Eighth Grade (2018)

2019 #148
Bo Burnham | 94 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Eighth Grade

I confess to never having heard of Bo Burnham before the buzz generated by this, his debut film as writer-director. According to his Wikipedia page, he started out as a YouTuber, turned that into a standup career, and from there has been a musician, actor, screenwriter, and poet — plus, with this, film director. It’s the kind of trajectory that challenges your perception of what being a YouTuber is good for. Of course, other “content creators” have jumped beyond the confines of the video streaming site before, but generally to eye-rolling effect for any of us old enough to be outside the sway of popular youth culture. But Burnham bucks that trend too, because in Eighth Grade he’s produced a mini masterpiece of distilling the teenage experience.

The film introduces us to the life of Kayla (a star-making performance by Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old girl so shy and insecure that she doesn’t seem to have any friends at school, but who still spends most of her time engaged in typical modern teenage activities: glued to her phone scrolling through social media, and posting her own content that no one anyone actually views. (At this point we’ve all been there, right?) The videos she posts online are perky and optimistic, presenting a front of having her life together. In reality, Kayla’s middle school experience has been miserably lonely, and as it comes to an end she hopes for a better time in high school. (If the American high school movies we’ve all seen are anything to go by, her chances can’t be good…)

In some respects, Eighth Grade is wholly focused on showing us the present day. The specifics of what it depicts are very much “modern American teenager”, with pool parties, active shooter drills, living through social media, their eyes glued to phones, etc; even the plot-prompting transition from middle to high school isn’t necessarily relevant to those of us outside the US education system. But if you look past the modern milieu to the fundamental feelings underneath, they’re universal and speak across the generations. This is the most truthful movie about what it’s actually like to be a teenager I think I’ve ever seen. It really captures the uncomfortableness of being a not-popular teen, both for good (well done Burnham & co, you conveyed your point) or ill (it can be as squirm-inducing as living the real thing). And if you watch it and think “eh, I don’t remember my teenage years being like this”, I’m afraid to inform you that you were quite possibly one of those kids making life a bit awkward for the rest of us. Sorry.

Kayla

Much like bullies, indie movies often revel in taking nice people and kicking them down, because, hey, life’s shit and that’s probably what’s gonna happen. Without spoiling where the story goes, it makes a welcome change to see a film where realism isn’t abandoned (Kayla’s life doesn’t become plain-sailing) but in which the nice, sweet, quiet character nonetheless sees their life improve, rather than believe things are gonna get better only to have their expectations crushed. Well, there’s a certain degree in which the optimistic hopefulness of being a tween is contrasted with the crushing reality of being a teenager, but there’s a positive message along the lines of “these things shall pass” that I think remains good advice to many people struggling with a particular time in their life.

Talking of specific times in one’s life (this is a tenuous transition, I admit), the certifications handed to Eighth Grade (at least in the UK and US) are a bit daft. To clarify for the benefit of those of us on the outside, the US’s 8th grade is for 13- to 14-year-olds; the equivalent of Year 9 in England (other UK and Anglosphere countries may vary). So it’s somewhat amusing that a film explicitly titled Eighth Grade is officially limited to over-15s in the UK and over-17s in the US (I know R is a little looser than that, but you get what I mean). You feel that the certifiers are, not for the first time, somewhat out of step when it comes to the realities of kids’ life experiences. I doubt that’s a major problem (I’m sure plenty of people don’t stick rigidly to the ratings), but it is, perhaps, a stark reminder that things like the boundaries of film certificates require constant review and revision if they want to remain relevant.

Something that I think will remain relevant is Eighth Grade. As I said, it already transcends its depiction of current teenage lifestyles, so it stands to reason that, as time goes on, while it will cease to accurately reflect the specifics of young people’s lives, it will continue to encapsulate how it feels to be that age.

5 out of 5

Eighth Grade placed 9th on my list of the Best Films I Saw in 2019.

2020 Statistics

It’s the first Monday of the new year — glum, right? Well, here’s something to cheer you up: the best part of any and every year — the statistics! Woo! Yeah! Etc!

For any newbies, or those in need of a refresher, this is where I take all the films I watched for the first time in 2020 (listed here) and analyse all sorts of stuff about them to see if anything interesting shakes out. As this was my biggest year ever, there’s bound to be a few “new highest” whatnots; but where things might get interesting is in categories with percentages and the like — does watching so many more films change the percentage that was directed by women, or the percentage I watched on Netflix, or… well, there are many things to discover.

I’ll also mention that, as I’m a Pro member of Letterboxd, you can find additional stats there — or, rather, here. I also log shorts, some TV, and all rewatches on there, so any comparable stats (e.g. my most-watched directors) won’t match up; but I don’t think there’s actually much duplication, and they also include a bunch of stuff I don’t (actors, crew members, genres, etc), so it’s worth a look if you just can’t get enough of graphs and numbers.

Speaking of which, here’s a beautiful load of exactly that…

I watched 264 new feature films in 2020, my highest ever, pipping 2018 by just three films. After 14 years of doing this blog, my average final total is 152, so 2020 is a 74% increase on that. But it’s also worth noting that my viewing habits have changed a lot since 2015 (the first year I reached 200 films in a year): my average total for 2007–2014 was 111, while for 2015–2020 it’s 208. Of course, even compared to that, 2020 is up 27%.

Normally I’d now tally up how many extended or altered cuts I watched as a separate number, but with my Rewatchathon now in the game, it doesn’t quite work like that anymore. So, for example, I watched Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux and counted it towards my main list because it was a significantly different cut to whatever I’d watched before; but when I watched and reviewed Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 3D, it was only the 3D that was different, so I counted it towards my Rewatchathon.

I probably ought to do full-blown stats for my Rewatchathon too — I’ve been running that side challenge for four years now, so it’s about time I gave it equitable standing in these stats — but I still haven’t started collecting the necessary data throughout the year, so… Maybe next year, eh. What I can tell you is that I rewatched 46 films, for a combined total of 310. That’s one behind 2018’s 310, my previous high. (I still haven’t worked out full rewatch numbers for 2007–2016, but from previous research (mentioned in 2017’s stats) I know none of them got higher than 223.)


NB: I have no rewatch data for 2007 and only incomplete numbers for 2008.

I also watched 65 short films in 2020, an extraordinary number by my standards: I’d only watched 85 in the preceding 13 years of this blog, so this year alone saw my all-time total increase by over 76%. Last year was my previous best individual year, when I watched 20 shorts; this year represents a more-than-threefold improvement on that. (Short films don’t count towards any of the following stats, except for where they’re explicitly mentioned in the running time one… which is up next…)

The total running time of the 264 new features was 459 hours and 41 minutes. That’s actually down slightly on 2018, despite watching three more films — obviously I just watched shorter films on average. Besides, the drop is just 88 minutes, which is 0.3% — barely anything. And if we add in the 65 short films I watched in 2020, the total running time of all my new film viewing is an astonishing 469 hours and 19 minutes — that’s equivalent to 19½ solid days; almost three weeks of nonstop film viewing. It also means 2020 overleaps 2018 by some 391 minutes (6½ hours), aka 1.4%.

Here’s how that viewing played out across the year, month by month. The dark blue line is new feature films, the pale blue line is my Rewatchathon, and the pale green line is shorts. As you can see, the shorts line goes literally off the chart in November — that’s because I set this graph to be based around the main list number of new films, but I watched a ridiculous 53 short films in November. (Obviously I could’ve adjusted the graph to go up higher, but that wasn’t as fun.) What’s also interesting is if you go back and compare this graph to the two times I’ve done it before, in 2018 and 2019: the shapes certainly aren’t identical, but I feel like they share an overall pattern, i.e. I hit a peak around April/May, and the back end of the year is generally lower.

Now, the ways in which I watched those films. Attentive readers may have noticed that, earlier this year, I switched from differentiating “streaming” and “download” at the top of my reviews to just listing all such viewing as “digital”. I drafted a paragraph about the whys and wherefores of that change to include in a monthly review, but I’ve not got round to polishing it up enough to include. In short, when I first started using those terms there was a notable difference between them — streaming was low quality and unreliable, downloads were pretty good. Nowadays, it’s the other way round, if anything (for example, Apple TV+ will stream in 4K but only lets you download in 1080p), and sometimes there’s no difference at all (if I download something from iPlayer to watch later, it’s no different than streaming it from iPlayer, quality-wise). So, in that spirit, “digital” now becomes a single category in these stats; but, behind the scenes, I’ve still noted what came from where (much as I do for the different streaming services), so I’ll come to that in a mo.

With streaming and downloading bundled, it’s no surprise that digital is my most prolific viewing format for the sixth year running, accounting for 195 films, or 73.9% of my viewing — almost three-quarters! A poor show for a physical media advocate, isn’t it? It’s a bit trickier to show you comparisons to previous years, for obvious reasons, but I’ve run the numbers and can tell you it’s their highest combined total ever, besting 61.9% in 2016. In the five-year period 2015–2019, my overall percentage for digital was 52.8%, so this is a definite increase on the norm.

