Friday, December 25, 2020

Trials & Tribulations: The Best of 2020

My write-up of 2020, following 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. As always, I don't claim to have seen everything. I watch what I can, when I can, and of what I saw in 2020, these were my thoughts.

Unexpectedly, despite the pandemic curtailing output, 2020 was an awfully good year for television. It started strong, with a half-dozen fine dramas launched in January and February, and by the time the industry shut down, enough shows were in the can that they could be sprinkled through the spring and summer months. Not that there weren’t disappointments, particularly among series I’ve hailed in the past. In my first draft of this essay, I devoted four paragraphs to making my way through all the returning shows that I felt missed the mark in 2020 — Schitt’s Creek, Grantchester, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Star Trek: Discovery, What We Do in the Shadows, The A Word — plus one highly-praised miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, that I didn’t take to. But 2020 was too brutal a year to dwell on the negative. If you’re curious to know why those series didn’t send me, leave a note in the comments, and I’ll happily oblige. But for now, I’m going to focus on the good that came out of 2020, with the sort of old-fashioned “10 Best” list that’s a first for me. Although I caution you: it was tough to separate my feelings about the shows that aired in 2020 from my feelings about 2020 itself. And really: why should I? At any rate, the highlights began the second week of January, with:

10. The Outsider (HBO): I don’t know the last time a TV series gave me nightmares, but The Outsider did. It started with a simple mystery: how can a man accused of a crime be in two places at once? — and given that it was based on a recent Stephen King novel, you knew full well the answer could be just about anything. The adaptation by Richard Price, a masterclass in reimagining King for the small screen, shaped the material into three mini-arcs — the mounting evidence that ultimately made no sense, the multi-city investigation that led to the truth, and the hunt for the real killer in rural Tennessee — and impressively, Price (ably abetted by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Dennis Lehane) sustained a satisfying level of tension throughout. The script managed to stay largely cliché free, with only one unfortunate trope — the peripheral character who’s told to guard a secret and can’t — cropping up in the penultimate episode, but it didn’t do much damage, and in fact, led to a supremely suspenseful showdown. The identity of the outsider, needless to say, was beyond the realm of human experience, but the clues were laid out so methodically that you totally bought into it — and crucially, once the audience was on board, the characters themselves wasted little time falling in line. Most of them had the clarity and foresight to make a leap of faith, and even the ones who were initially resistant came around soon enough, with a little straight talk from family and friends. "Here’s the difference between you and me," one law-enforcement officer told his disbelieving colleague: "You need this whole thing to make some kind of sense that you can live with. I just want it to end." The miniseries was headed by Ben Mendelsohn, who had the hollowed-out look of someone steeped in his own suffering, and the cast was studded with familiar faces, from Mare Winningham to Jason Bateman. But fittingly, the show was stolen by an outsider, someone you thought was going to be a peripheral player (as indeed she is, I later learned, in the novel) but turned out to be focal: a PI whose fate unexpectedly became more important to you than that of any of the other leads, because the character was so singular and the actress (Cynthia Erivo, a talent previously unknown to me, with just a dozen credits to her name) so splendid. Her awkward and altogether appealing romance with a former officer turned security guard (Price's invention, and inspired) added both charm and weight to the proceedings, and made for a final shootout where you were truly caught up in who lived and who died. The Outsider premiered in January to largely laudatory reviews, but I didn’t get around to seeing it until December, nine months into a pandemic in which an invisible killer was claiming victims in ways previously thought unimaginable. By that point, the claustrophobia and uncertainty of our lives added a layer of dread to the proceedings that was almost unbearable. No wonder it gave me nightmares.

