2011: The Year in TV – my highlights and low points

by Lisa McGarry

Looking back over the past twelve months I have to say that on the whole TV has been rather good. Even though this is the year that the major channels have given us Outcasts, Candy Cabs, Geordie Shore, Gavin Henson as The Bachelor, Famous and Fearless and Sugarland we have also seen a great mix of documentary, comedy and drama some of which have come from unexpected sources.

Obviously reality TV has continued to dominate, which is obviously good for this site, however the master of the genre – Simon Cowell is seemingly losing his touch. Earlier in the year Britain’s Got Talent produced it’s least memorable winner in whatshisname with the scarf who had a fairly good voice but wasn’t as memorable as runner-up Ronan Parke. The X-Factor saw a change-over on the panel with only the mostly useless Louis Walsh left as he joined forces with Tulisa, Gary Barlow and Kelly Rowland. While I feel that the judging panel felt fresher it was probably the worst cast series with non-entities like The Risk, Sammi, Craig, Nu Vibe and Janet competing and the fairly entertaining Little Mix becoming the first group to win the show. It was too be expected that both of these shows would decline in favour after several years on air coupled with the fact that Cowell was busy with bringing The X-Factor over to America. But Cowell’s biggest failure this year has to be the critically derided Red or Black? A show which featured over an hour’s worth of filler before someone possibly won a million pounds on a massive roulette wheel. It is evident that the show as a whole wasn’t really planned that well and that the production team thought that seeing someone potentially winning a million pounds would be a big enough incentive. But when you’ve seen it once is there any reason to keep tuning in?

This was the first time that the other reality show juggernaut, Big Brother, didn’t air over the summertime on Channel 4. Instead Channel Five aired it in 2011’s latter months starting with a celebrity version in which we were promised Charlie Sheen and Mike Tyson and instead ended up with Lucien Laviscount and Bobby Sabel. It was rumoured that Channel Five’s new owner Richard Desmond had deep enough pockets to entice the big stars but this was a series that even Sid Owen thought he was better than. The civilian Big Brother was even less memorable as the focus seemed to be trying to hook up as many of the contestants as possible and have them perform sexual acts live on TV. The guy who won, again his name escapes me, wasn’t even the public favourite and was booed when he came out to collect his cash prize.

With Channel 4 not putting loads of cameras up in a makeshift house they decided to go in a complete new direction and fit cameras in hospitals, schools, hotels and model agencies. The results were mainly positive while I was never a big fan of The Model Agency and found The Hotel to be more of a comedy it seemed that both shows were extremely popular. However for me this experiment did provide two of the best shows of the year firstly 24 Hours in A & E set in the busy King’s College Hospital we saw a variety of characters from surgeons to porters as both staff and patients were interviewed in an eye-opening portrait of hospital life. While I found that programme compelling I absolutely fell in love with Educating Essex a series set in and around Passmores School in Harlow. Anybody who disagreed with the recent strikes should’ve watched this programme to see how both teachers and support staff go above and beyond to help troubled and failing pupils get their required exam marks. The programme also got support from Channel 4 who increased the series from four to seven episodes so we could enjoy more from ‘sergeant major’ deputy head Mr Drew and the completely sympathetic head Mr Goddard both of whom were recently seen looking awkward at The Comedy Awards.

I think this year’s biggest surprise overall is that a Danish programme, that originally aired on Saturday nights on BBC4, was arguably one of 2011’s most successful show. I’m talking about The Killing, or if you’re a purist then Forbrydelsen, which became a word-of-mouth hit even though it aired in its native country back in 2007. Since it came to this country in January it has won a BAFTA and been given an American remake which isn’t something any of us would’ve predicted at the start of the year. It is a shame then that BBC4 may well be cut by the BBC Trust or at least turned to an arts channel as it has given us a wide range of interesting imports as well as The Killing we another Danish show in Wallander, the French Spiral and the Australian The Slap. Talking of Australian TV, BBC3 also aired the new series from comic genius Chris Lilley entitled Angry Boys. While it wasn’t as great as its predecessor, Summer Heights High, it still had the right amount of non PC humour and heart-warming moments to give it cult status. Sky also launched its new Atlantic channel and bought the epic Boardwalk Empire, the brilliant Treme and my personal favourite Nurse Jackie to our screens. The biggest failure from the US though has to be Pan Am, which was once touted as the new Mad Men but hasn’t ever been more than a glossy soap opera and is destined to be cancelled at the end of its first season.

Staying on the theme of surprise hits one has to go back to Channel 4 and look at the phenomenon of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings which was based on a one-off 2010 Cutting Edge special. The main message from the show seemed to be that travelling culture was a lot different to ours and the bride’s dresses were always elaborate often gaudy affairs that looked extremely uncomfortable. The show’s popularity was seen in the recent Christmas special, which bought in over five million viewers, as well as the fact that star Paddy Doherty won Celebrity Big Brother. Another surprise hit was the second series of BBC2’s The Great British Bake-Off a programme which did some of the channel’s best ratings all year. Although this is essentially a reality competition it is incredibly quaint and British with witty hosts in Mel and Sue and a firm but fair judging panel in the softly spoken Mary Berry and silver fox Paul Hollywood. I personally learnt of the dangers of a soggy bottom and how to perfect a sturdy piping technique. This proved how terribly middle-class a lot of the audience are but also how much we like to watch a kind programme as opposed to the often over-dramatic products produced by Cowell and co.

