Friday 20 September 2019

Pat Stacey: TV drama thrived in 2018 but Taken Down couldn't compete with UK and US competition

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve.
Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve.
In her sights: Jodie Comer in 'Killing Eve'
Richard Madden as the titular character in Bodyguard (Sophie Mutevelian/World Productions/BBC)
What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes
A Very British Scandal
Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who (Henrik Knudson/BBC)
Benedict Cumberbatch
Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams in Sharp Objects, Sky Atlantic
The cast of Derry Girls

Pat Stacey

A YEAR makes for an awful lot of television. Some series and programmes stick in the memory, others blend into the general blur.

More still — the derivative crime thrillers, the flaccid, over-hyped prestige dramas, the mediocre comedies — are deservedly forgotten about almost as soon as they’ve ended.

Richard Madden as the titular character in Bodyguard (Sophie Mutevelian/World Productions/BBC)
Richard Madden as the titular character in Bodyguard (Sophie Mutevelian/World Productions/BBC)

One series that stood out in sharp relief was The Bodyguard, a gigantic hit. It wasn’t necessarily the best drama of the year or even the best thing Jed Mercurio has written, and at times it went a bit bonkers. But it was enormously entertaining.

The most genuinely innovative was Killing Eve. Violent and suspenseful one moment, quirky and blackly funny the next, it revitalised the stale cat-and-mouse formula.

In her sights: Jodie Comer in 'Killing Eve'
In her sights: Jodie Comer in 'Killing Eve'

The perennially underrated Hugh Grant was absolutely marvellous as disgraced, oddball politician Jeremy Thorpe in A Very British Scandal — although I wouldn’t rate the series itself as highly as some British critics, who placed it top of their list.

Breakout performance of the year came from Florence Pugh as the heroine/pawn in the elegant and gripping The Little Drummer Girl, which didn’t get the audience it deserved. This was John le Carré done properly.

A Very British Scandal
A Very British Scandal

Not that he needs them anyway, but Benedict Cumberbatch won a host of new admirers for his tour de force performance as the heartbreakingly damaged Patrick Melrose, a stunningly great miniseries.

Personally, one of the things that pleased me most this year was seeing Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s wonderful anthology show Inside No. 9 finally attracting a decent-sized audience to go along with the rave reviews it’s received.

Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who (Henrik Knudson/BBC)
Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who (Henrik Knudson/BBC)

A brilliant fourth series was capped by an audacious live Halloween special, which was so ingeniously made, many viewers were fooled into thinking the technical “glitches” were real rather than part of the spooky meta fun...

It was also immensely gratifying to see new Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker putting all the misogynistic naysayers and permanently infantilised fanboys in their place. A couple of weakly-written episodes let her down, but she’s terrific.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

It’s worth noting that all of the above, excepting Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose, came from the BBC, which had (and is still having) a great year in drama.

Keeping up with the sheer amount of American series in 2018 was like trying to catch rain in a colander.

Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams in Sharp Objects, Sky Atlantic
Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams in Sharp Objects, Sky Atlantic

My own personal favourites were Mr Mercedes (which I solemnly promise not to mention again until next year’s third season) and Better Call Saul, neither of which the awards-givers in the US have deemed worthy of much attention.

Another that can be filed in the ‘Most Unforgivably Ignored TV Series’ folder is The Americans, which ended this year, without having made anything like the splash with viewers it should have. You could do worse this Christmas than treat yourself to the DVD box set.

The cast of Derry Girls
The cast of Derry Girls

Thumbs-up, too, for Succession, Sharp Objects, The Deuce, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (mainly for the performance of Darren Criss) and The Haunting of Hill House, a properly creepy chiller that touched the emotions as often as the nerve-endings.

In what is definitely a first, not one but two fantastic comedies emerged from this little island in 2018. The loveable eejits of The Young Offenders charmed British viewers, as did Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. Damningly, though, both were commissioned by British broadcasters: respectively, BBC3 and Channel 4.

What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes
What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes

On the home front, meanwhile, Virgin Media’s Blood was an impressive psychological thriller. RTE’s much-anticipated Taken Down, however, was a damp squib. Hot-button topicality and some striking performances among the non-Irish cast members didn’t compensate for shapeless plotting, slack pacing and poorly developed, wafer-thin characters. It suggests RTE’s drama aspirations are going backwards, not forwards.

Herald

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