The Past Month on TV #43

Between trips away and rotten colds, my posting (and viewing) this month has been in rather short supply. That explains both why this TV column is later than normal and why it covers series that the constantly-churning “Netflix new releases” discussion cycle has already moved on from. (Next month: belated commentary on The Umbrella Academy, maybe.)

As well as Netflix shows that came out a while ago, there’s a BBC show that finished a while ago, an Amazon series that isn’t really out yet, and some thoughts on last weekend’s Academy Awards.

The Punisher  Season 2
The Punisher season 2Earlier this month the news everyone had been expecting was finally made official: Netflix was cancelling The Punisher and Jessica Jones, thereby bringing to an end the era of the MCU on the streamer. Altogether it will have produced 13 seasons and 161 hours of television, ending with the release of Jessica Jones season three sometime later this year — which will be a more appropriate time to get into this, I guess. For now, there’s just the second — and, as it turned out, final — season of The Punisher.

Picking up a year after the first season, initially it seems like this will be an all-new tale for the eponymous antihero (Jon Bernthal) when he finds himself protecting an ungrateful teenager, Rachel (Giorgia Whigham), from a group of highly-trained assassins who want to kill her for reasons she and they won’t divulge. There’s plenty of mystery around the girl, the villain hunting her (a religious fundamentalist type who goes by the name Pilgrim (Josh Stewart)), what everyone’s motives are, and what the bigger picture might be. At one point our heroes get arrested by small-town sheriffs and the series gives over a whole episode to an Assault on Precinct 13 homage. It’s all good.

But then stuff left hanging from season one begins to creep in. No surprise, really: that first run did the usual Marvel/Netflix thing of introducing us to a character destined to become a more famous character, then spent the whole season getting there. In this case its Punisher nemesis Jigsaw (also the villain of Punisher: War Zone, FYI), aka Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank Castle’s friend-turned-enemy whose face he lacerated in the season one finale. So, they were due a rematch. Unfortunately, here Russo’s storyline plays out with that other regular fault of Marvel/Netflix series: it… takes… ages… to… get… anywhere… And as we keep cutting away from Frank and his new ward to spend time on Russo, it’s slow pace is even more distracting.

Frank and RachelThe two plots do converge somewhat, naturally, with Frank having to deal with the machinations of Russo/Jigsaw at the same time as Pilgrim is coming after him. That means the series has to juggle the two stories as well, and it does that less than effectively, swinging back and forth between which it wants to focus on. For me, the problem remained the same: the new plot is interesting with a lot of potential, while the season one hangovers feel like little more than unfinished business. The latter become stretched out to fill the season, going round in circles, rather than being dealt with succinctly. Conversely, with that stealing so much space, the Pilgrim and Rachel story doesn’t get the screen time it needs or deserves. It seems like there’s a half decent balance at first, but that ultimately goes awry, and the ins and outs of the new storyline (I keep wanting to call it the “main” story, but that’s only true in a couple of early episodes) aren’t as explored as much as they should be. Considering there’s some interesting potential in there (Frank and Rachel have great chemistry, and the plot shapes up as a kind of political thriller, in a 24-esque way), it’s a shame it goes under utilised. It also comes to a great conclusion, showing it’s the real star element of the season. That said, the ending to the Russo story is good too (and so, combined, they make for an exciting finale), it just shouldn’t‘ve taken up so much time.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Punisher’s second season a disappointment — there’s a lot to like here for fans of the character and the series — but its lack of focus is a drawback. On the bright side, it wraps things up enough that this is an okay place to leave it. It’s open-ended for more adventures, of course (the across-the-board cancellations came so late in the day that none of the shows had planned for them), but there aren’t direct “what happens next?” questions like in Luke Cage or Iron Fist. Considering the chances of a revival on a Disney-owned platform seem to be 50/50 at best, at least there’s that.

Russian Doll  Season 1
Russian DollYou spend years wondering if anyone could re-do the premise behind Groundhog Day in a different way (well, maybe you don’t, but the thought has crossed my mind), and then several come along… not exactly at once, but in relatively close succession. So, following Happy Death Day, which saw a college student having to repeatedly relive her birthday which was also the day of her murder, now we have Russian Doll, which casts co-creator Natasha Lyonne as a thirtysomething New Yorker having to repeatedly relive her birthday which is also the day she dies. Well, she’s not being murdered, at least. Indeed, the series has a few tweaks and additions to the basic premise up its sleeve, but to say too much would spoil it — although the trailer gives away at least one biggie. Of course, as this is a streaming series, it takes three whole episodes before it reaches that major game-changer.

