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Open Worlds

Cinema loves franchises, and if there’s one thing any good franchise needs, it’s a convincing open world; a place that acts as a sandpit for the adventures of the hero, but also as a place that lives and breathes beyond the events of the given movie. It’s no wonder, then, that Hollywood is absolutely obsessed with cinematic universes right now. You can barely get out of bed without tripping over one. Marvel. DC. The ‘MonsterVerse’ with King Kong and Godzilla. Universal’s terrible idea, ‘Dark Universe’. And those are only the ones that survive.

But the thing that unites all of those movies isn’t necessarily how well they’re executed; it’s the fact that they all draw from a rich vein of source material. They’re building a LEGO set with the manual, or whatever analogy works for your childhood. So it caught me by surprise when, as you do, I caught up on the movies that Twitter just loves to talk about; John Wick and its sequel, starring Keanu Reeves as a soulless husk most famous for pencil-related murder, and discovered that this franchise contains one of the most improbably detailed open worlds in cinema at the moment.

This isn’t just a world where assassins operate behind closed doors, like in your average action movie, and where there are some organised criminal organisations. No. In John Wick, there is a hotel for assassins. It’s managed by a group of elders called the High Table, and it’s funded by special assassin tokens. This hotel, in the sequel, turns out to be an international chain. In my favourite, most gloriously stupid scene of the second movie, John Wick goes to buy guns from the hotel, only the guy he buys guns from is called ‘a sommelier’, and the entire conversation is conducted in terms of fine wine. I didn’t know cinema could be as exquisite as the sight of seeing Keanu Reeves ask for a bold dessert, get handed a pump-action shotgun, and then smile as if that’s exactly what he wanted.

I know. It just sounds like I’m listing a bunch of nonsense. And yes, in some respects, it is nonsense. The first movie tentatively embraces this, with the introduction of the hotel and a strange assassin underworld with its own folklore. Yet it’s only in the second movie where the franchise totally detaches from reality. Gunfights, in this world, occur exclusively in massively populated areas where everyone reacts as if it’s just a regular Tuesday, and these are street performers. The only policeman we see is friends with John Wick. It becomes abundantly clear that approximately a million New Yorkers (if anything, this seems like an understatement) are trained assassins under deep cover. It’s incredibly, self-consciously, silly.

But, in its own deeply strange way, it all holds together, and becomes far more convincing than so many other cinematic universes we’ve seen. Too many of those attempts try hard to graft on a mythology, to desperately convince us of the larger world outside the events of this particular movie. Just look at the terrible sequence in Batman v Superman where Batman watches specially recorded promo clips for the other Justice League movies. Attempts like that are earnest, and well-intentioned, but the concerned voice of the studio executive is always discernible.

John Wick‘s mythology works because it never actually treats anything as if it’s a mythology. Particularly in the sequel, Keanu Reeves assembles his gear for an assassination as routinely as he would make scrambled eggs. The absurdity of assassin blood oaths with the penalty of deaths isn’t treated as absurdity – it’s played deadly straight, with the full assumption that we should probably have known this anyway, somehow. In short, the John Wick movies drop us into a world already in motion, with rigid internal logic and processes that stretch back decades, and trusts the viewer to extrapolate how it could all have been built. That’s an impressive feat for any franchise, let alone for one that’s completely created its mythology from scratch, without any ancillary material like prequels or comic books to provide shortcuts for savvy viewers. It means that the movies can hang big dramatic moments, like the sequel’s inciting incident and cliffhanger, on rules that would be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the franchise.

Even better, though, the world of John Wick is as fun and interesting as it is intricate. As impressive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, it can create intrigue for further stories purely based on things it hasn’t adapted yet – all Kevin Feige has to do is suggest that the next Spider-Man film will have, say, Kraven the Hunter in it, and he’ll instantly have bought the ticket of thousands of excitable nerds (and hey, that would totally include me, because Kraven is great). John Wick lacks that advantage, but its world is, nonetheless, one that feels absolutely full of stories, far beyond anything the trilogy, or even the mooted prequel series, is likely to manage. Studios would kill for intellectual property that would achieve that effect, but John Wick did it all on its own. It’s an example that Hollywood, as its shared universe attempts flounder away, would do well to follow.

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Cult Show Clips

I’ve been researching. What do my two readers want from my blog? What’s popular, out there? Is it commentary on the movie London Has Fallen? Is it definitive rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is it low-rent, dated social satire? Is it a long list of articles the writer hated too much to publish? I have tried them all.

But one thing that I haven’t tried is to use this blog to do what only a blog can do: exploring my own past, like a self-indulgent idiot. You see, the internet preserves a lot of things, and as a child of the Internet who can’t remember when it doesn’t exist, there happens to be a long catalogue of things I have done. Most of them are boring. Some of them are embarrassing. But if you go back far enough, you find something that seems to be from another person. Things that would be inconceivable to the person you are today. These things exist. And here, today, with the distance that time gives, I am here to show those things to you.

