The Past Fortnight on TV #22

It’s only been a fortnight since my last “monthly” update but it’s been a busy one, with the entirety of Marvel/Netflix miniseries The Defenders and two feature-length instalments of Game of Thrones to look over.

Also reviewed: the penultimate pair of Twin Peaks episodes, the first season of Designated Survivor, and the pilot of Rick and Morty.

The Defenders  Season 1
The DefendersAfter years of build-up, and a grand total of 65 episodes of lead-in shows (yes, that many, really), we’re finally here: the culmination of Phase One in the Netflix arm of the Marvel Cinema Universe. Like Phase One of the movie side, said culmination is a big ol’ team-up of every hero we’ve been introduced to so far, working together to stop a threat that’s been building across some of their individual series.

The Defenders is the epitome of the “it’s really an X-hour movie” style of TV making. It starts slow, confident both that it’s got 8 hours to tell its story (though it actually only takes 6½) and that the majority of its viewer base will stick it out whatever. Said viewers have been divided on its merits, but I bet most of them did stick around for all eight episodes. I mean, if you made it through Iron Fist, The Defenders is a walk in the park. (Interesting aside: apparently most Netflix subscribers have watched at least one of the four contributing series, but very few have actually watched all four.)

Episode one, The H Word, takes its time to reintroduce us to the four lead characters, showing where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them in their own series. Depending on your whims, the aggressive colour grading used to differentiate each thread is either a neat visual shortcut or laughably overcooked. It’s kind of impressive that each strand evokes the style of its root show, though that means the combination feels like a bit of a hodgepodge. The downside is that the way hip-hop music kicks in almost any time Luke Cage appears (there’s no similar aural affectation for any other character) feels like a parody.

In Mean Right Hook, we begin to see that the apparently-unrelated storylines of our four heroes are, shocker, actually connected — who saw that coming? But it’s not until Worst Behavior that we get them on screen together. The episode is every inch the end of act one: it’s confirmed where all the separate threads lead (the Hand), we find out what happened to Elektra, and our heroes team up for the first time. That it takes almost three whole episodes to get to this point is emblematic of the leisurely pace these streaming series take; the downside of shows being released all at once and treated as a long movie in segments. It would be better paced if the team was together by the end of episode two — dividing what was originally billed as a miniseries into four two-hour chunks seems natural to me.

Teamed upWith the team introduced to one another, Royal Dragon is almost a bottle episode — the gang hole up in a Chinese restaurant to hide from the Hand and make a plan. It works neatly to let our heroes settle their differences and agree to actually team up. There’s some fun sparky dialogue in their interactions, too. For my money it’s the best instalment of the series. The downside: having said episode three is the end of act one, episode four really feels that way, with the team finally united — but we’re halfway through the series.

So now it’s into a truncated middle. Take Shelter is a lot of business, transitioning the series into its second half — getting the supporting casts into safety, establishing where the plot is headed now they’ve teamed up. Ashes, Ashes livens things up, splitting the team into the mismatched pairings of Luke/Danny and Matt/Jessica, which keeps things lively as they put the pieces together. Cap that off with a couple of big twists at the end and it makes for a low-key great episode.

The final two episodes, Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders, form a suitably epic-ish conclusion — essentially, a big punch-up (with a bang), though with character moments and developments liberally scattered throughout. As to how to finally wraps it all up… well, no spoilers, but it plays a card it can’t follow through on (but at least has the good grace to admit that as a parting shot), and doesn’t conclusively end some of the things I thought it would. Maybe future seasons of Marvel/Netflix shows will decide to leave those threads dead and buried; maybe they’ll resurrect them. I hope the former, but they haven’t shut the door on the latter. Either way, I think it’d be difficult to keep watching any of the individual series without also making time for The Defenders.

Going downOverall, the relative brevity and speed of the story here does make it feel like an event miniseries, more than the sprawling and novelistic styles of the four contributing series. Maybe it’s just because it’s how I chose to watch it, but I reckon it plays better as four feature-length episodes than eight normal-length ones. As this is Netflix and you can watch at your own pace, maybe that doesn’t matter; but if you were watching this weekly, I think it’d be immensely frustrating that it took three whole weeks to get to the actual team-up. In a post-series interview, the showrunner talks about how they didn’t have time for certain character combinations that writers and/or fans wanted to see. Well, you could’ve made time if you’d got a move on with things in the first few episodes. The freedom streaming series are allowed is great, but some of the hoops network shows are forced to jump through do have pleasant side effects.

