The Past Month on TV #30

Featured

So, this TV overview is a little later than normal — a full nine days, in fact — but I guess no one notices that but me, so let’s get on with the shows:

Strike  Series 1
Strike: The Cuckoo's CallingAdapted from the series of novels by Robert Galbraith — the mystery-writing pseudonym of one J.K. Rowling — you might’ve assumed this would’ve followed in the footsteps of the author’s other literary series and have Hollywood come a-knocking. Maybe they did, but TV is a more natural home for the material: it’s a decent low-key murder mystery with appealing lead characters, which is the sort of stuff that can generate TV ratings but doesn’t spell box office nowadays (well, unless it’s Murder on the Orient Express, with its $350 million worldwide gross, but that’s a different kettle of fish). While the general shape of the drama is familiar from, well, every other TV detective show, Rowling’s well-known interest in social issues regularly comes through — not least in its two main characters, one of whom is a war veteran living with the realities of an amputation, the other a talented woman finding equality in the workplace. I suppose that’s all very timely.

The series’ biggest challenge is not whether it’s original or not (that’s clearly not a problem), but may be whether it can keep itself going long-term. Rowling isn’t the type to let other writers dream up new stories for her characters (the path that ends up fuelling most initially-book-based detective shows), but she’s not exactly pumping the novels out either: this first series adapted the initial two books; an adaptation of number three starts tomorrow; and… that’s all she’s published, for now (there are reportedly plans for ten more books). Will Strike end up with a Sherlock-esque production schedule? Or will it just quietly disappear when viewers and/or the cast lose interest after a couple more adaptations? Only time will tell…

The Good Place  Season 2
The Good Place season 2Having blown the doors off its own enjoyable premise with a clever twist at the end of season one, I was worried The Good Place had left itself with nowhere to go in the future. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. A cleverly-structured double-length opener burns through what I thought would be the entire second season’s plot, and then the second episode burns through even more ideas at a rate of knots. Where most sitcoms find an idea and milk it for all it’s worth (that’s the “situation” part, after all), The Good Place is restlessly inventive.

That said, it does begin to settle into a new status quo, and at that point it goes off the boil a little. It’s still funny, but not so much as the first season was, and by standing relatively still it’s not as exciting. But then, a little over halfway through, it begins to tear it all apart again, and we’re off on a wild ride where you don’t quite know where things are going to end up — there are several episodes that most other shows would’ve been more than happy to make their finale, but The Good Place just keeps up the “and what happens after that?” barminess. But it does have to end eventually, of course. It doesn’t have a massive twist to rival the end of season one, but then trying to top that would be a fool’s errand. No, instead it sends the show spiralling off in a whole new direction. Superb.

Absentia  Season 1 Episodes 1-6
AbsentiaStana “Beckett from Castle” Katic stars in this mystery-thriller, an Amazon exclusive in the US and UK (and everywhere else there’s Amazon Video, I presume). She plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who was declared dead in absentia after she disappeared while on the hunt for a serial killer. Six years later, she turns up alive, apparently having been held captive all that time — even though the main suspect was convicted of her murder and has been in prison. Events quickly take a turn where her former colleagues wonder if Emily was in on it too, meaning she has to go on the run to prove her innocence. Of course, none of those people ever stop to wonder what she’s actually been up to for six years (it’s not like the killings continued), or why she’d decide to fake her comeback now, or… all sorts of other things. A subplot with her kid — who was too young to remember her, and now has a new real mom because his dad remarried — has emotional potential, but goes a bit too swimmingly at first and then is soon abandoned in favour of shoot outs, and unearthed skeletons (both figuratively and literally), and all that mystery-thriller stuff. So this isn’t one to think about too much then, in any respect, but it’s passably entertaining as a pulp thriller. I’m going to stick with it until the end, at least, but I kinda hope it doesn’t try to end on a cliffhanger — I’m not sure I want a whole other season (or two, or three, or more).

The X Files  Season 11 Episode 1
The X Files season 11The second season of The X Files since its revival only recently started airing in the UK, but we’ve caught up as far as episode three now. Well, the broadcasts have — I’ve only watched the first episode, and it was so goddamn terrible I’ve not had the heart to continue. (I will, I’ve just not mustered the motivation yet.) Said opener was My Struggle III, continuing the series’ never-ending mythology arc plot, which last season (two years ago now!) was covered in My Struggle I and My Struggle II. Well, at least the mythology episodes are clearly marked these days — there’s a My Struggle IV later in the season, for our sins.

Anyway, the problems with My Struggle III are manifold, but they key one is that it’s confusing. Partly that’s because it plays heavily off what happened in Part 2 — which, as I say, was two years ago now — and partly because it all builds on the entire history of the series’ overarching storyline, which is long and complex and I haven’t even seen all of. (Someday I need to sit down and properly watch the entire show, all 218 episodes of it. Goodness knows when.) But even allowing for that, this was a bad hour of television — poorly made, with strange stylistic choices (what was with all that random voiceover from Mulder?) Ugh. But hey, I guess most of the season will be standalone monster-of-the-week episodes; and while that as a format has fallen out of favour in the past couple of decades (everybody loves serialisation now), I think it’s what The X Files has always done best.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Season 1 Episodes 1-4
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 1I’ve had this knocking around waiting to be watched for yonks after I picked up the complete series DVD set on offer. (“For yonks” being “since 2015” in this case). I remember seeing some episodes as a child and enjoying them, though I don’t remember any specifics. I guess they were from the show’s later, crazier, full-colour years, because these early black-and-white adventures don’t quite chime with that vague sense-memory of what the show should be. That said, although they start out almost serious (as ’60s spy-fi goes, anyway), by just a couple of episodes in there’s already a kookier side on display. Anyhow, I expect the best is yet to come.

