Saturday 31 December 2022

Shows of the Year

Best new show:

A League of Their Own

This show is so joyful, so clearly a work of love by everyone involved - how amazing is it to see Abbi Jacobson go from Broad City to this! I love everything here, from the way it builds on the film in a way that acknowledges the shortcomings but retains the glee, the fleshed out minor characters (Roberta Colindrez from Vida! Kelly McCormack from Killjoys and many other Canadian delights!) that grow on you so much as the show progresses, the friendship between Max and Carson, the friendship between Max and Clance - and I'm quietly convinced Jacobson watched her partner Jodi Balfour in Bomb Girls and Had An Idea, and it comes together so well. 



This adaptation of Min Jin Lee's novel spans several generations of a Korean family but centres on Sunja (played by Minha Kim at a younger age and Youn Yuh-jung later), who migrates from Japanese occupied Korea to Japan. It is a history of a violent occupation and racism that still exists in the late 1980s, when Sunja's grandson Solomon returns to Japan from the United States to convince an old woman to sell her valuable land to his company. Pachinko is immersive, sometimes overwhelming in its sadness - the sadness of people craving what they left behind, but can never truly return to, the everyday violence of a country that does not welcome them, even when it is happy to exploit their labour, but also the underlying impossibility to truly convey personal history to the next generation, especially when that generation is so eager to get on with their own lives, with little space to contemplate the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. In an episode that is not based on the novel, we get the backstory of Sunja's first lover (a man who wanted to make her his concubine, but found her unwilling to live in shame - he guards the life of her and her son secretly from then on, uses his influence to award them a measure of protection), who lived through the devastating Great Kantō earthquake in 1923. 

The Bear

Abbott Elementary

Watching the first season of this show, I was reminded of everything that went wrong in beloved Parks and Recreation's first season: how Parks didn't yet know what perspective to take, how it mocked Leslie Knope, how it started off as a whole lot more cynical and cold. Parks found its feet after that short first season, but Abbott Elementary doesn't need any idle time to get there: it's perfect from the beginning, warm and un-cynical, relentlessly funny, perfectly cast. 

Interview with the Vampire

An explicitly queer sequel to the 1990s film, that feels like it is taking the Anne Rice novel and exploiting its full potential without the burden of having to hold back, or hide in subtext. Interview with the Vampire is about a self-destructive love, deals with racism, and the nature of memory and recollection, and how those things become warped when they are turned into a story told to someone else. 

The Peripheral

It's incredible that this is the first adaptation of one of William Gibson's novels (Johnny Mnemonic and Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel are based on his short stories). It is an interpretation of sorts, deviating from the story it is based on, and very much influenced by the visual language creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan developed in Westworld. Chloë Grace Moretz is a perfect Flynne Fisher, who gets caught in a complex thriller plot when she tests out what she believes to be new gaming technology for her veteran brother Burton (Midsommar's Jack Reynor). I still dream of what Olivier Assayas could make with Pattern Recognition, but this is an almost perfect first season. 

Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

I think that some of the draw of this show for me was how much it reminded me of watching the three Peter Jackson films when they came out. The Rings of Power is beautiful - many of its dialogue scenes feel like they are staged like they would be in a play, the scenery of New Zealand is captured gorgeously, the night scenes are - blissfully - visible, all of which creates an expansiveness that I think has been missing from other recent fantasy series. 

The Serpent Queen

Samantha Morton is Catherine de' Medici, who survives intrigues at the French court through brilliant plotting (her handling of the politically hapless Mary Stuart is mouthwatering, especially when you've been raised with the historical perspective of Schiller's play), in a series that takes many historical liberties but is endlessly entertaining to watch. 

Best one-season show:

Station Eleven

Life After Life

Archive 81

The Midnight Club

Mike Flanagan's newest story is about a group of teenagers who spend their last days together in a hospice, meeting each night to tell stories to each other. There is another story in the background about the history of the house (it resembles Archive 81, sometimes), but I think The Midnight Club could have gotten away with having no dramatic foil at all and merely focusing on the power of storytelling as these kids deal with their illness and the prospect of death. 


