The Past Trisennight on TV #34

With the series finale of The Americans on UK TV tonight (at 12:05am on ITV4), I thought I’d bring my monthly TV review forward a bit and share my thoughts on the final season of a series that, for those of us who found it, will be sorely missed.

Plus! The latest episodes of Westworld — much more widely discussed than The Americans, but does it deserve the attention? And quick thoughts on the end of Archer Vice and another series finale, that of Peter Kay’s Car Share.

The Americans  Season 6
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The Americans season 6That song was released in 1987, the same year as the final season of The Americans is set. The show has typically avoided featuring well-known music in favour of cult favourites and obscurities, but R.E.M.’s classic would’ve been an appropriate number to hear during one of the series’ trademark music montages in the finale. (That said, it did contain both Dire Straits and U2, so they weren’t above using big hits.) Maybe it would’ve been a bit on the nose, but it certainly was applicable: it was the end of the world as the characters knew it, and so too for fans, as six incredible seasons came to a final end. But do we feel fine? That depends how you define “fine”. The show will be missed terribly, but goddamn if it didn’t stick the landing to cement itself as one of the greatest TV series ever made.

It all began with a good setup for a concluding season: finally, after years of disagreements about their jobs and their personal lives and how both should be handled, the world conspired to pit the Jennings directly — and secretly — against each other. The Americans isn’t usually so overt in its plotting, so it’s no surprise that the scenario doesn’t play out as a straightforward spy-vs-spy battle. But it certainly tests the lead characters both professionally and personally, and to an extent they haven’t been before, forcing them to question every one of their loyalties: to their employers, to their country, to their friends, to their family, and to each other. To say too much about how it unfolds would be a spoiler, obviously, but it has some clever ways of challenging even the characters’ most deeply-held beliefs.

Most spy-based TV shows ratchet up the scale or stakes season after season — I’m thinking of Spooks, where in season two they spent a whole episode debating the ethics of performing an assassination, but a couple of years later that was just routine first-act stuff; or 24, where season one was just about someone trying to assassinate a presidential candidate, but by season four it was about multiple coordinated attacks including bombing trains, kidnappings, melting nuclear power stations, shooting down Air Force One, a nuclear missile strike… The Americans has, if anything, gone in the opposite direction: there’s still spy stuff there, of course, and it’s as grounded as ever, but it’s increasingly taken a backseat to the characters’ relationships. Maybe this is just a matter of perspective, but I felt that in earlier seasons the spy stuff was the focus, No ordinary marriageegiven texture or sometimes affected by the relationships, whereas by this point the relative importance and impact seems reversed. I guess you could still enjoy it as “just a spy show”, but I don’t think you’d want to — the stuff you’re invested in has shifted. That was always the programme’s genius, of course: it’s not about spies who happen to be married, it’s about marriage through the prism of people who are spies.

For a while it almost doesn’t feel like the end (the season opener even begins with a montage set to Don’t Dream It’s Over), but then comes episode five, The Great Patriotic War, and suddenly years of stuff is brought to a head: the status quo and people’s values are flipped, then re-flipped; there are massive changes and developments — but all managed with The Americans’ usual understated believability. As the fallout begins in episode six, Rififi, you can’t tell where it’s going to go. It keeps the focus squarely on Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, as if we could ever forget the show is, at heart, all about that, not the big spy stuff. The season isn’t just engrossing on a thriller-ish “will they get caught?” level, but also on an emotional “will they stay together?” one. A bit part of this is the performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both of whom are so, so good — the subtleties and nuances of their performances, and the way the series trusts them to convey what’s needed with just silence at times, is phenomenal. That they haven’t received more recognition for their work here is a crime against television.

The penultimate episode, Jennings, Elizabeth, is where things really begin to come to a head, and Jesus, the tension! It’s hair-raising. It’s intense. It leaves your nerves shattered, not just during the programme but after it too. I’m glad I saved the season up to watch on consecutive days, because I don’t know how I’d’ve spent a week with that hanging over me. And as for the finale, somewhat ironically titled START… I’ve been worried about how they’d end the show basically since it started. I spent that last hour covered in goosebumps and with my heart in my throat, and it was kinda perfect. It didn’t give me everything I wanted, but perhaps it gave me all that I needed. The garage sceneAs a commenter on the A.V. Club’s review put it, “I have to say it is of greatest compliment that the show both wrapped up the story and left me wanting more. It felt equal measure satisfying and gut wrenching.” That’s exactly how I felt. Also, it contained what I have no qualms about calling one of the greatest scenes in TV history: just a handful of characters talking in a garage, and it was absolutely stunning, the true culmination of the entirety of the show.