The Brits have also produced their fair share of brilliant scripted programmes this year. Doctor Who, along with Merlin, was the big-hitter for the BBC this year but this was possibly the darkest series yet. Any show that starts with an episode featuring Richard Nixon has Hitler in the middle and has finale featuring Winston Churchill doesn’t feel like a kids programme but I found this year’s Doctor Who produced more hits than misses on an episode-by-episode basis. ITV also relied on a returning hit, Downton Abbey, to provide them with big ratings while I would say that it’s hardly the most taxing or inventive of dramas as glossy escapism it works perfectly. There also seems to have been a spate of crime and medical dramas that have done increasingly well for the two main terrestrial channels I’m thinking about Doc Martin, DCI Banks, The Body Farm, Vera, Scott and Bailey, Monroe and Death in Paradise among others. My personal favourite dramas of the year have been BBC2’s gripping and well-acted The Shadow Line, BBC1’s Alzheimer’s drama Exile and ITV1’s Appropriate Adult which focused on the fates of Fred and Rose West. The digital channels have also produced two great supernatural teen dramas in BBC3’s The Fades and the third series of E4’s Misfits. But recently Channel 4 has been on the ball with urban drama Top Boy, Charlie Brooker’s surreal Black Mirror and the recent excellent instalment in the This is England franchise all rightfully garnering critical praise.

In terms of comedy oddly Sky has had a good year and have produced possibly the best all round range of humour. We had family sitcom Spy, mainstream hit Trollied, suburban comedy drama Mount Pleasant, the gentle The Café and the frankly surreal This is Jinsy. Maybe it is because Sky can afford the casts and writers to make these shows work but on the whole they have been successful and have at least never been completely without merit. With The Inbetweeners gone from the small screen onto the big screen Channel 4 created some decent new sitcoms in Friday Night Dinner and Fresh Meat. The fourth series of both Outnumbered and Lead Balloon were certainly funny on the whole but both seemed to be losing their touch slightly and it seems that both may not be returning for new series in the near future. Also airing it’s second and last season was Psychoville which again was brilliantly ingenious with its mix of macabre horror and absurdist humour the cult fan base that adored obviously wasn’t high enough for it to be granted a third series. Ricky Gervais also had a new series released, Life’s Too Short, which you would think would be everybody’s favourite show of the year but as it turned out it was just another Office/Extras knock-off with self-named go-to-dwarf Warwick Davis in the role usually inhabited by Gervais. It has had a tough time with the critics and the ratings have gone down steadily week by week with more people tuning into the far superior Rev than Gervais’ creation. But for me it was BBC’s multi-channel shows that produced the two best sitcoms of the year mockumentary Twenty Twelve and the well-observed Him and Her have been my two personal highlights.

Returning to Simon Cowell’s dilemma maybe part of the problem is our new obsession with ‘constructed reality’ shows. The fad started last year with The Only way is Essex, more popularly known by the abbreviated Towie, this year it has seen Reem creep into the popular lexicon, spawned a contender for the Christmas Number One and has seen stars Amy Childs and Mark Wright leave the show and participate in other reality shows. From Towie we moved onto the awfully pompous Made in Chelsea which featured the awful offspring of the incredibly wealthy and was a show that I never took to. MTV’s addition to this genre was the God-awful Geordie Shore in which eight shameless Newcastle based idiots shared a house and basically got off with each other a lot. Finally we had Desperate Scousewives a show featured Liverpool’s wannabe WAGs and bitchy bloggers which has failed to become as popular as its London based rivals.

Finally it seems to have been a year for which the 24 hour rolling news networks have become increasingly vital and there has been a bunch of massive stories for them to report on from March’s Japanese tsunami to the shock riots of the summer via the phone-hacking scandal which produced an incredibly powerful Newsnight appearance from Steve Coogan. However the TV moment for most of us was a much happier occasion with the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. This probably was the event that most of us gathered around the box for, mainly because we had the day off work, and of course ‘that kiss’ will probably be the thing that the majority of the population remember about that day but for me personally it will be Pippa Middleton’s derrière. Of course for fans of capitalism will also remember the other 29th April wedding when Kris Marshall married his cougar on those long running BT Adverts.

As you can see 2011 has been a very memorable year for television and I haven’t even mentioned Frozen Planet, Our War, The Military Wives Choir, Ortis Deeley’s presenting skills, Fatima Whitbead getting a cockroach stuck up her nose or Russell Grant getting fired out of that cannon.
For me of my TV highlights of the year head over to my blog: mattstvworld.blogspot.com and let me know your moments of the year by leaving a comment below.