The Past Month on TV #67

This month: real-life grief in HIV/AIDS drama It’s a Sin; superhero grief in WandaVision; and “good grief, what have they done to The West Wing?” in a charity special. Plus, more classic Twilight Zone.

It’s a Sin
It's a SinThe latest series from writer Russell T Davies is a story he’s been mulling for a long time — I seem to remember it first being mentioned in his book The Writer’s Tale, which chronicles his final couple of years on Doctor Who, over a decade ago now. It’s had a bumpy ride to the screen, with the pitch being rejected by several networks, and eventually the planned eight episodes being negotiated down to just five. If this were a lesser writer then you’d assume the concept must have some fundamental flaw(s), but perhaps it was just the subject matter that scared so many commissioners: it’s about the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, told from the perspective of a gang of mostly-gay twentysomethings who’ll see the disease rip their world to shreds. Not exactly a cheery topic, and one still affected by taboos and ignorance all these decades later. But that’s why this is a story that needed to be told, and here it’s safe in the hands of a master screenwriter.

That matters, because the series is balanced perfectly. You expect this story to be tragic and sad, and it is, but it’s also not some kind of misery-porn. It doesn’t hide from the devastating effects of the virus, but nor is it dwell on them unnecessarily. Nor does it sanctify the victims — they didn’t deserve what happened, but they’re human beings. Some of them deny its existence, even as evidence mounts. Some don’t take the proper precautions. Some are nice and sweet. Some are selfish. They’re human, and that’s the really important thing. Yes, this is a sad drama about young lives cut tragically short, and a condemnation of the cruel way some people (family, friends, colleagues, politicians) chose to handle that. But, more than that, it’s a celebration of those people whose lives were lost. The reason it’s so good, and so worthwhile, is because it never forgets that they weren’t just “people who got sick and died”, but people who lived.

WandaVision  Episodes 5–8
WandaVisionWandaVision had seemed to settle itself into a nice little groove in its first few episodes, each edition spoofing a different era of sitcom with an occasional hint at what was really going on, before episode four came along to blow that up with a raft of revelations about what had been happening outside Wanda’s little fantasy all this time. I was worried how the ensuing episodes would deal with that, as we’d been promised more eras of sitcom spoofery, but now the cat was kinda out of the bag. Well, thankfully it didn’t do the ’90s thing of following an arc-plot-heavy episode with a series of non-arc episodes that act almost as if the big developments didn’t happen. Instead, we got what I thought was a pretty nice balance between continued era-specific sitcom emulation and the exploration of what was actually going on. The latter meant sacrificing the mystery and some of the strangeness that helped those first few episodes feel so unlike anything the MCU has attempted before, but in its place we got the comforting familiarity of mystery box-style plotting. It’s certainly not as special, but it is engaging in its own way, and led to some nice surprises (Pietro) and unsurprising inevitable reveals (it was Agatha all along!)

Now, the stage is set for the finale. Many people have expressed surprise that the show will be able to wrap everything up in a single episode. We’ll see, but I have three thoughts on that. One, don’t discount the MCU’s ability to focus hard on plot and therefore cram an awful lot into a relatively short space of time. Two, there might be less to wrap up than we think — a lot of the pervading mystery is thanks to multitudinous fan theories, and the show has already suggested it might not be being as complex as some think. And three, we know Wanda will be a major part of Doctor Strange 2, so don’t write off the idea that this series will actually leave a lot open-ended for that movie to pick up on. It would be a shame if it did that too much, because it would render the whole series as little more than a backstory-expanding prequel to the movie, but I don’t for a second believe the finale will tie everything up in a neat bow only for Wanda to return afresh in Doctor Strange — the two will surely be connected. Only a few days until we get our first idea of how…

A West Wing Special  to Benefit When We All Vote
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All VoteIt’s been a very long time since I watched any of The West Wing, and I never saw it in full, but I always meant to go back and watch the whole thing properly. I thought watching this one-off charity reunion thingy might ignite my interest in finally doing that. And, indeed, this did make me want to go back and rectify that — by, ironically, clearly not being as good as the show used to be.

I don’t know if this actually aired in the UK in the end, because it’s very much focused on getting Americans to vote in last November’s election. To achieve that, the original cast of The West Wing reunited to reenact a season three episode of the show, Hartsfield’s Landing, which is all about voting and democracy and stuff. The fact it was made in 2020 means it had to deal with COVID protocols, although that doesn’t really factor in the final result (some behind-the-scenes clips are thrown in to reassure us that they observed all the stuff they should observe) — I presume that performing it in an empty theatre with sparse props and scenery is more to do with evoking that “this is a one-off for charity” thing than a pandemic necessity.

Anyway, as for what I was alluding to in my opening paragraph, the direction and staging of this production are nicely done, but I think you can feel that the cast are no longer on well-practised form to deliver the snappy dialogue as it’s meant to be done, and some of the original episode’s B-plots struggle in this setting by being parts of arcs that were never meant to stand alone like this. Of course, the entire thing is really just an excuse on which to hang voting PSAs, which are delivered by some celeb cameos that are kinda fun… even if the entire point is (a) limited to the US, and (b) now expired. Though it does make for a surprisingly condensed and sad reminder of how the US has, despite its unwavering national self-belief, consistently failed to actually be an exemplar of how free and fair democratic elections should work.

More of  The Twilight Zone
This week has brought news that the Jordan Peele revival of Twilight Zone (the launch of which first provoked my visits to the original series back in March 2019) has been cancelled after two seasons. I haven’t started that version yet (I’ve been watching these ones!), but it seems a shame — it’s such an iconic show, you feel it should do well in any era. But we’re spoilt for choice with TV nowadays, and I don’t recall any real chatter around the release of season two, so this cancellation is hardly surprising.

What You NeedThat news aside, let’s return our gaze to the 1959–64 iteration of the programme. Having already reviewed many of the best and worst episodes of that original run, I’m now covering episodes that happened to pique my interest. First up this month, What You Need, which jumps straight onto my list of the series’ best episodes. It’s the story of a peddler who can provide people with the one small item that will be of invaluable use to them shortly, and the punter who wants to exploit this power. The episode has a nice balance of sweet whimsy and darkness; the length is perfectly paced for the half-hour; and, although it’s not got one of Twilight Zone‘s famous massive twists, the end is fitting and in-keeping. It’s nicely directed too, particularly the scene where the punter confronts the salesman in his apartment. An excellent episode that deserves to be better regarded.

Next is an episode that some do hold in high esteem, The Night of the Meek, which is effectively a Twilight Zone Christmas special — it originally aired on 23rd December 1960, and it certainly plays up to its airdate. It’s about a drunken department store Santa, adorned in a grubby costume and matted beard, who can’t even show up for work on time, but who nonetheless has more Christmas spirit at heart than any of the sober, responsible people he encounters. It’s a little bit twee and cheesy, but also kinda charming in that “only at Christmas” way. It’s a shame it was one of the half-dozen episodes shot on videotape, because it looks absolutely terrible and that emphasises the tackiness. If it looked slicker, it might come across a bit classier, and then it might earn the “you’ll want to watch it every Christmas” accolade that I feel should be the ultimate goal of any Christmas special or movie.

Person or Persons Unknown has a good setup: a man awakens after a drunken night out to discover no one remembers him and there’s no evidence he ever existed. It’s the kind of existential psychological horror that’s the fuel for many a good TZ tale, and it does play well for a while, but writer Charles Beaumont doesn’t have a proper ending to offer us, resorting to that most clichéd of cop-outs, “it was all a dream”. It’s a shame, but not exactly a surprise: the episode offers no clues about where it might be going or why this might be happening, so you begin to think Beaumont either has something very clever hidden up his sleeve or the reveal is going to be a tacked-on disappointment. Sadly, it’s the latter.

I Sing the Body ElectricFamed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s only formal contribution to the series, I Sing the Body Electric, is another case of a great premise writing cheques the rest of the episode can’t cash. Here, rather than running out of steam, the places it takes us to are morally questionable and raise more questions than they answer. The plot is almost like a sci-fi twist on Mary Poppins: a widowed father is struggling to bring up his three kids, so they get a robot grandma, but one of the daughters doesn’t like her. It’s eventually revealed that the daughter’s distrust stems from the belief that her dead mother “ran away” and she thinks robot-granny will do the same — but it’s okay, because granny’s a robot and can live forever. Hurrah! Maybe your mileage will differ, but the idea that mothers who die have run away from their kids, or that this grief is best handled by giving the kid a parental figure who will never die, all seems a bit distasteful. And that’s before we get to the ending, where we learn that RoboGran’s consciousness will gather with others of her kind so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s spun as if this is somehow a good thing, but to me it sounds like a prequel to The Matrix

That good ol’ Twilight Zone staple of a man confused by his predicament arises again in Judgment Night, set aboard a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic during World War II. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of the visual style of 1960s US TV, but the way it’s shot feels very in-keeping with all those ’40s movies set on passenger ships, which helps make its setting feel authentic — if this had been made as a film in the ’40s, it would look exactly the same. Everyone aboard is concerned they’ll be sunk by a U-boat, with our protagonist particularly het up about the idea. Of course, we eventually learn why. The twist isn’t hugely surprising — it’s the kind of thing you expect from TZ and so can predict — but, like I’m finding of many episodes in this middle-ground between the series’ best and worst episodes, it’s a solid piece of work.

