The Past Month on TV #57b

I’ve blathered on so much this month that, for the first time, I’ve split the TV post in two for ease of reading. It’s all about what’s best for you, my dear readers.

For this month’s introduction and a bunch of Doctor Who stuff, look here. For everything else — Red Dwarf: The Promised Land; Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema series 2; the worst of The Twilight Zone; odds & ends, and what I’ve missed this month — continue…

Red Dwarf  The Promised Land
Red Dwarf: The Promised LandThe 13th iteration of Red Dwarf eschews the normal episodic format for a single 90-minute special, in turn ditching the expected Red Dwarf XIII moniker for a subtitle. Well, the show has form in this: for its 21st anniversary revival we got Red Dwarf: Back to Earth instead of Red Dwarf IX, which wasn’t a whole series but instead a 90-minute single story (in that case split into three half-hours, but still).

Indeed, despite the feature-length format, The Promised Land is not “Red Dwarf: The Movie” — it still very much looks and feels like the show has in its Dave era, not least because it was still shot in front of a studio audience. Fortunately, it does still justify its running time by being more than just three episodes strung together. Writer Doug Naylor probably could’ve separated ideas from the plot out into three separate storylines if he’d wanted, but as it stands it just plays like a super-sized normal episode. That’s not a criticism — everything’s on form, making this at least as good as any other episode the show has had recently (and, if you go looking through my previous reviews, you’ll see I enjoyed most of those too).

The feature-length shape does allow for some variety in tone, including a strikingly emotional scene between Lister and Rimmer. As I saw someone say on social media, “I didn’t know this show was capable of that.” It leans on the fact these characters have an onscreen relationship lasting over 30 years — not explicitly, but you do feel the weight of that time spent together. It’s actually quite a beautiful moment, with a lovely analogy that has a part to play in the equally emotional finale.

Talking of those 30-odd years, in so many ways this feels like an anniversary special. Not just because it’s a feature-length one-off (for which, as I mentioned earlier, the show has form), but in the way its plot calls right back to the very first episode of the programme, delivering on story elements not seen since that first series, and with a ton of nods and winks to episodes throughout the years too. It makes me wonder if it was written for the 30th anniversary (which was two years ago), but it took longer than intended to get the gang back together. Certainly, if it had been pitched as a 30th anniversary special, I don’t think anyone would’ve been disappointed.

Indeed, they weren’t disappointed now, with the reaction on social media looking overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think that’s a given, nor newness bias — I remember Back to Earth facing a mixed-to-negative response — so I think The Promised Land can be judged a success all round. Personally, it’s made me want to dig out all the old DVDs (or perhaps upgrade them to Blu-ray) and rewatch the whole series.

Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 2
Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema series 2Mark Kermode’s insightful deconstruction of cinematic genres returns for a full second series (following a few occasional specials last year). I say “full” — three episodes. Whereas the first series took on a fairly random selection of enduringly popular genres, this batch somewhat follows the example set by last year’s specials by being particularly timely. Those were themed around when they aired (Christmas movies at, obviously, Christmas; Oscar winners just in time for, obviously, the Oscars; and disaster movies ahead of, obviously, the current crisis. No, I jest, it was for Bank Holidays), whereas these episodes tackle the genres du jour: superhero movies (can’t get more top-of-the-zeitgeist than that), British history movies (including modern history movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, both recent hits), and spy movies (which would’ve coincided perfectly with the release of No Time To Die if that hadn’t had to be postponed).

In typical BBC Four fashion, the series if both educational and entertaining. Even if you’re a well-read movie buff, Kermode (plus writer Kim Newman) are likely to draw out at least some connections or comparisons you haven’t thought of it, but are always on the money and enlightening. But as well as being information, they make for an entertaining overview of the genres in question, working both as a kind of clip show to relive each genre’s highlights, and, with their relative comprehensiveness, to suggest some films you might not have seen yet. For example, British history is such a broad catch-all kind of subject (as Kermode acknowledges in the programme, each time period is really its own subgenre) that I came away with a list of 17 films I wanted to watch or rewatch. I always think that’s a mark of a good film documentary: one that makes you want to see the movies it’s talking about.

(Series 2 and the Oscars special are currently available on iPlayer. Kermode said on Twitter that they’ll be putting the older episodes back up too, but they haven’t yet.)

