Blue LIghts

Peak TV and Not-So-Peak TV – Early 2023

Earlier this year, John Landgraf, the Chairman of FX Networks, presented his annual update where he spells out just how many shows there are now. He counts shows available on US services in the English language, excluding kids and soaps. In 2022, his team counted a record high of 599 programmes. This is widely thought to be the peak of peak TV. Certainly in terms of volume, but perhaps also in terms of quality?

While the HBOs/FXs/BBCs of this world will still be making some top tier dramas, from viewing, it certainly seems that Netflix isn’t trying quite as hard. Netflix’s recently promoted Bela Bajaria spoke of liking to make “gourmet cheeseburger” shows. That is, shows that are better than average, but still have aspirations to reach large numbers of people – popular fare in other words.

While quality is something that is very much in the eye of the beholder, and it’s not impossible to make quality shows that are also popular, you get the feeling that services like Netflix are veering closer to US network TV in writing, but with some added sex and bad language, bigger production budgets and shorter episode orders. Gaining mass appeal is more important than winning ardent fans with niche shows.

So against that background, I’ve paid more attention than usual to precisely what I’ve been watching for the first few months of 2023, and am capturing it all here. I appreciate that the breadth of my watching means that this is an unduly long piece, but nobody’s forcing you to read it!

Let’s start with Amazon’s The Peripheral, based on the William Gibson novel and coming from Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy who are perhaps best known for Westworld. This is a lavish series which instantly pulls you into a future earth, and in turn a future-future earth. Because there are two timelines. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I haven’t read the book (which I know is completely in my wheelhouse).

It’s 2032 and Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a gamer. She gets hold of an advanced VR headset through which she finds herself in a 2099 future world. It’s probably not worth trying to explain the complexities of the plot much beyond this. Suffice to say that while it’s good, it’s perhaps not exceptional. Amazon has definitely spent the money on this, and I found myself thoroughly engaged in this world. There are definitely through lines from Westworld and perhaps also the little seen 2021 film Reminiscence. The series has been renewed.

Another Amazon curio is The Rig, which is a supernatural drama set on a North Sea oil rig. A mysterious fog envelops the rig and they suddenly find themselves cut off from the rest of society. To be honest, it’s all quite nonsensical and I can’t say that it’s all that good. But I did watch it and enjoy it. The visual effects weren’t all that good, and of course in a show set in a confined space, they need people to behave stupidly to keep the suspense up. The show comes with an obvious plea for a second series, and Amazon has indeed renewed it.

Let’s get to one of my favourite series of the year so far – Andor (Disney+). I confess that prior to watching this, I had complete indifference to the idea of a prequel series based around a small character I couldn’t really remember from a prequel film that while I did enjoy, I hadn’t revisited. I went back and watched Rogue One again before seeing this, although in truth, that wasn’t necessary. Andor tells the story of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who will go on to be something of a rebel. We find him in a downmarket bar somewhere in a sequence that finds him killing an official. Slowly, over 12 episodes, the story widens up and becomes a political thriller featuring a number of set pieces that it builds towards. We get a heist early on, and later a prison jailbreak.

The story flits between Andor, his adoptive mother (Fiona Shaw), the spy and antiques expert Luthen Rael (Stellan Skargard), the ambitious imperial bureaucrat Dedra (a fantastic Denise Gough) and the sophisticated and wealthy senator who is funnelling cash to the rebellion (Genevieve O’Reilly).

This is Star Wars for adults. As someone who was seven years old when Star Wars first arrived on our screens (it was literally a birthday treat for me to see that first film), this is the right Star Wars story for me today. It’s worldly and smart. It also manages to tall a Star Wars universe story without falling back on the same group of characters we see everywhere which makes a massive change.

And it is a beautifully constructed world that leans heavily on other SF films like Blade Runner and Brazil as much as Star Wars itself. When we see the incredible design for the prison that Andor finds himself in (alongside some fantastic roles for a range of British actors – not least Andy Serkis), you just know that this is a cut above most shows, and certainly other Star Wars shows. And the use of real world locations really helps the series. It was shot in Britain, and it shows. The sequences early in the series surrounding the heist were filmed in the Scottish Highlands, and I instantly recognised shots filmed in the brutalist architecture of The Barbican in London doubling as parts of Coruscant.

I devoured this series and can’t wait for the second and final season currently being shot in London.

You could compare and contrast Andor with The Mandalorian (Disney+), but that would be unfair. Whilst Andor is squarely aimed at an older audience, The Mandalorian is very much in the tradition of the first Star Wars trilogy. It’s a popcorn series designed to appeal to the youngest of Star Wars fans as well as the oldest.

I could try to explain the set-up to this third season, but to be honest, it’s not worth it. Our faceless hero arrives to save the day from a monster attack where some of his Mandalorian fellows are hiding out. He has “Baby Yoda” – or Grogu – in tow, and we begin a fairly A-to-B-to-C series. Pirates are terrorising a planet. The Mandalorian shoots a lot of them. Katee Sackoff is back as Bo-Katan and has a much bigger role this season.

