The Past Trisennight on TV #34

With the series finale of The Americans on UK TV tonight (at 12:05am on ITV4), I thought I’d bring my monthly TV review forward a bit and share my thoughts on the final season of a series that, for those of us who found it, will be sorely missed.

Plus! The latest episodes of Westworld — much more widely discussed than The Americans, but does it deserve the attention? And quick thoughts on the end of Archer Vice and another series finale, that of Peter Kay’s Car Share.

The Americans  Season 6
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The Americans season 6That song was released in 1987, the same year as the final season of The Americans is set. The show has typically avoided featuring well-known music in favour of cult favourites and obscurities, but R.E.M.’s classic would’ve been an appropriate number to hear during one of the series’ trademark music montages in the finale. (That said, it did contain both Dire Straits and U2, so they weren’t above using big hits.) Maybe it would’ve been a bit on the nose, but it certainly was applicable: it was the end of the world as the characters knew it, and so too for fans, as six incredible seasons came to a final end. But do we feel fine? That depends how you define “fine”. The show will be missed terribly, but goddamn if it didn’t stick the landing to cement itself as one of the greatest TV series ever made.

It all began with a good setup for a concluding season: finally, after years of disagreements about their jobs and their personal lives and how both should be handled, the world conspired to pit the Jennings directly — and secretly — against each other. The Americans isn’t usually so overt in its plotting, so it’s no surprise that the scenario doesn’t play out as a straightforward spy-vs-spy battle. But it certainly tests the lead characters both professionally and personally, and to an extent they haven’t been before, forcing them to question every one of their loyalties: to their employers, to their country, to their friends, to their family, and to each other. To say too much about how it unfolds would be a spoiler, obviously, but it has some clever ways of challenging even the characters’ most deeply-held beliefs.

Most spy-based TV shows ratchet up the scale or stakes season after season — I’m thinking of Spooks, where in season two they spent a whole episode debating the ethics of performing an assassination, but a couple of years later that was just routine first-act stuff; or 24, where season one was just about someone trying to assassinate a presidential candidate, but by season four it was about multiple coordinated attacks including bombing trains, kidnappings, melting nuclear power stations, shooting down Air Force One, a nuclear missile strike… The Americans has, if anything, gone in the opposite direction: there’s still spy stuff there, of course, and it’s as grounded as ever, but it’s increasingly taken a backseat to the characters’ relationships. Maybe this is just a matter of perspective, but I felt that in earlier seasons the spy stuff was the focus, No ordinary marriageegiven texture or sometimes affected by the relationships, whereas by this point the relative importance and impact seems reversed. I guess you could still enjoy it as “just a spy show”, but I don’t think you’d want to — the stuff you’re invested in has shifted. That was always the programme’s genius, of course: it’s not about spies who happen to be married, it’s about marriage through the prism of people who are spies.

For a while it almost doesn’t feel like the end (the season opener even begins with a montage set to Don’t Dream It’s Over), but then comes episode five, The Great Patriotic War, and suddenly years of stuff is brought to a head: the status quo and people’s values are flipped, then re-flipped; there are massive changes and developments — but all managed with The Americans’ usual understated believability. As the fallout begins in episode six, Rififi, you can’t tell where it’s going to go. It keeps the focus squarely on Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, as if we could ever forget the show is, at heart, all about that, not the big spy stuff. The season isn’t just engrossing on a thriller-ish “will they get caught?” level, but also on an emotional “will they stay together?” one. A big part of this is the performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both of whom are so, so good — the subtleties and nuances of their performances, and the way the series trusts them to convey what’s needed with just silence at times, is phenomenal. That they haven’t received more recognition for their work here is a crime against television.

The penultimate episode, Jennings, Elizabeth, is where things really begin to come to a head, and Jesus, the tension! It’s hair-raising. It’s intense. It leaves your nerves shattered, not just during the programme but after it too. I’m glad I saved the season up to watch on consecutive days, because I don’t know how I’d’ve spent a week with that hanging over me. And as for the finale, somewhat ironically titled START… I’ve been worried about how they’d end the show basically since it started. I spent that last hour covered in goosebumps and with my heart in my throat, and it was kinda perfect. It didn’t give me everything I wanted, but perhaps it gave me all that I needed. The garage sceneAs a commenter on the A.V. Club’s review put it, “I have to say it is of greatest compliment that the show both wrapped up the story and left me wanting more. It felt equal measure satisfying and gut wrenching.” That’s exactly how I felt. Also, it contained what I have no qualms about calling one of the greatest scenes in TV history: just a handful of characters talking in a garage, and it was absolutely stunning, the true culmination of the entirety of the show.

