FilmBath Festival – Opening Night

I’ve never been to a film festival before. The expense and organisation of travel and accommodation, battles for tickets and/or never-ending queues for entry, racing to dozens of screenings a day… it’s just not my thing. (I don’t know if major festivals are really like that, it’s just an impression I’ve picked up from attendees on social media, etc.)

But when there’s a film festival one stop on the train away from your house, well, you can’t say “no”, can you? (Doubly so when you work for said festival and get comp tickets…)

FilmBath Festival isn’t among your Sundances or your Canneses or your Venices or your Londons. Nor is it one of those festival that just specialises in one thing, like documentaries or shorts. There are no red carpets or world premieres; no overtired critics trying to review 5,000 films every day or websites setting up media centres to churn out slightly stilted YouTube interviews with cast and crew desperate to promote their movie. Instead, it’s a local festival giving local people a chance to see previews ahead of general release; films that have already been released but didn’t make it to one of Bath’s cinemas; and smaller, interesting movies that might be difficult to see at all outside a festival.

Yesterday’s opening night kicked off the festival with a double bill of the first of those, including an exciting late addition to the lineup — so late it didn’t even make the brochure. (Ooh, look at all the beautifully precise punctuation and spelling and whatnot in that brochure! What geniuses must have worked on such a thing!) I saw both films, and I’ll write full reviews nearer their wide releases, but for the time being…

The Report at FilmBath Festival

First up was The Report, an All the President’s Men-style thriller about the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture post-9/11. It’s written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, who’s probably best known for writing a handful of Steven Soderbergh movies, plus contributing to arguably the best Bourne movie and Daniel Craig’s final Bond film. At the centre of the story is Star Wars’s Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the senate staffer tasked with combing through millions of pages of secret documents to find the truth. As if to highlight the significance of the story, there’s an all-star supporting cast, led by Annette Bening and Jon Hamm, plus Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, and several other recognisable faces. It’s a methodical and gripping film, seemingly as dedicated to explaining the truth as is its protagonist. Imagine if we lived in a world where this was the R-rated war-related true story that became the year’s highest-grossing film at the US box office (as opposed to the one that was).

The Personal History of David Copperfield at FilmBath Festival

Next, that late addition: Armando Iannucci’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. It’s got another all-star cast, headed by Dev Patel as the eponymous young man. Obviously such colourblind casting has provoked comment, and I guess some people won’t be able to get over that, but it doesn’t matter. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome, here condensed briskly into two hours, and there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. Its whipcrack pace is both one of its greatest assets (it moves like the clappers) and its biggest drawbacks (it winds up feeling a bit too long). But it’s frequently riotously funny, and the namey cast are sublime, including (deep breath) Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aneurin Barnard, plus many other faces you might recognise depending how much British TV you watch. Plus, its affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

Two completely different films, then, but both very much in my wheelhouse — as I said, I’ll review them later, but I enjoyed them both immensely. An exceptionally strong opening to a festival that promises many more delights (Jojo frickin’ Rabbit!) to come.

FilmBath Festival continues until 17th November. For information about what’s screening and to buy tickets, look here. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Letterboxd for timely updates about what I’m seeing.

The Past Month on TV #38

There are three major series for me to review this month, thanks to the UK’s highest-rated drama launch for a decade, Bodyguard; the debut season of Amazon’s heavily-promoted version of Jack Ryan; and a second season for the runt of the Marvel/Netflix litter, Iron Fist. Plus, shorter reviews of other stuff. All spoiler-free, of course.

So, without further ado…

Bodyguard  Series 1
Bodyguard series 1
A massive hit for BBC One from writer Jed “Line of Duty” Mercurio, Bodyguard follows copper David Budd (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) as he’s assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), who’s trying to push through a tough new anti-terrorism act. As multiple terrorist attacks begin to take place, and Montague cosies up to the intelligence services, the series quickly morphs into a conspiracy thriller, with Budd struggling to know who can be trusted as he hunts for the truth about what’s going on and why.

Like Line of Duty, Mercurio excels at Big drama: this is a busy, fast-moving story that churns through plot. Not much here of the gradual, slow, “it’s really more about these characters as people” stuff we usually get from British drama. That’s not to say there isn’t fine character work, mind: Budd, in particular, is a complex and nuanced hero, who starts out calm and capable and is revealed to be… well, something else; so much so that you begin to wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator… The other thing Mercurio is great at is set pieces. In Line of Duty they’re often lengthy, jargon-filled police interviews, although he’s pulled off a couple of big action ones too. Bodyguard kind of merges the two, in that they’re talky but also usually involve bombs and guns. The series is bookended by them: episode one boldly devotes its opening 20 minutes to what initially seems like a prologue (unsurprisingly, it has more relevance later), and a massive chunk of the middle of the finale is taken up with another.

