The Past Month on TV #62

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Month on TV #61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Month on TV #40

    In the fast-moving world of television nowadays (where whole seasons appear at once, daft uber-fans burn through them in a single sitting, and the conversation around them is over in a weekend), it’s easy to forget that the latest instalment of Netflix’s ever-shrinking Marvel offering — season three of Daredevil — came out within the last month. (Well, month-and-a-bit — this column’s a week later than usual.) Anyway, that’s where I’ll begin.

    And there’s plenty more to cover after that, including a bunch of new Doctor Whos, the Inside No. 9 live Halloween special, the unusual finale of Upstart Crow, the latest Derren Brown special, and sundry episodes of other series too. So, as the Bard himself might say, without much further ado…

    Daredevil  Season 3
    Daredevil season 3For the 11th season of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows on Netflix, we make a long-awaited return to the hero who started it all: the Man Without Fear… the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen… Matt Murdock, Attorney at Law… Daredevil.

    And “return” is a good word to describe this season, which sees Daredevil’s nemesis, crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, negotiate a semi-release from prison in exchange for informing to the FBI. While Daredevil’s second season veered off into more fantastical storylines from the character’s comic book adventures, which continued into team-up miniseries The Defenders, season three returns to the street-level, almost-real-world, grittily-toned world of organised crime of the show’s first season. It makes sense: season two didn’t go down that well (I loved it, personally, but it clearly wasn’t for everyone), and it seems The Defenders was pretty much a flop, but Daredevil’s first season remains one of the most popular instalments of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. Returning to its playbook seems to have panned out, because season three has been getting strong notices across the board.

    There are a lot of reasons for that, I think. Some are obvious: the show has always received acclaim for its superbly choreographed and filmed action sequences, and season three doesn’t drop the ball. Indeed, to mix metaphors, it raises the bar again, with an 11-minute single-take prison escape that is all kinds of impressive — and was done 100% for real, no hidden cuts (you can read more about that here). That may be the standout one this season (although there’s a four-way fight in the finale that’s a doozy), but there are numerous stunning sequences throughout all 13 episodes. They really put effort into making the action inventive and original, and that effort is appreciated. I guess if action sequences do nothing for you then it doesn’t matter either way, but seeing it be so well-executed is better than samey action-for-the-sake-of-action.

    Back in blackThere’s a lot more to this season than that, though. New showrunner Erik Oleson has crafted a narrative for his 13 episodes that is better formed than most Marvel Netflix shows — heck, than most streaming series fullstop. It doesn’t seem to drag things out or go round in circles just to fill its episode count, but has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Okay, it’s still a streaming series — it still feels it can afford to devote entire episodes to things a network show might dash through in one sequence — but often that works to add depth. Spending a whole episode on Matt’s convalescence at the start of the season might seem indulgent, but it’s also important to his mindset for the rest of the season, which makes a big point of his morality, his religion, and his relationship with God — always a key aspect of the character, and foregrounded here without becoming objectionable to those of us with a less Catholicly inclined view of the world. The structural accomplishment really pays off in the final few episodes, too, with an array of surprising and game-changing twists and developments. My notes for later episodes were full of things like “shocking climax” and “oooh, twist!” and “ohhh shit!” At times Fisk feels genuinely unbeatable and you actually wonder how the heroes can win this one.

    The return to gritty street-level criminal enterprises is more than just an aesthetic move, too. Well, that’s partly the joy of it — it makes for a refreshing change after multiple seasons of magic and mysticism if you watch all the Marvel/Netflix shows, after that side of the MCU even invaded the theoretically-grounded worlds of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, never mind Iron Fist. But it also allows Oleson to bring more genuine depth to his characters. He’s spoken about being driven by psychological realism — what would these characters really want and need, and therefore do? That might sound like Writing 101, but I think it’s easy for writers of comic book material to fall back on comic book tropes.

    Hitting the BullseyeA good example of this is FBI Agent Benjamin Poindexter, who will turn out to be the villain Bullseye. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but one of his first scenes shows off his mind-blowing marksmanship, so you ought to guess, really. In the comics, Bullseye has no backstory — he’s just a psychopathic killer — which is the kind of shit you can get away with if you’re being cartoonish. In the interests of psychological realism, however, Oleson wanted to give him one, to explore his origins, and they were basically free to do what they liked. They even spoke to psychiatrists and the like to make it genuinely realistic. I guess some may think this is unnecessary detail for what is still fundamentally a superhero-action show, but it has its rewards. It’s the same with giving the season a thematic weight to consider. According to Oleson, that was “fear” — how we’re all constrained by our fears and can’t be free until we face and overcome them. This applies to every character, hero and villain alike. Well, it’s a particularly pertinent choice for Daredevil, considering his sobriquet of “the man without fear”.

