When it’s twenty degrees outside, and the birds are tweeting without the assistance of a laptop and a lawyer, the sun is beaming – complete with the inexplicable dark-glasses and the smug smile of children’s drawings – the smell of hot grass is all around, and a choir of ice cream vans make the city a veritable Greensleeves-Utopia (or the mating call of the paedophile, as Tim Minchin memorably describes it), only one creature fails to festoon themselves in too little sun cream, too few clothes, and fling themselves, snake-like, onto a sunny rock. Snakes would never have survived if the species were habitual binge-watchers. For somewhere, in the fuggy darkness of a bedroom – blissfully unaware of the paradise beyond the drawn curtains – we find the natural habitat of the television addict; contentedly re-watching a series they can move their lips with, and spending time with their better half. To have and to watch, from this day forward, for better (BBC dramas), for worse (Channel 5 documentaries), for richer (sound quality), for poorer (picture quality), in sickness and in health, until something larger, faster and cheaper parts us. And so, with these sacred vows in mind, I have returned to a topic I pondered once before, and bring you the memories of my fulfilling 2015 relationship.
Rule one of television: everybody loves Martin Freeman. I love Martin Freeman. That is not to say that I have even a dwarf’s worth of patience when it comes to an all-consuming jewellery fixation and some sassy CGI ears. I couldn’t give a nazgûl! As they say in Middle-Earth… or wherever the hell they were. Freeman-fever hit me at a far earlier age – Love Actually sex-doubles and The Office *holds back tears*- long before he swine-flu-ed the nation with Sherlock. And so when the Coen brothers abandoned the big screen and, with a slice of inspired lunacy, created a TV series inspired by their own film, they looked no further than Martin Freeman when casting the role of Lester Nygaard. Adding cement to their genius status there, one thinks. (Oh dear, I’ve said Martin Freeman too often and it’s gone weird on me). Martin Freeman’s American accent is on-point and, even though Lester’s choices are at best questionable – making Hannibal Lecter look like the neighbour you’d welcome into your book group – he’s strangely endearing to the bitter end and you really hope he’ll get away with it. Alongside the most chillingly villainous Billy Bob Thornton in the televisual pantheon, the instantly loveable Allison Tollman and Colin Hanks (like Tom, but put through a wringer), and oh-my-god-it’s-Eddie-from-Friends (Adam Goldberg), this series is the ultimate in slow-burn drama… but armed with automatic weapons. Add blood leaking from shower-heads, fish falling from the sky, and the occasional person being dropped into frozen lakes, and you won’t be rushing to book holidays in Minnesota any time soon! Predictably, the ending does not involve the entire cast linking hands to sing a quick round of kumbaya before skipping off into the sunset, but it still maintains some surprise elements. I shall now pour forth a veritable bleeding facet of adjectives to describe this series: dark, funny, sharp, intelligent, horrible, outrageous, hectic, bloody… and it’s coming back. Yes, it’s been renewed for a prequel series which is all the rage right now. Thanks Hobbit!
An American friend recommended that I watched Veep. I am eternally indebted to her. Not only does it present the perfect antidote to any election season, but for all of us captivated and entranced by The Thick Of It this is the same gun-show, transposed to the US. A sort of fly-on-the-wall drama, its abilities to make you cringe pick up where The Office left off. Armando Iannucci’s writing never shies away and will have you laughing whilst hiding behind the sofa in its portrayal of life in the Vice President’s office. The entire cast is magical; every character so well constructed and completely realised that I would find it difficult not to smash a brick into Jonah’s (Timothy Simons) face if I ever met him. Which is deeply unfair – I’m sure in real life he’s charming. From Anna Chlumsky as the Head of Staff, Tony Hale as the personal aide – albeit his main responsibility is memorising the pockets of a valise, but he won an Emmy for his performance – Matt Walsh as the man with a fake dog (every office has one), and Reid Scott as the Iago of the series, to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the VP herself, there is not a wrong note played. I was watching the latest episode today and, when only-Hugh-effing-Laurie got out of the lift as a potential running-mate, I went into a previously unknown subspecies of anaphylactic shock caused by sheer over-excitement. The only downside to this superb show is that the jokes come at such an unprecedented rate, I only get them to a ratio of one in four. Well, that and Sally Phillips… for you see rule two of television turns out to be that, if you’ve ever seen her in Miranda or Bridget Jones, she cannot be taken seriously as the Prime Minster of Finland, complete with accent. But you have to admire a show that so intricately strikes the balance between intelligent political satire and the kind of nicknames that echo around teenage boys’ changing-rooms.