David Budd and Julia MontagueSome have criticised the series for being OTT, implausible, or having too many plot holes. Well, individual mileage will vary on that. It’s not a slice-of-life drama, after all — the larger-scaled storytelling is a genre thing, not an inherent flaw. It’s no more implausible than hundreds of other thriller TV series and movies, just perhaps not the kind we make much in the UK anymore. I’m always wary of accusations of plot holes — it’s a term that gets thrown around too liberally nowadays by, frankly, people who either don’t know what they’re on about or have a failure of imagination (“we didn’t see that happen on screen so how can it have happened” is, genuinely, the root of one prominent complaint about Bodyguard’s finale).

Still, I think the series’ main aim was to be an exciting guessing game — it’s a whodunnit, really, with a multitude of suspects and motivations. As that, I thought it was a success; and, based on the ratings and chatter, it looks like the public at large agreed. No second series has been commissioned (and, anyway, Mercurio is busy on the next Line of Duty until sometime next year), but I’d be surprised if we don’t see more.

(If you’re outside the UK, it was announced last week that Netflix have snapped up the international rights, where it will be available from October 24th.)

Jack Ryan  Season 1
Jack Ryan season 1The latest reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA hero sees him get the TV treatment, which is perhaps the best place for a hero who is more about solving problems with his mind than his gun, and a storytelling style that cuts between lots of concurrent plots before later revealing how they interrelate. That’s something this season has done rather well, incidentally — it’s an original story, taking Clancy’s characters but not directly adapting any of his novels, but they committed to trying to emulate his “mosaic storytelling style”. I’ve never read any Clancy, so I’m not an expert on this, but they seem to have evoked it well. (Considering there are multiple Ryan novels that haven’t been adapted, it seems a shame to abandon them entirely. Maybe in a future season.)

The actual plot concerns — what else — Middle Eastern terrorism. On the bright side, it devotes as much time to the villains as to the heroes, painting a more detail picture than just “some foreign-looking people want to blow us up”. I don’t know if it has anything deep or new to say about terrorists and those who hunt them (we’ve had ten seasons of 24, seven of Homeland, and goodness knows how many other shows on this theme since 9/11 — it’s well worn), but it’s still effective as an intelligent thriller, bolstered by having a desk-jockey analyst as a hero rather than a trigger-happy soldier. Nonetheless, episodes are packed with incident, tension, and excitement. It’s not quite “a thinking man’s thriller” because I don’t think it ultimately has enough to say about things, but it is a lot more measured and realistic than your usual action-thriller fare, while still creating exciting (but also plausible) sequences.

Naturally, the season takes the form of “an 8-hour movie” (to be precise, it’s actually 6.6 hours long), because that’s what’s popular with prestige TV nowadays, but it also works on an episodic level. Put another way, it’s in parts that build to a whole, rather than a whole sliced up because it has to be. That’s not to say the series isn’t heavily serialised, mind (for example, there’s a random murder in episode two that doesn’t seem to relate to anything else, but then pays off at the end of episode four), but this is only a problem if you dislike non-episodic storytelling. I tend to agree that some shows take this too far, seeming to go nowhere on an episodic level because everything’s designed to be “one long story”, but Jack Ryan is one of those serialised shows that strikes a healthy balance between the two — it is one long story, but each episode conveys a solid amount of plot.

Field analystAn advantage the show has in this regard is its short length: with just eight episodes, the plot moves at a fair lick. It gets better as it goes on, too, as the various plot lines and characters begin to build and resonate with one another. Indeed, it’s something very rare, possibly unheard of, in direct-to-streaming series: one where I wished the season was a couple of episodes longer. Not that it’s rushed per se, but one or two subplots might’ve been even better with just a little more room to breathe; the main stories might’ve been even better with just a beat or two more in them. But in an era where streaming/prestige series are gaining a reputation for being bloated and not having enough story to fill their running time, maybe it’s better to leave people wanting more.

And I certainly do want more — season two’s already in production, and I’m looking forward to it. Although I enjoyed this season a lot, I do hope the next one takes us somewhere a little more original (and therefore interesting) than Islamic terrorists. I mean, how about those Russians and the tech espionage shit they’re pulling nowadays? Now that sounds Clancy-esque.

Iron Fist  Season 2
Iron Fist season 2The first season of Iron Fist attracted a lot of criticism, and, thankfully, the people behind the Marvel/Netflix series have listened. This second season doesn’t suddenly revamp the show into the best thing on TV or something, but it is a big improvement. They were hamstrung to an extent — as new showrunner M. Raven Metzner has said in interviews, you can’t reboot something like this: it has to keep to the continuity of what happened in season one, and in The Defenders, and in the other Marvel/Netflix series, and go from there — but they’ve made a fair fist of it, (there’s a good piece about what changes they made here), and by the end of the season the show is in a much better place.

