The 5 Worst TV Shows of 2016

I watched a lot of TV shows in 2016, a fair dollop of them crap, but none so utterly, irredeemably crap as the five failures below.

PRISON BREAK

The first season of Prison Break was truly great TV: fun, funny, shocking, silly, suspenseful, tense, exciting and beautifully, insanely ridiculous. But it never should’ve lasted beyond those first 22 episodes, much less another 4 seasons, a mini-movie and a revival season.

Was there anyone in the entire world who was actually looking forward to this revival, or who expected it to be anything other than a giant bowl of sick-whisked dog shit? I can understand wanting to watch this new ‘mini-event series’ out of morbid curiosity, or because you relish the prospect of picking it to pieces as you sort of half-watch-it, half-browse-for-stuff-on-Ebay, but surely only a die-hard fanatic of the first order, or a victim of failed brain surgery, would anticipate new Prison Break with any sense of relish.

My expectations started low – we’re talking sub-basement-level flat in Hell’s deepest underground multi-storey – and still they were unmet. Prison Break is a show where anything can, and does, happen, so ultimately nothing matters.This is a show where being electrocuted to death and having your head chopped off is no barrier to a return. It just requires waiting for the right preposterous, credibility-stretching conspiracy to come along.

Don’t get me wrong: the show’s bat-shit crazy, devil-may-care, fast-moving, twisty-turny-ness was one of its greatest and most entertaining assets in the beginning, but now it just feels tired and forced and lazy and formulaic. Plus, it’s more painfully obvious than ever before that the two brothers can’t really act for shit. Lincoln spends this season lumbering around the Middle East with all the grace and charisma of a zombie oak tree, while Ed Kemper is probably more effective at emoting than Michael (and I mean Ed Kemper as he is now). The prison break is boring and short-lived; the secondary characters hollow and unconvincing; the villains one step below panto; the Yemeni setting poorly realised and possibly border-line racist; and the various twists even more maddeningly preposterous than usual.

From the moment Lincoln survived being smashed through a windshield at top speed, to T-Bag’s unemotional ’emotional’ moment with his dying son, I sat completely and utterly spellbound – by my own fingernails. I kept wondering how long it would take to scratch my own eyes out with them.

Oh, and on a closing note, writing and production team: good work on the big showdown and shoot-out at a Yemeni train station: you know, Yemen?… The country that DOESN’T HAVE ANY FUCKING TRAINS.

POWERLESS

Powerless boasted strong production values, a talented cast (most notably Danny Pudi of Community-fame) and an absolutely on-point, almost perfect title sequence – all of which was ultimately completely useless, because whatever else Powerless had or was, it simply wasn’t funny. And ‘funny’ is a pretty essential component when you’re making a comedy series. It was cancelled after only 9 episodes of the first season had aired.

I guess there have been a lot worse shows than Powerless, but it’s a tragedy that what could’ve been a zany, fresh and inventive comedy looking at life through the lens of a bunch of regular Joes in a WayneTech subsidiary working to protect the little guy from the constant battles between superheroes and supervillains became instead a lacklustre, generic workplace comedy that struggled to conjure up more than a handful laughs (tiny, breathy ones at that) and a smattering of smiles (flat, joyless ones, too).

Still, while the 9 episodes I watched were undoubtedly shite, maybe the show could’ve grown into something special given more of a chance. Shame on you, Powerless. But shame on you, too, American network television.

RED DWARF

The twelve-year-old me who spent his days regurgitating Red Dwarf’s catch-phrases and impersonating its characters would be very angry with fat, hairy thirty-seven-year-old me for placing Red Dwarf on this list, but never mind: I’m reasonably sure I could take twelve-year-old-me in a fight.

It’s fair to say that Red Dwarf has had a wildly uneven hit-rate in recent years; from the mild disappointment of its sheeny-shiny, oh-so-cinematic seventh season, to the post-lobotomy lock-down of its lads-and-lager eighth season; from the abominable Back to Earth, to the show’s present incarnation as a darling of Dave, the show has never quite made the case for its own cancellation, but neither has it given much cause for unbridled celebration.

