james debate
james debate

Thursday 27 December 2018

debbie debbies end of year awards 2018 best films music
There is a tale that has been passed down through countless generations.  It tells of an end of year awards ceremony of unmatched scale and ferocity, the likes of which would never be seen again. This is that awards ceremony, an all-encompassing review of the world today. It is time once again for The Ephemeric's famous annual tradition. It's The Debbie Awards.

You'd never know it from watching the news, but there has never been a better time to be alive. We're living longer and healthier lives, poverty and hunger is on the decline, and for all the absurdity and chaos of the moment there is still ample reason for optimism. As always, The Debbies serve as a record of all that is good and noteworthy. Artistic endeavours, technological accomplishment, the pulse of business and politics. This event is about celebrating the best that human creativity and ingenuity has had to offer.

So without further ado, let the curtain fall upon 2018 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months:

2018 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX)
Runner Up: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

american crime story assassination of gianni versace fx best tv show 2018

While the first season of American Crime Story may have garnered more attention and plaudits for its coverage of the more notorious OJ Simpson trial, this follow up, focusing on the spate of serial killings which culminated in the titular assassination of a fashion icon, exceeded its predecessor in every way. Bolder and more artistically inclined, the Assassination of Gianni Versace made for a stylistically dazzling character piece, underpinned by an unforgettable Darren Criss performance.

In second place by barely a whisker is the brilliant The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. A love letter to a bygone era of Golden Age New York, Maisel is a sublime production of impeccable writing and composition which survives on far more than mere nostalgia. Pitch perfect casting and razor sharp wit make this the most charming series in years, and easily the best thing to come out of Amazon's original content department yet.

2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: A Very English Scandal (BBC)
Runner Up: The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

very english scandal bbc hugh grant best new tv show 2018

Hugh Grant is having something of a career renaissance in recent years, and in BBC's A Very English Scandal he may have found his most effective vehicle yet. A dramatisation of the true story of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, and his attempts to conceal a homosexual affair by having his former lover assassinated. Grant's exquisite performance makes for a character study in megalomania and paranoia, but its sharp scripting deftly balances the dark societal context against the clearly humorous absurdity of the whole situation. Scandal makes for another delightful addition to the pantheon of satirical political drama in the age of House of Cards and Death of Stalin.

The Haunting of Hill House takes second place, and Netflix's acclaimed horror series could well have taken top spot if not for the weak finale. Hill House provides more than its share of chills, albeit in a more sophisticated manner than simply another lazy jump scare. The production quality is very impressive, visually striking and adventurously filmed (one episode is filmed almost entirely in a single take). Most of all though it's the subtle touches which impress: the hidden ghosts in the background throughout the series, the way props and statues subtly change from shot to shot. A lot of care and attention to detail has gone into this production and it shows.

3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: First Man
Runners Up: A Quiet Place, Roma

first man damian chazelle ryan gosling claire foy best film 2018

Had a very difficult time with this category in 2018. Ultimately I decided to award to prize to director Damian Chazelle's follow up to La La Land, First Man. This is, of course, the biopic of first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, with most of the focus on the man himself, his personality and his motivations. It marks an intriguing change in milieu for the director of the aforementioned La La Land and Whiplash away from a musical and classical Hollywood influence. That he has managed to pull off such an accomplished prestige picture at this early stage of his career just goes to show how talented a filmmaker he really is.

And it's a split decision for our runner up position. The first name of honour is John Krasinski's (yes, Jim from The Office) excellent directorial debut A Quiet Place. Any filmmaker will tell you how difficult it is telling a story with no dialogue, and that Krasinski manages to pull it off and craft so compelling a narrative illustrates a very promising talent indeed. One of the horror highlights of the last several years, and a promising start to a new director's career.

Third place goes to Roma, the new film from Alfonso Cuarón, and most critics' frontrunner heading into awards season. The last time we saw Cuarón he was winning the Oscar for the excellent Gravity, and the smart money seems to be on him taking home that prize again this year. This is one of those occasions where I find myself at odds with the critical consensus. Roma is certainly a visually beautiful film, utterly perfect from a technical and filmmaking point of view, but is visual and technical skill the only yardstick by which we judge a film? Ultimately it's a lovely little film, but with the type of intimate, low-key story that probably means more to the filmmaker than anyone in the audience. A wonderful artistic work, but not the best film this year.

4. The Debbie for Variety Show Host of the Year 
Winner: David Letterman, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction 
Runner Up: Stephen Colbert, The Late Show

david letterman my next guest needs no introduction talk show host of the year 2018

If 2018 was good for something it was the return to television of legendary talk show host David Letterman, with the excellent new Netflix variety show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. The concept is simple, the great David hosts a series of full length interviews with some of the most prominent individuals in the world. Season 1 guests included Barack Obama, Malala, and George Clooney. This extended format provides for some fascinating watching, the kind that you can't get on those ten minute segments they allow for on regular broadcast TV.

It's been another strong year for Stephen Colbert, host of the Late Show. The increasingly charged political obsession in America clearly suits his humour, and increasingly he is becoming an essential voice in the media firmament. Political commentary is, after all, how Colbert made his name on the Daily Show and later his own Colbert Report. The past year has shown us that he still has the touch.

5. The Debbie for Hollywood Rising Star of the Year 
Winner: Olivia Colman
Runner Up: John Krasinksi

olivia colman breakthrough star of the year 2018 the favourite crown

What a year it has been for Olivia Colman, star of the awards-tipped The Favourite, and soon to be star of The Crown as she steps into Claire Foy's hard-to-fill shoes. Colman is also set to take a leading role in BBC's new Les Miserables mini-series. It's been a bumper year for this star in the making, and the upcoming awards season could be a big one for her.

John Krasinksi makes for another strong contender. His directorial debut A Quiet Place met with near unanimous critical acclaim and awards buzz, and he additionally starred in Amazon's very well received Jack Ryan series. Krasinski has struggled somewhat to break free of The Office since that show's end some six years ago, but heading into 2019 he finds himself very much back on Hollywood's A-list.

6. The Debbie for YouTube Channel of the Year 
Winner: Isaac Arthur

debbies youtube channel of the year isaac arthur 2018

YouTube has come a long way in recent years, moving on from lame Vlogs and people narrating themselves playing videogames. This year, the top prize goes to the channel of Isaac Arthur. I don't know who Isaac is or what he does for a living, but on his YouTube channel he puts out extremely in-depth science videos of a shockingly high quality. For the most part, these videos consider the science behind potential future technologies or hypothetical concepts in the public discourse. Previous topics of conversation have included life extension technologies, societal reforms, space colonisation, general astronomy and physics. What makes these videos great is that he doesn't analyse the ideas from a fantastical science fiction point of view as you would normally see in media, but from the cold hard reality of science fact. The result is something that is both educational and a surprisingly considered look at what the future might hold.

Music, Art & Theatre

7. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre)
Runner Up: Hadestown (National Theatre)

lehman trilogy national simon russell beale best theatre 2018

The National Theatre has been on form this year, and top of an impressive lineup was the excellent The Lehman Trilogy. The ambitious production navigates the 164 year history of the notorious investment bank, from the arrival of three immigrant brothers in 1800s America, to the 2008 financial crisis which led to the firm's collapse. Most impressive is the performance of the three lead actors, tackling a range of characters and personalities without breaking stride. Hugely entertaining, essential theatre.

The National takes runner up position as well, with the London premiere of the latest musical out of the US, Hadestown. This addictive reinterpretation of the classical mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice features all the catchy tunes and inventive stagecraft that one expects from a modern musical, and no doubt will find an extended life on the West End when this run is complete.

8. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - The 1975
Runners Up: Little Dark Age - MGMT

the 1975 brief inquiry into online relationships best album 2018

The 1975 is a band that seems to be getting better and better. The debut album showed raw promise, the second greater consistency and finesse. With the third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, the band has delivered a work of higher ambition. The music is more diverse, the lyrics more poignant, and there are some great tunes included. It's Not Living (If It's Not With You) is a great track, while singles Give Yourself a Try and TooTimeTooTimeTooTime are also fine numbers. Very solid work from a band that is fast becoming essential listening.

A close runner up (I'm about 50/50). MGMT's latest album, Little Dark Age marks a strong return to form for the mercurial trailblazers. Infectious, memorable pop music, without sacrificing the artistry for which the band is known. Title track Little Dark Age and Hand it Over are clear standout tracks, but the album is consistent and high quality throughout in a way that the band hasn't been since their much acclaimed debut.

9. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: Heaven's Only Wishful - MorMor
Runner Up: Parcels - Parcels

mormor heaven's only wishful best debut album 2018

2018 turned out to be a fine year for new musicians coming through. Our pick of the bunch goes not to a full debut LP, but the hugely promising EP of MorMor, Heaven's Only Wishful. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist's eclectic style spans a variety of genres and musical techniques, and while it's undoubtedly rough around the edges, great tracks like the titular Heaven's Only Wishful and Waiting on the Warmth make clear just how much talent the boy has. MorMor is hard at work on a full LP due next year, and the first track to be revealed so far, Pass the Hours, suggests it will be a cracker.

