The Past Month on TV #56

This TV column is over a week later than I intended it to be, meaning there’s loads to talk about — half a season of Doctor Who; two new ITV dramas; more Picard and Twilight Zone; I finally watched Good Omens, and got back to The Good Place; there’s even the Oscars; plus a bunch of other stuff. It’s an epic — over 5,500 words if you read the whole thing — so let’s crack on…

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 6-10
PraxeusMost of the Doctor Who chatter of late revolves around what happened in the finale — no surprise there, given major revelations were teased in previous episodes this series. But before I natter about that, there’s a handful of other episodes to cover.

After a rocky opening to this 38th run of Doctor Who, with episodes varying wildly in quality, I think it settled down pretty well in the middle. That doesn’t mean it was a classic series by any means, though. Praxeus is a perfect case in point: it’s a solid episode, with a decent storyline, a few nice scenes, a handful of broadly well-drawn characters, and a reasonable amount of important-message delivery. As the second environmentally-themed plot in as many months, it suffers somewhat from the repetition, but how this handles its messaging about plastic pollution vs how Orphan 55 battered us around the head about climate change is a good example of how to do such things fairly well instead of very, very poorly. But there are also a handful of plot holes and character inconsistencies to niggle away at you. It’s as if they didn’t bother to employ script editors or continuity checkers this series — though the oversights are so glaring, anyone should’ve spotted them. So if all of this sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. In any other recent era of Who, this would be a middling-to-poor midseason filler; in the current era, it’s one of the better episodes.

There were more Issues on hand the next week in Can You Hear Me?, to the extent the BBC even put up their Action Line phone number at the end. It’s clear showrunner Chris Chibnall wants to Say Something with at least a couple of episodes every season, but he’s once again clashing with the past: Vincent and the Doctor already did mental health better. In itself, how Can You Hear Me handled the issues it raised was a mixed bag. Yaz’s backstory came out of the blue — it’s not even been vaguely alluded to before, and how it’s depicted in the episode left a lot up in the air. The consensus on social media is we were meant to think she was intending to commit suicide, but the episode soft-balls this in order to avoid triggering terms or visuals — a commendable aim, especially in a family drama, but it left the point entirely unclear. And the end of the episode, where the Doctor seems dismissive of Graham trying to open up about his cancer, drew actual complaints and the BBC having to issue a statement. If you have to explain the intent of your drama in a statement released afterwards… well. But ‘Issues’ aside, as a sci-fi adventure it was another solid attempt.

The Haunting of Villa DiodatiAll of which means that the series’ penultimate story, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, was on a whole ‘nother level. For me, this might be the first genuine classic of this era. (If you’ve not seen it, spoilers ahead.) The first half is like a proper horror movie, complete with jump scares and other creepy effects (the dead-eyed little girl behind the door, but only when the lightning flashes… brr!) Naturally there’s a sci-fi explanation for it all, but even that was thrilling and chilling in its own way. It was the best use of the Cybermen since… er, their last story, because that was really good too. But the Cybermen are sometimes underserved by Who, wheeled out and disregarded as second-tier baddies after the Daleks, so I delight in seeing them used so well more often. Throw in a well-researched and depicted historical atmosphere, some good comedic asides (I thought the butler was superb), and a genuine sense of jeopardy (the Doctor stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decisions she has to make, and the lone Cyberman a towering presence), and you’ve got an all-round great episode.

Which leads us to the two-part finale. The first half, Ascension of the Cybermen, went down well with many, but I thought it was no great shakes. Like most episodes this season, it was solid mid-range Who, which ticks certain boxes whilst never in any way excelling. As epic finales go, seven humans vs three Cybermen is hardly a grand setup. And why do three Cybermen require two (quite large) spaceships, anyway? Was one full of those Cyberdrones — which looked thoroughly daft, so maybe they should’ve left that ship at home. The rest of the plot is a lot of faffing about to get us to the real point: the cliffhanger. Only, it’s not much of a cliffhanger, because it’s just the Master popping back up (which was inevitable) to say “now I’m going to tell you that thing I wouldn’t tell you earlier!” Wow. J.J. Abrams, you have a lot to answer for.

The Timeless ChildrenSo the real point of it all comes in The Timeless Children, where the Master finds some new sources to rewrite the Doctor’s Wikipedia entry, then reads that revised version to her. I’m only half joking. Chibnall has managed to rewrite Doctor Who mythology in a way that both angers fans with its radical changes, and fundamentally makes no difference whatsoever. The Doctor used to be a mysterious alien from another planet who travelled the universe helping people. Now, she’s a mystery alien from another dimension who travels the universe helping people. Instead of being “just another Time Lord” who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere, the Doctor is now a Special / Chosen One — the originator of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate; her DNA copied and pasted into every other Time Lord… and then her memory wiped, so she grew up as just another Time Lord who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere… but, y’know, was secretly special. I feel I should hate it, but, honestly, it was so guessable and so fundamentally immaterial that I just can’t muster the energy to care enough to hate it. It may yet go the way of “half-human” anyway, i.e. we’ll all just ignore and/or rewrite it as soon as someone other than Chibnall gets in charge.

As for the story of the episode itself — because it did kind of have one, away from the Doctor getting that massive info dump — it was, predictably, an adequate middle-of-the-road knockabout, with an underwhelming finale. When someone on Twitter can knock up an infinitely better resolution in comic strip form within hours of the episode ending (which is exactly what this is), you’re once again left questioning the actual ability of the current showrunner. They can’t even do a very good copy of a Russell T Davies-style cliffhanger/Xmas special tease. The Judoon imprison the Doctor… as a tease for a special starring the Daleks? “What?!” indeed.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 2-3
Picard: engagingI’m a good few episodes behind on Picard now (episode 7 arrived this week), which is not because I’ve given up on it, but because it hasn’t engaged me quite enough to especially make time for it. It seems to have garnered quite the mixed reaction: the critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes are very strong; the user ratings on IMDb aren’t bad at all; but every time I see someone write about the show, on Twitter or another blog or what have you, it seems to be in criticism. I fall in between all these stools. There are things the show is doing well, or at least passably, but other bits that are awful; that feel like the worst of cheap made-for-syndication ’90s sci-fi, rather than the peak TV ‘prestige series’ it clearly wants to be.