If we break it down into various formats and services, the winner was Amazon with 60 films (30.8% of digital). If I didn’t count digital as a block, Amazon alone would be my #1 format. It’s back on top after Netflix overtook it last year, but this year Netflix isn’t even second — that goes to downloads, with 47 films (24.1%). In fact, Netflix comes joint third, tied with Now TV on 32 films (16.4%) each. Does make me wonder if I’m wasting that £11.99 a month… In fifth is iPlayer with eight (4.1%), although three of my downloads came from there, so you could argue it’s 11 (5.6%). And this is exactly why I’ve bundled all of this stuff together. Next was AMPLIFY! with seven (3.6%) — also arguably responsible for more, because I got some screeners related to it. Bringing up the rear, on Disney+ I watched five films (2.6%), and I even watched three (1.5%) on YouTube. As a final note, I technically watched zero on Apple TV+ — it’s been a real waste of the free year I got for buying a new Mac, because I had no way to watch it on my TV until recently. I did watch their original movie starring Tom Hanks, Greyhound, though I downloaded it so I could watch on my TV, so again it’s counted under downloads rather. My free year runs until February, so maybe it’ll factor properly in next year’s stats… although most of their original content is series, so I doubt it’ll represent much.

Alright, onwards! In second place as Blu-ray with 57 films (21.6%). That’s actually its second highest total (behind 82 in 2018), but its lowest percentage of my viewing since 2016 (though last year it was less than 1% higher on 22.5%). It’s a consistent runner-up when, considering how many I buy, it really ought to be a clear first.

Between them, digital and Blu-ray accounted for an exceptional 95.5% of my viewing this year. The remainder was spread thinly between three more formats. In third place was good old DVD with just six films (2.3%). That’s its lowest total since 2012, back when six films was 5.6% of my viewing.

Next up, in fourth place, believe it or not, is cinema. Well, I actually only managed four trips to the big screen before the year went haywire, so it still only accounts for 1.5% of my 2020 viewing. I’m not always the greatest cinema goer, but I’ve picked it up in recent years, meaning that’s the least I’ve been since 2015.

Finally, the once-mighty television. From 2009 to 2012 it was my highest-ranking format. Now, it’s fallen to its lowest ever total, and by some margin: it represents just two films (0.8%) in my 2020 viewing, while its previous poorest performance was 10 films, all the way back in 2008.

In amongst all that, I watched 13 films in 3D (almost double the measly seven I watched last year) and 40 in 4K — a new high, being a 167% increase on the 15 I watched last year. Together, the two formats made up 20.1% of my viewing — not bad, especially when you consider that a lot of discs on both my 3D and 4K ‘to watch’ piles are films I’ve seen before (but not in that format).

Which brings me to the UHD vs. HD vs. SD chart. Contributing to the UHD numbers is mostly streams, some 4K Blu-ray discs, and a download or two. HD includes most of the majority of my streams and downloads, Blu-ray discs, cinema trips, and one TV screening. Contributing to SD were the handful of DVDs, plus a few streams and downloads, and the other TV screening. The final tally shows 201 films in HD (76.1%). Add in UHD and that’s a total of 91.3% in HD formats, the first time my viewing has been over 90% HD (2018 came 0.4% short). Of course, that also means it’s the lowest ever for SD — the actual number of films I’m watching in lower definition is surprisingly stable (it was 23 this year, bang-on the average of the last five years), but watching more films overall means the percentage drops.

Moving on to the age of films, now. 2020 marks the start of a new decade (yeah, okay, it doesn’t really; but most of us will still count films from 2020 as part of the 2020–2029 decade, so tough luck, pedants). That might shake up these stats in the years to come: it’s normally the current decade that tops my chart, and it only took the 2010s until 2012 to take the #1 spot. It was close-ish with the 2000s for the next few years, but it was firmly in the lead by the middle of the decade. Will the 2020s chart a similar course?

Well, they’re not there yet: for the 9th year running, the most popular decade was the 2010s, with 120 films — though at 45.5% of my viewing, that’s their lowest percentage since 2013. That’s partly because the 2020s have come in strong, bagging second place with 33 films (12.5%). That’s a much better percentage than the 2010s managed in their inaugural year: in 2010, the new decade accounted for just 5.65% of my viewing. Back to 2020 and, together, the past 11 years accounted for 57.95% of my viewing, which is more in line with the 2010s other recent performances.

In third place we find the ’80s with 24 films (9.1%), a massive increase on their uncommonly poor 2019 (when they accounted for just three films, 1.99%). They’re closely followed by the 2000s on 22 (8.3%) — that’s twice as many as last year, which was also an uncommonly weak year for the decade.

It’s a drop down to fifth place, where the ’90s are on 14 (5.3% — the exact same as last year). Not far behind is the ’60s on 12 (4.5%), and it’s the same drop to the ’40s on 10 (3.8%), and the same again to the ’70s on eight (3.0%).

Rounding things out, the ’50s have seven (2.7%); there’s a tie between the 1920s and ’30s on six (2.3%); while the the 1910s bring up the rear with two (0.7%). (No features for the 1900s & earlier, but they were represented this year by one short.)

From “when” to “where”: countries of production. As always, the USA absolutely dominated this category, having a role in producing 181 films. However, with that being equivalent to 68.6% of my total viewing, it’s actually the USA’s lowest percentage ever, almost four whole points below their next lowest, 72.4% in 2018. In related good news, there were 40 different countries involved in the production of at least one film — that’s my highest number ever, trouncing the 32 from 2015. Some of the more uncommon ones (for my viewing) included Algeria, Lithuania, Malaysia, Serbia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda.

Back at the top end of the chart, the UK was second, as usual. Its 71 films was its most ever; that’s 26.8%, which has been bettered, but not since 2013. Also making double figures were Canada (21, 7.95%), France (18, 6.8%), China (16, 6.1%), Japan (15, 5.7%), and Germany (14, 5.3%). Next was Spain (7, 2.7%), after which there were four countries tied on four films each, another four on three films, 10 on two films, and the remaining 14 had one film each. Perhaps the most notable omission was New Zealand, leaving 2020 as the first year since 2013 where I didn’t see any films from there. And they’ve had such a good year, too!

Such a wide variety of countries must lead to a wider variety of languages spoken, right? Well, this year’s films featured 30 spoken languages (plus ten silent films) — not the most ever, but close: the only year higher was 2017 with 32. Of course, the most dominant was still English, which was spoken in 223 films. At 84.5% of my viewing, that just slips under last year’s 84.8% to be the lowest ever. In distant second was French, spoken in just 18 films (6.8%). The others to make double figures were an uncommonly strong showing for Spanish (14 films, 5.3%) and a weaker than normal year for Japanese (11 films, 4.2%). Also, China was represented across multiple languages: not just Mandarin and Cantonese, but also Hokkien and Shanghainese, plus some films where it was only listed as “Chinese”, unfortunately. Other languages that I don’t think have come up in my viewing before included Aboriginal, Catalan, Samoan, and Swahili.

A total of 225 directors and 23 directing partnerships appear on 2020’s main list, the most ever for both tallies. No surprise, given I watched my most films ever; but bear in mind that I only watched three fewer films in 2017, but there were 23 fewer directors credited that year. I ought to work this out as a percentage sometime… Also worth noting is that the number of partnerships is slightly complicated by some Disney films that mixed and matched directors. For example, the likes of Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, and Hamilton Luske have multiple credits each, but with a different lineup of co-directors each time. If we lump all the different combos together as “Disney guys”, the number of partnerships drops to 20… but that’s still the most ever.

The most prolific director this year was Jack Kinney, who worked on all four of those “Disney guy” films (Clyde Geronimi and Hamilton Luske have three credits each). Outside of those, I watched three films directed by Denis Villeneuve — it would’ve been four, as I was intending to catch up on all his early work before Dune came out, but then Dune got delayed. I’ll finish that project in 2021, then. Directors with two films apiece were John G. Avildsen, Michael Bay, Kathryn Bigelow, Danny Boyle, Ruben Fleischer, Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, Sidney J. Furie, Greta Gerwig, Marielle Heller, Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Leni, James Mangold, Steve McQueen, and Rob Reiner. Plus, if we factor in short films, there was David Lynch (one feature and two shorts), Terry Gilliam (one feature and one short, which is often counted as part of a feature, so…), Jon Watts (one feature and one short), and Jules White (two shorts).

