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Erin Doherty in The Crown. Photo/Supplied

The best and worst TV moments of 2019

“And what era are we in now, do you suppose, the frighteningly modern?” – Queen Elizabeth, season three, The Crown.

Television guided us through an emotional roller coaster of a year marked by relentless plot twists, dark humour, horrific reality – and Mark Richardson.

In 1964, Her Majesty couldn’t have foreseen how frighteningly modern – and bewilderingly postmodern – things would become half a century later. Her middle son broadcasting outlandish disclaimers – “There’s a slight problem with the sweating” – and tweeting about his “ill-judged” association with Jeffrey Epstein; her own high-rating life and times playing out on Netflix as if one was tearing up the time and space continuum in a wonky Windsor Tardis …

2019: what a time to be alive. Brexit, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson – it’s like a television social experiment to see if toddlers can run the world. Children at the US/Mexico border in cages, anti-Semitism as a defining election issue in the UK, the planet burning … You couldn’t switch on without doing a Greta Thunberg: how bloody dare you, 2019?

Television tackled the zeitgeist with drama that amounted to a catalogue of malfunctioning humanity: The Handmaid’s Tale, Unbelievable, about a rape victim not believed; the too-plausible future shocks of BBC/HBO’s Years and Years, apocalyptic human error on Chernobyl.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the title character in Fleabag. Photo/Supplied

How can local television compete? Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy showed a young John Clarke distilling the difficulties of making high art at the ends of the Earth: “I should now like to perform for you The Ring Cycle by Wagner,” he told an expectant audience, “but I can’t.” Yet, in some ways, it was a cracker year in television. Three’s The Gulf showed there’s such a thing as Waiheke noir. Paddy Gower got stoned on our behalf in Patrick Gower: On Weed.

There was fine work from some old hands: David Lomas’ gentle family reunion tear-jerker, Lost and Found; Newsroom’s Taken by the State; Melanie Reid’s devastating, influential story of Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to “uplift” a baby from its young mother. Okay, actually, boomers.

Bad news for MediaWorks: it’s trying to flog off its loss-making television operation. TV3 began in 1989, thinking we wanted Mickey Mouse and The Golden Girls. It was on air for only a few months before the receivers were called in. It carried on to change the face of local television: The Ralston Group, Nightline, The Topp Twins, bro’Town, Outrageous Fortune, Campbell Live, The Jaquie Brown Diaries, 7 Days, Jono and Ben, Harry, The Hui … This essential outlet must survive.

Kate Elliott and Ido Drent in The Gulf. Photo/Supplied

The Rugby World Cup? We lost. Winners, South Africa, took the opportunity to offer inspiration in fragmented times. Captain Siya Kolisi: “We come from different backgrounds, different races, and we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it.”

2019: a tough year. The aftermath of the eruption of Whakaari/White Island. The March 15 Christchurch mosque shootings: 2019 crushed faith in humanity. A massacre streamed live showed the darkest side of the democratisation of the media. Television still brought a nation together, as the Muslim community set about restoring that faith with open-hearted courage and forgiveness. Our network rose to their example, as did our Prime Minister, and the world stopped and watched. For a time, at least, this was us.

For some, whatever era it is we are currently in can seem frighteningly modern. Drowning out the roaring of dinosaurs sensing an extinction crisis, the media has stepped up to embrace te reo. Along with Māori Television, shows such as TVNZ’s The Casketeers and Three’s Moving Out with Kanoa ensure we sound more like us; like nowhere else on Earth.

2019: time for the traditional woefully subjective trawl through some peaks and troughs of a battered but unbowed year. Ngā mihi o te tau hou. Happy New Year.

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale. Photo/Supplied

Best Drama Not Involving Mark Richardson: The Handmaid’s Tale, Unbelievable, Three’s The Gulf.

The Tony Soprano and Walt White Award for Setting Your Moral Compass on High Rotate: SoHo 2’s Mr Inbetween, Australian black comedy about remorseless hitman Ray Shoesmith, who doesn’t like to kill a bug: “You have to draw the line somewhere.”

Actor of the Year: Scott Ryan as Ray Shoesmith.

Comedy of the Year: Fleabag – fierce, funny, female and filter-free.

Best Actress in a Drama: Erin Doherty as a hilarious – and scary – Princess Anne in The Crown; Kate Elliott, brilliant in The Gulf; Elisabeth Moss, warrior princess in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Best Actress in Just About Anything Ever: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.

Best Olivia Colman in a Colman-packed Year: She’s the Queen in The Crown and equally as imperious as Godmother in Fleabag.

Best Performance by a Sinister Overbite: Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies.

Best Finale No One But Me Liked: Game of Thrones.

Spoiler Alert: Sorry, even Daenerys’ dragon knew Jon Snow had to kill her.

Merritt Weaver and Toni Collette in Unbelievable. Photo/Supplied

The Let Them Eat Cake Award: I blame the housing market for compulsive, tormenting, aspirational lifestyle porn such as Grand Designs, Escape to the Continent, The Block NZ

The Let Them Watch Cake Award: We’re not supposed to eat actual cake, either, thus The Great Kiwi Bake Off, etc. Cheers to Netflix’s Nailed It! – talentless punters recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in marzipan, producing horrors so emetic you will become gluten-free forever.

The Kevin McCloud has Much to Answer For Award: Grand Designs NZ – big shoes to fill, really quite good.

Unthreatening Diffidence in a Worthy Cause: Louis Theroux weaponises his owlish gaze on campus sexual assault in The Night in Question, and returns to those hateful Christians in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family.

The Theroux a Glass Darkly Award for Doing a Louis: Patrick Gower: On Weed.

Zinger of the Year: “I’ve got more terms left in me than some of the people asking that question.” – Winston Peters, prince of schadenfreude, to Newshub’s Tova O’Brien not long after MediaWorks announced its sell-off plans.