It starts a little iffily, mind. I mean, the hero is a rich, privileged white guy with anger issues who appropriated another culture for his own ends, while the villains are the Asian guy who wants back his birthright that the hero took, and a businesswoman who wants her due from the company she helped build. If I was confident the show was going somewhere with that it’d be one thing, but it also feels like it can’t’ve been deliberate (considering the heroes also include a Japanese-American woman investigating her heritage and, later in the season, a black female cop), but it’s a definite reading of episode one. I began to worry it was going to accidentally pan out like some kind of Men’s Rights / White Supremacist show. Well, it’s not that bad, thank goodness — the season does make some nods towards tackling these issues (there’s a scene in episode six where Davos specifically calls Danny out on his privilege meaning he values nothing), but I’m not sure it truly engages with it, more hopes that if it’s acknowledged and sort of moved on from (I won’t say too much because of spoilers!) then we’ll let it slide.

So, even with that, a lot of things are improved over season one. Most things, even. But the show is at its best whenever its title character is off screen. Every member of the supporting cast and their relationships to each other is more interesting than Danny. At best he’s a bit nothingy, at worst an irritant. In fairness, I also suspect the show knows this, given its focus on Colleen — look how she shares the marketing. She makes a better lead character than Danny — her conflictedness about being a vigilante is certainly a richer seam than his privileged certainty, and Jessica Henwick excels in some properly kickass fight scenes, too. Among the supporting cast, Ward and Joy Meacham get some interesting material as well, again developing from what they went through in season one. Where back then it was just Plot Stuff to provide a story and twists, here there’s a genuine attempt to explore what the psychological fallout of that might look like. Plus, there’s a lot less stuff about the running of Rand Enterprises, something I called out the first season for ballsing up.

VillainsIronically, while the MCU movies became renowned for their poor villains, that’s the area the Netflix series have always excelled in. This season the star turn comes from Alice Eve as a version of Daredevil villain Typhoid Mary, who (spoilers if you don’t know the character!) has dissociative identity disorder (DID), aka multiple personality disorder — so she can be both sweet, timid, kind Mary, and hard, stern, violent Walker. It’s the kind of role that’s a gift for any actor, of course, and Eve is fantastic. Similarly, Danny’s childhood friend Davos gets to combine many of the traits I’ve described in other characters: motivated by past events; complex relationships to other characters (not only Danny, but, as the end of season one teased, Joy). He’s the kind of villain whose goal is almost relatable; where you almost side with him over the hero.

Across all of the characters and storylines, I think the season wants to be about addiction, but it doesn’t execute it as a throughline particularly well. Early on we see Danny being a little bit out of control with the fist; then, many episodes later, he explains he was addicted to it; in between, there’s a subplot about Ward being in NA and struggling to stay on the wagon. These two plot threads should be mirroring each other, not tag-teaming — and in a way that sometimes leaves the theme untouched for an episode or two, at that. It’s a shame, really, because if they’d managed that kind of cohesion in what the show was “about”, it may have been able to lay claim to being a genuinely very good show, rather than just a marked improvement on season one. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked a lot of it, and I do think it’s a big improvement; but you can see signs that maybe it could’ve been something even better. But hey, even if it can’t offer depth, at least it can offer thrills. And really, it’s a superhero show — good vs. evil punch-ups are the order of the day.

Marvel’s Netflix shows have often faced accusations of being too long, of not having enough story to fill their 13 episodes. That’s a problem of story, not episode count, as The Defenders proved by not having enough plot to fill eight episodes. Nonetheless, Iron Fist now only has ten episodes, and it seems to have helped. The plot moves so fast that by halfway it feels like it must be nearing its end, but instead of going in circles, it has some more twists and tricks up its sleeve. And to complete the indication that the show is making an effort to head in new directions, the finale devotes about half its running time to wrapping up the main plotDaughters of the Dragon (via a whole load of fighting, natch) and then the second half to what happens after — not just the necessary “wind down” type aftermath stuff, but also a fair chunk of time into establishing where things will go in season three. Netflix hasn’t commissioned that yet, but I hope they do because I’m actually looking forward to it. Wonders will never cease.

Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episodes 1-3
Upstart Crow series 3Ben Elton’s Shakespearean sitcom commences its third run as funny as ever, if not more so — I’ve always enjoyed it, but it feels particularly on point this series. I guess its on-the-nose satire of modern life by transposing it to Elizabethan society (e.g. Will’s woeful carriage journeys between London and Stratford are an unsubtle riff on the problems with British railways) won’t find favour with everyone, mainly because it seems a little easy and there’s a monologue about it pretty much every episode, but I still find that stuff amusing. When Elton applies the same strategy to other aspects of modern life, it’s similarly as rewarding/obvious, depending on your predilections. But there’s also a solid vein of mining Shakespeare’s own works for humour, the best one so far this series being an extended bit about how all of Will’s friends think Hamlet is a comedy due to its farcical plot. There’s also a running subplot about Will’s nemesis, Robert Greene, trying to discredit him by making people think he doesn’t write his own plays, which nicely pillories those ridiculous theories, and includes a guest appearance by Ben Miller doing an amusing riff on Mark Rylance.

