It's been the best of times, the worst of times. Staying at home, home cooking, eating local, shopping local, trying to imagine another kind of world out there, beyond the news and the various phases of lockdown. And we've watched lots of telly series. At times I've obsessed, binge watched and barely been able to think of anything else, sometimes diving in and forgetting everything within days.
Here's what I've been watching, the good, the bad and the ugly.
I'll start with the best thing I've seen and take you through the rest in no particular order, but leaving the absolute worst until last.
Succession (HBO) managed to be even funnier and more shocking than series one. A little bit of knowledge of the Murdoch family psycho drama really helps, especially watching the way the series grafts on the sacrifices demanded and the brutal boardroom politics of real life. All that was missing was a cream pie at a government committee hearing. But the acting and the whole way the lives of the worst people in the world are designed and captured was something else.
The Secrets She Keeps (BBC iPlayer) - a plausible and shocking Australian drama with a predictable finger on the emotional manipulation button. It fairly crudely lathers on the class divide, but it was based on a real case and still has the potential for a follow up series. Also reinforced my firm conviction, gleaned from repeated Australian TV series that their cops are the worst in the world.
Giri Haji - (BBC iPlayer) was good, if a little strange at times. An Anglo-Japanese co-production that probably didn't need to keep reminding us of that. It was a brave attempt to lever in some remarkably off-type genre crossing, some worked, some really didn't. I liked the comic book style for the commentary and the set piece over stylised interactions between mob bosses, but the ballet scene for a showdown just felt odd. Played humour very well in what could have been relentlessly bleak and overly procedural.
Normal People (RTE on BBC iPlayer) really pleasantly surprised me. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, probably a bit of BBC Sunday night middle class right of passage romance, but it was far more than that. Not only was it beautifully shot, tenderly acted and well paced, and I really liked the short episodes, it needed the darker moments to make you properly yearn for the better possibilities. However, we had to shut the curtains in case anyone was shocked by what they might be seeing from the street.
Safe (Netflix) was compelling if a bit ridiculous. Very much like another Harlan Coben adaption The Stranger in both style and delivery (both made locally by Red Productions) and occasional use of locations. Both had the desired twists and turns, but too many red herrings and useless coppers tested my patience by the end. Does no-one in this middle class universe move away?
The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC) was probably the most heart breaking of all TV dramas, not least because it was based entirely on real events, but never threatened to become an episode of Spooks. It was what happens to the real lives of people caught up in an act of terror. I was particularly cut up about the fate of poor Dawn Sturgess, who this series seemed to go out of its way to generously rescue in death from the grave indignities she suffered in her own short life. I do hope that Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health, has been OK during the pandemic. I've no reason to doubt the portrayal of her as a modest and dedicated civil servant by Anne-Marie Duff. It reflects the hard working reality of thousands of public servants called upon to lead at times of crisis, unglamorous work delivered with bravery, heroism and self-doubt.
The Sinner (Netflix) - we did all three series of this Bill Pullman led "why-dunnit" set in upstate New York and I have to say the first was superb, the second was even better but the third lapsed into the absurd.
The A Word (BBC) did a great job of bringing life and laughter to everyday family life for a third series. I probably enjoyed this series the least of all of them as I grew impatient at the breathless ease with which scenes between the Langdale Valley and Manchester took place with barely a reference to the three hours it takes to get from one to the other. I also spent the whole series awaiting the imminent much hinted at demise of my favourite annoying character (of which there are many). But, overall, tender and messy.
Fear the Walking Dead season 5 (Amazon Prime) - I have waxed lyrical before on the desperate turns of the whole Walking Dead franchise and I'm probably overdue a piece on the whole comic book arc, the direction the main show is going with one delayed season finale to come soon. So while I was hugely sceptical of the potential for a spin off series set in California, I did actually quite like seasons 1-3 of Fear the Walking Dead. The characters of Madison, Nick, Alicia and Strand were an improvement on the nonsense playing out with Rick Grimes and his crew in Georgia around seasons 7 and 8. Daniel Salazar was also one of the best ambiguous good guy/ bad guy characters of the whole universe. Season 4 was all over the place, literally in where it was set, the time jumps which were hard to follow, and the lighting and locations. I don't blame the actors, none of them were unconvincing, it was the whole package. The way things happened with no context, continuity was all over the place, decisions were made with no logic and the whole 'help people' thing was just stupid by the end. Morgan, played by Lennie James, was just boring and annoying when he left The Walking Dead, and he got progressively worse through Season 4 and by season 5, which is by some margin the worst television series I have watched this year, or possibly any year, I actually wanted him to die. The only good thing I have to show for the whole torrid and laughably bad experience (much of which I shuttled forward through) is the sheer unadulterated joy of reading reviews on Fortune's website by the excellent Erik Kain.