Black Mirror: White Christmas review

black mirror White Christmas Jon HammBlack Mirror is not, according to its creator Charlie Brooker, anti-technology. It’s concerned, rather, with technology’s potential to worsen human weaknesses. “I think that’s what Black Mirror is saying,” Brooker said in an interview to promote series two of the show. “What if the pace of change [of technology] is out of control, and we haven’t evolved to deal with it yet in the same way that we as basic apes haven’t really evolved to take responsibility for nuclear weapons?”

In White Christmas, a feature long episode that follows the previous two series, that theme is certainly visible. Utilising a format that seems particularly Christmassy, the film began with Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) and Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) – workers, seemingly, in an isolated location – sitting down to tell each other stories in a cold cabin.

Like most of Black Mirror, Matt’s story dealt with a society more connected than ever thanks to technology, and yet one in which isolation and loneliness remains, and if anything is made worse by that technology. In this world, everyone has gadgets implanted into their eyes, presumably at birth, that opens up a world of possibilities and problems.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The Best TV of the Year 2013

I’m not sure how legitimate these end-of-year lists are. As The New Yorker‘s TV critic said: ‘The best TV shows of the year can’t be boiled down to numbers…Plus, like many TV critics, I haven’t seen every show.’

I like these lists, but when I read them, I’m looking for an informed and discriminating opinion from someone striving to remain free from the influence of hype and pack journalism. So that’s what I’ve tried to provide below, with the best shows of the year, arranged roughly in descending order.

Continue reading

The best TV of the year so far

Everyone else is doing these articles so I figured I’d do one as well. There’s only so much TV I can watch though, so there’s probably some omissions, and feel free to call me a cunt below the line for missing out your favourite. Or just disagree politely, either way’s good. The list encompasses any non-American show aired in the UK since January 1, and any American show aired in the US since the same date.

The Challenger (BBC Two)

Challenger: Final Flight BBCThis dramatisation of Richard Feynman’s investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster told the story of a genuinely maverick personality whose persistence in intellectual thinking unravelled a dangerous culture at NASA.

The drama was at its best when illustrating the true nature of conspiracies and cover-ups: that they are often just well meaning individuals trying to protect an organisation they care about. William Hurt was excellent in the role of Feynman, playing a very likable character but conveying a slight arrogance beneath the surface.

The Challenger is a film that inspires hope that competent and intrepid individuals exist out there, with the ability to unravel wrong doing by powerful organisations via sheer determination and superior intellect.

Bob’s Burgers (Fox [US])

Bobs-BurgersFamily Guy gets all the attention, American Dad is hailed as surprisingly good, The Simpsons is seen as the established genius and South Park is loved as the sarcastic, satirical rebel. The best cartoon on television right now though is none of these; it’s the overlooked Bob’s Burgers, a show packed with rapid-fire jokes, hilarious characters, inventive storytelling and genuine heart.

Highlights from season three include ‘Topsy’ in which 9-year-old Louise sought to expose the diabolical truth behind Thomas Edison – that he once electrocuted an elephant. The episode culminated in an outstanding showpiece song, and such songs are the show’s hallmark – original, funny music that is incredibly catchy.

And if humour and music isn’t enough, Bob’s Burgers makes an effort to provide real and engaging characters, and builds episodes around their relationships, issues and fears. This show is early Simpsons good.

Black Mirror (Channel 4)

black-mirrorThe second series of Black Mirror didn’t live up to the standards of the first, but it is still one of the most thought provoking shows on British TV, very reminiscent of the message-laden Twilight Zone.

The first episode explored the modern world’s online obsession with chronicling every aspect of their lives, and how such timelines and archives of personal information have the potential to make it much harder for people to grieve and let go of dead loved ones.

The second episode – an attack on a voyeuristic culture and a populist approach to justice – was a little messy, while the third – in which writer Charlie Brooker attacked his own industry, as he often does – veered off into dystopian conspiracy. But the show deserves a place on this list for at least providing interesting ideas and themes, and for managing to be genuinely frightening at times (see horrifying photo above).