I read one of the execs or writers or someone say that they consider the first three episodes to be their pilot, and that’s indicative of one of the show’s major problems. It’s not unique in that regard — it’s an attitude that’s become ubiquitous in this “we’ve really made an X-hour movie” era of TV making. Netflix series get away with it a bit because of their all-at-once model — if the makers say “the first three episodes are the pilot”, you can find two or three hours to sit down and watch all three as your first chunk. But Picard is coming out the old fashioned way, i.e. weekly, and so it takes three weeks to get through what should be the first hour or so. Even within the episodes, it’s paced like treacle. I don’t necessarily expect them to get through all the necessary setup in just 45 minutes — because it does establish a fair bit across these three episodes — but the same material in a double-length opener, instead of spread thin across three weeks? I think that would’ve been fine. Plenty of shows before now have had double-length pilot episodes — including, pertinently, TNG.

I’m currently wondering if Patrick Stewart regrets signing up to this. It took a lot to lure him back, and presumably it was the general shape of what they were aiming to do (rather than the specific qualities of the individual scripts) that got him there. And he’s committed to multiple seasons too, with a second already commissioned and strong rumours of at least a third. Perhaps the grand plan will become clearer as things go on. Or perhaps it is just another paced-for-streaming modern TV show, which obviously works for some people.

Flesh and Blood  Series 1
Flesh and BloodBetween its short length (four parts), quality cast (Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea, Russell Tovey), and condensed broadcast schedule (it was on four consecutive nights), this looked like a miniseries… until a last-second cliffhanger (plus some dangling plot threads) suggested there’ll be more to come. I watched it on that back of that cast and some strong reviews, which it only somewhat merited. It’s a decent family drama, about a 60-something widow getting into a relationship with a man her three grown-up children think might be conning her, with the added spice of a friendly/nosey next-door neighbour who might be a proper weirdo herself; but decent is about the extent of it — the cast elevate the material, which is fine but didn’t excite me otherwise. I expect I’ll keep watching if it comes back.

McDonald & Dodds  Series 1 Episode 1
McDonald & DoddsNormally I’d give a new ITV crime drama a miss, but this one is set and filmed in Bath (they got in my way one day by filming in the park I wanted to sit in for lunch, the bastards), so I had to see. It was… adequate. It’s about a hot-shot London detective who relocates to Bath, and lines like “that may be how things are done in London, but you’re in Bath now” were repeated to the point of absurdity. And don’t get me started on the accents (one local review derided the programme for thinking we all speak like Hobbits). Yet, inexplicably, it seems to have gone down quite well with viewers, which just goes to show you can’t trust the general public to judge anything. It’s only two episodes, so I’ll watch the second (if only to see what other recognisable locations they trot out — it makes a real point of showing off where it was filmed), but that might be my limit.

Good Omens
Good OmensThis six-part adaptation of the beloved fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman debuted on Amazon last May, and by rights I should’ve been all over it from day one — I read the book as a kid, and loved it enough that I used to cite it as my favourite novel (the only thing that changed that was the fact it’s been decades since I last read it). But, as regular readers will know, life has got in the way of my viewing choices over the past year or so, and it was in fact that level of attachment that stopped me watching it — it needed my full attention. Obviously, that time has come.

The downside of all the waiting is that I perhaps built up expectations the series couldn’t hope to match. To say it was a disappointment would be going too far, but it didn’t blow me away in the manner the book did when I was ten-ish. It couldn’t, shouldn’t have been expected to, really. But there’s an awful lot to like here. In the lead roles of an angel and demon, respectively, Michael Sheen and David Tennant are fantastic, both individually and as a double act. There is much quirkiness and craziness to revel in, and while it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, it regularly tickles your amusement centres with its absurdity. There are some bravura touches as well, like the 30-minute pre-titles to episode three. On the downside, at six hours it seems a little long, and there’s way too much voiceover narration — Gaiman’s true calling as a novelist rather than screenwriter showing through, I feel.

Maybe it’s a case of “the book is better” (as I say, I haven’t read it for yonks), but there’s still an awful lot to like about the adaptation. Those without a preexisting attachment to the novel may get more out of it than I did thanks to not bringing baggage. Personally speaking, someday I’ll watch it again, and hopefully having watched it once will mean it’s less weighed down by my expectations and I’ll enjoy it even more.

The Good Place  Season 3
The Good Place season 3“Holy fork,” I said to myself when I saw that the series finale of this had aired at the end of January — I’d forgotten how much time had passed since I last watched it. If you’ve still not seen any of the show yourself, look away now — it’s the kind of series you want to experience knowing as little as possible, and if you read about later seasons before you’ve seen earlier ones it’s just gonna ruin stuff. (I know that sounds self-evident, but it applies to some shows more than others, and this is very much one it applies to.)

So, the third season picks up where the second left off (duh), with the gang back in their lives on Earth trying to prove they’re good people at heart. As I found with season two (which also started with a new status quo), these early episodes are okay — during this phase I like the show, but I don’t necessarily love it; I feel “it’s not as good as it used to be”, but it still entertains me, even while it seems to tread water a bit. But then, halfway-or-so through, the plot kicks into gear, and the season’s second half is a run to the finish line through an array of surprising and hilarious situations. The “back on Earth” premise robs something special from the show, I think — it’s only once they’re on course back into the afterlife that things pick up. Not that the early part of the seasons is a washout — like most of the best sitcoms, the joy is more in the characters than the exact situation they’re in, and the characters are still around — but something didn’t quite work for me (as I said, it’s not bad, just less good), and it’s only once they’re getting stuck back into the fantastical side of things that it really comes to life. It all builds to a finale that hits a surprisingly emotional note. And, knowing the next season is the final one, I’m looking forward to seeing where this crazy journey is going to end up.