A veteran of our 2017 Hot List, Parcels finally delivered their eponymous debut LP in 2018 and it did not disappoint. Smooth, impeccably produced pop with catchy numbers like Tieduprightnow, Lightenup, and Withorwithout. Imagine The Strokes crossed with (Random Access Memories era) Daft Punk and that's a pretty good indication. A fine debut.

10. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: Fireworks - First Aid Kit
Runners Up: Graffiti - Chvrches, Little Dark Age - MGMT

first aid kit fireworks best song 2018

Picking one out of the multitudes of great songs one hears during a year is no easy task. Which is why I like to hedge my bets and pick three. This year I'm giving the top prize to First Aid Kit's gleaming, bittersweet ode to faded relationships, Fireworks. This was a special album overall, and unlucky to miss out on our top three of that category, but this track in particular has one of those lingering qualities that will stick with you.

Not mentioned so far, but Chvrches had a fine album released during 2018, and Graffiti is the essential tune from that record. What you might call a heart-grabbing track which epitomises the inventiveness and energy that typifies this band at their best.

Lastly a shout out to the title track from MGMT's excellent new album, Little Dark Age. With shades of Robert Smith and The Cure, Little Dark Age harkens back to the sound that made the band such a success with their debut Oracular Spectacular, and is particularly reminiscent of Time To Pretend. An excellent track from a band that finally seems to be finding the right balance of artistry and mainstream appeal.

11. The Debbie for Live Performance of the Year 
Winner: Paul McCartney
Runner Up: Caro Emerald

paul mccartney best live performance 2018

We've been fortunate to have some really fantastic performers in London over the last year, but among all of them it's hard to top an evening with one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Paul McCartney. Sir Paul is getting on at 76 years of age, but that doesn't seem to have affected him all that much with a new album in 2018 on top of a worldwide tour. And what a tour it has been. Most musicians occupy the first half of the evening with support acts, and then give you one or two hours, if you're lucky, on stage. Paul has been touring without a support act, so that he can go out and give a full three hour tour of his long and storied career. Not only does he spin a good tale or two, but his energy could put most of his much younger contemporaries to shame. That the evening finished off with a surprise Beatles reunion (Ringo joining for the encore) was the topper on a very memorable event.

In any other year Caro Emerald would surely have won, but come on how do you top a Beatles reunion? Caro is the perfect example of a musician who thrives on the live performance. Her music is very good anyway, a full gamut of swing music from classical jazz to more exotic, latin-infused styles, with great tracks like That ManStuck, and A Night Like This. But seeing her on stage takes good music and makes it truly great. Part of that is down to her natural, oozing charisma, but much of it is due to her infectious love of the music - before each song she'll set the mood and give you the background on the musicians and instruments being used in a particular song. A hypnotically beautiful evening for music lovers.

12. The Debbie for Art Exhibition of the Year 
Winner: Oceania at The Royal Academy of Arts
Runner Up: Bacon/Giacometti at The Beyeler Foundation

oceania royal academy london best art exhibition 2018

The year long restoration process has turned London's Royal Academy of Arts into a truly top class venue for exhibitions, a fact that could not have been made more apparent than through this year's excellent flagship show, Oceania. The collection of Pacific artwork and cultural items is impressive, but it's the curation and detailed gallery design which is so beyond anything we've seen from the Royal Academy in quite some time. If they can maintain this high standard then we can't wait to see what comes next.

13. The Debbie for Book of the Year 
Winner: Death's End (Three-Body Problem trilogy) by Liu Cixin

death's end three body problem liu cixin best novel book 2018

Technically not a 2018 novel, but the English translation did finally reach us last year, so I'm counting it. This is the third and final novel in Chinese author Liu Cixin's Three-Body Problem trilogy, Death's End. It's difficult to describe the trilogy in any way without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say this is remarkable science fiction, massive in scope and impressive in its creativity. Notably this is a rare example of science fiction that adheres strictly to known science and the limitation of physics, without compromising its fantastical vision. There are moments which will frustrate, with clunky dialogue and characters who act in bizarre, unrealistic ways, but the concepts and imagery is so startling, so memorable, that it will stick with you nonetheless. By the time I got to the third book, I was so hooked that I ended up reading all 600 pages in two days flat, basically nonstop.

Business & Technology

14. The Debbie for Scientific/Technological Breakthrough of the Year 
Winner: SpaceX launches the Falcon Heavy

spacex falcon heavy launch mars elon musk best important technological breakthrough 2018

Every so often you witness an event that puts things in a new perspective, something so impressive and historic that it renews your faith in the ingenuity and brilliance of mankind. Elon Musk's SpaceX is a company with a history of exciting accomplishment already under their belt: first private company to launch and dock a spacecraft with the space station, groundbreaking self-landing rocket technology, and hugely ambitious plans to put humans in space and go to Mars. This year saw their most impressive feat to date, the launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket. That video is truly remarkable. This is the most powerful rocket currently in operation, and one of the most powerful ever built. Musk chose to show off this capability by launching his Tesla into Mars orbit, resulting in that incredible image of his car in orbit. The show then finished with each of the booster rockets landing autonomously back on Earth. All this for a fraction of the usual cost of launch. The potential impact of such cheap, powerful launch capability can't be overstated. This really has the potential to finally open up space to general commerce and expansion. The next few years should be very exciting.

15. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: Nintendo Switch

nintendo switch best console for gaming

It was always going to be difficult to follow up its incredible debut, but Nintendo's Switch is still very much the console to buy at the moment. Nintendo added to their impressive first party lineup this year with a new Smash Bros game, Mario Party, and an excellent new Mario Tennis title. Add to this an impressive array of third party titles like Diablo 3 and Stardew Valley. Stardew Valley on the go? Yes please. Even aside from the big releases, the Switch's excellent support for indie titles has gone seriously underrated. The Switch increasingly offers something for everyone.

16. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: Red Dead Redemption 2 (Xbox One, PS4)
Runners Up: Two Point Hospital (PC), Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One, PS4, PC)

red dead redemption 2 ii xbox playstation ps4 game of the year 2018

I have made my views clear on Rockstar's all-conquering new Red Dead Redemption 2, and while this is a game with far more technical and design flaws than most people seem to want to acknowledge, there's no denying its genius. Rockstar have created an incredible, massive world that is dripping with life and history, packed full of things to do, and tells a surprisingly moving story. There's enough here to entertain for dozens, if not hundreds of hours, and that's before we even get into the newly launched online mode.

When the former coders of legendary development studio Bullfrog banded together to form a new studio, it was a cause of much celebration among gamers of a certain age. Their first title, Two Point Hospital is a loving remake of Theme Hospital and expertly captures the humour and satisfying gameplay of that title, while adding enough of its own twist and modern gameplay elements to keep things fresh and distinct. We look forward to an exciting future with this studio, and rumour has it that we can expect an entire Two Point Town series of titles based around various simulation genres.

Honourable mention goes to Forza Horizon 4. I'm not usually a big fan of these annual franchise series, but in Horizon 4, the developers have created one of the great driving games of all time. A huge array of cars, detailed customisation options, and massive amounts of events and content make this a near endlessly entertaining game. But it's that incredible open world, set in rural UK based on regions as diverse as the Cotswolds and Edinburgh, that makes it truly memorable.

17. The Debbie for Company of the Year
Winner: Hello Fresh

hello fresh company of the year 2018

This award usually goes to the big tech innovator of the year, firms with high-minded goals and aspirations to change the world, but sometimes you need to step back and admire a good company providing a very clever and high quality service. This year I'm choosing to recognise Hello Fresh, and its line of meal-boxes. Hello Fresh will send you a box once a week with recipes and all the necessary ingredients. All you have to do is cook the meal. It is the ideal delivery service for today's 20/30 something professional. Someone who still wants to cook something more interesting than ready meals or mac and cheese, but doesn't have the time for planning and shopping. It also helps that the recipes are almost all quite excellent.

18. The Debbie for Startup of the Year
Winner: Revolut

revolut small startup company of the year 2018

A good idea is everything these days. Most start-up companies are just variations of variations on a theme. Crypto-this, and p2p-that. Revolut is a company with a good concept with actual application. Imagine all your payment sources in one place: debit card, cryptocurrency, and foreign currency exchange, all seamless, all without additional fees or rip off exchange rates. It's an idea with great potential and one which offers a sensible, practical alternative to digital banking.


19. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Antoine Griezmann - Atletico Madrid

antoine griezmann atletico madrid best footballer player in the world football 2018

Strangely overlooked amid the hype machine of football, but Antoine Griezmann has continued operating at the very highest level, competing for all honours with Atletico Madrid, and subsequently a World Cup winner at the heart of this summer's very impressive France side. Griezmann is a great player not just because of his individual talents, but because of how he enriches his teammates around him wherever he goes. An indispensable player for club and country who could walk into any team.

20. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Kylian Mbappé - PSG

kylian mbappe psg paris monaco best young footballer player in the world 2018

Back to back awards for the hottest thing in football. Kylian Mbappé complete his astonishing £150million transfer to PSG this year, a deal which makes him the second most expensive signing of all time despite his tender age of 20. He then followed that up with an electric World Cup performance which saw his France side end as world champions, and he pick up the award for best young player. There really is no telling what Mbappé can accomplish with his career, and has done so much already.

21. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year 
Winner: Gareth Southgate - England

best football manager in the world 2018 Gareth Southgate

He may not be the popular or obvious candidate, but for me he is the outstanding candidate for 2018. Gareth Southgate may not have won the World Cup this summer, but then no one in their right might expected him to do so. Despite this, he wildly exceeded any expectation and did so with a poise and quiet confidence that should serve as an example for any football manager. Whatever his particular qualities and talents, Southgate has managed to do something that some of the world's best managers have failed, to unite this fractious footballing nation, reinvigorate an ageing team with young energy, and successfully keep an England team focused and dedicated on the pitch.

22. The Debbie for Football Club of the Year 
Winner: Manchester City

football club of the year 2018 manchester city

While they may still not have the brand recognition of their local rivals or one of the giants from Spain, there is little doubt in my mind that Manchester City are the outstanding football club in world football today. It shouldn't come as a surprise given the many hundreds of millions they have spent on players in recent years, but that doesn't take anything away from the fact that they have one of the world's most impressive playing squads and right now look dominant on just about any football pitch. And they've been equally impressive off the pitch with their business endeavours, setting up affiliations with overseas clubs and building an impressive global network. Say what you want about them, but City are the epitome of a modern football club, forward thinking and results-driven.

Current Events

23. The Debbie for Politician of the Year 
Winner: Beto O'Rourke

beto o'rourke politician of the year 2018

It might seem strange to award this prize to a man whose big claim to fame is losing a Senate election, but that defeat might paradoxically catapult Beto O'Rourke to the Presidency in two years. Between his good looks, charisma, and earnest "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" vibe, the three-term Congressman and former musician and small business owner seems to have caught the public imagination in a way that few politicians ever manage. His ill-fated Senate race not only smashed the fundraising records for a Congressional election, but in losing by just 3% he gained a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the deep-red state of Texas in a generation. If Beto can put Texas in play, let alone the much more purple states of Arizona and Georgia, that could make him a very formidable opponent in 2020. Watching him debate this past fall, I was struck by how he refused to sink to the level of his opponent Ted Cruz, and his personal, vitriolic attacks. No matter what Cruz threw at him personally, Beto just responded to his opponent with respect and courtesy, and stayed on message. At the time I thought it was political suicide, but in this day and age a lot of people want to see people like that in politics. There's a movement growing, and it might just carry Beto to the White House.

24. The Debbie for Scandal of the Year 
Winner: The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

jamal khashoggi murder saudi arabia turkey bin salman donald trump scandal 2018 russia

There's a real danger at the moment, with seemingly every day bringing a shocking new scandal somewhere in the world, that we get overloaded by information and allow these things to simply wash over us without impact. One scandal that still shocks me to my core is the murder by the Saudi government of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and all the various satellite scandals around it. This is one of those stories that just gets worse and worse the more you look into it. The brazenness and cover up attempt is shocking, and the fact that there seems to be so little path for recourse reminds us how unjust and unaccountable this world still remains in many ways, even in this day and age.

And this is not just some foreign thing in a far away land, an appallingly underreported aspect of this nightmare is the complicity of the current American regime. Donald Trump openly states that he doesn't care about the murder because of how much money the Saudis pay us, and has to date taken no action against the perpetrators. If that wasn't damning enough, it has also become apparent that Trump's own son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner attempted to aid and advise the Saudis as to how to carry out the cover up and ride out the media storm. If THAT wasn't bad enough, Khashoggi was an American resident and green card holder. The White House has been directly complicit in covering up the murder of an American resident. I don't know how there isn't more outrage about this.

25. The Debbie for Cause of the Year 
Winner: Corruption in politics

corrupt corruption criminalrepublican trump brexit nazi fascist autocracy authoritarian most important issue 2018

It ties into the previous award, but if there's one thing we've learned over the past year it's that there is still a shocking level of corruption in politics. This is not always something as extreme as covering up murder, as above. In the past year we've seen indictments left and right for wire fraud, securities fraud, and fake charities. We've seen the uncovering of a years' long conspiracy to commit electoral fraud. We've seen blatant and completely open attempts at voter suppression against minorities. In one astonishing case, electoral integrity and vote counting was left in the hands of one of the two candidates with no oversight. That's not even getting into sham investigations, sexual crimes being covered up on Supreme Court nominees, gerrymandering, and so much more. It may not be as sexy a campaign issue as healthcare or the environment, but whoever is in charge next needs to make clamping down on corruption a central pillar of their platform. Corruption in American politics is turning out to be far more rampant that we realised, and it poses a grave threat to the integrity of our democracy. Christ, and don't get me started on what's going on in the UK right now.

26. The Debbie for Person of the Year 
Winner: Christine Blasey Ford

christine blasey ford brett kavanaugh metoo me too person of the year 2018

The Ephemeric's person of the year award goes to a woman of remarkable poise and courage, the highly impressive Christine Blasey Ford. If the #MeToo movement has an icon then it is surely her. A professor of psychology and an accomplished researcher, Ford took on herself the spotlight of the world with the story of her assault. She withstood the pressure of a room of 11 antagonistic men, and months of death threats in order to go public, and she did this despite knowing from the example of Anita Hill that little would likely come of it. I don't care what anyone says, but it takes a very brave person to take that kind of pressure and punishment on themselves, and to handle herself with such grace and composure. In doing so, she helped cast her own spotlight on the unacceptable sexism and injustice that still blights this country.

Social & Lifestyle

27. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: Maos, London
Runner Up: The Royal Oak, Whatcote

maos nuno mendes london best restaurant 2018 royal oak whatcote chef's dozen

What happens when London’s hottest chef decides to open an intimate supper club? Something quite special. Maos is the latest project from London culinary royalty Nuno Mendes, formerly of Viajante and more recently of The Chiltern Firehouse. Maos is a truly unique experience, more of a dinner party than a restaurant. Drinks and canapés in the kitchen, mingling with guests and staff alike, and the day finishes off with treats and drinks on the roof terrace. An utterly delightful experience with food to match.

Close behind is The Royal Oak, new restaurant from the people behind Chipping Campden's excellent The Chef's Dozen. Specialists in wild game: braised hare garganelli, pheasant, beef wellington, bread with spreadable pork crackling. Less adventurous diners may need to suspend disbelief, but in doing so they will find a delicious and endlessly creative array of dishes. Very fine addition to English dining.

28. The Debbie for Nightclub/Bar of the Year 
Winner: Eclipse

eclipse south kensington ballr ball pit best bar club london 2018

London has no shortage of fine drinking establishments, but how many are blessed with an adult ball-pit? The answer is "not nearly enough". The venue is cosy, the drinks very fine, but you really have not had a night out like this. Bring a group of your closest friends and feel like a kid again. Just remember to remove your rings and any easily misplaced items ahead of time. Anything that gets dropped in that ball-pit stays dropped.

29. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: The Cotswolds, UK

cotswolds england chipping campden best holiday destination 2018

Ours is a beautiful planet with many jaw-dropping locales to visit. In previous years we have used this prize to celebrate some of the more far-flung and exotic destinations with which we have become enamoured, but equally it's important not to overlook the wonders that lie closer to home. England truly is a beautiful country, its serene countryside easily the match of any place more exotic. Especially the Cotswolds, with its gentle rolling hills, golden afternoon light, and picturesque old towns, practically untouched for hundreds of years. Tuscany? The Alps? I would happily argue that there is no better place to relax and unwind than England's golden pastures.

30. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Lamole di Lamole Vigneto di Campolungo 2013
lamole di lamole vigneto di campolungo 2013 best wine 2018

France earns the plaudits, but give me a hearty Tuscan red any day of the week. If you have to traverse mountain and valley to reach the sleepy and remote commune of Lamole di Lamole, then so be it! This year our pick of the region's wine goes to Lamole's exquisite Campolungo. This award winning bottle is a DOCG gran selezione, which means the classic blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon (this one breaks 95% Sangiovese for a smoother finish). You'll be hard pressed to find a more potable palate.

31. The Debbie for Champagne of the Year 
Winner: Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis

best champagne 2018 alfred gratien cuvee paradis

And we will finish out this round-up the same way we finish out the year, with a bottle of very fine champagne. This year our bottle of choice is the pinnacle of Alfred Gratien's luxuriant vintages, the Cuvée Paradis. A premier cru, Chardonnay-led blend that is produced only in very small quantities, this very finessed and well-rounded bottle has everything you want for a celebratory drink. Like drinking liquid stardust.