The Returned (Channel 4)

The Returned Episode EightChannel 4 took a risk showing the French language supernatural drama in a prime time Sunday night slot, but it’s a risk that paid of in the ratings.

The Returned’s first episode was outstanding; gripping, dark and scary. The show span its wheels a little in the middle, and its final episodes set-up one too many mysteries that were left frustratingly unresolved, but the series as a whole was very enjoyable. As long as they have writers who are aware of the first series’ flaws, there’s no reason The Returned can’t make a welcome, er, return next year.

Arrested Development (Netflix)

arrested-developmentCult comedy Arrested Development was cancelled in 2006 after season three but six years of campaigning by fans saw it brought back via the online streaming service Netflix.

Season four opened awkwardly and disappointingly. The show’s central anchor Michael had been reduced to a pitiful version of himself. Early seasons made the point that Michael was ultimately good natured, unable to screw over his brother even when justified and when trying incredibly hard to do so. In season four he seemed like a completely different, selfish and delusional version of himself.

Halfway into the season though things began to pick up and the show returned to form, with its trademark call-backs and layers and layers of plot and jokes. Sure, it was flawed, with dodgy Green Screens at times and a noticeable lack of multiple actors in the same scene at once (thanks to those actors being tied up with other projects), but for a show returning from a six year hiatus it worked surprisingly well.

The final scene of the last episode was outstanding, cinematically and thematically satisfying, beautifully directed and acted, and indicating that there is almost certainly more of the show to come. For Arrested Development fans, it was a perfect ending to over half a decade of hope and campaigns.

Complicit (Channel 4)

ComplicitAiring around the same time that Zero Dark Thirty picked up a fuckload of awards, Complicit showed a more brutally honest and less glamorised version of the intelligence industry. While Kathryn Bigelow’s film was made with cooperation from Barack Obama’s administration and was guilty of serving as propaganda, Complicit admirably took a restrained and objective view on the difficulties and problems of combating terrorism.

David Oyelowo played MI5 agent Edward Ekubo, tasked with flying to Egypt to interview a British citizen suspected of planning a terrorist attack on UK soil. Frustrated by bureaucracy and human rights laws, the agent commissioned an Egyptian colleague to torture the suspect.

The drama subtly raised a number of interesting points. Edward was in large part motivated by his own psychology; a belief that he was being held back for promotion due to his race and less privileged background. His own personal issues drove his actions, which is something overlooked when we examine the horrible things our nations do – that is, the personal issues of the individuals involved.

Also questioned was the effectiveness of torture, and how it can corrupt those who use it, and how incredibly counter-productive it can be. This is the film that should be winning all the awards, not the US president approved Zero Dark Thirty.

The Americans (ITV)

the_americansYes, it can be a little unbelievable at times, but this 1980s spy show, about Soviet agents living with a family in the United States, is consistently exciting and uses the deceit-filled world of espionage to examine personal relationships.

Keri Russell is great as the icy Elizabeth while Welsh actor Matthew Rhys plays her husband Philip, a gentle and likeable counterpoint to his distrustful and permanently suspicious wife.

My main criticism of the show is that – the two main characters aside – the Russians are nearly all bad guy stereotypes, while the Americans are portrayed as flawed but fighting the good fight. In short, it has the lack of objectivity you’d expect from a show about the cold war produced in a country that was one of the two combatants in that war.

Hannibal (Sky Living)

Hannibal - Season 1The best indicator of this show’s worth is that it can be described as original despite there already existing five movies and numerous books about the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.

The first episode of Hannibal threw the audience into the deep end, leaving it up to the viewer to catch on to what was happening, and who the characters where, without trying to hold anyone’s hand. The tone of the show is consistently unnerving and creepy, making it quite hard to watch at times; it’s like someone is permanently scraping their nails down a blackboard while you watch, and that person is a serial killer, and he’s right behind you.

The protagonist is Will Graham, an FBI special agent with a gift for empathising with serial killers, a gift which allows him to find those killers. Graham is assigned a psychiatrist to help him with his ‘gift’, and that psychiatrist is Hannibal Lecter. The show made a point of portraying Hannibal as likeable and genuine, and for the first five episodes he does only one thing that suggests his true nature, and that thing is a simple phone call.