If you haven’t been watching The Americans (and viewing figures suggest you probably weren’t) then do yourself a favour and rectify that at some point — a 75-episode masterpiece awaits. Without doubt, one of the greatest TV series ever made.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 5-7
Shogun WorldI wrote last time about how Westworld season one took a few episodes to warm up but eventually got me completely hooked. Season two is so far failing to pull the same trick — over half the season has felt like it’s still just getting underway to me. And then, in the blink of an eye, episode seven, Les Écorchés, catapults us from “just getting started” to “endgame” over the course of an hour. I’m not sure how I feel about all that. There’s some exciting and interesting ideas in the mix here, but what also feels like a bit of flailing around. Maybe it’s all in aid of a Big Surprise? Season one certainly had a few of those in its final episodes — they were the most talked-about part of the show in the end, I’d wager — so I assume they’re going to end up shooting for the same.

One thing they’ve definitely copied from that freshman run is the multiple timelines. Back then it was a secret, and it ultimately paid off, but now it’s out in the open, and I’m not sure what it’s for. I mean, there are some very basic uses in play — “how does Character X get from that situation in the past to this situation in the present?”, “where have half the cast gone between the past and now?” — but that seems a bit… facile. As I say, I hope they’ve got some surprise to pull out of their sleeve — something to do with how the hosts struggle to differentiate between memories and current events, perhaps — but it’s a long time coming…

Also watched…
  • Archer Season 5 Episodes 6-13 — While the change-of-setup idea seemed interesting at first, I’m not sure how much I actually liked Archer Vice overall. There were some good episodes, plus sundry character bits and lines, etc, but the cumulative level of enjoyment was less than I remember from previous seasons. Equally, it’s been four years since I last watched the show — maybe I’d just moved on? Well, I’ll continue on to season six anyway, especially as I believe that returns to the original spy-agency setting.
  • Car Share The Finale — A much-needed conclusion after series two’s cliffhanger (did they really think that was ever going to wash as a final ending?) It gave us the happy ending most people wanted (I saw a handful of dissenting voices on Twitter), and, even more impressively, managed to do so without sacrificing the series’ two-people-chatting-in-a-car format. It was pretty darn hilarious, too. If they ever want to do more I won’t complain, but it’s fine to leave it there this time, thanks.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Very English ScandalThis month, I have mostly been missing A Very English Scandal, the Russell T Davies-penned drama about the real-life case of a ’60s politician and his secret homosexual lover. It seems to have gone down exceptionally well, and anything by RTD is always worth watching. Other than that, it feels like there’s a bunch of stuff on streaming I’ve been meaning to get round to and still haven’t. That list would keep us here all day, though.

    Next month… the MCU’s other black superhero returns to Netflix.

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  • The Past Trisennight on TV #19

    Although I only post my TV overviews once a month, I’m always looking ahead to what’s going to be included in them. That’s what made me realise edition #19, scheduled for July 20th, was going to be insanely busy: new episodes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and the entire latest season of The Americans — all things I typically review ‘in full’. Whew! So I’ve brought #19 forward a bit, and #20 will be in a fortnight anyway.

    So, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past month three weeks (aka trisennight, a word that Google finds two other uses of ever. Cool.)

    Doctor Who  Series 10 Episodes 10-12
    The Eaters of LightHistory was made left, right and centre in the last three episodes of Doctor Who’s 36th-ever season. For starters, The Eaters of Light marked the first time someone who wrote for the classic series has written for the revived one. Rona Munro penned the last story of old Who, Survival, a personal favourite of mine and one that, stylistically and tonally, connects remarkably well with the first episode of nuWho, Rose, which is quite the coincidence. Anyway, The Eaters of Light was a solid episode with some very likeable parts, but it didn’t seem to quite gel entirely in the final mix. That’s been a recurring theme for the middle of this season, I feel, with every episode since Knock Knock featuring quality ideas and/or characters and/or scenes that aren’t fully developed into a final whole. Nonetheless, I’d certainly welcome Munro returning again in the future, but who knows what Chris Chibnall has planned.

