The Past Month on TV #49

I’ve only got a small selection of TV viewings to offer this month (check out the “things to catch up on” section for all the big stuff I’ve missed), but at least that means it can be headlined by a series that I hope gets the attention it deserves…

Year of the Rabbit  Series 1
Year of the RabbitRipper Street gets a comedic makeover in Channel 4’s recent comedy series, which stars Matt Berry (of Toast of London fame, and also recently seen starring in the series version of What We Do in the Shadows) as a Victorian detective by the name of Rabbit. He investigates murders and other nefarious goings-on amid the scum of the East End accompanied by a rookie posh-boy sidekick (Freddie Fox) and the force’s first female officer (Susan Wokoma).

Rabbit juggles three things at once: being a comedy, being a case-of-the-week cop show (with basic storylines that would hold up in a genuine cop show), and also a conspiracy arc plot. That it pulls all three off (just about) with only c.25 minutes per episode is impressive. In that respect it reminded me a bit of BBC Two’s wonderful The Wrong Mans, which was definitely a comedy but also definitely a crime thriller. The style and tone of the humour is very different, mind: Wrong Mans was quite grounded, whereas this is kookier and borderline surreal, as you’d expect from Berry, really. By way of example: every episode features an aside of street urchins selling a different East End delicacy, like “twigs in a bun”. It’s also quite freewheeling: running gags are quickly established and just as quickly abandoned; other things that seemed like discardable bits come back later.

The three leads are stars that ably carry the show. Berry’s talents are well documented (I guess to a lot of people he’s Toast, but I’ve never actually got round to that. I always remember him from one of his first roles, in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). Fox’s family legacy may suggest he could play “posh boy” in his sleep, but a stint undercover as a Cockney geezer proves his range. Wokoma more than holds her own as the young woman determined to break into the police (her dad may be the boss, but he’s no help) and prove she’s as good as the guys. The recurring supporting cast are their equal, including Paul Kaye as a rival copper out to ruin Rabbit, Keeley Hawes as a scheming feminist, and, most memorably, David Dawson as a theatrically camp Joseph ‘Elephant Man’ Merrick (under a movie-quality prosthetic — the production values are no slouch either). There’s also blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Berry’s Shadows collaborators, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

Rabbit wraps up its arc plot, but ends with a tantalising tease for a second series storyline. It’s not been recommissioned yet, but I’ve optimistically labelled this “series one” because the writers already have ideas for more and, well, I really want some more.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
Shadow PlayHaving exhausted the top tens of both IMDb’s and ScreenCrush’s Twilight Zone episode rankings in my four previous “best of” selections, I’ve still only scratched the surface of the series: I’ve reviewed 16 episodes, which is 10% of the 156 that were produced. Now: the only reason I’ve been using ScreenCrush’s list is that I happened to see it on Twitter — it’s certainly not the only ranking of its kind. So after a bit of Googling for alternatives (which included rejecting BuzzFeed’s list because it was consistently illustrated with bloody big spoilers), I’ve decided to use Paste’s ranking to dictate which episodes I watch next. That’s partially because 50% of their top ten is episodes that weren’t in either IMDb’s or ScreenCrush’s, so that’s quite interesting. Indeed, their writer, Oktay Ege Kozak, has some very different opinions to ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer, as we’ll soon see…

First, for reference, the episodes in Paste’s top ten that I’ve already reviewed are: Eye of the Beholder (Paste’s #1, IMDb’s #3, ScreenCrush’s #11); The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Paste’s #2, IMDb’s #5, ScreenCrush’s #1); Time Enough at Last (Paste’s #3, IMDb’s #4, ScreenCrush’s #4); Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Paste’s #5, IMDb’s #2, ScreenCrush’s #14); and The Hitch-Hiker (Paste’s #8, IMDb’s #21, ScreenCrush’s #6). Not a huge deal of disagreement there, but some of the gaps are about to get wild.

Indeed, the second-biggest difference is up first: season two’s Shadow Play is right up in 4th on Paste’s list, but a whopping 98 places lower at 102nd on ScreenCrush (it’s 22nd on IMDb). It’s the story of a man sentenced to execution, who claims that they’re all living inside his dream and if he’s executed everyone else will cease to exist. Is he trying to plead insanity… or might he just be telling the truth? Paste are on the money here: this is a great little story, with Dennis Weaver as the condemned man driven to the brink by (he claims) being executed over and over in a never-ending nightmare; and, on the other side, the DA and court reporter struggle with the idea that he might be telling the truth, meaning they’re not people at all but mere figments in someone else’s dream. It’s a horror story of a nightmare and an existential musing all in one, with a strong vein of tension about what will happen in the end. Kozak praises it for pulling all that off, but Singer counters that “the premise is too convoluted [with] two ideas that would each work more effectively on their own.” I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t wholly agree — if you disconnect the two ideas, they’d both need something to fill the resultant gap in order to function as narratives.

Five Characters in Search of an ExitThere’s closer agreement about Paste’s 6th choice, season three’s Five Characters in Search of an Exit, which ranks 14th on IMDb and 32nd on ScreenCrush. Singer writes that “if you enjoy the movie Cube you have this episode written by Serling from a story by Marvin Petal to thank,” which immediately put it high on my must-see list because I love Cube. This has a similar premise: five mismatched strangers awaken in a featureless metal cylinder, each with no memory of who they are and how they got there. The top of their de facto prison is open — if they can just climb up there, maybe they can find answers. The result is both a mystery drama about just what’s going on, and something of a character study on dealing and coping with situations you can’t explain or change. Naturally, there’s a twist ending. In fact, at one point the characters, theorising about why and how and where they are, list a bunch of options that all sound like Twilight Zone endings. It’s quite a bold move, really; almost acknowledging the show’s MO, and casually discarding a bunch of potential conclusions in the process — and if one of them was your guess, well, the show’s just laughingly dismissed you before the halfway mark! Weirdly, though, I did manage to guess the twist pretty precisely from early on. I’m not sure how, really — blind luck, I think, because there’s nothing to tip its hand. Possibly it’s just experience: as with so many Twilight Zone twists, this was probably highly innovative and/or unusual back in the ‘60s, but has been imitated and copied (deliberately or otherwise) since. Still, as a mystery thriller, the episode is as good as any of the similar works that have been produced in its wake.

The InvadersOne of the series’ more famous episodes is in 7th place for Paste (IMDb #28, ScreenCrush #58): The Invaders, starring Agnes Moorehead as the lone inhabitant of a remote shack, who must suddenly deal with hostile six-inch spacemen landing their saucer on her roof. It’s a near-silent drama, as Moorehead is terrorised by the miniature monsters and struggles to fend them off. And, obviously, there’s a twist. I don’t want to sound boastful, but, yeah, I saw it coming. I’ve said this many times now, but I really do suspect the series is a victim of its own success in this regard — it’s 60 years old and highly influential, so of course all the media a modern viewer has experienced leaves us ready to guess the outcomes. Actually, I bet it’d be a great show for kids — a formative experience; and, with less media exposure, the twists might retain the appropriate level of mind-blowing-ness. Anyway, at least The Invaders has more going for it than just the final reveal, with the woman vs the mini-spacemen playing like a tense horror movie. There’s a lot of praise for Moorehead’s performance, but I thought she was overacting somewhat in compensation for her lack of dialogue. In fairness, though, this was made for 1961 TV sets — with no speech to work with, the performance needed to be ‘big’ to come over on those tiny tellies. Unfortunately, it’s another mark against the episode when watched in HD on a modern setup.

