Thursday, December 11, 2008

Keith Telly Topping's Top TV Tips Presents ... The TV Highs and Lows of 2008

Many television critics, yer actual Keith Telly Topping has noticed, seem compelled to do an Asperger's-like 'end-of-the-year list' type-thing each December. They do this, one presumes, to show not only what fabulous judges of the complexities and subtleties of medium they are but, also, how much utter rubbish they have to wade through each year in search of the odd diamond to rave about. This blogger, to be honest, has never really bothered with that sort of thing in the past, or felt the need to do one. Personally - I know what I like and I know what I don't like, so why bother to make a list of them? But, I've clearly been in denial about my own latent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tendencies. Beside, 2008 has been an undeniably interesting year, Top Telly Tips-wise at any rate and, also, I'm never one averse to fishing for a bit of sympathy either. Thus, yer actual Keith Telly Topping has decided that, this year, he wanted a piece of that bad-boy action too. I'm sure you understand.
Therefore, dear blog reader, welcome you are to the first annual Keith Telly Topping And His Top (and Bottom) TV Stuff of the Year: 2008. You might notice that there are, actually, twice as many highs than lows. That's because, generally, we tend to remember all the good stuff and try to forget about the bad. Unless it's so monumentally duff that we retain quasi-fond memories of it in a special little corner of our brain reserved for, you know, Bobby Davro's Rock With Laughter and the like. We've had one or two of those this year as well. Queue the list.

Twenty Extra-Primo-Good Highlights of TV in 2008:-

Doctor Who - Some shows start great. Some achieve greatness. Some just are great but then keep getting better and better and better with each passing year. Doctor Who remains as comfortable as a pair of slippers on a winter evening in the British psyche and yet still witty and exciting and just that little bit dangerous when it pushes all the right buttons. Cat Tate warmed everyone's hearts (even the most vocal of naysaying doubters), the stories remained bold and imaginative (The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat's two-parter was a thing of beauty) and the season ended - for the first time in forty five years - with Doctor Who as the week's most-watched television show in the UK. Whether David Tennant's departure early in 2010 will see the beginning of the end of the nation's love affair with the show is the subject of some conjecture. But, for the moment at least - and hopefully for the foreseeable future - Doctor Who remains must-see-TV on a weekly basis. And about time.
[Spooks] - This blogger has struggled for a week trying to think of another example of a TV show that has ever had its best, brightest, most imaginative and creative season seven years after its debut and I just can't come up with one. Cast and authorial changes rather than real-world events breathed fresh life into Thames House this year and Harry and the MI5 team rose to the challenge for an apocalyptic adrenalin-fueled, fire-in-the-belly, white-knuckle-ride of a rip-roaring-roller-coaster that left audiences on the edge of their seat and with nails bitten down to the quick. A special mention must be made for episode seven - the 'Connie is rotten' revelation - quite possibly the most tense and exciting hour of TV of the decade, never mind the year and with the coldest execution of a regular character that I think I've ever seen in a TV show. A twenty four-carat gem.
Top Gear - Despite all the pitiful moaning from crass self-interest groups with an agenda, rent-a-quote MPs and people with beards but without a sense of humour, the 'ambitious, but rubbish' trio of Jezza, Hamster and Cap'n Slow continues to attract huge audiences (and huge audience appreciation) with their charmingly 'up yours' and gloriously un-PC world-view. Three blokes 'cocking about' and having a laugh whilst tear-assing around green-belt Hertfordshire or Alpine Switzerland (or Botswana, Alabama, Viet'Nam, Tokyo or any number of other stunning locations) in lovely cars and with a - seemingly genuine - friendship between the boys that should touch even the hardest heart of a Daily Scum Mail reader in Eastbourne or a tree-hugging, frappucino drinking Middle Class hippy Communist Gruniad subscriber in Islington. And then, of course, give them a blasé knee-to-the-groin, and a cheery wink to everyone else. It has its critics, of course. And all of them are wrong. Here endeth the lesson.
Stephen Fry in America - Effortlessly delightful; take one quintessential Englishman and send him off on a travelogue journey not only across a continent but also to the absolute heart of an entire cultural way of life. Imaginative, funny, touching and often beautiful, a show that only British TV could possibly produce. This just about made up for the lack of a new series of Qi this year (roll on January). Listen, all you powers that be, just put Fry in charge of television, will you? It couldn't, possibly, be in safer hands.
