The Past Month on TV #66

After it had to sit out 2020 entirely (who knows why that happened?!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — but now on TV! *gasp*

Also this month: the continuation of another film-turned-television franchise in Cobra Kai; the examination of film by television in new episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; and television that has nothing much to do with film in Staged series 2 and more classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

WandaVision  Episodes 1-4
WandaVisionWandaVision isn’t the first television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in fact, it’s the thirteenth); nor is it the first to feature characters and actors from the movies (that’s been the case in at least two others, off the top of my head); but it is the first to be produced by the same division that makes the movies, so it’s set to be a lot more important (read: not totally ignored) going forward. Indeed, it’s already been reported that the events of this series tie directly into the storylines of the next Spider-Man 3 and Doctor Strange 2, at least.

So it’s a little surprising, then, that this marks such a departure from the regular style and feel of Marvel’s films; much more so than any of their previous TV series did. The setup is that somehow Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and her robot lover Vision, who died, are living in a world modelled after classic TV sitcoms, and they’re perfectly unaware that there’s anything weird about this. The show emulates these old TV formats down to a tee — it’s not simply that they’ve cropped it to 4:3 and desaturated it to black-and-white, but it’s the camera angles, the acting styles, the set and costume design, the laughter track… The whole vibe of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms is neatly evoked, and the cast are clearly having a ball playing in a different era, with stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany particularly up to the task. Plus, the fact this is a nine-episode series, rather than another two-hour action-adventure blockbuster, also allows the show to indulge in old-fashioned standalone-episode storylines, so that each episode feels like a self-contained unit of entertainment, rather than just part of a long movie cut into nine segments

But, of course, something fishy is going on, and when that begins to break through the show cleverly subverts its own format: when a guest starts unexpectedly choking at a dinner party, Wanda urges Vision to use his powers to save him, and the directorial choices suddenly become much more modern, briefly breaking the spell for us as much as the characters, but without doing anything obvious like switching to colour or widescreen. There are increasing flashes of this Twilight Zone-y, Twin Peaks-y, Stepford Wives-y oddness in future episodes, I guess to reassure regular MCU viewers that this is all going somewhere, rather than just being a bit of fluff.

And then we reach episode 4 (spoilers follow). I think we all expected this — i.e. an episode set ‘outside’ that explained (some of) what was going on — to come along at some point. It had to, really. But I thought it would be teased and teased, as it was in the first three episodes, as the show gradually moved through more eras of sitcoms, until eventually we’d start getting to real answers around maybe episode 7 or 8. It’s a very fan pleasing episode — as well as some answers, there’s also a host of roles for minor characters familiar from other MCU outings — but it does slightly concern me for the next five episodes. We know the show is heading back into Wanda’s world, because they’ve promised spoofs of sitcoms from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but surely it can’t expect to go back to a “sitcom of the week” format and that be sufficient? Now that they’ve opened up the outside, they can’t expect us to just watch Wanda cosplay different eras of sitcom history while learning nothing more about the bigger situation, can they? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

Staged  Series 2
Staged series 2The David Tennant- and Michael Sheen-starring (or is that Michael Sheen- and David Tennant-starring?) filmed-over-Zoom sitcom about lockdown life was a hit during one or other of the 2020 lockdowns, so here it is again — just in time for the 2021 lockdown, as things turned out. The second series is very much a follow-up — a sequel, if you will — rather than merely “more episodes of the same”. In fact, it’s a meta-sequel: the first series exists as a fictional project in the world of the sequel. This isn’t a continuation of the storyline(s) we watched in the first series; it’s a follow-on from the fact the first series was a success. Got that? The title card sometimes calls the series Staged², and one feels that’s more than just a typographical play on Staged 2.

