The Past Month on TV #66

After it had to sit out 2020 entirely (who knows why that happened?!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — but now on TV! *gasp*

Also this month: the continuation of another film-turned-television franchise in Cobra Kai; the examination of film by television in new episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; and television that has nothing much to do with film in Staged series 2 and more classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

WandaVision  Episodes 1-4
WandaVisionWandaVision isn’t the first television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in fact, it’s the thirteenth); nor is it the first to feature characters and actors from the movies (that’s been the case in at least two others, off the top of my head); but it is the first to be produced by the same division that makes the movies, so it’s set to be a lot more important (read: not totally ignored) going forward. Indeed, it’s already been reported that the events of this series tie directly into the storylines of the next Spider-Man 3 and Doctor Strange 2, at least.

So it’s a little surprising, then, that this marks such a departure from the regular style and feel of Marvel’s films; much more so than any of their previous TV series did. The setup is that somehow Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and her robot lover Vision, who died, are living in a world modelled after classic TV sitcoms, and they’re perfectly unaware that there’s anything weird about this. The show emulates these old TV formats down to a tee — it’s not simply that they’ve cropped it to 4:3 and desaturated it to black-and-white, but it’s the camera angles, the acting styles, the set and costume design, the laughter track… The whole vibe of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms is neatly evoked, and the cast are clearly having a ball playing in a different era, with stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany particularly up to the task. Plus, the fact this is a nine-episode series, rather than another two-hour action-adventure blockbuster, also allows the show to indulge in old-fashioned standalone-episode storylines, so that each episode feels like a self-contained unit of entertainment, rather than just part of a long movie cut into nine segments

But, of course, something fishy is going on, and when that begins to break through the show cleverly subverts its own format: when a guest starts unexpectedly choking at a dinner party, Wanda urges Vision to use his powers to save him, and the directorial choices suddenly become much more modern, briefly breaking the spell for us as much as the characters, but without doing anything obvious like switching to colour or widescreen. There are increasing flashes of this Twilight Zone-y, Twin Peaks-y, Stepford Wives-y oddness in future episodes, I guess to reassure regular MCU viewers that this is all going somewhere, rather than just being a bit of fluff.

And then we reach episode 4 (spoilers follow). I think we all expected this — i.e. an episode set ‘outside’ that explained (some of) what was going on — to come along at some point. It had to, really. But I thought it would be teased and teased, as it was in the first three episodes, as the show gradually moved through more eras of sitcoms, until eventually we’d start getting to real answers around maybe episode 7 or 8. It’s a very fan pleasing episode — as well as some answers, there’s also a host of roles for minor characters familiar from other MCU outings — but it does slightly concern me for the next five episodes. We know the show is heading back into Wanda’s world, because they’ve promised spoofs of sitcoms from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but surely it can’t expect to go back to a “sitcom of the week” format and that be sufficient? Now that they’ve opened up the outside, they can’t expect us to just watch Wanda cosplay different eras of sitcom history while learning nothing more about the bigger situation, can they? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

Staged  Series 2
Staged series 2The David Tennant- and Michael Sheen-starring (or is that Michael Sheen- and David Tennant-starring?) filmed-over-Zoom sitcom about lockdown life was a hit during one or other of the 2020 lockdowns, so here it is again — just in time for the 2021 lockdown, as things turned out. The second series is very much a follow-up — a sequel, if you will — rather than merely “more episodes of the same”. In fact, it’s a meta-sequel: the first series exists as a fictional project in the world of the sequel. This isn’t a continuation of the storyline(s) we watched in the first series; it’s a follow-on from the fact the first series was a success. Got that? The title card sometimes calls the series Staged², and one feels that’s more than just a typographical play on Staged 2.

That said, what we get in practice is more of the same: actors and creatives bickering about a project over video calls. But this time, rather than a play David and Michael are lined up to star in, it’s a Hollywood remake of Staged that won’t star them. Gasp! Cue a parade of famous-face guest stars as potential new cast members. No spoilers here, because the “oh look, it’s him/her” factor is part of the fun, just as it was in the first series; although, frankly, none of this series’ lot (and there are quite a lot) can pull off the same element of surprise as series one’s biggest names. However, this time the celebrity cameos dominate, with David and Michael spending most of the middle episodes meeting people who might replace them. Even bingeing the series over a couple of days, the plot feels spread thin, with very little actually happening to sustain the two hours (yes, across eight episodes it runs only two hours). The subplots that helped fill out series one (Michael’s neighbour; Georgia’s novel; in the extended cut, Lucy’s relationship; and so on) are gone, with nothing significant in their place. There is a sporadic subplot about Georgia, Anna, and Lucy prepping a charity sketch, which makes for some welcome interludes, but that’s only two or three scenes across the whole series.

And yet, ironically, the show tends to be most fun when nothing happens at all, and we’re left with David and Michael chatting to each other. When they’re separated, having different one-on-ones, it’s enjoyable to discover the foibles of another big-name guest star, but the “huh, it’s Person X” element wears off quickly and we want to go back to our leads hanging out. Fortunately, the last two episodes ride in to save the day, first with probably the best pair of guest stars of the series, then with a quite touching finale that simply abandons all the remake schtick to just be about David and Michael’s friendship as lockdown comes to an end. It’s a sweet, touching farewell to a show that I would guess has now run its course, but was a tonic while it lasted.

Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 3
Secrets of Cinema: Cult MoviesA trio of new editions of the critic’s explanation of cinematic genres, which play like the best Film Studies lectures you could imagine. Each explores and explains its chosen subject in depth, often spinning out into tangential and related branches of film history — see the episode on pop music movies, for example, which is primarily concerned with movies about pop stars or musicals starring pop stars, but takes a moment to explore the phenomenon of pop stars as proper actors, such as David Bowie’s secondary career. It’s like Kermode and his writers (which include the insanely knowledgeable Kim Newman) can’t help themselves: there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about, so many connections and parallels, and they’re going to squeeze as much of it in as possible. Cited examples are copious and wide-ranging — if an episode is about a subject you’re interested in, be prepared to see your watch list grow. The best of this trilogy is the third, on cult movies; a genre, as Kermode explains, that is defined not by filmmakers but by audiences. It’s also a particularly wide-ranging field, but one whose contents engender genuine love — what makes them cult movies, after all, is that someone loves them. Kermode helps us to understand why.

Cobra Kai  Season 2
Cobra Kai season 2The third season of this Karate Kid TV spinoff/continuation debuted at the start of the month, but I’ve been pacing myself: it’s a really good show and I didn’t want to just burn through it. While I thought season two lacked the moreishness I experienced during season one, I attribute that partly to its quality not coming as a surprise. Also, not tasked with having to set up the whole premise of the show, it can dig a little deeper into what’s already there. That includes more references to the movies. The first is remembered as an ’80s classic; the sequels as an old-fashioned case of diminishing returns — in that situation, many modern revivals choose to ignore the less-favoured follow-ups. Not so Cobra Kai, which this season explicitly references and flashes back to Karate Kid 3 on several occasions. Part of the series’ strength is fleshing out and making real some of the “kids’ movie” logic of the originals, and this season takes on a particularly tough target: the former sensei of Cobra Kai, John Kreese. He’s a bit of an “evil for evil’s sake” villain in the movies, but the series works to add some explanation for that, and even asks if it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated and redeemed, much as former bully Johnny Lawrence has been (or, you might say, is in the process of being).

The series isn’t just stuck in the past, continuing the rivalries between the high-school-aged students of Cobra Kai and competing Miyagi-Do dojo, both on the karate, er, mat (is that what it’s really called?) and in the romantic realm. I suppose it gives the show a “something for everyone” angle, with both teen melodrama and the reflectiveness of its older characters (one of the season’s best episodes sees Johnny catch up with his old gang from school, one of whom is dying from cancer). All of which builds to a stunning climax: as the kids return to school after the summer break, the opposing factions end up in a karate battle that sprawls through the halls and stairways of the school, fellow students watching and egging them on. It takes up half the episode, including the best hallway fight oner since Daredevil — yes, such lofty comparisons are merited. But, as parents always say, “if you keep doing that, one of you’s going to get hurt”, and so of course it ends in (various kinds of) tragedy. What will happen next?! Oh, season three is already calling to me…

The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone: SteelSo far on my journey through the original 1959–64 series of The Twilight Zone, I’ve covered ten selections of the best episodes and three of the worst, as chosen by various critics. With 85 episodes still to go, I’m leaving the opinions of others behind (for the time being) to check out some episodes that caught my attention for one reason or another — not because they’re acclaimed as good or derided as bad, but something about the premise grabbed me while I was perusing all those various rankings.

First up, The Bard, in which an enthusiastic wannabe TV writer uses a magic spell to bring Shakespeare back to life, and persuades the Bard to be his ghostwriter. Serling uses his years of experience to make this a satire of the TV industry, but it’s a pretty mild one — probably due to a mix of the era (when I guess the general public wouldn’t have had too much of an idea about the behind-the-scenes of TV) and the fact Serling still had to work in the industry. Also, it was apparently written in a hurry, and it shows: there are some good lines and moments, but various things don’t pay off or go anywhere. Plus, even the story angle is slightly misjudged: surely the gag here is that Shakespeare’s writing appraised by modern TV execs would be a flop; that TV execs would reject the “greatest writer of all time”. Well, at least we get to see Shakespeare punch a pretentious Method actor (played by a young Burt Reynolds), so there’s that.

Based on the same Richard Matheson short story that later inspired Hugh Jackman CGI-fest Real Steel, Steel is set in the future year 1974 (remember, this was made in 1964), when boxing has been outlawed and replaced by robot boxing. The episode centres on one bout, between our heroes’ knackered old B2 robot and a more modern B7, against which the B2 doesn’t stand much chance, despite the hopes of its owner, played by Lee Marvin. I’ve not read the original story, but that’s a broadly similar plot to the film; except here things go in a more Twilight Zone direction: when the B2 breaks down entirely, Marvin decides to enter the ring pretending to be it. The ending tries to spin what occurs as some kind of moral about mankind’s tenacity and optimism, but that feels like a bit of a stretch — the remake reimagining the concept as sports/action entertainment is actually a better use of the concept.

The Twilight Zone: The Old Man in the CaveAn altogether different vision of 1974 is presented in The Old Man in the Cave. This time, it’s a post-apocalyptic world after “the bomb” was dropped, and what’s left of humanity makes do as it can in the remnants of the old world. In particular, one town has survived by following the guidance of an old man who lives in a nearby cave, who seems to know where to plant food, what tinned goods are safe to eat, what the weather will bring, and so on. When a militia turns up (led by James Coburn) planning to bring order to the region, the townsfolk are faced with the choice of continuing to listen to the old man or side with the militia’s view that he’s actually an oppressor and they’re a lot nicer. It turns into a neat little sci-fi fable — the finale says it’s about the error of faithlessness, but I’m more inclined to say it’s about trust in experts vs selfishness and greed. The townsfolk have followed this expert’s guidance for a decade and it’s kept them alive, but that life hasn’t been easy or fun, so they’re tempted by the fantasy sold by the newcomers: that you can have whatever you want; the expert is keeping you down for no reason. Naturally, it can only pan out one way. It’s a story whose moral seems only more pertinent today.

The Rip Van Winkle Caper also catapults us into the future, as a gang of gold thieves cryogenically freeze themselves to wake up 100 years after their crime, when their loot won’t be ‘hot’ and, as a bonus, will have benefited from 100 years of inflation. But crime doesn’t pay, even in the Twilight Zone — doubly so in this episode, where the crooks bring about their own destruction even before we reach the episode’s ironic twist. As a sci-fi lesson in where greed gets you (nowhere), it’s not the series’ greatest parable, but it’s not bad.

The Twilight Zone: A Kind of a StopwatchThe same could be said of A Kind of a Stopwatch, which takes on a perennial “what if”: what if you could freeze time? It wasn’t an original idea even when this episode was made in 1964, with Serling once saying he received dozens of pitches a year along those lines. He didn’t think any of them had an original enough take on the concept to be worth adapting, until this one. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so special about it. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s a reasonably well handled version, although it falls victim to the series’ regular bad habit of having the main character take much longer than the audience to understand the rules of the situation. But the episode’s real flaw comes at the end, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime: the main character’s fate is not an ironic twist especially suited to him. It’s that which stops Stopwatch from reaching TZ’s true heights; that leaves it a solid “good” episode when it could possibly have been a great one.

Things to Catch Up On
It's a SinThis month, I have mostly been missing It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s new drama about a group of friends coming of age amidst the emergence of AIDS in the ’80s. It’s only a couple of episodes in on Channel 4, but the whole five-part series is already available via All 4 (FYI, it’s out in the US on HBO Max in mid-February). I intend to binge the whole thing and review it next month.

Next month… more WandaVision, more Twilight Zone, plus whatever else the TV Gods still have left in the pre-pandemic tank and/or have managed to produce during the various lockdowns.

The Past Christmas on TV

Christmas is properly over now: adults are back at work; kids are back at sch— wait, what? Another lockdown?

Well, the festive season is over either way, isn’t it? So it’s time for my annual look back at some of the TV highlights. Or what was on, anyway.

Doctor Who  Revolution of the Daleks
Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksThis year’s Doctor Who special felt like a bid by showrunner Chris Chibnall to keep fans happy. Popular character Captain Jack Harkness is back, properly this time — after a cameo-ish appearance last season, this is his first major role in the show since 2008. And the proper Daleks are back, too — we got a sort-of-Dalek two years ago in the last special, but, after that’s used as the model for an army of “security drones”, the real Daleks turn up to exterminate them, with the 2005-style bronze Daleks making their first full appearance since 2015 (yes, it’s been that long).

Of course, the one thing most fans would really like Chibnall to do is bugger off and let someone better write the show. He hasn’t given us that gift yet, sadly, but at least this is one of his better episodes. It’s suitably romp-ish for a seasonal special, with plenty of running down corridors, exploding enemies, and the odd gag or two. There’s even some political satire, albeit fairly familiar, heavy-handed, and underdeveloped. Well, that’s Chibnall’s whole style, isn’t it? He can’t seem to escape it, or doesn’t want to (there are surely other writers or script editors he could employ to help point him in the right direction).

