The Past Month on TV #62

I didn’t think I’d watched much TV to cover in this month’s column, and then I came to write it…

Cobra Kai  Season 1
Cobra Kai season 1A belated sequel/spin-off to the Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai was one of the first series to be released when YouTube decided to get in on the Netflix game. It was a hit for them, too, attracting tens of millions of viewers and very strong reviews. And yet it feels like no one talked about it, so where those 90 million people were hiding, who knows. Anyway, with YouTube wrapping up their series production (they were a bit late to a market already saturated by Netflix, Amazon, and a dozen other TV and film studios), existing and future seasons of Cobra Kai have been passed onto Netflix — and now everyone’s talking about it. Are more people watching it, or is the Venn diagram between “people who primarily watch stuff via Netflix” and “people who use social media” just a perfect circle? We’ll never know. I guess I’m one of those people who only started talking about the show after it moved to Netflix. I did mean to get to it sooner, but no way was I paying for YouTube, and I missed the couple of times they made it all available for free.

Anyway, what of the programme itself? As I said, I’d heard it was good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. Seriously. A belated revival of a half-forgotten oh-so-’80s kids’ sports movie franchise should not be one of the best shows on TV in the 2010s, but, turns out, it kinda is. The writing, the performances, the way it uses the franchise’s legacy but is also it’s own thing… all of that is more or less perfect. One of its strongest features is a nicely nuanced treatment of the returning characters. They haven’t just kept them the same, nor merely inverted it so Johnny’s turned good and Daniel’s gone bad. They both have their heroic and villainous moments; both can be inspiring; both can be embarrassing middle-aged men. There’s a certain lack of vanity on the part of the actors there, acknowledging the real passage of time rather than still trying to be Karate ‘Kids’.

It has what I consider to be the perfect balance of storytelling styles for this streaming era: it’s telling one long story (of course it is), but each episode works as a self-contained unit, with its own plots and subplots. Put another way, it’s ten episodes that together add up to one story, rather than a single long narrative arbitrarily chopped into ten pieces. Because of that, it only gets better as it goes on — you get more invested; the characters develop; stuff pays off… it’s superb. I don’t really do “binge watching” (maybe two episodes in one day, sometimes), but Cobra Kai is so addictive that I ended up watching half the first season in one sitting. It helps that the episodes are short (around 25 minutes each), really feeding the “just one more” feeling. If you’ve only got half-an-hour to spare, you can throw the next episode on and get a satisfying instalment; but if you’ve got nowhere else to be, don’t be surprised if you get suckered in to more, because it does kind of work as “a movie”. (Indeed, watching the first five episodes in one sitting almost felt like watching the first half of a two-part movie, because they reach a particularly suitable break in the overall narrative.)

The move to Netflix was prompted by YouTube informing the production team that they’d air the already-filmed third season, but definitely wouldn’t commission a fourth. The first two seasons have already been such a success for their new home that Netflix have commissioned that fourth season before they’ve even released the third (it’s due early next year). There’s a lot one could analyse about that (considering the first episode already had 90 million views on YouTube, how many more people were there to watch it on Netflix?!), but the important point is: more Cobra Kai, guaranteed! If it keeps up this level of quality, that’s a very good thing.

(The only reason I didn’t race straight on to season 2 was to spread it out a bit, what with the wait ’til season 3. Expect a review next month.)

Strike  Lethal White
Strike: Lethal WhiteA four-part adaptation of the fourth Cormoran Strike novel by J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith, which sees the private detective investigating the blackmail of an MP at the same time as a historical murder comes his way that the may be connected to the same MP. What a coincidence! No, it really is a coincidence; but don’t worry, with four whole hours of story to get through, you’ll probably have forgotten about that by the end. There’s also the ongoing drama of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. If you thought her getting married to her dick of a fiancé at the end of the last series was going to put a stop to that, you were very wrong. Strike mainly coasts by on the likeability of its two leads — the actual plot isn’t bad, just not anything remarkable. We’ve had four or more decades of this kind of investigative crime drama on British TV, and Strike is one of the ones that happens to currently be on.

Criminal  Season 2
Criminal season 2Remember when Netflix first launched Criminal and made a big deal of how it was one format filmed by four different countries? Does no one else remember that? Because I swear it was one of the key USPs, but it’s gone entirely unmentioned in the (surprisingly large amount of) press about the second season — which I presume suits Netflix just fine, because three of the countries have been quietly dropped, so only the UK version remains. (What’s the betting the UK one did better simply because its anglophone cast are more widely known around the world?)

Anyway, it remains a funny old drama — it wants to be grounded and focused (it all takes place in an interview room and the observation room next door), but rather than allow the minutiae of the actors’ skills to shine through (the other USP), it can’t help but indulge in jumping about with narrative bells and whistles. Most questionable is the second episode, in which Kit Harington gives a good performance, but the “falsely accused of rape” storyline feels like it’s failed to read the cultural moment. It’s got a 9.2 rating on IMDb, though, so I guess the men’s rights-type people found it.

Derren Brown: Miracle
Derren Brown: MiracleI’d found the last few Derren Brown live shows relatively underwhelming (not to mention his recent TV specials), which is perhaps why I missed this back whenever it first aired on Channel 4 (in 2016) and am only now catching up. Maybe it’s the distance of time, then, but I thought this was a really strong and entertaining set of tricks and set pieces. The only thing I’d like more is if he explained how the faith healing stuff worked. We know it’s a con, a trick, but it still has an effect. He acknowledges part of it (it’s all psychological, “the stories we tell ourselves”), but how does that fix a woman’s eyesight or render a man unable to read? I know magic tricks aren’t ‘meant’ to be explained, but when you’re exposing shysters’ cons, I feel like revealing the methodology is ok.

Netflix Comedy Specials
Hannah Gadbsy: DouglasRecently, I’ve been unwinding with some of Netflix’s standup specials. The most noteworthy / widely discussed of those is certainly Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, her followup show to the massively successful Nanette (which I commented on last month. “Followup” is the right word, because Gadsby begins the set by talking about Nanette’s success and her reaction to it. Then she begins the new show… without beginning the show. Instead, she does a long bit where she lays out the entire structure of the show to come before, almost 15 minutes in, “the show” actually starts. After Nanette was so praised for bending the form of what “standup comedy” could be, I guess she felt the need to do it some more. It’s fairly ingenious and works quite well. As for the material itself, it’s not as emotionally devastating as Nanette, but still appropriately pointed when needed.

Elsewise, I’ve been trying out some American comedians who I hadn’t even heard of before I saw their trailers on Netflix. Demetri Martin’s accurately titled Live (at the Time) indulges in a lot of quick, deadpan humour, including some nice meta jokes. That’s my kind of thing. Also my kind of thing: dark comedy. Apparently Anthony Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward is the kind of comedy that some people find offensive, but I struggle to find any comedy “offensive” when it’s clearly being performed with self-awareness that it is wrong, and that’s why it’s funny (as opposed to someone saying something as “just a joke” when it’s their actual word view, i.e. what right wing ‘comics’ tend to do). So, yes, I’m aware some people find Jeselnik’s material beyond the pale, but he hit just the right note for me (i.e. I’ve seen darker, but they probably went too far). Finally (appropriately), Marc Maron’s End Times Fun accepts that the world is fucked and gets on with making gags about it. His bit about how the way hardcore Marvel fans behave is actually the same as religious fanatics is bang on, while his finale — an extended vulgar ‘prophecy’ for the end of days — is hilarious, and quite close to Jeselnik in terms of pushing at offensive-to-some boundaries.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The Howling ManThis is my tenth and final selection of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone, which gets me to the end of the top third of episodes on my consensus ranking (The New Exhibit is ranked 52nd, which is exactly 33.3% through). I think that’s as far as I can reasonably call the “best of”. If you think it sounds quite far through the list to still be calling these “the best”, bear this in mind: a lot of this month’s episodes are well placed in several rankings, but then one or two more negative nellies drag them down. (The Howling Man is the most extreme instance of this: it’s in the top 20 according to voters on Ranker, and placed in the top 30 by ScreenCrush, Paste, and IMDb users, but neither TV Guide nor Thrillist include it in their top 50, and BuzzFeed put it 149th.) My personal opinion of some of these episodes made me wonder if I’d pushed “best of” too far, but there have been episodes in previous “best of” selections that I liked even less, so I think it’s coincidence rather than that TZ has run out of good episodes before I even get halfway through. (And just because I didn’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not well regarded — one of my least favourites here, Stopover in a Quiet Town, has 8.3 on IMDb and is ranked 25th there.)

The first episode this month isn’t a disaster, but doesn’t quite coalesce either. Ring-a-Ding Girl has some very nice ideas, but they’ve not been arranged properly to make a wholly satisfying episode. For one thing, it leaves a whole town full of people aware of the strange thing that’s happened — that doesn’t feel very Twilight Zone, where these things normally only directly affect one or two people, and even they often can’t be sure it actually happened. That’s more a minor point of style than a fundamental flaw, mind. Still, I feel like someone could rewrite this and make it a lot better — heck, it could probably even sustain a feature, if done right. Bit of a shame, then.

