The Past Month on TV #61

As I mentioned in my August review, this TV column was meant to go up last month, but I didn’t get round to it and now there’s tonnes to cover. So, let’s get cracking…

Lucifer  Season 5 Episodes 1–8
Lucifer season 5AThe Fox Netflix comic book adaptation reimagining returns for its final penultimate season. For most of its production cycle, season 5 was indeed intended to be the end of Lucifer. Apparently it was only when they came to writing the finale that they realised it contained a whole season’s worth of material, and so a sixth season was brought into being. And for this first half of season 5 — or season 5A, if you prefer — it does feel like things are headed towards an ending, mainly because of the reveal/cliffhanger on the midseason finale (no spoilers here!)

Before that, we get to see Tom Ellis exercise his acting chops by playing Lucifer’s scheming, American-accented twin brother, Michael, and a fun episode where all the cast get to play at being in a black-and-white ’40s film noir. That episode, It Never Ends Well for the Chicken, is an absolute delight, one of the series’ best ever, and is also by far the lowest-rated on IMDb. Some people don’t deserve nice things… Anyway, the season as a whole continues in the same vein as ever, albeit leaning a little more into its fantastical arc plots (as it also did last season, to be fair). It’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out, bearing in mind everyone thought they were making an ending until very late in the day.

The Crown  Season 2
The Crown season 2When I last watched The Crown, Peter Capaldi was still the Doctor, the Netflix MCU was still expanding, and there was still a month left of the glorious days before “is Twin Peaks season 3 a movie?” debates. I enjoyed that first season, so quite why it’s taken me this long to get round to the second, I don’t know. Anyway, season two is in some ways the second half of season one — in my first season review I noted that the storyline about Philip’s position relative to Elizabeth was left open-ended, and the second run does indeed follow up on that, providing the focus of the first few episodes and a throughline that’s only really resolved in the finale (whether they’ll pick back up on it with the new, older cast in future seasons, I guess I’ll find out later). Whether its historical accuracy is strictly, well, accurate is still debatable, but any modifications or embellishment to fact are to the aid of making a compelling drama, which this undoubtedly is. Some people will never get on board with caring about the rarefied family and political problems of a royal family, but I think it’s remarkable how human and relatable those often are; and, when they’re not, they’re usually at least of some historical significance.

Archer  Season 7
Archer season 7After being less ambivalent about Archer’s fifth season experiment, Archer Vice, I was delighted to see it return to its original espionage trappings for season 6. I guess the writing team disagreed, because once again they’ve relocated the cast to a new setting: as a private detective agency in LA. For me, this played much like Vice did: I enjoyed it enough while it was on, but overall it can’t seem to equal the quality of the spy-based seasons. The storylines often aren’t as engaging; the humour isn’t as effective.

Next up is a period of the show where they pushed the setting even further from the original format each season, which doesn’t fill me with excitement, for obvious reasons. Though first up is “a 1947 noir-esque Los Angeles setting”, which does sound up my street. Fingers crossed.

Jonathan Creek  Series 3–4 + Specials
Jonathan CreekThis particular batch of Creek episodes begins with Christmas special Black Canary, which aired between series 2 and 3. It’s one of the series’ very best episodes (indeed, it’s the top-rated on IMDb), a great mystery with an atmospheric snowbound Christmastime setting. Unfortunately, things then go off the boil a bit in series 3. Every single episode is written by David Renwick, and you wonder if he was beginning to run out of fresh, clever ideas. Nonetheless, there are some highlights here: a missing alien corpse; a mystery where a missing apostrophe may be a vital clue; and creepy one where a man apparently crawled up some steps after being shot in the head.

But the next Christmas special, Satan’s Chimney, is a definite return to form — the kind of Gothic mystery one associates with Creek but actually only gets from time to time. It’s the second best-ever episode according to IMDb voters. It’s also the first after costar Caroline Quentin departed the show. Julia Sawalha makes a solid replacement, depending on personal preference (I think Maddy is the better character; my partner disliked her intensely was glad to see her replaced). Unfortunately, the ensuing series 4, in which she also costars, seems to struggle for ideas even more than series 3, including some particularly dark and unpleasant mysteries.

And then, following a five-year gap (enough for Renwick to recharge, I guess), we get another feature-length special, The Grinning Man, which once again leans into the Gothic, and, once again, finds it works out for the best — it’s the fourth best-ever episode per IMDb voters. I’m seeing a pattern emerge. It also introduces another new sidekick in the form of Sheridan Smith, who adds a bit of sparky youth, even in spite of Renwick’s slightly “old man trying to write young person” characterisation of her. Unfortunately, this may be where the “good stuff” ends, at least if we’re to believe IMDb: no future episode even cracks the top 20, with five of the remaining seven right at the bottom of the chart. Oh dear.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
Kick the CanThis month’s penultimate selection of the original Twilight Zone‘s best episodes begins with one that was remade by Steven Spielberg for the film revival, Kick the Can. It’s mostly a very grounded episode, set in an old people’s home where one ‘troublemaker’ tries to incite the others to have some fun. He has a crazy “fountain of youth”-type theory… which, of course, turns out to be true (this is The Twilight Zone, after all). It’s a very sweet episode, with a nice little message — essentially, you’re only as old as you feel; it’s about having an attitude that keeps you young. But trust TZ to not let it be entirely nice, adding a bit of glumness to even a happy ending by having one guy get left out. The movie version expanded on the ending, which was criticised by some, but those additions were actually the suggestion of the original episode’s writer.

Sticking with the big-screen theme, Mirror Image was reportedly the inspiration behind Jordan Peele’s Us, which doesn’t surprise me because Us came to mind while I was watching it. They’re not that similar to execution, just base concept — a woman waiting for a bus thinks she’s going mad when other people in the depot tell her she’s done things she doesn’t remember… but then she spots her doppelgänger in a mirror. It’s a creepy premise, and some moments provide suitable visualisations of that idea, but unfortunately it runs out of places to go with its setup, and the ending is inconclusive. Us does it better because it does go somewhere with it. Plus, Us‘s explanation for what’s actually going on is just as unsettling as when it was all unexplained, whereas Mirror Image undermines itself with some mumbo jumbo about parallel universes.

A Penny for Your Thoughts hasn’t inspired any cinematic do-overs (that I know of), but it’s easy to imagine it being reworked as a mid-’90s Jim Carrey comedy. It’s about a bank clerk who tosses a penny and it lands on its side, which grants him the ability to hear others’ thoughts (I’m sure that’s scientifically accurate). Unfortunately, it seems he’s not the brightest spark, because he keeps talking to people as if they’d just said their thoughts out loud. Okay, if this happened to you then you wouldn’t believe it and it might take you a moment to catch on… but even once this guy twigs, he keeps making the same mistake. Anyway, it builds up to a nice little twist (just because someone’s thinking about something doesn’t mean they’ll follow through) and, no spoilers, but it comes to a happy ending. A pleasant Twilight Zone episode?! A veritable rarity.

People Are Alike All OverConversely, there’s a typical Twilight Zone parable to be found in People Are Alike All Over. Unfortunately, it’s one of those episodes that only comes into its own at the final reveal — the journey there seems padded out to fill the requisite amount of screen time. Some of the pulp-SF stuff seems a bit dated now (the idea that Mars might be inhabited by an entire race of human-like beings is, obviously, daft), but it’s all in aid of an accurately cynical critique of mankind and our attitude to new discoveries.

The simply-titled season three opener is Two, named for its characters: two survivors from opposing sides of a devastating war, who bump into each other in a deserted town and proceed to eye each other up as they mooch around semi-aimlessly. It’s conceptually sound (about reconciliation between individuals when there’s no point fighting anymore), but dull in execution — so much of it is just them wandering around, not reconciling. Alternatively, it’s “an ethereal poem of an episode” (per Thrillist). I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.

