Not The Best, But My Favorite, TV of 2019

I am, I admit, not a fan of Best Of lists — or, at least, not a fan of writing them, because someone will always come along to tell you that you’re wrong because you forgot [Thing X] and you’ll go, “Ah, shit, I did.” And yet, here I am writing a Best of TV list for myself, even if it’s going under the more honest terminology of “Favorite.”

What gives? Nothing, really; I found myself wanting to keep a record of what made me happy this year on television, in part because it’s been a good year for TV, and in part because I feel like I’ve been watching more/better television this year and making more choices for myself about what I watch, so… it seemed like a good idea…?

That sounds like a segue, right?

Years and Years
I remember reading about this in The Guardian before it started in the U.S. and being suspicious of the hype; I thought about Russell T. Davies’ tendency towards cheap coincidence and tackiness as his Doctor Who went on and decided it might be worth checking out, but it probably wouldn’t be my thing. I was utterly wrong, and completely caught up in what ended up being essentially future horror porn for news junkies, right up until the admittedly overly sentimental last episode.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it really did. (I know more than one person who thinks that it shouldn’t even have existed, but it did.) As much a response to the failures of the comic as a sequel to it, every episode felt like a revelation, as well as the most contemporary take on superheroes seen in a long, long time. I can’t work out if I want more, or want this to remain as complete and perfect as it is. (Still: “Nothing ever ends,” after all.)

Doom Patrol
The other comics-to-TV triumph of the year, even if so few people saw it because of its platform. Maybe it’s because the Grant Morrison/Richard Case run that this is based on is so central to my teenage experience, or maybe it’s because of the gleeful messiness of the show itself, but this was appointment viewing very quickly, and became a surprisingly emotional experience before the season was done. I’m looking forward to the second year.

Talking about perfection, I can’t say enough good things about the second and final season of one of the most heartbreaking, funny, romantic and honest shows I’ve ever seen. Absolutely everything felt noteworthy, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing shining out with kindness and warmth that overcame the awkwardness and pain that surrounded everyone in the show. God, I loved it.

This Way Up
I called this Fleabag Lite to a friend, which was unkind, even though I didn’t mean it as an insult, just shorthand to explain its appeal. But it’s telling a different story altogether, despite the similarities. It’s perhaps sillier — the Cranberries’ “Zombie” bit may be my favorite stupid joke of the year — but also more… flawed…? in a way that feels as if it’s easier to dip into without potential emotional trauma. Between this and the ultimately unsatisfying Living with Yourself, Aisling Bea’s had quite a year.

The Good Place
Yes, the final year felt more piecemeal than what came before, as if it had too much to try to do and didn’t know how to get to where it needed to be for the first few episodes of the season, but I don’t care; it’s still smarter, funnier and more heartwarming than almost anything else around these days. (Kindness is an important component for everything I’ve truly loved this year, thinking about it.) Plus, you know, all the Chidi/Eleanor stuff kind of killed me, I have to admit.

Project Runway Season 17/Top Chef Season 16
And we return to the subject of kindness. I’m a fan of these kinds of shows, as I’ve said before, but these two seasons marked what I’ve called a post-Great British Bake-Off era, where contestants dropped the traditional “I’m not here to make friends!” posturing and instead… got along? Helped each other? Supported one another…? It was an unexpected, but welcome, surprise that was helped by both shows having more pleasant, charming contestants than has been the case for years, and in Project Runway‘s case, a rebooted host/mentor/judging panel that made it seem like a whole new (better, and yes, kinder) show. Both were guilty pleasures that were also just… good. More of this in 2020, please.

Let Me Tell You Something Else

The final look at my graphics for THR‘s weekly Heat Vision newsletter is a weird one — instead of six or seven graphics consisting of two weeks’ worth of newsletters, this is six graphics from one week, and, like the graphics from the San Diego Comic-Con edition, six graphics created while I was a convention, in this case, Brazil’s Comic Con Experience. Because, you know, I wasn’t busy enough as it was, doing convention stuff. (Actually, I wasn’t, as it happened.)

These three images were created the night I arrived in Brazil, based on an email request from my editor Aaron; as I’ve said elsewhere, that was the end of 18 hours of travel, and was actually followed by more work, because of course it was. When you factor in the time difference, I think it was 38 hours of being awake more or less, with just a mild restless nap or two in between, all told.