    If I have one complaint about the season, it’s the lack of crossover with other Marvel Netflix shows — not just for the sake of fan service, but for genuine reasons of in-universe plausibility. Oleson has said crossovers aren’t his style, because he’s focused on his characters and not shoehorning in others for the sake of it, but that adherence to the realism of the characters is why it’s silly that certain others don’t turn up. The most glaringly obvious omission is Frank Castle, aka the Punisher — who, in this iteration of the Marvel Universe, started out as a Daredevil supporting character (as one of the main threats in season two). The real-world reason he doesn’t pop up is probably that he’s got his own show now, so I guess scheduling didn’t work out. But (as this Collider article points out) it makes no sense that Castle wouldn’t turn up to help Karen, especially as the danger to her life is literally headline-making news. As that article summarises, “Frank Castle’s absence doesn’t ruin the season, not even close, but it’s a burden an otherwise Who WOULDN'T come to her rescue? I mean seriously...well-told story shouldn’t have to bear, and one that could have been easily remedied.” With Punisher season two on the way it’s possible this apparent plot hole could still be explained and/or retconned (whether they’ll bother is another matter, although Karen was a major character in Punisher season one so they ought to at least reference it), but it’s a shame it went unexplained in Daredevil itself.

    Still, that’s the only major complaint I have about this whole season. Many are seeing it as a return to form — as I said, I loved season two, so for me it’s just Daredevil continuing to be excellent, just in a different way. Normally this would absolutely bode well for a fourth season, but with Iron Fist being cancelled (presumably due to ratings) and Luke Cage also canned (over bizarre creative differences, despite the season being half written), it seems like Marvel and Netflix don’t get along so well at the minute (might be something to do with that forthcoming Disney streaming service…) I really hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because in my opinion Daredevil is still one of the best things to come out of the whole MCU, on the small or big screen.

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 3-7
    Doctor Who - RosaI let this post slip a week, so there are five episodes of Doctor Who to look back over. First up, the new team’s first historical adventure, Rosa (whew, it feels like more than a month since this aired!) I wrote last month about how there seemed to be a conscious effort to take Who back to its roots; to do things in a way perhaps not seen since the William Hartnell era of the mid-’60s. Rosa continues this. Back then, historical adventures didn’t have alien threats for the Doctor & co to battle, instead taking a genuine(ish) trip into the past. Rosa does give them a time-travelling criminal to battle, but he’s a relatively slight element in how things play out: he’s trying to alter history by nudging it out of place with small acts, so the TARDIS Team have to nudge it back. Mainly, the episode exists to be a timely commentary on racism. Co-written by acclaimed author Malorie Blackman, it was mostly a success… though, like episodes one and two, it saw the villain less being defeated, more just teleporting away.

    Arachnids in the UK was more of a typical Doctor Who romp, as the supporting cast’s hometown of Sheffield was threatened by giant spiders, Trump-ish businessmen, and some dodgy thematic plotting (why is the villain bad for shooting an animal that was going to slowly die of asphyxiation otherwise?) Also, the villain is allowed to wander off at the end, like in episodes, one, two, and three. Continuing this less-revolutionary seam was The Tsuranga Conundrum, which saw the TARDIS Team trapped on a medical ship being torn apart by a metal-eating little critter. Strong design elements (the set looked great, as did the CGI monster) did little to hide some round-the-houses plotting and a cast too big to get enough adequate screen time. Also, it ended with the monster being set free into space, similarly to episodes one, two, three, and four. Was this a deliberate pattern?

    TARDIS TeamEpisode six and seven say “no”. Well, a bit — the actual villain did survive the first. I still hope they’re going somewhere with this, because otherwise it’s very sloppy. Anyway, episode six itself, Demons of the Punjab, was one of the highlights of the season. Like Rosa, it sees the Doctor and co going into history and facing up to the real issues of the day, with the aliens popping in to add some spice rather than properly drive the story — like Rosa, you can imagine a not-that-different version of this episode without them. Preventing the Doctor from interfering and being ultra-heroic is certainly a change of pace from the “heroic god” version of the character we’ve had since the 2005 revival, but it’s not an unheard of vision — again, it harks back to the Hartnell era.

    Finally for now, Kerblam! is the first-ever Who story with an exclamation mark in the title. Truly groundbreaking, this season is. I also thought it was the most successful sci-fi episode of the season thus far, feeling like the kind of excitement-filled runaround that would’ve fit in the Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, or Capaldi eras. Its satirisation of Amazon was quite fun, the design work was once again superb, and there was even a budget-busting action sequence. And the villain didn’t escape to live another day! Although, did they really deserve to die? Even when an episode succeeds this season, it still leaves you with questions…

    Inside No. 9  Dead Line
    Inside No. 9: Dead LineI’ve never watched Inside No. 9 before, though I’ve always meant to get round to it. For those equally in the dark, it’s a comedy-horror anthology series from writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, aka half of the League of Gentlemen, with each half-hour episode a self-contained tale. The reason I’ve jumped in here was because this was a live Halloween special. For some reason I’m always intrigued by live TV drama (I even watched episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street just because they were going out live), and Inside No. 9’s standalone nature made just dropping in feasible. Anyway, the episode itself was a typically playful endeavour — many fans switched off halfway through, genuinely duped by one of the episode’s tricks. The episode also managed to genuinely integrate the fact it was live, roping in a news broadcast from another channel and having one of the characters tweet. That means it played better live than it would, say, on iPlayer (where it’s still available), though it’s still worth a watch as an effective piece of drama — the way it played with the form of live TV was the best bit, but alongside that it snuck in an interestingly-constructed narrative. You can also view it as a half-hour homage to infamous BBC drama Ghostwatch, which is no bad thing. (That also reminds me I’ve still not got round to watching Ghostwatch…)

    Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episode 6
    Go On and I Will FollowI always wondered if this day would come. As many (though I would guess not all) viewers must know, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in childhood. Not exactly traditional material for a multi-camera sitcom, so I wondered if the series would just never go there; equally, it’s by Ben Elton, co-writer of the famously tragic final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, a work of unequivocal genius. And so in the final episode of this series, Go On and I Will Follow, Upstart Crow does go there… eventually, in the final moments of an episode that’s mostly fluff about theatre awards. It makes for a somewhat bizarre ending. Hamnet was never much of a character in the show, so while his passing’s effect on the characters is obvious, it has little meaning to us viewers. Then there’s the dedication to him at the end, which just reads like a spoof. The only bit that truly worked for me was the final lines: read in solemn voiceover, a passage by Shakespeare himself about grief. Perhaps that’s fitting. Perhaps if the whole episode had been about it in some way, then it would’ve worked — it’s part of why that Blackadder finale is so effective: the whole episode is about going “over the top”, or trying to avoid it, and so the unity of plot and theme and character and historical fact builds to an emotional gut punch of an ending. But rather than do that, Hamnet’s untimely end is just one scene tacked onto the end of some achingly obvious satire about something inherently vacuous. Well, maybe that was Elton’s point, but I don’t think the contrast was sharply enough drawn if so. Without that consistency across the whole episode, the ending just feels… odd. Ah well, at least we know there’s definitely a Christmas special to look forward to.

    Also watched…
  • Batman: The Animated Series Heart of Ice, Deep Freeze, Cold Comfort / Batman Beyond Meltdown — Watched these specific episodes to accompany my viewing of the film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Heart of Ice may be one of the show’s best episodes, but the other two suggest it was in serious decline by the end. Meltdown is pretty good, though.
  • Children in Need 2018 — I used to watch the BBC’s annual charity telethon religiously, but I’ve lapsed in the last few years. I unintentionally caught some of it this year, which just confirmed it’s continued downhill. What I saw was mostly either trailers for forthcoming (BBC) shows or pop singers just singing — where have all the original sketches and specials gone? There were still a couple, and they were the highlights.
  • Derren Brown: Sacrifice — Derren’s third Netflix “Original” is the first that’s actually new. In it, he tries to programme an anti-immigrant American to stand between an illegal immigrant and a gun-wielding biker. It’s not his best special (it feels like a recombination of previous techniques to an ending that’s only new in its specifics), but it’s not a bad one either. I imagine if you’ve not seen what he can do before, it’d be more impressive. Assuming you believe it, that is; which you should, because what would be the point if it was fake?
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — Reader, I did end up watching the rest of the series. My review of the first two pretty much covers it all. It’s not a hobby I’d ever take up (I was never much good at arts & crafts or building model kits or any of that kind of stuff), but for some reason I’ve always liked miniature things (love a model village) and the creations here are often very impressive.
  • Great News Season 1 — This newsroom sitcom limped to two seasons on network TV in the US, but recently made its way to UK shores as a Netflix “Original” — but only after it had already been cancelled in the US. That’s a shame, because once it settles into its stride its often pretty funny, and one of those “save our show, Netflix” campaigns might’ve been warranted. Oh well, at least I’ve got season two to look forward to.
  • Mars Season 1 Episode 1 — There’s been a spate of dramas about mankind’s first mission to Mars in recent years, but this was one of the most high-profile: produced by Ron Howard, it mixes documentary footage with the drama to show the present-day reality behind what we’re seeing in the fiction. Unfortunately, the fiction part is bloody awful, at least on the basis of this first episode. I’ve had the series on Blu-ray for years and finally started watching it because season two was beginning, but I’m not sure I’ll even make it on to episode two.
  • What Do Artists Do All Day? Peter Jackson — Despite the general-sounding title, this is a straight-up behind-the-scenes about the making of They Shall Not Grow Old. Well worth a look if you’re interested in how they did it. (They Shall Not Grow Old was also on TV this month, of course. My review is here.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Little Drummer GirlThis month, I have mostly been missing The Little Drummer Girl, the BBC’s new John le Carré adaptation from the makers of The Night Manager, their last (and very successful) John le Carré adaptation. As regular readers may know, I have a proclivity for saving series like this up and watching them back-to-back over about a week once they’re done — truly, I am of the Netflix generation. Dammit. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it, so expect me to get right on it and review it next month.

    And speaking of Netflix, I’ve still not got round to the new Sabrina or the much-discussed and recommended Haunting of Hill House. Whether I’ll be able to make time for those once Christmas TV ramps up, who can say. Oh God, and I’ve just remembered there’s still Killing Eve on iPlayer, too. Eesh.

    Next month… the final few episodes of Doctor Who, and an Arrowverse crossover or two.