As the first half of the year draws to a close, it’s time to look back and reflect on a wealth of television both on the traditional and challenger networks that has been released over the last six months. As someone with an open penchant to consume a vast plethora of media and subject matter, 2019 has seen an abundance of riches released to the general public, with a few notable conclusions scattered in certainly if your heart has a desire for the small screen, you haven’t been left for wanting. Of course, one of the benefits of the digital era is the opportunity to go back and discover or enjoy a forgotten treasure, those landmark series that passed you by on the first occasion. With June coming to an end, as a British writer, my review of the television series I have watched over the last six months, not necessarily created or abiding by their release on US networks as we do tend to, on occasion draw the short straw of release dates.
Of course with the Autumn US Network schedule set to commence in September in addition to a number of shows that have or are going to be released in the immediate future there is potential to revisit the subject again in December. The only ‘rules’ I tend to abide and enforce in discussion as such is to remove any resemblance of snobbery or moral authority. I loathe the attitude of superiority when it comes to media, taste is entirely subjective, these are the shows across the spectrum I have enjoyed over the last six months that have left a memorable impression, whether they enter the pantheon of the all time greats is left for another day. In the here and now, enjoy a brief retrospective on a broad variety of television series covering the latest release’s, shows I have caught up on, those that came to a conclusion and finally looking ahead into the second half of the year and what’s to come.
**This article may contain spoilers**
Released in 2019
Young Sheldon (Season 2)
As Young Sheldon entered it’s sophomore season, an American colloquialism for a second series it had the safe expectations of largely maintaining the status quo and continuing to chart a relatively safe and unchanged course. One of the interesting premises when the show first launched was the allusion by the creators it wouldn’t strictly abide by a straight linear narrative and there was the potential for time jumps in the story to highlight certain key points. One of the events that was and is foreshadowed to a large degree in the main series was the death of Sheldon’s father, an event that has been hinted at or teased at least once with a medical condition in an earlier episode. Rather strangely I hadn’t expected to feel fondly towards this character for such a reason, you know his ultimate fate but Lance Barber has delivered a great turn as George Cooper Snr, there’s a ‘cross over’ moment in the main series when you see a brief video of the late father’s character and you do feel a genuine sense of pathos with how the absence of this authoritative figure in his development probably impacted on the young child prodigy. A stand out character development for me over this season in particular was the role played by Wallace Shawn of John Sturges, seemingly or possibly a small guest character but one that took on a life of its own and had a large impact on the series. I smiled fondly when he first appeared for his connection to Star Trek however it takes a strong performance to break that resonance, he in turn provided. Both Young Sheldon and to a similar extent have excelled in portraying the very human impact of certain neurological conditions without labelling or isolating them as a narrative tool. There was a flamboyance in the earlier episodes that hinted at a possible condition for Dr Sturges but the final episode, specifically the closing 10 minutes really packed an emotional punch for a ‘light entertainment show’.
Billions (Season 4)
Returning for its fourth season, I was nervously excited for the return of Billions, to describe it briefly an interwoven melodrama set in and around the financial and legal sectors of New York society. The end of season 3 ended on a fascinating premise and set up, the two principle protagonists and rivals in their respective fields directly challenged by those nearest and closest to them setting aside their anonymously and coming together to take down their respective opponents. To say this was a game changing moment was putting it mildly, that said, it didn’t entirely change who or what the series was for better and for worse. The moments of connectivity between the characters over the course of the season’s run were kept relatively brief, an expected approach but the two actors do work well together, some of the most memorable moments in the earlier seasons when they came up against each other, setting aside rational thought to gain an advantage. With that edge removed, the main opponents in this season had less menace, Chuck, despite ending season 3 with the full weight of the US justice system directing towards him never truly felt in danger and the reveal towards the end almost neutered that threat entirely for any repeat viewing. Equally, with the removal of a growing problem in John Malkovich’s villain early on, Bobby came across as the source and cause of his own downfall. The vendetta against Taylor Mason felt forced and dragged on, his growing relationship with Rebecca that was destroyed by his own actions presumably a waste. That said, I did enjoy this season, in continued and expanded the dynamics, maintaining a consistent tempo and beat unlike Game of Thrones in its latter seasons and featured a supporting cast of memorable characters and terrific actors. I’ll leave the point open on whether my frustration with the actions of the characters is a sign of a quality series or not, at best it shows I do care for what happens and have emotionally invested myself in seeing it come to an end.