Well there you have it. How will you remember 2018? Here's to 2019 being even better!

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Developed by Rockstar Studios
Published by Rockstar Games
Genre Action-adventure
Platform Xbox One, PS4

red dead redemption 2 ii rockstar ps4 xbox one pc grand theft auto gta marston morgan ditch

Last month saw the release of Rockstar Studios' highly anticipated prequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption ("RDR"), Red Dead Redemption 2 ("RDR2"). Longtime readers will recall that I awarded that game a perfect score and praised it as one of the greatest games yet produced at the time, a view that was shared by many reviewers and has arguably only grown in consensus these past eight years.

So naturally the latest entry in the series begins from a position of great anticipation and high expectation, particularly on the back of the more recent Grand Theft Auto V, which was itself widely acclaimed. Indeed on release RDR2 has been met with glowing reviews and, again, near perfect scores. But after spending many hours with the game I have my doubts. Is this reaction really deserved, or just hype? Let's find out.

World-building & Story
The first Red Dead Redemption is a western set in the early 1900s, a turning point between the decline of the old wild west, and the onset of modern civilisation. John Marston is a former criminal and member of the Dutch van der Linde gang, now trying to go straight and get his family back by working with federal law enforcement to hunt down and bring his former gang members to justice. RDR2 is a prequel to these events, taking us back to the heyday of the van der Linde gang. Marston is still present, albeit in a peripheral role. Instead players are put in the role of Dutch's right hand man Arthur Morgan, a character conspicuously absent from the later-set events of the first game.

The basic formula doesn't stray too far from what we have seen from previous Rockstar titles. Open world environment with various mission-giving NPCs. Players do missions, gradually unlocking new areas/items and progressing the story. Outside the main story there are games to play (cards, dominoes, etc) and side quests. The Red Dead Redemption series adds to the formula with additional open-world activities such as hunting, foraging, treasure hunting, and a series of skill-leveling challenges (ie hunt this many bears, craft this many tonics, or collect this many herbs).

This is where the main strength of RDR2 lies: they have built an incredible and immersive world chock-full of life and things to do. Suffice it to say, it's gorgeous to look at, and wonderfully varied with landscapes ranging from snowy mountains to swamps, deserts and forest. As big as it is, it never feels bland or repetitive, rather every location manages to feel hand-crafted in a very natural and detailed way. The world is further enlivened by radiant events, random little snippets of life which occur as you journey through the world (ie a criminal on the run, an injured man requiring assistance, a lady being kidnapped, to name a few), and remarkable little details like the complex ways in which animals interact with one another and the environment. This love and attention to detail really turns what could just have become another pretty sandbox into something that truly feels believable and compelling.

It's not just the environmental design, the human element feels believable and immersive as well. In keeping with the gang-theme, players live on the van der Linde gang campsite, and interact with all the other gang-members. This camp can be upgraded with better equipment, and new furnishings and items can be crafted from materials found while hunting and foraging. The player will need to balance their own needs against the needs of the camp, donating money and supplies as needed, and camp mood will vary as a result. It's actually quite wonderful just to hang out around the camp, experience the ambient dialogue, and see everyone interact with one another. Indeed there is a surprising amount of scripted content focusing around these minor gang interactions that many players may never see in an ordinary play-through.

There have also been significant additions to player customisation this time around. Instead of just choosing from preset outfits, players can now dress themselves by piecing together elements of clothing (shirts, trousers, hats, vests, coats of various styles). In RDR2, the player character will gain and lose weight based on what they eat, hair and beard will grow and needs to be trimmed/styled, and the player will even accumulate dirt, requiring frequent bathing. Guns and other weapons can be customised, with players able to change metal type, wood varnish, add leather coverings, and even engrave patterns and decorations on their weapon of choice. Horse customisation is now also a thing, with the ability to colour and style manes/tails and choose different equipment (saddles, bags, blankets, stirrups, etc). The result is that no two players are likely to have the exact same Arthur Morgan. Between choosing how he looks, how his horse looks, or the look and choice of equipment used, there is a staggering scope for player customisation that didn't exist in the first game.

This world forms the backdrop for RDR2's characters and story, which in typical Rockstar fashion is told with high competence. The story itself is among the better stories in a Rockstar game, with the idealism and subsequent unraveling of the van der Linde gang providing a better illustration of the themes of the series than the more narrow plot of the first game. The charismatic yet unbalanced Dutch van der Linde is a highly compelling antagonist, while the other gang members are themselves fully fleshed out and believable as characters.

If I have one complaint in this regard, it's that the setting almost seems to be undermined by the fact that it's a prequel. The problem here is obvious. Anyone who has played the first game already knows that the van der Linde gang will not end well, which makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in the welfare of a group that you already know will become your enemy. It seems oddly ill-fitting considering the core gameplay focus of the game is built around providing for the gang and forming those emotional bonds. More significantly, this means that by narrative necessity most of those core gameplay features disappear about halfway through the game, creating this bizarre tension where players will almost certainly miss a significant chunk of the game's content if they press on with the story without even realising it.

I can't help but feel that, while a game with this gang focus is a neat idea for a western, it would just have worked better with an entirely new set of characters. As it is, the game's concept almost feels at odds with a story that doesn't really fit the new gameplay features. If I was going to give one piece of advice to new players it's to take your time with the first three chapters and do as much of the side content and crafting as possible, then burn through the story later.

So the world-building and story is generally excellent, despite these minor issues. But ultimately this is not an interactive novel or an art installation to be observed, it's a game. So how does it play? This, unfortunately, is where I feel Rockstar are getting a bit of a generous free-pass from the critics.

As you may have gathered from the above, increased realism is a key focus of RDR2. Players need to shave and bathe. Hunting is now restrictive in that you can only take the animals that you can actually physically carry with you (or on your horse). This adherence to realism is also reflected in the way Arthur Morgan moves and interacts with the environment. Player movement is sluggish and infuriatingly imprecise. Rockstar were so dead set on making sure that Morgan walks like a real person rather than a superhero, interacts with his inventory with the same tedious detail that a real person would, and has a realistic amount of difficulty carrying heavy objects that they seem to have disregarded the fact that this makes navigating a videogame world a huge pain in the butt. Add to this a still very buggy cover system and even the basic nuts-and-bolts gameplay can be disappointingly frustrating.

In some ways it's even worse than the original game, made some eight years ago. I noticed in particular the horses have much greater difficulty navigating terrain, particularly rocks and forests. You will bump your horse into things a lot, and when you do they will send you and your horse flying with a sickening, bone-crunching crash, even if you are going at low speed, or only just slightly make contact with the obstacle. I don't recall this ever being an issue with the first game, and it's weird that horse pathfinding seems to have somehow gone backwards.

These issues all come back to one fundamental problem: Rockstar have been using this same game engine for decades, and it really shows. These gameplay systems were impressive back when GTA Vice City came out, but games have moved on since then, and we are used to better. For a game that is supposed to be a flagship AAA event, RDR2 in many ways feels stodgy and old fashioned as a game.

These problems are further exacerbated by an inconsistent context-sensitive control scheme which can flip on you in an instant without warning. Most of the time, the left trigger aims your weapon and the right trigger fires, except in certain circumstances the two inexplicably switch. This can even occur in the middle of a battle. As an example, I'm on my horse and a cougar attacks. I hold the left trigger to aim my weapon, but before I can fire, I get knocked off my horse. I then quickly scramble to get a shot off, as cougars can kill in an instant, only to find that the controls have switched (possibly due to the context-sensitive control scheme that initiates when you stand near your horse). Needless to say those few seconds of unnecessary confusion can be fatal. That's just one example, and I've had many annoying moments where, for example, I intend to mount my horse, and instead stab a guy. It's clunky and poorly thought out.

And it's not just the controls. RDR2 often feels surprisingly janky and lacking in polish when it comes to general game design. The game and inventory menus are a pain to use, and unintuitive. The way information is accessed via the pause menu is often baffling, and nowhere near as tidy and logical as in the first game. The gameplay itself is riddled with mixed design quality. The gang features feel strangely half-baked considering they're such a focus of the game. Camp upgrades don't seem to do much, and if they do then it's poorly explained. Even the basic function of donating to camp is very unclear at the start of the game, and the game does a poor job of telling players why they should donate their hard earned spoils rather than sell them in town.

That is a particularly pertinent issue in the early stages of the game because, to be frank, the in-game economy is kind of broken. In the first game, hunting animals and selling their pelts was a viable way to make some money. Sadly (and bafflingly) in RDR2 it really isn't. Selling a whole deer with meat, pelt and all gets you about 65 cents. By comparison a can of beans in-game costs $1.50 in the store. That's right, you need to sell almost three whole deer's worth of meat to buy a can of beans. By way of further comparison, you can sell a gold ring in-game for $1.15. This is a game where gold is worth less than a can of beans. But the biggest issue here is the price of guns, which inexplicably seems to be set at 2018 prices where everything else in game is at least sort of period-appropriate. A mid-level gun costs in excess of $100. So you're looking at butchering dozens if not more than a hundred deer in order to buy that weapon, and as a reminder you can only carry one deer at a time thanks to the new focus on realism.