Those things are my 2011 YouTube videos, from the time when I probably thought I could make it big without any editing skills or personal charisma or original thought. I’ve protected them for a while, safe in the knowledge that I chose a strange and unrelated name for the channel that no-one would guess. But hey, they’re funny now. There’s only six videos on the channel, and they tell a wonderful story.

Titled ‘video008’, this first venture into the grim and gritty world of YouTube is one fraught with obstacles. For one, it gives the false impression that I’m a Liverpool fan, because I was filming in my brother’s room. For two, I seem to be dressed up weirdly formally, because I had no clothes other than school uniform in those days. And, for three, it has no sound. I can’t lip read, so it’s genuinely impossible to tell when I was talking about. As first efforts go, this was not good. I’m unsure why I uploaded it.

Sound! This is instantly better than the first one, because it can be understood. At a slender 19 seconds, this is a pithy, punchy intro that lets you know what this YouTube channel will provide you: reviews, film character evaluations, and regular updates. That’s content for the people there. My favourite part is when I say to enjoy the channel, despite the video you just watched being the only thing that was available at the time.

Also, there’s a comment there that says ‘honestly, Louis?’

Oh boy. Quite why I thought showing off a modest collection of DVD boxsets by waving them up awkwardly to the camera was good content is unclear now. I also remember posting about this on Twitter and Tumblr, so this was definitely a point of pride for my strangely materialistic 12-year old self, who would take a considerable amount of time to accept the advent of Netflix. I guess, of the three categories, this would count as ‘regular updates’. The topicality comes from my reminder that Primeval season five would come out the next week, and that I couldn’t want to get it, bye! I had my finger to the pulse.

I guess this was my first ever real review, and it’s a powerful piece of television criticism. Primeval was one of those culty sci-fi shows of the 2000s that rode off the Doctor Who wave, for context, and I was really into it at the time; enough to share my nice and succinct outline of the episode’s events before my 15 seconds of criticism (well-written, well-realised) . Useful, I guess, if you just wanted a 12-year old boy to describe it to you to relive the thrills. The best bit comes at the end, though, where the video abruptly comes to a stop and I say ‘Okay bye!!’ before shutting off the camera, as if I had just realised that this was a terrible mistake.

A stunning 156 views! I’d credit that incredible figure to the fact that this has the most interesting premise of all of my videos: a nice, quick recap of the history of a show before the new season. The only problem is that the video itself is, essentially, me reading some Wikipedia entries and stuttering a bit. I do not actually recap the events of the show in any detail, but I do list every episode title, which is much more useful.

The ‘bye!’ in this video is also, quite frankly, the creative pinnacle of my existence. Everything after that has just been a footnote.

It looks like my commercial success of the last video didn’t carry over to this one. I think I was planning to really kick things into high gear by giving my reviews an official name, but ‘iReview’ probably got lost in the wash. In retrospect, I don’t know why I named it for Apple, but these things are easy to say with hindsight.

The real tragedy is that I promised the next review would be uploaded later today. Do you see the next review on there? Do you? No. It’s like that novel that Charles Dickens never finished, or something; a creative endeavour cut short by the hand of cruel fate.

I plan to revive this channel in 19 years and cash in off the 2011 nostalgia for simple times. Just you wait. A premium cable network is going to snap this up.

Okay.

Byeee!

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Fear of Flying

Hey there, two readers. I’m doing something new. You see: this is my place to indulge myself. There are no stakes, and there is no editor. I could write endlessly about my life, and there would be no consequences. So I’m going to play into that, and write about myself. Welcome to my vanity. You have absolutely no obligation to come in.

But this is also an experience that I think relates far beyond my own: the feeling of creating something that doesn’t quite feel right. Almost everyone creates something in some way in their hobby or occupation, whether that’s a robot arm that packages ice cold cans of Diet Irn Bru, an Excel spreadsheet, or, I don’t know, pottery. So I’m assuming that this is universal.

I feel like, however, that writing holds a unique place in this. One of the things I love, and hate, about writing is that an essay or a story can exist in of itself. It stands there, unblinking, on the page or Word document, and it doesn’t speak back to you, or demand instant judgement. It’s not evidently broken or pristine like anything physical. So, in theory, it should be the most reassuring of hobbies for someone like me (local obsessive about others’ opinions).

And sometimes, that is genuinely the case. I wrote a 30,000 word novel back in 2012 for NaNoWriMo about a time-travelling team who are stranded in the past, and I was proud of that novel because I clocked in the time and I finished it ahead of schedule (for a wee little 13 year old, 30,000 words ain’t nothing). The thing is: that novel is terrible. I’m 99% sure it’s a disaster, from the characterisation (I did not know women, and still do not) to the plot (one twist worked… and there was only one twist) to the lack of a fixed set of time travel rules (I call myself a nerd?). But it didn’t matter. I showed it to a couple of people, but the achievement was enough for me.