The other big news this episode is the departure of regulars Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter has been one of the highlights of this era, but is given short shrift here. He barely has anything to do all episode — with a cast this big there’s no time for everyone to get emotional subplots (or what Chibnall thinks passes for them), and here they’re shared between the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz… plus returning villain Robertson, of all people, who is arguably the episode’s main character. What a shitty way to write out two of your leads. And when it comes down to it, Graham only decides to leave the TARDIS because Ryan wants to go, and he wants to spend time with Ryan. Walsh is a fine actor when given the chance, and he deserved better. Ryan’s reasons for leaving aren’t <iquite as underwritten, but Cole does most of the heavy lifting, injecting a lot into unspoken moments to convey what Ryan’s feeling. A bit of screenwriting advice I once read asserted that, if you don’t bother to give your characters subtext, a good actor will invent their own regardless — it feels like that’s what’s happened here; or, at least, Cole has expanded well on the thin material Chibnall gave him.

In any other recent era, Revolution of the Daleks (an inaccurate title — it should’ve been called something like Purity of the Daleks, or even Security of the Daleks) would be a middle-of-the-road episode, at best. At present, it’s probably going to be remembered as of the highlights of the era. There are now rumours that Jodie Whittaker is planning to leave the show after her next run, having completed the more-or-less standard three series. Well, the wrong person is going: she’s a fine Doctor let down by poor writing, and we’d all be better off if Chibnall would go and let someone else have a crack at giving Whittaker the material she deserves.

Cinderella  A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for ChristmasWith theatres mostly shut this November and December due to Covid restrictions, the UK’s traditional pantomime season was a write-off. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and so an all-star bunch of actors and entertainers (including the likes of Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hollander, and Anya Taylor-Joy, plus multiple surprise cameos) came together over Zoom to record this hour-long panto in aid of Comic Relief. (FYI, there are two versions available: a 60-minute one that aired on BBC Two, and a slightly extended 63-minute cut available on iPlayer.)

I imagine it would’ve been easier logistically to film everyone separately (and would we have been any the wiser?), but instead they seem to have wrangled all these stars together on the same Zoom call and performed it in more-or-less real-time. That ‘almost live’ aspect adds an element of unpredictability to proceedings — there’s the occasional tech issue, and a fair degree of corpsing and improvisation. Looking at other reviews, I guess this wasn’t to everyone’s taste (“a poor effort when better productions were hidden online”), but I thought it added to the do-it-yourself charm. It’s not a slick production by a bunch of pros, but has an air of fun similar to a bunch of mates doing their best and having a ball. The end result is very silly, of course, but all in the right spirit.

Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious MouseSky’s big special this year was this based-on-a-true-story tale of when a young, bereaved Roald Dahl went on a trip to meet an ageing Beatrix Potter. Two of the great British children’s authors meeting up at very different points in their lives? It’s a wonder no one’s thought to film this before. Although, based on the evidence here, the meeting was fairly short and inconsequential — that they met is an interesting bit of trivia, not a defining moment in either’s life. To get this anecdote up to barely-feature-length (it’s just over an hour without ads), there’s a lot of expanded backstory on both sides. The Roald side feels like it must be broadly true — it’s all about him (and his mother) struggling to cope with the deaths of both his sister and father — but the Beatrix side feels dreamt up to balance it out — it’s just about her arguing with an agent about the contents of her latest book. Eventually, these threads converge on the eponymous pair’s brief meeting… and that’s the end. It’s a slight and gentle film, but it made for moderately charming Christmas Eve fare.

Comedy Specials
The Goes Wrong Show: The NativityAs usual, the schedules were full of sitcoms and panel shows offering half-hour doses of festivals merriment. Highlights included a fourth Christmassy edition of The Goes Wrong Show, in which the accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society turned their attention to The Nativity, with predictably disastrous — and hilarious — results. I get that Goes Wrong is too silly for some, but it hits just the right note for me. A more heartwarming tone was struck by the Ghosts special, in which Mike’s overbearing family coming to stay (clearly not set this Christmas, then). In keeping with the style of the recent second series, their presence prompted flashbacks to the life of horny MP Julian, which, via a series of kinky sex parties, delivered a message about appreciating your family while you can.

Meanwhile, Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow very much engaged with the current situation in an episode entitled Lockdown Christmas 1603, which imagined Will and his landlady Kate stuck at home during a plague-induced lockdown. Naturally this was a vehicle for observations about present-day life. It would be too kind to call it satire, but it was moderately amusing. After several years of Christmas specials, Not Going Out instead turned its attention to that other major end-of-December event: New Year. A show already fond of gathering its whole cast in a single location for basically a one-act play was perfect fodder for lockdown-constrained filming, and that’s what we get here: everyone gather for New Year’s Eve. Cue their inevitable sniping at one another — but when that gets too much, the assignation of New Year’s resolutions turns into some kind of group therapy session. It’s quite bold of a sitcom to deconstruct its characters’ defining foibles so explicitly, especially when there are more series on the way. One suspects the life lessons learnt won’t last…

Also watched…
  • Blankety Blank Christmas Special — Yet another revival for the popular gameshow. It was supposedly a one-off, but I suspect it was intended as a backdoor pilot; as it was a ratings hit, I’d wager we’ll see more. I could’ve included it in the comedy roundup, because its main appeal is less as a gameshow and more in the format’s potential for humour.
  • Death to 2020 — I brazenly counted this as a film for statistical reasons, but it’s a TV special really. My full review is here.
  • Have I Got 30 Years for You — An entertaining but also insightful look back at three decades of the predominant news quiz.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Black NarcissusThis Christmas, I have mostly been missing Black Narcissus, the BBC’s three-part re-adaptation of a novel most famous for being adapted into a film by Powell & Pressburger. It’s on iPlayer in UHD now, which is usually an incentive for me to catch it. Talking of three-part re-adaptations, I also didn’t watch Steven Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol — that was on last year, when I didn’t have time for it until after Christmas had passed. “Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then,” I said. Oops.

    Next month… Perhaps Cobra Kai. After loving season one, I deliberately didn’t rush on to season two so that I didn’t burn through it too fast before season three. Then Netflix announced season three for early January, and then moved it forward to January 1st, and now instead of nicely spacing it out I just feel very far behind. Must resist the urge to burn through two seasons now instead…

  • Death to 2020 (2020)

    2020 #264
    Al Campbell & Alice Mathias | 71 mins | digital (UHD) | 2:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

    Death to 2020

    As if the line between film and TV wasn’t becoming blurred enough already, 2020 has torn it to shreds. It’s now basically up to streamers whether they brand something as “a film” or a “special” or whatever (some individual websites might insist on labelling any Netflix original movie as “TV”, but I’m not sure anyone’s listening). This feature-length one-off from the makers of Black Mirror is, officially, “a Netflix Original Comedy Event” — so it’s a TV special, really, isn’t it? I probably shouldn’t be counting it as a film. Oh, but who cares?

    Despite the lack of familiar title format, Death to 2020 very much follows in the footsteps of the Wipe series of year-in-reviews specials Charlie Brooker used to make for the BBC. It’s both documentary and mockumentary: it recaps the real-life events of the year, with minimal diversion into satirical fantasy, but archly commented on by an array of actors portraying fake experts. The Netflix budget means some properly big names are involved: Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow… the list goes on. The prime absentee is Brooker himself, only piping up occasionally as an offscreen interviewer.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focuses on the major events of the year from a UK/US perspective — other countries (like Australia, China, and… um… I think that’s it) only enter the equation when events there affect everyone else (like, y’know, starting a global pandemic). That makes sense given who made it, but maybe less so for Netflix as a global company. But then, not everything needs to appeal to everyone. I’m sure if they had a French satirist on the books, they’d be producing a Franco-centric special.

    A cast of dozens!

    It’s to Death to 2020’s disadvantage that, this year, we’ve all been paying more attention to the news than ever. That might seem like a benefit — a knowledgeable, informed audience means you can cut straight to the jokes with minimal prompting — but I think instead it means we’ve already heard most of the humour. We’ve spent all year making these gags ourselves, trying to alleviate the doom-laden (inter)national mood. The other, related, problem lies in trying to appeal to an international audience. In trying to keep things accessible for both sides of the pond, Brooker and co avoid getting into the weeds of local politics. Brexit is briefly mentioned rather than deconstructed; US politics is limited to the election. Specificities of lockdown life are dodged almost entirely. Trying to stick to broad, globally-familiar topics seems to keep the humour similarly generalised.

    Nonetheless, it starts out quite funny, even if they’re mostly riffs we’ve heard before. But around the time it hits the killing of George Floyd, the jokes dry up. If you’re not a racist dickhead, there’s little funny about the organisations that supposedly protect us instead arbitrarily murdering people. Death to 2020 knows this and picks its targets carefully, but it seems to kill the humour nonetheless — the jokes continue, but the humour in them dries up.

    It turns out the biggest problem isn’t unoriginality or too broad a target audience, but rather that 2020 was such a shitshow that it’s just no fun to be reminded of it, even in an intentionally comedic context. It doesn’t help that we’re facing a 2021 that promises at least several months of being equally as bad. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh, but just as likely we’ll prefer to forget.

    2 out of 5

    Happy New Year, dear readers! It can’t actually be any worse… right?

    The Past Month on TV #64

    Christmas TV is already underway in the UK (I believe the first things that were explicitly a “Christmas special” aired over the weekend) — so, before my usual Christmassy roundup, here’s one final regular TV column for 2020.

    His Dark Materials  Series 2
    His Dark Materials series 2

    In a world where innumerable film and TV productions have been affected by Covid and its associated lockdowns, His Dark Materials got lucky: by hurrying on to produce their second series before the young cast aged too much, they’d virtually wrapped filming before the first UK lockdown hit. The only casualty: a standalone episode detailing what one character was up to during the rest of the season. That’s frustrating for fans (as I understand it, the events intended for that episode aren’t actually in the original novel, but were dreamt up afresh by the show’s writers in collaboration with original author Philip Pullman), and if you know there’s an episode missing then you can spot its absence (there are some scenes and references in the season finale that I wager would make more sense had we seen the missing episode), but the series mostly survives without it.

    So, picking up from series one’s massive cliffhanger, this second run adapts the trilogy’s second novel, The Subtle Knife — a mysterious item of arguably even greater value than the Golden Compass that (sort of) lends its name to (the US version of) book one. Despite tackling a whole novel, I’ve seen some describe this season as boring, with too little incident. I guess that’s the advantage of waiting until the end and watching it all in just six days: I was suitably engrossed, and it moved, if not at a fair old lick, then certainly at a reasonable pace. But it’s not a show that’s always big on action — instead, it’s big on ideas, with underpinning concepts on the boundaries of science and fantasy that have to be explained and understood by the viewer. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of conflict between our heroes and villains; and while it may seem clear who’s on which side, there are enough shades of grey, and emerging uncertainties about who’s really got the right motives, to keep it pleasantly complicated, engrossing, and believable.

    I’m sure I once read that the original plan was to adapt the trilogy of novels over five seasons — one for book one, two each for books two and three. Now, they’ve reached the point where book two has been done in a single season, and now book three is plotted out to be completed in one more run of eight episodes too. But, shockingly, it hasn’t been commissioned yet. I bloody hope the BBC (and HBO) do the right thing, because I think overall this is an excellent show, with still-timely issues of freedom and control, that merits completion on screen. And, simply, I’m excitedly looking forward to the next (final) series already.

    Update: This afternoon, while I was too busy writing this post to notice the news, the BBC and HBO officially recommissioned His Dark Materials for its third and final series. Hurrah!

    The Good Place  Season 4
    The Good Place season 4The Good Place ended forever ago, right? Well, the series finale originally aired back in January, so… this year, yeah, forever ago.

    As with every previous season of the show, this one noodles around in a new setup for the first half-dozen-or-so episodes, before swinging into one long multi-part story through to the end of the season — and, in this case, the end of the series. In that respect, it’s always been kind of an odd show, structurally, and season four is no different. Most of the jeopardy and drama is resolved a couple of episodes before the end, leaving us to watch events play out for these characters we’ve come to love, rather than trying to keep us hooked primarily by plot, unlike pretty much every other programme ever. To be clear, this is not a criticism: it absolutely works. Rather than shooting for a series finale that has the big climax of the plot plus a bunch of rushed wrap-ups, here the more-than-double-length finale is like a coda to the entire show. It’s the series’ highest rated episode on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking this approach.

    The Good Place did, actually, start out as a show that seemed to be primarily about its plot — it’s name was mostly made off the back of one plot point in season one — but along the way it’s really developed a care for its ragtag gang of heroes, and taken us along for a once-in-an-afterlifetime ride with them, to the point where I’m actually kinda sad to see them go… but I loved watching them leave.

    Baptiste  Series 1
    BaptisteThe breakout star of BBC drama The Missing here gets his own spinoff series. Julien Baptiste is a retired police detective who specialises in finding missing people, which is exactly what he did across two series of The Missing (I reviewed the second here). But instead of a third series, he gets a spinoff, in which he… has to search for a missing person. Hm. But that’s just the inciting incident: before long, Julien finds himself embroiled in the affairs of an Eastern European criminal empire, with his family under threat. Okay, fair enough. Unfortunately, although Baptiste shares the same main creatives as its parent show — sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams — what they’ve cooked up here just isn’t as inventive or captivating as their two seasons of The Missing, both of which were fantastic. Sure, they still conjure up plenty of unexpected twists and developments, but it lacks the same spark that was there before. But let’s not get carried away: it’s not a bad serial, just not as high-quality as the two seasons that preceded it. It’s been recommissioned, so perhaps next time they’ll recapture the magic.