The pace is swift enough, and it’s all very watchable. But it’s not exceptional. When characters face a problem, they’ve usually managed to resolve it within the next fifteen minutes. And while the show has had a fortune spent on it, occasionally there’s the odd slightly dodgy VFX shot. Grogu seems partly hand animated and partly CGI and he does appear a little wonky as a result, even if it offers some charm and calls back to how Yoda was animated in the early Star Wars films.

But I did enjoy the Coruscent-set third episode which reminded me in many ways of Andor and as such did feel very different to the rest of the series. Obviously, it sets up things that will happen later. At least this isn’t the awful Book of Boba Fett or the distinctly underwhelming Obi Wan Kenobi series.

Mike White’s wonderful The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic/HBO) returned earlier in the year and it was as glorious as the first series. This time, a collection of guests arrived at a luxury hotel in Sicily (the conceit of the show being that The White Lotus is a chain of some description). Only one character from the first series returned this time around with Jennifer Coolidge reprising her role as the spoilt millionairess who seems to find trouble wherever she goes. She brings with her husband who she met during the first series, and her young assistant who she keeps on hand just in case she’s needed, but who she forces to eat in her room since her husband is upset that she’s come with her.

Other guests include three generations of Italian/Americans here to rediscover their roots. F. Murray Abraham plays the grumpy grandfather who looks on a little too lasciviously on any young females in his presence. His son, played by The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli, has his own issues, not least of which is his sex addiction which is causing ructions with his marriage. Finally there is the youngest son who’s role at least to begin with is to keep both his father and grandfather in check.

Then we have two couples played by Theo James, Meghann Fahy, Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza. The two guys are friends, although Will Sharpe’s character is on the up while Theo James’ character is perhaps less so. Their respective relationships will be tested.

We also follow some of the staff, including the uptight manageress played by Sabrina Impacciatore, and two younger girls who are doing a bit of sex-work on the side (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò), and finally Tom Hollander as a fabulously camp Brit abroad who seems to be monied, but for whom not everything is what it seems.

The wonderful thing about The White Lotus is that although it has a plot that moves forward, it takes its time getting there, because it is about the richly drawn characters who find themselves holed up in the same place, never venturing all that far from the hotel and its environs, or even if they do, having to return very quickly.

There are more characters introduced as the episodes go by, and we can sense something is impending before it happens. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s music, the delicious opening credits sequence and the looming shots of waves crashing against the Sicilian coast, alongside the Testa di Moro statue heads that the camera continually seeks out make that much clear.

Watching The White Lotus is like slowly enjoying a very rich creamy desert.

In the US, Paramount+ has built itself largely on two separate franchises – Star Trek and Yellowstone. Whilst the former has been a performer for years now, the Taylor Sheridan created latter franchise built upon the main Yellowstone series is a newer phenomenon and is notable for starring Kevin Costner – at least for now. Due some terrible forethought, Yellowstone itself airs in the US on the Paramount Network linear channel, where it is now cable’s number one drama series. But Paramount managed to sell the streaming rights to rival Peacock. Smartly, Paramount has worked with the creator Sheridan to build a whole universe around the brand. So far that has led to two prequel series 1883 and 1923 (starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren), with others reportedly in the pipeline. Sheridan writes a lot of the episodes of these series himself. And somehow he still has spare time, so he has other shows alive with Paramount+ too, including Mayor of Kingstown starring Jeremy Renner and Tulsa King starring Sylvester Stallone.

Somehow, I’d missed pretty much all of these series, but I was tempted in by Tulsa King, and frankly, I enjoyed it a lot. The premise is that a Mafia capo Dwight Manfredi (Stallone) is released from prison after serving a long sentence taking the blame for something he didn’t actually do. He comes out and expects to be thanked by his “family”. But they don’t really want to know, and pack him off from New York to Tulsa where he’s basically been pushed out to wither away out of sight and out of mind. Manfredi has other ideas and gets involved in the local legal weed business, which needless to say is still controlled by gangs.

He also develops a perhaps unlikely relationship with a local ATF agent (Andrea Savage). It’s probably not worth thinking too hard about what a character who’s roughly 50 would see in someone who’s 76. But then the 92 year-old Rupert Murdoch has just announced – and then renounced – his fifth marriage to a 66 year-old, so who knows…

The episodes are sprightly 40 minute or so affairs, and while the story-telling isn’t going to shake anyone’s world too much or trouble awards-givers, it’s fun fare and passes the time. I did tune in each week to find out what was going to happen!

ITV launched ITVX at the end of last year, and they’ve promised a very steady flow of programmes coming to the platform. A lot of their premium dramas are likely to appear on ITVX many months before they get an outing on ITV1, if they ever get shown there. I completely understand where they’re coming from, and they need something like ITVX to be successful if they want to survive and flourish as much of TV viewing migrates from linear to non-linear (news, sport and certain reality and competition shows being exceptions).

I only have two problems with ITVX – the app itself, and the advertising. The app is theoretically fine. You can find things and navigate it as well – or as badly – as any other app. And to be clear, I don’t think that any app does a good job of allowing proper discovery. That goes for Netflix as much as it does for ITVX.

But I do have a problem with their Android TV app. I watch the majority of my viewing via an Nvidia Shield. This is a premium playback device, and it’s just excellent. It has lasted years, and even doubles as a Plex server behind the scenes. But the ITVX app is just woeful.

