category: Reviews » TV reviews



3
Jan 2012

… and a happy new year!

Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.

Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.

Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.

From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.

Sporting highlights of 2011

Stephen Cluxton scores the winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland finalWith each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.

Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).

In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.

Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.

Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.

Musical highlights of 2011

I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.

The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.

Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.

Ako ti je glasno…

Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!

Movie highlights of 2011

I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011’s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.

The Sunset LimitedAnother notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.

Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.

About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.

There are several of 2011’s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.

Television highlights of 2011

As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.

The TripProbably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.

As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n’sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.

I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.

Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.

So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.

Literary highlights of 2011

Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.

In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011’s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.

Other highlights of 2011

Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.

In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.

I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.

There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.

And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.

2011 Senior Football Final Photo courtesy of independent.ie


2
Aug 2010

Sherlock

I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the original stories when I was a kid and again when I was ill a few years back (they’re perfect reading while ill… stimulating but not too taxing, and evocative enough to lift you out of your present circumstances and transport you elsewhere). I’ve also got the complete box-set of the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett* which is endlessly rewatchable. Brett’s eccentricity in the role is exactly how I imagined Holmes when I first read the stories. Others insist that the rather more restrained Basil Rathbone is the perfect Holmes. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion (absurd though it may be) but for me Jeremy Brett will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I heard about the new BBC adaptation. Updated to modern London and given the faintly irritating first-name-only title of “Sherlock”, it had the potential to be rather ridiculous. As I said to Citizen S when we sat down to watch the first episode, “99% of television is utter crap, so statistically this is likely to be utter crap”.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson

Well, having seen the first two episodes, I am very happy to be proved wrong. It’s actually rather good. The production has managed to update the characters and setting while somehow retaining enough of that stately Victorian grace that defined the Granada series. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes far closer to the Brett than Rathbone end of the spectrum. In the first episode he describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”, a kind of nonsense pseudoscientific phrase that nonetheless suits the character perfectly (and I don’t mean that in a bad way).

There’s a dry humour to the proceedings that drifts just close enough to sheer silliness for enjoyment but never crosses the line and bursts the bubble of dramatic tension. And for those intimately familiar with the source material, there are a vast array of knowing winks and nods to the original Holmes. The “three patch problem” line made me laugh out loud and Holmes’ use of a smartphone to discover that Cardiff was the only place that had the appropriate weather to fit the facts was the perfect update of the original character’s constant trawling through newspapers and reference books.

Interestingly, the heart of the adaptation is Watson. Played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, he’s brought far more to the fore than in previous screen outings, or indeed than in the original stories. Like the original Watson, Freeman is a military surgeon returned from active duty overseas and clearly misses the action. Action he finds aplenty when he teams up with Holmes.

Apparently the BBC have only commissioned three episodes, so the final one will be next Sunday. If you’ve not seen the first two, then I’d advise you to track them down this week (if you’re in the UK then they’re probably on iPlayer… if you’re not, then you might have to wade into the murky waters of the torrent networks, though you didn’t hear that from me) and watch them before the final episode.

It’s a clever, well-written series with new mysteries that nonetheless retain a similar atmosphere to the originals. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever see, not even the best Holmes you’ll ever see, but it is part of that elusive 1% of television that’s not utter crap.

And for that, I am thankful.

* Aside: I met Jeremy Brett once. He was a neighbour of a friend of mine and he invited us in for a sherry one evening. Yes, a sherry! He was exactly as I expected him to be… a wonderful gentleman of the Old School.

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17
Jan 2010

Top TV

The Guardian has recently published a list of the 50 Greatest Television Dramas of all time. As I’ve written before, I don’t watch an awful lot of TV because almost all TV is awful. But I am a sucker for a well-written series containing genuine character development and unexpected plot lines. They only appear very occasionally, but when they do they can hold their own against a good novel or film.