Which explains why, two days later, I looked at that “SCOOP!” — intended as a placeholder for when there’s an exclusive and I’m not available to create a graphic for it, which looked like it may be a possibility at that point for that very week — and thought, “That looks illegible.” (I literally was having trouble focusing my eyes when I handed it in. Secrets from Behind The Scenes!) So, I fixed it.

The same day I fixed that, I got two more last-minute requests. Thankfully, it was the one day of the Brazil trip that I wasn’t at the convention.

At this point, I’ve been doing these newsletter graphics for a little over a year, and 2019 was the first calendar year where they were a constant. We only missed two weeks of the entire year. It’s been a pleasure, really, to do them. I feel like they scratched an itch I didn’t know I had, and I feel more… awake, creatively, as a result. I’m really grateful for the chance to do them, this far in.

Season’s Greetings

For the name of this post to make sense, I guess you have to know that crying in Scotland is called greeting. (I feel as if I should spell it “greetin’,” because that last g is never pronounced.) Which is to say: This is as much about sadness as anything else. How festive.

Every Christmas, I feel like I should write something about the death of my father. And every Christmas, I realize that I don’t know what to say, beyond, “It happened, and it broke my heart.”

It’s colored every Christmas since it happened in 2007, for obvious reasons. One of those reasons is that it happened on Christmas Eve, capping off a month of staying by his bedside and having what will hopefully be the most emotionally turbulent holiday season of my life; I have extremely vivid memories of staying overnight at the hospital in his room, half-watching a nativity play on television quietly next to his comatose body, not knowing what emotion I was feeling at the time.

It was decided by my family not to actually tell my nieces and nephews that their grandfather was dead until the day after Christmas, so as to not ruin the day for them. A kindness, definitely, but one that made everything surreal and difficult for the two days we were trying to be jolly and seasonal for them before the truth came out. Even more surreal and difficult when giving them gifts that came from their grandfather, and pretending he was still in hospital. Everything was grief and pretending to feel joy.

For the first few years afterwards, Christmas was a muted holiday on Christmas Eve, at the very least. I’d try — and often manage! — to get into the season earlier in the month, because I’ve always loved Christmas and all the trappings, all the lights and the music and the schmaltz and the everything, but come December 24, my mood would get colder and darker. How could I celebrate, after all?

That’s faded now, thankfully. Over the last few years, my feelings about the holiday have changed for a number of reasons — not permanently, always shifting, it felt like — as reality intruded and got in the way of what I’d want the season to be. (There were a couple of years where I barely got a Christmas at all, because of who I was with the circumstances of that; I look back on that now in disbelief, at what I allowed to be okay.)

Now, this year, I feel this has been the Christmas that I’ve longed for for years, despite the delayed start to the season because of the Brazil trip, and despite getting sick this morning. Yesterday was a good day, relaxing and in the company of people who love me, and whom I love; today will be the same. Really, it’s the only present I could need from the whole thing: Joy to the world, joy from the world, joy of being in this particular world right now. Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate.

Since We’ve No Place To Go

As we head into the final stretch of the pre-Christmas holiday season, I have to admit: I’m very, very tired.

The last week or so has been extraordinarily busy, as if the holiday gods looked down and thought that, if I was to enjoy some time off around Christmas Day proper, I should pay for it ahead of time. And so, it became a marathon of work and crash-relaxation, each evening seeing me trying desperately to unwind even though my brain was quietly spinning, thinking you still have all these stories to write and all these presents to buy and don’t you need to read these things for work and it’s the holiday season shouldn’t you be doing holiday stuff more?

Well, the evenings I wasn’t at the movies, that is; I did that twice in the past week. (Once was for work; there was a Star Wars, after all.)

At the heart of it all was an impressively Herculean workload, which saw a confluence of different elements come together to deliver a collection of deadlines that was utterly overwhelming. To give a sense of just how overwhelming, think of it this way: on average, I traditionally have one and a half stories I file to Wired each week; on a particularly heavy week, it’s gone to three. This last week, I filed five.

THR, too, saw an uptick in workload — there was a new Star Wars, after all, and it’s heading to the end of the year, so Best Of lists and the like need to be done — so I found myself doing things like getting up at 5am to start work and just… keep working until either I was done or, more likely, I couldn’t work anymore for whatever reason: Something else needed to be done (Mailing Christmas cards, going to the movie theater), or I simply couldn’t concentrate enough to get it done.