The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
Cavender is ComingFor the past year I’ve been working my way through episodes of The Twilight Zone that are considered to be among its very best. But if I carried on like that, my overall experience of the show would be to see its quality gradually tail off, and someday my time with it would end by watching its weakest instalments. That doesn’t seem a fitting fate for such a classic series. It’s too late for me to save some of the very best for last, but I can jump the gun a little and watch some of the most poorly-regarded episodes now. Naturally, I’ve used the lists I compiled for a consensus ranking to curate this selection. I’ve taken the last-place choice from each full-series ranking, and that also happens to include the episode with the lowest average score across all the lists.

First up, the episode with the lowest rating according to IMDb users, Cavender is Coming. On average it comes 107th (out of 156), the highest of these five, with TV Guide even placing it in their top 50 (at #38), but clearly IMDb users have something against it. It stars Carol Burnett as a klutzy lady who keeps losing her job, so she’s assigned a guardian angel to make things better. Said angel is last-chancer Cavender — if he fails this task, he’ll be kicked out of angel school… or something. I don’t know. The Twilight Zone is notoriously bad at comedy, and this is probably the most outright sitcom-y episode of them all — it even aired with a laughter track originally. Nearly everyone reserves some praise for Burnett, which I guess is to do with her being an iconic figure of American TV or something. Not that she’s bad, but she does little to elevate a message-less episode. Even after watching the next four, I tend to agree that this may be the very worst episode of them all.

Proceeding down the average rankings, next is ScreenCrush’s pick, Execution (135th overall). It’s an odd little story with a kinda daft premise: in the Old West, a criminal is about to be summarily hung, but he disappears into thin air… and appears in the present day, courtesy of a ‘time machine’ that randomly scoops a random individual randomly out of the past. How? Why? Who cares! No spoilers, but the unwitting time traveller finds the modern world all a bit much, and someone ends up being transported back. The point of the story is… cosmic justice? Or something? I guess? Getting into spoiler territory now, the episode almost poses an interesting moral question: “if a murderer deserves to be hanged, does the murderer of a murderer deserve to be hanged?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually engage with that at all. In fact, it seems to take it as read that the modern-day criminal who gets accidentally sent back to the 1880s deserves his fate. But, as far as we know, he only murdered another murderer — so, by that moral standard, don’t the rest of the “neck tie party” (as Serling repeatedly calls the group of hangmen) also deserve to be hanged? Food for thought. Unless you’re a brainless supporter of the death penalty, I guess.

The JungleThe worst episode according to Buzzfeed is The Jungle, which comes 148th overall. It’s about an American engineer who’s just returned from a trip to Africa where his company is planning to build a hydroelectric dam, and he may’ve been cursed by natives opposed to the project. As you’ve probably guessed, the episode’s biggest problem is some old-fashioned kinda-racist stereotypes about Africa and its people. I mean, the episode doesn’t even bother to say which country he’s been to, it’s just “Africa”. It’s not overtly racist, I don’t think, but it’s certainly tone deaf. There’s a scene where our hero discusses the project with the board of directors that juxtaposes the idea of witchcraft, which they all laugh at, with the irrational superstitions they all practice (not walking under ladders, etc), which is kinda neat, basically saying that “you laugh at their beliefs because you think of them as simple folk, but it’s no worse than our superstitions,” which is truthful and borderline enlightened. But that’s about all the episode has going for it. By the time he’s travelling home through the implausibly empty nighttime streets of New York City and being haunted by jungle sounds, it all seems pretty silly; and then his cab driver just drops dead, and a tramp appears and disappears out of thin air, and you wonder what all that’s got to do with anything. The only moral the episode can offer is “maybe some superstitions are right”, which is poppycock.

So far I’ve watched nearly a quarter of all episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I’d only seen one from its fourth season before today. That’s probably because I’ve been focusing on the show’s best episodes, and everyone seems to agree that season four is its weakest. Nonetheless, there’s only one episode from that season among this initial batch of bad episodes: I Dream of Genie, Paste’s pick for the very worst and 152nd on average. It’s about a downtrodden clerk who’s presented with the opportunity to wish for anything he wants, and considers carefully via a series of imagined alternate lives — which conspire together to pad out the episode’s running time, of course. In his first imagining he fails to conceive of a world in which he’s not being pushed around, and if that had continued through his other fantasies we might’ve been on to something here — a sad examination of how being so mistreated can seep into your very way of being. But it’s not aiming for that, because this is A Comedy One and so tragic insight is out of the question. The whole thing is half arsed in conception, and also flabby — Serling could definitely have told the same story in half the time without losing anything of value, which I think is a consistent problem with the season four episodes. I didn’t hate it — it’s probably the best of these five — but it’s far from a great episode.

