Best & Worst 2017

Best & Worst 2017: Television

Japanese reality show Terrace House: Aloha State stars (from far left) aspiring swimwear designer Avian Ku, aspiring actor Yuya Shibusawa, model Lauren Tsai, musician Yusuke Aizawa, tourist Naomi Lorraine Frank and carpenter Eric De Mendonca.
Japanese reality show Terrace House: Aloha State stars (from far left) aspiring swimwear designer Avian Ku, aspiring actor Yuya Shibusawa, model Lauren Tsai, musician Yusuke Aizawa, tourist Naomi Lorraine Frank and carpenter Eric De Mendonca. PHOTO: NETFLIX

BEST

Terrace House: Aloha State

This Japanese reality show is a brilliant throwback to the old days of watching television in a living room with family or friends.

It presents not only a cast of cuties sharing a roof and looking for love, but also, more importantly, a roomful of commentators gossiping up a storm about the cast at every turn and analysing the eternal mysteries of dating behaviour.

Although this season, transplanted to American soil, features a cast that is more outspoken and less enigmatic than in the last season, Boys & Girls In The City, the commentators are as priceless as ever. They are funny, smart and good company - ideally, I'd like to watch every show with them, including the following.

Eternal Love

This is the most powerful antidote to reality this year: 58 beautifully crafted episodes of immortal romance, celestial palace comedy and pure silliness.

Okay, the first 10 episodes of this Chinese fantasy epic are slow-going, but then a fox princess (Yang Mi) meets a dragon prince (Mark Chao) in the 11th episode and the romcom magic kicks in majorly.

This is first-rate candy for the eye and the heart.

Lady With Class

K-drama writer Baek Mi Kyeong had an exceptional year, gaining prominence in South Korea with two refreshing tales of female fulfilment, Lady With Class and Strong Woman Do Bong Soon.

Now, the cartoon-like superheroine story Strong Woman is delightful, but in my book, the graceful social satire Lady With Class (starring Kim Hee Seon) wins by a nose. This story of ladies of leisure in the plush district of Gangnam starts as a murder mystery and a soap opera, but turns into something richer: an earnest inquiry into what it means to be happy and truly classy.

WORST

The fake Singapore on local TV

This chronic problem has become more glaring this year. Owing to linguistic restrictions, many Channel 8 dramas take place in an HDB theme park that has been scrubbed of Singlish, incorrect Mandarin and Chinese dialects.

And although the dialect drama Eat Already? 2 has been held up as an exception to the rule, it actually makes as little sense as the Land Of Proper Mandarin. The Singapore it depicts - a country where white-collar parents speak Hokkien, not English, to their only child and young strangers burst into Cantonese, as if the Speak Mandarin Campaign was never imposed on their generation - is just as implausible as the Singapore where no one speaks Singlish.

Foong Woei Wan


BEST

The Handmaid's Tale

The Merriam-Webster dictionary reports a 70 per cent spike in online searches for "feminism" this year and says the release of this superlative drama was one reason why.

Based on a Margaret Atwood novel, it imagines an America ravaged by a crashing birth rate and taken over by a theocratic, totalitarian government that enslaves the few fertile women left and forces them to procreate.

With United States politics lurching to the right and women still subjugated worldwide, watching it feels like a punch to the gut.

More timely than ever is Atwood's searing analysis of how belief systems, including the fetishisation of motherhood, entrench power structures that strip away civil liberties.

The Leftovers


The Leftovers stars Lindsay Duncan. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

This odd little story is a variation on the apocalypse-as-survival-adventure genre.

Two per cent of the world's population suddenly vanishes into thin air, defying both scientific and religious explanations.

The third and final season of the show continues to explore the fallout, which, as seen through the eyes of three families, is entirely psycho-social.

The show becomes a meditation on the nature of belief and what the human mind does in an explanatory vacuum.

It represents the best of a trend critics have dubbed "weird TV" - exemplified by the surreal and existential storylines of series such as Mr Robot, Legion and the Twin Peaks revival.

Big Little Lies

This is ostensibly a murder mystery about a death in a wealthy town combined with a gossipy drama about five women with children at the same school. But underpinning it is a fine-grained dissection of the politics and psychology of marriage, competitive parenting and domestic abuse - and a sensitive depiction of why even smart, strong women stay in abusive relationships.

It also details the self-flagellation of both working and stay-at-home mothers, and how many parents project their own issues onto their children.

 

WORST

Marvel's Iron Fist

Adapted from the Iron Fist comic books, this story of a gongfu-fighting white superhero sparked a lively debate about cultural appropriation.

And there was certainly a whiff of white-saviour complex in the premise: After a plane crash in the Himalayas, young Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is rescued by warrior monks, learns to channel a mystical power known as the Iron Fist and uses it to become a crime-fighting superhero in New York City.

But what doomed it were the uninspired storylines, blah action sequences and its middling lead actor.

The series also suffers in comparison with edgier Marvel-Netflix superhero offerings such as Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Television'. Print Edition | Subscribe