In the end, The Defenders is much like it’s big screen analogue, The Avengers: it’s fun to finally see all of these characters come together, and there are good bits scattered throughout, but ultimately it struggles to measure up to expectations, or to reach the same heights of quality as the better individual adventures. Put another way: it’s not Iron Fist, but it’s not quite Daredevil or Jessica Jones either. Somehow, I guess it makes sense that a series which combines all the other series would end up settled at the median of their quality levels.

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episodes 6-7
Men on a missionPicking up where the previous episode left off, the season’s penultimate episode saw us follow Jon Snow and his band of merry men Beyond the Wall in search of evidence. What ensued was a Thrones version of the “men on a mission” narrative, with the characters sharing scenes in a variety of combinations (I think we can all agree the Hound / Tormund exchange was the highlight) before running into trouble. Surrounded and outnumbered on a frozen lake, with Gendry sprinting back to Eastwatch for help, this is where some people found massive problems with the episode.

The whole season has been called out for its apparently flexible attitude to time — in particular, how long it takes to traverse huge distances — and Beyond the Wall focused that into a microcosm. Personally, I think the season (and episode) could’ve handled this better if they gave us a few more points of reference — a line here or there about how long people had been away, a shot of them travelling, that kind of thing. It doesn’t help that things are moving at a different pace to earlier seasons. Maybe in the past there were days between individual scenes; now there are weeks. That throws off viewers’ expectations. Nonetheless, the production team’s defence — that there can be weeks between scenes — covers almost all of the complaints. Even in this one episode, we don’t know precisely how long the guys are trapped on the lake. It’s at least over night, and in the North in winter nights would be very long.

Any episode with a flaming sword can't be all badSo ignoring those somewhat facile complaints, we can get back to looking at the end of the episode as pure spectacle. Other people (people not complaining about the timelines) hailed this as the series’ most incredible visual display yet. Well, some people always do that. It was great to see the dragons in action against the army of the dead, the exploding ice indeed looked spectacular, but as a battle it wasn’t equal to what we saw in Hardhome, Battle of the Bastards, or this season’s The Spoils of War. Coming fourth(-ish) to those is still a mean feat.

As for the ending… deus ex machina gets thrown around in online discussions a lot these days. It’s almost always used incorrectly. That was the case here. Still, the whole thing with Jon Snow almost drowning and then pulling himself out was a bit silly. We know he’s got the thickest of thick plot armour — stop putting him in mortal danger and then having to jump through ridiculous hoops to save him, it just shatters the illusion.

With the proof acquired, it was on to King’s Landing for a long-awaited meet-up by most of the surviving cast members in the feature-length finale, The Dragon and the Wolf. I don’t know about anyone else, but it felt like two episodes glued together to me. The aforementioned conference took up exactly half the episode, I believe, with the second half moving on to events at Winterfell, back at Dragonstone, and between Cersei and Jaime in the wake of promises made and already broken. Of course, if you did split it in half then each episode would only run about 43 minutes, and we’ve seen how angry some fans get when episodes dare to run as short as 50 minutes.

It's my throne and you can't have itSome people were blown away by the twists and revelations in the finale. I guess it’s the fault of the internet age, but it felt like an awful lot of stuff that had just been a long time coming to me. The Night King using his dragon to melt the wall should probably have been mind-blowing, but it felt like it was just a matter of time (him actually getting a dragon the week before, however, was as effective as it was meant to be). The reveal about Jon Snow? We’ve already had enough breadcrumbs to put it together. It’s not really worth mentioning until Jon hears it for himself. On the other hand, the revelation that Bran doesn’t know everything — he has the option to see anything ever, but he has to go looking for specifics — is potentially important. How? Well, we’ll see.

On the whole, it seems to have been a divisive season of Thrones. I feel like I’ve written that sentence before. Some people thought it moved too quickly — presumably not the same people who used to moan about how slow it was. Some missed the character moments that allowed for; others revelled in the spectacle on display almost every week. I wouldn’t have minded a slightly slower pace, spreading the big events out a little more (the end of The Queen’s Justice was particularly over-stuffed with major events), but said events were hugely impressive in themselves. HBO may lavish Thrones with an insanely large budget, but it’s all on screen, looking more like a summer blockbuster than a cable TV series.