That’s not to say that latter-day Dwarf has lacked classic episodes – there have been some triumphantly funny episodes, even in the midst of the most middling of seasons – but that still only adds up to 6 truly great episodes out of 31. You wouldn’t be happy to get a score of 6 out of 31 in a test, unless it was a test to see how attractive Kevin Spacey found you on a scale of one to 31. Still, despite the show’s somewhat scatter-gun run since the late 90s I felt weirdly, unfathomably optimistic about season XII. I should’ve known better, or at least lowered my expectations.

While the first episode and the last two episodes of the season were pretty good (or at least ‘good enough’), the third episode – Timewave – was so embarrassingly, blood-curdlingly awful that it made me want to remove all traces of Red Dwarf from my memories with a rusty axe.

Rob Grant’s pointless and puerile attempt to reflect the current political climate by placing the crew on a ship where all criticism was outlawed was the unfunniest thing since… well, since nothing. It’s literally the unfunniest thing that’s ever been produced, and that includes genocide and Mrs Brown’s Boys. It’s the single worst episode of any show I’ve watched this year, and quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and that includes granny porn.

Timewave effortlessly earns Red Dwarf its slot in the top five. It’s so bad it’ll keep Red Dwarf on this list every year for the next ten years, even if it never returns to air.

THE WALKING DEAD

Never before has all-out warfare been so mercilessly, miserably, unforgivably dull. The Walking Dead has been shedding healthy flesh at an alarming rate since the beginning of its sixth season, and now shambles twice-yearly into our schedules a rotted husk of its former reassuringly-gory glory. While even in its younger, better days it was never in the same league as shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, or The Wire, The Walking Dead was at least exciting and emotionally resonant, and capable of turning out some truly powerful, haunting or barn-storming episodes. Season 8, thus far, has been full of action, but devoid of feeling and substance.

Rick is an infuriatingly inconsistent protagonist at the helm of an infuriatingly inconsistent show. Well, perhaps it’s not infuriatingly inconsistent anymore, because use of the word ‘infuriating’ would signify that I still cared about the content or direction of the show. And I don’t. I really, really don’t. Negan is a crushing bore of a bad guy (mishandled and miscast); the Saviours/war narrative continues to unfold without any concessions to logic, sense, physics or geography; the (Poor Man’s Mad Max) People of the Trash Pile are too dull to be kitsch, and too fucking ridiculous to be a credible threat; and there are too many characters on the show, especially when they’re all so thinly-sketched and bent so easily to the will of the plot. Game of Thrones gets away with having eight billion characters, because it’s a very well-written show and as a consequence its characters are deep, well-rounded and interesting.

I used to care about the show, I really did, but now I wouldn’t care if Carol and Daryl formed a Romeo-and-Juliet-style death pact and shot each other through the head, at the same time as Negan sewed Rick’s severed zombie head onto the neck of Ezekiel’s dead tiger. I didn’t even care about Ezekiel’s tiger, and I’m usually a sucker for animals in on-screen peril. And I certainly didn’t care when it was revealed that Karl had been bitten. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I did care, but only because I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to die, and I really, really wanted him to. In summary, then, let the tiger die. Let them all die. Let the zombies come back to life so they can all die again, too. The Walking Dead’s a dead show walking, and I wish they’d pull the plug so I wouldn’t have to keep watching the bloody thing, masochist that I am.

THE MIST

Hey, it’s the beautiful, elven-looking woman from Vikings, and Clay Davis from The Wire; you know, the one who says ‘shhheeeeeeiiiiiiiittttttttt’ all the time. And Frances Conroy, of Six Feet Under and American Horror Story fame! Oh, and it’s a Stephen King adaptation; an adaptation of an adaptation, I may add, of a film of which I’m rather fond. Mist, monsters, madness, religious mania, a good old-fashioned struggle for survival: what could possibly go wrong?