Fortunately, the show has other things to commend it, primarily the characters. Well, one character, and a bunch of quirky funny types. But hey, this is a comedy, so we can let that slide. And as for that one actually fleshed-out character, Lyonne’s heroine, the series really makes itself about her, her attitude to life, and how the situation affects her. It’s all good stuff. Plus, if you’re here for the plot, although it takes a little while to reveal its unique twists on the formula, once they’re out in the open they build up into an intriguing mystery. And, though it starts out looking like just a comedy in the vein of those other films that have used this concept before, it actually evolves into something more psychological, darker and more complex.

Frankly, one of the main reasons I started watching Russian Doll was because I expected it to be just Groundhog Day / Happy Death Day rehashed as a TV series — that’s what it looked like from the trailers, and I was partly expecting to be able to justifiably complain about that if I’d actually watched it. But, at the same time, I do like both those films, and Russian Doll’s trailer promised at least one new twist on the formula, so I was prepared to give it a fair shout to prove itself. In the end, it deserved the latter. Sure, of course the basic premise is similar to those previous films, but it reimagines it with a dark and foul-mouthed wit that’s distinctly its own, plus it takes the concept down some entirely new avenues. I don’t know how they’d do future seasons (it was originally pitched as three seasons, but it sounds like that evolved during production, so maybe they don’t have as clear an idea as they once did), but I’ll be here for them if they come along.

Hanna  Season 1 Episode 1
Hanna the seriesAmazon are adapting Joe Wright’s 2011 film Hanna into a TV series. Apparently that was commissioned back in 2017, which I don’t recall hearing about, and I feel like I would’ve remembered because I loved the film (never did get round to writing a fuller review, though). Anyway, the first I did hear of it was when they made the first episode available for 24 hours as a preview (the whole first season will be released at the end of March).

Unsurprisingly, the story has been extended to fit its new TV format — this first hour only covers the first act of the film. At this pace, it’s very plausible it’ll take the rest of the season to get through the rest of the movie’s plot (and I’m sure they’ve got some tricks up their sleeve to extended it beyond that). But, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel horrendously slow or artificially drawn-out. This isn’t a mile-a-minute action show, but its pacing is no worse than most other streaming series, here with the added excuse that it’s setting the scene. Indeed, that’s arguably the episode’s biggest problem when viewed in isolation: it feels a bit like the real plot will kick off in episode two, and this is all prologue. On the other hand, in that sense it works all the better when released as tease ahead of the main series. Either way, it grabbed my attention enough that I’ll continue with it when the rest is released.

Les Misérables  Episodes 4-6
Les Misérables
The second half of the BBC’s new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel (gotta be careful to be clear about that, apparently) is all set in the story’s final time period — Cosette is now a young woman, desperate to see the outside world; Marius is now a young man, whose friends seem desperate to die for a revolution; and Javert is still Javert, still desperate to catch Valjean, presumably out of sheer spite and/or pride. All the characters, connected as much by coincidence and chance as by choice or action, come together around the June Rebellion of 1832, and… well, you either know the plot or you don’t want me to spoil it for you. This remains a handsomely mounted production until the last, however, including pulling off the action at the barricades with suitable scale and impact.

That stuff always feels like it should be the climax to me. In a literal sense, it’s the big action set piece, and is the end of the road for several major characters. But no, there’s plenty left after it, for good (the final confrontations between Javert and Valjean) or ill (Thenardier in the sewers; the unearned redemption of Marius’ grandfather). I rewatched the film of the musical when I was exactly halfway through this series, and by comparison most of the movie felt like a long “previously on” montage. The exception is this post-barricade stuff, where the BBC version, conversely, feels drawn-out compared to the economy of the musical’s telling. The final part was almost quarter-of-an-hour longer than the first five, and I couldn’t help but feel a little more streamlining would’ve helped. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint amidst what has been a typically excellent adaptation by the Beeb.

In the UK, the whole series remains available on iPlayer for the foreseeable future, while in the US it will air on PBS from April 14th.

The 91st Academy Awards
The 91st Academy AwardsThe run-up to this year’s Oscars seemed to be mired in a mix of controversy and disinterest. The former was provoked by a variety of poor decisions by the Academy, including fiascoes around a Best Popular Film award, over who would host (it was Kevin Hart, then it wasn’t, then it was no one), and over the decision to present some awards during the ad breaks (which was scrapped, thankfully). This whole palaver is part of what fed the disinterest, along with a slate of nominees that was regarded to be generally uninspiring. As it turned out, plenty of people still tuned in (US viewing figures were slightly up from last year) and plenty of conversation was sparked. Other people can dig into it in more depth than me (and have, of course, considering the ceremony was days ago), but I will say I was overjoyed for Olivia Colman (definitely the best speech, although a couple of others were quite good too) and Spider-Verse, was quite pleased Black Panther won Best Score (I don’t know if it was actually the best overall, but I really liked it), and its other two victories (costumes and production design) were also welcome, and Spike Lee’s ecstatic win was another top moment. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, obviously, with Best Picture in particular being an underwhelming result; though I’m not as miffed about Bohemian Rhapsody’s multiple wins as some people (even if its awards for sound editing and mixing were more about “most” than “best”).