Also watched…
  • Dial M for Middlesbrough — The third in Gold’s annual series of comedy murder mysteries (after 2017’s Murder on the Blackpool Express and 2018’s Death on the Tyne) aired at Christmas 2019, but I’ve only just dug it out from the depths of the DVR. I thought it was the best one yet. It’s a kind of magnificent silliness, from the first murder (which involves impalement by a swing ball pole punctuated by a perfectly-chosen pop song on the soundtrack) to outlandish plot twists (a hidden Chicago hitman) to Jason Donovan chewing up all the scenery as a former love interest for one of our heroes (complete with flashbacks to 1999 that look ever so ’80s. I guess it takes pop culture a long time to make it up north…) I presume they had to sit out 2020 because of the pandemic, but I’d welcome another outing this Christmas, please.
  • For All Mankind Season 1 Episode 1 — Finally made a start on this Apple TV+ series (which is currently releasing its second season). Season 1 review next month.

    Next month… I’m gonna review For All Mankind — didja not just read that bit? Also the WandaVision finale, plus more of “More of The Twilight Zone”.

  • The Past Month on TV #66

    After it had to sit out 2020 entirely (who knows why that happened?!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — but now on TV! *gasp*

    Also this month: the continuation of another film-turned-television franchise in Cobra Kai; the examination of film by television in new episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; and television that has nothing much to do with film in Staged series 2 and more classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

    WandaVision  Episodes 1-4
    WandaVisionWandaVision isn’t the first television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in fact, it’s the thirteenth); nor is it the first to feature characters and actors from the movies (that’s been the case in at least two others, off the top of my head); but it is the first to be produced by the same division that makes the movies, so it’s set to be a lot more important (read: not totally ignored) going forward. Indeed, it’s already been reported that the events of this series tie directly into the storylines of the next Spider-Man 3 and Doctor Strange 2, at least.

    So it’s a little surprising, then, that this marks such a departure from the regular style and feel of Marvel’s films; much more so than any of their previous TV series did. The setup is that somehow Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and her robot lover Vision, who died, are living in a world modelled after classic TV sitcoms, and they’re perfectly unaware that there’s anything weird about this. The show emulates these old TV formats down to a tee — it’s not simply that they’ve cropped it to 4:3 and desaturated it to black-and-white, but it’s the camera angles, the acting styles, the set and costume design, the laughter track… The whole vibe of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms is neatly evoked, and the cast are clearly having a ball playing in a different era, with stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany particularly up to the task. Plus, the fact this is a nine-episode series, rather than another two-hour action-adventure blockbuster, also allows the show to indulge in old-fashioned standalone-episode storylines, so that each episode feels like a self-contained unit of entertainment, rather than just part of a long movie cut into nine segments

    But, of course, something fishy is going on, and when that begins to break through the show cleverly subverts its own format: when a guest starts unexpectedly choking at a dinner party, Wanda urges Vision to use his powers to save him, and the directorial choices suddenly become much more modern, briefly breaking the spell for us as much as the characters, but without doing anything obvious like switching to colour or widescreen. There are increasing flashes of this Twilight Zone-y, Twin Peaks-y, Stepford Wives-y oddness in future episodes, I guess to reassure regular MCU viewers that this is all going somewhere, rather than just being a bit of fluff.

    And then we reach episode 4 (spoilers follow). I think we all expected this — i.e. an episode set ‘outside’ that explained (some of) what was going on — to come along at some point. It had to, really. But I thought it would be teased and teased, as it was in the first three episodes, as the show gradually moved through more eras of sitcoms, until eventually we’d start getting to real answers around maybe episode 7 or 8. It’s a very fan pleasing episode — as well as some answers, there’s also a host of roles for minor characters familiar from other MCU outings — but it does slightly concern me for the next five episodes. We know the show is heading back into Wanda’s world, because they’ve promised spoofs of sitcoms from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but surely it can’t expect to go back to a “sitcom of the week” format and that be sufficient? Now that they’ve opened up the outside, they can’t expect us to just watch Wanda cosplay different eras of sitcom history while learning nothing more about the bigger situation, can they? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

    Staged  Series 2
    Staged series 2The David Tennant- and Michael Sheen-starring (or is that Michael Sheen- and David Tennant-starring?) filmed-over-Zoom sitcom about lockdown life was a hit during one or other of the 2020 lockdowns, so here it is again — just in time for the 2021 lockdown, as things turned out. The second series is very much a follow-up — a sequel, if you will — rather than merely “more episodes of the same”. In fact, it’s a meta-sequel: the first series exists as a fictional project in the world of the sequel. This isn’t a continuation of the storyline(s) we watched in the first series; it’s a follow-on from the fact the first series was a success. Got that? The title card sometimes calls the series Staged², and one feels that’s more than just a typographical play on Staged 2.

    That said, what we get in practice is more of the same: actors and creatives bickering about a project over video calls. But this time, rather than a play David and Michael are lined up to star in, it’s a Hollywood remake of Staged that won’t star them. Gasp! Cue a parade of famous-face guest stars as potential new cast members. No spoilers here, because the “oh look, it’s him/her” factor is part of the fun, just as it was in the first series; although, frankly, none of this series’ lot (and there are quite a lot) can pull off the same element of surprise as series one’s biggest names. However, this time the celebrity cameos dominate, with David and Michael spending most of the middle episodes meeting people who might replace them. Even bingeing the series over a couple of days, the plot feels spread thin, with very little actually happening to sustain the two hours (yes, across eight episodes it runs only two hours). The subplots that helped fill out series one (Michael’s neighbour; Georgia’s novel; in the extended cut, Lucy’s relationship; and so on) are gone, with nothing significant in their place. There is a sporadic subplot about Georgia, Anna, and Lucy prepping a charity sketch, which makes for some welcome interludes, but that’s only two or three scenes across the whole series.

    And yet, ironically, the show tends to be most fun when nothing happens at all, and we’re left with David and Michael chatting to each other. When they’re separated, having different one-on-ones, it’s enjoyable to discover the foibles of another big-name guest star, but the “huh, it’s Person X” element wears off quickly and we want to go back to our leads hanging out. Fortunately, the last two episodes ride in to save the day, first with probably the best pair of guest stars of the series, then with a quite touching finale that simply abandons all the remake schtick to just be about David and Michael’s friendship as lockdown comes to an end. It’s a sweet, touching farewell to a show that I would guess has now run its course, but was a tonic while it lasted.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 3
    Secrets of Cinema: Cult MoviesA trio of new editions of the critic’s explanation of cinematic genres, which play like the best Film Studies lectures you could imagine. Each explores and explains its chosen subject in depth, often spinning out into tangential and related branches of film history — see the episode on pop music movies, for example, which is primarily concerned with movies about pop stars or musicals starring pop stars, but takes a moment to explore the phenomenon of pop stars as proper actors, such as David Bowie’s secondary career. It’s like Kermode and his writers (which include the insanely knowledgeable Kim Newman) can’t help themselves: there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about, so many connections and parallels, and they’re going to squeeze as much of it in as possible. Cited examples are copious and wide-ranging — if an episode is about a subject you’re interested in, be prepared to see your watch list grow. The best of this trilogy is the third, on cult movies; a genre, as Kermode explains, that is defined not by filmmakers but by audiences. It’s also a particularly wide-ranging field, but one whose contents engender genuine love — what makes them cult movies, after all, is that someone loves them. Kermode helps us to understand why.

    Cobra Kai  Season 2
    Cobra Kai season 2The third season of this Karate Kid TV spinoff/continuation debuted at the start of the month, but I’ve been pacing myself: it’s a really good show and I didn’t want to just burn through it. While I thought season two lacked the moreishness I experienced during season one, I attribute that partly to its quality not coming as a surprise. Also, not tasked with having to set up the whole premise of the show, it can dig a little deeper into what’s already there. That includes more references to the movies. The first is remembered as an ’80s classic; the sequels as an old-fashioned case of diminishing returns — in that situation, many modern revivals choose to ignore the less-favoured follow-ups. Not so Cobra Kai, which this season explicitly references and flashes back to Karate Kid 3 on several occasions. Part of the series’ strength is fleshing out and making real some of the “kids’ movie” logic of the originals, and this season takes on a particularly tough target: the former sensei of Cobra Kai, John Kreese. He’s a bit of an “evil for evil’s sake” villain in the movies, but the series works to add some explanation for that, and even asks if it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated and redeemed, much as former bully Johnny Lawrence has been (or, you might say, is in the process of being).

    The series isn’t just stuck in the past, continuing the rivalries between the high-school-aged students of Cobra Kai and competing Miyagi-Do dojo, both on the karate, er, mat (is that what it’s really called?) and in the romantic realm. I suppose it gives the show a “something for everyone” angle, with both teen melodrama and the reflectiveness of its older characters (one of the season’s best episodes sees Johnny catch up with his old gang from school, one of whom is dying from cancer). All of which builds to a stunning climax: as the kids return to school after the summer break, the opposing factions end up in a karate battle that sprawls through the halls and stairways of the school, fellow students watching and egging them on. It takes up half the episode, including the best hallway fight oner since Daredevil — yes, such lofty comparisons are merited. But, as parents always say, “if you keep doing that, one of you’s going to get hurt”, and so of course it ends in (various kinds of) tragedy. What will happen next?! Oh, season three is already calling to me…

    The Twilight Zone
    The Twilight Zone: SteelSo far on my journey through the original 1959–64 series of The Twilight Zone, I’ve covered ten selections of the best episodes and three of the worst, as chosen by various critics. With 85 episodes still to go, I’m leaving the opinions of others behind (for the time being) to check out some episodes that caught my attention for one reason or another — not because they’re acclaimed as good or derided as bad, but something about the premise grabbed me while I was perusing all those various rankings.