Reported Missing  Series 2 Episode 1
Not normally my kind of programme, this — a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows police as they search for missing persons — but the ‘plot’ description for the first case piqued my interest. A dad reports his five-year-old son missing after having not seen him for two years due to a custody dispute with the mother. When the police track her down, she says the boy doesn’t exist and she doesn’t even know the man who made the report. Who is telling the truth? What’s really going on? It plays out like a low-key thriller. If you have access to iPlayer (the episode is here), it only takes up the first half of the episode and I’d say is worth half-an-hour of your time.

Also watched…
  • Daniel Sloss: Live Shows — A pair of live stand-up shows, recorded at different times and places, that Netflix have lumped together as a ‘series’. The first, Dark, is a masterpiece; it lives up to its name though, so avoid if pitch black humour isn’t your thing. The second, Jigsaw, isn’t quite as exceptional, but is still excellent. A definite cut above most other stand-up specials I’ve watched.
  • Hang Ups Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — I was praiseful of Hang Ups last month, but if anything it improved as it went on, with the finale a riotous farce.
  • The Imitation Game Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — ITV’s impression-based panel show is a bit odd (everyone’s busy pretending it’s improvised when much of it is clearly scripted) and dependant on the skills of the guests (some of these so-called impressionists should find a new job), but it’s pleasantly diverting. Plus it gave us this skit of Andy Murray singing I’m So Excited, which is spot on.
  • Magic for Humans Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Like Hang Ups, there’s even better stuff here than in the first half of the season (which I also wrote about last month). Episode four, Seeing is Believing, is not only a fun magic show but also kinda profound.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing EveThis month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, BBC America’s critically-acclaimed, Emmy-nominated thriller about an MI5 officer hunting for an assassin. It aired in the US back in April, and it feels like ever since I’ve been hearing praise for it flowing across the Atlantic. It finally made its way to this side of the pond this month (for an organisation with “BBC” in their name, BBC America productions do take their time getting over here). As I’ve only just (as in “as of last night”) finished making my way through 24 episodes of Jack Ryan, Iron Fist, and Bodyguard back-to-back, maybe that’ll be up next.

    Although likely to get in the way is Maniac, Netflix’s miniseries starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone that looks inherently interesting (based on the trailer — like Inception made by someone with a wilder imagination than Christopher Nolan) and is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, aka the recently-announced director of Bond 25. I’ve never seen anything he’s done, despite almost all of it being on my “to watch” list, so it’s about time I started. Expect reviews of both of those next month, then, alongside the return of a certain time traveller…

    Next month… Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor!

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #11

    As discussed yesterday, I’m out of the country for a fair chunk of December, including when my regular monthly TV review is due. So to placate the ravenous need for my opinions about television that you will surely feel if such thirst goes unquenched for six-to-eight-weeks, here’s what I watched in the fortnight since my last TV post.

    Crisis in Six Scenes
    Crisis in Six ScenesWhen Amazon started making a serious effort to challenge Netflix in the field of streaming original series, one of their early moves was the headline-grabbing signing of Woody Allen to create his first TV series. As has since become clear, Allen didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. To summarise his comments from various interviews (and read between the lines a little), it seems he had a view of TV that’s about 20 years out of date, and thought he’d be able to dash off something suitable between two of his annual movies. At some point he obviously realised how much more sophisticated TV has become, and coopted a movie idea he’d had on the back-burner to expand into a short TV season. Allen’s been vocal about how miserable he found this process, but I’m not sure if he’s aware that he made a rod for his own back: he essentially made three movies in two years instead of his usual two. It probably would’ve been wise to swap out one of the films for the TV series, but you get the sense that, despite having been shown TV’s burgeoned respectability, Allen’s still something of a film snob. Rather than the potential of TV coming as a revelation to him, he’s declared he won’t be making any more.

    On the evidence of the single six-episode season we did get out of him, that’s neither here nor there: Crisis in Six Scenes is just a slightly-longer-than-average Woody Allen film split into instalments. The first episode is the worst offender in this regard — it doesn’t reach a climax of any description, it just stops. The rest of the episodes aren’t as blatant (episode five’s ending even feels like it’s genuinely meant to be the end of an episode!), but none of them are particularly satisfying as a discrete segment. I’m not really one for binge-watching — I get fidgety and want a change; or if a show’s too good, I want to savour it rather than race on — but I watched all of Crisis in one sitting, because at heart it’s just a chopped-up movie. Some characters or events are confined to a single episode, but you get the impression that’s almost incidental rather than a deliberate attempt to make six finite units. The main storylines flow between episodes like the boundaries are artificially imposed — which, in a medium without the constraints of broadcast time slots and where all the episodes are released at the same time, they are.

