Coming to its fourth season, after a third which seemed to have reached a natural conclusion for most of the characters, I did wonder if Stranger Things could possibly live up to its own hype. There had been some worrying signs of indulgence creeping in, when this was a Netflix series defined by its tight focus on exactly what it was – a pulp horror love letter to Stephen King, John Carpenter and 80’s pop culture. Despite its feature length episodes, the fourth season triumphantly improved on its last season with memorable horror set pieces, great new characters like Eddie and Yuri, some logical yet still unexpected depths being added to the young heroes and most importantly, pace and energy. To be hitting these highs in a fourth series is pretty rare.
Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking 80’s comic series looked like an impossible adaptation. The hero and his stories were so intrinsically linked to the comic medium of art and dialogue. Surely trying to make this gothic fantasy into a physical piece of television would only make it seem at best pompous and ridiculous, or just deeply compromised. But thanks to Neil Gaiman’s stewardship and a talented team of makers and actors, Netflix’s series captured all the strengths of the comic and added some well chosen translations of the problems. Fan favourites like “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “The Sound of Her Wings” became new highlights. David Thewlis gave one of the best performances of the years as the malignant but pathetic would be messiah Doctor Destiny.
Stephen Moffat most satisfying work since “The Doctor Falls”, this contained four-part thriller was essentially a farce with the timing aimed at tragedy rather than hilarity. Embracing his misanthropy, he and director Paul McGuigan played with time and the audience. Cleverly challenging our own unconscious prejudices with a story where the murderers and would-be murderers were more sympathetic than the victims. As with many of these locked room murder mysteries, the cleverness might unravel if examined too closely and it relies on certain contrivances disguised as glib jokes. Mary’s apologetic “We’re not the sort of people who break windows,” for example. But at a time when too many prestige series are content to spread out as far as possible, this tight four-parter was short sharp pleasure.
The Umbrella Academy
In recent years, there’s been a fair few deconstructive superhero series and films. For me, The Umbrella Academy became the best of this sub-genre with its third series. The plot was propulsive without being cluttered, giving the characters room to breathe, the humour was often genuinely funny rather than self-consciously wacky and most importantly its damaged family of characters cared about each other, even if there were a lot of pain along the way. It was celebrating different kinds of love, between impossible people that gave this often eccentric saga its heft. Some of it dialogues were memorably acerbic too. Five to Elliot: “Wait a minute. You were actually waiting in your room for someone to come and persuade you to come downstairs again? That is pathetic.”
Disney+ has settled into a steady production line of polished, big budget fantasy series, but Ms Marvel stood out amongst them with its smart writing and a winning lead performance from Iman Vellani as the young superhero. The Khan family dynamics were a pleasure to watch, whilst the series took a fairly standard “young person discovers superpowers and tries to balance school, family and adventures” Marvel fomula and made it feel fresh again. Plus it brought a significant piece of history, the India partition to a wider audience too.
Two older series which I discovered this year and devoured were Ted Lasso and Bob’s Burgers. The former was an old fashioned sentimental comedy that once upon a time would starred James Stewart as the eccentric man challenging the mean system with his decency and kindness. As it is, it featured a superb ensemble of characters and a heart warming belief in the power of compassion and understanding that somehow was invigorating instead of sickly. The latter is a near perfect animated sitcom with a family of five characters who work in many combinations. The one-liners keep coming fast and funny, whilst it manages to have flights of screwball fancy whilst portraying a poor working family constantly having to think about money.