End of Year Favourites

My Favourite TV of 2022 – The Rehearsal

Once again, I haven’t really watched a lot of TV this year. In fact, once you see the honourable mentions list down at the bottom, feel free to have a good chuckle that basically the only stuff I watched this year was reality TV. Sue me, I like the way TV moulds reality into compelling little nuggets of drama. Weirdly, that’s also exactly how we find our way to my favourite TV show of the year, which is not reality TV… Probably. Maybe. It’s hard to tell and I’m honestly not sure if I do want to make the distinction. If you haven’t heard of The Rehearsal, none of this makes any sense to you, so let me explain a little bit what the show is.

Nathan Fielder, former host/main character of the legendary Nathan for You, comes up with the idea of creating a space where you can rehearse for important life events. Maybe it’s a pivotal confession, perhaps it’s a family confrontation, or it could even be the raising of a child. That last one is what most of the show orbits around, as Nathan helps a woman practice the experience of raising a child. With this example, you can start to see where the strange, uncanny and often hilarious side of the show emerges. The fake children are played by child actors, but due to child labour laws the actors have to be regularly swapped out and for the evening the child must be played by a robot. The child is slowly aged up over the course of weeks as they are replaced by child actors of slightly older ages, all with the aim of “rehearsing” the process of raising a child. But who is the rehearsal for? Is it Angela, the woman playing the role of the mother? Or is this rehearsal all for Nathan’s sake, as he masterminds the plan from a room full of security monitors? Even though the answer feels obvious, it is never as clear as you’re expecting in the execution.

If you know Nathan Fielder from Nathan For You, he’ll feel familiar here. It’s a similar character to that show, in that he plays a fictionalised version of himself who is incredibly awkward and deadpan to all the real people he meets. Fielder also operates on largely the same principle, of just letting people talk at him. I genuinely think it’s a unique skill he has as a comedic personality, in that he never pulls out the truly ridiculous things his guests say. By Fielder remaining quiet, the others on screen fill the silence with some of the strangest confessions or statements you’ve ever heard. On Nathan for You, that included things like a shop owner talking about drinking his grandson’s pee when he gets scared. Here, it starts at a guy who sees conspiracies in all numbers, which help explain why he crashed his car while drunk driving, but slowly and suddenly escalates into quietly troubling places. As you might have worked out from that, it means that the comedy is often a little dryer and a little more underplayed, but it means the shocks are even greater.

In The Rehearsal, the character of Nathan becomes more part of the picture than ever. That’s not his intention from the start, but it’s a spiral, as things go absolutely bonkers. The only place you can really compare it to is suddenly not other sitcoms or comedy shows, but the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York. In that film, a man creates a play that is a reflection of his own life, inside of a large warehouse, where actors play him and the people in his life. The barriers slowly start to dissolve between the play and the outside life and things go real crazy real fast. If you’ve been paying attention to the images here, you might have worked out that this is exactly what Fielder is doing. He builds these real locations and populates them with actors to get the most accurate recreation of an event. The spiral comes when he panics about not being accurate enough and starts to integrate himself into the rehearsal, while also keeping old sets and actors around for his own personal gratification. It is weird from the word go and it doesn’t get any less weird.

As a show, I find The Rehearsal less consistently hilarious than Nathan For You. Admittedly, it’s not an easy bar to clear, comparing a show to one of the funniest shows ever made. What The Rehearsal does have though is its consistent WTF factor. The barriers of reality and fiction have always been blurry in Fielder’s work, but he takes it to whole new levels now, as well as actually addressing some of the ethical complications that his experiments can create. The actual answer to “where is reality and where is fiction?” is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the ambiguity of the line and the fact that you’re always thinking about it. Where Fielder plans to take a commissioned second season I have no clue. This first season feels like a complete thesis statement on artifice and reality, ending with an absolute bombshell moment. But, I will also be there the second it drops. For people like me, who don’t watch much TV anymore, The Rehearsal is powerfully compelling enough to lure me back to that world, for a taste of pure imagination.