Criminal Justice - An extraordinary and provocative dramatic exposé of waste, intolerence and prejudice that appeared straight out of left field in June (at a time when nobody is supposed to be watching TV). And, in doing so, took the tired old formula of crime drama by the scruff of the neck and demonstrated that, astonishingly, there was something new to say. Kudos, too, to the BBC's scheduling department for the innovative idea of showing the drama over five consecutive nights. If this one doesn't win a lot of BAFTAs next year, then there's something very wrong with the academy.
Most Sincerely - Trevor Eve gave the drama performance of the year capturing all aspects of Hughie Green's complex, often highly unpleasant, personality in the best of the several 'Twentieth Century icons' bio-pics made by BBC4. Controversial, sometimes awkward viewing (like most of the films in this fine series) but for its central performance alone, it deserved all the praise it got and then some.
Lost - In which a show that had often been good (and sometimes great) but had also flattered to deceive more than was truly healthy suddenly, when given a finish line in the middle-distance, discovered how to tell a story by introducing its audience to the concept of non-linear progression. By making people aware, at last, that the real story here isn't a bunch of people getting off an island but, rather, that it's the island itself that's the main character in the piece, they also managed to satisfy a lot of waverers. Season five can't come quickly enough for me.
Waking The Dead - Postponed until April by a series of production delays, Waking The Dead - like [Spooks] a few months later - had its best season in a good three or four years simply by remembering what it did that was good in the first place. The plots got a bit barmier (in the case of that Sudanese skull two-parter, a lot barmier) as did Peter Boyd's manic interludes, but here was a show that, despite all the amputations, still works brilliantly. If [Spooks] has spent this year reminding 24 how it should be done, then maybe Waking the Dead, in its own quiet unassuming and comfortingly British way, has done the same thing for CSI.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart - Virtually unknown (tragically) in the UK save for a small, but committed, cult following on More4, the US political comedy show benefits from the blizzarding wit and irony (you know, that thing which Americans don't do, allegedly) of Jon Stewart and his team of colleagues. The month's worth of episodes leading up to, including and immediately following the US Presidential elections in November (tied-together under the title Indecision: 2008) were a genuine masterclass in how to touch raw nerves in a nation's psyche again and again and again whilst being, simultaneously, wee-in-yer-pants funny. The only possible downside to the series' continued brilliance - will they get enough material out of the next guys that they got from Bush and Chaney? It's going to be a hard act to follow!
House - Two exceptional half-seasons of the popular medical drama have kept it in the international Premier League of imported telly and subtly changed the series' dynamic whilst jettisoning none of its elegant, caustic wit and sly, barbed cynicism. Forty minutes with Big Hugh each week remains enough to turn many ladies of my acquaintance into quivering wrecks. And, more than one or two guys of my acquaintance too. Oh, and let us never forget (as if we could) Lisa Edelstein's pole dancing in the season finale. I mean, that alone guarantees the show some form of TV immortality.
Harry Hill's TV Burp - Featuring possibly the worst format that a genuinely great TV show has ever had (apart, maybe, from Vic Reeves Big Night Out), TV Burp works for one maddeningly obvious reason and one reason alone - Harry Hill is, quite simply, a comedy genius. Whether this show would work - on any level - with another host, there's only really one way to find out - FIGHT!
The Shield - Not many cop dramas have ever been as visceral, as downright hard as The Shield was. But six years of relentless dragging the viewer through the sewers of South Central did nothing to prepare anyone for the sheer assault on the senses that they got in the final thirteen episodes. As everything corrupt cop Vic Mackey touches becomes tainted and infected by association with him, the show careered towards one of the most shockingly realised finales ever. We shan't see its like again and, possibly, that's a good thing. I'd hate to see anyone even attempting The Shield-lite.
The ONE Show - Quite how what was clearly devised as 'Nationwide for the Twenty First Century' has mutated into a genuine BBC flagship is, frankly, beyond me (though the partnership of Grumpy Adrian and Minxy Christine is, undeniably, effective in the slot). That a mixture of - often quite twee - regional stories, some consumer advice, a bit of light comedy and a bit of chat show works so well is a tribute to the BBC for believing that not all early evening programming has to be dull, awkward lowest-common-denominator rubbish. And, perhaps, to the public themselves who have embraced this most unlikely of success stories. A sting of quality guests have helped. Mind you, I wish to Hell they get rid of that Giles Brandreth. He still gets right on my tit-end.
Torchwood - The 2008 award for the most improved show on television and the one with the most number of homoerotic fight sequences (by a considerable distance in both regards). Torchie came on leaps and bounds this year, gaining a character for itself that the first year had struggled to find. The clever mixture of moods and styles may have confused some of the audience but the season's highlights almost put Torchwood into its parent-series' league in terms of innovation and quality. And it's been rewarded with a second channel promotion in two years as a result.