The big takeaway from the night should probably be that going host-less worked. Queen’s opening performance was great (because Queen), and the non-monologue monologue from Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler was another highlight of the ceremony. Things still ran smoothly, and there were no stupid asides like bringing normal people into the auditorium or whatever — cutting those time wasters was a much better idea than cutting actual awards. Maybe being host-free is the way forward, though I think they’ll need to continue finding ways to handle the monologue section going forward — the show needs some kind of intro, and a gentle ribbing of the nominees is an appropriate way to do it, I think.

Also watched…
  • The British Academy Film Awards 2019 — The BAFTAs also happened. We gave a better Best Film, but further evidence that maybe a host-less ceremony is a good idea: Joanna Lumley is a national treasure, but her opening monologue was excruciating.
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 8-13 — The series finale of this cancelled-too-soon newsroom sitcom is titled Early Retirement. So, that’s a nice meta gag to console ourselves with, at least.
  • Mark Kermode’s Oscar Winners A Secrets of Cinema Special — Kermode dissects the formula to make an Oscar winner in this special of his excellent series. It’s available on iPlayer for a few weeks yet.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella AcademyThis month, I have mostly been missing The Umbrella Academy, as I mentioned at the start. The trailers look good (love a bit of Hazy Shade of Winter), and it seems like critical and audience reaction has been positive, so it’s definitely on my watchlist. I’m also yet to start the new series of Scottish crime drama Shetland, or The Missing’s much-anticipated spin-off Baptiste. I expect I’ll be saving those up for a little while yet.

    Next month… HBO have set the Deadwood revival/finale movie to air this spring, which is, y’know, soon. I watched season one when it first aired, thought it was great, but when season two came around I found myself thoroughly lost and eventually gave up. I imported the US Blu-ray box set years ago (it’s bursting with special features vs. the UK’s completely bare bones release), and it’s been sat on my shelf waiting ever since, like so many non-pressing TV series nowadays. Well, I guess now is its time…

  • The Past Month on TV #42

    “Month” is a bit of a stretch, as it’s only 2½ weeks since my Christmas roundup, but let’s go with it and get things back on schedule.

    A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 3
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3The third and final season of Netflix’s adaptation of Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s 13-volume series of children’s novels arrived on New Year’s Day. “Final” because they have now reached the end of book 13, and therefore the end of the tale. And that means the whole story — running just under 20 hours total, across 25 episodes — is now sat there on Netflix, available for any future viewer to watch as a complete work. We live in an era where there are far too many quality films and TV series and other entertainments vying for our precious time, but even though I’ve already seen it all (obviously), “watching it as a complete work” is something I definitely intend to do someday in the future, because it’s bloody marvellous.

    But, for the time being, back to this final batch of episodes. They begin exactly where the last lot left off — which only makes sense, because that was a cliffhanger. It’s quickly enough resolved, naturally, and we’re off into the series’ final stretch. That’s a funny one, actually: there are seven whole episodes here — an entire run for many UK dramas, for example — but it feels like we’re right at the tail of the, er, tale. So, for example, when we’re introduced to a new pair of major villains, it feels a bit late in the day for that kind of thing — surely there’s not enough time left to explore their importance? Indeed, the series basically doesn’t. It’s part of why the opening two-parter, The Slippery Slope, felt a bit something-or-nothing to me. But perhaps that’s unfair — perhaps I was just itching to reach the impending denouement, with all its long-promised answers — so perhaps they’ll fare better on a rewatch. Things pick up in The Grim Grotto, which is set mostly aboard a pair of submarines, a nice showcase for the series’ always-impressive production design. There are some neat surprises and revelations here, which turn out to be vitally important later on.

    But things really get good in the penultimate tale, the appropriately-named The Penultimate Peril. Well, I say “appropriately” — in some respects this two-parter actually feels like the show’s big finale, with many much-anticipated meetings and events taking place, plus a healthy dose of long-awaited reveals and answers. It’s all wrapped up in a tale that is gorgeously constructed, the screenplay and editing revelling in a temporally-twisted structure that helps underscore some of the series’ biggest and best messages. I thought it was absolutely stunning, especially the first half; a phenomenal finale that brings so much together while also being clever in itself.

