A couple of months ago, I found myself in a packed cinema to see a live theatre performance of one of the best shows on television. That came with the ticklish feeling that all media had fallen into a cauldron, but also the gratifying sensation that, even in this age of distraction, there was at least one show that could hold everyone’s attention.
This was Fleabag, the conspiratorially intimate, stunningly funny solo performance that launched Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s stage career in 2013. Her character brought a new charge of sexual frankness and tortured responsibility to television in 2016, catapulting Waller-Bridge into a new TV and film career. And, in 2019, she chose to end it with that rarest of things: a surprising evolution of the show’s concept and the perfect expression of her great idea.
Doing a victory lap of West End and Broadway stages, Waller-Bridge hardly needed any more accolades (a brace of Emmys, a $20 million a year deal –that’s €18 million – with Amazon, and Andrew Scott’s performance putting “hot priest” into the lexicon will probably suffice) but from its bloody-nosed bust-ups to its immensely thoughtful kiss off, the show was a phenomenon you somehow still took personally.
Maybe you could say the same about Game of Thrones, which ended its decade-long stranglehold on the planet’s imagination with what I am obliged to call a divisive final series.
The divide, as I understand it, was between those who were reasonably satisfied that a show involving dragons and zombies, with particular fondness for lengthy detours into torture, incest and rape, could reach a conclusion at all, and those bitterly unhappy that such an entertainment ultimately amounted to nothing much at all.
It took a hard heart, though, to see the two million signatories of an online campaign to remake the final series “with competent writers” not to laugh. Still, how many swords and sorcery shows have mattered so much to so many? A future filled with Game of Thrones spin-offs, once assured, now looks unsteady. For now, at least, our watch has ended.
It was a year full of goodbyes. Farewell Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s excellent Catastrophe, a comedy that brought its two fractiously supportive characters to the brink of disaster, again and again, and finally left them happily and literally out of their depth, two accidents waiting to happen.
So long, Legion, the most considered and spectacular show based on a comic book to ever escape the flavourless Marvel factory.
Get thee gone, The Affair and Poldark, the former of which lost its lustre with the departure of Ruth Wilson a series ago, and lurched on regardless, the latter of which felt as though its star, Aidan Turner, was trying to shed its constraints like a booster rocket on his way to higher orbits. And hold on a minute, The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelaconos’s lovingly scuzzy depiction of New York’s porn industry in the 1970s, for some reason Sky Atlantic still hasn’t broadcast your third and final season.
Maybe they’re just waiting for a gap in the traffic. With so much must-see TV content filling terrestrial stations and choking the streaming media pipelines, (welcome to a crowded party, Apple+; Disney+ won’t make it until next year) even essential viewing quickly became pretty discretionary.
The BBC’s wicked black comedy Guilt, its dizzyingly stylish Japanese-British crime drama Giri/Haji, and Channel 4’s gripping Chimerica were three of my favourite shows that I never got to finish watching. Meanwhile, far lesser shows, like Ricky Gervais’s asinine, self-regarding comedy After Life, or the now wrung-dry good spirit of The Good Place (both on Netflix), were as compelling as car crashes. It’s mesmerising to see how bad something can get.
Teenagers will know the feeling. This year they got to see themselves depicted in such sensationalist, hyperstylish melodramas as Euphoria; such paper-thin, staggeringly popular adventures as The Umbrella Academy; and such smart, spooky zeitgeist dramas as The Society – all of which seemed seemed to pander to the fears and fantasies of grown-ups.
In comedy, the second series of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls seemed more generously attuned to young spirit, where an interdenominational social or a Take That concert had more seismic significance than, say, the IRA ceasefire or Bill Clinton’s visit. Like the cheering recidivism of The Young Offenders, this was a strong return making good on the promise of their first series. Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, which put the comedian opposite Sharon Horgan as her sister, took her comic gutsiness to the subject of emotional fragility and London loneliness.
It also increased the feeling that this year belonged to female-created, female-fronted and universally appealing entertainment, something that Netflix’s exhilaratingly good Russian Doll dared to suggest early in the year, as Natasha Lyonne’s Fleabag-like heroine died again and again on her Groundhog Day journey to find a way to live.
If TV taught us anything this year – and it did – it was how to see in the dark. Both Chernobyl and The Virtues, in their own harrowing ways, showed us the failures of systems large and small and the consequence for vividly realised individuals, none more so than Stuart Graham’s stumbling soul. The eye-opening, unflinching and playlist-deleting effect of Leaving Neverland was to remove all ambiguity about the way a powerful predator distorted reality to prey on the vulnerable in plain sight.
Other documentaries, like Dearbhail McDonald’s deeply personal take on a global problem, Fertility Shock, Channel 4’s frank and illuminating Generation Porn, RTÉ Investigates: Greyhounds Running for Their Lives and, for something much more consoling and wonderfully assembled, Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song all asked us to look at things in a new way. So did several documentaries on the Troubles, on the prison service and, no less eye-opening, or disturbing, on showbands.
And, as Britain wrung its hands through several blown deadlines and a couple of prime ministers, few of the documentaries on Europe were quite as useful and clarifying as the tragicomic drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.
In a sign of better partnership with our nearest neighbours, perhaps, the BBC and RTÉ collaboration Dublin Murders made a good fist at bringing Tana French’s cult detective novels to the screen without diluting their otherworldly complexity. Filling the void of Game of Thrones, HBO’s Watchmen actually improved its source material for an excitingly resonant, visually rewarding entertainment for grown-ups, just as its collaboration with the BBC on His Dark Materials proved that smart, sumptuous family entertainment, in this fragmented age, is still charmingly possible.
That’s no small thing. There has never been so much available to us to sit down and watch, on so many platforms and so many devices. The best of TV in 2019 somehow brought us together.