Pushing Daisies - The most bittersweet name on the list because, for all its mad-brilliance, its strangeness, its daring and its charm, Pushing Daisies won't be with us for too much longer (the show was cancelled in November by a nervous network and just four more episodes remain to be shown). Because more people in the US were watching a remake of Knight Rider than it. I resigned from the human race in protest but I don't think it did much good. Anna, come home, and bring your pieman with you - we've a marginally better record of treating quality products in this country. Marginally.
Outnumbered - Just when you thought that the situation comedy format was dead, buried and rapidly decomposing in its grave, along comes this little gem to surprise you. But then, the day that Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin stop writing stuff that is funny, observational and accurate then we'll all be in trouble. Warm-hearted, insightful, clever and with the three best child actors currently working in TV (and the adults are bad either), this is - by a distance - the best British sitcom since Black Books.
Cold Blood: The Last Hurrah - Broadcast on 3rd January and, three hundred and fifty days later, there has still to be a more chillingly realistic portrayal of psychosis on British TV than Matthew Kelly's performance in this, the final part of ITV's high profile serial killer drama. Flawlessly acted by the entire - quality - cast, beautifully plotted and nicely shot. But, my God, it was scary.
Ashes To Ashes - It took a while to get going and some viewers (and some reviewers for that matter) seemed resolutely determined not to like it simply on the grounds that it wasn't Life on Mars. But, after three or four episodes Ashes finally clicked into gear with a new series of genre clichés to play with and a new mission statement that shifted the focus more onto Gene Hunt than previously. I think the next season will be better but, for all the nonsense that poor Keeley Hawes had to put up with from a few borderline sexist gits with access to a word processor in Fleet Street and beyond, I am very defensive of this show. And all it stands for.
Ideal - The strangest and - by about a million miles - the best thing to come out the comedy wasteland that is BBC3. A series about people in the gutter reaching, magnificently, for the stars ... but then getting distracted on the way by money and dope. The flashback episode from season four is, possibly, my favourite thirty minutes of TV comedy all year. Mad! As! Toast!
The Culture Show - In which the best double act on TV - Big Quiffed Marky Kermode and Wor Geet Canny Luscious Lovely Lauren Laverne - continue on their never-ending quest to bring a bit of culture to the masses. And, do so with charm and with just a little bit of arm twisting. Thank God for the BBC and its charter commitment to making programmes like this - where would we be without it?
Also honourable mentions for: Burn Up, the US remake of Life on Mars, Mock the Week, Who Do You Think You Are?, Have I Got News For You, Bones, Call the Cops, the BBCs Olympic coverage, Big Cat Diaries, Natural World, Britain from Above, Cutting Edge, New Tricks, Wonderland, Survivors, Strictly Come Dancing, Mad Men, Time Team, the one episode of Qi we've had this year, The Cup and just about everything made by BBC4.

Ten Major (by which I mean Brigadier-General) Lowlights of TV in 2008:-

Bonekickers - Tragically now destined to spend the rest of time as a by-word in the British media for a complete and utter bloody waste of time and talent ('are you going to watch Bonekickers tonight?' 'No, they never came to see me when I was bad'). Here was a classic example of a show that, simply, couldn't make up its own mind what it wanted to be. Too lightweight to be serious drama but, by the same token, far too po-faced and up its own arse to be the mad-but-fun show it should have aspired to and that most people were kind-of expecting. It wasn't even 'so bad, it's brilliant' it was just ... bad. Some major TV careers are going to need a fair bit of recovery time after this. You can bet the last pound you have in the crumbling banking system that the next series of [Spooks] or Hustle or Ashes to Ashes probably won't be trailed by Kudos with the tagline 'from the makers of Bonekickers'!
The Palace - One of the most thoroughly misguided and wretched failures in the history of television as Tom Grieves' attempt to do 'a British West Wing' was fatally undermined by a series of utterly clueless scripts given to a bunch of highly embarrassed quality actors who proceeded to do the walk of shame by sending the whole thing up and playing it like they were in a B-movie. On acid. I never thought I'd ever agree with a Nancy Banks Smith television review but her description of The Palace as 'the TV equivalent of balloon modelling. It feels like being shot to death with popcorn' was absolutely spot-on.