Sounds and SilencesFinally, we end as we began, with an episode voted on by the public: at the bottom of Ranker’s list, and last on average too, is Sounds and Silences. It’s about an excessively-loud, domineering blowhard who gets some measure of comeuppance when he begins to be bothered by everyday sounds like a dripping tap or ticking clock. And then it goes the other way and he can’t hear loud noises at all. It’s poorly written and terribly performed — in the lead role, John McGiver is overacting something rotten. Some criticise the undercurrent of misogyny in the storyline, but I don’t know about that. He blames his mother and his wife for all his problems, but he’s an unlikeable sod so surely any misogyny is his rather than the episode’s — we’re not being asked to agree with him. The character’s ironic fate may be some form of poetic justice, but it’s too long coming to be entertaining, and too obvious to be satisfying. Whether I disliked this or Cavender is Coming more, I’m not sure, but they both merit their places at the bottom.

Also watched…
  • McDonald & Dodds Series 1 Episode 2 — The second episode (of two) in this (very short) series was slightly better than the first, but not by a huge amount. I’ll probably keep watching if they make more, mainly to spot filming locations that I recognise. If it weren’t for that I wouldn’t bother.
  • One Man, Two Guvnors — This isn’t really TV, but nor is it really a film (although it was released in cinemas, so I could’ve counted it if I wanted). What it is is a filmed stage production, which the National Theatre released on YouTube for free — but only for one week, so I’m afraid it’s gone now. It was really good. Sorry. Currently available is a 2015 production of Jane Eyre (their channel is here), with more to follow every Thursday (more info here.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 7-15 — Churned through a pile of this in next to no time because it’s relatively easy viewing but with enough bite to keep it interesting. One of those shows that will never be a classic or top of the zeitgeist, but is highly watchable.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Way behind on this because it never engages me enough to choose to put it on. That said, I’ve found these middle episodes a bit better — I quite enjoyed the silliness of episode five, Stardust City Rag. But it’s the series’ lowest-rated episode on IMDb, which suggests other Picard viewers and I may be at odds about what makes good TV…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Westworld season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Westworld season 3, which is now four or five episodes in. I’ve not seen anyone talking about it on social media, so I’ve no idea if it’s good or bad, but I am inferring that not as many people are talking about it anymore, which is its own kind of criticism. One show I have heard mentioned is Tales from the Loop, Amazon’s new anthology sci-fi series. That’s been picking up good notices, and I thought it looked interesting anyhow, so I must make time for it.

    Next month… more animated classic Doctor Who; more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; and maybe I’ll even finish Picard or watch The Mandalorian, too…

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #46

    I’m throwing off the usual monthly format of these TV reviews to keep up with coverage of Game of Thrones. This time: the Battle of Winterfell and its aftermath. Next time: the series finale!

    Also this fortnight: new BBC fantasy sitcom Ghosts, the first (sort of) episode of Columbo, the latest editions of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema and Thronecast, and more of the best tales from The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 3-4
    Game of Thrones season 8Almost two years ago, just hours after Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale aired, I tweeted the following:

    Crazy(?) Game of Thrones s8 prediction: army of the dead defeated in ep2 or 3; humans return to bickering amongst themselves for 3 or 4 eps.

