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TV

My favourite TV show of 2004 was, of course, Angel--even though it didn't reach past heights, and even though it had Spike. And Andrew. I'd even say that in the absence of the second season of Carnivale it didn't even have any serious competition, but that might be a faint praise too far. The bottom line is that the final episodes featuring the original vampire with a soul moved me, made me think, and (with the exception of the pitiful 'The Girl In Question') just entertained me more than any other program out there.

Highlights? 'Smile Time', which took the ludicrous concept of Angel being turned into a muppet and produced an episode that was cunningly intelligent as well as fall-down funny; 'Origin', which brought back Connor and resolved his story with grace and sympathy; and, of course, the finale. 'Not Fade Away' was a grand statement, and an eloquent reminder of everything that has made Angel so remarkably strong. And, of course, I watched it with friends, at snowking's place, that I wouldn't have met without Angel.

Meanwhile, sadly, The West Wing spent its fifth season in a spectacular nosedive. The characters suffered almost uniform brain damage, and in some cases brain transplants as well; and the ideas that used to be delivered so thoughtfully were instead splashed around with the broadest possible brush. The one very notable exception--'The Supremes', which guest-starred Glenn Close and dealt with the Bartlet administration's attempts to appoint a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--was too little, too late to recapture my interest, and I won't be watching season six. Thanks to immortalradical for keeping me supplied this far, though (and for putting up with many despairing text messages as I watched the episodes).

24-watching evenings with Gary and Nick were a regular feature of the first half of the year. The show continued much as it ever had, and though the third season didn't break any new ground, in sum I actually think it was the strongest season to date. It actually felt like a single story, and the second half of the season gave us two of the most emotionally powerful moments yet: the very end, which came not with a bang but with a breakdown; and before that the stunningly visceral death of Ryan Chappelle. I look forward to day four.

I always hope that Smallville (props to gagravarr for the episodes) is going to become the great show it could be, but it didn't happen this year; it remains only averagely good, with a few moments of greatness scattered across a season. The second half of season three's most notable episode was 'Memoria', in which Lex attempted to recover the memories taken from him when his father incarcerated him in Belle Reve Mental Institute. The end-of-season cliffhanger went further than usual, juxtaposing what appeared to be the final downfall of Lionel Luthor with the deaths of several major cast members; but once again, alas, most of these changes were undone by the season four premiere, in order that a high-school friendly status quo be reclaimed one more time.

In fact, at first I was worried that the writers had gone too far. Early episodes 'Facade' and 'Devoted' were simplistic in the extreme: dialling back the mythos, playing up the teen angst, and generally taking the show back to the bad days of season one when it looked like all Smallville would ever amount to was a sub-par Buffy clone. Things do improve, however. Ex-Buffy and Angel scribe Steve DeKnight's first episode, 'Run', is the first good one, though it helps that he has a juicy premise to play with. 'Run' saw the first appearance of a wild, punky kid Flash, and imported some of Angel's ambiguity and helping-the-helpless vibe to boot (there's one speech that Clark gave Bart that sounded just a little too much like it was meant for Angel). And it's followed by 'Transferance', in which Smallville does the body-swap thing that every genre show has to do at some point. Here it's Clark and Lionel that switch; Lionel wreaks as much havoc with Clark's life as you would expect, and though the episode doesn't offer anything new in that regard it is creepy as hell to watch Tom Welling acting out Lionel's mannerisms (and equally amusing to watch John Glover stating the obvious in true farmboy fashion). I'm not going to talk about the football team aspect, except to say that it didn't really work for me; Clark taking responsibility and making his own choices was long overdue (although now it's surely only a matter of time before the 'overconfident' plotline kicks in), but the way it played out was too obvious, and too convenient.

Oh, but there's one more reason to recommend season four: Erica Durance's Lois Lane is fantastic. She's roughly ten thousand times more interesting than Lana, and a pitch-perfect foil for Clark. Every scene the two characters share is worth watching, no matter what else is going on around them.

And in the Big New Thing category we have Lost (particularly since Wonderfalls, which to be honest never grabbed me anyway, was stillborn). JJ Abram (he of Alias fame) has produced a new show, the story of forty-eight survivors of a plane crash, stranded on a desert island. Each episode continues the survival story and, in flashback, showcases one of the many characters. Abrams' name might lead you to expect a certain type of show, but don't be mislead: this isn't another twisty-turney thriller. Instead it's a much more character-focused piece and while many of the characters are barely more than stereotypes--The Doctor, The Rock Star, The Con Man, The Valley Girl--shading is gradually being added, and the dynamics between them (at least on the basis of the first eight episodes, which I have majuran to thank for) are nicely handled. It looks as though the writers are prepared to be quite brutal if the story demands it: power struggles as resources run scarce might just be the start.