    First up, The Bard, in which an enthusiastic wannabe TV writer uses a magic spell to bring Shakespeare back to life, and persuades the Bard to be his ghostwriter. Serling uses his years of experience to make this a satire of the TV industry, but it’s a pretty mild one — probably due to a mix of the era (when I guess the general public wouldn’t have had too much of an idea about the behind-the-scenes of TV) and the fact Serling still had to work in the industry. Also, it was apparently written in a hurry, and it shows: there are some good lines and moments, but various things don’t pay off or go anywhere. Plus, even the story angle is slightly misjudged: surely the gag here is that Shakespeare’s writing appraised by modern TV execs would be a flop; that TV execs would reject the “greatest writer of all time”. Well, at least we get to see Shakespeare punch a pretentious Method actor (played by a young Burt Reynolds), so there’s that.

    Based on the same Richard Matheson short story that later inspired Hugh Jackman CGI-fest Real Steel, Steel is set in the future year 1974 (remember, this was made in 1964), when boxing has been outlawed and replaced by robot boxing. The episode centres on one bout, between our heroes’ knackered old B2 robot and a more modern B7, against which the B2 doesn’t stand much chance, despite the hopes of its owner, played by Lee Marvin. I’ve not read the original story, but that’s a broadly similar plot to the film; except here things go in a more Twilight Zone direction: when the B2 breaks down entirely, Marvin decides to enter the ring pretending to be it. The ending tries to spin what occurs as some kind of moral about mankind’s tenacity and optimism, but that feels like a bit of a stretch — the remake reimagining the concept as sports/action entertainment is actually a better use of the concept.

    The Twilight Zone: The Old Man in the CaveAn altogether different vision of 1974 is presented in The Old Man in the Cave. This time, it’s a post-apocalyptic world after “the bomb” was dropped, and what’s left of humanity makes do as it can in the remnants of the old world. In particular, one town has survived by following the guidance of an old man who lives in a nearby cave, who seems to know where to plant food, what tinned goods are safe to eat, what the weather will bring, and so on. When a militia turns up (led by James Coburn) planning to bring order to the region, the townsfolk are faced with the choice of continuing to listen to the old man or side with the militia’s view that he’s actually an oppressor and they’re a lot nicer. It turns into a neat little sci-fi fable — the finale says it’s about the error of faithlessness, but I’m more inclined to say it’s about trust in experts vs selfishness and greed. The townsfolk have followed this expert’s guidance for a decade and it’s kept them alive, but that life hasn’t been easy or fun, so they’re tempted by the fantasy sold by the newcomers: that you can have whatever you want; the expert is keeping you down for no reason. Naturally, it can only pan out one way. It’s a story whose moral seems only more pertinent today.

    The Rip Van Winkle Caper also catapults us into the future, as a gang of gold thieves cryogenically freeze themselves to wake up 100 years after their crime, when their loot won’t be ‘hot’ and, as a bonus, will have benefited from 100 years of inflation. But crime doesn’t pay, even in the Twilight Zone — doubly so in this episode, where the crooks bring about their own destruction even before we reach the episode’s ironic twist. As a sci-fi lesson in where greed gets you (nowhere), it’s not the series’ greatest parable, but it’s not bad.

    The Twilight Zone: A Kind of a StopwatchThe same could be said of A Kind of a Stopwatch, which takes on a perennial “what if”: what if you could freeze time? It wasn’t an original idea even when this episode was made in 1964, with Serling once saying he received dozens of pitches a year along those lines. He didn’t think any of them had an original enough take on the concept to be worth adapting, until this one. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so special about it. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s a reasonably well handled version, although it falls victim to the series’ regular bad habit of having the main character take much longer than the audience to understand the rules of the situation. But the episode’s real flaw comes at the end, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime: the main character’s fate is not an ironic twist especially suited to him. It’s that which stops Stopwatch from reaching TZ’s true heights; that leaves it a solid “good” episode when it could possibly have been a great one.

    Things to Catch Up On
    It's a SinThis month, I have mostly been missing It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s new drama about a group of friends coming of age amidst the emergence of AIDS in the ’80s. It’s only a couple of episodes in on Channel 4, but the whole five-part series is already available via All 4 (FYI, it’s out in the US on HBO Max in mid-February). I intend to binge the whole thing and review it next month.

    Next month… more WandaVision, more Twilight Zone, plus whatever else the TV Gods still have left in the pre-pandemic tank and/or have managed to produce during the various lockdowns.

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmas is properly over now: adults are back at work; kids are back at sch— wait, what? Another lockdown?

    Well, the festive season is over either way, isn’t it? So it’s time for my annual look back at some of the TV highlights. Or what was on, anyway.

    Doctor Who  Revolution of the Daleks
    Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksThis year’s Doctor Who special felt like a bid by showrunner Chris Chibnall to keep fans happy. Popular character Captain Jack Harkness is back, properly this time — after a cameo-ish appearance last season, this is his first major role in the show since 2008. And the proper Daleks are back, too — we got a sort-of-Dalek two years ago in the last special, but, after that’s used as the model for an army of “security drones”, the real Daleks turn up to exterminate them, with the 2005-style bronze Daleks making their first full appearance since 2015 (yes, it’s been that long).

    Of course, the one thing most fans would really like Chibnall to do is bugger off and let someone better write the show. He hasn’t given us that gift yet, sadly, but at least this is one of his better episodes. It’s suitably romp-ish for a seasonal special, with plenty of running down corridors, exploding enemies, and the odd gag or two. There’s even some political satire, albeit fairly familiar, heavy-handed, and underdeveloped. Well, that’s Chibnall’s whole style, isn’t it? He can’t seem to escape it, or doesn’t want to (there are surely other writers or script editors he could employ to help point him in the right direction).

    The other big news this episode is the departure of regulars Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter has been one of the highlights of this era, but is given short shrift here. He barely has anything to do all episode — with a cast this big there’s no time for everyone to get emotional subplots (or what Chibnall thinks passes for them), and here they’re shared between the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz… plus returning villain Robertson, of all people, who is arguably the episode’s main character. What a shitty way to write out two of your leads. And when it comes down to it, Graham only decides to leave the TARDIS because Ryan wants to go, and he wants to spend time with Ryan. Walsh is a fine actor when given the chance, and he deserved better. Ryan’s reasons for leaving aren’t <iquite as underwritten, but Cole does most of the heavy lifting, injecting a lot into unspoken moments to convey what Ryan’s feeling. A bit of screenwriting advice I once read asserted that, if you don’t bother to give your characters subtext, a good actor will invent their own regardless — it feels like that’s what’s happened here; or, at least, Cole has expanded well on the thin material Chibnall gave him.

    In any other recent era, Revolution of the Daleks (an inaccurate title — it should’ve been called something like Purity of the Daleks, or even Security of the Daleks) would be a middle-of-the-road episode, at best. At present, it’s probably going to be remembered as of the highlights of the era. There are now rumours that Jodie Whittaker is planning to leave the show after her next run, having completed the more-or-less standard three series. Well, the wrong person is going: she’s a fine Doctor let down by poor writing, and we’d all be better off if Chibnall would go and let someone else have a crack at giving Whittaker the material she deserves.

    Cinderella  A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
    Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for ChristmasWith theatres mostly shut this November and December due to Covid restrictions, the UK’s traditional pantomime season was a write-off. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and so an all-star bunch of actors and entertainers (including the likes of Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hollander, and Anya Taylor-Joy, plus multiple surprise cameos) came together over Zoom to record this hour-long panto in aid of Comic Relief. (FYI, there are two versions available: a 60-minute one that aired on BBC Two, and a slightly extended 63-minute cut available on iPlayer.)

    I imagine it would’ve been easier logistically to film everyone separately (and would we have been any the wiser?), but instead they seem to have wrangled all these stars together on the same Zoom call and performed it in more-or-less real-time. That ‘almost live’ aspect adds an element of unpredictability to proceedings — there’s the occasional tech issue, and a fair degree of corpsing and improvisation. Looking at other reviews, I guess this wasn’t to everyone’s taste (“a poor effort when better productions were hidden online”), but I thought it added to the do-it-yourself charm. It’s not a slick production by a bunch of pros, but has an air of fun similar to a bunch of mates doing their best and having a ball. The end result is very silly, of course, but all in the right spirit.

    Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse
    Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious MouseSky’s big special this year was this based-on-a-true-story tale of when a young, bereaved Roald Dahl went on a trip to meet an ageing Beatrix Potter. Two of the great British children’s authors meeting up at very different points in their lives? It’s a wonder no one’s thought to film this before. Although, based on the evidence here, the meeting was fairly short and inconsequential — that they met is an interesting bit of trivia, not a defining moment in either’s life. To get this anecdote up to barely-feature-length (it’s just over an hour without ads), there’s a lot of expanded backstory on both sides. The Roald side feels like it must be broadly true — it’s all about him (and his mother) struggling to cope with the deaths of both his sister and father — but the Beatrix side feels dreamt up to balance it out — it’s just about her arguing with an agent about the contents of her latest book. Eventually, these threads converge on the eponymous pair’s brief meeting… and that’s the end. It’s a slight and gentle film, but it made for moderately charming Christmas Eve fare.

