2011 in Review: Part 1

So, 2011 has come to an end (more or less), and it’s time for one of those round-up of the year things. For me, 2011 has been a year of big change, with a move to Manchester and a new job after eight years in Leeds. For the world at large, 2011 has been a year of even bigger change and considerable tumult, from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the Arab Spring and the August Riots, from Hackgate to Catgate, all against a background of ongoing and increasing financial turmoil where apparently only the wealthiest will survive.

My review of the year will focus on art stuff. Tomorrow I’m going to run down my songs and albums of the year, but today I’m going to focus on TV and film. The first half of my TV 2011 was dominated by a show that finished in 2005, but which I only discovered after being given it as a box set for Christmas last year. Six Feet Under was the show, and over the course of six months I voraciously consumed its five seasons. As luck would have it, Jon Hickman was on the same journey, and so we frequently swapped notes on the show via Twitter, our exchanges culminating in this blog post.

As for the television that was actually on in 2011, we’ll first deal with Doctor Who. This was the most ambitious series yet since the show’s return, with a story arc centred around River Song and a season split in two. Accusations abounded that the show had become too hard to follow and that ratings were plummeting as a result. These accusations were unfounded for two reasons:

1) The ratings quoted as “evidence” of Doctor Who’s decline in the media were overnights – factor in all the time-shifters and the show’s audience figures were very healthy
2) Anyone with half a brain should have been able to make sense of the whole River business – we were hardly talking Wire levels of complexity here

Anyway, the season was overall a good one (although could happily have lost the pirates, the little boy on the estate and the second half of the Gangers). If I do have one concern, it’s that the show has become over-reliant on shock twists, in particular of the “you thought the Doctor/Amy/Rory was dead, but… TA-DA!!” variety. Crying wolf like this is going to have a damaging impact should a regular actually be properly, permanently killed off, as we’ll just assume they’ll be miraculously resurrected via some timey-wimey device in a few episodes’ time. Rule number one: the Doctor always lies. Rule number two: the Producer and Head Writer needs to tell the truth a bit more.

It was of course a sad year for Doctor Who fans, with the loss of two iconic figures in Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, the latter’s death meaning a premature demise for hugely successful spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, a rare example of children’s television that treated its audience like adults. As opposed to Doctor Who’s other spin-off, Torchwood, the latest series of which was an all-too-common example of adult television that treats its audiences like cretins. An attempt at a transatlantic storyline based around an immortality scenario, Torchwood: Miracle Day was a hot mess, moving from one plot strand to another, the writers blowing up anything that bored them after a while. The nadir came with an episode that broke new ground for bad sex, mainly by including spying and blackmail. Far better were BBC3’s sci-fi/fantasy offerings: Season 3 of Being Human, which expanded that show’s universe and built towards a powerful and moving climax; and The Fades, a compelling, bleak and kinetic tale of the dead returning to life. Whilst Being Human had an excellent third season, Channel 4’s Misfits wobbled rather badly. It could have managed the loss of Robert Sheehan had Nathan’s replacement been likeable. Unfortunately Rudy was misconceived and repellent, whilst the season itself suffered from a lack of a defined story arc: Simon’s story was eventually resolved, but only after being left hanging, unattended, for several episodes; and the constant swapping of powers meant the characters’ abilities no longer felt special or defining.

As far as the media were concerned, 2011 was the year that European detective drama became cool. Chiefly, of course, this meant The Killing, but as well as Sarah Lund and her jumpers I became enamoured with another deeply flawed continental policewoman, namely Laure Berthaud, heroine of French series Spiral (although excelled as a character by the magnificent Judge Roban). Some of that dark, morally shady flavour leached into the most singular of this year’s new British dramas, The Shadow Line. A thriller with no happy ending, only dead or compromised good guys and one generation of corrupt criminals replaced by another, The Shadow Line was dominated by two contrasting depictions of psychopathic evil: Rafe Spall as the childishly demonic, giggling, cat-bothering Jay Wratten; and Stephen Rea as the icy, meticulous and calmly terrifying Gatehouse. Gatehouse felt like an anachronism, a character from a 1950s spy drama, and as such could happily have slotted into The Hour, in which espionage and fears of “reds under the bed” were a nice hook on which to hang a smart drama about a young female producer and her pioneering current affairs show. The producer in question was played by Romola Garai, who had a pretty good year as she was also the star turn, playing Sugar, in a superb adaptation of Michel Faber’s Victorian-era novel The Crimson Petal and the White. The general theme of corruption, cover-ups and shameful secrets also pervaded The Promise, a drama that asked some very difficult questions about how the situation in Israel/Palestine may have come about. And, right at the end of this year, Joe Gilgun made up for nearly ruining Misfits by turning in another heartbreaking performance as Woody – in amongst a whole raft of heartbreaking performances – as Shane Meadows reconvened his ensemble for a third time in This Is England ’88.