Suffice to say, it’s been a time. Thankfully, a time that’s more or less over as I write — I’m wrapping up final commitments now, soon to be followed by wrapping presents and then allowing myself to try and get in a holiday mood, or at least a mood that doesn’t see me chasing my own tail so much. The weather outside is frightful, they say; I’m looking forward to the chance to be able to look outside the window and see for myself.

Black and White and Read All Over

Reading Now You See It and Other Essays on Design by Michael Bierut the other week, I was reminded of the first time I was “published,” the thrill of it all; it was high school, and for some reason I don’t properly remember, our high school had two pages in the local newspaper to fill. (It was some scheme to promote journalism, I think? It wasn’t just our school, the other high schools in the area got two pages as well, spread out across a number of weeks.)

I wasn’t writing back then; I was the artist of the group, the one always drawing with big ambitions that involved drawing but were somehow entirely formless beyond that. I was going to go to art school, then there was an undefined Step Two before we hit that “Step Three: Profit” part. So, when I was asked to contribute an illustration for someone else’s story, I said yes with the mixture of ego and arrogant well, of course you were going to ask me that speaks to the teenage experience.

I then proceeded to psych myself out about it for days after.

I don’t remember what the story was that I was illustrating, but I do remember that the illustration was to be a deer riding a sledge down a snowy hill. (Why? I genuinely wish I could remember.) I drew that deer on that hill multiple times in multiple ways to the best of my meager ability — cartoonishly, realistically, from different perspectives — and none of them were right. I just knew it implicitly; this could be my big break (into what, I had no idea, but still), so I had to not fuck it up and everything I was doing was fucking it up. Nothing I could do was good enough.

In the end, I submitted this terrible, lifeless painting — yes, a painting, counterintuitively — that was the closest I could come to acceptable by deadline. I hated it, and felt like I’d let myself, and everyone else, down. When the piece ran, the illustration was a blurry mess and I was suitably embarrassed, but I remember being okay with it, because even though it was shitty, I was in print. It was still a rush, still this feeling of, “I’ve made it, I’ve arrived.” I was, in my head, real at last.

It Puts A Great Big Smile on Somebody’s Face

The end of the year gets complicated, I’ve always thought. Not in a bad or difficult way, I hasten to add; while there are bad and difficult memories attached to this time of year — ones that have always been bad since the inciting incident, and ones that have turned bad over time like a fruit left out on the counter — I’m still very much a fan of the holiday season and everything it represents overall. But still. Things get complicated.

It’s a scheduling thing, really. I was in Brazil — or en route, for part of it — for a week, and because of that, I feel like I lost the only quiet time between Thanksgiving and Christmas between the trip and the last-minute scramble of planning for it. Everything else feels so filled with stuff in one way or another that, even though it’s good stuff, can feel overwhelming and exhausting. After all, Christmas is around the corner, then the end of the year. There’s stuff to do, things to prepare. Who can stop when all of this needs to be done…?

(That it’s difficult to be Christmassy in São Paulo figures in, too. Every now and then, I’d see a Christmas tree or some kind of decoration and it would be jarring to remember, oh, yeah, it’s December, isn’t it?)

This feeling is complicated by my belief that this year saw Thanksgiving sneak up unexpectedly when no-one was paying attention, although I know that’s really just how busy my November ended up being by accident; nonetheless, I feel like I got busy with stuff and then, bam, there it was somehow. To be fair, that’s been a lot of 2019 for me. Things seeming to happen when I’ve not been paying attention.

Anyway, we’re in the final couple of weeks of the year already, and this is when things get complicated. Work shifts gears as the daily grind adds Best Of lists and retrospectives and looks ahead; gift-buying and socializing get added to the everyday to-do lists, and the seasonal viewing and listening start to take hold. (Something I wanted to start earlier, but Brazil got in the way, gloriously.) None of this is bad stuff, and I’m not complaining. I’m just jetlagged still, somehow, and mentally scrambling to arrive in the actual moment.