The Guardian’s list contains a fair few shows that I’ve never seen and plenty that I have seen and don’t rate. For instance, the over-hyped Mad Men (No. 4 on their list) I found dull as dishwater and never made it past the third episode. Shows such as Prime Suspect (#19) and Inspector Morse (#30) seem flat, lifeless and formulaic to me. Especially if you’ve got something like The Wire (#14) on the list which demonstrates that you can make a show about the police without it being a hymn to law and order; a hagiography of The Cop… see, for example, Hill Street Blues (#33) or — in the words of Hakim Bey — the “most evil TV show ever”.

I was glad to see that Buffy The Vampire Slayer (#22) made the list, even if it’s a lot further down that I think it deserves to be. I noticed there was some controversy about that in the comments that followed the article (though you can stir up a hornets nest of dissent over at The Guardian by suggesting that the sky might be blue and rain a bit wet). I firmly believe that those who decry Buffy have either (a) never watched it beyond flicking into it for five minutes as they channel surf between Celebrity Big Brother and How Clean Is My House; or (b) been unable or unwilling to see beyond the 90210 with Monsters facade that covers this incredible piece of work.

There’s no way I could make a top 50 TV shows list as I don’t think there’s half that number that I’d consider even watchable, let alone worthy of recommendation. But as a brief response to The Guardian, here’s my Top 15 (I thought I’d only be able to produce a Top 10 and was surprised that there were as many as 13 that I consider genuinely worth recommending… the last two made it in as much to make up the numbers as anything else; fine shows but not essential).

  1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including Angel, the spin-off)
  2. The Wire
  3. Breaking Bad
  4. Twin Peaks
  5. Six Feet Under
  6. Firefly
  7. Carnivale
  8. Dexter
  9. Dollhouse
  10. Millennium
  11. Veronica Mars
  12. The X-Files
  13. Battlestar Galactica
  14. The West Wing
  15. Lie to me

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20
Feb 2007

The methadone metronome

I don’t watch much television these days. There have been periods of my life when my weekly viewing probably matched the average American (i.e. waaaaay too much). And there’s been times when I watched none at all for long stretches. Growing up, I saw very little TV. There was one in the house but it was used sparingly and was heavily censored. My grandfather’s shrill denunciations of “that terrible box” reverberated throughout the many branches of my family tree. That terrible box was responsible for ripping the heart, and the church, out of Irish society he insisted. It sold selfishness and glossy foreign ways. I can vividly remember the furore when Dallas was first beamed into Irish televisions. It represented the death of Irish civilisation, and by extension – at least to grandad – the death of civilisation itself. It was brainwashing us into abandoning tradition and seeking lives of empty self-gratification.

Not that I want to paint the daft bugger as some kind of wise old patrician. His views about television may well have been perceptive, but his views on just about everything else were mad as a badger.

Just before I hit my teens (when my parents attempts at censorship would have ceased to be successful), we moved overseas and I spent the next seven years or so in countries where I didn’t speak the language. So I watched some CNN now and then, but basically the tellybox was where films on video appeared. By the time I hit my late teens I had unconsciously dismissed television as being trash. The world of soap-operas and sit-coms and light-entertainment and cop shows and cartoons was just one big gaping pit of cultural excrement. You could have pointed me towards David Attenborough‘s wonderful documentaries, or perhaps Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But my distaste for the medium blinded me to the idea that it had anything at all to offer.

The Truth Is Out There

Then, however, came The X-Files. For me, that was the beginning of television. In retrospect The X-Files was actually foreshadowed by Twin Peaks, but I came to that one late – many years after it had first been broadcast. I only stuck with The X-Files for the first few seasons, but it made me realise that the medium had finally matured to the point where something truly interesting could be done with it. This was sharp, smart, well-written stuff with production values that rivalled cinema. It was well-acted, had genuinely likeable characters and fit perfectly with the mood of the times.

But it wasn’t just like a half-length movie every week. The X-Files wasn’t cinema reinvented for the MTV generation. It was it’s own unique thing. You can do things over 12 or 20 episodes that you just can’t do in a film. In many ways, a good television series is far closer to a good novel than even the best cinema. The time exists to fully flesh out characters, to linger over intriguing sub-plots and to provide detail and atmosphere that would simply be sensory overload were you to compress it into 90 or 120 minutes. I think of good television as a form of literature.