I became obsessed with Girls relatively late in life… if you see what I mean. The show was already wrapping its third season when I stumbled upon the charming, articulate, and witty Lena Dunham on a late night chat show. I was oddly drawn to her, perhaps because of her tattoos of children’s book illustrations, her headband adorned with cat ears, and the more unusual green dip-dyed hair. Maybe it was simply that she’d never been clubbing (seal, or otherwise). As candid as Jennifer Lawrence, but outspoken about women’s rights, the comments underneath Dunham’s YouTube videos make Goebbels’ to-do-list look like what Squirrel Nutkin got up to in his holidays, as she compounds men not wanting to bang her with wilfully having short hair. Being the last guest to arrive at the Girls party did not stop me neglecting family, food, and hygiene to watch every episode in a number of days. This series invites everybody into the hidden world of the female twenty-something, and their relationships with other women, which are simultaneously the most important, the most loving and the most volatile. Although I have never bathed with my friends, which main character Hannah spends an inordinate amount of time doing – it’s a wonder her pals don’t transform into human prunes – Girls is astonishingly accurate. It’s liberal, it’s hilarious, it’s swimming with awkward turtles, and it’s a Republican white male’s nightmare. In fact Lena Dunham is yet another person who can join my enemies list as having stolen my life and made a fortune from it. Not only did I go to university with heaping tablespoons of foe-pretentious Jessas (Jemima Kirke), I also know an abundance of Hannahs (Lena Dunham), Shoshannas (Zosia Mamet), and even a few Marnies (Allison Williams): the most self-absorbed and yet totally self-unaware person in the history of television. Almost every line is an instant catchphrase; what my life is missing is quotes plastered across the land for motivation.
Any production that can use a pink glow-stick as a phallic symbol gets my vote. This series focuses on three gay men living in San Francisco: game-designer, hopeless romantic and naive-puppy Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is a WASP on the brink of turning thirty, who finds himself haplessly tangled in a love triangle. It’s nothing like Frozen. Patrick’s old college roommate is Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), a failing artist who couldn’t organise his way out of a doorway with clearly marked exit signs, and whose greatest artistic achievement is a unicorn collage made of naked men. There’s also glorified-waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett) on the brink of a mid-life crisis who dreams of owning a chicken restaurant and, at the age of forty, still lives with his ex-girlfriend Doris (Lauren Weedman). Weedman cannot be praised highly enough for her role; even as a secondary character her bluntness and sarcasm make me stagger about laughing and applauding. In a perverse way, I want to be her! Each episode is a tsunami of relationships and hook-ups, idealism versus reality, jobs and careers, and the importance of your friends while this stage of your life attempts to water-board you. It’s Girls… but for slightly old, slightly manlier people. Andrew Haigh directs and paces this series as though it were an art-house film; shot entirely on location with whole plots given over to tiny details that allow you to absorb and wallow in the lives of the characters. An entire episode was filmed at Folsom Street Fair: a deeply misleading title which might result in you mistakenly taking your mother along for the antiques (go for the armoires, stay for the leather?!). It’s escapism, voyeurism, and very funny… a little like a highly lubricated adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. You will wish you could speak Spanish, develop a deeper understanding of facial hair, master Raul Castillo’s Deeply Significant Look, and become more au fait with gay slang than is strictly necessary (when being an au pair for a family of five in Munich). Oh, and never forget the third rule of television: you must cast a History Boy. This production picked Russell Tovey and it was totally worth it. It’s a rule that should be spread more widely. On this note, I love the American perception that the Brits – whilst constantly apologising – keep up an almost constant stream of swear words, with the result that the C-bomb is dropped twice in as many minutes. If you’re not at your ease watching men have sex with each other, then this show isn’t for you. Although it is not gratuitous sex for the sake of shock factor. However, I suspect that the occasional glimpse of butt-cheek (and all it represents) is why Looking has been cancelled after just two series.
