2015, eh? Whatever else may have been going on in the wider world, it was definitely a year in which some things were broadcast on television and people watched them. (Even if some of those people didn’t watch them live, but instead caught them on Netflix about six months later while airily telling anyone who would listen that they “don’t really watch television”.) Some of those things were brilliant, some of them had the potential for brilliance, and some of them were so far from brilliance that they realised they were going to need much comfier shoes before setting out on that journey.
With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look back over the year and pick out five things that, for me, were a bit of a letdown in 2015. They’re listed below in no particular order, and if you’re thinking this all sounds a bit bleak, there will also be a list of five really great things about TV in 2015 coming up soon (although possibly not that soon, because this week I have to take my laptop in for repair and then go to a wedding. But regular followers of this blog, if there are any, will know better than to expect me to stick to any sort of stated timetable anyway).
So here we go then. (Some spoilers ahead, obviously.)
The X Factor fails to get back on song
I know that taking the piss out of The X Factor has been my stock in trade since 2005 (aaaand I’ve just realised that’s ten years of my life, and that’s quite sobering), but believe it or not, it always came from a place of love. I loved The X Factor for all its bombastic, manipulative, viewer-baiting tendencies and I recognised that, when it was on form, it’s one of the best examples of how to do shiny-floor entertainment for a mass audience. But the trouble is that The X Factor hasn’t been on form for a while now. Attempts to stop the rot like bringing back old favourites Simon and Cheryl (and I guess Sharon as well, although if “bring back Sharon Osbourne” is your answer to anything I think someone is asking the wrong question) didn’t seem to do much to arrest the decline in viewership, so it felt like this was the year that everyone involved recognised that something major needed to be done to shake up the show. Major things like firing stalwarts Louis Walsh (again, for real this time) and Dermot O’Leary, letting the public pick which categories the judges would mentor, and even planning to overhaul Judges’ Houses by making it a live extravaganza.
And yet, none of these changes turned out to be for the better. Getting Caroline Flack back to host the show was, to my mind, a sensible decision because she was already part of the family and was coming off the back of a large profile boost by winning Strictly Come Dancing the year before, but saddling her with Olly Murs as a co-host (to recreate their magical chemistry, apparently) meant that too much of her time during live shows was spent nannying him to make sure he didn’t read out the results at the wrong time. Again. Replacing Louis and Mel B with Rita Ora and Nick Grimshaw was, again, an idea with potential, since they seemed like they could reach a younger audience, but Nick never seemed to comfortably decide whether he was Louis 2.0 or an ironic send-up thereof, and Rita was both grating and impossibly dense. The public went for the predictable routes when assigning the categories, and Judges’ Houses ended up being some sort of awkward life/pre-rec hybrid that didn’t make the most of either status.
What probably sandbagged the show more than anything, sadly, was a matter largely out of its hands. ITV’s broadcast rights for the Rugby World Cup meant that The X Factor‘s plum Saturday night slot was occupied, and limiting the show to Sunday nights meant that the Boot Camp/Six Chair Challenge phase went on for the best part of a month. That left so little time for live shows that they were a mess of double-eliminations, flash votes and contestants getting booted before we’d even really had a chance to get to know them.
It’s not over for The X Factor – audition callouts for this year have already been made – but when such a major overhaul failed to stop the rot, it’s hard to know what changes they’ll institute this time. Mind you, Abi over at Gone To Deadlock has some good ideas, and you should all go and read them.
Spying Without Things
I had high hopes for London Spy, I really did. I love spy dramas, I love gays – how could it fail? I was really excited to see someone tell a story of espionage through a gay gaze, and as the cast list got firmed up (Ben Whishaw! Jim Broadbent! Charlotte Rampling! Adrian Lester! Harriet Walter!) it sounded like a sure-fire hit. And then I watched the first episode and the doubt started to seep in. Sure, it was doing a lot of things right – the performances were largely great, there was plenty of intrigue, and I don’t really go out in Vauxhall but my own gay spies assured me that it captured that scene accurately enough – but I wasn’t quite sure the whole thing was really holding together. It was asking rather a lot of me to buy that this romance that had lasted for eight months – during the vast majority of which one party had been either actively lying or incredibly evasive when asked anything about his personal life or his history – was a great love of the ages, that Danny was absolutely right in his unshakeable belief that Alex/Alistair loved him more than anything.
But I liked it enough to give the second episode a go, and that was when the wheels started to come off a little bit: the drawn-out red herring where Danny goes off to meet Alex’s “parents” only to discover that they’re actually two employees of Alex’s real parents (OR ARE THEY?!?!?!?!), one of whom is Charlotte Rampling who then spends the rest of the episode having incredibly heavy-handed dialogue with Ben Whishaw that just seemed to be the two of them portentously expositing at each other. But, two episodes into a five-part series, I thought I might as well see it through – and then it turned out that there really was a giant conspiracy against Danny involving basically the entire world because Alex had invented the ultimate lie-detector that was going to eradicate untruths forever, and it all got deeply, deeply silly. I think Adrian Lester’s character summed it up best.
Still, Danny had some lovely jumpers, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Cuffs’ arrested development
Launching a pre-watershed weekday drama in this day and age is a bold move. I’m struggling to think of any drama airing before 9pm that isn’t a long-established year-round soap (or serial drama), most of which don’t perform anywhere near as strongly as they used to but generally have a strong, loyal and established viewer base they can rely on even when they’re having a rough patch. So when Cuffs made its debut in October, it did seem like it had a bit of a mountain to climb to establish itself as a potential returning favourite – and, slightly wobbly opening episode aside, I thought it made a very strong case for itself. There was a good blend of case-of-the-week stories with longer, serialised narratives (not just those involving the characters’ personal lives, either – Amanda Abbington’s DS Jo Moffat was dealing with an ongoing domestic violence case for most of the second half of the series), genuinely engaging characters that I looked forward to catching up with every week, the criminally (heh) underused backdrop of Brighton for the action and a good mix of policing with yer standard soapy hectic-personal-life stuff.
