In this increasingly atomised world of ours, it only gets harder to say what works of media really ‘represent’ a year. It’s not like the old days of Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas special getting a full third of the UK to tune in – because that was running up against the BBC test card and the snooker. Now everyone has their own little box, and there’s more things than ever to put on it.
But there’s two clear horns running through this list, all the entries reflect one of them at least a little bit: one sheer fantastical escapism, the other simply dealing with the everyday grind. These two are of course diametrically opposed as concepts, and between them cast a very wide net, so saying people like them isn’t saying much.
However, in a year made mostly of twos, it’s perhaps appropriate we’ve landed on this black-and-white split. We either want the liberating catharsis of something completely off-the-wall, which would never happen in real life – or the complete opposite of that.
For reference, all the shows listed are newcomers, not ongoing concerns. This is mainly to prevent the list being clogged up by big beasts, like the admittedly fantastic finale of Better Call Saul, as they bend light around their surface.
1. House Of The Dragon
When audiences everywhere finally reached their limit with Game Of Thrones, it was not a civilised split. But after throwing the show dramatically out, hurling its belongings out the window around midnight and screaming that we never wanted to see it again, all it took was one phone call from House Of The Dragon to make all the old feelings come rushing back. This time it’ll be different, we told ourselves – and back we dutifully trotted for more.
Sure enough, before too long we were faced with uncomfortable reminders of why we’d left in the first place. The ropy lighting, we could learn to live with, but are they really still doing scenes of spectacle whose logic falls apart if you think about them for five seconds? Again and again, we’d told them about that, they know how it makes us feel…
But all this was coming alongside reminders of what made us fall so helplessly in love in the first place. Gritty, sexy, grand-scale scheming by a cast of flamboyant rogues, and, not to forget, dragons absolutely everywhere. Yep, this time the dragons weren’t just tomorrow’s promise, the carrot being dangled to keep us around, but front and centre from minute one. Is this sort of like buying our affection? Well, perhaps, but as it turns out we’re cheaper than we thought.
In the kind of plot Black Mirror might have deployed before it lost its balls, Severance shows us a dystopian-bordering-on-hellish corporation where the employees’ memories are divided into two – one for their work life, one for the outside. It’s a true Faustian bargain, where you don’t have to put up with the everyday grind, all for the low low price of consigning yourself to have a life that’s nothing else.
Shows which paint an even-remotely-true picture of just how crappy and pointless the workplace tends to be always go down well, but Severance’s sheer venom puts it a cut above. It’s hard to resist the idea of the world of work as something omnipresent and inescapable, like a prison without even the humble dignity of barbed wire. Here, that’s actually, literally what’s going on, which seems bad enough before the hapless victims’ blissfully unaware outside-personas start to wonder what’s actually happening to them at work.
Even though Severance by nature dwells mainly within deliberately staid corporate architecture, it presents us some impressively mind-bending shots and scenes. All those endless corridors, so like a haunted hotel, very quickly turn into something more like an underground test facility for the kind of experiments where you keep needing more dogs. Bleak, claustrophobic, and uncomfortably real.
Rogue One, Disney’s earliest foray into expanding the Star Wars universe beyond a trilogy of trilogies, gave us plenty of characters who could spin out a prequel of their own, and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor was first among them. But even so, nobody anticipated quite how much of a departure it would be, kicking things off in noirish style as Luna got into a scrap outside an honest-to-god Star Wars brothel.
From there, things escalate quickly, and not in the usual Star Wars style of the white hats riding into town and making all the bad guys go away either. With this more R-rated material comes more moral complexity than you’d ever expect from The Mouse, since as it turns out an armed and incredibly dangerous anti-government rebellion aren’t necessary cheery, harmless playground assistants.
