The Past Month on TV #21

Another busy, busy month — I should’ve split it into fortnights again.

Anyway, read on for reviews of Top of the Lake: China Girl, the latest instalments of Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks, ‘old’ shows like Line of Duty series 3 (from all the way back in 2016) and Peaky Blinders series 2 (from even longer ago: 2014), and even more bits & bobs too.

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episodes 2-5
Arya's as surprised as the rest of usThe first of this month’s quartet of trips to Westeros, Stormborn, demonstrated better than the premiere the whip-crack pace the show is now moving at. To pick one example: Arya re-encountered Hot Pie and learnt that Winterfell was back in the hands of the Starks, changed her plans to journey there instead of King’s Landing, and encountered Nymeria (her wolf last seen way back in the second ever episode), who now leads a pack of wolves and, basically, rejected Arya. All those developments previously would’ve taken Thrones a good four or five episodes to get through, but no more. There are benefits to this, of course — no more longueurs — but the worry is Dan & Dave are rushing for the sake of rushing; because they told themselves this story would be done in 73 episodes and they’ve kind of had enough after the best part of a decade working on it. Still, it’s not as if it’s bad, it’s just faster. And where the episode promises exciting reunions and first meetings left, right, and centre, we can be assured they’re just around the corner.

Almost literally, as Jon Snow, hot off deciding to go visit Dany at the end of the previous episode, rocks up to Dragonstone in The Queen’s Justice for the long-awaited meet-up between aunt and nephew — not that either of them know that. The show doesn’t even make us wait all episode for it, kicking right into it. And, again, things move every onward, as cunning plans are executed, thwarted, and bettered. It’s been reported that this season has the same budget as normal, despite having three fewer episodes, and that clearly shows on screen with epic battles almost every week.

Jon and Dany, sitting in a tree...The most epic so far came in The Spoils of War. Apparently it’s been dubbed the Field of Fire — if there’s one thing Game of Thrones is consistently good at, it’s giving its big events cool monikers. (The “Field of Fire” is also an event from the series’ backstory, I believe, so maybe some of the reviews I read just got confused.) But it’s not just cool shots of fiery destruction that make this episode so satisfying: it’s the way that changes the game. Not to mention characters coming together after so long apart, both on the battlefield and not. That two girls talking in a crypt can be as thrilling as a dragon blowing shit up is… well, how character investment works, I guess. Some reckon this is the series’ best-ever episode. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is right near the top.

By comparison, Eastwatch was almost a calm affair. Okay, that might be an exaggeration; but there were no epic battles this week (just a cliffhanger teasing one next time). It continued to contribute to this perhaps being Thrones’ most satisfying season ever though, with yet more long-awaited reunions, a couple of pretty major revelations, and some great skullduggery and counter-skullduggery. It also held fan-pleasing moments aplenty, my personal favourite being Davos’ meta one-liner. If it doesn’t stand out as an all-round all-time classic like the episodes surrounding it, that says more about them than it does this quality instalment.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Top of the Lake: China GirlElisabeth Moss, star of both Mad Men, a series partly about the sexual politics of the ’60s workplace, and The Handmaid’s Tale, a series about the sexual politics of a world where women are baby-making slaves, returns as Det. Robin Griffin for a second run of Top of the Lake, which is now a series about the sexual politics of present-day Australia.

Set four years after the first season, China Girl sees New Zealander Robin back at work as a police detective in Australia. The inciting incident happens on Bondi Beach, but this is not the world of sunny tourist hotspots or chirpy vets: it’s the body of an Asian prostitute, brutally murdered and shoved in a suitcase, then dumped to rot in the ocean. And it gets grimmer from there. Meanwhile, Robin seeks a connection with the daughter she gave up for adoption at two days old, who is now a headstrong and over-assured seventeen-year-old blindly falling into something way out of her depth.