    A scene of CrisisBut enough of the form — what of the content? This is not prime Allen, that’s for sure. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, when it’s hard to tell if it’s half improvised or if half the cast are just a bit doddery (and I suspect it’s the latter). Other bits do work, though, and while it isn’t massively rewarding it is amusing at times. Even less assured are some broadly political points that it seems like Allen is trying to tap into, or maybe it’s just incidental. He appears to be using the series’ 1960s setting as a mirror of the present: the plot concerns a twenty-something anti-government protestor, and there’s lots of talk about unnecessary wars, campus demonstrations, young people staging protests, rights for women and black people, etc, etc. At first blush these parallels are all well and good, but I’m not sure they develop into much more than wry observations. The best I can take from it is a result of the particularly farcical last episode, where it may be that he’s trying to say people in general should be more aware and active, like the young are — to walk the walk of political change rather than just talking the talk.

    If he was trying to spread such a message, it’s a bit buried. Maybe he was just picking on some low hanging fruit. Considering Allen’s half-arsed attitude to the whole endeavour, I guess that’s more likely. Oh well.

    The Grand Tour (Season 1 Episodes 1-2)
    The Grand TourAnother big gun in Amazon’s streaming mission, their £160 million “Not Top Gear, Honest” original series kicked off last month to widespread positive reviews and, apparently, big ratings (relatively speaking). I’m not really a ‘car person’, but like millions of others I wound up watching Top Gear during the height of the Clarkson / Hammond / May era for all the other hijinks. I thought it was going off the boil a bit even before their semi-enforced departure — I didn’t even get round to watching their last series. They come to Amazon after a short break (a long break for us, but it takes time to film these things, so, short break), and I think reinvigorated — possibly by the rest, possibly by the change of management, possibly by the huge budget.

    There’s no denying that this is their Top Gear with just a few tweaks… unless you’re an Amazon lawyer, in which case it’s a completely different show. But the freedom from being a motoring programme on a public service broadcaster means they’re not quite so constrained by that remit. Episode 2, for instance, is half given over to them attacking a military training course in Jordan, a riff on Edge of Tomorrow in which they get to play at being action movie stars, and which features cars because action movies feature car chases, not because they’re actually reviewing how the motor performs while in a high-speed chase. There are still genuine car reviews, and they’re as dull / interesting (delete as applicable) as they always were. At least they’re excitingly shot and scored (still using cues from film music, as they always have).

    Some bits are improved: the famous Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment was always one of the weakest parts of the show (the track times were fun, but Clarkson is no interviewer), but here the need for celebrity guests is neatly pilloried. Conversely, a couple of things are weaker: their blatant attempt at a Stig replacement, The American, doesn’t really work. It’s also one of the bits that most feels “changed just enough to avoid a legal challenge”. I imagine there are only so many different ways to do a car show, so of course there are going to be similarities, but you could imagine them having done this as their next run of Genuine Top Gear (well, aside from the expense) without people thinking, “wow, they’ve completely changed the show!”

    Still, it is what it is, and if you liked it before I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it now, maybe even a little more.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 6-7)
    ClassThe Doctor Who spin-off that no one’s watching continues with two of its strongest episodes. A two-parter that isn’t, the first is a “bottle episode”, with most of the cast stuck in detention and forced to confess their secret feelings by an alien rock. Cue arguments. Not Class’ strongest instalment — it’s a good idea, but the characters haven’t amassed quite enough secrets over just five episodes to make it feel as cathartic as it should — but it’s considerably better than the weaker ones. Even better is the next episode, which shows what Quill was up to while the kids were bickering. A world-hopping quest (presumably paid for by saving so much money on episode 6), it has several good ideas that it burns through like they’re going out of fashion. It feels most like Doctor Who, too, which provokes no complaints from me.

    Next time: the Shadow Kin are back, again. Ah well.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 16-21 — by sheer bloody coincidence, the night before flying from London to the US I watched the episode where Castle flies from the US to London and has to deal with a murderer and possible terrorist on his flight. Super timing.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 3-5 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 3-5 — the much-anticipated four-way crossover between The CW’s superhero shows finished last night in the US, which means it’s at least a few weeks away over here. I’ll say something about it next time, then. Or the time after.
  • Junior Bake Off Series 4 — the main thing I take from this is that all kids are incredibly clumsy and slapdash.
  • The Moonstone — the recent BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, which is generally regarded as the first full-length English-language detective novel. This decent miniseries version was produced for daytime, and was the kind of series certain viewers proclaimed was good enough for prime time. It wasn’t.