The Last Flight might be my pick for the most underrated Twilight Zone episode. I know I’m including it in a review of ‘best’ episodes, but this is the ninth such selection, and I’d rate it much higher — in my opinion, it’s one of the series’ very best instalments. Written by the great Richard Matheson (arguably a more consistent writer than even Rod Serling; but then he only wrote 16 episodes vs Serling’s 92), it’s the story of a World War I pilot who lands at a present-day American airforce base. I won’t spoil what unfolds from there, because the episode is perfectly conceived and executed from beginning to end, a note of praise I wouldn’t apply to even some of the most well-regarded episodes. Part of why it’s so good is that it doesn’t just settle for its first idea — there’s a twist, and then there’s character development, and a final reveal/confirmation. Not every Twilight Zone episode bothers to add so much detail or so much character richness.

In Praise of PipFinally, Jack Klugman makes his fourth and final TZ appearance as the lead of In Praise of Pip. He plays a bookkeeper and failed father, now worried about his grown son who’s been injured in Vietnam (this is before the full-on Vietnam war, by-the-by — it’s speculated that this might be the first time the country was mentioned in a US drama). What plays out is the story of a man realising he’s wasted his chance to enjoy his kid’s childhood. It’s a good theme, and one fit to be given a fantastical Twilight Zone spin (it makes a change for a TZ episode to be about a man revisiting someone else’s childhood), but I wasn’t convinced by how it played out. In part, he makes a deal with God that thousands, millions, of other parents have tried to make, without success, because they don’t live in the Twilight Zone. I’m not sure how this would play with them… That aside, BuzzFeed describe the episode as “sweet. Harmless. Moving in a boring, safe sort of way,” and I’d tend to agree. On the bright side, it has one great scene in a hall of mirrors — a well-worn cinematic device but here justified with some clever compositions. Like the majority of Twilight Zone episodes, there’s always something to like.

Also watched…
  • Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control — This celebration of Brown’s 20 years on TV featured lots of nice clips and reminisces, which made me want to go back and watch loads of stuff in full. Being made by his own production team, it did lack a bit of external context and opinion; and the new live trick was too obviously played and consequently underwhelming — based on what I’ve read on social media, everyone expected a twist that never came.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 10 — I’m all caught up on Bake Off now, ready for the new series that recently completed filming in lockdown. The show continues to live up to its amiable reputation, but the real highlight for me is aftershow An Extra Slice — sometimes I feel like I’m watching GBBO just so I get to watch Jo Brand, Tom Allen, and their guests (lovingly) take the piss out of it.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — This Netflix standup special was much discussed on its release back in 2018. I’m not the person best placed to write too much about it, but I will say that I thought it was indeed brilliant — often funny, but also incredibly powerful, and ultimately more like an emotive, cathartic ‘lecture’ (for want of a better word) than a traditional standup gig.
  • Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years — Originally meant to air alongside The Promised Land (but delayed by lockdown), this three-part documentary recounting the history of Red Dwarf features many anecdotes that will be familiar to the hardcore fanbase (the DVDs had a thorough series of making-of docs, after all), but it’s still a fun and informative overview.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 1-17 — The first season of this new-cop drama was notable for how it kept things grounded and plausible. The second run sees the writers straining against that a bit: sometimes it seems like their massive LA precinct actually only has half-a-dozen cops (i.e. the main cast) who always hang out and get involved in every case; and those cases are getting more outlandish too, including serial killers and conspiracies. And yet it’s still a very enjoyable, relatively easy watch.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella Academy season 2This month, I have mostly been missing the second season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’ve heard fantastic things about. I never got round to watching season one (although I meant to), so I really should catch up. And talking of “second seasons of superhero shows I never got round to the first season of”, Amazon just started The Boys season two. I want to catch up on that, too.

    Back to Netflix, who also just released mission-to-Mars drama Away. It’s a concept that always entices me, even if the last one I tried, Mars, was so weak I only ever watched one episode. They’ve also recently launched Young Wallander, a reboot that sees the Swedish detective as a junior cop in the present day. Not sure how I feel about that — what makes it Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? I’ll find out at some point, hopefully.

    Next month… talking of stuff Netflix have recently added, they’ve got the first two seasons of YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel, Cobra Kai, ahead of their premiere of the third season next year. I’ll definitely be covering that next month, as well as… I dunno, whatever else turns up and/or I finally get round to watching.

    Plus more Twilight Zone. There’s a lot of that to go yet.

  • The Past Month on TV #59

    Normally I format these TV columns with new (or new-ish) stuff first, followed by older/archive programmes, in a broad-sweep kinda way — i.e. it’s not strictly chronological. But this month not much truly counts as “new”, so I’ve gone for the strictly chronological approach.

    In order of appearance, then, this month there’s an RSC production of Macbeth (staged and filmed in 2018 but debuting on BBC Four tonight); the most recent standup show from Daniel Sloss; Netflix’s revival of Lucifer; classic murder mysteries with Jonathan Creek; an early Doctor Who serial; and more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; plus the usual bits & bobs at the end.

    Macbeth
    RSC Macbeth (2018)This Royal Shakespeare Company production from 2018, starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, has apparently been on iPlayer since April, but only came to my attention thanks to a TV screening scheduled for tonight (on BBC Four at 9:30pm).

    You probably know the story: Scottish lord Macbeth bumps into three witches who prophesy he’ll become king, a goal he sets out to achieve by murder. This particular production has some nice ideas, including casting the witches as a trio of creepy little girls in pyjamas, covering the various ghosts in dust, and an ominously reimagined ending. The real high-point, however, comes when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, which is thanks to Edward Bennett’s understated but powerfully emotional reaction. It justifies why it’s Macduff who gets to vanquish Macbeth at the climax. That’s another good bit, actually, with a convincingly-realised stage fight (something I’ve not seen achieved too often).

    There’s also a big countdown clock that starts ticking when the king is killed and then remains visible throughout — I feel like it takes some balls to have a countdown running during a live performance! Unfortunately, for much of the time the clock just serves to remind you how long is left during a production that I often found a bit slow. The cast frequently race through their lines and run about the place as if a race is on to the finish line, but, counterintuitively, that does not add pace. Altogether, it’s not terrible, but there have been better versions.

    Daniel Sloss: X
    Daniel Sloss: XHaving really enjoyed Sloss’s two Netflix specials back in 2018, I jumped on this 2019 one as soon as I became aware it existed (it was filmed for HBO in the US, but hasn’t made it to any UK broadcaster or streamer (though it had a theatrical release!) But where there’s a will there’s a way…) Hopefully it will become more widely available, because not only is it hilariously funny but it’s packed with so many insightful, timely routines that I don’t even know where to start. Some of the stuff he has to say should be glaringly obvious (about improvements to sex ed, for instance), and yet has society changed? Obviously not. And then, as is Sloss’s style, he blindsides you with a finale that is hard-hitting but still manages to elicit laughs. Few other comedians, or forms of entertainment fullstop, manage to be so funny or so effectively thought-provoking, and I’m not sure any others manage to combine the two so well.

    Lucifer  Season 4
    Lucifer season 4After three seasons on network TV (or Amazon Prime Video here in the UK), Lucifer fell prey to 2018’s bloodbath cancellation season. It was ultimately revived by Netflix, and it seems to have gone well for them: after this they commissioned a fifth and final season, then upped its episode count, then changed their mind and are negotiating for a sixth season.

    The move to streaming had minimal affect on the show itself, with many things remaining exactly the same: 45-minute-ish episodes, each with a case-of-the-‘week’ plot, and fades-to-black for ad breaks that will never, ever come. It’s only subtleties that are different; the kind of thing only production geeks might even register — that there’s marginally more swearing, violence, and nudity; more special effects, suggesting a slightly increased budget; and 4K HDR-enhanced photography, which makes the image richer and prettier without fundamentally changing the style or visual language of the show.