I fully expected it to get a second series, even if not necessarily the sort of year-round commission that its immediate predecessor Waterloo Road enjoyed: the ratings were modest but competitive, and it looked as though its iPlayer stats were strong, and as a pleasant surprise, it even got some fairly good write-ups from the critics. And then, just as the finale aired, Amanda Abbington tweeted that the cast had been informed there would not be a series two, and the whole thing was over. It came a little out of the blue (no pun intended), and felt to me like a slightly unfair cutting down of a series that was really starting to hit its stride. In particular, it felt like the loss of a great showcase for Eleanor Matsuura, who gave the standout performance of the series as the proud, fearless and dedicated PC Donna Prager, and in a fairer universe the show would’ve lasted long enough for enough people to pay attention and nominate her for some awards. As it is, let’s just hope it’s enough of a showreel for her to get some more leading roles off the back of this. (Also, sign the Bring Back Cuffs petition, I guess? It’s probably not going to achieve anything, but it can’t hurt.)
When I went home for Christmas, I discovered it wasn’t just me who’d been enjoying the show – my brother and sister had both, independently of each other and of me, been watching and loving it, and were both disappointed that there wasn’t going to be any more. Despite being from the same family, we’ve all got fairly different taste in TV, so to appeal to all of us, it must have been doing something right. My big concern in all of this comes from the BBC’s official statement on its cancellation, that they had to “create space for new shows”. Fair enough, but the use of “shows” rather than “dramas” there is a worry. I wouldn’t bet against the Beeb deciding not to bother with new pre-watershed dramas, and Cuffs’s timeslot next year going to another show where Cherry Healey walks around a jam factory and points at big vats of fruit.
The King (of the Nerds) is dead
It was a particularly bad year for King Of The Nerds fans as, despite producing a thoroughly entertaining series on either side of the Atlantic, the franchise appears to be very much finished. TBS have officially declined to order a fourth season in America, and Sky seem to have gone very quiet on the subject of whether there’ll be a second series of the UK edition.
This is disappointing, because King Of The Nerds stood apart from many other reality shows in celebrating its participants rather than belittling them. It was all about embracing knowledge and expertise in all its forms, and sported some of the most witty and inventive production values I’ve seen in my long history of watching reality TV. More importantly, it had a brilliant track record of casting hilarious, articulate people whose to-camera confessionals were funnier and more engaging than some sitcoms I’ve had the misfortune to watch this year. While the UK version didn’t quite hit the heights of its US counterpart (the spectacular Nerd-Offs being replaced by a slightly less dramatic quiz bowl format being the biggest disappointment), it still had the original’s sense of mischief and eccentric humour, and Konnie Huq’s willingness to do whatever was asked of her as the host (usually dressing up in all manner of elaborate costumes) made the whole thing tremendously fun. Not to mention – and I really cannot overstate just how vital this was – the contestants could be relied upon to tweet along with the episode each week, sharing bits of behind-the-scenes gossip and chatting to fans and offering the sort of interactivity that The X Factor’s fifth judge app just can’t give you.
Like RuPaul’s Drag Race, King of the Nerds did a superlative job of treading the line between being a parody of reality shows, and being an actual competitive reality show in its own right, and I think the reality TV landscape will be that little bit poorer without it.
The Amazing Race gets lost in the wilderness
And on that subject, it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say that The Amazing Race – once upon a time my absolute favourite thing on TV – isn’t any fun to watch any more. I first started to worry when they announced the gimmick for season 26 would be that half of the teams would be dating couples, and the other half would be on “blind dates” set up by production, racing around the world with a potential love match that they met for the first time at the starting line. In service of this gimmick, one of the Race’s key rules – that all teams must have a pre-existing relationship of at least one year – had been thrown out the window, not just for the blind daters but also for two of the pre-existing couples, who wouldn’t have qualified under the previous rules. I hate to sound like a stickler, but that rule was there for a reason: the race is designed to test interpersonal dynamics, and the longer people have been together, the more baggage there is to dredge up. People who’ve known each other for less than a year just don’t have such rich histories to draw upon.
Despite those misgivings, however, the all-dating season of The Amazing Race wasn’t a total washout. Most of the blind dates didn’t take, of course (with the exception of Jeff & Jackie, who went on to appear on Big Brother together), but the casting was good enough that even these people who barely knew each other managed to make for good TV as they tried to sound each other out while dealing with the pressures of racing around the world. Sure, it had a downer ending when Laura & Tyler, the least appealing team of the 11 taking part, won the whole thing, but The Amazing Race has a history of terrible winners capping off otherwise decent seasons.
That they got the casting right, by and large, for the dating edition makes it even more of a mystery how, when the show reverted to its previous set-up for season 27, it was filled with absolute duds. TMZ Reporters jostled for position with a Texas mother and her gay son, professional paparazzi fought to stay in the game ahead of professional cheerleaders – but I didn’t care. These teams all felt like ciphers, barely-there retreads of teams we’d once loved, and the only team that made any impact at all – an obnoxious superfan and his near-silent fiancée – were so heinous that it was hard to find a reason to keep watching. So I didn’t. For the first time since season 13, I failed to watch a season of The Amazing Race play out live. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a casual mention from a friend on social media, I would’ve forgotten there was a season of The Amazing Race happening at all.
Still, there’s always a chance for them to course-correct next season, right?
Oh. Never mind. (Any excuse to post that picture of Blair with his top off again, though.)