“It’s not been all doom and gloom!”, we tell ourselves as we rock back and forth in a ball, hoping the last days of 2016 will hurry up. Indeed, this year has given us some of the best TV yet; but in-between announcements of crazy political decisions and celebrity deaths, some great shows have inevitably fallen under the radar. The Edge‘s writers have come together with their selection of Hidden Gems, TV that has failed to get the praise it deserves in 2016.
Aired on BBC Two in May
You may remember the higher-profile sitcom Him & Her, but Mum, the new show from comedy genius Stefan Golaszewski, slipped criminally under the radar this May. This bittersweet, observational comedy follows a year in the life of the eponymous ‘Mum’, Cathy (Leslie Manville), after the death of her husband. The heartfelt opener sees Cathy meeting her son’s girlfriend, Kelly (Lisa McGrillis) for the first time, as they prepare to attend the funeral.
Though there is a menagerie of other supporting characters, these two women drive Mum. Cathy lives up to her name, mothering dippy Kelly as she stumbles her way through her life and relationship with Jason (Sam Swainsbury). These are nice people in a world of vipers, but you grow to love all the dysfunctional family as you spend a year with them in just six episodes. Here’s hoping that Mum returns for another year of fun in 2017.
words by James Barker
Aired on BBC Two in June
It was the mass hype and attention paid to The People v. O.J. Simpson (Season 1 of the new anthology show American Crime Story) from across the pond that brought this show to my attention; the trailers looked good, the cast was interesting, the reviews had been pretty great, and it was seemingly all our American counterparts had been talking about pre-Game of Thrones. “Why not give it a shot?” I thought. Sure it hadn’t had much attention here, but good TV is good TV.
Fast forward ten episodes and I’ve found one of my new favourite shows.
For a show documenting a highly publicized trial (the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial), it’s a deeply intriguing and gripping examination of not just the court proceedings, but the media attention on the events, the national race relations and issues that stemmed from it, and the ways in which the personal lives of those involved in the prosecution and defence came into popular knowledge. The acting is phenomenal (Sarah Paulson stakes a claim to best TV performance of the year), the writing is a tad on the nose but is still great, and the direction is fantastic. The show swept the Emmys and struck all the right chords in America. Let’s just hope that when American Crime Story returns with its second season, it gets the recognition from the Brits it deserves.
words by David Mitchell-Baker
Available to stream on BBC Three Online since August
It takes a lot to get my five star stamp, but the only TV review I’ve awarded it to this year is my original ‘Hidden Gem’ piece on Fleabag, the BBC Three comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The six-part series follows Waller-Bridge as your stereotypical mid-twenties antiheroine, only known as ‘Fleabag’; she flitters through life pretending everything is fine when it really, really isn’t. Amongst other emotional turmoil, she flitters between a serious relationship with a clingy boyfriend she can’t seem to shake (Hugh Skinner), and a casual fling with a man who’s only known as ‘Arsehole Guy’ (Ben Aldridge), named aptly, for his – ahem – particular sexual interest in Fleabag.
Just like Miranda, Fleabag addresses the camera, uttering those brilliant witticisms on life that we all know to be true but keep to ourselves. But where in Miranda, you are the heroine’s best friend, in Fleabag you are her confidant, the person that the dark voice in her head is speaking to. As the comedy gets blacker and blacker, you want to scream back. Between laughing about disappearing hamsters, silent retreats, and thieving priceless art from your godmother-cum-stepmother, Fleabag listens to the haunting voicemail of her dead best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who’s probably the only nice character in the whole thing. And she’s dead before it even starts.
Have I painted enough of a bleak picture of this show yet? Don’t let me put off, as this is a beautiful masterpiece of both comedy and drama, possibly the most moving thing I’ve watched all year. It’ll make you howl with laughter as tears stream down your face.There’s a dark side to speaking the things everything thinks and doesn’t say, no matter how funny they are. At one point, a desperate Fleabag wails: “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone. Which isn’t a fucking joke.” It’s dark, dark stuff, but also relatable. Like several others on this list, BBC budget cuts confined Fleabag to be buried in the depths of BBC Three Online, but it’s still there, waiting for you to consume every second of it, right now.
words by James Barker
Available to stream on BBC Three Online since September
Comedy is one of the most saturated markets in modern television, but this eponymous sitcom draws heavily on the comedic talents of Josh Widdicombe, the embodiment of the typical, mid-twenties exasperated gripe. After breaking up with his fiance at the start of the show, Widdicombe returns to his old flat-share with housemates Owen and Kate, and begins to pull his life back together, all under the watchful eye of over-friendly and strange landlord, Geoff.