    Smiley’s People
    Smiley's PeopleJohn le Carré’s spy mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most acclaimed works of the genre, and the 1979 TV adaptation is justly fêted as one of the great miniseries. But Tinker Tailor is actually the first book in a loose trilogy, and in 1982 they also adapted the third book (they skipped the second because its overseas settings were deemed too expensive; as I understand it, the plot also doesn’t have that much bearing on the overall events — this isn’t “one story in three parts” like many a trilogy). Smiley’s People doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation as its forebear, and I’m afraid I’m not going to challenge that position. Like Baptiste, it’s not bad, it just lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes its predecessor a solid-gold classic. One thing they do share is a damnably complicated plot — I struggled to follow the narrative watching it one episode per day back to back, so goodness knows how anyone kept up with it once a week over a month and a half back in the ’80s.

    I watched it on the BBC’s recently-released Blu-ray, which is a tough one to recommend it. It’s clearly been mastered from the original film (where possible — some negatives were missing so they had to resort to less-good elements), but then it’s been slathered in digital noise reduction (DNR) as if in some misguided attempt to hide that it was actually shot on grainy film stock as opposed to weirdly-soft HD video. It’s so rare for things to be over-DNRed these days that you’d think we were finally past it, but obviously not. And yet, while the series never looks as good as it could, the fact it has been restored means it’s a lot better than the old DVDs, and the chances of anyone ever doing it again and getting it right are basically non-existent. Sometimes, we just have to settle for what we can get. That certainly sounds like a le Carré moral, doesn’t it?

    Elementary  Season 7 Episodes 9-13
    Elementary season 7The other “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day” show finally came to an end last year, though I suspect its finishing shall remain more final: whereas Sherlock always had a stop-start “we could make more anytime” production, accompanied with cast & crew chatter about wanting to sporadically do make new episodes forever, Elementary is much more traditional US network TV show — and the diminishing episode orders of the final couple of seasons and summertime broadcasts of the last couple of seasons don’t suggest an enduring hit poised for a revival.

    Despite that, the finale itself left things open for more, imitating Sherlock’s “Holmes and Watson continue” final beat. This kind of open-ended ‘ending’ fits a show like Sherlock, where there’s a realistic chance it will return someday. For a show like Elementary, where the chance it might ever return is infinitesimally small, it just feels inconclusive. Like, if you want it to be a true finale, you need to give some closure; an actual ending. As it is, despite a narrative that condenses several years and major life events (Joan gets cancer then goes into remission across a single cut), the episode fails to truly answer why this is the point at which we stop following Sherlock and Joan’s adventures.

    There are some people who’ll tell you Elementary is better than Sherlock. I’m not one of them. I’ve warmed to it down the years, but I’ve never thought it was a particularly good realisation of Holmes and Watson — whatever its faults, Sherlock feels like it’s an attempt to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, whereas Elementary has taken a few names and basic character points and then gone its own way. I’ll concede that there are some things Elementary has done better, although that’s an almost-inevitable side effect of having c.22 episodes a year to play with instead of Sherlock’s three TV movies every couple of years. But it’s also an almost-standard US network procedural — I can remember every single episode of Sherlock, for good or ill, whereas very few of Elementary’s 154 instalments stick in my memory.

    Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 2 — The second series of the supernatural sitcom digs more into the backstory of its various titular spooks, which seems to be a deep well for plot ideas and humour — one episode, for example, Rashomons it up by recounting one ghost’s death from the various perspectives of others who were already there to witness it. A Christmas special is imminent, and a third series is already commissioned.
  • Leverage Season 1 Episodes 1-3 — Now that I’m done with Elementary, this is my new pick for a “bung it on anytime”, “easy to watch”, US procedural. So far, it’s filling that void nicely. It’s a minor-network production from the late ‘00s, so it already feels a bit dated (it doesn’t quite have the cinematic swagger we expect from top-drawer TV now; the score, in particular, sounds like it was dropped in from a royalty-free library CD), but if you can let the production values slide, it’s good fun in a “bit of a romp” way. That’s how I like my heist movies/shows, so it ticks the right boxes for me.
  • Neil Brand’s Sound of TV — The music maestro follows up his series on the sound of movies from a few years ago (shamefully, I never got round to it) with a trio of episodes covering TV themes, advertising jingles, and TV scores. Very informative and entertaining, but you feel like the topic is so big (particularly the last one) that it could’ve withstood a few more episodes.
  • Richard Osman’s House of Games Night Series 1 — This daytime quiz show has been running for a while, but apparently became quite the success during lockdown, leading to a primetime evening spin-off — which, as I understand it, is just the exact same show but in a different time slot. It’s quite fun: there’s a good “play along at home” quality, and having the same contestants compete across the series means you end up rooting for your favourites.
  • Staged Series 1 Extended — If you didn’t know, Netflix has an extended version of this BBC lockdown hit — there’s about 29 minutes of new material spread across the six episodes, which is a fair old chunk (equivalent to almost two whole extra episodes). And that’s why I rewatched it: because it was good and I’d like to see the extra stuff. Plus, there are new episodes coming in January, so it’s a good time to recap.
  • The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown — The clergywoman returns for a trio of bitesize Zoom sermons, which together form a kind of comedic “review of the year” (and if you’re prepared to wait for the compilation version airing in a day or two, it’s apparently got some extra material). Many of Dibley’s supporting cast are sadly no longer with us, so I doubt we’ll ever get a proper return for the show, but this is a pleasant little sliver of nostalgia mixed with current events.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Mandalorian season 2This month, I have mostly been missing The Mandalorian season 2. Well, as regular readers will know, I never even got round to season 1. Naturally, it’s been basically impossible to avoid spoilers — though as those amount to “look which legacy character has turned up this week” rather than actual plot stuff, perhaps it will be okay. Or maybe the series doesn’t really have any plot to spoil, it’s just endless fan service — that would certainly seem to tally with some people’s view of the show. Others love it though, so I’ll see for myself… someday…

    Next month… will come after my regular Christmas TV roundup, which will likely include a bunch of seasonal sitcom specials, plus the New Year’s Day Doctor Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #63

    There’s all sorts of stuff I thought I’d’ve got round to for this TV column — Cobra Kai season 2; more of The Twilight Zone; Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit; finally starting The bloody Mandalorian — but I haven’t seen any of them. So, rather than keep pushing this post back and back, here’s what little I have watched that’s worth commenting on in the almost-two-months-now since my last TV review.

    Young Wallander  Season 1
    Young WallanderI think that Swedish detective Kurt Wallander’s USP, if he has one, was that he wasn’t some young hotshot maverick genius, like so many fictional detectives, but rather a middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned, almost workaday cop who got the job done. So a series about his younger days already seems like it might be missing half the point. But it’s worked for other TV detectives (most notably Morse in the acclaimed Endeavour), so why not? After all, seeing what police work in 1970s Sweden was like might be interesting — it’s certainly a different setting, anyway.

    Well, that’s Young Wallander‘s first misstep: this isn’t about the young life of canonical Wallander, it’s a modern-day reboot. So, you’ve removed the obvious character traits and you’ve changed when it’s set — what makes this Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? That was the question I had after watching the trailer and, sadly, I still wondered it after watching the series in full. At least the storyline is Wallander-ish, all about nationalism and refugees and how they’re treated. That may sound very timely, given what’s been going on politically over the last five to ten years, and it is; but it’s also the kind of thing Wallander’s original creator, Henning Mankell, often wrote about before that. But that makes it a mixed blessing: yes, it’s the kind of story you can imagine a ‘real’ Wallander text tackling, but it’s also such a present-day issue that that doesn’t matter; it’s the kind of plot any drama might choose to take on right now.

    The production itself is a strange international hybrid: made by Swedish production company Yellow Bird (though actually shot elsewhere in Europe, I believe), but with a British writer and mostly British cast speaking English, while thankfully not trying to emulate the accent. That’s except for Wallander himself, who’s played by a Swede, who has kind of retained his accent. In a story all about national identity, it’s kind of ironic that Wallander sounds like the only Swedish man in Sweden.

    I can see why the Wallander rights-holders would want the brand to continue, because it’s been very popular in various incarnations, in particular the Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson and the British series starring Kenneth Branagh. But between those, and the previous series of Swedish TV movies starring Rolf Lassgård, every one of Mankell’s original novels has been adapted twice, plus the invention of about 30 original-for-TV stories — so, if you want to continue the character, a new direction does feel called for. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. It’s too generic, lacking any uniqueness that makes you feel this is a story that could only be told — or even should be told — using the Wallander brand. Even leaving that aside — if you had no previous attachment to the character and so just approached this as an original cop drama — the series is less than great. It’s not outright bad, just thoroughly middling, with an underwhelming finale that leaves plot threads dangling; and it’s not clear if it’s meant to be a realistic “not everything gets tied up” ending, or if they’re hoping to pick up on them in a second season.

    The only good thing to come out of all this, for me, was that it’s reminded me I still have a bunch of adaptations starring Lassgård that I’ve never watched, so it’ll be nice to go visit those. And then revisit the Henriksson series at some point, because it was excellent; and maybe the Branagh one too, because that was also really good. But if Young Wallander manages to bag itself a recommission, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 5 Episodes 2-3 + 2016 Christmas Special
    Jonathan Creek: Daemons' RoostI noted last time that Jonathan Creek seems to be ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was a huge hit when it first aired in the ’90s, and a revival in 2009 was a big ratings success too, but the sporadic specials made since then have seen it drift further and further from the spark that once made it special. The nadir was the premiere episode of series 5, which didn’t even function properly as an episode of the show. The remaining two instalments of that short run are better, but still nowhere near the series’ early-day highs. The third one, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, includes an array of terrible subplots that make you wish it was considerably shorter (it’s only an hour long but feels like two), but its mystery is still the nearest these latter-day Creeks have come to its heyday.

    A saving grace comes in the last (for now) episode, 2016 Christmas special Daemons’ Roost. Is it the last-ever episode? Many online listings treat it as such, but the four years since it aired means if another episode popped up it wouldn’t be the longest gap in the series’ history. But if it is the last time we ever get to see the character, it’s actually not a bad one to go out on; in fact, thought it was a real return to form. As with many later episodes, it struggles to get Jonathan involved in the case — daft, really, because, after he had the same problem right back in series 1, writer David Renwick came up with a way to just throw Jonathan and Maddy into the case every episode… then undid that after series 4, since when we’ve once again been subjected to long-winded reasonings for Jonathan to get involved. So, once again, it takes a while to get going (Jonathan doesn’t get properly involved until 40 minutes in), but once it ramps up there are some neat mysteries and bags of Gothic atmosphere. I always feel Creek is at its best when it’s invoking that almost Hammer Horror vibe. There are also some nice nods to the series’ history, which is the main reason it feels like it could serve fittingly as a “finale” if needs must.

    Though, personally, I’d love to see Jonathan reunited with Maddy for one final case; and I’m happy to wait for a one-off special when Renwick’s got a good idea, because we’ve seen how wrong it goes when he forces it.

    Also watched…
  • Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. This one starts dark… and gets darker. I loved that, but I can see he’s not for everyone.
  • Demetri Martin: The Overthinker — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much — it was, ironically, overthought. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.
  • Small Axe Episode 1 — Just to note that I’ll be counting these as films, because that’s what they are, really, aren’t they? I suppose the counterargument is it’s an anthology miniseries because they’re premiering on TV, but nah — especially as several of them actually premiered at a film festival.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episodes 2-4 — I’m even way behind on Bake Off! I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers, at least, so I’ll catch up soon.

    Things to Catch Up On
    His Dark Materials series 2This month, I have mostly been missing His Dark Materials, the second series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy. Of course, I’ve been missing lots of stuff (that was kind of the theme of my introduction, remember?), but that’s one of the most pressing to me personally. You might argue The Mandalorian, also on its second season, is even more pertinent, what with it regularly being thoroughly discussed online, but I’ve not even started that yet. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, I do expect to watch soon.

    Next month… His Dark Materials season 2, probably. What else, only time will tell.

  • The Past Month on TV #62

    I didn’t think I’d watched much TV to cover in this month’s column, and then I came to write it…

    Cobra Kai  Season 1
    Cobra Kai season 1A belated sequel/spin-off to the Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai was one of the first series to be released when YouTube decided to get in on the Netflix game. It was a hit for them, too, attracting tens of millions of viewers and very strong reviews. And yet it feels like no one talked about it, so where those 90 million people were hiding, who knows. Anyway, with YouTube wrapping up their series production (they were a bit late to a market already saturated by Netflix, Amazon, and a dozen other TV and film studios), existing and future seasons of Cobra Kai have been passed onto Netflix — and now everyone’s talking about it. Are more people watching it, or is the Venn diagram between “people who primarily watch stuff via Netflix” and “people who use social media” just a perfect circle? We’ll never know. I guess I’m one of those people who only started talking about the show after it moved to Netflix. I did mean to get to it sooner, but no way was I paying for YouTube, and I missed the couple of times they made it all available for free.

    Anyway, what of the programme itself? As I said, I’d heard it was good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. Seriously. A belated revival of a half-forgotten oh-so-’80s kids’ sports movie franchise should not be one of the best shows on TV in the 2010s, but, turns out, it kinda is. The writing, the performances, the way it uses the franchise’s legacy but is also it’s own thing… all of that is more or less perfect. One of its strongest features is a nicely nuanced treatment of the returning characters. They haven’t just kept them the same, nor merely inverted it so Johnny’s turned good and Daniel’s gone bad. They both have their heroic and villainous moments; both can be inspiring; both can be embarrassing middle-aged men. There’s a certain lack of vanity on the part of the actors there, acknowledging the real passage of time rather than still trying to be Karate ‘Kids’.

    It has what I consider to be the perfect balance of storytelling styles for this streaming era: it’s telling one long story (of course it is), but each episode works as a self-contained unit, with its own plots and subplots. Put another way, it’s ten episodes that together add up to one story, rather than a single long narrative arbitrarily chopped into ten pieces. Because of that, it only gets better as it goes on — you get more invested; the characters develop; stuff pays off… it’s superb. I don’t really do “binge watching” (maybe two episodes in one day, sometimes), but Cobra Kai is so addictive that I ended up watching half the first season in one sitting. It helps that the episodes are short (around 25 minutes each), really feeding the “just one more” feeling. If you’ve only got half-an-hour to spare, you can throw the next episode on and get a satisfying instalment; but if you’ve got nowhere else to be, don’t be surprised if you get suckered in to more, because it does kind of work as “a movie”. (Indeed, watching the first five episodes in one sitting almost felt like watching the first half of a two-part movie, because they reach a particularly suitable break in the overall narrative.)