    And then we come to the two-part finale, written (of course) by departing showrunner Steven Moffat. The duology, which sadly is called neither Genesis of the Cybermen nor The Two Masters, continues his previously-stated aim of creating two-parters where each half is a distinctly different episode. The first part, World Enough and Time, is an immediate contender for an all-time great episode of the show. There’s a superb real-science setup with the time-dilated spaceship, plus a suitably eerie hospital in which we ‘unknowingly’ witness the birth of the Cybermen — my favourite Who monster, so perhaps I am a little biased.

    World Enough and TimeI put “unknowingly” in inverted commas there because that’s the episode’s biggest problem: thanks to the show’s own promotion, we knew the Cybermen were coming back, and we knew John Simm was returning as the Master. In truth, the former isn’t a problem. Sure, the existence of the Cybermen is played as something of a reveal at the end, but it also works as ‘just’ the reveal that Bill has been converted, and there’s dramatic irony in the viewer knowing what those cloth-headed patients are destined to become. The Master spoiler is more of a problem. The prosthetics turning Simm into Razor are impressive, and even fooled some people who knew he was back… for a bit. I’m sure most people must’ve guessed before the episode ended. It therefore becomes a distraction: what’s his plan? When will he reveal himself? And when the big reveal does come, it’s played as a twist, which it isn’t because we were told about Simm three months ago. Moffat has said before that it was entirely his decision to put Simm in the trailer, and it’s clear it was a misstep. Not a fatal one — World Enough and Time is strong enough to withstand it — but a shame. Can you imagine the reaction if we hadn’t known?

    So with the Master finally revealed at episode’s end, he teams up with Missy for the first multi-Master story ever in the extended finale, The Doctor Falls. With a lot of business to attend to, this isn’t quite as striking as its first part. Nonetheless, there’s strong material here. Missy and the Master are a hoot, the pairing of Simm and Michelle Gomez working exactly as well as you’d hope. Their storyline comes to a very fitting conclusion, too. The way Moffat handles Bill being a Cyberman, how she feels inside and how people react to her, was an original use of a well-worn villain. Her possible-departure was fitting too, tying appropriately back to her debut episode. Moffat buried a way for her to return in the dialogue, which hopefully Chibnall will pick up because Bill has been absolutely fab. It would be a real shame if this is the last we see of her. The Doctor FallsAs for the other current Capaldi companion, there was an almost touching exit for Nardole, a character Matt Lucas has managed to imbue with much more likability than was promised in his initial appearance a couple of Christmases back. Finally, Peter Capaldi was in as fine fettle as ever, getting to deliver a few more of his iconic speeches, before going out with a heroic last stand.

    Well, not quite going out, because we have that exciting cliffhanger to lead us into the Christmas special. With such a promising setup, let’s hope Moffat can stick the landing. We’ll find out on December 25th…

    The Americans  Season 5
    The Americans season 5The best show on television” returns for its penultimate run. It’s currently mid-way through here in the UK (where it’s really, really buried on ITV Encore, more’s the pity — it deserves a bigger audience) so I’ll be extra careful to avoid big spoilers. It’s an interesting run of episodes, though: low-key, in their way; slow-paced, even by the standards of current high-quality TV. That’s not to say it’s without merit, but it’s rewarding of long-term investment more than ever. In truth, it may be the show’s weakest run, but that’s very much a relative assertion. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid here, probably the downside of them getting a two-season to-the-finish recommission — these are episodes 1 to 13 of 23, not 1 to 13 of 13.

    Still, as I said, it’s most decidedly not without merit, it’s just that the drama is very much internalised into the characters. A lot of it is about Philip and Elizabeth becoming increasingly tired of their life — the toll that all the killing and lying takes. That’s not exactly something new for Philip, but is he reaching breaking point? And to see Elizabeth beginning to struggle too really rams home how tough it is. Indeed, the detrimental effects of this lifestyle are felt across all the storylines and returning characters, as people on both sides come to doubt the justification of their respective causes. Is someone going to snap and betray their country?