Well… everything, in fact. Everything. Not even the massive foghorning beasts that lumber from the mist in the cinematic The Mist could rival the horror of this now-mercifully-cancelled misfire (and I mean ‘horror’ in its most pejorative sense here; I’ve just realised that ‘horror’ can serve as a compliment when discussing actual works of horror. There’s no compliment here, believe me). Most of what emerges from the mist in this adaptation comes in the form of hallucinatory supernatural visions , which – a few notably bat-shit moments aside – get incredibly boring almost instantly. Whilst a great deal of the action unfolds in the local mall (the short story and the movie were set almost entirely in a mid-sized supermarket) the series loses vital focus and tension by spreading its characters out across the town. I understand that having a bunch of characters rushing to a focal point for a big, meaty finale, especially when some of those separated characters hold different pieces of an explosive secret, can be thrilling to watch, but not if the writing and the acting has never moved you to care about any of the characters.

The ‘plot’, such as it is, is redolent of those post-watershed, too-hot-for-TV episodes that British soap operas occasionally indulge in, complete with sketchy characters you can’t seem to bring yourself to give a fuck about, heaped servings of am-dram histrionics, and narrative contrivances powerful enough to make your eyes roll back in your head like jackpotted Vegas slot machines. In the end, The Mist is just a bunch of people chasing each other down smoky corridors with spades, or being pursued by duff CGI, as you check the clock every 90 seconds, wondering why you aren’t doing something more worthwhile with your free time, like cheese-grating all the skin off of your face and feeding it to your cat.

TV Review: Red Dwarf, Star Trek Discovery, The Orville

Red Dwarf is like that uncle who used to make you laugh to the point of pant-wetting when you were a child. You hailed him as a comedy genius, and constantly recited his routines to all who would listen, and to all who refused to listen, too. His visits brought light and laughter into your life, and you anticipated them with levels of excitement usually only reserved for Christmas.

Years passed. You got older. Your uncle’s visits became less and less frequent. One day, completely out of the blue, when you were busy doing something excruciatingly banal and thoroughly adult, probably putting up a shelf or something, there was a knock at the door. ‘It’s your uncle!’ came the cry. You ran to the door, almost injuring yourself in the process. ‘He’s back!’ you cried, grabbing the door handle and yanking it open… ‘My hilarious uncle!’… and there he was, standing in-front of you, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a light-up neon bowtie spinning around on his collar. He pulled his face into a gurn, and then brought his face a few short inches from yours. “BOOOOOOBIIIIIEEEEESSSSS!” he screamed, before loping off and around your house like a maniac, occasionally farting as he went. You later found him slumped in an armchair, staring out of the window.

A little part of you died that day.

After he left, you had a good, hard think about it. Maybe he was never funny; maybe you only thought he was funny because you were a kid and, well, everything’s funny when you’re a kid. Someone saying ‘socks’ is funny when you’re a kid. You prepared to jettison every fond memory of his visits and the laughter they brought; a time to put away childish things, and all that. But then you dug out some old home movies; watched him at work in his prime. And he was funny. God, he was funny, just as funny as you always remembered him being. So what the hell happened to him? Did he have a full mental breakdown?

You later hear that he was checked into a sanatorium, possibly never to re-emerge.

But he came back, your well-loved wonky uncle, like you always hoped he would, and you felt eager and hopeful again, despite all evidence pointing to more pain, disappointment and heartache on your part. And do you know what? He was better. He wasn’t quite the uncle you remembered, but neither was he the goofy, slavering imbecile who’d cast a worryingly unfunny shadow across your soul and doorstep. He kept coming back after that, each time stronger, more coherent, funnier. Last week, a near miraculous thing happened. Your uncle, despite his age and the trauma he’s been through, was almost – not entirely, but very, very, very nearly almost – indistinguishable from the man you remembered.

What I’m trying to say, as I wrestle with this rather tortured and over-long analogy about a mentally-ill uncle, is that the opening episode of Red Dwarf’s twelfth season, Cured, in which the boys from the Dwarf encounter the frozen figures of Hitler and Stalin in a disused moon-base, was something of a relief and a delight. The cast seemed to be back in the full swing of their characters, there weren’t too many laboured puns or clichés, the sci-fi premise behind the episode was interesting without over-shadowing the jokes, and the episode made me laugh out very loud a hearty handful of times. Sure, some of the sequences in Cured – particularly the threat montage and the overlong guitar jam – felt a little rushed and perhaps fell a little flat, but overall I don’t think the episode would’ve felt out of place in the show’s fourth of fifth seasons. Red Dwarf may never recapture the thrill of its heyday, but each time it returns it builds a stronger and stronger case for its continued existence.