That said, what we get in practice is more of the same: actors and creatives bickering about a project over video calls. But this time, rather than a play David and Michael are lined up to star in, it’s a Hollywood remake of Staged that won’t star them. Gasp! Cue a parade of famous-face guest stars as potential new cast members. No spoilers here, because the “oh look, it’s him/her” factor is part of the fun, just as it was in the first series; although, frankly, none of this series’ lot (and there are quite a lot) can pull off the same element of surprise as series one’s biggest names. However, this time the celebrity cameos dominate, with David and Michael spending most of the middle episodes meeting people who might replace them. Even bingeing the series over a couple of days, the plot feels spread thin, with very little actually happening to sustain the two hours (yes, across eight episodes it runs only two hours). The subplots that helped fill out series one (Michael’s neighbour; Georgia’s novel; in the extended cut, Lucy’s relationship; and so on) are gone, with nothing significant in their place. There is a sporadic subplot about Georgia, Anna, and Lucy prepping a charity sketch, which makes for some welcome interludes, but that’s only two or three scenes across the whole series.

And yet, ironically, the show tends to be most fun when nothing happens at all, and we’re left with David and Michael chatting to each other. When they’re separated, having different one-on-ones, it’s enjoyable to discover the foibles of another big-name guest star, but the “huh, it’s Person X” element wears off quickly and we want to go back to our leads hanging out. Fortunately, the last two episodes ride in to save the day, first with probably the best pair of guest stars of the series, then with a quite touching finale that simply abandons all the remake schtick to just be about David and Michael’s friendship as lockdown comes to an end. It’s a sweet, touching farewell to a show that I would guess has now run its course, but was a tonic while it lasted.

Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 3
Secrets of Cinema: Cult MoviesA trio of new editions of the critic’s explanation of cinematic genres, which play like the best Film Studies lectures you could imagine. Each explores and explains its chosen subject in depth, often spinning out into tangential and related branches of film history — see the episode on pop music movies, for example, which is primarily concerned with movies about pop stars or musicals starring pop stars, but takes a moment to explore the phenomenon of pop stars as proper actors, such as David Bowie’s secondary career. It’s like Kermode and his writers (which include the insanely knowledgeable Kim Newman) can’t help themselves: there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about, so many connections and parallels, and they’re going to squeeze as much of it in as possible. Cited examples are copious and wide-ranging — if an episode is about a subject you’re interested in, be prepared to see your watch list grow. The best of this trilogy is the third, on cult movies; a genre, as Kermode explains, that is defined not by filmmakers but by audiences. It’s also a particularly wide-ranging field, but one whose contents engender genuine love — what makes them cult movies, after all, is that someone loves them. Kermode helps us to understand why.

Cobra Kai  Season 2
Cobra Kai season 2The third season of this Karate Kid TV spinoff/continuation debuted at the start of the month, but I’ve been pacing myself: it’s a really good show and I didn’t want to just burn through it. While I thought season two lacked the moreishness I experienced during season one, I attribute that partly to its quality not coming as a surprise. Also, not tasked with having to set up the whole premise of the show, it can dig a little deeper into what’s already there. That includes more references to the movies. The first is remembered as an ’80s classic; the sequels as an old-fashioned case of diminishing returns — in that situation, many modern revivals choose to ignore the less-favoured follow-ups. Not so Cobra Kai, which this season explicitly references and flashes back to Karate Kid 3 on several occasions. Part of the series’ strength is fleshing out and making real some of the “kids’ movie” logic of the originals, and this season takes on a particularly tough target: the former sensei of Cobra Kai, John Kreese. He’s a bit of an “evil for evil’s sake” villain in the movies, but the series works to add some explanation for that, and even asks if it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated and redeemed, much as former bully Johnny Lawrence has been (or, you might say, is in the process of being).

