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 #57b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Month on TV #26

    The strangest thing is the Duffer brothers’ apparent obsession with giving starring roles to only-available-in-North-America sweet things.

    FYI, rest of the world: I have discovered a 3 Musketeers is in fact a Milky Way.

    Stranger Things 2
    Stranger Things 2Netflix’s most talked about show (well, unless you count House of Cards for all the wrong reasons) returns wth a second season that isn’t just a continuation, it’s a sequel — note how it’s officially called Stranger Things 2 (which briefly sent IMDb skwiffy), and how the episode titles aren’t Chapters Nine to Seventeen of Stranger Things but Chapters One to Nine of Stranger Things 2. Set almost a whole year after the first season, and telling a self contained story (though one that obviously builds out of the first season) which takes place over just a couple of days (in fact, more or less half the season takes place on a single day and night), it feels more like watching a follow-up movie than the next set of instalments in a series that is reported to run another two years yet.

    The idea is emphasised further by the fact its form seems largely inspired by The Empire Strikes Back — well, it’s Stranger Things: of course it borrows heavily from an ’80s movie. (If you want to see a whole array of its visual homages/rip-offs in a succinct two-minute video, check out this.) It doesn’t map one-for-one onto Empire’s structure, but it takes the same broad shape: splitting our heroes up into different smaller groups off having their own adventures; throwing new characters into the mix; expanding the universe and the mythos. If anything, Eleven is Luke — by herself, learning about her past, developing her telekinetic abilities. And Dustin and Lucas are kind of Han and Leia — supporting characters now given their own important arc, including both romance and the introduction of a major new character. And so Mike is… I dunno, Obi-Wan? A former main character who’s now barely present. As for Joyce, and Hopper, and Nancy and Jonathan, and Steve, and Will… yeah, Star Wars doesn’t have this many lead characters. Well, I did say it wasn’t exactly like-for-like.

    Perhaps another side effect of the movie-esque style is that it feels… short. Like, just as things seem to be getting going, it’s the finale. It’s a problem many binge-focussed series have these days, but this struck me as a particularly pronounced example. It could just be my own fault for watching it all in double-bills, but then I do that quite routinely with Netflix shows and I’ve not felt it so keenly before. Nonetheless, it has enough moving parts that the two-part finale (it’s not officially billed as that, but it is that) remains highly satisfying. As with season one, it’s when everyone finally comes together to fight the threat that the season is at its most satisfying, those two episodes feeling like an adrenaline-fuelled mini-movie (well, movie-length movie) of their own.

    Blood ElNow, you can’t discuss Stranger Things 2 without mentioning the infamous Chapter Seven. If you’ve missed the internet’s collective exclamation of disappointment and/or annoyance, IMDb has it in a nutshell: on there, the user ratings of all the other episodes (from both seasons) range from 8.5 to 9.5, a spread of 1.0 (obviously), but Chapter Seven has 6.2, a full 2.3 marks below the next lowest score. Ouch. It’s not great, but I didn’t think it was that bad. It’s a total aside from the main action, and placed where it is seems designed just to delay the pay-off to Chapter Six’s cliffhanger for another 45 minutes (in a regular programme it’d be two weeks, but this is Netflix). I don’t really hold with that being an actual problem, though — that’s just taste. No, the real problem is that it rushes through a character arc for Eleven that would’ve been better presented over multiple episodes. Considering before that she’s spent several episodes just sat around watching TV, there were surely better ways to structure her role this season.

    That’s no slight on Millie Bobby Brown’s performance, mind — she’s great again, displaying so much character and emotion even through Eleven’s limited understanding of being a normal person. Also worthy of note is Noah Schnapp as Will. Considering he had so little to do in season one, they either lucked out with his casting or knew where they were going enough to cast it well — a lot is asked of him here, and he’s up to it. I could keep going, but if we begin to single people out we’ll be here all day: almost every lead cast member gets either a stand-out scene or a decent arc. They even made Steve likeable. Finn Wolfhard draws the short straw — Mike spends most of the season just being grumpy about Eleven — but as he was the centre of attention last time it’s okay to let the others shine.