Murder on the Blackpool Express
Murder on the Blackpool ExpressThis one-off feature-length comedy aired at the end of last year, presumably timed to tie-in with the theatrical release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express — as the spoofing poster highlights, of course. (Who thought I’d wind up referencing that film twice in a TV column nearly four months after it came out? I really ought to get on with reviewing it…) Truthfully, that poster is probably the best thing about this. There’s a large cast, all recognisable from a host of British sitcoms, but half of them go underused. Those that do have a part to play get material that’s fairly amusing, amid a plot that’s somewhere between predictable and too mad to be guessable. It was funny enough on balance, but it didn’t live up to its full potential.

Also watched…
  • The Brokenwood Mysteries Series 3 Episode 1 — Murder with a Kiwi accent.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 16-22 — Murder with an American accent.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 3-7 — Murder with a Caribbean accent.
  • Vera Series 8 Episodes 2-4 — Murder with a Northumberland accent.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Altered CarbonThis month, I have mostly been missing Altered Carbon, Netflix’s cyberpunk murder mystery. Reviews looked to be mixed, so I haven’t actually decided whether to bother with it or not. Two series I will definitely (intend to) get round to, but I’m saving up to binge once they’re done, are: BBC Two’s starry political thriller Collateral (led by Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper, and no doubt some actors who haven’t had significant roles in Doctor Who. FYI, it’s coming to other counties as a Netflix “Original” next month); and the latest run of Scottish detective drama Shetland (the last series of which was covered in the early days of this column).

    Next month… the MCU returns to Netflix in the unique shape of Jessica Jones.

    Advertisements
  • The Past Month on TV #29

    After the bustle of Christmas TV, it’s been a quieter January on the box here at 100 Films Towers. Nonetheless, I did catch up with one of the best series of 2017 — possibly of all time…

    Blue Planet II
    Blue Planet IIDespite the massive hype, I missed this when it aired. I say “missed” — I always intend to watch these big natural history shows, then never get round to them. I confess, it was new tech that persuaded me: after I saw it was all available in UHD on iPlayer, I had to give that a go. And…

    Wow.

    That’s the only word for it, really. Well, it isn’t — “stunning” would be another one. Incredible. Wondrous. Mind-boggling. I’m talking about both the UHD photography and the series itself here. In the latter camp we can also add educational, and informative, and eye-opening, but those are kind of a given — it’s a BBC David Attenborough series, of course it nails that part. Attenborough’s script and delivery strikes the perfect balance between acknowledging the creatures’ intelligence and personalities without slipping into anthropomorphising them. But many of the creatures and places we’re shown are almost unbelievable. Never has that old chestnut “we know more about the surface of the Moon than the oceans” seemed more true. James Cameron is planning to explore the alien life in Pandora’s oceans in Avatar 2, but he’s going to have to go some way to imagine anything more alien than what’s to be found in our real depths. I wonder if he’s seen this? He should. Everyone should.

    If that wasn’t enough, the visuals are awe-inspiring. The vibrant colours of some of these creatures were incredible, unquestionably enhanced by the wider spectrum of HDR. The level of detail the extra resolution seems to afford made it all feel very real too — creatures like dolphins and sharks don’t show gaudy colours, but the texture and sheen of their bodies felt like you could reach out and touch it.

    I wish you could see this in HDR...Now, I didn’t do a comparison to the regular HD stream, so I can’t really say how much better the UHD made things, but I do have a few observations. Related to it looking “more real”, after viewing I saw a good resolution photo taken for the series of one creature (this chap) which didn’t seem to capture the texture of its body in the same way the episode did. That could be the added effect of motion vs a still photo, but it could also be the extra detail from 4K. And talking of comparing still images, when a UHD episode was selected it displayed the iPlayer menu in UHD/HDR too, so I was able to do a direct comparison of each episodes’ key image. In particular, the one pictured above (from episode five) really showed off the vibrancy of HDR.

    Finally, the making-of bits they have at the end of every episode looked more muted than the main show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because they were finished at HD rather than UHD. But that’s not to say those segments looked bad. So while I feel fairly sure the HDR image was better to at least some degree, I’m also certain that at least some of this marvellousness would come across in regular ol’ 1080p — quality does filter down with image resolution, and they’ve done such sterling work here.

    Anyway. Like everyone else, I can’t recommend Blue Planet II enough to anyone… but doubly so if you have a chance to see it in UHD with HDR.

    Little Women
    Little WomenAs I mentioned last time, I’ve never seen or read a previous version of Little Women, but apparently this new one was pretty faithful so I figure I’m all learned about it now. The biggest change appears to be in the ages of the four eponymous heroines: in this version they look to be about the same age, in their late teens or early 20s at the start, but in fact they should be 16, 15, 13 and 12. Quite different. A challenge for adapters, though, because the story covers a timespan of five or more years (by my reckoning). Other films have dodged this by casting two actresses in some roles, but this adaptation sought to avoid that. It has its cons (an early petulant act comes across very differently if done by a 12-year-old versus a c.17-year-old, I think), but it is what it is.

    Anyway, setting that point aside, it seems quite clear why the book has endured in popularity. (Or, if you prefer, books — in the US it’s one novel with a Part 1 and Part 2, but in the UK it’s separated as Little Women and Good Wives. This version adapts both.) There’s a certain tweeness and sweetness to it — it’s about four sisters who are poor but not that poor and all love each and do fun homely things and have romantic entanglements and so on and so forth — but it’s laced with enough seriousness and sadness (to say more would be spoilersome) to add a bit of welcome grit. Plus the big central romance doesn’t pan out how you might expect. Actually, it develops with a solid dose of realism that more romance-based storylines might benefit from.