Lucifer  Season 3 Episodes 16-24
Lucifer season 3So, I’ve finally caught up on the Fox years of Lucifer — it was here that its original network cancelled the show (Netflix picked it up for a fourth season, recommissioned it for a fifth and supposedly final season, added more episodes to that fifth season, and now are reportedly lining up a sixth season too). I can see why fans were particularly enraged — the season ends on a massive change of circumstance that would’ve been a terrible place to leave it forever. Indeed, the most intriguing thing here is where it will go next, especially given the network change: Lucifer is an old-fashioned network procedural, as much concerned with case-of-the-week crime stories as it is with arc plots and the supernatural goings-on of its angels-and-demons universe; and that was to be expected when it was on an old-fashioned network, but now that it’s on Netflix, the home of bingeing, will it shift its emphasis?

That’s a question for next season, anyway. As for season three, it suffered a different fault familiar from network series of old: struggling to pace an arc plot across a mammoth 24 episodes. It actually went rather well at first (even if certain revelations were glaringly obvious), but by this final stretch it’s spinning its wheels a bit, trying to delay the finale-sized events for, well, the finale. I mean, one minute Chloe and Pierce are on course to get married, then he’s calling it off, then it’s back on, then she’s calling it off… pinging back and forth, one episode to the next; swinging from one major-life-choice extreme to the other from week to week. That’s something else the more concentrated Netflix runs (season four is ten episodes, season five will be two halves of eight each) will hopefully improve upon.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The DummyJordan Peele’s new version of The Twilight Zone belatedly made it to UK screens a week or two back, almost 11 months after its US airing. I still haven’t watched any of it, but I am still going with cherrypicking the best of the original series.

I started my exploration of The Twilight Zone by watching the top ten episodes according to a couple of different websites. After that, I found more lists to create an average ranking (see last month), but I didn’t complete those new lists’ top tens — so that’s what I’ve done for this month’s selection. There were four new lists and, interestingly, all but one of their top tens contain episodes I hadn’t seen — you’d think that, between completing three top tens and a consensus ranking up to #16, I’d’ve seen every top-ten-worthy episode. That’s where personal preferences come in, of course, but it also shows how many great episodes of The Twilight Zone there are. Across the seven top tens there are 29 different episodes, and the only two that are included in every one are The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and Time Enough at Last. 15 episodes appear on just one list, including all six I’m reviewing today.

Anyway, enough of my statistics preoccupation — some episodes! The highest ranked among these is The Dummy, which is #2 on Buzzfeed’s list. It’s about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is talking to him — is it, or is it his inner demons? A sentient ventriloquist’s dummy is a none-more-creepy idea, and the episode does an interesting line in “is it real or is it in his head?”, but it didn’t quite come together in a satisfying enough way for me. Sure, there’s a somewhat chilling final beat, but I didn’t feel like the rest of the story quite got there, more jumped to it. The second best episode of the entire show? Not even close. Though it does have one of host Rod Serling’s coolest on-screen intros.

Next up is also from Buzzfeed: their 6th place choice, Long Distance Call. Five-year-old Billy loves his grandma, and she loves him, somewhat to the chagrin of his mother. But then grandma dies, her parting wish that Billy could come with her. He starts to spend a lot of time playing with a toy telephone she gave him… and who’s he talking to? Grandma, of course. It seems like it’s just a child’s way of dealing with grief… until Billy runs in front of a car, saying someone told him to do it. It’s a strong idea for an episode, with some neat developments along the way, but it feels in need of a closing act — a final plot beat to resolve Billy and his telephone. We can extrapolate one from what happens (spoiler: by the end, grandma isn’t on the line any more), but it would be nice to see Billy realise this. And it would be effectively Twilight Zone-y as well, helping to underscore the magical realism with a final question: has Billy finished grieving and is ready to move on, or were the father’s pleas answered and grandma stopped calling? Add that final scene and this would probably be one of my most favourite episodes. As it is, it’s a very strong almost-but-not-quite.

The Big Tall WishMoving on to TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes now for three picks. First, their #4, The Big Tall Wish. It’s a significant episode in the history of television because it features a nearly all-black cast in a story that isn’t predicated on their race; consequently, it was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations. Critics rank this one fairly well — it’s also 18th on Screen Crush, 32nd on Paste, and 33rd on Buzzfeed — but on audience-ranked lists it’s much lower: 127th on IMDb; 119th on Ranker. The racism of audience rankings, so regularly visible on new releases, truly knows no bounds. Anyway, it’s about a beat-up ageing boxer hoping for one last shot at glory, and the young kid who believes in him — and who also believes his wishes come true, so he uses one to help the boxer win his fight. I really liked the setup, which plays as thoughtful and groundedly dramatic, with the suggestion of magical realism as opposed to outright fantasy. It’s well directed by Ronald Winston (one of three contributions he made to the series, including The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), from an interesting use of a mirror in the opening, which helps to enliven what would otherwise just be a scene of two people chatting, to a striking way of visualising the fight sequence. At first I was unimpressed about where the episode eventually goes story-wise, but after a bit of thought I’ve come round to it more. It is, of course, metaphorical, rather than merely following some made-up rules of magic, and therefore has something to say about belief.

Right after that in 5th is Deaths-Head Revisited, the story of a former Nazi captain going for a nice little holiday to Dachau, where a nostalgic wander around the old concentration camp turns into something he didn’t anticipate. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but this was made just 17 years after the end of the war. That sounds like quite a long time, but it isn’t really — it’s like something now relating to events from 2003. In fact, just look to a recent cinema release: that exact period of time gets you from Bad Boys II to Bad Boys for Life. I know that’s an insanely trivial comparison, but hopefully it makes my point: 17 years can be no time at all. Indeed, on the audio commentary by author and TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree and his mate Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman), they note how contemporary this issue was at the time: Judgment at Nuremberg had just been in cinemas; Eichmann had been tried but not yet sentenced. And this bit of trivia from IMDb: “due to religiously-inspired antisemitism that existed in the US at the time, none of the prisoners are shown wearing the yellow Star of David, which the Nazis made Jewish prisoners wear at Dachau.” Just 17 years after the Holocaust, and antisemitism was that present again. Chilling, isn’t it? And, today, we have our own problems with the resurgence of the Far Right, rendering these kinds of stories timely once again. This is as strong an example as any. As Gaiman says on the commentary, “it has real content. It’s something that leaves you with an emotion. It leaves you feeling something. It leaves you thinking.” Gaiman rationalises the events of the episode as being that “on some deep level he [the Nazi] had enough of a soul that he went back to the place of his crimes, realised what he’d done, and went mad.” Perhaps, but I think it’s more about the Nazis’ unending hubris: he thinks he can revisit the camp with impunity, to revel in the glorious memory of his deeds; but instead he is punished, and he’s not been hunted down for this punishment — it only happens because he has the gall to return.