If you haven’t been watching The Americans (and viewing figures suggest you probably weren’t) then do yourself a favour and rectify that at some point — a 75-episode masterpiece awaits. Without doubt, one of the greatest TV series ever made.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 5-7
Shogun WorldI wrote last time about how Westworld season one took a few episodes to warm up but eventually got me completely hooked. Season two is so far failing to pull the same trick — over half the season has felt like it’s still just getting underway to me. And then, in the blink of an eye, episode seven, Les Écorchés, catapults us from “just getting started” to “endgame” over the course of an hour. I’m not sure how I feel about all that. There’s some exciting and interesting ideas in the mix here, but what also feels like a bit of flailing around. Maybe it’s all in aid of a Big Surprise? Season one certainly had a few of those in its final episodes — they were the most talked-about part of the show in the end, I’d wager — so I assume they’re going to end up shooting for the same.

One thing they’ve definitely copied from that freshman run is the multiple timelines. Back then it was a secret, and it ultimately paid off, but now it’s out in the open, and I’m not sure what it’s for. I mean, there are some very basic uses in play — “how does Character X get from that situation in the past to this situation in the present?”, “where have half the cast gone between the past and now?” — but that seems a bit… facile. As I say, I hope they’ve got some surprise to pull out of their sleeve — something to do with how the hosts struggle to differentiate between memories and current events, perhaps — but it’s a long time coming…

Also watched…
  • Archer Season 5 Episodes 6-13 — While the change-of-setup idea seemed interesting at first, I’m not sure how much I actually liked Archer Vice overall. There were some good episodes, plus sundry character bits and lines, etc, but the cumulative level of enjoyment was less than I remember from previous seasons. Equally, it’s been four years since I last watched the show — maybe I’d just moved on? Well, I’ll continue on to season six anyway, especially as I believe that returns to the original spy-agency setting.
  • Car Share The Finale — A much-needed conclusion after series two’s cliffhanger (did they really think that was ever going to wash as a final ending?) It gave us the happy ending most people wanted (I saw a handful of dissenting voices on Twitter), and, even more impressively, managed to do so without sacrificing the series’ two-people-chatting-in-a-car format. It was pretty darn hilarious, too. If they ever want to do more I won’t complain, but it’s fine to leave it there this time, thanks.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Very English ScandalThis month, I have mostly been missing A Very English Scandal, the Russell T Davies-penned drama about the real-life case of a ’60s politician and his secret homosexual lover. It seems to have gone down exceptionally well, and anything by RTD is always worth watching. Other than that, it feels like there’s a bunch of stuff on streaming I’ve been meaning to get round to and still haven’t. That list would keep us here all day, though.

    Next month… the MCU’s other black superhero returns to Netflix.

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  • The Past Month on TV #33

    There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

    The City and the City
    The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

    This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

    Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

    Ordeal by Innocence
    Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

    I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
    Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

    Episodes  Season 5
    Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

    I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

    Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
    Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

    But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

    Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

    Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

  • The Past Month on TV #17

    My name is Annie. I’ve been with Laura and Dale. The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 2-5)
    Doctor Who, series 10 part 1This is shaping up to be a top-quality run of Who. You have to go back a good few years to find a similar-length run of consecutive episodes with the consistency this season is boasting. Obviously there are some divided opinions out there (as I’ve noted before, there is literally no pleasing all of Doctor Who fandom), but the consensus seems to be pretty positive.

    So, the past month’s episodes kicked off with Smile, which sees writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce return after the mediocre In the Forest of the Night for a much stronger adventure. It plays like Doctor Who meets Black Mirror: emoji-faced robots try to keep people happy by killing those who aren’t. The use of emojis was a neat reflection of current culture, the episode looked fantastic thanks to some stunning location filming, and the Doctor/Bill dynamic is constantly entertaining. It wasn’t perfect: any sense of mystery or investigation was shortchanged by the episode’s own pre-titles that gave the game away, and the denouement was a little muddled on some thematic points. Still, A for effort.

    Thin Ice brought to mind previous Whoniverse episodes (series five’s The Beast Below and Torchwood series two episode Meat), but there’s a long, rich history of self-plagiarism within Who so that’s hardly unprecedented. Besides, the devil’s in the details: here’s another evocative location well-realised by the production team, and writer Sarah Dollard keeps things spry — again, Bill’s attitude pays dividends. The structure of her learning something new about the Doctor every episode, and challenging some of his actions and reactions, and in turn him challenging her, is working very nicely.