    Gilmore GirlsThings to Catch Up On
    This fortnight, I have mostly been missing Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, subtitled A Year in the Life. Rather than race through the four feature-length instalments between their release last Friday and our departure yesterday, we decided to save them for when we’re back, like a Christmas treat. Maybe we’ll just watch them in four days then instead, but at least we’ll feel like we have a choice.

    Next time… a festive special, looking at what seasonal delights the tellybox has provided us with this year. As far as December 29th or so, anyway.

  • The Past Month on TV #9

    There’s so much TV right now! And that’s before you consider all the old stuff to catch up on (and by “old” I mean “anything aired before the past month”).

    Still, here’s a selection of what’s been gracing my eyeballs in the last 35 days…

    Luke Cage (Season 1)
    Luke CageThe third series in the Marvel/Netflix stable wins points for boldness, much as Jessica Jones did this time last year. Where Daredevil is a well-done but ‘standard’ superhero show, leading to it being somewhat demeaned by the Cool Kids of the critical world (but much higher-rated by us plebs on the likes of IMDb), Jessica pushed into dark psychological territory, and now Luke Cage brings black culture and life into the fold.

    In truth, I still think Daredevil is the best produced of the three. Maybe that’s because it’s operating in more familiar territory, but it seems to know how to construct its storylines to fit the time given, and pace them to really kick off that “just one more episode” feeling that Netflix binge-watching is so famed for. Conversely, Jessica didn’t have enough story for 13 episodes, spinning its wheels and going in circles in the second half. Luke Cage doesn’t suffer from that exact problem, but it spends a lot of time finding excuses to keep its near-invulnerable hero out of the action.

    But, for its plot-related flaws, it’s not a bad show. It has three strong villains — it’s just a shame it’s the fourth who becomes the focus for the back half of the season. Its use of music is unusual and brilliantly executed, though as it’s employing genres and styles, indeed a whole culture, that I’m not exactly au fait with, it’s like watching as a fascinated outside observer rather than someone fully embedded or engaged. That’s not necessarily a negative, just a different way of relating to it. And even with those storytelling faults I mentioned, there’s at least one huge and unexpected twist, which really livens up the show… for a bit. It also gives Rosario Dawson the biggest role she’s yet had in one of these Marvel series, and that’s no bad thing either.

    Indeed, the best thing about Luke Cage is its characters. Mike Colter is an appealing leading man — when the character is allowed to do something, anyway — and the supporting characters on both sides are fantastic (with that one unfortunate exception I already mentioned). This bodes well for when they join up with everyone else in The Defenders next year, and also leaves season two with plenty of potential…

    …if Netflix commission it, of course. Surely they can’t be intending to have 6+ Marvel shows on the go?!

    Ripper Street (Season 5)
    Ripper StreetIt feels like only yesterday I was writing here about season four (it was, in fact, February and March). I think it was assumed this final season would be coming next year, but then Amazon announced it almost out of the blue just before the BBC’s run of season four ended, and made the unusual-for-them decision to dump the whole season at once, Netflix-style. It benefits this particular group of episodes because it really is one long story — when the show moved to Amazon for its third season it got more heavily serialised, but often with “case of the week” plots alongside that; the end of season four and all of season five throw that almost entirely aside for one long, developing storyline.

    Nonetheless, they’ve done a good job of making a TV show rather than a really long movie in six parts. The third episode, in particular, sets our heroes aside almost entirely to spend an hour with a villain who’s barely done more than grunt so far, digging into his psyche and his hopes (if any) of redemption. It almost felt more like an arty drama film than an episode of a period police procedural and proves that, even after five years, a quality programme can still push at and explore its form.

    The final episode, however, is a certified oddity. After wrapping up the season’s primary plots with relative haste, it moves on to an odd, somewhat lethargic non-story. It is, in its way, bold for what started as a police procedural to end with an episode that focuses on the drama of its characters’ lives, but it does so with an almost perverse fixation on setting up certain expectations only to dash them. It is tough to call the episode either satisfying or unsatisfying as a conclusion, though I imagine some will come to the latter opinion purely because it is so uncommon. It’s titled Occurrence Reports, and that seems apt, for it seems to merely report a series of occurrences; but they do at least, in their way, bring all of the series’ parts to their respective ends.

    Leaving aside the finale’s forays into structural experimentation, this is a good final season, that has moments to count among the programme’s very best. I still reckon season three is the best individual run, however.