    As for stuff everyone would care about — plot, characters, etc — a lot of this season has to deal with the fallout from the revelations in the season three finale. That means the show becomes a bit more invested in the supernatural stuff than before, although that’s mainly left to the arc plots — the cases of the week are still grounded in the mortal realm, with the usual array of reasons and settings to motivate murder. Cunningly, it all ends in a place that would’ve been suitable (if unsatisfying) for the series to never return, had this revival been short lived. Fortunately, we’ve more to look forward to.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 1
    Jonathan Creek series 1I used to love Jonathan Creek back in the day. It was a huge hit, too, gaining high viewing figures and a BAFTA award. On the surface it doesn’t look so special: two mismatched individuals solve murders. But it’s the execution that’s different: these are all “locked room” mysteries, and rather than interview a small array of suspects to guess who did it, they must work out how the murder was even physically possible. Creek is a magician’s trick designer, and the stories kind of work like magic tricks: something seemingly impossible that has a hidden rational explanation. Personally, that’s right up my street, and while some elements of the show are obviously dated (the hairstyles; the cars; the pace is leisurely by modern standards), I think it holds up pretty well.

    Doctor Who  The Time Meddler
    The Time MeddlerLast month, Doctor Who Magazine ran a Twitter ‘world cup’ to find the most popular stories starring the First Doctor. Many of the usual suspects did well, but I was surprised to see The Time Meddler wind up in second place — I’d never realised how much love there was for this story. In fact, I’d never seen it, so naturally I was inspired to dive in.

    The serial is notable in the history of Doctor Who for being the first pseudo-historical — that’s to say, a story set in the past but with science-fiction elements (beyond the presence of the regular characters and the TARDIS, obviously). Also because (spoiler alert!) it’s the first time we meet another member of the Doctor’s race (besides Susan, obviously). That reveal is a long time coming, though. We get there in the Part 3 cliffhanger, which is one for the ages — I can only imagine how it must’ve played back in 1965. (Of course, without internet discussions or fandom as we know it today, I guess it wasn’t as impactful. But for those kids in the know, whew!) It cues a genuinely superb final episode.

    Unfortunately, the three before it feel like we’re taking the long way round to get to the point. The initial setup is enticing, with anachronistic technology turning up in 1066, given an extra zhuzh because new companion Steven doubts the TARDIS can travel in time, and the out-of-place tech seems to prove him right. After that, there’s a lot of back-and-forthing — the kind of stuff that feels like forward momentum in the moment, but ultimately just moves pieces back to where they were. The Doctor even goes missing for an entire episode (so William Hartnell could have a holiday), which leads to even more wheel-spinning. At least Douglas Camfield’s direction is really rather good… until he attempts to stage a multi-combatant sword fight within the budgetary, scheduling, and technological limitations of 1960s children’s television. It’s not really his fault, I’m sure, but it fails to be an exciting bit of TV.

    I feel like that’s an excellent two- or maybe even three-parter in The Time Meddler — when it finally gets to the point in the final episode, it’s fantastic, but the first three-quarters are much less engaging. It’s worth it for that final part, but there are more consistently excellent First Doctor stories that I’d rank higher.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
    Jess-BelleThis third selection of episodes deemed the series’ worst (according to the consensus ranking I compiled) mean I’ve now seen the bottom 10% of episodes, which I think is a good time to call a day on being miserable and return to the good stuff. As for the following seven editions, many of them are not fundamentally flawed, but each has some element that doesn’t work or a stumble in their execution that prevents them from achieving the full quality of a good Twilight Zone episode.

    Continuing to move up the rankings, in 149th place is Still Valley, in which TZ basically tells us there are “good people on both sides” as a Confederate soldier is presented with a book of witchcraft that he could use to change the tide of the war, but refuses to do it because it means calling on the powers of Satan. And that’s all for your 25 minutes. As Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste writes, “we watch The Twilight Zone for its morally complex and hard-hitting narratives. Still Valley is so vanilla, it belongs in a show called The Light Zone.” It’s a solid episode for the most part, but with a maddeningly uninteresting conclusion.

    Next up is a season four episode (i.e. an hour-long one), Jess-Belle. At its core it’s a gender flipped version of The Chaser (reviewed last time), in which a young woman wants a particular man to fall in love with her. The main difference is that whereas before the (male) daemon was actually trying to help the main character (by hoping to talk him out of it), the (female) witch here seems more of a malicious, trickster-ish force. There are one or two effectively creepy bits, but it’s weak sauce by TZ standards, with no lesson to be learned and an irritating folksy song that keeps popping up throughout. On Blu-ray it comes with an audio commentary in which TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree spends the entire running time singing the episode’s praises and the writer, Earl Hamner, basically nods along with a “yes, I’m a genius” attitude. On the bright side, it did help me to see some of the episode’s qualities. For example, the extended running time allows room for scenes that would otherwise have been cut, and are actually among the episode’s better bits. And you learn that it was written in just a week as a last-minute replacement — bearing that in mind, it’s not so bad.

    Come Wander with MeThe next episode in our rundown is also based around a song: Come Wander with Me, in which a wandering singer attempts to buy a folksong from a young woman, only to find he might be living the lyrics… maybe. It’s a bit unclear what’s really happening, or why. It’s got some nice ideas, with mysterious characters, the haunting song, and some atmospheric direction by Richard Donner, but it comes to no kind of conclusion. How has this happened before? Has it happened before? Why is it happening again now? The episode barely even begins to ask those questions, never mind answer them; and not in a Lynchian “it’s up to your interpretation” way, which would be fine, but it doesn’t even seem to be aware those questions exist. Frustrating.

    The Brain Center at Whipple’s is set in the future year of 1967, when a company is replacing tens of thousands of staff with a machine. What an implausible notion, eh? This episode is no more than a rather dated lecture about automation — the warning has been ignored, but none of the terrible things foretold have come to pass (…yet). The ending is both painfully obvious (Mr Whipple himself gets replaced by a machine) and silly (said machine is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, waddling around Whipple’s office spinning a keychain for no reason other than Mr Whipple used to). It doesn’t help any that “Whipple” is an inherently silly-sounding name.

    Next up is one of the show’s frequent excursions into the Old West in Showdown with Rance McGrew. They surely made sense at the time, when Westerns were ubiquitous on US TV, but if you didn’t know that it can seem a bit weird that a sci-fi/fantasy show is so obsessed with the era. You do need to know that context for this episode, though, because it’s actually a riff on all those TV Westerns. The first half is basically a spoof of them, which I imagine was rather effective back in the ’60s, because it remains moderately amusing now. After establishing that the show’s star is a bit of a prima donna sissy, he’s magically transported back to the real West, where he must face up to the actual Jesse James, who’s been watching the show and is none too impressed. It’s quite a fun episode, but the idea that gunslingers in the afterlife spend all their time watching movies and TV and getting their feelings hurt about how they’re portrayed is… well, it feels kinda daft, but eh, why not? It makes me wonder if Serling didn’t like Westerns or their attitude to history, and so this whole episode was just an exercise in critiquing them. As such, it’s not too bad.

    The Mind and the MatterThe ‘hero’ of The Mind and the Matter hates people. They bump into him on the subway; they squish against him in the elevator; they accidentally pour coffee over him at work. If he had his way, all the people would just disappear. After he reads a book about the power of the mind, he instantly gains the power to make his thoughts real (no practice required, apparently), and so immediately does away with everyone else. Hurrah! But after a morning’s work in peace and quiet, he’s bored, with no idea what to do. So the first thing he imagines to enliven his world is… an earthquake. Um, what? Unsatisfied with imagining different weather phenomena, and apparently unable to conceive of anything else whatsoever to occupy his interest, he decides to fill the world with people just like him. That results in a world full of grumblers and moaners, which he finds even more distasteful than how it was before — so he just puts it all back. It’s almost a lesson in what happens if you give unlimited power to unimaginative people… except that’s not the point the episode actually wants to make, so it doesn’t really make it. Instead it’s going for “this world isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative and there’s a lot to like”. But it doesn’t make us feel that, it just tells us it. Heck, even the character doesn’t feel it — he’s just as miserable at the end as he was at the start. The whole affair is sort of an infinitely stupider rehash of the classic Time Enough at Last, only without any ironic point. And there are some terrible prosthetic effects, which I struggle to believe convinced anyone even on low-res ’60s TV. Basically, it’s a wholly inadequate episode from every angle.

