The Past Month on TV #31

Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

Jessica Jones  Season 2
Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

Strike  Career of Evil
Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

Shetland  Series 4
Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

Nailed It!  Season 1
Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

Lucifer  Season 1
LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • 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 Cinematic 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 that 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 to 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 it 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 its 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.