A Hundred Yards Over the RimOn the other hand, a common feature of The Twilight Zone is “man out of time” stories. The show did a lot of those, and A Hundred Yards Over the Rim is certainly one of them. In 1847, a pioneer at the head of a wagon train heads over a nearby rim to scout for water, and finds himself in 1961. There’s reasonable potential in that, but what follows offers no remarkable features or moral messages. If the pioneer was on the verge of giving up, and seeing that people like him did bring civilisation to those barren places motivated him to carry on, that would be effective. In fact, he’s pretty much the only one in his party who’s already certain they’re on the right path, so all his trip through time represents is a brief obstacle in his path. Similarly, he discovers evidence that his dying son will actually survive and achieve great things, but he didn’t seem to doubt his son’s chances before that, so what did he really gain? Apparently this is JJ Abrams’ favourite episode, which I feel explains a few things…

Much better is The Howling Man, a mostly unsettling episode with a “dark and stormy night” feel. that’s a cliche, but Douglas Heyes’ OTT Dutch-angle filled direction emphasises such an overblown atmosphere. It’s fun, if a little campy, especially in its final reveal. It’s the kind of episode that’s so particularly styled that whether you love it or loathe it is entirely down to personal taste, which probably explains those ranking discrepancies I mentioned at the start. As I also mentioned, Stopover in a Quiet Town is one of my least favourite episodes. It’s not that it’s bad per se, but it felt like little more than a remix of a handful of previous episodes; like a workmanlike pastiche rather than a true Twilight Zone instalment. The moral of the story — stated bluntly by Rod Serling in his closing narration — is “if you drink, don’t drive.” Thrillist reckon it’s “the best PSA about drunk driving of all time.” I just think it’s the weirdest.

A man and his dog are the subject of The Hunt, one of TZ’s occasional sweet episodes. When the pair die, you might not think this is going to be a nice one, but we soon follow them into the afterlife — not that they realise it. Yep, as is so often the case with these kinds of TZ episodes, we understand the situation immediately while it takes the characters most of the episode to cotton on. It’s only in the second half that it gets to the real point: arriving at the gates of Heaven, St Peter informs the man that his dog can’t come in. What kind of Heaven would it be without dogs?! Well, this is The Twilight Zone, so… It’s a twee little tale, really. I liked the “dogs are great” side, but was less keen on the sensation it gives of being a Sunday school lesson.

One for the AngelsOne for the Angels is another feel-good episode, in which a two-bit street salesman manages to outwit Death… twice! Once for himself, once for a little girl who lives in his block. Ed Wynn embodies the friend-to-children type persona most familiar from his later appearance in Mary Poppins, while Murray Hamilton (also best known for a later film role: the mayor from Jaws) makes for a charmingly besuited Mr Death. That the salesman manages to pitch cheap crap to Death himself for a full quarter of an hour stretches belief. Well, I say “belief” like Mr Death is real, but, even with the rules of fantasy, what does Death need with all that crap? Ah, but it’s all for a good cause, so maybe we can let it slide in the name of feeling happy.

We end on an even rarer beast: a season 4 episode! Out of 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone I’ve watched so far, this is only the 5th from that season — and three of those were in my “worst of” posts. Basically, if you didn’t already know, people don’t like season 4. As one of its better instalments, The New Exhibit is proper horror movie stuff. Indeed, I could see this as the setup for a standalone feature film; which is quite different to season 4’s usual problem, that the double-length episodes led to plots being padded to fill the running time. That said, this isn’t the best execution of the concept. Where it’s going feels inevitable from early on, so it still feels a little long-winded — you could definitely rattle through this tale in 25 minutes. Indeed, as Paste puts it, it “could work as either a very short story, or be expanded into a horror feature. As a 50-minute episode, it takes a long time to get going, then ends abruptly just when it was beginning to get interesting.” Ironically, a feature version would probably get going quicker, then spend more time on the later good stuff — and this episode would’ve benefitted from the same. All of which said, I still found it effectively creepy. Some people say it’s not scary at all, but I guess that depends on whether you find wax figures inherently unsettling or not.

And that concludes what I’m calling “the best of The Twilight Zone“. I’m going to keep working me way through the series and writing about it, though. Hopefully I’ll unearth a few underrated gems among the episodes that fall in the middle of the rankings.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 7 Episodes 1-4 — The final run of American Sherlock begins in London… the kind of London that’s clearly been shot on LA backlots and standing sets. Bless ’em.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episode 1 — Defying the lockdown odds, Bake Off is back! I guess that’d feel more special if this wasn’t the fourth series I’ve watched this year (series 1 in January, series 9 in June, and series 10 in September). Thankfully, An Extra Slice is back too, because that’s the best bit.
  • Jonathan Creek Specials + Series 5 Episode 1 — We’ve reached “the rubbish ones” now, where the plots get too far-fetched (in The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, a couple improvise on the spot an elaborate coverup for… a complete accident) or, in the case of series 5 opener The Letters of Septimus Noone, don’t even function like a proper episode (it shows the answer to the mystery at the start!) I used to allows hope Creek would keep coming back, but if it carries on like this, maybe it’s best if it doesn’t.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 18-20 — When this started, its best feature was how grounded and plausible it was. Now we have serial killers scheming from within prison and dirty cops framing rookies for elaborate criminal enterprises. In short, it’s getting a bit like other OTT cop shows, which is a shame. I half expected it to be cancelled given recent events in the US, but it hasn’t been, which is good because season 2 ends on a huge cliffhanger.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Haunting of Bly ManorThis month, I have mostly been missing The Haunting of Bly Manor, the followup to The Haunting of Hill House, which I also never got round to watching. This is the perfect month for that kind of thing, obviously, so I ought to make the effort. Not sure I will, mind. Same goes for Lovecraft Country, which I heard a lot of good things about, and then heard less good things about, and now I’m just not sure. I mean, there’s so much TV to watch nowadays, you gotta be careful not to waste that precious viewing time. And I’m sure there’s been a bunch of other stuff, but God, never mind watching it, I can’t even keep up with remembering it all.

    Next month… The Mandalorian is back. (Not watched season one of that yet, either.)

  • The Past Month on TV #61

    As I mentioned in my August review, this TV column was meant to go up last month, but I didn’t get round to it and now there’s tonnes to cover. So, let’s get cracking…

    Lucifer  Season 5 Episodes 1–8
    Lucifer season 5AThe Fox Netflix comic book adaptation reimagining returns for its final penultimate season. For most of its production cycle, season 5 was indeed intended to be the end of Lucifer. Apparently it was only when they came to writing the finale that they realised it contained a whole season’s worth of material, and so a sixth season was brought into being. And for this first half of season 5 — or season 5A, if you prefer — it does feel like things are headed towards an ending, mainly because of the reveal/cliffhanger on the midseason finale (no spoilers here!)

    Before that, we get to see Tom Ellis exercise his acting chops by playing Lucifer’s scheming, American-accented twin brother, Michael, and a fun episode where all the cast get to play at being in a black-and-white ’40s film noir. That episode, It Never Ends Well for the Chicken, is an absolute delight, one of the series’ best ever, and is also by far the lowest-rated on IMDb. Some people don’t deserve nice things… Anyway, the season as a whole continues in the same vein as ever, albeit leaning a little more into its fantastical arc plots (as it also did last season, to be fair). It’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out, bearing in mind everyone thought they were making an ending until very late in the day.

    The Crown  Season 2
    The Crown season 2When I last watched The Crown, Peter Capaldi was still the Doctor, the Netflix MCU was still expanding, and there was still a month left of the glorious days before “is Twin Peaks season 3 a movie?” debates. I enjoyed that first season, so quite why it’s taken me this long to get round to the second, I don’t know. Anyway, season two is in some ways the second half of season one — in my first season review I noted that the storyline about Philip’s position relative to Elizabeth was left open-ended, and the second run does indeed follow up on that, providing the focus of the first few episodes and a throughline that’s only really resolved in the finale (whether they’ll pick back up on it with the new, older cast in future seasons, I guess I’ll find out later). Whether its historical accuracy is strictly, well, accurate is still debatable, but any modifications or embellishment to fact are to the aid of making a compelling drama, which this undoubtedly is. Some people will never get on board with caring about the rarefied family and political problems of a royal family, but I think it’s remarkable how human and relatable those often are; and, when they’re not, they’re usually at least of some historical significance.

    Archer  Season 7
    Archer season 7After being less ambivalent about Archer’s fifth season experiment, Archer Vice, I was delighted to see it return to its original espionage trappings for season 6. I guess the writing team disagreed, because once again they’ve relocated the cast to a new setting: as a private detective agency in LA. For me, this played much like Vice did: I enjoyed it enough while it was on, but overall it can’t seem to equal the quality of the spy-based seasons. The storylines often aren’t as engaging; the humour isn’t as effective.

    Next up is a period of the show where they pushed the setting even further from the original format each season, which doesn’t fill me with excitement, for obvious reasons. Though first up is “a 1947 noir-esque Los Angeles setting”, which does sound up my street. Fingers crossed.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 3–4 + Specials
    Jonathan CreekThis particular batch of Creek episodes begins with Christmas special Black Canary, which aired between series 2 and 3. It’s one of the series’ very best episodes (indeed, it’s the top-rated on IMDb), a great mystery with an atmospheric snowbound Christmastime setting. Unfortunately, things then go off the boil a bit in series 3. Every single episode is written by David Renwick, and you wonder if he was beginning to run out of fresh, clever ideas. Nonetheless, there are some highlights here: a missing alien corpse; a mystery where a missing apostrophe may be a vital clue; and creepy one where a man apparently crawled up some steps after being shot in the head.

    But the next Christmas special, Satan’s Chimney, is a definite return to form — the kind of Gothic mystery one associates with Creek but actually only gets from time to time. It’s the second best-ever episode according to IMDb voters. It’s also the first after costar Caroline Quentin departed the show. Julia Sawalha makes a solid replacement, depending on personal preference (I think Maddy is the better character; my partner disliked her intensely was glad to see her replaced). Unfortunately, the ensuing series 4, in which she also costars, seems to struggle for ideas even more than series 3, including some particularly dark and unpleasant mysteries.