Oddly it appears that most of the activities in-game which can be performed to make money are essentially useless for that purpose. Unlike it's predecessor, in RDR2 you'll hunt for fun or for crafting, not for money. Instead, the only real ways to make money in-game are from completing the story missions or hunting treasure, and indeed these two activities are so lucrative once you get far enough into the game there really isn't any point in doing anything else to make money, and you end up with the exact opposite problem. There comes a point in chapter 3 of the game where within a few short missions you'll pull in thousands of dollars and transition from an economy where nothing is even vaguely affordable to one where you literally have nothing to do with all that money. In a well balanced in-game economy you should see gradual progress, feel like you receive tangible rewards for playing, but never reach a point where there's no point in going further. A well balanced economy this is not.

Then there are the bugs, and while they're not hugely frequent they are regular enough that it's worth mentioning. I've seen broken quests, hilarious physics glitches, NPCs and legendary animals not spawning correctly, graphical/rendering bugs, inventory items changing or being deleted, and many more. In one mission, my horse spawned inside a wall. Most of the time these bugs are amusing or mildly inconvenient. Sometimes they can be gamebreaking, requiring a reload and possibly hours of repeated gameplay. Again, it's just surprisingly lacking in polish for such a big release, and you suspect that much of that is due to the creaking engine on which the game runs.

Probably the most annoying gameplay issue is with aggro NPCs and law enforcement. Bump your horse into someone at walking pace and the entire town will shut down and try to kill you. Make even a slight offence, and every cop in the city will miraculously appear and attempt to gun you down. This leads to the bizarre spectacle of dozens of armed police suddenly crawling out of the woodwork in sleepy 10-person villages. RDR2 supposedly requires "witnesses" to see you and report you before the police come chasing, but in practice this seems to be smoke and mirrors, with police called within seconds even when you're in the middle of nowhere. RDR2 also features bandannas and masks which are supposed to hide your identity and avoid criminal culpability, but again they don't really seem to do much in practice.

GTA V was similarly mocked for its overzealous police, but it's far worse in this case for two reasons. Unlike in GTA, you can't simply hide for a while to clear a bounty, and even dying won't give you a blank slate. In RDR2 you can only get rid of the police by being arrested or paying off the bounty. This can be quite annoying in early-game due to the unbalanced economy, meaning that one silly mistake can result in hours of tedious grinding in order to pay off a bounty. The second, bigger issue is that the game often forces you to run up a bounty during the main story missions and challenges, meaning there's little you can do to avoid getting caught in this cycle. Normally in Rockstar games, any trouble you get into during a mission gets wiped out at the end of the job, but not so in RDR2.

So there's quite a few issues, but to be clear it's not all bad from a gameplay perspective. I'd describe it more as "serviceable, but frustrating". The core gunplay is as satisfying as ever (despite the controls and dodgy cover system) thanks to the deadeye system. The mini-games and hunting are even more fleshed out than before and provide great entertainment. Treasure hunting has never been better with this incredible world to explore.

There is also a pleasing variety in the quest design. While it is true that far too many fall into the stale GTA format of "kill so and so" or "escort this guy", some missions are very memorable. Of particular note is a mission which involves blending into a political fundraiser, while another involves a heist from a casino-boat.

RDR2 is clearly far from a perfect game, and it's maddening reading all these critics sweeping the obvious problems under the rug. It's the mark of a great game, then, that RDR2 remains so much fun in spite of these flaws. This is a game that will infuriate you with its janky engine and poor design choices, and then win you back through its incredible vistas, tantalising mysteries, and irresistible cowboy fantasy. It's certainly not the landmark title that the first Red Dead Redemption was, but rather takes those ideas and expands on them to achieve big and beautiful things. If only Rockstar's coders were as gifted as their artists, this could have been a true classic, but instead it's just a very good game.

Ultimately I think that whether you will enjoy this game depends on what type of gamer you are. If, like me, you are a gamer who lives for a good story and an immersive world into which you can lose yourself, then RDR2 is one of the finest examples of that in gaming and you could spend many, many hours in this world. If you are more of the Call of Duty play-it-for-the-gameplay type, then you might find yourself frustrated and disappointed by a game that feels sluggish and frequently lacking in the fluidity and slickness of design that we often take for granted in modern titles.

With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar have created a virtual world that is undoubtedly among the most beautiful and remarkable ever created, and filled it with a game that feels strangely old fashioned. Riddled with questionable design choices and held back by Rockstar's creaky engine, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game which does justice to its predecessor, without ever surpassing it as a landmark in gaming.

Friday 16 November 2018

Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Written by Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin
Starring Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields, Reeve Carney, Patrick Page, Amber Gray
Theatre National

hadestown national theatre orpheus euridice eurydice persephone hades greek mythology

If the big test of a new musical is how doggedly the songs stick in your ear over the following days, then Hadestown is a smashing success. Anaïs Mitchell's reinterpretation of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has proved so successful since its early days as a travelling show and concept album that it has spawned three theatrical productions in just two short years. The off-Braodway production came first, followed by the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. Now Hadestown moves to its biggest venue yet at the famed National Theatre in London.

For those who can't quite recall their prep school classics lessons: Hades is the God of the underworld, who abducts and subsequently marries Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter (the Goddess of agriculture), in her despair, causes nothing to grow on the Earth. Hades eventually allows Persephone to return to the Earth for half of the year, during which time vegetation can grow again, bringing us the Spring and Summer. Elsewhere, Orpheus is in love with Eurydice. In the original text (this part is changed here) Eurydice dies and Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to convince Hades to let her return through the power of his music.

Mitchell's adaptation transposes these tragic events to a New Orleans jazz/blues musical. If the concept at first sounds like a novelty, it's surprising just how naturally it fits. Blues is after all a genre of music that was born of social oppression and economic depression, and Mitchel has aptly spun this old tale into a surprisingly modern parable about inequality and climate change.

The separation between Hades and the world of man is now framed as a struggle between the haves and have-nots. The Underworld is presented as a cold and prosperous metropolis, as compared to the impoverished overworld devastated by the environmental impact of Persephone's absence. Instead of dying, in this version of events Eurydice is driven to the underworld out of desperation. These themes clearly bring additional relevance to the old text, particularly against the thematic setting of Louisiana, a state commonly ravaged by hurricanes and still deeply beset by social and racial divides.

It's brought to life through some excellent staging and a set design that elicits the faded glamour of a New Orleans townhouse. You can feel the weight of the cast-iron facades and worn stucco. Meanwhile good use is made of the Olivier theatre's trademark configurable stage, the choreography enlivened by rotating floors and raised platforms as needed.

As mentioned, all of this is told through some very catchy music, with strong performances throughout most of the cast. The clear standouts are the only two cast-members to have featured in every stage performance: Patrick Page as Hades, and Amber Gray as Persephone. Gray's charismatic, growling Persephone in particular absolutely steals every scene in which she is present, fittingly in light of the narrative context which surrounds her character.

Unfortunately, Hadestown has a bit of a lead problem. Whereas for the most part Hadestown commits to its deep-south blues aesthetic and musical style, the two lead characters look and sound like they could have walked off the set of High School Musical. It's surprisingly jarring, and just doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the show. Eurydice I can forgive because the actress has a very strong voice, but the casting of Orpheus is harder to justify.

We are told that the Orpheus of this setting is supposed to be this inspiring, revolutionary figure, who creates such a stir with his music and passion that Hades allows him to leave just to be rid of him, but rather than this rousing and charismatic individual we get a remarkably bland guy in skinny jeans straining his voice in a cringe-worthy, pretentious rasp. In this context Orpheus is meant to be this divine rock star figure, think John Lennon starting a revolution, David Bowie bringing down the Berlin wall, Dillon, Morrison, I'd even have taken a Garfunkel... instead what we get is reminiscent of the lame college roommate that we all probably had at some point who sits in his room crooning along (poorly) to his guitar. It's hard to buy this portrayal, and it breaks the immersion of what is otherwise a fairly slick production.

So not a flawless production, but these are minor criticisms of what is otherwise a hugely entertaining show and one of the best new musicals I've seen in a while. I began this review by saying that the one true yardstick of a good musical is how the songs stick with you, and in that sense I can comfortably predict that Hadestown is a show that will linger on in the memory.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Last week, America went to the polls and elected a new Congress. This blog has posted on the subject over the past few months, culminating in last week's final forecast. Now that the dust has settled (aside from a few straggler House seats, a Mississippi runoff and a Florida recount) it's time to step back and take stock of what happened. Were we surprised? What will the consequences be over the next few years? Most importantly, what does this all tell us about the direction the country is headed?

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

Let's begin by stating the obvious: this was a blue wave election.