Danish actor Mad Mikkelsen is great as the creepy psychopath Hannibal, who genuinely considers Graham a friend, and yet can’t help but toy with him, and endanger his mental health. The show can be unnecessarily grotesque at times, and revels far too much in its scenes of torturous death, but it is often quite intelligent, and incredibly gripping.

Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)

mad_menMad Men is the deepest programme on TV. There is so much to dig into. Every scene is laden with so much history. It has pushed forward television as an art form and done things no other TV show has done; namely, accurately illustrating the complex reality of relationships between people.

At the centre of the show is the relationship between Peggy and Don, a relationship which reached a watershed moment last season when the two characters subtly acknowledged how much they meant to each other. In this season, the relationship started to poison, as Don let his bitterness and personal hang-ups fuck with Peggy’s life, and he himself slid further down a slope of self-destruction. In the season’s final episode, a refreshing candour about his own life screwed up Don’s personal circumstances but indicated that he might be finally starting to come to terms with his own identity, and that he might be about to build an honest and happy life.

It’s really hard to explain the sheer outstanding and groundbreaking nature of Mad Men to people who don’t watch it. The best comparison I can make is to a large novel; one which traces the characters over decades, and at the end of which you have formed a bond that leaves a painful feeling of loss when you close the book.

Utopia (Channel 4)

utopia channel 4As an avid watcher of US drama it’s been disappointing to see the UK unable to produce running dramas that come anywhere close to the quality of the best US shows. With Utopia, Channel 4 went some way to redressing this situation.

A complex conspiracy drama, Utopia came with unique and utterly stunning cinematography and directing, which echoed the comic books the show was indebted to, most notably Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

The soundtrack was incredible and the acting stellar, in particular from the two youngsters playing Grant and Alice. Paul Higgins was great as the empathetic everyman stuck in a terrible situation, and Neil Maskell made his character Arby unique and terrifying, before turning this killer of children into a likeable person.

Utopia was criticised for its hyper violence, but the show was making a point about such violence in TV. Unlike in most film – where characters get shot and shrug it off no problem – the characters in Utopia were all physically and mentally altered by the violence they suffered. Despite being very stylized, Utopia had some of the most realistic portrayals of violence on television, showing as it did how violence has consequences.

From its opening to its closing scenes, Utopia was unique, awesome to look at, intelligent, funny, and populated with enjoyable characters and outstanding acting. Utopia is one of the best British dramas in a long, long time.

Shamelessly Excluded Because I Didn’t Watch It

Broadchurch

Just Off the List

Dancing on the Edge. With an all star cast, this period piece was incredibly, incredibly slow; unnecessarily so. Once the pace picked up, it got better, and subtly criticised upper-class attitudes to race, and noted how prejudice can come in many shades.

Justified. A fantastic American show about a US Marshall in rural Kentucky, but season four was a little unstructured, and messy, and didn’t have an engaging enough narrative or central focus.

In the Flesh. BBC Three’s Zombie drama built an interesting world and addressed issues from mental illness to discrimination and prejudice, but it was a little too short, with too much packed in. The second series airing next year, with an expanded length, can build on this series and fulfil its potential  .

Surprisingly Good Award

Plebs, a show I expected to be utterly awful, but which turned out to be very funny, if lacking in any depth or any memorable plot or characters (beyond Grumio, but he’s pretty much just a modern Baldrick from Blackadder).

Nathan Barley: A retrospective review, the self-loathing of Charlie Brooker, and the elusiveness of Christopher Morris

Nathan Barley‘Stupid people think it’s cool, smart people think it’s a joke; also cool.’

Nathan Barley aired in 2005, consisted of six episodes, received mixed reviews, bombed in the ratings and then disappeared. Since then, the show has become a cult hit celebrated for its prescience, and it regularly works its way into the vocabulary of cultured, TV enthusiasts. I think it’s worth taking a fresh look at the show, its relevance and themes, and the careers of those involved.

