In a year of disasters, pandemics, civil rights protests and elections ….we watched an awful lot of TV.
Stuck on the couch I saw Tiger King, Schitt’s Creek and Dan Andrews press conferences -amongst others. And as clever as all those lockdown specials were, they were also just too close for comfort.
No matter how much time you have you still never see it all…
Every year I choose my Top 5 shows -always derived from brand new titles (sorry MasterChef Season 12, Wentworth Season 8).
Here are the 5 I have settled on -in no particular order- with review excerpts.
Lovecraft Country (FOX Showcase)
It takes a brave producer to try and fuse two genres that are never naturally in the same room together and make it work, but Lovecraft Country does just that. J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele’s new HBO series is based on a book of the same name by Matt Ruff. Brilliantly steered by showrunner / producer Misha Green, this is a collision of civil rights with horror, supernatural and occasionally sci-fi. This may start out as a defiant look at 1950s oppression but it isn’t long before it veers into all kinds of horror and supernatural, in a BLM adjustment to the equilibrium. Matt Ruff’s story acts as a kind of ‘right of reply,’ putting heroic black characters at the centre of a genre which has traditionally overlooked them and yet immersing it in the deep racism of America in the 1950s. Where is the real horror? Who are the true monsters? Jonathan Majors, looking distractingly buff in muscle-clad shirts, is magnificently matched by the determination of a dazzling Jurnee Smollett. These two heat up the screen while the episodes twist and turn in a thrill-ride. The production design is also money on the screen, from American diners and gas stations to haunted houses and twisted mansions. Just as Black Panther and Watchmen land as empowering works for new audiences, Lovecraft Country cleverly addresses civil rights issues while still managing to remain hugely entertaining from start to finish. Delivering social messages wrapped up in a Hollywood spectacle is powerful stuff indeed.
The Beach (NITV / SBS)
Stop what you’re doing and watch The Beach. Warwick Thornton’s solo series is an exquisite and mesmerising television experience. And you won’t see anything else like it this year. The 6×30 min series comes with little introduction as the Indigenous director (Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country, Mystery Road) arrives at a lone beachside shack in Jilirr, Dampier Peninsula, on the north-west coast of Western Australia. From his old jeep he unpacks his supplies: 3 chickens, a guitar, cooking equipment, ready for his seclusion. There’s no dialogue, no narration as he opens up the dusty old hut… just the tinkling of a piano and the unmistakable presence of the land. Across this 6 part series Thornton gets back to basics, cut off from the world and modern media. Turning hunter / gatherer, he cooks up small feasts of fish and crabs, making the series an Indigenous River Cottage of self-sustenance. Trust me, the food is one the key attractions of this series. But so is Thornton, peering out from his massive beard and wild hair, he veers from blunt indifference to tenderness and insight. Speaking only to his chicken “ladies” he is sparing in dialogue, preferring to strum his guitar, grind spices in a mortar & pestle, or keep an eye on a bird in a tree on the horizon. Stillness is a trademark of this unique work.
Mrs America (FOX Showcase)
The new FX-produced drama is one of those shows that you can expect to hear much about come awards season. It is full of solid performances by a formidable female ensemble. Set from 1971 it is divided into two camps: the outspoken Equal Rights Amendment and the conservative women who gave rise to the Moral Majority. Episodes in this miniseries created by Dahvi Waller will highlight the women at various junctures. This leads to some firebrand performances by the talented cast, dressed immaculately in period costume. There are also some lengthy scenes that allow for acting chops and subtext. The production is also punctuated with a funky ’70s soundtrack which helps transport the viewer to a time of vast change. Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) may be America’s answer to Britain’s Mary Whitehouse but at a time of Trumpism, it’s important to put context on how the Moral Majority took shape.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (FOX Showcase)
To stand out from the pack, true crimes need a unique hook (or a Tiger King) and the angle here is crime writer Michelle McNamara, wife of actor (and doco producer) Patton Oswalt. McNamara was addicted to crime solving, through her blog True Crime Diary, magazine articles and books. She was obsessed with uncovering the East Area Rapist aka Golden State Killer -a predator who committed at least 13 murders, and more than 50 rapes in California between 1973 and 1986. But it was a case that terrified Sacramento and bamboozled US police, with McNamara determined to piece together the clues, often drawing upon online communities and like-minded amateur sleuths. Yet the interviews with former victims of the E.A.R. are amongst the most chilling stuff. I have no idea how these survivors can bring themselves to detail such horrific incidents for the camera, and at times I felt like it bordered on ‘true crime porn.’ More power to them, for showing incredible courage. It’s clear from her writing that McNamara was a gifted storyteller, painting images that were gruesome but compelling for those driven by mystery and a search for justice. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is definitely a down-the-rabbit-hole experience where you too become more and more addicted to solving it with her.
Visible: Out on Television (Apple TV+)
Back in about 2003 I started a column and radio spot in the gay media, which became known as TV Tonight, in response to a plethora of Queer television. Now a 5 part US documentary series Visible: Out on Television on Apple TV seeks to document the American experience and I have to say they’ve done an impressive job. As they say “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” -representation is so crucial to the GLBTQi community, especially to teens growing up isolated or in rural areas. The roll-call of interview subjects is exemplary: Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Wanda Sykes, Caitlin Jenner, Billy Porter, Billie Jean King, Tim Gunn, Dustin Lance Black, Laverne Cox, Neil Patrick Harris, Jill Soloway, Rufus Wainwright, Wilson Cruz, T.R. Knight, Armistead Maupin, Carson Kressley, Margaret Cho, Jesse Tyler Ferguson …that’s just for starters. The list of archival milestones, even in the first 2 episodes, is significant: documentary An American Family on PBS in 1973, Robert Reed playing transgender on Medical Center, gay romance telemovie That Certain Summer in 1972 with Hal Holbrook & Martin Sheen, Billy Crystal in Soap, Renee Richards challenging the world of sport, and the impact of openly gay politician, Harvey Milk. Produced by actors Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz and filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, this displays extensive research and rarely-seen archival footage. The interviews add a personal touch, from Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn talking about his homophobic FBI father to Billy Crystal reacting to awkward studio audience laughter during Soap tapings.
Runners-Up (in no particular order):
The Sound (ABC)
The Salisbury Poisonings (SBS)
Firefight Australia (Foxtel / Seven)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
I Am Not Okay with This (Netflix)
Quiz (BBC First)
Australia Come Fly with Me (SBS)
Bad Education (FOX Showcase)
Halifax: Retribution (Nine)
Small Axe: Mangrove (Binge)
Agree? Disagree? You can vote for your top shows in the TV Tonight Awards here.