The Past Months on TV #51

When I mentioned in September’s monthly review that I hadn’t posted a TV column that month, I was intending to get one up within a few days. As it turned out, for various fundamentally unimportant reasons, it’s taken until now — so, really, this one covers two months.

Much like my film viewing, my TV watching hasn’t been as prolific as normal, including some regulars falling by the wayside (no Twilight Zone again). But there are still a few things worth talking about.

Stranger Things 3
Stranger Things 3On what you might unkindly call a superficial level, the third season of Netflix’s signature series was thoroughly entertaining — it’s frequently funny and exciting, with cool moments aplenty (especially in the last couple of episodes), and many enjoyable callbacks to both ’80s pop culture and within the show itself. But dig any deeper and it begins to seem less surefooted, with what felt to me like muddled themes and character arcs, and a sense that the mythology was treading water. I don’t particularly object to the way any characters were treated, nor the destinations any of them reached (especially as a fourth season was inevitable, so wherever this run finished up was only ever temporary), but I didn’t feel like they were being guided anywhere with any real purpose. There’s something to be said for storylines like that, but when you’re trying to play some kind of redemption arc, or a coming-of-age tale about burgeoning independence (or whatever), I feel like you need to be a bit clearer-eyed. But hey, I still enjoyed it a lot — it’s a fun watch, and I imagine even more so if you have nostalgic memories of an ’80s childhood — I just think there’s still some room for finessing.

Watchmen  Season 1 Episode 1
WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen is a seminal work of the form — I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about that at this point. Over the past decade it’s been adapted into a film, and both prequelised and sequelised (I think? I dunno, I stopped paying attention) in comic books, to varying degrees of success and controversy. So when HBO announced they were bringing it to TV, there was much trepidation. Early promises that it wasn’t a remake or prequel or sequel, but instead a ‘remix’, just added to the confusion.

Now it’s finally here, it’s clear that such bold reports were perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Well, I say “clear” — I’ve only watched the first episode (two have aired, out of nine) so there’s plenty of room for things to change, but (so far at least) it seems to be definitively set in the world of the comic book (and not the movie, which made some significant modifications to the climax) and in 2019 (whereas the comic is set in the ’80s). So it is a sequel… but it’s not a direct sequel, because very few of the original characters have a part to play (yet, anyway). So it’s a new story set in the same world… albeit one where the events of the first story have had a massive impact, and some of the same thematic concerns are coming into play — not to mention a load of familiar iconography. Okay, maybe “remix” wasn’t a wholly terribly epithet after all.

Anyway, it’s early days, but there’s a lot of promise and potential here. Reading the original before viewing may not be essential, but it’s going to help a lot (besides which, it’s a damn good book). And if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, be sure to check out the tie-in Peteypedia website, which provides a lot of extra info to help bridge the gap between book and series.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the GreatHBO and Sky Atlantic have teamed up for this lavish four-parter about the life of the famous Russian ruler, conceived by and starring Helen Mirren. The big bucks those broadcasters are known for are all over the screen here — it looks suitable sumptuous, with grand locations that positively shine, especially in UHD. Unfortunately, nothing else about the production is up to scratch. The writing is thoroughly mediocre — it most reminded me of The Tudors, although that seemed to know it was a bit of trashy fun, whereas I think Catherine the Great wants to be taken very seriously. But the dialogue is uninspiring, the characters uninteresting and underdeveloped (we’re told the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin is some great love affair, but they strop around like moody, jealous teenagers), and the flat performances do nothing to elevate any of it — and despite her general acclaim, Mirren is probably the weakest of the lot. Pretty, then, but vacant.

Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes
Dad's Army: The Lost EpisodesThe BBC’s 1970s policy of junking programmes because they supposedly no longer had commercial value is a familiar topic for Doctor Who fans, who’ve spent decades hoping and hunting for copies of missing episodes. But it was an organisation-wide policy, so Who was far from the only show that suffered — Dad’s Army was another. It’s a perennially popular sitcom here (even today repeats land among the most-watched programmes of the week), so you can see why it made commercial sense to invest in recreations of the missing episodes — especially as there’s only three of them.

The pre-broadcast press and ads emphasised heavily that these were intended as a tribute (presumably because that attempt at a feature film revival from a couple of years ago went down so badly). The sense of affection for the original seeps off the screen, from the faithfully recreated set to the performances, which ably tread the fine line between flat impersonation and respectful imitation. By that I mean the cast were clearly trying to play the roles as they were originally performed, but without getting stuck in a rut of mere emulation, instead injecting a reasonable amount of their own interpretation of the characters.

So, taking the project as it was intended — as a loving salute to the original programme, which also plugs a gap in its record — The Lost Episodes should be classed as a success.

Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco Season 1 Episodes 1-4 — ITV’s cancelled period crime drama is revived in this US sequel/spin-off, because it was relatively popular on the other side of the pond. Unfortunately, this iteration does look and feel like cheap US network filler. It’s gently watchable enough, if you don’t mind that sort of thing.
  • Japan with Sue Perkins — The former Bake Off host pops over to Japan for a two-part exploration of modern cultural quirks and fads. Open-minded and consequently insightful, I feel like it could’ve been a longer series to dig in even deeper. Maybe a more indicative title, too — by getting so specific, it was hardly the overview/travelogue of Japan that you might’ve expected.
  • Monty Python Night — BBC Two marked the 50th anniversary of arguably the most influential comedy troupe ever with an evening of archive-derived programming. So, that was two repeats — of documentary Almost the Truth: The BBC Lawyer’s Cut and the first-ever episode of Flying Circus — and one new programme that was compiled from archive interview clips, Python at 50: Silly Talks and Holy Grails. If you missed it… it’s no longer on iPlayer because I’ve been so tardy in posting this column. Sorry.
  • World on Fire Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Now, here’s a good idea: a returning series that follows multiple loosely-connected characters in multiple different countries as they make their way through World War 2. I’m not convinced by the execution so far (it feels remarkably small-scale for a premise that’s all about scope, and visually it looks a bit too “TV” for a major prime-time series in the present climate), but, eh, we’ll see.

    Next month… the golden compass leads us to the northern lights as His Dark Materials is readapted for TV.

  • The Past Month on TV #21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That said, there was a definite uptick at the end of this month’s viewing, with Part 14 providing a lot of long-awaited developments and forward momentum for the plot (plus one of my favourite of the end-of-episode performances at the Roadhouse, Lissie’s Wild West). Perhaps everything will finally come together in the remaining few episodes after all? Or perhaps everything will slow down again and we’ll be none the wiser come the end of Part 18. Only time will tell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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