The production values are sky-high--it seems they really did fly to a desert island, or at least a particularly scenic stretch of jungle coastline, to film large chunks of the show--and, you know, it might even be genre, because there's something Not Quite Right about the island. You can start with the polar bear that's several thousand miles out of its natural habitat, or with the radio message that appears to have been playing on a continuous loop ever since a previous party of castaways were wiped out by ... something ... sixteen years ago, but even though none of it moves into overt fantasy (it's more what Abrams accurately describes as 'hyperreal'), it's hard not to feel that Something Is Going On. It's low-key (survival and psychological tension first, mystery second), but promising, and until the destination the details of the journey are more than enough to hold my interest.

Best episode: I liked 'Walkabout' (The One With The Boar Hunt, written by another ex-Mutant Enemy scribe, David Fury), even if it was a little unsubtle, and even though I have some slight reservations about how Locke has been used since then. And trivia: I know genre shows can be incestuous about their casting, but Lost verges on the ridiculous. So far I've recognised Daniel Dae Kim (Gavin Park, Angel, Ian Somerhalder (Adam Knight, Smallville), Emilie de Ravin (Tess, Roswell) and Dominic Monaghan (Merry, The Lord of the Rings). Anybody got any more?

This was also the year the sitcoms died. Friends and Sex in the City ended much as you might expect (in the case of Sex, frustratingly so; so much for celebrating independent women). The best finale award goes to Frasier, Robbie Coltrane cameo and all, which managed to avoid the worst farcical excesses of the later years and remain genuinely moving...

Over on this side of the Atlantic, I liked Himalaya (though they're really running out of places to send Michael Palin now ...) and Space Odyssey (... wait, no, I've just had an idea!), but had little time for Sea of Souls. The combined efforts of tizzle_b, veggiesu and colours paid off--I watched all of the third series of Spooks, and ended up quite enjoying it. There were silly moments (the algorithm that breaks the internet somehow springs to mind), but also many of genuine drama, and changing virtually the entire cast in the space of ten episodes is pretty bold, however you look at it. Tom's departure in the second episode, the ends-justifies-the-means torture in the ninth, and the brutally effective finale were the high points for me. Now, I believe someone offered to lend me the first two series ...?

I haven't yet watched the Deadwood that mattia sent me; neither have I watched the Battlestar Galactica that gagravarr sent me--though on the evidence of the miniseries (which, just to confuse matters, I got via ajp), it shows promise. The 4400 (Gary gets the credit for that one) had its good points, but hands-down the best miniseries I saw this year was Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (which I got for myself! Go me!). It was a resounding finish to one of the most inventive (and downright bizarre) sf shows of recent years, and more cinematic than a number of things I saw in the cinema this year.

Best Episodes

Angel, 'Not Fade Away'
The West Wing, 'The Supremes'
Lost, 'Walkabout'
Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars
24: 7am to 8am
Spooks 3x02
Smallville, 'Run'


Film

Speaking of things cinematic, I watched about 40 films this year. My top 10, in reverse order, would be:

10. Lost in Translation

I'm sure there are some people reading this (possibly danmilburn) who are astonished to see this film on any 'best of' list that I compile (probably the same people who will be astonished by the presence of the number three film, come to that). Aren't I meant to hate this film? Well ... no. I just don't think it's as good as advertised, that's all. It's gorgeously acted and shot--worth seeing for the atmosphere alone. My problem is that I don't think there's much to it beyond that atmosphere; I find it ultimately slightly hollow.

09. Big Fish

This was not such a good year that I could pick a top ten of perfect films; a number of the films here are flawed, but have qualities that make me like them above and beyond those flaws. Big Fish is such a film. It is that little bit too saccharine sometimes, a little too pretty ... but it's also emotionally honest, and has a lot to say about Truth and Stories, and I like that sort of thing.

08. Robot Stories

Strictly a collection of four short films rather than one feature, I saw this at the Sci-Fi London festival last spring and liked it rather a lot. There's a robot baby, and a story in which uploading is possible, but my favourite is 'The Robot Fixer', which isn't even sf: it's about collecting toy robots.