    This particular adaptation shines with the typical high quality of a BBC drama, with a recognisable elder cast (Emily Watson, Dylan Baker, Michael Gambon, Angela Lansbury) being equalled by a quartet of newcomers and almost-newcomers as the girls — including Maya Hawke, who looks scarily like her mother, Uma Thurman. (Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Seriously, it’s like they’ve used time travel to cast a young Uma Thurman.)

    Also watched…
  • Bright — Well, some people counted it as TV. Review here.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 1-2 — As sunny, breezy, and predictable as its island setting. Reliably lightweight and cheery viewing for dreary January.
  • The Great Christmas Bake Off — For a show just about people competitively baking that I watched in the middle of January, this was surprisingly heartwarming and Christmassy. (Not watched the New Years special yet because the trailer looked strangely disappointing.)
  • Not Going Out The True Meaning of Christmas — The plot may be predictable, but writer-star Lee Mack keeps the jokes coming thick and fast.

    Things to Catch Up On
    McMafiaThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s pair of big, grim January dramas, McMafia and Hard Sun. They both seem to have received a very mixed reaction (not that I’ve been following too closely because, y’know, spoilers), but both have intriguing setups: the former a drama about the global business of the Russian mafia inspired by a non-fiction book; the latter a pre-apocalyptic sci-fi/crime thriller from the creator of Luther.

    Next month… no specific idea, to be honest. But I’ve got the latest seasons of The Crown and Peaky Blinders waiting to be binged, and plenty of Arrow and The Flash to catch up on.

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!

  • My Continuing Adventures in the Brave New World of 4K UHD, Part 37

    In my ongoing adventure of “trying to work out if 4K is any good or not”, I finally got round to doing a direct comparison: some scenes from The Punisher episode one, which I compared in 4K with Dolby Vision (through my TV’s Netflix app) to 1080p (through my Amazon Fire TV Stick).

    And holy moly if I didn’t really see the difference.

    In 4K, The Punisher’s got gritty, grainy visuals. In 1080p, that quality all but disappeared, just smudged away. And the colours… I watched in 4K first, and during a particularly dark scene I tried to note how distinguishable different colours and shades were in shadowy areas. I needn’t have bothered: in 1080p it was all just black. So, in conclusion, the difference in both areas (resolution and colour range) was, to be honest, considerably more pronounced than I was expecting.

    Dolby Vision

    Now, a few caveats. This conspicuous a change is undoubtedly due in part to how much bandwidth Netflix bothers to use, and therefore how much compression is being applied. It seems that for 4K they devote about three to four times more bandwidth than for 1080p (and even that’s about half what a Blu-ray goes at). This may not have affected the colours, but it likely explains why the 1080p stream lacked so much of the fine detail seen at 4K.

    Also, there’s always the potential that my TV’s settings were affecting things. HDR and Dolby Vision use a dedicated set of picture settings, which have to be setup separately from those used for regular playback. I’ve optimised both sets as best I can, but there’s always the possibility I did one better than the other. There’s also the fact that I was using different devices. Maybe the Fire TV Stick is just less good at streaming Netflix than my TV’s app? (If I could force the Netflix app to play in lower quality then I’d’ve done the entire comparison there for fairness, but I don’t think that’s possible.)

    Finally, to drag a different series into the debate, I also watched Stranger Things 2 in UHD with Dolby Vision. Most of the time it looked fine, but every once in a while the colours in a shot would look completely screwy — usually too blown out, like someone had whacked the brightness up to silly levels, sometimes erasing detail in the process. Now, what Dolby Vision does is adjust the picture settings on a shot-by-shot basis to optimise every individual moment (rather than just use a blanket setting for the whole movie, which is what standard HDR does). Presumably that’s why the picture went funny on individual shots rather than for whole scenes. I’m far from an expert on these things, but I believe part of how Dolby Vision does this is to do with metadata, and apparently metadata can just go missing. Perhaps this is what happened. On the other hand, I went back and checked some of the most egregious moments on a different day and they retained the same problem. Who knows what was going on, then, but it’s obviously less than ideal. (If the same thing happened during The Punisher, I didn’t notice it.)

    Stranger Things 2 HDR

    So, after all that, I’m still not 100% convinced about UHD and HDR… but I can’t deny there was a marked improvement when comparing The Punisher, particularly during very dark scenes. Heck, even if the difference is just a fluke of how I’ve set up my TV, it proves that paying for the 4K option on a Netflix subscription is worth it. But purchasing a 4K Blu-ray player, which I’d also need to be region free, along with the prospect of having to rebuy some films again… that’s a lotta dough.

    I should probably do a Netflix UHD to 1080p Blu-ray comparison, really. Next time…

    The Past Month on TV #27

    A slightly earlier than normal TV review this month, to get ahead of all the Christmas telly — but there’s still plenty to discuss…

    The Punisher  Season 1
    The PunisherThe fourth live-action iteration of Frank Castle, Marvel’s murderous anti-hero (and people moan about Spider-Man reboots), debuted in Daredevil season two and was greeted so positively that now he’s got his own spin-off series. And “spin-off” is not an inaccurate descriptor, because this very much launches out of the events of Frank’s storyline in Daredevil — which makes it all the more annoying that Netflix care not for “previously on”s: Daredevil season two was over 18 months ago; a little refresher would be nice.