On the other hand, writing is rarely as pure and as immune as Welcome to the New Age (yes, that is my novel’s title, and yes, it’s from an Imagine Dragons lyric, in case you wanted an insight into my deviant 13-year-old brain). Often… it’s made to be seen by people, and that’s where it gets all knotty. Those people will have reactions, and will make judgements. Those reactions and judgements can’t be controlled, can’t be predicted, and often can’t be seen.

It’s easy to ignore the idea that people see your stuff, sometimes. It’s what I do for the majority of my reviewing, where a lack of comments means a lack of judgement. Every now and then, people might come up to you and tell you that they read your review, and had opinions, and then that falsity comes crashing down.

The net result, ultimately is fear. It’s amazing how irrational that fear is. It’s led me to reject about 30 draft posts, some of which have clocked in past the 1000 word mark when I realised that I hated them. One of these posts was about those unfinished posts, if you like irony. This is ridiculous, of course. If I’m lucky and my post is shared somewhere, it’ll inch over 10 pageviews. Otherwise… well, put it this way: I’ve had blog posts that no-one has ever seen apart from me. That gut worry that other people will judge me for it, therefore, is ridiculous. It’s even more absurd when you factor in the feeling of affirmation you seek when you put out a piece into the world. Craving something and fearing it at the same time? As someone, somewhere, once said, nope.

That’s the thing with irrational fear, however. The irony of it is that it pushes you away from, or ruins the experience of, good things, for no logical reason. It’s the same reason why I hate flying and always worry for a while before about it, despite the fact that I’ve never had a genuinely bad flight. You can throw all the logic in the world at the problem, and it bounces right off.

I’d love to say I’ve had an epiphany writing this post, but this was simply my attempt to unpack a thought process that’s defined a great deal of what’s happened, or failed to happen, on a blog. Maybe in the future, though, this post will be here for when the back button looks like a tempting prospect instead of soldiering on. After all, who’s judging?

Aside from myself, that is.

Yes, I briefly abandoned this post. THE IRONY IS NOT LOST ON ME

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Art Is…

This post was slightly inspired by this one, if you’d like to journey on my train of thought and read a piece with a similar idea, but, you know, more of an idea.

I write a lot of reviews. I have no idea if I’m good at it, but I certainly know that I write them. They’re almost entirely of film and TV, two mediums which go hand in hand and require a skillset that’s functionally identical to criticise.

I also like music. I listen to a lot of it, and it takes up broadly the same time in my life as film and TV. But if you asked me, say, why Of Monsters and Men are my favourite band, I’d probably just tell you that they’re good, and mumble something about consistency. I certainly couldn’t articulate it in any remotely eloquent way.

And if you’re wondering what the point of this post is, well… er… I’m wondering something. Not all art is the same, that much is clear. Each form serves a different function, is capable of something that no other medium can match. Music is purely audio. Paintings, or dance, are purely visual. Film and television are both. Books? They’re somewhere in between, or above.

But all art is, fundamentally, storytelling. The extent of that story, the specificity of it, and the way the audience engages, is different, but no matter the medium, there’s a basic story there, and there’s something subjective, and personal, that lies below the surface. Theoretically, therefore, if you’re able to grasp how that story’s being told, and whether that story accomplishes its aims, and what it means (and almost everyone is), that should carry across the board. Or at least within the boundaries of personal preference. I don’t like opera, so, obviously, I can’t engage with it critically.

And so we come back to music. Music is a remarkably diffuse form of art – it can be lyrical poetry (look at how Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature), a sonic earworm (look at, er… Ed Sheeran) or something bizarre, impressionistic, and so abstract that it seems to actively defy interpretation (hey, Alt-J!), but it recognisably takes from the toolbox of things I understand as an ‘English person’ and unhealthy TV addict.

But why do I like the music I like? That I cannot articulately explain.

So I guess my point in this weird, rambling post (if you got to the end of this, congrats! But, why?) is that art is something that you can never fully pin down. Art, to use a horrible cliche that I am definitely not above, makes you feel, and feelings aren’t built to be articulated in tight prose with strong usage of the Oxford comma. There are practically infinite ways of telling a story that no one person could ever hope to encapsulate in one mind. Any given person might never click with the fundamental appeal of an art form, or click with it without ever knowing quite why. Most importantly, art is much more than this paragraph, which is just the conclusion I, an innocent boy looking up at the stars or something, came to. After all, with art, the best we can do is to understand the tiniest corner of it, even if the patch right next to it remains entirely elusive.

That, I guess, is why I can’t review music. Art is hard, and reviewing is unnatural. That’s the moral of this piece. You can copy and paste that ending bit.