9. Flesh and Blood (ITV/PBS): In its story of three grown siblings thrown for a loop when their widowed mother announces she’s met someone new, Flesh and Blood practically raised family dysfunction to an art form. A woman deciding to date 18 months after her husband’s death wouldn’t be much of a basis for a drama, if the children — Claudie Blakley, Russell Tovey and Lydia Leonard, all splendid — weren’t such a horrendous mess of neuroses and self-involvement: so self-absorbed that they couldn’t bear their mother’s newfound happiness. (Her ability to move on with her life somehow threatened the sense of shared misery that sustained them.) And the two women who anchored the series — Francesca Annis as the mother, Vivien, and Imelda Staunton, as her next door neighbor Mary — were a marvelous study in contrasts: Vivien, so effortlessly glamorous and serene, and Mary, all fussy tics and nervous energy. To her great credit, writer/creator Sarah Williams realized that “mere” family dysfunction wouldn’t give the piece the momentum and focus she desired, so she added a crucial incident: a police investigation into a crime from which the whole story unfolded in flashbacks, as family members gave their statements. And that conceit flipped the tone, as it allowed Williams and the cast to explore the material with a more comic edge, highlighting the differences between the stories being spun for the police and the way in which events truly unfolded. And all the while, we were left in the dark as to what the incident was that brought the family in for questioning. Flesh and Blood wove the traditional family drama into something new by introducing and defining a family through the crime they were covering up; it could have veered into camp and self-parody, but Williams and director Louise Hooper knew just how far they could push the material for maximum tension without inviting melodramatic excesses. The series was an original, animated and outrageous, but it concluded with one of the most moving tableaus in recent memory, as the family gathered around the dinner table passing food and sharing anecdotes, and Vivien wandered out to the deck overlooking the sea, alienated from them all. At the heart of Flesh and Blood was the one character who managed to hold onto her honesty and integrity despite all the duplicity swirling around her — and who was left consumed with suspicions, hurt and betrayal. It was an image that haunted me for days: a loving mother victimized by her own children.

8. The Stranger (Netflix): Its plot was powered by a mystery woman who kept appearing to residents of a town, threatening to expose family secrets if they didn’t pay for her silence. But her efforts were practically redundant; the town was already a ticking time bomb of crimes and coverups. The Stranger was a potboiler in the best sense of the word, and if you gave yourself over to it, you were assured a marvelous time. It had the structure of an early Hercule Poirot, when Agatha Christie’s hand was a little liberal with suspects, and the feel of a late Miss Marple, when her hand was a little stingy with clues. Like the best Christies, it never gave you time to reflect on its flaws. And for a series in which nearly all the characters — even the minor ones — were hiding something (and not small secrets: we’re talking solicitation and Munchausen-by-proxy, animal beheadings and faked pregnancies — not to mention several counts of murder), it managed to stay remarkably grounded. It never got so outrageous that you threw up your hands at the rapidly mounting reveals; on the contrary, you welcomed them. Director Daniel O’Hara set a tone in which even as characters‘ lives were being shattered, they never lost their heads; their ability to soldier on sanely (even to allow for moments of levity and camaraderie) prompted viewers to respond in kind. As the husband and family man stunned by news of his wife’s duplicity, Richard Armitage was a revelation. I’ve long been a fan of Armitage’s work, but I’ll be the first to admit he’s a very deliberate actor: it’s both a testament to and a drawback of his skill that his work seems well considered. In The Stranger, he had a buoyancy and spontaneity that were useful and enormously appealing. And second-billed Siobhan Finneran, as the detective investigating the disappearance of Armitage’s wife, walked the same fine line: through the course of the miniseries, her character suffered loss and betrayal, but Finneran saw to it that she never reached a point of anger or despair from which she couldn’t recover. That The Stranger took you to places you didn’t expect was a given — at times it seemed intent on only taking you to places you didn’t expect — but the nicest thing about it was that it didn’t take you to the places you feared. Most of the clichés of the genre were blissfully absent: most specifically the part where the hero is “accused of a crime he didn’t commit.” As it turned out, the hero and the lead detective had a lot in common; they forged a bond through their shared sense of grief. Never having read Harlan Coben’s novel, I can’t say if Danny Brocklehurst’s adaptation was “faithful to the source material.“ All I can say is that this merry tale of malice was as much fun as anything I saw in 2020.

