2019 is half-over already somehow, which means it’s time to take stock of the media which has captivated us best across these six existentially terrifying months (or maybe that’s just for me). Cynics could claim that Mid-Year listicles such as the ones going up across Set the Tape this week are little more than low-effort click-guaranteed schlock designed to stir up conversations and expend more words on things that have already been talked to death. But I hard disagree with that idea, first of all because I personally enjoy making year-based lists anyway, but mainly because we are living in an age of media oversaturation. So many new films and records and shows and podcasts coming at us from all directions, all vying for one’s attention with what grabs the zeitgeist today being almost entirely forgotten about tomorrow. Did you know that it’s only been a year since that last season of Atlanta finished? 13 months, to be precise; I know that it feels like much longer. Did you know that The Handmaid’s Tale is back on TV right now?
Point is, I find Mid-Year Round-Ups really useful and fascinating. Useful because they can highlight gems which have slipped under the cracks – we were going to have a write-up on Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots until a medical emergency scuppered those plans, so consider that an additional entry – and put a button on the bigger names from the first six months. Fascinating because they make for a great comparison come Listmas time to see what big initial names ended up not amount to that high a hill of beans when the year makes it to the end. So, according to our very talented writers here at Set the Tape, here are our current favourite TV shows of the year so far. Perhaps you’ll find something to put on standby as substitute for the Office-shaped hole in your Netflix viewing life come 2021. – Callum Petch
Beware of potential spoilers in these write-ups!
This Time with Alan Partridge
There’s life in the old bird yet! Steve Coogan’s best-loved creation finally returned to our screens – and his original troubled home of the BBC, no less – in February 2019 as the airdropped co-presenter of This Time, an early evening magazine-format programme. Written and directed by Rob and Neil Gibbons, it’s a very deliberate parody of The One Show. With radio sidekick Simon Denton (Tim Key) in tow, Alan Partridge steps into the breach alongside Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding) when her regular co-host is taken ill. Partridge sees this as more than doing a favour, of course, keeping one eye on the prize of the prime-time presenting gig he’s sought for a quarter of a century.
Each of the six episodes plays out in real time as we see in-studio discussion, interviews, pre-recorded VT segments and the show’s selling point: behind the scenes chat as other material is being broadcast, featuring increasingly vicious squabbling between Alan and his long-suffering colleagues. It’s here that we’re treated to the return of assistant Lynn Benfield (Felicity Montagu), now wonderfully Machiavellian after years of being stuck with Alan. Some sketches work better than others (as indeed do the episodes), but on the whole it’s a very on-brand Partridge experience. More importantly, This Time gently expands the character of Alan, acting as an homage and companion to previous works without feeling the need to recycle classic gags. This Time is a masterclass in micro-reactions, adding to the all-important re-watch value… – Ian Paterson
What We Do in the Shadows
It’s incredibly rare that a comedy show comes along which actually gets funnier with each subsequent viewing. What We Do in the Shadows is such a show, as it not only delivers at least one guaranteed belly laugh per episode, but also happens to be so deadly packed that you get more out of it from repeated viewing. Taking over from previous supernatural sitcoms like The Addams Family and The Munsters, Shadows brings us a gory and grisly concept and takes it to its hilarious and absurd conclusion. Based on the 2014 film, the series presents a mockumentary based on the (after)lives of a household of vampires who have tried to take over the New World but only gotten as far as two streets on Staten Island. Having just 10 episodes making up its first season, there’s absolutely no fat or waste to be seen, and all the jokes land perfectly. A brilliant ensemble cast made up predominantly of Brits (Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, and Kayvan Novak) perfectly suit their roles, and the writing is sharp and witty, probably helped by the presence of Peep Show‘s Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong as executive consultants.
Fangs for the memories, guys and ghouls. – Lee Thacker
Show creator, writer and star Phoebe-Waller Bridge first arrived on our screens with the titular Fleabag back in the Summer of 2016. Fast forward to 2019, where fans braved the agonising wait as the much anticipated second and final series was broadcast to much critical and popular acclaim, and rightly so. The second series brought a new meaning to the overused phrase: even in an era where watching live TV is, to a certain extent, in decline, Fleabag can be certainly described as must-see (or must-binge) TV.