Two season one episodes round out Paste’s top ten, both of which are placed considerably higher than on ScreenCrush’s list. In 9th place is Perchance to Dream, which is ranked way down at 128th on ScreenCrush, and 87th on IMDb — both sizeable gaps, and in this case I side with the latter. It’s about a man with a weak heart who thinks his dreams are trying to kill him, only it’s somehow much more dull than that setup sounds. It doesn’t even have any great point or twist to cap it off. Kozak reckons this is a “haunting, cinematically captivating campfire story [that] never lets go of its meticulously built suspense until the wickedly unforgiving finale,” an opinion I don’t agree with a word of, sadly. Singer says that “while Conte’s character is terrified to fall asleep, the whole thing is a bit of snooze,” and that I do agree with.

The LonelyFinally for now is The Lonely, which is ranked 10th on Paste (obv.) but only 105th on ScreenCrush (IMDb is much closer at 27th). Sorry to harp on about this, but here’s another episode that may’ve been great once but recent years have seen other films and TV series tackle similar themes in much greater depth, far surpassing the mere 20-odd minutes it’s afforded here. Indeed, this is the rarest of things in my experience: a Twilight Zone episode where 25 minutes isn’t enough to explore its concept. It’s about a man imprisoned in solitary confinement. His cell? An entire asteroid (filmed on location in Death Valley, which adds a magnificent grit and desolation to the visuals). He’s visited quarterly by a supply ship, and after a few years the captain takes pity on him and brings a robot woman to be his companion. It’s as good a setup as any, but the episode simply doesn’t have the time to dig into the questions and musings it throws up — though it’s not helped by wasting most of the first half on chatter between the prisoner and the captain, establishing their relationship more fully than the one between the prisoner and his robo-woman; a relationship the episode supposedly hinges on.

So if there’s one Twilight Zone episode that begs to be remade and expanded upon, it’s this one. It’s even ripe for someone to add one of the series’ trademark ironic twists — I thought of two or three while watching, but the episode itself doesn’t have one, exactly (I mean, it kinda does, but it’s more a plot development than a final, cruel twist of the knife like the series’ best). But then again, does it need remaking when other storytellers have already taken up this episode’s theme and expounded on it better? This is a forerunner to the likes of Her and Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 and the Westworld TV series. You’ll note those are all very recent works (the eldest, Her, has yet to reach its 6th anniversary), which perhaps shows how far ahead of its time The Twilight Zone was. But their thoughtfulness also really shows up how little The Lonely actually has to say about its subject matter.

Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 1 Episodes 5-6 — Accidentally fell behind on this and only just finished it. My review of the first half of the series is here and still applies. Happily, it’s already been recommissioned for a second series.
  • How to Break into the Elite — This sounds like a bit of a “get rich quick” documentary or something, but it was actually far more insightful. Basically, about how class is the last great barrier to employment in the UK; the one thing recruiters still discriminate on (even if it’s subconsciously, or they don’t say it). To some (i.e. those who’ve struggled in the system) it might all feel obvious, but there’s evidence and proof to back it up. It’s available on iPlayer (for another 11 months) if you’re interested.
  • University Challenge Series 49 Episodes 1-3 — An excellent show for making you feel astoundingly unknowledgeable. I kill it whenever a film- or TV-related picture round comes up, though.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Stranger Things 3This month, I have mostly been missing Stranger Things season 3, which seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have seen news headlines that imply as much); and Veronica Mars season 4, which, er, seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have also seen news headlines that imply as much). As they’re only eight episodes apiece, hopefully I’ll have found time for them before next month’s column. (Veronica Mars still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster (in fact, I don’t think it has one anywhere outside of the US and Canada, I guess thanks to it being on Hulu (though other Hulu shows have international carriers, so who knows what’s going on here)), but where there’s a will there’s a way.) And if that wasn’t enough, Amazon also recently released subversive comic book adaptation The Boys, which also looks right within my wheelhouse. That’s also eight episodes, incidentally. I seem to remember reading a while ago that Netflix’s research suggested eight was the optimum number of episodes to have in a season nowadays. I guess everyone took that to heart.

    Next month… see above (with crossed fingers).

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  • The Past Fortnight on TV #47

    This fortnight: mad queens, burning cities, and melting chairs on Game of Thrones; disembodied little girls, controlling space captains, and time travelling dreamers on The Twilight Zone; and a couple of other bits & bobs at the end, too.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 5-6
    These episodes have been hella controversial, so I’m going to stake my position right away: the penultimate episode isn’t perfect but is very good; the finale was fantastic. If you’re one of those people who rated it 1 on IMDb, you’re an idiot. Yeah, sure, opinions differ, and if you didn’t think it was as superb as I did then you may have some valid arguments… but 1 out of 10? No. Those people are morons.

    The Mad QueenTo call these two episodes “the climax” of Game of Thrones feels slightly disingenuous, because really the whole season has been the climax (to wit, my review of episodes one and two is here, and episodes three and four here). As I think I discussed before, I feel this is where some people’s maladjusted complaints about it stem from — a misunderstanding of the pace the story’s being told at. This isn’t a show that is plot, plot, plot until a conclusion wraps everything up within the final episode. There’s far too much going on for that to be possible. No, the whole season is the conclusion. How they paced that conclusion across the final few episodes is another matter, because I agree that sometimes the story has moved too fast this season, and The Bells is (at times) another case in point. I completely buy Dany’s turn to the dark side: it’s been building since almost the start of the series (mistaken by many for her being powerful and just) and the events of the past few episodes have really pushed her to the edge — and, of course, over it.

    So, I think the groundwork is there to explain her ‘sudden’ turn, but the speed those events were relayed to the audience didn’t give people enough time to process where it was leading her. The distrust of the very people she came to liberate when she arrives in the North; their lack of explicit gratitude after the Battle of Winterfell; the deaths of her closest friends and allies, Ser Jorah and Missandei; not only the grief of that, but losing their cool-headed advice; distrusting the advisors she does have left — Varys betraying her, Tyrion seeming to constantly let her down, Jon rejecting her romantic advances; not to mention that he represents a very real threat to her life-long goal; and, despite his protestations that he doesn’t want it, he went against her wishes and told his family, which means others now know… All of that underpins her ‘sudden’ desire to burn King’s Landing and all its people. But when that’s been conveyed across just a couple of episodes, along with a whole load of other stuff that’s been going on, I don’t think people had time to process it. In my review of Last of the Starks I argued that it should’ve been extended and split in two, and I think the same is probably true of The Bells: everything up to the attack on King’s Landing actually happening is one episode; the extended action sequence(s) that follow is another. That kind of extension would not only bring obvious screen time advantages — literally, more and/or longer scenes to play out what’s happening — but it also adds time between episodes (a whole week) for viewers to mull over and discuss what they’re seeing, rather than pelting headlong into more events.