    Well, reader, I’ve been feeling a bit smug for the past couple of weeks, I must admit. It was quite widely known that the big battle between the living and the dead at Winterfell was coming in episode three, but it seemed like a lot of people expected it to be a victory for the Night King, with a retreat to King’s Landing in order for the final battle to happen later. I suspected differently, and I was right. That a lot of people didn’t suspect that and were consequently outraged that the Night King and his army could be defeated so ‘early’… ugh, let’s not get into that. Other than to say: this has always been a show (a) more concerned with the politicking of humans than supernatural threats, and (b) that zigs when you expect it to zag (or does neither, if your name’s Rickon). And further to that, we’re only three episodes from the end of a 73-episode story — in percentage terms, these final few episodes are kinda the epilogue; they’re about what happens after The Great War is over.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Long Night itself was… well, it was an interesting choice of episode title, firstly, considering the Long Night is already an event in Westeros’ history and is rumoured to be the title of the in-production spin-off series. (It also sent Wikipedia editors into a tizzy, but what else is new?) More pertinent controversy was found in the way the episode was shot, i.e. very dark. Too dark for a lot of people to see, in fact. Many blamed the cinematographer, but it seems to me it was more likely HBO’s compression wiping out detail in the blacks — many other viewers who watched the episode from higher-quality sources (including myself) found no problem seeing it on correctly-calibrated televisions. And, when watching a decent copy in good viewing conditions, much of it actually looked spectacular — the darkness was effective for conveying the scariness of the events being witnessed, and it was punctuated with some beautiful moments from firelight or moonlight.

    The Battle of WinterfellContent-wise, the episode was one long battle — the longest ever in film or TV history, apparently. More isn’t always more, mind. While I didn’t find it boring or drawn-out, it also wasn’t perfect. The battle tactics left a lot to be desired, something spotted by lay-viewers, never mind the “how it should’ve been done” articles by professional military tacticians that followed the broadcast. And the way things played out, a lot more deaths were warranted. Quite a few key characters did fall, and even more faceless masses, but the way it was staged made it a miracle that so many people escaped unscathed. There are three episodes left — you need characters to fuel the story, and major characters left to be sacrificed later too — but that doesn’t mean you have to stage it so everyone effects an improbable escape. There’s a balance to be found between “it looks like they’re all about to die” and “it seems literally impossible everyone would’ve survived those last-minute odds”. But hey, this isn’t the first time the show has succumbed to this, and there was a lot else to like: lots of effective individual sequences within the battle, great callbacks to previous lines and events, some heroic sacrifices, and a perfect ending. (I’m really not going to talk about some dickheads’ reaction to that.)

    So, with the presumed Big Bad defeated with three feature-length episodes still to go, next week’s The Last of the Starks was tasked with both showing the aftermath of the battle and charting a course into the series’ endgame. As it turned out, it was much more than that, with major events all of its own. This is where the reduced episode count rears its ugly head for me because, much like in season seven, I feel like they’re rushing certain events just for the sake of getting the series finished, not because it merits a picking up of the pace. There were things in episode four that felt glossed over or skipped past; things which merited a bit more time and focus. If anything, this felt like two episodes glued together — and out of the three 80-minute episodes the show has now done (the other being the season seven finale), I’ve felt that way about two of them. Why not add another 15 to 20 minutes of scenes and split this episode in two? It wouldn’t be unnecessary padding because, as I said, there was a load of stuff just raced past. I wanted to see Arya and Sansa’s immediate reaction to the news about Jon; and Tyrion’s, for that matter. I felt like there was a lot more to be done with Missandei’s storyline this episode — in my imagined two-part version, she would’ve been captured at the end of the first episode and there’d be scenes between her and Cersei before her ending. And, yeah, I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing Jon say goodbye to Ghost properly (a massive topic of discussion on social media this week).

    The Last of the StarksIt’s frustrating because I liked the tone of the episode overall — as I said, the return to human conflict and schemes; also a lot of the individual scenes between characters and so on. But it needs more room to breathe. It’s especially galling after the exceptionally spacious first two episodes this season, which did exactly that. They’ve said these last two seasons have fewer episodes because of the time and money needed to film the massive battle sequences, but that’s a thin excuse. It’s clear HBO would’ve given them however much money they asked for, and allow them however much time they needed — we’ve had to wait almost two years for this final season, remember. So it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that this episode (and, as I said, last season’s finale) could’ve had another chunk of scenes added (which would’ve ‘just’ been characters talking, really) and been split in two. I don’t care about raising the overall episode count (though that doesn’t hurt), I just care about giving these characters and storylines their due.

    Well, I guess it is what is now, but it’s a shame. Hopefully the final two episodes can bring things to a good conclusion — not necessarily a joyous one, because this is Game of Thrones after all, but one that feels suitable and satisfying. Based on the show’s current track record, I’m worried I’ll approve of where it ends up but think it was too hurried getting there. It feels like there should be more than a mere two episodes left to wrap all this up.

