When did watching a drama series become like listening to a five-year-old describing, enthusiastically but tortuously, a really amazing thing that happened in the playground? Is economy no longer a narrative asset? Don’t programme-makers know we all have stuff to do? The art of storytelling is getting lost in the need to fill the infinite digisphere with shows that never get to the bloody point …
The first 10 splendidly shot episodes of this royal biography are the TV equivalent of a slo-mo imperial drive-by in which the only perceptible action is the stately wave of a gloved hand. Once King George coughs his last cough in episode two, it’s all downhill as the talented remaining cast struggle to enliven the great smog, Churchill’s second tenure and the onset of Suez. This is because majestic types aren’t hunched in situation rooms, calling the shots; they’re sipping tea in corniced drawings rooms, hearing about it all second-hand. Princess Margaret’s friskiness is the only fun to be had but even she can’t keep it up for 10 hours.
Lovely, kooky, mad-as-bread The OA. It starts well when young blind woman Prairie (played by show co-writer Brit Marling), missing for seven years, turns up with her sight restored and calling herself the OA. She tells a strange tale of humans incarcerated in a big terrarium to a group of open-mouthed schoolboys: she’s really Russian, she killed a man, a woman made her eat a bird. It’s so pumped with imagination, it’s only halfway through I begin to realise she’s just riffing, eyes shut, finger in one ear, seeing where the pixies take her. Marling’s stories have a habit of running away from her and The OA doesn’t just run, it gallops, like a big, daft unicorn made of dreams and the wind, heading who knows where. Series two is not on my watchlist.
Before you say it, Mad Men is indeed the best TV drama of the last 20 years. We’re not arguing about that. But I could have done without the final series and that pat ending where Don comes up with the famous I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke advert. Mad Men is Don Draper, falling apart but held together by sharp tailoring, bourbon and sexual Band-Aid. And above all, it is the 60s. At the decade’s end, I found myself wishing that showrunner Matthew Weiner had put the brakes on before the cliff’s edge and just trapped Don for ever in that decade, a fly in amber. Never mind all the neat wrapping-up of his blighted backstory. Lose the last two series altogether and leave him grinning across a low-lit bar at another hapless female and ordering another old-fashioned with a slight nod. Fin.
How the French zombies entranced us back in 2012 when they stumbled, pale and lovely, on to our screens accompanied by Mogwai’s exquisitely uneasy soundtrack. Why were the dead reappearing in a beautiful French mountain town on the edge of the reservoir? And why was the local bar called Lake Pub (“Lek Poob”) when it was in France? For eight episodes, I was gripped by the mystère, the ambiguïté. And then they went and spoiled it with another eight episodes of unresolved blundering, decayed flesh and non-specific menace without ever bothering to think through why the revenants actually came back in the first place. Le boo! End it on a cliffhanger, light a Gauloises, never look back. That would have been the French thing to do.
The globally adored period juggernaut finally hit the buffers in 2015 after six beautifully shot, deliciously costumed, lead-lined seasons. Set in a big, posh house and focusing on the aristocrats and servants therein, Downton managed to both gallop through history’s most significant events (Titanic, the first world war, the decline of the aristocracy) while spreading the action so thinly as to make it almost translucent. “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat,” announced Lady Mary famously in one of the livelier episodes. The last series was fully desperate, making one of the main plot points Lady Cora’s involvement on the board of a local hospital. After briefly exploding Lord Crawley’s guts, only to make him fine again in the next scene, creator Julian Fellowes gave up and let everyone live happily ever after. Except for the dog. RIP.