    Black Mirror (Series 2)
    Black MirrorWell, it’s only taken me 3½ years to get round to this (seriously, where does time go?!) This bunch really represents the series’ highs and lows. On the one hand, Be Right Back — in which Hayley Atwell signs up for a company who create a virtual version of her deceased partner using his contributions to social media — is an exploration of broadly-plausible near-future-tech with a focus on its potential emotional effect. That’s what Black Mirror does best, I’d argue: look at stuff that may, perhaps, be in the pipeline, and how that would actually play out for us. On the other, there’s The Waldo Moment, which is also sickeningly plausible — as Charlie Brooker himself has said, it’s more or less come true, though with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump instead of a blue cartoon bear — but as an episode it doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with its concept or what it might ultimately signify. The episode just stops rather than ends, until a flash-forward coda that’s a bit silly in its extremity. Even Brooker, while doing press for the third season (released tomorrow), has said he’d go back and re-do that episode if he could. Still, full marks for effort.

    Red Dwarf XI (Episodes 1-5)
    Red Dwarf XIThis latest series of Red Dwarf (which airs its fifth episode tonight, with the sixth available on demand from tomorrow) seems to have gone down rather well, with some reviews even hailing it as a “return to form” — that form being “the good old days” of Red Dwarf VI (or thereabouts), over 20 years ago. Personally, I didn’t dislike Red Dwarf VII or Back to Earth, and I even have a soft spot for Red Dwarf VIII, so what do I know? Nonetheless, I would concur that this Dwarf represents a fine vintage, hitting the series’ unique mix of accessible mainstream-ish comedy and proper science-fiction concepts. Red Dwarf XII is already in the can for 2017, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave commission more episodes beyond that.

    Star Trek The City on the Edge of Forever
    Star Trek: The Animated Series Yesteryear
    Star Trek - The City on the Edge of ForeverThe entirety of TV Star Trek is available on Netflix, so I took the chance to watch the most acclaimed episodes of both The Original Series and The Animated Series — which happen to be connected, something I didn’t realise until afterwards. Er, I mean, which I totally planned. Both are pretty fine uses of science-fiction to explore relatable issues. Well, not many of us have to deal with disruptions to reality caused by time travel, or knowledge of the future creating dilemmas about what we do next, but they work the relatable stuff in around the surface plots. And they both still seem pretty bold for network TV episodes even today, almost half a century later, as (spoilers!) Kirk lets a good woman die to retain the correct timeline, and a kids’ cartoon deals with the subject of euthanasia.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episode 8-Season 7 Episode 1 — almost always a nice, light, entertaining show, but the season 6 finale is a mess. Well, the bulk of it’s fine, but the premise is illogical and the cliffhanger is weightless and unneeded.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 5-9 — this series has seen Bake Off’s charms firing on all cylinders, I think, which just reminds you what we’re about to lose.
  • Line of Duty Series 1 — as this is on Netflix I thought I’d finally see what all the fuss is about. I think it’s the second run where it really took off, but this has its moments.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 6-7 — quite a few grim crime shows in this month’s viewing, so a bit of quality swashbuckling is a welcome change of pace.
  • Scott & Bailey Series 5 — not the strongest run (the “darknet serial killers” case was a little too outlandish for a show that has often thrived on its more-plausible-than-your-average depiction of murder investigation), but still a quality police drama. Shame there won’t be more.

    Things to Catch Up On
    WestworldThis month, I have mostly been missing loads of stuff. Probably the most talked about is HBO’s adaptation of Westworld, which has apparently pulled in even bigger ratings than Game of Thrones. Over here there’s the second series of The Missing, which if it’s half as good as the first will be a real must-see. Then there’s Woody Allen’s first (and last) TV series for Amazon, Crisis in Six Scenes. Reviews have been mixed to poor but I still intend to get round to it. And finally Hooten & the Lady, which may be the worst title for anything in the history of ever, but a globetrotting adventure series inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone sounds right up my alley.

    Next month… the latest Doctor Who spin-off comes to iPlayer; brand-new Black Mirror comes to Netflix; and I’ll finally watch Stranger Things, I promise.

  • The Past Month on TV #8

    With lots of stuff still on a summer break, the last month has proven a handy time to catch up on things I’ve been meaning to get round to.