    The move to Netflix was prompted by YouTube informing the production team that they’d air the already-filmed third season, but definitely wouldn’t commission a fourth. The first two seasons have already been such a success for their new home that Netflix have commissioned that fourth season before they’ve even released the third (it’s due early next year). There’s a lot one could analyse about that (considering the first episode already had 90 million views on YouTube, how many more people were there to watch it on Netflix?!), but the important point is: more Cobra Kai, guaranteed! If it keeps up this level of quality, that’s a very good thing.

    (The only reason I didn’t race straight on to season 2 was to spread it out a bit, what with the wait ’til season 3. Expect a review next month.)

    Strike  Lethal White
    Strike: Lethal WhiteA four-part adaptation of the fourth Cormoran Strike novel by J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith, which sees the private detective investigating the blackmail of an MP at the same time as a historical murder comes his way that the may be connected to the same MP. What a coincidence! No, it really is a coincidence; but don’t worry, with four whole hours of story to get through, you’ll probably have forgotten about that by the end. There’s also the ongoing drama of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. If you thought her getting married to her dick of a fiancé at the end of the last series was going to put a stop to that, you were very wrong. Strike mainly coasts by on the likeability of its two leads — the actual plot isn’t bad, just not anything remarkable. We’ve had four or more decades of this kind of investigative crime drama on British TV, and Strike is one of the ones that happens to currently be on.

    Criminal  Season 2
    Criminal season 2Remember when Netflix first launched Criminal and made a big deal of how it was one format filmed by four different countries? Does no one else remember that? Because I swear it was one of the key USPs, but it’s gone entirely unmentioned in the (surprisingly large amount of) press about the second season — which I presume suits Netflix just fine, because three of the countries have been quietly dropped, so only the UK version remains. (What’s the betting the UK one did better simply because its anglophone cast are more widely known around the world?)

    Anyway, it remains a funny old drama — it wants to be grounded and focused (it all takes place in an interview room and the observation room next door), but rather than allow the minutiae of the actors’ skills to shine through (the other USP), it can’t help but indulge in jumping about with narrative bells and whistles. Most questionable is the second episode, in which Kit Harington gives a good performance, but the “falsely accused of rape” storyline feels like it’s failed to read the cultural moment. It’s got a 9.2 rating on IMDb, though, so I guess the men’s rights-type people found it.

    Derren Brown: Miracle
    Derren Brown: MiracleI’d found the last few Derren Brown live shows relatively underwhelming (not to mention his recent TV specials), which is perhaps why I missed this back whenever it first aired on Channel 4 (in 2016) and am only now catching up. Maybe it’s the distance of time, then, but I thought this was a really strong and entertaining set of tricks and set pieces. The only thing I’d like more is if he explained how the faith healing stuff worked. We know it’s a con, a trick, but it still has an effect. He acknowledges part of it (it’s all psychological, “the stories we tell ourselves”), but how does that fix a woman’s eyesight or render a man unable to read? I know magic tricks aren’t ‘meant’ to be explained, but when you’re exposing shysters’ cons, I feel like revealing the methodology is ok.

    Netflix Comedy Specials
    Hannah Gadbsy: DouglasRecently, I’ve been unwinding with some of Netflix’s standup specials. The most noteworthy / widely discussed of those is certainly Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, her followup show to the massively successful Nanette (which I commented on last month. “Followup” is the right word, because Gadsby begins the set by talking about Nanette’s success and her reaction to it. Then she begins the new show… without beginning the show. Instead, she does a long bit where she lays out the entire structure of the show to come before, almost 15 minutes in, “the show” actually starts. After Nanette was so praised for bending the form of what “standup comedy” could be, I guess she felt the need to do it some more. It’s fairly ingenious and works quite well. As for the material itself, it’s not as emotionally devastating as Nanette, but still appropriately pointed when needed.

    Elsewise, I’ve been trying out some American comedians who I hadn’t even heard of before I saw their trailers on Netflix. Demetri Martin’s accurately titled Live (at the Time) indulges in a lot of quick, deadpan humour, including some nice meta jokes. That’s my kind of thing. Also my kind of thing: dark comedy. Apparently Anthony Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward is the kind of comedy that some people find offensive, but I struggle to find any comedy “offensive” when it’s clearly being performed with self-awareness that it is wrong, and that’s why it’s funny (as opposed to someone saying something as “just a joke” when it’s their actual word view, i.e. what right wing ‘comics’ tend to do). So, yes, I’m aware some people find Jeselnik’s material beyond the pale, but he hit just the right note for me (i.e. I’ve seen darker, but they probably went too far). Finally (appropriately), Marc Maron’s End Times Fun accepts that the world is fucked and gets on with making gags about it. His bit about how the way hardcore Marvel fans behave is actually the same as religious fanatics is bang on, while his finale — an extended vulgar ‘prophecy’ for the end of days — is hilarious, and quite close to Jeselnik in terms of pushing at offensive-to-some boundaries.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The Howling ManThis is my tenth and final selection of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone, which gets me to the end of the top third of episodes on my consensus ranking (The New Exhibit is ranked 52nd, which is exactly 33.3% through). I think that’s as far as I can reasonably call the “best of”. If you think it sounds quite far through the list to still be calling these “the best”, bear this in mind: a lot of this month’s episodes are well placed in several rankings, but then one or two more negative nellies drag them down. (The Howling Man is the most extreme instance of this: it’s in the top 20 according to voters on Ranker, and placed in the top 30 by ScreenCrush, Paste, and IMDb users, but neither TV Guide nor Thrillist include it in their top 50, and BuzzFeed put it 149th.) My personal opinion of some of these episodes made me wonder if I’d pushed “best of” too far, but there have been episodes in previous “best of” selections that I liked even less, so I think it’s coincidence rather than that TZ has run out of good episodes before I even get halfway through. (And just because I didn’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not well regarded — one of my least favourites here, Stopover in a Quiet Town, has 8.3 on IMDb and is ranked 25th there.)

    The first episode this month isn’t a disaster, but doesn’t quite coalesce either. Ring-a-Ding Girl has some very nice ideas, but they’ve not been arranged properly to make a wholly satisfying episode. For one thing, it leaves a whole town full of people aware of the strange thing that’s happened — that doesn’t feel very Twilight Zone, where these things normally only directly affect one or two people, and even they often can’t be sure it actually happened. That’s more a minor point of style than a fundamental flaw, mind. Still, I feel like someone could rewrite this and make it a lot better — heck, it could probably even sustain a feature, if done right. Bit of a shame, then.

    A Hundred Yards Over the RimOn the other hand, a common feature of The Twilight Zone is “man out of time” stories. The show did a lot of those, and A Hundred Yards Over the Rim is certainly one of them. In 1847, a pioneer at the head of a wagon train heads over a nearby rim to scout for water, and finds himself in 1961. There’s reasonable potential in that, but what follows offers no remarkable features or moral messages. If the pioneer was on the verge of giving up, and seeing that people like him did bring civilisation to those barren places motivated him to carry on, that would be effective. In fact, he’s pretty much the only one in his party who’s already certain they’re on the right path, so all his trip through time represents is a brief obstacle in his path. Similarly, he discovers evidence that his dying son will actually survive and achieve great things, but he didn’t seem to doubt his son’s chances before that, so what did he really gain? Apparently this is JJ Abrams’ favourite episode, which I feel explains a few things…

    Much better is The Howling Man, a mostly unsettling episode with a “dark and stormy night” feel. that’s a cliche, but Douglas Heyes’ OTT Dutch-angle filled direction emphasises such an overblown atmosphere. It’s fun, if a little campy, especially in its final reveal. It’s the kind of episode that’s so particularly styled that whether you love it or loathe it is entirely down to personal taste, which probably explains those ranking discrepancies I mentioned at the start. As I also mentioned, Stopover in a Quiet Town is one of my least favourite episodes. It’s not that it’s bad per se, but it felt like little more than a remix of a handful of previous episodes; like a workmanlike pastiche rather than a true Twilight Zone instalment. The moral of the story — stated bluntly by Rod Serling in his closing narration — is “if you drink, don’t drive.” Thrillist reckon it’s “the best PSA about drunk driving of all time.” I just think it’s the weirdest.

    A man and his dog are the subject of The Hunt, one of TZ’s occasional sweet episodes. When the pair die, you might not think this is going to be a nice one, but we soon follow them into the afterlife — not that they realise it. Yep, as is so often the case with these kinds of TZ episodes, we understand the situation immediately while it takes the characters most of the episode to cotton on. It’s only in the second half that it gets to the real point: arriving at the gates of Heaven, St Peter informs the man that his dog can’t come in. What kind of Heaven would it be without dogs?! Well, this is The Twilight Zone, so… It’s a twee little tale, really. I liked the “dogs are great” side, but was less keen on the sensation it gives of being a Sunday school lesson.

    One for the AngelsOne for the Angels is another feel-good episode, in which a two-bit street salesman manages to outwit Death… twice! Once for himself, once for a little girl who lives in his block. Ed Wynn embodies the friend-to-children type persona most familiar from his later appearance in Mary Poppins, while Murray Hamilton (also best known for a later film role: the mayor from Jaws) makes for a charmingly besuited Mr Death. That the salesman manages to pitch cheap crap to Death himself for a full quarter of an hour stretches belief. Well, I say “belief” like Mr Death is real, but, even with the rules of fantasy, what does Death need with all that crap? Ah, but it’s all for a good cause, so maybe we can let it slide in the name of feeling happy.

    We end on an even rarer beast: a season 4 episode! Out of 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone I’ve watched so far, this is only the 5th from that season — and three of those were in my “worst of” posts. Basically, if you didn’t already know, people don’t like season 4. As one of its better instalments, The New Exhibit is proper horror movie stuff. Indeed, I could see this as the setup for a standalone feature film; which is quite different to season 4’s usual problem, that the double-length episodes led to plots being padded to fill the running time. That said, this isn’t the best execution of the concept. Where it’s going feels inevitable from early on, so it still feels a little long-winded — you could definitely rattle through this tale in 25 minutes. Indeed, as Paste puts it, it “could work as either a very short story, or be expanded into a horror feature. As a 50-minute episode, it takes a long time to get going, then ends abruptly just when it was beginning to get interesting.” Ironically, a feature version would probably get going quicker, then spend more time on the later good stuff — and this episode would’ve benefitted from the same. All of which said, I still found it effectively creepy. Some people say it’s not scary at all, but I guess that depends on whether you find wax figures inherently unsettling or not.

    And that concludes what I’m calling “the best of The Twilight Zone“. I’m going to keep working me way through the series and writing about it, though. Hopefully I’ll unearth a few underrated gems among the episodes that fall in the middle of the rankings.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 7 Episodes 1-4 — The final run of American Sherlock begins in London… the kind of London that’s clearly been shot on LA backlots and standing sets. Bless ’em.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episode 1 — Defying the lockdown odds, Bake Off is back! I guess that’d feel more special if this wasn’t the fourth series I’ve watched this year (series 1 in January, series 9 in June, and series 10 in September). Thankfully, An Extra Slice is back too, because that’s the best bit.
  • Jonathan Creek Specials + Series 5 Episode 1 — We’ve reached “the rubbish ones” now, where the plots get too far-fetched (in The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, a couple improvise on the spot an elaborate coverup for… a complete accident) or, in the case of series 5 opener The Letters of Septimus Noone, don’t even function like a proper episode (it shows the answer to the mystery at the start!) I used to always hope Creek would keep coming back, but if it carries on like this, maybe it’s best if it doesn’t.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 18-20 — When this started, its best feature was how grounded and plausible it was. Now we have serial killers scheming from within prison and dirty cops framing rookies for elaborate criminal enterprises. In short, it’s getting a bit like other OTT cop shows, which is a shame. I half expected it to be cancelled given recent events in the US, but it hasn’t been, which is good because season 2 ends on a huge cliffhanger.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Haunting of Bly ManorThis month, I have mostly been missing The Haunting of Bly Manor, the followup to The Haunting of Hill House, which I also never got round to watching. This is the perfect month for that kind of thing, obviously, so I ought to make the effort. Not sure I will, mind. Same goes for Lovecraft Country, which I heard a lot of good things about, and then heard less good things about, and now I’m just not sure. I mean, there’s so much TV to watch nowadays, you gotta be careful not to waste that precious viewing time. And I’m sure there’s been a bunch of other stuff, but God, never mind watching it, I can’t even keep up with remembering it all.

    Next month… The Mandalorian is back. (Not watched season one of that yet, either.)

  • The Past Month on TV #61

    As I mentioned in my August review, this TV column was meant to go up last month, but I didn’t get round to it and now there’s tonnes to cover. So, let’s get cracking…

    Lucifer  Season 5 Episodes 1–8
    Lucifer season 5AThe Fox Netflix comic book adaptation reimagining returns for its final penultimate season. For most of its production cycle, season 5 was indeed intended to be the end of Lucifer. Apparently it was only when they came to writing the finale that they realised it contained a whole season’s worth of material, and so a sixth season was brought into being. And for this first half of season 5 — or season 5A, if you prefer — it does feel like things are headed towards an ending, mainly because of the reveal/cliffhanger on the midseason finale (no spoilers here!)

    Before that, we get to see Tom Ellis exercise his acting chops by playing Lucifer’s scheming, American-accented twin brother, Michael, and a fun episode where all the cast get to play at being in a black-and-white ’40s film noir. That episode, It Never Ends Well for the Chicken, is an absolute delight, one of the series’ best ever, and is also by far the lowest-rated on IMDb. Some people don’t deserve nice things… Anyway, the season as a whole continues in the same vein as ever, albeit leaning a little more into its fantastical arc plots (as it also did last season, to be fair). It’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out, bearing in mind everyone thought they were making an ending until very late in the day.

