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 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.