Apologies for the rambling, incoherent nature of this. This is my blog, and I get literally two pageviews max per post, so I figured that there’s no harm in freeform experimentation. I am accountable to no-one but WordPress, and truth be told, I doubt they’re watching.

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Moonlight

In an exceptionally strong year for awards movies, Moonlight still stands out in the crowd. Character studies don’t get a lot more intricate and emotionally affecting like this – partly because of the way in which we’re allowed to view the central character, who goes by shifting names that mirror his uncertainty over expression of his true identity as he’s shaped by formative experiences that twist his desires and repress his hopes, and partly because Moonlight intimately covers the experience of a black gay man, something that mainstream cinema is liable to run away screaming from even as it takes steps towards inclusivity.

Moonlight and its closest Oscar competitor, La La Land, have almost nothing in common thematically, aesthetically or in terms of characters (they are definitely both films), but it’s interesting that they both possess the same strength, which is to fuse a brilliant precision in the film’s construction with a sense of unfettered emotionality and intimacy – to bottle up very specific components of a particular experience and stitch them together (please ignore all mixed metaphors from here on out) with meticulous attention to detail. Moonlight is remarkably efficient in what it does. Each one of the three acts tells its own complicated arc with a mix of characters who age throughout and figures who flit into and out of Chiron’s life within one act, but they knit together to create an entirely coherent vision of a life’s greatest moments of hope and lowest moments of despair laid back-to-back. The Chiron of each act is drastically different from the last – from scared boy to repressed teenager to hyper-masculine adult – but each change is completely true to the character, and to the circumstances that have pushed him there.

What’s so impressive about Moonlight is that it’s so far away from the overcooked Oscar bait that you could passingly judge it as if you peeked at the premise – the kind of Hacksaw Ridge pomposity and speechifying that plays super well in 30 second clips. The screenplay is notably economical with dialogue, because it’s content that the visually lush and evocative cinematography and the dreamy soundscape (this movie is fantastic at attaching poignancy to an image, like a beach or the ocean, and calling back to it just by evoking the sounds of that moment to suggest the power of memories in shaping Chiron), let alone the actors’ terrific performances, can suggest a well of emotion and conflict that a thousand words couldn’t match (a picture paints a… wait, what was the saying?). When Little asks his father figure, Juan, if he sells drugs, all it takes is a simple, weary ‘yes’ to suggest an endless amount of uncertainties and simple shame that Juan feels in his attitude towards his trade. And in the same scene, Little’s sudden question – ‘What’s a faggot?’ is enough to establish a scared child’s hopelessly difficult existence in a world that has already begun to reject him. Words are vital to Moonlight, but so is the lack of them as these characters struggle to articulate the powerful feelings that can often only translate into destructive action.

And this movie also boasts the kind of cast that, if there was a Hollywood fantasy league, you’d do well to dip into (and speaking of a Hollywood fantasy league, does anyone have some startup money I can borrow?). The three Chirons, bookended by the nicknames Little and Black, are all compelling emotional leads – especially Alex Hibbert as Little – but their central feat is to create performances that are simultaneously satisfying on their own, and perfect as one third each of a realistically evolving character. The actors apparently never met, yet there’s never one second of doubt that they’re portraying the same person with the same hopes and fears and struggles. The director, Barry Jenkins, may be a wizard.

The other two powerhouse performances belong to paternal influences that dominate Chiron’s life, yet with extremely different levels of actual involvement. Mahershala Ali, apparently wasted for four seasons on House of Cards, is ruthlessly good as drug leader/father figure Juan, capturing the strange dichotomy of nurturing paternalism and brash confidence in his environment to illustrate his own unique take on masculinity that evidently informs Chiron’s own struggles to find his place within his gender throughout his life, but he’s actually only in the first third. Naomie Harris has roughly the same screen-time as Chiron’s mother, but her role is spread over all three segments, during which Harris takes the stereotype of the junkie mother and deconstructs it to find the emotional realism of the inadequate yet loving mother within. She is so good, and in such different ways, and somehow she did it all over 3 spare days in her press tour for the last Bond film. They deserve every award being thrown at them.

I know it’s become the cool thing to use Moonlight as a stick to bash the more conventional La La Land, which obviously lacks the uniqueness of perspective that this movie has in spades, but realistically, they’re different enough that comparison feels reductive.. The fact that we can get both in such a close proximity is good enough for me. Personally, I found Moonlight to be better. It’s the masterpiece of the two – the passion project where nothing got lost in the wash and nothing feels out of place. It’s that rare movie that gets better when you try to pick it apart. It deserves the Best Picture at next week’s Oscars.

But if La La Land wins Best Picture, that’s fine too.

But in that case, Best Director for Barry Jenkins.