    Although the season starts (and, in some cases, resolves) plot lines of its own, ultimately the big underlying thread is (picking up from last season) the debate about how, when, and if they can go home to Russia. The kids are a big factor: Paige is still being initiated into the realities of their cause, but Henry is off building a life of his own, now more than ever. At the same time, we’re shown how difficult it is for other people to adjust in similar circumstances, including Russians who’ve defected to America with their kid. These kind of storylines could be heavy-handed parallels on other shows, but The Americans unfurls them gradually and carefully and subtly enough that you come to see it for yourself rather than the show screaming at you to notice the mirroring.

    Not the most dramatic run, then, but this deep in I think it’s earnt our trust that they’re going somewhere with it all. It’s also earnt our investment in the characters to the extent that it can base storylines about their internal struggles rather than just exciting espionage stuff. It’s clearly been a not-for-everyone season (reviews are largely positive still, but there are more dissenting voices) but there’s still quality in spades. And it’s still completely unpredictable how it’s all going to wind up next season.

    Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 7-8
    In its 7th episode, the new Twin Peaks suddenly delivered a surfeit of story, forging ahead with actual plot developments in several of its disparate storylines. It was almost bizarre. It was good. Heck, some of the scenes were incredible. Laura Dern is perfect here. So did this mark a turning point? Was the series finally getting stuck into the meat of the story? Well, as it turned out, no. Not at all. Indeed, perhaps David Lynch was just pre-trolling us, in his own way, because Part 8…

    Twin Peaks Part 8I don’t know if it was the reaction across the board, but on Twitter the reception the 8th episode received was adulatory to the nth degree. Having given us massive developments and beloved characters just one episode before, suddenly we were in a different era, in black and white, with mostly unknown characters, and a narrative conveyed through Lynchian visions rather than traditional storytelling. It made some kind of sense… some of it… in the end… but you certainly had to stick with it. Some of it was incredible — the tracking shot into the mushroom cloud is, somehow, almost inexplicably, one of the greatest shots of all time; an instant classic. But other bits… they did go on rather. I’m not one of those people who wishes the new Twin Peaks was a pure nostalgia fest, all repetition of famous lines and quirky goings on in the Double R over cherry pie and coffee, but I also think Lynch’s indulgence has run a little too rampant. Much of his surrealist imagery works if you’re prepared to engage with it, but I also think much of it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. There’s a difference between a slow pace and no pace.

    So, I don’t really think Part 8 is a total revolution in television and one of the greatest episodes of all time, as some people do. For one thing, the opening stuff with Evil Cooper and the Nine Inch Nails performance felt like it belonged at the end of the previous episode but had to be moved for time. It was certainly an experience, though, I’ll give it that. I just hope it’s one that all makes sense in the end…

    Preacher  Season 2 Episodes 1-2
    Preacher season 2After a sometimes uncertain but ultimately promising first season that was, really, all prologue to the main story, Preacher returns with a confident bang, filled with unstoppable cowboys, exploding SUVs, Maced testicles, intestinal fuel syphons, baby foreskins, and Come On Eileen — and that was just the opening ten minutes. Shows like Legion, American Gods, and, especially, Twin Peaks may have been duking it out for the title of craziest series on television these past few months, but there’s nothing quite like Preacher.

    With our trio of heroes — a Texan preacher with the power to make anyone do what he says, his badass girlfriend with a criminal past, and a rough but charming Irish vampire — now on the road, the series itself also feels free of the shackles of the first season’s small-town setting. We’re let loose into a world that can equal the barminess of the leads. A world where we meet a friend who keeps a girl locked in a cage in his garage (for good reason); where you can see a man cheat death nightly at the Mumbai Sky Tower Resort and Casino; where a drug-fuelled binge of pillow-fighting and reading Archie comics can solve your woes; where God goes to a strip joint for the jazz…

    Sadly, you can’t really jump in here — too much was established in season one — but the ongoing unpredictable zaniness makes it worth the investment to reach this point, in my view. And with some fan-favourite characters just around the corner, hopefully it’s gonna be a helluva season.