I know this show set in Tokyo and London is from 2019, but for some reason, it slipped through the net and I only managed to finish it in 2022: and it's not the story itself that lands its here, which is a convoluted tale of two Japanese brothers, one a cop, the other a Yakuza, who chase or maybe save each other. This isn't even really a police show - when police work appears, things go wrong, and the cops that are the main characters barely behave like police at all. What makes this show work is the relationships between the characters, which emerge unexpectedly, especially the one between Sarah (Kelly Macdonald) and Kenzo (Takehiro Hira) and Kenzo's daughter Taki and male sex worker Rodney. Kelly Macdonald has never not been great but I think this might just be her best performance, from the absurdity of celebrating Yom Kippur with three strangers who become friends to the sharp but caring way she looks after Rodney. This is full of little surprises. It made me think about how Collateral kind of shaped my perception of what Carey Mulligan could do beyond the films she was in around the same time - I think this is an example of a show that proves how the long-term format can give so much more room for performance and brilliance. 

Irma Vep

Shining Girls

Outstanding performances especially by Elisabeth Moss and Phillipa So in this serialised adaptation of Lauren Beukes' time travelling thriller, and Jamie Bell makes for a compelling creepy, stalking killer. 


The Dropout

It's fitting to commend Julia Garner for Ozark and then to go on and commend Amanda Seyfried for what she accomplishes in The Dropout, with the very difficult performance as Elizabeth Holmes - she plays her from high school senior to current times, capturing the transformation somewhere in the middle into a construct (the accent! the tone!). Julia Garner as Anna Delvey is as good as it could have been, but something about that character in Inventing Anna is too far removed, the whole thing too much of a satire to ever reach a moment of truthfulness (and I think that's entirely intentional - but also means that the entirety of the show can be summed up in an SNL sketch). The exception is when Anna is on the phone with her lawyer's son and there's a glimpse of something, for a second, but I think for the most part the show misses the mark, in part because the perspective is wrong. The Dropout, on the other hand, makes a point about hustle culture, about entrepreneurialism - where the cult becomes so overwhelming that the product it is centred around could be anything, even a technology that will never work, as long as the other markings are there - that I think makes a lot of sense about the economy we've lived in for a while now. Holmes is obsessed with it, and once she realises that it all a scam, she takes the eloquent step and turns her own hustle into a scam as well. 

Astrid and Lilly Save the World

During the first two years of the virus, there was a wealth of small, quirky shows with a lot of heart that seemed a bit too strange to ever make it to a second season - Vagrant Queen, Warrior Nuns (which has been renewed, but hasn't been back so far...). Astrid and Lilly is another example - it is delightful, weird, queer. It stars two best friends (played brilliantly by Jana Morrison and Samantha Aucoin), teenage outcasts, who accidentally open a portal that lets in demons into their world - and a "Giles" (Oliver Renaud's unselfconsciously Earth-curious Brutus is one of my favourite things about the show) to guide them how to fight them. The shows makes many overt references to Buffy, which it is obviously deeply inspired by - high school is hell, especially the pecking order and the useless to dangerous teachers and parents. But week by week, as they slay the demons, this show grows its monster heart along with the bravery and self-respect of its two heroines. I wish we had seen the entirety of the William Shakespeare Michelle collab "Romeo and Juliet Down Unda", I wish we could have four seasons of the demons always, without fail, getting aspiring teen actress Val. 

Best show:

For All Mankind

Russian Doll

Season two - what a concept! Nadia, instead of reliving the day of her birthday again and again, now travels back in time, through the life history of her mother and grandmother - a journey that takes her back to Hungary during the WW2, in an attempt to undo mistakes that changed the course of everyone's life (but in the end, is it possible to unravel the past, or is it just about coming to terms with it?). There is a breathtaking ambition in this second season, Natasha Lyonne is once again outstanding in this role of a lifetime. 

