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Monday, December 4, 2017

Top Twelve Best Television Moments of 2017 (that I watched)

I saw a lot of stuff this year, and I'm happy to say that most of it was pretty damn good. It's true that we're living in the golden age of television, and whatever your preferred genre – crime, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia, adventure, period drama – there's plenty on offer to fit your specific tastes, all of it reaching incredibly high standards.
There was plenty of "much watch" stuff I didn't watch, such as the live-action Beauty and the Beast and the final season of Sherlock, and by all accounts I didn't miss much (I may get to them eventually, if not just to complain about them). But I try to keep this blog relatively upbeat, so below the cut you'll find twelve of the best moments of my television viewing year. Some are humorous, some are heart-warming, but all of them struck a nerve in one way or another.
They're not ranked in any order, though I've tried listing chronologically according to their airdates (to the best of my memory – if I'm wrong, don't bother correcting me as I don't care that much). I did however leave my number one favourite till last...

Black Sails
In a world where you can still pretty much guarantee that one-half of any gay pairing will tragically be shot dead (this year Victoria kept up the grand tradition), Black Sails was the show that said: "nope." Gay couples were reunited left, right and centre, and I'm still astonished at how much of a happy ending was afforded to characters on a show that never stinted on blood and violence.
But there was a glaring omission in the show that included some of the most famous figures of the Golden Age of Piracy, one whose absence is finally rectified in the last moments of the final episode, when it's revealed who Jack Rackham has been telling his story to:
Yup, Mary Read finally turns up! They hadn't forgotten her after all. Her long-awaited appearance got a fist-pump from me, and what makes it even better is that her ensuing scene with Anne Bonny makes it clear the show's quota on happy endings for gay couples is only going to multiply as the characters move forward into the future.
Broadchurch
The second and third seasons of Broadchurch didn't hold much of a candle to its first, but there was one consistent highlight throughout all the show's ups and downs: the belligerent teamwork between Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller. They squabbled and sniped and got on each other's last nerves, but they also trusted and relied on each other during some harrowing (and deeply personal) cases.  
It's hard not to grow close under such circumstances, but their bond never grew sentimental or cloying – and so their final send-off was a thing of beauty. They're sitting on the pier in front of the cliffs where they first met, processing the case they've just solved, when Ellie suggests going to the pub for a drink. Hardy's response: "Nah."
So they part ways, casually agreeing to see each other next working day. It's perfect.
American Gods
One of my favourite tropes is What You Are In the Dark, a sentiment that provided the major theme of Doctor Who's tenth season: "Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward."
Easily the best scene in American Gods has Mad Sweeney, a six-foot leprechaun with anger issues, confront his own conscience. Stuck with the caustic Laura on a road trip to hunt down her husband, Sweeney is adamant that he's only there to retrieve the lucky gold coin residing in her belly; that which is currently giving her reanimated corpse the semblance of life (yeah, it's a weird story). Without it, his luck is running out.
The episode itself shines a light on the extent of Mad Sweeney's centuries-long lifetime, the origins of the coin itself, and the true circumstances of Laura's death. With all that context behind it, the scene in which Sweeney is given the opportunity to claim what's his becomes all the more powerful.
At a point when there was no one to stop him, judge him, or question him, Sweeney foregoes the chance to reclaim his dearest possession, instead returning it to Laura's body and carrying on as if he hasn't just made a profound sacrifice. It's a pitch-perfect example of What You Are In the Dark, with no one but the audience aware of what he's done, and no reward granted for his act of selflessness.
Salem
I'm not sure if anyone else was watching Salem, but it ran for a respectable three seasons and had some pretty interesting characters and ideas strewn throughout (plus Lucy Lawless turns up in season two). Foremost among these was Anne Hale, an innocent Puritan girl who's put through the wringer when it comes to her heritage, her love life and the ever-more threatening circumstances she finds herself in.
In a profound twist on expectations, her crucible does not turn her into a more just or righteous person, but rather confuses and corrupts her. In the final stretch of episodes, the entire show is revealed as Anne's Start of Darkness tale, and the Grand Finale has her clear the chessboard with a staggering display of power – not pyrotechnics or telekinesis or anything else flashy, but with her blind-siding everybody in pulling off a Batman Gambit where she concurrently visits every other character to kill them, exile them, or manipulate them into doing what she wants.
Well played, Salem.
Sense8
The secret to Sense8 is the premise upon which it's build: eight different people share a consciousness, allowing them to move in and out of each other's lives to share skills, advice, experience and knowledge. It's so simple yet the possibilities are so endless, and it takes a lot of technical skill to bring the concept to life.
The height of this creativity came at the end of the second season, in which Wolfgang and his cluster confront fellow sensate Lila and her cluster at a restaurant, leading to one of the greatest visuals of the entire show: each one's extended consciousness rising up behind them as they sit on opposite sides of the table, and the ensuing fight that has physical effects on everyone involved.
It's a classic "oh shit!" moment, and I'm only sorry they spoiled it in the trailer instead of letting the audience experience it cold.
The Handmaid's Tale
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood's most famous novel is so damn good that I could randomly select any scene from any episode and have a perfectly good addition to this list. Off the top of my head: Moira making it safely across the border, Serena Joy prostrating herself in prayer, Ofglen stealing the car, Janine's attempted suicide, Aunt Lydia's realization that the disfigured girls would not attend the banquet, the handmaids refusing to stone one of their own... it's an exhaustive list.
So instead of struggling to decide what was objectively the most powerful, most heartrending or most terrifying scene, I'm going with the one that had the most effect on me personally.
On learning that her handmaid is both pregnant and rebellious, Serena Joy pulls off what is perhaps the most horrific act of cruelty in a show that's already full of rape, mutilation and state-endorsed murder: she takes June to the house where her daughter is being kept and forces her to watch them interact, out of earshot from a locked car. She returns to the car and gives June an ultimatum: so long as "her" unborn child lives, Hannah won't be harmed.