    The Crown  Season 2
    The Crown season 2When I last watched The Crown, Peter Capaldi was still the Doctor, the Netflix MCU was still expanding, and there was still a month left of the glorious days before “is Twin Peaks season 3 a movie?” debates. I enjoyed that first season, so quite why it’s taken me this long to get round to the second, I don’t know. Anyway, season two is in some ways the second half of season one — in my first season review I noted that the storyline about Philip’s position relative to Elizabeth was left open-ended, and the second run does indeed follow up on that, providing the focus of the first few episodes and a throughline that’s only really resolved in the finale (whether they’ll pick back up on it with the new, older cast in future seasons, I guess I’ll find out later). Whether its historical accuracy is strictly, well, accurate is still debatable, but any modifications or embellishment to fact are to the aid of making a compelling drama, which this undoubtedly is. Some people will never get on board with caring about the rarefied family and political problems of a royal family, but I think it’s remarkable how human and relatable those often are; and, when they’re not, they’re usually at least of some historical significance.

    Archer  Season 7
    Archer season 7After being less ambivalent about Archer’s fifth season experiment, Archer Vice, I was delighted to see it return to its original espionage trappings for season 6. I guess the writing team disagreed, because once again they’ve relocated the cast to a new setting: as a private detective agency in LA. For me, this played much like Vice did: I enjoyed it enough while it was on, but overall it can’t seem to equal the quality of the spy-based seasons. The storylines often aren’t as engaging; the humour isn’t as effective.

    Next up is a period of the show where they pushed the setting even further from the original format each season, which doesn’t fill me with excitement, for obvious reasons. Though first up is “a 1947 noir-esque Los Angeles setting”, which does sound up my street. Fingers crossed.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 3–4 + Specials
    Jonathan CreekThis particular batch of Creek episodes begins with Christmas special Black Canary, which aired between series 2 and 3. It’s one of the series’ very best episodes (indeed, it’s the top-rated on IMDb), a great mystery with an atmospheric snowbound Christmastime setting. Unfortunately, things then go off the boil a bit in series 3. Every single episode is written by David Renwick, and you wonder if he was beginning to run out of fresh, clever ideas. Nonetheless, there are some highlights here: a missing alien corpse; a mystery where a missing apostrophe may be a vital clue; and creepy one where a man apparently crawled up some steps after being shot in the head.

    But the next Christmas special, Satan’s Chimney, is a definite return to form — the kind of Gothic mystery one associates with Creek but actually only gets from time to time. It’s the second best-ever episode according to IMDb voters. It’s also the first after costar Caroline Quentin departed the show. Julia Sawalha makes a solid replacement, depending on personal preference (I think Maddy is the better character; my partner disliked her intensely was glad to see her replaced). Unfortunately, the ensuing series 4, in which she also costars, seems to struggle for ideas even more than series 3, including some particularly dark and unpleasant mysteries.

    And then, following a five-year gap (enough for Renwick to recharge, I guess), we get another feature-length special, The Grinning Man, which once again leans into the Gothic, and, once again, finds it works out for the best — it’s the fourth best-ever episode per IMDb voters. I’m seeing a pattern emerge. It also introduces another new sidekick in the form of Sheridan Smith, who adds a bit of sparky youth, even in spite of Renwick’s slightly “old man trying to write young person” characterisation of her. Unfortunately, this may be where the “good stuff” ends, at least if we’re to believe IMDb: no future episode even cracks the top 20, with five of the remaining seven right at the bottom of the chart. Oh dear.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Kick the CanThis month’s penultimate selection of the original Twilight Zone‘s best episodes begins with one that was remade by Steven Spielberg for the film revival, Kick the Can. It’s mostly a very grounded episode, set in an old people’s home where one ‘troublemaker’ tries to incite the others to have some fun. He has a crazy “fountain of youth”-type theory… which, of course, turns out to be true (this is The Twilight Zone, after all). It’s a very sweet episode, with a nice little message — essentially, you’re only as old as you feel; it’s about having an attitude that keeps you young. But trust TZ to not let it be entirely nice, adding a bit of glumness to even a happy ending by having one guy get left out. The movie version expanded on the ending, which was criticised by some, but those additions were actually the suggestion of the original episode’s writer.

    Sticking with the big-screen theme, Mirror Image was reportedly the inspiration behind Jordan Peele’s Us, which doesn’t surprise me because Us came to mind while I was watching it. They’re not that similar to execution, just base concept — a woman waiting for a bus thinks she’s going mad when other people in the depot tell her she’s done things she doesn’t remember… but then she spots her doppelgänger in a mirror. It’s a creepy premise, and some moments provide suitable visualisations of that idea, but unfortunately it runs out of places to go with its setup, and the ending is inconclusive. Us does it better because it does go somewhere with it. Plus, Us‘s explanation for what’s actually going on is just as unsettling as when it was all unexplained, whereas Mirror Image undermines itself with some mumbo jumbo about parallel universes.

    A Penny for Your Thoughts hasn’t inspired any cinematic do-overs (that I know of), but it’s easy to imagine it being reworked as a mid-’90s Jim Carrey comedy. It’s about a bank clerk who tosses a penny and it lands on its side, which grants him the ability to hear others’ thoughts (I’m sure that’s scientifically accurate). Unfortunately, it seems he’s not the brightest spark, because he keeps talking to people as if they’d just said their thoughts out loud. Okay, if this happened to you then you wouldn’t believe it and it might take you a moment to catch on… but even once this guy twigs, he keeps making the same mistake. Anyway, it builds up to a nice little twist (just because someone’s thinking about something doesn’t mean they’ll follow through) and, no spoilers, but it comes to a happy ending. A pleasant Twilight Zone episode?! A veritable rarity.

    People Are Alike All OverConversely, there’s a typical Twilight Zone parable to be found in People Are Alike All Over. Unfortunately, it’s one of those episodes that only comes into its own at the final reveal — the journey there seems padded out to fill the requisite amount of screen time. Some of the pulp-SF stuff seems a bit dated now (the idea that Mars might be inhabited by an entire race of human-like beings is, obviously, daft), but it’s all in aid of an accurately cynical critique of mankind and our attitude to new discoveries.

    The simply-titled season three opener is Two, named for its characters: two survivors from opposing sides of a devastating war, who bump into each other in a deserted town and proceed to eye each other up as they mooch around semi-aimlessly. It’s conceptually sound (about reconciliation between individuals when there’s no point fighting anymore), but dull in execution — so much of it is just them wandering around, not reconciling. Alternatively, it’s “an ethereal poem of an episode” (per Thrillist). I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.

    The Last Flight might be my pick for the most underrated Twilight Zone episode. I know I’m including it in a review of ‘best’ episodes, but this is the ninth such selection, and I’d rate it much higher — in my opinion, it’s one of the series’ very best instalments. Written by the great Richard Matheson (arguably a more consistent writer than even Rod Serling; but then he only wrote 16 episodes vs Serling’s 92), it’s the story of a World War I pilot who lands at a present-day American airforce base. I won’t spoil what unfolds from there, because the episode is perfectly conceived and executed from beginning to end, a note of praise I wouldn’t apply to even some of the most well-regarded episodes. Part of why it’s so good is that it doesn’t just settle for its first idea — there’s a twist, and then there’s character development, and a final reveal/confirmation. Not every Twilight Zone episode bothers to add so much detail or so much character richness.

    In Praise of PipFinally, Jack Klugman makes his fourth and final TZ appearance as the lead of In Praise of Pip. He plays a bookkeeper and failed father, now worried about his grown son who’s been injured in Vietnam (this is before the full-on Vietnam war, by-the-by — it’s speculated that this might be the first time the country was mentioned in a US drama). What plays out is the story of a man realising he’s wasted his chance to enjoy his kid’s childhood. It’s a good theme, and one fit to be given a fantastical Twilight Zone spin (it makes a change for a TZ episode to be about a man revisiting someone else’s childhood), but I wasn’t convinced by how it played out. In part, he makes a deal with God that thousands, millions, of other parents have tried to make, without success, because they don’t live in the Twilight Zone. I’m not sure how this would play with them… That aside, BuzzFeed describe the episode as “sweet. Harmless. Moving in a boring, safe sort of way,” and I’d tend to agree. On the bright side, it has one great scene in a hall of mirrors — a well-worn cinematic device but here justified with some clever compositions. Like the majority of Twilight Zone episodes, there’s always something to like.

    Also watched…
  • Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control — This celebration of Brown’s 20 years on TV featured lots of nice clips and reminisces, which made me want to go back and watch loads of stuff in full. Being made by his own production team, it did lack a bit of external context and opinion; and the new live trick was too obviously played and consequently underwhelming — based on what I’ve read on social media, everyone expected a twist that never came.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 10 — I’m all caught up on Bake Off now, ready for the new series that recently completed filming in lockdown. The show continues to live up to its amiable reputation, but the real highlight for me is aftershow An Extra Slice — sometimes I feel like I’m watching GBBO just so I get to watch Jo Brand, Tom Allen, and their guests (lovingly) take the piss out of it.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — This Netflix standup special was much discussed on its release back in 2018. I’m not the person best placed to write too much about it, but I will say that I thought it was indeed brilliant — often funny, but also incredibly powerful, and ultimately more like an emotive, cathartic ‘lecture’ (for want of a better word) than a traditional standup gig.
  • Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years — Originally meant to air alongside The Promised Land (but delayed by lockdown), this three-part documentary recounting the history of Red Dwarf features many anecdotes that will be familiar to the hardcore fanbase (the DVDs had a thorough series of making-of docs, after all), but it’s still a fun and informative overview.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 1-17 — The first season of this new-cop drama was notable for how it kept things grounded and plausible. The second run sees the writers straining against that a bit: sometimes it seems like their massive LA precinct actually only has half-a-dozen cops (i.e. the main cast) who always hang out and get involved in every case; and those cases are getting more outlandish too, including serial killers and conspiracies. And yet it’s still a very enjoyable, relatively easy watch.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella Academy season 2This month, I have mostly been missing the second season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’ve heard fantastic things about. I never got round to watching season one (although I meant to), so I really should catch up. And talking of “second seasons of superhero shows I never got round to the first season of”, Amazon just started The Boys season two. I want to catch up on that, too.

    Back to Netflix, who also just released mission-to-Mars drama Away. It’s a concept that always entices me, even if the last one I tried, Mars, was so weak I only ever watched one episode. They’ve also recently launched Young Wallander, a reboot that sees the Swedish detective as a junior cop in the present day. Not sure how I feel about that — what makes it Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? I’ll find out at some point, hopefully.

    Next month… talking of stuff Netflix have recently added, they’ve got the first two seasons of YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel, Cobra Kai, ahead of their premiere of the third season next year. I’ll definitely be covering that next month, as well as… I dunno, whatever else turns up and/or I finally get round to watching.

    Plus more Twilight Zone. There’s a lot of that to go yet.

  • The Past Month on TV #60

    I suppose lockdown is officially over now, for good or ill, but we begin this month’s TV review by reliving those heady days…

    Staged  Series 1
    StagedThis filmed-in-lockdown comedy stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they attempt to rehearse a play over the internet, the goal being they’ll be ready to put it on as soon as theatres reopen. Naturally, there’s much more to it than two actors practising a play — indeed, I’m not sure they ever actually get round to any proper rehearsing. Conflicts abound, both broadly relatable (Sheen is blackmailed into helping look after his elderly neighbour, but develops genuine concern for her) and actorly (a running debate/gag about which of the pair should get top billing), and there are a couple of big-name surprise cameos along the way (no spoilers — the surprises are worth it). With all episodes in the 15- to 20-minute range, the series is hardly a big time commitment (it runs well under two hours in total), but it’s well worth it and consistently funny. Indeed, I wish there was going to be more. Well, a second lockdown isn’t out of the question yet, is it…

    Lockdown may be over, but Staged is still available on iPlayer.

    Hamilton’s America
    Hamilton's AmericaThis documentary first aired back in 2016, in the wake of Hamilton’s success on stage. I’m not sure if it’s ever been screened in the UK, but I tracked down a copy after watching Hamilton on Disney+. So, firstly, I’m glad I didn’t watch this before seeing the film — I feel like it would’ve somehow ruined, or at least tarnished, the experience of seeing the full production, because this contains extensive-but-far-from-complete clips from the show. I guess, back in 2016, when the only way to actually see Hamilton was by securing hard-to-come-by, insanely-expensive Broadway tickets, getting to see those clips was probably great for fans.

    Aside from that, the documentary is part making-of (it follows lyricist, composer, and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda starting in 2014, when he’s writing the musical with an impending rehearsal deadline, and then continues on to cover the show’s opening and success) and part history lesson (various cast members and experts discuss the real events and visit relevant historical locations to learn more about their characters). Rather than half-arse either of these aspects, the feature-length running time allows the doc to offer genuine insights into both. For just one example, there’s a bit where they discuss the issue of the Founding Fathers being slave owners, and although it’s only a couple of minutes long, it contains more intelligent commentary than the entire bloody social media debate about it that the film’s release provoked.

    It’s a real shame this isn’t on Disney+ to accompany the film, because I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed that would enjoy this as a chaser. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can track it down.

    Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 9-10
    Star Trek: PicardI started this when it began in January, and have been slowly trekking through it ever since — it’s taken me six whole months to get through just ten episodes. That’s a commentary in itself as to what I thought of it, I suppose, though if you asked me I’d say it’s “not bad”.

    From what I’ve seen of other people’s reactions, Picard seems to be a real “love it or hate it” show. A lot of people I read and/or whose opinion I respect either can’t stand it or find it thoroughly mediocre, but there are definitely people out there — more than an odd handful, apparently — who think it’s fantastic. As often seems to be the case with something so divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle. After a rocky start (the first three episodes should’ve been condensed into one feature-length opener, at most), I felt the series settled down reasonably well, with a couple of almost-standalone episodes of varying quality eventually giving way entirely to its arc plot, which from then was executed with a relative consistency of pace — a major problem with many “one long story” streaming series nowadays. The quality of the dialogue and acting remained somewhat turbulent, which perhaps belies the franchise’s roots as predating “prestige TV” — what’s acceptable for Star Trek doesn’t necessarily wash with the modern sophisticated non-die-hard-fan viewer.

