While films will always have my heart, this year we have been blessed with small screen stories which are original, affecting and often topical. With so many incredible shows to choose from this year, selecting only five was a tough task, but here are my personal favourites so far:
Big Little Lies (Season 2, NowTv)
Despite featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood and being based on a fairly well-known novel by Liane Moriarty, I somehow missed Big Little Lieswhen it premiered in 2017. Only discovering the show earlier this year, I immediately binged the first season – which was initially billed as a mini-season – and waited patiently for the second. Big Little Liesis essentially about female pain, the complexities of our relationships and the extent we will go to protect those closest to us; and with dreamy cinematography, a perfect soundtrack and countless quotable quips, this season was always going to be at the top of any list of my favourites from this year. Oh, and Meryl Streep’s infamous scream may just be one of my favourite scenes of television.
Fleabag (Season 2, iPlayer)
The first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hilarious yet devastating show introduced its protagonist as a sex-obsessed, emotionally unavailable and grief-stricken millennial woman. Its second season sees her trying to come to terms with her issues through therapy, honesty and even spirituality, leading to a stronger relationship with her hilariously highly-strung sister Claire (Sian Clifford), and inevitably falling for Andrew Scott’s ‘Hot Priest’ (as most of the internet seemingly did too). Waller-Bridge’s writing is even stronger this time around; the first episode, which takes place entirely in a restaurant for a painfully awkward family dinner, is simply a masterpiece. Fleabag – she is never addressed by name by any of the other characters – repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to allow us an insight into her messy, complicated mind, a technique which is used to even greater effect in this season. While her decisions were hedonistic and questionable in the first season, now Fleabag is trying to find out who she is and what she wants, and she’s mostly successful, until the gut-wrenching final scenes. But her perfectly articulated monologue in the penultimate episode proved Fleabag’s relatability, to all and any of us that aren’t really sure what we’re doing but are trying to work it out.
Russian Doll (Season 1, Netflix)
Natasha Lyonne has just been nominated for an Emmy for her performance as straight-talking New-Yorker Nadia in Russian Doll, and it is undoubtedly deserved. Working with the high-concept, Groundhog Day-inspired premise of ‘what if you were stuck in an infinite time loop, and had to relive the same night over and over again?’, the narrative weaves in and out of separate timelines, allowing us to put the pieces together at a comfortable pace. Resetting at Nadia’s 36th birthday party, the time loop treads the fine line of irritating repetition in the first few episodes – her best friend exclaiming “sweet birthday baby!” will probably get on your nerves after several iterations – but by episode four, as Nadia meets the self-victimising Alan (Charlie Bennet), all is forgiven. The representation of mental illness is also excellent, with a convincing Chlöe Sevigny appearing in heart-breaking flashbacks as Nadia’s bipolar mother, Lenora. Heart-warming, tender and often hilarious (it was co-created by Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler), Russian Doll is one of the most original shows I’ve ever watched, let alone this year.
Sex Education (Season 1, Netflix)
If you can get past the fact that the high school in this dangerously binge-worthy Netflix show has an undeniably American feel but everyone has an English accent and uses British slang, Sex Education is as relatable as it is refreshing. The show deals with relevant and pressing issues like revenge porn, peer pressure, consent, slut-shaming and self-esteem, but it never feels forced or far-fetched. With a wonderfully compelling and incredibly diverse (in terms of ethnicities and sexualities) cast, caring wholeheartedly about these characters is effortless; the narrative strain concerning British-Nigerian Eric (Ncuti Gatwat) and his struggles with ‘fitting in’ are particularly moving. Season Two cannot come soon enough.
When They See Us (Mini-Series, Netflix)
Ava Duvernay is the talented director of the Netflix documentary 13th, which explores the disproportionate number of black men incarcerated in American prisons today, and Selma, the moving biopic that bravely portrayed not only the heroic story of Martin Luther King Jr., but also the infidelities which rocked his marriage. She was the perfect choice to tell the true story of the ‘Central Park Five’ – the teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white woman. Without a shred of physical evidence to actually convict the boys, the injustice is so astounding, the racism so overt, that the conviction we know is coming seems initially impossible. The final episode is the most heart-breaking: Korey (Jharrel Jerome), serving his time at an adult prison, imagines where he would be if the situation had worked out differently, instead spending a carefree day at Coney Island with his high-school girlfriend. The scene hit me so hard that I actually had to pause the episode and spend about five minutes sobbing. Duvernay undoubtedly cements her auteur status by directing the mini-series with such deft technical ability, along with such a unique vision and voice. While this is not easy viewing, it is essential for an understanding of how racism integrates itself into the criminal justice system in devastating ways.