    Also watched…
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 6-13 — it’s funny watching this in production order (as it is on the DVDs), because it seems pretty clear they blew the budget sending the cast around Europe for the first few episodes — all the exotic locations are being done with back projection by this point.

    Next fortnight… winter is here.

  • 100 Films @ 10: Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years

    This may be a film blog, but you’d be a fool to deny the rise in quality and significance of TV series in the past couple of decades, to the point where a lot of mainstream TV is arguably of higher quality than mainstream movies. So it seemed only appropriate to include it in my celebration of the last ten years.

    We’ve all heard about how we’ve reached ‘peak TV’, and with so much television we’ve all missed something we should’ve caught — many things, probably (my list of “stuff I haven’t seen any/enough of” would probably be longer than this one). Nonetheless, here are ten of my favourite TV series that were on at some point during the last decade.

    10
    The Great British Bake Off

    There are all sorts of prestigious dramas I could’ve put in this position — things I’m much more likely to revisit, too — but there’s more to TV than that. Just because we’re not going to buy something in a box set and critically (re)analyse it for years to come doesn’t necessarily mean it has no value. Of course, if you don’t get the appeal of Bake Off then I’m not sure anyone can explain it to you. I mean, who could’ve predicted that a bunch of people in a tent baking cakes while a pair of comediennes make gently naughty puns would become the biggest thing on British TV? If that makes it sound undramatic… it is. Well, apart from bingate. But that’s actually why it works so well (and why so many people actually hated all the fuss provoked by the aforementioned dumping of a baked Alaska) — it’s just lovely. And surprisingly entertaining with it. Or it was until the producers got greedy and shuffled off to Channel 4, potentially shattering the alchemical mix that made the show work. Oh well.

    9
    Detectorists

    This understated BBC Four sitcom about the lives of a group of people who enjoy metal detecting (a hobby whose participants are not “detectors”, they’re detectorists) is quietly one of the best comedies on TV in recent times, both very funny and rather touching. Starring, written, and directed by Mackenzie “Gareth from The Office” Crook, it’s nothing like that series and all the better for it. It also includes a great performance from co-star Toby Jones, whose Lance starts as a somewhat-pathetic supporting turn but reveals many layers by the end.

    8
    Mad Men

    The critically-acclaimed story of ad men in ’60s New York, Mad Men is a rich and frequently abstruse drama that on the surface looks almost soapy but quite clearly is nothing so shallow. It works best in the long run, slowly accumulating character moments and events in ways that pay off down the line, resulting in some stunning scenes and episodes. It’s only so low on this list because it seemed to waver a bit in later years, and I’m still not sure how I feel about its ending. (On the bright side, it didn’t go thoroughly off the rails like, say, Dexter.)

    7
    Outnumbered

    At the risk of sounding like one of those music groupies who are all “I liked their early stuff, before they got famous,” I remember when Outnumbered was buried late at night and it seemed like no one watched it, but those of us who did hoped against hope for a second series because it worked so well. It later morphed into a mainstream staple, but deservedly so — its semi-improvised “kids say the funniest things” format created a veracity that even the best scripted sitcoms fail to match. As the kids have grown it’s become more traditional, I suppose, but retained a smart eye for the absurdism of real life.

    6
    Romanzo Criminale

    Little seen in the UK (or anywhere outside Italy, perhaps) because it was buried on Sky Arts just as the craze for European crime TV was taking off, this Italian gangster saga is consequently an underrated specimen of quality continental drama. Telling one epic story across two seasons and 22 episodes, like many of the best series its effectiveness comes less from individual episodes and more from the way events and complexities build over time. Fortunately Arrow have released it on DVD, so anyone with curiosity (and a spare £30) can see what they’ve been missing.

    5
    Sherlock

    Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the Great Detective is the most popular British TV character in the world now. I guess that’s in spite of the criticism the series has regularly attracted across its last two runs. Of course, the ratings continue to be massive, so it must be doing something right. The idea of updating Holmes and Watson to the present day seemed foolhardy at first, but with a clever attention to the canon, a raft of cinematic visual tricks, and a top-drawer cast, they made something that worked really rather well. There are a couple of duff episodes, true, but I think they’re more than outweighed by the successes. Hopefully said success — which has helped propel the leads into the realm of movie stardom — won’t prevent us getting more in the future.