7. Murder on Middle Beach (HBO): Near the top of the final episode of this true-crime drama, Madison Hamburg’s grandmother pulls him aside at a family gathering and offers both admiration and concern for how he’s spent the last six years of his life. She doesn’t know how he manages it: “You're trying to solve a murder and tell a story. It's a lot.” Since 2013, Madison has been filming a documentary about his late mother, who was savagely murdered in March 2010 and whose killer has never been identified. When his mother died, Madison was a troubled teen, and there’s so much that he never had a chance to process: his parents’ divorce and his mother’s alcohol addiction; the loss of the family fortune and the ways in which his mother overcompensated. Madison’s grandmother is right; this is a lot for a young man to take in — and not just a young man. This is a lot for a miniseries to take in. The miracle of Murder on Middle Beach is that this novice filmmaker manages it so eloquently. There are tiny excesses and conceits that seem fussy and unnecessary, and you don’t get exactly the kind of answers you expect. But what you do get is a fascinating study in family dynamics and dysfunction. This isn’t a case of “a family torn apart by tragedy”; this clan of dirty dealers and free spirits, of know-it-alls and ne’er-do-wells, was splintered long before Madison’s mother was struck down. What impressed me most as I was watching weren't the discoveries Madison's investigative team made while digging into his mother's murder, but rather how well the story was sculpted for the small screen. It made sure that you formed strong opinions about characters early on, opinions that were undermined in the episodes to come. It indulged in a steady stream of surprises, and it used all three cliffhangers to catapult the story in directions you never anticipated. And the seven-year shooting schedule allowed you to glimpse the huge changes unfolding on the story's periphery; by the time that Madison and his grandmother had to don masks to enter the police station in the summer of 2020, you couldn’t help but be shaken by the inexorable march of time. But more than any of that, what gave Murder on Middle Beach impressive depth were, ironically, the filmmaker’s own limitations: his inability to see how his conclusions were being clouded by his relationships to the deceased and his other family members. It was a much more subjective work than Madison himself seemed to realize, but it was that very subjectivity that allowed it to pack more of an emotional punch than a traditional documentary might have. Ultimately, Murder on Middle Beach, which premiered a week after Joe Biden‘s election victory, became a story about one young man’s awkward journey towards healing, at a time when our nation was beginning its own long healing process.

6. Bull (CBS): Since Glenn Gordon Caron took over the reins at the top of Season 2, this Michael Weatherly vehicle about a trial scientist who chooses and “reads” jurors has been — as is Caron’s wont — absorbing and unpredictable. But it’s rarely again been as exhilarating as in those first few months of Season 2, when you could feel the writing staff crackling with creativity. And by Season 4, I felt a certain malaise setting in; the show remained engrossing, but a lot of plots took the easy way out, winning the cases not by mastering the psychology of the courtroom but via detective work from Bull’s investigative team, who managed to ferret out clues the police had overlooked. But if I sensed a sameness setting in, clearly so did the writers. By midway through Season 4, the creative team seemed refreshed, and the season concluded with a string of knockout episodes. And then Season 5 kicked it all up a notch — exactly what you want from a show forced into a lengthier-than-usual, pandemic-induced hiatus. The character development — especially during the fall months — has been consistently strong, with Benny’s offer to run for New York City DA catapulting Chunk to greater prominence in the courtroom, and the dissolution of Marissa’s marriage (one of the show’s rare missteps) finally being given substance and prominence. But it was the show’s handling of COVID that propelled it into my top 10. No network series handled the pandemic better: allowing us to see how lives were leveled while life itself continued, and honoring the need for masks and social distancing in a way that impacted, but didn’t interfere with the story-telling. (When FBI agents showed up at Marissa’s apartment at an impossibly early hour, the moment was all more unnerving — and the threat all the more real — because they were masked.) And in particular, Bull was buoyed by a fifth season opener that was, hands down, the best hour of television I saw this past year. Lots of returning network shows chose to tackle COVID in their fall premieres, and several benefitted from the immediacy and the relevance (All Rise, S.W.A.T, Superstore). But those shows looked at how the core characters had been impacted in terms of the practical changes to their lives. Bull’s season opener asked, “What has this pandemic done to us? At the end of it all, what can we expect? Will we have a purpose? Will our talents and skills still be put to use?” It addressed the unspoken fears that we face in an uncharted world. Brilliantly — and without giving too much away — most of the episode was a lavish misdirect: portraying an onscreen world that seemed grim and off-putting, the kind you couldn’t imagine visiting weekly, and undercut — at least on the face of it — by a couple of creative choices that felt bizarre and half-baked. But befitting a show that refuses to be neatly categorized, those turned out to be merely the clues to a puzzle; the whole episode was a trap we didn’t even realize we’d fallen into — and the solution was the most affecting thing I saw in 2020. And the particular genius of Caron’s season opener is that by addressing our anxiety about COVID from two angles — from the point of view of the characters in the show and that of the actors who portray them — its message became universal: speaking to anyone who’s been sick or lost their livelihood and is uncertain what the new normal will be, as well as to those who toil in the entertainment industry — or are advocates of the arts — and fear for its future. The result was a joyous affirmation of the value of creative expression, and of our own capacity to cope and carry on.