June's reaction is the reason Elizabeth Moss walked home with the Emmy: a solid minute of raw, unadulterated vitriol as she finally tells Serena exactly what kind of person she is. It's cathartic to hear, but there's still a physical barrier between them, denying us the chance to see June rip Serena apart with her bare hands (admit it, that's what we all wanted to see at this stage).
It's the scene that had the most impact on me, because it's the screaming no-holds-barred meltdown we've all wanted to have at some point in our lives but have always refrained from giving in to. June has an infinitely better reason to cave to the impulse than the rest of us, and afterwards gains a strange sereneness (see what I did there?) to better regather her composure, her power, her sense of self, and get ready for the fight ahead...
Orphan Black
There's a surefire way to get a viewer's tear ducts prickling, and that's the miracle of life. In this case, the birth of Helena's twin boys in the show's final episode also came as a blessed relief seeing as she'd been pregnant for the last three years (at least to the audience).
But with Art at her back and seestra Sarah helping with the delivery, Helena became a mother. It's a testimony to Tatiana Maslany's acting ability and the technical skill of the show's FX artists that Helena and Sarah were able to make eye contact directly after the birth, each one's tear-stained face glowing with love.
It was a long and often confusing road, and I'm still not entirely comfortable with the way the show skipped over Helena's horrific acts of violence in order to re-establish her as "quirky", but sometimes you gotta take things in the spirit with which they're given – and one thing the show was always very clear about was her deep protectiveness of children. Her story was always going to end with having them herself.  
Game of Thrones
I only begrudgingly add this to the list, as the Game of Thrones writers screwed up the Winterfell subplot in so many ways... but since Sansa and Arya's reunion and reconciliation was something I had wanted for them since the day this show first started, I can't bring myself to get too angry about getting exactly what I wanted – even if the journey there made very little sense.
If we disregard all the baffling interactions that led to the execution of Littlefinger and the newfound understanding between Arya/Sansa, then the scene in isolation is pretty damn perfect: Sansa's cool judgement, Arya's silent solidarity, Littlefinger's growing panic (and Aiden Gillan's ability to make you feel just a sliver of pity for the character in his final moments). Perhaps my favourite line is Arya's: "my sister asked you a question", which carries the very clear subtext: "it's us against you."
Perhaps nothing will ever quite compare with the emotional catharsis of Jon and Sansa's reunion in season six (all the more extraordinary since the two had never interacted on-screen before) but the feud between the Stark sisters has always been the most important narrative touchstone among the family (even more so than Arya/Jon). In them, the Starks and the North are finally brought together. There they stand, next to each other on the walls of Winterfell, talking quietly as the snow falls around them. Beautiful.
Victoria
Victoria is a hit-and-miss show for me: though it has very little interest in portraying the monarch through anything but the rosiest of coloured glasses, the costumes, sets and performances make it imminently watchable. And every now and then it does something completely charming, as when Albert and Victoria get separated from their party in Scotland and take shelter in a farmer's cottage.
It's rare enough to see a married couple with children on such a romantic adventure, and the episode touches on something truly lovely when the pair shed their royal identities for a single night to experience a taste of an ordinary life.
Their bemusement at eating fish with their fingers, Victoria grumbling she has to sleep next to the wall, Albert joking that he has some socks for her to darn, the two not putting up the slightest bit of argument when their hosts offer them their bed – it hit so many honest, human notes despite being completely fabricated: an interlude made all the more poignant by its transience.
Still Star Crossed
This show was as doomed as the lovers that inspired it, which is a shame since its quality was easily on par with Reign (which clocked in four seasons), and was onto something really special with its depiction of Rosaline and Benvolio, a Capulet and Montague forced into an arranged marriage after the deaths of their cousins Romeo and Juliet.
It's a classic Benedick and Beatrice arc as the two go from enemies to allies to friends to the start of something even greater, and the show knew exactly what it was doing when it came to issues of respect, consent and trust, even as it gleefully ticked every conceivable Romantic Trope across the course of their reluctant teamwork.
The two are always depicted on an equal footing, and the best thing about their first kiss is that it's the moment lightning strikes for both of them. There's no one-sided pining or prolonged miscommunication – just mutual and simultaneous shock in realizing what they've come to mean to each other.
They deserved to find out more.
Supergirl
This is a bit of a meta example, to be appreciated only by those who were in the BBC Robin Hood fandom back in the day. Actress Anjali Jay played Djaq from 2006 – 2007 before her character was stupidly written out and replaced with a horrifically awful Jerk Sue, and – okay, I'll spare you the rant. In any case, she's only appeared sporadically in various projects in the years since, so imagine my astonishment when I spotted her name in the opening credits of the latest Supergirl episode.
I watched the episode a week late, and there was no indication at any point that she would be guest-starring in the show (I suppose she's not enough of a big name) so it came as a lovely surprise to see her again after so long. Seriously, she was my Angel Coulby before Angel Coulby came along!
Stranger Things
Here's a good rule of storytelling: the longer your setup takes, the greater the payoff must be. It's a tricky balancing act: stretch things out too long and the audience will get impatient; deliver the big scene too soon and it'll lose its impact. Anticipation, suspense, longing – they're all parts of what make a long-awaited event so rewarding.
Stranger Things took a risk in its second season by separating Eleven from the gang – especially Mike. Their prepubescent bond was the emotional centre of the first season, and audiences wanted to see it grow and develop in the second. Realizing the Duffer Brothers were going to draw out their separation (for eight out of nine episodes on top of the year-long Time Skip) was agonising.
But when they're finally reunited in the closing seconds of the penultimate episode, there's no doubt it was worth the wait. The slow motion, the music, the look on his face, the look on her face – it took my breath away.
And that is how you do emotional payoff.
Honorary Mention:
The Defenders
I didn't find the time to sit down and watch The Defenders (having just finished Luke Cage, there's no way I'll get through Iron Fist before the end of the year) but I did hear about the scene in which Matt parkours his way up the side of a building ... only to find that Jessica has just taken the elevator. I think that deserves a place here.
***
So that's that. I really enjoyed making this list – I may do more, highlighting the best scenes from whatever films, books and television shows I'm devouring at any old time of the year...