When you watch a programme it stutters and seemingly buffers for no reason whatsoever. There are significant pauses when you get to ad-breaks (more on advertising in a moment), but I end up just having to bail on programmes. It simply becomes a massive disincentive to watch anything on the app – even shows that I know I’ll love, because of the app.

I do have a workaround, which is to use the app built into my Samsung smart TV. That app seems to work reasonably well, but I just don’t use the TV’s smart functions because the Nvidia Shield option is better for everything else. So I have to reach for a different remote, enter a different user interface, and find the programme I want in the app there. All of that places hurdles between me watching something on ITVX and watching something elsewhere.

While I could pay for an ad-free offering, I have too many subscriptions right now, so I’m sticking with the advertising model. I don’t have any problem with advertising per se – much of my career has been built around advertising after all. But I like to see it well executed. ITVX is itself sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. Fine. So far so normal. But then they seem to have sold an evening strand of shows to another pizza brand, in this case Goodfellas. So there’s pizza everywhere which seems a little curious (there are often exclusivity clauses in sponsorship deals to avoid rivals sitting alongside one another). But then there’s the technical way the ads are inserted. Because ITVX has an ad-free offer too, ITV essentially places ad markers in shows where the ads should go. Ideally, there’d be a brief fade-to-black and dipping of the sound at those junctions. Most US and UK network shows are constructed with such breaks in place. But you need to place the markers that highlight those breaks very precisely, and ensure that your ad-tech adheres tightly to those markers. That’s really not the case for ITVX where scenes seem to get cut short by a few frames, and then when you come back from the break, you get a brief half second or so of the last scene before you get the next one. It’s just messy and takes you out of the show. Yes this is pernickety, but you should care about these things.

The other challenge, which is the same with every FAST channel I’ve watched is that the ads are insanely repetitive. You can be sure that you’ll see the same handful of ads in every single break without fail. They might be reasonably well targeted towards me – or not. But it does mean that a very funny show like The Sex Lives of College Girls is actively painful to watch. I lapped up season one of this over a short period of time when I recorded it from ITV2. The second season is so far exclusive to ITVX and it’s just painful to watch even though the show itself is still really very good and very funny. (It’s from Mindy Kaling, so I’d expect nothing less).

Fortunately, Stonehouse aired on ITV1. Starring Matthew Macfadyen as the shamed politician John Stonehouse, the series also features Macfadyen’s actual wife, Keeley Hawes, reuniting them together on screen many years after they first appeared together on Spooks. The programme is definitely played for laughs with a seemingly preposterous story of the Labour politician deciding that he needed more money and accepting bribes from Czech spies in return for passing on State secrets.

Stonehouse is not very good at spying, and as well as the British Security Services catching wind of him, he also doesn’t exactly provide the goods for his communist masters in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Stonehouse considers himself something of a playboy, beginning an affair.

When everything gets too much, he decides to fake his own death by leaving a pile of clothes on a Miami beach and trying to present the idea that he had simply let the sea take him. Instead, he heads off to Australia where of course things don’t go well.

There’s a lightness of touch in this story, which I knew a little of, but not enormously. As a child, he was a name I didn’t know who was the butt of jokes on television. A very passable show directed by Jon S Baird who also directed Tetris (see below).

A couple of Irish-set series now. North Sea Connection (BBC Four) aired in BBC Four’s international crime series slot on Saturday nights. This series comes from Irish state broadcaster RTÉ and Viaplay, and is a tale of the captain of a fishing trawler who gets mixed up with a drugs gang when she’s reluctantly required to help her brother out of a hole that he’s got himself into. Lydia McGuinness plays Ciara who is the said captain. Most of the action takes place on the land, and there’s also a Swedish character who may not be everything he says he is. I wouldn’t say that this is the best series ever, but it passes the time nicely.

Meanwhile James Nesbitt is back as the cop with an, umm, “interesting” back story in the second series of Bloodlands (BBC). This aired way back last year, but I only recently got to it having enjoyed the first series which did have a few rug pulls along the way. I’m being careful what I say here as this is a series that you do want to go back to the start with if you’ve not seen it before. It’s all good fun, and this series we have Victoria Smurfit playing a very entertaining foil to Nesbitt’s character.

Another series I only recently got to is the very curious Inside Man (BBC) from the mind of Steven Moffat. This is very much a lockdown production – with Stanley Tucci’s incarcerated serial killer in the US somehow helping out on the disappearance of Dolly Wells’ character back in Britain having been to tutor a vicar played by David Tennant. Quite how everything is linked up would be a massive spoiler, but it all comes together like a satisfying locked-room mystery.

Pennyworth (Lionsgate+) is a series that has been quietly running for the last three years, and for some reason, I chose early 2023 to watch it. The show, which has now been cancelled, ran to three seasons, and it does go through some highs and lows.

Created by Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist and perhaps most relevantly here, Gotham) and Danny Cannon (CSI amongst many other things), this tells the story of Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. In the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” films, Alfred was played by Michael Caine, and here Jack Bannon is very much portraying Alfred as a young Caine – indeed he seems to be using Caine’s performance in 1966’s Alfie as his go-to.