Awards shows are a reductive medium through which to discuss the complexity of art.

Anyhoo.

Moonlight – it good.

Conclusions!

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Yet Another La La Land Review

This is such a good movie.

Honestly, I don’t think I could write a long textual analysis of it. It’s conceivable that, if I did, it would fall apart. And look, I could do that, but I’m not a monster, nor an accomplished film critic capable of substantiating my own opinions. But some movies just don’t deserve to be nitpicked. They’re too sincere in their meanings, too committed to their vision to be pulled apart with overanalysis of subtext and of potential character flaws. They’re good enough at what they do, and so heartfelt in their intent, that they earn the right to be taken at face value.

La La Land is one of those movies. And wow, the face value is something else. It’s a well-oiled machine where every part carefully fits into the clockwork precision of the structure, yet it never feels mechanical. On the face of it, it would be impossible to link it with the past work of its director, Damien Chazelle, who helmed the equally fantastic Whiplash, with a sun-baked visual aesthetic that’s soaked in big, vibrant primary colours as opposed to the muted grit of that film. Yet there’s actually a surprising amount of shared DNA below the surface in its manic, headlong dive into the plotlines it opens up, and the swooping one-take vistas in which the camera loops and spins round its characters. It’s deeply nostalgic, reverent in turns for the technicolour sincerity of Old Hollywood and the freestyle experimentation of old music, and surprisingly modern, with a romance that feels right for 2017 in its frank honesty that not all relationships are kitted out for marriage and a happily ever after. It’s a sweeping old Hollywood musical with glitzy, ultra-catchy numbers full of colourful signing and dancing that can pivot at the snap of a finger into punchy, sharp back-and-forth dialogue exchanges that zing with thoughtful comedy.

Most of all, it’s just incredibly sincere. It’s not averse to comedy, or to subverting genre tropes, but it’s utterly committed in its tribute to people who care passionately about what they want to do, a message that it never once tries to undermine. At its core, this is a movie about the joy of liking things unreservedly for the sake of the pleasure it gives you. It’s almost like Damien Chazelle reads my blog.

Oh yeah, and there’s Gosling and Stone. Everyone loves both of these actors, right? Both are given the chance to dive deep into the hopes, dreams, fears and flaws of these characters, and they unearth idiosyncrasies and character tics that give the characters a fullness beyond the script. Gosling’s allowed to mix his Nice Guys self-deprecating comedic chops with a soulfulness that brings across Seb’s passion for his craft in a realistically flawed yet admirable way. And Stone has turned witty, ever-so-slightly downbeat pathos into a fine art, which she channels into a character who could very easily have come across as the more thinly sketched of the two. Neither is a truly accomplished singer, but their commitment and enthusiasm shines through anyway, and Stone’s big solo is as affecting and musically satisfying as anything you’ll see in the theatre.

There’s already a backlash out there, I know. There always is for any Oscar hopeful. There are those who would have you believe that the film is hopelessly derivative, that the story is bland, that the music is generic, or that Ryan Gosling’s character is a sinister jazz robot whose all-encompassing commitment to pure jazz makes him into the kind of creep that should be avoided at all costs. And hey, I’m not Sean Spicer. I can recognise that my opinions are not facts.

But for me, at the very least, La La Land is a big, warm hug that leaves a melancholy aftertaste (my metaphors are unmixed, thanks). It reels you in from the start with proud, bombastic Technicolour nostalgia, and ends up becoming something more emotionally complex, signing off on a brilliantly bittersweet ending that denies us gratification but offers fulfilment by the truckload. It is thoroughly deserving of the Best Picture nod it seems poised to snatch.

Don’t like musicals, you say? You’ll like this. I swear it.

And you can trust me, because I have a free WordPress blog.

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My Favourite TV of 2016

2016 was a shitshow. Terrible things happened this year. Brexit. President Trump. Suicide Squad. Of all the arbitrary time units ever, this was definitely in the bottom thousand.

Still, though, some good things happened this year. It’s good to know that as the world descends into maniacal chaos, millions upon millions are still being pumped into ways for people to briefly forget how horrible the world can be. Most of that happened on the small screen, which just got better and better this year as the number of shows on television continued to swell beyond all logical reason. It wasn’t all perfect – Fear the Walking Dead exists – but there was an incredible amount of good stuff this year.

With that in mind, here’s my favourite ten shows of the year (after last year’s top nine, I have sold out and now only do conventional numbers). Believe me, it was hard to narrow it down this year. Big league difficult. Also, as ever, no particular order. On with the shows!