Honourable Mentions

The Traitors – Though it was a reality TV show, The Traitors was the kind of reality TV show so special that it rivalled anything scripted. As a huge fan of social deduction games, this was the concept taken to the top, in all its scheming brilliance. No show had my mouth on the floor as much as this one did this year and if you still haven’t got around to it, I genuinely think you’ll still be rewarded.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race – So, I got really into Drag Race this year. I’ve watched huge amounts of the show (and it’s probably a large reason why I’ve seen so few other shows this year), but the 2022 entries I’ve seen are US14, UK4, Canada vs The World and the legendary All Stars 7, the all winners season. If I’m forced to pick one season, it would be All Stars, a victory lap for the franchise if ever there was one.

Taskmaster (UK and NZ)Taskmaster remains one of the single funniest shows on TV and the reason I’ve included the New Zealand version on this too is that the format is so rock solid that even when you don’t know any of the comedians, you can still laugh so hard that it hurts. Greg and Alex are probably TV’s strongest double act right now and we should treasure them.

The Boys S3The Boys has never been the best show on TV and it probably never will be. However, it is the most fun, the purest example of what I think TV could be and once was. Week after week, it was the show I wanted to talk to people about, the show that I got excited watching and the show that I am still excited to watch whenever its next season arrives.

The Suspect – I’m still not entirely sure if The Suspect is any good or not, but it was compelling! It was one of those ITV dramas where it’s moody and has twists and is a little trashy, but totally watchable from the first scene to the last. Like The Boys, it reminded me why I love TV as a medium.


“For the Last Time” – Five Years of Twin Peaks: The Return

By now, you probably know me. I love Twin Peaks. It is a show that does things for me that even shows I love more cannot do. It’s also a show that I will take any excuse to talk about for annoying lengths of time and this time, that excuse is the five year anniversary of the release of the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return. Let me set up what the angle is here then. This isn’t me reviewing all of The Return, this definitely isn’t me trying to explain what the show is about or what certain scenes mean, it’s just me talking about how I feel about these first two episodes after five years with them. I’ve seen the whole show twice before and am rewatching it again for this piece (and for a follow up one in September about the finale), so it’ll be a mix of me talking about things I’ve picked up this time and also reflecting on what it felt like back in that first summer of Twin Peaks. There will obviously be some spoilers for these episodes in the post, but by now you either have seen the show, will never watch the show or don’t click on articles where I chat Twin Peaks, I think we’re all clear.

We knew this would be the return of Twin Peaks. Anything more than that, you have to tune in.

In the run up to Twin Peaks making its grand return, we knew basically nothing about what the show was going to be. Eventually, we started to be drip fed information. One of the earliest and most curious pieces of information was a full cast list, which contained a bunch of surprising names. Monica Bellucci? Sky Ferreira? Michael Cera? It was odd and especially among the expected returning cast, a lot of these newer names stood out. What role they would play in the show we didn’t know but we knew to expect them around in some form or another. More cryptic teasers appeared in the run-up to release and offered just the barest of information about what was to come. First, it really was absolutely nothing, just footage of Angelo Badalamenti playing iconic music from the series, to the point where footage of David Lynch eating a donut felt like a big step up. Eventually, some of the final teasers gave us fleeting glimpses of iconic locations or characters from the original series and then, that was that. We knew this would be the return of Twin Peaks. Anything more than that, you have to tune in on 21st of May (or be at Cannes, but we can’t all be that lucky).

The first two episodes were released as one “feature length presentation”, which is why I’m clumping them together and though I really am going to try to not just talk this through scene by scene, I need to spend a moment on how well the opening sets us up. We open in the Black Lodge, the most iconic Twin Peaks visual there is. In fact, we open with footage from the original show, as Laura Palmer says to Agent Cooper “I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…” Cut to, 25 years after we had last been in Twin Peaks, we are reunited with Coop and a character we will come to know as The Fireman. The Fireman gives both Cooper and the audience a series of clues that will help decipher the mystery, in a way that feels reminiscent of Lynch himself giving audience members clues to decipher Mulholland Drive. These clues all come back into play by the end of the series, but also don’t expect them to reveal the true hidden meaning or anything like that. They’re for exploration, not guiding. Coop says “I understand” but as an audience member, feel no shame if you don’t, whether on viewing one or five.