This is very much a retro-future 1960s London that we begin in. The first season has plenty of period music “needle-drops” throughout, and the visual effects are pretty decent throughout. The opening credits do a good job of setting up this world where there are battling factions, essentially leftists and fascists, battling for power.

A young Thomas Wayne (who will of course become the father of Batman) and Martha Kane (who will marry Wayne to become Bruce Wayne/Batman’s mother) are also introduced. But the most entertaining characters are perhaps Polly Walker’s Peggy and Paloma Faith’s Bet Sykes, sisters who have certain psychopathic tendencies towards getting things done.

Jason Flemyng appears as Lord Harwood who seems to only be around for a short period until we realise he has more to go through. The cast is rounded out with other friends and family, and honestly, the first season is great fun.

By the second season it becomes clear that budgets have been cut quite substantially. Everything is a bit tighter, with fewer big action scenes, and effects shots. At the same time, the plot begins to get a little wilder with any realism diminishing.

Then we reach the third, and what would end up being final season, where I would suggest budgets increased again a bit, but the plot gets even madder. We’re moving much closer to a comic-book world, which I believe was always the plan. But I’m not sure that it helps the series.

HBO Max, which is by now where the series has ended up in the US, cancelled it because they’ve brought on new creators to oversee their DC Comics output, and this very much falls into that box. But to be honest, I was also losing interest by the end. A shame given the initial promise.

The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic/HBO) has rightly been praised as the best video game adaptation to date, although I can’t really say that I know that for certain since I’ve only played about ten minutes of the game. Coming from Craig Mazin who previously brought us Chernobyl, expectations were high and they were undoubtedly exceeded.

We’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic America where the country has been ravaged by some kind of fungal infection that essentially turns people into zombies when they get it. In that respect, it could be like any other zombie film or TV series over the years. I guess that The Walking Dead would be the exemplar of that. Now I didn’t last the course with The Walking Dead. Indeed I didn’t make it beyond about three episodes despite a couple of goes. So years later, when AMC is rinsing every last cent it can from the franchise, this is interesting in that it’s obviously a step above.

The quality and writing are instantly superior with HBO’s budgets very clearly on show. In Pedro Pascal as Joel, a smuggler who’s reluctantly persuaded to accompany Bella Ramsey’s Ellie across the country, there is a very powerful core at the centre of things.

The show is happy to go off on diversions too – most famously in the third episode when we meet two otherwise minor characters and follow their lives over an extended period of time until Joel’s path next crosses theirs.

Is this the best show of the year? Absolutely not. It’s very good, and I know that many of those who’ve played the game are delighted that it’s added layers to what was already a [reportedly] exceptional game.

I think my main problem is that because there are only two major characters, there’s a fair chance that any other characters we meet in a given a episode, will not make it until the end. Indeed we’ve seen at least two LGBTQ+ relationships end with the death of one or more characters.

And I do wonder a little whether if I’d invested many tens of hours in the video game, then I wouldn’t be much more in love with this show as others are. I am perfectly prepared to accept that this is the best video game adaptation we’ve yet seen. But that doesn’t make it the best TV series of the year. Just a generally superior one.

Will I be watching the next season? Absolutely. It’s still very good.

Over on More 4 they’ve carved out a semi-regular Walter presents Friday night crime drama slot. One recent example was The Wall: Cover Your Tracks a French-Canadian production set in the far north of Canada in a town that is broadly there to support workers in a nearby mine. “The wall” is the large structure that many people both live and work in, and it’s an impressive structure. In fact, it’s a real place – Fermont in north eastern Quebec – and “the wall” is what the structure is colloquially known as. The series itself is a little by-the-numbers with seemingly a killer on the loose in a very confined town. But the setting definitely adds something.

The recent Sunday night drama on BBC One has been The Gold which tells the story of what happened after the 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery, when thieves broke into a security facility expecting to find cash, but instead ending up with an an enormous quantity of gold. At the time, the £26m worth of gold made it the biggest theft in history. Today that would be worth closer to £100m.

Moving that much gold on through various money-laundering schemes is not easy, and we follow a number of characters who get involved in the scheme. We also follow some of the police officers who were on the trail.

The cast is really good here. Dominic Cooper plays a wily lawyer who gets involved in shady deals with some of the proceeds, while Jack Lowden (most recently seen in the excellent Slow Dogs) is here much more closely involved in the melting down of the gold, mixing it with other gold and then moving it on.

On the other side of the fence is Hugh Bonneville’s police inspector who leads the investigation into the chase to recover the gold, or at least the proceeds. He’s aided by Charlotte Spencer’s police woman, who has an old-lag of a father herself and faces both sexism and classism in the police. Spencer is really good here – I remember her from Jack Thorne’s E4 series Glue some years ago.

It’s a really good story here, with the theme being that the money runs upwards. While those who actually broke in and stole the gold largely get arrested and locked-up, each layer of laundering the money involves people who are outwardly very respectable seemingly just getting away with it.

The fact the series almost throws away the break-in itself to concentrate on the money is what makes this series so good. Paramount+ has the show outside the UK, and it seems as though we will be getting a second series.