    Something stranger in their neighbourhoodEven though it has all the big action stuff you’d expect, Chapter Nine still devotes a serious chunk of time to a character-focussed epilogue; reminding you that, as with most loved shows, the heart of it is the characters and their relationships. Indeed, although the season as a whole didn’t have the same effectiveness as the first, I thought the finale was a better climax. In fact, it would be a perfectly valid place to leave the entire series… but there are (at least) two more seasons to go. It might be nice if season three opened up the timeline a bit, because so far Hawkins seems to be a place where Crazy Terrible Shit happens over a couple of days and then everything’s fine for a whole year.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 4-6
    Red Dwarf XIII had nice things to say about the first half of Red Dwarf XII in my last TV column, which kindly glossed over the fact that episode three, Timewave, was a bit of a disaster. I think it’s safe to say the second half of the series is stronger — it represents everything I said last time, but better. The final two episodes, M-Corp and Skipper, even throw in some fan-pleasing callbacks — real deep-dives too, aimed squarely at the long-term fanbase. (No spoilers here — the last episode has been available on demand for a week but doesn’t officially air until tonight.) The episodes don’t need such devotee delights just to curry favour — their concept-driven comedy is satisfying enough to stand on its own — but there’s no denying the added pleasure to be found in the references and cameos. You can certainly hear the glee of the live studio audience as they recognise what’s going on each time (it even messes up the pacing of one bit for us regular viewers, but I guess that’s the trade-off). So, even more than last time, this set of episodes demonstrate there’s definitely life in the old Dwarf yet. Bring on series XIII.

    Peaky Blinders  Series 3
    Peaky Blinders series 3Beginning with a significant time-jump and monumental change in circumstance worthy of a Mad Men season premiere, the third series of Peaky Blinders soon sees everyone’s favourite Brummie gangsters embroiled in espionage and counter-espionage as they’re enlisted to help exiled Russian aristocracy launch a bid to reclaim their country. There’s so much more going on than that, but I won’t get into it here because we’ll be here all day — Peaky Blinders is a complexly plotted series; right up the final episode, which contains revelations that turn the previous six hours on their head. Even with all that narrative to get through, it still finds plenty of time to give most of its large-ish ensemble cast some strong character arcs. There are a few streaming series that could learn a thing or two from that…

    Rick and Morty  Season 1 Episode 2
    Neither Rick nor MortyI confess: I started watching Rick and Morty fully expecting to hate it. I’d always thought it looked and sounded annoying, so I paid it no heed… but then it seemed to keep coming up — people referring to it in excited tones, and it ranking 7th on IMDb’s top TV list. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about, still expecting my initial impressions to be proved correct but endeavouring to have an open mind. The pilot (which I covered back in August) did little to sway my mind: it wasn’t terrible, but it had many of the irritations I’d perceived and only a few redeeming qualities. But I read that it was an unrepresentative and below par episode, so I pressed on. Things immediately pick up: the second episode, Lawnmower Dog, mixes together Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, and super-intelligent canines into an entertaining and clever half-hour. It’s bought my attention for a couple more episodes, at any rate.

    Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 6 Episodes 1-2 / The Flash Season 4 Episodes 1-2 — Here we go again… At least The Flash seems to have perked up again this year, which I used to find a little irritating but is actually quite welcome after the dour last two seasons.
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Jack Whitehall comedy-thriller, which tonally is a bit like The Wrong Mans, which I loved. More thoughts when I’ve finished the series.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 4-9 — The arc plot this season is really rather irritating. This is when I’m thankful for binge-watching: it makes that crap go by faster.
  • Detectorists Series 3 Episode 1 — Promptly started the new series of this Mackenzie Crook comedy, which I previously named one of my ten favourite series of the last decade. More thoughts next month.
  • The Good Place Season 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Kristen Bell comedy-fantasy (which only arrived in the UK with the start of season two anyway, so not that belatedly). It’s kind of brilliant so far. More thoughts when I’ve finished the season.
  • Upstart Crow Series 2 Episodes 5-6 — See last month.

    Things to Catch Up On
    MindhunterThis month, I have mostly been missing Mindhunter, David Fincher’s new Netflix series about the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling at the FBI. It was actually released before my last TV post, but I didn’t have Netflix at the time so I didn’t bother to mention it. I would watch it next, but The Punisher is out tomorrow. Maybe after that…

    Next month… Netflix gets punishered.

