By Simon Fearn
By all accounts 2016 was a bit of a disaster, and cinema-goers found little relief from the political doom and gloom in a year of pretty appalling blockbusters (thankfully things were slightly better on the small screen). Never fear though, Film & TV are on hand to reveal some of this year’s highlights.
Originally an Edinburgh Fringe monologue, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s uncompromisingly honest BBC3 sitcom is an underappreciated gem. In the opening episode, Waller-Bridge’s anti-hero is caught masturbating to videos of Barack Obama by her hilariously useless boyfriend (Hugh Skinner, who was the useless intern in W1A). “I was…watching the news,” she prevaricates. It only gets better.
What sets Fleabag apart is not its frank sexual content but just how relentlessly bleak it is. At the end of episode 1 we learn that Fleabag is still reeling from the death of her best-friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), a loss she attempts to deal with via copious amounts of casual sex and generally disastrous life decisions. The final episode is genuinely heart-breaking – viewers used to sitcoms where characters behave appallingly with no real consequences are in for a shock. This is the blackest of comedies, and all the better for it.
Add to this some Miranda-style fourth-wall breaking and Olivia Coleman as a wicked stepmother and you’re in TV heaven. In a genre that so often feels like it’s rehashing old tropes, the tragicomedy of Fleabag proves we need not be condemned to more of the likes of The Big Bang Theory, Outnumbered, et. al. It also proves that even in online-only form, BBC3 is still a force to be reckoned with.
Available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
I was a little late on the Doctor Foster bandwagon, binge-watching the series over Christmas. Writer and creator Mike Bartlett has some incredible plays under his belt, largely centring on how gender, charisma, intellect and money interact in bleak Darwinian power struggles. Doctor Foster is in a similar vein. Bartlett gave his version of a Shakespearian history play with 2014’s King Charles III (a BBC2 TV version is on its way); some critics see Doctor Foster as his take on a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
Gemma Foster (Suranne Jones in a justly BAFTA-winning performance) seems to be living a charmed middle-class life – that is until she finds out that her bearded wimp of a husband Simon (Bertie Carvel) is cheating. She then proceeds to behave in increasingly erratic and unsympathetic ways, some may say overreacting slightly. I was behind her all the way, but then again I was cheering on Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl…
There are a lot of things wrong with Doctor Foster. The plot is absurd and often inconsistent. Though Suranne Jones’s performance is nothing short of genius, the other characters could do with a bit more development. Carvel’s Simon and his icy other woman (Jodie Comer) are so completely lacking in redeeming features that the only appropriate response is to bay for their blood – although Gemma is certainly no hero, Simon is an uncomplicated villain.
It’s excellently written though and oozing production value, plus Gemma Foster is such a fascinating character. “I’m better than this. I’m clever,” she protests as she refuses to submissively play the part of the wronged wife. The affair for her goes beyond her broken marriage – as usual with Bartlett it’s about power. For the first time Gemma’s personal and professional lives are spiralling out of her control, and she will go to disturbing lengths to make sure she has the last laugh. No matter how stupidly she behaves, you can’t help but be deeply invested in Dr Foster’s fate.
OK, this one’s not particularly ground-breaking, but it’s pretty addictive. Comedy veteran Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) is on writing duties alongside Lesley Arfin and Paul Rust to deliver a light and oddball rom-com that has at least one foot in the awkward realities of modern dating.
Rust also channels Woody Allen as Gus, the goofy suitor of Gillian Jacobs’ confident yet self-destructive Mickey. After a chance meeting in a corner shop, the pair struggle to admit they have feelings for each other, before beginning to mess up their blossoming relationship in frustratingly human ways. Naturally they have comedy friends: Mickey’s wacky lodger Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty) steals every scene she’s in, while Gus likes to relax with his friends by creating theme songs to shows that don’t have them. Love definitely turns the quirk up to 11.
You may be thinking this is just another male fantasy disguised as a believable relationship, where a socially-awkward Nice Guy punches far above his weight to bag a glamorous and kooky love interest. Well, not really. Gus is actually the meaner of the two, while you get the feeling there is real unhappiness behind Mickey’s alcoholism and fraught relationships. “Surprise!” declares Mickey in the penultimate episode. “I’m not the Cool Girl. I’m not just some girl you can fuck for a while to prove to yourself that you can be dangerous and edgy and you’re not some huge dork.” That settles that one then.
It’s no Fleabag, but if you’re not in the mood for revelling in life’s meaninglessness then it’s perfect. It’s incredibly moreish and wry enough for binge-watching not to feel like you’re overdosing on saccharine nonsense. Season 2 is on its way next year – let’s see if I can make it last a little longer than the first.
‘Love’ is available to stream on Netflix.
You may have noticed that this is all very TV-orientated, and frankly that’s because a lot of this year’s movies have not been very good. From the abysmal Suicide Squad to confused Gone Girl copycat The Girl on the Train, it’s hardly been a vintage crop. Thankfully this autumn Amy Adams set about remedying my cinematic disappointment by starring in two excellent films: Nocturnal Animals and Arrival.
I loved Nocturnal Animals, but it occasionally felt over-hyped and overly-arty. Not so with Arrival, which is a bit like Interstellar in being a high-concept sci-fi with the feelings left in, except that it’s good (sorry Christopher Nolan). It’s very clever but also emotionally-gripping, largely thanks to an excellent and understated performance from Adams.
Weird alien oblongs have descended at random locations around the world. Adams plays Louise, a language expert who is recruited to try and decipher the aliens’ bizarre attempts to communicate. As paranoia over our intergalactic visitors mounts and international relations worsen, it’s increasingly imperative for Adams to prove the aliens come in peace before somebody tries to blow them up.
There are a few problems. Jeremy Renner’s character is a little underdeveloped, meaning we never really invest in his relationship with Louise. The politics are depressingly predictable, who’d have guessed that China and Russia would behave with mindless aggression while America keeps its head? Thankfully, all is forgiven in a fantastic and mind-bending conclusion that raises interesting questions about how we perceive the world through language. It’s tense, cerebral and emotionally devastating – let’s hope this is a step towards a new kind of sci-fi that speaks to the heart as well as the head.
Photograph: Daniel Benavides