Better (BBC One) is a police show about a bent copper. So far, so normal. As well as Line of Duty, we’ve also recently had the excellent Martin Freeman vehicle, The Responder. The difference here is that Leila Farzad’s Detective Inspector is clearly corrupt from the outset. She’s in haul to the local gang leader played by Andrew Buchan to such an extent that they consider themselves friends. And her husband is fully aware of what’s happening, enjoying some of the spoils in their lovely home that is clearly at least partly paid for by illegal means.

This is about someone coming around to wanting to get out of the mess the find themselves in, with a plot development being the impetus, and seeing how she can untangle herself. It’s all done very well and largely believably.

Anything that stars Gemma Arterton is always worth a look and Sky Max’s Funny Woman is a great example of that. Based on the Nick Hornby book Funny Girl, it tells the fictional story of Barbara Parker who we first meet winning “Miss Blackpool” in a beauty contest that she had reluctantly entered. She and her father (David Threlfall) are lovers of comedy and especially radio comedy. And Barbara decides to head to London to seek work in the comedy industry. Needless to say, it is not all plain sailing and at first she is stuck in less salubrious Soho clubs before an agent (Rupert Everett having a whale of a time) finds her.

From there we get into a story that is much more about the television industry of the time and the sexist and classist dinosaurs that ran it.

A strong supporting cast including Alexa Davies, Tom Bateman and the show’s writer, Morwenna Banks round out things.

The show plays to its period setting quite well, although I wasn’t entirely sure about the obvious green-screening of Arterton into period stock footage of London. It did feel a little cheesy, even if it did allow the producers to open up an otherwise expensive to create setting.

The show is played quite strongly for laughs, although there is always a deeper truth underlying things, and I did enjoy it, albeit sometimes shouting at characters for behaving stupidly. Over the programme’s six episodes we do get enough time to dig into the lives of most of the characters, with everyone rounded out to some extent.

It moves at a clip, and features plenty of period music to keep things in the period. I definitely spotted some overlaps between early scenes set in a sleezy sixties Soho and some of those featured in the underrated Edgar Wright film, Last Night in Soho even featuring the same songs occasionally. One plays for comedy – the other horror…

In the US, CBS is probably the most successful traditional TV network. Their primetime schedule is basically stacked full of procedural series, and in CBS’s case, they’re nearly all dealing with forms of law enforcement. You have NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: Hawai’i, CSI: Vegas, FBI, FBI: International, FBI: Most Wanted, Blue Bloods, S.W.A.T., The Equalizer and Fire Country. These shows share many traits. Aside from multiple spin-offs that allow crossover events, they’re all slickly produced and move along speedily, in a very linear A-to-B-to-C plot format. Investigating a crime will have few dead ends, since there are only 42 minutes or so to get from start to finish.

Perhaps there will be a few ongoing stories, but essentially a viewer needs to be to tune into an episode with no previous knowledge of the series and come away satisfied at the end. The bad guys will be caught, and everything is essentially reset.

Every so often, I foolishly tune into one of these and instantly regret it. For example, I watched the season opener of S.W.A.T. which is set within Los Angeles police “special weapons and tactics” division. These guys and girls are the most macho of the police. They drive around in what are effectively tanks, with so much kit that they might as well be the army. The sixth season opener saw the action move to Thailand, and it was this episode that I watched. “Hondo” the leader of the team was there with some of the gang doing some training for local Thai SWAT team. But he goes off to see and old friend, and of course gets in trouble. The series is very glossy, but the script is perfunctory at best. It’s all plot, and little to no character. This is disposable television. It’s well-made disposable television, but it is of no nutritional value whatsoever. There is little to no satisfaction in the story aside from the fact that the bad guys get their comeuppance. It’s enormously underwhelming that US network television is essentially just mirrors of this kind of thing. At least for drama series – comedies tend to be smarter. Also, see below for perhaps one outlier.

Another CBS show, that got bumped over to Paramount+ and perhaps doesn’t quite match the regular procedural formula is something called Blood & Treasure. I obviously didn’t have much on the evening that I tuned into this because it’s sub-Da Vinci Code nonsense. (And The Da Vinci Code is really bad to begin with). I think the only thing I found interesting about this series is how much of it is filmed in Europe. But I suspect, like FBI: International mentioned above, and also largely shot in Europe, that’s probably a tax incentive thing. The story made little to no sense. The characters are all completely generic, and yet somehow this series got a second season. It has since been cancelled.

Let’s cleanse our palettes and look at something better.

Endeavour (ITV1) returned for a final set of three episodes, and they were glorious. I still remember watching the very first Inspector Morse which scarily aired when I was still at school! At the time, the idea that an intelligent detective should be afforded a two-hour runtime on ITV seemed remarkable. And starring John Thaw who I’d basically known from The Sweeney seemed a terrific move.

By the time ITV announced a young-Morse spin-off with Endeavour, I was really uncertain. Was this a good idea? They’d had another go with a young Jane Tennison (of Prime Suspect) and it hadn’t been all that good. But with creator Russell Lewis in charge, it turned out that we were in very safe hands.

The big change here was that there would be some throughline stories alongside the regular case-of-the-week whodunnits. And the series leaned heavily into the period setting, with each of what would end up being 9 series broadly speaking being set in a single year.