    And then, following a five-year gap (enough for Renwick to recharge, I guess), we get another feature-length special, The Grinning Man, which once again leans into the Gothic, and, once again, finds it works out for the best — it’s the fourth best-ever episode per IMDb voters. I’m seeing a pattern emerge. It also introduces another new sidekick in the form of Sheridan Smith, who adds a bit of sparky youth, even in spite of Renwick’s slightly “old man trying to write young person” characterisation of her. Unfortunately, this may be where the “good stuff” ends, at least if we’re to believe IMDb: no future episode even cracks the top 20, with five of the remaining seven right at the bottom of the chart. Oh dear.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Kick the CanThis month’s penultimate selection of the original Twilight Zone‘s best episodes begins with one that was remade by Steven Spielberg for the film revival, Kick the Can. It’s mostly a very grounded episode, set in an old people’s home where one ‘troublemaker’ tries to incite the others to have some fun. He has a crazy “fountain of youth”-type theory… which, of course, turns out to be true (this is The Twilight Zone, after all). It’s a very sweet episode, with a nice little message — essentially, you’re only as old as you feel; it’s about having an attitude that keeps you young. But trust TZ to not let it be entirely nice, adding a bit of glumness to even a happy ending by having one guy get left out. The movie version expanded on the ending, which was criticised by some, but those additions were actually the suggestion of the original episode’s writer.

    Sticking with the big-screen theme, Mirror Image was reportedly the inspiration behind Jordan Peele’s Us, which doesn’t surprise me because Us came to mind while I was watching it. They’re not that similar to execution, just base concept — a woman waiting for a bus thinks she’s going mad when other people in the depot tell her she’s done things she doesn’t remember… but then she spots her doppelgänger in a mirror. It’s a creepy premise, and some moments provide suitable visualisations of that idea, but unfortunately it runs out of places to go with its setup, and the ending is inconclusive. Us does it better because it does go somewhere with it. Plus, Us‘s explanation for what’s actually going on is just as unsettling as when it was all unexplained, whereas Mirror Image undermines itself with some mumbo jumbo about parallel universes.

    A Penny for Your Thoughts hasn’t inspired any cinematic do-overs (that I know of), but it’s easy to imagine it being reworked as a mid-’90s Jim Carrey comedy. It’s about a bank clerk who tosses a penny and it lands on its side, which grants him the ability to hear others’ thoughts (I’m sure that’s scientifically accurate). Unfortunately, it seems he’s not the brightest spark, because he keeps talking to people as if they’d just said their thoughts out loud. Okay, if this happened to you then you wouldn’t believe it and it might take you a moment to catch on… but even once this guy twigs, he keeps making the same mistake. Anyway, it builds up to a nice little twist (just because someone’s thinking about something doesn’t mean they’ll follow through) and, no spoilers, but it comes to a happy ending. A pleasant Twilight Zone episode?! A veritable rarity.

    People Are Alike All OverConversely, there’s a typical Twilight Zone parable to be found in People Are Alike All Over. Unfortunately, it’s one of those episodes that only comes into its own at the final reveal — the journey there seems padded out to fill the requisite amount of screen time. Some of the pulp-SF stuff seems a bit dated now (the idea that Mars might be inhabited by an entire race of human-like beings is, obviously, daft), but it’s all in aid of an accurately cynical critique of mankind and our attitude to new discoveries.

    The simply-titled season three opener is Two, named for its characters: two survivors from opposing sides of a devastating war, who bump into each other in a deserted town and proceed to eye each other up as they mooch around semi-aimlessly. It’s conceptually sound (about reconciliation between individuals when there’s no point fighting anymore), but dull in execution — so much of it is just them wandering around, not reconciling. Alternatively, it’s “an ethereal poem of an episode” (per Thrillist). I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.

    The Last Flight might be my pick for the most underrated Twilight Zone episode. I know I’m including it in a review of ‘best’ episodes, but this is the ninth such selection, and I’d rate it much higher — in my opinion, it’s one of the series’ very best instalments. Written by the great Richard Matheson (arguably a more consistent writer than even Rod Serling; but then he only wrote 16 episodes vs Serling’s 92), it’s the story of a World War I pilot who lands at a present-day American airforce base. I won’t spoil what unfolds from there, because the episode is perfectly conceived and executed from beginning to end, a note of praise I wouldn’t apply to even some of the most well-regarded episodes. Part of why it’s so good is that it doesn’t just settle for its first idea — there’s a twist, and then there’s character development, and a final reveal/confirmation. Not every Twilight Zone episode bothers to add so much detail or so much character richness.

    In Praise of PipFinally, Jack Klugman makes his fourth and final TZ appearance as the lead of In Praise of Pip. He plays a bookkeeper and failed father, now worried about his grown son who’s been injured in Vietnam (this is before the full-on Vietnam war, by-the-by — it’s speculated that this might be the first time the country was mentioned in a US drama). What plays out is the story of a man realising he’s wasted his chance to enjoy his kid’s childhood. It’s a good theme, and one fit to be given a fantastical Twilight Zone spin (it makes a change for a TZ episode to be about a man revisiting someone else’s childhood), but I wasn’t convinced by how it played out. In part, he makes a deal with God that thousands, millions, of other parents have tried to make, without success, because they don’t live in the Twilight Zone. I’m not sure how this would play with them… That aside, BuzzFeed describe the episode as “sweet. Harmless. Moving in a boring, safe sort of way,” and I’d tend to agree. On the bright side, it has one great scene in a hall of mirrors — a well-worn cinematic device but here justified with some clever compositions. Like the majority of Twilight Zone episodes, there’s always something to like.

    Also watched…
  • Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control — This celebration of Brown’s 20 years on TV featured lots of nice clips and reminisces, which made me want to go back and watch loads of stuff in full. Being made by his own production team, it did lack a bit of external context and opinion; and the new live trick was too obviously played and consequently underwhelming — based on what I’ve read on social media, everyone expected a twist that never came.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 10 — I’m all caught up on Bake Off now, ready for the new series that recently completed filming in lockdown. The show continues to live up to its amiable reputation, but the real highlight for me is aftershow An Extra Slice — sometimes I feel like I’m watching GBBO just so I get to watch Jo Brand, Tom Allen, and their guests (lovingly) take the piss out of it.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — This Netflix standup special was much discussed on its release back in 2018. I’m not the person best placed to write too much about it, but I will say that I thought it was indeed brilliant — often funny, but also incredibly powerful, and ultimately more like an emotive, cathartic ‘lecture’ (for want of a better word) than a traditional standup gig.
  • Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years — Originally meant to air alongside The Promised Land (but delayed by lockdown), this three-part documentary recounting the history of Red Dwarf features many anecdotes that will be familiar to the hardcore fanbase (the DVDs had a thorough series of making-of docs, after all), but it’s still a fun and informative overview.
  • The Rookie Season 2 Episodes 1-17 — The first season of this new-cop drama was notable for how it kept things grounded and plausible. The second run sees the writers straining against that a bit: sometimes it seems like their massive LA precinct actually only has half-a-dozen cops (i.e. the main cast) who always hang out and get involved in every case; and those cases are getting more outlandish too, including serial killers and conspiracies. And yet it’s still a very enjoyable, relatively easy watch.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella Academy season 2This month, I have mostly been missing the second season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’ve heard fantastic things about. I never got round to watching season one (although I meant to), so I really should catch up. And talking of “second seasons of superhero shows I never got round to the first season of”, Amazon just started The Boys season two. I want to catch up on that, too.

    Back to Netflix, who also just released mission-to-Mars drama Away. It’s a concept that always entices me, even if the last one I tried, Mars, was so weak I only ever watched one episode. They’ve also recently launched Young Wallander, a reboot that sees the Swedish detective as a junior cop in the present day. Not sure how I feel about that — what makes it Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? I’ll find out at some point, hopefully.

    Next month… talking of stuff Netflix have recently added, they’ve got the first two seasons of YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel, Cobra Kai, ahead of their premiere of the third season next year. I’ll definitely be covering that next month, as well as… I dunno, whatever else turns up and/or I finally get round to watching.

    Plus more Twilight Zone. There’s a lot of that to go yet.

  • The Past Month on TV #59

    Normally I format these TV columns with new (or new-ish) stuff first, followed by older/archive programmes, in a broad-sweep kinda way — i.e. it’s not strictly chronological. But this month not much truly counts as “new”, so I’ve gone for the strictly chronological approach.

    In order of appearance, then, this month there’s an RSC production of Macbeth (staged and filmed in 2018 but debuting on BBC Four tonight); the most recent standup show from Daniel Sloss; Netflix’s revival of Lucifer; classic murder mysteries with Jonathan Creek; an early Doctor Who serial; and more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; plus the usual bits & bobs at the end.

    Macbeth
    RSC Macbeth (2018)This Royal Shakespeare Company production from 2018, starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, has apparently been on iPlayer since April, but only came to my attention thanks to a TV screening scheduled for tonight (on BBC Four at 9:30pm).

    You probably know the story: Scottish lord Macbeth bumps into three witches who prophesy he’ll become king, a goal he sets out to achieve by murder. This particular production has some nice ideas, including casting the witches as a trio of creepy little girls in pyjamas, covering the various ghosts in dust, and an ominously reimagined ending. The real high-point, however, comes when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, which is thanks to Edward Bennett’s understated but powerfully emotional reaction. It justifies why it’s Macduff who gets to vanquish Macbeth at the climax. That’s another good bit, actually, with a convincingly-realised stage fight (something I’ve not seen achieved too often).

    There’s also a big countdown clock that starts ticking when the king is killed and then remains visible throughout — I feel like it takes some balls to have a countdown running during a live performance! Unfortunately, for much of the time the clock just serves to remind you how long is left during a production that I often found a bit slow. The cast frequently race through their lines and run about the place as if a race is on to the finish line, but, counterintuitively, that does not add pace. Altogether, it’s not terrible, but there have been better versions.

    Daniel Sloss: X
    Daniel Sloss: XHaving really enjoyed Sloss’s two Netflix specials back in 2018, I jumped on this 2019 one as soon as I became aware it existed (it was filmed for HBO in the US, but hasn’t made it to any UK broadcaster or streamer (though it had a theatrical release!) But where there’s a will there’s a way…) Hopefully it will become more widely available, because not only is it hilariously funny but it’s packed with so many insightful, timely routines that I don’t even know where to start. Some of the stuff he has to say should be glaringly obvious (about improvements to sex ed, for instance), and yet has society changed? Obviously not. And then, as is Sloss’s style, he blindsides you with a finale that is hard-hitting but still manages to elicit laughs. Few other comedians, or forms of entertainment fullstop, manage to be so funny or so effectively thought-provoking, and I’m not sure any others manage to combine the two so well.