Our own Matt Fresh reckoned Andor’s charm was that it’s simply a good story told in the Star Wars universe, rather than another desperate attempt to chase the high of the original films. And it’s not hard to see the logic of this – no shameless cameos from a terrifying CGI version of Harrison Ford, no villains actively cosplaying as Darth Vader, no fanciful nonsense about the force, just people living their lives a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
4. Am I Being Unreasonable?
Daisy May Cooper, she of This Country fame, is turned loose on a comedy-drama, although if you really had to sum up Am I Being Unreasonable? in a word it would have to be ‘mystery’, of the classic sort where you presume Cooper must have come up with the solution first and then worked backwards from that.
Sure enough, it’s a journey of discovery, not merely one big revelation at the end of the half-hour but one of constantly answering and asking questions. Who knows what? Why have they done that? Did they already know this was happening? It’s the kind of thorny social mire people love to watch and frequently break down when actually experiencing. What’s more, it’s constructed incredibly well, with no moment, line, or even sound going to waste.
And, as I did in my review at the time, I must again point to little Lenny Rush as a particular highlight in the role of Cooper’s son. Good by the standards of child actors isn’t a high bar to clear, but he makes the Stranger Things kids look like piles of puke, lounging around the edges of the production as a pitch-perfect straightman who still gets plenty of funny moments of his own.
5. The Sandman
Between Dune and this, 2022 was the year for works once thought unfilmable finally getting adapted for the screen basically properly. Amazing what you can get done with an insane, god-killing CGI budget, isn’t it?
The thing about The Sandman is that it’s a workmanlike TV adaptation of some incredibly good source material, which was groundbreaking in more ways than one. It was a harbinger of comic books becoming dark and gritty, sure – but it was also a comic book that dealt with the whole concept of myth, the whole spectrum of sexuality, lost loves, child abuse, fundamental human drives and qualities, essentially very adult and high-concept stuff for a story about a magic man who makes dreams come true.
What The Sandman brings to the small screen is fantasy in essence. By this I don’t just mean stories in an unspecified medieval time that involve orcs, but stories period, and all the mad whimsical possibilities that come with that. Again, this is slightly undercut by the fact it’s an adaptation, but The Sandman does things you will never have seen on TV before.
6. The Bear
For all that words like ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ and ‘verisimilitude’ get thrown around for any TV show set outside Narnia, The Bear is the real deal. Anyone who’s ever worked even a day in the food service industry will feel an unavoidable, uncomfortable sense of homecoming when they switch on The Bear, as if they’re right back there in the kitchen and have ten tickets waiting and someone shouting in their ear.
This isn’t just a matter of the setting, either (the kind of place the Brits would call a ‘greasy spoon’ and Americans call a ‘dive’). The Bear embraces realism in a wholehearted, uncompromising way that few productions dare to even go near, never fannying about with polished, production-ready dialogue or happy little plots where everything’s wrapped up at the end of the half-hour.
And just as it takes a lot of money to look especially cheap, this realism is bolstered by a lot of careful, deliberate framing. The show’s jittery presentation makes it all feel that much more real than the many actual reality shows based in kitchens. It’s all so high-strung and high-tension that when we do get a quieter moment it feels like some kind of hallucination.
7. We Own This City
In light of all the, shall we say, reappraisals of the police in recent years, it was inevitable we’d get some sort of antidote to all those cops who don’t play by the rules but dammit they get results, who’ve got 24 hours otherwise it’s their badge and gun, who commit a little light perjury and torture to get their man. We Own This City is the true story of Baltimore PD’s Gun Trace Task Force, all of whom are now in prison.
At the centre of this merry dance is Jon Bernthal’s Wayne Jenkins. He’s a man made in the classic villain mould of finally facing too many petty frustrations and going bad – although here the frustrations are very petty, and the bad is out of all proportion. But even knowing what he is, what he’s done, it’s impossible not to see the charm. It’s not like the dirt ever put anyone off Dirty Harry.
Possibly the greatest achievement of We Own This City is that despite Bernthal’s undeniable charisma, it correctly portrays evil as tawdry. No well-intentioned extremism, no Machiavellian schemes, no grand viziers or mad scientists, just some truly awful little men at work, robbing and stealing with absolute impunity. And, again, based entirely on true events. Pleasant dreams.