    24: Live Another Day
    24: Live Another DayThe “event miniseries” short-lived revival of a once-popular TV series is all the rage these days, with 24, Heroes, and The X-Files all trying it out in the past couple of years, Gilmore Girls doing essentially the same thing on Netflix in a couple of months, and Twin Peaks at it sometime next year. The thing that seems to have defined these revivals so far is that time has made no difference: none of them have come back radically new or changed, but have just been “more of the same” as the series they’re resuming, for good or ill. 24: Live Another Day is absolutely an example of this. It may be four years on, set in London, and only 12 episodes long, but if you didn’t know the circumstances behind production you’d be unlikely to think this was anything other than season 9 — after all, the show has always had years-long in-universe time jumps between seasons, and the last few have varied the location also (after seasons 1-6 were set in LA, season 7 was relocated to Washington, DC, and season 8 to New York). On top of that, the way the storyline drags back old characters who hadn’t been in the series for years cements the assumption that it’s a for-the-fans bonus run rather than a fresh-start relaunch attempt (which I guess next year’s spin-off, 24: Legacy, is hoping to be). All of this means that it has its good points, especially the action scenes, but some of the storytelling is overfamiliar, the dialogue at times terribly clunky, and there’s a continued half-arsed application of the real-time concept (which has been a bugbear of mine since season four or five). The fact it ends without really resolving the on-going story of Jack Bauer also feels like a daft mistake.

    Doctor Foster (Series 1)
    Doctor FosterFinally got round to this popular series (from a year ago! Time, where do you go?). I was pleasantly surprised by the plot. The setup was sold as a woman (the titular GP) becoming suspicious her husband was cheating on her — is he, or is she imagining things? For whatever reason I’d presumed that would be the mystery of the entire series, and it would inevitably turn out he was cheating because there’s not much story otherwise. But actually, that’s kind of dealt with in the first episode, and then it spins off in various twists and turns. It’s exciting and unpredictable without quite descending into the easy trap of having characters make completely ridiculous decisions or take extreme actions. It’s a pretty finite story, though, so quite where the commissioned second series is going is anyone’s guess.

    One of Us
    A new miniseries (it only finished on Tuesday — get me, watching something when it’s actually on!) from writers Harry and Jack Williams, who penned 2014’s excellent James Nesbitt drama The Missing (which, like Doctor Foster, has an unexpected second series in production). This is a slighter affair: essentially a murder mystery, but with a few well-executed twists along the way. It starts with the murder of a young couple whose families are neighbours on isolated farms in Scotland. When the suspected murderer turns up injured at those farms on the storm-afflicted night after the murder, they lock him in the barn while they await an ambulance… and then one of them murders him. Whodunnit? And what will they tell the police? And why the hell did he kill the couple, anyway? It’s funny to think of a four-hour drama as slight — imagine thinking a four-hour film was a bit short and lacking incident — but at least it’s not slow with it, somehow. A subplot about the investigating officer’s home life has no relevance to the main story and could’ve been cut, and the final revelations are somewhat farfetched, but other than that it’s a decent little thriller.

    The Tick (Pilot)
    I’ve never read any Tick comics, nor seen the ’90s animated series, nor the short-lived ’00s live-action series, but I am vaguely aware of it, so was somewhat looking forward to this Amazon pilot. For those not in the know, it’s basically a spoof of superheroes — what better time than right now to launch a show like that? Amazon should be chuffed to be hitting the zeitgeist on the head with this one. Unfortunately, on the evidence of this pilot, The Tick isn’t quite all it could be. It comes alive a bit whenever Peter Serafinowicz’s eponymous hero is on screen, but the rest of the plot is too serious — the central character (who’s not The Tick, incidentally) is a young man who has mental health problems after watching his father be killed during a supervillain attack! Unsurprisingly, this leaves it a little short on laughs for a half-hour comedy. Indeed, it finishes just as it seems to be getting going. They either need to extend it to 45 minutes, or get a wriggle on and squeeze more into the half-hour. If it manages to get the full series commission then I’ll probably give it a go to see if they can improve these aspects, but, on the strength of the pilot, I won’t be too upset if they don’t bother. Shame.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episodes 1-7 — got fed up of waiting for Channel 5 to screen this, so I acquired it by other means… then they started it last week, buried on 5USA. Hey-ho. It’s always a fun time filler.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 4-6 — this does such a good job of mixing a plausible family dynamics sitcom with deeply silly storylines. Love it.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 1-4 — this is proving a tough series of GBBO, both in the tent (Paul Hollywood seemed to be in a particularly harsh mood during bread week) and out of it (“they sold it to Channel 4?!”, “Mel and Sue are leaving?!”)
  • Miranda Series 3 Episode 3-Series 4 Episode 2 — I do love Miranda, but the finale is a bit messy. The first two series are definitely the high point.
  • The Musketeers Season 2 Episodes 4-5Musketeers does Seven Samurai! Feels like an appropriate time to happen to reach that episode.
  • Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs Series 5 Episodes 1-2 — aww, look at all the doggies!

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing Poldark and Victoria, respectively the BBC’s big period drama hit and ITV’s big period drama hope, which are currently going head-to-head on Sunday nights. For some reason I find myself not caring one iota about the latter (has it gone down well, or not? I don’t even know), but will get round to Poldark eventually.

    Next month… Netflix time! Definitely Marvel’s Luke Cage; probably Stranger Things, to see who’s right: the fuss or the backlash.