Star Trek Discovery (Season 2
Star Trek Discovery had a great deal of course correcting to do following the launch of its first season, honestly I was unsure it would be able to deliver a product that would satisfy both new and old fans. In retrospect, I do feel it’s delivered something as I envisioned that serves both the old and new with a portrayal of the Star Trek universe in keeping with the vision of Roddenberry whilst not being hand tied to the aesthetic of the Original Series. The narrative follows a seasonal arc breaking now almost entirely from the episodic format of the past so I wont go into detail about that. One of the key cliff hanger moments was the arrival of the Enterprise in the first season finale and the tease of Spock’s appearance. Being a fan of the series and the late Leonard Nimoy it’s always difficult to see another actor step into a beloved character’s shoes but I did feel Ethan Peck delivered a stand out performance as Spock during the second half of the season. As an aside I had forgotten how deep Nimoy’s voice was on occasion, going back and watching a few classing episodes it was fun to see the two series tally up. I really enjoyed the detail of the Enterprise set in the final episodes, I’ll wave my Trek credentials in the air and argue the finer details all night long, whether for nostalgia or to satisfy the fan base I did feel both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise integrating into the look of the original series was idiotic, the relaunched Battlestar Galactica in contrast handled the homages to a greater extent. I have no issues with the appearance and design of the Enterprise, that this season played around with Time Travel so extensively did create certain issues and the wrap up with the ending it chose does resolve a great deal of the issues of fans and removes the ship from the timeline. I have more optimism going forward for season three than I did this series going into it.
The Grand Tour (Season 3)
I’ll openly admit to being a fan of these presenters, from the earliest days and formation in the relaunched Top Gear all the way over the decades to this series of the Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. Each series had brought back or responded to elements of criticism or complaint to a greater degree and freedom than on Top Gear, the American racing driver, the forced and changing interview format, all abandoned based on view demand feedback, not always a healthy thing but clearly the hosts responding to a loyal audience that had stood by them over the years. Whilst there had been rumours of a fundamental shift occurring at the end of the run it was still a hell of a finale, fitting to the series and style of the hosts. As a whole, it delivered consistently with the usual mix of irreverent challenges and reviews, missing perhaps a race which I’ve always enjoyed but certainly the last adventure episode in Mongolia was a real treat and benefited from the extra run time on being on the digital platform it currently resides. And so we come to the ending and a real emotional sucker punch as it was announced the current studio format that has been running for nearly two decades was coming to an end, I don’t think it’s worked to the same degree as when it was on the BBC or has suffered from an inconsistent or changing format but it was still the familiar beats and presence of the presenters that drew the audience to attend. I would be hugely surprised if the waiting lists to attend were any shorter than those for Top Gear in its prime. The series is slated to return for a fourth run with a focus entirely on ‘specials’, the road trips of the boys in different countries. Top Gear and the Grand Tour, despite the barrage of criticism they have faced have always been able to deliver the emotional and moving moments, the ode to the V12 engine with the review of the Vanquish in season 13 of Top Gear was one of the greatest car review pieces I have watched, simple and moving. The emotional punch when the show in its current format came to an end was moving, Jeremy overcome and breaking down not something you expected to see. I thought it was great for the BBC to allow the team to showcase a montage of clips from both the Amazon and BBC series, overall a strong series, a different direction for the future but one, as ever, I will faithfully subscribe to watch in whatever format I have to.
