The Past Month on TV #18

One-third of it has happened again…

Twin Peaks (Season 3 Episodes 1-6)
Twin Peaks season 3 UK posterWhen the return of Twin Peaks was announced with the tagline “it is happening again”, I think everyone assumed it was, at worst, just an echo of one of the series’ famous lines which happened to work well for a revival; or, at best, an indicator to the plot — that the strange, sometimes otherworldly events of the original series were about to reoccur. As it’s turned out, perhaps what the tagline is most applicable to is the series’ effect: 27 years ago, Twin Peaks pushed new boundaries for what could be done on television, and the medium as a whole spent a couple of decades catching up. Now, rather than merely return to what he did all those years ago, as most revivals do, co-writer/director David Lynch is once again pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible or acceptable on mainstream(-ish) television. If “it” is “David Lynch being way beyond everybody else”, then it is indeed happening again. If you were after a comforting pile of references, callbacks, reflections, and imitations of the original series, you’re going to be disappointed — as one or two critics have been. If you were after something new in the weird world of Twin Peaks, well, step on up.

Before the series aired, Lynch said that prequel movie Fire Walk with Me would be important to understanding what’s going on. As much as it’s possible to understand what’s going on in the new Twin Peaks, that’s very true — there’s a ton of stuff touched on that wasn’t part of the series. Tonally, too, this is much more aligned with the movie: there’s a brand-new murder investigation; it’s set largely outside of Twin Peaks itself; and some of the biggest moments are based more around emotional resonance than strict storytelling necessity. It’s also sometimes reminiscent of The Missing Pieces, or what Fire Walk with Me would’ve been if they had remained included, as it shoots off on scene-long tangents that don’t seem to connect up to anything else. Some people are assuming it will all make sense and come together eventually, but based on how many of those Missing Pieces went nowhere, I’m not convinced it will.

Evil CoopIt’s also been widely reported that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost wrote a single 400- or 500-page screenplay, shot it all, then chopped it up into 18 episodes in the edit. This I can very much believe. Individual episodes are almost shapeless as hours of television, and plot threads disappear for several episodes at a time, only to crop back up as if we’d never been away. While many series these days boast they are “actually an X-hour movie”, they still often function as individual episodes — they may not be completely standalone, but the shape of each hour, the way they’re paced and build to a cliffhanger, and so on, is episodic. Twin Peaks, however, feels like it means it — no doubt the legacy of Lynch’s production methodology.

Because of this, it feels tailor-made for binge-watching, except Lynch himself requested that it be released weekly, reportedly because he didn’t want to spend three years making something only for people to polish it off in a weekend. I can understand that position, but given the pace of the series, I can’t help but feel it would be better binged. When it’s over, a lot of viewers are going to remember the Dougie Jones material as a long, slow trudge, possibly putting it on a par with some of the worse plotlines from the middle of season two, and that would be ameliorated slightly if it could be consumed across a few consecutive hours rather than several weeks (or, possibly, months). Of course, I’m not sure Lynch cares about that. He may be planning something different altogether. What that plan is, maybe we’ll never even know.

Damn good coffeeSome five-and-a-half hours into this 18-hour movie, Dougie hands his boss a stack of files. The boss slowly looks through them one by one, baffled by the seemingly senseless doodles Dougie has scrawled all over the pages. But after a while he begins to see a pattern, and comes to understand something. In the end he thanks Dougie. Dougie, as ever, looks blank, before doing a failed imitation of being a normal human being. Is Lynch deliberately setting out to say that he is Dougie and we are Dougie’s boss? That all of us are taking a long, slow look at Lynch’s indecipherable doodlings until we eventually discern some meaning. Or is it just a scene in Lynch’s world that we can coincidentally project that interpretation on to? As ever with David Lynch, I’m not quite sure.

Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 6-9)
Doctor Who series 10 part 2Well, I suppose it was too much to hope it would last. The most consistently great season of Doctor Who in over half a decade threw it all away with a frustratingly variable trilogy of stories (note: not a three-parter — this pedantic old-school Who fan insists we observe the difference). It all began with Extremis, which starts strong with a decent mystery (there’s a book in the Vatican library that causes anyone who reads it to commit suicide) and some good humour (Bill’s interrupted date), but increasingly becomes a lot of running around to delay the reveal. It’s a non-story pretending to be a story, basically. I don’t even care that it basically has an “and it was all a dream” ending. In fact, writer Steven Moffat found a way to make “and it was all a dream” work, which is a rare and miraculous thing. But the episode that leads to that ending doesn’t do enough heavy lifting to support it. A waste.