2 comments:

  1. It was great to relive some of these moments! I've seen them all except American Gods (Salem and Still Star-Crossed thanks to this blog), and they're all great.

    Sherlock's last season was so bad even most of the show's stans agreed it was awful. Instructive from a what-not-to-do point of view, I suppose, but really very terrible.

    I was struck, re-watching that GoT scene, by how far Maisie and Sophie have come as actors. And they were terrific from the very beginning, but watching such young performers do such subtle work there remains very impressive. The show really is very well cast.

    Still Star-Crossed probably would have done better on the CW; it certainly felt like a CW show. It's a real pity no one watched it.

    "Here's a good rule of storytelling: the longer your setup takes, the greater the payoff must be." - Hmm, what show does that remind me of? I actually thought Stranger Things misjudged this very slightly (it was a hair too late), which was exacerbated by the episode seven misstep. I think a lot of shows actually err on the side of too early these days, with the fashion for rapid-fire plotting. I think the most perfect one I've ever seen was season 5 of The Good Wife, which delivered the payoff at the perfect moment (this was the season before the show was driven off the rails a bit by behind-the-scenes events, sadly).

    Great to read this, as always.

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    Replies
    1. Glad I could point you in the direction of some good shows - though I honestly think we could be the only two people on earth who watched "Salem."

      "Here's a good rule of storytelling: the longer your setup takes, the greater the payoff must be." - Hmm, what show does that remind me of?

      Argh, it's been five years and I still get pissed off thinking about it.

      Re: Stranger Things, I've actually heard a suggestion that it's better to watch episode six and seven the other way around. It doesn't leave you on a cliff-hanger before veering off into another plot, and Eleven's out-of-context vision of Mike running in a panic screaming about traps is a pretty good lead-in to the assault on the laboratory.

      To me their separation was alleviated slightly by the way Eleven at least was keeping tabs on Mike, though less poignant than her telepathic visit was the fact she reached the school at the exact moment Mike warmed a little to Max after giving her the relentless cold shoulder up till that point.

      I hope the Duffers realize that they (and the other kids) are the secret ingredient to the show's success. They've already wasted a year keeping them apart, and now that Eleven is living with Hopper, we're never again going to get the magic that was the season one kids keeping her a secret from the adults.

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