The afterlife and death has been a frequent setting for comedy-drama. Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me have all been and gone. They have never been out-and-out comedies though. Perhaps it has been seen as such a sensitive subject that, if you are to include jokes, you need something a bit darker to balance it out.

The Good Place dispenses with such a rule, with humour front and centre. The story focuses on Eleanor, who after dying is sent to ‘The Good Place’ as a reward for her hard work on earth. The Good Place is a community made up of similar individual who have been granted their dreams in the afterlife by The Architect, a God-like figure given human form.

But there’s a problem. Eleanor shouldn’t be here. She wasn’t good. In fact, she was awful. And when she behaves in such a way in The Good Place she creates a mini-apocalypse which can only be fixed by being good. So, in order to not be found out, she learns to be a good person with the help of her soulmate.

I’m only four episodes into the first season but there is a lot to like. The central plot is fleshed out by some side mysteries, it is intelligently constructed and the characters are slowly fleshing out nicely. Ted Danson is charmingly vulnerable as The Architect, a flawed but omniscient presence. Janet, his assistant, is also smartly drawn.

Best of all, it is actually funny. Ok, this is often as a wry smile rather than a belly laugh, but this is one of the shows that bears repeat viewing. The first time you follow the plot, the second time the jokes. In true Netflix-style, it also rewards the binge watcher with its promise of a cliff hanger at the end of every episode.

There are nods to My Name Is Earl in its themes of redemption and morality whilst side-stepping religion. Good is quantified statistically – how impactful and frequent were your good actions? This is totted up by some kind of celestial computer. No religious figurehead here – it is all formulas, which, in era where Google and Amazon watch you daily, is oddly believable.

Perhaps it could benefit from some bigger laughs. But this seems like an unfair quibble for a show that seems to be somehow quaint yet daring. The afterlife has never been so funny. Nor, in this post-modern word, so unnerving.

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Such is the power of Netflix, seasons may change their name to some of its biggest hits new release dates. Spring will become House of Cards, although quite how that will pan out following recent events we can only guess. Summer will be Orange is the New Black. Autumn so obviously is Stranger Things. And winter can only possible be named The Crown.

The Crown lends itself to the headlong rush to the festive season in the same way Downton Abbey did. No matter if the setting is high summer, there is something about the sumptuousness of the clothes, the stodginess of the food and the innate cosy feeling mixed with a dash of grimness of the architecture that it is always winter psychologically – both in positive ways and negative.

The Crown is possibly my favourite of all Netflix productions because, in its own slightly stodgy way, it tells us how the personal and political will always intertwine, yet appear to lead separate lives. A personal foible of a politician setting a train of events from which there becomes no escape. How those events can speed up or instigate social change, or at times try and be a last defence against it.

The first two episodes of the new season demonstrate this. Episode one may begin with a royal marriage on the rocks and be threaded throughout with suspicions of adultery, but it is the Suez Crisis that is a focal point and the vanity of those who instigated it. Already the Queen is faced with the challenging of being a stable fulcrum around which the men who serve her in government flail, grasping for power and a legacy.

Episode two sheds more light on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, as the latter constantly battles to form his own identity. He is a navy man, happier in the company of men and physical pursuits, revelling in what one character calls ‘a six-month stag night’. Along the way, we see what formed him into an unemotional man who perhaps struggles with the idea of being part of a family. It takes the rumour of a private secretary’s own adulteries to remind him of his duty to his wife and children, and even then we still have not returned to the crescendo of emotions that opened the season.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith embody the slowly changing personalities wonderfully. She, slowly gaining in confidence to question the men in power; him, relinquishing his need to control. And then there is the cast who surrounds them – Vanessa Kirby still steals the show as Princess Margaret, giving us this seasons must-have GIF for all party goers over the festivities.

There are no doubt faults, but quite frankly I don’t want to dig for them. For all the harsh realities that this show portrays – the limited status of women and the decline of Britain to name two – it is still a warm blanket that envelops you. This is why it is perfect winter viewing, it wraps you up and brings you comfort. Which is exactly what we need.

Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

We need to talk about Taskmaster. And not in an ‘Oh my god did you see it?’ kind of way. More of a, ‘That wasn’t as good as it used to be’ kind of way. Because it’s true, it does seem to have declined. Four seasons why I found myself crying with laughing at least once an episode to this series, where it rarely got passed raising a smile.

There are two obvious things that need to be held accountable. The first is the tasks themselves. Actually, I feel these haven’t declined as much. There are still the deceptively fiendish mixed in with the borderline logic puzzles and the odd bit of eccentric creativity thrown in. It is noticeable how this series the ability for a contestant to read between the lines and ‘cheat’ their way to first place has been tightened up, but the show doesn’t live or die by that. So it’s not the tasks then.