If this were a revival show in the same way that other classic shows have had revivals, we would immediately move from this into a scene of another beloved character getting up to classic hijinks. We kind of do, these early episodes have a surprising balance of that, but it isn’t quite that simple. The scene following the Fireman’s clues is one of Doctor Jacoby getting a delivery of spades. It’s odd in a way that Jacoby is odd, but not… Well, not immediately punchy. The payoff is worth the wait, but I remember initial confusion about why we were shown something that felt unsatisfying. The only immediately satisfying reunion is that of Ben and Jerry Horne, owners of the Great Northern Hotel. Little seems to have changed for them since the season two finale, with Ben still being a sleazeball who tries his best and Jerry being a guy who is free to goof around whenever he pleases. Other than with them, you’re going to have to wait for some really satisfying character moments. Once again, I cannot stress enough how much some of these moments justify their wait (a moment with Big Ed remains one of the most fantastically moving moments I’ve ever seen on TV), but don’t start The Return hungering for immediate comfort.

Things can never be as they were. We can never truly return home.

It’s one of the things that makes this revival such an impressive piece of work, because all our expectations are upended immediately and place us in total suspension. Things can never be as they were. We can never truly return home. Time’s arrow marches on with or without us. Nothing is as brutal a reminder of this as the appearance of The Log Lady. In real life, Log Lady actress and long time Lynch collaborator Catherine Coulson was battling cancer during the production of The Return and revived her character out of adoration for Lynch and Twin Peaks co-writer Mark Frost. There was no way of sugar coating this and so in the show too, The Log Lady is also battling cancer, requiring dialysis tubes and losing her hair due to chemotherapy. Her scenes are patient, as she says the last few messages her log needs to give the world and on the other end of the phone, Deputy Hawk listens with nothing but respect and love.

These scenes are still set in the otherworldly land of Twin Peaks but, as the best of Lynch’s work does, they ground fantastic worlds in understandable emotions; in this case, grief. Not every actor can return to Twin Peaks looking as glam and wonderful as ever, buoyed up by a little medical enhancement and a lot of good genetics. Not every actor can even return, like the much missed David Bowie and Jack Nance. And heartbreakingly, since the premiere of the show, we have lost yet more actors who brought their characters back for one last ride. There’s an argument to be made that because of this, The Return is a show forced half into mourning, which is never felt more strongly than in the absence or the imminent absence of those we have always loved.

Which leaves the question, what do we fill those spaces with? Lynch and Frost’s answer is, a huge world full of loads of other weirdness. In these two episodes alone, we dash between New York, Las Vegas and South Dakota in between our time in the town of Twin Peaks. That felt very weird for me on a first watch. The original run of Twin Peaks worked so well because while it gestured towards a larger world, it was almost always grounded in small town America, aggressively refusing to compromise on that vision. So in going out into the big city, had Lynch and Frost lost their spark? The answer, of course, is no. This isn’t a losing of a spark, just the two channelling their spark into a new circuit. We have good reason to be here, it just might take time before we work out what that reason is.

It might take time for some of those locations, but not New York. An enigmatic setup of a man, watching a box, itself watched by a series of cameras, is disrupted first by a sexual encounter and then by a violent one, as *something* (even now, I don’t have a great answer for what the something is) explodes through the box and murders the two lovers. Whether you know what this story means or not, you can grasp what the emotion means. We aren’t in the cutesy world of the original Twin Peaks series anymore, we’re in the world of David Lynch’s feature films, where sex and violence are hyperreal explosions perforating a surreal status quo. The freedom of modern TV means we don’t have to shy from gore or nudity anymore and Lynch is promising that he won’t. This is far closer to the griminess of Fire Walk With Me than even the darkest moments of classic Twin Peaks.

Sex and violence are hyperreal explosions perforating a surreal status quo.

