Six of the Best: Ailish McElmeel
The co-founder of Ireland’s Deadpan Pictures (The South Westerlies) picks a mixture of acclaimed US and UK series, a hit French comedy-drama and an animated show with ‘near-perfect storytelling.’
From the first beat of the opening title music to the final note of Don’t Stop Believing, I was enthralled. The quality never dropped across all six seasons, with arresting characters that were brilliantly portrayed. The power plays between the various mafia families, echoed by the domestic power plays between Tony and Carmela were utterly compelling. So Italian, so New Jersey and yet so universal! It was the first show we rewatched during lockdown and it did not disappoint.
My So-Called Life
This was the first series I felt truly connected to as a teen. Claire Danes starred as the wonderfully relatable Angela: whip-smart, funny, overly obsessed with boys and finding her position in the world. The world of characters, despite the Pittsburgh setting, reflected my angst-filled teenage experience in rural Ireland – it was perfectly universal. It balanced comedy, drama and romance, and the casting of Jared Leto did not go unnoticed by my hormone-filled teenage self! While it only lasted one season, this show made me realise TV was for me, not just my parents. It spoke directly to me, and that was exciting.
Back to Life
This is one of the myriad of recent British shows (alongside I Hate Suzie, Breeders and Catastrophe) I would have loved Deadpan to have made. While the vaguely gloomy seaside setting is fantastic in itself, the mystery element of season one surrounding the crime our lead apparently committed, the sweet teenage-esque romance and the sharp, irreverent tone also kept me tuned in. And the authentic characterisation made it perfect TV. Daisy Haggard’s Miri is part-hapless innocent, part-self-saboteur and rather embarrassingly relatable.
Call My Agent
Coming from rural Ireland, a trip to Paris (albeit in the form of watching TV) has obvious attractions. Aside from a great setting, Call My Agent (called Dix pour cent in France) has great characters, cameos and a nice balance of work and personal relationships. Unfolding in the world of film actors, the show could easily be too ‘inside baseball,’ but ends up being really fun while also sending up stereotypes and clichés. Best of all, though, is the tone of the series. Played with a straight face but with plenty of laughs, Call My Agent is great deadpan entertainment.
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s tour de force is possibly the most important drama of the past decade. An intimate, visceral exploration of sexual assault, sexual politics, modern dating and consent, it offers the audience an aspirational ‘every girl’ in Arabella, only to put her through the most terrible events. Coel deftly intertwined mental exhaustion/collapse and anxiety with the darkest of humour. It’s an arresting watch. This series should be mandatory viewing.
No list of the best drama programmes could possibly be complete without a mention of Succession. Beyond the brilliant acting and top-class excess in terms of its production values, at its heart, Succession works entirely on the scripts. Somehow, writer Jesse Armstrong has made me care about the intricate commercial deal points of media takeovers. To be able to sustain an entire hour-long episode around a board meeting and a vote of confidence is nothing short of a work of genius.
Special mention: Bluey
This may be a surprise addition, but this Australian animation has been a constant, repeated feature in my life since early 2020. Yes, it’s a children’s animated series, but the creators are master storytellers, working in perfect little seven-minute chunks. The emotional resonance of the final beat of most episodes has me drying my eyes. The show exposes the reality of parenting, but does so with warmth. The Sleepy Time episode – where the smallest dog (yes, it’s an animated series about a family of dogs) is dreaming of being an isolated planet swirling around the solar system, only to be drawn to the heat of the sun (in reality her mother as she sleepwalks into bed beside her) – is near-perfect storytelling.