    Comedy Specials
    The Goes Wrong Show: The NativityAs usual, the schedules were full of sitcoms and panel shows offering half-hour doses of festivals merriment. Highlights included a fourth Christmassy edition of The Goes Wrong Show, in which the accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society turned their attention to The Nativity, with predictably disastrous — and hilarious — results. I get that Goes Wrong is too silly for some, but it hits just the right note for me. A more heartwarming tone was struck by the Ghosts special, in which Mike’s overbearing family coming to stay (clearly not set this Christmas, then). In keeping with the style of the recent second series, their presence prompted flashbacks to the life of horny MP Julian, which, via a series of kinky sex parties, delivered a message about appreciating your family while you can.

    Meanwhile, Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow very much engaged with the current situation in an episode entitled Lockdown Christmas 1603, which imagined Will and his landlady Kate stuck at home during a plague-induced lockdown. Naturally this was a vehicle for observations about present-day life. It would be too kind to call it satire, but it was moderately amusing. After several years of Christmas specials, Not Going Out instead turned its attention to that other major end-of-December event: New Year. A show already fond of gathering its whole cast in a single location for basically a one-act play was perfect fodder for lockdown-constrained filming, and that’s what we get here: everyone gather for New Year’s Eve. Cue their inevitable sniping at one another — but when that gets too much, the assignation of New Year’s resolutions turns into some kind of group therapy session. It’s quite bold of a sitcom to deconstruct its characters’ defining foibles so explicitly, especially when there are more series on the way. One suspects the life lessons learnt won’t last…

    Also watched…
  • Blankety Blank Christmas Special — Yet another revival for the popular gameshow. It was supposedly a one-off, but I suspect it was intended as a backdoor pilot; as it was a ratings hit, I’d wager we’ll see more. I could’ve included it in the comedy roundup, because its main appeal is less as a gameshow and more in the format’s potential for humour.
  • Death to 2020 — I brazenly counted this as a film for statistical reasons, but it’s a TV special really. My full review is here.
  • Have I Got 30 Years for You — An entertaining but also insightful look back at three decades of the predominant news quiz.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Black NarcissusThis Christmas, I have mostly been missing Black Narcissus, the BBC’s three-part re-adaptation of a novel most famous for being adapted into a film by Powell & Pressburger. It’s on iPlayer in UHD now, which is usually an incentive for me to catch it. Talking of three-part re-adaptations, I also didn’t watch Steven Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol — that was on last year, when I didn’t have time for it until after Christmas had passed. “Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then,” I said. Oops.

    Next month… Perhaps Cobra Kai. After loving season one, I deliberately didn’t rush on to season two so that I didn’t burn through it too fast before season three. Then Netflix announced season three for early January, and then moved it forward to January 1st, and now instead of nicely spacing it out I just feel very far behind. Must resist the urge to burn through two seasons now instead…

  • 2020: The Full List

    As I already revealed in my December monthly review, 2020 is the biggest year of 100 Films ever. That’s thanks to me watching 264 films I’d never seen before, a figure that just pips 2018’s 261. I didn’t quite reach my Rewatchathon goal of revisiting 50 films I’d seen before, but I finished up on a not-unrespectable 46. Combined, their total of 310 is slightly behind 2018’s equivalent 311; but I also watched a frankly extraordinary (by my standards) number of shorts this year — 65, enough to increase my shorts review list by over 76%.

    More on all that in my annual statistics post, which is coming soon. For now, it’s time to look back over the year as a whole with these lovely long lists of all I watched. As well as films of all lengths, there are links to my monthly reviews (which contain all sorts of other goodies, donchaknow) and, further down, a list of my TV reviewing from the past year. To help you find what you’re looking for amongst all that, here’s a nice little set of contents links…


    • As It Happened — 2020’s monthly updates, with a chronological list of my viewing.
    • The List — an alphabetical list of every new film I watched in 2020; plus other stuff.
    • Television — an alphabetical list of every TV programme I reviewed in 2020.
    • Next Time — still to come: actual analysis of last year.

    Below is a graphical representation of my 2020 viewing, month by month. Each of the images links to the relevant monthly review, which contain a chronological list of everything I watched this year. There’s also other exciting stuff in there, like my monthly Arbie awards and what I watched in my Rewatchathon.

    I’ve often felt this section looks a bit unwieldy, so this year I’ve made it half the size. Any opinions on the change (or, indeed, anything else) are always welcome in the comment section.

    And now, the main event…


    An alphabetical list of all the new-to-me films I watched in 2020 (though some series are in chronological order within their alphabetisation). That’s followed by lists of other things I watched this year: alternate versions of films I’d already seen; rewatches I’ve marked out for ‘Guide To’ posts; and short films. Where a title is a link, it goes to my review; when there’s no link, it’s because I haven’t reviewed it yet (that’s probably self-evident…)