    Azor AhaiConversely, I thought the finale, The Iron Throne, was excellently handled in virtually every respect, including the pace. Well, mostly. I mean, I think it’s only during their conversation in front of the Iron Throne that Jon realises what he has to do to Daenerys, so that he then immediately carries it out is a little abrupt — should he have gone away, to steel himself for the task, and done it later? Maybe. Equally, why wait? And the scene needs to occur there for the powerful events that follow with Drogon’s grief and melting the throne. Some would also say the time jump to the Dragonpit court is a case of rushing the story, but do we need to see the Unsullied taking Jon Snow prisoner? Do we need to see the armies arrive at the gates of King’s Landing? You could draw the story out by putting all of that on screen, but what you actually need to know for the narrative is conveyed in the dialogue. Mind you, here I am wondering if it should’ve be slower when some of those petition-signing halfwits reckon “nothing happened” this episode. After weeks moaning about the pace being too fast, they think this was slow that “nothing happened”! There’s no helping some people…

    As for the final stretch, where the episode laid out where everyone ends up, I liked that part most of all. There’s a fitting fate for everyone — not necessarily what’s just or fair, but then when has Game of Thrones ever been about delivering that? I would’ve liked to see Grey Worm punished for the heinous war crimes he committed, but sometimes bad people get away with bad things. Poor Tyrion is stuck as Hand of the King, though it’s a job he remains suited to, perhaps especially because he’s not sure he deserves it. Bran is an odd choice for king, perhaps, but Tyrion sold me on the notion in the same way he did the assembled lords; and I don’t think Bran wanted it, but I think that, as the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven who has always acted to protect humanity, he can see it’s the right course.

    The rest of the Starks get fates that suit them entirely. Arya has talked about wanting to sail west before, in season six; personally, I’ve wondered if that was her destiny even before she voiced it — it fits her nature, to explore the unknown. Sansa is Queen in the North, a role she has earned in so many ways — her arc, from naive little princess to powerful political leader, is arguably the greatest in the entire series. Jon is sent back to the Night’s Watch — as explicitly stated, it’s just as a punishment, but there’s a political motive too: if he can father no heirs then there will never be any offspring to grow up believing they have a true claim to the throne. But it’s not a real punishment, of course, because it means he can venture north of the Wall, where his heart really belongs. I suspect Bran knew that when he sentenced him.

    Last of the StarksTo cap it all off, both episodes were incredibly well made. That’s par for the course on this mega-expensive show, but it still merits observing. Okay, perhaps The Bells had a few too many scenes of King’s Landing’s destruction (a point on pacing again), but it was all spectacularly realised, keeping us mostly in the streets with the people who were really suffering. For striking moments, however, the finale was the place to be: that shot of Dany with Drogon’s wings (the subject of its own mini Twitter controversy, for yet more dumbass reasons); her speech to her assembled forces in the ruins, the staging and design evoking the the Nazis or Stalin’s Russia; the melting throne; the final montage, with the matching shots of Sansa, Arya and Jon embracing their destinies; and the very final scene, a mirror image of the opening scene of the very first episode. What a way to end; even with a green root poking through the snow north of the Wall — a dream of spring.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    As regular readers will know by now, for the past couple of months I’ve been reviewing the best episodes of the original 1959-64 iteration of The Twilight Zone, according to IMDb voters and an article I happened across on ScreenCrush. So far I’ve mostly stuck to episodes that are in the lists’ top tens (the exception is one I reviewed last fortnight, Nick of Time, which is #12 on ScreenCrush and #25 on IMDb), and in this fourth selection I’ll be finishing off those top tens.

    Little Girl LostFirst, two episodes from season three. The Shelter is one of just four episodes in the entire series with no sci-fi or fantasy element (according to its IMDb trivia page). When the warning sirens go off that missiles, presumably nuclear, may be on their way to destroy the United States, a foresightful doctor and his family are able to retreat to their bomb shelter, but his less prepared neighbours want in too. It’s another of Rod Serling’s morality tales about the truth of human nature, and a particularly potent one because it’s very easy to relate to almost everyone’s position — there are no heroes or villains here (well, except for maybe one racist guy), just people who want to survive. The titular room is made for three people, not the dozen or so who try to break in to share it, which suggests perhaps the episode’s most universally applicable lesson: in panic, logic goes out the window.

    Little Girl Lost merits 8th on ScreenCrush’s list, but only places 39th on IMDb. I side closer to the former. Another episode by the great Richard Matheson, this one is about parents whose little girl goes missing in the middle of the night — they can hear her calling somewhere in the house, but she’s nowhere to be seen. The setup has some contrivances (I mean, it’s the middle of the night, your six-year-old daughter is calling out for you, but she’s not in her bed, nor under it, so your next step is to… phone your friend who’s a physicist? O…kay…), but it just expedites where the story is going to go anyway. That said, it doesn’t always make the best use of the rest of its time (a trippy sequence in another dimension goes on longer than necessary). It’s not as unnerving as it might’ve been (the horror of your child being you-don’t-know-where, plus a disembodied little girl’s voice coming from somewhere and nowhere within the house? Sounds like a recipe for a horror movie to me), but it’s more minded to its edge-of-science explanation than a disquieting atmosphere. Ultimately, it’s using a relatable situation to explore a notion at the limits of scientific understanding, which is very fitting for this show. Plus it has a cute dog who’s instrumental in saving the day, which is always a significant bonus in my estimation.

    On Thursday We Leave for HomeFor its fourth season, Twilight Zone was scheduled as a replacement for another series, meaning it had to expand to hour-long episodes to fill the given time slot. This is largely regarded as being to the series’ detriment, and I can see why — I mean, some of the 25-minute episodes feel padded, so doubling the length…! Consequently, season four has very few episodes at the top of either list. The exception is On Thursday We Leave for Home, which is the highest-ranked season four episode on both: it comes 10th at ScreenCrush, but still only 24th on IMDb. This one is outright sci-fi from the off: it’s set on mankind’s first off-world colony, which has been a disaster, and after three decades a spaceship is finally arriving to take them back to Earth. What unfolds is another tale of man’s hubris and delusion with a self-wrought tragic ending — in other words, an episode of The Twilight Zone. But it has a unique angle and commentary on the corrupting influence of power; about how being in charge of the colonists has become Captain Benteen’s very reason to exist, to the point where he not only can’t imagine life any other way, but he can’t imagine his ‘subjects’ would want it any other way either. He’s thoroughly deluded.

    It’s significant, I think, that Benteen views ‘his people’ as children who are unable to make their own decision, but he was only 15-years-old when they arrived there, and at the end he hides away, like a small child who doesn’t want to go home, until it’s too late and the ride has left; except rather than a parent playing a trick to get the child to change their mind, the ride is really gone, and Benteen discovers too late that he’s doomed himself. The episode makes strong use of the double-length format to let this unravel itself, establishing how tough life has been on the colony, then the relief and euphoria of their “rescue” arriving, before the truth of Benteen’s mind is revealed. Sure, you’d tell the same story faster today, but for the era it doesn’t feel drawn out (there are 25-minute episodes that are worse for that). So, it’s not just “the best of a bad bunch”, but a great little sci-fi parable in its own right. You could probably remake it as a feature…

    A Stop at WilloughbyFinally for now, season one’s A Stop at Willoughby, which doesn’t quite make either list’s top ten (it’s 12th on IMDb, 17th on ScreenCrush), but I keep hearing it mentioned elsewhere as a favourite episode or referenced in other ways (as with Eye of the Beholder last time, it factors into Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!). It’s about a harried ad exec in ’60s New York, whose boss’ motto of “push, push, push” pretty well tells how he’s feeling. On the train to his suburban home (there’s no real correlation here, but there are definite shades of Mad Men across this setup!) he falls asleep and wakes when the train stops at the village of Willoughby… in the year 1888. It’s an idyllic place on a warm summer day, with people enjoying leisurely strolls in the park — a simpler, calmer time. But then he really wakes up: he didn’t travel in time, Willoughby was just a dream; but it’s a dream of a place and time where he’d rather be — can he get back there? If Walking Distance was an ultimately uplifting story about how you can’t go home again, A Stop at Willoughby is its dark mirror image. Suffice to say, the town of Willoughby is most definitely located in the Twilight Zone.