    4
    Torchwood: Children of Earth

    Doctor Who’s ‘adult’ spin-off had a rocky start when it first launched in 2006, with a series that had been rushed into and through production and resulted in a few… iffy decisions. The second season improved its consistency, and those two original runs certainly have their fans, but it really got good when it changed its format for this third run. Children of Earth is an almost-standalone five-episode miniseries about an alien race coming to Earth and demanding we hand over all our children, with a fantastic performance from future Doctor Peter Capaldi as a politician embroiled in the discussions about whether to appease them. Torchwood would return to its muddled quality with the attempt at a follow-up miniseries, US co-production Miracle Day, but for five nights in the middle of 2009 it was one of the very best sci-fi miniseries ever produced.

    3
    Doctor Who

    Every era of Doctor Who has its ups and its downs, its fans and its detractors. For example, every five-or-so years Doctor Who Magazine runs a reader survey to rate every story in the show’s history out of 10, and every single story gets at least some 10s, and all but one or two get some 1s as well. Nowhere are these extremities better exemplified than season 21, which ends with The Caves of Androzani (the #1 story in DWM’s 2009 poll) followed by The Twin Dilemma (perpetually placed last in pretty much every poll ever). But for the purposes of this list we’re talking about the revived show’s third series (the first one without Billie Piper) through to the most recent Christmas special (the one with a superhero). That encompasses the beloved and divisive second half of the David Tennant/Russell T. Davies era, as well as most of the divisive and beloved Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi/Steven Moffat era. For my money, any series that can produce the likes of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, the climax of Utopia, Time Crash, Voyage of the Damned, Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars, The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, A Christmas Carol, The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, The Day of the Doctor, Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, and Heaven Sent deserves a spot in my top ten.

    2
    The Americans

    A couple of weeks ago, US network FX released a trailer for The Americans’ forthcoming fifth season that unashamedly celebrated its increased critical standing, with quotes from half-a-dozen or so media outlets expressing the same fundamental sentiment: it’s “the best show on television”. It’s about a pair of Russian spies operating undercover in the US in the ’80s, who also try to maintain some kind of normal family life with their two teenage kids — who don’t know their parents are spies. Oh, and the FBI agent who’s hunting for them has just moved in over the road. Sounds kind of hokey put like that, but in practice it’s anything but. And like several other shows on this list, it works best in the long term, as things build, echo, and characters have to deal with long-brewing consequences. It works as a spy thriller, but also as a character-driven exploration of what makes people tick. There are just two seasons left to go, both commissioned (thank goodness), and if they can just stick the landing it’s surely destined for a place in lists of all-time greats. So why isn’t it my #1? Well…

    1
    Game of Thrones

    Here’s another show whose place in the all-time pantheon is sure to be claimed or dashed by how it ends, a point which is also exactly two seasons away — what are the odds? Of course, even if it ballses it up, Thrones’ legacy is assured in some ways: it’s basically the biggest TV show in the world right now, certain to remembered as a cultural touchstone of the 2010s. I’ve given it the edge on my beloved Americans primarily for two reasons: the penultimate episode of the last season, and the last episode of the last season (which I wrote about at greater length here). To summarise, they’re two of the greatest individual episodes of TV ever made. Thrones does all the long-brewing cumulative stuff too, but there’s nothing else on TV that can pull off a satisfying Big Moment in quite the same way.

    Tomorrow: back to the movies… the bad, bad movies…

    The Past Month on TV #7

    Oh sure, some people can run and jump and swim and stuff really, really well — but can they sit on the sofa and watch TV as well as me, hm?

    The Americans (Season 4)
    The AmericansAs much as I love Game of Thrones, and think season six’s final two instalments were some of the best TV episodes of this or any other year, I think the people who say The Americans is currently the best drama on TV may well be right. Even the Emmys have got on board, giving it some long-overdue nods in big categories.