    • 127 Hours (2010)
    • 1917 (2019)
    • 3:10 to Yuma Hours (2007)
    • The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
    • 6 Underground (2019)
    • 7500 (2019)
    • 8½ (1963)
    • Ad Astra (2019)
    • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
    • Agatha and the Midnight Murders (2020)
    • Aladdin [3D] (2019)
    • All About Eve (1950)
    • All Is True (2018)
    • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
    • American Animals (2018)
    • The American President (1995)
    • An American Werewolf in London (1981)
    • Anand (1971)
    • Andrei Rublev (1966)
    • Aniara (2018)
    • The Armour of God (1986), aka Lung hing foo dai
    • The Assistant (2019)
    • August 32nd on Earth (1998), aka Un 32 août sur terre
    • Bad Boys for Life (2020)
    • Bait (2019)
    • Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
    • The Battle of Algiers (1966), aka La battaglia di Algeri
    • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
    • Belladonna of Sadness (1973), aka Kanashimi no Belladonna
    • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
    • Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
    • Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
    • Black Angel (1946)
    • Blind Fury (1989)
    • Blockers (2018)
    • Bloodshot (2020)
    • Booksmart (2019)
    • Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
    • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
    • The Breakfast Club (1985)
    • Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
    • A Bug’s Life (1998)
    • Burning (2018), aka Beoning
    • Cairo Station (1958), aka Bab el hadid
    • Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
    • Chariots of Fire (1981)
    • Chicken Run (2000)
    • The Children Act (2017)
    • The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two (2020)
    • Clueless (1995)
    • Coded Bias (2020)
    • Color Out of Space (2019)
    • Crawl (2019)
    • Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
    • Crooked House (2017)
    • Dangal (2016)
    • The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
    • Death to 2020 (2020)
    • Dial M for Murder [3D] (1954)
    • The Diamond Arm (1969), aka Brilliantovaya ruka
    • Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
    • Do the Right Thing (1989)
    • A Dog’s Will (2000), aka O Auto da Compadecida
    • Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
    • Down with Love (2003)
    • Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
    • Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux (1984/2012)
    • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
    • Emma. (2020)
    • End of the Century (2019), aka Fin de siglo
    • Enola Holmes (2020)
    • Entrapment (1999)
    • The Equalizer 2 (2018)
    • Escape Room (2019)
    • Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)
    • Evil Under the Sun (1982)
    • Extraction (2020)
    • The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
    • Falling (2020)
    • Fanny and Alexander (1982), aka Fanny och Alexander
    • Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
    • Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)
    • Fisherman’s Friends (2019)
    • For the Love of Spock (2016)
    • The French Connection (1971)
    • Fun & Fancy Free (1947)
    • The Gay Divorcee (1934)
    • Gemini Man (2019)
    • Godzilla: King of the Monsters [3D] (2019)
    • The Good Liar (2019)
    • The Goonies (1985)
    • Greyhound (2020)
    • Guinevere (1994)
    • Hamilton (2020)
    • Harakiri (1962), aka Seppuku
    • He Dreams of Giants (2019)
    • The Head Hunter (2018)
    • Hotel Artemis (2018)
    • Der Hund von Baskerville (1914), aka The Hound of the Baskervilles
    • Hunter Killer (2018)
    • Hustlers (2019)
    • I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
    • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs [3D] (2009)
    • Ice Age: Continental Drift [3D] (2012)
    • Ikiru (1952), aka Living
    • An Impossible Project (2020)
    • In the Mood for Love (2000)
    • Influence (2020)
    • Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
    • The Invisible Guest (2016), aka Contratiempo
    • The Invisible Man (2020)
    • The Ipcress File (1965)
    • It Chapter Two (2019)
    • Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)
    • Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)
    • Joker (2019)
    • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
    • Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
    • K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
    • The Karate Kid Part II (1986)
    • The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
    • The Kid (1921/1971)
    • Klaus (2019)
    • Knives Out (2019)
    • Lady Bird (2017)
    • The Lady Vanishes (1938)
    • Lancelot du Lac (1974), aka Lancelot of the Lake
    • Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta
    • The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
    • Last Chance Harvey (2008)
    • Late Night (2018)
    • Le Mans ’66 (2019), aka Ford v Ferrari
    • The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part [3D] (2019)
    • The Lie (2018)
    • The Lighthouse (2019)
    • Little Women (2019)
    • Long Day’s Journey Into Night [3D] (2018), aka Di Qiu Zui Hou De Ye Wan
    • Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)
    • The Looking Glass War (1970)
    • Lost in La Mancha (2002)
    • Love on a Leash (2011)
    • Lovers Rock (2020), aka Small Axe: Lovers Rock
    • The Lunchbox (2013)
    • Luxor (2020)
    • The Mad Magician [3D] (1954)
    • Maelström (2000)
    • Make Mine Music (1946)
    • Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
    • A Man for All Seasons (1966)
    • Man on Wire (2008)
    • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)
    • The Man Who Laughs (1928)
    • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
    • The Man Who Sleeps (1974), aka Un homme qui dort
    • Mangrove (2020), aka Small Axe: Mangrove
    • Marriage Story (2019)
    • Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
    • The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
    • Melody Time (1948)
    • Men in Black: International (2019)
    • Millennium Actress (2001), aka Sennen joyû
    • Minions [3D] (2015)
    • Misbehaviour (2020)
    • Misery (1990)
    • Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)
    • Missing Link (2019)
    • The Mole Agent (2020)
    • Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
    • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
    • Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
    • My Favourite Wife (1940)
    • My Mexican Bretzel (2019)
    • The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), aka Le mystère des roches de Kador
    • Near Dark (1987)
    • Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
    • Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019)
    • Never Too Young to Die (1986)
    • The Next Karate Kid (1994)
    • The Nightingale (2018)
    • The Old Dark House (1932)
    • The Old Guard (2020)
    • One Cut of the Dead (2017), aka Kamera wo tomeruna!
    • Ordet (1955), aka The Word
    • Out of Africa (1985)
    • Palm Springs (2020)
    • Parasite (2019), aka Gisaengchung
    • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
    • Patrick (2019), aka De Patrick
    • The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
    • Pearl Harbor (2001)
    • Phase IV (1974)
    • Philomena (2013)
    • The Platform (2019), aka El hoyo
    • Polytechnique (2009)
    • Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017)
    • Puzzle (2018)
    • Quartet (2012)
    • Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
    • Rang De Basanti (2006)
    • Ready or Not (2019)
    • Red Joan (2018)
    • The Rhythm Section (2020)
    • RoboCop 3 (1993)
    • Robolove (2019)
    • Rocketman (2019)
    • Rose Plays Julie (2019)
    • Safety Last! (1923)
    • Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)
    • Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018)
    • The Scorpion King (2002)
    • The Secret Life of Pets 2 [3D] (2019)
    • Shadowlands (1993)
    • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)
    • Shazam! [3D] (2019)
    • The Sheik (1921)
    • Shoplifters (2018), aka Manbiki kazoku
    • The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story (2019)
    • Showman: The Life of John Nathan-Turner (2019)
    • Showrunners (2014), aka Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
    • The Sky’s the Limit (1943)
    • So Dark the Night (1946)
    • Some Beasts (2019), aka Algunas Bestias
    • The Son of the Sheik (1926)
    • Soul (2020)
    • Spaceship Earth (2020)
    • Spider-Man: Far from Home [3D] (2019)
    • Split Second (1992)
    • A Star Is Born (2018)
    • Stop Making Sense (1984)
    • Stuber (2019)
    • Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
    • Tag (2018)
    • Tenet (2020)
    • Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
    • The Thin Red Line (1998)
    • The Three Caballeros (1944)
    • Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
    • Tolkien (2019)
    • Tomb Raider [3D] (2018)
    • Top Secret! (1984)
    • The Two Popes (2019)
    • Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
    • Uncut Gems (2019)
    • Under the Skin (2013)
    • Us (2019)
    • Vampires Suck (2010)
    • The Vast of Night (2019)
    • Venom (2018)
    • Vice (2018)
    • The Viking Queen (1967)
    • Waking Ned (1998)
    • Waxworks (1924), aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett
    • The Wedding Guest (2018)
    • Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
    • Without a Clue (1988)
    • The Wolf’s Call (2019), aka Le chant du loup
    • Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
    • Yes, God, Yes (2019)
    • Yesterday (2019)
    • You Will Die at Twenty (2019)
    • Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue
    • Zero Charisma (2013)
    • Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
    Alternate Versions
    The 100 Films Guide To…
    Shorts
    • Adnan (2020)
    • Alan, the Infinite (2020)
    • Anoraks (2020)
    • Appreciation (2019)
    • Befriend to Defend (2019)
    • Blue Passport (2020)
    • Booklovers (2020)
    • Chumbak (2019)
    • Clean (2020)
    • Closed Until Further Notice (2020)
    • The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)
    • The Dancing Pig (1907), aka Le cochon danseur
    • David Lynch Cooks Quinoa (2007)
    • The Day of the Coyote (2020)
    • DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (2010)
    • Destructors (2020)
    • The Devil’s Harmony (2019)
    • Embedded (2020)
    • The Escape (2016)
    • Flush Lou (2020)
    • Frankenstein (1910)
    • Frayed Edges (2020)
    • The Fruit Fix (2020)
    • Fuel (2020)
    • Guardians of Ua Huka (2020)
    • Hold (2020)
    • Home (2020)
    • Interstice (2019), aka Mellanrum
    • Keratin (2020)
    • The Last Video Store (2020)
    • Life in Brighton: An Artist’s Perspective (2020)
    • Man-Spider (2019)
    • A Map of the World (2020)
    • The Monkeys on Our Backs (2020)
    • My Dad’s Name Was Huw. He Was an Alchoholic Poet. (2019)
    • My Life, My Voice (2020)
    • Nelly (2020)
    • Nut Pops (2019)
    • One Piece of the Puzzle (2020)
    • Our Song (2020)
    • Pardon My Backfire [3D] (1953)
    • Peter’s To-Do List (2019)
    • Players (2020)
    • Quiescent (2018), aka Anvew
    • Quiet on Set (2020)
    • Reconnected (2020)
    • Shuttlecock (2019)
    • Siren (2020)
    • Slow Burn (2020)
    • So Far (2020)
    • Spooks! [3D] (1953)
    • A Spring in Endless Bloom (2020)
    • The Starey Bampire (2019)
    • Sticker (2019)
    • Stitch (2020)
    • The Stunt Double (2020)
    • Swivel (2020)
    • Talia (2020)
    • Time and Tide (2020)
    • Under the Full Moon (2020)
    • Water Baby (2019)
    • We Farmed a Lot of Acres (2020)
    • What Did Jack Do? (2017)
    • The Wick (2020)
    • Window (2019)
    1917

    The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

    Anand

    Bait

    Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

    Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

    Chicken Run

    Crazy Rich Asians

    Do the Right Thing

    Enola Holmes

    The Face of Fu Manchu

    Fanny and Alexander

    Greyhound

    Harakiri

    Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

    The Invisible Man

    The Karate Kid Part II

    The Lady Vanishes

    The Lighthouse

    Lost in La Mancha

    The Lunchbox

    Small Axe: Mangrove

    Millennium Actress

    Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always

    Ordet

    Patrick

    Rambo: Last Blood

    RoboCop 3

    Shadowlands

    Showrunners

    The Son of the Sheik

    Split Second

    Tomb Raider

    Under the Skin

    The Wedding Guest

    Zatoichi in Desperation

    Zero Charisma

    The Avengers

    Alan the Infinite

    The Crimson Permanent Assurance

    The Escape

    Interstice, aka Mellanrum

    My Life, My Voice

    Pardon My Backfire

    Shuttlecock

    The Stunt Double

    What Did Jack Do?

    .

    As well as all those films, I also covered many TV programmes in my monthly(-ish) review columns. Just listing those individual posts would be meaningless, so instead here’s an alphabetical breakdown of what I covered, each with appropriate link(s).


    Get ready for the best bit of the entire year: it’s the statistics!

    My Most-Read Posts of 2020

    For the first time since I moved my blog to WordPress, my number of views went down this year. *sob* Partly that’s because 2019 had one exceptionally large month (when people flooded in from IMDb to read my thoughts on Game of Thrones’ final season), but it was more than that, because 2020 didn’t even reach the same level as 2018 — though it was close in the end, coming just 0.2% short.

    As for individual posts, this may technically be a film blog, but since 2017 my most-read chart has been dominated by TV reviews. That was the case once again in 2020 — well, if it was going to happen any year, it would be one where we were mostly stuck at home. Despite that, a film review did break into my overall top five… although that was a direct-to-Netflix movie, so some would argue it’s TV anyway.

    Nonetheless, here I once again present two top fives: one for TV, one for film. If you want to know my overall top five new posts, the #1 film slots between #2 and #3 on the TV list. Also of note: the image at the top of this post is accurate, so the top two TV posts were far out ahead of anything else. Why? Who ever knows.

    My Top 5 Most-Viewed New TV Posts in 2020

    5) The Past Month on TV #61
    including Archer season 7, The Crown season 2, Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control, The Great British Bake Off series 10, Hannah Gadsby: Nanette, Jonathan Creek series 3–4 + specials, Lucifer season 5 episodes 1–8 (aka season 5A), Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years, The Rookie season 2 episodes 1–17, and the best of The Twilight Zone #9.