    Also watched…
  • Eurovision Tel Aviv 2019 — Normally I give Eurovision a full review, but I was a bit underwhelmed by it this year. Even by its own standards the music was mediocre, and there was little memorable in the actual performances either (with the exception of Australia’s pole stuff). Oh well.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 5-7 — I applaud the final episodes of Sky Atlantic’s tie-in show for not ignoring that there’d been some displeasure online, but deservedly praising the episodes anyway, especially the finale.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Years and YearsThis fortnight I have mostly been missing Years and Years, the new drama from the pen of Russell T Davies that spans the next couple of decades to look at, presumably, how much worse things are going to get even than they are now. I’ve long been a big fan of Davies’ writing, though must confess I’ve missed most of what he’s done post-Doctor Who — I’ve been meaning to get round to A Very English Scandal ever since it aired, which was a whole year ago now. Hopefully I won’t take so long to get to this new one.

    Next month… what can possibly follow Game of Thrones?! No, I don’t know either.

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #46

    I’m throwing off the usual monthly format of these TV reviews to keep up with coverage of Game of Thrones. This time: the Battle of Winterfell and its aftermath. Next time: the series finale!

    Also this fortnight: new BBC fantasy sitcom Ghosts, the first (sort of) episode of Columbo, the latest editions of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema and Thronecast, and more of the best tales from The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 3-4
    Game of Thrones season 8Almost two years ago, just hours after Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale aired, I tweeted the following:

    Crazy(?) Game of Thrones s8 prediction: army of the dead defeated in ep2 or 3; humans return to bickering amongst themselves for 3 or 4 eps.

    Well, reader, I’ve been feeling a bit smug for the past couple of weeks, I must admit. It was quite widely known that the big battle between the living and the dead at Winterfell was coming in episode three, but it seemed like a lot of people expected it to be a victory for the Night King, with a retreat to King’s Landing in order for the final battle to happen later. I suspected differently, and I was right. That a lot of people didn’t suspect that and were consequently outraged that the Night King and his army could be defeated so ‘early’… ugh, let’s not get into that. Other than to say: this has always been a show (a) more concerned with the politicking of humans than supernatural threats, and (b) that zigs when you expect it to zag (or does neither, if your name’s Rickon). And further to that, we’re only three episodes from the end of a 73-episode story — in percentage terms, these final few episodes are kinda the epilogue; they’re about what happens after The Great War is over.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Long Night itself was… well, it was an interesting choice of episode title, firstly, considering the Long Night is already an event in Westeros’ history and is rumoured to be the title of the in-production spin-off series. (It also sent Wikipedia editors into a tizzy, but what else is new?) More pertinent controversy was found in the way the episode was shot, i.e. very dark. Too dark for a lot of people to see, in fact. Many blamed the cinematographer, but it seems to me it was more likely HBO’s compression wiping out detail in the blacks — many other viewers who watched the episode from higher-quality sources (including myself) found no problem seeing it on correctly-calibrated televisions. And, when watching a decent copy in good viewing conditions, much of it actually looked spectacular — the darkness was effective for conveying the scariness of the events being witnessed, and it was punctuated with some beautiful moments from firelight or moonlight.

    The Battle of WinterfellContent-wise, the episode was one long battle — the longest ever in film or TV history, apparently. More isn’t always more, mind. While I didn’t find it boring or drawn-out, it also wasn’t perfect. The battle tactics left a lot to be desired, something spotted by lay-viewers, never mind the “how it should’ve been done” articles by professional military tacticians that followed the broadcast. And the way things played out, a lot more deaths were warranted. Quite a few key characters did fall, and even more faceless masses, but the way it was staged made it a miracle that so many people escaped unscathed. There are three episodes left — you need characters to fuel the story, and major characters left to be sacrificed later too — but that doesn’t mean you have to stage it so everyone effects an improbable escape. There’s a balance to be found between “it looks like they’re all about to die” and “it seems literally impossible everyone would’ve survived those last-minute odds”. But hey, this isn’t the first time the show has succumbed to this, and there was a lot else to like: lots of effective individual sequences within the battle, great callbacks to previous lines and events, some heroic sacrifices, and a perfect ending. (I’m really not going to talk about some dickheads’ reaction to that.)

    So, with the presumed Big Bad defeated with three feature-length episodes still to go, next week’s The Last of the Starks was tasked with both showing the aftermath of the battle and charting a course into the series’ endgame. As it turned out, it was much more than that, with major events all of its own. This is where the reduced episode count rears its ugly head for me because, much like in season seven, I feel like they’re rushing certain events just for the sake of getting the series finished, not because it merits a picking up of the pace. There were things in episode four that felt glossed over or skipped past; things which merited a bit more time and focus. If anything, this felt like two episodes glued together — and out of the three 80-minute episodes the show has now done (the other being the season seven finale), I’ve felt that way about two of them. Why not add another 15 to 20 minutes of scenes and split this episode in two? It wouldn’t be unnecessary padding because, as I said, there was a load of stuff just raced past. I wanted to see Arya and Sansa’s immediate reaction to the news about Jon; and Tyrion’s, for that matter. I felt like there was a lot more to be done with Missandei’s storyline this episode — in my imagined two-part version, she would’ve been captured at the end of the first episode and there’d be scenes between her and Cersei before her ending. And, yeah, I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing Jon say goodbye to Ghost properly (a massive topic of discussion on social media this week).

    The Last of the StarksIt’s frustrating because I liked the tone of the episode overall — as I said, the return to human conflict and schemes; also a lot of the individual scenes between characters and so on. But it needs more room to breathe. It’s especially galling after the exceptionally spacious first two episodes this season, which did exactly that. They’ve said these last two seasons have fewer episodes because of the time and money needed to film the massive battle sequences, but that’s a thin excuse. It’s clear HBO would’ve given them however much money they asked for, and allow them however much time they needed — we’ve had to wait almost two years for this final season, remember. So it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that this episode (and, as I said, last season’s finale) could’ve had another chunk of scenes added (which would’ve ‘just’ been characters talking, really) and been split in two. I don’t care about raising the overall episode count (though that doesn’t hurt), I just care about giving these characters and storylines their due.

    Well, I guess it is what is now, but it’s a shame. Hopefully the final two episodes can bring things to a good conclusion — not necessarily a joyous one, because this is Game of Thrones after all, but one that feels suitable and satisfying. Based on the show’s current track record, I’m worried I’ll approve of where it ends up but think it was too hurried getting there. It feels like there should be more than a mere two episodes left to wrap all this up.

