When I started this TV coverage almost a year ago I promised short reviews, but with three major releases falling under its purview this month — plus a big crossover and the best thing that was on TV this Christmas (and sundry other bits to mention too) — I find myself with quite a bit to say…
A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)
I’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 13-book cycle of faux-gothic novels by Lemony Snicket that recount the terrible lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they are stalked by the scheming Count Olaf. I am, however, a verified fan / defender of the 2004 movie adaptation (I even included it in my 100 Favourites series last year) — one of few, it seemed, because the movie wasn’t a huge hit and, though it only adapted the first three of the books, no sequels were forthcoming. So I was most excited when it was announced Netflix were re-adapting the books for the small screen — and, fortunately, the new version turns out to be (aside from a few wobbles) a veritably fine drama.
The biggest of those wobbles is getting started. The series has a very particular tone and style, and that does take some getting used to. Indeed, some people will never click with it. You may well have already heard it described as “a cross between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton”, a summation which I’m afraid can’t be improved upon or reasonably substituted with another because that is precisely what it is like. If you do decide to sample the programme (assuming you haven’t already, because if you already have then any advice about what you should consider doing if you do watch it would be inherently pointless because you already have), I would recommend treating the first two episodes as a feature-length double-bill. Although delightfully structured to serve as individual segments (there’s a nice surprise at the end of episode one, even if you’re familiar with the story from other media, and a cleverly staged recap/flashback at the top of episode two), I feel like it might take the full opening story to completely settle into the tone and style the show is shooting for and — I think, on balance — hitting.
One of the big points in its favour are the scripts, which are infused with wit — not just gags in the dialogue, but at times the very structure and construction of the piece.* It also makes good repeated use of one of my favourite comedic techniques, unnecessary repetition, as well as making good comedic use of one of my repeated favourite techniques, unnecessary repetition. I suppose one might describe the style as arch, and that will not be to all tastes, but it was to mine. A lengthy sequence in episode two dedicated to explaining the difference in meaning between “literally” and “figuratively” certainly helped sway me. It’s delivered by Snicket himself, who, in the form of Patrick Warburton, regularly appears on screen to elucidate and comment upon events. I wasn’t sure of Warburton’s casting at first, but he leaves behind the kind of likeable dullards he usually plays to nail Snicket’s verbose, florid declarations and keen intelligence.
As Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris has the difficult task of being both comically inept and genuinely menacing, as well as appearing in any number of disguises (well, four). Opinion seems divided on whether he manages this better than Jim Carrey in the film, but, well, that’s opinions for you. Personally, I thought he was very good. The extra screen time here (what was done in 108 minutes of film is granted 299 minutes of TV) means he has to work at a different level and pace to Carrey, and I think there are multiple moments where he nails it. Similarly, some may think the child actors are guilty of vigorously flat delivery of their lines, but I think this is just another aspect of the Wes Anderson-esque style — as the viewer (and, possibly, the cast) become more accustomed to the material, so the quality of the performances (and/or the perception thereof) improves.
Another thing I want to mention is its pacing as a TV series. Netflix’s usual all-at-once release strategy encourages binge-watching, this we know, but it also encourages what I’m going to call “binge storytelling” — that is, series that are designed to be viewed in their entirety, like very long movies. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Unfortunate Events breaks this mould (it’s adapted from four novels, so not being one long story is inherent), but a viewer might naturally expect the season’s eight episodes to consequently play like four movies split into halves. Not so. Rather, it plays like a series made up of two-parters. That’s a very fine distinction, perhaps, but there is a difference. To try to explain what I’m getting at from another angle: it isn’t structured as four movies that have had to be split in two to fit the format, but as eight one-hours where each pair present a change in location and guest cast, even as several narrative threads flow across them all. See? Well, don’t worry if not. Instead, just enjoy the theme song — which changes slightly every episode, therefore encouraging that episodic viewing. I’ve found it to be a total earworm. Look away! Looook awaaay!