07. The Village

Not Shyamalan's best film, this makes it onto the list because I persist in seeing 'the twist' as something we're meant to anticipate. To my mind, the ending is so obvious that we're meant to know it from half-way through the film, and judge what's happening on two levels as a result. Beyond that, however, the film has striking visuals and an excellent performance from Bryce Dallas Howard.

06. Shaun of the Dead

It's great. It's funny. It came out over the Eastercon weekend. I liked it on first viewing; I liked it more on the second, when I realised exactly how many neat variations on the theme of 'if everybody became a zombie, would you notice?' the writers had worked into the screenplay.

05. Garden State

There's an awful lot to admire about Garden State, and an awful lot to like, not least a great performance from Natalie Portman and a good performance from Zach Braff. The story of a man who's been medicated to numbness for almost his entire life rediscovering his emotions could so easily have been mawkish--and at times things do risk veering in that direction. It also takes a while to really get into the film, and there are some moments where the screenplay seems to be reaching for a profundity it doesn't really earn. But ... in the end I think it works, helped along by a very good soundtrack.

04. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

I haven't had so much damn fun in the cinema since ... well, I honestly can't remember when. The visuals are gorgeous, and the aesthetic is purely, truly pulpy: zeppelins and robots and rocket-packs oh my! Yes, the performances are not spectacular (although I thought Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow were perfectly adequate, and nowhere near the criminal levels of non-performance that afflict, say, the Star Wars prequels) but if you go into this film expecting a good old-fashioned adventure story, I guarantee you'll leave it grinning from ear to ear.

03. Code 46

I can't remember whether it was me or someone else I saw this with (possibly twic) who described it as 'Lost in Translation from another world', but I like the description so I'm stealing it. The two films share a love of beautiful cityscapes, and emotive soundtracks, and low-key, emotionally muted performances; where Code 46 scores the extra points for me is that it's about more, about a relationship that's somehow universal while also being genuinely sfnal. If the average SF Hollywood film has the bluster of an Analog story without the scientific accuracy, this has the emotional truth of something you'd expect to see on SCIFICTION.

02. The Incredibles

On another day I might drop The Incredibles down to three, and promote Code 46, because while I like this film a lot--for its wit, its style, its cleverness--I don't love it unreservedly. I'm sure everyone reading this has already seen it, but if on the off-chance you haven't, rectify that soon.

01. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This film I love. It feels, as greengolux has said, personal. This film is for me, about me ... even when it's not about me at all. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey both play successfully against type--Carrey giving what I think is the best performance I've seen from him--and Kaufman's narrative weirdness supports his ideas better than in any of his other films. It's true, and moving, and a classic.

Honourable mentions go to Spiderman 2 (which was better than its predecessor, largely because Doc Ock was about ten times better than the Green Goblin, but still a bit too primary colours for me), Kill Bill 2 (even if I'm the only person on the planet to prefer it to volume 1) and The House of Flying Daggers (which is at times desperately beautiful--particularly the bamboo-forest fight, which has to be one of the best bits of magical realism cinema I've ever seen--and desperately let down by an overwrought and emotionally distancing climax). Raspberries go to Ju-On (which was neither frightening nor interesting, but only laughable), The Chronicles of Riddick (which I want to like, since I enjoy space opera, but is just too stupid for words) and I, Robot (which could have been ok if it had just decided whether it wanted to be a generic robot movie, a Will Smith movie, or an actual Asimov movie). Somewhere in the middle are Troy (a couple of remarkable fight scenes, but too much badness elsewhere), The Last Samurai (quite why I ignored my instincts on this one, I don't know; Ken Wantanabe is good, but everything else is fair at best), The Day After Tomorrow (which I think is actually pretty good as blockbusters go, but no better than average otherwise), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (what a difference a director makes! Pity the source material is still weak, though) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (superb opening fifteen minutes. Average horror film thereafter). Older films that I saw and liked this year included S1mone (I'd heard a lot of bad things about it, but ended up rather enjoying it), Vanilla Sky (likewise, although the ending could do with being a bit less blunt and a bit more subtle), The Right Stuff (the beautiful wrongheadedness of the space program) and The American President (it's like a dry run for The West Wing. But with Michael Douglas). Also noted: I'd never seen Top Gun before this year. The film I most regret missing: The Motorcycle Diaries, or possibly Before Sunset. Looking forward to: Serenity of course, and--call me an optimist--Star Wars Episode III

Theatre

I saw four plays this year; not many, really, but an improvement on 2003, and approaching the all-time highs of my university days (I think I saw half-a-dozen, one year). Obviously none of these were as good as Sherlock Holmes Against The Martians--how could they be?--but all were notable nonetheless.