    Ghosts  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
    GhostsThis new sitcom from the writing and performing troupe behind the original TV iteration of Horrible Histories and the Sky One fantasy comedy Yonderland is pitched as a more adult-focused series, but it’s not exactly 18-rated stuff, just a little cheekier than they might’ve done before. Anyway, it’s about a young couple who inherit a crumbling old mansion, which is home to the ghosts of various people who’ve died there down the centuries. As the couple attempt to make a life for themselves and restore the place on a budget of nothing, the ghosts cause various issues, while also having problems of their own — turns out being dead isn’t the end of your emotional woes. I wouldn’t say Ghosts is the most hilarious sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it has a definite charm. It also surprises with genuine emotion, particularly in the third episode, where we learn about the death and family of one of the more recent ghosts.

    Columbo  Murder by the Book
    Columbo: Murder by the BookI’ve never seen Columbo before, and despite this being the first episode (er, kind of — I believe it was preceded by two other pilots) this isn’t the start of me watching it regularly. No, I watched this for one simple reason: the director was a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, in his pre-movie days when he directed a handful of TV episodes. Unsurprisingly, such an early work contains little about its style that screams “Spielberg”, but it’s still a classily staged production, with a lot more going for its visuals than the point-and-shoot style we associate with old TV. The story’s not a bad one either, about a crime novelist who murders his co-writer following the methodology from an unused plot. He thinks he’s a clever bugger who’s got away with it easily, but Columbo seems to see through him right from the start. Well, I’m not sure dumping the corpse on your own front lawn is the best way to go about claiming “it wasn’t me.”

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    With still no sign of the new Twilight Zone making its way to a UK platform, here’s another selection of some of the best episodes of the original 1959-64 series, as determined by cross-referencing the opinions of IMDb voters and an article I happened to stumble across on Screen Crush. (My previous such overviews can be found here and here.)

    The Hitch-HikerFirst up, season one’s The Hitch-Hiker is another Twilight Zone tale where we can’t be sure if the protagonist is experiencing paranoia or the supernatural — undoubtedly a recurring theme for the series, almost to the point where it’s less a “theme” more just a fact of its format. Anyway, this particular reiteration is effectively unnerving, with a scenario that’s relatable — you can just imagine how it would feel if you kept seeing the same hitchhiker by the side of the road, always somehow ahead of you, always staring at you with a despondent look… it gives me chills just thinking about it. Director Alvin Ganzer gets good mileage out of that element too, creating some effective shocks. Aside from that the execution isn’t top notch though, with Rod Serling seeming to have taken too much inspiration from the original radio play (by Lucille Fletcher) in his inclusion of some over-explanatory narration. The trademark twist ending is both altogether guessable for the savvy viewer, but also doesn’t really explain a whole lot.

    Two from season two next, including another of the series’ most famous episodes, Eye of the Beholder (spookily, it’s referenced in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which I happened to watch last night). It’s an episode with a message, but that feels a long while coming because most of the episode clues you in to where the twist is coming from thanks to how it’s shot. Anyway, it’s a commentary on appearances and the segregation of otherness; that the enforcement of “normality”, of conformity, isn’t good. Here it’s being enacted by some totalitarian state, but that’s just a firm example for the sake of analogy — society does it anyway in our real world. The twist ending underscores this point by adding that normality, or beauty, or whatever you want to call it, is all relative anyway. It’s a worthwhile message, but even at a short 25 minutes parts of the episode felt padded.

    Nick of TimeI was more taken with Nick of Time, written by the reliably superb Richard Matheson. Starring William Shatner as a superstitious honeymooner, it’s a neat little tale about a cheap fortune telling machine that might actually predict the future. As well as a genre tale about the perils such a machine might pose, it’s really about superstition and belief in fate vs. self determination — a strong moral life lesson bundled in a quirky supernatural fable. That’s Twilight Zone at its best, really. Similarly, season five’s Living Doll is another of the series’ most genuinely unnerving episodes. Telly Savalas stars as a man whose own insecurities make him paranoid and abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter. When the kid gets a new talking doll, it begins to taunt and threaten him, but only when no one else is around to hear. Again, it’s very creepy, but has a point to make beyond that.

    Finally for now, it’s back to season two for The Obsolete Man. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been using two different “best of” lists to guide my Twilight Zone viewing, and this is the biggest disagreement between them thus far (though there are 18 other episodes with bigger differences, so it’s all relative). Whereas IMDb’s consensus-voted opinion says this is the 10th best of all 156 episodes, Screen Crush only ranks it in the middle of the list, at 68th. It’s an initially simple story about the evil and cowardice of totalitarianism: in the opening scene, a man is sentenced to death for being of no use to a fascist regime. However, he has a cunning little plan up his sleeve. As a drama it’s clearly born of an era that was still directly reacting to Hitler and Stalin, but it’s all the more pertinent today as Western societies tip dangerously towards the kind of horrendous ideologies we used to fight, blithely ignorant of the lessons of history. Many Twilight Zone episodes have aged in the sense that the narratives can seem straightforward and guessable to the modern viewer (thanks to endless imitation and our exposure to more stories of this type), but the moral lessons remain depressingly relevant over half a century later.

    Also watched…
  • Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Disaster Movies — Another one-off edition for this excellent series, a Bank Holiday special about that old staple of Bank Holiday TV schedules. Kermode (plus co-writer Kim Newman) is as insightful as ever about the similarities and connections between these movies across the decades. I hope we get another full series, but if it’s set to continue only as occasional specials, well, that’s good too.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 3-4 — I don’t know if the booker got better or just got lucky, but this picked up considerably with some improved guests. Not that I disliked the people on the first two episodes, but the ones here seemed more knowledgeable and chattier. Episode 4 was particularly good. Fingers crossed the final two editions are equally worthwhile post-episode viewing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Lucifer season 4This fortnight, I have mostly been missing the fourth season of Lucifer, which just returned as a Netflix exclusive. I’ve not watched season three yet, though, so that’ll be a little while off. I’ve also successfully managed to avoid any spoilers about Line of Duty’s recently-concluded series (touch wood). I’ve got a plan to binge it in a few weeks’ time (so, not in my next TV roundup, but should be the one after) — hopefully nothing will blow its secrets between now and then!

    Next fortnight… at the end of Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

  • The Past Month on TV #45

    The past weekend may’ve been the hottest of the year so far (at least here in the UK), but you and I know the truth: winter is here. With any dreams of spring still a few weeks away, let’s revel in the final moments we’ll be spending with our favourite inhabitants of Westeros — the first two episodes certainly did.

    Also this month: Sky Atlantic’s Thrones companion shows, the third and final season of Deadwood, and more of the best of The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 1-2
    Game of Thrones season 8The final season of HBO’s fantasy epic began with its last two regular-length episodes (the remainder are each a feature-length 80 minutes, give or take), but they stand alongside the epics still to come as a kind of two-parter. Both episodes are set in the quiet before the storm(s) to come, with pieces being moved into place and everyone preparing themselves for what they assume is the endgame: a battle with the army of the dead. Of course, as outside observers we know the battle can’t be the end — there are whole characters and plot threads that will be left unresolved, whatever the outcome of the battle, and up to three (extra long) episodes to resolve them in. But such considerations are for future episodes; I mean, for one thing, next week’s big battle episode is likely to have a huge impact on who’s left standing, which will in itself indicate what ways forward remain possible.