Since 2015, I’ve specifically charted the number of female directors whose work I’ve watched. After a dip in 2016, it’s been steadily increasing in percentage terms, but last year female directors were still only credited on eleven films — seven as sole director, three as part of a directing partnership with a man. Counting each shared credit as half a film, that represented just 5.63% of my viewing. 2020 sees a significant improvement: this year, there were 33 films with a female director (28 solo, five paired with a man), which equates to 11.44% of my viewing. That’s a big improvement, but still not really good enough. It’s debatable whether the onus should be on me to seek out more films directed by women or on the industry to give more directing gigs to women (ultimately, it’s a bit of both, though I’d argue with more weight on the latter) — either way, hopefully this number will continue to increase in the future, and this graph can begin to look a lot more equitable.

At the end of my annual “top ten” post, I always include a list of 50 notable films I missed from that year’s releases, and over the years I continue to track my progress at watching those ‘misses’. For the second year in a row, I failed to see at least one film from every previous list; but I did better than last year! In 2019, I only watched a total of 37 films from across 7 of the 12 lists. In 2020, I watched 54 films from 11 of the now-13 lists. That’s no record, but it’s a big improvement. To summarise, I watched one each from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2015; two each from 2010, 2013, and 2017; and eight from 2018. (For completism’s sake: the two years I missed were 2011 and 2016.)

That just leaves my first year of catching up on 2019’s 50. Of those, I watched 34 — a new record for the best ‘first year’ ever, just beating the previous high of 33 from 2017’s list that I watched in 2018.

In total, I’ve now seen 476 out of 650 of those ‘missed’ movies. That’s 73.2%, a healthy increase from last year’s 70.3%. That percentage has increased every year for the past decade, from a lowly 25% after 2009 to where it is today. Hopefully it will continue on up in 2021. (As always, my list of 50 for 2020 will be included in my “best & worst” post later this week… month… however long it takes me…)

At the time of writing, 20 films from my 2020 viewing appear on the IMDb Top 250. 20 from 2020? Neat. However, because that list is ever-changing, the number I have left to see has only gone down by 15, to 30. On the bright side, at this rate I might finally complete the darn thing in 2022 (getting there has only taken, um, all my life so far). Anyway, the current rankings of ones I saw this year range from 30th (Parasite) to 248th (The Battle of Algiers).

And now, all of a sudden, we’re at the end… almost. To conclude 2020’s statistics, it’s the climax of every review: the scores.

As always, this includes every new feature film I watched, even those without a review (which, this year, is most of them). That means there are some where I’m still flexible on my exact score — films I’d happily award, say, 3.5 or 4.5 on Letterboxd, but which I insist on rounding up or down to a whole star on here. (I occasionally consider beginning to use half-stars here too, but there’s something kinda fun about having to force every film into one of just five broad groups.) For the sake of completing this stat, I’ve assigned whole-star ratings to every film, but it’s possible I’ll change my mind on some when I finally post their review. That might render this section slightly inaccurate, though, honestly, who’d even notice?

This year I awarded 39 five-star ratings. That’s exactly the same number as in 2018, which suggests some level of consistency. It also makes this year joint second, with 2015’s 40 still the standout for volume of five-star films. In percentage terms, I gave full marks to 14.8% of films I watched, which is comfortably inside my historical range (which spans from 11.9% to 21.2%).

The most prolific rating was four stars, given to 111 films. That’s also a second-place finish, though, with the most four-star ratings having been the 122 I awarded in 2018. Nonetheless, four-stars has been the biggest group in 13 out of 14 years of this blog’s history, and this year it encompassed 42.1% of films, which is again somewhere in the middle of a range that spans from 31.5% to 53.3%.

More noteworthy were the 91 three-star films — the highest number ever (sailing past 2018’s 76) and, at 34.5%, the highest percentage since 2013’s 35.8% and third highest overall (the top spot goes to the only year three-stars outnumbered four-stars, 2012). I have tried to be a bit firmer with my marking in recent years (by reducing the number of times I think “oh, go on, just nudge it up to a 4, then”), so I guess this bears that out.

At the “bad” of the scale, there were 21 two-star films, which ties with 2018 for the most ever, but at 7.95% is actually one of the lowest results ever (only 2011 and 2016 can boast a lower percentage). Finally, I handed out just two one-star ratings, which equates to 0.8%. These really are my rarest of the rare: I’ve awarded two or fewer in 9 out of 14 years, with the highest total being five (in 2012 — a bad year, clearly).

Finally, the average score for the year — a single figure with which to judge 2020’s quality against other years, for good or ill. The short version is 3.6 out of 5, which is the same as four previous years (including last year), below eight years, and above just one year. If we expand that out a few more decimal places, at 3.621 it’s actually my third-lowest year ever, only besting last year’s 3.604 and 2012’s bizarrely poor 3.352 (I said it was a bad year). That said, we’re talking very small margins here — I’ve had to go to three decimal places to separate the years out; and, at one decimal place, my average score has never gone above 3.8 or below 3.4. So, 2020 was perfectly fine, as this graph shows.

And that’s that for another year. FYI, this has been my most verbose stats post ever — its word count is even higher than some of my older ones that also included the entire list of films I’d watched that year. So congratulations if you made it to the end! Fun, wasn’t it? (If you’re itching for more, don’t forget my Letterboxd stats for 2020.)


With all that analysis done, my review of 2020 is nearly at an end. All that remains is my best and worst of the year, coming just as soon as I can work it out and write it up (my long list is pretty darn long this year!)

My Most-Read Posts of 2020

For the first time since I moved my blog to WordPress, my number of views went down this year. *sob* Partly that’s because 2019 had one exceptionally large month (when people flooded in from IMDb to read my thoughts on Game of Thrones’ final season), but it was more than that, because 2020 didn’t even reach the same level as 2018 — though it was close in the end, coming just 0.2% short.

As for individual posts, this may technically be a film blog, but since 2017 my most-read chart has been dominated by TV reviews. That was the case once again in 2020 — well, if it was going to happen any year, it would be one where we were mostly stuck at home. Despite that, a film review did break into my overall top five… although that was a direct-to-Netflix movie, so some would argue it’s TV anyway.

Nonetheless, here I once again present two top fives: one for TV, one for film. If you want to know my overall top five new posts, the #1 film slots between #2 and #3 on the TV list. Also of note: the image at the top of this post is accurate, so the top two TV posts were far out ahead of anything else. Why? Who ever knows.

My Top 5 Most-Viewed New TV Posts in 2020

5) The Past Month on TV #61
including Archer season 7, The Crown season 2, Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control, The Great British Bake Off series 10, Hannah Gadsby: Nanette, Jonathan Creek series 3–4 + specials, Lucifer season 5 episodes 1–8 (aka season 5A), Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years, The Rookie season 2 episodes 1–17, and the best of The Twilight Zone #9.

4) The Past Month on TV #59
including Daniel Sloss: X, Doctor Who: The Time Meddler, Elementary season 6 episodes 1–14, what passed for Eurovision 2020, The Great British Bake Off series 9, Jonathan Creek series 1, Lucifer season 4, the RSC’s Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston, The Rookie season 1 episodes 16–20, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episode 8, and the worst of The Twilight Zone #3.

3) The Past Month on TV #55
including Doctor Who series 12 episodes 3–5, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episodes 3–5, The Great British Bake Off series 1 episodes 1–3, His Dark Materials series 1, a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episode 1, the best of The Twilight Zone #6, and the Twin Peaks pilot and season 3 episode 8 in UHD.

2) The Past Christmas on TV 2019
including Criminal: United Kingdom season 1, Doctor Who series 12 episodes 1–2, Dracula, the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episodes 1–2, In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss, Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration, and Vienna Blood series 1.

1) The Past Month on TV #56
including the 92nd Academy Awards, the British Academy Film Awards 2020, Death in Paradise series 9 episodes 3–8, Doctor Who series 12 episodes 6–10, Flesh and Blood series 1, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episode 6, Good Omens, The Good Place season 3, Lucifer season 3 episodes 16–24, McDonald & Dodds episode 1, My Dad Wrote a Porno, The Rookie season 1 episodes 1–6, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episodes 2–3, and the best of The Twilight Zone #7. Whew! No wonder it topped the list with all that variety.

My Top 5 Most-Viewed New Film Posts in 2020

Some might say this is also a list dominated by “TV”, because Netflix original movies make up three of this top five, and another was a Disney+ premiere. There’s just one theatrical release here — but then, 2020 was hardly a year in which theatrical releases were dominant anywhere.

5) Hamilton
The filmed version of the cultural phenomenon, performed by the original Broadway cast in its original staging. Is it a film? Is it a documentary? Is it just a filmed concert and so should we consider that its own form at this point? Whatever your opinion, this was a highly anticipated event — brought forward from its intended October 2021 theatrical release due to the pandemic — that helped cram even more subscribers onto Disney+.

4) The Old Guard
One of Netflix’s many attempts to kickstart an action franchise, this one starred and was directed by women, helping it tap into the general cultural zeitgeist and therefore generating conversation — and clicks.

3) 1917
An actual honest-to-God theatrical release! Remember those? A popular hit as well as an awards frontrunner, so no surprise it attracted plenty of clicks considering I posted my review while it was on the circuit.