    4) The Past Month on TV #59
    including Daniel Sloss: X, Doctor Who: The Time Meddler, Elementary season 6 episodes 1–14, what passed for Eurovision 2020, The Great British Bake Off series 9, Jonathan Creek series 1, Lucifer season 4, the RSC’s Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston, The Rookie season 1 episodes 16–20, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episode 8, and the worst of The Twilight Zone #3.

    3) The Past Month on TV #55
    including Doctor Who series 12 episodes 3–5, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episodes 3–5, The Great British Bake Off series 1 episodes 1–3, His Dark Materials series 1, a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episode 1, the best of The Twilight Zone #6, and the Twin Peaks pilot and season 3 episode 8 in UHD.

    2) The Past Christmas on TV 2019
    including Criminal: United Kingdom season 1, Doctor Who series 12 episodes 1–2, Dracula, the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episodes 1–2, In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss, Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration, and Vienna Blood series 1.

    1) The Past Month on TV #56
    including the 92nd Academy Awards, the British Academy Film Awards 2020, Death in Paradise series 9 episodes 3–8, Doctor Who series 12 episodes 6–10, Flesh and Blood series 1, The Goes Wrong Show series 1 episode 6, Good Omens, The Good Place season 3, Lucifer season 3 episodes 16–24, McDonald & Dodds episode 1, My Dad Wrote a Porno, The Rookie season 1 episodes 1–6, Star Trek: Picard season 1 episodes 2–3, and the best of The Twilight Zone #7. Whew! No wonder it topped the list with all that variety.

    My Top 5 Most-Viewed New Film Posts in 2020

    Some might say this is also a list dominated by “TV”, because Netflix original movies make up three of this top five, and another was a Disney+ premiere. There’s just one theatrical release here — but then, 2020 was hardly a year in which theatrical releases were dominant anywhere.

    5) Hamilton
    The filmed version of the cultural phenomenon, performed by the original Broadway cast in its original staging. Is it a film? Is it a documentary? Is it just a filmed concert and so should we consider that its own form at this point? Whatever your opinion, this was a highly anticipated event — brought forward from its intended October 2021 theatrical release due to the pandemic — that helped cram even more subscribers onto Disney+.

    4) The Old Guard
    One of Netflix’s many attempts to kickstart an action franchise, this one starred and was directed by women, helping it tap into the general cultural zeitgeist and therefore generating conversation — and clicks.

    3) 1917
    An actual honest-to-God theatrical release! Remember those? A popular hit as well as an awards frontrunner, so no surprise it attracted plenty of clicks considering I posted my review while it was on the circuit.

    2) Extraction
    Another big Netflix franchise starter (this one already has a sequel in the works). It was reportedly Netflix’s biggest movie ever (back in July — I don’t know if that’s changed since), so it’s no surprise people wanted to read about it.

    1) Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
    Mixed reviews greeted this attempt to spoof the unspoofable, as some Americans attempted to take on the singular phenomenon that is the Eurovision Song Contest. It wasn’t a resounding success, but with some fab performances (the always wonderful Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens), surprisingly good songs (there’s Oscar buzz for Husavik), and even a catchphrase or two (“SING JAJA DING DONG”), this was kind of a breakout hit.

    The “Thank God That’s Over” Monthly Review of December 2020

    Yes, the rumours are true: 2020 is finally over! Though if you think 2021 is going to be significantly better, you haven’t been watching the news. But hey, there’s 12 whole months of it to come — maybe it’ll improve, like, halfway through?

    Anyway, we’ll leave worries of the future for later. Right now, it’s time to kick off my annual look back at the year just gone. Yeah, I’m going to spend the next week or so reliving 2020 — but don’t worry, it’ll be limited to my film viewing (like, y’know, it always is).

    The headline news is my final total: 264 feature films I’d never seen before, which sneaks past 2018’s tally of 261 to be my biggest year ever! Plus, as I wrote about earlier this month, if you combine that with my Rewatchathon total (46) then I’ve passed 300 features once again. Throw in my shorts too (a whopping 65 this year) and I can claim a final total of 375 films. Whew!

    More lists and stats and whatnot about that in the days to come. First: focusing in on the last twelfth of the year, aka December.


    #255 Klaus (2019)
    #256 Agatha and the Midnight Murders (2020)
    #257 Lovers Rock (2020), aka Small Axe: Lovers Rock
    #258 The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two (2020)
    #259 Soul (2020)
    #260 Tenet (2020)
    #261 Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017)
    #262 Under the Skin (2013)
    #263 Minions 3D (2015)
    #264 Death to 2020 (2020)
    Soul

    Tenet

    .


    • I watched 10 new feature films in December.
    • On the downside, that makes it my smallest month of 2020. On the bright side, it means I’ve achieved my goal of watching at least ten new films every month (something I failed in 2019).
    • It’s below my December average, though (previously 11.2, now 11.1).
    • It means the monthly average for 2020 is finalised at exactly 22.0. That’s down from 23.1 at the end of last month, but is my highest yearly total ever (it has to be — I’ve watched more films than ever; that’s how it works).
    • But it does mean December remains the only month of the year never to have reached the 20-film mark. Maybe next year.
    • Talking of long-term goals, for a while now I’ve been tracking the dates on which I’ve never watched a film during the lifetime of this blog. You’d think after doing it for 14 days I’d’ve hit every date at least once, but that’s not the case: still missing were January 5th, May 23rd, and December 22nd. Despite knowing about those for a couple of years, I keep forgetting at the right time and so miss them; and this year I again forgot all about the December date until after the fact… but I’d happened to watch a film that evening anyway. Hurrah! Maybe I’ll finally hit the other two in 2021.
    • This month’s Blindspot film was arty sci-fi Under the Skin. That means I’ve completed the challenge, although I didn’t get through all my overflow films, sadly.
    • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Christmas Chronicles 2 and Lovers Rock.



    The 67th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    A couple of very enjoyable films this month, not least the latest from Pixar and Christopher Nolan (yes, I’m in the “Tenet was good” camp), but, in a Christmassy spirit, I’m giving this to the gorgeously-animated Netflix original, Klaus.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    For some it was the film of the year (it topped Sight & Sound’s poll and placed in Empire’s top ten, among others), but I thought the second Small Axe film, Lovers Rock, was a dull slog.

    Best Double Entendre of the Month
    Patting myself on the back for this one, but I was particularly pleased with my Letterboxd description of Under the Skin as Scarlett Johansson’s Twin Peaks — because it’s abstruse and meditative sci-fi like David Lynch’s TV series, and also boobies.

    Best Re-use of Music of the Month
    There are many reasons to look down on Minions, but the Minionisation of various classic pop and rock tunes is surprisingly entertaining.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    For the fifth and final time this year, my most-read post was my monthly TV column. (The highest film-related post was my Christmas review roundup.)



    I didn’t find as much time for film viewing in December as I would’ve liked; and so, as the month drew to an end, I decided to prioritise my goal of watching a minimum of ten new films a month over my Rewatchathon target. That means I’ve failed to reach 50 rewatches for a second year in a row — but last year I only made it to 29, so at least I got a lot closer this time…

    #45 Die Hard (1988)
    #46 Presto (2018)

    I watched Die Hard on Christmas Eve Eve — because, y’know, it’s a Christmas movie. It’s still a great film, whatever time of year you choose to watch it.

    As for Presto, it is, of course, a short film, so I probably shouldn’t count it as a whole number (I don’t on my main list). But, hey, I make the rules around here, and as my chances of making #50 by honest means didn’t look great, I wanted to count everything I could. Besides, the point of the Rewatchathon is to make me rewatch stuff, and I’ve been meaning to rewatch Presto for years.


    If I’d found the time to watch more films this month, I would have loved to make space for David Fincher’s latest, Mank, on Netflix; and the new animation from Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers, on Apple TV+. They’re top of my watchlist for January.

    Other new releases for December included the surprisingly-controversial Wonder Woman 1984 (its UK digital release is in a couple of weeks, but I’ll probably just wait for the Blu-ray); and, all on Netflix, awards contender Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George Clooney sci-fi The Midnight Sky, lambasted musical The Prom, and Robert Rodriguez’s surprise spinoff from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, We Can Be Heroes. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series finished up on the BBC and iPlayer, with the fourth and fifth episodes/films, Alex Wheatle and Education. Meanwhile, the best Amazon could manage was A Christmas Gift for Bob, an unexpected sequel to that movie about a cat or whatever (I dunno, I’m not a cat person).

    In terms of not-new streaming additions, those catching my eye on Netflix included Jessica Chastain actioner Ava, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie facing off in Mary Queen of Scots, Hugh Jackman political drama The Front Runner, and Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen; plus Wild Rose, though that’s just jumped over from Amazon Prime. Netflix also added a bunch of stuff on December 31st, but I haven’t had time to go through that lot yet, so I’ll roll them into next month’s failures (or maybe I’ll even watch th— hahaha, no I won’t). Amazon added Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, while iPlayer has a speedy debut for Monsoon starring Henry Golding.

    Finally, I had another ridiculous haul of new Blu-rays this month. Highlights include Arrow’s 4K releases of Cinema Paradiso, Crash (both now contenders for 2021’s Blindspot list), and Tremors, plus their release of Japanese zombie actioner Versus; Indicator’s new edition of Roadgames (which I loved when I watched the Australian Blu-ray back in 2016), plus neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress; a pair of Samuel Fuller titles from Eureka, Hell and High Water and House of Bamboo; and All The Anime’s 4K release of Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, plus their new edition of his 5 Centimeters Per Second. If that wasn’t enough, there were 13 (yes, 13) more titles, mostly from sales — including the BFI’s 18-film Werner Herzog box set. Now I just need to get better at actually watching this stuff…


    A new year begins. But first, there’s a lot more looking back at 2020 to be done. Stay tuned.