    That said, for every scene or plot development that worked well, there was something truly ridiculous or implausible just around the corner, with the finale being one of the worst offenders. Some might say “it’s sci-fi — implausible is its stock in trade”, but even sci-fi has rules, and Picard seemed to merrily flout them, often in the name of fan service. And that’s why I end up somewhere in the middle, because overall I thought it was a solid-enough space adventure, undermined by frequent blips in quality and sense. I believe the writing team is undergoing some significant changes ahead of the already-commissioned second season, so maybe they’ll iron out the kinks.

    Fleabag
    Fleabag (the play)I’ve never got round to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-acclaimed sitcom, but, during lockdown, Amazon offered the original one-woman-show stage version (recorded last year during a live cinema broadcast) as a charity rental, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. My reaction was… muted, to be honest. I can certainly see how it pushes at boundaries, both of the depiction of women in fiction and of taste in general, and for that reason it’s significant, but I only found it sporadically funny, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a comedy. Also, I wasn’t expecting it to get so dark — if you’re a lover of small furry animals, beware.

    James Acaster: Repertoire
    James Acaster: RepertoireAnother filmed stage comedy that left me somewhat underwhelmed. This is more straightforward stand-up, however, and as that it was more often amusing — whether you find Acaster’s “wacky” style (his word) to your taste will dictate exactly how funny. For me, he’s not the most consistently hilarious standup I’ve seen, but provoked laughs regularly enough. The real selling point here, however, is that it’s a four-parter. Ever heard of a multi-part stand-up gig before? Me either. These aren’t just four entirely independent gigs box-set-ed up either, but were conceived and shot as four connected sets.

    Despite that high-concept pitch, it turns out the four-part structure isn’t particularly clever after all. The cross-episode callbacks are sometimes good and clever, but sometimes just elicit recognition (accompanied by an “I got that reference!” laugh from the audience). It’s not anything unique to the four-part structure — plenty of other comedians structure their standalone shows in the same way. The only differences are (a) if you watch it in four sittings then some of the callback are to a different episode rather than something earlier in the same set, and (b) it’s three-and-a-half hours of material, all of which were all performed on the same day, which is a remarkable feat. Otherwise, the connectivity is basically limited to episode 4 ending in such a way as to imply it’s ‘set’ before episode 1, including a cleverly staged final shot. But, unless I missed something, the other episodes don’t line up in such a way that 2 must follow 3 and 4 must follow 3, so it doesn’t create some kind of ouroboros loop, which I guess was the kind of structural inventiveness I was looking for.

    Overall, Acaster is whimsically amusing — not my favourite standup, but solid with some excellent bits — and the sheer volume of material at a sustained quality level is impressive. But I don’t buy that this miniseries structure is innovative In any way except volume. And I can’t help but wonder if, had he condensed these 205 minutes into a normal 60- to 90-minute set, it might’ve felt like a higher density of pure gold.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    After a few months spent scraping the bottom of what the original Twilight Zone has to offer, it’s back to the cream of the crop. (At this point you may be wondering “how many episodes can he reasonably class as ‘the best’?!” My final answer is: the top third. Yes, that’s quite a broad definition, but I like to be generous. For what it’s worth, today’s selection gets me to 20.5% on my consensus ranking.)

    Where is Everybody?This month’s selection begins at the very beginning: the first-ever Twilight Zone episode, Where is Everybody? The title alone is a pretty succinct pitch of the episode’s theme, and the episode is as one-note as its premise. This is an exciting story in which a bloke… gets himself coffee, and… talks to a mannequin, and… tries to phone the operator but can’t get through, and… has an ice cream, and… yeeeaaah. The twist ending isn’t much cop either, 50% “it was all a dream”, 50% a thin moral about humans’ need for companionship. It could’ve been better: Rod Serling’s original pitch for episode one was a tale about a society where people were executed when they turned 60, which I think is a better concept, but it was deemed too depressing (imagine what they would’ve made of Logan’s Run, where the executions happen at 30!) That said, “everybody’s gone” is a reasonable starting idea, but the episode needs (a) more places to go with it, and (b) a more interesting reveal. (See The Quiet Earth for essentially the same premise being more thoroughly explored.)

    Next is one of the very few Twilight Zone episodes that doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantastical element (apparently there are only four such instalments). The Silence concerns a wager between an old rich dude and a talkative guy at his club: if the latter can manage to stay silent for a whole year (while under constant observation, natch), the former will pay him $500,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s money). What the episode really asks is how far would — could; should — you go to win (or keep) half-a-million dollars? Whatever your answer, the episode gives us a very dark version, primarily because of the ending — in traditional TZ fashion, there’s a twist (or two) and no one comes out of it well. Although it’s less allegorical than the series’ usual fantastical episodes, there’s no less of a lesson to be learned.

    Conversely, some Twilight Zone episodes feel like a concept without a plot, and The Odyssey of Flight 33 is one of them. It concerns a transatlantic flight that finds itself in some weird midair phenomena, and to say where it goes would be to spoil the only card this episode has up its sleeve — as Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste puts it, the episode is “a light sci-fi rollercoaster ride” without “a clear sociocultural theme or complex existential narrative”. To be less kind, it’s a nice idea but the story doesn’t have anywhere to go with it — it doesn’t even end, just sort of peters out. Conversely, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush argues the ending is “an unsolved mystery [with] total ambiguity, which makes it … that much more disturbing.” Despite that, I actually think is one of those rare episodes that would’ve worked better with season four’s extended running time. Most of the story is set in the plane’s cockpit with its crew, but we meet a couple of the passengers, only for the episode to do nothing with them. At least if their reactions had been fleshed out, maybe there would’ve been more meat here.

    Nightmare as a ChildI’ve written before that some episodes suffer from the series’ own influence, or just from an ensuing 60 years of sophistication on the part of the viewer, and Nightmare as a Child is a case in point. It has two reveals, and they’re both not so much guessable as obvious and inevitable. There’s even a bit of a coda to thoroughly explain it all again in case you didn’t get it. Maybe that was necessary back in 1960, when stories like this were breaking new ground in the audience’s minds, but today it feels like overkill. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad episode — indeed, the story of a woman meeting a strange little girl who seems to know an impossible amount about her life is still suitably eerie and tense in places — but it is one that plays less effectively today. That said, if you engage with it not as a mystery with a surprise but as simply a story, it has more to offer — Kozak compares it to “a tightly wound Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery”, while Scott Beggs of Thrillist reckons it “replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger” while it “confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way”. They’re not wrong.

    Another episode with a tricky-to-parse twist is Third from the Sun. It’s a famous one — I won’t directly spoil it here, but I feel like the title gives it away rather. But, a bit like Nightmare as a Child, the episode is saved by being rather good even without the ironic final note (indeed, Kozak reckons the twist is “unnecessary… cheap and immediately predictable”). It’s about two families who, aware that nuclear annihilation might be imminent, try to escape, but a suspicious government figure potentially stands in their way. It’s a decent little tale of Cold War paranoia, but the twist probably is a little distracting. It reshapes what we’ve already seen, and explains some of the deliberate oddities in direction and set dressing, but it sort of doubles back on itself because the characters are now heading into the situation we thought they were in in the first place…

    More successful, for my money, is And When the Sky Was Opened, about a pair of pilots of an experimental spaceship that crashed on its return to Earth — except one of the pilots maintains there used to be three of them, but no one else can remember him. A bit like Flight 33, there are no overt morals or explanations to be found here, just a lot of mystery and madness. Unlike Flight 33, I thought it had enough of that to fuel the narrative, leaning in to how the unexplainable phenomena affects the characters. It’s a neat little sci-fi tale — and, incidentally, is based on a story by Richard Matheson, making this his first credit on the series. I know in some circles Matheson is rightly exalted, but I feel like he’s not as widely known as he deserves — Serling gets much of the credit for TZ’s success, but several of the very best episodes are by Matheson.

    An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeHaving begun today with Twilight Zone’s first episode, we end with the last one produced — although they didn’t actually produce it. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an award-winning French short film that Serling saw and liked so much he bought the TV rights (saving so much money on the cost of producing another episode that he brought season five in on budget). Even if Serling didn’t point out its alternate origin in his introduction, it’s immediately clear this came from somewhere else, because it doesn’t look or feel at all like a normal TZ episode. So what made Serling think it would fit the show? Why, it has an ironic last-minute twist, of course! This is regularly one of the best-regarded episodes of the series, and the short film itself has a pretty strong rep too, but I don’t get it. There’s some pretty photography and the beginning is fairly atmospheric, but it quickly starts to drag — the story is thin and slow, ending with a twist that I found inevitable from early on.

    I feel like I’ve been quite negative on this month’s selection of episodes, but that’s only because I have very high standards for The Twilight Zone. Owl Creek Bridge was the only one I truly disliked, while The Silence and And When the Sky Was Opened are definitely deserving of their higher reputation.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 15-21 — I guess the threat of cancellation hung over Elementary’s head as this season ended, because it very much gets to a place they could’ve left it if necessary. It’s one of those “that’ll do”-type endings, though, so I hope to find the final, foreshortened seventh run does a better job.
  • Jonathan Creek Series 2 — I didn’t remember this second series as vividly as I did the first, but it still has some very fine and baffling mysteries. Particular highlights include a man seen on two continents at the same time, and a priceless painting stolen from a closely-watched empty room.

    Things to Catch Up On
    CursedLast month, I didn’t include this section because I couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Naturally I then spent the next couple of days remembering things, like the recent re-adaptations of Alex Rider on Amazon and Snowpiercer on Netflix. Obviously, I still haven’t watched either of those. More recently, Netflix launched Cursed, a young adult (I think) take on Arthurian legend from the point of view of the Lady of the Lake. I’m not wholly convinced by the trailers or buzz, but I do love a bit of Arthurian whatnot so it’s on my radar. Also passingly of note is that Amazon just released season three of Absentia. I started out moderately enjoying the first season, but by the end was not at all impressed. I was surprised when it got a second run, so I’m even more flabbergasted to see it back for a third. I guess someone must be watching it. Each to their own.

    Next month… the second season of Netflix’s superhero show The Umbrella Academy is out soon, but as I never got round to season one, I doubt I’ll do season two next month. Elsewise, more of the best of The Twilight Zone, and I really should get round to The Mandalorian (how long’s it been now?!)

  • The Past Month on TV #59

    Normally I format these TV columns with new (or new-ish) stuff first, followed by older/archive programmes, in a broad-sweep kinda way — i.e. it’s not strictly chronological. But this month not much truly counts as “new”, so I’ve gone for the strictly chronological approach.

    In order of appearance, then, this month there’s an RSC production of Macbeth (staged and filmed in 2018 but debuting on BBC Four tonight); the most recent standup show from Daniel Sloss; Netflix’s revival of Lucifer; classic murder mysteries with Jonathan Creek; an early Doctor Who serial; and more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; plus the usual bits & bobs at the end.

    Macbeth
    RSC Macbeth (2018)This Royal Shakespeare Company production from 2018, starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, has apparently been on iPlayer since April, but only came to my attention thanks to a TV screening scheduled for tonight (on BBC Four at 9:30pm).

    You probably know the story: Scottish lord Macbeth bumps into three witches who prophesy he’ll become king, a goal he sets out to achieve by murder. This particular production has some nice ideas, including casting the witches as a trio of creepy little girls in pyjamas, covering the various ghosts in dust, and an ominously reimagined ending. The real high-point, however, comes when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, which is thanks to Edward Bennett’s understated but powerfully emotional reaction. It justifies why it’s Macduff who gets to vanquish Macbeth at the climax. That’s another good bit, actually, with a convincingly-realised stage fight (something I’ve not seen achieved too often).

    There’s also a big countdown clock that starts ticking when the king is killed and then remains visible throughout — I feel like it takes some balls to have a countdown running during a live performance! Unfortunately, for much of the time the clock just serves to remind you how long is left during a production that I often found a bit slow. The cast frequently race through their lines and run about the place as if a race is on to the finish line, but, counterintuitively, that does not add pace. Altogether, it’s not terrible, but there have been better versions.

    Daniel Sloss: X
    Daniel Sloss: XHaving really enjoyed Sloss’s two Netflix specials back in 2018, I jumped on this 2019 one as soon as I became aware it existed (it was filmed for HBO in the US, but hasn’t made it to any UK broadcaster or streamer (though it had a theatrical release!) But where there’s a will there’s a way…) Hopefully it will become more widely available, because not only is it hilariously funny but it’s packed with so many insightful, timely routines that I don’t even know where to start. Some of the stuff he has to say should be glaringly obvious (about improvements to sex ed, for instance), and yet has society changed? Obviously not. And then, as is Sloss’s style, he blindsides you with a finale that is hard-hitting but still manages to elicit laughs. Few other comedians, or forms of entertainment fullstop, manage to be so funny or so effectively thought-provoking, and I’m not sure any others manage to combine the two so well.

    Lucifer  Season 4
    Lucifer season 4After three seasons on network TV (or Amazon Prime Video here in the UK), Lucifer fell prey to 2018’s bloodbath cancellation season. It was ultimately revived by Netflix, and it seems to have gone well for them: after this they commissioned a fifth and final season, then upped its episode count, then changed their mind and are negotiating for a sixth season.

    The move to streaming had minimal affect on the show itself, with many things remaining exactly the same: 45-minute-ish episodes, each with a case-of-the-‘week’ plot, and fades-to-black for ad breaks that will never, ever come. It’s only subtleties that are different; the kind of thing only production geeks might even register — that there’s marginally more swearing, violence, and nudity; more special effects, suggesting a slightly increased budget; and 4K HDR-enhanced photography, which makes the image richer and prettier without fundamentally changing the style or visual language of the show.

