100 Films @ 10: Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years

This may be a film blog, but you’d be a fool to deny the rise in quality and significance of TV series in the past couple of decades, to the point where a lot of mainstream TV is arguably of higher quality than mainstream movies. So it seemed only appropriate to include it in my celebration of the last ten years.

We’ve all heard about how we’ve reached ‘peak TV’, and with so much television we’ve all missed something we should’ve caught — many things, probably (my list of “stuff I haven’t seen any/enough of” would probably be longer than this one). Nonetheless, here are ten of my favourite TV series that were on at some point during the last decade.

10
The Great British Bake Off

There are all sorts of prestigious dramas I could’ve put in this position — things I’m much more likely to revisit, too — but there’s more to TV than that. Just because we’re not going to buy something in a box set and critically (re)analyse it for years to come doesn’t necessarily mean it has no value. Of course, if you don’t get the appeal of Bake Off then I’m not sure anyone can explain it to you. I mean, who could’ve predicted that a bunch of people in a tent baking cakes while a pair of comediennes make gently naughty puns would become the biggest thing on British TV? If that makes it sound undramatic… it is. Well, apart from bingate. But that’s actually why it works so well (and why so many people actually hated all the fuss provoked by the aforementioned dumping of a baked Alaska) — it’s just lovely. And surprisingly entertaining with it. Or it was until the producers got greedy and shuffled off to Channel 4, potentially shattering the alchemical mix that made the show work. Oh well.

9
Detectorists

This understated BBC Four sitcom about the lives of a group of people who enjoy metal detecting (a hobby whose participants are not “detectors”, they’re detectorists) is quietly one of the best comedies on TV in recent times, both very funny and rather touching. Starring, written, and directed by Mackenzie “Gareth from The Office” Crook, it’s nothing like that series and all the better for it. It also includes a great performance from co-star Toby Jones, whose Lance starts as a somewhat-pathetic supporting turn but reveals many layers by the end.

8
Mad Men

The critically-acclaimed story of ad men in ’60s New York, Mad Men is a rich and frequently abstruse drama that on the surface looks almost soapy but quite clearly is nothing so shallow. It works best in the long run, slowly accumulating character moments and events in ways that pay off down the line, resulting in some stunning scenes and episodes. It’s only so low on this list because it seemed to waver a bit in later years, and I’m still not sure how I feel about its ending. (On the bright side, it didn’t go thoroughly off the rails like, say, Dexter.)

7
Outnumbered

At the risk of sounding like one of those music groupies who are all “I liked their early stuff, before they got famous,” I remember when Outnumbered was buried late at night and it seemed like no one watched it, but those of us who did hoped against hope for a second series because it worked so well. It later morphed into a mainstream staple, but deservedly so — its semi-improvised “kids say the funniest things” format created a veracity that even the best scripted sitcoms fail to match. As the kids have grown it’s become more traditional, I suppose, but retained a smart eye for the absurdism of real life.

6
Romanzo Criminale

Little seen in the UK (or anywhere outside Italy, perhaps) because it was buried on Sky Arts just as the craze for European crime TV was taking off, this Italian gangster saga is consequently an underrated specimen of quality continental drama. Telling one epic story across two seasons and 22 episodes, like many of the best series its effectiveness comes less from individual episodes and more from the way events and complexities build over time. Fortunately Arrow have released it on DVD, so anyone with curiosity (and a spare £30) can see what they’ve been missing.

5
Sherlock

Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the Great Detective is the most popular British TV character in the world now. I guess that’s in spite of the criticism the series has regularly attracted across its last two runs. Of course, the ratings continue to be massive, so it must be doing something right. The idea of updating Holmes and Watson to the present day seemed foolhardy at first, but with a clever attention to the canon, a raft of cinematic visual tricks, and a top-drawer cast, they made something that worked really rather well. There are a couple of duff episodes, true, but I think they’re more than outweighed by the successes. Hopefully said success — which has helped propel the leads into the realm of movie stardom — won’t prevent us getting more in the future.

4
Torchwood: Children of Earth

Doctor Who’s ‘adult’ spin-off had a rocky start when it first launched in 2006, with a series that had been rushed into and through production and resulted in a few… iffy decisions. The second season improved its consistency, and those two original runs certainly have their fans, but it really got good when it changed its format for this third run. Children of Earth is an almost-standalone five-episode miniseries about an alien race coming to Earth and demanding we hand over all our children, with a fantastic performance from future Doctor Peter Capaldi as a politician embroiled in the discussions about whether to appease them. Torchwood would return to its muddled quality with the attempt at a follow-up miniseries, US co-production Miracle Day, but for five nights in the middle of 2009 it was one of the very best sci-fi miniseries ever produced.

3
Doctor Who

Every era of Doctor Who has its ups and its downs, its fans and its detractors. For example, every five-or-so years Doctor Who Magazine runs a reader survey to rate every story in the show’s history out of 10, and every single story gets at least some 10s, and all but one or two get some 1s as well. Nowhere are these extremities better exemplified than season 21, which ends with The Caves of Androzani (the #1 story in DWM’s 2009 poll) followed by The Twin Dilemma (perpetually placed last in pretty much every poll ever). But for the purposes of this list we’re talking about the revived show’s third series (the first one without Billie Piper) through to the most recent Christmas special (the one with a superhero). That encompasses the beloved and divisive second half of the David Tennant/Russell T. Davies era, as well as most of the divisive and beloved Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi/Steven Moffat era. For my money, any series that can produce the likes of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, the climax of Utopia, Time Crash, Voyage of the Damned, Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars, The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, A Christmas Carol, The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, The Day of the Doctor, Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, and Heaven Sent deserves a spot in my top ten.