Season eight is now on its way — eventually. It feels like there’s still a lot of story left to get through. With only six episodes left, I hope they’ve given themselves enough time to wrap it up satisfactorily.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 15-16
He is the FBIAs we reach the penultimate week of the Twin Peaks revival, the one-armed man speaks for us all: “You are awake… Finally.”

Yes, it’s true: the thing most viewers have wanted since, ooh, the first bloody episode has finally happened: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is back in the building. The advantage to the excruciating wait for his return was that, when it came, it was joyous. I don’t think anything has given me as big a grin this year as “I am the FBI.” Well played, Mr Lynch. Now the next two hours better be bloody good to make up for that wait…

Actually, it finally feels like there’s hope it might all wrap up and come together. Of course, this is David Lynch we’re talking about — his idea of “all wrapped up” is not the same as most people’s. But pieces are moving into position, some answers have been forthcoming, and the stage is set for an ending that is satisfying on at least some level, even as it inevitably leaves numerous things open for people to ponder for decades to come. Lynch has said before that season two’s cliffhanger was not how Twin Peaks was meant to end, so I don’t think it’s too daft to presume we’ll get something a bit more conclusive this time round.

Designated Survivor  Season 1
Designated SurvivorWhile signed up to Netflix for The Defenders, I also started watching this Netflix “Original” (it’s on ABC in the US, but Netflix have global rights, hence it gets their “we made this, honest” branding over here). Its setup has intrigued me since it launched last year, but its traditional release model (21 episodes across nine months) didn’t fit with my “subscribe for a month now and then” usage of Netflix until after the season had finished, i.e. now.

It stars Kiefer Sutherland as President Jack Bauer— dammit! President Tom Kirkman, a man who didn’t want the job: during the State of the Union address, Kirkman is the “designated survivor” — a member of the cabinet squirrelled away somewhere secret in case disaster strikes. And strike it does, as the entirety of the US government is wiped out in a massive explosion, thrusting Kirkman from junior cabinet member about to lose his job to leader of the free world. As he copes with his newfound responsibilities — not only rebuilding the government, but retaliating against those responsible and battling forces at home who question his legitimacy — we also follow an FBI agent who unearths a conspiracy behind the attack.

The dual-pronged narrative means the series plays like 24 meets The West Wing, with a big conspiracy storyline unfolding across the season while Kirkman faces a variety of political challenges and emergencies on a week-to-week basis. It’s not quite as sophisticated-feeling as Aaron Sorkin’s classic, though maybe that’s just time speaking — the rise of prestige TV has kind of dulled the ability of network shows to feel high-quality, and I wonder if The West Wing would hold up as well today. Anyway, what Designated Survivor lacks in sophistication it makes up for with watchability: we burned through the entire season in under a fortnight. Its American patriotism may be unpalatably cheesy at times (Kirkman makes a speech in the finale, greeted with a standing ovation from Congress, that’s like eating a stuffed crust quattro formaggi with extra cheese and mozzarella sticks on the side, all dipped in fondue), but if you can stomach that it’s a decent drama. I’ll be back for season two.

Also watched…
  • Rick and Morty Season 1 Episode 1 — People seem to keep going on about how great this is (it’s ranked as the 7th best TV series ever on IMDb), so, despite thinking it looked singularly unappealing, I thought I should give it a go. The pilot does not bode well. It has some fantastic throwaway ideas, but the characters and tone weren’t to my taste. Apparently it gets better though, so I’ll give it a couple more chances.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The TickThis month, I have mostly been missing Amazon’s new version of The Tick, the first half of the first season of which debuted last week, a full year after the pilot was made available. I wasn’t too impressed by that episode (my review is here), but I’ve heard episode two rights the ship somewhat, so I intend to make time for it at some point.

    Next month… it has happened again: Twin Peaks reaches its conclusion.