  • The Past Month on TV #25

    Doctors, spin doctors, Dwarfers, and Shakespeare in this month’s comedy-filled TV review. Though we start with an oh-so-serious drama…

    Doctor Foster  Series 2
    Doctor Foster series 2Everyone was a bit surprised when they announced a second series of Doctor Foster. The first was such a finite unit, why risk ruining it? Promises of a type of story that hadn’t been told before also amped up expectations. In the end I find it hard to say if the series disappointed or not because it was kind of out there. Not “out there” like Twin Peaks is “out there”, but the machinations of the various characters went beyond what I imagine most normal people would do in real life. There were some good building blocks though, especially related to how the bitter divorcees handled — or failed to handle — their teenage son, Tom, and the emotional problems he was clearly beginning to develop. His storyline was played off as a subplot, but it was largely more interesting than the sex-obsessed revenge games the adults were playing. So it kind of amused me when the final episode shoved in a montage to emphasise what had been going wrong with Tom, as if to say “look, the kid’s mental health has been deteriorating all along and you missed it!” Well, his parents certainly missed it, but I think us viewers found it pretty bloody obvious. Ironically, this series ended on more of a cliffhanger than the first did, but a third run is only a possibility rather than a definite. At least it serves as its own kind of ending, albeit much bleaker than the first series’. But maybe that’s what these characters, and this show, deserves.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 1-3
    Red Dwarf XIII still think of Red Dwarf as a programme that’s popped back for a bit of a revival, but I guess at this point it counts as just an ongoing show: since Dave brought it back in 2009 they’ve produced four series, half as many as the entire original run on the BBC. Give it another five or six years and they may equal, or perhaps even surpass, that number. It’s been a long time since I actually watched any of those old episodes that made the show’s name, so I can’t offer an opinion on whether the new runs are of the same quality — some say they are, some say they aren’t. Personally, I still think it’s funny overall, and (as I often say) that’s really all you need from a comedy. That said, one thing Dwarf has always done, and continues to do, is draw from actual science and science-fiction concepts to drive its plots and many of its gags. That makes it a proper sci-fi-comedy, rather than just a regular sitcom that happens to be set on a spaceship. Hurrah for that.

    Upstart Crow  Series 2 Episodes 1-4
    Upstart Crow series 2Talking of funny sitcoms, this series of Upstart Crow has been hilarious. Okay, I could do without Harry Enfield turning up as Shakespeare’s dad — almost every scene featuring him sees the humour take a turn towards the puerility of the toilet — but the rest of it is often pretty clever, riffing on Shakespearean plots and trivia. There was even a screenwriting joke in one episode that I guess would pass most people by. It also has a nice line in almost anachronistic humour, where characters comment on a fact of the day that is actually a commentary on modern life. It’s not subtle, and perhaps writer Ben Elton returns to that comedy well too often, but it’s always funny. And as I often say…

    The Thick of It  The Specials
    The Thick of It specialsIt’s funny coming to The Thick of It for the first time now. It was so cutting-edge when it aired, and yet politics has got so much barmier since — these specials debuted a whole decade ago now, when the idea that Trump might be President was the kind of thing no one but sitcom gag writers thought about. That’s not to say the show’s lost any of its bite, just that it’s not as timely as it once was. These two hour-long specials, The Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers (plus 15-minute bonus episode Opposition Extra, which follows some characters from Rise of the Nutters during the events of Spinners and Losers), set their satirical sights on the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that — there’s no reading up required, because The Thick of It is a fiction loosely inspired by real political events, rather than a straight riff on reality. It’s every inch the 21st century’s answer to Yes Minister in that respect. Although there’s an ensemble cast, all of whom are very amusing, the unmistakable star is Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker. With a regime change in the offing, Tucker risks being thrown out as part of the old guard, and so is on the back foot trying to manipulate things to his advantage. After three seasons of Capaldi as the Doctor, witnessing him here use his brain to run rings around other people to get the result he desires now feels like watching a somewhat evil — and much swearier — version of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 1-3 — Still not as good as it used to be, but I’ve reached the final season now so may as well finish it off.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 8 Episodes 4-8 — One minute the Radio Times is all “it’s obvious who’s going to be in the final”; the next, Liam’s out in the quarters.
  • Peaky Blinders Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — Looks like I may catch up on this in time for the forthcoming fourth series. That wasn’t necessarily my plan when I started series one back in March, but here we are. More comments next month when I’ve finished the series.
  • Vixen Seasons 1-2 — er, kinda. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The GiftedThis month, I have mostly been missing The Gifted, the new TV show set definitively in the X-Men universe — unlike the last one, Legion, which apparently wasn’t. As you might infer from that use of “apparently”, I still haven’t got round to Legion either. I also haven’t seen the other new Marvel Comics-related show, Inhumans, which is part of the MCU. After the terrible reviews it’s received, I’m not sure I’ll bother.