Since The X-Files there have been a small handful of TV programmes that manage to reach or exceed the bar it set. Probably far fewer than there should be. But at the same time… it’s a wonder any get made at all, given the culture of anti-intellectualism that clearly exists within the television industry. For those interested; here is that list in its entirety…

  • Twin Peaks. David Lynch‘s gloriously warped masterpiece. The one that began it all. An FBI agent shows up at the isolated mountain town of Twin Peaks to look into the murder of young and beautiful Laura Palmer. He goes about investigating the crime as though the murderer was one of the locals, yet all the while connecting Laura’s death to a series of others that happened miles away. Twin Peaks is filled with some of Lynch’s most memorable characters and a rich, dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that infects your dreams. Special Agent Dale Cooper – played to perfection by Kyle MacLachlan – would feature high on a list of Great Literary Characters. A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself. You still can’t get Season 2 of this on DVD, which is nothing short of criminal.
  • Millennium. This series was created by Chris Carter (the man behind The X-Files) and is – in many ways – superior to his more famous work. At least, the first two (of three) seasons are. If you assume the show ends at the final episode of season 2 then you have a near-perfect piece of television. It follows the experiences of Frank Black; another truly fine character, played this time by Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens); an ex-FBI profiler recently recovered from a serious emotional breakdown. Frank gets visions. Of evil. And as the series progresses those visions become increasingly apocalyptic driving him closer to madness. The shadowy Millennium Group is trying to recruit Frank to their ranks, and as he battles to hold his family together in the face of internal and external pressures, the whole world starts to come apart at the seams. Dark as a dark, dark thing. And then some.
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including spin-off series, Angel). The best of them all. Potentially never to be bettered. Joss Whedon created one of the great works of literature of the late 20th / early 21st century, yet lots of people still think it’s “just Beverly Hills 90210 with monsters”. Certainly that’s the phrase I used when my friend Justin recommended it. I seem to recall he described it as “the best thing ever”. He was right. The premise is deceptively simple… vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, ghosts… “everything you’ve ever dreaded was under your bed, but told yourself couldn’t be by the light of day. They’re all real!” But luckily for the human race, there’s one girl in every generation gifted with special powers to fight the hordes of darkness… the slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the lead role, but Buffy is very much an ensemble piece. That’s the beauty of the show; it’s actually about human relationships. Not monsters. From the beginning of Season 1 to the final moments of Season 7, the central theme of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the human condition. Just like almost every truly great work of literature. The supernatural setting merely provides the writers with a wonderfully colourful backdrop against which to explore that condition. So in one episode they can magically remove everyone’s ability to speak… almost an entire episode with no dialogue. In another, Buffy gets the ability to hear everyone else’s thoughts… rapidly driving her insane. In yet another she becomes convinced that her entire world of vampires and demons is a psychosis she’s experiencing while confined to a lunatic asylum. In another, everyone gets their memory wiped by a spell gone wrong. Over and over these fantastical premises are used not (merely) as rollicking good eye-candy, but to highlight the strengths – and the frailties – of the human heart.
  • Firefly. Like Chris Carter before him, Joss Whedon decided not to follow the massive success of Buffy by retreading the same ground. And like Chris Carter before him, this clearly displeased the moneymen. Firefly was never going to sell calendars and mousemats and pencilcases the way Buffy did. It just wasn’t that kind of show. Mind you, at its deepest level, Firefly had exactly the same premise as Buffy… a bunch of outsiders and misfits unite against a hostile universe, and through their love and friendship forge a life worth living. The Ur-Plot. I guess most people will be more familiar with the later film, Serenity, than with the original source material. Which is a tragedy of sorts despite the movie being excellent in its own right. Firefly was cancelled after half a season, and the film serves as a stop-gap “end” to a rich story that had been slowly unfolding. For those