    Finally for now, The Mirror is the story of a Castro-analogous rebel general (played by Peter Falk) who has successfully taken control of his Central American country, when the former ruler introduces him to a magic mirror that will show any would-be assassins — which just so happens to be more-or-less everyone he knows. I guess it’s meant to be a study in paranoia, although Serling’s opening and closing voiceovers seem to be framing it more as a criticism of tyrants. As the latter, it borders on propaganda, which kind of undermines the former. It’s a reasonable concept, thinly executed.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 1-14 — I last watched this modern-day Sherlock Holmes in 2017 (and last properly commented on it here in 2016), which I guess shows my level of dedication to it. In truth, I’ve warmed to it over the years. I’m still not convinced it’s a faithful adaptation of the original characters (and certainly not of the stories), but, taken on its own merits, it has good qualities. My favourite of those: the way it’s sometimes prepared to offer quite outlandish storylines, ones that border on science-fiction or pulp genre fare, rather than your bog-standard procedural homicide stuff.
  • Eurovision 2020 — Didn’t actually happen, of course. In its place, the BBC offered a special called Come Together, in which past highlights chosen by a panel of experts were voted on by the public. There were some spectacularly weird choices in there, and of course Waterloo won. That was followed by the official replacement show, Europe Shine a Light. The title is a reference to the last time the UK actually won — were they attempting to keep us on side? It was an odd affair, but still entertaining in its own way. There’s nothing quite like Eurovision… and this wasn’t quite like Eurovision. Still, I suspect it’ll be better than that Netflix film, if its trailer is anything to go by.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 9 — Beginning a catch-up on the last couple of series. This is the 2018 one, if you need a point of reference. Also watched all of companion show An Extra Slice, which is sometimes even better than the main programme, mainly thanks to Tom Allen’s caustic humour.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 16-20 — Another handful of episodes (spanning from the unexpected, emotionally devastating Greenlight to the gripping and now-timely season finale (it’s about the risk of a deadly virus released into the population)) that remind this is a more-than-solid example of a US network TV police drama. Looking forward to season two… though with US networks currently cancelling many police-related series, I guess a third season looks uncertain.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 8 — Just in case you think I’d forgotten about it. Hey, next month I might finish it!

    Next month… I’m not aware of anything in particular coming up, so hopefully I’ll finally dig into my massive pile of “stuff I’ve been meaning to get round to”. Roll a dice for whether that means The Mandalorian or Devs or Killing Eve or Westworld or Jack Ryan or Jessica Jones or The Witcher or Veronica Mars or Peaky Blinders or The Boys or…

  • The Past Month on TV #56

    This TV column is over a week later than I intended it to be, meaning there’s loads to talk about — half a season of Doctor Who; two new ITV dramas; more Picard and Twilight Zone; I finally watched Good Omens, and got back to The Good Place; there’s even the Oscars; plus a bunch of other stuff. It’s an epic — over 5,500 words if you read the whole thing — so let’s crack on…

    Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 6-10
    PraxeusMost of the Doctor Who chatter of late revolves around what happened in the finale — no surprise there, given major revelations were teased in previous episodes this series. But before I natter about that, there’s a handful of other episodes to cover.

    After a rocky opening to this 38th run of Doctor Who, with episodes varying wildly in quality, I think it settled down pretty well in the middle. That doesn’t mean it was a classic series by any means, though. Praxeus is a perfect case in point: it’s a solid episode, with a decent storyline, a few nice scenes, a handful of broadly well-drawn characters, and a reasonable amount of important-message delivery. As the second environmentally-themed plot in as many months, it suffers somewhat from the repetition, but how this handles its messaging about plastic pollution vs how Orphan 55 battered us around the head about climate change is a good example of how to do such things fairly well instead of very, very poorly. But there are also a handful of plot holes and character inconsistencies to niggle away at you. It’s as if they didn’t bother to employ script editors or continuity checkers this series — though the oversights are so glaring, anyone should’ve spotted them. So if all of this sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. In any other recent era of Who, this would be a middling-to-poor midseason filler; in the current era, it’s one of the better episodes.

    There were more Issues on hand the next week in Can You Hear Me?, to the extent the BBC even put up their Action Line phone number at the end. It’s clear showrunner Chris Chibnall wants to Say Something with at least a couple of episodes every season, but he’s once again clashing with the past: Vincent and the Doctor already did mental health better. In itself, how Can You Hear Me handled the issues it raised was a mixed bag. Yaz’s backstory came out of the blue — it’s not even been vaguely alluded to before, and how it’s depicted in the episode left a lot up in the air. The consensus on social media is we were meant to think she was intending to commit suicide, but the episode soft-balls this in order to avoid triggering terms or visuals — a commendable aim, especially in a family drama, but it left the point entirely unclear. And the end of the episode, where the Doctor seems dismissive of Graham trying to open up about his cancer, drew actual complaints and the BBC having to issue a statement. If you have to explain the intent of your drama in a statement released afterwards… well. But ‘Issues’ aside, as a sci-fi adventure it was another solid attempt.

    The Haunting of Villa DiodatiAll of which means that the series’ penultimate story, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, was on a whole ‘nother level. For me, this might be the first genuine classic of this era. (If you’ve not seen it, spoilers ahead.) The first half is like a proper horror movie, complete with jump scares and other creepy effects (the dead-eyed little girl behind the door, but only when the lightning flashes… brr!) Naturally there’s a sci-fi explanation for it all, but even that was thrilling and chilling in its own way. It was the best use of the Cybermen since… er, their last story, because that was really good too. But the Cybermen are sometimes underserved by Who, wheeled out and disregarded as second-tier baddies after the Daleks, so I delight in seeing them used so well more often. Throw in a well-researched and depicted historical atmosphere, some good comedic asides (I thought the butler was superb), and a genuine sense of jeopardy (the Doctor stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decisions she has to make, and the lone Cyberman a towering presence), and you’ve got an all-round great episode.

    Which leads us to the two-part finale. The first half, Ascension of the Cybermen, went down well with many, but I thought it was no great shakes. Like most episodes this season, it was solid mid-range Who, which ticks certain boxes whilst never in any way excelling. As epic finales go, seven humans vs three Cybermen is hardly a grand setup. And why do three Cybermen require two (quite large) spaceships, anyway? Was one full of those Cyberdrones — which looked thoroughly daft, so maybe they should’ve left that ship at home. The rest of the plot is a lot of faffing about to get us to the real point: the cliffhanger. Only, it’s not much of a cliffhanger, because it’s just the Master popping back up (which was inevitable) to say “now I’m going to tell you that thing I wouldn’t tell you earlier!” Wow. J.J. Abrams, you have a lot to answer for.

    The Timeless ChildrenSo the real point of it all comes in The Timeless Children, where the Master finds some new sources to rewrite the Doctor’s Wikipedia entry, then reads that revised version to her. I’m only half joking. Chibnall has managed to rewrite Doctor Who mythology in a way that both angers fans with its radical changes, and fundamentally makes no difference whatsoever. The Doctor used to be a mysterious alien from another planet who travelled the universe helping people. Now, she’s a mystery alien from another dimension who travels the universe helping people. Instead of being “just another Time Lord” who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere, the Doctor is now a Special / Chosen One — the originator of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate; her DNA copied and pasted into every other Time Lord… and then her memory wiped, so she grew up as just another Time Lord who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere… but, y’know, was secretly special. I feel I should hate it, but, honestly, it was so guessable and so fundamentally immaterial that I just can’t muster the energy to care enough to hate it. It may yet go the way of “half-human” anyway, i.e. we’ll all just ignore and/or rewrite it as soon as someone other than Chibnall gets in charge.

    As for the story of the episode itself — because it did kind of have one, away from the Doctor getting that massive info dump — it was, predictably, an adequate middle-of-the-road knockabout, with an underwhelming finale. When someone on Twitter can knock up an infinitely better resolution in comic strip form within hours of the episode ending (which is exactly what this is), you’re once again left questioning the actual ability of the current showrunner. They can’t even do a very good copy of a Russell T Davies-style cliffhanger/Xmas special tease. The Judoon imprison the Doctor… as a tease for a special starring the Daleks? “What?!” indeed.

    Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 2-3
    Picard: engagingI’m a good few episodes behind on Picard now (episode 7 arrived this week), which is not because I’ve given up on it, but because it hasn’t engaged me quite enough to especially make time for it. It seems to have garnered quite the mixed reaction: the critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes are very strong; the user ratings on IMDb aren’t bad at all; but every time I see someone write about the show, on Twitter or another blog or what have you, it seems to be in criticism. I fall in between all these stools. There are things the show is doing well, or at least passably, but other bits that are awful; that feel like the worst of cheap made-for-syndication ’90s sci-fi, rather than the peak TV ‘prestige series’ it clearly wants to be.

    I read one of the execs or writers or someone say that they consider the first three episodes to be their pilot, and that’s indicative of one of the show’s major problems. It’s not unique in that regard — it’s an attitude that’s become ubiquitous in this “we’ve really made an X-hour movie” era of TV making. Netflix series get away with it a bit because of their all-at-once model — if the makers say “the first three episodes are the pilot”, you can find two or three hours to sit down and watch all three as your first chunk. But Picard is coming out the old fashioned way, i.e. weekly, and so it takes three weeks to get through what should be the first hour or so. Even within the episodes, it’s paced like treacle. I don’t necessarily expect them to get through all the necessary setup in just 45 minutes — because it does establish a fair bit across these three episodes — but the same material in a double-length opener, instead of spread thin across three weeks? I think that would’ve been fine. Plenty of shows before now have had double-length pilot episodes — including, pertinently, TNG.

    I’m currently wondering if Patrick Stewart regrets signing up to this. It took a lot to lure him back, and presumably it was the general shape of what they were aiming to do (rather than the specific qualities of the individual scripts) that got him there. And he’s committed to multiple seasons too, with a second already commissioned and strong rumours of at least a third. Perhaps the grand plan will become clearer as things go on. Or perhaps it is just another paced-for-streaming modern TV show, which obviously works for some people.

    Flesh and Blood  Series 1
    Flesh and BloodBetween its short length (four parts), quality cast (Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea, Russell Tovey), and condensed broadcast schedule (it was on four consecutive nights), this looked like a miniseries… until a last-second cliffhanger (plus some dangling plot threads) suggested there’ll be more to come. I watched it on that back of that cast and some strong reviews, which it only somewhat merited. It’s a decent family drama, about a 60-something widow getting into a relationship with a man her three grown-up children think might be conning her, with the added spice of a friendly/nosey next-door neighbour who might be a proper weirdo herself; but decent is about the extent of it — the cast elevate the material, which is fine but didn’t excite me otherwise. I expect I’ll keep watching if it comes back.

    McDonald & Dodds  Series 1 Episode 1
    McDonald & DoddsNormally I’d give a new ITV crime drama a miss, but this one is set and filmed in Bath (they got in my way one day by filming in the park I wanted to sit in for lunch, the bastards), so I had to see. It was… adequate. It’s about a hot-shot London detective who relocates to Bath, and lines like “that may be how things are done in London, but you’re in Bath now” were repeated to the point of absurdity. And don’t get me started on the accents (one local review derided the programme for thinking we all speak like Hobbits). Yet, inexplicably, it seems to have gone down quite well with viewers, which just goes to show you can’t trust the general public to judge anything. It’s only two episodes, so I’ll watch the second (if only to see what other recognisable locations they trot out — it makes a real point of showing off where it was filmed), but that might be my limit.

    Good Omens
    Good OmensThis six-part adaptation of the beloved fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman debuted on Amazon last May, and by rights I should’ve been all over it from day one — I read the book as a kid, and loved it enough that I used to cite it as my favourite novel (the only thing that changed that was the fact it’s been decades since I last read it). But, as regular readers will know, life has got in the way of my viewing choices over the past year or so, and it was in fact that level of attachment that stopped me watching it — it needed my full attention. Obviously, that time has come.

    The downside of all the waiting is that I perhaps built up expectations the series couldn’t hope to match. To say it was a disappointment would be going too far, but it didn’t blow me away in the manner the book did when I was ten-ish. It couldn’t, shouldn’t have been expected to, really. But there’s an awful lot to like here. In the lead roles of an angel and demon, respectively, Michael Sheen and David Tennant are fantastic, both individually and as a double act. There is much quirkiness and craziness to revel in, and while it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, it regularly tickles your amusement centres with its absurdity. There are some bravura touches as well, like the 30-minute pre-titles to episode three. On the downside, at six hours it seems a little long, and there’s way too much voiceover narration — Gaiman’s true calling as a novelist rather than screenwriter showing through, I feel.

    Maybe it’s a case of “the book is better” (as I say, I haven’t read it for yonks), but there’s still an awful lot to like about the adaptation. Those without a preexisting attachment to the novel may get more out of it than I did thanks to not bringing baggage. Personally speaking, someday I’ll watch it again, and hopefully having watched it once will mean it’s less weighed down by my expectations and I’ll enjoy it even more.

    The Good Place  Season 3
    The Good Place season 3“Holy fork,” I said to myself when I saw that the series finale of this had aired at the end of January — I’d forgotten how much time had passed since I last watched it. If you’ve still not seen any of the show yourself, look away now — it’s the kind of series you want to experience knowing as little as possible, and if you read about later seasons before you’ve seen earlier ones it’s just gonna ruin stuff. (I know that sounds self-evident, but it applies to some shows more than others, and this is very much one it applies to.)

    So, the third season picks up where the second left off (duh), with the gang back in their lives on Earth trying to prove they’re good people at heart. As I found with season two (which also started with a new status quo), these early episodes are okay — during this phase I like the show, but I don’t necessarily love it; I feel “it’s not as good as it used to be”, but it still entertains me, even while it seems to tread water a bit. But then, halfway-or-so through, the plot kicks into gear, and the season’s second half is a run to the finish line through an array of surprising and hilarious situations. The “back on Earth” premise robs something special from the show, I think — it’s only once they’re on course back into the afterlife that things pick up. Not that the early part of the seasons is a washout — like most of the best sitcoms, the joy is more in the characters than the exact situation they’re in, and the characters are still around — but something didn’t quite work for me (as I said, it’s not bad, just less good), and it’s only once they’re getting stuck back into the fantastical side of things that it really comes to life. It all builds to a finale that hits a surprisingly emotional note. And, knowing the next season is the final one, I’m looking forward to seeing where this crazy journey is going to end up.

    Lucifer  Season 3 Episodes 16-24
    Lucifer season 3So, I’ve finally caught up on the Fox years of Lucifer — it was here that its original network cancelled the show (Netflix picked it up for a fourth season, recommissioned it for a fifth and supposedly final season, added more episodes to that fifth season, and now are reportedly lining up a sixth season too). I can see why fans were particularly enraged — the season ends on a massive change of circumstance that would’ve been a terrible place to leave it forever. Indeed, the most intriguing thing here is where it will go next, especially given the network change: Lucifer is an old-fashioned network procedural, as much concerned with case-of-the-week crime stories as it is with arc plots and the supernatural goings-on of its angels-and-demons universe; and that was to be expected when it was on an old-fashioned network, but now that it’s on Netflix, the home of bingeing, will it shift its emphasis?

    That’s a question for next season, anyway. As for season three, it suffered a different fault familiar from network series of old: struggling to pace an arc plot across a mammoth 24 episodes. It actually went rather well at first (even if certain revelations were glaringly obvious), but by this final stretch it’s spinning its wheels a bit, trying to delay the finale-sized events for, well, the finale. I mean, one minute Chloe and Pierce are on course to get married, then he’s calling it off, then it’s back on, then she’s calling it off… pinging back and forth, one episode to the next; swinging from one major-life-choice extreme to the other from week to week. That’s something else the more concentrated Netflix runs (season four is ten episodes, season five will be two halves of eight each) will hopefully improve upon.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The DummyJordan Peele’s new version of The Twilight Zone belatedly made it to UK screens a week or two back, almost 11 months after its US airing. I still haven’t watched any of it, but I am still going with cherrypicking the best of the original series.