That leads, sort of, into The Pyramid at the End of the World, where the Monks — who were technically the villains in Extremis — actually commence their invasion of Earth. This is where the trilogy is most clearly a trilogy rather than a three-parter: Extremis is a prologue to Pyramid, not a vital component of it. Again, it’s a frustratingly imperfect episode, with some ideas landing very well and others feeling hurried or ill thought through. Like, it’s neat that the Doctor’s hubris in hiding his blindness ultimately becomes his (and everyone else’s) downfall, but the hoops the show has to jump through to make this work get in the way.

That leads to The Lie of the Land, which could justifiably be classed as part two of a two-parter — Pyramid ends with a direct cliffhanger, Lie deals with it, albeit in an atypical way because it’s now months later and there’s a new set of problems. It suffers from the same problems as the first two instalments, however, in that it’s regularly disingenuous. The opening act, with Bill and Nardole attempting to rescue the Doctor, who’s working with the Monks, feels like a massive sequence designed to provide some shocking moments for the trailer — again, the internal logic is not completely wrong, but is slightly off. Same with the “love conquers all” ending. It’s a potentially powerful message, but the episode doesn’t invest enough in making it work. It also squanders the successful invasion / 1984-esque dystopian world it sets up, which is a pity because I don’t imagine Who will re-attempt the same milieu anytime soon.

So, it’s a run of three almost-there episodes, which sadly undercuts the quality displayed in the first five episodes. They’re not bad per se, but they’re wasteful. Though, that said, I’ve developed a strong dislike for Extremis after some people went head-over-heels for it. No. It’s not good.

I only speak the truth

Finally this month, Mark Gatiss writes for the series for the ninth (and possibly final — we’ll see) time in Empress of Mars. I like the Ice Warriors; I don’t dislike Gatiss’ episodes in the way some people seem to — I’d say he’s more-or-less 50/50 on really good ones / not very good ones. Empress basically straddles that divide. There’s strong imagery with the Victorian soldiers on Mars, and the seeds of some nice thematic material in issues of honour and cowardice, and what actually characterises either. Unfortunately they’re not allowed to grow properly, the episode wasting time on silly business like the TARDIS flying off for no reason when it should be developing the Victorian soldiers beyond shallow archetypes. Like the three episodes before it, it feels like the necessary time wasn’t devoted to polishing these episodes; to making all the decent ideas they exhibit coalesce in the most effective way possible. It’s a shame.

Still, the season isn’t a write-off yet. These four episodes may have underwhelmed, but there are promising ideas to come in the remaining three instalments.

The Kettering Incident (Season 1)
The Kettering IncidentIn a remote small logging town where everybody knows everybody else, a teenage girl, who’s secretly into drugs and partying and is the daughter of a prominent local man, goes missing under mysterious circumstances in the creepy woods, which have a history of possibly-supernatural strangeness… Yes, this is the Australian answer to Twin Peaks — a comparison I have perhaps unfairly amped up with that description. It’s more about Anna Macy (The Night Manager’s Elizabeth Debicki), a London doctor who has been getting strange black outs since she was a child, when she lived in Kettering and her best friend disappeared after they saw mysterious lights in the woods — the “incident” of the title, in which some believe the other girl was abducted by aliens. Now she’s returned home and, as one character literally says (as a deliberate or accidental homage to Peaks, I’m not sure), “it’s happening again.”

Sadly, The Kettering Incident lacks the quirky charm of classic Twin Peaks, but neither does it have the balls to be as bold as the new one. (I’m not sure anyone bar David Lynch has those balls, so perhaps that’s an unfair comparison too.) It’s more like The X Files crossed with Top of the Lake — both series I enjoyed, but not on the same level as Peaks. (Well, maybe X Files was in its prime. I need to watch it more thoroughly, to be honest.) Where Peaks started out looking like a small-town murder mystery and gradually mixed in undeniably fantastical elements, Kettering has them in from the start, with the UFO stuff. Will that be explained away by something normal and earthly? Well… that’d spoil it. Though it’s worth noting that, despite looking like a miniseries, Kettering is nothing of the sort: it ends with some answers, but even more questions, and it’s clear a further season (or, according to some sources, two) is needed to actually explain everything.