    Ghosts  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
    GhostsThis new sitcom from the writing and performing troupe behind the original TV iteration of Horrible Histories and the Sky One fantasy comedy Yonderland is pitched as a more adult-focused series, but it’s not exactly 18-rated stuff, just a little cheekier than they might’ve done before. Anyway, it’s about a young couple who inherit a crumbling old mansion, which is home to the ghosts of various people who’ve died there down the centuries. As the couple attempt to make a life for themselves and restore the place on a budget of nothing, the ghosts cause various issues, while also having problems of their own — turns out being dead isn’t the end of your emotional woes. I wouldn’t say Ghosts is the most hilarious sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it has a definite charm. It also surprises with genuine emotion, particularly in the third episode, where we learn about the death and family of one of the more recent ghosts.

    Columbo  Murder by the Book
    Columbo: Murder by the BookI’ve never seen Columbo before, and despite this being the first episode (er, kind of — I believe it was preceded by two other pilots) this isn’t the start of me watching it regularly. No, I watched this for one simple reason: the director was a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, in his pre-movie days when he directed a handful of TV episodes. Unsurprisingly, such an early work contains little about its style that screams “Spielberg”, but it’s still a classily staged production, with a lot more going for its visuals than the point-and-shoot style we associate with old TV. The story’s not a bad one either, about a crime novelist who murders his co-writer following the methodology from an unused plot. He thinks he’s a clever bugger who’s got away with it easily, but Columbo seems to see through him right from the start. Well, I’m not sure dumping the corpse on your own front lawn is the best way to go about claiming “it wasn’t me.”

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    With still no sign of the new Twilight Zone making its way to a UK platform, here’s another selection of some of the best episodes of the original 1959-64 series, as determined by cross-referencing the opinions of IMDb voters and an article I happened to stumble across on Screen Crush. (My previous such overviews can be found here and here.)

    The Hitch-HikerFirst up, season one’s The Hitch-Hiker is another Twilight Zone tale where we can’t be sure if the protagonist is experiencing paranoia or the supernatural — undoubtedly a recurring theme for the series, almost to the point where it’s less a “theme” more just a fact of its format. Anyway, this particular reiteration is effectively unnerving, with a scenario that’s relatable — you can just imagine how it would feel if you kept seeing the same hitchhiker by the side of the road, always somehow ahead of you, always staring at you with a despondent look… it gives me chills just thinking about it. Director Alvin Ganzer gets good mileage out of that element too, creating some effective shocks. Aside from that the execution isn’t top notch though, with Rod Serling seeming to have taken too much inspiration from the original radio play (by Lucille Fletcher) in his inclusion of some over-explanatory narration. The trademark twist ending is both altogether guessable for the savvy viewer, but also doesn’t really explain a whole lot.

    Two from season two next, including another of the series’ most famous episodes, Eye of the Beholder (spookily, it’s referenced in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which I happened to watch last night). It’s an episode with a message, but that feels a long while coming because most of the episode clues you in to where the twist is coming from thanks to how it’s shot. Anyway, it’s a commentary on appearances and the segregation of otherness; that the enforcement of “normality”, of conformity, isn’t good. Here it’s being enacted by some totalitarian state, but that’s just a firm example for the sake of analogy — society does it anyway in our real world. The twist ending underscores this point by adding that normality, or beauty, or whatever you want to call it, is all relative anyway. It’s a worthwhile message, but even at a short 25 minutes parts of the episode felt padded.

    Nick of TimeI was more taken with Nick of Time, written by the reliably superb Richard Matheson. Starring William Shatner as a superstitious honeymooner, it’s a neat little tale about a cheap fortune telling machine that might actually predict the future. As well as a genre tale about the perils such a machine might pose, it’s really about superstition and belief in fate vs. self determination — a strong moral life lesson bundled in a quirky supernatural fable. That’s Twilight Zone at its best, really. Similarly, season five’s Living Doll is another of the series’ most genuinely unnerving episodes. Telly Savalas stars as a man whose own insecurities make him paranoid and abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter. When the kid gets a new talking doll, it begins to taunt and threaten him, but only when no one else is around to hear. Again, it’s very creepy, but has a point to make beyond that.