Documentary of the Year: Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy – a reminder that John Clarke was a freakin genius; Newsroom’s Taken by the State.

Send in the Clowns Award: Duncan Garner, Mark Richardson, Fox News and the man who runs America.

The Flush With Power Award: Donald Trump. “The water comes dripping out, very quietly dripping … People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times …” What?

Words of the Year: “How dare you?” – Greta Thunberg. “Okay, boomer.” – Chlöe Swarbrick. “Plonker.” – yes, Winston Peters.

The Better Value than Obama Award: Star of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert came to New Zealand, didn’t play golf and claimed to love us on his show.

Jacinda Ardern and Stephen Colbert. Photo/Getty Images

Media Disaster of the Year: TVNZ banned hair straighteners on its premises. Oh, the humidity.

The Six Feet Under Award for Entertaining Undertakers: Cheery funeral folk, the Tipenes, in The Casketeers.

This year’s coveted We’ll Be Back After the Breakdown Award for On Air Emotion: The Breakfast team bid farewell to newsreader Daniel Faitaua; the All Blacks after their World Cup loss.

The Wonderful Mrs Malaprop Award: America’s Got Talent judge Julianne Hough for “I’m going to go out on a whim and say you have a shot at winning this whole thing!”

The Out on a Whim Award for Cultural Insight: Stephen Colbert’s “How much is your national economy based on whimsy?”

Deleted Tweet of the Year: Judith Collins calls herself a “woman of colour” (white, apparently).

Royals on Safari: Before being comprehensively upstaged by Prince Andrew, Harry and Meghan take little Archie to Africa in An African Journey and get the UK’s carnivorous red tops in their sights.

Terms of Endearment: “Bubbikins” – The Crown’s eccentric Princess Alice’s pet name for her irascible son, Prince Philip. “Mr Flash White Teeth” – Winston Peters admires Mark Richardson’s dentistry. “Sometimes I really dislike you, Paddy.” – Richardson shares on that emotional roller coaster, The Project.

The Mother of Dragons Award: The Project’s Kanoa Lloyd, for schooling Winston Peters and Mark Richardson: “Do you reckon you could just choose to both be the grown-ups that you are and treat each other respectfully from here on in?”

Excruciating Interview of the Year: Hannah Tamaki outlining her political plans – “Not telling, hahaha” – to Lisa Owen on Checkpoint.

Excruciating Broadcasting Standards Authority ruling: It’s apparently okay for a guest on a Sky Sports show to say an All Black should be red-carded for being a “Jew” because a women’s magazine is paying for his wedding. Who knew?

Animal of the Year: Deborah the Zebra, the statue stolen from the Broken Car Collection Company in Onehunga, returned with help from Seven Sharp; Owha the injured seal who lived to play again at Auckland’s Westhaven marina; the late Congo, the primate painter – fans included Picasso and Miró – gets a solo show.

Never Work with Kids or Mark Richardson: Fill-in host Ryan Bridge forgives his capricious colleague for accidentally outing him on The AM Show.

History Schmistory Award: “It manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports …” Donald Trump’s Fourth of July speech shows he has the revolutionary army of 1775 confused with an episode of Doctor Who. “We beat the British because they had to connect through Atlanta,” noted someone on Twitter.

Lessons from History: HBO’s Chernobyl: wilfully deluded bureaucrats more concerned with ideology and political survival than the people they are supposed to serve, anyone?

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

They said what?

“We are heading back to 5.30 with Jude.” – Jude Dobson’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars provokes alarming flashbacks.

“I’m not going to make you feel good about impregnating two women simultaneously.” – Peak Aussie dialogue on comedy drama Five Bedrooms.

“I won’t have a dysfunctional geriatric call me a rat.” – Peak Winston Peters.

“Live streaming turned into live screaming!” – 1 News’ Kim Baker Wilson reports on Spark’s Rugby World Cup debacle.

“They’ll be shitting themselves, quite frankly.” – Sir Graham Henry, referring not to Spark customers but the All Blacks before their game against South Africa.

“Yes, I know how it feels, you’ll shed a tear but for God’s sake we don’t need to hear about it!” – Mark Richardson would like the All Blacks to harden the $%#@ up.

“Oh, I’m on! I don’t know what I’m doing!” – He should be in primetime but John Campbell still brightens Breakfast.

“That f---ing family.” – Not the royals but close: the dysfunctional Lannisters on Game of Thrones.

“Ooh, it looks like New Zealand has won. Oh no!” – John Campbell, beside himself over England’s win-ish in the Cricket World Cup.

“I won’t be bullied into playing the game that killed my mum.” – Prince Harry on the warpath.

“Women have two naughty bits, men have one naughty bit. Boobies are still naughty.” – Punishing boobie-splaining from Mark Richardson.

“The reason you have to lift the pans off the stove for a lady is for health and safety.” – Celebrity chef Marco Pierre White annoys Kanoa Lloyd on The Project.

“Good riddance.” – Winston Peters shows solidarity with some journalists at the beleaguered MediaWorks.

“I couldn’t give a rat’s derrière what he thinks.” – Winston Peters speaks for a weary nation about the opinions of Mark Richardson.

“It’s as far away as I could get from our news without getting pecked to death by penguins.” – Why The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert paid us a visit.

“It comes down. It’s called rain. They don’t know what to do with it.” – Trump’s historic thoughts on plumbing.

“This looks like a Pop-Tart filled with sadness.” – We subject Colbert to toastie pies and other white bread-based Kiwi atrocities.

“Look, my friend, good and bad is everywhere.” – Abdul Aziz, who saved lives at the Linwood Mosque. “New Zealand is one of the best countries.” There’s something to hope for in 2020.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.