Stranger thingsPersonally, I want to know what the hell is meant to be going on, but the finale felt a lot like weak sci-fi to me and I’m not sure the answers will be worth it. I have that same hot/cold feel about the series as a whole: whenever it’s actually in front of my eyes I become engrossed, invested, and enamoured; but within hours of it finishing I feel a kind of indifference creep in. I can’t really explain why. It’s probably not a fair reaction.

Not a glowing recommendation, then. However, if you’re looking for something else that plays in Twin Peaks’ tonal ballpark, although it’s surely just a pretender to the throne, there are certainly worse.

(As a side note, it’s brought to my attention that Tasmanian Gothic is a thing. Colour me intrigued.)

Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 5 Episodes 21-23 / The Flash Season 3 Episodes 21-23 — oh no, Barry Allen’s trapped in the Speed Force and most of the cast of Arrow died (off screen)! How will either show be able to go on without such major characters?! (Or: why bother with cliffhangers that are so extreme they can’t possibly stick? Though they may actually be planning some kind of cull on Arrow, considering the cast is now so large that they can’t afford to have every regular in every episode.)
  • Cowboy Bebop Season 1 Episodes 23-26 — as news comes in that the US remake is moving ahead for TV, I’ve finally finished the original series. Now to make time for the movie.
  • General Election 2017 — quite unplanned, I ended up watching election coverage for 25 hours straight (well, with breaks for a couple of hours’ sleep, and just one or two other things). I’m not sure I learned much I couldn’t’ve got by just reading updates every few hours, mind.
  • Grantchester Series 3 Episodes 4-6 — in which the lead character almost resigns from his job because it won’t let him be with the woman he loves, but ultimately chooses the job over her because how else are they going to have a fourth series?
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episodes 2-3 — not bad, but I didn’t find it especially compelling either. As noted last time, the writing was the problem. With so much stuff to watch nowadays, it wasn’t worth another five hours of my time.
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 1-5 — they don’t make ’em like this anymore! They should though, because it’s such fun. RIP Messrs Moore & Curtis.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Poldark series 3This month, I have mostly been missing the start of the third series of Poldark. Well, I’ve not even watched series two yet. I also still haven’t started American Gods, the finale of which is here on Monday. I guess that can go on the finished-and-ready-to-binge pile beside Westworld and Legion (and goodness knows what else), then.

    Next month… as if TV wasn’t crazy enough right now, Preacher’s back. Plus: The Americans season five.

    Advertisements
  • The Past Month on TV #16

    Another busy month on the box round these parts, so I’ve once again divided my comments into new stuff (i.e. what was actually on TV this month), old stuff (i.e. anything older than four weeks), plus the usual round-up of quick thoughts.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episode 1)
    Doctor Who: The PilotThe 36th run of Doctor Who kicked off with an episode titled The Pilot — no coincidence, that. This is the most newcomer-friendly episode of Who for 12 years, an episode finely calibrated to establish everything for a first-timer but also function for regular viewers too. A lot of that effectiveness can be attributed to Pearl Mackie as Bill, the new companion to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. After a run of oh-so-special companions running back years, Bill is just an ordinary young woman; but of course she’s extraordinary in her own way: ready to learn, eager to help, full of both inquisitiveness and caring. This is surely the birth of both a fan-favourite companion in Bill and a star in Mackie.

    It’s also a rejuvenation for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. They arguably tried too many different things all at once when he joined the series a few years ago, making him old and irascible in contrast to the young and friendly Doctors that had preceded him throughout the revived series. He was gradually softening anyway, but freed of the burden of Clara he seems able to fully revel in his kooky kindliness. It’s perhaps the most Doctor-ish he’s ever been, and for Capaldi, a life-long fan of the show, that must be a real delight. It’s already a shame he’ll be leaving us this year, but at least we have 12 (or 11, if some rumours turn out to be true) more episodes to enjoy before then.

    As for this episode in itself, it was more solid than incredible, though that perhaps does it a disservice. No, it’s not going to sit alongside the likes of Blink and Heaven Sent at the pinnacle of all that modern Who can achieve, but it set out the series’ stall well: it’s sci-fi, but a little quirky, a little scary, and full of heart and emotion. It was almost like a Russell T Davies-era episode, but with an unmistakable Moffat-ness about it too — he may be trying to dodge the “fairy tale” mode he adopted for most of his time on the show, reasserting the “this is based in the real world” aesthetic that RTD relaunched the series with back in 2005, but, frankly, Moffat does the former better than the latter, and there’s an edge of that heightened unreality here nonetheless.