    Anyway, back to the episodes we’ve already seen. The first, Winterfell, does the usual Game of Thrones season premiere thing of setting the scene: reminding us where everyone stands, and moving pieces into place ready for the season to come. But this is more than just a glorified “previously on”, with some important plot developments of its own, not to mention long-awaited reunions. In the former camp, the big’un is obviously Jon Snow finding out his true parentage. Well, to an extent: this isn’t news to the audience (even if you didn’t deduce it years ago, we were explicitly told about it last season… which aired, er, years ago), and while it clearly has an impact on Jon’s feelings about himself and his family, its effects on the plot won’t happen until more people hear about it.

    More exciting were the reunions. Jon and Arya may’ve been the objective headliner, but my personal favourite was Sansa and Tyrion. With everything else that’s gone down since, I’d practically forgotten that they were once married, but the facts of their relationship and what’s happened to them since, particularly Sansa, made for an electric scene. Indeed, Sansa interacting with anyone is pretty fantastic at this point. She was such a damp squib in early seasons, and, frankly, I wasn’t convinced by Sophie Turner’s acting chops back then either, but recently she’s become a decided force to be reckoned with. Her scenes facing down with Dany are a case in point, not least their heart-to-heart in episode two. Another reunion highlight was Arya and the Hound, another unlikely but memorable pairing who get the short but sweet scene they deserve. Arya reunited with Gendry too, of course, and in the second episode she really united with him. Well, I’ll leave the furore around that to Twitter (but if you want to know what I think, this thread is pretty on the money).

    A Knight of the Seven KingdomsI’ve already slipped into discussing A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, perhaps supporting my point that this is a two-parter in separate episodes’ clothing. Here we get more reunions, rehashes, and revelations. I mean, sure, Jaime arrives in Winterfell at the end of the previous episode, but it’s here that the meaning of that really plays out, with his trial-like scene before people he has wronged — and one he saved — before his one-on-one with the boy he pushed out of a tower all those years ago. In fact, if there’s one thing that does keep these two episodes distinct, it’s how much the season premiere mirrors the series premiere (i.e. season one episode one, Winter is Coming) — check out the image in this tweet for some of them.

    What the second episode really represented was some kind of… not reward, exactly, but certainly benefit, or acknowledgement, for those who’ve become invested in these characters over the many years we’ve spent with them (or, if you’ve only caught up recently, many bingeing hours). It was a chance to just hang out with some favourites, and for some of them to achieve long-awaited dreams. Yes, obviously I’m talking about Jaime knighting Brienne. I guess if you’re not invested in these characters then some of these scenes feel like so much padding (“get on with the fighting!”), but for most fans this is a possibly final chance to revel in their favourites — after all, surely a significant number are for the chop when the fighting begins…

    Thronecast  Specials + Series 8 Episodes 1-2
    Gameshow of ThronesIf you live outside the UK or watch Thrones via, er, other means, I guess you won’t know this: it’s UK broadcaster Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones aftershow — you know, one of those things where people connected to the show and sundry minor celebrities sit on a sofa and chat about the episode we’ve just seen. I’ve never watched it before because I’m normally one of those people who watches Thrones via, er, other means, and it rarely crops up on those, but I’ve had access for the first couple of episodes and, well, so far I’m not impressed. In the first episode, host Sue Perkins gamely struggled with guests seemingly dead set on chatting about anything other than what her questions asked, while the second felt like she was trying to get blood from three particularly reticent stones. The format’s not really at fault, but the guest booker might be… The Twitter reaction to these episodes suggests the show used to be better, so maybe they’ll re-find their mojo for the coming four episodes.

    More successful by far were two Thronecast-related specials that aired before season eight began (and these you can track down via the aforementioned euphemistic “other means”, if you’re interested). The first, Gameshow of Thrones, saw Perkins quizzing two teams made up of former cast members and celebrity fans in a panel show format. If you’re in the middle of a Venn diagram that covers “fans of Game of Thrones” and “enjoys comedy panel shows”, it’s a convivial 90 minutes. The other, The Story So Far, managed to recap the essential points of the parent show’s first seven seasons in another 90 minutes, with a mix of clips, narration, and cast and fan interviews — all very useful when we’re heading into the concluding hours of the story, especially when it’s been a couple of years since it was last on. Certainly quicker than a 67-hour full re-watch, anyway.

    Deadwood  Season 3
    Deadwood season 3It’s quite a well-known piece of trivia that creator David Milch’s original pitch to HBO was for a series about two lawmen in the early days of Rome, thematically concerned with how we establish the rules and agreements of a society. With the series Rome already in development, HBO encouraged Milch to take the interesting theme but relocate it, and so he landed upon a frontier town in the old West butting up against the ever-widening reach of civilisation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s third season, with local elections looming and outside forces attempting to exert their influence over the town. The latter is represented by the arrival of mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who becomes a thorn in the side of both previously-dominant saloon owner-cum-gangster Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and honourable but short-tempered sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). Those two, once enemies, must join forces (along with most of the other regular characters) to attempt to counter Hearst’s moves. Where once Al could’ve just had the guy killed and fed to Wu’s pigs, his outside connections make that impossible — stakeholders would come looking, bringing even more attention and seeking justice. Civilisation, eh?

    In my review last month, I mentioned the season two storyline that saw Al taken out by illness, as a way to reduce his influence over the rest of the characters and events. Season three does something similar, but ‘depowers’ him in a more interesting way: against Hearst, Al is at a disadvantage, certainly in terms of brawn and, possibly, in terms of scheming brainpower too. The way one particular show of strength from the businessman emasculates Al leads to some great introspection, leading the barman to doubt himself and his skills, possibly for the first time ever, certainly that we’ve seen. It serves to further deepen and strengthen the quality of an already great character. At the start of season one he’s clearly a villain, but he quickly becomes more, so that by this point he’s really an anti-hero. That’s partly because he’s the lesser of two evils next to Hearst’s ruthlessness, but also because we’ve had time to get the true measure of his character — as much as he tries to hide it, Al has a bit of a heart, and he certainly operates according to codes of honour and loyalty. It might not always be the same as that of the rest of society, but it’s strongly held. He still does despicable stuff, but there are many shades of grey there; and while Al is the marquee example, you find those shades in all the other major characters too — it’s part of why every performance is so great, because this quality cast are given such excellent material to work with. When most of the characters who’ve been regulars since the start begin to come together in the face of the threat from Hearst, it’s immensely satisfying, even as the threat they face seems insurmountable. The final few episodes are exciting, powerful stuff.

    Unhappy happeningsNot that the third season passes without fault, mind. By the middle of the season, episodes were being written so on the fly that they could only use standing sets and regular locations, because there wasn’t enough lead time to build anything new or travel to other locations. Later, outdoor scenes had to be cut back, as a tightening budget left no room for all the extras and horses needed to convey the town’s bustling streets. While these production issues are mostly covered for well enough, some storylines are also affected. For example, Wyatt Earp and his brother arrive in town, apparently with some big secret scheme in the offing, but in the very next episode that’s completely forgotten as they’re hastily written back out. Plus, considering the already sizeable regular and recurring cast, it’s mad that Milch decided to (a) add even more characters, and (b) devote an unwarranted amount of time to meandering subplots starring minor characters. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it means some good actors and characters go to waste as we while away time on things no one would miss if they‘d been ditched. The worst offender for me is Steve the Drunk and the never-ending kerfuffle around the livery, which starts out as an adequate and pointed subplot but eventually just drags on and on. Someone in the writers’ room must’ve loved that character and his (increasingly tiresome) verbal diarrhoea.