Democrats took control of the House, with gains now expected to end up just short of 40 seats, and a popular vote margin of around 8%. Let's not beat around the bush, that's a historic result. This is the third largest swing in the House in 40 years, and the largest for the Democratic Party since the Watergate scandal. An 8% popular vote margin is greater than all bar one Republican House majority in the party's history.

This result exceeds expectations, but not by much. The Ephemeric predicted gains of around 30 seats, but with the caveat that due to the way House districts have been gerrymandered, a slight deviation in national margin could translate to a significant number of additional seats. In fact I specifically suggested that each additional percent over the expected 7% threshold might translate into an additional 10 seats, and that's almost exactly what we're seeing.

Meanwhile in the Senate Republicans look set to gain 1-2 seats depending on what happens in the Florida recount (I'm assuming the Democrats will be unable to pick up the Mississippi runoff unless Cindy Hyde-Smith makes a few more gaffes like this). Again, this is very much in line with The Ephemeric's pre-election expectations of a 1-2 seat gain.

There has been a lot of talk about a "mixed result", and suggestions that Democrats did not perform as well in the Senate as they did in the House based on this result. Sure, on the surface a Republican gain in the Senate may seem like a good result for them, but when you consider that the 2018 Senate map was one of the most favourable maps that any party has ever had, that becomes a harder argument to make. 18 out of 35 Senate races this year were in red states, and Democrats were on the defence in 26 of those states. In a normal election you would have expected Republicans to make gains of 5-6 on this map just by breaking even, so the fact that Republican gains were limited to just one or two is quite remarkable in many ways.

Ultimately Democrats ended up winning 69% of all Senate races this year, which would make this their 5th best result of the last 27 midterm elections, and a greater win percentage than Republican waves of 2010 and 2014. Make no mistake, Democrats performed just as strongly in the Senate, it just so happens that they had a lot of seats to lose.

But elections were not just held in the House and Senate, and throughout the state and local elections the blue wave was consistent. Democrats made substantial gains in the Gubernatorial races, flipping 8 states. A majority of Americans will now be governed by a Democrat. Similar gains can be found in the state legislature and judiciary, with potentially significant ramifications going forward.

There can be no doubt, this was a blue wave and a historically substantial one. Going further, this election was specifically a rebuke against Donald Trump, with exit polls showing a clear majority wanted their vote to send a message to the White House.

The country is a lot more blue now than it was pre-election. A majority of Americans will be governed by a Democrat. Many states, including some swing states, will now be dominated if not outright controlled by local Democrats. But of course the development of greatest national significance will be the new Democratic House majority.

So first the obvious: with a new House majority, Democrats can effectively block all Trump legislation from being passed, including budgets. This may be a moot point considering Trump and the Republican Party barely managed to get any legislation or budgets passed even with total control, but it at least provides additional comfort to the tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to rely on Republican incompetence in order to maintain their access to healthcare.

Of potentially greater import is the ability of the House to hold investigations and subpoena documents. The Republican majority's investigation into Russian election interference has been widely berated as a corrupt farce, while they have simply ignored the President's violations of the emoluments clause, his accusations of sexual misconduct, not to mention the fact that he has actually already been named as an unindicted co-conspirator on multiple felonies by his own lawyer. Investigating Republican Party corruption should certainly not be the first priority of this new Democratic House, but it is at least comforting to know that we have checks and balances who will now prevent this corruption from spiralling out of control, and hopefully bring some of the more egregious offenders to justice. And of course, this new power also has ramifications with respect to the all-important Robert Mueller investigation.

One of Trump's first priorities post-midterm has been (revealingly) to replace Jeff Sessions with his own loyalist in the Department of Justice. Many have suggested that this action is a first step towards firing Robert Mueller, but frankly there's no need for them to do something that would draw such unwanted attention. After all the DoJ can simply withhold funding or refuse to publicly release Mueller's final report. Robert Mueller could well conclude that Trump has committed multiple felonies, and if Trump's new Attorney General chooses to bury the report no one would ever find out. That's where the House Democrats come in. Now that they have subpoena power, it's going to be much harder for Trump to keep any official documents hidden away.

The new Democratic dominance at the state level is also likely to manifest itself in tangible ways, most notably in the realm of gerrymandering. North Carolina has historically been one of the most outrageous offenders, but now that the Democrats have taken a majority in the NC Supreme Court, there's the very real prospect of judicial action being taken to restrict such anti-democratic abuses in future. In this one state alone that could result in an additional 5 seats flipping Democrat in 2020. If similar steps against gerrymandering can be taken in other states, it could be over a dozen seats. So as you can see, even at the less glamorous local level, this election's results could have quite a significant impact on 2020.

It's also worth discussing how it's become quite fashionable to say "ignore the polls", "the polls are always wrong". But in actual fact this was a very very good night for the polls and forecasters. As you can see, even my own forecast was almost exactly right in both the House and Senate, and I'm far from alone in that regard. The quality of polling in America is actually pretty darn good if you know how to use them correctly.

As a final observation, the fallout from this election appears to have cemented a very unfortunate attribute of today's politics: complete detachment from reality.

A way too early preview of Election 2020
Don't get me wrong, midterm elections are awesome. But it's fair to say that the real reason many Americans tuned in is to find out how likely Trump is to be re-elected in 2 years time. So at the risk of jumping the gun a bit, let's have a quick look towards the next set of elections, and whether we can divine any clues from this year's results as to how those are likely to unfold.

Presidential election years are usually more favourable for Democrats from a demographic perspective, which means all else being equal you might expect Democrats to perform even better in 2020 than they did in 2018. But of course, 2018 is looking to have been something of a wave year for Democrats, and historically speaking when one party has that kind of momentum it is extremely rare for them to maintain that position into subsequent elections. So it is likely that any benefit from the Presidential year demographics will be offset by some reversion to mean. Nevertheless, Trump is historically unpopular, and that was a major factor in his party's sweeping losses in 2018. Ultimately, if he remains this unpopular, it's difficult to see him winning re-election, and Republicans could have a tricky time in the Congressional elections.

Of particular concern for Trump will be the strong performance of Democrats this year in rust belt states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states that he won in 2016 and that he needs to win again in 2020. Those states were barely even in contest in 2018, and certainly did not have the kind of close results that one would expect from genuine swing states. This will be a central question of the 2020 campaign, have those key states turned against Trump?

Equally concerning will be the Democratic victories in Arizona in the House and statewide. Arizona is one of those states that has been on the cusp of turning purple for a few years, and almost went for Hillary in 2016. It's starting to look like this will be a genuine swing state for 2020.

But it's not all bad news for the President. The close results in Florida and Ohio in what was otherwise a strong Democratic year suggest that Trump's support remains surprisingly robust in these states. These historically purple swing states are increasingly starting to look like dependable red states, and that is potentially a huge boon to any future Republican Presidential ambitions.

Meanwhile in Texas and Georgia, two red-but-increasingly-purple states that went very close in 2018, it is tempting to make points similar to those in Arizona. But considering the high Democratic enthusiasm of 2018, and the specific, notably unpopular Republican candidates they faced in these states, I think it is unlikely that Democrats will fare any better here in 2020.

So overall the early picture that is shaping up is one where Democrats are modest, but by no means unassailable favourites to win in 2020. The rust belt that was so crucial for Trump in 2016 looks to have returned to the Democrats, and if that trend continues it could be fatal for Trump. While the sun belt looks increasingly competitive, my immediate hot-take is that it will be these three states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that will determine the outcome of 2020.

Down-ballot, Democrats could face a tough battle to retain control of the House unless significant gerrymandering reform is accomplished. We discussed this in our election preview, but the House map has been artificially drawn up in such a way that Democrats need to win by sweeping landslide majorities just to stand a chance of winning control. They had such a majority in 2018, but two in a row will be tricky. The key here will be whether Trump remains toxic enough to keep Democrats' numbers high, and whether key states like Texas or North Carolina have district maps redrawn (which would arguably make Democrats clear favourites).

The Senate, meanwhile, is looking very favourable for Democrats. Six years ago was 2014, a wave year for Republicans, and as a result they will have a lot more seats to defend than in 2018. Republicans have a likely pick up opportunity in Alabama, but otherwise face an uphill battle to keep Maine, Colorado and North Carolina, while Democrats have good opportunities in Iowa, Arizona, Georgia, and, based on this year's results in those states, potentially Alaska and Montana. This is where the fact that Democrats managed to keep the Republican majority to just 2 or 3 seats in 2018, when it could have easily been more, will be crucial. Had Republicans gone to 54 or higher, I'd have made them clear favourites to keep their majority, but at just 52 or 53 it really opens up the possibility of a Democratic majority in 2020.

So there it is, 2018 election is done, and the first battle lines have been drawn for 2020. We went into this election facing a political system rife with corruption and blatantly anti-democratic electoral practices. While this election won't fix everything, the people have duly stepped up and taken a first step in the fight back for American values.