    But I think those are niggles and nitpicks. This is a strong opener that establishes a very likeable new TARDIS team to guide us through the season of adventures about to come. Fingers crossed the rest of the run can fulfil its promise.

    Iron Fist (Season 1)
    Iron FistThe last of the Marvel/Netflix series before the Defenders team-up, Iron Fist has certainly divided critics and viewers. It doesn’t begin well: the opening episode is possibly the worst thing yet released as part of the MCU, and I only say “possibly” because I never bothered with Agents of SHIELD after the poor reaction to season one. It’s needlessly slow, repetitive, the characters behave implausibly, and the fights are terrible, looking like a first rehearsal filmed with one take. Things do improve — there are more engaging characters, some interestingly developed arcs, and better realised fights — but it still doesn’t come together as well as it could. For one thing, it makes the running of Rand Enterprises a major element, but has a very vague-seeming understanding of how business actually works. It’s just too simplistic.

    One of the series’ strongest aspects is the unpredictable loyalties of its characters. I don’t mean that they’re inconsistent, but aside from Danny (who’s the title character, so of course he’s a good guy) and Claire (who’s been in every other Marvel/Netflix show, so she’s a known quantity), the trustworthiness and allegiance of almost every character changes at some point; for some of them, at multiple points. Heck, there are even scenes when you can’t be sure whose side to be on, because both have aspects of right and wrong, good and bad. There are better shows than Iron Fist that never manage that level of shading in their characters. I imagine there’ll be a second season, because when doesn’t Netflix commission more of anything, so hopefully they can build on what worked going forward. And maybe add a business consultant to the writers’ room or something.

    The Flash Duet
    The Flash: DuetAmongst the eight Arrowverse episodes I watched this month was this: the much-anticipated musical crossover between The Flash and Supergirl, which star Glee alumni Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist respectively — hence why (some) people called for a musical episode, which caused the producers to decide to do one. Somewhat ironic, then, that it seemed to go down well with critics (at least per Wikipedia) but less so with fans: its IMDb rating is just 6.0. I find myself in agreement with the latter. It wasn’t bad, as these things go, but it was overloaded with niggles, Like, why cast another former Glee actor as the villain but then not have him sing with the stars? Why is there a plot hole whereby they call said villain the Music Meister even though it was Barry and Kara who picked the musical fantasy? The guy’s powers seem to be hypnotism-based and nothing to do with music. There were only two original songs, one which was quite fun and one which was overlong and a tad cheesy. Neither came close to the delights of the Music Meister’s original appearance, which also managed five new songs (and a reprise) in an episode that was half the length. The episode’s guest cast seems to have been selected purely on the basis of “anyone from an Arrowverse show who likes to sing”. All in all it came across as half-arsed; like they felt they should do it because people demanded it, but didn’t assign enough time or energy to doing it properly.

    The Crown (Season 1)
    The CrownThe most expensive TV programme ever made (or not, whatever) certainly has its budget plastered all over the screen, which hopefully didn’t distract most viewers in the way it did me. It shouldn’t, really, because this is a good drama about the humanity behind the public faces. Its adherence to fact is apparently variable, which I imagine is very irritating to historians of the period, but it works for the fiction. There are great performances all round, with John Lithgow in particular disappearing into Churchill to the point that I forgot I was watching an actor more than once. There’s an interesting plot thread early on about the position of Philip (Matt Smith) relative to Elizabeth — how his role as a husband is challenged by her position as Queen, etc — which goes a bit awry as the series goes on and has other plots to focus on. It’s left quite open-ended, so hopefully it’ll be completed in the second season.

    Line of Duty (Series 2)
    Line of Duty series 2I devoted just 32 words to Line of Duty series one when I finally got round to watching it last October. In summary, it was pretty good but not really great, and the unadulterated adulation that follows the programme around nowadays seemed unmerited. Now I get it, though, because — in a similar fashion to how, say, Mad Max is a decent Ozploitation flick but Mad Max 2 is a reputation-earning action classic — series two is where it’s at. There was much praise for Keeley Hawes’ performance as a downtrodden copper under suspicion of organising a violent ambush of a witness protection convoy, and it’s deserved, but the real star is the writing. There are huge, attention-grabbing twists and surprises, and a mystery that keeps you revising your opinion on what happened right until the end, but perhaps most impressive are the lengthy, intensely procedural interview scenes that could come across as factual and dull but instead are completely gripping.

    Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 1-9)
    Twin Peaks season 2I first saw the debut season of Twin Peaks many years ago during a repeat run (it was a ‘classic series’ even then, though with hindsight it can’t’ve been a decade old at the time), then watched it again when the DVD came out, but this is my first time watching season two (legal complications delayed its DVD release for what felt like forever, and by the time it finally came out I just never got round to it). The second season is infamous for representing a steep decline in quality, though that isn’t yet evident from this batch of episodes, which covers up to the revelation of who killed Laura Palmer and their capture. I’d say it lacks the pure concentrated genius of the first season, having ramped up the quirkiness quotient and, at the behest of the network, rushing the resolution of the Laura Palmer mystery, but it ain’t bad by any means. There’s certainly much to like in the off-kilter characters, the folksy mysticism, and some fantastic performances — Kyle MacLachlan is a constant delight as Agent Cooper, but Ray Wise is frequently incredible as the grieving Leland Palmer. But I guess it’s mostly downhill from here…

    Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 5-8 — everything I said last time still applies: this is little more than 24-by-numbers. Episode 6 was a particularly irritating example, as a major subplot was hurried to its climax presumably because the writers just got bored with it. Why else rush the plot so massively, in a way that practically ignored the series’ real-time gimmick? I miss the days when the makers cared about maintaining that illusion.
  • Broadchurch Series 3 Episodes 4-8 — it handled its treatment of the issues well, but as a drama Broadchurch 3 couldn’t quite reach the engrossing heights of the first series. Still, it’s a shame there won’t be further cases for the brilliant Tennant and Colman to investigate.
  • Unforgotten Series 1 — ITV’s police drama recently aired a second series, with a third commissioned. This cold case-focused first run features powerhouse performances from a bunch of quality elder thesps (Tom Courtenay won a BAFTA for it, but for my money Gemma Jones as his wife was just as good), plus nicely understated turns from the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the coppers on the case.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Car Share series 2This month, I have mostly been missing series two of Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is a couple of episodes in on the telly or available in its entirety on iPlayer. I nearly didn’t bother with the first series (two years ago now!) because I’m not a huge fan of Peter Kay, but someone recommended it and it turned out to be hilarious. I’m sure I’ll make time for the new one soon.

    31 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Twin Peaks, and probably more stuff dredged up from the “must get round to” pile.

  • The Past Month on TV #14

    After last month’s bumper-bonus TV review (with three major series to review, plus a couple of big specials), the past four weeks have been pretty quiet. I’ve certainly watched stuff, just very little of it feels worthy of comment.

    Nonetheless, there was this:

    The Missing (Series 2)
    The Missing series 2While everybody’s busy fawning over Happy Valley (never watched it) and Line of Duty (series one was quite good; I need to catch up), I reckon The Missing is one of the best dramas British TV has produced in a good long while. The second series (which aired towards the end of last year over here and, coincidentally, started last Sunday in the US) is every bit the equal of the first, and possibly even better — and considering how good the first was, that really is an achievement.

    Featuring a brand-new case (what with the first one having been resolved), sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams have this time made their story and scripts even tighter, partly in awareness of the scrutiny fans exacted upon the first run. What that means in practice is every mystery has an answer; nothing is thrown away, nothing is a mistake. That’s even more impressive given some of the audacious twists they pull off, which I shan’t spoil here.

    As well as the enjoyable plot theatrics, the emotional lives of the characters are as on point as ever. Maybe none are quite as effective as the toll exerted on James Nesbitt’s character in series one, but the cast is arguably more well-rounded beyond a sole lead. Talking of which, the only major returning character, Tchéky Karyo’s detective Julien Baptiste, is even more central this time, which can only be a good thing because he’s a top character expertly brought to life. The writers agree: while a third series of The Missing is contingent on them having a good idea for a story, they’ve talked about potentially conjuring up a Baptiste spin-off instead.

    I’ve recently been thinking about my favourite TV series of the last ten years. There are rather a lot of contenders, considering the golden age of “peak TV” we’re currently living through. Frankly, I’m not sure if The Missing will quite crack the top ten, but it’s definitely in the conversation.

    The British Academy Film Awards 2017
    The BAFTAs 2017aka the BAFTAs, obv. I have to say, I thought it was a pretty dull show this year. For starters, Cirque du Soleil — impressive, but what’s it got to do with the last year in film? Why did no one write Stephen Fry some good material for his opening monologue? Then there were the awards themselves. Short on surprises — the big prizes went where expected, the smaller ones erred British. None of the American winners are committed to giving a decent speech here because they’re saving it all for the Oscars. Well, apart from the Kubo guy — he knows his award is going to Zootropolistopia next fortnight and so he gave us his best stuff. Good on him.

    Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 2-6 — Caribbean murder.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 4-9 — Sherlockian murder.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 10-11 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 9-11 — not much need to investigate the murders here, as the heroes are doing them half the time.
  • Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 5-6 — they’ve had to cut out the National Lottery bits now they’ve dropped that from TV, and they’re shunting it around the schedule like an unloved heirloom they’ve committed to display but really rather wouldn’t… and it is a kind of terrible show, really… but the lists, man, they keep me coming back. #addict

    Things to Catch Up On
    LegionIt must be a slow time for TV — I don’t even feel like I’ve been missing all that much. Well, X-Men spin-off Legion recently started and I haven’t got round to that yet, and 24 spin-off / sequel / continuation 24: Legacy started in the UK last night, so I’ve barely had a chance to watch it (I’ll have something to say about that next month, then). So I really have no excuse for not watching Westworld yet. Oh, and I need to get on with starting my long-planned re-watch of Twin Peaks, because there are only…

    94 days until new Twin Peaks.

    Next month… the final series of Broadchurch begins.

  • The Past Month on TV #10

    If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Three middle-schoolers on their bicycles, apparently…

    Stranger Things (Season 1)
    Stranger ThingsHype — it’s a funny old business. It’s hard to have avoided hearing something about Stranger Things, Netflix’s summer hit that went down like gangbusters, its ’80s nostalgia perfectly calibrated to target the kind of people who run entertainment news websites these days — just to be cynical about it. Or truthful. Then there came the backlash, which attested there was nothing more to the show than those callbacks and tributes; a hollow experience of copying and “hey, remember this? That was good, wasn’t it?”

    So, I confess, I approached the first chapter with the thought in mind that I might be about to watch the most overrated thing since sliced bread. The opening instalment did little to sway me either way — as with many a ‘pilot’ episode (it’s not a pilot if it goes straight to series, but anyway), it’s got a lot of establishing to do: teaching us the normality of this world, introducing us to the players, setting up a mystery, teasing where that might be going… Stranger Things does all this well, but not exceptionally. It’s good, it makes you want to stick with it, it has promise, but it’s not one of those first episodes where you come away thinking, “Holy moly, this is gonna be great!” (First example of that that comes to mind: Game of Thrones. Another: Firefly. I’m sure you have your own.)

    Like so many streaming series, produced with an awareness that they’ll be released all at once like a really long movie, it’s a little slow-going at times, but it’s kept ticking over with some exceptional elements. Yes, it’s bedded in the style and tone of many beloved ’80s genre classics — primarily Stephen King tales and films produced (not just directed) by Steven Spielberg — but that’s just the execution. In storytelling terms, it has its own mythology, and it feels like there’s a rich vein of originality there. Or possibly it’s just references and riffs I’m not familiar with, who knows. Even better than that are the performances. Winona Ryder is incredible as the mother of a missing boy, her raw feelings and frantic actions forming a core of plausible emotional reaction in the centre of fantastic events. Millie Bobby Brown is also excellent as the mysterious Eleven, conveying so much personality and internal conflict with very little dialogue.

    Stranger haircutsWithout wanting to get into spoiler territory (despite what the media would have you believe, not everyone has Netflix all the time and not everyone watches every new zeitgeisty series immediately. Apologies if you write for an entertainment site and I’ve just given you palpitations), everything comes together nicely for a barnstorming pair of climactic episodes. For my money, the penultimate chapter is the best one: with a bunch of revelations out of the way (some of them easily guessed but finally confirmed), the series kicks off a run of long-awaited fan-pleasing events (as in many a drama, it takes this long for everyone to finally start talking to each other; also, the bit with the van!) The finale is less accomplished, with some characters wandering around for a bit in a way that feels designed to pad the running time. Still, it’s a satisfying conclusion… to season one, anyway.

    As an outsider for most of the summer, the endless and ever-increasing handwringing over whether there would be a second season was actually kind of amusing — and the punchline came when it was revealed Netflix had actually commissioned season two before season one was even released, they’d just decided to keep it secret for a bit. Here’s the thing: Netflix has never not recommissioned one of its original series. Even Marco Polo, which apparently no one watched or talked about, got at least a second run. And here you have a show which everyone’s talking about, and presumably most of them are actually watching too, and you think Netflix aren’t going to bring it back? I mean, it wraps itself up quite well, but there’s a whole pile of blatant teases for future storylines. C’mon, people!

