Half-time report: the must-see TV of the year so far
And with an ennui-filled wave of my cigarette holder, I present the best television shows of 2017, so far
The Handmaid’s Tale Channel 4
Based on a book (My Plan for America by Mike Pence), The Handmaid’s Tale imagines things that were done to women around the world and throughout history being carried out in a dystopian 21st-century America. Offred (the brilliant Elizabeth Moss) is a handmaiden, a forced surrogate and slave for a high- ranking member of the new regime, Fred (hence “of-Fred”), and the horrific new realities she experiences are intercut with flashbacks to her life in the present day.
Okay, The Handmaid’s Tale is actually adapted from Margaret Atwood’s excellent 1980s novel of the same name (Atwood has a cameo) and was always likely to be great, but given the fact that its broadcast coincides with a misogynistic new American leadership that want to curb reproductive rights, it has been cursed with a chilling timeliness.
A beautifully filmed daily exposé of what absolute bastards animals are. The BBC puts its licence fee to good use, as Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham and assorted boffins use hidden cameras and scientific expertise to stitch up cannibalistic birdies, freeloading pine martins and shameless furry sex pests who generally spend their days wrecking the gaff and having absolutely no respect for anyone or anything.
Frankly this would be prurient tabloid-material if it wasn’t so important for us to know what absolute shitheels owls are. My only quibble is that there should be a bit where in each episode the presenters confront the delinquent critters with their terrible behaviour. So that we could, for example, see a badger hold its head in its paws in shame, as Packham says: “And here you are, having a shit in a field, you big fluffy muppet.”
Legion Fox UK
My favourite crap superhero is The Red Bee, a DC character who fought crime dressed as a bee and didn’t have any superpowers, except for a bee, named Michael, who he kept in a pouch. You couldn’t make it up. Unless you are the creators of The Red Bee, in which case you did make it up. Well done.
My point is, there are endless numbers of minor superheroes and I increasingly greet the news of television adaptations with an ennui-filled wave of my cigarette holder. But Legion creator Noah Hawley fully embraces the comic-book weirdness, rather than, as some have done, trying to mine the idea of a man in a rubber suit for kitchen-sink realism or bargain-basement postmodernism.
Hawley’s hero is the institutionalised, mentally ill, telekinetically powerful David Haller (his dad is Professor X but he doesn’t make a thing of it) and this conceit gives Hawley an excuse to move from exquisitely filmed possible hallucinations to operatically choreographed set pieces. It’s a David Cronenberg/ Wes Anderson/Jack Kirby-evoking monster mash that somehow stays dramatically coherent, wittily self-aware and emotionally potent as it explores the nature of the self. Like Hawley’s other great TV programme Fargo, Legion isn’t quite like anything else. Roll on his adaptation of The Red Bee (his next mini-series is actually a version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle).
Daniel and Majella’s B&B Roadtrip RTÉ1
And so, we join the father of our nation, Daniel O’Donnell, a twinkly-eyed elfin being of ethereal calm and nice V-necks, and his no-nonsense consort Majella, an eye-rolling reservoir of infinite patience and good slacks, on their second tour of Ireland’s most holy sites: B&Bs. They’re all built on ley lines, I’m told. Anyway, this programme is so intrinsically Irish that those not habituated to our culture can’t even see it.
“Your television is broken,” they say. “It’s just all these weird shapes and wavy lines!” Ha! Those “weird shapes” are Daniel and Majella and those wavy lines we just call “rain”. You don’t get it because you haven’t spent enough time in God’s Country (the Midlands) and possibly because you had the English stations growing up. Some tea, Daniel, you lovely lump?
Master of None Netflix
In the current season, Aziz Ansari’s warm-hearted, stylistically inventive exploration of love, family and food takes a few tangents to tell standalone Altmanesque stories about race and sexual preference and Italy and dating. Ansari is basically Louis CK, but with hope. If you don’t like Master of None, you probably have no soul. In which case you might like . . .
Rick and Morty Netflix and Fox UK
Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s animated high-concept sci-fi show about an amoral mad scientist and his hapless family makes a pretty solid case for “life” existing in a soulless universe spiralling meaninglessly towards entropy. Who knew nihilism could be funny? So far this year, it’s come back for one solitary episode that resolves the plot points from season two in a depressing yet hilarious manner (the rest of the series resumes later in the summer).
Jimmy McGovern brings us an emotionally draining drama about poverty and faith and surviving abuse. It features, among others, Sean Bean as a troubled but compassionate priest and Anna Friel as an emotionally bruised mother driven to desperation by a cruel welfare system. Suffice it to say, it is not a laugh riot but a heartbreaking indictment of the Tory party’s war on the poor. I’m surprised that in the interests of balance the BBC wasn’t forced to create another programme, possibly helmed by Julian Fellowes, in which the destitute welcome penury with clog-dancing, hat-doffing glee.
At the outset of Glow, our POV protagonist Ruth (Alison Brie), a failing actor, bemoans the lack of good roles for women in an audition sequence. Glow has at least 14 great roles for women. This fictionalised account of the real 1980s wrestling phenomenon Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is a characterful, feelgood comedy drama in which our plucky heroines and their benignly sleazy svengali (Marc Maron) attempt to put on a show in grandpa’s barn (or, as it turns out, the producer’s mother’s ballroom). There’s betrayal, drug use, a refreshingly unfussy abortion plot, wrestling trivia, secret children, more drug use, sweet wrestling moves, friendships, a charismatic infant and unexpected triumphs against adversity – much like a good wrestling match.
Orphan Black New episodes of the final series are currently uploaded weekly to Netflix
The gripping and inventive Orphan Black also has a lot of good roles for women, although Tatiana Maslany has hoarded most of them for herself as part of a nefarious one-woman casting monopoly, or possible tax-scam. She plays at least 11 physically identical but temperamentally distinct clones at the centre of a vast and gripping neo-Darwinian conspiracy. Frankly, it’s easier for me to believe that they’re real clones than that Maslany is that good. Cloning for the purposes of television drama is the sort of thing the failing MSM would cover up, as you know.
Search Party All4
Young people! Look at the cut of them with their ever-to-hand smart phones and their low-paid internships and their pop-up burrito bars and their deep unhappiness and their amateur investigations into missing persons and their disturbing affairs with troubled middle- aged detectives. Search Party initially appears to satirically annotate the lives of entitled New Yorkers before veering into something darker and more troubling, as its antiheroine, Dory (Alia Shawkat), obsesses over a mystery that may or may not be any of her business. The best US shows nowadays shoehorn serious concerns into inventive comedic formats (everything from Bojack Horseman to Atlanta). Search Party goes further than most in its journey from laugh-out-loud comedy to upsetting revelations. It’s a genuinely surprising show and you could binge it all on one slow Saturday afternoon.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race Netflix
In this year’s joyful finale of the ninth season of Drag Race, contestant Shea Couleé anticipates “an era of sickening black drag queens running this world.” Sigh. If only. Still, due to my own misreading of quantum physics (okay, The Secret), I would like to think that there’s a parallel universe in which Ru Paul is telling a certain blonde, wigged, pouting reality TV monster to “sashay away” and inviting the rest of us to “prance” forever in her fabulous imperial presence. Now why don’t you all just “sashay away” and let me contemplate that utopia for a while.