Which leaves us with the contestants. I think we need to separate here individual charms from those of the group. Nish Kumar, Bob Mortimer and Aisling Bea all provided excellent moments of humour, some of which I will discuss more later. Sally Phillips and Mark Watson, less so. Phillips constantly came across as trying too hard, exemplified by the very first task of the series, where she had to give Alex Horne a hug. Cue lots of silly giggling whilst she shoved cake in his armpits. Watson, meanwhile, spent most of the tasks acting like a depressed and confused puppy and didn’t really spark off anything.

As a group there wasn’t much banter either. The show relied on the back-and-forth between Greg Davies and the contestants rather than between themselves. Overall, it felt flat and inconsistent. Which is major disappointment.

There were some individual moments of brilliance. Aisling Bea turning the tables on a prank played on her by Greg and Alex by sending a gold pineapple to her mum was genius. Nish Kumar made the phrase ‘You bubbly fuck’ my now go to when I get mad at the washing up. Bob Mortimer though was the star. His random comments made the show tick over and I would advise anyone feeling low to search for his ‘sausage display toy’ to cheer them up.

But it never should be relying on such fleeting moments. Maybe it is just running out of steam, or hopefully it was just a duff series. There is a Champion of Champions episode at Christmas that may point towards the show’s future. Part of me wants it to go on forever. But then again, I can’t bear to watch a continued decline. If this is to be its final curtain, then I will grin bear it. Or preferably, laugh myself silly for an hour one last time.

You have to be careful with a format change. It has to be for the good, entirely complementing the programme and audience involved. A case in point of it going badly wrong appears to be The X Factor, where the sing-off has now been replaced with a straight elimination each night and instead a prize fight between the two highest scorers. It has not gone down well – the viewers want the metaphorical blood-spilling that putting the weakest two acts through entails. With me not watching it I can’t offer my views but I do feel it to be an odd idea.

Robot Wars, on the other hand, have been quite canny with their changes. Pre-battle interviews and competitor profiles have been shrunk down, allowing us more time to focus on what we are tuning in for: two lumps of metal tearing chunks off each other. You see, this is how you play to your audience.

We also have a slightly different elimination process – rather than two four-player melees with the top two from each going forward to round-robin semi-final, we instead have two three-way battles, the top team in each automatically qualifying for the semis and the remaining four have a ‘robot redemption’ fight, the winner of each joining the semi’s. Again, more battles, plus a chance for an otherwise excellent robot that had a bit of bad luck in the first round to get through to the later stages again.

The final change will become apparent in the final, where the wild card option has been replaced by 10 robot ‘last man standing’ contest between the second- and third-placed robots in each heat. This could be a glorious moment of carnage or too chaotic for us to know what is happening until it is all over, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Overall, Robot Wars delivers exactly what I want from a show like this. There is destruction and tactics, but still a feeling of goodwill. If a team is up against fixing a robot, particularly if they are an underdog, a whole pit can pull together to ensure the next fight takes place. Everybody understands the glory comes from winning by being the best, not by making someone else the worst.

I do have one quibble, which is the tendancy to have an uneven spread across the heats of front-runners. For instance, heat two had champions Carbide, runners-up Eruption and finalists Aftershock, which I’m assuming means there is another heat where there is a group of robots all lacking pedigree. I can’t help but think some kind of seeding system is needed to prevent this.

Even with this though, this is still one of my favourite hours of TV each week. It’s fun and weirdly positive for saying it centres so much round trashing something that is someone’s lifework. People may joke about the geeks ruling the earth, but on this evidence, we better start asking for mercy now.

The problem with this time of year is that so many old staples return to TV that it is hard to make time for anything new. Yes, I know there is catch-up services and streaming, but I like to keep a balanced life and that makes it hard for me to make time to watch everything. I have a list as long as my arm of shows I want to see – The Good Place, Rick & Morty and Shit’s Creek have all come highly recommended.

So when I put off watching these, it is annoying when something I invest time in starts to not repay me. That is the problem I am currently facing with 2 Broke Girls. It has always had its critics for its base humour and stereotyping, but for me it had always just been knock-about fun, a counter-balance to the more thoughtful New Girl or The Mindy Project.

The last season has only just begun in the UK, such is our lack of interest in it – The Big Bang Theory comes out within a few weeks of the US episodes. The two episodes I have seen so far have been verging towards the dire.

Yet I can’t put my finger on why. The plot of the episodes has always been wafer-thin, so it isn’t that. They have never gone for surprising jokes – you have always seen the next line or visual gag coming. The characters haven’t changed, although admittedly over six seasons you expect to see some development.

I can therefore only put down my change in view towards it down to myself. I feel as if my taste in TV has matured over the last few years. I was never the kind of viewer to get invested in Line of Duty for example, but I now want the next series of that to come around more than anything else in the world. I’ve also grown tired of Family Guy, although I did think the episode spoofing the Emmy’s was quite clever in its own way.

The thing is, knowing this the last season makes me want to persevere with it. I want to know if we are going to see a happy ending (although the plot of the first two episodes suggests Caroline has seen too many of Max’s), both in terms of the business and the personal lives of the characters. Even so, it will be a relief when it is over. Whether I will get round to completing my wish list after all, well, that’s a different story.