5. Life (BBC One): Mike Bartlett’s newest drama reminded us that expertly drawn characters can get us past the hoariest of plot contrivances — and that sometimes those very contrivances can prove useful for defining and deepening characters. On the surface, there wasn’t anything we haven’t seen in dozens of dramas: the long-suffering wife growing to regret the sacrifices she’s made; the young bride-to-be torn between two admirers; the professional screwup (with the alcohol addiction) suddenly burdened with the upbringing of a teenage daughter; the recent widower discovering his late wife wasn’t all that she seemed. But on the screen, Bartlett’s characters seemed startling and complex. The outlines were familiar, but the details felt fresh — and the actors themselves seemed mindful and joyful of the fact that they were transcending type. Life took place in four flats in a converted Victorian home, and showcased the four families living there, the eldest being the owners, the Reynolds (Alison Steadman and Peter Davison, both doing career-best work). Most of the storylines went their separate ways, as befitting people leading private lives that only occasionally intersected. But perhaps it was those moments when their lives did intersect that were the most moving. Sometimes their passions grew so uncontainable that they spilled out of their apartments and into the hallways (sometimes down the front steps and into the driveway), as when one of the residents, Belle Stone (spun off from Bartlett’s Doctor Foster), came home drunk from a failed job interview midway through the series and had a meltdown just outside her door. Little by little, her neighbors gathered, each eying her differently, based on what they knew of her and what she knew about them. And as she writhed in emotional pain, her neighbors proved unable to assist her: their responses too muddied by their preoccupations with their own lives and, as a result, their limited capacities for empathy. (There was no set-piece I saw this year as raw and powerful as that one.) But crucially, across six episodes, the sense of community became increasingly palpable. Near the end, when one of the characters had made an unwise, very public commitment that she couldn't get out of, it was her neighbors who helped extricate her. Not her friends, but her neighbors. And that felt wonderfully right, given the times we live in. Life was an apt story for 2020, a year in which we were separated from our friends, and suddenly very aware of our neighbors. Neighbors that, perhaps, we didn’t know all that well, whom perhaps we still don’t know all that well — except they’re all we see as we stare out from our self-imposed isolations and government-mandated lockdowns. And perhaps we wonder: who are these people, and would they be there for me? And Life gave us a gloriously affirming answer. Even the way it wrapped up — not with a series of happy endings, but with a sense of optimism all around — felt so very right. We need that sense of optimism right now, and Bartlett knew it. It was the perfect series to get us through 2020.

4. Hanna (Amazon Prime): Season 2 was less Hanna than Hanna and Her Sisters, but all the better for it. When I included Season 1 in my 2019 wrap-up, I praised David Farr for his ability to return to his 2011 film, “broaden its scope, redefine its tone and deepen its characters.” Little did I realize Season 1 was mere preamble; in Season 2, he broke his story wide open. And its success was all the more remarkable given that the only constants from season to season were Esme Creed-Miles in the title role, one of a group of teenagers genetically enhanced by a covert CIA operation, and Mireille Enos as agent Marissa Wiegler, who spent Season 1 hunting Hanna down before assuming the role of her sole protector. In Season 1, Marissa was largely a secondary character; Season 2 thrust Enos into the spotlight, and oh, how the series benefited. I’m not sure there was a performance I admired more in 2020. Enos was so electrifying, she practically gave off sparks: so alive and alert for the camera, making us privy to the ways in which Marissa’s upbringing and trust issues and justifiable paranoia ignited her drive and single-mindedness. She let us see every long-term strategy as it was forming and every short-term decision as it was being executed; when she flew up a staircase to hunt for Hanna, or attacked a keyboard to ferret out information, or engaged in a broad charade to derail a police inquiry, she managed all her effects with a minimum of physical fuss, yet her face betrayed all the thought and sweat that went into outrunning the enemy. (When she shot a fellow agent in cold blood, to protect Hanna, you cheered the alacrity and audacity, but you also recognized that she had coolly weighed her options in mere seconds and arrived at the only sensible solution.) Enos was the foundation that bridged the two seasons; she made it easy to accept and adapt to a new setting, cast and format — all of them expertly devised. The conceit of Season 2 was that all the girls who, like Hanna, had been genetically engineered and raised in isolation were now being supplied with new names and backstories, to allow them to assimilate into society. Some greeted these new identities with skepticism and derision, but most latched onto them eagerly, even knowing they were fiction; thirsting so for singularity and some sense of normalcy, they began to correspond with parents and boyfriends and whole families that didn’t exist. (A new CIA recruit was charged with penning all the responses.) And the evolution of these characters, as they began to assimilate, expanded Farr's novel premise to glorious effect. When you finished Season 1, you couldn’t have imagined that a good chunk of the following season would focus on the other girls in the complex that Hanna had escaped from, and that you’d get caught up watching them develop. But as it unfolded, it felt like the full flowering of Farr’s vision: an uncommon alchemy of sci-fi thriller and coming-of-age story.