2) Extraction
Another big Netflix franchise starter (this one already has a sequel in the works). It was reportedly Netflix’s biggest movie ever (back in July — I don’t know if that’s changed since), so it’s no surprise people wanted to read about it.

1) Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Mixed reviews greeted this attempt to spoof the unspoofable, as some Americans attempted to take on the singular phenomenon that is the Eurovision Song Contest. It wasn’t a resounding success, but with some fab performances (the always wonderful Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens), surprisingly good songs (there’s Oscar buzz for Husavik), and even a catchphrase or two (“SING JAJA DING DONG”), this was kind of a breakout hit.

Death to 2020 (2020)

2020 #264
Al Campbell & Alice Mathias | 71 mins | digital (UHD) | 2:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

Death to 2020

As if the line between film and TV wasn’t becoming blurred enough already, 2020 has torn it to shreds. It’s now basically up to streamers whether they brand something as “a film” or a “special” or whatever (some individual websites might insist on labelling any Netflix original movie as “TV”, but I’m not sure anyone’s listening). This feature-length one-off from the makers of Black Mirror is, officially, “a Netflix Original Comedy Event” — so it’s a TV special, really, isn’t it? I probably shouldn’t be counting it as a film. Oh, but who cares?

Despite the lack of familiar title format, Death to 2020 very much follows in the footsteps of the Wipe series of year-in-reviews specials Charlie Brooker used to make for the BBC. It’s both documentary and mockumentary: it recaps the real-life events of the year, with minimal diversion into satirical fantasy, but archly commented on by an array of actors portraying fake experts. The Netflix budget means some properly big names are involved: Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow… the list goes on. The prime absentee is Brooker himself, only piping up occasionally as an offscreen interviewer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focuses on the major events of the year from a UK/US perspective — other countries (like Australia, China, and… um… I think that’s it) only enter the equation when events there affect everyone else (like, y’know, starting a global pandemic). That makes sense given who made it, but maybe less so for Netflix as a global company. But then, not everything needs to appeal to everyone. I’m sure if they had a French satirist on the books, they’d be producing a Franco-centric special.

A cast of dozens!

It’s to Death to 2020’s disadvantage that, this year, we’ve all been paying more attention to the news than ever. That might seem like a benefit — a knowledgeable, informed audience means you can cut straight to the jokes with minimal prompting — but I think instead it means we’ve already heard most of the humour. We’ve spent all year making these gags ourselves, trying to alleviate the doom-laden (inter)national mood. The other, related, problem lies in trying to appeal to an international audience. In trying to keep things accessible for both sides of the pond, Brooker and co avoid getting into the weeds of local politics. Brexit is briefly mentioned rather than deconstructed; US politics is limited to the election. Specificities of lockdown life are dodged almost entirely. Trying to stick to broad, globally-familiar topics seems to keep the humour similarly generalised.

Nonetheless, it starts out quite funny, even if they’re mostly riffs we’ve heard before. But around the time it hits the killing of George Floyd, the jokes dry up. If you’re not a racist dickhead, there’s little funny about the organisations that supposedly protect us instead arbitrarily murdering people. Death to 2020 knows this and picks its targets carefully, but it seems to kill the humour nonetheless — the jokes continue, but the humour in them dries up.

It turns out the biggest problem isn’t unoriginality or too broad a target audience, but rather that 2020 was such a shitshow that it’s just no fun to be reminded of it, even in an intentionally comedic context. It doesn’t help that we’re facing a 2021 that promises at least several months of being equally as bad. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh, but just as likely we’ll prefer to forget.

2 out of 5

Happy New Year, dear readers! It can’t actually be any worse… right?

The Past Month on TV #63

There’s all sorts of stuff I thought I’d’ve got round to for this TV column — Cobra Kai season 2; more of The Twilight Zone; Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit; finally starting The bloody Mandalorian — but I haven’t seen any of them. So, rather than keep pushing this post back and back, here’s what little I have watched that’s worth commenting on in the almost-two-months-now since my last TV review.

Young Wallander  Season 1
Young WallanderI think that Swedish detective Kurt Wallander’s USP, if he has one, was that he wasn’t some young hotshot maverick genius, like so many fictional detectives, but rather a middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned, almost workaday cop who got the job done. So a series about his younger days already seems like it might be missing half the point. But it’s worked for other TV detectives (most notably Morse in the acclaimed Endeavour), so why not? After all, seeing what police work in 1970s Sweden was like might be interesting — it’s certainly a different setting, anyway.

Well, that’s Young Wallander‘s first misstep: this isn’t about the young life of canonical Wallander, it’s a modern-day reboot. So, you’ve removed the obvious character traits and you’ve changed when it’s set — what makes this Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? That was the question I had after watching the trailer and, sadly, I still wondered it after watching the series in full. At least the storyline is Wallander-ish, all about nationalism and refugees and how they’re treated. That may sound very timely, given what’s been going on politically over the last five to ten years, and it is; but it’s also the kind of thing Wallander’s original creator, Henning Mankell, often wrote about before that. But that makes it a mixed blessing: yes, it’s the kind of story you can imagine a ‘real’ Wallander text tackling, but it’s also such a present-day issue that that doesn’t matter; it’s the kind of plot any drama might choose to take on right now.

The production itself is a strange international hybrid: made by Swedish production company Yellow Bird (though actually shot elsewhere in Europe, I believe), but with a British writer and mostly British cast speaking English, while thankfully not trying to emulate the accent. That’s except for Wallander himself, who’s played by a Swede, who has kind of retained his accent. In a story all about national identity, it’s kind of ironic that Wallander sounds like the only Swedish man in Sweden.

I can see why the Wallander rights-holders would want the brand to continue, because it’s been very popular in various incarnations, in particular the Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson and the British series starring Kenneth Branagh. But between those, and the previous series of Swedish TV movies starring Rolf Lassgård, every one of Mankell’s original novels has been adapted twice, plus the invention of about 30 original-for-TV stories — so, if you want to continue the character, a new direction does feel called for. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. It’s too generic, lacking any uniqueness that makes you feel this is a story that could only be told — or even should be told — using the Wallander brand. Even leaving that aside — if you had no previous attachment to the character and so just approached this as an original cop drama — the series is less than great. It’s not outright bad, just thoroughly middling, with an underwhelming finale that leaves plot threads dangling; and it’s not clear if it’s meant to be a realistic “not everything gets tied up” ending, or if they’re hoping to pick up on them in a second season.

The only good thing to come out of all this, for me, was that it’s reminded me I still have a bunch of adaptations starring Lassgård that I’ve never watched, so it’ll be nice to go visit those. And then revisit the Henriksson series at some point, because it was excellent; and maybe the Branagh one too, because that was also really good. But if Young Wallander manages to bag itself a recommission, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.

Jonathan Creek  Series 5 Episodes 2-3 + 2016 Christmas Special
Jonathan Creek: Daemons' RoostI noted last time that Jonathan Creek seems to be ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was a huge hit when it first aired in the ’90s, and a revival in 2009 was a big ratings success too, but the sporadic specials made since then have seen it drift further and further from the spark that once made it special. The nadir was the premiere episode of series 5, which didn’t even function properly as an episode of the show. The remaining two instalments of that short run are better, but still nowhere near the series’ early-day highs. The third one, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, includes an array of terrible subplots that make you wish it was considerably shorter (it’s only an hour long but feels like two), but its mystery is still the nearest these latter-day Creeks have come to its heyday.

A saving grace comes in the last (for now) episode, 2016 Christmas special Daemons’ Roost. Is it the last-ever episode? Many online listings treat it as such, but the four years since it aired means if another episode popped up it wouldn’t be the longest gap in the series’ history. But if it is the last time we ever get to see the character, it’s actually not a bad one to go out on; in fact, thought it was a real return to form. As with many later episodes, it struggles to get Jonathan involved in the case — daft, really, because, after he had the same problem right back in series 1, writer David Renwick came up with a way to just throw Jonathan and Maddy into the case every episode… then undid that after series 4, since when we’ve once again been subjected to long-winded reasonings for Jonathan to get involved. So, once again, it takes a while to get going (Jonathan doesn’t get properly involved until 40 minutes in), but once it ramps up there are some neat mysteries and bags of Gothic atmosphere. I always feel Creek is at its best when it’s invoking that almost Hammer Horror vibe. There are also some nice nods to the series’ history, which is the main reason it feels like it could serve fittingly as a “finale” if needs must.

Though, personally, I’d love to see Jonathan reunited with Maddy for one final case; and I’m happy to wait for a one-off special when Renwick’s got a good idea, because we’ve seen how wrong it goes when he forces it.