    I started my exploration of The Twilight Zone by watching the top ten episodes according to a couple of different websites. After that, I found more lists to create an average ranking (see last month), but I didn’t complete those new lists’ top tens — so that’s what I’ve done for this month’s selection. There were four new lists and, interestingly, all but one of their top tens contain episodes I hadn’t seen — you’d think that, between completing three top tens and a consensus ranking up to #16, I’d’ve seen every top-ten-worthy episode. That’s where personal preferences come in, of course, but it also shows how many great episodes of The Twilight Zone there are. Across the seven top tens there are 29 different episodes, and the only two that are included in every one are The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and Time Enough at Last. 15 episodes appear on just one list, including all six I’m reviewing today.

    Anyway, enough of my statistics preoccupation — some episodes! The highest ranked among these is The Dummy, which is #2 on Buzzfeed’s list. It’s about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is talking to him — is it, or is it his inner demons? A sentient ventriloquist’s dummy is a none-more-creepy idea, and the episode does an interesting line in “is it real or is it in his head?”, but it didn’t quite come together in a satisfying enough way for me. Sure, there’s a somewhat chilling final beat, but I didn’t feel like the rest of the story quite got there, more jumped to it. The second best episode of the entire show? Not even close. Though it does have one of host Rod Serling’s coolest on-screen intros.

    Next up is also from Buzzfeed: their 6th place choice, Long Distance Call. Five-year-old Billy loves his grandma, and she loves him, somewhat to the chagrin of his mother. But then grandma dies, her parting wish that Billy could come with her. He starts to spend a lot of time playing with a toy telephone she gave him… and who’s he talking to? Grandma, of course. It seems like it’s just a child’s way of dealing with grief… until Billy runs in front of a car, saying someone told him to do it. It’s a strong idea for an episode, with some neat developments along the way, but it feels in need of a closing act — a final plot beat to resolve Billy and his telephone. We can extrapolate one from what happens (spoiler: by the end, grandma isn’t on the line any more), but it would be nice to see Billy realise this. And it would be effectively Twilight Zone-y as well, helping to underscore the magical realism with a final question: has Billy finished grieving and is ready to move on, or were the father’s pleas answered and grandma stopped calling? Add that final scene and this would probably be one of my most favourite episodes. As it is, it’s a very strong almost-but-not-quite.

    The Big Tall WishMoving on to TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes now for three picks. First, their #4, The Big Tall Wish. It’s a significant episode in the history of television because it features a nearly all-black cast in a story that isn’t predicated on their race; consequently, it was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations. Critics rank this one fairly well — it’s also 18th on Screen Crush, 32nd on Paste, and 33rd on Buzzfeed — but on audience-ranked lists it’s much lower: 127th on IMDb; 119th on Ranker. The racism of audience rankings, so regularly visible on new releases, truly knows no bounds. Anyway, it’s about a beat-up ageing boxer hoping for one last shot at glory, and the young kid who believes in him — and who also believes his wishes come true, so he uses one to help the boxer win his fight. I really liked the setup, which plays as thoughtful and groundedly dramatic, with the suggestion of magical realism as opposed to outright fantasy. It’s well directed by Ronald Winston (one of three contributions he made to the series, including The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), from an interesting use of a mirror in the opening, which helps to enliven what would otherwise just be a scene of two people chatting, to a striking way of visualising the fight sequence. At first I was unimpressed about where the episode eventually goes story-wise, but after a bit of thought I’ve come round to it more. It is, of course, metaphorical, rather than merely following some made-up rules of magic, and therefore has something to say about belief.

    Right after that in 5th is Deaths-Head Revisited, the story of a former Nazi captain going for a nice little holiday to Dachau, where a nostalgic wander around the old concentration camp turns into something he didn’t anticipate. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but this was made just 17 years after the end of the war. That sounds like quite a long time, but it isn’t really — it’s like something now relating to events from 2003. In fact, just look to a recent cinema release: that exact period of time gets you from Bad Boys II to Bad Boys for Life. I know that’s an insanely trivial comparison, but hopefully it makes my point: 17 years can be no time at all. Indeed, on the audio commentary by author and TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree and his mate Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman), they note how contemporary this issue was at the time: Judgment at Nuremberg had just been in cinemas; Eichmann had been tried but not yet sentenced. And this bit of trivia from IMDb: “due to religiously-inspired antisemitism that existed in the US at the time, none of the prisoners are shown wearing the yellow Star of David, which the Nazis made Jewish prisoners wear at Dachau.” Just 17 years after the Holocaust, and antisemitism was that present again. Chilling, isn’t it? And, today, we have our own problems with the resurgence of the Far Right, rendering these kinds of stories timely once again. This is as strong an example as any. As Gaiman says on the commentary, “it has real content. It’s something that leaves you with an emotion. It leaves you feeling something. It leaves you thinking.” Gaiman rationalises the events of the episode as being that “on some deep level he [the Nazi] had enough of a soul that he went back to the place of his crimes, realised what he’d done, and went mad.” Perhaps, but I think it’s more about the Nazis’ unending hubris: he thinks he can revisit the camp with impunity, to revel in the glorious memory of his deeds; but instead he is punished, and he’s not been hunted down for this punishment — it only happens because he has the gall to return.

    Twenty TwoOn a lighter note, in 9th place at TV Guide is Twenty Two. I say “lighter” — the subject matter isn’t as heavy, but this is a creepy episode. It’s about a woman in hospital who has a recurring nightmare about visiting the morgue, but she’s convinced it’s not a nightmare, it’s happening. It’s the enactment of her nightmare that is genuinely creepy (just imagining having to ‘live’ it gives me chills), and the idea of not being sure what’s dreams and what’s reality is a very Twilight Zone concept. Unfortunately, some of the specifics are weak. Whether it’s a nightmare or not would be easy to disprove, considering it includes details like her breaking a glass every night, or that the morgue is room number 22 — if it is, how does she know that? (Her doctor does eventually realise this… after days of hearing about it.) And as there’s nothing else wrong with her, why not discharge her — the nightmare is so location-specific that it couldn’t happen at home. Eventually there’s a twist, and it’s a good’un, pushing the concept somewhere logical (within the bounds of paranormal ‘logic’, anyhow) and retaining the creepiness. (There’s also a question about whether it inspired a much later film series, with which it shares many notable similarities, but to say more would be a whopping spoiler.)

    Another point about Twenty Two is that it’s one of a handful of episodes they shot on video to save money. Well, it may’ve saved some dough, but it looks like crap, even by the standards of video productions — it looks like it was transferred from a VHS copy. Maybe tape was really crummy back then (I swear other ’60s taped productions, like Doctor Who for example, don’t look this bad), or maybe it’s been poorly preserved, or maybe it’s just a shoddy transfer on the Blu-ray. In the end, only half-a-dozen episodes were made this way because they weren’t happy with the results — understandably! Sometimes money isn’t everything. But it’s interesting how much it’s shot like a video production. The shot choices aren’t like a normal film episode but on videotape; instead, it’s got all the kinds of camera moves and slight adjustments and whatnot you almost subconsciously recognise from live / minimally-edited TV. (Incidentally, Long Distance Call is another videotaped episode, but I watched that after this one so had fewer thoughts on the technical presentation.) And yet, the underlying episode is so good that it overcomes the technical limitations. No, the problem is the logic gaps. They may seem minor quibbles, but if they were ironed out it would improve the whole episode. For me, fixing them would make this a 10-out-of-10, but as-is it’s more of an 8.

    A Game of PoolFinally for now, the one outstanding top-ten-er from Thrillist’s ranking — their 8th pick, A Game of Pool. It’s about a pool shark who thinks he’s better than the player everyone else considers to be the greatest, but that guy’s dead so he can’t prove it… except, of course, he’s in the Twilight Zone. Some episodes save their Twilight Zone-ness for midway or final-minute reveals, but others put it front and centre, and this is one of them: a game of pool with a dead man! But it still has one of the show’s trademark ironic twists at the end, to teach us a lesson. That said, I didn’t think it landed as well as some other episodes, because it’s a bit of a fantastical warning rather than a pure morality play. There’s an alternate ending (included on the Blu-ray as both a narrated screenplay and a clip from the ’80s remake, which used that ending instead), which was screenwriter George Clayton Johnson’s original and preferred conclusion, and it’s that alternative conclusion that’s stuck with me more. Of course, the advantage of things like special features is we kind of get to have both versions; we can pick our favourite, or even consider both, like alternate timelines — how very The Twilight Zone.