BoJack Horseman

Bojack.png

I wouldn’t have expected to put an animated talking horse comedy in this list at the start of the year, but life comes at you fast. In fact, this is essentially the TV show I’ve been waiting for all my life, so tailored to my tastes and sense of humour that I’m wondering if the creators have spent time in my mind. Suffice to say, BoJack Horseman is something much, much deeper than that reductive tag suggests.  It’s absolutely a comedy, and it’s funnier than about 99% of everything else on TV with a joke rate of about 100 per minute (just pause at any given moment for a golden sight gag) but it’s also one of the sharpest, most woundingly accurate dramas around, mostly simultaneously, chronicling the issue of depression with a brutal frankness that most gritty dramas would steer away from in an instant,  Since the first season leaned hard into the ‘talking animals’ gimmick, BoJack has zeroed in on just what it wants to be, and this year’s third season saw Netflix’s best comedy (controversial? eh) reach new heights of comedy, artistry and gut-punchery (not a word, the last one, but it had to fit).

For new heights of comedy, you had a running gag about spaghetti strainers with a legitimately magnificent pay-off, and an episode centering around abortion that brilliantly made the case for the issue to be treated more normally via the medium of a pop song called ‘Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus’ (it makes more sense in context, just about). For artistry, you had an episode set entirely underwater, packing in some of the most impressive animated visuals I’ve seen on either film and TV and crafting a heartfelt character arc for the central character… with no dialogue at all. And for gut-punches, well: the final four episodes systematically, painfully destroyed virtually every key relationship on this show as every secret and resentment came home to roost, leading to one of the most heartbreaking conclusions imaginable.

BoJack is cruelly brilliant, and brilliantly cruel. It’s the type of TV that’ll either leave you breathless from laughing, staring in existential despair at the horror of what you’ve witnessed, or both. Watch it, fool.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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No particular order, remember? As with last year, I put my show of the year at number two to prove I mean business. And yes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is my show of the year. Don’t look so surprised.

Crazy-Ex Girlfriend exists in conversation with BoJack, in that it’s an ostensibly comedic character study of a heavily flawed person who makes all the wrong life decisions and constantly alienates their friends in the pursuit of something meaningless. Both are utterly despairing and nihilistic in their outlook, but have an essential faith in the majority of humanity as shown by broadly sympathetic supporting characters. Crazy Ex, though, has much more to do, so the fact that it’s not just good, but absolutely A+ fantastic, is pretty damn impressive. For instance, it’s also a musical, which is traditionally a weird mix with television. Yet Crazy Ex is unerringly consistent in that department, cranking out two or more original numbers per week, around about 50% of which are solid gold (a song called ‘I Gave You A UTI, a Green Day parody about ping pong, a teen-angst song about intentionally not putting effort in and a tap dance called ‘We Tapped That Ass’ are just the tip of the iceberg), and the other 50% are merely great.

It’s also that rare romantic comedy that works simultaneously as a straightforward romantic comedy and as a brutal deconstruction of all romantic comedies. At its core, this is a show about the harm that simplistic narratives about romance can do when they’re applied to reality – the central character, Rebecca, sees herself as the trademark rom-com protagonist, a viewpoint that’s nothing if not horrifically harmful. Yet in season two, it’s broadened out beyond that mission statement to explore how her friends are moving way on past her by taking their trauma and emotional issues and tackling it head-on, leading to a fascinating dynamic where the character we’re meant to root for is one of the least likeable/emotionally developed in the entire cast. Oh, and this show is also pretty great at casually tackling social issues that would spook the majority of shows on cable, let alone network. Bisexuality? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Abortion? Check. Mentioning controversial topics in a random sequence? Check.

Anyway, this show is pure sunshine and joy. It’s so good.

Stranger Things

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Back when I reviewed this show, it was a wee little indie series that had quietly slipped onto Netflix. Now, it’s a brand in of itself. There are Funko Pops of it. The word ‘Barb’ is now universally recognised shorthand. The 80s are now generally seen as a great time with all of the Cold War nightmares forgotten. Eggo waffles have received a new burst of popularity.

It’s kind of comforting that below the monolithic hype and legion of stale memes, Stranger Things is just a really solid story with excellent production values and an A+ cast. It’s simple, meat-and-potatoes sci-fi that offers simple pleasures that the TV landscape could learn a lot from. For one, it’s paced perfectly, leaving the bloat of every other Netflix original behind for a lean, mean eight hours that never lets up. For two, it has the best cast of child actors you’ll ever meet, who form such a likeable and believable friendship group that you’ll forget why you ever hated child actors in the third place. And for three, it’s a kickass mystery show that answers all its questions and keeps its mythology nice and constrained. The idea of TV seasons as extended movies has often led to shapeless and meandering storytelling, yet here we have a show that really does function as a satisfying, close-ended eight hour movie. Season two, instead of being a necessity to complete the story, is a nice, luxurious sequel that gives us more time to spend with the characters. Stranger Things isn’t dazzling, but it’s dependable, consistent and entertaining comfort food TV.

