Zen arcade 2016

Behold, the promised Telly Addict: Zen Roundup of The Year! Officially Telly Addict #26, the 26th Telly Addict of my half-year contract with UKTV, who resurrected the show and treated it with care, attention, love, personnel, marketing and doughnuts during that allotted time – so a big thanks to all who sailed in her, not least Dave, Joel, Matt, Cherish and Justine (upstairs). It’s not over yet, but there will be a hiatus, during which I shall endeavour to maintain the blog, and with a prevailing wind and a bit of luck, the Telly Addict brand will continue in a modified form. You watch this space, and I’ll keep watching the glowing box in the corner of the room.

Rather than spoil the show, here are a few screengrabs in the traditional style that, I think, cumulatively say “the second half of 2016 in televisual terms”. If you want to ease our passage into the New Year, all comments, views, thumbs-ups, “likes” and shares either here, on YouTube, or on Twitter, will help make the case for its free-to-air return. There will be no crowdsourcing – I don’t feel comfortable begging for money – but where there’s an audience, there’s a way. If you haven’t watched all the 25 previous Telly Addicts yet, why not go back and do so: every hit helps. If you find a TA with a lowly view-total of around a thousand to 1,500 , give the runt a glance.

Thanks for watching thus far. See you on the other side.

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I wish I was a little bit taller

I wish I was a baller. Actually, I don’t wish I was one, judging by the portrayal of that particular lifestyle of the rich and fatuous on sharp and sharp-suited comedy Ballers (HBO/Sky Atlantic), returning for a second season of wry, self-lacerating Cribs-style aspiration. As I say in my review on the new Telly Addict, which features an expensively animated duck, the parts for women may be few and far between on this show about insecure Miami-based football players and the men – and it is apparently always men – who move their money around, but the gentlemen don’t come out of it that well. They’re just big babies. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson even looks like one. In a suit.

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Sticking with HBO, I celebrate the return after one of those irksome “breaks” of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (HBO/Sky Atlantic), just in time for the aftershock of the Conventions. I am a little bit in love with John Oliver, although we are stablemates at the same management company, so I should probably work on that. I’ve genuflected at his creative use of HBO-excused swearing in the past (and sometimes calling Donald Trump a “fucking asshole” is the only sensible response, even for a Wildean wit), but this week, he brought the house down on the much less promising subject of Hillary’s running mate Tim Kaine with a simple, “Is it?”

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I’m saving the new HBO comedy from the people who brought you Eastbound & Down, namely Vice Principals, until next week, for fear of an HBOverload. The Amazon Prime sensation Mr Robot (Universal) arrives on steam-powered TV, while the early adopters binge on Season Two, which is already up on the bookshop. I’m hooked, as I knew I would be, and if I’m hallucinating the gentle allusions to The Third Man (more paranoia in supposed peacetime), I apologise. But I like TV fiction that encourages that kind of tangential response.

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The BBC seems to be spoiling us beyond its usual Ferrero Rocher pyramid of music documentaries this summer, with – and look out for clickable links to that garden of earthly delights BBC iPlayer – Julian Temple’s archetypally esoteric Keith Richards film The Origin of the Species (BBC Two), Jon Savage and Paul Tickell’s 1966: 50 Years Ago Today (BBC Four), from Savage’s book of the same year, and part two of the ongoing People’s History of Pop (BBC Four), wherein Danny Baker proved the eager and appreciative conduit for other folks’ curios and souvenirs from 1966-76. A very good sort-of-decade. Watch all of these programmes, please.

I expect if you’re a diehard fan of Robot Wars (BBC Two), you’ll need no cue from me to watch its return to the Corporation after a “lend” to Channel 5. This amiable, foam-finger-waving scrapheap challenge is aimed at me in no way whatsoever, but I do get why people go nuts for it. And it celebrates ingenuity, hobbyism and craftspersonship, as well as Sunday league-style competition. I am more than able to wield a screwdriver or bradawl when required, but I am no mechanic and find Robot Wars a little outside my comfort zone, but far more nerdy than nearest touchstone Top Gear, and I mean that in a positive way, clearly.

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Afore we go, a promise that if you’ve never before sat down to view Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4) by Robert Popper, an autobiographical Whitehall farce set not in a bedroom but, mostly, a dining room, it will not let you down, so please do remedy that. You can box-set all three previous series on All 4. It is a joy. Brilliantly cast, with Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird as the family, and Mark Heap as neighbour Jim, and various supporting players, its most recent episode had the most satisfying one-line ending (after half an hour of ever-spiralling disaster that seemed to know no end) I almost stood up and saluted.

Here’s that duck. (Forgive me, but I haven’t forgotten which Collings & Herrin fan gave it to me as a thoughtful gift circa 2009, but if it’s you: look, I’ve still got it!)

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Take a seat

Firstly, please do click this link and visit the YouTube page, get the conversation going below the line. Thank you!

There will be spoilers, as this week on the slightly delayed Telly Addict #3 I’m daring to assess the two-episode finale of Season Six of Game Of Thrones. (I was once admonished below the line at the Guardian not for the content of a GoT-bearing Telly Addict, but for the use of a supplied publicity still for Season Three at the top of the page, which enraged one particularly tardy user still catching up with the box set of Season Two because the very act of illustrating my review with a photo that contained some characters from Season Three meant that those characters didn’t die in Season Two. Incidentally, those characters had been heavily featured on hoardings placed by Sky Atlantic advertising the new series.) Clearly, if you haven’t seen it yet, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WATCH THIS EDITION OF TELLY ADDICT.

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For me, Season Six of Game Of Thrones scored in the 87th minute, and washed away the clogging, A-to-B frustration of what went before. Stuff happened in episodes 9 and 10, and I mean really happened. They won on penalties.

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As well as GoT, the new Telly Addict also reviews Billions (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), which you can also read in written form on this blog here. It’s halfway through its run on Sky, but it’s been available to subscribers as a series-dump box set since May. I am currently considering re-watching the whole thing for a second time. That’s how prime I feel it is. To mangle Paul Giamatti’s US attorney: the decisions it makes, the judgements it brings, have weight. Talking of serious, there’s a defence of Bettany Hughes’ Nietzsche programme from Genius Of The Modern World (BBC Four) – I say “defence” as I’ve read a couple of sniffy reviews from critics who want to make plain how much they already know about the subject (also, Freud, Marx). I was eager to learn.

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Throw in a couple of references to the Euros, Celebrity Masterchef and the ongoing delight that is Versailles, plus a weird HBO animation called Animals, and it looks like we’ve got ourselves an under-ten-minute YouTube show. Keep clicking and subscribing and liking and all that. It’s your visible support that will make Telly Addict V 2.0 a going concern at the garden of earthly delights that is UKTV, where there are pastries, and skills, and facilities. Tune in, turn on, turn in.

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Multimedia postscript: you can also hear me discussing Game of Thrones S6 on the brand new and tremendous Bigmouth podcast with regulars Andrew Harrison and Matt Hall (who, incidentally, produced the first Telly Addict in 2011 when he worked at the Guardian), and fellow “Thronehead” Sarah Bee, who knows GoT in a far more profound way than I, and was thus confident enough to be even more critical of the way it’s been going since they waved goodbye to the novels. Listen to it here. (We also discuss Glastonbury and Roisin Murphy’s splendid new album.)

Writing for money

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I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.

Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.

“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”

“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”

“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”

“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”

These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”

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It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)

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The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.

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The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.

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Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.