In total there were 36 episodes, and Lewis wrote every single one of them – something almost unheard in television.

Shaun Evans was cast as Morse, and of course he has to tread a fine line between reflecting what John Thaw had done before, but not trying to “mimic” him. A stroke of genius was creating the character of Fred Thursday, played with gusto by the wonderful Roger Allam (who most recently pops up playing no less than Robert Maxwell in the Apple TV+ film Tetris). With Anton Lesser as their boss, and Sean Rigby playing their third rung in Jim Strange, the cast was perfect. Beyond them, Sara Vickers as Fred’s daughter Joan and Caroline O’Neill as his wife Winnie, broadened things out further. The uptight Morse of course always had a soft spot for Joan. But if there was one thing we knew about Morse, it was that he was never ultimately successful with women.

Could the series deliver the landing that it deserved? Of course it could. Things were wrapped up just enough, and there was a beautiful scene right at the end shot at Blenheim Palace as two different Jaguars pass each other. The baton was handed back.

The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic) has been lauded everywhere as one of the best shows of the year, and it’s certainly very good indeed. Based on the video game of the same name, which I have only fleeting knowledge of, it’s set in a ravaged world where a fungal infection has left many people as something like, but definitely not called, zombies.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey star as Joel and Ellie, with the former having to accompany the latter across the US to hopefully use Ellie’s immunity to infection to create some kind of vaccine.

Coming from Craig Mazin, who was rightly lauded for his previous work on Chernobyl, this is a really well written piece, and there are divergences throughout the series that under another showrunner, you wouldn’t expect. The obvious comparison is the long-running The Walking Dead of which I only watched a handful of episodes. It’s sometimes easy to forget that series was the most popular show on US TV for a number of years.

The biggest issue I have with the show is that it gets quite samey quite quickly. We meet some new characters each episode, and you can largely expect that by the end of the episode, most of those characters will be dead. Indeed even from the opening credits, where only Pascal and Ramsey are named, it’s clear that everyone else is a supporting character at best, and possibly not long of this world.

Yes, the episode where we see the life of Bill and Frank was a lovely portrait of a loving couple, but you knew where it was headed before it got there, if not exactly how. And a flashback episode about Ellie felt similar.

The series has been phenomenally successful for HBO, and it will be interesting to see how long they extend the series – since there are currently only two games, and the first season covered the entirety of the first game. Reports suggest that the second game may take at least a couple of seasons to cover, but a hit this big might warrant more than that from HBO.

I definitely wanted to know where the story was going, but as someone who hasn’t played the game for more than a few minutes, I feel I had much less invested than others. I don’t have that history, and therefore, I don’t quite find this series as “special” as others have.

If you’ve spent 40 or 50 hours playing a game, then you’re much more involved in its universe when you come to a TV series that, unusually, is a really good game adaptation (Game creator Neil Druckmann is also heavily involved in this series).

So yes, I’ll be sticking with this series in the future, but it’s by no means the best thing on TV right now.

I’m a fan of Abbott Elementary (Disney+), and Disney has dropped another 10 episodes on their platform. Disney is a bit rubbish about how it releases its network fare. The first season of Abbott Elementary dropped all at once after it had all aired in the US. The second season is getting more episodes, and the way US network TV works tends to mean batches of 4-6 new episodes then a break for a week or two, before new episodes arrive. Perhaps there’ll be a mid-season break for December too. Anyway, Disney has given us the first 10, and no doubt is saving the remainder for another drop towards the summer.

I’m a fan. The series doesn’t shy away from the reality of the US public (i.e. state) school system – indeed arguably presents it too good a light. But you come for the characters led by creator Quinta Brunson’s glass-half-full Janine who’s always looking at the upside, while Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara and Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa have seen this all before. Tyler James Williams is great as Gregory, the would-be love interest of Janine, while Janelle James brings light relief as principal Ava who is more interested in her TikTok channel or Instagram side hustle than educating kids.

It’s silly but you like the characters, and I can happily spend 21 minutes at a time with them.

I think that this and one other US show are the only US network TV shows that I’m now watching. Since US network TV is largely procedurals (police and medical dramas), reality and a handful of sitcoms, there’s just nothing for me. The one other show that I’ve somehow got into is Alaska Daily (Disney+) starring Hillary Swank. She plays a journalist who had a high-flying New York career when she went off the rails chasing a story that she didn’t quite have the evidence to support. Needing a job, she ended up in the fictional Alaska Daily based in Anchorage. As someone who has fond memories of the Alaska-set Northern Exposure, I was always going to give this a try, since I do enjoy seeing parts of the US represented on TV that you wouldn’t normally see. And setting a series in a local newspaper at a time when the industry is reeling feels like an interesting choice.

I should note that like Northern Exposure before it, the series isn’t actually filmed in Alaska. Instead it’s filmed in a suburb of Vancouver, itself long home to many productions. It does do a decent job of making itself feel like it’s Alaska however.

Unusually, although the stories are fictional, the series is based on a series of reports that appeared in the real Anchorage Daily News about the failure of the police to properly investigate cases of sexual violence suffered by members of the state’s indigenous population. And indeed, a fictionalised version of that story is an ongoing storyline throughout this series.