    As for stuff everyone would care about — plot, characters, etc — a lot of this season has to deal with the fallout from the revelations in the season three finale. That means the show becomes a bit more invested in the supernatural stuff than before, although that’s mainly left to the arc plots — the cases of the week are still grounded in the mortal realm, with the usual array of reasons and settings to motivate murder. Cunningly, it all ends in a place that would’ve been suitable (if unsatisfying) for the series to never return, had this revival been short lived. Fortunately, we’ve more to look forward to.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 1
    Jonathan Creek series 1I used to love Jonathan Creek back in the day. It was a huge hit, too, gaining high viewing figures and a BAFTA award. On the surface it doesn’t look so special: two mismatched individuals solve murders. But it’s the execution that’s different: these are all “locked room” mysteries, and rather than interview a small array of suspects to guess who did it, they must work out how the murder was even physically possible. Creek is a magician’s trick designer, and the stories kind of work like magic tricks: something seemingly impossible that has a hidden rational explanation. Personally, that’s right up my street, and while some elements of the show are obviously dated (the hairstyles; the cars; the pace is leisurely by modern standards), I think it holds up pretty well.

    Doctor Who  The Time Meddler
    The Time MeddlerLast month, Doctor Who Magazine ran a Twitter ‘world cup’ to find the most popular stories starring the First Doctor. Many of the usual suspects did well, but I was surprised to see The Time Meddler wind up in second place — I’d never realised how much love there was for this story. In fact, I’d never seen it, so naturally I was inspired to dive in.

    The serial is notable in the history of Doctor Who for being the first pseudo-historical — that’s to say, a story set in the past but with science-fiction elements (beyond the presence of the regular characters and the TARDIS, obviously). Also because (spoiler alert!) it’s the first time we meet another member of the Doctor’s race (besides Susan, obviously). That reveal is a long time coming, though. We get there in the Part 3 cliffhanger, which is one for the ages — I can only imagine how it must’ve played back in 1965. (Of course, without internet discussions or fandom as we know it today, I guess it wasn’t as impactful. But for those kids in the know, whew!) It cues a genuinely superb final episode.

    Unfortunately, the three before it feel like we’re taking the long way round to get to the point. The initial setup is enticing, with anachronistic technology turning up in 1066, given an extra zhuzh because new companion Steven doubts the TARDIS can travel in time, and the out-of-place tech seems to prove him right. After that, there’s a lot of back-and-forthing — the kind of stuff that feels like forward momentum in the moment, but ultimately just moves pieces back to where they were. The Doctor even goes missing for an entire episode (so William Hartnell could have a holiday), which leads to even more wheel-spinning. At least Douglas Camfield’s direction is really rather good… until he attempts to stage a multi-combatant sword fight within the budgetary, scheduling, and technological limitations of 1960s children’s television. It’s not really his fault, I’m sure, but it fails to be an exciting bit of TV.

    I feel like that’s an excellent two- or maybe even three-parter in The Time Meddler — when it finally gets to the point in the final episode, it’s fantastic, but the first three-quarters are much less engaging. It’s worth it for that final part, but there are more consistently excellent First Doctor stories that I’d rank higher.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
    Jess-BelleThis third selection of episodes deemed the series’ worst (according to the consensus ranking I compiled) mean I’ve now seen the bottom 10% of episodes, which I think is a good time to call a day on being miserable and return to the good stuff. As for the following seven editions, many of them are not fundamentally flawed, but each has some element that doesn’t work or a stumble in their execution that prevents them from achieving the full quality of a good Twilight Zone episode.

    Continuing to move up the rankings, in 149th place is Still Valley, in which TZ basically tells us there are “good people on both sides” as a Confederate soldier is presented with a book of witchcraft that he could use to change the tide of the war, but refuses to do it because it means calling on the powers of Satan. And that’s all for your 25 minutes. As Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste writes, “we watch The Twilight Zone for its morally complex and hard-hitting narratives. Still Valley is so vanilla, it belongs in a show called The Light Zone.” It’s a solid episode for the most part, but with a maddeningly uninteresting conclusion.

    Next up is a season four episode (i.e. an hour-long one), Jess-Belle. At its core it’s a gender flipped version of The Chaser (reviewed last time), in which a young woman wants a particular man to fall in love with her. The main difference is that whereas before the (male) daemon was actually trying to help the main character (by hoping to talk him out of it), the (female) witch here seems more of a malicious, trickster-ish force. There are one or two effectively creepy bits, but it’s weak sauce by TZ standards, with no lesson to be learned and an irritating folksy song that keeps popping up throughout. On Blu-ray it comes with an audio commentary in which TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree spends the entire running time singing the episode’s praises and the writer, Earl Hamner, basically nods along with a “yes, I’m a genius” attitude. On the bright side, it did help me to see some of the episode’s qualities. For example, the extended running time allows room for scenes that would otherwise have been cut, and are actually among the episode’s better bits. And you learn that it was written in just a week as a last-minute replacement — bearing that in mind, it’s not so bad.

    Come Wander with MeThe next episode in our rundown is also based around a song: Come Wander with Me, in which a wandering singer attempts to buy a folksong from a young woman, only to find he might be living the lyrics… maybe. It’s a bit unclear what’s really happening, or why. It’s got some nice ideas, with mysterious characters, the haunting song, and some atmospheric direction by Richard Donner, but it comes to no kind of conclusion. How has this happened before? Has it happened before? Why is it happening again now? The episode barely even begins to ask those questions, never mind answer them; and not in a Lynchian “it’s up to your interpretation” way, which would be fine, but it doesn’t even seem to be aware those questions exist. Frustrating.

    The Brain Center at Whipple’s is set in the future year of 1967, when a company is replacing tens of thousands of staff with a machine. What an implausible notion, eh? This episode is no more than a rather dated lecture about automation — the warning has been ignored, but none of the terrible things foretold have come to pass (…yet). The ending is both painfully obvious (Mr Whipple himself gets replaced by a machine) and silly (said machine is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, waddling around Whipple’s office spinning a keychain for no reason other than Mr Whipple used to). It doesn’t help any that “Whipple” is an inherently silly-sounding name.

    Next up is one of the show’s frequent excursions into the Old West in Showdown with Rance McGrew. They surely made sense at the time, when Westerns were ubiquitous on US TV, but if you didn’t know that it can seem a bit weird that a sci-fi/fantasy show is so obsessed with the era. You do need to know that context for this episode, though, because it’s actually a riff on all those TV Westerns. The first half is basically a spoof of them, which I imagine was rather effective back in the ’60s, because it remains moderately amusing now. After establishing that the show’s star is a bit of a prima donna sissy, he’s magically transported back to the real West, where he must face up to the actual Jesse James, who’s been watching the show and is none too impressed. It’s quite a fun episode, but the idea that gunslingers in the afterlife spend all their time watching movies and TV and getting their feelings hurt about how they’re portrayed is… well, it feels kinda daft, but eh, why not? It makes me wonder if Serling didn’t like Westerns or their attitude to history, and so this whole episode was just an exercise in critiquing them. As such, it’s not too bad.

    The Mind and the MatterThe ‘hero’ of The Mind and the Matter hates people. They bump into him on the subway; they squish against him in the elevator; they accidentally pour coffee over him at work. If he had his way, all the people would just disappear. After he reads a book about the power of the mind, he instantly gains the power to make his thoughts real (no practice required, apparently), and so immediately does away with everyone else. Hurrah! But after a morning’s work in peace and quiet, he’s bored, with no idea what to do. So the first thing he imagines to enliven his world is… an earthquake. Um, what? Unsatisfied with imagining different weather phenomena, and apparently unable to conceive of anything else whatsoever to occupy his interest, he decides to fill the world with people just like him. That results in a world full of grumblers and moaners, which he finds even more distasteful than how it was before — so he just puts it all back. It’s almost a lesson in what happens if you give unlimited power to unimaginative people… except that’s not the point the episode actually wants to make, so it doesn’t really make it. Instead it’s going for “this world isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative and there’s a lot to like”. But it doesn’t make us feel that, it just tells us it. Heck, even the character doesn’t feel it — he’s just as miserable at the end as he was at the start. The whole affair is sort of an infinitely stupider rehash of the classic Time Enough at Last, only without any ironic point. And there are some terrible prosthetic effects, which I struggle to believe convinced anyone even on low-res ’60s TV. Basically, it’s a wholly inadequate episode from every angle.

    Finally for now, The Mirror is the story of a Castro-analogous rebel general (played by Peter Falk) who has successfully taken control of his Central American country, when the former ruler introduces him to a magic mirror that will show any would-be assassins — which just so happens to be more-or-less everyone he knows. I guess it’s meant to be a study in paranoia, although Serling’s opening and closing voiceovers seem to be framing it more as a criticism of tyrants. As the latter, it borders on propaganda, which kind of undermines the former. It’s a reasonable concept, thinly executed.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 1-14 — I last watched this modern-day Sherlock Holmes in 2017 (and last properly commented on it here in 2016), which I guess shows my level of dedication to it. In truth, I’ve warmed to it over the years. I’m still not convinced it’s a faithful adaptation of the original characters (and certainly not of the stories), but, taken on its own merits, it has good qualities. My favourite of those: the way it’s sometimes prepared to offer quite outlandish storylines, ones that border on science-fiction or pulp genre fare, rather than your bog-standard procedural homicide stuff.
  • Eurovision 2020 — Didn’t actually happen, of course. In its place, the BBC offered a special called Come Together, in which past highlights chosen by a panel of experts were voted on by the public. There were some spectacularly weird choices in there, and of course Waterloo won. That was followed by the official replacement show, Europe Shine a Light. The title is a reference to the last time the UK actually won — were they attempting to keep us on side? It was an odd affair, but still entertaining in its own way. There’s nothing quite like Eurovision… and this wasn’t quite like Eurovision. Still, I suspect it’ll be better than that Netflix film, if its trailer is anything to go by.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 9 — Beginning a catch-up on the last couple of series. This is the 2018 one, if you need a point of reference. Also watched all of companion show An Extra Slice, which is sometimes even better than the main programme, mainly thanks to Tom Allen’s caustic humour.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 16-20 — Another handful of episodes (spanning from the unexpected, emotionally devastating Greenlight to the gripping and now-timely season finale (it’s about the risk of a deadly virus released into the population)) that remind this is a more-than-solid example of a US network TV police drama. Looking forward to season two… though with US networks currently cancelling many police-related series, I guess a third season looks uncertain.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 8 — Just in case you think I’d forgotten about it. Hey, next month I might finish it!

    Next month… I’m not aware of anything in particular coming up, so hopefully I’ll finally dig into my massive pile of “stuff I’ve been meaning to get round to”. Roll a dice for whether that means The Mandalorian or Devs or Killing Eve or Westworld or Jack Ryan or Jessica Jones or The Witcher or Veronica Mars or Peaky Blinders or The Boys or…

  • The Past Month on TV #58

    The flipside of watching a tonne of films during lockdown is that I haven’t watched much TV — I’ve still not even finished Picard, ffs. But I did make time for Quiz (which, as a three-parter, was basically just a movie anyway), another animated Doctor Who, a season of Archer (“a season” sounds like a lot, but it’s only 13 easily-digestible 20-minute chunks), more of the worst of the original Twilight Zone, and a few other bits and bobs — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein, which the National Theatre made available on YouTube last week (sorry if you didn’t know; it’s gone now).

    Quiz
    QuizAdapted by James Graham from his own West End play and directed by Stephen Frears almost as if it were a movie (note how only the first episode has a proper title sequence), Quiz is the story of Major Charles Ingram, who in 2001 went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and — allegedly — cheated his way to winning the million-pound jackpot with the help of his wife and someone in the audience coughing to indicate correct answers. But Quiz takes its remit wider than this, showing how Millionaire was born and spawned a nationwide community of quiz enthusiasts determined to game the system and make it onto the programme — and once on there, cheat in their own ways.

    Obviously I knew the basic story of ‘the coughing major’ from all the news coverage, but I had no idea about all the stuff with the networks of dedicated fans. Quiz only touches on it as a side element in the Ingrams’ story, but it’s a fascinating aspect. The Ingrams were only passingly involved with it, but it makes you wonder: did that organisation cheat more successfully? Were the Ingrams caught and prosecuted because the programme had been driven to be hyper-vigilant but, in fact, were not cheating? They protest their innocence to this day. And while Quiz doesn’t come down on one side or the other, it throws enough doubt on the accepted narrative that you wonder how they were ever convicted.

    The enthusiasts’ network; the lengths people went to get on the show; the media storm around the Ingrams… it’s all a reminder of what a phenomenon Millionaire was at the time (at its height, it was watched by a third of the UK population). The best thing about the first episode is how it digs into that, with the backstory of the show itself, the pitches and its early success. This stuff could be seen as an aside to the main story — as padding to make Quiz a three-parter — but it really isn’t: it was that very uniqueness, the specialness of the programme, that led to the ‘cheating’. It also makes for a fun drama, pillorying the behind-the-scenes world of television. Respect to ITV for commissioning a programme that takes so many potshots at ITV itself.

    Chris Sheen played by Michael Tarrant… wait…Indeed, even as there are serious events (watch out for the undeserved fate of the Ingrams’ pet dog), Quiz is consistently very funny. There’s a gag in the closing seconds of episode two (punctuated by a smash cut to black) that is golden. Michael Sheen’s uncannily spot-on impersonation of Chris Tarrant will also tickle anyone familiar with the man — i.e. UK viewers, but I guess it won’t translate internationally. Matthew Macfadyen is more understated but also excellent as Charles Ingram, while Helen McCrory burns up the screen as their barrister later on. Those are the obvious standout performances, but the whole cast are on form, in particular Mark Bonnar as one of Millionaire’s exec producers. He’s consistently superb in everything I’ve seen him in (if you haven’t, you should definitely watch Unforgotten series 2), and here adds a lot of nuance to what could’ve been an inessential bit part.

    Ultimately, this is a pretty excoriating examination of what went on. Very few people come out if it well — certainly not ITV, the show’s producers, the media, the police, the general public, the jury, the British legal system… Maybe only the Ingrams. Did they do it? Possibly. But the evidence of their guilt is rather thin and, in some cases, ludicrously biased. Quiz itself doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it certainly seems to have convinced a lot of viewers of their innocence.

