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.

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  • The Past Month on TV #2

    This month, another ragtag selection of programmes I’m not watching at the same speed as anybody else.

    The 88th Academy AwardsThe Oscars
    They feel so long ago already, don’t they? But no, the Oscars were just a couple of weeks back. I thought it was a pretty good show this year. Chris Rock ended up belabouring the race point a bit by the end, including a few gags that went very wrong, but his opening monologue was good, as were some of the skits on the way. That there were a few surprise winners also helped keep things ticking along nicely, though (without having seen it) I think Spotlight is already destined to be an obscure answer to “name a film that won Best Picture” within a couple of years.

    Person of Interest (Season 4 Episodes 1-3)
    Person of InterestI have very mixed feelings about Person of Interest, whose fourth season has only made it to UK TV in the past few weeks (the belated fifth starts in the US in May, they announced yesterday). When it works, it’s a good quality vigilante/procedural action show; but its array of arc plots are as unrewarding as they are never-ending, and are consequently unsatisfying to a fault (literally). However, now that I’m so deep into it, and with cancellation finally confirmed (the foreshortened and delayed fifth season will indeed be its last, as was also finally announced yesterday), I feel like I’m in ’til the bitter end. The makers just bloody better have had the notice to get a proper ending into that now-final episode…

    Ripper Street (Series 4 Episodes 5-6)
    Ripper StreetWhen Amazon picked up Ripper Street after the success of the third series, it was for a fourth and fifth season totalling 13 episodes. The show’s writers seem to have taken the double recommission to heart and crafted an arc plot to last throughout those two seasons, meaning this first half ends on a big surprise and with all sorts of things left up in the air. And now we have to wait. Still, it’ll be fascinating to see how there are six or seven more episodes left, considering the predicament they’ve put the characters in.

    Shetland (Series 3 Episodes 3-6)
    ShetlandI think I sounded a little more dismissive of Shetland than I’d intended in last month’s review. The remainder of the season stepped outside the programme’s usual wheelhouse, heading down to Glasgow and into the world of organised crime, which perhaps lost some of the series’ unique spark. However, it chose to tackle some very heavy issues in the last couple of episodes; the kind of thing that has too often been dumped into dramas as a plot twist without exploring the actual ramifications. Kudos to the writers for dealing with it intelligently and sympathetically, then, and to the cast — particularly Alison O’Donnell — for their incredible performances.

    The X Files (Season 10 Episodes 3-6)
    The X FilesThe quality of this revival has certainly been all over the place. I was wary of episode three, Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster, because comedy always seems at odds with The X Files’ grand conspiracy storylines, but I thought it was hilarious and deserving of its acclaim as the best episode of the season. Home Again felt like solid standard X Files fodder, and Babylon was clearly trying to be zeitgeisty but perhaps wasn’t fully thought-through. As for the much-maligned finale, My Struggle II… well, it was a mess, and over-ambitious, and a stupid idea to end it on a cliffhanger when no one knew how well the revival would go down. Let’s hope Chris Carter is right that there’ll definitely be more.

    Also watched…
  • Dickensian Series 1 Episodes 13-20 — please BBC, can we have some more?
  • Elementary Season 4 Episodes 9-13 — you can adapt the wordplay mystery from A Study in Scarlet all you want, it still doesn’t make you actually similar to Sherlock Holmes.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episode 10 / Arrow Season 4 Episode 10 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episode 1 — I can’t be the only person who thinks of these like one show that’s on three times a week.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 3 Episode 11-Season 4 Episode 17 — 71 to go.
  • Grantchester Series 2 Episodes 1-2 — remember when I said I was going to watch fewer crime dramas? Because I didn’t, clearly.
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Season 1 Episode 2 — who thought this was going to be a comedy?

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Night ManagerThis month, I have mostly been missing The Night Manager. The critically-acclaimed ratings hit is, as you likely know, a spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel, which not only means it has pedigree, but that its star — Tumblr-beloved Marvel villain Tom Hiddleston — is now being tipped to take over as Bond. I wouldn’t know, I’ve not seen it yet.

    Next month… Daredevil season 2.

  • The Past Month on TV #1

    This is a film blog (you may’ve noticed, it is in the title), but I spend a lot of my time watching TV. This is one of the reasons I have regularly struggled to make it to 100 films (not so much the last couple of years, but in general). Dedicated cineastes may find this unfathomable, and spend all their time watching as many films as they can gorge their eyeballs on, but I instead regularly fritter away said time on stuff like Arrow or Elementary or a 374th re-watch of Friends. Such is life.

    So some of my viewing choices conform to the old-fashioned (way, way, completely-outdated-level old-fashioned) notion that TV isn’t really worth passing comment on; but there’s other stuff that is at least as high-quality as a decent movie — and, in some cases, considerably better. Therefore, provoked partly by this post by ghost of 82 (and our discussion in the comments), I’ve decided to post monthly thoughts on some of my TV viewing. I won’t bore you with every single thing I watch, nor dig too deep into what I do cover (not on a regular basis, anyway), but instead merely mention some highlights — and probably lowlights, too.

    (Why do this? What do you mean, “why?” Why do we review anything?)