Seal Team (Season 2)
I entered this season with high expectations, the first season had been somewhat of a slow burner but certainly grew on me, adopting an approach seen in other episodic series such as Person of Interest, taking a ‘case of the week’ approach and gradually introducing a serialised arc approach. With this series, to an extent it fit the narrative, the team deployed on stand alone missions for an episode or two at a time before going on a longer deployment that would span a number of shows. It was a unique mix that reflected, I suppose the nature of being on a team of this type where you might find yourself at one moment in Asia or the Middle East before deploying for a long stretch in Mexico. Certainly from a character perspective there was growth from the first season and an elevation for some pushing minor roles into the foreground. This is still, a David Boreanaz vehicle, I’m content with that having watched him from Angel onwards in a variety of shows. I will say that when I watched the odd episode of Bones visually and from an acting perspective it didn’t seem like a great evolution from his later episodes of Angel, and as such was a tad disorientating but with Seal Team it did feel like a different character. The second season continues the various narratives and threads from season one, this is still fundamentally a network weekly drama and as such most episodes need to stand on their own merits but there is a greater degree of serialisation, the loss of his wife early on has an emotional and consequential impact on the team, the actions of the deployment in Mexico permeate through the entire season for Ray drawing to an emotional conclusion and resolution towards the end in the penultimate episode. It’s a fine line to draw in the present climate, not wanting to celebrate or champion basic principles such as national pride and certainly a show centred around an operations team does, imbue a certain sense of patriotism however it walks the fine line between glorifying violence and showing the very real consequences. The secondary arc this season of the abandoned veteran at times felt forced but others really showing the consequence of leaving the service and trying to find a role in civilian life. Shows such as this and to an extent others such as The Last Ship and even Stargate SG1 paid respect to the military without pandering or acting as a recruitment show, you never feel the characters in Seal Team are attempting to influence the youth of today to sign up, but if you feel inspired from the bonds of brotherhood then that’s no bad thing.
Caught Up in 2019
The Expanse (Season 3)
One of those guilty pleasure finds of the past couple of years I’ll admit I had no awareness of this show or series before I saw the opening two season on Netflix then with its purchase by Amazon Prime found myself desperate to watch the third season. Whilst it may have been shown on the Si Fi channel at some point I hadn’t been aware or caught up to watch and as such with both digital platforms holding fire on airing the series that had been shown at one point already it was a desperate waiting game. Thankfully that came to an end and the third season was available to enjoy. Continuing the cliffhanger of the second season the show continued the complex multi arc approach of the first two seasons, the weight perhaps of the various narratives starting to show in part but never dragging the overall consistency and quality down. It did venture, tonally somewhat into 2001 territory with the final reveal of the area within the void, the final episode felt quite rushed and I do wish they had spent a little more time building up to the conclusion but besides that it was just a solid season. As a small spoiler, the show does excel in the small touches of authenticity that I wish Enterprise had been bold enough to adopt with its setting. One of the narratives in the season involve a fleet of ships travelling at speed towards a destination before finding their transit halted by an energy field. The resulting consequence being a significant amount of injuries to the crews of all the vessels as a result of inertia change. Star Trek always hinted at the consequences but what I’ve enjoyed about the Expanse to date and continue to enjoy is how space exploration is treated and shown as the visceral experience I imagine it would be, the act of being in a spaceship is itself a very real threat, as much as I enjoyed the sanitised version of space exploration seen in Star Trek I do want the element of danger and threat, the show delivered that with aplomb.
Fear The Walking Dead (Season 1 & 2)
As a fan of the original Walking Dead television series only, having never read a comic I’ve always been content to follow the events and various narratives of the series through the shows only, as such the events of Fear The Walking Dead, due to licensing rights in the UK had largely been restricted due to showing on a different provider over here from the original series. With their release onto Amazon Prime a year after broadcast, I had intended to wait until a sufficient amount of episodes were available, with four full seasons I am gradually working my way through. Tonally, due to the changing location and time period it does ‘feel’ a lot different from the original series and benefits I’d say from the lessons learnt from the original show. The family dynamic works, to an extent but I was grateful when it was broken up and they were allowed to explore and grow. Showing the events of the apocalypse unfolding was an interesting one, it doesn’t solve any of the mysteries of the show in terms of the origins of the virus however as society breaks down I enjoyed the destruction of LA from a functional city to that on the verge of destruction. As the second season opened, without any knowledge of events I was curious how long the show would remain on the boat, honestly it was a really intriguing prospect to base itself on a moving platform in the spirit of a walking dead Star Trek but with the arrival in Mexico it resorted to familiar beats. As with the Walking Dead, there is a sense of stretch that unfolds as certain scenes or journeys seem introduced for the sake of extending the run time however when the second series drew to its conclusion with the family arriving at the American border once more you did realise just how far all the central characters had come from the opening moments. Whether its believable to accept the premise of two teachers and their various children of questionable heritage surviving the end of days is a dubious one, I do feel that by the end of the second season some of the weaker or minor characters such as Nick and Strand do come into their own, I do find myself ready to see some kind of divide or change to Madison and Travis as they both feel like they are treading water at this point but I’m impressed enough to push forward into season 3 and beyond.