Also watched…
  • Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. This one starts dark… and gets darker. I loved that, but I can see he’s not for everyone.
  • Demetri Martin: The Overthinker — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much — it was, ironically, overthought. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.
  • Small Axe Episode 1 — Just to note that I’ll be counting these as films, because that’s what they are, really, aren’t they? I suppose the counterargument is it’s an anthology miniseries because they’re premiering on TV, but nah — especially as several of them actually premiered at a film festival.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episodes 2-4 — I’m even way behind on Bake Off! I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers, at least, so I’ll catch up soon.

    Things to Catch Up On
    His Dark Materials series 2This month, I have mostly been missing His Dark Materials, the second series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy. Of course, I’ve been missing lots of stuff (that was kind of the theme of my introduction, remember?), but that’s one of the most pressing to me personally. You might argue The Mandalorian, also on its second season, is even more pertinent, what with it regularly being thoroughly discussed online, but I’ve not even started that yet. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, I do expect to watch soon.

    Next month… His Dark Materials season 2, probably. What else, only time will tell.

  • The Past Month on TV #62

    I didn’t think I’d watched much TV to cover in this month’s column, and then I came to write it…

    Cobra Kai  Season 1
    Cobra Kai season 1A belated sequel/spin-off to the Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai was one of the first series to be released when YouTube decided to get in on the Netflix game. It was a hit for them, too, attracting tens of millions of viewers and very strong reviews. And yet it feels like no one talked about it, so where those 90 million people were hiding, who knows. Anyway, with YouTube wrapping up their series production (they were a bit late to a market already saturated by Netflix, Amazon, and a dozen other TV and film studios), existing and future seasons of Cobra Kai have been passed onto Netflix — and now everyone’s talking about it. Are more people watching it, or is the Venn diagram between “people who primarily watch stuff via Netflix” and “people who use social media” just a perfect circle? We’ll never know. I guess I’m one of those people who only started talking about the show after it moved to Netflix. I did mean to get to it sooner, but no way was I paying for YouTube, and I missed the couple of times they made it all available for free.

    Anyway, what of the programme itself? As I said, I’d heard it was good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. Seriously. A belated revival of a half-forgotten oh-so-’80s kids’ sports movie franchise should not be one of the best shows on TV in the 2010s, but, turns out, it kinda is. The writing, the performances, the way it uses the franchise’s legacy but is also it’s own thing… all of that is more or less perfect. One of its strongest features is a nicely nuanced treatment of the returning characters. They haven’t just kept them the same, nor merely inverted it so Johnny’s turned good and Daniel’s gone bad. They both have their heroic and villainous moments; both can be inspiring; both can be embarrassing middle-aged men. There’s a certain lack of vanity on the part of the actors there, acknowledging the real passage of time rather than still trying to be Karate ‘Kids’.

    It has what I consider to be the perfect balance of storytelling styles for this streaming era: it’s telling one long story (of course it is), but each episode works as a self-contained unit, with its own plots and subplots. Put another way, it’s ten episodes that together add up to one story, rather than a single long narrative arbitrarily chopped into ten pieces. Because of that, it only gets better as it goes on — you get more invested; the characters develop; stuff pays off… it’s superb. I don’t really do “binge watching” (maybe two episodes in one day, sometimes), but Cobra Kai is so addictive that I ended up watching half the first season in one sitting. It helps that the episodes are short (around 25 minutes each), really feeding the “just one more” feeling. If you’ve only got half-an-hour to spare, you can throw the next episode on and get a satisfying instalment; but if you’ve got nowhere else to be, don’t be surprised if you get suckered in to more, because it does kind of work as “a movie”. (Indeed, watching the first five episodes in one sitting almost felt like watching the first half of a two-part movie, because they reach a particularly suitable break in the overall narrative.)

    The move to Netflix was prompted by YouTube informing the production team that they’d air the already-filmed third season, but definitely wouldn’t commission a fourth. The first two seasons have already been such a success for their new home that Netflix have commissioned that fourth season before they’ve even released the third (it’s due early next year). There’s a lot one could analyse about that (considering the first episode already had 90 million views on YouTube, how many more people were there to watch it on Netflix?!), but the important point is: more Cobra Kai, guaranteed! If it keeps up this level of quality, that’s a very good thing.

    (The only reason I didn’t race straight on to season 2 was to spread it out a bit, what with the wait ’til season 3. Expect a review next month.)

    Strike  Lethal White
    Strike: Lethal WhiteA four-part adaptation of the fourth Cormoran Strike novel by J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith, which sees the private detective investigating the blackmail of an MP at the same time as a historical murder comes his way that the may be connected to the same MP. What a coincidence! No, it really is a coincidence; but don’t worry, with four whole hours of story to get through, you’ll probably have forgotten about that by the end. There’s also the ongoing drama of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. If you thought her getting married to her dick of a fiancé at the end of the last series was going to put a stop to that, you were very wrong. Strike mainly coasts by on the likeability of its two leads — the actual plot isn’t bad, just not anything remarkable. We’ve had four or more decades of this kind of investigative crime drama on British TV, and Strike is one of the ones that happens to currently be on.

    Criminal  Season 2
    Criminal season 2Remember when Netflix first launched Criminal and made a big deal of how it was one format filmed by four different countries? Does no one else remember that? Because I swear it was one of the key USPs, but it’s gone entirely unmentioned in the (surprisingly large amount of) press about the second season — which I presume suits Netflix just fine, because three of the countries have been quietly dropped, so only the UK version remains. (What’s the betting the UK one did better simply because its anglophone cast are more widely known around the world?)

    Anyway, it remains a funny old drama — it wants to be grounded and focused (it all takes place in an interview room and the observation room next door), but rather than allow the minutiae of the actors’ skills to shine through (the other USP), it can’t help but indulge in jumping about with narrative bells and whistles. Most questionable is the second episode, in which Kit Harington gives a good performance, but the “falsely accused of rape” storyline feels like it’s failed to read the cultural moment. It’s got a 9.2 rating on IMDb, though, so I guess the men’s rights-type people found it.

    Derren Brown: Miracle
    Derren Brown: MiracleI’d found the last few Derren Brown live shows relatively underwhelming (not to mention his recent TV specials), which is perhaps why I missed this back whenever it first aired on Channel 4 (in 2016) and am only now catching up. Maybe it’s the distance of time, then, but I thought this was a really strong and entertaining set of tricks and set pieces. The only thing I’d like more is if he explained how the faith healing stuff worked. We know it’s a con, a trick, but it still has an effect. He acknowledges part of it (it’s all psychological, “the stories we tell ourselves”), but how does that fix a woman’s eyesight or render a man unable to read? I know magic tricks aren’t ‘meant’ to be explained, but when you’re exposing shysters’ cons, I feel like revealing the methodology is ok.

    Netflix Comedy Specials
    Hannah Gadbsy: DouglasRecently, I’ve been unwinding with some of Netflix’s standup specials. The most noteworthy / widely discussed of those is certainly Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, her followup show to the massively successful Nanette (which I commented on last month. “Followup” is the right word, because Gadsby begins the set by talking about Nanette’s success and her reaction to it. Then she begins the new show… without beginning the show. Instead, she does a long bit where she lays out the entire structure of the show to come before, almost 15 minutes in, “the show” actually starts. After Nanette was so praised for bending the form of what “standup comedy” could be, I guess she felt the need to do it some more. It’s fairly ingenious and works quite well. As for the material itself, it’s not as emotionally devastating as Nanette, but still appropriately pointed when needed.

    Elsewise, I’ve been trying out some American comedians who I hadn’t even heard of before I saw their trailers on Netflix. Demetri Martin’s accurately titled Live (at the Time) indulges in a lot of quick, deadpan humour, including some nice meta jokes. That’s my kind of thing. Also my kind of thing: dark comedy. Apparently Anthony Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward is the kind of comedy that some people find offensive, but I struggle to find any comedy “offensive” when it’s clearly being performed with self-awareness that it is wrong, and that’s why it’s funny (as opposed to someone saying something as “just a joke” when it’s their actual word view, i.e. what right wing ‘comics’ tend to do). So, yes, I’m aware some people find Jeselnik’s material beyond the pale, but he hit just the right note for me (i.e. I’ve seen darker, but they probably went too far). Finally (appropriately), Marc Maron’s End Times Fun accepts that the world is fucked and gets on with making gags about it. His bit about how the way hardcore Marvel fans behave is actually the same as religious fanatics is bang on, while his finale — an extended vulgar ‘prophecy’ for the end of days — is hilarious, and quite close to Jeselnik in terms of pushing at offensive-to-some boundaries.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The Howling ManThis is my tenth and final selection of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone, which gets me to the end of the top third of episodes on my consensus ranking (The New Exhibit is ranked 52nd, which is exactly 33.3% through). I think that’s as far as I can reasonably call the “best of”. If you think it sounds quite far through the list to still be calling these “the best”, bear this in mind: a lot of this month’s episodes are well placed in several rankings, but then one or two more negative nellies drag them down. (The Howling Man is the most extreme instance of this: it’s in the top 20 according to voters on Ranker, and placed in the top 30 by ScreenCrush, Paste, and IMDb users, but neither TV Guide nor Thrillist include it in their top 50, and BuzzFeed put it 149th.) My personal opinion of some of these episodes made me wonder if I’d pushed “best of” too far, but there have been episodes in previous “best of” selections that I liked even less, so I think it’s coincidence rather than that TZ has run out of good episodes before I even get halfway through. (And just because I didn’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not well regarded — one of my least favourites here, Stopover in a Quiet Town, has 8.3 on IMDb and is ranked 25th there.)