    In the UK, Quiz is available on ITV Hub for another few days. In the US, it airs on AMC from Sunday May 31st.

    Frankenstein
    National Theatre Live: FrankensteinAs theatre goes, this is a blockbuster: directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the actors alternating who played Victor Frankenstein and his Creature for each performance. One of each was filmed for the National Theatre Live cinema screenings, and for the lockdown National Theatre at Home release they also made both available.
    Cumberbatch-as-the-Creature came out first and consequently attracted the most YouTube views, but the consensus seems to be that Miller-as-the-Creature is the better version, so that was the one I watched (I’m curious to see both, but watching it twice in a week isn’t really my way).

    Now, frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Frankenstein. I like the concept a lot — it endures for a reason — but I found the novel an interminable slog, and faithful adaptations fare similarly. Fortunately, this one jumps right to the birth of the creature, thereby improving things considerably by getting to the meat of the issue. It also serves to almost completely refocus the narrative away from Frankenstein and onto his creation. After a brief appearance at the start, it’s another 45 minutes before Frankenstein enters the story properly. This feels like a very modern choice — siding with the downtrodden and oppressed, making him the protagonist rather than the genius inventor. Of course, the Creature is not without his crimes, and the production plays up the mirroring of creator and creation — as if the fact they’re played by the same actors alternating roles didn’t clue you in to that theme.

    It’s an impressively theatrical production (a reason why, like One Man, Two Guvnors last week, I’m not counting it as a film), with some clever and effective staging, in particular a rotating multi-level centrepiece. That said, being able to view it from different angles via camerawork does add to the production at times, in particular with one or two moments that seem to have been staged for a bird’s eye view; but then, at others we’re clearly missing something of the atmosphere created in the physical space (for example, sometimes we get to see the massive lighting rig made of hundreds of individual bulbs, but some of its uses and effect is lost by not being in the room). Also, this YouTube release has been censored at one particular moment for the sake of a wider audience, which is a shame. It’s clear enough what’s happened, and some will be pleased not to see that depicted, but unfortunately the edit is wholly unsubtle and therefore completely jarring.

    Whatever its other qualities, this production will remain best known for its role-switching gimmick. Some people do think it was just a gimmick — a way to show off and stand out, but not worth much else. I’m not sure that’s fair. If you only watch it once then obviously you’ll only see the actors one way round, even the mere existence of the alternative is somewhere in your mind, informing how you view the play, the notion that these two characters can be played by the same actor in the same production. It’s a neat way to underscore the connection between the two character, which, as much as they would both like to sever it, is seemingly unbreakable.

    Doctor Who  The Faceless Ones
    The Faceless OnesThe most recent missing story to be animated (see last month for the history of all that) has the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arrive at Gatwick airport in 1967, where there are mysterious things going on around the offices of airline Chameleon Tours, including young people flying off on holiday but never coming back…

    The Faceless Ones gets off to a strong start, with suspicious alien-connected murders, disbelieving authority figures, Polly seemingly mind-wiped, and the Doctor and Jamie playing at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson — a bit of mystery, companions in peril, the TARDIS team on the back foot as they have to investigate while dodging the authorities. Unfortunately, this is a six-parter. There are many great Doctor Who six-parters, but there are at least as many (especially in the early days) where they seem to have commissioned six episodes by default and the writers didn’t really have enough story to fill them. The Faceless Ones is among the latter: as it heads into the second half, you can feel the plot begin to stretch itself out. There are some great cliffhangers to perk things up, at least.

    Nowadays Who fans have a tendency to watch whole stories in one sitting, almost like a movie — most of them are about that length, after all. But someone once observed that a lot of overlong, awkwardly-paced serials suddenly make more sense if you watch them one episode at a time; that each part works as a 25-minute chunk of TV, and when you watch them in one go you don’t see the trees for the wood. The Faceless One is almost a case in point, because each of the earlier episodes are enjoyable in isolation, and the later ones have their moments; but, with hindsight, there is a lot of back-and-forthing, and I can well imagine that, watched all in one go, it feel long, slow, and spread thin.

    The last two instalments are the worst culprits. The writing’s quality dive-bombs in the penultimate episode as other characters basically explain the plot to the Doctor and Jamie, while episode six offers a rather sedate finale, with a bit of drama early on giving way to a lot of protracted business to resolve the situation. It also features the most bored-sounding delivery of the line “you fools, how can you trust him” imaginable. To cap it off, this is Ben and Polly’s last episode, and they’re written out poorly. It’s nice that they decide it’s time to return to their own lives, rather than being forced to go or stuck with a thin romance or something (as other companions would be), but it’s terribly handled: they’ve not been in it for weeks, then suddenly realise it happens to be the same date they first joined the Doctor so, hey, why not leave now? And the Doctor’s goodbye speech: “Ben can catch his ship and become an admiral, and you, Polly… you can look after Ben.” Eesh.

    As for this animated reconstruction, it looks a lot stiffer and flatter than Macra Terror, which feels like a disappointing step back. Some of the animation models are quite poor, suffering from Thunderbirds syndrome (i.e. too-big heads) or with odd posture, and sets are basic in places. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details — maybe it was made on a reduced timescale or budget, or maybe it’s the strain of having to do 50% more episodes, or maybe they were trying to be more faithful to the live-action originals (two episodes of Faceless Ones survive, although they’ve been animated too, for consistency), or maybe it’s just that a ‘60s airport is visually duller than a far-future colony. Whatever, it does nothing to enliven the mediocre script. Still, I personally find these animated visuals better than nothing (others disagree), and I’ll happily buy every one they produce.

    Archer  Season 6
    Archer season 6When I watched Archer’s fifth season (aka Archer Vice), I was picking it back up after years away and was set to continue it. That was in 2018. Although I was quite positive in that initial review, I was less positive by the end, and that was my enduring memory of it. Well, I’m happy to report I found season six to be a return to form.

    I observed of Archer Vice that the change of setting from spy agency to drug dealers was immaterial because it was the characters not the situation that mattered. That’s true to an extent, but I suspect not entirely, because here they’re back to being spies and it all seems to have sparked back to life. That’s kind of ironic because, as anyone who follows the show will know, they eventually moved on from spies to rotate through a different setting/genre every season, which was because they’d run out of spy stories to tell; and yet comedic spy stories are clearly what these guys do best. So, I’m wary of where it’s going to go in seasons I’ve not yet got to, but, for the time being, I’m enjoying it again. This time I don’t think it’ll be years before I watch the next season.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
    The Mighty CaseyIn last month’s initial selection of The Twilight Zone’s worst episodes I found one or two that weren’t wholly terrible. I’m not sure this selection fares even that well…

    Going from worst to ‘best’, the episode placed 155th (of 156) on my consensus ranking is The Mighty Casey. It’s a very silly story about a robot baseball player, which substitutes loopy sound effects and the incredulous expressions of onlookers for its lack of special effects, and I guess also to cover for its lack of adherence to the laws of physics. The only interesting aspect of the story is the reactions — or lack thereof — from characters when they learn Casey is a robot. It appears to be set in the then-present of 1960, but no one’s like, “holy shit, you built a lifelike robot who can pass for human and play baseball!” No, they’re only concerned with whether his roboticness needs to be reported or kept secret. That dilemma ultimately leads toCasey needing to be given a heart, but once he gets one he’s too compassionate to keep playing. So the ultimate message is… you need to be heartless to be a sportsman? I mean, I don’t care for sports much myself, but even I think that’s stretching it. Maybe baseball fans would get a kick out of this episode, but for the rest of us it’s just rubbish.

    Equally as daft is Black Leather Jackets, in 154th. A trio of young bikers move in next door to a nice all-American family, but there’s more to the lads than meets the eye. The kindest thing I can say about this episode is that some of it is nicely lit. Unfortunately, the script is pretty crap, with the dialogue being particularly awful. “Do you know the word… love?” Seriously. It’s like a spoof of bad ’50s sci-fi, but it’s real and it was made in 1964. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer says it’s “arguably the most dated of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes” and I think he might be right. And after 20 minutes of uncomfortable ludicrousness, it comes to an entirely unearned bleak ending. Twilight Zone may be most famous for its last-minute surprise reveals, but when they were bad, they were really bad.

    The Whole TruthIn 153rd is The Whole Truth, which is about a car that’s been haunted since it came off the production line — although this one’s considerably less threatening than Christine. Instead of a murderous machine, this ‘haunted’ car merely compels its owner to be completely honest at all times. Unfortunately for used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut, he only learns this fact after he’s bought it. It’s an obvious idea — forcing a used car salesman, that most dishonest of individuals, to tell the truth — but it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it, other than a totally far-fetched and implausible finale. Yes, far-fetched and implausible even by Twilight Zone standards! Singer calls it “the dumbest twist in the history of The Twilight Zone” and, again, I’m inclined to agree.

    In the episode titled The Chaser, the eponymous character is a young man in love with a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but through a coincidental contact he meets a fellow who sells him a guaranteed love potion. The scene where he purchases the potion is really quite good, but on the whole it’s painfully obvious that this is going down a “be careful what you wish for” pathway, and all we can do is wait for it to play out. They’re not even nice characters to spend time with — he’s a pathetic obsessive and she’s a bitch. And after he gets what he wished for and doesn’t like it, he considers a spot of murder. It’s a bit… much. And the morals of it all are a little foggy, to say the least — as many commenters observe, it’s dated into being uncomfortably sexist. There’s an angle that could make this storyline worked (critical of the guy trying to drug a woman into loving him), but that’s not what’s played here.

    The Incredible World of Horace Ford is one of The Twilight Zone’s most interesting failures thanks to its production history: the script was previously performed as an episode of a different show in 1955, and by the sounds of things it was just restaged wholesale for TZ. That’s probably why it doesn’t feel like it quite fits in properly — it’s something broadly Twilight Zone-ish that’s been recycled rather than a bespoke episode. It’s about a 37-year-old manchild toy designer who constantly reminisces about stuff he did when he was 10… and yet somehow he’s managed to find himself a caring wife, friends, and hold down a job for 15 years. Maybe we’re supposed to think he wasn’t always so stuck in the past, but the way other characters indulge him makes it seem like he was, even if he’s getting worse as the episode begins.

    The Incredible World of Horace FordThe lead actor is Pat Hingle, of Commissioner Gordon in Batman ’89 fame. He gives a convincing performance… if this was about a Big-style situation of a stroppy 10-year-old boy trapped in a 37-year-old’s body, but that isn’t what’s actually happening. There’s an equally misaligned performance from Nan Martin as his wife: it constantly feels like she knows more than she’s letting on about what’s really happening, like the twist might be she’s responsible for, or at least knows, what’s going on… but she isn’t and she doesn’t. Honestly, I don’t blame the actors for struggling with how to play their roles, because it’s not like the story makes it clear for them what’s meant to be going on. At first it seems like another of the series’ “you can’t go home again” episodes about a man in love with nostalgic memories of his childhood, but then it turns out it’s some kind of time-loop thing… or… not. The resolution is maddeningly, deliberately inexplicable. And, yeah, turns out it is just another version of “you can’t rely on your memory of good times”. To compound the problem, it’s a season four episode, so of course it takes its sweet time playing out a storyline over 50 minutes when it only needs the 25 minutes of other seasons; and the time loop factor makes it literally repetitive.

    Finally for now, Four O’Clock, which is about a mentally deranged man who wears a far-too-tight waistcoat — and, more importantly, arbitrarily decides he’s going to eradicate all evil in the world at 4pm that afternoon… he just hasn’t worked out how yet. You see, he’s spent his days investigating bad people (i.e. those whose lifestyle choices he personally disagrees with) and trying to rat them out to their employers and the like, but he’s not really getting anywhere. Naturally, it comes to an appropriately ironic ending. Paste’s Oktay Ege Kozak reckons it’s “like lazy Twilight Zone fan fiction: it exploits every pattern the series had developed so far and executes it without much originality or flair”, which is a bit harsh, but also kinda fair. Aside from the predictability of the ending, the episode’s only real problem is that it’s like spending 25 minutes in the company of an internet troll. It might be an accurate portrait of a self-righteous busybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be around him.

    Also watched…
  • The Big Night In — The UK’s two big charity telethons, Children in Need and Comic Relief, teamed up for the first time ever in aid of charities who help the most vulnerable at this difficult time. The three-hour event attracted a lot of unnecessary bile on social media. Okay, it wasn’t the greatest TV programme ever made, but it was alright (not significantly worse than these things normally are, I didn’t think), and had a few genuine highlights. The best bits were probably a new Blackadder-adjacent sketch guest starring Prince William, and Catherine Tate’s Lauren being homeschooled by her teacher, played by David Tennant (reprising the role from an old Comic Relief sketch) — “Are you or have you ever been a doctor? Are you a member of the WHO?”
  • Farewell, Sarah Jane — The tie-ins to Doctor Who Lockdown events have only become more elaborate since I wrote about them last month. This is probably the highlight, though: a new, final story for spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, written by creator Russell T Davies and performed by a host of cameos, all to pay tribute to the late, great Elisabeth Sladen via her iconic character, Sarah Jane Smith. You can watch it on YouTube here.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 7 — I only watched one more episode all month?! Oh dear. Three to go…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing Eve season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, the third season of which is currently airing between iPlayer and BBC One. For the first two seasons we had to wait until after it had finished in the US so they could put the whole lot up on iPlayer at once, which no one noticed during season one but drew a lot of criticism during season two (you can work out why, I’m sure). Consequently, I binged those first two seasons (indeed, I came to it late, so went straight through them both), so I wasn’t sure about watching it weekly now. Also, Devs, the latest work from Alex Garland, which frankly I wasn’t even aware existed until it popped up over here (when it had already almost finished in the US). I’ve seen very mixed reviews of it, but I still intend to watch it. But, as noted above, I still haven’t finished Picard, and I’m determined to get that done before I start anything else. Hopefully next month.

    Next month… hopefully I’ll finish Picard and get on to some of the stuff I’ve been missing. Also, I’ve got my eye on more classic Doctor Who, plus a third (and, I think, final) selection of the worst of The Twilight Zone.