    Lucifer  Season 4
    Lucifer season 4After three seasons on network TV (or Amazon Prime Video here in the UK), Lucifer fell prey to 2018’s bloodbath cancellation season. It was ultimately revived by Netflix, and it seems to have gone well for them: after this they commissioned a fifth and final season, then upped its episode count, then changed their mind and are negotiating for a sixth season.

    The move to streaming had minimal affect on the show itself, with many things remaining exactly the same: 45-minute-ish episodes, each with a case-of-the-‘week’ plot, and fades-to-black for ad breaks that will never, ever come. It’s only subtleties that are different; the kind of thing only production geeks might even register — that there’s marginally more swearing, violence, and nudity; more special effects, suggesting a slightly increased budget; and 4K HDR-enhanced photography, which makes the image richer and prettier without fundamentally changing the style or visual language of the show.

    As for stuff everyone would care about — plot, characters, etc — a lot of this season has to deal with the fallout from the revelations in the season three finale. That means the show becomes a bit more invested in the supernatural stuff than before, although that’s mainly left to the arc plots — the cases of the week are still grounded in the mortal realm, with the usual array of reasons and settings to motivate murder. Cunningly, it all ends in a place that would’ve been suitable (if unsatisfying) for the series to never return, had this revival been short lived. Fortunately, we’ve more to look forward to.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 1
    Jonathan Creek series 1I used to love Jonathan Creek back in the day. It was a huge hit, too, gaining high viewing figures and a BAFTA award. On the surface it doesn’t look so special: two mismatched individuals solve murders. But it’s the execution that’s different: these are all “locked room” mysteries, and rather than interview a small array of suspects to guess who did it, they must work out how the murder was even physically possible. Creek is a magician’s trick designer, and the stories kind of work like magic tricks: something seemingly impossible that has a hidden rational explanation. Personally, that’s right up my street, and while some elements of the show are obviously dated (the hairstyles; the cars; the pace is leisurely by modern standards), I think it holds up pretty well.

    Doctor Who  The Time Meddler
    The Time MeddlerLast month, Doctor Who Magazine ran a Twitter ‘world cup’ to find the most popular stories starring the First Doctor. Many of the usual suspects did well, but I was surprised to see The Time Meddler wind up in second place — I’d never realised how much love there was for this story. In fact, I’d never seen it, so naturally I was inspired to dive in.

    The serial is notable in the history of Doctor Who for being the first pseudo-historical — that’s to say, a story set in the past but with science-fiction elements (beyond the presence of the regular characters and the TARDIS, obviously). Also because (spoiler alert!) it’s the first time we meet another member of the Doctor’s race (besides Susan, obviously). That reveal is a long time coming, though. We get there in the Part 3 cliffhanger, which is one for the ages — I can only imagine how it must’ve played back in 1965. (Of course, without internet discussions or fandom as we know it today, I guess it wasn’t as impactful. But for those kids in the know, whew!) It cues a genuinely superb final episode.

    Unfortunately, the three before it feel like we’re taking the long way round to get to the point. The initial setup is enticing, with anachronistic technology turning up in 1066, given an extra zhuzh because new companion Steven doubts the TARDIS can travel in time, and the out-of-place tech seems to prove him right. After that, there’s a lot of back-and-forthing — the kind of stuff that feels like forward momentum in the moment, but ultimately just moves pieces back to where they were. The Doctor even goes missing for an entire episode (so William Hartnell could have a holiday), which leads to even more wheel-spinning. At least Douglas Camfield’s direction is really rather good… until he attempts to stage a multi-combatant sword fight within the budgetary, scheduling, and technological limitations of 1960s children’s television. It’s not really his fault, I’m sure, but it fails to be an exciting bit of TV.

    I feel like that’s an excellent two- or maybe even three-parter in The Time Meddler — when it finally gets to the point in the final episode, it’s fantastic, but the first three-quarters are much less engaging. It’s worth it for that final part, but there are more consistently excellent First Doctor stories that I’d rank higher.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
    Jess-BelleThis third selection of episodes deemed the series’ worst (according to the consensus ranking I compiled) mean I’ve now seen the bottom 10% of episodes, which I think is a good time to call a day on being miserable and return to the good stuff. As for the following seven editions, many of them are not fundamentally flawed, but each has some element that doesn’t work or a stumble in their execution that prevents them from achieving the full quality of a good Twilight Zone episode.

    Continuing to move up the rankings, in 149th place is Still Valley, in which TZ basically tells us there are “good people on both sides” as a Confederate soldier is presented with a book of witchcraft that he could use to change the tide of the war, but refuses to do it because it means calling on the powers of Satan. And that’s all for your 25 minutes. As Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste writes, “we watch The Twilight Zone for its morally complex and hard-hitting narratives. Still Valley is so vanilla, it belongs in a show called The Light Zone.” It’s a solid episode for the most part, but with a maddeningly uninteresting conclusion.

    Next up is a season four episode (i.e. an hour-long one), Jess-Belle. At its core it’s a gender flipped version of The Chaser (reviewed last time), in which a young woman wants a particular man to fall in love with her. The main difference is that whereas before the (male) daemon was actually trying to help the main character (by hoping to talk him out of it), the (female) witch here seems more of a malicious, trickster-ish force. There are one or two effectively creepy bits, but it’s weak sauce by TZ standards, with no lesson to be learned and an irritating folksy song that keeps popping up throughout. On Blu-ray it comes with an audio commentary in which TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree spends the entire running time singing the episode’s praises and the writer, Earl Hamner, basically nods along with a “yes, I’m a genius” attitude. On the bright side, it did help me to see some of the episode’s qualities. For example, the extended running time allows room for scenes that would otherwise have been cut, and are actually among the episode’s better bits. And you learn that it was written in just a week as a last-minute replacement — bearing that in mind, it’s not so bad.

    Come Wander with MeThe next episode in our rundown is also based around a song: Come Wander with Me, in which a wandering singer attempts to buy a folksong from a young woman, only to find he might be living the lyrics… maybe. It’s a bit unclear what’s really happening, or why. It’s got some nice ideas, with mysterious characters, the haunting song, and some atmospheric direction by Richard Donner, but it comes to no kind of conclusion. How has this happened before? Has it happened before? Why is it happening again now? The episode barely even begins to ask those questions, never mind answer them; and not in a Lynchian “it’s up to your interpretation” way, which would be fine, but it doesn’t even seem to be aware those questions exist. Frustrating.

    The Brain Center at Whipple’s is set in the future year of 1967, when a company is replacing tens of thousands of staff with a machine. What an implausible notion, eh? This episode is no more than a rather dated lecture about automation — the warning has been ignored, but none of the terrible things foretold have come to pass (…yet). The ending is both painfully obvious (Mr Whipple himself gets replaced by a machine) and silly (said machine is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, waddling around Whipple’s office spinning a keychain for no reason other than Mr Whipple used to). It doesn’t help any that “Whipple” is an inherently silly-sounding name.

    Next up is one of the show’s frequent excursions into the Old West in Showdown with Rance McGrew. They surely made sense at the time, when Westerns were ubiquitous on US TV, but if you didn’t know that it can seem a bit weird that a sci-fi/fantasy show is so obsessed with the era. You do need to know that context for this episode, though, because it’s actually a riff on all those TV Westerns. The first half is basically a spoof of them, which I imagine was rather effective back in the ’60s, because it remains moderately amusing now. After establishing that the show’s star is a bit of a prima donna sissy, he’s magically transported back to the real West, where he must face up to the actual Jesse James, who’s been watching the show and is none too impressed. It’s quite a fun episode, but the idea that gunslingers in the afterlife spend all their time watching movies and TV and getting their feelings hurt about how they’re portrayed is… well, it feels kinda daft, but eh, why not? It makes me wonder if Serling didn’t like Westerns or their attitude to history, and so this whole episode was just an exercise in critiquing them. As such, it’s not too bad.

    The Mind and the MatterThe ‘hero’ of The Mind and the Matter hates people. They bump into him on the subway; they squish against him in the elevator; they accidentally pour coffee over him at work. If he had his way, all the people would just disappear. After he reads a book about the power of the mind, he instantly gains the power to make his thoughts real (no practice required, apparently), and so immediately does away with everyone else. Hurrah! But after a morning’s work in peace and quiet, he’s bored, with no idea what to do. So the first thing he imagines to enliven his world is… an earthquake. Um, what? Unsatisfied with imagining different weather phenomena, and apparently unable to conceive of anything else whatsoever to occupy his interest, he decides to fill the world with people just like him. That results in a world full of grumblers and moaners, which he finds even more distasteful than how it was before — so he just puts it all back. It’s almost a lesson in what happens if you give unlimited power to unimaginative people… except that’s not the point the episode actually wants to make, so it doesn’t really make it. Instead it’s going for “this world isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative and there’s a lot to like”. But it doesn’t make us feel that, it just tells us it. Heck, even the character doesn’t feel it — he’s just as miserable at the end as he was at the start. The whole affair is sort of an infinitely stupider rehash of the classic Time Enough at Last, only without any ironic point. And there are some terrible prosthetic effects, which I struggle to believe convinced anyone even on low-res ’60s TV. Basically, it’s a wholly inadequate episode from every angle.