Episodes tend to be a mix of stories-of-the-week and through-lines. The ethics of journalism get some airings – sometimes a little clunkily if I’m honest, but this is getting pitched at a mass audience.

The actual ownership of the paper is very much one of the storylines, and it’s notable the series’ creator is Tom McCarthy who also co-wrote and directed Spotlight the Oscar-winning film that told the story of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team breaking the Catholic priest child sexual abuse scandal in that city. Another member of the creative team is Gabriel Sherman who writes for Vanity Fair, and notably wrote The Loudest Voice in the Room, a biography of the founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, itself turned into a mini-series about that man’s abusive behaviour.

My only criticism really is that the series is a little too “worthy” at times, and few of the characters have any failings, possibly with the exception of Swank’s character.

Still, any series that has the characters sit down to watch His Girl Friday is going to ride high in my estimation!

Sadly, at time of writing, the series has not yet been renewed for a second season, and I suspect it hasn’t been a big enough hit for parent network ABC to order more episodes.

Liaison (Apple TV+) is a very curious beast indeed. It’s an Anglo/French production, with the emphasis very much on the French side of things. Because although the espionage thriller is set largely on both sides of the Channel, it seems that the creative side of things comes very much from our friends in the south.

But Slow Horses or The Bureau this is not. Eva Green and Vincent Cassel are the big draws here. He’s a rogue operator, previously part of the French secret service and now doing stuff for private hire and perhaps other reasons. Eva Green is a British government official who works for Peter Mullen. The plot is convoluted and about Syrian hackers who seem to be very good indeed, because they – or someone – keeps shutting stuff down.

In the first episode the Thames Barrier fails to close resulting in massive flooding of London, while in the second, the nation’s rail signalling system goes offline resulting in a train crash that absolutely impacts on one of our characters’ family members. The effects are poor to say the least. I suspect that they did have a decent budget for this series, but not enough to do the story justice.

If London had been flooded to the extent that it had been, then the aftershock of that would have lasted for days or weeks. It barely seems to register here. And the rail accident makes no sense geographically. The dialogue is a combination of English and French which is fine, but much of the English dialogue feels serviceable at best – like it was written in French and then translated to English by Google Translate rather than an actual writer.

And I completely failed to get a suitable subtitle option. I would have liked English subtitles for French (and Arabic) dialogue, and nothing else. But I could only get English for everything including English dialogue, or French for everything. I tried multiple options and just gave up.

To be honest, I’m not going to bother. Whilst it’s not as bad as the recent Netflix farrago that was Treason, it’s still not good despite some great actors.

Liaison and Treason aren’t the only spy thriller that are cluttering up streaming services right now. Over on Paramount+ they have Rabbit Hole which seems to be an attempt to remake 24. Kiefer Sutherland practices corporate espionage, but suddenly he finds himself framed for murder. The plot is one that moves along at 100 miles an hour and is obviously ludicrous. Charles Dance shows up as his long-lost father (we get multiple flashbacks to various younger versions of Sutherland’s character). I’ve watched the three episodes that are available so far, and I’m not sure I have a clear idea of what’s going on, because conspiracy-secrets-deepstate-blahblahblah. I don’t know that I can be bothered to find out.

Back on Netflix right now The Night Agent is cleaning up with audiences, and I’m really not sure why. It’s just complete nonsense, and I didn’t make it through the first episode before bailing. The plot is something something FBI something something mole something something conspiracy something. Honestly, you can probably fill in the dots yourself. Needless to say, it’s been renewed for a second season. Thanks but no thanks Netflix.

I wasn’t sure that I was predisposed to want to watch Shrinking (Apple TV+), the Harrison Ford sitcom from many of the same people who brought us Ted Lasso (I kind of lost interest a couple of episodes into season 2 of that and haven’t felt the need to pick it back up). An LA-set comedy series about some therapists didn’t scream out to me. But it does star Harrison Ford at his grumpiest as the senior therapist in the practice that most of the characters revolve around, so I gave it the time of day, and I’m glad that I did.

In fact, the main character is Jason Segel’s therapist Jimmy who is coping with the recent death of his wife. He is father of a teenage daughter (Lukita Maxwell), who isn’t responding well to him. He’s not doing that great himself, heading out on drink and drug fuelled binges. Christa Miller plays his slightly too nosey neighbour who has become quasi-mum to his daughter, while Jessica Williams (formerly of The Daily Show) is another fellow-therapist.

In fact, I grew to really enjoy this series. Ford’s character has some beautifully funny lines, and the patients’ feel real if slightly caricatured. Key is Luke Tennie’s Sean, a veteran who has PTSD, and who Segel’s character tries some more involving therapy.

To be honest, this is a character piece and the set-up is just that. Very much recommended.