And If My Mind’s Somewhere Else, You Won’t Be Able To Tell

There are two certainties for me about a work trip, I’ve come to realize after this past year of travel. (I’ve been to Chicago, San Diego, New York and now, São Paulo, where I’m actually writing this; I’m back by the time you’re reading it. I’m the inevitably jetlagged one moaning in the corner.) The first is, I always end up packing more clothes than I actually need, no matter what. The second is, I always end up working more than I intended.

I was sure I’d licked the first problem on this trip; as I packed in an admittedly hurried state the night before I left, I literally counted out clothes, mentally matching them to the length of the trip. “I’ll be gone seven days,” I reasoned, “so I’ll need seven days’ worth of clothes.” And then I counted them into my case. What I didn’t realize until midway through this trip, though, is that that’s not actually true: I have two overnight trips, so I really only needed five days’ worth of clothes. I tried so hard, but not hard enough.

The second thing is more of my hope crashing against the harsh shores of reality, I suspect. I imagined this trip having more downtime, with evenings I could explore the city and lazy mornings as I prepared for the show. Not so much — I went three full days before I could take any kind of serious break, just because I had deadlines on top of deadlines. (Being a freelancer means that, just because you take a trip for one of your gigs, you still have to hit deadlines for the others, even if they usually take up half a day at a time.)

The same thing happened in New York, as well, to an extent. Before the trip, I had visions of being able to spend time with Chloe on long walks through the city in the fall, or spending time with the friends I only see at shows. Nope; instead, I ended up working 12-18 hour days on every single day of the trip.

On this trip, there’s been a saving grace: Each morning since the second day, I’ve been wandering through the streets on a dérive, something I’m sure I’ve written about here before. It’s walking around with no plan and no map, and allowing the surroundings to tell you what you need to know about where you are. (It’s something from Situationist theory that dug itself deep into my head when I was in my early twenties, and I’ve done it every chance I’ve gotten when I travel to new spaces; I went to art school, so sue me.)

The early morning walks, as short as they are, are my time. No deadlines, no nothing except me, music in my ears — on this trip, oddly, music from 20 years ago for some inexplicable reason: a lot of Ben Folds Five and Supergrass. I don’t know why — and the city. They’ve kept me sane on this trip, giving me something of my own during a period where the rest of the experience belongs to other people. I’ve even got my choice of what to wear during them, as it turns out.

All Over The World Is How I Feel Right Now

Unexpectedly, I didn’t feel as if I’d really arrived in Brazil until the second day I was there. I’m unsure if it was jet lag or general exhaustion — I didn’t manage to sleep between Tuesday morning and Wednesday night, and spent almost every moment of that either traveling or working, which was as overwhelming as it sounds — but the end of the first day in São Paulo saw me essentially collapsing into sleep, too dizzy to be able to focus my eyes and minutes away from getting up to be sick after making the mistake of drinking water from the tap because I was so dehydrated. Everything felt surreal and skew wiff; I knew I wasn’t home, but it didn’t really feel like I was anywhere, if that makes sense.

The second day was much better. It wasn’t just that I had slept, although that helped considerably. I woke up and worked, because that’s the job, literally. But after I’d hit the deadline that was looming scarily in front of me, I did the thing I’d wanted to do since landing and hadn’t had the chance: I went on a dérive, wandering through the streets around the hotel with no plan or direction (Well, a mild plan to go get some breakfast, it’s true). Basically, I walked out the door to give in and let the city tell me what it was like.

The city is… I don’t know what to say. (I’m writing this while still here, so I don’t have the necessary perspective yet, that’s true.) The city is alive. And at once more green and more urban than I expected. It feels as if it’s been put together haphazardly, in the best way possible; the layout, the types of buildings, the uses for the buildings, all seem to have little rhyme or reason to it.

There’s a lot of traffic, and a lot of noise in general. There’s a street, a few blocks over, where it seems as if everyone walks their dogs. There are lots of tiny little storefronts within a few blocks, selling almost everything you could want, open onto streets filled with people and newsstands, God, I love the newsstands here, filled with newspapers and magazines and comics. It makes the city feel like a place obsessed with reading. How better to win my heart?

I’m writing this literally midway through the trip, and I feel grounded here now, but also… comfortable…? This despite not knowing Portuguese and basically reduced to communicating via hand gestures and goodwill. I needed a day to arrive properly, but now that I’m here, I feel like the world has opened up to me again. That alone makes the 18-hour travel worthwhile.