    You see, the plot revisits the Punisher’s origins: his family were killed in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out, leading him to kill the criminals responsible. He thinks that mission is complete, but the season begins (more or less) with him discovering new intel that suggests his family’s murder may not have been so random, and it links back to his actions when he was in the military. This also serves as a launchpad for the series to tackle other war-related issues, primarily the psychological wellbeing of veterans. With such serious themes it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s very little here that’s outright comic-book-y here — no superpowers, for sure; not even veiled references to the big names of the MCU movies, which we’ve had in every other Marvel Netflix show. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact the series is so obviously spun out of Daredevil and has the Marvel logo at the start, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a Marvel show at all.

    Some people think this removes the Punisher’s USP. In and of himself he’s just a violent man out for revenge — action cinema is stuffed to bursting with such anti-heroes. What makes Frank unique is he’s that kind of character but in a world where super-powered and super-moral people exist. So would The Punisher have been more interesting if, instead of a very grounded military conspiracy storyline, it had something to do with Frank clashing with superpowered people? I don’t know. It certainly would’ve been a different show. As it stands, this may be a show for people who don’t typically like Marvel shows. So was Jessica Jones before it, but this is for different people who don’t like Marvel shows — people like Jason Statham, maybe.

    Jon BernthalIn the title role, Jon Bernthal is fantastic. You can absolutely believe him as a revenge-driven psychopath capable of killing anyone and everyone, but also as a kind-of-charming strong-but-silent type with a heart and moral code who will definitely do the right thing. I’ve seen some critics and viewers opine that now is the wrong time for a series about a hero who just murders indiscriminately. I say those people definitely haven’t watched this Punisher. Although the plot is a conspiracy thriller, the series invests a lot of time in the emotional world of Frank Castle, making him human and moral rather than just a single-minded murder-machine. Bernthal makes what could be a very one-note role into a plausible human being; one who you believe might be able to find redemption and leave someday. And maybe that makes him even more tragic — he could find it; it’s possible… but likely? There’s the rub. As it’s also trying to engage with issues facing combat veterans once they return home, it makes for a clearly different, more serious flavour for an MCU production. How successfully it explores these weighty issues is more debatable.

    Many of these Marvel shows take their whole first season to fully complete the hero’s origin story, but The Punisher is stuck with the fact that Castle already became The Punisher during his Daredevil appearance. So do they just ignore that story shape? No, of course they don’t — they shift it on to the villain! Therefore any comic book fan who knows what one character will ultimately become (no spoilers here!) is constantly teased with possibilities throughout the season until, eventually, as we should’ve known from the start, the transformation occurs in the finale. Why not really surprise us: do the transformation earlier and then wrap a character up within one season, rather than leaving them dangling for a possible next time? Comic books have to leave things dangling — they will all run for ever and ever; there can be no permanent solutions — but these TV series will end — whether it’s after a single season, or two, or five, or ten, they are without exception finite. That means you’re allowed to wrap a character up and move on to others.

    So, The Punisher is not an unmitigated success, but it does lend another flavour to the Marvel-Netflix landscape. I certainly hope we get to see more of Bernthal’s take on the character in the future.

    Detectorists  Series 3 Episodes 2-6
    Detectorists series 3The third and final series of BBC Four’s sitcom about a couple of mates whose hobby is metal detecting was every bit the equal of the first two runs, which saw the show place on my list of 10 Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years back in February. Its brilliance lies in how perfectly weighted it is: the characters are quirky, but also normal; their problems are grounded and realistic, without being glum and unduly serious; it’s frequently hilarious, but without slipping into gurning ‘Comedy’ territory; it’s kind and gentle, but without being dull; and it’s all very lovely and kind-hearted, without being twee or saccharine. It’s also beautifully put together by writer-director (and star) Mackenzie Crook — the storyline across the series was precisely constructed, and the photography is often a gorgeous showcase for the English countryside. A real gem that will be missed, though at least it came to a perfect conclusion.

    The Good Place  Season 1 Episodes 3-13
    The Good PlaceI only heard about this after its Big Twist was much-discussed online, so starting it was an exercise in knowing there was a big reveal awaiting. Fortunately, that knowledge doesn’t overshadow everything that comes before it. For those who still aren’t aware of it (especially as it’s only on Netflix on this side of the pond), it’s about a woman (Kristen Bell) who dies and goes to Heaven only due to an admin error, so she tries to better herself so that she’s deserving of her place. Other complications emerge as the season goes on, but that’s the premise. There’s a lot of plot for a sitcom — although it’s not necessarily immediately obvious, it tells a 13-episode story; this makes Netflix quite a natural home for it, actually, as it’s not your typical “every episode is fundamentally standalone” sitcom. But it’s also very funny in amongst all that, mining not only the characters and their foibles, but also the uncommon situation they’ve found themselves in. The shocker in the finale is just the icing on the cake. I hear season two has gone off the boil somewhat, but I’ll find out for myself once it’s all wrapped up.

