A Year on the Couch
This article appeared in the June 17 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
My lockdown year started with lofty intentions. At the beginning of spring 2020, with an indefinite period of home viewing stretching before us all, I was ready to launch into a diet of the harder stuff: I feasted on Mariano Llinás’s 13-hour Argentine meta-serial La Flor, and on several antique rarities on the Cinémathèque Française’s pop-up platform HENRI. This was clearly going to be the year I’d get to plug my gaps in the Lav Diaz filmography.
That feeling didn’t last. Roughly a year later, I was watching an austere late-’60s black-and-white film by an Eastern European auteur I felt I should know; 20 minutes later, almost without realizing it, I found myself in episode four of Disney’s superhero/sitcom hybrid WandaVision. I was only half-aware that I’d started watching it; I didn’t entirely know why I was watching it. I just needed to be in a series. Any series.
In an unparalleled time of anxiety, many of us—however rigorous we consider our viewing habits—felt the need to take it a little easier. With television, I discovered the luxury of feeling immersed in something vaster than an enclosed two-hour fiction. In a year when many of us found our will and our personal sense of structure eroding, the advantage of committing oneself to an extended—perhaps indefinitely extended—narrative lay in the prospect of a propulsive thrust, a coherent purposefulness that was missing from everyday life in the COVID era. As individual experience contracted to the scale of four walls and a sofa, I thirsted for the proliferation of story that some series offered—like Breaking Bad, which I completed hungrily, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, which I abandoned because, seriously, there’s only so much of one year you can spend in Albuquerque. Such lavish narrative sprawl recalled the thrill of uncontainable expansiveness that must have been available in the 19th century to readers of Trollope or Balzac (whose interlocking novel cycle La Comédie humaine we can now identify, for better or worse, as a venerable ancestor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
While we forgot how it felt to watch movies in dark crowded rooms, certain shows offered a sense of community by proxy. Watching a series that you knew other people were discussing—perhaps yourself engaging in what we now nebulously call the conversation—suddenly offered a nostalgic echo of the pre-digital age when vast audiences saw broadcast TV shows at exactly the same time. Some series offered something that individual movies don’t: speculation as a communal sport, with Ozark dazzlingly reinventing the art of the shock twist and the season-finale volte-face.
One of my happiest recent bonding experiences with my teenage son was watching Netflix’s German science-fiction series Dark. Its characters travel through time, backwards and forwards, but—with impeccable German precision—always exactly 33 years in either direction, so that each character is played by three facially similar actors of different ages (the casting department clearly has some special exalted insight into the condition of mortality). In seasons one and two, my son constantly had to remind me, with a weary eye-roll, exactly who each character was and how they were related; by season three, with a parallel universe making things incomparably more complex, he was as lost as I was. Watching Dark is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube in zero gravity; it’s the only series from my lockdown year I’m tempted to rewatch entirely from the start, and I’ll probably draw myself some diagrams if I do.
One series actually made this British viewer feel as if he was sharing in a sense of national community—something I don’t instinctively feel compelled to join in with. Nor do I usually watch much British TV drama—my loss, as I occasionally realize. But, having barely noticed this much-praised series which began in 2012, I finally binged all six seasons of the police drama Line of Duty, a national obsession indeed—its final episode scored a record 12.8 million viewers when it aired on BBC One last month.
Set in an apocryphal British city, Line of Duty follows the members of a police anti-corruption unit as they investigate alleged malpractice—a premise which expands from season to season, as individual cases point to a network of corruption linking the police with organized crime and pointing to an elusive master manipulator on the inside. The brilliance of the show—which plays like a less squalor-fixated UK version of James Ellroy—lies partly in the mastery of its writer and showrunner Jed Mercurio, who weaves together lengthy, devious storylines punctuated by (sometimes flamboyantly viewer-baiting) plot twists. It also features some of the best acting in recent TV drama, not least the ambivalent, super-contained rage of Keeley Hawes as a cop under investigation, a revelatory performance that’s quite simply in the Isabelle Huppert league.
The series also relies on certain tricks: the old-school catchphrases (“Mother of God”) of incorrigibly patriarchal department chief Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), whose unflappable integrity gradually reveals all-too-human flaws; the need for the viewer to learn a whole catalogue of acronyms and procedural rules; ritualistic touches like the long beep that begins every recorded interrogation session (Mercurio has compared it to the bell before a boxing match); the gruff comradely interplay between Vicky McClure and Martin Compston as the unit’s fiercely committed bloodhounds, both taking terse, functional performance to a level of zero-degree brilliance.
In its final season, the show hit a national nerve in its veiled allusions to contemporary political reality. The high-ups in Mercurio’s police force take steps to quash any suggestions of systemic corruption, an act that chimes with the manifest prevalence of cronyism and complacency in British politics. The idea that institutional corruption might not be a matter of malignity per se, but rather of ineptitude allowed to prevail unchallenged, is eminently applicable to Boris Johnson’s government.
The only show I watched in one extended season-by-season flurry, Line of Duty felt so comprehensively satisfying as a reminder of TV fiction’s possibility that I now find myself entirely spoiled, and ready to give the small screen a rest (although I waited until I’d seen Mare of Easttown, which offered a different richness in taut, compressed form). And of course if cinema, now that it’s calling us back, doesn’t measure up to the challenge of the best series, there are still several shelves’ worth of Balzac calling out to be read.
Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for The Observer, Sight & Sound, Screen Daily, and others, and teaches at the National Film and Television School.