    Finally for now, it’s back to season two for The Obsolete Man. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been using two different “best of” lists to guide my Twilight Zone viewing, and this is the biggest disagreement between them thus far (though there are 18 other episodes with bigger differences, so it’s all relative). Whereas IMDb’s consensus-voted opinion says this is the 10th best of all 156 episodes, Screen Crush only ranks it in the middle of the list, at 68th. It’s an initially simple story about the evil and cowardice of totalitarianism: in the opening scene, a man is sentenced to death for being of no use to a fascist regime. However, he has a cunning little plan up his sleeve. As a drama it’s clearly born of an era that was still directly reacting to Hitler and Stalin, but it’s all the more pertinent today as Western societies tip dangerously towards the kind of horrendous ideologies we used to fight, blithely ignorant of the lessons of history. Many Twilight Zone episodes have aged in the sense that the narratives can seem straightforward and guessable to the modern viewer (thanks to endless imitation and our exposure to more stories of this type), but the moral lessons remain depressingly relevant over half a century later.

    Also watched…
  • Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Disaster Movies — Another one-off edition for this excellent series, a Bank Holiday special about that old staple of Bank Holiday TV schedules. Kermode (plus co-writer Kim Newman) is as insightful as ever about the similarities and connections between these movies across the decades. I hope we get another full series, but if it’s set to continue only as occasional specials, well, that’s good too.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 3-4 — I don’t know if the booker got better or just got lucky, but this picked up considerably with some improved guests. Not that I disliked the people on the first two episodes, but the ones here seemed more knowledgeable and chattier. Episode 4 was particularly good. Fingers crossed the final two editions are equally worthwhile post-episode viewing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Lucifer season 4This fortnight, I have mostly been missing the fourth season of Lucifer, which just returned as a Netflix exclusive. I’ve not watched season three yet, though, so that’ll be a little while off. I’ve also successfully managed to avoid any spoilers about Line of Duty’s recently-concluded series (touch wood). I’ve got a plan to binge it in a few weeks’ time (so, not in my next TV roundup, but should be the one after) — hopefully nothing will blow its secrets between now and then!

    Next fortnight… at the end of Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

  • The Past Month on TV #43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

    Doctor Who  Resolution
    Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

    Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

    It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

    The ABC Murders
    The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain is obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

    The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

    Watership Down
    Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

    Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

    Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
    Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

    Comedy roundup
    Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

    Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

  • The Past Month on TV #37

    Another later-than-usual TV review, because my TV viewing was affected by the same stuff that’s seen my post count plummet this month, as well as kept this month’s film numbers down (more on that on Saturday). Consequently, I waited until I’d actually watched enough TV to make this post somewhat worthwhile…

    Although, despite what I said in last month’s “next month”, I still haven’t watched Lost in Space. Maybe next month (but don’t count on it).

    Disenchantment  Season 1
    DisenchantmentThe first new series from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening in almost 20 years, Disenchantment is a riff on the fantasy genre. It follows the misadventures of Princess Bean of Dreamland, a rebellious sort who prefers to sneak out of the castle and get drunk in the pub than… well, do anything else. In the first episode, she and we are introduced to her personal demon, Luci, and Elfo, an elf who has left his happy-clappy kingdom to explore the misery of the wider world. This trio form the heart of the show, though naturally there’s a wider ensemble to help fuel storylines.

    You may’ve heard the series has come in for a bit of a drubbing from critics, which I’m not sure is wholly fair. It’s not the most consistently funny show, with background gags sometimes providing bigger laughs than the main stories or situations, but it raises chuckles with decent regularity. It’s also not the most original concoction on TV, with some familiar characters and relationships, just grafted onto a fantasy setting. Although at least it has the good sense to create its own fantasy world, rather than being a direct spoof of, say, a certain other show that has brought the genre widespread attention. Whether it’s set in a fully-realised world or one the writers are creating on the fly, I’m not sure, but there’s a lot of room left to explore.

    But even if it’s not hilarious or groundbreaking, the first season builds up a nice little rhythm as it goes along. The weakest episodes are undoubtedly the first few, which are somewhat swamped under setup. After a few standalone stories in the middle — which vary in quality from some of the season’s best instalments to, well, not — things begin to come together for a highly serialised run at the end, which finds a use for many disparate bits from those standalone episodes, and all culminates in a cliffhanger. Fortunately, Netflix’s original commission was for twice as many episodes as are in this first run, so we’re guaranteed a second batch. This serialisation works better for a streaming show than completely standalone episodes, although Disenchantment thankfully doesn’t lose sight of being consumable in episode-sized bites.

