Great Moments In Television, 2016

These are all suspiciously recent so this is probably only the best three moments of the last few months, but that does at least mean I could get clips. Until they’re taken down. I put them on Streamable in the hope they’ll stay up longer, which has the side-effect that they loop when they’re done. Shrug emojii.

These are not spoilery except for The Crown, in which nothing really happens.

The Crown – Churchill’s Expression

Series 1, Episode 7
Netflix

The Crown is about the current queen of England’s early reign, a role which commands tremendous fanfare and almost no power. So the series zooms in on what small things she can do: so far her most politically influential move has been to invite someone to a dinner and then cancel it.

So when she discovers that Churchill and his senior staff have been lying to her about the type and severity of his illness, her instinct is to do nothing. Her character arc in this episode is to work up the courage and authority to instead give them a stern telling-off, which is also effectively nothing.

Churchill has been portrayed thus far as well-intentioned but manipulative – this is not the first time he’s deceived people when he thinks he knows best. He shows great respect for the crown and constitution, but not much for Elizabeth herself: in their first meeting he virtually chides her for offering him a seat, when the etiquette is to stand in the monarch’s presence.

All of which makes it uncertain how he’ll react to this earful. It’s pretty serious to be caught lying to the queen, but he seemed to think little of doing it and we all know there’ll be no real consequences. For most of her reprimand, he looks at his feet. But when the queen expounds the personal aspect of the betrayal, he looks up, and we finally see his reaction.

He might be about to cry. He might be about to die. John Lithgow’s whole considerable face trembles with dismay. He made the decision as a politician strategising to keep himself in power, but in the presence of a queen actually acting like a queen, and acting hurt by him, he’s reduced to a desperately sorry child on the verge of tears. It genuinely twisted my gut.

I heard an interview with him once where said that no matter how ‘big’ a director wants him to go with his performance, he’s always itching to go bigger. So when the practical stakes of a climactic scene are virtually nil, and the emotional stakes have to be carried by a single facial expression, he’s your guy.

The Good Place – The Dog

Series 1, Episode 1
NBC

The Good Place is probably my favourite new show of 2016. I liked the concept immediately: a woman wakes up in heaven, is told only the most virtuous people get there, is congratulated on her selfless works, introduced to her soulmate, and then, when they’re alone, tells him they have the wrong person. She did none of that stuff, she just has the same name. And she’s an asshole.

There’s obviously comedy potential in a jerk having to learn how to pass herself off as a good person, and it’s a very funny comedy. But it’s also a surprisingly compelling serial: the mechanics of how this place works, and how her presence is disrupting it, are always developing. And big cornerstones of the show’s premise are regularly smashed by new developments. It’s the only comedy I can think of where at least half the reason I’m watching is to find out what happens next.

Ted Danson plays the architect of this particular neighbourhood of heaven, and here he’s trying to track down what’s causing all the glitches.

Dirk Gently – The Negotiation

Series 1, Episode 2
Netflix

This new Dirk Gently adaptation takes some getting used to, but it’s worth it. It takes no stories and only one character from the books, Dirk, and inverts almost everything about him. He can be annoyingly zany, the show can be annoyingly serious, and his accomplice Todd can be annoyingly annoyed about both.

But surprisingly, the main thing I loved about Douglas Adams’ writing is intact. It was the nature of his worlds that made me want to keep reading: in Hitchhikers, it felt like they could go anywhere in the galaxy and something bizarre, interesting and funny would happen. In Dirk Gently, it felt like he could stay exactly where he was and something bizarre, interesting and sinister would happen.

The show has that. Weird characters and inexplicable events pile on faster than it seems possible to resolve, but as they blunder through the resulting mess, bit by bit, it starts to tie together. And once you know all the non-sequitors will ultimately make sense, it’s fun to spend time in this world where something bizarre, interesting and sinister is always about to happen.

It also features easily my favourite scene of the year. This is from episode two, and while it does reference many, many plot threads, I don’t consider it a spoiler for any of them for reasons that will become obvious.

7 Replies to “Great Moments In Television, 2016”

  1. I agree entirely about Dirk Gently, I was almost turned off by how annoying Dirk was but glad I stuck with it. As you say, there’s definitely some essential part of Douglas Adams’ writing that remains intact. It probably didn’t hurt that it also reminded me of Utopia and Orphan Black, in different ways, both of which I enjoyed.

  2. Today I learned that Netflix has region locked content, including The Queen and Dirk Gently. Today my respect for copyright died just a little bit more.

  3. Just linked the book club to you, boosting your readership by 3, tops. I’ve found that fans of Adams have been turned off by Dirk because of its American lilt, as the books are so grounded in Britishness. To me though it felt like an alternative universe Adams who was raised the wrong side of the pond. And any Adams is good Adams.

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