    Also watched…
  • Armchair Detectives Series 1 Episode 1 — Game show in which contestants watch a murder mystery scene by scene and attempt to guess the perpetrator. It’s a fun idea (who doesn’t ‘play along’ while watching a whodunnit?), but it’s hampered by the dirt-cheap quality of the drama. That’s to be expected on a daytime game show budget, but still…
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — If you saw the James Corden comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans, this is tonally very similar to that — not quite as elegantly done perhaps, but still pretty decent. If you like comedy-thrillers and haven’t seen The Wrong Mans, watch that first.
  • The Flash Season 4 Episodes 3-6 — After complaints about it getting too grim and self-serious, they’ve endeavoured to return The Flash to the lighter tone of its first season, in the process practically turning it into a comedy. I often find these CW superhero shows kinda laughable anyway, so, a little to my surprise, that’s working for me.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 9-10 — Sad to (finally) reach the end of this fun action drama. The third series wasn’t quite on a par with the first two (the result of new showrunners, undoubtedly) but it still had its moments. It leaves a swashbuckling void in the schedules that I doubt anyone will bother to fill.
  • Would I Lie to You? Series 11 Episodes 1-4 — Is this the best panel show on TV? Could well be. Its genius lies in the elegant simplicity of its concept, a game anyone can play (and we can play along with at home), plus the sharp and quick wits of regulars Rob Brydon, David Mitchell, and Lee Mack. Almost a dozen series in and there’s no sign of the hilarity waning.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Blue Planet IIThis month, I have been missing so much stuff. There’s been the fourth series of Peaky Blinders on BBC Two (which concludes this week, so we’ll whizz through it sometime in the new year); the season season of The Crown on Netflix (also waiting for the new year now); the same streamer’s first ever miniseries, Godless; the immensely acclaimed Blue Planet II (now available in UHD on iPlayer, too!); and I’m behind on Arrow and The Flash so haven’t reached the four-show Arrowverse crossover. And those are just the ones I can remember right now.

    Next month… is January, but sometime before that I’ll likely review some Christmas TV.

  • Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

    Twin Peaks : The Return

    ICYMI, Film Twitter has been getting itself in a bit of a tizzy over the past couple of days about David Lynch’s return to TV… film… TVfilm!TV!!FIL— you get the idea.

    So, respected British film magazine Sight & Sound went and named Twin Peaks: The Return as the second best film of 2017. Except it’s a little more complicated than that, in the sense that their list is voted for (i.e. no one person or team specifically decided to place Peaks at #2) and that voters were expressly told they could include TV series, or indeed any other form of visual art (although Peaks was the only non-film to make the top ten, Sight & Sound have since tweeted a list of music videos, computer games, and other such things, that also received votes).

    Some people seemed to find the very notion of counting Twin Peaks’ third season as a film to be personally offensive. It must’ve been like rubbing salt in the wound when respected French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma went and ranked it 1st on their list.

    Happy times in Twin Peaks

    Many digital column inches have been spun out of this, naturally. Two of the more interesting / accurate ones I’ve read are Matt Zoller Seitz’s 25-tweet thread/rant and Vadim Rizov’s kinda rebuttal at Filmmaker Magazine. For my part, it’s nine years almost to the day (just one day short!) since I wrote this piece on the TV vs. film shebang, albeit from a slightly different tack (TV movies vs. ‘real’ movies). My main point was that it’s a kinda arbitrary distinction nowadays. That’s only become more the case in the almost-decade since.

    Similarly, I think most of the handwringing over Peaks’ inclusion in these lists has been stupid. As I said, Sight & Sound specifically okayed the inclusion of TV — The Return wasn’t singled out as “yeah, it’s TV, but it’s so good we’ll count it as a film”, a notion that’s been projected on this news by some commentators (mainly TV critics) so they can then take great offence at it. But if Sight & Sound’s voters had considered any other season of 2017 TV to be worthy of inclusion, it had just as much chance of making it in. I don’t know what Cahiers’ rules were, but I’m going to assume they were similar — and they’ve included TV before (of all things, the first season of 24 made their top ten back in 2002).

    Personally, I’m not really sure where I come down on the issue of Twin Peaks: The Return in particular. I mean, it’s definitely a TV series, isn’t it? But it’s also virtually an 18-hour movie, isn’t it? Can it be both? Why can’t it be both? As I said, I kind of err towards the broad position of “why differentiate?” As someone put it in a comment I saw somewhere else, it’s all linear non-interactive visual media. Still, I probably won’t be including it in my own year-end best-of list, but is that because I don’t think it should be on a movie best-of list or because I wasn’t wholly convinced/entertained by it as a work?

    Uncertainty

    And if you were wondering what I did think of it in more detail, here are all the posts I reviewed it in while it was airing:

    The Past Month on TV #26

    The strangest thing is the Duffer brothers’ apparent obsession with giving starring roles to only-available-in-North-America sweet things.

    FYI, rest of the world: I have discovered a 3 Musketeers is in fact a Milky Way.

    Stranger Things 2
    Stranger Things 2Netflix’s most talked about show (well, unless you count House of Cards for all the wrong reasons) returns wth a second season that isn’t just a continuation, it’s a sequel — note how it’s officially called Stranger Things 2 (which briefly sent IMDb skwiffy), and how the episode titles aren’t Chapters Nine to Seventeen of Stranger Things but Chapters One to Nine of Stranger Things 2. Set almost a whole year after the first season, and telling a self contained story (though one that obviously builds out of the first season) which takes place over just a couple of days (in fact, more or less half the season takes place on a single day and night), it feels more like watching a follow-up movie than the next set of instalments in a series that is reported to run another two years yet.