The Thick of It (Season 1 to 4)
One of my guilty pleasures and a show worthy of viewing on multiple occasions, I decided to revisit The Thick of It to try and find some sanity or resemblance of normality in British politics following the chaotic nature of Parliament following the Brexit vote. One of the points raised by the shows creators is no matter how much of a farce was made of the political establishment in the show, it pales in comparison to the events and real world drama that has enfolded since. The series reflects a fictionalised take on the real UK Government of that era with a supposed caricature of the Labour media and communications director Alastair Campbell satirised by the character of Malcolm Tucker, a no nonsense talking pitbull of an individual having to get the Governments message out and deal with the incompetence of the civil service and unqualified ministers. With a partner working in the public sector who questioned if this is how I saw the area as a whole, its hard not to view Government in this was when you look at the real world individuals on the news on a daily basis. As the series progressed it took onboard real world events and showed its fictional take with the coalition of the Conversation and Liberal Democrat parties taking power in its final season and the effects of the Leveson enquiry into leaking and communications between the various party press offices and the national media. As with many shows from the BBC it never outstayed its welcome or continued beyond the basic story it was trying to tell, benefiting perhaps from being a state funded broadcaster and not being obliged to advertising money and continued practise to succeed. Whether you agree with a character such as Tucker or find him distasteful I’ll readily admit on occasion to wanting to channel my inner Malcolm and cut through the management speak around me to deliver a straight forward resolution on occasion.
Lost in Space (Season 1)
I have a fondness for the 1998 movie, it was a silly, over the top take on the classic series but that in itself wasn’t a serious and sombre take on space exploration and it did feel like a natural extension of that original tone and theme. When Netflix announced it was bringing the show to the small screen I was a little dubious what tone it would take, the theme of the American adventure and spirit of discovery does tend to dissipate outside of the Continental United States, would that message of a family exploring the frontier together work? honestly yes. Clearly not shying away with a reduced budget it did feel well made and with a solid narrative. Whilst there was an episodic feel at times there was also a consistent overarching threat of being on the planet that elevated as the series drew to a conclusion. Whilst at times it did feel like any other series that attempts to portray the Canadian wilderness as an Alien world with a few clever tricks and editing styles at times it did feel almost movie like with how the areas were shown, remarkable considering it was quite literally episodic television. The immersion broke for me at times when it cut to trees and vegetation that were clearly of ‘this planet’, quite honestly no series has ever managed to escape that sensation of snapping back to reality with perhaps the exception of Prometheus arguably which minimised the amount of ‘Earth’ like environments, considering that was filmed largely in Iceland to capture that isolation it worked there. Here, with the reduced budgetary constraints you could forgive the tree’s and fauna to an extent, and buy into the more alien elements. It was enjoyable to revisit this series again this year and I just hope the second season arrives soon.