Only Murders in the Building

Who would have thought that the combination of the Martins and Selena Gomez in an apartment building teeming with eccentrics (almost of of them broadway stars) would provide the kind of escapism essential to surviving 2022? 


Deborah and Ava take the show on the road - it's a whole season about how these two women are eerily similar, and profoundly need each other because of it as they discover more about themselves (some of the things they discover are profoundly unlikable, and Hacks has always drawn from that). 

Reservation Dogs

Four kids who live on a reservation in Oklahoma are trying to pretty-crime their way out towards California, or maybe to find a way to live there and look after each other as best as they can, after the loss of their friend Daniel to suicide. Outstanding acting, funny, heart-felt. 

Borgen. Power and Glory

My favourite political intrigue show is back after a long wait! I think the interesting thing here has always been the fact that Denmark is small - that this is a show about how a small country acts internationally (since Birgitte is now foreign minister) - but the focus in this season on Greenland and the complex ties of a rich country to its struggling territory that strives for independence and dignity is pretty fascinating (especially because we've moved way, way on from the idea that Birgitte is the good cop here).

The Handmaid's Tale

One of Us Is Lying

I am not saying that I didn't like the Pretty Little Liars remake/spin-off that came out this year - it is gritty (as expected from something set in the Riverdale universe). But I also rewatched all of the original series this year, and I did miss the certain spark, the wild campy ride, the million-twists-an-hour pacing. And somehow, One of Us is Lying tickles that spot better, and comes with the added bonus of an established cast that just seems to get so perfectly, and hits all the emotional marks as well. 

Saddest Goodbyes:

The Expanse

Warrior Nun

In My Skin

The second and last season of Welsh In My Skin made me speechless: this is a quietly powerful gem of a show that accomplishes more in five thirty minute episodes than other shows do in years. Gabrielle Creevy's Bethan faces incredible challenges - an abusive father, a mother who is in and out of hospital with bipolar disorder, the economic challenges of poverty. She tells lies to everyone - her friends, her teachers, her girlfriend - about her life to try and pretend normalcy, and because she struggles with shame and asking for help, but the second season unravels her. These are some of the best performances of the year - nuanced, complex (a special shout-out to what Jo Hartley achieves as her mum, and James Wilbraham as her best friend). 

The Good Fight

I think if we ever have to recapture the emotional horrors of Trump and post-Trump America, The Good Fight will be a good reference point. The show continues to be almost over-the-top topical, with fictional representations of historic and pop cultural events, but it also increasingly shows the incredibly emotionally destabilising impact of living through political radicalisation during a global pandemic. Here, even the most even-keeled characters begin going off the rails, because it seems like the only possible way to deal with the world going insane.


Search Party

Somewhere between a satire about taking cliches and insults of gen-y literally and a riff on Patricia Highsmith's protagonists, Search Party radically transformed itself in each and every of its five seasons, refusing to ever be predictable. The final season, fittingly ends with Dory Sief, post-revelation, convinced both of the coming apocalypse and the ability to save humanity. What ensues is, unsurprisingly, a twist peppered with pop culture references. Alia Shawkat has been outstanding throughout, and the supporting performances really shine this season as well (Chantal Witherbottom's sidequest intersects at the end). 

The Wilds

I did not think that I would be into the control group story line at all, but I loved season two of this show, which switches back and forth between the boys and the girls. It's only been about two years, but it feels like much more than that because of how the world changed in between seasons, and still, these characters resonate so much with me - if anything, they feel more inhabited , like they've grown with the actresses over the intervening years. Dot owns my heart (I wish I could be this useful and levelheaded in a crisis) but every single one of them goes on a journey (Leah with Adelaide's own Ben Folds!), and even the boys sometimes got to me. Rachel Griffith remains delightfully unhinged. 