Monday 29 October 2018

Two weeks ago The Ephemeric spoke about the upcoming United States Congressional Midterm elections and made an argument for why participation is so important. Now with just a week of the campaign remaining, I wanted to switch things up a bit and turn our attention to election day itself. What can we expect, and what does it all mean going forward?

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

So what will be the story of the 2018 elections? Well the expert opinion has been pretty unequivocal: they are expecting a blue wave. Donald Trump is historically unpopular, and the expectation is that voters will overwhelmingly back his opposition, potentially handing the Democratic Party Congressional majorities for the first time since 2010. Indeed polls have suggested an overwhelming Democratic advantage ranging from the high single digits to mid double digits. By comparison, Obama's landslide 2008 victory which resulted in a historic filibuster-proof Congressional majority was won with a margin of only 7%. Polls today suggest a considerably larger margin of victory in 2018, so surely the Democrats should sweep the elections?

As much as I would like this to be true, I'm going to pour some cold water on that consensus. As you will see, the Democrats are still very much a long shot to take back Congress despite their strong edge in the polls. As contradictory as this might seem, the US electoral system is set up (by design) so that the party which receives the most votes does not necessarily win the most seats, as we will explore in greater detail.

Today I will be taking an in depth look at the House and Senate separately. But before we get into that let's quickly go through the golden rules of midterm elections, which apply to both the House and Senate elections and are vital towards understanding the dynamics at play this year.

1. Midterm elections generally show lower voter turnout than Presidential elections. Last week I briefly touched on the reasons why this might be the case, but in essence it's because people just care less. Rightly or wrongly people just see the President as a more important and more glamorous role. Everyone knows who he is, he's a celebrity. By comparison, very few Americans can even name their Congressional representative.

2. Low voter turnout invariably favours the Republicans. This one might seem less obvious, but statistically it is undeniably true. We could spend an entire article discussing the reasons why this might be the case, but most experts will agree that it comes down to something quite obvious. In a low turnout year where people are less motivated to vote, the most likely people to still show up and vote are a) those who care the most (ie those who are most switched on to the latest political happenings, spend more time watching cable news, etc) and b) those with the easiest opportunity to vote (ie those with more free time on a Tuesday). So who watches a lot of cable news and is less likely to have no work or other commitments on a Tuesday? The elderly, and low-education voters, two voting blocs who have very heavily backed Republicans in recent years.

3. Midterm election turnout almost always favours the party in opposition. This is another fact that is very clear in the data, the party which holds the White House almost always comes off worse in the midterms. It makes perfect sense really. As the Republicans have so ably shown, fear and anger is a great motivator to vote, and the party out of power is invariably the angrier - although you can understand now why Trump and his accomplices have been so keen to dial up the anger and hate among their base.

So from the above dicta, you can see why the Republicans have generally done very well at the last few midterms under Obama, despite losing both Presidential elections quite handily. The demographics of a midterm election clearly favoured the Republican Party, as did the fact that they were the opposition party at the time. This time, however, things are slightly different. They still have the demographic advantage, but they are no longer the opposition. With these two factors at odds, you might expect that in an ordinary year the polls would reflect a stalemate, or even a slight Democratic advantage. But that's not what we're seeing in the polls at all.

This year there is the additional X-factor of Trump. As we have said, Trump is historically unpopular this year, and that is serving to increase the Democratic advantage considerably, to the point where many states have been reporting turnout estimates comparable to those of Presidential elections. This is both remarkable and potentially devastating for Republicans.

With this additional factor, the advantage is very clearly leaning in the Democrats' favour. And yet, as we will see in the following analysis, even a significant lead in the polls is no guarantee of electoral success this year.

Now let's give you the summary verdict that you came here for: The Ephemeric predicts the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives, and the Republicans to hold the Senate.

House of Representatives Verdict: Democratic Majority

election 2018 house republican democrat trump electoral map forecast Current House Map: Republicans - 235, Democrats - 193.
Predicted House Map: Republicans - 205, Democrats - 230.
Approximate Net Change: Democrats gain 30 seats.

The above map is based on data from a variety of aggregators, including Pollster, Fivethirtyeight, and analysts including Sabato and Cook Political, and shows the expected House map. The rest is pretty self explanatory: dark blue represents safe Democrat wins, light blue leans Democrat, grey is toss up. Meanwhile on the other side, light red to dark red represents lean to likely Republicans.

So first thing is first. You are probably looking at that map and thinking, "Wow that's a lot of red, and here I thought the Democrats were having a good year!" A reasonable thing to think, but look closer and you will see that most of that red belongs to just a few very large seats, covering vast tracts of rural land where very few people actually live. If you zoom in to the denser population centres you will see dozens of much tinier, but far more populated blue districts.

In actual fact, this represents a very bad map for Republicans. How bad? Well based on the above data, even if Democrats only win the districts highlighted in blue that already lean in their favour, and lose all of the toss-ups, they will still win the House. And of course, the size of their popular vote margin is so significant that you would probably expect them to win a lot of the toss-up and even a few of the lean Republican seats too.

So the polls are pretty unambiguous, the Democrats have the advantage, and a pretty big one. At the time of writing, the most recent average shows Democrats with a 9% margin, and there are several polls showing leads in the double digits. It can not be overstated just how astonishing a margin this is. For comparison, Obama's landslide victory in 2008 was with a 7% popular vote margin, his comfortable re-election in 2012 came with just a 5% margin. American politics is very evenly matched and elections are typically won by just a low single digit margin. A high single digit or even double digit margin is rare, and in an ordinary year would suggest a historic blowout.

Unfortunately, such a historic blowout is highly unlikely despite the significant polling lead. This is due to a little thing known as gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering, in a nutshell, is the process through which partisan actors draw up the borders of Congressional districts in such a way that voters more likely to vote for your opponent are pooled into as few districts as possible, while your voters are spread into as many districts as possible whilst still maintaining a lead in those districts. This process effectively allows you to increase the number of seats you win, even if you don't increase the number of votes you get. It results in some bizarre and shockingly manipulative district boundaries. For lack of a better description, it's a legal way of rigging a democratic election. For further clarity on how this trick can be used to manipulate election results, please see the diagram below.

2018 us midterm congress election house senate gerrymandering rigged illegal

So how bad is the gerrymandering problem? Well if that North Carolina example above doesn't make it abundantly clear, it's pretty damn bad. It's bad enough that even with the Democrats' 5% winning margin in 2012, and a 2% winning margin in 2016, they still only won a minority in the House. It's bad enough that analysts expect that Democrats would need a winning margin of at least 7%, itself a rare and historic margin, just to have a shot at a majority. So as you can see, with the current expected winning margin of about 9%, Democrats are still only just favoured to win a House majority.

Now here's the silver lining for Democrats. As you may have surmised from the above examples, gerrymandering can be used to take a region that leans Democratic and create a lot more Republican leaning districts out of it. The trade-off is that while there will be a lot of red districts, by their nature a huge number of these will have only a slender Republican lean, since the process requires their voters to be spread out over multiple districts. This means that, while the threshold for a Democratic majority is higher, once this threshold has been met suddenly a huge number of seats becomes winnable. So to put this into numbers, while the difference between the Democrats winning by 2% or 7% might be pretty small, maybe 10 seats, the gains become exponential after that, potentially an additional 10 seats for each percentage point. So while the current data suggests a gain of maybe 30 seats, if that data underestimates Democrats by even just 2-3%, we could be looking at staggering gains of 60-70.

So as you can see, this is a challenging election to forecast. The unique combination of extreme gerrymandering and Democratic enthusiasm means that even a change in polls of a percent or two can potentially be enough to change a dozen seats. In my view, the key takeaway is that despite the hype, the House is far from a slam dunk for Democrats. Thanks to gerrymandering there is a significant threshold for them to cross before they really become competitive.

Based on the current data, Democrats will most likely win the House, but it probably won't be the historic majority that the polling or punditry suggests. They need 25 seats for a majority, and my expectation is that barring a polling error, they will probably only get a little more than that amount, with an approximate gain of 30 seats.

Senate Verdict: Republican Majority

election 2018 clinton trump senate map forecast
Current Senate Map: Republicans - 51, Democrats - 49.
Predicted House MapRepublicans - 52, Democrats - 48.
Approximate Net Change: Republicans gain 1 seat.
Key states to watch: AZ, FL, IN, MO, ND, NV, TN, TX, WV

So if the House paints an optimistic, yet cautious picture. The Senate is a very different story, and despite the Democrats' significant national advantage, I actually expect them to have trouble maintaining even their current status in the Senate, and could potentially lose seats.

How can that be possible when they have such an advantage this year? It's an issue with term lengths. Whereas every single seat in the House is up for election every cycle, Senators get to serve 6 year terms, meaning that only a selection of seats are actually up for election each cycle. 6 years ago was 2012, a good year for Democrats in which Obama won re-election, and the Democrats increased their then Senate majority by 4 seats. This means that Democrats will be defending a lot of seats this year.