The best was probably Continental Divide, a sprawling political epic by David Edgar consisting of two three-hour plays: 'Mothers Against' and 'Daughters of the Revolution'. One tells the story of a Republican senatorial candidate, the other the story of the Democrat in the same race. Riveting stuff--almost the equal of The West Wing in its prime.

Equally epic, though in very different ways, is the adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This is still running at the National Theatre, and if you can possibly see it you must do so; at occasional points the bombast threatens to overwhelm the story, and the fact that they cut out Mary Malone entirely still aggrieves me no end, but it's still an excellent production of a great story.

Another interesting adaptation was The Elephant Vanishes, which took three of Haruki Murakami's short stories and put them on stage. Not all equally effective, but worthwhile nonetheless, and with a few truly original and memorable moments. I must get around to reading some of Murakami's novels. Lastly I saw David Hare's Stuff Happens, a sort of docu-drama for the stage reviewing the events leading to the invasion of Iraq. It won't tell you anything you didn't know, but by presenting all the events as a continuous, compressed narrative, it might help you to get a sense of the whole.
I very much want to see Alan Bennett's latest play, The History Boys, but last time around I screwed up the ticket booking, so that has been deferred until some time in the next few months.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Er, you might want to warn of spoilers before the cut tag. You dropped a fairly major one in what you said about 24. Thankfully I've seen it, but there surely are some people out there who haven't. Still, it has the effect that I stopped reading further in case you dropped spoilers on shows I haven't seen yet, like Lost.
Whoops. Good point! (Although V guvax gur vzcbegnag ovg nobhg Elna'f qrngu vf ubj vg unccraf, abg gur snpg gung vg unccraf).
Are you rot13'ing, or just taking the piss? :-)
[More ROT13 discussion of 24 S3 spoilers.]

V guvax n ynetr cneg bs gur fubpx bs Elna'f qrngu pbzrf sebz abg xabjvat ur'f tbvat gb qvr. Ol abg xabjvat, jura V jngpurq 24 F3 V jnf rkcrpgvat gurz gb chyy fbzrguvat bhg bs gur ont naq fnir uvz, fb uvf qrngu pnzr nf n fubpx gb zr. Unq V xabja orsberunaq gung ur'q qvr, gura gur jubyr ohvyqhc gb uvf qrngu jbhyq unir ybfg n snve ovg bs vgf vzcnpg, V guvax.
> Meanwhile, sadly, The West Wing spent its fifth season in a spectacular nosedive.


Bummer. I was hoping that it would be good. It is pretty much the only tv I want to buy on DVD right now.

> is the adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Have ticket for the 2nd April, Last day I think.

> Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Missed.


It is pretty much the only tv I want to buy on DVD right now.

Well, there's still the first four seasons. Or have you already got those? :)

Missed.

You could use the money you save by not buying West Wing S5 to buy Eternal Sunshine instead...

I should note that some people do like S5. sulkyblue, iainjclark and/or ajp may pop up to defend it at some point.
24

You love pestering people with texts during your catch-up viewing, don't you? :D
I remember you during the Chapelle bit. Highly amusing :D

Spooks & first two seasons
If you get yourself OUT of the habit of using Americanisms to describe British TV (SERIES DAMMIT, not a season!) then I've S1 & S2 on DVD. I'll look into posting them off to you (recorded delivery - would that be a problem for you? To work better?) one series at a time. I think I said I'd give them to you at Hoggy's Halloween thang but... yeah. Not there.
You love pestering people with texts during your catch-up viewing, don't you? :D

And frankly, you know you love it too. :-p

(SERIES DAMMIT, not a season!)

I don't know what you're talking about!

Recorded delivery should be ok. It would, of course, be more convenient if you actually turned up to something at some point. (There's no big rush--I've got plenty to watch right now, so as long as I see them before S4 starts...)
House of Flying Daggers gets an honourable mention and not Hero? What's wrong with you man? :P
I haven't seen Hero. :-p
so much for celebrating independent women

Sorry, what?
Oh no, don't start him on this again.
Well, everyone always tried to convince me it was a show about strong women celebrating being single. I never completely bought that line, but if it ever was true it wasn't true in the finale. How to explain? They ended Buffy with Buffy single, and made it a positive thing. They ended Sex in the City with nobody single, and it felt (to me) like a bit of a copout.
Firstly, how do you remember all this stuff! The books and music too! Do you make notes throughout the year? I have no clue what I was reading in January.

