watched2014
Back in the olden days, when lots of people wrote this site, we would all collaborate on an end of year TV review. The first went up – can you believe this? – 15 years ago. Ah, 1999. “Of course,” wrote Jack Kibble-White and Ian Jones1,” the phenomenon of the year has been ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

From there up until 2009, no matter who was in charge of wrangling the thing together, there would always be a self-conscious mention of the Chris Tarrant quizzer, making it OTT’s marker buoy upon the changing tides of television. In 2014, it sunk beneath the waves forever with a couple of celebrity episodes and a clip show. Few noticed. There wasn’t any brouhaha, despite the bait of an easy ‘Final Answer’ headline.

2014, according to many, has been an exceptional year for British TV. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? doesn’t merit a mention. There’s been so much good stuff, I’ve successfully avoided quite a few of the biggest hitters2. Internet orthodoxy tells me  you no longer want to read an 8,000-word essay on the things I did watch. And luckily that’s not what I want to write. So, here are 10 of my favourite small screen viewing experiences from the the last 12 months3 in no particular order.

THE GREAT INTERIOR DESIGN CHALLENGE (BBC2)

I’m not going to make any claim towards greatness in my selection. And in many respects this show – which squeezed out two series over 2014 – has little that’s truly commendable about it, other than in becoming a final stronghold for that much diminished phrase, ‘the wow-factor’. It’s people doing up other people’s homes. Host Tom Dychkhof asks each contestant exactly the same question in staggered interviews, the music cues are similarly repetitive and judge Daniel Hopwood wears intriguing trousers. But I find all of that reassuring, and I watched episodes at a time.

THE WALKING DEAD (FOX)

It’s true the series is perhaps lurching from one communities-at-war scenario to another, but it’s during the journeys in between it really impresses. The episode, ‘The Grove’, is utterly astonishing and in Carol Peletier, actress Melissa Suzanne McBride has the best female role on TV.

LINE OF DUTY (BBC2)

Looking at it from this end of the year, it appears smaller, somehow. Perhaps it was Jed Mercurio’s decision to yet again close out the series with a slate of captions telling us, in the past tense, what became of everyone. There’s no vitality in that. But think hard, and you’ll remember, Keeley Hawes’ amazing central performance and the brutality both dished out by and upon her character, DI Denton. Grey-faced and in a cheap grey suit, but luminescent. A beacon from last winter.

THE RESTAURANT MAN (BBC2)

Rangy, calm and always carrying a medium slung satchel, I think Russell Norman is a proper TV find, and the type of personality who’ll be leading lifestyle programmes on either BBC2 or C4 (because, they must come calling) into the 2020s. Another series that has no claim on originality (C4’s Risking it All did this 10 years ago), it saw Russell advising new restaurateurs. In one case the proposed businesses never made it to opening day. Another saw a tea shop set up in a tiny village in Rugby. Our man cautioned the owners there wouldn’t be enough trade to make it sustainable – but it was an instant smash. Each episode, nonetheless, was terrific. So much so, I didn’t even feel cross when Russell wore a scarf indoors.

WHAT DO ARTISTS DO ALL DAY? (BBC4)

There’s another art show coming up in this list. I’ve always enjoyed people talking about their creative process, I guess. In this instance, I’m not highlighting the entire series. Despite its merits, I only watched one episode – the instalment in which we spent a night with Frank Quiteley while he illustrated page 13 of issue four of comic book Jupiter’s Legacy. These felt like private minutes with the man, who spoke well about the mechanics of what he does. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to.”

PREY (ITV)

Written by TV newcomer Chris Lunt, it’s hard to imagine, in synopsis form, what made ITV commission this police drama. On the surface, it seems to offer nothing new – a cop is framed for the murder of his wife and one of his sons and goes on the run, while also attempting to a) catch the real killer and b) clear his own name. But the characterisation was surprising. Okay, yes, John Simm as Marcus Farrow was driven and intense as we’d expect, but also emotionally vulnerable. His pursuer, Susan Reinhart (Rosie Cavaliero) was arguably more interesting. So often in TV we’re invited to spend time with people who are better than us; gifted. She, though, was unglamorous, only reasonably witted and the type of person who’d spend time on Facebook checking up on her ex. It felt like a genre show being kitted out with non-genre personnel.