    The first episode this month isn’t a disaster, but doesn’t quite coalesce either. Ring-a-Ding Girl has some very nice ideas, but they’ve not been arranged properly to make a wholly satisfying episode. For one thing, it leaves a whole town full of people aware of the strange thing that’s happened — that doesn’t feel very Twilight Zone, where these things normally only directly affect one or two people, and even they often can’t be sure it actually happened. That’s more a minor point of style than a fundamental flaw, mind. Still, I feel like someone could rewrite this and make it a lot better — heck, it could probably even sustain a feature, if done right. Bit of a shame, then.

    A Hundred Yards Over the RimOn the other hand, a common feature of The Twilight Zone is “man out of time” stories. The show did a lot of those, and A Hundred Yards Over the Rim is certainly one of them. In 1847, a pioneer at the head of a wagon train heads over a nearby rim to scout for water, and finds himself in 1961. There’s reasonable potential in that, but what follows offers no remarkable features or moral messages. If the pioneer was on the verge of giving up, and seeing that people like him did bring civilisation to those barren places motivated him to carry on, that would be effective. In fact, he’s pretty much the only one in his party who’s already certain they’re on the right path, so all his trip through time represents is a brief obstacle in his path. Similarly, he discovers evidence that his dying son will actually survive and achieve great things, but he didn’t seem to doubt his son’s chances before that, so what did he really gain? Apparently this is JJ Abrams’ favourite episode, which I feel explains a few things…

    Much better is The Howling Man, a mostly unsettling episode with a “dark and stormy night” feel. that’s a cliche, but Douglas Heyes’ OTT Dutch-angle filled direction emphasises such an overblown atmosphere. It’s fun, if a little campy, especially in its final reveal. It’s the kind of episode that’s so particularly styled that whether you love it or loathe it is entirely down to personal taste, which probably explains those ranking discrepancies I mentioned at the start. As I also mentioned, Stopover in a Quiet Town is one of my least favourite episodes. It’s not that it’s bad per se, but it felt like little more than a remix of a handful of previous episodes; like a workmanlike pastiche rather than a true Twilight Zone instalment. The moral of the story — stated bluntly by Rod Serling in his closing narration — is “if you drink, don’t drive.” Thrillist reckon it’s “the best PSA about drunk driving of all time.” I just think it’s the weirdest.

    A man and his dog are the subject of The Hunt, one of TZ’s occasional sweet episodes. When the pair die, you might not think this is going to be a nice one, but we soon follow them into the afterlife — not that they realise it. Yep, as is so often the case with these kinds of TZ episodes, we understand the situation immediately while it takes the characters most of the episode to cotton on. It’s only in the second half that it gets to the real point: arriving at the gates of Heaven, St Peter informs the man that his dog can’t come in. What kind of Heaven would it be without dogs?! Well, this is The Twilight Zone, so… It’s a twee little tale, really. I liked the “dogs are great” side, but was less keen on the sensation it gives of being a Sunday school lesson.

    One for the AngelsOne for the Angels is another feel-good episode, in which a two-bit street salesman manages to outwit Death… twice! Once for himself, once for a little girl who lives in his block. Ed Wynn embodies the friend-to-children type persona most familiar from his later appearance in Mary Poppins, while Murray Hamilton (also best known for a later film role: the mayor from Jaws) makes for a charmingly besuited Mr Death. That the salesman manages to pitch cheap crap to Death himself for a full quarter of an hour stretches belief. Well, I say “belief” like Mr Death is real, but, even with the rules of fantasy, what does Death need with all that crap? Ah, but it’s all for a good cause, so maybe we can let it slide in the name of feeling happy.

    We end on an even rarer beast: a season 4 episode! Out of 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone I’ve watched so far, this is only the 5th from that season — and three of those were in my “worst of” posts. Basically, if you didn’t already know, people don’t like season 4. As one of its better instalments, The New Exhibit is proper horror movie stuff. Indeed, I could see this as the setup for a standalone feature film; which is quite different to season 4’s usual problem, that the double-length episodes led to plots being padded to fill the running time. That said, this isn’t the best execution of the concept. Where it’s going feels inevitable from early on, so it still feels a little long-winded — you could definitely rattle through this tale in 25 minutes. Indeed, as Paste puts it, it “could work as either a very short story, or be expanded into a horror feature. As a 50-minute episode, it takes a long time to get going, then ends abruptly just when it was beginning to get interesting.” Ironically, a feature version would probably get going quicker, then spend more time on the later good stuff — and this episode would’ve benefitted from the same. All of which said, I still found it effectively creepy. Some people say it’s not scary at all, but I guess that depends on whether you find wax figures inherently unsettling or not.

    And that concludes what I’m calling “the best of The Twilight Zone“. I’m going to keep working me way through the series and writing about it, though. Hopefully I’ll unearth a few underrated gems among the episodes that fall in the middle of the rankings.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 7 Episodes 1-4 — The final run of American Sherlock begins in London… the kind of London that’s clearly been shot on LA backlots and standing sets. Bless ’em.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episode 1 — Defying the lockdown odds, Bake Off is back! I guess that’d feel more special if this wasn’t the fourth series I’ve watched this year (series 1 in January, series 9 in June, and series 10 in September). Thankfully, An Extra Slice is back too, because that’s the best bit.
  • Jonathan Creek Specials + Series 5 Episode 1 — We’ve reached “the rubbish ones” now, where the plots get too far-fetched (in The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, a couple improvise on the spot an elaborate coverup for… a complete accident) or, in the case of series 5 opener The Letters of Septimus Noone, don’t even function like a proper episode (it shows the answer to the mystery at the start!) I used to always hope Creek would keep coming back, but if it carries on like this, maybe it’s best if it doesn’t.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 18-20 — When this started, its best feature was how grounded and plausible it was. Now we have serial killers scheming from within prison and dirty cops framing rookies for elaborate criminal enterprises. In short, it’s getting a bit like other OTT cop shows, which is a shame. I half expected it to be cancelled given recent events in the US, but it hasn’t been, which is good because season 2 ends on a huge cliffhanger.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Haunting of Bly ManorThis month, I have mostly been missing The Haunting of Bly Manor, the followup to The Haunting of Hill House, which I also never got round to watching. This is the perfect month for that kind of thing, obviously, so I ought to make the effort. Not sure I will, mind. Same goes for Lovecraft Country, which I heard a lot of good things about, and then heard less good things about, and now I’m just not sure. I mean, there’s so much TV to watch nowadays, you gotta be careful not to waste that precious viewing time. And I’m sure there’s been a bunch of other stuff, but God, never mind watching it, I can’t even keep up with remembering it all.

    Next month… The Mandalorian is back. (Not watched season one of that yet, either.)

  • Enola Holmes (2020)

    2020 #214
    Harry Bradbeer | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

    Enola Holmes

    The latest screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is not really about the Great Detective at all. Instead, Enola Holmes introduces us to his eponymous young sister — not part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon, but a creation of author Nancy Springer, on whose series of young adult mystery novels this film is based. (Nor, I feel I should point out, was Sherlock’s Eurus drawn from canon, despite what some hardcore Sherlock fans berating Netflix’s Enola promos seem to believe.) Indeed, the film imagines a whole family for Sherlock and his elder brother Mycroft: a father who died when Enola was young; and a mother, Eudoria, who has since raised Enola to be a multi-talented, independent, forward-thinking young woman.

    But when Enola (Mille Bobby Brown) wakes on her 16th birthday, she finds that Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) has disappeared. She summons her brothers, famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and uptight government man Mycroft (Sam Claflin), and various clues to Eudoria’s actions and intentions are unearthed — but not always shared among the siblings, because the brothers want little to do with their younger sister, resolving to send her to a finishing school to learn how to be a ‘proper’ lady. That doesn’t fit with Enola’s plans, though, so she escapes and runs away to find her mother. On her journey, she runs into similarly young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is also on the run from his family, for reasons that, it will emerge, are even more sinister than Enola’s…

    Enola and Sherlock

    As a story set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, Enola Holmes is… well… um… Look, I’ve been fond of Henry Cavill since The Tudors, but he’s not my idea of Sherlock Holmes; and apparently Dr Watson doesn’t even exist? Sacrilege! While I can’t forgive the latter, the weird casting decision of Cavill is somewhat justified by the film itself. I’m not sure it was conceived to include a ‘traditional’ Holmes, and Cavill fits the character as he has been written: as an admirable, kindly, almost mentor-like older brother to Enola. Perhaps if they’d cast a more traditionally Holmesian actor then that person would have managed to shift it towards a traditional portrayal, but I suspect that’s not what the filmmakers wanted. Arguably that makes this a bad Holmes adaptation (if you’ve changed the style and nature of the character, is it actually an “adaptation”?), but then, it’s not really about him.