    Finally for now, The Mirror is the story of a Castro-analogous rebel general (played by Peter Falk) who has successfully taken control of his Central American country, when the former ruler introduces him to a magic mirror that will show any would-be assassins — which just so happens to be more-or-less everyone he knows. I guess it’s meant to be a study in paranoia, although Serling’s opening and closing voiceovers seem to be framing it more as a criticism of tyrants. As the latter, it borders on propaganda, which kind of undermines the former. It’s a reasonable concept, thinly executed.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 1-14 — I last watched this modern-day Sherlock Holmes in 2017 (and last properly commented on it here in 2016), which I guess shows my level of dedication to it. In truth, I’ve warmed to it over the years. I’m still not convinced it’s a faithful adaptation of the original characters (and certainly not of the stories), but, taken on its own merits, it has good qualities. My favourite of those: the way it’s sometimes prepared to offer quite outlandish storylines, ones that border on science-fiction or pulp genre fare, rather than your bog-standard procedural homicide stuff.
  • Eurovision 2020 — Didn’t actually happen, of course. In its place, the BBC offered a special called Come Together, in which past highlights chosen by a panel of experts were voted on by the public. There were some spectacularly weird choices in there, and of course Waterloo won. That was followed by the official replacement show, Europe Shine a Light. The title is a reference to the last time the UK actually won — were they attempting to keep us on side? It was an odd affair, but still entertaining in its own way. There’s nothing quite like Eurovision… and this wasn’t quite like Eurovision. Still, I suspect it’ll be better than that Netflix film, if its trailer is anything to go by.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 9 — Beginning a catch-up on the last couple of series. This is the 2018 one, if you need a point of reference. Also watched all of companion show An Extra Slice, which is sometimes even better than the main programme, mainly thanks to Tom Allen’s caustic humour.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 16-20 — Another handful of episodes (spanning from the unexpected, emotionally devastating Greenlight to the gripping and now-timely season finale (it’s about the risk of a deadly virus released into the population)) that remind this is a more-than-solid example of a US network TV police drama. Looking forward to season two… though with US networks currently cancelling many police-related series, I guess a third season looks uncertain.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 8 — Just in case you think I’d forgotten about it. Hey, next month I might finish it!

    Next month… I’m not aware of anything in particular coming up, so hopefully I’ll finally dig into my massive pile of “stuff I’ve been meaning to get round to”. Roll a dice for whether that means The Mandalorian or Devs or Killing Eve or Westworld or Jack Ryan or Jessica Jones or The Witcher or Veronica Mars or Peaky Blinders or The Boys or…

  • The Past Month on TV #55

    It’s SF/F-agogo in this month’s TV update, with new Star Trek, new Doctor Who, old Twilight Zone, and I’ve finally finished His Dark Materials too.

    Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 3-5
    Doctor Who series 12Well, it certainly has been an eventful first half to this series of Doctor Who! Never mind bringing back the Master and destroying Gallifrey (again) in the opening two-parter — showrunner Chris Chibnall has much bigger continuity-bothering ideas on his mind. But before that, two standalone episodes.

    The first, Orphan 55, is currently the worst-rated episode of modern Who according to IMDb voters, with a score almost as low as the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale. But whereas I defended that episode, unfortunately I have no love for Orphan 55. I know a lot of people’s issue with it is that it’s a bit of a climate change polemic — some people just hate Who engaging with contemporary ‘political’ issues. Sorry, but it’s been doing that since at least the Pertwee era. It’s normally a mite more subtle than this, though. I mean, The Happiness Patrol is a blatant analogy for Thatcher, but at least it’s an analogy. So Orphan 55’s problem isn’t the content, it’s the delivery: an on-the-nose lecture, practically delivered straight to camera, stapled on the end like an afterthought. But it doesn’t exactly ruin the episode, because the rest of it isn’t much cop either: a logically-dubious runaround with a shopworn twist (one that Doctor Who itself has done before, in fact). But is it actually worse than previous “most despised” editions, like Fear Her and Sleep No More? Um, actually, I think it might be.

    Thankfully, the week after things swung back in the right direction. In previous years Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror would probably have been regarded as a solid midseason bit of fun, but in the current era it virtually amounts to a classic. There were undeniable overtones of the Racnoss in the creature design, and Vincent and the Doctor in its depiction of an unappreciated-in-his-time historical genius (I half expected them to take Tesla into the future to show him there was a car named after him), but plenty of Who is like other parts of Who (it is 57 years and 879 episodes old, after all, not to mention the uncountable spinoff novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc). All in all, it was fun enough.

    But the real belter was the most recent episode, Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s most impressive as a bit of show-running stagecraft: foregrounding a popular returning monster in the title and publicity (the Judoon, obv) in order to hide the long-awaited return of a popular character (Captain Jack), which was a big surprise that in itself is designed to distract you from the real twist: another incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin.The two Doctors Social media and fan forums and whatnot have debated and analysed that revelation to death, so I won’t bother digging too much into all the possibilities of what it means — only time can tell. I will stake out this opinion, though: I am not a fan of the theory that she’s a pre-Hartnell version of the Doctor. The idea there were incarnations before the one we know as the first has always seemed disrespectful to me, somehow. Yeah, the Daleks ‘made’ Doctor Who, but Hartnell gave it his all too — without him week to week, and the effort he put into public appearances and the like, would the series have survived those early years? He’s not the only thing responsible for its success, and certainly not for its longevity, but he was The First — leave that be, thanks.

    But, as I say, we’ll find out in time. More interesting to me, for now, is how showrunner Chris Chibnall is going about his job nowadays. Comparing his two seasons so far, Chibnall’s attitude to reusing stuff from Who’s past seems to be — very literally — all or nothing. Last season, he made a point of not using any continuity — no returning characters or villains, no significant references to the Doctor’s past or previous adventures. This season, he seems to be using all the continuity. I can’t remember a Doctor Who story so loaded with references to not-recent previous adventures as this one. Even the Chameleon Arch gets an outing, a thing that mattered in two stories that aired 13 years ago. It feels like Chibnall is an RTD-era fanboy revelling in bringing back stuff from a time when the show was at its peak of popularity. Maybe that’s what it needs right now. Though, in a broader sense, I feel like last season was Chibnall trying to copy RTD-in-2005 (fresh! new! start watching here!), while this time he’s doing his best to be Moffat-in-2011 (complicated mysteries! revisionist continuity! wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations!)

    Whether these additions to the mythology are interesting and productive, or whether it’ll be like “half-human” and fans ignore it ASAP, will depend on what’s to come. Either way, it’s the most exciting the show’s been in a good few years, and that’s something in itself.

    Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episode 1
    Star Trek: Picard season 1The Star Trek series boldly goes where it’s never gone before: into the Prestige TV market. (Despite initial appearances, based on things like the reviews I’ve read and variably-sized season orders, I’m not sure Discovery was really “prestige TV” in the end.) Is it up to competing with the big boys of this peak TV era?

    Well, after just the first episode, I’m going to hang fire on answering that — on the evidence of this one instalment, it could go either way. It can certainly walk the walk: it looks very nice, with plenty of lush cinematography and expensive visuals (both globe-hopping locations and swish CGI), and it certainly wants to appear weighty, with themes of ageing and decay (not only of people but also institutions). But can it talk the talk? Does it actually have things to say beyond “Picard is old now, and Starfleet’s a bit shit”? Once upon a time I’d’ve said the fact it’s heavily (heavily) embedded in existing Trek continuity was a barrier, both to entry (“only fans will know enough to follow the plot”) and quality (“it’s so busy looking to the past it doesn’t do anything new”) and acclaim (“I’m not a Trekkie so I didn’t care”) — but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, as HBO’s Watchmen only just proved: you can reuse and remix and lean hard on previous texts, and still produce a high-quality work. That said, while Picard does invest energy in making sure newbies have all the continuity stuff explained, I feel like the show already shows signs of wavering towards Trek’s usual habits, for good or ill. But there’s an interesting enough set of mysteries just getting underway, and it’s always great to see Patrick Stewart, so I remain optimistic it’s going to go somewhere good.

    His Dark Materials  Series 1
    His Dark Materials series 1I reviewed the first three episodes of His Dark Materials in my previous regular update, just over a month ago, but I’d actually watched them much earlier, so when I returned to the series in the new year I decided to restart from the beginning. That improved my opinion of them considerably, I must say, but then a second viewing always has the ability to help clarify things you were unclear of before. Still, I got much more invested this time, and was swept along for the ride and the mysteries the show unfurled. Like the two series I’ve reviewed above, there’s plenty of mystery and intrigue here — some of it answered, much of it left hanging for future seasons (there’s two whole books to come, intended to be adapted across four more seasons). But even in this first salvo, events and characters move in interesting directions. It’s a very dark show at times, especially for something adapted from what are ostensibly children’s books, but that at least creates a genuine sense of jeopardy and unpredictability. So too the way it handles its characters — there’s not just simplistic twists of “hero turns out to be villain” or vice versa, but definite shades of grey. With the promise of whole new worlds to come, I’m definitely excited to see what’s next.

    Also, I bloody love the theme music now.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The Midnight SunIt’s been six months since I did one of my “best of The Twilight Zone” roundups, but I always intended to continue them, so here we are again.

    Having already reviewed the top ten episodes as ranked by several different sources (IMDb voters, ScreenCrush, and Paste), I decided to resume my journey through the original Twilight Zone by producing an average of various different lists to identify which instalments are acclaimed by consensus (because that’s the kind of thing I do). To help broaden the range of opinions, I added a bunch of new lists to my calculations — namely, Ranker’s The Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time as sorted by voters; Buzzfeed’s Ranking Every Episode by Arianna Rebolini; TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes Ranked by Joal Ryan: and Thrillist’s The 50 Best Episodes by Scott Beggs.

    This new average ranking gave me a fresh top ten with a couple of episodes I’d not seen. The first of those was in 9th place (also, for what it’s worth, it’s now in IMDb’s top ten too, having moved up from 11th to 8th since I last looked). That’s The Masks, which I think is one of the series’ best-paced episodes. I’ve found that even some of the greatest episodes can feel a little thin, with a singular concept that only just fills 25 minutes, but this one doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second — and yet it’s as simple and clear a concept as any. That’s perhaps when TZ is at its best: simple but effective concepts, cleanly executed. And there’s a moral lesson too, of course.