    Similarly, many fans object to the acting troupe who turn up to establish a theatre in the town, their antics again seeming like an aside from the main thrust of the series. I have more sympathy for them, however. For starters, they’re led by the reliably excellent Brian Cox. His presence and interactions with the regulars is definitely worthwhile, especially in his position as an old friend of Swearengen’s, becoming a different kind of sounding board for Al, particularly valuable when he’s on the back foot for so much of the season. Secondly, I think it can be easy to forget that season three wasn’t meant to be the end — the theatre troupe may feel like time-wasters when we’ve got such limited time in this world, but the show was meant to carry on for several seasons after this, and their deeper merit was yet to come (plus there would’ve been plenty more time for everyone else, as well). Thirdly, Deadwood is the story of the titular town, and so the actors’ presence and effect on the town as a whole is the very point — Deadwood itself is the true main character, and its development is the primary “character arc” of the show.

    Guess which one's Milch and which one's HBO...Sadly, that arc was never completed. Milch knew the writing was on the wall before the season was completed, and there’s a very plausible theory that the second half of the season is actually an allegory for the conflict between Milch and the executives at HBO (you can read about that in W. Earl Brown’s comment on this article at Uproxx), and it seems he used the little notice he had to attempt some kind of conclusion. It’s an odd old ending, though. You can see Milch knew it was going to be a de facto finale — it kinda serves as such — but, at the same time, it’s clearly not the final end he would’ve had if he could’ve. According to Milch, the final line of dialogue (which also gives the episode its title) was aimed at the audience. “Wants me to tell him something pretty” — meaning: the show’s refusal to wrap things up in a bow was not a failure to conclude; rather, it’s not a neat and tidy resolution because Milch was not just “telling us something pretty”.

    The disappointment of the series being cut down before its time is compounded by the fact this early cancellation seems to have stalled the show’s reputation in the minds of some. As a commenter observed on Uproxx review’s of the finale, it’s like people go, “ah, Deadwood — shame it got cancelled after only three seasons”, and leave it at that, while shows that come to a ‘proper’ ending (like The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad or whatever) get all the focus. Maybe it’s something sharpened by the very act of ending: people sit up and notice The End of an acclaimed show, even those who’ve never even watched it, but when a show just peters off or fades away because it was cancelled prematurely, it doesn’t get that moment of focusing. Maybe Deadwood will finally earn that recognition next month, when HBO airs the long-anticipated follow-up movie. It’s a great series — imperfect, I’d argue, but at its best the equal of any other — and it’s not mentioned as often as it should be.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Time Enough at LastThe new Jordan Peele-hosted iteration of Twilight Zone still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster, so I’m continuing last month’s theme of cherrypicking the very best episodes from the original 1959-64 series.

    One observation I made last time was that the series seems to be a victim of its own success, in that its influence has been so widespread over the past six decades that the original episodes sometimes seem already familiar or simplistic. Season one’s Walking Distance is another where this rears its head, because it takes the lead character half the episode to begin to realise something that’s obvious to a modern viewer much sooner. It’s the unavoidable side effect of being more widely exposed to these kind of stories; of being a more experienced and savvy viewer than people would’ve had the chance to be in 1959. So, any merits have to be found beyond the basic concept and/or twist to make it worthwhile viewing today, and in this case it’s a simple but effective overall message: you can’t go home again, even though you’ll wish to, but that’s ok. It’s a theme I have great fondness for (it’s intensely melancholic, a feeling I always value), so the episode still has its rewards.

    Also from season one is Time Enough at Last, one of the series’ best-known episodes, but famous entirely for its ironic ending — something else that makes you worry it’ll be a pointless viewing exercise now, as you just wait for that final moment to come along. In fact, there’s slightly more to the episode than just a note of cosmic irony. And if you’re fortunate enough not to know the twist, even better — just watch it unencumbered and enjoy it all the more. One with a twist I didn’t know was season two’s Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? It has a little bit of the paranoia of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, but plays more like a murder mystery, with a group of suspects gathered in a remote location. It doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with its own story after the setup, so kind of abandons it (the police just let everyone go!), but then it does have a couple of fun twists in the tail.

    Nightmare at 20,000 FeetFinally for now, two episodes that were remade in the 1983 film. Season three’s It’s a Good Life suggests that the worst monster imaginable is a six-year-old boy with unlimited power. Yeah, I buy that. This inspired my least-favourite segment of the film, but the original is so much better — more genuinely terrifying, whereas Joe Dante’s remake was just freakish and bizarre. Lastly, perhaps the series’ most famous episode of all (even though it didn’t come until the final season): Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. This is the one with William Shatner as a nervous airplane passenger who thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing. It’s written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner — you don’t get much higher calibre than that. It really is a perfect half-hour of TV, precisely paced and performed, keeping you riveted for every second, and unsure about whether Bob’s mind is fractured or the whole flight is in very real danger. The realisation of the gremlin is hokey, but other than that this is superb.

    To close, one general observation about all the episodes I’ve watched: Rod Serling is an absolutely fantastic host. When they’re on form (which they usually are), his opening and closing monologues are absolute magic. I don’t envy any other host the challenge of having to live up to him.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Line of Duty series 5This month, I have mostly been missing the new series of Line of Duty, BBC One’s ever-twisty police corruption drama. Given that it’s been trending on Twitter every week, it’s a wonder I’ve not had it spoiled… yet. It’s now two-thirds of the way through, so I’ll watch it intensively once it’s over. I’d promise a review next month, but last month I said that about Hanna and I’ve yet to make time for that. Maybe they’ll both be here next month. Also: Ghosts, the new comedy from the cast behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland, which looks promising but, again, is a couple of episodes in and I’ve yet to start.

    Next month… the Battle of Winterfell.

    The Past Month on TV #44

    Another later-than-usual TV review (originally these were meant to be on the third Thursday every month), which is simply because I didn’t have much to write about. Even still, it’s a less packed one that usual, with little more than a couple of seasons of Deadwood and a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone to cover. Still, at least that’s some high-quality viewing.

    Deadwood  Seasons 1-2
    Deadwood season 2One of the early touchstones of the “peak TV” era we’re now right in the midst of, Deadwood is a kind of revisionist Western — revisionist in that it treats the West not as a time of myths and legends, as most movies still do, but as a real historical period like any other, populated by realistic people (more or less — I’ll come to that). The titular town began as a camp in Native American territory, established by gold prospectors. When they found success, more gold hunters followed, plus all the amenities they might require: supplies, tools, food, gambling, whores… Plus, the town was outside the jurisdiction of most law enforcement, thereby attracting a different class of person again. Naturally, illicit activity followed. At one point Deadwood averaged a murder a day — and those are just the ones that were recorded.

    It’s a rich place to set a drama, then, especially when you learn how quickly the place changed: although it started as just camp for prospectors, within only a couple of years it had telephones, before major cities like San Francisco, and was eventually consumed into the US proper. Creator David Milch had wanted to tell a story about how society establishes and organises itself set in ancient Rome, but HBO already had Rome in the works (set in an entirely different part of that empire’s history, but the general milieu was similar enough), so he had a rethink and Deadwood was born. It seems at least as fitting a place to present that theme.