    So, while it may take most of the season to truly warm to the characters and for the series to find its groove, it does get there, and suggests brighter things in the future. Whether it will ever attain the cult following enjoyed by Groening’s other series is arguably a long-shot (can lightning strike thrice?), but it has potential.

    Hang Ups  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
    Hang UpsLoosely based on the US series Web Therapy, this new sitcom stars Stephen Mangan as Richard Pitt, a therapist offering his services over the internet. The filming style (each client only appears for a few minutes per episode, popping up now and again throughout the series, always via webcam) allowed them to attract a rather phenomenal supporting cast, including the likes of David Bradley, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie, Richard E. Grant, and David Tennant. The way each episode pingpongs around the various clients and Richard’s many, many personal problems (his marriage, his kids, his parents, his siblings, his bank balance) makes for a whip-crack pace that has pros and cons — each episode seems to disappear in a flash, having at once both dashed through some plot and also gone nowhere. Partly this is the result of an abundance of characters — some of the clients are basically one-off sketches, which is fine, but the regulars’ stories can only advance in small increments. I’m left wondering if it might’ve actually worked better with less going on. Still, the quality cast means characters do get rounded out speedily, and when it works it can be pretty funny.

    Also watched…
  • The Comedy Lineup Season 1 Episodes 2,5,8 — Netflix’s series of 15-minute standup sets from up-and-coming comics. Naturally, that means the quality is varied. I only watched a semi-random sampling, and some were very good and some were pretty weak. A new batch of episodes is released tomorrow.
  • Magic for Humans Season 1 Episodes 1-3 — I love a good magic show, and this Netflix series is definitely a contender. Magician Justin Willman’s cheeky-chappy persona may grate with some viewers, but his tricks — a mix of hip variations on old standards and wonder-inducing new stunts — are dazzlingly effective.
  • Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Episodes 3-5 — So good (see my review from last month) that they’ve decided to keep it on iPlayer for a whole year. No word on a second series, as far as I’m aware, but fingers crossed.

    Things to Catch Up On
    BodyguardThis month, I have mostly been missing Bodyguard, the new BBC One thriller from Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio that premiered with a two-day double-bill last weekend. It seemed to go down well, based on the ratings and what I saw on Twitter (while avoiding spoilers!) As usual, I intend to wait until the whole series has aired (or most of it, at least) and then whisk through the lot.

    Next month… everyone’s least favourite Marvel Netflix show returns. But there’s a new showrunner and a lower episode count, so fingers crossed Iron Fist feels worth the 10-hour investment this time.

  • The Past Month on TV #36

    There are schizophrenic superheroes, deconstructed movie genres, Italian thefts, and even some ball-kicking competitions in this month’s TV review…

    Legion  Season 1
    Legion season 1The first live-action X-Men TV series is only tangentially connected to either the movies (there are a couple of vague nods) or even the original comic books (apparently the title character is the only thing taken from them), but instead creator Noah Hawley (the man behind the Fargo TV series) has been allowed free rein to do as he pleases. Turns out that’s a massive mindfuck; a series that’s focused on atmosphere over narrative coherence, full of crazy visuals and abstruse plotting. If you’re thinking, “that sounds a bit Lynchian,” then yes, this is probably the nearest thing we’ll ever get to a David Lynch version of the X-Men.

    That’s not just a pithy comment, for two reasons. Firstly, although the series is based around the character of David Haller (Dan Stevens), an exceptionally powerful mutant, by the end of the first episode he’s joined up with a team who are based at an educational facility that teaches mutants how to use their powers, in part so they can fight for their rights against humans who want to oppress them. For those not in the know, that’s more or less the overarching plot of the main X-Men series. Secondly, it’s not just that “this looks a bit weird, let’s reference David Lynch” — the series has a Lynchian attentiveness to dream-like sequences and visuals to convey meaning, and an awareness of the importance of sound design to create an effect or atmosphere. Unlike Lynch, there are some answers to be found; and while they’re often still very weird, at least there’s definite satisfaction in them.