    The 92nd Academy Awards  and
    The British Academy Film Awards 2020
    The 92nd Academy AwardsOn Twitter in the run-up to the ceremony itself, there was a general acceptance that (a) Parasite was the best picture of the year, and (b) Parasite was not going to win Best Picture. As far as I could see, there was a sort of genial acceptance of these facts, which made a nice change from Film Twitter’s usual condemnation of everything. But then, blow us all down, Parasite did actually win! It’s noteworthy for all sorts of reasons — primarily because it’s the first ever non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was also only the third time that the Palme d’Or and Oscar have gone to the same film. And director Bong Joon Ho became only the second individual to win four awards at one ceremony (after Walt Disney, and he did it across four different films). As for the rest of the ceremony, most of the other gongs went where expected, leaving 1917 the major victim of Parasite’s surprise success. But it still took home three well-deserved technical trophies, whereas Netflix’s The Irishman (which had the same number of nominations, ten) was shut out entirely.

    There were even fewer surprises at this year’s BAFTAs. Maybe Klaus winning Best Animated Film, but then the British Academy are always more resistant to the dominance of Disney/Pixar in this category than our American cousins (I think of Kubo deservedly winning a couple of years ago, for example). Of course 1917 won Best Picture — it was the favourite anyway, but it was also British, and that does sometimes sway the local vote. Not so in the acting categories, which went to the expected sources. I thought Graham Norton was a good host, too. He’s a natural fit for this kind of thing, and so while not every line quite landed, his hit rate was much higher than other recent hosts. I hope he returns next year.

    Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 9 Episode 3-8 — The back half of this run introduced a new lead detective (the show’s fourth), played by Ralf Little. His quirk is that the island’s heat / animals / etc cause him all sorts of irritations and rashes. I can relate. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the sunny, silly murder mystery.
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episode 6 — A final recommendation for this most excellent comedy, which went out on a high with one of its best episodes: 90 Degrees, which refers to the heatwave occurring during the story, but was “misinterpreted by the set builders” so one of the main sets is on its side. Hilarity ensues. The whole magnificent series is still available on iPlayer, it’s also out on DVD, and a second series has been confirmed. Hurrah!
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno — A one-off HBO comedy special spun off from the popular podcast. I’d vaguely heard of said podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), and apparently it’s very funny, so this seemed worth a punt. And I did enjoy it, overall. I’ve read that it’s not as good as the real thing, though, so maybe I should get onto that.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 1-6 — I remember being interested in this when it was first announced, because it starred Nathan Fillion (so enjoyable in both Firefly and Castle) and had an interesting-enough premise (middle-aged man joins LAPD as their oldest ever rookie), but then I kind of forgot to keep an eye out for it — it’s on season two now and I’m just getting started. It’s an above average police drama, I’d say, and it’s a nice change that it’s not about detectives solving a murder of the week.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Noughts + CrossesThis month, I have mostly been missing Noughts + Crosses, the BBC’s high-profile adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s beloved alternate-world young adult novels. It seemed to go down very well on Twitter when the first episode aired, and the whole series is already available on iPlayer, so I’ve no excuse not to make time for it next month (other than all those Picards I have to catch up…)

    Next month… Disney+ finally comes to the UK on March 24th, and with it The Baby Yoda Show The Mandalorian. Plus, a different tack in my viewing of both The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #50

    Last month, I said this month would hopefully feature Stranger Things 3, Veronica Mars season 4, and The Boys season 1. It doesn’t. Not any of them. But I’m not short of other things to write about…

    Years and Years
    Years and YearsThe writer most popularly known for reviving Doctor Who, Russell T Davies, returns to science fiction for the first time in almost a decade with this acclaimed miniseries. This is a very different kind of sci-fi, though — no space invaders or malicious AI or mad scientists here. No, this story begins in 2019 as we know it and then moves across the next 15 years to explore just where we’re headed, in a realistic and grounded way. It focuses on a normal family from Manchester — four siblings, their grandmother, and assorted spouses and children — and how the changes in society and technology affect them. It’s a story of the ordinary people; the folks who don’t shape history, history happens around and to them.

    Cannily, it dodges the Brexit bullet — there are implications it went ahead, but it doesn’t have any bearing on the story: these big changes are happening everywhere anyway, whether Britain leaves the EU or not. What it is aware of is how much society and technology are now intertwined. In the first episode, a teenager comes out to her parents as trans — not trans gender, but transhuman. She wants to ditch the limitations of flesh and live forever as data. Some people will scoff at that, but the way it’s presented and plays out over the next five episodes is highly plausible. RTD tackles a whole host of societal issues in a similar way — immigration, the gig economy, nationalism, etc — all mixed together in a way that reflects real life. After all, we’re never just dealing with or worried about one thing at a time, especially nowadays.

    As someone who grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, learning about the Cold War as an historical event, I sometimes wondered how people lived their day-to-day lives with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Except that’s not what it was actually like, was it? It may’ve been there, in the background, ebbing and spiking depending on the political factors of the day, but people just got on with their everyday lives while that played out on the news. It’s the same nowadays, isn’t it? There’s so much crap going on in the world, and most of it we just see on the news — unless it happens to butt into our own lives for whatever reason. And Years and Years is that same thing, but projected into future events; and not fantastical things, like a mission to Mars or an AI breakthrough, but a very plausible extrapolation of where we’re headed.

    Personally, I thought it was a work of borderline genius. RTD has always had a way with characters — of quickly shading in believable individuals, their families and lives; of writing scenes that sing with dialogue and interactions that seem plucked straight from real life — and here that’s married with an imaginative vision of the near future, the two working in harmony to create a drama that’s also a warning about what we’re getting ourselves into… although it’s also an admonishment, showing us what we’ve got ourselves into and wondering if it’s too late to stop it. But there’s a dash of hope in there, too; just a sliver of “maybe it’ll be mostly OK in the end.” Fingers crossed.

    Peaky Blinders  Series 4
    Peaky Blinders series 4Birmingham’s premier gangsters return with a storyline that forces them to reckon with their past actions. So it’s unfortunate that this is a show that can’t be doing with recaps at the start of episodes. I spent most of the first instalment trying to remember the events of previous series and how they’d led to where things were, which is an unwelcome distraction that could be easily solved with a simple “previously on” at the opening. I don’t know why Netflix hate them so much (well, I do — it’s the assumption you’ll just binge-watch everything, and if you don’t then they want you to feel you have to; and we’re all just buying into what we’re told to do, which is half the problem (funnily enough, that’s a lot of what Years & Years was all about…)

    Anyway, once things get up and running, and you can get your head around what’s going on enough to be going on with, this is another thrilling story of ’20s criminality. Adrien Brody pops in as a series-long guest star, a Mafia enforcer from New York who has a vendetta against the Blinders because they killed his dad, and now he’s brought his American muscle to wipe them out. With bigger forces out to gobble them up, the Blinders must rely once again on a mix of their wits and straightforward firepower. The show itself is the same, blending together tricksy plotting (Tommy Shelby may always have a plan, but we’re not always privy to it until after the fact) and impressively staged action scenes (there’s an extended shoot-out at the start of episode five that must’ve eaten up a lot of the budget; and if it didn’t, they’ve done a good job making it look like it did). In fact, the series as a whole looks stunning — style drips off the screen, whether it be the slow-mo hero walks or the pulsating rock soundtrack.

    For my money, the plot was a little smaller-scale than previous seasons, despite involving ever-bigger outside forces, which made it feel almost like an extended movie rather than a dense season of television. But don’t take that criticism too much to heart — previous seasons may’ve been even better in my personal estimation, but this is still top-drawer drama.