    Death to 2020 (2020)

    2020 #264
    Al Campbell & Alice Mathias | 71 mins | digital (UHD) | 2:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

    Death to 2020

    As if the line between film and TV wasn’t becoming blurred enough already, 2020 has torn it to shreds. It’s now basically up to streamers whether they brand something as “a film” or a “special” or whatever (some individual websites might insist on labelling any Netflix original movie as “TV”, but I’m not sure anyone’s listening). This feature-length one-off from the makers of Black Mirror is, officially, “a Netflix Original Comedy Event” — so it’s a TV special, really, isn’t it? I probably shouldn’t be counting it as a film. Oh, but who cares?

    Despite the lack of familiar title format, Death to 2020 very much follows in the footsteps of the Wipe series of year-in-reviews specials Charlie Brooker used to make for the BBC. It’s both documentary and mockumentary: it recaps the real-life events of the year, with minimal diversion into satirical fantasy, but archly commented on by an array of actors portraying fake experts. The Netflix budget means some properly big names are involved: Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow… the list goes on. The prime absentee is Brooker himself, only piping up occasionally as an offscreen interviewer.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focuses on the major events of the year from a UK/US perspective — other countries (like Australia, China, and… um… I think that’s it) only enter the equation when events there affect everyone else (like, y’know, starting a global pandemic). That makes sense given who made it, but maybe less so for Netflix as a global company. But then, not everything needs to appeal to everyone. I’m sure if they had a French satirist on the books, they’d be producing a Franco-centric special.

    A cast of dozens!

    It’s to Death to 2020’s disadvantage that, this year, we’ve all been paying more attention to the news than ever. That might seem like a benefit — a knowledgeable, informed audience means you can cut straight to the jokes with minimal prompting — but I think instead it means we’ve already heard most of the humour. We’ve spent all year making these gags ourselves, trying to alleviate the doom-laden (inter)national mood. The other, related, problem lies in trying to appeal to an international audience. In trying to keep things accessible for both sides of the pond, Brooker and co avoid getting into the weeds of local politics. Brexit is briefly mentioned rather than deconstructed; US politics is limited to the election. Specificities of lockdown life are dodged almost entirely. Trying to stick to broad, globally-familiar topics seems to keep the humour similarly generalised.

    Nonetheless, it starts out quite funny, even if they’re mostly riffs we’ve heard before. But around the time it hits the killing of George Floyd, the jokes dry up. If you’re not a racist dickhead, there’s little funny about the organisations that supposedly protect us instead arbitrarily murdering people. Death to 2020 knows this and picks its targets carefully, but it seems to kill the humour nonetheless — the jokes continue, but the humour in them dries up.

    It turns out the biggest problem isn’t unoriginality or too broad a target audience, but rather that 2020 was such a shitshow that it’s just no fun to be reminded of it, even in an intentionally comedic context. It doesn’t help that we’re facing a 2021 that promises at least several months of being equally as bad. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh, but just as likely we’ll prefer to forget.

    2 out of 5

    Happy New Year, dear readers! It can’t actually be any worse… right?

    The Past Month on TV #64

    Christmas TV is already underway in the UK (I believe the first things that were explicitly a “Christmas special” aired over the weekend) — so, before my usual Christmassy roundup, here’s one final regular TV column for 2020.

    His Dark Materials  Series 2
    His Dark Materials series 2

    In a world where innumerable film and TV productions have been affected by Covid and its associated lockdowns, His Dark Materials got lucky: by hurrying on to produce their second series before the young cast aged too much, they’d virtually wrapped filming before the first UK lockdown hit. The only casualty: a standalone episode detailing what one character was up to during the rest of the season. That’s frustrating for fans (as I understand it, the events intended for that episode aren’t actually in the original novel, but were dreamt up afresh by the show’s writers in collaboration with original author Philip Pullman), and if you know there’s an episode missing then you can spot its absence (there are some scenes and references in the season finale that I wager would make more sense had we seen the missing episode), but the series mostly survives without it.

    So, picking up from series one’s massive cliffhanger, this second run adapts the trilogy’s second novel, The Subtle Knife — a mysterious item of arguably even greater value than the Golden Compass that (sort of) lends its name to (the US version of) book one. Despite tackling a whole novel, I’ve seen some describe this season as boring, with too little incident. I guess that’s the advantage of waiting until the end and watching it all in just six days: I was suitably engrossed, and it moved, if not at a fair old lick, then certainly at a reasonable pace. But it’s not a show that’s always big on action — instead, it’s big on ideas, with underpinning concepts on the boundaries of science and fantasy that have to be explained and understood by the viewer. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of conflict between our heroes and villains; and while it may seem clear who’s on which side, there are enough shades of grey, and emerging uncertainties about who’s really got the right motives, to keep it pleasantly complicated, engrossing, and believable.

    I’m sure I once read that the original plan was to adapt the trilogy of novels over five seasons — one for book one, two each for books two and three. Now, they’ve reached the point where book two has been done in a single season, and now book three is plotted out to be completed in one more run of eight episodes too. But, shockingly, it hasn’t been commissioned yet. I bloody hope the BBC (and HBO) do the right thing, because I think overall this is an excellent show, with still-timely issues of freedom and control, that merits completion on screen. And, simply, I’m excitedly looking forward to the next (final) series already.

    Update: This afternoon, while I was too busy writing this post to notice the news, the BBC and HBO officially recommissioned His Dark Materials for its third and final series. Hurrah!

    The Good Place  Season 4
    The Good Place season 4The Good Place ended forever ago, right? Well, the series finale originally aired back in January, so… this year, yeah, forever ago.

    As with every previous season of the show, this one noodles around in a new setup for the first half-dozen-or-so episodes, before swinging into one long multi-part story through to the end of the season — and, in this case, the end of the series. In that respect, it’s always been kind of an odd show, structurally, and season four is no different. Most of the jeopardy and drama is resolved a couple of episodes before the end, leaving us to watch events play out for these characters we’ve come to love, rather than trying to keep us hooked primarily by plot, unlike pretty much every other programme ever. To be clear, this is not a criticism: it absolutely works. Rather than shooting for a series finale that has the big climax of the plot plus a bunch of rushed wrap-ups, here the more-than-double-length finale is like a coda to the entire show. It’s the series’ highest rated episode on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking this approach.

    The Good Place did, actually, start out as a show that seemed to be primarily about its plot — it’s name was mostly made off the back of one plot point in season one — but along the way it’s really developed a care for its ragtag gang of heroes, and taken us along for a once-in-an-afterlifetime ride with them, to the point where I’m actually kinda sad to see them go… but I loved watching them leave.

    Baptiste  Series 1
    BaptisteThe breakout star of BBC drama The Missing here gets his own spinoff series. Julien Baptiste is a retired police detective who specialises in finding missing people, which is exactly what he did across two series of The Missing (I reviewed the second here). But instead of a third series, he gets a spinoff, in which he… has to search for a missing person. Hm. But that’s just the inciting incident: before long, Julien finds himself embroiled in the affairs of an Eastern European criminal empire, with his family under threat. Okay, fair enough. Unfortunately, although Baptiste shares the same main creatives as its parent show — sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams — what they’ve cooked up here just isn’t as inventive or captivating as their two seasons of The Missing, both of which were fantastic. Sure, they still conjure up plenty of unexpected twists and developments, but it lacks the same spark that was there before. But let’s not get carried away: it’s not a bad serial, just not as high-quality as the two seasons that preceded it. It’s been recommissioned, so perhaps next time they’ll recapture the magic.

    Smiley’s People
    Smiley's PeopleJohn le Carré’s spy mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most acclaimed works of the genre, and the 1979 TV adaptation is justly fêted as one of the great miniseries. But Tinker Tailor is actually the first book in a loose trilogy, and in 1982 they also adapted the third book (they skipped the second because its overseas settings were deemed too expensive; as I understand it, the plot also doesn’t have that much bearing on the overall events — this isn’t “one story in three parts” like many a trilogy). Smiley’s People doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation as its forebear, and I’m afraid I’m not going to challenge that position. Like Baptiste, it’s not bad, it just lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes its predecessor a solid-gold classic. One thing they do share is a damnably complicated plot — I struggled to follow the narrative watching it one episode per day back to back, so goodness knows how anyone kept up with it once a week over a month and a half back in the ’80s.

    I watched it on the BBC’s recently-released Blu-ray, which is a tough one to recommend it. It’s clearly been mastered from the original film (where possible — some negatives were missing so they had to resort to less-good elements), but then it’s been slathered in digital noise reduction (DNR) as if in some misguided attempt to hide that it was actually shot on grainy film stock as opposed to weirdly-soft HD video. It’s so rare for things to be over-DNRed these days that you’d think we were finally past it, but obviously not. And yet, while the series never looks as good as it could, the fact it has been restored means it’s a lot better than the old DVDs, and the chances of anyone ever doing it again and getting it right are basically non-existent. Sometimes, we just have to settle for what we can get. That certainly sounds like a le Carré moral, doesn’t it?