THE BATTLE FOR BRITAIN’S BREAKFAST (BBC2)/THE FIGHT FOR SATURDAY NIGHT (BBC4)

I’m cheating by wodging two programmes in together, but the comparative titles and subject matters do make these seem like book-ends. And both exec-produced by Caroline Wright. Obviously, I’m going to be drawn to documentaries rooting through the innards of TV – particularly workaday TV as explored in the first example, which sported a credit for my good friend and breakfast telly author Ian Jones. Cue Frank!: “Last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” The second saw Michael Grade, who doesn’t have the easiest on-screen persona, cackle and gossip with old industry rivals about the scraps they got into in the competition for Saturday night viewers. Any programme that acknowledges Game for a Laugh as the seismic influence it was upon television is good with me.

THE SHIELD (Amazon Instant Video)

It’s not good news for LOVEFiLM’s successors that I just had to Google their name. And, okay, The Shield finished in 2008, but I only got around to watching it this summer. There’s a lot to resist in the series. The set design is atrocious, Vic Mackey’s Strike Team seems juvenile (they even have a crappily written ‘STRIKE TEAM ONLY! (That means you, Asshole!)’ on their club house door), the nomenclature is terrible (it’s based in somewhere named Farmington, and their police division is called The Barn) and the opening titles and music are horribly garish. But it’s full of so many surprises. Michael Chiklis’ bruiser Mackey is excessively sentimental, apparent comedic foil ‘Dutch’ Wagenbach is often shown to be a genuinely gifted cop, and the show’s writers prove unafraid of regularly altering and, at times, inverting the series’ status quo. Plotted to within an inch of its life, I’d go so far as to say it has the best final episode of any series ever.

EXPOSED: MAGICIANS, PSYCHICS AND FRAUDS (BBC4)

Originally screened in art cinemas as An Honest Liar, this acquisition by the BBC’s Storyville strand looked at the life and times of magician and mythbuster James Randi. The man himself is hard-wired to entertain, and so made for an excellent, eloquent subject. Told almost in chapterised form, we followed Randi through his years as a performer, then a hoax artist and persistent irritant to Uri Geller (who nonetheless contributes to the film). The section where our hero discusses how he nobbled the spoon-bender’s appearance on The Tonight Show is a particular favourite. But at the heart of the thing there’s one more surprising layer to be peeled back…

SKY ARTS PORTRAIT ARTIST OF THE YEAR (Sky Arts 1)

The genius of this programme is its decision to base an art competition on portraiture. Because we can all have an opinion on a portrait. Now in its second series, the discussion around each artist’s merits feels more useful than ever before, with presenter Joan Bakewell openly stating her lack of enthusiasm in one of the show’s finalists, and Frank Skinner leading a discussion in an earlier heat about why all of the competitors failed to capture sportswoman Non Evans’ likeness. And, much as there’s something intrinsically televisual about The Great British Bake Off‘s hopefuls peering into their ovens, it turns out that following the creation of a piece of art makes for supremely satisfying viewing. Who knew?

There we have it, in no way definitive but 10 shows4 from 2014 that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Like last January, the plan now is that when 2015 arrives, I’ll once again embark on a series of weekly reviews – until other commitments get in the way. In the meantime, if you feel so moved, please feel free to comment below on which programmes you rate from the last 12 months. Merry Christmas, one and all!

  1. More of us would jump in for subsequent instalments
  2. Only now am I doing the second series of The Fall, I might try Happy Valley over Christmas, but I’m still awaiting counseling for my James Nesbitt aversion, meaning The Missing will remain so in my house
  3. MasterChef and Pointless accepted, my devotion to both will never waiver. And as for Doctor Who, you can read what I think about that – in nigh-on-8,000-word-essay form – here
  4. Okay, 11
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Watched #19
A long, long time ago, I used to watch TJ Hooker. Despite the fact it was the 1980s and, apparently, we were all less sophisticated, my brother and I still noticed how everything that went right in the show had to be credited to Hooker. There was one episode where, at the end, William Shatner was busy elsewhere so Heather Locklear threw her nightstick at an escaping perp. Thwwp! It spun through the air, then roundhoused into the guy’s legs, bringing him down. Adrian Zmed was understandably impressed by the move. “Hooker taught me,” she said.

24: Live Another Day (Sky1, Monday and Wednesday) brought this memory thudding back. As it ever was, Jack Bauer’s sheer righteousness must prevail. In the opening episode (first one back after four years, now in London, but you know all this) his character was set up as legend. The man himself didn’t even need to speak for half an hour. Instead, Yvonne Strahovski’s Kate Morgan was presented as his analogue – a CIA agent at odds with the organisation, whose last-minute hunches are destined to be both correct and unheeded by the suits. Although the story places her at odds with Bauer, mark my words, there will come a point where she will defect to his side. And another point where she’ll pull off a nifty manoeuvre of a ‘Hooker taught me’ ilk.

