The Past Month on TV #60

I suppose lockdown is officially over now, for good or ill, but we begin this month’s TV review by reliving those heady days…

Staged  Series 1
StagedThis filmed-in-lockdown comedy stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they attempt to rehearse a play over the internet, the goal being they’ll be ready to put it on as soon as theatres reopen. Naturally, there’s much more to it than two actors practising a play — indeed, I’m not sure they ever actually get round to any proper rehearsing. Conflicts abound, both broadly relatable (Sheen is blackmailed into helping look after his elderly neighbour, but develops genuine concern for her) and actorly (a running debate/gag about which of the pair should get top billing), and there are a couple of big-name surprise cameos along the way (no spoilers — the surprises are worth it). With all episodes in the 15- to 20-minute range, the series is hardly a big time commitment (it runs well under two hours in total), but it’s well worth it and consistently funny. Indeed, I wish there was going to be more. Well, a second lockdown isn’t out of the question yet, is it…

Lockdown may be over, but Staged is still available on iPlayer.

Hamilton’s America
Hamilton's AmericaThis documentary first aired back in 2016, in the wake of Hamilton’s success on stage. I’m not sure if it’s ever been screened in the UK, but I tracked down a copy after watching Hamilton on Disney+. So, firstly, I’m glad I didn’t watch this before seeing the film — I feel like it would’ve somehow ruined, or at least tarnished, the experience of seeing the full production, because this contains extensive-but-far-from-complete clips from the show. I guess, back in 2016, when the only way to actually see Hamilton was by securing hard-to-come-by, insanely-expensive Broadway tickets, getting to see those clips was probably great for fans.

Aside from that, the documentary is part making-of (it follows lyricist, composer, and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda starting in 2014, when he’s writing the musical with an impending rehearsal deadline, and then continues on to cover the show’s opening and success) and part history lesson (various cast members and experts discuss the real events and visit relevant historical locations to learn more about their characters). Rather than half-arse either of these aspects, the feature-length running time allows the doc to offer genuine insights into both. For just one example, there’s a bit where they discuss the issue of the Founding Fathers being slave owners, and although it’s only a couple of minutes long, it contains more intelligent commentary than the entire bloody social media debate about it that the film’s release provoked.

It’s a real shame this isn’t on Disney+ to accompany the film, because I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed that would enjoy this as a chaser. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can track it down.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 9-10
Star Trek: PicardI started this when it began in January, and have been slowly trekking through it ever since — it’s taken me six whole months to get through just ten episodes. That’s a commentary in itself as to what I thought of it, I suppose, though if you asked me I’d say it’s “not bad”.

From what I’ve seen of other people’s reactions, Picard seems to be a real “love it or hate it” show. A lot of people I read and/or whose opinion I respect either can’t stand it or find it thoroughly mediocre, but there are definitely people out there — more than an odd handful, apparently — who think it’s fantastic. As often seems to be the case with something so divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle. After a rocky start (the first three episodes should’ve been condensed into one feature-length opener, at most), I felt the series settled down reasonably well, with a couple of almost-standalone episodes of varying quality eventually giving way entirely to its arc plot, which from then was executed with a relative consistency of pace — a major problem with many “one long story” streaming series nowadays. The quality of the dialogue and acting remained somewhat turbulent, which perhaps belies the franchise’s roots as predating “prestige TV” — what’s acceptable for Star Trek doesn’t necessarily wash with the modern sophisticated non-die-hard-fan viewer.

That said, for every scene or plot development that worked well, there was something truly ridiculous or implausible just around the corner, with the finale being one of the worst offenders. Some might say “it’s sci-fi — implausible is its stock in trade”, but even sci-fi has rules, and Picard seemed to merrily flout them, often in the name of fan service. And that’s why I end up somewhere in the middle, because overall I thought it was a solid-enough space adventure, undermined by frequent blips in quality and sense. I believe the writing team is undergoing some significant changes ahead of the already-commissioned second season, so maybe they’ll iron out the kinks.

Fleabag
Fleabag (the play)I’ve never got round to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-acclaimed sitcom, but, during lockdown, Amazon offered the original one-woman-show stage version (recorded last year during a live cinema broadcast) as a charity rental, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. My reaction was… muted, to be honest. I can certainly see how it pushes at boundaries, both of the depiction of women in fiction and of taste in general, and for that reason it’s significant, but I only found it sporadically funny, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a comedy. Also, I wasn’t expecting it to get so dark — if you’re a lover of small furry animals, beware.