Some things get cancelled too soon. Often to my howling sobs and furious Twitter outbursts: although as my followers can barely form a sports team, I’m unlikely to start a revolution any time soon, and tweeting is more like bellowing into an empty, wet paper bag. However, other things don’t get cancelled soon enough, and are dragged back onto our screens like a murder victim on a beach. Don’t get me started on Episodes, but a third series of Broadchurch? Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, David Tennant and Olivia Colman are superb actors, although their star quality is tantamount to Stockholm syndrome, dragging your screaming brain through sixteen episodes. Even a second series made the first look like a well-thought-through piece of satirical drama. It takes ‘looking angry on a beach’ to a whole new level. Tennant’s *mysterious-violin-strings* medical condition gets more severe and more unexplained, whilst Colman was so constantly on the verge of tears it was as though she was flat-sharing with an onion. From motherhood to parking meters, she was perpetually flustered. However, the future series 3 can take note of the following: (1) Broadchurch is rapidly catching up with Midsomer to be featured in top towns beset by a constant stream of unparalleled tragedy, like a holiday resort for the Hamlets. (2) Ready for the fourth rule of television? When every viewer and character knows whodunit, the whodunit aspect is somewhat undermined. (3) This series was predominantly filmed at the University of Exeter… which is where I went, and seeing it on TV blew my tiny mind and drove a bulldozer through the third wall into my face. With every door DI Alec Hardy flung open, I became more and more convinced that he was about to stumble upon Professor Gagnier giving her lecture on global circulation and bananas. He would have been out of his depth.
It’s really unfair of me to critique Wolf Hall. I never read Hilary Mantel’s book as some sort of petty payback for everyone who droned on about it as though it was carved on the flip-side of those tablets Moses got. Plus, when it was adapted for television, I only watched the first episode, one eye wandering to my pasta. But I’m not going to let a minor inconvenience like that put me off. After all, nothing ruins a review like knowing what you’re talking about. Rule five when making a television programme is that everything perks up when the beaming redhead of Damien Lewis strolls onto the screen – although he almost neglected to show up to the first episode of this. His auburn locks offer almost the only source of light in the entire episode. I take issue with this. If you’re going to use the original building, not a problem. Authentic music? Be my guest. Appropriate costume? Knock yourself out. But all natural light was a gimmick too far for this viewer. You’re using Damien Lewis. No one is going to think this is a documentary. He’s not really Henry VIII. And he’s surrounded by camera equipment. All you are achieving is that – as well as being beset by a substantial chunk of history I last studied in Junior School, and in a sea of people called Thomas – I can’t see what’s going on. I spent twenty minutes adjusting the brightness settings on my screen in order to make out a face and now I can’t Word Process any more. I think at some unlit moment in a palace my computer screen went to sleep… and I didn’t even notice. I interrupt this grievance to give you this word of warning: I would briefly Wikipedia the Tudors if you’re unfamiliar with it so you’re not reduced to tears, even though it rather takes the ‘will they/won’t they’ out of history. With reference to the cast, Mark Rylance falls into that category of deeply irritating human-beings who are really fine actors He will probably define a generation. He’s portraying Thomas Cromwell… but in the dark, so his presence barely irritated me at all. Not to toot my own horn (translation: toot toot) but I’ve seen him on stage twice – Richard III and La Bête – and he’s utterly compelling. I heard rumours that the delightful Jonathan Pryce – breaking away from playing a succession of controlling dads in Very Annie Mary and Pirates of the Caribbean – was playing a Cardinal in this. I didn’t spot him. And the delightful Tom Hollander was there too. In fact, there were reams of the acting elite lurking in the shadows. Wasn’t Homeland a stroke of staggering genius though… until it became everything that is wrong with television?
PS. On a stunningly accurate recommendation, I was also sucked into David Attenborough’s latest gem, Life Story. It’s mesmerising, heart-wrenching and a real feast… mostly of impala. But I can’t help thinking how unsuited animals are to their natural habitats: “Here we see this tiny rodent which can only live on the world’s rarest seaweed. But curiously it has chosen to live fifty feet up a perilous boulder, with no seaweed in sight. And at the base of the boulder, a troupe of rodent-hungry bears and lions. This little animal will make the longest and most perilous journey on the planet, tumbling down the rock-face, dodging the lions and bears, and eventually finding the seaweed. Unfortunately, due to its poor eyesight, this seaweed is to it indistinguishable from another deadly variety. It’s nearing 60 degrees centigrade in the sun, so with every step the creatures also begin to cook, stalked by ravenous predators. But this cunning little rodent, reaching the pinnacle of evolution, has a hitherto unsuspected weapon up his sleeve: a machine gun.” And that, in Attenborough’s dulcet tones, pretty much sums up nature.