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  • The Past Month on TV #16

    Another busy month on the box round these parts, so I’ve once again divided my comments into new stuff (i.e. what was actually on TV this month), old stuff (i.e. anything older than four weeks), plus the usual round-up of quick thoughts.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episode 1)
    Doctor Who: The PilotThe 36th run of Doctor Who kicked off with an episode titled The Pilot — no coincidence, that. This is the most newcomer-friendly episode of Who for 12 years, an episode finely calibrated to establish everything for a first-timer but also function for regular viewers too. A lot of that effectiveness can be attributed to Pearl Mackie as Bill, the new companion to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. After a run of oh-so-special companions running back years, Bill is just an ordinary young woman; but of course she’s extraordinary in her own way: ready to learn, eager to help, full of both inquisitiveness and caring. This is surely the birth of both a fan-favourite companion in Bill and a star in Mackie.

    It’s also a rejuvenation for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. They arguably tried too many different things all at once when he joined the series a few years ago, making him old and irascible in contrast to the young and friendly Doctors that had preceded him throughout the revived series. He was gradually softening anyway, but freed of the burden of Clara he seems able to fully revel in his kooky kindliness. It’s perhaps the most Doctor-ish he’s ever been, and for Capaldi, a life-long fan of the show, that must be a real delight. It’s already a shame he’ll be leaving us this year, but at least we have 12 (or 11, if some rumours turn out to be true) more episodes to enjoy before then.

    As for this episode in itself, it was more solid than incredible, though that perhaps does it a disservice. No, it’s not going to sit alongside the likes of Blink and Heaven Sent at the pinnacle of all that modern Who can achieve, but it set out the series’ stall well: it’s sci-fi, but a little quirky, a little scary, and full of heart and emotion. It was almost like a Russell T Davies-era episode, but with an unmistakable Moffat-ness about it too — he may be trying to dodge the “fairy tale” mode he adopted for most of his time on the show, reasserting the “this is based in the real world” aesthetic that RTD relaunched the series with back in 2005, but, frankly, Moffat does the former better than the latter, and there’s an edge of that heightened unreality here nonetheless.

    But I think those are niggles and nitpicks. This is a strong opener that establishes a very likeable new TARDIS team to guide us through the season of adventures about to come. Fingers crossed the rest of the run can fulfil its promise.

    Iron Fist (Season 1)
    Iron FistThe last of the Marvel/Netflix series before the Defenders team-up, Iron Fist has certainly divided critics and viewers. It doesn’t begin well: the opening episode is possibly the worst thing yet released as part of the MCU, and I only say “possibly” because I never bothered with Agents of SHIELD after the poor reaction to season one. It’s needlessly slow, repetitive, the characters behave implausibly, and the fights are terrible, looking like a first rehearsal filmed with one take. Things do improve — there are more engaging characters, some interestingly developed arcs, and better realised fights — but it still doesn’t come together as well as it could. For one thing, it makes the running of Rand Enterprises a major element, but has a very vague-seeming understanding of how business actually works. It’s just too simplistic.

    One of the series’ strongest aspects is the unpredictable loyalties of its characters. I don’t mean that they’re inconsistent, but aside from Danny (who’s the title character, so of course he’s a good guy) and Claire (who’s been in every other Marvel/Netflix show, so she’s a known quantity), the trustworthiness and allegiance of almost every character changes at some point; for some of them, at multiple points. Heck, there are even scenes when you can’t be sure whose side to be on, because both have aspects of right and wrong, good and bad. There are better shows than Iron Fist that never manage that level of shading in their characters. I imagine there’ll be a second season, because when doesn’t Netflix commission more of anything, so hopefully they can build on what worked going forward. And maybe add a business consultant to the writers’ room or something.

    The Flash Duet
    The Flash: DuetAmongst the eight Arrowverse episodes I watched this month was this: the much-anticipated musical crossover between The Flash and Supergirl, which star Glee alumni Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist respectively — hence why (some) people called for a musical episode, which caused the producers to decide to do one. Somewhat ironic, then, that it seemed to go down well with critics (at least per Wikipedia) but less so with fans: its IMDb rating is just 6.0. I find myself in agreement with the latter. It wasn’t bad, as these things go, but it was overloaded with niggles, Like, why cast another former Glee actor as the villain but then not have him sing with the stars? Why is there a plot hole whereby they call said villain the Music Meister even though it was Barry and Kara who picked the musical fantasy? The guy’s powers seem to be hypnotism-based and nothing to do with music. There were only two original songs, one which was quite fun and one which was overlong and a tad cheesy. Neither came close to the delights of the Music Meister’s original appearance, which also managed five new songs (and a reprise) in an episode that was half the length. The episode’s guest cast seems to have been selected purely on the basis of “anyone from an Arrowverse show who likes to sing”. All in all it came across as half-arsed; like they felt they should do it because people demanded it, but didn’t assign enough time or energy to doing it properly.