3. Breeders (Sky One/FX): The opening scene of Breeders pretty much tells you everything you need to know. Paul (Martin Freeman) is seated in his living room, preparing a presentation, while upstairs, his two kids Luke and Ava are yelling at the top of their lungs. He marches up the stairs, cautioning himself not to scream at them: “Do better,” he reminds himself: “Be better.” But the moment he opens the door to their bedroom, he launches into an expletive-fueled tirade, replete with threats and recriminations. And then he catches himself, apologizes profusely, and — at a loss for what else to do — sheepishly closes the door behind him and heads back down the stairs. The damage has been done, and there’s no coming back from it — and he’s both ashamed by and OK with that. Spotting his wife Ally (Daisy Haggard), he admits, “I would die for those kids, but often, I also want to kill them.” And she’s entirely sympathetic: “Yeah, it’s a conundrum, isn’t it: trying to work out which duvet to suffocate them with?” Simon Blackwell’s new comedy (co-conceived with Chris Addison and with Freeman himself) was ostensibly a series about how hard it is to be a parent, but it was really a series about how hard it is to be an adult — and as such, it was pretty much a series that anyone past puberty could relate to. Paul and Ally don’t sugarcoat anything. They’re forever cursing at and in front of their kids. If they’re in a department store and one of the kids starts to wander off, their admonishment is “come here or I’ll shoot you.“ In one great early episode, the family is sitting down to dinner, but Luke — as always — is late to the table. His father has had it, and shouts up the stairs, “Hurry up. Run!” And Luke proceeds to run, stumble and fall down the stairs. We’ve already been treated to a series of flashbacks of Paul rushing Luke to the hospital with various injuries — all easily explained, but to the attending nurse, Paul has started to look like an abusive father. Paul is desperate not to return there; can they just reset his ankle themselves? (Maybe they can find instructions on YouTube.) Of course they end up taking Luke to the emergency room, but they caution him to make it clear that it was an accident. “If I don’t,” he asks fearfully, "will you shoot me like you said?“ And Ally replies without hesitation, “Yeah.“ It’s a rare show that can make Paul and Ally seem like both the most horrifying and the most admirable parents in the world. Life has put them on the defensive — and they’ve got more than just their kids to navigate. Both of them have jobs that present them with countless challenges, and family obligations that keep them forever questioning themselves. And anytime they’re feeling remotely at ease, another shoe drops; surprise and uncertainty lie at the heart of the series. Breeders was the rare UK-US coproduction to air in the States first. It premiered on FX on March 2. At that time there were 102 cases of COVID in the U.S. By the time it left the air eight weeks later, there were over 900,000 cases, and 50,000 had died. Breeders — which thankfully has been renewed for a second season — ended up being a show for and about our unsettled times. It said that you never know where life is going to take you from one moment to the next. There’s almost nothing you can count on, so you press on. You cling to the moments when you feel loved and supported, and you steel yourself for the times when you feel everything slip away. And if it helps you get through it, you swear at your kids.