    Unforgotten  Series 3
    Unforgotten series 3Where the other shows reviewed this month are big, brassy productions told on a mythic scale, Unforgotten is almost the opposite, and yet it tackles themes no less grand. But it’s a quiet, understated drama, as London detectives Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar (along with their team) investigate a cold-case murder, in the process having to tackle the fallout that time has wrought on the victims left behind.

    This time, the skeleton of a teenage girl is found under a motorway, and it turns out to be a girl who disappeared on December 31st, 1999, and was a huge story at the time, which naturally leaves our little team under intense media scrutiny. (It’s somewhat amusing seeing this ITV-produced show get to use real ITV News presenters and graphics while the hero characters are slagging off the attitudes and methods of the media.) Unforgotten has the usual murder mystery array of suspects for us to theorise about, but what it also does well is portray the terrible sadness of such crimes. Reveals in the final episode push the storyline in a slightly different direction which allow it to pull focus in a different direction, too, although I’m not sure it really has the time or space to dig into that aspect.

    Like Peaky Blinders, I don’t think this was the very best series of the programme (series two was harder hitting and even more emotionally complex), but it’s still more or less on form. It wears its heart on its sleeve, trying to treat these victims and suspects not just as pawns in an elaborate guessing game, but as real people whose lives have been torn apart. That makes it one of the better cop shows on TV, I think.

    Also watched…
  • Agatha Raisin Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — Sky 1’s murder mystery series (which they cancelled but an American outfit revived and now they just buy in) is the very definition of cosy crime, though with enough humour that it plays more like a rom-com than a crime drama. Also, looks surprisingly gorgeous in UHD. Happily, there’s a third lot in production.
  • Beecham House Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — Oh yes, I stuck with this to the end. (Please let this be the end.)
  • Grantchester Series 4 Episodes 5-6 — Been catching up with this in bits and pieces, but just realised I’ve not mentioned it until now. James Norton’s gone off to bigger things (Joss Whedon’s new show, to be precise), so they’ve got a new co-lead, who’s fine. This season attempted an arc subplot with contemporary social relevance (a woman being harassed by a coworker), which went for the happy modern-ish ending rather than what I expect was the full misery of actually suffering that kind of thing in the 1950s.
  • Lucifer Season 3 Episodes 1-3 — Since I last watched it Lucifer has been cancelled, revived, recommissioned, and extended (Netflix ordered a ten-episode final season but, after fan outcry, added a further six), so I thought it was about time I got on with it. It’s a fun show, that I’ll probably be watching in dribs and drabs for a while. (See my reviews of seasons one and two, which broadly apply to season three as well.)
  • Susan Calman’s Fringe Benefits Series 1 — A mix of chat and standup from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Calman’s an infectiously jolly host, and the chance to get an overview of different acts, including ones you don’t see on TV as often, is nice. If anything, it’s a shame it’s only three 45-minute episodes — there’s so much going on at the Fringe, I expect they could do a half-hour every night and still not touch the sides.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Wu AssassinsThis month, I have mostly been missing Wu Assassins on Netflix, starring Iko “The Raid” Uwais. The trailers look perhaps a bit cheesy, but also promise regular doses of Uwais’ incredible combat skills, so that’ll do me. Elsewhere, Preacher has embarked on its fourth and final season. Considering I’ve not seen most of season two and none of season three, that’s a bigger catchup project. And talking of stuff I’ve not seen, I never got round to Mindhunter season one, even though David Fincher directed some of it, and now there’s a second season, which he’s also partly directed. Considering it’s been five years since his last movie, I do kinda need that Fincher fix…

    Next month… take your pick for what I’ll’ve watched and what I’ll’ve missed out of Peaky Blinders season 5 (starts tonight), Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes (starts tonight), Sanditon (starts tonight), The Great British Bake Off (starts on Tuesday), Carnival Row (out on Friday), and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (out on Friday). Bear in mind: I’ve only just finished one season of Peaky Blinders, and I didn’t much like The Dark Crystal. (Why do I feel like that means it’ll be the only one of these I end up actually watching…)

  • The Past Month on TV #33

    There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

    The City and the City
    The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

    This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

    Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

    Ordeal by Innocence
    Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

    I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
    Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

    Episodes  Season 5
    Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

    I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

    Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
    Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

    But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

    Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

    Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

  • The Past Month on TV #32

    Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

    A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

    This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

    Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

    Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

    It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

    But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

    Westworld  Season 1
    Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

    For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as they please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, or shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

    Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

    More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld’s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

    It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

    Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

    So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

    Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
    Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

    This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

    Line of Duty  Series 4
    Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

    Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
    Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

    Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

  • 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.

  • Doctor Faustus (1967)

    2010 #23
    Richard Burton & Nevill Coghill | 92 mins | DVD | PG

    Despite the numerous film versions of the Faust story, this is the only one that adapts Christopher Marlowe’s A-level-favourite 1588 play. It’s a shame, then, that it’s heavily edited from the original text and, despite also being a filmed version of the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s 1966 stage production, has clearly been inappropriately chosen as a vehicle for then-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

    Burton plays a suitably reverent version of Faustus, though is never less than able to convey his varied moods, from confidence, often underscored with insecurity, to repentant regret, to childish tomfoolery. Stuck with numerous long speeches, however, there are occasions when his delivery — and consequently the film — slip briefly into insomnia-curing monotony.

    Meanwhile, the play’s lack of a significant female role makes Elizabeth Taylor’s presence rather unusual. Marlowe’s text has been tweaked to allow Taylor to crop up frequently as ‘Helen of Troy’. As well as appearing in original scenes that feature Helen, co-writers/directors Burton and Nevill Coghill have inserted her into any scene that would allow it. Such casting across several inconsequential roles, some not even in the original text, effectively creates a new character. Perhaps this adds an extra dimension to Faustus and his goals — attempting to imply a romantic angle — but it comes across as a desperate and unwarranted attempt to make this a Burton/Taylor film.

    Elsewhere, Burton and Coghill’s vision of Faustus is stylistically reminiscent of a Gothic Hammer Horror, which is either wholly inappropriate or an ingenious genre mash-up — after all, such a genre-mashing trick has been pulled many a time with Shakespeare over the years. There are repulsively horrific corpses, a harem of naked ladies, an array of special effects, plus a medieval-styled gothic atmosphere to all the sets and costumes, though the scene where Faustus mucks about with the Pope feels more Carry On. Using inanimate objects in the roles of the Good and Evil Angels — respectively, a statue of Christ and a skull — is a small but inspired touch.

    These aside, there’s a surprising emphasis on special effects: a skeleton that turns into a rotting corpse (click the link at your own discretion); skulls that pour imagined gold and pearls from their mouths; cuckold horns that retreat into nothing; and so on. One might think this is purely to buoy up the Elizabethan language for a wider audience, and one isn’t necessarily wrong, but considering Elizabethan theatre-goers enjoyed their gory effects as much as modern audiences clearly do, their inclusion isn’t incongruous. There’s certainly some visually impressive stuff on show, much of it suitably horrific — one often wonders about the PG certificate.

    An even greater deviation than the effects is how much has been cut out — in a word, loads. Most of the comic scenes are gone (some of their humour wouldn’t translate today, making those a wise excision, but others are missed), and much of what Faustus does during his 24 extra years on Earth is missing too. Some of the cut scenes are among the most easily-enjoyed parts of the play, though would certainly lighten the tone. Perhaps they just didn’t have any money left for the further special effects required. The trims extend as far as the final scene, which also loses some of the play’s best bits. It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the play would notice the omissions (having not read it for a good few years there weren’t many I missed), but returning to the text after seeing the film I realised how disappointing some of the cuts were.

    Perhaps they were designed to focus the film more closely on the Faustus/Mephistopheles relationship, perhaps just to heighten the presence of Helen by losing scenes she couldn’t have been shoehorned into; but in the process it both loses some of the best material and destroys any hope the film had of being a definitive filmed version of the play. Ultimately, such oversights proved to be the final straw for the film’s already-tenuous grip on a three-star rating.

    2 out of 5