    Is Olaf so awful?After that, we come to The End — that’s not emphasis, it’s the title of the actual finale. Every other novel in Snicket’s 13-volume series has been treated to a two-part adaptation, but The End is the longest book of them all, so it gets… one episode. A regular-length one, at that. Well, I’ve never read the books (I will someday…), so I can’t comment on why this should be, or if the programme-makers have done it a disservice, but I’m sure they had their reasons. That said, it’s even more intriguing given that the TV series manages to wrap up almost every on-going plot line and mystery, something the book series is notorious for not doing — you’d think they’d need more screen-time for that, not less.

    As an episode, The End isn’t quite as impressive as The Penultimate Peril. It’s a weird cross between an epilogue and an essential final piece of the puzzle. One thing I think the final three episodes do get right is they explain almost all of the complicated, mysterious backstory in Penultimate Peril, then bring the focus back onto the Baudelaire orphans for the finale. There’s been so much of that backstory to get into that it’s sometimes threatened to overwhelm the main plot; to make the programme all about the kids’ parents and what went on in the past. To get that explaining out of the way, then swing round to “where do the kids go from here?”, is a good move. And having just said how much the series explains and wraps up, it’s actually very open-ended, especially considering it’s explicitly designed to be a definite end. But (spoilers!) it is an end to what was explicitly the story of the series (Olaf’s attempts to get the Baudelaire fortune, plus the mysteries of VFD); it’s just that Violet, Klaus and Sunny’s lives will continue to be adventurous after that story is over. Though it does make one wonder if Handler will ever be tempted to write a sequel series someday…

    That open-ended-ness is just one of many big, potentially challenging ideas the series has presented its younger audience with. In amongst all the quirky whimsy and kids’ picture book aesthetics, the series has ultimately engaged with important and mature themes — about bad people not being purely evil and good people not being purely good; about how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be subjective and personal anyway; about not blindly respecting authority, or expecting it to deliver what’s right or fair… This maturity is one (of many, I think) reasons the series also works for adult viewers.

    Bye bye, BaudelairesBack at the start, it took me a couple of episodes to warm up to A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m worried the same thing will have put other viewers off. That’s a shame. Okay, sure, some people are never going to be on board with its particular style — it’s like something by Wes Anderson or Tim Burton or someone in that respect; stylised and mannered in a way some people just don’t get on with — but I think more people need to give it a fair shot; to stick with it, knowing the early stuff is sometimes about establishing a tone and a status quo for later episodes to peel away as a facade. I’m not saying it’s perfect — there are ups and downs along the way — but, for me, I think the series taken as a whole borders on being a masterpiece. I love it, and I’m going to miss it, and that’s just one reason I’ll watch it again. So much for looking away.

    Also watched…
  • Island of Dreams — This was a proper oddity: a one-off comedy set on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, where he hosts guests including J.K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Craig, Adele, Greg Wallace, Professor Brian Cox, and Elon Musk — all played by comedians, obviously. It was… kinda funny, I guess? Apparently it’s a pilot, so maybe there’ll be more.
  • Les Misérables Episodes 2-3 — When this series started there was apparently much discussion on social media about how it was “weird without the songs”. Other than Look Down popping into my head when it first cut to the prison ships, that hasn’t bothered me too much. What I have found kinda odd, though, is seeing a familiar story told in such a different way. I don’t know why that’s weird — it’s not as if I haven’t seen a remake before, and I’ve only seen the musical three or four times (in several different versions, too). I think it’s something to do with seeing a story I only know as a musical being told as a straight-up drama, and an expanded one too, with events occurring in slightly different ways, and with whole other characters and subplots and stuff mixed in. It makes it quite hard for me to judge as a drama in its own right, though. Well, I’ll try in next month’s TV roundup, by when it’ll be finished.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The cast of Sex Education are shocked by my opinion, clearly.This month, I have mostly been missing Sex Education, Netflix’s comedy-drama about a sex therapist’s son who begins offering what expertise he’s picked up second-hand to his classmates. It attracted a bit of hype before release and has been much-discussed on social media, but I thought something looked kinda off about it… and then I saw this, which has hit the nail on the head for me. I always hate it when British programmes or films behave like UK secondary school is anything like US high school, and by the sounds of things Sex Ed has gone all-in on that ludicrous fallacy. If I do end up watching it, I feel like that’s just gonna bug the hell out of me.

    Next month… the Punisher returns for (what will presumably be) the penultimate season of the MCU on Netflix.