2. The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC One/HBO Max): A smashing piece of television: wonderfully intelligent and extraordinarily entertaining. As scripted by Amanda Coe and directed by Andrea Harkin and Leanne Welham, The Trial of Christine Keeler didn’t just right the record on Christine Keeler by portraying her as more victim than vixen. It humanized her. It broadened our understanding of her character and her role in the Profumo affair (the scandal that rocked the Conservative Party in the early '60s), while decrying the way she was portrayed in the media and convicted in the court of public opinion: as the teenage nymphet who brought down a decent and upstanding career politician. As Coe scripted her, Christine was groomed to be exactly what she became, and her portrayer Sophie Cookson imbued her with equal parts titillation, fascination and fear: too young to distinguish between the men who wanted to help her and those who wanted to use her, and too proud to admit it. Throughout the series, Christine made rash moves that she mistook for smart decision-making — or justifiable self-preservation. But she didn't have the life experience to plan her actions in advance — and as a result, she was forever second-guessing and regretting the choices she made. Ultimately, Christine didn’t gain wisdom so much as knowledge — of how politicians close ranks around their own, of the biases of the criminal justice system, of how much journalists and policemen will promise, then renege on, to get what they want. And on a more personal level, she learned whom to trust. For just as Coe worked to humanize Keeler, she painted a complex portrait of her mentor Stephen Ward as well. Yes, he was grooming young women for affairs with wealthy men, but Coe made him just as much a victim as Christine. Not “innocent,” no more than Christine was — but not guilty in the way he was portrayed at the time. And James Norton’s portrayal of Stephen — a career-expanding performance — emphasized the duality of his nature: Norton gave him the oily manner of a salesman, but there was a glint in his eye, and the airiness of his voice and the gentleness of his manner (so suited to a society osteopath) were undeniably appealing. Norton made it clear why these girls trusted him — and why, in a very real sense, they were right to. The Trial of Christine Keeler took a look at a scandal that’s long been misconstrued and misreported and came out swinging. It captured all the messy counterculture of the early Sixties: the clothing, the music, the drugs, the overt sexuality — everything that onlookers simultaneously found arousing and irresponsible. It was an era when Christine Keeler could be both siren and scapegoat: a little too wise about pleasing others and a little too naive about looking after herself — and forever mistaking one for the other.

1. Roadkill (BBC One/PBS): Collateral was my favorite TV drama of 2018; Roadkill was my favorite drama of 2020. Both were written by David Hare, and in tone and construction, they couldn’t have been less alike. Essentially the only thing they had in common is that both were masterful. So basically, what we have here is a 73-year-old playwright and screenwriter at the peak of his powers, which, offhand, might just be the most encouraging thing I can say about 2020. Hugh Laurie starred as Peter Laurence, a British politician besieged by scandal: some current, some decades old. But despite being weighed down by baggage, Laurence was very much a man on the move. The brilliance of Roadkill was that, until the series’ final scenes, you had no idea if you were watching his ascent or his fall. Laurie was beyond reproach, and as the current Prime Minister, Helen McCrory served up a no-holds-barred performance that showed the calculation behind every pronouncement, the pleasure behind every takedown, and the potential ruin behind every misstep. Laurie and McCrory anchored the series, but its reach extended far beyond these two. It extended far beyond just about anything I’ve seen, painting a broad canvas not merely of politicians, but of their allies and enemies in the legal system and in the press — all while Hare asked, who holds the power in government? Is it the newly appointed Minister of Justice — or the senior advisor trading away his secrets for sex and access? Is it the think tanks and lobbyists, who can influence public opinion as easily as they purchase politicians? Is it the eager journalist and the weathered editor, both devoted to justice and the truth, or the old-school publisher who’s insistent on preserving her status and her connections? Is it the lowliest of employees, committed — through whatever means it takes — to bettering their stations? Or is it the family members who long ago sold their souls, who are holding tight to whatever measure of self-respect they can retain? It was a landscape where everyone was thirsting for control, and the least likely people seemed to be obtaining and manipulating it. In Roadkill, politics was a weighty business, encumbered by more players than ever: many of them quite capable of grinding government to a halt. It took a whole lot of effort and attentiveness to accomplish nothing. At first glance, Roadkill seemed surprisingly plot-driven. It was all incident. (There were two car crashes within fifteen minutes of each other.) But that was deliberate. The characters — by virtue of the choices they’d made — had left themselves at the mercy of events beyond their control. People who see fit to live in the limelight, who act on the fringes of morality, have — over time — made themselves the victims of their own behavior. They have little control over their destinies. And because of that, Hare could indulge in scene after scene of shocking reveals and reversals that never once felt forced. Through the course of Roadkill’s four hours, there wasn’t one line that seemed out of place; not one character who didn’t make an impression. Everyone had a role to play, because everyone had an axe to grind or a reputation to resuscitate, a life plan to further or family ties worth salvaging. Hare may have written the first character-based drama that masqueraded as a plot-driven one. Fifty years into his career, he’s still upending convention.