    Anyway, I’m happy to report that Stranger Things by and large lives up to the hype, especially by the time it reaches its climax. Bring on season two! Between that and all the Marvel series, maybe I’m going to end up with a year-round Netflix sub after all… You win, Netflix. You win.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 1-5)
    ClassTen years to the very day since the launch of the original dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, we got this dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off. Playing as much like the other 21st century Who spin-off, CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, it concerns a bunch of Sixth Formers battling alien threats coming through cracks in time and space that occur around their school. And also having sex with each other at the drop of a hat, because that’s totally what life is like for all teenagers. So yes, Torchwood + Sarah Jane x Skins = Buffy, pretty much. I really liked the first episode (as pilot-type episodes go, it’s a strong’un), and the third, Nightvisiting, was also a great concept well executed; but the other three instalments were run-of-the-mill and/or awash with niggles. Plus the two-parter in episodes four and five suffered from having too little story to fill two whole episodes. So it’s a mixed bag, but Torchwood was the same at the start and eventually produced one of the best miniseries ever made (Children of Earth), so you never know.

    The Flash (Season 3 Episodes 1-2)
    Arrow (Season 5 Episodes 1-2)
    The Flash season 3The CW’s raft of superhero shows restarted on UK TV this month. I’ve given up on Legends of Tomorrow and am still not joining Supergirl (though I got hold of the opening episodes, co-starring Superman, to maybe make time for at some point); but, five seasons in, Arrow has me suckered for the long-haul, and The Flash tempted me back with the intrigue of adapting Flashpoint. I’ve never got on the bandwagon with Flash, which attracted a lot of praise during its first season that I simply didn’t agree with, leading it to outshine Arrow in ratings and people’s affections. Arrow has long been off the boil, and season five certainly hasn’t got it back up to temperature so far, but The Flash had plenty of issues of its own. It’s not problem free now, but I actually really liked the first couple of episodes of the new season. It’s still a long way from the top tier of TV superheroes (Netflix have that sewn up), but it’s likeable.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 2-15 — it feels like the quality takes a nosedive with this season, and, sure enough, as I suspected, it turns out this is when they changed showrunner. Halfway through it’s beginning to pick back up a bit, at least.
  • The Crystal Maze Stand Up To Cancer Celebrity Special — I used to love this as a kid. As an adult… eh. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to actually do, though.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Final — bye bye, Proper Bake Off. Whatever Channel 4 do in 2018, it won’t be the same.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 8-10 — in which everything is wrapped up… and then left open-ended. Good thing there’s a third series.
  • The National Lottery: Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 1-4 — I don’t waste much time on gameshows, but naming as many things as you can think of from semi-obscure lists? Right up my street. An impossible show to watch live, though — you need to fastforward the filler and pause the answers.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again — full review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The CrownThis month, I have mostly been missing the most expensive TV show ever made*, Netflix’s much-discussed The Crown. I don’t know if they’ve been pushing it as much in the rest of the world as they did in the UK, but it certainly felt like it was everywhere… for about a week, as is usually the way with Netflix series. Also missed: the equally-discussed Netflix-exclusive new run of Black Mirror. Both of these are because I don’t keep up a permanent Netflix subscription, but between them, the forthcoming Gilmore Girls revival, and the Series of Unfortunate Events remake in January, I will be signing up again late in December (using the free month voucher they had in the Radio Times, hurrah!)

    * Apparently it isn’t, actually.

    Next month… I’ll be out of the country when the next update is due, so it may be a little later than normal — perhaps a ‘Christmas special’.

  • The Past Month on TV #5

    Geek-friendly adaptations aplenty in this month’s (still spoiler-free) small-screen overview.

    Arrow (Season 4 Episodes 19-23)
    The Flash (Season 2 Episodes 20-23)
    DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Season 1 Episodes 10-14)

    Legends of TomorrowFinally done with most of these (still need to find time for the last two Legends of Tomorrows). One shouldn’t have that attitude to something one is choosing to watch, should one? I have a certain loyalty to Arrow, because they did a good job for seasons one and two, even if it’s waxed and waned since; but I’ve never really got on board with the adulation The Flash has received, and Legends of Tomorrow is mediocre to poor with regularity… though now and then they all exhibit flashes of worthwhileness. I rarely make the conscious choice to give up on a series (do it all the time by accident, though), but I’d consider abandoning a couple of these before the start of their next seasons… were it not for the ‘promise’ that they’re all about to be completely interconnected, at least for one almighty four-way crossover (with moving-to-the-same-network Supergirl).