    I was slightly less impressed by The After Hours, which finishes off the consensus top ten. It’s an effectively creepy edition for the most part, with some genuine scares, but for me it was slightly undermined by the final explanation, which I don’t think quite hangs together with what’s gone before. A definite case of “it’s about the journey not the destination”, then, because up ’til that point it’s superb.

    Number 12 Looks Just Like YouMoving beyond the top ten to complete the top 10% (i.e. the 16 best episodes), next is Number 12 Looks Just Like You (which, by-the-by, comes 10th on Thrillist). This is what some people might call “proper sci-fi” — an idea of the future spun out of what’s possible in the present, using it to present an analogy for the times we live in. And what is the analogy? In this case, there’s a few things you can read into it: mental health; conformism; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maybe all of the above; maybe something else. The only real downside is the episode hints at a wider world that isn’t explored. It’s mentioned in passing that the writing of Shakespeare, Keats, and others has been banned. Why? By whom? And while a bunch of middle-class white people are choosing which generic model they want to look like, what about other races? Class is less of an immediate issue because it seems this is a government-backed thing that everyone must undergo — but then, why do the lower classes get to look just the same as their ‘betters’? Surely there’d be different models depending on your social station? Never mind a 25-minute episode, someone could spin an entire series out of this… Still, having so much to ponder is one mark of a very good episode.

    The Midnight Sun is the penultimate episode in the top 16, and also is another one that’s 10th on one list, this time Ranker’s. I’d probably put it even higher — this is definitely one of my favourite episodes so far. It takes a massive world-altering event and shows it to us from the point of view of two ordinary women; and not even from when the event happens or is discovered, but from a month into the new status quo, when it’s become a fact of life rather than some revelation. It’s a different way to approach such a story even today, and it works all the more for it. And, of course, there’s a twist (spoiler to come!) — one of the very, very few times “it was just a dream” works.

    Robert Redford invites you to The Twilight ZoneFinally for now, the last episode in the top 16 (and the only one of today’s episodes not in anyone’s top ten), Nothing in the Dark. Probably best known for staring a young Robert Redford, it’s about an old woman who’s paranoid and agoraphobic due to her fear of meeting Death; but when Redford’s cop is shot right outside her door, she has to let him in to save his life. It’s a nice idea for a story, but (to loop back to what I was saying about The Masks) it feels a little slight in the execution. Half of the second act is taken up in a diversion with a demolition guy which is just that, a diversion. Still, there are very good performances from the two leads, and it comes with a well-meant little message by the end.

    Also watched…
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — I love this show with all my heart. Episode 3 was perhaps the best yet (even the title, A Trial to Watch, is a gag). So this is a friendly reminder that the series so far is available on iPlayer and the sixth (and final, *sob*) episode is on tonight.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — I joined Bake Off before it was an all-encompassing phenomenon, with series two. So I’ve always meant to go back and see the one season I’d missed, especially since the whole lot became available on Netflix. It’s funny watching it now, though, because so much of it is familiar as Bake Off, but it’s early days and it’s unrefined. It’s a bit like watching a version of the show made by someone who pretty much remembers how it works but not exactly.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve never seen all of TNG (far from it), so as Picard is expected to be heavily indebted to existing continuity, I sought out a few likely-to-be-relevant episodes. The first was season 5 episode 23, I Borg, which is regarded as one of the series’ very best, and deservedly so. The other was the season 6 finale / season 7 premiere, a two-parter called Descent, which I guess was decent. There’s some good stuff in the first half about Data dealing with the possibility of experiencing emotion, but the second half is a bit too pulpy in a way I’m not sure fits Trek (or at least my idea of it). If any Trekkies reading this have other episodes they’d recommend (for relevance to Picard, not just because they’re good), I’m open to suggestions.
  • Twin Peaks in UHD — The recently-released Twin Peaks: From Z to A box set includes a bonus disc with two episodes in 4K Ultra HD. Yeah, just two. Why they didn’t do the full series, who knows. Expense, I guess. Some people reckon this is testing the waters for a full-series UHD release, but I dunno — considering they’ve already released the whole series on individual season DVDs, then a complete box set DVD, then Blu-ray, now a collector’s edition Blu-ray, do they think they’ll manage to sell it to people again? Sure, there’ll be some customers, but enough? Anyway, the two episodes here are the original pilot and season 3 / A Limited Event Series / The Return (whatever you want to call it) Part 8. The latter looked pretty great, even without HDR enhancement; the former… I’m counting as a movie, so will write about in January’s Rewatchathon segment.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Good OmensThis month, I have mostly been missing Good Omens… again! I didn’t get round to it on Prime Video when it premiered last May, and now it’s airing weekly on BBC Two but I still haven’t started it. I read the book as a kid and absolutely loved it (for a very long time I would’ve said it was my favourite novel), so when they announced a miniseries adaptation I was excited — especially as it was being managed by Neil Gaiman himself and starred a bunch of my favourite actors, not least Michael Sheen and David Tennant in the lead roles. That’s almost the problem: I want to watch it properly; I can’t just bung it on. Maybe I’ll get to it before next month’s column.

    Also missed: The Trial of Christine Keeler (I hear it got pretty good, but only after a couple of episodes); White House Farm (I’m interested in the case, but apparently the series is overly slow and long-winded); Deadwater Fell (David Tennant again); and probably a tonne of other stuff that’s slipped my mind for the moment…

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Picard, more Twilight Zone. As for new stuff, Locke & Key finally makes it to the screen via Netflix… but that’s about all I can foresee for now. Maybe I will finally do Good Omens

    P.S. If you’re an attentive regular reader who’s thinking, “hold on, did I miss #53 and #54?”, the answer is no, you didn’t — the mistake is mine. A whole year ago, I forgot to count the 2018 Christmas post towards the numbering, which is the way I’d previously done things, so I am belatedly correcting for it by ‘hiding’ the jump alongside the one for 2019’s Christmas post. If you think that’s terribly confusing, just remember: it doesn’t really matter anyway.

  • The Past Month on TV #31

    Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

    Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

    Jessica Jones  Season 2
    Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

    Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

    It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

    This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

    Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

    As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

    Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

    Strike  Career of Evil
    Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

    Shetland  Series 4
    Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

    All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

    Nailed It!  Season 1
    Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

    So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

    Lucifer  Season 1
    LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

    Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • The Past Month on TV #29

    After the bustle of Christmas TV, it’s been a quieter January on the box here at 100 Films Towers. Nonetheless, I did catch up with one of the best series of 2017 — possibly of all time…

    Blue Planet II
    Blue Planet IIDespite the massive hype, I missed this when it aired. I say “missed” — I always intend to watch these big natural history shows, then never get round to them. I confess, it was new tech that persuaded me: after I saw it was all available in UHD on iPlayer, I had to give that a go. And…

    Wow.

    That’s the only word for it, really. Well, it isn’t — “stunning” would be another one. Incredible. Wondrous. Mind-boggling. I’m talking about both the UHD photography and the series itself here. In the latter camp we can also add educational, and informative, and eye-opening, but those are kind of a given — it’s a BBC David Attenborough series, of course it nails that part. Attenborough’s script and delivery strikes the perfect balance between acknowledging the creatures’ intelligence and personalities without slipping into anthropomorphising them. But many of the creatures and places we’re shown are almost unbelievable. Never has that old chestnut “we know more about the surface of the Moon than the oceans” seemed more true. James Cameron is planning to explore the alien life in Pandora’s oceans in Avatar 2, but he’s going to have to go some way to imagine anything more alien than what’s to be found in our real depths. I wonder if he’s seen this? He should. Everyone should.

    If that wasn’t enough, the visuals are awe-inspiring. The vibrant colours of some of these creatures were incredible, unquestionably enhanced by the wider spectrum of HDR. The level of detail the extra resolution seems to afford made it all feel very real too — creatures like dolphins and sharks don’t show gaudy colours, but the texture and sheen of their bodies felt like you could reach out and touch it.

    I wish you could see this in HDR...Now, I didn’t do a comparison to the regular HD stream, so I can’t really say how much better the UHD made things, but I do have a few observations. Related to it looking “more real”, after viewing I saw a good resolution photo taken for the series of one creature (this chap) which didn’t seem to capture the texture of its body in the same way the episode did. That could be the added effect of motion vs a still photo, but it could also be the extra detail from 4K. And talking of comparing still images, when a UHD episode was selected it displayed the iPlayer menu in UHD/HDR too, so I was able to do a direct comparison of each episodes’ key image. In particular, the one pictured above (from episode five) really showed off the vibrancy of HDR.

    Finally, the making-of bits they have at the end of every episode looked more muted than the main show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because they were finished at HD rather than UHD. But that’s not to say those segments looked bad. So while I feel fairly sure the HDR image was better to at least some degree, I’m also certain that at least some of this marvellousness would come across in regular ol’ 1080p — quality does filter down with image resolution, and they’ve done such sterling work here.

    Anyway. Like everyone else, I can’t recommend Blue Planet II enough to anyone… but doubly so if you have a chance to see it in UHD with HDR.

    Little Women
    Little WomenAs I mentioned last time, I’ve never seen or read a previous version of Little Women, but apparently this new one was pretty faithful so I figure I’m all learned about it now. The biggest change appears to be in the ages of the four eponymous heroines: in this version they look to be about the same age, in their late teens or early 20s at the start, but in fact they should be 16, 15, 13 and 12. Quite different. A challenge for adapters, though, because the story covers a timespan of five or more years (by my reckoning). Other films have dodged this by casting two actresses in some roles, but this adaptation sought to avoid that. It has its cons (an early petulant act comes across very differently if done by a 12-year-old versus a c.17-year-old, I think), but it is what it is.

    Anyway, setting that point aside, it seems quite clear why the book has endured in popularity. (Or, if you prefer, books — in the US it’s one novel with a Part 1 and Part 2, but in the UK it’s separated as Little Women and Good Wives. This version adapts both.) There’s a certain tweeness and sweetness to it — it’s about four sisters who are poor but not that poor and all love each and do fun homely things and have romantic entanglements and so on and so forth — but it’s laced with enough seriousness and sadness (to say more would be spoilersome) to add a bit of welcome grit. Plus the big central romance doesn’t pan out how you might expect. Actually, it develops with a solid dose of realism that more romance-based storylines might benefit from.