While Lynch only directed a handful of episodes of the original Twin Peaks, he directed every single of the 18 episodes of The Return, which helps explain why it fits into this broader pattern of his filmography. For a caught up surrealism nerd like me, that was great news then and remains great news now. For those who wanted cutesy fun and a splash of murder, it’s also worth noting that Riverdale came out the same year, and may offer a watered down version of what you want. Because make no doubt, The Return is the show David Lynch wants to make. He doesn’t care if you understand it, he doesn’t care if you like it, he definitely doesn’t care if you think a scene is too long. You either have to take his world exactly as it is or accept that this isn’t for you. There is no shame in that, despite my Riverdale quip, this really is an acquired taste from episode one.

Once you have acquired that taste though? Oh my God, delicious! Re-watching the show, everything fits together so much more comfortably. I’m no longer worried about how (or if) everything will fit together, because I can see the bigger picture of the narrative. That feeling allows moments to really breathe. Comedy can be funnier, scares can be scarier and Matthew Lillard can be more Matthew Lillard. I wanted to talk about him (in my notes this section was just about him) but I had to tie him in to a wider thing somehow. I love his performance in The Return, fitting into the classic trope of a man accused of a murder he’s sure he didn’t commit, a role that offers such delicious room for him to flex the acting muscles.

When I first saw this episode, Lillard was just Shaggy from Scooby Doo for me (an admittedly great time, no slander here), but now that I’ve seen him in films like Scream, I have a better appreciation for him as a performer. The guy is crazy versatile and if you too only know him from those crazy roles in the nineties and early noughties, just watch his scenes from this on YouTube and prepare to have your socks knocked off. He is frightened, forceful and furious in incredibly subtle ways, balancing on the edge of about six different knives. Lillard gives one of the best performances in The Return and the more you see of the show, the more you’ll realise what an immense compliment that is. If you had any fears about what new characters might do to pollute a world you loved, he assuages them immediately.

“Shadow” evokes a comfort in me that everything will be alright, yet it still allows an excitement about the uncertainty to come.

And finally, after a very bonkers two hours, we reach the end of the episode. We’ve watched the Black Lodge tear itself apart (a metaphor so perfect I’m furious I never wrote an academic essay on it), seen old friends show their age and also been introduced to the new threads that we’ll spend the next 16 hours following, probably. So we have earnt one last return to Twin Peaks and where better to cool down than The Road House or, as it has now been trendily updated to, The Bang Bang Bar. Playing at the bar are the band Chromatics with their song “Shadow”, a song that now never fails to give me goosebumps. It is quietly and ethereally beautiful, excellent in ways that I am far too stupid to actually explain other than “it fits the vibe very well”. The song evokes a comfort in me that everything will be alright, yet it still allows an excitement about the uncertainty to come. There are plenty of other amazing songs played in The Road House, but “Shadow” is the perfect one for this moment.

In this scene, we also get one last reunion, as we are reunited with Shelly and James, two of the characters from the original series with the most screen time. Here we find Lynch and Frost at their sappiest, allowing two characters to reminisce. Though it was pretty much immediately made fun of by many fans, Shelly’s line “[James] has always been cool” always landed for me. It’s a lie, but a lovely one to indulge in, a rare moment where The Return does feel like the show fans expected it to be. Even this is undercut though by the appearance of actor Walter Olkewicz, last seen 26 years ago as Jaques Renault, a character who died. Why is he here? Is this the same character? Perhaps The Road House exists in a different world than the rest of the show? These three questions will never get conclusive answers, yet their appearance is the needed salt to undercut the sweetness of Shelly’s comment about James. No matter what it looks like, this will not be the return you expect from Twin Peaks.

There was so much just in these two episodes that I never got to mention. The first appearance of a woodsman, the brilliant use of uncanny CGI and the excellence of Kyle MacLachlan in two of what will eventually be four roles. The Return is so dense that after five years, it doesn’t feel like we’ve come close to finding everything and yet it is also so well balanced that this density is never cumbersome. Regardless, at this point you have to go along for the ride that Lynch, Frost and all their collaborators are taking you on, because the places they are going are wonderful and strange. I’ll be back in September to talk about the last two episodes so if you’re looking for my thoughts on the stuff in the middle, just message me, talk to me, demand my ever-so-interesting thoughts on the way “Episode 8” fits in with a globally surreal vision of the impact of the atomic bomb. But until then, I’ll write on something more accessible, I promise. Maybe another review, remember those?