After a first episode that seems somehow tentative, as if it’s considering on the fly whether it should be a second season or a standalone narrative with the same protagonist, China Girl quickly resolves into its own beast: with vital groundwork laid in that sometimes stilted first hour, it hits the ground running as soon as episode two (making me wonder if, with further hindsight or a rewatch, the first episode wasn’t so awkward after all). Over its remaining five hours, China Girl increasingly impresses as dark, difficult, uncomfortable, challenging, and powerful drama. It’s also laced with surprising humour, and it’s a bit pretentious too. I can see why it was a hit at Cannes.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline ChristieThere are some great performances in there too, mainly from the female characters — no surprise, really, considering creator and co-writer/co-director Jane Campion is clearly interested in exploring women’s place in the world. Moss carries things, with Robin competent but combative at work (she needs to be, as the Australian police force seems stuck in the ’70s with its gender politics) even as her personal life is a tumultuous mess. Nicole Kidman gets to play it kooky as the adoptive mother of Robin’s child, who’s gone all spiritual and lesbian recently. The most entertaining is Gwendoline Christie as an enthusiastic constable who latches on to Robin, eager to be her protégé. She brings the bulk of the humour, with great lines and moments aplenty, but also brings emotional depth when needed.

The whole thing ends with a degree of ambiguity rather than a killer blow, answering all the plot mechanics but seemingly less clear on how it wants to conclude its important themes. Nonetheless, for me it was an order of magnitude more interesting than the good-but-kind-of-woolly first season, and therefore a lot better than it too.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 11-14
Two CoopersI must be honest with you, dear readers: the longer this Twin Peaks revival goes on, the less I feel I’m enjoying it. It works best when Lynch is trying to out-Lynch himself. Those episodes are crazy and borderline nonsensical and insanely challenging to what constitutes filmed entertainment, but at least they’re interesting; and if you don’t get it you can dismiss it as “it’s Lynch, innit”. It’s actually the ‘normal’ stuff — the investigations and machinations in South Dakota, Las Vegas, and Twin Peaks itself — that are beginning to get on my wick. Again, at times there are moments of clarity or inspired weirdness, but in between sits a morass of sludgy plotting and wilfully obscure characterisation. It’s starting to nudge the series from “revelatory experiment” into “noble failure” territory, for me.

That said, there was a definite uptick at the end of this month’s viewing, with Part 14 providing a lot of long-awaited developments and forward momentum for the plot (plus one of my favourite of the end-of-episode performances at the Roadhouse, Lissie’s Wild West). Perhaps everything will finally come together in the remaining few episodes after all? Or perhaps everything will slow down again and we’ll be done the wiser come the end of Part 18. Only time will tell…

Line of Duty  Series 3 Episodes 4-6
Line of Duty series 3As I noted last month, the third series of Line of Duty seems to be the one that attracted the most adulation. I was reserving judgement until I’d finished, because at the halfway point I wasn’t finding it superior to the brilliant second series.

For those still unaware of the show, it’s about a police anti-corruption unit, and in this six-parter they were looking into an officer who shot a suspect and covered up the circumstances. That wasn’t all that was going on, however. Line of Duty pretends it’s about a new case each series but, really, it told one big story across its first three runs. I wonder if that’s why some have hailed this one as its best: it finally brings all those long-brewing arcs to a head. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the resolutions come in the feature-length finale, which is certainly a striking episode. Nonetheless, I’d argue series two was better overall — I felt it had a greater sense of mystery, palpable tension throughout, and the plot was more unpredictable. Still, I don’t wish to do the third series down — being second-best to that is no mean feat.

Peaky Blinders  Series 2
Peaky Blinders series 2The second series of BBC Two’s period crime drama jumps forward two years to find everyone’s favourite Brummie criminals running such a successful business that they intend to expand their operations to London, by sticking their oar into a turf war between the Jews (led by Tom Hardy) and the Italians (led by Noah Taylor). Meanwhile, Sam Neill’s copper is back with a vengeance, teaming up with the Irish to blackmail Blinders kingpin Cillian Murphy into performing an off-the-books assassination for the crown.

Peaky Blinders’ second series ups the ante from the already excellent first, pitching its leads into a more dangerous world where they’re not the major force to be reckoned with. As its stories unfurl over six hours (without needing to resort to wheel-spinning), you begin to wonder how they can possibly escape the various binds they find themselves in. It all builds to a payoff-filled finale, even though things don’t go quite to plan… Where that will take things in the third series will be interesting to see. (For more up-to-date fans than me, the fourth series is due later this year.)

Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle Series 1-2 — ITV’s short-lived drama (just seven episodes across two series), about former Bletchley Park codebreakers using their skills to solve crimes in ’50s London, is chiefly notable for its intelligent and capable female heroes. The first series is good, but I felt like the second was beginning to struggle to sustain the conceit — just how many criminal conspiracies were these ladies going to stumble upon?
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — the last season! Sob! If you like swashbuckling excitement and have let this show pass you by, do find a way to catch up on it.
  • Sherlock Pilot — finally got round to watching this unaired pilot (it’s included as a special feature on the series one Blu-ray). I was under the impression it was something of a disaster, but it really isn’t. The direction isn’t as flashy as the final show (but is otherwise fine), and obviously it’s half-an-hour shorter, but other than that it’s all very similar.
  • Wallander Series 4 Episodes 2-3 — an adaptation of the final novel, in which the Swedish detective investigates a case relating to a shameful incident in his country’s past while battling early-onset dementia. It’s a superb idea for a story — the once-great detective battling his deteriorating mental faculties. This being Wallander, it tackles the concept from a more personal, emotional perspective, rather than a Memento-esque plot-driven one, but is no worse for it. It’s a sad end for the character, but an affecting one for his series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Torchwood: Aliens Among UsThis month, I have mostly been missing Torchwood: Aliens Among Us. Although ‘just’ an audio drama from Big Finish, it’s being marketed as the series’ official fifth season, picking up after the events of 2011’s (disappointing) Miracle Day. A full 12-episode run, it’s coming out in three box sets — although part two isn’t out until October and part three until February, part one came out last week. Obviously, I’ve not listened to it yet. Hopefully next time…

    Next fortnight… another earlier-than-normal edition, as Netflix gets defendered and Game of Thrones reaches a feature-length finale. Yes, already.

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  • The Past Month on TV #15

    It’s been a busy old month in front of the TV here at 100 Films HQ, and I’m not even going to cover all of it (I find myself with nothing to say about the five episodes of Arrow and The Flash I watched this month). For some kind of semblance of order to what follows, it’s split into “new stuff” and “old stuff” (plus the usual “other stuff” and “missed stuff” at the end).

    24: Legacy (Season 1 Episodes 1-4)
    24: LegacyPreviously on Twenny-Four… There may be no Jack Bauer, the new font for the clock may be bizarrely wrong, and the on-screen text may have abandoned the familiar golden yellow for a soft blue, but everything else about Legacy is same old, same old. If you remember it from 24, it’s here: the suspicious bosses, the scheming associates, the moles, the people accused of doing something bad who are obviously going to be innocent, the heroes going rogue and having to sneak around under the noses of people who are probably good but can’t be trusted right now, the implausible use and abuse of real-time, the unrelated subplots that are obviously going to be related eventually… even CTU’s ringtone is the same. So too is how it’s directed: split screen is kind of baked into the format, but everything’s hand-held and shot as if people are being spied on. Once upon a time 24’s look was innovative, but that was over 15 years ago. It’s not quite dated looking yet, but it’s no longer slick and modern either. Much like the entire show, to be honest. It’s nothing new, and nor is it a return to form — it’s just more of the same, but without the old leading man. Personally I don’t miss Bauer all that much (for me the format was always the star), but I do lament the complete lack of any attempt at innovation.

    Broadchurch (Series 3 Episodes 1-3)
    Broadchurch series 3DI David Tennant and DS Olivia Colman (or whatever their characters are called) return after the much-criticised second series for a third run that represents a blazing return to form. Nearly every police drama on TV is always about murder, but here our committed coppers are faced with something that seems harder to prove, and all the more distressing and divisive for those involved: a sexual assault. The series was apparently put together with extensive advice from expert organisations, which means on occasion it almost tips a little too far into factual territory, like a “this is how it’s done in real life” dramatisation. Fortunately screenwriter Chris Chibnall is better than that, quickly focusing on how it affects the characters, and on building the mysteries that will fuel eight whole episodes. Suspicion abounds, but if Broadchurch’s first series proved anything it was that everyone can guess the culprit before the end without it undermining the effectiveness of the drama. I think we’re a ways from that point yet, though…

    The 89th Academy Awards
    The Oscars 2017Best. Oscars. Ever! Oh, I bet it was horrendous actually being there having to deal with that ending, but my goodness, as a viewer it was fantastic. It couldn’t’ve been more dramatic if you’d scripted it. Imagine how terrible it could have been, though — if Moonlight had been forced to cede the win to La La Land, for instance (that would’ve sent #OscarSoWhite into overdrive), or if it had been in a category with a sole winner, who in the middle of their no-doubt-tearful acceptance speech was informed they hadn’t won after all and had to embarrassedly hand the statuette over to someone else… But no, it turned out OK. Well, not so for the La La Land guys, but for everyone else, yeah. And the rest of the ceremony wasn’t half bad either. Jimmy Kimmel was the most confident and capable host for bloody ages (and I say that as someone who enjoyed the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman) — if the show’s producers know what’s good for them, he’ll be the new regular host.

