Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

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‘Ineffably’ Disappointing: Good Omens (2019)

Everything pointed toward Good Omens being one of the TV highlights of 2019 yet, in truth, it could likely turn out to be one of the year’s greatest disappointments.

The ‘why?’ of this is, to an extent, confounding. Good Omens derives from much loved source material, a one-off 1990 fantasy comic novel by the joint literary powerhouses of Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett. It tells an epic, cosmic story across 6000 years of human history, tackling the classic Biblical concept of Armageddon and the rise of the Anti-Christ through a delightfully oddball British lens. It is festooned with a variety of inventive comic characters, from ancient angels and demons through to surly modern witchfinders and ever-present prophets. It never takes itself too seriously while remaining a potent reminder, right at the end of the Cold War era, of man’s ability to self-destruct in the most apocalyptic of ways. It is also underpinned by an unlikely, history-spanning friendship between two ideological enemies which, again, reflects the end of an era. The world is ending. Long live the world.

While personally I don’t consider Good Omens anywhere near the best work of Pratchett or Gaiman, lacking the finesse, wit and structure of their strongest novels, there is no reason Good Omens couldn’t and shouldn’t have made for a strong TV adaptation. And TV is certainly the ideal medium for a fractured, multi-strand, ensemble story that weaves everyone together at the end. Terry Gilliam was all set to make it in the early 2000’s with Johnny Depp & Robin Williams headlining, boasting a script Gaiman claims was in fine fettle, but you wonder just how adequately a two hour or so film could have threaded everything in Good Omens together. TV gives it room to breathe, room to build up the core dynamic between angel Aziraphale & demon Crowley which exists at the heart of the book. Gaiman’s scripts all live up to this over the six parts and yet… it doesn’t work.

The more I think about why Good Omens doesn’t work, the more the answer becomes… well, ineffable.

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TV, Book, Movie & Podcast Roundup – May 2019

Welcome to June! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with TV…

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The Middle Age of Laddism: Men Behaving Badly (Series 5, 6 + Last Orders)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

Men Behaving Badly, across its final two series, sees the misadventures of Gary Strang and Tony Smart slide out of the laddism culture they propagated and into the earliest vestiges of comfortable middle age. You can feel the show doing the same along with them.

In the year 1996, Men Behaving Badly was at its cultural peak as Series 5 began to dawn, but this coincided with a significant cultural challenger to the New Lad thanks to, just two weeks after the series premiered, the arrival of the Spice Girls. Their debut single ‘Wannabe’ hit the charts in July of that year and launched the single biggest musical sensation in Britain since The Beatles over three decades earlier. Where in the swinging Sixties, Beatlemania sent legions of young people into paroxysms of excitement, the Cool Britannia of the 90’s saw the impact of ‘Girl Power’ and Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Jack mini-skirt, the impending dawn of New Labour, the most liberal government in decades, and the Austin Powers franchise which threw everything back to a halcyon age of British ‘coolness’, injected this time with a call to female empowerment in a Britain filled with a renewed sense of optimism as it sailed toward a new century and a new millennium.

In retrospect, two men deep into their thirties swigging lager, frequently chanting “wa-hey!”, displaying disrespectful and sexist attitudes to women, indulging in infidelity and becoming almost disturbingly obsessed with sex, feels starkly retrograde in the face of the changing face of British popular culture in the late-1990’s. Men Behaving Badly was still popular, and Series 5 remains enjoyable, but it is clear that the show has passed its Series 4 peak at the true apex of lad culture, and in some respects had said everything it had to say. Writer Simon Nye spends the last few seasons continuing to mellow both Gary and Tony, not to mention their relationships with endlessly patient women in their lives Dorothy and Deborah, beginning the process of moving the show to being about not just two mates ‘and their birds’, but two couples who grow ever closer as friends and, to a degree, a dysfunctional, surrogate family. By the end of Series 6 and Last Orders, the final three concluding specials, Dorothy and Deborah feel as integral to the storytelling as Gary and Tony. Their importance grows as these two men, in their own way, slowly and surely begin to grow up.

By the final episode, Delivery, there is an argument that you could start calling this show People Behaving Responsibly.

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Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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