    I’m not sure season four contains a single hour I can point at to say “here is where it beats Thrones”, but then that exemplifies The Americans: it’s all about how things build over time; the eventual consequences of long-term events, and the consequences of those consequences, and the consequences of… you get the idea. That was how I first got into the show: watching the first season, I thought it was good, an entertaining spy thriller, watchable enough. It was only after the finale that I realised how great it had all been and that I actually loved it. Season two is even more of a case of this: at times it feels like the show has lost its way, and then the finale comes along and shows you the endgame and suddenly the whole year makes sense. And seasons three and four have only upped the ante from there.

    This season really nails all the things the show does best. The central espionage storyline about chemical weapons could be a painfully obvious metaphor for the whole premise of the show, but that element isn’t overplayed. Themes of home and family, and the ever-present issues of loyalty, are examined from every angle and in every storyline. There are huge (huge) twists and changes to the series’ status quo, which is a bold move in a fourth season when there are two still to go — to leave behind characters and storylines that have helped fuel the series for so long, when there’s an endgame in sight (and it’s not that close) is kinda bold. And the season finale is a real kicker, with powerful performances and drama, and an ending which is strikingly unresolved… though, at the same time, if the show had been cancelled it’d be pretty resolved (that’s a bizarre, Schrödinger-y thing unto itself).

    With the end now in sight, I don’t have the foggiest how the creators are going to choose to wrap things up (in two years and 23 episodes’ time), which is exciting in itself — how many shows genuinely feel like they could go for any option from a number of different endings, assuming they even get to end on their own terms in the first place?

    Speaking of which…

    Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 5-13)
    Person of InterestWatching this, it’s difficult to imagine anyone involved really believed they would get a sixth season — which is good, because (a) they stood very little chance, and (b) that means it wraps everything up to a nice, proper ending. My feelings on Jonah “brother of Christopher” Nolan’s cyber-thriller have oscillated over the years, and I’m a long way from agreeing with those who assert it’s actually one of the best sci-fi series ever; but for a show that started out as a fairly standard CBS procedural thriller, it did ultimately manage to play with and work around the network’s expectations to produce something superior. It’s a shame they clearly had to rush the final arc (marred further by having to hit a quota of ‘case of the week’ episodes, for some reason), but it still got to a good place. If you’ve not watched it but are interested, consider finding one of those “episodes you should definitely watch” guides (like this one) rather than committing to all 103 filler-riddled instalments.

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 6-10)
    PreacherIn the end, this turned out to be less of a TV prequel to the comic book series than an expanded and rejigged adaptation of the comic’s opening four-issue story arc (with some stuff from later thrown in for added fuel). As Seth Rogen explained on the post-finale chat show Talking Preacher, the books throw an awful lot of quite comic-book-y ideas at you very quickly, and TV viewers maybe needed a little longer to digest all of that. Plus extra space to develop and examine the characters, of course. It’ll be interesting to see how future seasons handle the issue of adaptation. By the end of season one, the characters are in a place to launch into something closer to the rest of the comic; but, at the same time, budget issues have already forced some reimagining, so what else will it be forced to compromise or reinvent? I think the bold, fearless barminess of the TV series has earned it the right to our attention, whether it goes further off piste or hews closer still to its roots.

    Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 19-20 — slowly slowly reachy movie
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 1-3 — an underrated gem of British comedy. Each episode is a perfectly-crafted little farce performed by a stellar cast.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 21-22 — after a mostly lacklustre season, it wasn’t a bad finale all told. Still, November’s revival will hopefully be even better.
  • Miranda Series 1 Episode 1-Series 3 Episode 2 — starting (and almost finishing) a completeroni what I call re-watch. Such fun!
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — if you like swashbuckling drama (and I do), this is a real gem. Shame on me for being so tardy about keeping up with it.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Max WhitlockThis month, I have mostly been missing… not that much, really. With the Olympics dominating the good TV channels and much of US drama on its summer hols, there doesn’t seem to have been much on. I haven’t gone crazy for Rio 2016 like I did for London 2012 (much to my surprise at the time, that was), though we’ve caught bits and pieces, not least Max Whitlock’s double gold (along with 10.4 million other people) and Andy Murray’s gruelling final. The drama of the next few days, when we’ll see if Britain can become the first host country ever to increase its tally at the next summer games, is sure to hold my attention.

    Next month… with its spin-off on the horizon, I’m finally getting round to 24: Live Another Day. Also, Bake Off’s back! Who doesn’t love Bake Off?

