Once a year, there comes a point in a blogger’s life where she has to jump on the bandwagon and fire out a quick article where she recounts her favourite cultural moments of the year as if she has some degree of objective authority on the matter. Once every ten years, she was to look back over a longer period of time.
For the purposes of brevity, this list will not include any documentaries, since what makes an excellent non-fiction series is very different to what makes an enthralling drama. If your favourite series isn’t on here, it’s more likely that I haven’t seen it than I didn’t like it.
So without further ado and in no particular order…
2019 was a difficult year, often feeling apocalyptic as we lurched from one political crisis to another, as horrific injustices went unpunished and a looming cataclysmic disaster was constantly brushed under the rug by politicians for whom it did not fit their political perspective.
Craig Mazin’s dramatisation of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a remarkable use of narrative to highlight the dangers of narrative in politics. Highlighting both the individual human tragedies caused by the disaster and the wider tragedy of a political system where narrative was more important than the truth, this period piece sticks in the mind long after its credits roll.
Chernobyl resisted sensationalism in a way which required immense restraint but payed-off beautifully. Its stories of human suffering never felt exploitative: whether it be firefighters and civilians dying horribly of radiation sickness because the true danger of the explosion was covered up, or thousands of civilians being drafted in to contain the spread of radiation who would sacrifice their health for the happiness of all mankind. None of it had to happen, heightening its tragedy.
The show has stayed with me. I often hear Jared Harris’ voice in my head warning of how “every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth” while I read the news. The images of birds falling from the sky, mass evacuations and politicians arguing about not wanting to cause a panic feel especially pertinent when the consequences of the climate crisis began to make themselves very well known in the closing years of this decade.
HBO’s Chernobyl will be remembered as a masterpiece of the medium which encapsulated the global mood of 2019. Horror followed horror, experts were ignored because their truths were inconvenient to the wider narrative. It is by no means an easy watch, but that is what makes it essential. By the time the Orthodox choir falls silent at the end of Vichnaya Pamyat (the final episode and a Russian Orthodox incantation for the dead which plays overs slides reeling off the sobering statistics behind the tragedy), the viewer is a changed person.
Let’s hope we learn the lessons of history. If we don’t, the 2020s could be so awful that we look fondly on 2016.
All good things must come to an end. When Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s self-destructive, chaotic heroine crashed onto our screens in a cloud of self-loathing in 2016 it already felt different. Although her character’s problems may not have been that relatable to the viewer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge had a knack for embodying a very British kind of angst: hiding her inner turmoil behind a cutting sense of humour and smile, betraying her true thoughts and anger through frequently tiny asides to the camera. Fleabag was a woman whose flaws would have been ‘quirky’ in the hands of lesser writers and subverted what it meant to be a female lead.
But where the story could have ended comfortably after the first series, it is the quality of the sequel which truly cemented the show’s greatness. Though the show remained a black comedy, it became one with a light at the end of the tunnel. Season two was a masterpiece of character development , building effortlessly off its predecessor to create an emotionally intelligent and cathartic ride.
With a finale which bulldozes your emotions like a cargo train, Fleabag solidified Phoebe Waller-Bridge as one of the most talented actor-writers of the decade.
Deutschland 83 (2015, UK Release 2016)
You say “Deutschland 83”, I say “Deutschland dreiundachtzig”.
2016 still stands out as a terrible year in almost every respect, but a bloody good one for espionage thrillers. The BBC’s very expensive adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager was undeniably thrilling in parts but fell into the trap of thinking it was far more clever than it was.
Deutschland 83, on the other hand, managed to combine its share of superficial pleasures with a smart, subversive story. Twenty-four year old East-German soldier Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service and tasked with infiltrating a NATO operation on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
What stands out about Deutschland 83 is how fresh it feels. The 2010s was the decade of nostalgia for the 1980’s and although the show certainly revels in its period setting, framing it through the eyes of Rauch allows us to experience it as a novelty with him. The cultural is woven with the political all the way through, playing side by side, with the AIDS crisis and nuclear disarmament movement occurring alongside the cold clockwork of international politics.
Strikingly, the series didn’t descend into a simplistic “west good, east bad” Cold War narrative. The paranoia of East German life is starkly realised, but its citizens are treated with respect. Perhaps this is why Deutschland 83 was a flop in its native Germany – it depicted a history whose wounds are still raw for many Germans. But Deutschland 83 fitted into the international market perfectly, finding its place as one of the best espionage dramas of recent years.
Patrick Melrose (2018)
When historians look back on the culture of this decade, the absurdly punnable name Benedict Cumberbatch will crop up often as one of its most influential figures. As thrilling as Sherlock’s first two series were when they aired, the third and fourth series were so poor that I regret watching them. They tarred my appreciation of those early episodes.
Patrick Melrose is a faithful adaptation of the caustic semi-autobiographical novels of Edward St Aubyn, tracing the life of the titular upper-class Englishman as he tries to come to terms with his awful childhood and stop himself continuing his father’s abusive legacy. The show was stylish and frequently hilarious, but handled with an astute sensitivity that tacked modern toxic masculinity and the British class system.
A Very English Scandal (2018)
In the 1970’s, it emerged that Jeremy Thorpe, the respected leader of the Liberal Party in the UK had ordered the murder of his male lover, for fear that if his sexuality was revealed it would land him in prison (homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967, the affair took place in the early 1960s). The failed murder attempts were so badly bungled, that if you were to pitch the Thorpe Affair to an editor you would be laughed out of the room because of its sheer ludicrousness. And yet it happened.
With a script penned by Russel T. Davies which is every bit as clever as it thinks it is, and sparky direction from Stephen Frears, every moment of this three-episode series is a delight. Much of this rests of the back of its terrific leading men and support cast. Ben Whishaw is predictably excellent as the troubled Norman Scott, combining vulnerability with a camp sense of fun which makes his every minute on screen an absolute delight. But it was Hugh Grant’s transformation into the reptilian Thorpe which grabbed all the headlines. It’s a career highlight he carries off by treading the fine line between charm and patrician menace, carrying it off with wit and pathos.
The lasting impression one gets from this torrid tale is that had the law and culture been more tolerant of homosexuality when Thorpe and Scott met, none of the events in the story would have happened.
Watching Paddington 2 is a very different experience after this show.
And a few honourable mentions…
The Night Of (2016)
Although it occasionally felt like a slog to get through, HBO’s remake of the BBC’s Criminal Justice was intensely thought-provoking TV. Its greatest strength lay in the writers’ decision not to focus on whether Riz Ahmed’s Nasir Khan was guilty of murder, but on how the American justice system affected him before his guilt had even been determined. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, particularly John Tuturo and Bill Camp as the unorthodox lawyer and retiring police chief. But Riz Ahmed’s gifted portrayal of a man whose life was destroyed by forces beyond his control ad the transformation he had to undergo which really stick in the mind, and cements Ahmed as one of the most interesting actors to emerge over the decade.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)
Why only an honourable mention? If this bleak series had ended after the first series it would have escaped this category, but the decision to continue the story caused it to try my patience. Not that series one and two didn’t fill me with dread and horror, but they lacked the necessity of those early episodes.
But I’ll never forget the impact of the first series: the circle of women being forced to slut-shame a rape victim; a gay woman being torn from her lover and hanged in a sickening long take; the surviving woman waking up in hospital to find her genitals mutilated. After each episode I would sit there in shock, and have to write down my thoughts with shaking hands to try and cope with the trauma of what I had witnessed.
The Handmaid’s Tale was true zeitgeist television for the Trump era and often emotionally exhausting to watch. But it will always stay with me, as good drama should.