[You can watch the whole series on 4oD, or alternatively, on YouTube: Episode One]

Set in media trendy parts of London, the series is about Nathan Barley, a moneyed, obnoxious young hipster with a website; Dan Ashcroft, a writer for a counter-culture magazine who despises the people he writes about and the culture he is a part of; and Dan’s sister, a documentary maker trying and failing to get her serious issue films produced.

….

At the time it aired, the show was criticised for having a very narrow focus. It satirised a specific type of London-based culture, as shown in the above video, and the critique from the London-based journalists was that only those familiar with the culture would get the joke. I’d argue that Nathan Barley was actually broader than that, but in any case, the show has had more success in recent years thanks to the growth of the culture evident in the show, and the fact that everyone is now familiar with it, thanks to the internet. Hipsters are now ubiquitous not just in London and other large cities, but everywhere, to such an extent that there’s even a backlash against the word hipster.

The show mocked these people for their desperation to be cool and their desire to appear to be creative and smart without having to put any work or thought into it. And it mocked the media for falling for such bullshit, and conferring inherent worth on anything with ‘.com’ attached to it and anything that tapped the ‘zeitgeist’. Nathan Barley embodied these types of people, and their pathetic attempts to be at the forefront of any ‘cool’ trend regardless of how idiotic.

….

Nathan is actually a pretty empathetic character in the show. He’s not malicious in his dickishness, and you often feel sorry for him. Your shift in attitude towards him is mirrored in your attitude towards Dan Ashcroft. In episode one, he is portrayed as the audience’s surrogate, moored within a sea of stupidity. But as the series progresses, you realise that he is just as much of a dick as everyone else, but worse, because he thinks he’s better than them. He is completely complicit in the world, and more at home in that culture than any other. In one hard to watch scene, Dan attends an interview at a proper newspaper, only to fail miserably because he doesn’t have any ideas to pitch.

….

‘I don’t want to go back. Because they’re idiots. And they ride around on little plastic tractors. So…please.’ Man, is that a hard scene to watch. It illustrates though the difference between many counter-culture – nowadays, mainly internet – journalists and newspaper journalists; the latter actually have ideas and do actual journalism, the former tend to write opinion, and there is often little beneath the surface. The magazine in the show, SugerApe, is based on Vice magazine, and its often smug, irony-laden reporting which can be guilty of having this lack of depth.

Nathan Barley was written by Chris Morris – one of the best UK satirists of recent years – and Charlie Brooker, famous now for Screenwipe and Black Mirror and various other shows, but at the time pretty unknown. I think there is a lot of Brooker in the miserable and misanthropic Dan Ashcroft.

Much of Charlie Brooker’s work has a streak of self-loathing in it. The Waldo Moment – an episode from the second series of Brooker’s Black Mirror – features as the main character an insecure TV satirist, who starts to think his comedy is empty and offers nothing constructive. Brooker himself is a TV satirist, who has made similar points in his Guardian columns about political criticism. In the Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits, there is a character who gives an angry, genuine speech about the nature of society and entertainment, only to be given his own TV show where he spouts such opinions each episode for money. It’s basically Screenwipe; Brooker is openly criticising himself.

In Nathan Barley, Ashcroft works for a magazine he hates, writing articles that are celebrated by the people they are mocking. He is hailed as the ‘Preacher Man’ by the idiots he hates. Brooker once worked for lad’s mag Loaded, which is crazy considering his seeming dislike for that type of laddish, misogynistic culture. Here’s a quote from Brooker’s Wikipedia page, about his work for a different magazine:

In February 1998, one of Brooker’s one-shot cartoons caused the magazine to be pulled from the shelves of many British newsagents. The cartoon was titled ‘Helmut Wrestler’s Cruelty Zoo’ and professed to be an advert for a theme park created by a Teutonic psychologist for children to take out their violent impulses on animals rather than humans. It was accompanied by Photoshopped pictures of children smashing the skulls of monkeys with hammers, jumping on a badger with a pitchfork, and chainsawing an orang-utan, among other things.

That is like something straight out of Nathan Barley. The quote at the top of this article – ‘stupid people think its cool, smart people think it’s a joke; also cool,’ – from Dan’s editor in the show, could apply to Brooker’s cartoon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Brooker found the satire in the cartoon – of video game violence, apparently – was lost on many.