    Knock knock. Who's there?The fourth episode, Knock Knock, by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, is my least favourite episode so far this series; but it’s not bad, just not all it could be. The horror-movie-styled first half was suitably atmospheric, and there was some great gruesome imagery, but the episode runs out of steam as it goes on, with a talky and hurried resolution provoking as many questions as it offers answers. Guest star David Suchet gives an expectedly strong performance, with some particularly nice notes after the truth about his past is revealed, even if that rushed finale ill serves his subtle transformation. It’s a shame it’s this episode that has the iPlayer-exclusive “binaural” version, because I’m curious about that process but in no rush to rewatch the episode itself.

    Finally, Jamie Mathieson — writer of some of the best episodes of Capaldi’s tenure — returns with Oxygen, another superb addition to his CV. At a base level the episode functions as a zombies-in-space thriller, but it’s powered by a cynically satirical setup, which leads to plenty of great one-liners. Clever plot developments allow for some effective sequences (the spacewalk seen from Bill’s semi-unconscious perspective) and some neat “how are they going to get out of that?” aspects to the episode’s climax — yes, we know Bill’s not going to die and the Doctor’s going to regain his sight, but the “how?” matters here.

    Of course, as things turn out, it’s not all as neat as expected, and we have a hook to draw us on into the middle of the season. If they can keep this up, it’ll definitely be worth sticking around for the pay-off.

    Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 10-22)
    Twin Peaks season 2In the wake of the network-enforced resolution of the Laura Palmer storyline, Twin Peaks flounders. The writers clearly took a while to find a new footing, not helped by behind-the-scenes kerfuffles that led them to have to scrap entire prominent storylines (primarily, Kyle MacLachlan vetoed a Cooper-Audrey romance, reportedly because his then-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle was jealous of co-star Sherilyn Fenn). Utter phrases like “Super Nadine”, “Ben Horne wins the Civil War”, or (especially) “James Hurley on the road” to a Twin Peaks fan and you’re liable to give them a chill up the spine — and not the good kind.

    Ultimately, Twin Peaks’ second season is a lesson in what happens when you take your eye off the ball. David Lynch was away doing something else*, Mark Frost was also away setting up his directorial debut, and by the time they returned Peaks had been bumped to Saturdays (TV’s biggest night here in the UK, but a graveyard in the US), ratings had plummeted, and the writing was on the wall. The last few episodes represent a return to form, and the Lynch-helmed finale is nightmarish filmmaking of a kind you’d be surprised to see on TV even today, never mind in 1991, but it was all too little too late. Of the cliffhanger ending, Lynch has said: “that’s not the ending. That’s the ending that people were stuck with.” Hurrah for the imminent continuation, then, which will presumably wrap everything up… as much as Lynch ever does, anyhow.

    * “Making Wild at Heart,” people usually say, but that film was released a month before Peaks’ second season even began airing.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Kyiv 2017
    Eurovision 2017A dancing gorilla! A man singing a duet with himself! A rap/yodelling mash-up! A Moldovan trio who could apparently only dance with their right legs! A guy up a stepladder wearing a horse’s head in a slate-walled room covered with chalk-scrawled words that looked like it was straight out of a horror movie asylum! Måns Zelmerlöw again! All accompanied by Graham Norton on fine form with his biting, sassy commentary (“All her family play the fiddle. In fact, her brother will be fiddling with her on stage later.”) Oh Eurovision, never change.

    Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 9-12 — more of the same, and it ends with a pointless 12-hour time jump to justify it still being called 24. The US ratings were mediocre so a second season feels unlikely, but if it gets one I hope they find some writers with new ideas.
  • Car Share Series 2 — let’s take its hilarity as a given and get on to the serious point: you can’t end it there! Peter Kay has said they’re stopping because they don’t have ideas for more episodes, yet this is a show where they spend a good chunk of time talking about Christmas but has never done a Christmas episode. I mean, c’mon!
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episode 1 — Sky1’s recommissioned-before-it-aired drama about the first women in America looks lavish, though its plotting is fairly predictable and its dialogue is heavy-handed. Well, what else would you expect from the producers of Downton Abbey and writer of Lark Rise to Candleford?
  • Our Friend Victoria Episodes 1-6 — I don’t think there are many comedians who could sustain a three-hour greatest hits series, but Victoria Wood definitely can.

    Things to Catch Up On
    American Gods
    This month, I have mostly been missing American Gods, the critically-acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel by Bryan “Hannibal” Fuller (which reminds me, I also really need to get round to Hannibal). American Gods is on Amazon Prime on this side of the pond, so it’ll also allow me to test out my new telly’s 4K capabilities. Shiny.

    3 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… it is happening again.