TV commissioners often recoil from anything too imaginative, as if ‘real’, or their perception of such, is the only way to tell a story. But you can examine a serious subject by slamming your nose against the brick wall or sitting on a distant hill and taking a more reflective view. Squid Game does the latter in the way it tackles the mechanics of the capitalist system (sounds dreary doesn’t it?) in a story that could not be more unrealistic and as such delivers a more effective gut punch. Desperate people on the edge of society are given the chance to compete in a life-or-death struggle for big rewards. It’s all one big game, for the edification of those who don’t have to get their hands bloody. It’s also the most popular TV show in the world this year so maybe there’s something to that imagination lark.

2. Sex Education

Despite the title, this show is really about love in all its many forms. Ostensibly another fantasy – the cast are British but it’s set in a school that is like no British school anywhere – Sex Education uses the lack of specificity to make this a universal story about discovering love here in the 21st century. The character work is phenomenal, one of the best shows for that on TV, the storytelling at turns heart-soaring and heartbreaking. Thoroughly modern in every human aspect, it tracks the diversity and complexity of how we live today. Sex Education has improved with each season and this one was so close to being the best show of the year. But then came…

1. Succession

On the surface, another show about terrible people doing terrible things, but just like Sex Education, it’s really about love, particularly what happens when you don’t get it as a kid and how that drives you in adult life to fill that void. Succession is a rich, complex series that tackles many things crucial to today’s world and this third season is the best. Eschewing big plots, it drills down into the characters of the children of media magnate Logan Roy (think: Rupert Murdoch) and how their search for his approval both destroys them and corrupts the wider world. The performances at every level are astounding, the writing pitch perfect as it coldly dissects this toxic sphere of existence. One of those series that will ultimately define the golden age of TV.