I’ve been boldly watching Star Trek since I was a teenager: I started by gorging myself on cassettes of the Next Generation lent to me by a friend, which led me to seek out the seminal exploits of Kirk and Spock. Later, I fell in love with the rag-tag, war-torn crew of Deep Space 9. Janeway was next, whose adventures I really rather enjoyed, give or take a few Kes’s and de-evolved lizard people along the way and … next there was… em, you know, Enterprise… and stuff. It was… well. I guess Captain Archer’s dog was sort of okay?

Maybe it’s an inevitable consequence of getting older and becoming less passionate in general, but when news broke of Star Trek Discovery’s imminent arrival I never found myself getting particularly excited. When the trailer was released, and it seemed to suggest that Discovery would be another Star-Trek-for-People-Who-Don’t-Like-Star-Trek generic space romp in the vein of the recent ‘reboot’ movies, even less so.

But, expectations be damned, it’s bloody good.

It’s different, of course: bigger, slicker, grittier and glossier, but every Trek series – whilst remaining true to the central Roddenberryian vision and ethos – has been drastically different from those preceding it, and always a product of the time in which it was made. Star Trek is about the future of humanity, sure, but that future is always given shape and voice by contemporary concerns. Discovery is about tough choices, moral relativism, a clash of cultures and the ethics of war. Shades of grey abound. In fact, there are enough shades of grey in Discovery’s opening few episodes to make Captain Picard’s hot tea and the entire canon of Deep Space 9 seem positively technicoloured in comparison. That’s one inevitable consequence, I suppose, of making your lead character a mutineer and a war criminal who’s sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of the first episode.

Sonequa Martin-Green is terrific as the aforementioned mutineer, former Starfleet officer and Vulcan-raised orphan Michael Burnham. The Walking Dead never really afforded Martin-Green the opportunity to showcase her full range and talents; here she’s mesmerising, compelling, tackling with aplomb the tricky task of playing someone who’s both human and Vulcan, and all at once both more and less than either.

Having Burnham front and centre allows Star Trek to do something it’s never done before: have a captain who’s something of an asshole. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) may be the Doctor Who Number 6 of Star Trek, but Burnham ‘aint no Peri. (Incidentally, though it places me in a minority, I really like Colin Baker as the Doctor, so my comparison isn’t intended as an insult to Jason Isaacs or his character).

Discovery also gets top marks for its reinvention/retconning of the Klingons. Like this new incarnation of Star Trek itself, its Klingons share a through-line with the past, but are for all intents and purposes shiny and new. They look more like Cenobites than the 80s/90s-era Klingons we’ve come to accept as the official standard of the species. And they’re other-worldly, and eerie, and menacing, and interesting, something they haven’t been for a long time. Throughout the life-span of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 the Klingons – with their stiffness, pomposity, laddish bragging and love of drinking – came to possess all the terror and nuance of an obnoxious drunk uncle at a party to celebrate grandma and grandpa’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. My apologies to uncles, who appear to be getting something of a rough ride today.

If Star Trek Discovery isn’t Star Trekky enough for you, then you can always seek out The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi doesn’t-really-know-what-it-is-edy. Despite the show’s mind-bending ideas, improved CGI and novel blend of sci-fi tropes and dick jokes it looks and feels exactly like early-90s Star Trek – which of course is no accident, given that the show’s creator and captain Seth MacFarlane is a life-long fan of the show, and forged his vision for The Orville through collaboration and consultation with such heavy-hitting Trek luminaries as Rick Berman and Jonathan Frakes.

And do you know what? I like it. It combines two of my favourite things: nostalgia and puerility. I’m still not convinced about Seth MacFarlane’s ability to carry a live-action show, but his Captain Mercer is growing on me with every episode, and the characters of Bortus (Peter Macon) and Isaac (Mark Jackson) have already proven themselves to be deep wells of dramatic and comedic possiblity. Keep making it so, Seth.

You can read a piece I wrote about Red Dwarf series X and XI for the lovely people at Den of Geek here.