Derry Girls

Better Call Saul

I think one of the most amazing things about Better Call Saul is how it outgrew the show it was based on - at no stage did I even want to go back to Breaking Bad, watching it, as if somehow, the missing heart at the centre of BB was something that kept me away, knowing that after Better Call Saul, it would feel like it lacked something essential. Rhea Seehorn's accomplishment here cannot be overstated, or the deep and profound tragedy of a man like Mike coming to the end he did. The sheer suspense, the weekly shocks, the way all of that was always founded in caring for the characters, in the substantial question of Jimmy's soul. The final scene - in black and white, like most of this season - which has Kim visiting Saul, sharing a cigarette with him - is one of those moments that will last forever. 

Motherland: Fort Salem

Tally Craven!



I've spent a lot of time thinking about Ozark, which ended in two installations this year. It's always been a show that is great at building suspense, a show of cliff-hangers, of pulling out the rug under the viewer - and still, I don't think that it's ever been truly good, at worst a pastiche of other shows (the best moments of the show are probably around Ben, Wendy's brother, but to me the resonance happened because it reminded me of Brenda's brother Billy in Six Feet Under). At its best, it's been a platform for Julia Garner (an amazing discovery, not unlike that of Kaitlyn Dever in Justified), who plays Ozark's most compelling character. At its heart, Ozark feels cynical - highly privileged white people from Chicago enter the community they find like locusts and leave nothing but grief and devastation behind, and like a secular prosperity gospel, they feel entitled not just to money but also a great legacy, and of course Ruth Langmore will have to pay the price, and of course Marty and Wendy will once again get away. It is a bitter, unforgiving ending, one that befits a show that has always refused its other characters the hope of an escape. 

High School, an adaptation of Tegan and Sarah's memoir, is a great Canadian show (and it is always fantastic to see Clea DuVall excel in her new career!), set in the 90s (unclear if so much flannel because of time period, or Canada, or both). It shows how the twins pick up music accidentally after drifting apart, in the midst of a lot of emotional turmoil. But the stand-out in this very well-cast show is Cobie Smulders, who plays a mother who struggles severely with being trapped in a life that doesn't have anything specific wrong with it, but is far removed from what she imagined for herself. Everyone here is trying their best, but sometimes the suburbs and motherhood and being in a relationship that is maybe only continuing because of inertia can be absolutely just as smothering as something going horribly wrong. Smulders is so good here - in a dramatic role that is often comedic, after so many years of being in a sitcom and existing within the limits that Marvel imposes on character development. I hope her career truly takes off from here (also, kind of an entertaining parallel to Carly Pope popping up as a mum in the new Pretty Little Liars). 

Siobhán McSweeney is magnificent in Derry Girls - Sister Michael's suffering through questions of faith and the reality of attempting to get these girls through a difficult political always shines through the sheer humour of her character - but she is outstanding in the crime-comedy Holding. This show hits so surprisingly when it does - I'd say nothing beats the emotional journey of hearing Brenda Fricker's Mrs Meaney (nobody knows her first name) recount the tale of her suffering - but there's something about Brid Riordan that is an utter, complete surprise. 

Sepideh Moafi (who is also one of the best parts of the frequently not-so-great Generation Q) in Black Bird - a show with many great performance, including Ray Liotta's last. A stand-out, as tough FBI agent Lauren McCauley. An absolutely memorable take on someone who seems so excellent at getting exactly what she needs, by reading her opponents well and playing into their weaknesses. 

I've been pretty lukewarm on Wednesday, maybe because after watching the second season of Warrior Nun, nothing came close to the amount of emotions I felt - everything, short of a reread of Lauren Groff's Matrix, felt muted and flat after. But Jenna Ortega (who is also very good in The Fallout) is so good, an amount of dedication to the role that is visible in every scene. 

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