Great British Railway Journeys (Season 1 to 4)
I grew up in a house of trains in my youth, my father an avid collector of model railways, I even had an N-Gauge set myself and can probably hold my own just about in terms of collections. I started with the Great European Train Journeys a couple of years back that inspired a railing holiday around Europe inspired by the travels of Portillo. I was aware of the shows set in the UK but of the snippets I had seen they always seemed like a scaled down version of the European shows, and quite honestly I didn’t know how many railway journeys you could make around the United Kingdom. Thankfully, as it turns out there a number of routes in operation and each series shows a different area and usually a variety of hidden local treasures to inspire a new trip. Michael is a fascinating host, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture of his a year or two back discussing his political history and subsequent transition into media through travel programs such as this. In total, of what was filmed there were nine series of these British railway journeys covering the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and Ireland in this particular run of programs, travelling on the various mainline routes and in and around London on the tube network. I’ll accept its a somewhat niche taste and program, certainly there are more grandiose travel shows and exotic locations but it has a certain whimsical charm, when he travelled through places I’ve worked and lived there’s a certain nostalgism to seeing the places I know so well. Everyone tends to have a guilty pleasure show, from the exotic charm and exploits of Love Island or a show such as this, often the destination and journey are intertwined to such an extent you develop an attachment to the series, here I very much have look forward to the remaining series.
Finished in 2019
Game of Thrones (Season 8)
As the dust has settled on this program its hard to find optimism or positive words. In truth the quality of the show deteriorated shortly after the program finished the first three books in the series, whilst the fifth series was a faithful adaptation of the remaining books, the series by then had become so slow and bogged down in detail they were a good adaptation of the books, they just weren’t good books. Given free reign the television series quickly resorted to a traditional speed and approach, rushing towards the end destination with little regard to nuance and hesitation. From what was revealed by the show’s creators they knew the final destination, subsequent remarks suggest certain aspects have been changed or adapted for a television audience but largely from what we’ve seen you have to imagine this was the final destination of the book series. There were issues with the series, the battle for Winterfell was too damn dark, one of the supposed highlights of the entire series reduced to a muddy brown and black mess, the turn of the Dragon Queen whilst foreshadowed certainly rushed and would have benefits from more screen time or a slower pace. Cersei was largely redundant and reduced to drinking excessive amounts of wine and quite honestly, any character would have made for a better ruler of the seven kingdoms, well six, with a more interesting tale than Brann the broken. There were satisfying moments, it was not entirely a mess but you come away with a resigned sense of sadness a show you have given so much emotional attachment to ended in that way. It could have done with more time and care in getting to the end result, but with a sense nearly everyone was ready to move on with their lives it ended in this way.
Big Bang Theory (Season 12)
I’ll openly admit I was put off this show when it first aired, or more specifically when I first came to understand this show and what it was about. There’s a great share from Patrick Stewart when he first heard about the comedy show Red Dwarf, believing it to be a direct insult or parody of Star Trek. Of course it wasn’t, and this in turn wasn’t sending up or deriding ‘geek culture’. There was a considerable level of charm and warmth in the premise of the show that adopted and changed over the time to suit the maturity and growth of its cast. Perhaps the introduction of the female girlfriends and partners didn’t change the dynamic but in its original format and line up it would have been hard pressed to have extended much beyond a half dozen seasons. Each of the cast had moments of character growth over the course of the season, none more so than Sheldon Cooper, the lovable ‘broken’ scientist. It was always speculated the character in his presentation and how he came across suffered from some form of neurological condition given his high intellect but inability to interact or deal with social occasions. Over the course of the 12 seasons, the focus and heart of the show pivoted more to the growth of Sheldon and his relationship with his partner. Unlike other shows which have ended on a fundamental paradigm shift such as Friends or Frasier the ending and closure of The Big Bang Theory felt earned and consistent with the entire course of the series. In addition, tying the finale of the series to the last episode of Young Sheldon was such a lovely gesture and move. It didn’t ‘feel’ like a series finale, with the expectant character changes, it felt like an episode of The Big Bang Theory, and that in itself made if a great series finale.