That all sounds like criticism, and it is. But it’s not major criticism. I should make it clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this new series, much as I’ve enjoyed (nearly1) every preceding instalment. The real-time element and split-screen stuff be damned, there’s nothing particularly fancy about 24. It’s just super-solid, value-for-money entertainment, each edition straining to offer up as many thrills and twists as possible. As a result, Jack himself speaks almost nothing but plot – “Take me to her now,” is his first line – meaning those few moments when he offers something of his character are usually quite affecting. So it was towards the end of the first hour, Kiefer Sutherland blinking, head drooping: “I don’t have any friends”. I could have wept.

I don’t care either way about this series’ themes exploring the morality of “free information” or America’s use of military drones. They’re a completely ancillary element – as if someone were to comment on the font this review is written in. What I care about is the reliability of 24. That’s what will keep me here for the duration. There was a great bit where we were given a glimpse on a computer screen of Jack’s record, or more specifically his list of kills over the years. Someone on the Fox staff has lovingly compiled this; that or there’s a website. Ah, those names! Andre Drazen, Victor Drazen. At number 18, Nina Myers! More to follow…

TV is good, at the moment, for taciturn, bloody-minded men. Look at all the hunks in the picture I’ve bodged together above. Prey (ITV Monday, 9pm) aired its second episode this week. I came to the show late, deciding only to watch the first on Sunday. It was enough to secure my return the next day. Kind of like 24, there’s nothing fundamentally high-concept about this drama, following John Simm’s wrongly-accused DS Marcus Farrow as he attempts to find the person who murdered his wife and son. But, unlike 24, there’s a mass of added-value in the details. The fact that show is – and I don’t mean this unkindly – unglamorous and middle-aged. Rosie Cavaliero is given a brilliantly real character in Susan Reinhart, someone who, unlike CIA: London’s Kate Morgan, isn’t gifted with super intuition. Or masses of wit. Or anything other then a bit of determination to do her job properly. The additional layer revealing she’s obsessed with her ex, Tony, and does silly, slightly intense things like show up at his house with pastries or mess with his Facebook, really fill her out.

There are also little feints in the plotting that confound our expectations. The aggressive mob on the bus never deliver on the threat their presence promises, and Marcus doesn’t work out what the password is on Sean’s computer. There’s real verisimilitude in that and the dialogue which, rarely for a thriller, sounds like the kind of things people actually say: “He brought one down from, the attic but it didn’t have a USB or anything.” It means that when the show does shift gears, like the twist at the end of this second episode, it’s quite thrilling. Marcus is betrayed and into the soundtrack drifts Radiohead’s Karma Police: “This is what you get when you mess with us”.

Here’s Bear: “Twenty-first century man has come a long way from our hunter-gather origins…” Cut to beardy bloke: “Can I have a latte?” Bear again: “I wanna find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his very existence”. This is the pretext for The Island With Bear Grylls (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm), a five-part series in which 13 ‘ordinary’ men are dropped off on an island and left to get on with it. Bear’s role in all of this is simply to squat down in places on the mainland and deliver the odd bit of commentary. Otherwise, it’s all about the fellas, who aren’t nearly so gung ho as we might have feared. Tony, 71, missed his mum, Agnes, 91. Plus there was a lot of fretting about wee. “I’m not pissing on my own face,” declared Sam, after being stung on the cheek by a jellyfish. “My piss was the colour of Guinness,” shared Rupert, later. We got to see it in a pail. Why he was going in a pail, I’m not sure.

This show, it’s… it’s okay, but Bear’s Bond villain ambitions don’t really lend it sufficient impetus. It feels like Survivor without the game play, leaving us with aimless men trying to make fire and piss in and on things.

The second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) already seems like a less contained piece than the first. Silly comment, perhaps. This run is going to be six episodes, twice as long as before. But the small-town element is what has worked best about the show and that feeling the whole thing could have been based on a Barry Hines novel. I’m not so sure about the inclusion of a quasi-religious cult, a further element of heightened reality that could potentially capsize this well-judged zombie drama. But we’ll see.

If I hadn’t come to the show with those kind of worries, expectations preloaded by its brilliant debut, then I would have been more obviously impressed – because this is still a terrific programme. Its greatest quality is found in leading man Kieren (Luke Newberry) who doesn’t actually conform to this week’s theme of goal-orientated alpha males. Instead he’s a gentle portrait of a young guy who isn’t the hero of any kind of story, and nor does he want to be. He’s shambling through life. But, not like a zombie shambles.

  1. Obviously, the year with Jack’s letters-missing-brother Graem and non-Donald Sutherland dad, Phillip, was dreadful