James Acaster: Repertoire
James Acaster: RepertoireAnother filmed stage comedy that left me somewhat underwhelmed. This is more straightforward stand-up, however, and as that it was more often amusing — whether you find Acaster’s “wacky” style (his word) to your taste will dictate exactly how funny. For me, he’s not the most consistently hilarious standup I’ve seen, but provoked laughs regularly enough. The real selling point here, however, is that it’s a four-parter. Ever heard of a multi-part stand-up gig before? Me either. These aren’t just four entirely independent gigs box-set-ed up either, but were conceived and shot as four connected sets.

Despite that high-concept pitch, it turns out the four-part structure isn’t particularly clever after all. The cross-episode callbacks are sometimes good and clever, but sometimes just elicit recognition (accompanied by an “I got that reference!” laugh from the audience). It’s not anything unique to the four-part structure — plenty of other comedians structure their standalone shows in the same way. The only differences are (a) if you watch it in four sittings then some of the callback are to a different episode rather than something earlier in the same set, and (b) it’s three-and-a-half hours of material, all of which were all performed on the same day, which is a remarkable feat. Otherwise, the connectivity is basically limited to episode 4 ending in such a way as to imply it’s ‘set’ before episode 1, including a cleverly staged final shot. But, unless I missed something, the other episodes don’t line up in such a way that 2 must follow 3 and 4 must follow 3, so it doesn’t create some kind of ouroboros loop, which I guess was the kind of structural inventiveness I was looking for.

Overall, Acaster is whimsically amusing — not my favourite standup, but solid with some excellent bits — and the sheer volume of material at a sustained quality level is impressive. But I don’t buy that this miniseries structure is innovative In any way except volume. And I can’t help but wonder if, had he condensed these 205 minutes into a normal 60- to 90-minute set, it might’ve felt like a higher density of pure gold.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
After a few months spent scraping the bottom of what the original Twilight Zone has to offer, it’s back to the cream of the crop. (At this point you may be wondering “how many episodes can he reasonably class as ‘the best’?!” My final answer is: the top third. Yes, that’s quite a broad definition, but I like to be generous. For what it’s worth, today’s selection gets me to 20.5% on my consensus ranking.)

Where is Everybody?This month’s selection begins at the very beginning: the first-ever Twilight Zone episode, Where is Everybody? The title alone is a pretty succinct pitch of the episode’s theme, and the episode is as one-note as its premise. This is an exciting story in which a bloke… gets himself coffee, and… talks to a mannequin, and… tries to phone the operator but can’t get through, and… has an ice cream, and… yeeeaaah. The twist ending isn’t much cop either, 50% “it was all a dream”, 50% a thin moral about humans’ need for companionship. It could’ve been better: Rod Serling’s original pitch for episode one was a tale about a society where people were executed when they turned 60, which I think is a better concept, but it was deemed too depressing (imagine what they would’ve made of Logan’s Run, where the executions happen at 30!) That said, “everybody’s gone” is a reasonable starting idea, but the episode needs (a) more places to go with it, and (b) a more interesting reveal. (See The Quiet Earth for essentially the same premise being more thoroughly explored.)

Next is one of the very few Twilight Zone episodes that doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantastical element (apparently there are only four such instalments). The Silence concerns a wager between an old rich dude and a talkative guy at his club: if the latter can manage to stay silent for a whole year (while under constant observation, natch), the former will pay him $500,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s money). What the episode really asks is how far would — could; should — you go to win (or keep) half-a-million dollars? Whatever your answer, the episode gives us a very dark version, primarily because of the ending — in traditional TZ fashion, there’s a twist (or two) and no one comes out of it well. Although it’s less allegorical than the series’ usual fantastical episodes, there’s no less of a lesson to be learned.

Conversely, some Twilight Zone episodes feel like a concept without a plot, and The Odyssey of Flight 33 is one of them. It concerns a transatlantic flight that finds itself in some weird midair phenomena, and to say where it goes would be to spoil the only card this episode has up its sleeve — as Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste puts it, the episode is “a light sci-fi rollercoaster ride” without “a clear sociocultural theme or complex existential narrative”. To be less kind, it’s a nice idea but the story doesn’t have anywhere to go with it — it doesn’t even end, just sort of peters out. Conversely, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush argues the ending is “an unsolved mystery [with] total ambiguity, which makes it … that much more disturbing.” Despite that, I actually think is one of those rare episodes that would’ve worked better with season four’s extended running time. Most of the story is set in the plane’s cockpit with its crew, but we meet a couple of the passengers, only for the episode to do nothing with them. At least if their reactions had been fleshed out, maybe there would’ve been more meat here.