Honorable mention: BBC One's Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration, a New Year's Day shot of pure adrenaline that made it seem as if 2020 was going to be the most joyous year of our lives (it was the best misdirect the small screen has ever delivered); Season 4 of CTV’s Cardinal, a wonderful wrap-up to a superior series, with the return to winter months prompting some harrowing scenes of sadism; Series 2 of BBC One’s The Split (although I prefer when the personal story-lines are threaded through a strong procedural arc, as in Series 1, there’s no denying that Series 2 — which played as more of a family drama — packed a punch); Season 32 (!) of CBS's The Amazing Race, a highly entertaining cycle that might well be the show's final burst of glory, as an alliance of three teams — sharing strategy and gameplay to oust the others — pretty much ensured the format will never be the same again; ITV's achingly tragic Deadwater Fell, from Granchester creator Daisy Coulam, with a mesmerizing performance by David Tennant and one highly relevant message: listen to women; Netflix’s debut season of Young Wallender, decried by those with a fanatical devotion to the source material, but pungent and provocative, and the rare series that never thought it was as good as it was (for the first episode or two, star Adam Pålsson was forced to go shirtless every third scene, as if the creators felt they needed more of a hook than the characters, the setting and the story-lines); and the latest edition of Channel 4’s Great British Bake-Off, which didn’t feature the strongest set of bakers, but in many ways the most evenly matched, and a highly likable lot to boot.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Voyager Season 4, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes, 10 Best Designing Women episodes and 10 Best Kate & Allie episodes; delve into Rhoda Season 3, Newhart Season 7, Maude Season 2, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.


  1. Another great recap, Tommy. I will have to say that Flesh and Blood has grown on me since I first saw it on the PBS. I may have to give a rewatch as well.

    Totally agree with you on the Roadkill. I have watched that series twice more and each time find myself echoing your thoughts about characters "at the mercy of events beyond their control." This was one of PBS' better Masterpiece offerings in quite a while.

    Speaking of Masterpiece, no Sanditon on your list? :-) PBS started a re-run last week, with the last four episodes tomorrow night. I will watch again, because I am enjoy being annoyed, I guess?

    In terms of Being Annoyed, I will beg to differ with you on the GBBO this season. The bakers were affable enough, but the program's trend of ridiculous Technical Challenges and Show Stoppers continued untrammeled. I miss the days when a punter like me could watch the show and have half a chance to make some of what was presented on screen. I suppose it is an example of a program having to keep upping the stakes so as not to repeat itself -- but I found it annoying...

    And the conditions in the tent were horrendous for baking. Plus the COVID restrictions were less-than-ideal; I got the feeling that some of the bakers just were ready to go. *I* get stressed watching the show, so I can only imagine how stressful it was to be in the bubble *and* having to bake *and* deal with Paul Hollywood...

    I do hope that Netflix picks up Life. I watched the first series of Doctor Foster, and have yet to start the second one. Your description makes me want to see it *now*.

    I am interested in your thoughts on the end of Schitt's Creek. I mostly liked the final season, but I had some vague off-putting feelings about it. I haven't decided if those were due to rushed denouements for all the characters, or if it wasn't rushed but just quite pat, standard happy endings all around.

    One last thing: my Beloved Reason for Living is a bit cross with me for not letting her know Richard Armitage has a program on the Netflix. Guess what we will be starting soon...

    1. Omigosh, you’ve watched ‘Roadkill’ two more times! That is impressive. I only saw it the once, and as I think I mentioned when I first reviewed it, wrote my essay immediately after, because it left me with so much I wanted to say. I’m so glad it stood up to repeated viewings. So odd: the reviews were quite mixed in the UK, but largely laudatory here. I’m not quite sure what the difference was, except perhaps folks in the UK hated being reminded of the fragility and deficiencies of their own political system. Maybe folks here were so gratified that there were other political landscapes as murky and flawed as ours. :)

      I don’t think I disliked ‘Sanditon’ as much as you did, but it certainly wasn’t going anywhere near my “best of“ list. I think you just had to accept at a certain point that you weren’t seeing anything remotely resembling Jane Austen anymore, and that perhaps after a lifetime of doing faithful adaptations, Andrew Davies just thought to himself, “Screw this. I just want to do one my own way.”