Twenty TwoOn a lighter note, in 9th place at TV Guide is Twenty Two. I say “lighter” — the subject matter isn’t as heavy, but this is a creepy episode. It’s about a woman in hospital who has a recurring nightmare about visiting the morgue, but she’s convinced it’s not a nightmare, it’s happening. It’s the enactment of her nightmare that is genuinely creepy (just imagining having to ‘live’ it gives me chills), and the idea of not being sure what’s dreams and what’s reality is a very Twilight Zone concept. Unfortunately, some of the specifics are weak. Whether it’s a nightmare or not would be easy to disprove, considering it includes details like her breaking a glass every night, or that the morgue is room number 22 — if it is, how does she know that? (Her doctor does eventually realise this… after days of hearing about it.) And as there’s nothing else wrong with her, why not discharge her — the nightmare is so location-specific that it couldn’t happen at home. Eventually there’s a twist, and it’s a good’un, pushing the concept somewhere logical (within the bounds of paranormal ‘logic’, anyhow) and retaining the creepiness. (There’s also a question about whether it inspired a much later film series, with which it shares many notable similarities, but to say more would be a whopping spoiler.)

Another point about Twenty Two is that it’s one of a handful of episodes they shot on video to save money. Well, it may’ve saved some dough, but it looks like crap, even by the standards of video productions — it looks like it was transferred from a VHS copy. Maybe tape was really crummy back then (I swear other ’60s taped productions, like Doctor Who for example, don’t look this bad), or maybe it’s been poorly preserved, or maybe it’s just a shoddy transfer on the Blu-ray. In the end, only half-a-dozen episodes were made this way because they weren’t happy with the results — understandably! Sometimes money isn’t everything. But it’s interesting how much it’s shot like a video production. The shot choices aren’t like a normal film episode but on videotape; instead, it’s got all the kinds of camera moves and slight adjustments and whatnot you almost subconsciously recognise from live / minimally-edited TV. (Incidentally, Long Distance Call is another videotaped episode, but I watched that after this one so had fewer thoughts on the technical presentation.) And yet, the underlying episode is so good that it overcomes the technical limitations. No, the problem is the logic gaps. They may seem minor quibbles, but if they were ironed out it would improve the whole episode. For me, fixing them would make this a 10-out-of-10, but as-is it’s more of an 8.

A Game of PoolFinally for now, the one outstanding top-ten-er from Thrillist’s ranking — their 8th pick, A Game of Pool. It’s about a pool shark who thinks he’s better than the player everyone else considers to be the greatest, but that guy’s dead so he can’t prove it… except, of course, he’s in the Twilight Zone. Some episodes save their Twilight Zone-ness for midway or final-minute reveals, but others put it front and centre, and this is one of them: a game of pool with a dead man! But it still has one of the show’s trademark ironic twists at the end, to teach us a lesson. That said, I didn’t think it landed as well as some other episodes, because it’s a bit of a fantastical warning rather than a pure morality play. There’s an alternate ending (included on the Blu-ray as both a narrated screenplay and a clip from the ’80s remake, which used that ending instead), which was screenwriter George Clayton Johnson’s original and preferred conclusion, and it’s that alternative conclusion that’s stuck with me more. Of course, the advantage of things like special features is we kind of get to have both versions; we can pick our favourite, or even consider both, like alternate timelines — how very The Twilight Zone.

The 92nd Academy Awards  and
The British Academy Film Awards 2020
The 92nd Academy AwardsOn Twitter in the run-up to the ceremony itself, there was a general acceptance that (a) Parasite was the best picture of the year, and (b) Parasite was not going to win Best Picture. As far as I could see, there was a sort of genial acceptance of these facts, which made a nice change from Film Twitter’s usual condemnation of everything. But then, blow us all down, Parasite did actually win! It’s noteworthy for all sorts of reasons — primarily because it’s the first ever non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was also only the third time that the Palme d’Or and Oscar have gone to the same film. And director Bong Joon Ho became only the second individual to win four awards at one ceremony (after Walt Disney, and he did it across four different films). As for the rest of the ceremony, most of the other gongs went where expected, leaving 1917 the major victim of Parasite’s surprise success. But it still took home three well-deserved technical trophies, whereas Netflix’s The Irishman (which had the same number of nominations, ten) was shut out entirely.

There were even fewer surprises at this year’s BAFTAs. Maybe Klaus winning Best Animated Film, but then the British Academy are always more resistant to the dominance of Disney/Pixar in this category than our American cousins (I think of Kubo deservedly winning a couple of years ago, for example). Of course 1917 won Best Picture — it was the favourite anyway, but it was also British, and that does sometimes sway the local vote. Not so in the acting categories, which went to the expected sources. I thought Graham Norton was a good host, too. He’s a natural fit for this kind of thing, and so while not every line quite landed, his hit rate was much higher than other recent hosts. I hope he returns next year.

Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 9 Episode 3-8 — The back half of this run introduced a new lead detective (the show’s fourth), played by Ralf Little. His quirk is that the island’s heat / animals / etc cause him all sorts of irritations and rashes. I can relate. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the sunny, silly murder mystery.
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episode 6 — A final recommendation for this most excellent comedy, which went out on a high with one of its best episodes: 90 Degrees, which refers to the heatwave occurring during the story, but was “misinterpreted by the set builders” so one of the main sets is on its side. Hilarity ensues. The whole magnificent series is still available on iPlayer, it’s also out on DVD, and a second series has been confirmed. Hurrah!
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno — A one-off HBO comedy special spun off from the popular podcast. I’d vaguely heard of said podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), and apparently it’s very funny, so this seemed worth a punt. And I did enjoy it, overall. I’ve read that it’s not as good as the real thing, though, so maybe I should get onto that.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 1-6 — I remember being interested in this when it was first announced, because it starred Nathan Fillion (so enjoyable in both Firefly and Castle) and had an interesting-enough premise (middle-aged man joins LAPD as their oldest ever rookie), but then I kind of forgot to keep an eye out for it — it’s on season two now and I’m just getting started. It’s an above average police drama, I’d say, and it’s a nice change that it’s not about detectives solving a murder of the week.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Noughts + CrossesThis month, I have mostly been missing Noughts + Crosses, the BBC’s high-profile adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s beloved alternate-world young adult novels. It seemed to go down very well on Twitter when the first episode aired, and the whole series is already available on iPlayer, so I’ve no excuse not to make time for it next month (other than all those Picards I have to catch up…)

    Next month… Disney+ finally comes to the UK on March 24th, and with it The Baby Yoda Show The Mandalorian. Plus, a different tack in my viewing of both The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #30

    So, this TV overview is a little later than normal — a full nine days, in fact — but I guess no one notices that but me, so let’s get on with the shows:

    Strike  Series 1
    Strike: The Cuckoo's CallingAdapted from the series of novels by Robert Galbraith — the mystery-writing pseudonym of one J.K. Rowling — you might’ve assumed this would’ve followed in the footsteps of the author’s other literary series and have Hollywood come a-knocking. Maybe they did, but TV is a more natural home for the material: it’s a decent low-key murder mystery with appealing lead characters, which is the sort of stuff that can generate TV ratings but doesn’t spell box office nowadays (well, unless it’s Murder on the Orient Express, with its $350 million worldwide gross, but that’s a different kettle of fish). While the general shape of the drama is familiar from, well, every other TV detective show, Rowling’s well-known interest in social issues regularly comes through — not least in its two main characters, one of whom is a war veteran living with the realities of an amputation, the other a talented woman finding equality in the workplace. I suppose that’s all very timely.

    The series’ biggest challenge is not whether it’s original or not (that’s clearly not a problem), but may be whether it can keep itself going long-term. Rowling isn’t the type to let other writers dream up new stories for her characters (the path that ends up fuelling most initially-book-based detective shows), but she’s not exactly pumping the novels out either: this first series adapted the initial two books; an adaptation of number three starts tomorrow; and… that’s all she’s published, for now (there are reportedly plans for ten more books). Will Strike end up with a Sherlock-esque production schedule? Or will it just quietly disappear when viewers and/or the cast lose interest after a couple more adaptations? Only time will tell…

    The Good Place  Season 2
    The Good Place season 2Having blown the doors off its own enjoyable premise with a clever twist at the end of season one, I was worried The Good Place had left itself with nowhere to go in the future. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. A cleverly-structured double-length opener burns through what I thought would be the entire second season’s plot, and then the second episode burns through even more ideas at a rate of knots. Where most sitcoms find an idea and milk it for all it’s worth (that’s the “situation” part, after all), The Good Place is restlessly inventive.

    That said, it does begin to settle into a new status quo, and at that point it goes off the boil a little. It’s still funny, but not so much as the first season was, and by standing relatively still it’s not as exciting. But then, a little over halfway through, it begins to tear it all apart again, and we’re off on a wild ride where you don’t quite know where things are going to end up — there are several episodes that most other shows would’ve been more than happy to make their finale, but The Good Place just keeps up the “and what happens after that?” barminess. But it does have to end eventually, of course. It doesn’t have a massive twist to rival the end of season one, but then trying to top that would be a fool’s errand. No, instead it sends the show spiralling off in a whole new direction. Superb.

    Absentia  Season 1 Episodes 1-6
    AbsentiaStana “Beckett from Castle” Katic stars in this mystery-thriller, an Amazon exclusive in the US and UK (and everywhere else there’s Amazon Video, I presume). She plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who was declared dead in absentia after she disappeared while on the hunt for a serial killer. Six years later, she turns up alive, apparently having been held captive all that time — even though the main suspect was convicted of her murder and has been in prison. Events quickly take a turn where her former colleagues wonder if Emily was in on it too, meaning she has to go on the run to prove her innocence. Of course, none of those people ever stop to wonder what she’s actually been up to for six years (it’s not like the killings continued), or why she’d decide to fake her comeback now, or… all sorts of other things. A subplot with her kid — who was too young to remember her, and now has a new real mom because his dad remarried — has emotional potential, but goes a bit too swimmingly at first and then is soon abandoned in favour of shoot outs, and unearthed skeletons (both figuratively and literally), and all that mystery-thriller stuff. So this isn’t one to think about too much, in any respect, but it’s passably entertaining as a pulp thriller. I’m going to stick with it until the end, at least, but I kinda hope it doesn’t try to end on a cliffhanger — I’m not sure I want a whole other season (or two, or three, or more).

    The X Files  Season 11 Episode 1
    The X Files season 11The second season of The X Files since its revival only recently started airing in the UK, but we’ve caught up as far as episode three now. Well, the broadcasts have — I’ve only watched the first episode, and it was so goddamn terrible I’ve not had the heart to continue. (I will, I’ve just not mustered the motivation yet.) Said opener was My Struggle III, continuing the series’ never-ending mythology arc plot, which last season (two years ago now!) was covered in My Struggle I and My Struggle II. Well, at least the mythology episodes are clearly marked these days — there’s a My Struggle IV later in the season, for our sins.