The above may give the impression that my TV year was light on laughs, but it wasn’t so. Friday Night Dinner was the second sitcom in the space of six months to shine an affectionate light on a Jewish family getting together every week, although it was received rather more kindly than Simon Amstell’s effort Grandma’s House. Acutely (but very affectionately) observed and at times hilarious, it also provided life after The In-Betweeners for Simon Bird; whilst his co-star from that show, Joe Thomas, similarly found a winning new vehicle in student houseshare comedy Fresh Meat, although the real star of this show was newcomer Zawe Ashton as Vod. Psychoville served up dark horror and even darker comedy for its second season (which should be the last – a third would only spoil things), and on the other side of the Atlantic the comedy was similarly black with Nurse Jackie (a show that BBC2 never did know what to do with) and The Big C. The latter started out in uncertain fashion, as if acknowledging the questionable nature of trying to make comedy out of terminal cancer, but then became as much about redefinition of the self and appreciating life rather than avoiding death. However, no comedy was as black, and no drama as bleak, as that in Black Mirror. Trust Charlie Brooker to push things to their furthest extent, particularly in a year when the unfolding events on the news continually outdid the efforts of any writers of fiction.

Finally we turn to reality TV, which this year looked increasingly tired. The X-Factor limped through four months of a judging panel that never gelled, contrived scandal and bullying allegations. Big Brother was reborn on Five to the sound of one person watching. The Apprentice produced candidates who questioned whether French people like their children, and who didn’t know what a cloche is. So it’s hardly surprising that Strictly came out on top by firing Russell Grant out of a cannon, although the person who really needs firing out of a cannon is the individual who decided that the VTs of the couples in training should now consist of hideously contrived (and profoundly unfunny) “comedy” scenarios. On a more positive note, Hilary Devey brought an injection of life and realness to Dragon’s Den, whilst Four Rooms, which initially came across as a rather odd hybrid of Dragon’s Den and Dickinson’s Real Deal, ultimately proved to be rather addictive. Love Thy Neighbour could have been a great experiment in social cohesion, but ultimately reeked of cynicism, as the producers attempted to portray Grassington’s inhabitants as Daily Mail-reading bigots reacting angrily to the deliberately chosen array of potential new villagers (single mum, gay couple, black couple etc), only for this to rather blow up in their face. Much better, and far more constructive, was My Transsexual Summer, a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of the lives of seven trans men and women at various stages in their transitions. Trans people are still the subject of an appalling amount of bigotry (not least from the gay community), and documentaries like this, however much they might at times fall back on the various reality TV tropes, are a vital means of educating the ignorant. Sometimes, however, reality doesn’t need mediating in order to provide us with drama and spectacle, as Frozen Planet demonstrated with added poignancy by being suffused with a “last chance to see” sensibility – wonders we are only now seeing, just as we move dangerously closer to the point when the changes wrought upon the climate by our activity may run away from us.

From the small screen to the big screen. I’ll admit that, as tends to be the case for me, much of my film-going activity was at the start of the year, tailing off a bit afterwards, thanks to the scheduling of awards hopefuls in January and February. Of these, the big winner, The King’s Speech, was pleasant enough as a Sunday afternoon film, but the greatest cinematic achievement since the last Oscars? Hardly. Nor was Darren Aronofsky’s frankly demented Black Swan a cinematic tour de force, although I predict it’ll enjoy the sort of cult audiences in years to come enjoyed by the likes of Mommie Dearest. Far better was Blue Valentine, a real, raw, honest and beautifully soundtracked portrayal of a relationship alternately coming apart and coming together in front of our eyes. Films that scratched the veneer of humanity to reveal savagery beneath the surface seemed to hold a lot of appeal to me this year: hello, then, to Animal Kingdom, Tyrannosaur, Wuthering Heights and We Need To Talk About Kevin (all far more successful in that regard than Black Swan). Those last three also demonstrated, along with darkly comic coming-of-age film Submarine and gay romantic drama Weekend, the real face of British cinema, as opposed to the stultifying heritage face shown by The King’s Speech (but if you wanted heritage with real class, then Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was the go-to film). Providing the best foreign language treats, meanwhile, were two seasoned veterans: François Ozon with Potiche; and Pedro Almodovar, reunited with star Antonio Banderas for The Skin I Live In, yet another parable of how civilised behaviour is, in this case literally, only skin deep.

I’m not going to attempt to make ranking lists out of any of the above, save to say that Blue Valentine was my favourite film of 2011 and The Crimson Petal and the White my favourite TV show (except for Six Feet Under. Obviously). I will however be attempting to rank my favourite songs and albums tomorrow, in one of those hilariously subjective exercises, the results of which will no doubt be the subject of much disagreement. Not least by me.

Chris x

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