    This particular adaptation shines with the typical high quality of a BBC drama, with a recognisable elder cast (Emily Watson, Dylan Baker, Michael Gambon, Angela Lansbury) being equalled by a quartet of newcomers and almost-newcomers as the girls — including Maya Hawke, who looks scarily like her mother, Uma Thurman. (Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Seriously, it’s like they’ve used time travel to cast a young Uma Thurman.)

    Also watched…
  • Bright — Well, some people counted it as TV. Review here.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 1-2 — As sunny, breezy, and predictable as its island setting. Reliably lightweight and cheery viewing for dreary January.
  • The Great Christmas Bake Off — For a show just about people competitively baking that I watched in the middle of January, this was surprisingly heartwarming and Christmassy. (Not watched the New Years special yet because the trailer looked strangely disappointing.)
  • Not Going Out The True Meaning of Christmas — The plot may be predictable, but writer-star Lee Mack keeps the jokes coming thick and fast.

    Things to Catch Up On
    McMafiaThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s pair of big, grim January dramas, McMafia and Hard Sun. They both seem to have received a very mixed reaction (not that I’ve been following too closely because, y’know, spoilers), but both have intriguing setups: the former a drama about the global business of the Russian mafia inspired by a non-fiction book; the latter a pre-apocalyptic sci-fi/crime thriller from the creator of Luther.

    Next month… no specific idea, to be honest. But I’ve got the latest seasons of The Crown and Peaky Blinders waiting to be binged, and plenty of Arrow and The Flash to catch up on.

  • The Past Month on TV #25

    Doctors, spin doctors, Dwarfers, and Shakespeare in this month’s comedy-filled TV review. Though we start with an oh-so-serious drama…

    Doctor Foster  Series 2
    Doctor Foster series 2Everyone was a bit surprised when they announced a second series of Doctor Foster. The first was such a finite unit, why risk ruining it? Promises of a type of story that hadn’t been told before also amped up expectations. In the end I find it hard to say if the series disappointed or not because it was kind of out there. Not “out there” like Twin Peaks is “out there”, but the machinations of the various characters went beyond what I imagine most normal people would do in real life. There were some good building blocks though, especially related to how the bitter divorcees handled — or failed to handle — their teenage son, Tom, and the emotional problems he was clearly beginning to develop. His storyline was played off as a subplot, but it was largely more interesting than the sex-obsessed revenge games the adults were playing. So it kind of amused me when the final episode shoved in a montage to emphasise what had been going wrong with Tom, as if to say “look, the kid’s mental health has been deteriorating all along and you missed it!” Well, his parents certainly missed it, but I think us viewers found it pretty bloody obvious. Ironically, this series ended on more of a cliffhanger than the first did, but a third run is only a possibility rather than a definite. At least it serves as its own kind of ending, albeit much bleaker than the first series’. But maybe that’s what these characters, and this show, deserves.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 1-3
    Red Dwarf XIII still think of Red Dwarf as a programme that’s popped back for a bit of a revival, but I guess at this point it counts as just an ongoing show: since Dave brought it back in 2009 they’ve produced four series, half as many as the entire original run on the BBC. Give it another five or six years and they may equal, or perhaps even surpass, that number. It’s been a long time since I actually watched any of those old episodes that made the show’s name, so I can’t offer an opinion on whether the new runs are of the same quality — some say they are, some say they aren’t. Personally, I still think it’s funny overall, and (as I often say) that’s really all you need from a comedy. That said, one thing Dwarf has always done, and continues to do, is draw from actual science and science-fiction concepts to drive its plots and many of its gags. That makes it a proper sci-fi-comedy, rather than just a regular sitcom that happens to be set on a spaceship. Hurrah for that.

    Upstart Crow  Series 2 Episodes 1-4
    Upstart Crow series 2Talking of funny sitcoms, this series of Upstart Crow has been hilarious. Okay, I could do without Harry Enfield turning up as Shakespeare’s dad — almost every scene featuring him sees the humour take a turn towards the puerility of the toilet — but the rest of it is often pretty clever, riffing on Shakespearean plots and trivia. There was even a screenwriting joke in one episode that I guess would pass most people by. It also has a nice line in almost anachronistic humour, where characters comment on a fact of the day that is actually a commentary on modern life. It’s not subtle, and perhaps writer Ben Elton returns to that comedy well too often, but it’s always funny. And as I often say…

    The Thick of It  The Specials
    The Thick of It specialsIt’s funny coming to The Thick of It for the first time now. It was so cutting-edge when it aired, and yet politics has got so much barmier since — these specials debuted a whole decade ago now, when the idea that Trump might be President was the kind of thing no one but sitcom gag writers thought about. That’s not to say the show’s lost any of its bite, just that it’s not as timely as it once was. These two hour-long specials, The Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers (plus 15-minute bonus episode Opposition Extra, which follows some characters from Rise of the Nutters during the events of Spinners and Losers), set their satirical sights on the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that — there’s no reading up required, because The Thick of It is a fiction loosely inspired by real political events, rather than a straight riff on reality. It’s every inch the 21st century’s answer to Yes Minister in that respect. Although there’s an ensemble cast, all of whom are very amusing, the unmistakable star is Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker. With a regime change in the offing, Tucker risks being thrown out as part of the old guard, and so is on the back foot trying to manipulate things to his advantage. After three seasons of Capaldi as the Doctor, witnessing him here use his brain to run rings around other people to get the result he desires now feels like watching a somewhat evil — and much swearier — version of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 1-3 — Still not as good as it used to be, but I’ve reached the final season now so may as well finish it off.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 8 Episodes 4-8 — One minute the Radio Times is all “it’s obvious who’s going to be in the final”; the next, Liam’s out in the quarters.
  • Peaky Blinders Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — Looks like I may catch up on this in time for the forthcoming fourth series. That wasn’t necessarily my plan when I started series one back in March, but here we are. More comments next month when I’ve finished the series.
  • Vixen Seasons 1-2 — er, kinda. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The GiftedThis month, I have mostly been missing The Gifted, the new TV show set definitively in the X-Men universe — unlike the last one, Legion, which apparently wasn’t. As you might infer from that use of “apparently”, I still haven’t got round to Legion either. I also haven’t seen the other new Marvel Comics-related show, Inhumans, which is part of the MCU. After the terrible reviews it’s received, I’m not sure I’ll bother.

    Next month… strangerer things.

  • The Past Month on TV #24

    After my busy summer of TV, this month has been very quiet. Isn’t it meant to be the other way round?

    The Great British Bake Off  Series 8 Episodes 1-3
    The Great British Bake Off 2017After its move to Channel 4, which was as controversial as it was high-profile, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue bothering with GBBO. What would it be without Mel and Sue’s effortless chemistry and terrible puns, or Mary Berry’s kind twinkle? But cake always wins, and after a few weeks I caved and am now gradually catching up (I mean, too much cake in one go is bad for you, right?) Unsurprisingly, it’s still fundamentally the same show. Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding seemed like random picks for the new hosts, but they have the right mix of daftness, quick wit, and empathy to fill Mel and Sue’s shoes, and function surprisingly well as a double act too. New judge Prue Leith is no Mary Berry, but she can do the job. The judging’s hardly the most important bit anyway, is it? That’s the bakes, and they’re as incredible as ever. It’s funny that something that was a tough technical challenge back in series two or three is now just an unmentioned part of something much grander and more complicated. GBBO may have been slightly tarnished by the whole kerfuffle of changing networks and losing popular presenters, but the revised show has turned out to be less a soggy bottom and more a batch of ten almost-but-not-quite-identical sweet treats.

    The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice  Series 4 Episodes 1-3
    An Extra Slice 2017One thing that’s actually been improved by the Bake Off franchise’s move to C4 is this companion show. It always felt a bit cramped before, squeezed into a half-hour when it wanted to be longer, and not allowed to really cut loose with its content because, although it was on the more irreverent BBC Two, it was still on The BBC. In its new home, it’s only been extended by about seven or eight minutes (presumably a result of C4’s commitment not to cut the series’ running time — the old 30 minutes of material plus ads wouldn’t quite fill a 45-minute slot) but that seems to have made the world of difference, allowing it room to breathe and throw in a few more gags. It’s got distinctly cheekier too, which befits host Jo Brand and the kind of guests they have on (mostly comedians). And somehow it never stops being funny how people at home have messed up baking.

    Unforgotten  Series 2
    Unforgotten series 2I get the impression ITV’s cold-case thriller was a bit of a surprise success when the first series aired, because it felt like a finite unit that wasn’t expecting a continuation. Despite not having the grand old acting talent that perhaps made the first run a draw, the second series’ storyline is every bit its equal, a compelling mystery about how a successful entrepreneur came to be murdered and stuffed in a suitcase 26 years ago. The tone of the show takes its lead from its stars, the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, playing a pair of coppers who are calm, understated and methodical when doing their job, but with deep wells of emotion and empathy for the people that job touches. Much of the series ticks along in this way — a good drama, but without many histrionics to wow you — until the finale, when the truth comes out in a devastating episode with heartfelt writing and incredible performances across the board, culminating in a striking final act. Unforgotten is far from the flashiest cop show on TV, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch.

    Also watched…

    Where we're going, we don't need sheds...