Supported by a cast with a strong grounding in stand-up, such as Jack Dee, Elis James and Beattie Edmonson, the series ticks all the boxes from a stylistic standpoint, with each scene working towards a punchline or plot point; though fans of Widdicombe’s stand-up may find the pace of the series frustrating, as his anecdotes play out in real time, rather than a thirty-second gag on stage. All three main characters have a strong on-screen chemistry, and impart a warm, familiar feeling as they struggle to find a balance in life in that scary, challenging place we know as ‘our twenties’.
The second series of Josh possibly slipped through the promotional net due to BBC Three’s move to an online platform. Though the first series was broadcast terrestrially, fans have been forced to take to iPlayer to catch the latest six installments, and will be made to do so again next year when the commissioned third series is released.
words by Damian Meaden
American High School: Straight Outta Orangeburg
Available to stream on BBC Three Online since October
American High School: Straight Outta Orangeburg is a BBC Three documentary, that endeavours to follow students from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in South Carolina for twelve months. Reflective of the under-privileged side of American education, the documentary highlights issues of social mobility, family life and violence, as well as ultimately detailing students’ paths to success in a school comprised in large of teenagers from an African-American heritage.
The school’s principal, Steven G Peters, takes on the role of running both a school and becoming a part-time parent to some of his pupils. Moving moments in the episode ‘Two Dollar Bills’ show him handing money to students for food and to some who come to him saying the electricity meter has run out at home. The documentary creates a personal connection between viewers and students of OW, but was criminally tucked away in the depths of BBC iPlayer from mid-October. Although it’s not a conventional mainstream documentary, American High School creates a beautifully artistic and emotional representation of real stories and the true challenges faced by a typical American high school and it really isn’t one to be missed.
Released on BBC iPlayer in October
HyperNormalisation is absolutely the strangest and most affecting documentary I have seen this year. Brit director Adam Curtis is interested in relations of power throughout the world in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Released through the BBC iPlayer in October, the show offers an account of several sagas in recent history, consisting of extensive archive footage and Curtis’s own voiceover narration. It suggests that these happenings have all contributed to a state of society, in which world events happen with increasingly random chaos and disturbing consequences, but are mitigated or ‘normalised’ via the media’s creation of fake, reassuring worldviews.
The format reflects this culture by its simple, direct juxtaposition of shocking video footage with benign internet videos or scenes from Hollywood films (although, thanks to a stonking soundtrack, still manages to come off stylishly). The correlations of these events, as suggested by Curtis, are fascinating and believable but, ironically, seem fundamentally to be wielding the same, dictatorial power of video and caption that he is critiquing (there is very little citation, and a lot of conjecture). Nevertheless, it is thought provoking, alarming, and at least to some extent encourages the sort of critical eye that the world needs now more than ever.
words by Leo Donlan
Available to stream on Netflix since December
Perhaps I’m naive to suggest that this is a ‘Hidden Gem’, as its only been lurking around since mid-December, but I haven’t heard anyone raving about Netflix’s new drama The OA, despite its similarities to previous successes Stranger Things and Sense8. The artistic 8-part show shares a similarity with previous entry Fleabag in that its lead writer is also its main star. Brit Marling plays Prairie, a strange woman who’s lived a shocking and dramatic life. She now calls herself ‘the OA’, or ‘The Original Angel’, and when she returns to her hometown after disappearing for 7 years, she endeavours to tell the story of her escape from captivity to five strangers. Even more intriguing, when Prairie disappeared 7 years ago, she was blind.
The OA transcends genre, at points being a thriller about an abducted girl, at others a sci-fi and horror show about a horrific science experiment; even then, it’s shocking finale turns everything on its head completely, and is surely the most maddening, controversial conclusion to a Netflix show ever. Its supporting cast are stunning and perfectly developed – Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige and Phyllis Smith in particular play fresh characters whose journeys are equally as fascinating as Prairie’s. The OA will leave you with a thousand questions about existence, and that’s what makes it so brilliant.
words by James Barker