Class of ’07 (Amazon Prime Video) is a strange, and generally not that good comedy set in a post-apocalyptic Australian private school. The premise is that a group of girls are attending their high school reunion in said school that sits somewhere high atop a hill, when for reasons so far unclear, water spurts from underground and much of the world is flooded. So far, so Waterworld. The show doesn’t take itself altogether too seriously – one episode, where the girls are generating electricity using exercise bikes is entertainingly called Soul-Crushing-Cycle. Emily Browning plays Zoe, who we first see very reluctantly returning to the school, in large part because her phone has alerted her to the oncoming disaster, and her old school is her designated muster point. We first meet her character in a very amusing pastiche of The Bachelor where she gets rejected at the last minute and then entertainingly dismantles the whole reality show construct. The breezy half hour episodes have flashbacks to their school days, although these are mercifully short, because most of the characters are simply awful. Yes, they all have reasons for behaving the way they do, but they’re objectively awful people. This is obviously a show aimed at a younger audience, and it does have some good lines, just enough to keep me watching. The 30 minute duration episodes probably helped too. And there are lots of good needle drops throughout.

But the show isn’t great, the effects a bit ropey, and there’s no reality to their situation – months pass and they just seem to be doing fine for food even though it’s a regular theme.

That all said, I did watch it all.

Luther: Fallen Son is a new Netflix film based on the BBC original TV series. I’d love to know the contractual arrangements behind this, as the film remains very much branded a BBC Film, so I assume that at some point it will also end up on BBC One.

Over the years, Luther turned from a typical lone wolf cop show into some kind of horror show as the villains and crimes became more absurd and outlandish. In this film we begin with Luther (Idris Elba) getting locked up in a prison where former police officers are not the most popular folk.

But one way or another, Luther gets out and he has a case to solve – one that he was working on when he was arrested and imprisoned. We know that the criminal is Andy Serkis’ character from the outset and the crimes are as hideous as they are elaborate.

Much of the film takes place in a very recognisable London, with a set-piece taking place in Piccadilly Circus, and other scenes being shot in nearby Soho. The geography almost works, which is unusual for films shot in London where directors tend to feel the need to have characters hop from one landmark to another without care for the geography (see Liaison above).

That all said, the film’s world is not a real one, and we notably depart reality when characters board a ferry departing Dover and end up driving through a remote snow and ice wilderness. Where this is supposed to be is never explained, and indeed nor is felt necessary to explain. It’s the equivalent of a map from times gone by just having the words “Here be dragons” on a map’s uncharted territory. Scenes were actually shot in Iceland, and while it’d be wonderful if there was a direct ferry service from Dover to Reykjavik, I regret to inform you that there isn’t.

Do stay for the reversion of Massive Attack’s Paradise City (used as the TV series’ theme) over the end credits.

A quick word about Beef (Netflix) a series that I’ve only seen one episode of so far. Based on that single episode, I’m very much in! Steven Yuen plays Danny, essentially a handyman (he prefers “contractor”) who is at wit’s end when the show opens. He’s returning some goods at a local store and in a bad mood. In the car park outside, a white SUV driver winds him and gives him the middle finger. A brief car chase leaves both unsatisfied as the other driver gets away.

Meanwhile we learn more about Danny who is trying to support his family and keep his wastrel brother in check.

Meanwhile we learn who the other driver was. Ali Wong plays Amy, a business owner who outwardly seems to lead an ideal life. She lives in a fabulous house and is admired by her friends. But it all seems a bit shallow.

This first episode is very much the set-up for these two dissolute characters who in time learn who each other is. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Well done for making it this far down this blog. I’m going to finish with a series that easily makes my top three of the year so far – Blue Lights. Honestly, I had this down as just another run of the mill BBC cop drama. The kind that always seem to be on. Some younger cops doing cop things. But it’s much much better than that.

We follow three probationary police constables in Belfast just as they’ve completed their first month on the job. They each get teamed with a more experienced officer and their roles are to answer 999 calls (“Blue lights”) jobs around Belfast.

Sian Brooke plays Grace who is older than the others because she has had a previous career as a social worker. She is also now a single mother bringing up her teenage mixed race son. Katherine Devlin is Annie, who lives with her mum and plays hurling with her local team, with whom she hasn’t yet let on what she does. Nathan Braniff is Tommy who is on the “fast track” to something more senior, but he’s going nowhere if he can’t pass his shooting exam.

Each of the probationers get paired with someone else, and alongside them and their sergeant and inspector, we get to know them all. In particular, Richard Dormer’s country-music loving Gerry is a real standout.

But this isn’t a crime-of-the-week affair, because the Northern Ireland setting is really used well. There’s some kind of security service operation underway in the city, and places get flagged as “OOB” or out-of-bounds. Usually because there’s some kind of criminal activity occurring and it’s being surveilled by the intelligence services. In particular we follow a criminal gang run by John Lynch’s character.

The series builds to a thrilling crescendo over it’s six episodes and I put it easily up there with series like Line of Duty, Bodyguard and Vigil. It’s simply must-watch TV. The writing from Declan Lawn, Adam Patterson and Fran Harris is superb, and it really feels like you’re getting a true impression of Belfast in 2023.

Thoroughly recommended.

And yes – I still need to write about Succession and Unforgotten.





One response to “Peak TV and Not-So-Peak TV – Early 2023”

  1. Kevin Spencer avatar
    Kevin Spencer

    Great piece. The Peripheral was very good indeed, I also haven’t read the book but have added it to my list. The Last Of Us was also very good and reminded me of the early days of when The Walking Dead was still great. I do think that Andor deserves to be up there when discussing best of the year lists.