Fleabag (Season 2)
The first season felt like a naughty pleasure that was hard to describe or talk about without going into great detail at the series more risque topics and nature. I do get enjoyment as a viewer of watching shows and films that break the fourth wall and engage directly with the viewer when done in a smart way, maybe it’s watching way to much Saved By The Bell as a child. In the first season, within minutes of opening the central character was breaking the fourth wall, having sex and alluding to self doubt, a curious mix. But, I really did enjoy the first season principally from a strong supporting cast and just a brutal honest portrayal of self destruction and self doubt I imagine we’ve all wondered or found ourselves facing for various reasons. Anyone hoping for a transformative experience between the seasons thankfully would be disappointed, fleabag has found no peace or redemption for her actions and life, drawn into a spiralling and ultimately futile relationship with The Priest played by Andrew Scott of Sherlock fame. I still struggle to see him as anything other than an intelligent villain, the fact I only saw him in Skyfall playing a very similar role after Sherlock didn’t help the matters but it certainly was a different turn. I did find myself hoping Fleabag would find some peace or resolve by the end of the series but in true to form fashion, her declaration of love was met with a relatively brick wall response from Scott, and the series ended with no happy ever after for this broken woman and character. It perfectly suited the series, leaving you with a forlorn sense of sadness and remorse she couldn’t gain that connection she so desperately needed to have any resemblance of a normal and content life. Certainly some of the edge of the first season was toned down with an optic shift towards religion away from sexuality but still, as a closing and final season a great conclusion to this drama.
Coming Up in 2019
Jessica Jones (Season 3)
I was a big fan of the Netflix Marvel series, that they have all now been cancelled due to whatever licensing agreements and issues between Netflix and Disney have transpired is a genuine shame, the Daredevil series in particular are certainly one of my personal favourites in recent years. I enjoyed the first season of Jessica Jones, the first inclination towards the Defenders connection with the presence of Luke Cage intermittently. I wasn’t especially impressed with the second series, putting such a focus on the the family issues just took away the independence of Jessica as a stand alone character. Whilst filmed and produced independently, that the third season of Daredevil addressed similar issues of familial abandonment and reconciliation to a more believable standard didn’t help matters. I’m hoping the third and final series of Jessica Jones manage to restore some of the independent spirit of the PI as I do feel this suffered in its second series. EIther way, as the final show of the Netflix series I will be watching this with fondness and a shadowing sense of regret we won’t see anymore of these great characters in the near future.
Orange is the New Black (Season 7)
One of those rare shows both my partner and I have enjoyed throughout the course of its run, certainly the quality and drive has dipped in the past few series with the attention taken off Pippa and focusing more on the ensemble cast of characters. I was expecting a weak ending in series six but was pleasantly surprised she decided not to make the stupid move and achieved her freedom. Whether she maintains the straight and narrow life style and goes back to who she was before or finds that prison has changed her fundamentally remains to be seen. Having never read the book the series was based on which presumably would give some indication of where her story ended I am open to finding out how this story ends. Certainly in recent years there have been few shows with as strong and capable cast of female stars and characters as that seen in Orange is the New Black. It’s drawn a lot of praise for the performance of its actors, a great deal of that well earned. I just hope as the series draws to its conclusion it goes out on a bang. Equally, from where the show began as a focus on Pippa it did very much become a tale about this range of characters, as an institution life goes on, for consistency perhaps that is how I hope the show comes to an end, a few happy ever afters, but equally a snapshot of life carrying on.
Gotham (Season 5)
A dangerous one to discuss with the show having aired in its entirety in America. For the most part I have remained ignorant of the major beats although of course I have predictions, mainly that the show will end in a similar fashion to Smallville with the final moments showing Batman arriving in Gotham or some form of time jump or skip. Whether this happens who knows, the show has always marched to the beat of its own drum in how it portrays the villains and the future hero of the city. With the series now airing in the UK I’ve enjoyed the first couple of episodes, my hope is of course building towards some form of show down between the Joker and Batman. Given the stature of the Dark Knight it’s always seemed like a fairly obvious win on behalf of the studio to just put a dedicated Batman series on the small screen, in the absence certainly of a movie equivalence you would presume it would be an easy win for everyone involved. With the direction and tone of Gotham perhaps not for the foreseeable future.
So a busy start to 2019 with a variety of shows across the genres. Going forward for the rest of the year, certainly at the moment enough to keep me entertained with the streaming services launching a number of shows in the summer months. I’ll probably watch the third season of Stranger Things as well and of course towards the end of the year the next chapter in the life of my favourite fictional Captain, Picard. Have you enjoyed any of these series? what are your highlights going into the next half of 2019?
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