The series isn’t just stuck in the past, continuing the rivalries between the high-school-aged students of Cobra Kai and competing Miyagi-Do dojo, both on the karate, er, mat (is that what it’s really called?) and in the romantic realm. I suppose it gives the show a “something for everyone” angle, with both teen melodrama and the reflectiveness of its older characters (one of the season’s best episodes sees Johnny catch up with his old gang from school, one of whom is dying from cancer). All of which builds to a stunning climax: as the kids return to school after the summer break, the opposing factions end up in a karate battle that sprawls through the halls and stairways of the school, fellow students watching and egging them on. It takes up half the episode, including the best hallway fight oner since Daredevil — yes, such lofty comparisons are merited. But, as parents always say, “if you keep doing that, one of you’s going to get hurt”, and so of course it ends in (various kinds of) tragedy. What will happen next?! Oh, season three is already calling to me…

The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone: SteelSo far on my journey through the original 1959–64 series of The Twilight Zone, I’ve covered ten selections of the best episodes and three of the worst, as chosen by various critics. With 85 episodes still to go, I’m leaving the opinions of others behind (for the time being) to check out some episodes that caught my attention for one reason or another — not because they’re acclaimed as good or derided as bad, but something about the premise grabbed me while I was perusing all those various rankings.

First up, The Bard, in which an enthusiastic wannabe TV writer uses a magic spell to bring Shakespeare back to life, and persuades the Bard to be his ghostwriter. Serling uses his years of experience to make this a satire of the TV industry, but it’s a pretty mild one — probably due to a mix of the era (when I guess the general public wouldn’t have had too much of an idea about the behind-the-scenes of TV) and the fact Serling still had to work in the industry. Also, it was apparently written in a hurry, and it shows: there are some good lines and moments, but various things don’t pay off or go anywhere. Plus, even the story angle is slightly misjudged: surely the gag here is that Shakespeare’s writing appraised by modern TV execs would be a flop; that TV execs would reject the “greatest writer of all time”. Well, at least we get to see Shakespeare punch a pretentious Method actor (played by a young Burt Reynolds), so there’s that.

Based on the same Richard Matheson short story that later inspired Hugh Jackman CGI-fest Real Steel, Steel is set in the future year 1974 (remember, this was made in 1964), when boxing has been outlawed and replaced by robot boxing. The episode centres on one bout, between our heroes’ knackered old B2 robot and a more modern B7, against which the B2 doesn’t stand much chance, despite the hopes of its owner, played by Lee Marvin. I’ve not read the original story, but that’s a broadly similar plot to the film; except here things go in a more Twilight Zone direction: when the B2 breaks down entirely, Marvin decides to enter the ring pretending to be it. The ending tries to spin what occurs as some kind of moral about mankind’s tenacity and optimism, but that feels like a bit of a stretch — the remake reimagining the concept as sports/action entertainment is actually a better use of the concept.

The Twilight Zone: The Old Man in the CaveAn altogether different vision of 1974 is presented in The Old Man in the Cave. This time, it’s a post-apocalyptic world after “the bomb” was dropped, and what’s left of humanity makes do as it can in the remnants of the old world. In particular, one town has survived by following the guidance of an old man who lives in a nearby cave, who seems to know where to plant food, what tinned goods are safe to eat, what the weather will bring, and so on. When a militia turns up (led by James Coburn) planning to bring order to the region, the townsfolk are faced with the choice of continuing to listen to the old man or side with the militia’s view that he’s actually an oppressor and they’re a lot nicer. It turns into a neat little sci-fi fable — the finale says it’s about the error of faithlessness, but I’m more inclined to say it’s about trust in experts vs selfishness and greed. The townsfolk have followed this expert’s guidance for a decade and it’s kept them alive, but that life hasn’t been easy or fun, so they’re tempted by the fantasy sold by the newcomers: that you can have whatever you want; the expert is keeping you down for no reason. Naturally, it can only pan out one way. It’s a story whose moral seems only more pertinent today.

The Rip Van Winkle Caper also catapults us into the future, as a gang of gold thieves cryogenically freeze themselves to wake up 100 years after their crime, when their loot won’t be ‘hot’ and, as a bonus, will have benefited from 100 years of inflation. But crime doesn’t pay, even in the Twilight Zone — doubly so in this episode, where the crooks bring about their own destruction even before we reach the episode’s ironic twist. As a sci-fi lesson in where greed gets you (nowhere), it’s not the series’ greatest parable, but it’s not bad.