    Anyway, the problems with My Struggle III are manifold, but the key one is that it’s confusing. Partly that’s because it plays heavily off what happened in Part 2 — which, as I say, was two years ago now — and partly because it all builds on the entire history of the series’ overarching storyline, which is long and complex and I haven’t even seen all of. (Someday I need to sit down and properly watch the entire show, all 218 episodes of it. Goodness knows when.) But even allowing for that, this was a bad hour of television — poorly made, with strange stylistic choices (what was with all that random voiceover from Mulder?) Ugh. But hey, I guess most of the season will be standalone monster-of-the-week episodes; and while that as a format has fallen out of favour in the past couple of decades (everybody loves serialisation now), I think it’s what The X Files has always done best.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Season 1 Episodes 1-4
    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 1I’ve had this knocking around waiting to be watched for yonks after I picked up the complete series DVD set on offer. (“For yonks” being “since 2015” in this case.) I remember seeing some episodes as a child and enjoying them, though I don’t remember any specifics. I guess they were from the show’s later, crazier, full-colour years, because these early black-and-white adventures don’t quite chime with that vague sense-memory of what the show should be. That said, although they start out almost serious (as ’60s spy-fi goes, anyway), by just a couple of episodes in there’s already a kookier side on display. Anyhow, I expect the best is yet to come.

    Murder on the Blackpool Express
    Murder on the Blackpool ExpressThis one-off feature-length comedy aired at the end of last year, presumably timed to tie-in with the theatrical release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express — as the spoofing poster highlights, of course. (Who thought I’d wind up referencing that film twice in a TV column nearly four months after it came out? I really ought to get on with reviewing it…) Truthfully, that poster is probably the best thing about this. There’s a large cast, all recognisable from a host of British sitcoms, but half of them go underused. Those that do have a part to play get material that’s fairly amusing, amid a plot that’s somewhere between predictable and too mad to be guessable. It was funny enough on balance, but it didn’t live up to its full potential.

    Also watched…
  • The Brokenwood Mysteries Series 3 Episode 1 — Murder with a Kiwi accent.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 16-22 — Murder with an American accent.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 3-7 — Murder with a Caribbean accent.
  • Vera Series 8 Episodes 2-4 — Murder with a Northumberland accent.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Altered CarbonThis month, I have mostly been missing Altered Carbon, Netflix’s cyberpunk murder mystery. Reviews looked to be mixed, so I haven’t actually decided whether to bother with it or not. Two series I will definitely (intend to) get round to, but I’m saving up to binge once they’re done, are: BBC Two’s starry political thriller Collateral (led by Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper, and no doubt some actors who haven’t had significant roles in Doctor Who. FYI, it’s coming to other counties as a Netflix “Original” next month); and the latest run of Scottish detective drama Shetland (the last series of which was covered in the early days of this column).

    Next month… the MCU returns to Netflix in the unique shape of Jessica Jones.

  • The Past Month on TV #27

    A slightly earlier than normal TV review this month, to get ahead of all the Christmas telly — but there’s still plenty to discuss…

    The Punisher  Season 1
    The PunisherThe fourth live-action iteration of Frank Castle, Marvel’s murderous anti-hero (and people moan about Spider-Man reboots), debuted in Daredevil season two and was greeted so positively that now he’s got his own spin-off series. And “spin-off” is not an inaccurate descriptor, because this very much launches out of the events of Frank’s storyline in Daredevil — which makes it all the more annoying that Netflix care not for “previously on”s: Daredevil season two was over 18 months ago; a little refresher would be nice.

    You see, the plot revisits the Punisher’s origins: his family were killed in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out, leading him to kill the criminals responsible. He thinks that mission is complete, but the season begins (more or less) with him discovering new intel that suggests his family’s murder may not have been so random, and it links back to his actions when he was in the military. This also serves as a launchpad for the series to tackle other war-related issues, primarily the psychological wellbeing of veterans. With such serious themes it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s very little here that’s outright comic-book-y here — no superpowers, for sure; not even veiled references to the big names of the MCU movies, which we’ve had in every other Marvel Netflix show. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact the series is so obviously spun out of Daredevil and has the Marvel logo at the start, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a Marvel show at all.

    Some people think this removes the Punisher’s USP. In and of himself he’s just a violent man out for revenge — action cinema is stuffed to bursting with such anti-heroes. What makes Frank unique is he’s that kind of character but in a world where super-powered and super-moral people exist. So would The Punisher have been more interesting if, instead of a very grounded military conspiracy storyline, it had something to do with Frank clashing with superpowered people? I don’t know. It certainly would’ve been a different show. As it stands, this may be a show for people who don’t typically like Marvel shows. So was Jessica Jones before it, but this is for different people who don’t like Marvel shows — people like Jason Statham, maybe.

    Jon BernthalIn the title role, Jon Bernthal is fantastic. You can absolutely believe him as a revenge-driven psychopath capable of killing anyone and everyone, but also as a kind-of-charming strong-but-silent type with a heart and moral code who will definitely do the right thing. I’ve seen some critics and viewers opine that now is the wrong time for a series about a hero who just murders indiscriminately. I say those people definitely haven’t watched this Punisher. Although the plot is a conspiracy thriller, the series invests a lot of time in the emotional world of Frank Castle, making him human and moral rather than just a single-minded murder-machine. Bernthal makes what could be a very one-note role into a plausible human being; one who you believe might be able to find redemption and leave someday. And maybe that makes him even more tragic — he could find it; it’s possible… but likely? There’s the rub. As it’s also trying to engage with issues facing combat veterans once they return home, it makes for a clearly different, more serious flavour for an MCU production. How successfully it explores these weighty issues is more debatable.

    Many of these Marvel shows take their whole first season to fully complete the hero’s origin story, but The Punisher is stuck with the fact that Castle already became The Punisher during his Daredevil appearance. So do they just ignore that story shape? No, of course they don’t — they shift it on to the villain! Therefore any comic book fan who knows what one character will ultimately become (no spoilers here!) is constantly teased with possibilities throughout the season until, eventually, as we should’ve known from the start, the transformation occurs in the finale. Why not really surprise us: do the transformation earlier and then wrap a character up within one season, rather than leaving them dangling for a possible next time? Comic books have to leave things dangling — they will all run for ever and ever; there can be no permanent solutions — but these TV series will end — whether it’s after a single season, or two, or five, or ten, they are without exception finite. That means you’re allowed to wrap a character up and move on to others.

    So, The Punisher is not an unmitigated success, but it does lend another flavour to the Marvel-Netflix landscape. I certainly hope we get to see more of Bernthal’s take on the character in the future.

