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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.
And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.
I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.
10. Perry Mason
HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.
9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.
8. The Plot Against America
A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.
7. The Good Fight
One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.
One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.
A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.
4. The Crown
As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.
Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.
2. Better Call Saul
One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.
The Queen’s Gambit
Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.
In the US TV industry, the writers have all the power. They run the shows, answering directly to the studios and networks. Not so much in the UK where the writer is kicked to one side and cut out of most decision making.
All that is changing with the rise of the streamers. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peacock and the rest all want writers at the heart of their new shows. Because they’re buying a creative vision and they know the best person to fix problems or move everything forward is the creative visionary, right?
This weekend I attended the Introduction to Showrunning Seminar organised by the Writers Guild. The one the WGA runs in LA is attended by every writer getting their hands on a show for network, cable and streaming, but this is the first time one has been run in the UK.
Learned a massive amount. Some great speakers who knew the ins and outs of this hugely demanding, but equally rewarding job. The writer manages everything, from scripts to casting to hiring directors and DPs to the final edit.
The audience was packed with every TV writer you’ve ever heard of, which gives you some idea of how important showrunning is viewed.
And I can’t express how good it was to hear writers talking about taking control.
Generally I don’t talk about all the TV work I’m doing. When you’re creating new series, there are usually long periods of ditch-digging with the team, sweating, bouncing ideas around and drafting and re-drafting pilot scripts as conceptions change. And even then it doesn’t always come together.
But, as several people have asked, I’m currently in development with seven returning series for UK and international streaming broadcasters, across a range of genres.
More when I’m contractually allowed to speak about any of them.