    It’s about Enola — as per, y’know, the title — and in that role Mille Bobby Brown proves that her success as Eleven in Stranger Things was not a fluke. In the wrong hands, the confident, capable, and headstrong Enola could have been brattish, but Brown brings enough charm to sweep us along. She frequently turns to speak to camera, like some kind of Victorian teenage Fleabag, which, again, could have been irritating, but mostly works to bring us into her confidence and, occasionally, underscore the fun and thrill of her adventure. However, there’s more room for nuance in how the character is written. Enola is by no means perfect, but we’re rarely allowed to see deficiencies. This works when she’s putting on a brave face to a world that would underestimate her, but a little more sense that she’s new to all this and doesn’t always get it right wouldn’t go amiss.

    Victorian teenage Fleabag

    So, while I don’t imagine Sherlockians will be inducting this into their favourite screen iterations of the Great Detective, it works as a female-led YA mystery-adventure. Originally produced by Warner Bros for a cinematic release, but sold to Netflix after the pandemic hit, I suspect this might have actually done quite well in cinemas. It’s good fun, accessible entertainment; the kind of thing that once upon a time would have been a PG-rated family blockbuster hit (nowadays it’s rated 12/PG-13, though with their “allow children in so long as they’re with adults” rules, those certs are really the modern-day equivalent of what used to be PG). Now, it looks to have been a hit for Netflix: it seems to have been widely viewed, based on how the number of ratings on IMDb and Letterboxd shot up over the first 24 hours (and kept going), and it’s been the #1 film on Netflix UK for a whole week (and, apparently, set a record for being #1 in the most countries on its release day). I suspect this won’t be the last adventure we see for Miss Holmes…

    4 out of 5

    Enola Holmes is available on Netflix now.

    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 #60

    I suppose lockdown is officially over now, for good or ill, but we begin this month’s TV review by reliving those heady days…

    Staged  Series 1
    StagedThis filmed-in-lockdown comedy stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they attempt to rehearse a play over the internet, the goal being they’ll be ready to put it on as soon as theatres reopen. Naturally, there’s much more to it than two actors practising a play — indeed, I’m not sure they ever actually get round to any proper rehearsing. Conflicts abound, both broadly relatable (Sheen is blackmailed into helping look after his elderly neighbour, but develops genuine concern for her) and actorly (a running debate/gag about which of the pair should get top billing), and there are a couple of big-name surprise cameos along the way (no spoilers — the surprises are worth it). With all episodes in the 15- to 20-minute range, the series is hardly a big time commitment (it runs well under two hours in total), but it’s well worth it and consistently funny. Indeed, I wish there was going to be more. Well, a second lockdown isn’t out of the question yet, is it…

    Lockdown may be over, but Staged is still available on iPlayer.

    Hamilton’s America
    Hamilton's AmericaThis documentary first aired back in 2016, in the wake of Hamilton’s success on stage. I’m not sure if it’s ever been screened in the UK, but I tracked down a copy after watching Hamilton on Disney+. So, firstly, I’m glad I didn’t watch this before seeing the film — I feel like it would’ve somehow ruined, or at least tarnished, the experience of seeing the full production, because this contains extensive-but-far-from-complete clips from the show. I guess, back in 2016, when the only way to actually see Hamilton was by securing hard-to-come-by, insanely-expensive Broadway tickets, getting to see those clips was probably great for fans.

    Aside from that, the documentary is part making-of (it follows lyricist, composer, and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda starting in 2014, when he’s writing the musical with an impending rehearsal deadline, and then continues on to cover the show’s opening and success) and part history lesson (various cast members and experts discuss the real events and visit relevant historical locations to learn more about their characters). Rather than half-arse either of these aspects, the feature-length running time allows the doc to offer genuine insights into both. For just one example, there’s a bit where they discuss the issue of the Founding Fathers being slave owners, and although it’s only a couple of minutes long, it contains more intelligent commentary than the entire bloody social media debate about it that the film’s release provoked.

    It’s a real shame this isn’t on Disney+ to accompany the film, because I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed that would enjoy this as a chaser. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can track it down.

    Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 9-10
    Star Trek: PicardI started this when it began in January, and have been slowly trekking through it ever since — it’s taken me six whole months to get through just ten episodes. That’s a commentary in itself as to what I thought of it, I suppose, though if you asked me I’d say it’s “not bad”.

    From what I’ve seen of other people’s reactions, Picard seems to be a real “love it or hate it” show. A lot of people I read and/or whose opinion I respect either can’t stand it or find it thoroughly mediocre, but there are definitely people out there — more than an odd handful, apparently — who think it’s fantastic. As often seems to be the case with something so divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle. After a rocky start (the first three episodes should’ve been condensed into one feature-length opener, at most), I felt the series settled down reasonably well, with a couple of almost-standalone episodes of varying quality eventually giving way entirely to its arc plot, which from then was executed with a relative consistency of pace — a major problem with many “one long story” streaming series nowadays. The quality of the dialogue and acting remained somewhat turbulent, which perhaps belies the franchise’s roots as predating “prestige TV” — what’s acceptable for Star Trek doesn’t necessarily wash with the modern sophisticated non-die-hard-fan viewer.

    That said, for every scene or plot development that worked well, there was something truly ridiculous or implausible just around the corner, with the finale being one of the worst offenders. Some might say “it’s sci-fi — implausible is its stock in trade”, but even sci-fi has rules, and Picard seemed to merrily flout them, often in the name of fan service. And that’s why I end up somewhere in the middle, because overall I thought it was a solid-enough space adventure, undermined by frequent blips in quality and sense. I believe the writing team is undergoing some significant changes ahead of the already-commissioned second season, so maybe they’ll iron out the kinks.

    Fleabag
    Fleabag (the play)I’ve never got round to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-acclaimed sitcom, but, during lockdown, Amazon offered the original one-woman-show stage version (recorded last year during a live cinema broadcast) as a charity rental, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. My reaction was… muted, to be honest. I can certainly see how it pushes at boundaries, both of the depiction of women in fiction and of taste in general, and for that reason it’s significant, but I only found it sporadically funny, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a comedy. Also, I wasn’t expecting it to get so dark — if you’re a lover of small furry animals, beware.

    James Acaster: Repertoire
    James Acaster: RepertoireAnother filmed stage comedy that left me somewhat underwhelmed. This is more straightforward stand-up, however, and as that it was more often amusing — whether you find Acaster’s “wacky” style (his word) to your taste will dictate exactly how funny. For me, he’s not the most consistently hilarious standup I’ve seen, but provoked laughs regularly enough. The real selling point here, however, is that it’s a four-parter. Ever heard of a multi-part stand-up gig before? Me either. These aren’t just four entirely independent gigs box-set-ed up either, but were conceived and shot as four connected sets.

    Despite that high-concept pitch, it turns out the four-part structure isn’t particularly clever after all. The cross-episode callbacks are sometimes good and clever, but sometimes just elicit recognition (accompanied by an “I got that reference!” laugh from the audience). It’s not anything unique to the four-part structure — plenty of other comedians structure their standalone shows in the same way. The only differences are (a) if you watch it in four sittings then some of the callback are to a different episode rather than something earlier in the same set, and (b) it’s three-and-a-half hours of material, all of which were all performed on the same day, which is a remarkable feat. Otherwise, the connectivity is basically limited to episode 4 ending in such a way as to imply it’s ‘set’ before episode 1, including a cleverly staged final shot. But, unless I missed something, the other episodes don’t line up in such a way that 2 must follow 3 and 4 must follow 3, so it doesn’t create some kind of ouroboros loop, which I guess was the kind of structural inventiveness I was looking for.

    Overall, Acaster is whimsically amusing — not my favourite standup, but solid with some excellent bits — and the sheer volume of material at a sustained quality level is impressive. But I don’t buy that this miniseries structure is innovative In any way except volume. And I can’t help but wonder if, had he condensed these 205 minutes into a normal 60- to 90-minute set, it might’ve felt like a higher density of pure gold.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    After a few months spent scraping the bottom of what the original Twilight Zone has to offer, it’s back to the cream of the crop. (At this point you may be wondering “how many episodes can he reasonably class as ‘the best’?!” My final answer is: the top third. Yes, that’s quite a broad definition, but I like to be generous. For what it’s worth, today’s selection gets me to 20.5% on my consensus ranking.)