2
The Americans

A couple of weeks ago, US network FX released a trailer for The Americans’ forthcoming fifth season that unashamedly celebrated its increased critical standing, with quotes from half-a-dozen or so media outlets expressing the same fundamental sentiment: it’s “the best show on television”. It’s about a pair of Russian spies operating undercover in the US in the ’80s, who also try to maintain some kind of normal family life with their two teenage kids — who don’t know their parents are spies. Oh, and the FBI agent who’s hunting for them has just moved in over the road. Sounds kind of hokey put like that, but in practice it’s anything but. And like several other shows on this list, it works best in the long term, as things build, echo, and characters have to deal with long-brewing consequences. It works as a spy thriller, but also as a character-driven exploration of what makes people tick. There are just two seasons left to go, both commissioned (thank goodness), and if they can just stick the landing it’s surely destined for a place in lists of all-time greats. So why isn’t it my #1? Well…

1
Game of Thrones

Here’s another show whose place in the all-time pantheon is sure to be claimed or dashed by how it ends, a point which is also exactly two seasons away — what are the odds? Of course, even if it ballses it up, Thrones’ legacy is assured in some ways: it’s basically the biggest TV show in the world right now, certain to be remembered as a cultural touchstone of the 2010s. I’ve given it the edge on my beloved Americans primarily for two reasons: the penultimate episode of the last season, and the last episode of the last season (which I wrote about at greater length here). To summarise, they’re two of the greatest individual episodes of TV ever made. Thrones does all the long-brewing cumulative stuff too, but there’s nothing else on TV that can pull off a satisfying Big Moment in quite the same way.

Tomorrow: back to the movies… the bad, bad movies…

The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

No (2012)

2014 #96
Pablo Larraín | 112 mins | TV | 4:3 | Chile, USA, France & Mexico / Spanish | 15 / R

No1988: due to international pressure, Chile’s dictator, General Pinochet, has acquiesced to a vote on whether he should continue ruling the country. Despite the violent takeover he orchestrated, and subsequent murders and ‘disappearances’, the country has prospered under his rule, and many — especially influential affluent people — are keen for him to stay. The anti-Pinochet “no” campaign are allowed a daily slot on state-controlled television in the run up to the election, and they hire advertising exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to mastermind the campaign. Cue internal conflict — the politicos want dour films highlighting Pinochet’s evil; René wants to use the language of advertising to sell the promise of a happy future — before the campaign itself finally gets underway, and the “no” campaigners become targets of the ruling regime’s evil tactics…

That’s most of the plot anyway, but the devil is naturally in the details — I mean, you probably know how it’s going to end, right? It’s how writer-director Pablo Larraín (adapting from a play by Antonio Skármeta) tells this tale that matters, and fortunately he does so with considerable class and intellect, albeit with the occasional obtuseness of Art cinema.

Most strikingly, the whole thing is shot on genuine ’80s videocameras, complete with poor resolution, colour bleeding, and all that jazz. Sounds like a pretentious gimmick, doesn’t it? It actually works rather well: it quickly evokes the era, it allows genuine news footage from the period to blend seamlessly with freshly-shot material (and it really does), and you quickly stop noticing. Or at least I did, but then I also watch a fair amount of classic TV, so I’m used to 4:3 black bars and the picture quality of video (though to suggest something likeThe Good Guys classic Doctor Who has picture quality as poor as this is an insult to the professionals who made it and those who restored it for DVD). In an era where the goal is often clean-as-possible ultra-HD images, it’s almost nice to see something so left-field used for excellent effect; a bit like when Pixar got over digital precision and started using soft-focus and the like in Ratatouille.

It seems many have made comparisons between No and the TV series Mad Men, because both are period-set pieces about ad men and the power of the work they produce. It’s a superficial comparison, though. For all its funny camerawork and subtitles, No is a much more straightforward story than Matthew Weiner’s frequently allegorical and oblique TV series. At the same time, Larraín’s film can be trickier to follow, guiding us less clearly through the thought processes behind the adverts, for example. Both have their merits, but the similarity is an incidental one — liking Mad Men does not mean No is a film for you, and vice versa. Unless you really like to see behind-the-scenes of advertising in any form, that is.

And on another aside, is it telling that Channel 4 premiered No in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum? The two votes had surprisingly similar results: about 45% for Yes and 55% for No; except in Chile it was “no” that was the vote for change. Very different political situations, of course: one vote was trying to overthrow an oppressive right-wing regime that had brought misery and instilled suspicious pseudo-Americanised values for far too long, and the other was trying to get rid of General Pinochet. Ho-ho-ho! The Bad GuysBut seriously, there’s not really a comparison between the brutal military regime that ruled Chile — which nonetheless many were happy with because it had brought modernisation and prosperousness for some — and the voluntary union between the rest of the UK and Scotland. I’m sure some of “the 45”, as they now call themselves, would identify with those battling for freedom in this film, but I think that might be taking it a bit far.

No has enough of the thriller about it to be entertaining and overcome its occasional desire to be needlessly Artsy. It’s also about the power of people to democratically bring about change, it’s lesson here perhaps being that for that to happen you need to stop lecturing the public on things they “should” care about and engage them on their own terms. Something a lot of organisations could benefit from learning.

4 out of 5

No is on Film4 tonight at 1am.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.