    The idea is emphasised further by the fact its form seems largely inspired by The Empire Strikes Back — well, it’s Stranger Things: of course it borrows heavily from an ’80s movie. (If you want to see a whole array of its visual homages/rip-offs in a succinct two-minute video, check out this.) It doesn’t map one-for-one onto Empire’s structure, but it takes the same broad shape: splitting our heroes up into different smaller groups off having their own adventures; throwing new characters into the mix; expanding the universe and the mythos. If anything, Eleven is Luke — by herself, learning about her past, developing her telekinetic abilities. And Dustin and Lucas are kind of Han and Leia — supporting characters now given their own important arc, including both romance and the introduction of a major new character. And so Mike is… I dunno, Obi-Wan? A former main character who’s now barely present. As for Joyce, and Hopper, and Nancy and Jonathan, and Steve, and Will… yeah, Star Wars doesn’t have this many lead characters. Well, I did say it wasn’t exactly like-for-like.

    Perhaps another side effect of the movie-esque style is that it feels… short. Like, just as things seem to be getting going, it’s the finale. It’s a problem many binge-focussed series have these days, but this struck me as a particularly pronounced example. It could just be my own fault for watching it all in double-bills, but then I do that quite routinely with Netflix shows and I’ve not felt it so keenly before. Nonetheless, it has enough moving parts that the two-part finale (it’s not officially billed as that, but it is that) remains highly satisfying. As with season one, it’s when everyone finally comes together to fight the threat that the season is at its most satisfying, those two episodes feeling like an adrenaline-fuelled mini-movie (well, movie-length movie) of their own.

    Blood ElNow, you can’t discuss Stranger Things 2 without mentioning the infamous Chapter Seven. If you’ve missed the internet’s collective exclamation of disappointment and/or annoyance, IMDb has it in a nutshell: on there, the user ratings of all the other episodes (from both seasons) range from 8.5 to 9.5, a spread of 1.0 (obviously), but Chapter Seven has 6.2, a full 2.3 marks below the next lowest score. Ouch. It’s not great, but I didn’t think it was that bad. It’s a total aside from the main action, and placed where it is seems designed just to delay the pay-off to Chapter Six’s cliffhanger for another 45 minutes (in a regular programme it’d be two weeks, but this is Netflix). I don’t really hold with that being an actual problem, though — that’s just taste. No, the real problem is that it rushes through a character arc for Eleven that would’ve been better presented over multiple episodes. Considering before that she’s spent several episodes just sat around watching TV, there were surely better ways to structure her role this season.

    That’s no slight on Millie Bobby Brown’s performance, mind — she’s great again, displaying so much character and emotion even through Eleven’s limited understanding of being a normal person. Also worthy of note is Noah Schnapp as Will. Considering he had so little to do in season one, they either lucked out with his casting or knew where they were going enough to cast it well — a lot is asked of him here, and he’s up to it. I could keep going, but if we begin to single people out we’ll be here all day: almost every lead cast member gets either a stand-out scene or a decent arc. They even made Steve likeable. Finn Wolfhard draws the short straw — Mike spends most of the season just being grumpy about Eleven — but as he was the centre of attention last time it’s okay to let the others shine.

    Something stranger in their neighbourhoodEven though it has all the big action stuff you’d expect, Chapter Nine still devotes a serious chunk of time to a character-focussed epilogue; reminding you that, as with most loved shows, the heart of it is the characters and their relationships. Indeed, although the season as a whole didn’t have the same effectiveness as the first, I thought the finale was a better climax. In fact, it would be a perfectly valid place to leave the entire series… but there are (at least) two more seasons to go. It might be nice if season three opened up the timeline a bit, because so far Hawkins seems to be a place where Crazy Terrible Shit happens over a couple of days and then everything’s fine for a whole year.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 4-6
    Red Dwarf XIII had nice things to say about the first half of Red Dwarf XII in my last TV column, which kindly glossed over the fact that episode three, Timewave, was a bit of a disaster. I think it’s safe to say the second half of the series is stronger — it represents everything I said last time, but better. The final two episodes, M-Corp and Skipper, even throw in some fan-pleasing callbacks — real deep-dives too, aimed squarely at the long-term fanbase. (No spoilers here — the last episode has been available on demand for a week but doesn’t officially air until tonight.) The episodes don’t need such devotee delights just to curry favour — their concept-driven comedy is satisfying enough to stand on its own — but there’s no denying the added pleasure to be found in the references and cameos. You can certainly hear the glee of the live studio audience as they recognise what’s going on each time (it even messes up the pacing of one bit for us regular viewers, but I guess that’s the trade-off). So, even more than last time, this set of episodes demonstrate there’s definitely life in the old Dwarf yet. Bring on series XIII.

    Peaky Blinders  Series 3
    Peaky Blinders series 3Beginning with a significant time-jump and monumental change in circumstance worthy of a Mad Men season premiere, the third series of Peaky Blinders soon sees everyone’s favourite Brummie gangsters embroiled in espionage and counter-espionage as they’re enlisted to help exiled Russian aristocracy launch a bid to reclaim their country. There’s so much more going on than that, but I won’t get into it here because we’ll be here all day — Peaky Blinders is a complexly plotted series; right up the final episode, which contains revelations that turn the previous six hours on their head. Even with all that narrative to get through, it still finds plenty of time to give most of its large-ish ensemble cast some strong character arcs. There are a few streaming series that could learn a thing or two from that…

    Rick and Morty  Season 1 Episode 2
    Neither Rick nor MortyI confess: I started watching Rick and Morty fully expecting to hate it. I’d always thought it looked and sounded annoying, so I paid it no heed… but then it seemed to keep coming up — people referring to it in excited tones, and it ranking 7th on IMDb’s top TV list. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about, still expecting my initial impressions to be proved correct but endeavouring to have an open mind. The pilot (which I covered back in August) did little to sway my mind: it wasn’t terrible, but it had many of the irritations I’d perceived and only a few redeeming qualities. But I read that it was an unrepresentative and below par episode, so I pressed on. Things immediately pick up: the second episode, Lawnmower Dog, mixes together Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, and super-intelligent canines into an entertaining and clever half-hour. It’s bought my attention for a couple more episodes, at any rate.

    Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 6 Episodes 1-2 / The Flash Season 4 Episodes 1-2 — Here we go again… At least The Flash seems to have perked up again this year, which I used to find a little irritating but is actually quite welcome after the dour last two seasons.
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Jack Whitehall comedy-thriller, which tonally is a bit like The Wrong Mans, which I loved. More thoughts when I’ve finished the series.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 4-9 — The arc plot this season is really rather irritating. This is when I’m thankful for binge-watching: it makes that crap go by faster.
  • Detectorists Series 3 Episode 1 — Promptly started the new series of this Mackenzie Crook comedy, which I previously named one of my ten favourite series of the last decade. More thoughts next month.
  • The Good Place Season 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Kristen Bell comedy-fantasy (which only arrived in the UK with the start of season two anyway, so not that belatedly). It’s kind of brilliant so far. More thoughts when I’ve finished the season.
  • Upstart Crow Series 2 Episodes 5-6 — See last month.

    Things to Catch Up On
    MindhunterThis month, I have mostly been missing Mindhunter, David Fincher’s new Netflix series about the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling at the FBI. It was actually released before my last TV post, but I didn’t have Netflix at the time so I didn’t bother to mention it. I would watch it next, but The Punisher is out tomorrow. Maybe after that…

    Next month… Netflix gets punishered.

  • The Past Month on TV #25

    Doctors, spin doctors, Dwarfers, and Shakespeare in this month’s comedy-filled TV review. Though we start with an oh-so-serious drama…

    Doctor Foster  Series 2
    Doctor Foster series 2Everyone was a bit surprised when they announced a second series of Doctor Foster. The first was such a finite unit, why risk ruining it? Promises of a type of story that hadn’t been told before also amped up expectations. In the end I find it hard to say if the series disappointed or not because it was kind of out there. Not “out there” like Twin Peaks is “out there”, but the machinations of the various characters went beyond what I imagine most normal people would do in real life. There were some good building blocks though, especially related to how the bitter divorcees handled — or failed to handle — their teenage son, Tom, and the emotional problems he was clearly beginning to develop. His storyline was played off as a subplot, but it was largely more interesting than the sex-obsessed revenge games the adults were playing. So it kind of amused me when the final episode shoved in a montage to emphasise what had been going wrong with Tom, as if to say “look, the kid’s mental health has been deteriorating all along and you missed it!” Well, his parents certainly missed it, but I think us viewers found it pretty bloody obvious. Ironically, this series ended on more of a cliffhanger than the first did, but a third run is only a possibility rather than a definite. At least it serves as its own kind of ending, albeit much bleaker than the first series’. But maybe that’s what these characters, and this show, deserves.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 1-3
    Red Dwarf XIII still think of Red Dwarf as a programme that’s popped back for a bit of a revival, but I guess at this point it counts as just an ongoing show: since Dave brought it back in 2009 they’ve produced four series, half as many as the entire original run on the BBC. Give it another five or six years and they may equal, or perhaps even surpass, that number. It’s been a long time since I actually watched any of those old episodes that made the show’s name, so I can’t offer an opinion on whether the new runs are of the same quality — some say they are, some say they aren’t. Personally, I still think it’s funny overall, and (as I often say) that’s really all you need from a comedy. That said, one thing Dwarf has always done, and continues to do, is draw from actual science and science-fiction concepts to drive its plots and many of its gags. That makes it a proper sci-fi-comedy, rather than just a regular sitcom that happens to be set on a spaceship. Hurrah for that.

    Upstart Crow  Series 2 Episodes 1-4
    Upstart Crow series 2Talking of funny sitcoms, this series of Upstart Crow has been hilarious. Okay, I could do without Harry Enfield turning up as Shakespeare’s dad — almost every scene featuring him sees the humour take a turn towards the puerility of the toilet — but the rest of it is often pretty clever, riffing on Shakespearean plots and trivia. There was even a screenwriting joke in one episode that I guess would pass most people by. It also has a nice line in almost anachronistic humour, where characters comment on a fact of the day that is actually a commentary on modern life. It’s not subtle, and perhaps writer Ben Elton returns to that comedy well too often, but it’s always funny. And as I often say…

    The Thick of It  The Specials
    The Thick of It specialsIt’s funny coming to The Thick of It for the first time now. It was so cutting-edge when it aired, and yet politics has got so much barmier since — these specials debuted a whole decade ago now, when the idea that Trump might be President was the kind of thing no one but sitcom gag writers thought about. That’s not to say the show’s lost any of its bite, just that it’s not as timely as it once was. These two hour-long specials, The Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers (plus 15-minute bonus episode Opposition Extra, which follows some characters from Rise of the Nutters during the events of Spinners and Losers), set their satirical sights on the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that — there’s no reading up required, because The Thick of It is a fiction loosely inspired by real political events, rather than a straight riff on reality. It’s every inch the 21st century’s answer to Yes Minister in that respect. Although there’s an ensemble cast, all of whom are very amusing, the unmistakable star is Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker. With a regime change in the offing, Tucker risks being thrown out as part of the old guard, and so is on the back foot trying to manipulate things to his advantage. After three seasons of Capaldi as the Doctor, witnessing him here use his brain to run rings around other people to get the result he desires now feels like watching a somewhat evil — and much swearier — version of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 1-3 — Still not as good as it used to be, but I’ve reached the final season now so may as well finish it off.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 8 Episodes 4-8 — One minute the Radio Times is all “it’s obvious who’s going to be in the final”; the next, Liam’s out in the quarters.
  • Peaky Blinders Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — Looks like I may catch up on this in time for the forthcoming fourth series. That wasn’t necessarily my plan when I started series one back in March, but here we are. More comments next month when I’ve finished the series.
  • Vixen Seasons 1-2 — er, kinda. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The GiftedThis month, I have mostly been missing The Gifted, the new TV show set definitively in the X-Men universe — unlike the last one, Legion, which apparently wasn’t. As you might infer from that use of “apparently”, I still haven’t got round to Legion either. I also haven’t seen the other new Marvel Comics-related show, Inhumans, which is part of the MCU. After the terrible reviews it’s received, I’m not sure I’ll bother.