    Where is Everybody?This month’s selection begins at the very beginning: the first-ever Twilight Zone episode, Where is Everybody? The title alone is a pretty succinct pitch of the episode’s theme, and the episode is as one-note as its premise. This is an exciting story in which a bloke… gets himself coffee, and… talks to a mannequin, and… tries to phone the operator but can’t get through, and… has an ice cream, and… yeeeaaah. The twist ending isn’t much cop either, 50% “it was all a dream”, 50% a thin moral about humans’ need for companionship. It could’ve been better: Rod Serling’s original pitch for episode one was a tale about a society where people were executed when they turned 60, which I think is a better concept, but it was deemed too depressing (imagine what they would’ve made of Logan’s Run, where the executions happen at 30!) That said, “everybody’s gone” is a reasonable starting idea, but the episode needs (a) more places to go with it, and (b) a more interesting reveal. (See The Quiet Earth for essentially the same premise being more thoroughly explored.)

    Next is one of the very few Twilight Zone episodes that doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantastical element (apparently there are only four such instalments). The Silence concerns a wager between an old rich dude and a talkative guy at his club: if the latter can manage to stay silent for a whole year (while under constant observation, natch), the former will pay him $500,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s money). What the episode really asks is how far would — could; should — you go to win (or keep) half-a-million dollars? Whatever your answer, the episode gives us a very dark version, primarily because of the ending — in traditional TZ fashion, there’s a twist (or two) and no one comes out of it well. Although it’s less allegorical than the series’ usual fantastical episodes, there’s no less of a lesson to be learned.

    Conversely, some Twilight Zone episodes feel like a concept without a plot, and The Odyssey of Flight 33 is one of them. It concerns a transatlantic flight that finds itself in some weird midair phenomena, and to say where it goes would be to spoil the only card this episode has up its sleeve — as Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste puts it, the episode is “a light sci-fi rollercoaster ride” without “a clear sociocultural theme or complex existential narrative”. To be less kind, it’s a nice idea but the story doesn’t have anywhere to go with it — it doesn’t even end, just sort of peters out. Conversely, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush argues the ending is “an unsolved mystery [with] total ambiguity, which makes it … that much more disturbing.” Despite that, I actually think is one of those rare episodes that would’ve worked better with season four’s extended running time. Most of the story is set in the plane’s cockpit with its crew, but we meet a couple of the passengers, only for the episode to do nothing with them. At least if their reactions had been fleshed out, maybe there would’ve been more meat here.

    Nightmare as a ChildI’ve written before that some episodes suffer from the series’ own influence, or just from an ensuing 60 years of sophistication on the part of the viewer, and Nightmare as a Child is a case in point. It has two reveals, and they’re both not so much guessable as obvious and inevitable. There’s even a bit of a coda to thoroughly explain it all again in case you didn’t get it. Maybe that was necessary back in 1960, when stories like this were breaking new ground in the audience’s minds, but today it feels like overkill. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad episode — indeed, the story of a woman meeting a strange little girl who seems to know an impossible amount about her life is still suitably eerie and tense in places — but it is one that plays less effectively today. That said, if you engage with it not as a mystery with a surprise but as simply a story, it has more to offer — Kozak compares it to “a tightly wound Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery”, while Scott Beggs of Thrillist reckons it “replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger” while it “confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way”. They’re not wrong.

    Another episode with a tricky-to-parse twist is Third from the Sun. It’s a famous one — I won’t directly spoil it here, but I feel like the title gives it away rather. But, a bit like Nightmare as a Child, the episode is saved by being rather good even without the ironic final note (indeed, Kozak reckons the twist is “unnecessary… cheap and immediately predictable”). It’s about two families who, aware that nuclear annihilation might be imminent, try to escape, but a suspicious government figure potentially stands in their way. It’s a decent little tale of Cold War paranoia, but the twist probably is a little distracting. It reshapes what we’ve already seen, and explains some of the deliberate oddities in direction and set dressing, but it sort of doubles back on itself because the characters are now heading into the situation we thought they were in in the first place…

    More successful, for my money, is And When the Sky Was Opened, about a pair of pilots of an experimental spaceship that crashed on its return to Earth — except one of the pilots maintains there used to be three of them, but no one else can remember him. A bit like Flight 33, there are no overt morals or explanations to be found here, just a lot of mystery and madness. Unlike Flight 33, I thought it had enough of that to fuel the narrative, leaning in to how the unexplainable phenomena affects the characters. It’s a neat little sci-fi tale — and, incidentally, is based on a story by Richard Matheson, making this his first credit on the series. I know in some circles Matheson is rightly exalted, but I feel like he’s not as widely known as he deserves — Serling gets much of the credit for TZ’s success, but several of the very best episodes are by Matheson.

    An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeHaving begun today with Twilight Zone’s first episode, we end with the last one produced — although they didn’t actually produce it. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an award-winning French short film that Serling saw and liked so much he bought the TV rights (saving so much money on the cost of producing another episode that he brought season five in on budget). Even if Serling didn’t point out its alternate origin in his introduction, it’s immediately clear this came from somewhere else, because it doesn’t look or feel at all like a normal TZ episode. So what made Serling think it would fit the show? Why, it has an ironic last-minute twist, of course! This is regularly one of the best-regarded episodes of the series, and the short film itself has a pretty strong rep too, but I don’t get it. There’s some pretty photography and the beginning is fairly atmospheric, but it quickly starts to drag — the story is thin and slow, ending with a twist that I found inevitable from early on.

    I feel like I’ve been quite negative on this month’s selection of episodes, but that’s only because I have very high standards for The Twilight Zone. Owl Creek Bridge was the only one I truly disliked, while The Silence and And When the Sky Was Opened are definitely deserving of their higher reputation.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 15-21 — I guess the threat of cancellation hung over Elementary’s head as this season ended, because it very much gets to a place they could’ve left it if necessary. It’s one of those “that’ll do”-type endings, though, so I hope to find the final, foreshortened seventh run does a better job.
  • Jonathan Creek Series 2 — I didn’t remember this second series as vividly as I did the first, but it still has some very fine and baffling mysteries. Particular highlights include a man seen on two continents at the same time, and a priceless painting stolen from a closely-watched empty room.

    Things to Catch Up On
    CursedLast month, I didn’t include this section because I couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Naturally I then spent the next couple of days remembering things, like the recent re-adaptations of Alex Rider on Amazon and Snowpiercer on Netflix. Obviously, I still haven’t watched either of those. More recently, Netflix launched Cursed, a young adult (I think) take on Arthurian legend from the point of view of the Lady of the Lake. I’m not wholly convinced by the trailers or buzz, but I do love a bit of Arthurian whatnot so it’s on my radar. Also passingly of note is that Amazon just released season three of Absentia. I started out moderately enjoying the first season, but by the end was not at all impressed. I was surprised when it got a second run, so I’m even more flabbergasted to see it back for a third. I guess someone must be watching it. Each to their own.

    Next month… the second season of Netflix’s superhero show The Umbrella Academy is out soon, but as I never got round to season one, I doubt I’ll do season two next month. Elsewise, more of the best of The Twilight Zone, and I really should get round to The Mandalorian (how long’s it been now?!)

  • Searching (2018)

    2019 #51
    Aneesh Chaganty | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Russia / English |
    12 / PG-13

    Searching

    When his 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) does the most logical thing in this day and age: he turns to her computer and social media to try to work out where she’s gone. What Searching does to really sell this concept is place us inside the tech: everything we see takes place on the screen of computers, be it searching the internet, chasing leads via video chat, or compiling evidence in spreadsheets.

    It’s a conceit that is clearly innovative, but also feels like it has the potential to grow old fast. After all, it’s inherently limiting, and if the filmmakers tried to coast on the novelty factor, you’d probably grow bored within the first half-hour. Fortunately, Searching has more to offer. Indeed, long before you’ve had a chance to become fed up with the unique storytelling method, you’re absorbed in the narrative.

    It works on two fronts. There’s a degree of commentary on modern society and parent/child relationships, as David begins to discover all the things Margot has been hiding from him, realising he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. In some respects this is nothing new — we’ve had decades of films and TV dramas where parents discover their perfect little darling isn’t who they thought — but here it’s cannily updated for the social media era.

    Searching the web

    Secondly, it’s an engrossing mystery. Director Aneesh Chaganty uses the visual concept perfectly to help craft a storyline with compelling characters that keeps us thoroughly engaged. Pleasingly, the film never breaks its own rules, instead finding new ways to use the limitations to tell the story. The only possible misstep comes in the final act, when some developments begin to succumb to Movie Logic and get a bit grandiose for the previously-grounded film. But the array of twists here actually had me on the edge of my seat, and, really, what more do you want from a thriller than that?

    Searching is the kind of film you come to thanks to its USP, your interest piqued by seeing how they can tell a story under such limitations; but what makes you stay, and want to come back, is how well it tells that story. It’s not unconventional for the sake of it, but a new and very timely way of viewing a narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    It placed 6th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.