    Y’know, I suspect this is why the interconnectedness and big crossovers in comic books works to boost sales, until it doesn’t and things crash and burn: because people who are invested feel compelled to buy the whole damn lot, but when they’ve had enough and want out, you can’t just reduce what you buy — it’s become all or nothing. So crossovers give you the short-term effects of everyone buying more than normal, but in the long run it just drives sales down. I don’t know what the current state of comic book sales figures is, but that certainly seemed to be the road they were on last time I looked. Maybe that’s where these TV series will end up, too — heck, maybe even the Marvel movies will end up there eventually — but those screen universes may still just be getting started, if you take the long-term view, so the resultant fall in popularity could be a ways off yet…

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 5-8)
    Game of Thrones - The DoorFirst up: The Door, surely one of Thrones’ best-ever episodes. That ending rather overshadows everything else (because wow, in so many ways), but before that there was Sansa being badass, proper development of Arya’s storyline, the hilarious play-within-a-play, a marvellous scene between Dany and Jorah, and a great moment for Varys, too. The week after’s Blood of My Blood was more about setting things up the second half of the season, which is an important role to fulfil but less dramatic in itself. A couple of surprise returns, though, including a big reveal for book readers (maybe).

    There was definitely a confirmation for book readers in The Broken Man, amid the return of several well-liked characters (three, by my count). Game of Thrones - The Broken ManSometimes it’s hard to separate what one might count as story development versus mere place-setting in Thrones, but at its best they can be one and the same, and episode seven managed that. Finally for now, No One did actually bring some storylines to a head, including some very long-awaited developments, particularly in Braavos. Throw in an equally-long-awaited reunion and a couple more unexpected returns, and you have a pretty satisfying episode.

    Next time: fiiiiight!

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 1-3)
    PreacherSam Catlin of Breaking Bad and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg of… all those films Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg have made (you know the ones) are the lucky group to finally bring this perpetual Development Hell resident to a screen, after multiple aborted attempts at movies or HBO TV series (it’s finally wound up being made by AMC, carried by Amazon Prime on this side of the pond). For thems that don’t know, it’s based on an irreverent and/or blasphemous comic book from the ’90s by Brits Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis, concerning the adventures of Texas preacher Jesse Custer who (trying not to spoil too much) acquires the power to order people to do things, with which they have no choice but to comply. This is a very loose adaptation, throwing out most of the comic’s actual plotting in favour of the broad strokes of the concept, including the budget-saving decision to base the characters in a single small town, and shaving out some of the equally-expensive otherworldly concepts. At least for now — I wonder if they’re hoping for a Game of Thrones trajectory, whereby increasing popularity leads to increasing budgets. I guess we’ll see. On the bright side, the show has also inherited some of the books’ batshit insanity, lending it an air of unpredictable craziness. It’s certainly not the best thing on TV right now, but it may just be the wildest, and there’s promise of room to grow.

    Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 8-14 — 8 to go. Still no (confirmed) date for Netflix’s revival, though it does now have a name.
  • Upstart Crow Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — glad to hear this has been recommissioned for a second run.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The MusketeersThis month, I have mostly been missing anything I watch with my other half. It’s prime tennis season — eight weeks that starts with Geneva and flows through the French Open, Stuttgart, Nottingham, Birmingham, Queen’s, Eastbourne, and ends with the crowning jewel of all tennisdom, Wimbledon; all with near wall-to-wall coverage thanks to Eurosport, ITV4, and the BBC. It largely takes over the time we normally spend watching stuff together, so no room yet for the final seasons of Wallander or The Musketeers (not that we’ve watched season two yet, actually — oops), nor the just-finished fourth season of The Most Underrated Show On Television™, The Americans. Apparently it ended with “the Best Episode of TV So Far This Year”, according to one review’s headline (which obviously I can’t read because spoilers). Maybe in July.

    Next month… Game of Thrones reaches the ⅘-way point (if reports/rumours about its future are to be believed), as season six concludes.

  • Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

    2015 #109
    David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

    The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

    With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

    Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

    On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

    On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

    I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

    3 out of 5

    * The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^