    Next month… strangerer things.

  • Vixen (2017)

    aka Vixen: The Movie

    2017 #137
    Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Vixen

    Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

    The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

    Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

    Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

    Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

    At times it’s own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

    Queen of the jungle

    The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen‘s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

    Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

    3 out of 5

    The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

    The Past Month on TV #24

    After my busy summer of TV, this month has been very quiet. Isn’t it meant to be the other way round?

    The Great British Bake Off  Series 8 Episodes 1-3
    The Great British Bake Off 2017After its move to Channel 4, which was as controversial as it was high-profile, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue bothering with GBBO. What would it be without Mel and Sue’s effortless chemistry and terrible puns, or Mary Berry’s kind twinkle? But cake always wins, and after a few weeks I caved and am now gradually catching up (I mean, too much cake in one go is bad for you, right?) Unsurprisingly, it’s still fundamentally the same show. Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding seemed like random picks for the new hosts, but they have the right mix of daftness, quick wit, and empathy to fill Mel and Sue’s shoes, and function surprisingly well as a double act too. New judge Prue Leith is no Mary Berry, but she can do the job. The judging’s hardly the most important bit anyway, is it? That’s the bakes, and they’re as incredible as ever. It’s funny that something that was a tough technical challenge back in series two or three is now just an unmentioned part of something much grander and more complicated. GBBO may have been slightly tarnished by the whole kerfuffle of changing networks and losing popular presenters, but the revised show has turned out to be less a soggy bottom and more a batch of ten almost-but-not-quite-identical sweet treats.

    The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice  Series 4 Episodes 1-3
    An Extra Slice 2017One thing that’s actually been improved by the Bake Off franchise’s move to C4 is this companion show. It always felt a bit cramped before, squeezed into a half-hour when it wanted to be longer, and not allowed to really cut loose with its content because, although it was on the more irreverent BBC Two, it was still on The BBC. In its new home, it’s only been extended by about seven or eight minutes (presumably a result of C4’s commitment not to cut the series’ running time — the old 30 minutes of material plus ads wouldn’t quite fill a 45-minute slot) but that seems to have made the world of difference, allowing it room to breathe and throw in a few more gags. It’s got distinctly cheekier too, which befits host Jo Brand and the kind of guests they have on (mostly comedians). And somehow it never stops being funny how people at home have messed up baking.

    Unforgotten  Series 2
    Unforgotten series 2I get the impression ITV’s cold-case thriller was a bit of a surprise success when the first series aired, because it felt like a finite unit that wasn’t expecting a continuation. Despite not having the grand old acting talent that perhaps made the first run a draw, the second series’ storyline is every bit its equal, a compelling mystery about how a successful entrepreneur came to be murdered and stuffed in a suitcase 26 years ago. The tone of the show takes its lead from its stars, the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, playing a pair of coppers who are calm, understated and methodical when doing their job, but with deep wells of emotion and empathy for the people that job touches. Much of the series ticks along in this way — a good drama, but without many histrionics to wow you — until the finale, when the truth comes out in a devastating episode with heartfelt writing and incredible performances across the board, culminating in a striking final act. Unforgotten is far from the flashiest cop show on TV, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch.

    Also watched…

    Where we're going, we don't need sheds...

    Where we’re going, we don’t need sheds…

  • Amazing Spaces: Shed of the Year Series 4 Episodes 1-2 — Not normally my kind of thing, but episode one featured a cinema ‘shed’ and it was amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so jealous in my life. You might think it’s just the façade pictured above, but oh no! You can have a look at a whole gallery of photos here and weep that you don’t have one in your back garden. Then, episode two had an impressive home-made TARDIS, as well as a little hedgehog rescue. I love hedgehogs. Someone should do a Pixar-esque animated movie starring hedgehogs.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 5-6 — This final series seemed to attract a lot of criticism when it aired, but I think it contains as much good ol’ swashbuckling fun as ever.
  • Tim Vine Travels in Time — Exceptionally silly comedy pilot. What else would you expect from Tim Vine? It was pretty divisive on Twitter (too silly for some, it seems), but I enjoyed it. Hopefully they’ll do a series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Star Trek: DiscoveryThis month, I have mostly been missing the return of Star Trek to TV, in the form of Discovery. It’s “a Netflix original series” everywhere outside the US and Canada, so I imagine I’ll catch up during one of my irregular Netflix subscriptions (after the whole first season is available to binge, of course). Also missed: Rellik, the new thriller with a Memento-esque structure from the writers of The Missing and One of Us, and the second series of Doctor Foster. I’m saving up both for a consecutive-day binge once they’re done.

    Next month… if rumours about a surprise mid-October release date are to be believed, I’ll probably review Netflix’s sixth Marvel show, The Punisher. If those rumours are rubbish, who knows?