I think most would’ve thought A Series of Unfortunate Events was dead on screen after the film, but this series (and the reaction to it) suggests Netflix have been vindicated for deciding to revive the property. Let’s hope they have the common sense to do the right thing and commission the two more seasons needed to complete this sorry tale. In the meantime, I’m very favourably disposed to read all the books…
* Incidentally, fun game on social media / comment sections: spot the people who are utterly baffled why both screen adaptations of Unfortunate Events have treated it so comically. Seems some people didn’t get the joke when they were kids. ^
Sherlock (Series 4)
Sherlock comes to an end (for now) with another variable and divisive series. That’s actually the way it’s been received ever since the start (for all the people who think it only lost its way in the third run, there were plenty who slated various parts of it during the first and second series too), so I don’t think we should be so surprised. For my part, I enjoyed it on the whole.
Opener The Six Thatchers seems to be widely despised, though for the life of me I can’t work out why. Okay, there’s the death at the end, but that was a somewhat inevitable eventuality and it’s fairly well handled. If you’re going to write off something just because it kills off a character you like… well, you need to grow up, frankly. I’m sure that’s not the only reason there are people who dislike the episode, though. Personally I enjoyed all the espionage action stuff. Sherlock has always been about adventures rather than cases and this is surely in-keeping. Anyway, it’s not a perfect episode, but it’s certainly not worse than, say, series one’s The Blind Banker.
The Lying Detective also has its detractors, but on the whole was much better received (seems to be people who hated Six Thatchers enjoyed Lying Detective and vice versa, as a rule). Between Toby Jones’ excellent, creepy performance, the riffs and reflections of certain real news stories, and the well-done adaptation of a memorable Conan Doyle original, plus the series’ visual and narrative tricks being executed just about as well as ever, I’d actually argue it’s one of the programme’s very best episodes.
But then we come to the finale, The Final Problem, which is (if you’ll excuse the pun) a problematic tale. Bits of it work magnificently, like Moriarty’s arrival and the Molly scene, but other sections are severely lacking in logic (even allowing for the heightened world of the show) or are inert — ironically so: Sherlock, John, and Mycroft spend the middle of the episode moving, but as they’re just being led from game to game it comes to very little end. It feels like it needed a good script editor to give it a going-over and give it a clearer impetus. And as for the finale, with the magically-timed arrival of another DVD from Mary… ugh. The idea behind the final montage is nice, but why not have, say, Mrs Hudson narrate it?
Sherlock’s commitment to being a fast-paced, audience-challenging adventure drama that strives to be constantly engaging and entertaining is definitely commendable, and a welcome contrast to much of the slow, dour TV drama we tend to produce over here — even if the end result is sometimes messy or unpopular. With events in-show leaving our heroes reset to a more familiar Holmesian situation, here’s hoping the big-name cast can be tempted back for a few more adventures in a couple of years.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Nine years on and Gilmore Girls graduates from being considered a twee comedy-drama on disparaged network The WB to a major cultural event, thanks to it being produced for the arbiter of all modern televisual culture, Netflix. Instead of 22 42-minute episodes of network TV we get four feature-length instalments, though it’s still very much a series: the pros and cons are shared across the board.
Pros: at its best it’s still funny, quick-witted, kooky, and sometimes even emotional. It’s a nostalgic visit to old friends, with a nice line in surprise cameos from old characters (even if you know they’re in it, most of them suddenly appear in a scene, hence “surprise”). Cons: at its worst its hero characters aren’t wholly supportable and its narrative choices come overburdened with thematic tin-eared-ness. I’ve always liked that the characters aren’t as perfect as they think they are, but I’m not sure the show knows the characters aren’t as perfect as it thinks they are. It’s hard to know exactly how deep the delusion goes: character-deep, which is kinda clever and maybe even more sophisticated than some people give the show credit for; or writer-deep, which is a little… sad? Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence it’s the latter (we’re constantly told of Rory’s prior success but see little evidence to suggest she’s actually capable of it).
Still, what the show sometimes lacks in realism (be that social or psychological) it makes up for with its fast-paced pop culture banter (not always as on display here as normal, I must say) and delightful kookiness. In the latter camp, an extended selection of songs from Stars Hollow: The Musical seems to get a lot of flack, but I thought it was a consistently amusing highlight. Yes, it’s an over-long aside from the main action, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re given double-length episodes and creative freedom. Conversely, the finale goes overboard with this increased liberty.