unfamiliar with either the film or the TV series, Firefly follows the travels of a starship, ‘Serenity’ (a ‘firefly’-class freighter), as the crew scrape a living on the galactic frontier, all the while evading the law… hot on their heels (in the form of shadowy, sinister covert agents as well as big starships filled with uniformed troops). It’s the life you imagine Han Solo was leading right up until that fateful day in Mos Isley. That said, there’s no aliens in Firefly. Space turned out to be empty when mankind started to explore it. Instead the setting is a very human one. It’s a dirty, dusty future that fuses China with the Wild West. And gone are Buffy’s highschool misfits to be replaced by a bitter war-veteran (from the losing side) and his best friend. Then there’s the best-friend’s Hawaiian-shirted pilot husband; the good-hearted and lovely ship’s engineer; an elderly disillusioned priest; a high-class prostitute; a once-wealthy and influential doctor and his young sister (the character around whom the primary plot arc revolves). The writing was of a quality you rarely encounter in any medium… somehow the characters that Joss Whedon creates have a life and a reality to them that makes him the envy, certainly of this writer, and I suspect many others too.
  • Veronica Mars. Yet more Californian highschool shenanigans. This time though, we dispense with the supernatural and the science fictional. Veronica Mars does to the Whodunnit? genre what Buffy did to horror. The show starts a year after the murder of Veronica’s best friend. A year in which her life has been turned completely upside down. I wouldn’t be doing justice to the gloriously convoluted plot were I to try and summarise it here. Rob Thomas has clearly drawn a lot of inspiration from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep as well as the film based on it, and the whole genre it typified. At the same time, Veronica Mars feels fresh and very relevant… one of the central themes of the first two seasons is the economic inequalities that blight American (and by extension, Western) society… as rigid a class system as has ever existed despite the superficial “anyone-can-make-it” classless nature of America. When Veronica describes her school she points out, “if you go here your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires.” Veronica is an exception, and is in the unique position of knowing what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Her father used to be the town Sheriff. Top law man. And power is as good as money. But when her Dad accuses the richest of all the rich men in town of the murder of his own daughter; Veronica’s best friend; he finds himself hounded out of office and becomes a Private Detective to pay the mortgage (and, it turns out, to continue his investigation into what really happened the night of the murder). Philip Marlowe meets Buffy without the monsters. But in a very very good way.
  • Battlestar Galactica. I’m the first to admit that this programme shouldn’t be half as good as it is. I mean, a remake of a dodgy 1970s space opera famed as much for the preening ponces on the flight deck and their godawful cheesey dialogue as for the ludicrous Greek-mythology allusions. But the creators of the show (and it does seem to be the creation of a team, rather than the vision of one person implemented by a team) have clearly taken a leaf or three out of Joss Whedon’s book. The look and feel of the show is straight out of Whedon’s Firefly… a fact that’s very much to its credit. And just as with Buffy, the fantastical setting is used simply as the backdrop against which the writers can explore human relationships and moral problems. And it is when examining ethical and moral issues that Battlestar Galactica is at its best. The first two seasons are excellent television and alone warrant inclusion in this list. However the third season opens with — to my mind — perhaps the six finest episodes of television ever broadcast. Using the science-fiction setting to create the necessary ‘distance’, the programme examines — amongst other things — the potential justifications for terrorist attacks against an occupying force, up to and including suicide bombings. It does so in a shockingly direct and — dare I say it — compassionate way. More than once while watching I was reminded of Talking Heads’ Listening Wind. Can there be higher praise?

If I’ve omitted something obvious, then let me know. But that short list pretty much covers — for me — the literature of television. My stance with regards to that terrible box has mellowed a little over time, and there’s plenty of other things that are occasionally “worth watching” (The Simpsons, The Mighty Boosh, Futurama, etc) but by and large, when you consider the sheer number of hours of programming broadcast in the English language over the decades, it’s a disturbingly short list.

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