    Last point before I begin: I watch hardly anything ‘live’ nowadays, so this certainly won’t be just “some stuff that happened to be on telly in the last four weeks”, but a mix of recent broadcasts, older stuff I’m (re-)watching, and stuff that isn’t broadcast at all (i.e. series from Amazon Prime and Netflix).

    This month year-to-date I have mostly been watching…

    Dickensian (Series 1 Episodes 1-12)
    DickensianThe BBC’s Avengers-style mash-up of characters from the work of Charles Dickens is an interesting mishmash of a show — part soap, part sitcom, part murder mystery — probably quite like Dickens’ originals, to be honest. It’s also an interesting case study in dramatic irony: every major storyline is a prequel to one of Dickens’ works, so how much do you rely on the audience knowing where everyone ends up? We surely all know where Miss Havisham is headed, but do you remember exactly what roles Compeyson and Pocket have to play? And is anyone but a Dickens expert (or someone who’s read Wikipedia, obv.) aware of who Honoria Barbary grows up to be? As a show, it’s not as classy or accomplished as the Beeb’s peerless Bleak House (from a decade ago now!), but it’s considerably more entertaining than their version of Little Dorrit that followed (both apt comparisons, because they’re Dickens adaptations in 15+ parts). It’s designed to be a returning series, and I hope it gets recommissioned.

    Gilmore Girls (Season 2 Episode 20 – Season 3 Episode 10)
    Gilmore Girls season 3Oh, it’s a Woman’s Show — or, worse, a Teen Girl’s Show. There’s more to Gilmore Girls than that (stupidly reductive, anyway) description. OK, I’m not that fascinated by the ins and outs of Rory’s relationship dramas, and life would be simpler if Lorelai and Luke would just bloody well get together, but it’s endurable due to the fast*, witty, intelligent dialogue (seriously, these characters are impossibly well-read and -watched), the depiction of quirky small-town life and all its crazy characters, and the realistically antagonistic relationship between independent daughter and old-fashioned parents. I got quite far through watching Gilmore once before, many years ago, and then a while back started re-watching with a view to finishing it off. With Netflix’s four-movie revival coming later this year, it’s become time to get a wriggle on. So expect this to keep popping up — I’ve got 100 episodes to go…
    * Favourite trivia: they talk so fast, scripts for the show were about 60% longer than an average TV script.

    The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Episode 1)
    Gilmore Girls season 3This is a few episodes in over the pond, I know, but it only started here on Monday (see also: The X Files). I’ve never seen one of Ryan Murphy’s other shows (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, etc), except for the Rocky Horror episode of Glee, which I hated. He seems to be quite a divisive creator, so maybe it’s for the best that here he’s only acting as producer and occasionally director. For people like me, who were too young to follow the O.J. case, this is a potentially-fascinating insight into a famous bit of… I was going to say “recent history”, but it’s 22 years ago now. Reportedly the series will focus on how the apparently open-and-shut case we witness in this episode goes astray at trial, which I guess makes this first part all about setting things up. If that is the case, I think there’s a lot of promise.

    Ripper Street (Series 4 Episodes 1-4)
    Ripper Street IVThe Amazon-saved Victorian murder drama returned with a 130-minute episode shot in 2.35:1 widescreen — in other words, it was basically Ripper Street: The Movie. In truth, it was clearly designed as a two-parter, and would perhaps have played better in that form. The cinematography of that first episode is glorious though, so rich and well-designed, it’s practically worth watching just for that. Series 3 was the show’s strongest run so far, and for me the new series isn’t quite matching it yet, but it’s still a quality drama about dark deeds in dark places.

    Shetland (Series 3 Episodes 1-2)
    Shetland series 3I don’t watch that much crime drama… says the person who’s already highlighted Dickensian, American Crime Story, and Ripper Street, and is also watching Death in Paradise, Elementary, and Vera right now. (I need to cut back on these.) One thing that works in Shetland’s favour is its remote, somewhat desolate setting. I suppose that makes it feel tapped into the Nordic Noir craze a little bit, though that’s probably where the comparison ends. This latest series is also telling a single story over its six parts, which is a change of pace for the show. It’s still in the “intriguing start” phase — there’s clearly something much bigger going on than these small-island cops are used to dealing with.

    The X Files (Season 10 Episodes 1-2)
    The X Files EventThe X Files revival only has one episode left to air in the US now, but over here it’s barely begun (episode two went out on Monday). Despite the general apathetic reaction to the first episode (My Struggle), I largely enjoyed it. Only having dipped in to the original series meant I was thoroughly lost at times, but the Mulder and Scully reunion was suitably nostalgic and it threw around ideas with abandon. Episode two (Founder’s Mutation) seems to have been better received, but I can’t say I noticed a massive up-tick in quality. Ostensibly a “monster of the week” episode, it’s decent in that regard, though I also liked how it tapped into storylines from the past — when you’ve only got six episodes, making any of them completely cut-off and standalone feels somehow wasteful.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Phwoar and PeaceThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new War and Peace — aka Phwoar and Peace, according to social media and/or journalists wanting to have influence on social media. It seemed like the kind of thing (i.e. lots of characters with Russian names) that would benefit from being watched intensively, rather than spread thin over a month and a half, so I’ve got it all saved up. Maybe next month, then.

    Next month… largely more of the same, I should imagine — marking time until Daredevil returns…