8. This Is Going To Hurt
In shows like Fargo and A Very English Scandal, there was this weird recurring tendency to – look, Ben Whishaw is a fine actor, but he very clearly is not a hulking, musclebound tough-guy, or a studly farmer. So thankfully, This Is Going To Hurt nailed it by making him a fairly posh junior doctor who looked as if he hadn’t slept or eaten properly in about a month.
Based on Adam Kay’s book of the same name, telling harrowing experiences of junior doctors at the rough end of the National Health Service, Whishaw’s character attempts to keep too many people from dying on his beat in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (or, in the trade, Brats and Twats), while trying to maintain some semblance of a personal life. And he does his best in both these spheres – he does! – and all too frequently, this is far from good enough.
It’s hard not to see This Is Going To Hurt as a bit of a polemic about just how maligned and stretched the National Health Service is. Granted sometimes the characters are saying it out loud, but simply presenting true stories does the trick just as well. Kids like Whishaw and his even younger assistant are having to give people the most terrible news of their lives – then do that again ten more times before lunch – and that’s when everything’s working exactly as it should.
9. The Responder
Those who knew Martin Freeman as Sherlock’s little helper – or worse still, Bilbo Baggins – were in for quite a big shock with this one. The chummy, inoffensive little man who played Tim in The Office suddenly gives way to a tough-bordering-on-nasty scouse beat cop, who clearly has a lot of baggage and will not hesitate for one moment to make that your problem.
But seeing what he has to put up with, it’s hard to blame him. Liverpool, as a city, has something of a reputation, and The Responder is all too happy to play with this image of it as a hive of scum and villainy. Freeman is of course knee-deep in the dirt, although this is only one of the reasons he’s so on edge and ready to snap.
At the core of it is Freeman dealing with his pathetically naive new partner while desperately trying to keep a friendly local junkie from being at the wrong end of a claw hammer, but the way he plays it, it’d be equally intense if he was going down to the corner shop for a pint of milk. The show divides itself by nights, but really it’s all the same long dark night of the soul.
The regional detective drama is far from an original concept, and so is having them hunt down a murderer who’s killing people in unusual and interesting ways. But this lends itself well to a story like Sherwood, where the scars of the past are still so prominent, and can only ever fade a little.
In Nottingham, yes, that Nottingham, Robin Hood’s old stomping ground, a man is shot with a bow and arrow, and as the lead inspector clarifies there’s nothing remotely funny about it. A killing is rarely just a killing, it has ripple effects, from loved ones to old enemies – and this one manages to rip open some of the barely-healed scars left over from the 1980s miners’ strike and turn a whole community against itself.
The ‘80s might sound like a while ago, but some of its nastier events are still controversial and raw today. And so what initially comes off like your generic kitchen-sink drama with a murder tacked on becomes something which is in its way much grander in scale, ranging from the gritty details of what governments will inflict on their own people, right down to two people who’ve known each other all their lives having a cup of tea. Thankfully, Sherwood’s excellent cast can sell that last one properly.
11. The Rehearsal
The saying goes that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy – and that the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, whatever the hell that means. Nobody knows the farcical potential of this truth better than Nathan Fielder.
Can you actually plan out real-life events, and prepare for every contingency? No, obviously not, what a stupid question. But Fielder gives it his damnedest in trying, constructing fake buildings, drawing up flowcharts in advance to map out all the ways situations might end up going, and hiring child actors of every age between one day and eighteen years to present a sped-up simulation of having a baby.
As with much of Fielder’s work the formula here is a nice even split: one part the unexpected things people will do on camera, which is the perennial charm of any reality format but one Fielder seems particularly adept at getting to blossom, and one part Fielder’s own sheer insane dedication to the bit. The man will do seemingly anything within the bounds of legality to produce an authentic experience.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.