    Detectorists  Series 3 Episodes 2-6
    Detectorists series 3The third and final series of BBC Four’s sitcom about a couple of mates whose hobby is metal detecting was every bit the equal of the first two runs, which saw the show place on my list of 10 Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years back in February. Its brilliance lies in how perfectly weighted it is: the characters are quirky, but also normal; their problems are grounded and realistic, without being glum and unduly serious; it’s frequently hilarious, but without slipping into gurning ‘Comedy’ territory; it’s kind and gentle, but without being dull; and it’s all very lovely and kind-hearted, without being twee or saccharine. It’s also beautifully put together by writer-director (and star) Mackenzie Crook — the storyline across the series was precisely constructed, and the photography is often a gorgeous showcase for the English countryside. A real gem that will be missed, though at least it came to a perfect conclusion.

    The Good Place  Season 1 Episodes 3-13
    The Good PlaceI only heard about this after its Big Twist was much-discussed online, so starting it was an exercise in knowing there was a big reveal awaiting. Fortunately, that knowledge doesn’t overshadow everything that comes before it. For those who still aren’t aware of it (especially as it’s only on Netflix on this side of the pond), it’s about a woman (Kristen Bell) who dies and goes to Heaven only due to an admin error, so she tries to better herself so that she’s deserving of her place. Other complications emerge as the season goes on, but that’s the premise. There’s a lot of plot for a sitcom — although it’s not necessarily immediately obvious, it tells a 13-episode story; this makes Netflix quite a natural home for it, actually, as it’s not your typical “every episode is fundamentally standalone” sitcom. But it’s also very funny in amongst all that, mining not only the characters and their foibles, but also the uncommon situation they’ve found themselves in. The shocker in the finale is just the icing on the cake. I hear season two has gone off the boil somewhat, but I’ll find out for myself once it’s all wrapped up.

    Also watched…
  • Armchair Detectives Series 1 Episode 1 — Game show in which contestants watch a murder mystery scene by scene and attempt to guess the perpetrator. It’s a fun idea (who doesn’t ‘play along’ while watching a whodunnit?), but it’s hampered by the dirt-cheap quality of the drama. That’s to be expected on a daytime game show budget, but still…
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — If you saw the James Corden comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans, this is tonally very similar to that — not quite as elegantly done perhaps, but still pretty decent. If you like comedy-thrillers and haven’t seen The Wrong Mans, watch that first.
  • The Flash Season 4 Episodes 3-6 — After complaints about it getting too grim and self-serious, they’ve endeavoured to return The Flash to the lighter tone of its first season, in the process practically turning it into a comedy. I often find these CW superhero shows kinda laughable anyway, so, a little to my surprise, that’s working for me.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 9-10 — Sad to (finally) reach the end of this fun action drama. The third series wasn’t quite on a par with the first two (the result of new showrunners, undoubtedly) but it still had its moments. It leaves a swashbuckling void in the schedules that I doubt anyone will bother to fill.
  • Would I Lie to You? Series 11 Episodes 1-4 — Is this the best panel show on TV? Could well be. Its genius lies in the elegant simplicity of its concept, a game anyone can play (and we can play along with at home), plus the sharp and quick wits of regulars Rob Brydon, David Mitchell, and Lee Mack. Almost a dozen series in and there’s no sign of the hilarity waning.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Blue Planet IIThis month, I have been missing so much stuff. There’s been the fourth series of Peaky Blinders on BBC Two (which concludes this week, so we’ll whizz through it sometime in the new year); the second season of The Crown on Netflix (also waiting for the new year now); the same streamer’s first ever miniseries, Godless; the immensely acclaimed Blue Planet II (now available in UHD on iPlayer, too!); and I’m behind on Arrow and The Flash so haven’t reached the four-show Arrowverse crossover. And those are just the ones I can remember right now.

    Next month… is January, but sometime before that I’ll likely review some Christmas TV.

  • The Past Month on TV #26

    The strangest thing is the Duffer brothers’ apparent obsession with giving starring roles to only-available-in-North-America sweet things.

    FYI, rest of the world: I have discovered a 3 Musketeers is in fact a Milky Way.

    Stranger Things 2
    Stranger Things 2Netflix’s most talked about show (well, unless you count House of Cards for all the wrong reasons) returns wth a second season that isn’t just a continuation, it’s a sequel — note how it’s officially called Stranger Things 2 (which briefly sent IMDb skwiffy), and how the episode titles aren’t Chapters Nine to Seventeen of Stranger Things but Chapters One to Nine of Stranger Things 2. Set almost a whole year after the first season, and telling a self contained story (though one that obviously builds out of the first season) which takes place over just a couple of days (in fact, more or less half the season takes place on a single day and night), it feels more like watching a follow-up movie than the next set of instalments in a series that is reported to run another two years yet.

    The idea is emphasised further by the fact its form seems largely inspired by The Empire Strikes Back — well, it’s Stranger Things: of course it borrows heavily from an ’80s movie. (If you want to see a whole array of its visual homages/rip-offs in a succinct two-minute video, check out this.) It doesn’t map one-for-one onto Empire’s structure, but it takes the same broad shape: splitting our heroes up into different smaller groups off having their own adventures; throwing new characters into the mix; expanding the universe and the mythos. If anything, Eleven is Luke — by herself, learning about her past, developing her telekinetic abilities. And Dustin and Lucas are kind of Han and Leia — supporting characters now given their own important arc, including both romance and the introduction of a major new character. And so Mike is… I dunno, Obi-Wan? A former main character who’s now barely present. As for Joyce, and Hopper, and Nancy and Jonathan, and Steve, and Will… yeah, Star Wars doesn’t have this many lead characters. Well, I did say it wasn’t exactly like-for-like.

    Perhaps another side effect of the movie-esque style is that it feels… short. Like, just as things seem to be getting going, it’s the finale. It’s a problem many binge-focussed series have these days, but this struck me as a particularly pronounced example. It could just be my own fault for watching it all in double-bills, but then I do that quite routinely with Netflix shows and I’ve not felt it so keenly before. Nonetheless, it has enough moving parts that the two-part finale (it’s not officially billed as that, but it is that) remains highly satisfying. As with season one, it’s when everyone finally comes together to fight the threat that the season is at its most satisfying, those two episodes feeling like an adrenaline-fuelled mini-movie (well, movie-length movie) of their own.