    If that sounds like it’d be some heavy treatise, that’s certainly not how Deadwood plays out. It thrives on a human scale, with a large ensemble cast of characters to love and hate, sometimes within the same figure. Yet despite the sheer volume of people on screen, each one is well drawn, believable and relatable. It’s a fantastic feat of both writing and acting. There are standout performances, sure — Ian McShane as saloon owner and Machiavellian plotter Al Swearengen attracted the most attention at the time, and indeed if you had to pick just one he’s definitely the greatest character and performance here; but there are likely a dozen others who, in almost any other show, would overshadow the rest of the cast.

    Arguing and alcoholThey’re aided by the extraordinary storytelling. It’s often said to be Shakespearean, but that’s not an empty epithet. The dialogue may be littered with expletives (not as shocking today as it was back in 2004, but still not for the faint of heart) and tailored for the understanding of modern ears, but there are still speeches and exchanges that you could put anonymously alongside writings of the Bard and laypeople would struggle to identify which was which. It’s a structural thing, too — I mean, there are characters who deliver soliloquies! How often do you see genuine soliloquies outside of classical theatre? Plus there’s the way that, again, it’s using personal conflicts to touch on bigger themes and points about human nature and society.

    Although it’s based on a real time and place, Deadwood has a wavering attention to historical detail. Many of the characters are named after real people, both relatively unknown (Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Sol Star, E.B. Farnum) and famous from tales of the West (Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane), and sometimes it depicts genuine events from their lives, but only really when it suits the stories Milch wants to tell. Other characters are amalgamations of real-life individuals, or else are archetypes designed to show another facet of life. Alma Garrett, for example, a rich society woman who’s ended up in the camp due to her new husband’s whims, is used to portray the difficulties women faced in this era. But, again, the show does this by making her a believable character with her own storyline, not by contriving to give us a lecture.

    Of these initial two seasons, for my money the first is superior. It took me an episode or two to get back into the show’s unique rhythms (in particular, the way it’s shot looked suddenly very dated — a bit like how TV used to be done, a marked contrast to the cinematic visuals we’re used to today), but once the ball’s rolling it’s a thoroughly engrossing set of narratives. Indeed, it’s remarkable how much plot it packs into an episode, without ever feeling rushed or like it’s underserving characters. That’s another contrast to the way premium TV has gone since, where you have to watch a whole season to get a whole story.

    Sisters are doing it for themselves... with the help of menSeason two is a little more like the latter, and suffers for it. A major death about two-thirds of the way through comes to overshadow the rest of the season; while it doesn’t completely stall it, things begin to take longer to get anywhere. There’s also an early plot in season two designed to ‘depower’ Swearengen — he’d become such a dominating force in season one, Milch felt it necessary to take some of that away, if only for a while. A justifiable aim, but taking him out of play due to incapacity and recovery makes parts of the second season somewhat less fun. There’s a lot of entertainment value in Al’s scheming and swearing.

    The real problem with Deadwood, however, was that it was so short-lived. This is the kind of show that a network would never dream of cancelling today — artistically top-draw and critically acclaimed with it. I have no idea what viewing figures were like, but I remember it being well-discussed at the time, so I can’t imagine they were bad. But apparently there was some kind of dispute between the network and the production company about how much they’d pay for the show, and all that fell through after just three seasons. More on how the show does or doesn’t prematurely wrap-up next month, but it was definitely cancelled without notice, so I can’t imagine it’s too neat an ending. At least now we’re getting a sequel movie to put a proper capstone on it.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The Twilight ZoneUntil a couple of years ago, my experience of The Twilight Zone was limited to the Tower of Terror ride at various Disney theme parks (and recognising the theme that everyone knows, of course). Then in 2017 I watched the anthology film by Spielberg and co, which is good but still not the original. Well, with the new Jordan Peele-fronted revival on the way tomorrow (in the US, at least — no UK broadcaster or streamer has been announced still), Screen Crush ran an article ranking all 156 episodes of the original 1959-64 series. There are probably many such articles out there, but this is the one I saw, and, as I’ve long meant to watch some of the series, what better excuse to cherrypick the best-regarded episodes (cross-referenced with IMDb user ratings) and start there?

    Well, I thought I’d have more episodes to discuss here, but I’ve only made time for two so far: the one Screen Crush picked as #1, and the one IMDb users rank as #1. Funnily enough, after watching these episodes I saw this article, in which new series execs Peele and Simon Kinberg recommend their favourites from the original series, a list which is also topped by this pair, so I guess these really are considered the best of the best.

    First up, Screen Crush’s pick: season one’s The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (ranked 5th on IMDb and cited by Kinberg), which presents a parable with a moral lesson about baseless paranoia that feels kinda obvious now. It may be that comes from endless imitation — the episode is 60 years old, after all. That said, it’s sadly a lesson plenty of people could still do with learning. So, the familiarity of the theme lets the episode down when viewed today, but it’s still a cleanly executed version of the story.

    Dopey aliensSecondly, IMDb user’s pick: season three’s To Serve Man (ranked 7th by Screen Crush and cited by Peele). This is, essentially, an entire half-hour story based around reaching a neat twist that’s staring you in the face the whole time, like a well-executed punchline on a dark joke. That’s the kind of thing The Twilight Zone is renowned for, so it feels very apposite as a “best ever episode”. That said, while the punchline attracts our focus, the story that gets us there does have some commentary about the nature of mankind. There’s no explanation for why the aliens spend most of the episode wearing such a dopey expression, though.

    Hopefully I’ll tick off some more best-of episodes of the original series next month, and maybe the much-anticipated new incarnation will make its way to UK screens too.

    Also watched…
  • Pointless The Good, the Bad and the Bloopers — How is this show ten years old? I don’t mean in terms of quality, but just time — how has it been a whole decade since it first aired? Where does time go?! (I wonder how many results there’d be if you searched this blog for that phrase…) I used to watch Pointless religiously, but then I decided there wasn’t enough time in my life to regularly watch a quiz show. I still think it’s a great format though, and this celebratory selection of outtakes from the last decade was surprisingly amusing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    HannaThis month, I have mostly been missing the back ends of the series I mentioned were starting last month, like Shetland and Baptiste. More recently, there’s Amazon’s TV remake of Hanna — I reviewed the first episode after its 24-hour preview last month, and the whole first season was just released on Friday. Expect a review next month, then.

    Next month… winter is here.

  • Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

    2017 #129
    Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Twilight Zone: The Movie

    I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

    As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

    The Trump Zone

    The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

    Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

    Scary kid? Check.

    Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

    Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

    The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

    Fear of flying

    On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

    4 out of 5

    The Swimmer (1968)

    2015 #122
    Frank Perry | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Magnificently strange film about a man (Burt Lancaster) who decides to ‘swim’ home through his friends’ pools. It becomes clear they know something he’s forgotten…

    A strange air means this quickly begins to feel like a Twilight Zone-esque mystery, but it’s actually something else entirely… though to reveal too many secrets would spoil it. Lancaster is fantastic as an ultimately complex character, there are good supporting turns, and Frank Perry’s direction is evocative, though Sydney Pollack helmed one vital scene.

    Now obscure and consequently tricky to see, The Swimmer is a forgotten gem that’s worth unearthing if the opportunity arises.

    4 out of 5

    I only know of The Swimmer thanks to the ghost of 82. His appreciation is very much worth a read.

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