    Next month… strangerer things.

  • The Past Month on TV #9

    There’s so much TV right now! And that’s before you consider all the old stuff to catch up on (and by “old” I mean “anything aired before the past month”).

    Still, here’s a selection of what’s been gracing my eyeballs in the last 35 days…

    Luke Cage (Season 1)
    Luke CageThe third series in the Marvel/Netflix stable wins points for boldness, much as Jessica Jones did this time last year. Where Daredevil is a well-done but ‘standard’ superhero show, leading to it being somewhat demeaned by the Cool Kids of the critical world (but much higher-rated by us plebs on the likes of IMDb), Jessica pushed into dark psychological territory, and now Luke Cage brings black culture and life into the fold.

    In truth, I still think Daredevil is the best produced of the three. Maybe that’s because it’s operating in more familiar territory, but it seems to know how to construct its storylines to fit the time given, and pace them to really kick off that “just one more episode” feeling that Netflix binge-watching is so famed for. Conversely, Jessica didn’t have enough story for 13 episodes, spinning its wheels and going in circles in the second half. Luke Cage doesn’t suffer from that exact problem, but it spends a lot of time finding excuses to keep its near-invulnerable hero out of the action.

    But, for its plot-related flaws, it’s not a bad show. It has three strong villains — it’s just a shame it’s the fourth who becomes the focus for the back half of the season. Its use of music is unusual and brilliantly executed, though as it’s employing genres and styles, indeed a whole culture, that I’m not exactly au fait with, it’s like watching as a fascinated outside observer rather than someone fully embedded or engaged. That’s not necessarily a negative, just a different way of relating to it. And even with those storytelling faults I mentioned, there’s at least one huge and unexpected twist, which really livens up the show… for a bit. It also gives Rosario Dawson the biggest role she’s yet had in one of these Marvel series, and that’s no bad thing either.

    Indeed, the best thing about Luke Cage is its characters. Mike Colter is an appealing leading man — when the character is allowed to do something, anyway — and the supporting characters on both sides are fantastic (with that one unfortunate exception I already mentioned). This bodes well for when they join up with everyone else in The Defenders next year, and also leaves season two with plenty of potential…

    …if Netflix commission it, of course. Surely they can’t be intending to have 6+ Marvel shows on the go?!

    Ripper Street (Season 5)
    Ripper StreetIt feels like only yesterday I was writing here about season four (it was, in fact, February and March). I think it was assumed this final season would be coming next year, but then Amazon announced it almost out of the blue just before the BBC’s run of season four ended, and made the unusual-for-them decision to dump the whole season at once, Netflix-style. It benefits this particular group of episodes because it really is one long story — when the show moved to Amazon for its third season it got more heavily serialised, but often with “case of the week” plots alongside that; the end of season four and all of season five throw that almost entirely aside for one long, developing storyline.

    Nonetheless, they’ve done a good job of making a TV show rather than a really long movie in six parts. The third episode, in particular, sets our heroes aside almost entirely to spend an hour with a villain who’s barely done more than grunt so far, digging into his psyche and his hopes (if any) of redemption. It almost felt more like an arty drama film than an episode of a period police procedural and proves that, even after five years, a quality programme can still push at and explore its form.

    The final episode, however, is a certified oddity. After wrapping up the season’s primary plots with relative haste, it moves on to an odd, somewhat lethargic non-story. It is, in its way, bold for what started as a police procedural to end with an episode that focuses on the drama of its characters’ lives, but it does so with an almost perverse fixation on setting up certain expectations only to dash them. It is tough to call the episode either satisfying or unsatisfying as a conclusion, though I imagine some will come to the latter opinion purely because it is so uncommon. It’s titled Occurrence Reports, and that seems apt, for it seems to merely report a series of occurrences; but they do at least, in their way, bring all of the series’ parts to their respective ends.