Better Call Saul

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A returnee! In a nearly all-new line-up, Better Call Saul is the only show from my top ten last year to make it onto this year’s. It richly deserves its grizzled veteran (of two years) spot, because season two took everything promising from season one and built on it. Sophomore slump? More like sophomore… improvement (it will catch on). Season two was slower, more methodical and prone to long, meandering digressions, but that was all part of the individual charm that really lifted it. Better Call Saul really embraced its individuality this season, telling its own genuinely original stories free from the Breaking Bad template that season one often returned to and developing its own offbeat, intimate vibe that ensured the show never strayed from its laser focus on character. In season two, Better Call Saul earned the right to lose the spin-off moniker, and began to work as a terrific show in its own right

Game of Thrones

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Okay, I only caught up on Game of Thrones this year and this list needed some mainstream credo. Even then, though, this year’s sixth season was pretty great. With the end-game set for 2018, season six finally abandoned the forward-looking slow-burn and began to pay things off while gradually narrowing down the cast to the big hitters. That led to a whole slew of iconic, rewarding pay-offs that only really need short descriptions: Hold the Door, the Battle of the Bastards, the Sept of Baelor, R+L = J, Queen Cersei. Season six kept up the sprawling, interweaving action that’s always been GOT‘s trademark, but it really lifted into being one of the strongest runs yet by telling new kinds of stories – one where the good guys won occasionally, where the outcomes actually satisfied instead of just eliciting shock. While fellow cable mega-hit The Walking Dead becomes flabbier and repetitive in its old age, GOT is as fresh-faced and free of wrinkles as ever, like someone who’s just exited the Botox clinic.

Supergirl

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If you’re a fan of comic-book TV, 2016 couldn’t have been a better year. You have Marvel’s ongoing Netflix juggernaut, whatever the hell Gotham is meant to be and the CW’s DC universe that swelled to four shows as of this autumn. There’s never been more choice in that regard. One show, however stood out amongst the flock this year: Supergirl. It almost made my list last year but missed out as it hadn’t quite overcome its growing pains (I’ll stop with ageing analogies soon, I promise!). This year, however, it worked out the kinks and really soared. Supergirl works because it’s unashamedly optimistic – its hero loves saving people, and the city populace often end up standing up and performing their own acts of heroism because they’re all really great people at heart. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect show for the current political climate – not only offering a middle finger to Donald Trump’s crowd obliquely in its embracing of unity and diverse cast (one of this year’s highlights involved a key character coming out), but also offering a more direct middle finger by essentially becoming a positive allegory for immigration experiences in season two. Oh, and it’s also just a whole lot of fun. There was a crossover episode with The Flash that gave us this:

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And a two-episode team-up with a comic-accurate and genuinely good-hearted Superman that gave us this:

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Supergirl is a joyful, fun show, but it’s also defiantly progressive in its outlook and resistant to everything that has swept this year into the bottom 1000 of years.

Black Mirror

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Fans of Charlie Brooker’s cheerfully misanthropic satire were worried when Netflix bought the series last year. Would a show founded on British cynicism and British cast members work when transplanted to an American setting? Would everything just be Americanized? Would entire episodes be set in a Burger King? People shouldn’t have worried. Netflix’s Black Mirror was just like the old Black Mirror where it needed to be, but different in all the right places. In the anthology of six stories, we had a real grab bag of what this show could do, mostly delivered strongly. There was classic style Black Mirror where everything ended horribly and everyone was awful, mildly subversive Black Mirror where everything ended badly and most people were awful except one person who appeared in a cameo, and, best of all, optimistic Black Mirror where everything ended well and everyone was lovely. That last one, San Junipero, more or less justified the season’s entire existence, delivering a pitch-perfect story that proved that Black Mirror is so much more than just a nihilistic condemnation of technology. Not every story this year hit the mark – Men Against Fire was a slog with about 5 minutes of viable drama – but season three was the best selection box you’ll ever receive for Christmas. Except instead of caramel and orange, the fillings would be murder and death.

Person of Interest

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Person of Interest?” I hear you ask. “Doesn’t that sound like a procedural on CBS where white people solve crimes?”. Well, broadly speaking, yes, that is Person of Interest. Please don’t be so reductive, though, hypothetical person. Person of Interest is also a fascinating science-fiction show exploring a post-Singularity world where artificial intelligence exists that possesses the ability to use mankind’s social structures as a weapon. White people solving crimes can be philosophically interesting, and surprisingly diverse when you consider the show’s good LGBT representation. Nuance exists in this world. Expand your mind.