One of the main themes in Nathan Barley is how people are co-opted by the stupid culture in the show. Ashcroft finds himself drawn consistently back to the world he despises, and his sister Claire takes money, equipment and jobs from Nathan, despite wanting to make serious films. Nathan Barley was in large part Brooker venting his frustration at the industry he worked in, and his frustration at himself for working in that industry.

….

The other writer is Chris Morris, of Brass Eye, The Day Today and Four Lions fame, and one of the best satirists the UK has produced. The thing about satire is that it can often be misconstrued. Watch one of Al Murray The Pub Landlord’s shows to see an audience of people failing to grasp irony. There’s a scene in Nathan Barley where a TV commissioner – rumoured to be based on an exec at Channel 4, the channel Morris made some of his programmes for – talks in pretentious language about Nathan’s video pranks on a colleague. ‘It’s Swift as Jackass,’ he says. ‘Or…even faster,’ Nathan replies. You can imagine Morris himself attending such meetings, being told of the genius of his work by people whose opinion he doesn’t value.

The difference between Morris and Brooker is that Morris has purposefully avoided the media glare and celebrity, granting very few interviews and staying away from most mainstream television. I suspect it’s a deliberate attempt to avoid the trappings of such fame; of becoming a part of the things he satirises. Brooker on the other hand couldn’t resist the temptation of mainstream shows like You Have Been Watching and has made numerous appearances on popular television panel shows. Rather than avoid publicity and the mainstream like Morris, Brooker takes part in it and then vents his feelings via his writing – 15 Million Merits, for instance. Both he and Morris are concerned with the ability of the idiotic part of our culture to co-opt the intelligent parts, even the parts that are explicitly criticising the stupid bits. Nathan Barley is the most complete expression of this idea.

….

As I mentioned above, the show is as relevant now as it was when it originally aired. There’s a great, very clever song on YouTube called ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’ which mocks a type of modern Londoner who wouldn’t be out of place in Nathan Barley. And here’s a video of the song being played live, in London, with an audience of people who dressed up ironically for the gig, to see a band mocking a culture they are probably a part of. It’s so many layers of irony you get lost in it and forget who you’re supposed to be hating. This is what Nathan Barley sought to capture; a culture of stupidity that everyone is complicit in, where it’s hard to tell who is genuinely creative, who is posing as being creative and who is being creative ironically. ‘Ironic porn purchase leads to unironic ejaculation,’ is the headline on an article from The Onion, which sums up the idiocy in ironies domination of popular culture.

The show’s themes are incredibly interesting, and if Nathan Barley falls down anywhere it is in more routine areas. The series wasn’t, for instance, hilarious, but the unique argot of the characters – ‘You should come, dollsnatch. It’s gonna be totally fucking Mexico’ – is funny throughout, and mirrored in modern day idiotic phrases like ‘totes amazeballs.’

The characters are very well written, evoking empathy and distaste in equal measure. The acting is so good it’s surprising that the actors aren’t better known now. Nicholas Burns and Julian Barratt are outstanding as the two leads, Dan and Nathan, and Claire Keelan is so good as Claire it’s baffling that she hasn’t had greater success since (same could be said for Nicholas Burns).

It’s often argued that Nathan Barley was ahead of its time, but I think it applied just as much in 2005 as it does now; it’s just that the culture it satirised has grown and spread and so now more people are aware of it. The show perfectly mocked the media’s childish desire to be cool, to be at the forefront of whatever is new. It brilliantly illustrated how intelligence and talent can be consumed by the idiotic mainstream elements in the media, and in society in general, and it depicted the smug and ironic attitudes of new media which still dominate a lot of online journalism today. The characters are so well rounded, the world so satirically over-the-top and yet accurate, that eight years after it aired it has stayed with people who watched its original run.

Nathan Barley deserves to be more than a cult hit, but I’m glad it isn’t; that way, I can be one of the cool guys tapped into the zeitgeist, writing online articles about the intelligent, cool shows most people have never seen. It’s only appropriate. Peace and fucking, yeah?