    Blood ElNow, you can’t discuss Stranger Things 2 without mentioning the infamous Chapter Seven. If you’ve missed the internet’s collective exclamation of disappointment and/or annoyance, IMDb has it in a nutshell: on there, the user ratings of all the other episodes (from both seasons) range from 8.5 to 9.5, a spread of 1.0 (obviously), but Chapter Seven has 6.2, a full 2.3 marks below the next lowest score. Ouch. It’s not great, but I didn’t think it was that bad. It’s a total aside from the main action, and placed where it is seems designed just to delay the pay-off to Chapter Six’s cliffhanger for another 45 minutes (in a regular programme it’d be two weeks, but this is Netflix). I don’t really hold with that being an actual problem, though — that’s just taste. No, the real problem is that it rushes through a character arc for Eleven that would’ve been better presented over multiple episodes. Considering before that she’s spent several episodes just sat around watching TV, there were surely better ways to structure her role this season.

    That’s no slight on Millie Bobby Brown’s performance, mind — she’s great again, displaying so much character and emotion even through Eleven’s limited understanding of being a normal person. Also worthy of note is Noah Schnapp as Will. Considering he had so little to do in season one, they either lucked out with his casting or knew where they were going enough to cast it well — a lot is asked of him here, and he’s up to it. I could keep going, but if we begin to single people out we’ll be here all day: almost every lead cast member gets either a stand-out scene or a decent arc. They even made Steve likeable. Finn Wolfhard draws the short straw — Mike spends most of the season just being grumpy about Eleven — but as he was the centre of attention last time it’s okay to let the others shine.

    Something stranger in their neighbourhoodEven though it has all the big action stuff you’d expect, Chapter Nine still devotes a serious chunk of time to a character-focussed epilogue; reminding you that, as with most loved shows, the heart of it is the characters and their relationships. Indeed, although the season as a whole didn’t have the same effectiveness as the first, I thought the finale was a better climax. In fact, it would be a perfectly valid place to leave the entire series… but there are (at least) two more seasons to go. It might be nice if season three opened up the timeline a bit, because so far Hawkins seems to be a place where Crazy Terrible Shit happens over a couple of days and then everything’s fine for a whole year.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 4-6
    Red Dwarf XIII had nice things to say about the first half of Red Dwarf XII in my last TV column, which kindly glossed over the fact that episode three, Timewave, was a bit of a disaster. I think it’s safe to say the second half of the series is stronger — it represents everything I said last time, but better. The final two episodes, M-Corp and Skipper, even throw in some fan-pleasing callbacks — real deep-dives too, aimed squarely at the long-term fanbase. (No spoilers here — the last episode has been available on demand for a week but doesn’t officially air until tonight.) The episodes don’t need such devotee delights just to curry favour — their concept-driven comedy is satisfying enough to stand on its own — but there’s no denying the added pleasure to be found in the references and cameos. You can certainly hear the glee of the live studio audience as they recognise what’s going on each time (it even messes up the pacing of one bit for us regular viewers, but I guess that’s the trade-off). So, even more than last time, this set of episodes demonstrate there’s definitely life in the old Dwarf yet. Bring on series XIII.

    Peaky Blinders  Series 3
    Peaky Blinders series 3Beginning with a significant time-jump and monumental change in circumstance worthy of a Mad Men season premiere, the third series of Peaky Blinders soon sees everyone’s favourite Brummie gangsters embroiled in espionage and counter-espionage as they’re enlisted to help exiled Russian aristocracy launch a bid to reclaim their country. There’s so much more going on than that, but I won’t get into it here because we’ll be here all day — Peaky Blinders is a complexly plotted series; right up the final episode, which contains revelations that turn the previous six hours on their head. Even with all that narrative to get through, it still finds plenty of time to give most of its large-ish ensemble cast some strong character arcs. There are a few streaming series that could learn a thing or two from that…

    Rick and Morty  Season 1 Episode 2
    Neither Rick nor MortyI confess: I started watching Rick and Morty fully expecting to hate it. I’d always thought it looked and sounded annoying, so I paid it no heed… but then it seemed to keep coming up — people referring to it in excited tones, and it ranking 7th on IMDb’s top TV list. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about, still expecting my initial impressions to be proved correct but endeavouring to have an open mind. The pilot (which I covered back in August) did little to sway my mind: it wasn’t terrible, but it had many of the irritations I’d perceived and only a few redeeming qualities. But I read that it was an unrepresentative and below par episode, so I pressed on. Things immediately pick up: the second episode, Lawnmower Dog, mixes together Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, and super-intelligent canines into an entertaining and clever half-hour. It’s bought my attention for a couple more episodes, at any rate.

    Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 6 Episodes 1-2 / The Flash Season 4 Episodes 1-2 — Here we go again… At least The Flash seems to have perked up again this year, which I used to find a little irritating but is actually quite welcome after the dour last two seasons.
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Jack Whitehall comedy-thriller, which tonally is a bit like The Wrong Mans, which I loved. More thoughts when I’ve finished the series.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 4-9 — The arc plot this season is really rather irritating. This is when I’m thankful for binge-watching: it makes that crap go by faster.
  • Detectorists Series 3 Episode 1 — Promptly started the new series of this Mackenzie Crook comedy, which I previously named one of my ten favourite series of the last decade. More thoughts next month.
  • The Good Place Season 1 Episodes 1-2 — Belatedly started this Kristen Bell comedy-fantasy (which only arrived in the UK with the start of season two anyway, so not that belatedly). It’s kind of brilliant so far. More thoughts when I’ve finished the season.
  • Upstart Crow Series 2 Episodes 5-6 — See last month.

    Things to Catch Up On
    MindhunterThis month, I have mostly been missing Mindhunter, David Fincher’s new Netflix series about the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling at the FBI. It was actually released before my last TV post, but I didn’t have Netflix at the time so I didn’t bother to mention it. I would watch it next, but The Punisher is out tomorrow. Maybe after that…

    Next month… Netflix gets punishered.