    The Crown (Season 1)
    The CrownThe most expensive TV programme ever made (or not, whatever) certainly has its budget plastered all over the screen, which hopefully didn’t distract most viewers in the way it did me. It shouldn’t, really, because this is a good drama about the humanity behind the public faces. Its adherence to fact is apparently variable, which I imagine is very irritating to historians of the period, but it works for the fiction. There are great performances all round, with John Lithgow in particular disappearing into Churchill to the point that I forgot I was watching an actor more than once. There’s an interesting plot thread early on about the position of Philip (Matt Smith) relative to Elizabeth — how his role as a husband is challenged by her position as Queen, etc — which goes a bit awry as the series goes on and has other plots to focus on. It’s left quite open-ended, so hopefully it’ll be completed in the second season.

    Line of Duty (Series 2)
    Line of Duty series 2I devoted just 32 words to Line of Duty series one when I finally got round to watching it last October. In summary, it was pretty good but not really great, and the unadulterated adulation that follows the programme around nowadays seemed unmerited. Now I get it, though, because — in a similar fashion to how, say, Mad Max is a decent Ozploitation flick but Mad Max 2 is a reputation-earning action classic — series two is where it’s at. There was much praise for Keeley Hawes’ performance as a downtrodden copper under suspicion of organising a violent ambush of a witness protection convoy, and it’s deserved, but the real star is the writing. There are huge, attention-grabbing twists and surprises, and a mystery that keeps you revising your opinion on what happened right until the end, but perhaps most impressive are the lengthy, intensely procedural interview scenes that could come across as factual and dull but instead are completely gripping.

    Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 1-9)
    Twin Peaks season 2I first saw the debut season of Twin Peaks many years ago during a repeat run (it was a ‘classic series’ even then, though with hindsight it can’t’ve been a decade old at the time), then watched it again when the DVD came out, but this is my first time watching season two (legal complications delayed its DVD release for what felt like forever, and by the time it finally came out I just never got round to it). The second season is infamous for representing a steep decline in quality, though that isn’t yet evident from this batch of episodes, which covers up to the revelation of who killed Laura Palmer and their capture. I’d say it lacks the pure concentrated genius of the first season, having ramped up the quirkiness quotient and, at the behest of the network, rushing the resolution of the Laura Palmer mystery, but it ain’t bad by any means. There’s certainly much to like in the off-kilter characters, the folksy mysticism, and some fantastic performances — Kyle MacLachlan is a constant delight as Agent Cooper, but Ray Wise is frequently incredible as the grieving Leland Palmer. But I guess it’s mostly downhill from here…

    Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 5-8 — everything I said last time still applies: this is little more than 24-by-numbers. Episode 6 was a particularly irritating example, as a major subplot was hurried to its climax presumably because the writers just got bored with it. Why else rush the plot so massively, in a way that practically ignored the series’ real-time gimmick? I miss the days when the makers cared about maintaining that illusion.
  • Broadchurch Series 3 Episodes 4-8 — it handled its treatment of the issues well, but as a drama Broadchurch 3 couldn’t quite reach the engrossing heights of the first series. Still, it’s a shame there won’t be further cases for the brilliant Tennant and Colman to investigate.
  • Unforgotten Series 1 — ITV’s police drama recently aired a second series, with a third commissioned. This cold case-focused first run features powerhouse performances from a bunch of quality elder thesps (Tom Courtenay won a BAFTA for it, but for my money Gemma Jones as his wife was just as good), plus nicely understated turns from the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the coppers on the case.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Car Share series 2This month, I have mostly been missing series two of Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is a couple of episodes in on the telly or available in its entirety on iPlayer. I nearly didn’t bother with the first series (two years ago now!) because I’m not a huge fan of Peter Kay, but someone recommended it and it turned out to be hilarious. I’m sure I’ll make time for the new one soon.

    31 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Twin Peaks, and probably more stuff dredged up from the “must get round to” pile.