    Leaving aside the finale’s forays into structural experimentation, this is a good final season, that has moments to count among the programme’s very best. I still reckon season three is the best individual run, however.

    Black Mirror (Series 2)
    Black MirrorWell, it’s only taken me 3½ years to get round to this (seriously, where does time go?!) This bunch really represents the series’ highs and lows. On the one hand, Be Right Back — in which Hayley Atwell signs up for a company who create a virtual version of her deceased partner using his contributions to social media — is an exploration of broadly-plausible near-future-tech with a focus on its potential emotional effect. That’s what Black Mirror does best, I’d argue: look at stuff that may, perhaps, be in the pipeline, and how that would actually play out for us. On the other, there’s The Waldo Moment, which is also sickeningly plausible — as Charlie Brooker himself has said, it’s more or less come true, though with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump instead of a blue cartoon bear — but as an episode it doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with its concept or what it might ultimately signify. The episode just stops rather than ends, until a flash-forward coda that’s a bit silly in its extremity. Even Brooker, while doing press for the third season (released tomorrow), has said he’d go back and re-do that episode if he could. Still, full marks for effort.

    Red Dwarf XI (Episodes 1-5)
    Red Dwarf XIThis latest series of Red Dwarf (which airs its fifth episode tonight, with the sixth available on demand from tomorrow) seems to have gone down rather well, with some reviews even hailing it as a “return to form” — that form being “the good old days” of Red Dwarf VI (or thereabouts), over 20 years ago. Personally, I didn’t dislike Red Dwarf VII or Back to Earth, and I even have a soft spot for Red Dwarf VIII, so what do I know? Nonetheless, I would concur that this Dwarf represents a fine vintage, hitting the series’ unique mix of accessible mainstream-ish comedy and proper science-fiction concepts. Red Dwarf XII is already in the can for 2017, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave commission more episodes beyond that.

    Star Trek The City on the Edge of Forever
    Star Trek: The Animated Series Yesteryear
    Star Trek - The City on the Edge of ForeverThe entirety of TV Star Trek is available on Netflix, so I took the chance to watch the most acclaimed episodes of both The Original Series and The Animated Series — which happen to be connected, something I didn’t realise until afterwards. Er, I mean, which I totally planned. Both are pretty fine uses of science-fiction to explore relatable issues. Well, not many of us have to deal with disruptions to reality caused by time travel, or knowledge of the future creating dilemmas about what we do next, but they work the relatable stuff in around the surface plots. And they both still seem pretty bold for network TV episodes even today, almost half a century later, as (spoilers!) Kirk lets a good woman die to retain the correct timeline, and a kids’ cartoon deals with the subject of euthanasia.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episode 8-Season 7 Episode 1 — almost always a nice, light, entertaining show, but the season 6 finale is a mess. Well, the bulk of it’s fine, but the premise is illogical and the cliffhanger is weightless and unneeded.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 5-9 — this series has seen Bake Off’s charms firing on all cylinders, I think, which just reminds you what we’re about to lose.
  • Line of Duty Series 1 — as this is on Netflix I thought I’d finally see what all the fuss is about. I think it’s the second run where it really took off, but this has its moments.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 6-7 — quite a few grim crime shows in this month’s viewing, so a bit of quality swashbuckling is a welcome change of pace.
  • Scott & Bailey Series 5 — not the strongest run (the “darknet serial killers” case was a little too outlandish for a show that has often thrived on its more-plausible-than-your-average depiction of murder investigation), but still a quality police drama. Shame there won’t be more.

    Things to Catch Up On
    WestworldThis month, I have mostly been missing loads of stuff. Probably the most talked about is HBO’s adaptation of Westworld, which has apparently pulled in even bigger ratings than Game of Thrones. Over here there’s the second series of The Missing, which if it’s half as good as the first will be a real must-see. Then there’s Woody Allen’s first (and last) TV series for Amazon, Crisis in Six Scenes. Reviews have been mixed to poor but I still intend to get round to it. And finally Hooten & the Lady, which may be the worst title for anything in the history of ever, but a globetrotting adventure series inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone sounds right up my alley.

    Next month… the latest Doctor Who spin-off comes to iPlayer; brand-new Black Mirror comes to Netflix; and I’ll finally watch Stranger Things, I promise.