The Duchess in Hull - Quiet possibly the most outrageously offensive television show ever made. By anyone. It wasn't just the crassly smug nature of the pre-publicity blurb or the fact that the 'highlight' of the Duchess in question's previous TV career was It’s a Royal Knockout that enraged me so much as a comment that Sarah Ferguson - speaking out of her enormous arse, as usual - made about her host on Humberside: 'Tonia and I have identical views on certain issues, but we're not the same. I come from a privileged background and have been educated.' Because, of course, nobody from a council house ever progressed beyond finger painting, did they Fergie? Jesus, it's 2008 - this used to be a free country. These days you can't even have a cigarette or a bacon sandwich without a former member of the royal family coming around your house and telling you to cut it out. But, what I really object to most is the fact that I spent five years of my life as a working man watching my taxes being used to subsidise the Duchess of York's lifestyle between 1987 and 1992 (which seemed, at the time, to consist of her going on one skiing holiday after another) via the Civil List and now, seemingly, she wants to tell me how I should be running my life. Over my dead body, your former Royal Highness. Although car-crash telly can be, occasionally, compulsive viewing why anybody would have wanted to watch this abomination for either entertainment or information was, I said at the time, completely beyond me. The general public, seemingly, agreed as very few of them bothered.
Harley Street - You could just see ITV's thinking here when Carnival films presented them with this – 'let's take an ex-EastEnder B-Lister (Paul Nicholls) and an ex-Corrie star (Suranne Jones) and build a medical drama around them, cos, like, they're really popular, aren't they?' Never looked promising. And, indeed, it wasn't. And neither was it any good. And not many punters watched this one either – something a recurring theme in much of ITV’s drama output this year, frankly.
The Invisibles - Yet another seminal example of the 'how to screw up what should've been a decent enough show just by being lazy' strand of British TV drama production. Great cast, nice ideas, bloody awful scripts. Result, something that even the casting of Tony Head and Jenny Agutter couldn't save. And, let's face it, that shouldn't be possible.
Jamie's Ministry of Food - I have only one problem with Jamie Oliver. His existence. Who the Hell died and made that lisping odious toerag The King of the World? The thing which most perplexes me is that when he started off his campaign for school dinners, within hours he had government ministers literally scrambling over each other to get their picture taken with him and ramming their tongues up his crack. I mean, ultimately, who is this guy? He's just a chef - I've no doubt he's a very good one, otherwise it's unlikely punters would eat in his restaurants and Asda wouldn't be paying him vast amounts of moolah to advertise their 'Jamie Oliver Endorsed' food lines. I have to say, though, that I dislike – on general principle - anybody who is dogmatic about what's 'good for you.' I don't like being told what to eat, just as I don't like being told what to wear or what to think. Jamie Oliver, sad to say, is symptomatic of every single thing that's wrong with 'interfering busybody TV' in naughties. Anyway, Jamie’s Ministry of Food (thoroughly pretentious title notwithstanding) did, at least, include one genuinely great moment - when the Rotherham hard-lads chanted 'You! Fat! Bastard!' at him and he looked like he was about to burst into tears... That made me laugh more than an entire season of Lead Balloon.
24: Redemption - Or, when good shows go bad, overnight. Redemption was just so ... inconsequential. Small scale. Which is obviously what the producers were going for but, in 24's world, it simply didn't work. This is Jack Bauer we're talking about, a one-man armour-plated killing machine. And now he's, what, rescuing some (suspiciously well-fed) orphans in Africa? What next, Terminator IV in which Arnie saves a kitten stuck up a tree? For God's sake just get Kiefer back to the States where he can save the world from the International Muslim/Chinese/Mexican Conspiracy a few more times.
Who Dares, Sings - When I first head the title, in my head I imagined a show in which Lloyd Webber, Barrowman and a bunch of wannabes attack a German castle. And get shot to death in the face by Nazis. Now, that I’d've definitely watched. Instead we got Denise Van Outen and Ben Whatshisface and pro-celebrity karaoke. Hmmm. Not nearly so unmissable.
The X-Factor - At least it's funny on Britain's Got Talent when Amanda Holden cries...
Merlin - Nowhere near as bad as most of the shows on this list but included because it was such a disappointment. Not bad, by any stretch but ... dull. Dull as dishwater. I prefer Robin Hood, actually – at least that's a show which knows that it's preposterous and has a bit of laugh being so. Merlin just seems to take itself so seriously. Which is fairly terminal for any show featuring a talking dragon and Richard Wilson.
Dishonourable mentions, and a damned good pants-down caning, for: Trinny & Susannah Undress The Nation (style-fascism), Hole In The Wall, CSI: Miami (just because...), Natural Born Sellers (and all other examples of ITV copy-catting a successful BBC format, making some minimal changes to it and then calling it something different) and absolutely anything featuring Ross Kemp.