The Twilight Zone: A Kind of a StopwatchThe same could be said of A Kind of a Stopwatch, which takes on a perennial “what if”: what if you could freeze time? It wasn’t an original idea even when this episode was made in 1964, with Serling once saying he received dozens of pitches a year along those lines. He didn’t think any of them had an original enough take on the concept to be worth adapting, until this one. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so special about it. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s a reasonably well handled version, although it falls victim to the series’ regular bad habit of having the main character take much longer than the audience to understand the rules of the situation. But the episode’s real flaw comes at the end, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime: the main character’s fate is not an ironic twist especially suited to him. It’s that which stops Stopwatch from reaching TZ’s true heights; that leaves it a solid “good” episode when it could possibly have been a great one.

Things to Catch Up On
It's a SinThis month, I have mostly been missing It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s new drama about a group of friends coming of age amidst the emergence of AIDS in the ’80s. It’s only a couple of episodes in on Channel 4, but the whole five-part series is already available via All 4 (FYI, it’s out in the US on HBO Max in mid-February). I intend to binge the whole thing and review it next month.

Next month… more WandaVision, more Twilight Zone, plus whatever else the TV Gods still have left in the pre-pandemic tank and/or have managed to produce during the various lockdowns.

The Past Month on TV #64

Christmas TV is already underway in the UK (I believe the first things that were explicitly a “Christmas special” aired over the weekend) — so, before my usual Christmassy roundup, here’s one final regular TV column for 2020.

His Dark Materials  Series 2
His Dark Materials series 2

In a world where innumerable film and TV productions have been affected by Covid and its associated lockdowns, His Dark Materials got lucky: by hurrying on to produce their second series before the young cast aged too much, they’d virtually wrapped filming before the first UK lockdown hit. The only casualty: a standalone episode detailing what one character was up to during the rest of the season. That’s frustrating for fans (as I understand it, the events intended for that episode aren’t actually in the original novel, but were dreamt up afresh by the show’s writers in collaboration with original author Philip Pullman), and if you know there’s an episode missing then you can spot its absence (there are some scenes and references in the season finale that I wager would make more sense had we seen the missing episode), but the series mostly survives without it.

So, picking up from series one’s massive cliffhanger, this second run adapts the trilogy’s second novel, The Subtle Knife — a mysterious item of arguably even greater value than the Golden Compass that (sort of) lends its name to (the US version of) book one. Despite tackling a whole novel, I’ve seen some describe this season as boring, with too little incident. I guess that’s the advantage of waiting until the end and watching it all in just six days: I was suitably engrossed, and it moved, if not at a fair old lick, then certainly at a reasonable pace. But it’s not a show that’s always big on action — instead, it’s big on ideas, with underpinning concepts on the boundaries of science and fantasy that have to be explained and understood by the viewer. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of conflict between our heroes and villains; and while it may seem clear who’s on which side, there are enough shades of grey, and emerging uncertainties about who’s really got the right motives, to keep it pleasantly complicated, engrossing, and believable.

I’m sure I once read that the original plan was to adapt the trilogy of novels over five seasons — one for book one, two each for books two and three. Now, they’ve reached the point where book two has been done in a single season, and now book three is plotted out to be completed in one more run of eight episodes too. But, shockingly, it hasn’t been commissioned yet. I bloody hope the BBC (and HBO) do the right thing, because I think overall this is an excellent show, with still-timely issues of freedom and control, that merits completion on screen. And, simply, I’m excitedly looking forward to the next (final) series already.

Update: This afternoon, while I was too busy writing this post to notice the news, the BBC and HBO officially recommissioned His Dark Materials for its third and final series. Hurrah!

The Good Place  Season 4
The Good Place season 4The Good Place ended forever ago, right? Well, the series finale originally aired back in January, so… this year, yeah, forever ago.