Nightmare as a ChildI’ve written before that some episodes suffer from the series’ own influence, or just from an ensuing 60 years of sophistication on the part of the viewer, and Nightmare as a Child is a case in point. It has two reveals, and they’re both not so much guessable as obvious and inevitable. There’s even a bit of a coda to thoroughly explain it all again in case you didn’t get it. Maybe that was necessary back in 1960, when stories like this were breaking new ground in the audience’s minds, but today it feels like overkill. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad episode — indeed, the story of a woman meeting a strange little girl who seems to know an impossible amount about her life is still suitably eerie and tense in places — but it is one that plays less effectively today. That said, if you engage with it not as a mystery with a surprise but as simply a story, it has more to offer — Kozak compares it to “a tightly wound Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery”, while Scott Beggs of Thrillist reckons it “replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger” while it “confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way”. They’re not wrong.

Another episode with a tricky-to-parse twist is Third from the Sun. It’s a famous one — I won’t directly spoil it here, but I feel like the title gives it away rather. But, a bit like Nightmare as a Child, the episode is saved by being rather good even without the ironic final note (indeed, Kozak reckons the twist is “unnecessary… cheap and immediately predictable”). It’s about two families who, aware that nuclear annihilation might be imminent, try to escape, but a suspicious government figure potentially stands in their way. It’s a decent little tale of Cold War paranoia, but the twist probably is a little distracting. It reshapes what we’ve already seen, and explains some of the deliberate oddities in direction and set dressing, but it sort of doubles back on itself because the characters are now heading into the situation we thought they were in in the first place…

More successful, for my money, is And When the Sky Was Opened, about a pair of pilots of an experimental spaceship that crashed on its return to Earth — except one of the pilots maintains there used to be three of them, but no one else can remember him. A bit like Flight 33, there are no overt morals or explanations to be found here, just a lot of mystery and madness. Unlike Flight 33, I thought it had enough of that to fuel the narrative, leaning in to how the unexplainable phenomena affects the characters. It’s a neat little sci-fi tale — and, incidentally, is based on a story by Richard Matheson, making this his first credit on the series. I know in some circles Matheson is rightly exalted, but I feel like he’s not as widely known as he deserves — Serling gets much of the credit for TZ’s success, but several of the very best episodes are by Matheson.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeHaving begun today with Twilight Zone’s first episode, we end with the last one produced — although they didn’t actually produce it. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an award-winning French short film that Serling saw and liked so much he bought the TV rights (saving so much money on the cost of producing another episode that he brought season five in on budget). Even if Serling didn’t point out its alternate origin in his introduction, it’s immediately clear this came from somewhere else, because it doesn’t look or feel at all like a normal TZ episode. So what made Serling think it would fit the show? Why, it has an ironic last-minute twist, of course! This is regularly one of the best-regarded episodes of the series, and the short film itself has a pretty strong rep too, but I don’t get it. There’s some pretty photography and the beginning is fairly atmospheric, but it quickly starts to drag — the story is thin and slow, ending with a twist that I found inevitable from early on.

I feel like I’ve been quite negative on this month’s selection of episodes, but that’s only because I have very high standards for The Twilight Zone. Owl Creek Bridge was the only one I truly disliked, while The Silence and And When the Sky Was Opened are definitely deserving of their higher reputation.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 15-21 — I guess the threat of cancellation hung over Elementary’s head as this season ended, because it very much gets to a place they could’ve left it if necessary. It’s one of those “that’ll do”-type endings, though, so I hope to find the final, foreshortened seventh run does a better job.
  • Jonathan Creek Series 2 — I didn’t remember this second series as vividly as I did the first, but it still has some very fine and baffling mysteries. Particular highlights include a man seen on two continents at the same time, and a priceless painting stolen from a closely-watched empty room.

    Things to Catch Up On
    CursedLast month, I didn’t include this section because I couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Naturally I then spent the next couple of days remembering things, like the recent re-adaptations of Alex Rider on Amazon and Snowpiercer on Netflix. Obviously, I still haven’t watched either of those. More recently, Netflix launched Cursed, a young adult (I think) take on Arthurian legend from the point of view of the Lady of the Lake. I’m not wholly convinced by the trailers or buzz, but I do love a bit of Arthurian whatnot so it’s on my radar. Also passingly of note is that Amazon just released season three of Absentia. I started out moderately enjoying the first season, but by the end was not at all impressed. I was surprised when it got a second run, so I’m even more flabbergasted to see it back for a third. I guess someone must be watching it. Each to their own.

    Next month… the second season of Netflix’s superhero show The Umbrella Academy is out soon, but as I never got round to season one, I doubt I’ll do season two next month. Elsewise, more of the best of The Twilight Zone, and I really should get round to The Mandalorian (how long’s it been now?!)