And in a slightly more pertinant comment, I would challenge the designation of Sex And The City as a sitcom. I don't think it's really a comedy at all. I'm not sure quite what it is - drama feels wrong - but it's not played for laughs.

I've just got the first couple of series on DVD and I watched the first 3 episodes last night. The 3rd one focuses on the way couples and singles feel threatened by eachother and as part of that, Miranda is thinking that things would be easier for her at work if she was part of a couple - people would invite her to dinner parties and so on. Then, at the company softball game a co-worker sets her up on a blind date with a lesbian, assuming that she hasn't got a partner because she's gay. Anyway. There's this moment there and I found myself thinking in Friends or Will & Grace or something, she'd end up pretending to this girl that she was while making soto voce angry back-chat with the seter-uper. But no. She goes over and explains to the girl that it's been a mistake but invites her to hang around for the game anyway. It just really felt like a definining "this is not a sitcom" moment.

I don't think I've described that very well, but there you are. I don't think it's a sitcom is what I'm trying to get at.
Surely, that just means "This is not a typical sitcom"?
Firstly, how do you remember all this stuff! The books and music too! Do you make notes throughout the year? I have no clue what I was reading in January.

Yep. Last year I wrote stuff up for instant_fanzine as I went along, too; not sure if I'll keep that up this year or not. Oh, and some things I only remember vaguely and do end up bluffing about. :)

I haven't seen the early seasons of Sex--maybe it was different then--but certainly the feel I get from the last couple of seasons is 'sitcom'. 'Sitcom' doesn't exclude dramatic moments, in my mind.
Ah, was that SDK then? No wonder. Have you got to the Worst Smallville Ever yet? I assume not. They need to drop this Lana and faux-rugby nonsense and Smallville would be great. Run's got two brilliant superhero moments.

God, imagine if they'd called it Metropolis and set it in Clark's first year at uni or something. That'd be much better.

Imagine if they'd gone with what they wanted to originally and made Gotham. Actually, don't. They'd probably have something stupid like Selina Kyle get catpowers.... OH WAIT.

I should sort out a top 10 films. Maybe five. Maybe three. Hell, I already know which three, I just can't decide the order.
Have you got to the Worst Smallville Ever yet? I assume not

I'm up to The One With Zoe's Annoying French Boyfriend. Which didn't suck, but wasn't great.

God, imagine if they'd called it Metropolis and set it in Clark's first year at uni or something. That'd be much better.

What are they going to do next year, I wonder? Invent Smallville college, suddenly? :)
Zoe? Wuh?

Clark starts commuting to Metropolis probably. OR maybe he just works on the farm all year while his friends leave!
God, these posts are making me realise I'm going to have to record everything I watch and listen to as well as read. My memory is diabolical.

Eternal Sunshine was my film of the year but 21 Grams ran it very close. (21G is £8 in the Play sale, BTW.)

Looking forward to Closer, though it is a travesty that Natalie Portman's breasts are no longer in it. What with Lucas airbrushing her nipples its a wrongheaded conspiracy.

Theatre-wise The Elephant Vanishes was good but flawed, as was The Voices which I seem to have forgotten to blog about. HDM on Saturday!
Looking forward to Closer, though it is a travesty that Natalie Portman's breasts are no longer in it. What with Lucas airbrushing her nipples its a wrongheaded conspiracy.

Dammit! This was one of my major reasons for seeing it, uh, other than for the stellar acting, fine script etc etc. *coughs*
I found it slightly hollow too, but then I felt that was the case because the two protagonists are going through a hollow phase in their lives - they both seem to have lost their moorings and seem to have a period of self-redefinition waiting for them. Indeed, in the end, what I hoped for both of them was that they'd get out of that lost phase and rediscover some vitality, some purpose.
I found it slightly hollow too, but then I felt that was the case because the two protagonists are going through a hollow phase in their lives

That's close to my feelings but I don't think I'd use the word hollow. Certainly there's not much to the film, it's simply about two deeply lonely people, but I don't think you need more than that. It's a piece with deliberately limited scope and within that scope it is excellent.

And yes, I hoped that for them too, and I think they got it.
Go see I Heart Huckabees at once!
Alas, 'tis not on around here any more. I'll have to wait for the DVD.