As with every previous season of the show, this one noodles around in a new setup for the first half-dozen-or-so episodes, before swinging into one long multi-part story through to the end of the season — and, in this case, the end of the series. In that respect, it’s always been kind of an odd show, structurally, and season four is no different. Most of the jeopardy and drama is resolved a couple of episodes before the end, leaving us to watch events play out for these characters we’ve come to love, rather than trying to keep us hooked primarily by plot, unlike pretty much every other programme ever. To be clear, this is not a criticism: it absolutely works. Rather than shooting for a series finale that has the big climax of the plot plus a bunch of rushed wrap-ups, here the more-than-double-length finale is like a coda to the entire show. It’s the series’ highest rated episode on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking this approach.

The Good Place did, actually, start out as a show that seemed to be primarily about its plot — it’s name was mostly made off the back of one plot point in season one — but along the way it’s really developed a care for its ragtag gang of heroes, and taken us along for a once-in-an-afterlifetime ride with them, to the point where I’m actually kinda sad to see them go… but I loved watching them leave.

Baptiste  Series 1
BaptisteThe breakout star of BBC drama The Missing here gets his own spinoff series. Julien Baptiste is a retired police detective who specialises in finding missing people, which is exactly what he did across two series of The Missing (I reviewed the second here). But instead of a third series, he gets a spinoff, in which he… has to search for a missing person. Hm. But that’s just the inciting incident: before long, Julien finds himself embroiled in the affairs of an Eastern European criminal empire, with his family under threat. Okay, fair enough. Unfortunately, although Baptiste shares the same main creatives as its parent show — sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams — what they’ve cooked up here just isn’t as inventive or captivating as their two seasons of The Missing, both of which were fantastic. Sure, they still conjure up plenty of unexpected twists and developments, but it lacks the same spark that was there before. But let’s not get carried away: it’s not a bad serial, just not as high-quality as the two seasons that preceded it. It’s been recommissioned, so perhaps next time they’ll recapture the magic.

Smiley’s People
Smiley's PeopleJohn le Carré’s spy mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most acclaimed works of the genre, and the 1979 TV adaptation is justly fêted as one of the great miniseries. But Tinker Tailor is actually the first book in a loose trilogy, and in 1982 they also adapted the third book (they skipped the second because its overseas settings were deemed too expensive; as I understand it, the plot also doesn’t have that much bearing on the overall events — this isn’t “one story in three parts” like many a trilogy). Smiley’s People doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation as its forebear, and I’m afraid I’m not going to challenge that position. Like Baptiste, it’s not bad, it just lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes its predecessor a solid-gold classic. One thing they do share is a damnably complicated plot — I struggled to follow the narrative watching it one episode per day back to back, so goodness knows how anyone kept up with it once a week over a month and a half back in the ’80s.

I watched it on the BBC’s recently-released Blu-ray, which is a tough one to recommend it. It’s clearly been mastered from the original film (where possible — some negatives were missing so they had to resort to less-good elements), but then it’s been slathered in digital noise reduction (DNR) as if in some misguided attempt to hide that it was actually shot on grainy film stock as opposed to weirdly-soft HD video. It’s so rare for things to be over-DNRed these days that you’d think we were finally past it, but obviously not. And yet, while the series never looks as good as it could, the fact it has been restored means it’s a lot better than the old DVDs, and the chances of anyone ever doing it again and getting it right are basically non-existent. Sometimes, we just have to settle for what we can get. That certainly sounds like a le Carré moral, doesn’t it?

Elementary  Season 7 Episodes 9-13
Elementary season 7The other “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day” show finally came to an end last year, though I suspect its finishing shall remain more final: whereas Sherlock always had a stop-start “we could make more anytime” production, accompanied with cast & crew chatter about wanting to sporadically do make new episodes forever, Elementary is much more traditional US network TV show — and the diminishing episode orders of the final couple of seasons and summertime broadcasts of the last couple of seasons don’t suggest an enduring hit poised for a revival.

