I’m starting to get into the habit of this (incomplete) end of year TV shows list. Because I mostly don’t review shows as I go, unlike movies, these are the shows that make an impact and that I remember in December for whatever reason. Some of them have the apparent advantage of being aired in December… but I look forward to them for longer than that. Again, in no particular order, because they’re very different to each other, my memorable TV shows of the year:
- 12 Monkeys
- Dr. Who
- Good Behaviour
- Mr. Robot
- Orphan Black
- Stranger Things
- The Bold Type
- The Expanse
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- Wynonna Earp
- You Me Her
A couple of firm favourites came back, and couple fell off the list, just because of weird scheduling. One will never appear again and one may well not. The Magicians fell off the list compared to last year because it just became too far removed from the books to even really count as “vaguely inspired by” by any more. It’s interesting enough I’ll probably still watch it but it’s no longer must see TV. Preacher never made it onto my list last year but has fallen so far, it’s not even going to trouble my viewing habits next year. It’s odd. In some ways, Lucifer is a far worse adaptation but I feel Neil Gaiman could come in to a script session, spend a couple of hours learning about the random new characters and the setting and write an episode because they’ve more or less kept enough of the spirit of the comics, despite the massively different setting that it works as an adaptation as well as a TV show. Preacher, on the other hand, is superficially much closer to the source. But if Garth Ennis walked into the writers’ room he would look at the character briefings and basically be unable to pick up the pieces to write an episode. Fundamentally that is part of the job of doing a good adaptation - it can be different but it should be recognisable in some way, and for The Magicians, just like for Preacher they’ve crossed the line IMO, although they have kept it more interesting.
On this list I’m pretty sure everything passes the Bechdel test. You may argue, with some justification, that this is easier in a TV show than in a film, and there are measures such as the proportion of scenes that pass the Bechdel test that are being used instead. Perhaps it would be more sensible to use the proportion of episodes that pass the Bechdel test. This is a closer measure to the original spirit of the test, and to the bar set for a film, and a TV show with terrible representation of women who happen to be lesbians could easily pass on almost every scene, while a show with much better representation but equal representation might easily only pass in 25% or less of the scenes - not all the scenes will have two or more women, and in some of them they will legitimately be talking about the men in the show. However, I haven’t done that, I don’t intend to start, but I can suggest it’s a more discriminating statistic than the simple season-wide test. Orphan Black, Sense8, The Bold Type and Wynonna Earp certainly pass in every episode while iZombie and Killjoys, despite them both having a female lead, probably don’t.
Having suggested we should do an episode by episode assessment, and keeping in mind the new tests for films I’m going to be running, the only single episode I can remember clearly is the Dr. Who Christmas special. This fails the Bechdel test, despite three named female characters, they never talk to each other. It passes the Ko test, Bill is in about 80% of the episode, way more than five scenes, and talks in just about every scene she’s in. It fails the Koetze-Dottle test - all the extras are male, just about. It passes the Landau test (no one dies, becomes pregnant and the various problems caused by the glass figures, some of whom are women, turn out not to be problems). It passes the Russo test too - although on it’s own merits it would just scrape a pass, Bill is front and centre and does remind everyone she’s gay to put down the sexism of the first Doctor and the Captain.
This year 9 of the 17 pass the Russo test (53%) which feels surprisingly low. I think perhaps my Tumblr feed gives me more lesbian or bi TV characters from shows I just don’t watch but for whom I inevitably know the story lines, plus, possibly one or two where I watch it but it doesn’t make it onto my list of good shows.
If 2016 was the year of bury your gays, 2017 was the year of the gays living. Not all of them, Killjoys killed a load for example, but they were a group of mercenaries who joined for a fight against incredible odds. While they were effectively red jackets, their deaths weren’t just swept under the carpet, they affected core characters and they mattered so I’ll give them a pass - it was more a case of anyone can die and making the characters more rounded than the actual application of bury your gays anyway: they didn’t die because they were gay in any way, shape or form. They died because they were mercenaries, they were told the situation and decided to take the risk and sign up for the fight anyway, and lots of them died, as they knew they probably would. The Handmaid’s Tale is one in which one Gender Traitor is brutally killed specifically because of she is a lesbian, while her lover, who is fertile, is subjected to FGM instead, because fertility is so important. But The Handmaid’s Tale was, in so many ways, some of the most harrowing TV, some of the most harrowing visual media, I’ve ever seen. I ended up rewatching episodes of Sense8 after each episode simply to remind myself there was hope, love and positivity in the world as well. However, The Handmaid’s Tale was just as vital and relevant today, if more brutal in adaptation, as when I first read it, and certainly appointment TV. I don’t know that “looking forward to” is the right phrase for how I feel about Season 2, but I will be watching it (and watching something after it too, to balance it out). Gender Traitor is also appearing on a lot of lesbian activists’ t-shirts and hoodies, in response to the Trump presidency. Despite these exceptions, by and large, the gay characters lived. And not just in the shows I watched: in Supergirl, which I don’t watch, when Alex and Maggie split up - typically a reason to kill the actor leaving the show - they had a grown up, relationship-ending fundamental difference of expectations in which neither of them can be said to be wrong (one wants kids, the other doesn’t) and they parted with tears but both of them still alive. Finally someone wrote a scene where the lesbian didn’t die but the couple split up!
Next year I am looking forward to season two of Jessica Jones after being not particularly inspired by The Defenders or The Punisher. I thought that Jessica Jones made every scene of The Defenders she was in better, and I would like to see her team up with Daredevil again - the two of them worked nicely, he makes a good straight-man to her acerbic comedy and his martial arts and her thump them until they break style work surprisingly well together too. I am also hoping that Reverie proves to be a good watch. It’s got a couple of very watchable stars but, as The Gifted showed, bad writing can make even the most gifted (sorry) actors hard to watch.
This year’s list contains over half you can watch on Netflix (although some I got from other sources) and, of course, a huge chunk of SciFI from the cerebral to the fun, from the dystopian to the space opera and all points in between. There are some pure UF shows (although one is in a really rural setting, maybe it should be paranormal romance instead, since there is a romance in there too and the another might call itself horror-fantasy since it misses a lot of the UF staples) which occupy a similar sort of space for a lot of people.
Then we have a few shows that go nowhere near the rest of the mix, from a detective show, to hopeful shows about the connectedness of the human spirit to a comedy about polyamory to a show about a hitman and a con artist trying to be better people for each other.
There isn’t a simple, common thing about why these shows are on this list. For some of them it’s characters, for others it’s canon ships, for others it’s the writing. For some I suspect it’s a blending of the various parts. One thing I would say - three of them are Canadian. I don’t love all of Canada’s TV output but three Canadian TV shows from 17 feels disproportionately high given where I live. Whatever they’re doing over there, they’re doing TV I like.
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