    I watched the eight episodes of the first season over eight days, which I have mixed feelings about. As ever, it makes it easier to connect up the dots of the plot; on the other hand, the show’s style comes so out of leftfield, maybe it would work better spread out at a traditional pace, offering a little hour-long oasis of weirdness in your week. The second season has already concluded, so I’ll have to decide before I approach that one.

    When that will be, I’m not sure. I bought this first season on Blu-ray, so I’d like to do the same for the second, but there’s no sign of a release being scheduled yet. Hopefully this won’t be one of those series that never gets a complete disc release — that happens every so often (and I believe Legion’s network, FX, are regular culprits) but it never pleases anyone.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Episodes 1-2
    Mark Kermode's Secrets of CinemaMark Kermode is our guide for this BBC Four documentary series that seeks to expose the inner workings of movie genres and what makes them so effective. Co-written by Kermode and encyclopaedically knowledgeable movie guru Kim Newman, the series certainly has the chops to take on such a task. Focusing on one genre per episode, it makes an interesting choice to start with romcoms — a massively and enduringly popular type of movie, unquestionably, but one that’s often ignored by serious film analysis. That makes it the perfect choice for a series such as this, because, as the episode makes clear, the whole point of the genre is to do something very, very hard (produce a funny movie with loveable characters) and make it look easy (and when they succeed, that’s why it gets ignored!) As insightful as the first edition was, I preferred the second one, focusing on heist movies, though that’s purely because it’s a genre I’m more disposed toward.

    Kermode’s teachings are illustrated with superb graphics (the 3D realisation of each film’s timeline is fantastic), examples drawn from the entire history of cinema (the heist episode takes in everything from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to last month’s Ocean’s Eight), and throws in a few pleasantly unexpected curveballs too (John Carpenter’s The Fly is a romcom? Half-forgotten black-Vietnam-vet drama Dead Presidents is an archetypal heist movie?)

    Future editions will focus on science fiction, horror, and coming of age films. Of course, there are considerably more than five movie genres — maybe if we’re really lucky there’ll be more series in the future…

    Lupin the 3rd: Part IV  Episodes 1-5
    Lupin the 3rd: Part IVAs I mentioned when I reviewed The Secret of Mamo, this is the first main Lupin III series to receive a release in the UK (spin-off The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was released back in 2013. I’ve still not watched it). Part IV, also known as The Italian Adventure, sees Lupin and co in, you guessed it, Italy, where the master thief and lothario is, much to everyone’s surprise, getting married. Naturally, he’s got another plan up his sleeve. It’s the first of many, as these early episodes are mostly standalone adventures; but with Lupin’s thievery attracting the attention of shadowy MI6 agent Nix, there are hints of a bigger story to come. So far it feels somewhat lacking compared to the two Lupin III movies I’ve seen, but it’s still quite fun.

    Also watched…
  • 2018 World Cup — I’m not much of a sports fan, and even when I am it’s not the ball-kicking tournament that floats my boat, but even I got a little swept up in the England hype… for all of two-and-a-half games, anyway. We won the first (hooray!), lost the second (boo!), and the third-place play-off was so mind-numbingly dull that I spent most of the first half updating my database with that week’s Blu-ray purchases, then wandered off entirely before the second. So that’s that.
  • Doctor Who Series 11 Trailers — You wait ages for a Doctor Who trailer to come along, and then you get two in a week. Well, maybe it’s something to do with time travel. Neither the World Cup-themed teaser nor fast-cut clip-fest proper trailer gave us too many details on what to expect from the forthcoming series, but it’s enticing nonetheless.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Picnic at Hanging RockThis month, I have mostly been missing Picnic at Hanging Rock, the new adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel (perhaps better known from Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation), which is currently halfway through airing here in the UK. It looks up my street, so I intend to binge it at some point. Also, Keeping Faith, the BBC Wales drama that was such a hit on iPlayer they’re finally giving it a run on BBC One proper. Oh, and the third series of Unforgotten is also partway through, and they’ve gone and revived The Bletchley Circle too. Who says summer is a quiet time for TV?

    Next month… I’m intending to finally get lost in Netflix’s space.

  • The Deer Hunter (1978)

    2016 #181
    Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

    The Deer Hunter

    One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

    The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

    Walken a fine line

    It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

    These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

    4 out of 5

    The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.