  • The Past Month on TV #3

    Superheroes, spies and Sherlock in this month’s spoiler-free TV round-up.

    Daredevil (Season 2)
    DaredevilIt’s certainly the summer of good-guy-on-good-guy dust-ups in the superhero subgenre this year, with Batman v Superman lighting up the box office last month and Captain America v Iron Man set to do the same next week (in the UK and 41 other countries, anyway; “next month” everywhere else). First out of the gate, however, was Daredevil v Punisher, in the second season of Netflix’s initial Marvel-derived success. Also throwing love-of-his-life Elektra into the mix, plus some additional plot elements teased in season one, meant Daredevil had more to do this year. However, far from feeling overstuffed (like so many a weak superhero sequel), it rose to the occasion, with a second run that was arguably even better than the first. Charlie Cox continues to be a real star as Matt Murdock, Jon Bernthal gave an excellent rendition of Frank Castle as a genuine human being, and supporting players like Deborah Ann Woll and Rosario Dawson shine too. Also, less widely praised but one of the season’s subtle successes for me, was Geoffrey Cantor stepping ably into the series’ Ben-Urich-shaped hole. And the fights were both plentiful and eye-poppingly choreographed, even more so than the first season’s. Exciting stuff all round.

    Elementary (Season 4 Episodes 14-16)
    ElementaryI’m a little surprised I’m still with this “Sherlock Holmes in modern day America with a female Dr Watson” series, because it was never a particularly good version of Sherlock Holmes and it still isn’t. What it has turned out to be is a decent show in its own right (for a US network procedural, anyway), with sometimes-interesting characters who happen to share the names and the odd characteristic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed creations. It’s so much its own show that it’s never really bothered adapting the canon, so it was very odd when episode 16, Hounded, didn’t just use a few names from The Hound of the Baskervilles (as the series has in the past), but actually had a passable swing at modernising the entire plot. It doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with critics and viewers, though for my money it did a much better job than Sherlock’s disappointing attempt.

    The Night Manager
    The Night ManagerA lavish, all-star, ultra-hyped John le Carré adaptation that, thank goodness, lives up to its reputation. Although it wrapped up in the UK a couple of weeks ago, it only started in the US last night, and I recommend any America-based readers who enjoy a good thriller to get on board tout suite. The Night Manager doesn’t have a Tinker Tailor-style twisty-turny plot, but fills that gap with tension and suspense. Tom Hiddleston is a likeable hero, dragged in to something that might seem over his head, but which it emerges he has an affinity for. Hugh Laurie is a personably chilling villain, Olivia Colman kicks Whitehall ass, Tom Hollander perfectly judges a part that could’ve been caricature, and Elizabeth Debicki shows a very different side after her ice-cold villainess in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As for talk of Hiddleston being the next Bond… initially his character here couldn’t seem further away from 007, lending credence to my presumption that everyone declared “he could be Bond!” just because he was in a spy series. But as it goes on, he gets to be suave, cunning, and sleep with pretty much every female character that isn’t his boss. So, yes, he could be Bond. At this point he’s certainly a better pick than too-old-for-it-now Idris Elba.

    Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 4 Episode 18-Season 6 Episode 9Paul Anka, aww!
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Season 1 Episodes 3-5 — aka The “22 Years Ago No One Knew Who the Kardashians Were, Isn’t That Funny?” Show.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 4-15 — I know I moaned about this last month, but I’m actually rather enjoying this season now. Just as they cancel it. Typical.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The AmericansThis month, I have mostly been missing season four of The Americans, aka the most underrated drama on television. Well, apart from with critics, that is, who’ve given this run 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if anyone bothers to air it over here anymore (ITV ditched it after the second season), but I’ve always got it via other means anyhow, so it’s a moot point for me. I also save it all up and binge over a couple of weeks, because it really suits it — in the same way it suits, say, Game of Thrones, but as no one watches The Americans it’s much easier to avoid spoilers. This year, that means I won’t get stuck into it until sometime in June. Can’t wait. Well, I can, because I am. But you know what I mean.

    Next month… Game of F***ing Thrones returns!

  • End of Watch (2012)

    2015 #111
    David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

    The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

    Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

    Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

    Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

    Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.