So how bad is it? It's very bad. Democrats will be defending 26 seats this year, compared to just 9 seats being defended by Republicans. Even worse, Democrats will be defending a number of seats in deep red states like Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota, states which reliably voted Republican even in Obama landslide elections. So not only do Democrats need to defend these extremely difficult seats, they then need to try and pick up at least 2 Republican held seats, which are also exclusively in deep red states this year.

It is a daunting Senate map for Democrats this year. In a normal year where the polls are roughly even, you would expect Republicans to dominate this map, maybe pick up 4-5 seats. But again, this is not a normal year, it is one in which the Democrats have a significant nationwide advantage. The fact that we are even talking about the Senate elections this year as competitive is an impressive achievement for the Democrats, and shows how successful they have been at expanding their map.

The media narrative has been one of a Democratic wave this year, so it's important to set appropriate expectations. Democrats should have no business being competitive on this map. They should have no business winning elections in West Virginia and Indiana in 2018, especially in a midterm year where the voter demographics inherently favour their opponents already. So while 2018 may very well be a strong Democratic year with a significant national advantage, the chances of them taking a Senate majority based on this map are exceedingly slim, and even maintaining the status quo would be a remarkable victory.

Of the 35 seats up for election this year, there are 9 key races that will determine the outcome. These can broadly be divided into three categories: the "pure toss-ups" which are so close that they can't be called one way or the other, the "lean" states which are highly competitive but clearly leaning in one direction, and the "likely" states which are still considered winnable but can be predicted with relative confidence. These states are categorised as follows, with the current seat holder indicated in parentheses:

  • Pure toss-ups: Missouri (D), Nevada (R), Tennessee (R) 
  • Lean states: Arizona (R), Florida (D), Texas (R)
  • Likely states: Indiana (D), North Dakota (D), West Virginia (D)

So let's look at these in reverse order, starting with the likely states.

Likely states
Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia: these are all deep red states held by Democrats. In a normal year you would expect these to be easy pick ups for Republicans, especially in a midterm year, and yet Donnelly and Manchin appear to hold quite comfortable and consistent leads in the polls in Indiana and West Virginia respectfully.

The same is not true of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Now North Dakota is a weird state. Very Republican, but also very small and therefore much more locally focused. This means that when it comes to state and local elections, partisanship has historically not mattered as much as personal brand, and Heidi's brand is so strong that even her opponent needs to start speeches with, "Look, I like Heidi, who doesn't like Heidi?"

On top of this, the polling out of North Dakota has been very poor, with only two polls in the past month and a half, both done by the same pollster, and a partisan (Republican operated) pollster at that. Being a partisan pollster doesn't necessarily mean you should ignore the result, but it does suggest you take it with a pinch of salt. Given the uncertainty, I was hesitant to put North Dakota in this category, but have ultimately done so based on a convergence of factors: the older (higher quality) polls showed a small Republican lead, and since that time polls in other red states have, if anything, shown movement away from the Democrats rather than towards them. Leaked internal polls also seem consistent with the notion of a moderate Republican advantage. Add to this the fact that we have seen a marked increase in the nationalisation of other small-state elections this year, and it all points to an outcome where a Republican victory seems very credible, and the most likely outcome here.

Lean states
Arizona is looking like something of a gift for Democrats. This is the election to fill the seat vacated by retiring Republican, and consistent thorn in Trump's side, Jeff Flake. It's a Republican-held seat in a pretty red state that has consistently voted Republican for years, and yet the polling has been very strong for Democratic challenger Kyrsten Sinema. This is actually not as surprising as it seems. Trump is pretty unpopular in Arizona, despite its reputation as a red state, and Hillary actually came surprisingly close to winning there in 2016. Given the swing towards the Democrats this year, a moderate advantage for Sinema is more or less what we would expect to see here.

Florida is a state that until recently was considered to be a bit of a toss-up, and even a good pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Bill Nelson is your classic establishment Democrat after all, his challenger Rick Scott is a (strangely) popular former Governor of the state, and Trump's support in-state proved surprisingly robust during 2016. Now it looks like the race is starting to get away from them. Quite why this is the case is open to interpretation; perhaps accusations of corruption against Rick Scott are finally gaining traction, or perhaps it's a knock-on effect of Andrew Gillum's wildly enthusiastic run for Governor firing up the base. In any case the polls of late do seem to show races in this swingiest of swing states getting more and more comfy for Democrats.

Texas is an interesting one. Typically considered the deepest of deep red states, Texas polls have been surprisingly close, with many showing the Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke within the margin of error, particularly in polls of registered (rather than likely) voters. Texas has long been discussed as an increasingly purple state due to its high Latino population, as well the increasing influence of its young and educated urban centres (both of which heavily vote Democrat). I'm not sure we're seeing any particular evidence of this yet, and rather the closeness of this race appears to be down to the candidates themselves. Ted Cruz is notoriously unpopular, both at home and in Washington, whereas Beto's campaign seems to have given us the next big political superstar, smashing fundraising records and earning comparisons to JFK and Obama. Ted Cruz remains very much favourite in the polls, but here's the thing: polls of all voters are actually showing Beto in the lead or tied, it's only the likely voter models that give Ted Cruz the advantage. In other words, this comes down to turnout and enthusiasm. If Beto can turn his hype into actual votes, he still has a shot.

Pure toss-ups
Missouri is the quintessential toss-up state this year. A Democratic incumbent in a traditionally red state, who in an ordinary year should have no chance of winning. And yet polls have been showing McCaskill slightly ahead or tied with challenger Hawley. This is a difficult one to call. With the race essentially tied, my instinct would be to give the advantage to the Republican due to the partisan lean of the state and the inherent turnout advantage in a midterm election. But at the same time, McCaskill has been in this position before, in much less favourable political years, and still managed to win. For one reason or another, she typically does outperform her polls and grind out the result, so if on election day the polls show her as tied or narrowly leading then I suspect she will again. Ultimately though this race could go either way.

Nevada is a peculiar state. Traditionally red, though it did vote twice for Obama, and even went for Hillary during the 2016 election. One would therefore expect that in a year which has swung decisively towards the Democrats from 2016, they would be favoured to win. But this is still a red leaning state, and the Republican has an incumbency advantage. The result is a race where polls show the contest essentially tied, with perhaps a slight Republican lean. It is worth pointing out that in 2016 polls did show a similar Republican advantage, but then voted comfortably for Hillary, and the same happened for former Senator Harry Reid in 2010. This is a state with a track record of underestimating the Democratic lean in polls, and so despite the Republican polling lead, I consider this state very much a toss-up.

Lastly, Tennessee. It might seem strange to have a deep red state like Tennessee listed as a toss-up, but that's undeniably what the polls have been showing. In Phil Bredesen, Democrats have a very popular former Governor of the state who has never lost an election in Tennessee. But this is still a deep red state, and Blackburn has sensibly sought to nationalise the race in order to make Bredesen pay for his Democratic affiliation. Whether it will work is anyone's guess. Bredesen has led in most polls this cycle, including the most recent poll from SSRS, but following the Kavanaugh confirmation there were some polls showing quite decisive Republican leads. As with North Dakota, the problem here is that there have been very few polls in recent weeks, meaning that any prediction necessarily entails a lot of guesswork. Nevertheless, the Bredesen lead of recent high quality polls, coupled with the local dynamics of this popular candidate, lead me to believe that he has at least as much a shot as Blackburn here. This is a true toss-up.

Now if you were to look at each of these states individually, and tot up the results of my predictions above, you would get to a stalemate 51-49 Republican advantage. And yet I have not predicted this result, but a +1 gain for Republicans. The reason for this is simple. Senate polls are often wrong, particularly in states where there is very little polling (see Tennessee and North Dakota in particular). The fact is that there is a greater than likely chance that some of the current state predictions will be wrong, and so the question becomes which side has the greatest potential upside in the event of polls being off.

The crucial point here is that there are a lot of states where Democrats look likely to win by very slim margins. This means that if we assume a polling error in line with the historical average, an error in favour of the Democrats would not likely flip any additional seats towards them, whereas such an error to the Republicans' favour would probably flip at least 1 that we have currently predicted as a Democrat win. In making this forecast, I have attempted to predict not just what I think will happen in each key race, but where I think the likely polling errors could be. All put together, it depicts an election where the advantage lies with the Republicans, but probably less than it should be considering the favourable map this year.

So based on current data, and taking into account historic polling errors and the current expected margins, our expectation is that the Republicans are most likely to gain seats in the Senate. Given the closeness of many of these races, there is a lot of room for error in this prediction. We could feasibly end up with anything from +4 Republicans to +2 Democrats. But on the balance, +1 Republican seems most likely.

So there it is. An expected Democratic gain of around 30 seats should give them a House majority, while a favourable Senate map means Republicans are looking far more comfortable there, with an expected gain of 1 seat, and a retained Majority. What does this mean going forward? We'll come back to that after the election, and give you a preview of what the remaining two years of Trump's term are likely to hold.

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