Person of Interest hit its final season last year, squished into a burn-off schedule by a network that killed it with fire once it became interesting, and it managed to craft one hell of a send-off. It’s the rare network show that’s inventive and freewheeling on a miniature budget, working together smart and innovative ideas like an episode called ‘6471’, in which the number applies to the amount of times one person has been forced to sit through the simulation (it’s horribly depressing, but also really great) while delivering gut punch after gut punch as it became clear that the creators would happily murder any of the cast, at any time, in any way. For all the invention and tragedy, though, POI‘s last stand managed to be one of the most profound and hopeful endings I’ve ever seen on a show, even as it casually continued to kill off its main cast right up until the end. POI was too clever and too original to work on a network exclusively populated by has-been comedy stars in low-concept sitcoms where they have to learn to be dads, but it went out swinging, so that’s something. It has now been replaced in its timeslot by NCIS: New Orleans. Life is tough sometimes.

Westworld

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Westworld, loosely based on the internet phenomenon of Westworld podcasts, has been touted as two things by the press. Before air, it was ‘the new Game of Thrones!’, based on the fact that it was expensive and is made by HBO. During air, it has been called ‘a mystery show’ in a slightly sneering tone by critics, with its cryptic and hazy storytelling beaten continuously for prioritizing fan theory bait over character.

I’m here to tell you that those two things are silly. Westworld is much more than an attempt to bottle the Game of Thrones lightning again – the genre comparisons aside, it’s much more focused on theme as opposed to narrative, while GOT swings the other way. And while the mysteries are a key part of the show, it’s a pretty sturdy character drama in its own right that recognises the value of a kick-ass cast including Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ed Harris, and most other talented B-listers to take the script and breathe life into it – listen to one terrifying monologue by Hopkins’ villain, and tell me that Westworld doesn’t have characters.

Above all, Westworld is something rare for TV, in that it’s a story about storytelling – as one character puts it, ‘lies to tell a greater truth’. Its setting, a Western-themed park populated by lifelike androids, is one great big canvas for creativity in-universe, a place where visitors can come to find clarity and order in a place where everything makes sense, but actions don’t matter. It’s a story about memory, in which androids are kept in captivity by the inability to recall their past beyond the created back-stories prescribed for them, and therefore about the way in which identity is crafted from past experiences. It’s a story about consciousness, and the search for a deeper meaning when we’ve come to a place where we seemingly cannot advance as a species, while the Hosts provoke questions of where the line can be drawn at all – where does life begin, exactly – with the formation of identity, possession of free will, recognition of your place in the universe, or all of these?

Westworld is a show about questions, so it’s fitting that it provokes so damn many of them, up to and including the question of whether there’s an answer to anything at all.  And yes, it’s also a show about mystery, in which the exact chronology of events is obscured, and in which the true nature of characters is slowly revealed rather than shown all at once. But the mysteries are smartly unveiled and become clearer each and every week rather than being obscured up to a ‘shocking’ big reveal, and the quest to see a bigger picture as the clarity of it all increases is one of the most fun parts about watching the show – it works with you, rather than just holding the cards to its chest arbitrarily forever.

Okay, yeah, I spent a lot of time talking about this show. I even spend time talking about in real life, which is rare. If you’re reading this and know me, you probably want me to shut up about Westworld already. But hey. It’s worth talking about.

Mr. Robot

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I have a bad relationship with Mr Robot. Every episode, I expect greatness, and have to look for it instead, really hard. It holds back answers to its mysteries for aeons – there are some mysteries from season one that, going into season three, are still completely unclear. Its story meanders so intensely that it’s safe to say that about 80% of its screen-time can be chalked up as delaying tactics. Sometimes, just to prove it can, it’ll just stop caring about whether things make sense, and offer up a scene that’s completely incomprehensible from any perspective, then ending with the promise of a mystery to be solved about why the scene was completely incomprehensible (it’s usually not solved).

Yet I can’t not appreciate this show. I know it’s a bad thing that in one year it’s slipped from my favourite new show to my problematic favourite on which my feelings consistently shift. Season two was made right in the onrush of awards love and mainstream success of season one, and you can tell the validation that the creator feels in every frame. It goes big and brash and weird in everything it does, throwing mainstream appeal right out of the window. Sometimes, as explained above, that ends in incomprehensibly weird failure. Sometimes, though, it ends in genius, and the genius comes so often that it’s necessary to keep going, waiting for the next bit of genius (this is not a metaphor for drug addiction, I promise).

Season two had gloriously weird structural experiments like a 20-minute segment that served as an eerie parody of 90s family sitcoms, complete with ultra-cheesy opening credits where all the actors turn to camera and smile. It frequently upended everything that previously seemed to be true, with thrilling results, using the unreliable narrator trick for a twist that may have been predictable, wasn’t any less impressive when it arrived. It often ditched its main character for side adventures with supporting characters who became vastly more interesting and dynamic. And when the show regained its focus and began to sprint forward, it was hard not to get swept along in the momentum of it all.

Mr Robot season two was a strange, problematic season of TV, but it was like absolutely nothing else on TV, including shows that are ‘absolutely nothing else on TV’.