      In terms of 'Schitt’s Creek,' I thought the first 10 episodes or so were uneven and fairly tepid. It was the first time I felt that the show’s need to focus weekly on the entire principal cast — by shuttling between A, B and C plots — had led to a bit of creative burnout. Episodes would end, and both Philip and I would be left thinking, “Was that it?” Too many of the vignettes seemed to be treading water, and did so with weak payoffs (e.g., Stevie’s time at Larry Air — I couldn’t believe her quest for independence and identity, which seemed to grow out of her successes and disappointments in Season 5, was basically just played for laughs). It wasn’t until the principal cast was united in that one plot near the end of the season, in the escape room, that I felt the show regain its mojo.

      We will politely agree to disagree about GBBO — or perhaps we should impolitely disagree, and hit each other over the head with rolling pins. You know, something kitchen-y. I didn’t really have a problem with the difficulty of the technicals or showstoppers. Yes, there were a couple of technicals where all of the bakers screwed them up mightily, but these were bakers who couldn’t even make a brownie. (Philip makes a delicious brownie — I told him he should apply for next season.) And mostly, I was impressed, given some very challenging showstoppers, that quite a few of the bakers came through magnificently. We enjoyed the season quite a lot, and my only reservations about it were that I didn’t think Matt Lucas found his place and his groove for a while, and that I didn’t think the bakers overall were up to the level of previous contestants.

    2. I readily agree that my dislike of the Sanditon is directly in proportion to that part of it that is not based on Austen's novel. Had it all been Davies creating the story out of whole cloth, I probably would have been more forgiving. But when it comes to Jane... [insert harrumphing bunny here]

      And oh my science we agree on the Schitt's Creek -- "tepid" is a perfect way to describe those episodes. And Stevie was quite ill-used during her search for her own direction -- I wonder if the writers didn't want her going off on her own like Alexis did? With Johnny and Moira also leaving the town perhaps it would have been too great a leap for Stevie to leave too.

      Regardless, the ending underserved Stevie, and was rather a letdown in general. [insert another harrumphing bunny here]

      Oh -- and instead of rolling pins, perhaps we could pelt each other with dinner rolls, like they do at the Drones Club (from another program, perhaps one in which you could review here :-) ). The whole brownie ordeal bothered me as well -- and I'm a baker who only does bread, not sweet, and I can make a brownie for science's sake. I will admit I am still harrumphing about the pita bread technical from the 2018 final round, and that may color my harrumphiness about all following challanges [insert one final harrumphing bunny here]. hee hee :-)

    3. I found it so ironic that the Television Academy finally woke up and rewarded 'Schitt's Creek' -- for a season that was (to my mind) notably inferior to the previous three or four. But then the Television Academy often comes late to the party. I remember they finally gave 'Everybody Loves Raymond' the Emmy for Best Comedy for Season 7: its first subpar season.

      Meanwhile, that’s a whole lot of harrumphing bunnies. I really need to reconfigure this site to allow for photos and GIFs; it would be much more colorful. And then I could finally write that "Best Doctor Who Hats" essay that I know everyone is clamoring for...

  2. You thought STD and Bly Manor missed the mark? What kind of monster are you? I do agree that Keeler was brilliant, however. Just this afternoon I was watching the final scene, where she slips back into anonymity to the tune of 'Your Really Got Me' by the Kinks. One of my favourite scenes of the show, and possibly 2020. Not difficult, I know, what with content being so sparse.

    1. If I tell you that I really liked episode 6 of STD and episode 5 of ‘Bly Manor,’ does that make me less of a monster? I know my feelings about STD are distinctly in the minority (although Philip, I believe, thinks even less of this season than I do). In particular, though, I feel the whole "I don't know where I fit in" story arc for Michael *really* doesn't play to Sonequa Martin-Green's strengths. I find her very capable and often very appealing, but I don't think that sort of subtle inner turmoil is something she can pull off.

      I obviously agree that ‘Christine Keeler’ was splendid, but truthfully, I had forgotten *how* splendid, because of course I saw most of it last January, and had seen none of it again since. But happily, it finally showed up on US TV this month, and I was able to rewatch. BTW, James Norton’s film ‘Mr. Jones’ was denied wide release because of COVID, but is now showing up on streaming networks everywhere. We thought it was wonderful: a part of history we knew little about, and great performances by Norton and Peter Sarsgaard. Worth checking out.

  3. >>If I tell you that I really liked episode 6 of STD and episode 5 of ‘Bly Manor,’ does that make me less of a monster?