Even with the three-year gap between series, its themes, ideas and subject matter ensures that Fleabag is very much a show for the modern times. Waller-Bridge certainly pulls out all the dramatic stops and isn’t afraid of dealing with hard hitting material chronicling Fleabag’s somewhat chaotic existence as she navigates love, life, loss, sex, trauma and much more besides, facing head on the ups and downs of city life with a hefty dose of tragicomedy. The charm and skill of Waller-Bridge’s writing along with casting of tv favourites like Olivia Colman, Hugh Dennis, Fiona Shaw and Andrew Scott help propel Fleabag into one of the best shows of 2019. – Becca Andrews
Good Omens is a dramatisation that has been a long time coming. The much-beloved novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett has been talked about for a long time, but in 2017 Amazon announced that fan’s dreams would, at last, come true. Debuting on Prime back in May, the miniseries was well worth the wait. Sticking extremely close to the source material, and not sacrificing anything that Pratchett wrote, Gaiman’s script was the perfect adaptation of the Apocalypse tale. Given the state of the world at present, it made for feel-good television watching the End of Days being averted because of love and friendship, at the heart of which is the relationship between the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant).
Both Sheen and Tennant excel in their roles and bring so many levels to the relationship between the mismatched pair. There is a love between the two that is not always displayed overtly but is very obviously there. A strong supporting cast, featuring big names such as Miranda Richardson, John Hamm, Nick Offerman, Michael McKean and Frances McDormand as the voice of God narrating the tale, ensured the high quality of performance. The use of Queen’s music throughout, which featured just as heavily in the book, makes the soundtrack superb and none of the special effects let it down. If you have not watched Good Omens yet, get to it as it is without a doubt one of the best TV shows of this year. – Helen Balls
HBO must have been puckering their buttholes once Game of Thrones came to an end. The looming threat of a billion subscriptions being cancelled must have given someone more than a slight panic attack. Thankfully, writer Craig Mazin (errr, The Hangover III) and TV director Johan Renck (The Last Panthers) are here to show you that HBO is more than just Tits and Dragons [TM Ian McShane]. Chernobyl is part documentary and part drama, telling the harrowing story of the explosion that erupted from Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a disaster which forever changed the landscape of a large part of Western Europe and was considered to be a big part of the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.
Spanning from the night of the accident through to the court case that followed, this five-part mini-series told the more-or-less unknown stories from a whole host of the men and women all but conscripted in to work on the clean-up effort. Bringing to the spotlight the souls that were lost, and would be lost, by the worst nuclear accident in history and told through the eyes of Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov – the man who tried to bring the details of the disaster to light – Chernobyl isn’t just some of the best television of this entire decade, but it is some of the most harrowing, horrifying imagery and storytelling ever put to film. It’s almost not ok to call it entertainment and it feels wrong to say you loved it. – Andrew Brooker
Game of Thrones
Not everyone was happy with the final season of Game of Thrones. It didn’t meet people’s expectations or it didn’t end the way that fans were hoping it would. As such, the final season got a lot of hate online. However, was it really bad? I’d argue that it wasn’t. The season moves a lot faster than previous seasons, and that does impact on the experience somewhat, yet there are still slow, character-focused scenes that are wonderful, such as Brianne finally getting knighted. Whilst the pacing seemed to anger a lot of people, it was the writing that upset many, those wanting a happy ending which was never going to happen on Game of Thrones. Daenerys was always skirting the line of sanity, pulling back from being a villain every time she got close before. Her turn, and eventual demise, despite claims, didn’t come out of nowhere and was actually a very obvious conclusion. But this is often what happens with final seasons. I’ve seen it with Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and I’m sure we’ll see this again with many others, but hopefully the final season of Game of Thrones will be remembered a little more fondly once some time has passed. – Amy Walker
When They See Us
Nothing will prepare you for When They See Us. ‘Masterpiece’ is often thrown around loosely as a buzzword term, but Ava DuVernay’s latest Netflix project deserves all the accolades it can get. Before Making a Murderer, there was The Central Park Five – the show’s original title, respectfully changed to ask serious questions about the US criminal justice system and race in America. What occurs is a serious miscarriage of justice which led to five young boys falsely accused, convicted and incarcerated for a rape crime they didn’t commit. Whether you’re familiar with the actual, real-life case or not, it encapsulates DuVernay’s exceptional quality as a director – giving truth a platform.
DuVernay’s tightly woven and culturally relevant direction captures their plight with uncompromising veracity, cutting through the heightened and prejudicial noise at every opportune moment. Ensuring you will never forget the names of Korey, Antron, Raymond, Yusef and Kevin, she artfully places her audience to experience their brutal struggle, adulthood and freedom, summed up by Jharrel Jerome’s outstanding performance as one of the best of 2019. These are educating wounds which cut so deeply within the soul that it is hard to walk away without feeling that emotional impact. By the end of the series, it left me uncontrollably in tears. By bringing their story to the forefront, When They See Us becomes the most powerful and socially conscious TV show of our generation. The experience is painful, but it is essential viewing. – Kelechi Ehenulo
What shows have most captivated you so far this year? Why not let us know in the comments below and keep it locked to Set the Tape this week for our favourite Music and Films of 2019 to date!