The 2015 Review, Part One

December rolls around and I look back at the year that was. All in all, 2015 was one of the worst years on record for me. Tension with family, friends, and at work that built until they were ready to explode, and the back-to-back deaths of my grandfather and uncle, amongst other things, sapped my usually cheery demeanor away, turning me into a generally morose bastard. I’m hoping 2016 will be better, and I’m trying to improve my outlook in preparation for that. So I decided to go through 2015 and find the things that I actually enjoyed, and why.

Here are some of them.

Hop Along – Painted Shut

Music is a language of emotion more than specific ideas, and it communicates on that spectrum better than any other medium. As with my top pick for last year, Cloud Nothing’s Here and Nowhere Else, Painted Shut is an album that I felt instant attachment to, because Frances Quinlan has a voice that reached into my heart and pulled out everything I was trying so hard both to feel and to not feel.

“Texas Funeral” was the soundtrack to the rides to and from my grandfather’s own funeral. I didn’t hear any of the words except for chorus’s emotional refrain. As long as it was loud enough, it all made sense.

As with most albums that I love, I obsessed with each song in turn. Painted Shut is strong throughout, with nothing that I’d skip, but it was those distinct emotional highs that I wanted. The second chorus and bridge of “Waitress”, the build and release of “Well-Dressed”, and even the strained harmonizing of state names in “I Saw My Twin” were instant standouts, but every song had its turn as my favourite for at least few days.

Quinlan has a voice that’s all her own, and I adore that about the band. It is an instrument, after all, and there’s something special about the ones that really stand out. I’ve been a fan of the likes of Joanna Newsom for years, and no small part of that is how she sounds unlike anyone else, even after mellowing out. Hop Along has that distinction in spades, with Quinlan soaring in all the right places, and cracking just enough to show what lies beneath. It’s a tightrope act, but Painted Shut pulls it off perfectly.

Hop Along helped me through some rough afternoons, and for that I will always remember them, and be grateful.

Inside No. 9 – “The 12 Days of Christine”

Like most, I first encountered Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith as part of the League of Gentlemen (which also included Mark Gatiss, who later played Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock) in their self-titled, character-based sketch comedy that ran for 3 series and a movie back at the end of the ’90s and beginning of the 2000s. It was a fun mixture of horror, black comedy, and plain old weirdness that was destined for cult status. Royston Vasey is not for everyone. But it’s for someone, and that someone happens to be me.

They worked together again on Psychoville, another diverse comedy with the same sort of dark humour. It was also good, and also not for everyone.

More recently, Pemberton and Shearsmith have been writing and co-starring in Inside No. 9, an anthology series that is, perhaps, more accessible than their previous shows. While every episode has some comedy, and there is often a twist of darkness involved, it’s less surreal. But it’s no less experimental. The only common element in each episode is a focus on a single location with the number 9–usually a street or apartment address, so there’s a lot of room in which to play around.

It shows its cards early. The second episode of the first series, “A Quiet Night In,” is a half-hour of television without any dialogue. Not the sort of thing you see every day. Set in a spacious house, it follows Pemberton and Shearsmith as a pair of burglars trying to complete their robbery unnoticed while the occupants go about their evening of eating, watching television, and arguing.

A standout effort even if it had failed–and it succeeds masterfully, it won me over after the first episode was on the predictable side. If that’s all Inside No. 9 every accomplished, I’d still rank it as an great show.

Then came “The 12 Days of Christine,” the second episode of the second series. Not a comedy, not their usual brand of horror, and not any sort of overtly dark thriller. It wasn’t as experimental as “A Quiet Night In,” nor as off-the-wall as their other shows. But it soon became my favourite thing that these two have ever done, and the best episode of anything I watched all year. And maybe all decade.

Staring Sheridan Smith as Christine, it plays out the 12 days as snapshots of her life over the years. She meets a man, they fall in love, then out of love, and she gives birth to and raises a son, all while her mother and absent-minded father hover in the background. Smith is spectacular, and the story moves along nicely as a straight drama, with aspects of a classic ghost story with something bubbling underneath. The clues start to pile up, and the events take on an increasingly tense tone, until it all comes together in an intense and emotional denouement. I had to watch it again as soon as it was over, and it worked just as well the second time, and the third, as the little details became more apparent. The script is tight as can be, without a single wasted second, and it’s held together with strong directing.

Watch this show, and this episode in particular. I can’t wait to see what they pull off in series 3.

That’s today’s effort. I feel better already. And there’s more to come. And then Dark Souls stuff, too, I swear.

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