    Where we’re going, we don’t need sheds…

  • Amazing Spaces: Shed of the Year Series 4 Episodes 1-2 — Not normally my kind of thing, but episode one featured a cinema ‘shed’ and it was amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so jealous in my life. You might think it’s just the façade pictured above, but oh no! You can have a look at a whole gallery of photos here and weep that you don’t have one in your back garden. Then, episode two had an impressive home-made TARDIS, as well as a little hedgehog rescue. I love hedgehogs. Someone should do a Pixar-esque animated movie starring hedgehogs.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 5-6 — This final series seemed to attract a lot of criticism when it aired, but I think it contains as much good ol’ swashbuckling fun as ever.
  • Tim Vine Travels in Time — Exceptionally silly comedy pilot. What else would you expect from Tim Vine? It was pretty divisive on Twitter (too silly for some, it seems), but I enjoyed it. Hopefully they’ll do a series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Star Trek: DiscoveryThis month, I have mostly been missing the return of Star Trek to TV, in the form of Discovery. It’s “a Netflix original series” everywhere outside the US and Canada, so I imagine I’ll catch up during one of my irregular Netflix subscriptions (after the whole first season is available to binge, of course). Also missed: Rellik, the new thriller with a Memento-esque structure from the writers of The Missing and One of Us, and the second series of Doctor Foster. I’m saving up both for a consecutive-day binge once they’re done.

    Next month… if rumours about a surprise mid-October release date are to be believed, I’ll probably review Netflix’s sixth Marvel show, The Punisher. If those rumours are rubbish, who knows?

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

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

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

    10
    The Great British Bake Off

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

    9
    Detectorists

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

    8
    Mad Men

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

    7
    Outnumbered

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

    6
    Romanzo Criminale

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

    5
    Sherlock

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

    4
    Torchwood: Children of Earth

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

    3
    Doctor Who

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

    2
    The Americans

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

    1
    Game of Thrones

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

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

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmastime: it’s all about family, food, presents, sweets, more food, alcohol, a bit more food, some kid who was born a while ago, and also food. But most of all, it’s about TV. Oh dear Lord, so much TV.

    Is it just me and my insanely broad and forgiving interests, or has there been more TV to watch this Christmas than normal? Every day in our copy of the Radio Times’ “legendary” Christmas issue seems alight with highlighter markings, an endless parade of visual entertainment to… well, to add to the list of stuff to watch later on catch-up, mainly. But I did actually watch some of it, and here is what I thought.

    Doctor Who The Return of Doctor Mysterio
    Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor MysterioThe controversial Steven Moffat era of nuWho is headed towards its end, but before his final full series next year there’s this penultimate Christmas special. There have been 12 of them now and they’re always divisive: some people think they’re too Christmassy, some that they’re not Christmassy enough; some like that they’re standalone adventures suited to a broader audience, but other times they’re not standalone enough… Each year presents a different mix of these elements, pleasing some and alienating others.

    This year, Doctor Who taps into the zeitgeist by finally tackling superheroes, with a riff off classic-styled Superman. Personally, I thought it was the best Christmas episode for years — a fun, exciting, witty, entertaining romp, that captured the tone of the superhero genre but gave it Doctor Who’s typical gently-irreverent spin. The tone was perfectly suited to Christmas day.

    But was there too much or too little Christmas in it? Well, I’ve seen critics put it in their top five Who Christmasses purely because there wasn’t much Christmas, and Letterboxd fans write it off purely because there wasn’t enough Christmas. When you’re the showrunner of Doctor Who, you literally can’t win.

    The Great Christmas Bake Off
    The Great Christmas Bake Off“Proper Bake Off” came to an end with what felt a little like a joyous celebration of the series’ unique charms, as well as its highs and lows. Considering the two festive episodes were shot before the controversial move to Channel 4 took place, that’s almost impressive. It’s hard to imagine GBBO without the alchemical mix of Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary, and these episodes showed the format on fine form. And then the BBC went and snuck in that perfectly-edited 60-second tribute to the whole thing. Who knew a programme about baking cake could be so good? Or make some people so emotional

    Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand
    A few months before his death in 2003, Bob Monkhouse gave a one-off gig to an invited audience of fellow comedians which has apparently gone down in comedy legend. I’d never heard of it before, but there you go (I had the same thing with the joke in The Aristocrats and its alleged notoriety, so I won’t say I’m surprised). This was the first time that gig has been televised in a full form, and I confess I’d paid it no heed until it was trending on Twitter. Thanks for that recommendation, Twittersphere, because it’s a very good show: Bob tells jokes, tells stories, and interviews Mike Yarwood in front of an admiring audience who aren’t aware it’s probably his last gig — but, with that hindsight, the themes of sharing a lifetime of wisdom and finding contentment are obvious.

    Grantchester
    GrantchesterThe problem with Christmas specials of on-going shows is you’re sometimes left with on-going plots that must be acknowledged, and Grantchester has a particularly major one with its hero’s life-long love leaving her husband while pregnant. If you don’t watch, it’s set in the ’50s, so this kind of behaviour is the greatest scandal known to man. The special leaps into this without even the by-your-leave of a “previously on”, so I pity any non-regular viewers made to sit down in front of it on Christmas Eve. But it’s an immensely popular show with big ratings, apparently, so who can blame ITV for wanting it in their always-underpowered Christmas schedule? I imagine it fared better than Maigret did the next night…

    Revolting Rhymes
    Revolting RhymesThe team behind previous Christmas specials The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man returned this year with a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s retold fairy tales. Dahl’s individual tales have been intelligently remixed into a pair of stories (one per part, of course), with a framing narrative that actually contains a neat cliffhanger twist at the end of part one. Maybe it just caught me unawares because I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought it was very effective. Anyway, Dahl’s witty rhyming couplets are retained, delivered by a well-chosen cast, not least Dominic West as a smooth, charming, suspicious Wolf. The claymation-ish visual style of the CG animation is familiar from the makers’ previous films, but as polished and well-applied as ever, with some beautiful details. It makes for a visual treat to equal the excellent words they have to work with.

    The Witness for the Prosecution
    The Witness for the ProsecutionI thought And Then There Were None was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas schedule, turning Agatha Christie’s most popular novel into a dark, slasher-movie-esque thriller, the first English-language adaptation to remain faithful to the original’s glum ending. I don’t know if this year’s Christie is faithful to her original short story, but it isn’t to the play adaptation (at least as I know it from the excellent film version). It seems to have deliberately followed in And Then There Were None’s tonal footsteps, shooting for a bleak tale about the fundamental darkness of human nature. Instead it’s diluted the satisfying mystery and removed the tension, with a two-hour running time feeling ponderous and its cinematography trying for atmospheric but instead hitting murky. Some people don’t approve of Christie-esque narratives that make a guessing game out of murder, but if you want you can always write your own gloomily realistic meditation on the nature of evil rather than co-opting her work into a grim treatise.

    Comedy round-up
    WILTYThere’s always a lot of special episodes of comedy shows on over Christmas, with varying degrees of success. I thought this year’s Live at the Apollo was woeful, with Romesh Ranganathan the only truly bright spot in 45 minutes of flat observations and unfunny daftness. Conversely, Would I Lie To You? proved to be as good value as it always is, thanks to the quick wit of the regulars plus Tom Courtenay’s affected (I presume) dodderiness. Mock the Week’s clip show format was perhaps improved by the fact I didn’t watch the most recent series, while the imperfect Insert Name Here makes a nonetheless welcome return. In the comedy gameshow sub-genre, Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas was the kind of trash I’d never watch at any other time of year yet stuck with for all five hours and kind of enjoyed (helped by watching on catch-up and fast-forwarding the really repetitious bits), while the David Walliams-fronted Blankety Blank revival provided as much charm as the format ever has. And normally it wouldn’t count as comedy, but this year’s run of Celebrity Mastermind began with CBBC puppet Hacker T. Dog as a contestant. At least he didn’t win.

    Also watched… (stuff that wasn’t Christmassy)
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 22-23 — the last episode feels very much like someone thought they might get cancelled. After the quality of this season, I don’t blame them.
  • Class Series 1 Episode 8 — it’s been an uneven series, but the tease for season two’s big plot is very intriguing. Fingers crossed for a recommission.
  • The Grand Tour Season 1 Episode 3 — in which they actually do a version of the Grand Tour.

    Things to Catch Up On
    OutnumberedMy list of Christmas TV to get round to remains pretty extensive. There are all those regular series that insert a seasonal episode — The Grand Tour (that’d be the episode with Richard Hammond’s ice cream comments that you might’ve heard about), Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, Yonderland (not that I’ve watched any of the latest series), QI, Inside No.9 (which I’ve never watched before, but the special sounds good)… And there are series coming back for one-offs too, like Outnumbered and Jonathan Creek (which I loved during its original run but have been surprisingly lax about watching in the last few years). I’ve also not yet caught a couple of this year’s animated adaptations, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (which I figure will count as a film). Documentaries like Lego’s Big Christmas and West Side Stories also sit on my list, likely to get forgotten. There’s Sky1’s big Christmas Day drama, The Last Dragonslayer (which I wager I’ll also count as a film); Eric Idle’s comedy musical science thing, The Entire Universe; and Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, which apparently manages to make 2016 funny (I’ll believe it when I see it). Finally, I always save Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year for either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, because that just seems more appropriate.

    Whew!

    (And to think: this doesn’t even mention all the big specials for things I don’t watch.)

    Still To Come
    Sherlock series 4Things are beginning to wind down now… but as far as TV schedulers are concerned “Christmas” lasts until at least January 1st, so there are a couple of big hitters left. The biggest of all is a new, potentially final, run of Sherlock. No idea what the quality will be like, but expect lots of handwringing on social media and huge ratings either way. On New Year’s Eve there’s stage adaptation Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I’ve heard such good stuff about it’s probably going to be a disappointment, and a Winnie-the-Pooh documentary that I’m going to watch even though it’s presented by Alan Titchmarsh. Next week (which you could argue is still part of Christmas if you have very forgiving holiday leave) sees lots of police shows kicking off, if that’s your thing: Death in Paradise, Endeavour, Midsomer Murders, No Offence, Silent Witness, Unforgotten… even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in the sphere of movies on TV, tonight you can choose between the network premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One at 8:30pm and the subscription premiere of Captain America: Civil War on Sky Cinema at 8pm, an almost-double-bill (I mean, you can’t watch them both live) that I only note because of the “huh, well there you go” factor.

    Next month… Sherlock returns.