    Luther (Series 4)
    Luther series 4The recent news that Fox have scrapped plans for a US remake of Luther (because they couldn’t find a lead actor good enough to replace Idris Elba) reminded me that I never got round to watching the original version’s last series, this two-parter that aired back in December 2015. I can see why feeling unable to cast anyone as engaging as Elba would lead them to abandon their remake, because there’s not all that much special about Luther outside of its lead. Some people talk about it as if it’s among the forefront of the Quality TV era that we’re currently blessed with, but that’s just a bit daft — much like the programme itself. It doesn’t know it’s daft — it’s all very serious — but it is daft, really. Sure it’s dark, and sometimes kinda scary, and certainly grim, but its realism quotient is way low. It has much more in common with the overblown heightened world of, say, Sherlock than it does with, say, Elba’s previous great TV drama, The Wire. Anyway, the fourth series (if you can call two episodes a series) continues in much the same vein, as Luther’s dragged away from a leave of absence to help track a cannibal serial killer, while also trying to ascertain who committed the supposed murder of his super-villain girlfriend. Yeah, what a grounded and gritty show this is. Still, if you can stomach its gory pessimism, it’s largely entertaining.

    Peaky Blinders (Series 1)
    Peaky BlindersI’ve been meaning to get round to this since it first aired back in 2013, and for whatever reason now was the time (partly it was brought to mind by writer Steven Knight’s new dark period drama, Taboo). For thems that don’t know, it’s the saga of the eponymous gang, who ruled the streets of Birmingham in 1919, and their plans for expansion into other forms of business, both legitimate and otherwise. There’s a compelling lead performance from Cillian Murphy as the gang’s feared war veteran leader, but he’s surrounded by a strong ensemble, including the likes of Helen McCrory as his formidable aunt, who ran the business while all the lads were off in the trenches, and Sam Neill as the Northern Irish copper sent to Brum to retrieve some stolen munitions. It functions by turns as both a gripping underworld thriller and character study of violent men, on both sides of the law. I hear future series are of even higher quality, which is something to look forward to indeed.

    Twin Peaks (Season 1)
    Twin Peaks season 1“She’s deadwrapped in plastic!” With those immortal words (not the first lines, but never mind) a TV phenomenon was born, and a whole new era of television slowly began. Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned 20 this month and the Guardian ran a piece on how it (not, say, The Sopranos or The Wire) was the birth of TV-as-art. I love Buffy, but c’mon — even if we limit ourselves to ongoing US network drama series, Twin Peaks definitely got there first. Leaving aside its place in TV history, it’s a mighty fine drama, with co-creator David Lynch operating at his most accessible, yet still undoubtedly odd, in a story of an ordinary-looking small town with innumerable dark secrets lurking just out of sight. It’s at times hilariously funny, nightmarishly scary, unashamedly trashy, and absolutely gripping. At least so far — season two is notoriously less-good. Well, I’ve never watched it before, so I’ll find out for myself next month.

    Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 7-8 — the first episodes with new lead Ardal O’Hanlon seemed divisive, but I like him. Hopefully next year they can come up with some fresh new plotting to match their fresh new star.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 10-13 — by the end of this season there’ll be exactly twice as many episodes of Elementary as there are canonical Holmes stories.
  • Let’s Sing and Dance for Comic Relief Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — oh, no. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the format just isn’t as good as plain ol’ Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Americans season 5This month, I have mostly been missing the penultimate season of The Americans, which is two episodes in Stateside (no idea if there’s still a UK broadcaster; at this point I’m not sure it matters). Long-time readers may recall I like to save up The Americans and watch it binge-ish-ly once the season ends, which is a very rewarding way to watch such an intricately-constructed programme. The downside is that means I’m still a couple of months away from getting to find out what happens this year in “the best drama on television”. I bet it’ll be good, though.

    66 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… the final Defender: Iron Fist is released tomorrow. I’ll review it next month (obviously — I mean, this is the “next month” section.) Also! The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who.