The Past Month on TV #30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Month on TV #26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next month… Netflix gets punishered.

  • The Past Month on TV #25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next month… strangerer things.

  • 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 #10

    If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Three middle-schoolers on their bicycles, apparently…

    Stranger Things (Season 1)
    Stranger ThingsHype — it’s a funny old business. It’s hard to have avoided hearing something about Stranger Things, Netflix’s summer hit that went down like gangbusters, its ’80s nostalgia perfectly calibrated to target the kind of people who run entertainment news websites these days — just to be cynical about it. Or truthful. Then there came the backlash, which attested there was nothing more to the show than those callbacks and tributes; a hollow experience of copying and “hey, remember this? That was good, wasn’t it?”

    So, I confess, I approached the first chapter with the thought in mind that I might be about to watch the most overrated thing since sliced bread. The opening instalment did little to sway me either way — as with many a ‘pilot’ episode (it’s not a pilot if it goes straight to series, but anyway), it’s got a lot of establishing to do: teaching us the normality of this world, introducing us to the players, setting up a mystery, teasing where that might be going… Stranger Things does all this well, but not exceptionally. It’s good, it makes you want to stick with it, it has promise, but it’s not one of those first episodes where you come away thinking, “Holy moly, this is gonna be great!” (First example of that that comes to mind: Game of Thrones. Another: Firefly. I’m sure you have your own.)

    Like so many streaming series, produced with an awareness that they’ll be released all at once like a really long movie, it’s a little slow-going at times, but it’s kept ticking over with some exceptional elements. Yes, it’s bedded in the style and tone of many beloved ’80s genre classics — primarily Stephen King tales and films produced (not just directed) by Steven Spielberg — but that’s just the execution. In storytelling terms, it has its own mythology, and it feels like there’s a rich vein of originality there. Or possibly it’s just references and riffs I’m not familiar with, who knows. Even better than that are the performances. Winona Ryder is incredible as the mother of a missing boy, her raw feelings and frantic actions forming a core of plausible emotional reaction in the centre of fantastic events. Millie Bobby Brown is also excellent as the mysterious Eleven, conveying so much personality and internal conflict with very little dialogue.

    Stranger haircutsWithout wanting to get into spoiler territory (despite what the media would have you believe, not everyone has Netflix all the time and not everyone watches every new zeitgeisty series immediately. Apologies if you write for an entertainment site and I’ve just given you palpitations), everything comes together nicely for a barnstorming pair of climactic episodes. For my money, the penultimate chapter is the best one: with a bunch of revelations out of the way (some of them easily guessed but finally confirmed), the series kicks off a run of long-awaited fan-pleasing events (as in many a drama, it takes this long for everyone to finally start talking to each other; also, the bit with the van!) The finale is less accomplished, with some characters wandering around for a bit in a way that feels designed to pad the running time. Still, it’s a satisfying conclusion… to season one, anyway.

    As an outsider for most of the summer, the endless and ever-increasing handwringing over whether there would be a second season was actually kind of amusing — and the punchline came when it was revealed Netflix had actually commissioned season two before season one was even released, they’d just decided to keep it secret for a bit. Here’s the thing: Netflix has never not recommissioned one of its original series. Even Marco Polo, which apparently no one watched or talked about, got at least a second run. And here you have a show which everyone’s talking about, and presumably most of them are actually watching too, and you think Netflix aren’t going to bring it back? I mean, it wraps itself up quite well, but there’s a whole pile of blatant teases for future storylines. C’mon, people!

    Anyway, I’m happy to report that Stranger Things by and large lives up to the hype, especially by the time it reaches its climax. Bring on season two! Between that and all the Marvel series, maybe I’m going to end up with a year-round Netflix sub after all… You win, Netflix. You win.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 1-5)
    ClassTen years to the very day since the launch of the original dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, we got this dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off. Playing as much like the other 21st century Who spin-off, CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, it concerns a bunch of Sixth Formers battling alien threats coming through cracks in time and space that occur around their school. And also having sex with each other at the drop of a hat, because that’s totally what life is like for all teenagers. So yes, Torchwood + Sarah Jane x Skins = Buffy, pretty much. I really liked the first episode (as pilot-type episodes go, it’s a strong’un), and the third, Nightvisiting, was also a great concept well executed; but the other three instalments were run-of-the-mill and/or awash with niggles. Plus the two-parter in episodes four and five suffered from having too little story to fill two whole episodes. So it’s a mixed bag, but Torchwood was the same at the start and eventually produced one of the best miniseries ever made (Children of Earth), so you never know.

    The Flash (Season 3 Episodes 1-2)
    Arrow (Season 5 Episodes 1-2)
    The Flash season 3The CW’s raft of superhero shows restarted on UK TV this month. I’ve given up on Legends of Tomorrow and am still not joining Supergirl (though I got hold of the opening episodes, co-starring Superman, to maybe make time for at some point); but, five seasons in, Arrow has me suckered for the long-haul, and The Flash tempted me back with the intrigue of adapting Flashpoint. I’ve never got on the bandwagon with Flash, which attracted a lot of praise during its first season that I simply didn’t agree with, leading it to outshine Arrow in ratings and people’s affections. Arrow has long been off the boil, and season five certainly hasn’t got it back up to temperature so far, but The Flash had plenty of issues of its own. It’s not problem free now, but I actually really liked the first couple of episodes of the new season. It’s still a long way from the top tier of TV superheroes (Netflix have that sewn up), but it’s likeable.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 2-15 — it feels like the quality takes a nosedive with this season, and, sure enough, as I suspected, it turns out this is when they changed showrunner. Halfway through it’s beginning to pick back up a bit, at least.
  • The Crystal Maze Stand Up To Cancer Celebrity Special — I used to love this as a kid. As an adult… eh. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to actually do, though.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Final — bye bye, Proper Bake Off. Whatever Channel 4 do in 2018, it won’t be the same.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 8-10 — in which everything is wrapped up… and then left open-ended. Good thing there’s a third series.
  • The National Lottery: Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 1-4 — I don’t waste much time on gameshows, but naming as many things as you can think of from semi-obscure lists? Right up my street. An impossible show to watch live, though — you need to fastforward the filler and pause the answers.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again — full review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The CrownThis month, I have mostly been missing the most expensive TV show ever made*, Netflix’s much-discussed The Crown. I don’t know if they’ve been pushing it as much in the rest of the world as they did in the UK, but it certainly felt like it was everywhere… for about a week, as is usually the way with Netflix series. Also missed: the equally-discussed Netflix-exclusive new run of Black Mirror. Both of these are because I don’t keep up a permanent Netflix subscription, but between them, the forthcoming Gilmore Girls revival, and the Series of Unfortunate Events remake in January, I will be signing up again late in December (using the free month voucher they had in the Radio Times, hurrah!)

    * Apparently it isn’t, actually.

    Next month… I’ll be out of the country when the next update is due, so it may be a little later than normal — perhaps a ‘Christmas special’.

  • 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.