Bizarrest of all is the problematic ending. Thematically, A Year in the Life begins to look like it might be about moving on, new horizons, that kind of thing — indeed, I kind of expected it to end with Lorelei moving out of Stars Hollow. But the climax — the infamous final four words… well, you could see the development as a signal of a fresh start (very literally, new life), but it doesn’t play that way. Given Rory’s personal story (her career and relationships falling apart) and situation (single, living at home), it’s less a new path forward and more a depressingly regressive loop. If you’re interested in a fuller dissection of these issues, allow me to recommend this review and, in particular, this discussion at The Verge, which both have a pretty good handle on it in my opinion. And if you want a way to reconcile the early cute perfectness with the divergent behaviour of characters as the series rolls on, this fan theory from Cracked is imperfect but fun.
A Year in the Life is never Gilmore Girls at its best (there are highs, but most work thanks to “it’s fun to have them back” nostalgia), but it does reflect the show at its worst. Flawed characters are great for drama, but only if the show is aware of their flaws. Lost amongst all its zany fun, I’m not convinced Gilmore Girls actually understands its protagonists as well as it thinks it does.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Christmas seems so long ago now, doesn’t it, but it’s okay: the best thing that was on TV during the festive season isn’t all that Christmassy, and if you missed it and you’re in the UK it’s still available on iPlayer for a little while yet. If you’re outside the UK, I don’t know if there’s anywhere you can see it (legally), but it’s worth seeking out. Based on the stage show, it does what it says on the tin: it’s about an amateur production of Peter Pan that goes wrong. Farcically, hilariously wrong. It’s the kind of thing that’s far, far funnier than you feel it should be — and I know I’m not alone in saying this because it went down a storm on Twitter too. And the theatre company that originated it have several other shows — here’s hoping the BBC make them a Christmas fixture.
The Flash / Arrow / Legends of Tomorrow Invasion!
The Arrowverse’s three-night crossover masquerading as a four-night crossover (Supergirl had one scene, which they repeated in Flash anyway) was certainly a hit for The CW in terms of ratings. Quality-wise… well, it was about on a par with the individual series as a whole, which is to be expected I suppose. It was quite neat that the episodes of Flash and Arrow managed to feel like instalments of their own show as well as part of the crossover — especially Arrow, which was also marking its 100th episode — though that was to the detriment of the overarching story: the alien threat that drove the piece was occasionally sidelined, then hurriedly wrapped-up in a frantic final episode. That last part was ostensibly an instalment of the less-popular Legends of Tomorrow, but their regulars only had a little something to do before being shoved aside in favour of characters from the more popular shows. As I don’t watch Legends anymore I can’t say it bothered me, but I almost felt bad for them. I presume there’ll be another such crossover next season, but hopefully next time they’ll fully embrace it: focus on giving adequate time to the story that brings them all together, rather than trying to concurrently maintain the series’ individuality.
Elementary Season 5 Episodes 1-3 — you can never have enough Sherlock Holmes.
Outnumbered 2016 Christmas Special — another contender for the best comedy of the season. I liked that it wasn’t a big-fuss return, just another vignette from the lives of the Brockmans.
Vicious Series Finale — conversely, this was as odd and kind-of-funny / kind-of-terrible as it always has been. A fitting way to end, then, I guess.
Things to Catch Up On
This month, I have mostly been missing Taboo, the BBC’s dark new period drama starring Tom Hardy and written by Steven Knight. I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon, but then I’ve been saying that about Peaky Blinders (you know, the BBC’s dark period drama written by Steven Knight and sometimes starring Tom Hardy) for years and still haven’t even started it. Its scheduling on BBC One on Saturday nights feels thoroughly at odds with how it looks (surely midweek BBC Two?), but putting a proper drama on our highest-profile channel on its highest-profile night seems to have been a popular move, so what do I know?
120 days until new Twin Peaks…
Next month… Studio Ghibli’s first TV series comes to Amazon Prime… but it’s quite long and it doesn’t look that good, so I’m not sure I’ll bother.