Despite that, the finale itself left things open for more, imitating Sherlock’s “Holmes and Watson continue” final beat. This kind of open-ended ‘ending’ fits a show like Sherlock, where there’s a realistic chance it will return someday. For a show like Elementary, where the chance it might ever return is infinitesimally small, it just feels inconclusive. Like, if you want it to be a true finale, you need to give some closure; an actual ending. As it is, despite a narrative that condenses several years and major life events (Joan gets cancer then goes into remission across a single cut), the episode fails to truly answer why this is the point at which we stop following Sherlock and Joan’s adventures.

There are some people who’ll tell you Elementary is better than Sherlock. I’m not one of them. I’ve warmed to it down the years, but I’ve never thought it was a particularly good realisation of Holmes and Watson — whatever its faults, Sherlock feels like it’s an attempt to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, whereas Elementary has taken a few names and basic character points and then gone its own way. I’ll concede that there are some things Elementary has done better, although that’s an almost-inevitable side effect of having c.22 episodes a year to play with instead of Sherlock’s three TV movies every couple of years. But it’s also an almost-standard US network procedural — I can remember every single episode of Sherlock, for good or ill, whereas very few of Elementary’s 154 instalments stick in my memory.

Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 2 — The second series of the supernatural sitcom digs more into the backstory of its various titular spooks, which seems to be a deep well for plot ideas and humour — one episode, for example, Rashomons it up by recounting one ghost’s death from the various perspectives of others who were already there to witness it. A Christmas special is imminent, and a third series is already commissioned.
  • Leverage Season 1 Episodes 1-3 — Now that I’m done with Elementary, this is my new pick for a “bung it on anytime”, “easy to watch”, US procedural. So far, it’s filling that void nicely. It’s a minor-network production from the late ‘00s, so it already feels a bit dated (it doesn’t quite have the cinematic swagger we expect from top-drawer TV now; the score, in particular, sounds like it was dropped in from a royalty-free library CD), but if you can let the production values slide, it’s good fun in a “bit of a romp” way. That’s how I like my heist movies/shows, so it ticks the right boxes for me.
  • Neil Brand’s Sound of TV — The music maestro follows up his series on the sound of movies from a few years ago (shamefully, I never got round to it) with a trio of episodes covering TV themes, advertising jingles, and TV scores. Very informative and entertaining, but you feel like the topic is so big (particularly the last one) that it could’ve withstood a few more episodes.
  • Richard Osman’s House of Games Night Series 1 — This daytime quiz show has been running for a while, but apparently became quite the success during lockdown, leading to a primetime evening spin-off — which, as I understand it, is just the exact same show but in a different time slot. It’s quite fun: there’s a good “play along at home” quality, and having the same contestants compete across the series means you end up rooting for your favourites.
  • Staged Series 1 Extended — If you didn’t know, Netflix has an extended version of this BBC lockdown hit — there’s about 29 minutes of new material spread across the six episodes, which is a fair old chunk (equivalent to almost two whole extra episodes). And that’s why I rewatched it: because it was good and I’d like to see the extra stuff. Plus, there are new episodes coming in January, so it’s a good time to recap.
  • The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown — The clergywoman returns for a trio of bitesize Zoom sermons, which together form a kind of comedic “review of the year” (and if you’re prepared to wait for the compilation version airing in a day or two, it’s apparently got some extra material). Many of Dibley’s supporting cast are sadly no longer with us, so I doubt we’ll ever get a proper return for the show, but this is a pleasant little sliver of nostalgia mixed with current events.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Mandalorian season 2This month, I have mostly been missing The Mandalorian season 2. Well, as regular readers will know, I never even got round to season 1. Naturally, it’s been basically impossible to avoid spoilers — though as those amount to “look which legacy character has turned up this week” rather than actual plot stuff, perhaps it will be okay. Or maybe the series doesn’t really have any plot to spoil, it’s just endless fan service — that would certainly seem to tally with some people’s view of the show. Others love it though, so I’ll see for myself… someday…

    Next month… will come after my regular Christmas TV roundup, which will likely include a bunch of seasonal sitcom specials, plus the New Year’s Day Doctor Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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