The year in TV: we came together for Fleabag and The Night Manager

Classy drama, edgy comedy, probing documentaries and have-a-go reptiles – telly had it all in 2016

Television had the perfect visual metaphor for 2016: Planet Earth II’s plucky iguana running past a cavalcade of vicious snakes. Well, we made it. What did the box distract us with on the way?

Perhaps it wasn’t chance that TV looked to draw a line under past injustices. January began with a buzz about true crime-doc Making A Murderer; and poring over every strand of a real case brought dramatic rewards in The People v OJ Simpson. A couple of documentaries directly atoned for shameful wrongs: the definitive Hillsborough coincided with justice for the 96, while Louis Theroux’s Savile examined our dark past and his. When future documentarists ask why we didn’t care about those fleeing war in Syria, the makers of Exodus and Children On The Frontline will say some of us did.

Those who cried when BBC3 left normal TV were proved right. Moving online meant it almost vanished. But it had pearls: meta-comedy from Murder In Successville; a timely fly on a distant wall in American High School; and, in Thirteen, a millennial answer to The Missing. BBC3’s jewel was Fleabag, which fitted the US trend for comedies that were semi-autobiographical and more than half sad: Insecure, Atlanta and One Mississippi. Britain’s best new sitcoms were twisted dramedies such as Camping or Flowers. Elsewhere, instead of trying to better Are You Being Served? and Porridge, the BBC just made new versions.

The retro lull of period drama was also comforting. Poldark was hotter to trot than ever; War & Peace was compressed into a vintage diamond; Netflix bet the house on The Crown; and even monster mash Stranger Things sent us back to the safe, Spielbergian 1980s. That was a shared experience in an online era that is sorting us into boxes, the most extreme example being Louis CK hiding spectacular comedy Horace And Pete on a pay-per-episode website. Meanwhile, in The Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson followers have a soft-walled playground where nobody else can chastise them. The BBC couldn’t replace Jez on Top Gear; will Channel 4 fix that problem with its new Bake Off?

In an era that a vital BBC1 doc proclaimed The Age Of Loneliness, when streaming’s little silos might break the connections that our love for First Dates suggests we still yearn for, we still came together for cracking drama. With Game Of Thrones in its death throes, HBO birthed a potential new great in Westworld; Happy Valley made up with tension what it lost in storytelling focus; the absurdly gripping Line Of Duty mastered both. Then The Night Manager elegantly soared even higher. It was – lizards and snakes aside – the ultimate escape.


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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