    Elementary  Season 7 Episodes 9-13
    Elementary season 7The other “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day” show finally came to an end last year, though I suspect its finishing shall remain more final: whereas Sherlock always had a stop-start “we could make more anytime” production, accompanied with cast & crew chatter about wanting to sporadically do make new episodes forever, Elementary is much more traditional US network TV show — and the diminishing episode orders of the final couple of seasons and summertime broadcasts of the last couple of seasons don’t suggest an enduring hit poised for a revival.

    Despite that, the finale itself left things open for more, imitating Sherlock’s “Holmes and Watson continue” final beat. This kind of open-ended ‘ending’ fits a show like Sherlock, where there’s a realistic chance it will return someday. For a show like Elementary, where the chance it might ever return is infinitesimally small, it just feels inconclusive. Like, if you want it to be a true finale, you need to give some closure; an actual ending. As it is, despite a narrative that condenses several years and major life events (Joan gets cancer then goes into remission across a single cut), the episode fails to truly answer why this is the point at which we stop following Sherlock and Joan’s adventures.

    There are some people who’ll tell you Elementary is better than Sherlock. I’m not one of them. I’ve warmed to it down the years, but I’ve never thought it was a particularly good realisation of Holmes and Watson — whatever its faults, Sherlock feels like it’s an attempt to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, whereas Elementary has taken a few names and basic character points and then gone its own way. I’ll concede that there are some things Elementary has done better, although that’s an almost-inevitable side effect of having c.22 episodes a year to play with instead of Sherlock’s three TV movies every couple of years. But it’s also an almost-standard US network procedural — I can remember every single episode of Sherlock, for good or ill, whereas very few of Elementary’s 154 instalments stick in my memory.

    Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 2 — The second series of the supernatural sitcom digs more into the backstory of its various titular spooks, which seems to be a deep well for plot ideas and humour — one episode, for example, Rashomons it up by recounting one ghost’s death from the various perspectives of others who were already there to witness it. A Christmas special is imminent, and a third series is already commissioned.
  • Leverage Season 1 Episodes 1-3 — Now that I’m done with Elementary, this is my new pick for a “bung it on anytime”, “easy to watch”, US procedural. So far, it’s filling that void nicely. It’s a minor-network production from the late ‘00s, so it already feels a bit dated (it doesn’t quite have the cinematic swagger we expect from top-drawer TV now; the score, in particular, sounds like it was dropped in from a royalty-free library CD), but if you can let the production values slide, it’s good fun in a “bit of a romp” way. That’s how I like my heist movies/shows, so it ticks the right boxes for me.
  • Neil Brand’s Sound of TV — The music maestro follows up his series on the sound of movies from a few years ago (shamefully, I never got round to it) with a trio of episodes covering TV themes, advertising jingles, and TV scores. Very informative and entertaining, but you feel like the topic is so big (particularly the last one) that it could’ve withstood a few more episodes.
  • Richard Osman’s House of Games Night Series 1 — This daytime quiz show has been running for a while, but apparently became quite the success during lockdown, leading to a primetime evening spin-off — which, as I understand it, is just the exact same show but in a different time slot. It’s quite fun: there’s a good “play along at home” quality, and having the same contestants compete across the series means you end up rooting for your favourites.
  • Staged Series 1 Extended — If you didn’t know, Netflix has an extended version of this BBC lockdown hit — there’s about 29 minutes of new material spread across the six episodes, which is a fair old chunk (equivalent to almost two whole extra episodes). And that’s why I rewatched it: because it was good and I’d like to see the extra stuff. Plus, there are new episodes coming in January, so it’s a good time to recap.
  • The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown — The clergywoman returns for a trio of bitesize Zoom sermons, which together form a kind of comedic “review of the year” (and if you’re prepared to wait for the compilation version airing in a day or two, it’s apparently got some extra material). Many of Dibley’s supporting cast are sadly no longer with us, so I doubt we’ll ever get a proper return for the show, but this is a pleasant little sliver of nostalgia mixed with current events.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Mandalorian season 2This month, I have mostly been missing The Mandalorian season 2. Well, as regular readers will know, I never even got round to season 1. Naturally, it’s been basically impossible to avoid spoilers — though as those amount to “look which legacy character has turned up this week” rather than actual plot stuff, perhaps it will be okay. Or maybe the series doesn’t really have any plot to spoil, it’s just endless fan service — that would certainly seem to tally with some people’s view of the show. Others love it though, so I’ll see for myself… someday…

    Next month… will come after my regular Christmas TV roundup, which will likely include a bunch of seasonal sitcom specials, plus the New Year’s Day Doctor Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #63

    There’s all sorts of stuff I thought I’d’ve got round to for this TV column — Cobra Kai season 2; more of The Twilight Zone; Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit; finally starting The bloody Mandalorian — but I haven’t seen any of them. So, rather than keep pushing this post back and back, here’s what little I have watched that’s worth commenting on in the almost-two-months-now since my last TV review.

    Young Wallander  Season 1
    Young WallanderI think that Swedish detective Kurt Wallander’s USP, if he has one, was that he wasn’t some young hotshot maverick genius, like so many fictional detectives, but rather a middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned, almost workaday cop who got the job done. So a series about his younger days already seems like it might be missing half the point. But it’s worked for other TV detectives (most notably Morse in the acclaimed Endeavour), so why not? After all, seeing what police work in 1970s Sweden was like might be interesting — it’s certainly a different setting, anyway.

    Well, that’s Young Wallander‘s first misstep: this isn’t about the young life of canonical Wallander, it’s a modern-day reboot. So, you’ve removed the obvious character traits and you’ve changed when it’s set — what makes this Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? That was the question I had after watching the trailer and, sadly, I still wondered it after watching the series in full. At least the storyline is Wallander-ish, all about nationalism and refugees and how they’re treated. That may sound very timely, given what’s been going on politically over the last five to ten years, and it is; but it’s also the kind of thing Wallander’s original creator, Henning Mankell, often wrote about before that. But that makes it a mixed blessing: yes, it’s the kind of story you can imagine a ‘real’ Wallander text tackling, but it’s also such a present-day issue that that doesn’t matter; it’s the kind of plot any drama might choose to take on right now.

    The production itself is a strange international hybrid: made by Swedish production company Yellow Bird (though actually shot elsewhere in Europe, I believe), but with a British writer and mostly British cast speaking English, while thankfully not trying to emulate the accent. That’s except for Wallander himself, who’s played by a Swede, who has kind of retained his accent. In a story all about national identity, it’s kind of ironic that Wallander sounds like the only Swedish man in Sweden.

    I can see why the Wallander rights-holders would want the brand to continue, because it’s been very popular in various incarnations, in particular the Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson and the British series starring Kenneth Branagh. But between those, and the previous series of Swedish TV movies starring Rolf Lassgård, every one of Mankell’s original novels has been adapted twice, plus the invention of about 30 original-for-TV stories — so, if you want to continue the character, a new direction does feel called for. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. It’s too generic, lacking any uniqueness that makes you feel this is a story that could only be told — or even should be told — using the Wallander brand. Even leaving that aside — if you had no previous attachment to the character and so just approached this as an original cop drama — the series is less than great. It’s not outright bad, just thoroughly middling, with an underwhelming finale that leaves plot threads dangling; and it’s not clear if it’s meant to be a realistic “not everything gets tied up” ending, or if they’re hoping to pick up on them in a second season.

    The only good thing to come out of all this, for me, was that it’s reminded me I still have a bunch of adaptations starring Lassgård that I’ve never watched, so it’ll be nice to go visit those. And then revisit the Henriksson series at some point, because it was excellent; and maybe the Branagh one too, because that was also really good. But if Young Wallander manages to bag itself a recommission, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.

    Jonathan Creek  Series 5 Episodes 2-3 + 2016 Christmas Special
    Jonathan Creek: Daemons' RoostI noted last time that Jonathan Creek seems to be ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was a huge hit when it first aired in the ’90s, and a revival in 2009 was a big ratings success too, but the sporadic specials made since then have seen it drift further and further from the spark that once made it special. The nadir was the premiere episode of series 5, which didn’t even function properly as an episode of the show. The remaining two instalments of that short run are better, but still nowhere near the series’ early-day highs. The third one, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, includes an array of terrible subplots that make you wish it was considerably shorter (it’s only an hour long but feels like two), but its mystery is still the nearest these latter-day Creeks have come to its heyday.

    A saving grace comes in the last (for now) episode, 2016 Christmas special Daemons’ Roost. Is it the last-ever episode? Many online listings treat it as such, but the four years since it aired means if another episode popped up it wouldn’t be the longest gap in the series’ history. But if it is the last time we ever get to see the character, it’s actually not a bad one to go out on; in fact, thought it was a real return to form. As with many later episodes, it struggles to get Jonathan involved in the case — daft, really, because, after he had the same problem right back in series 1, writer David Renwick came up with a way to just throw Jonathan and Maddy into the case every episode… then undid that after series 4, since when we’ve once again been subjected to long-winded reasonings for Jonathan to get involved. So, once again, it takes a while to get going (Jonathan doesn’t get properly involved until 40 minutes in), but once it ramps up there are some neat mysteries and bags of Gothic atmosphere. I always feel Creek is at its best when it’s invoking that almost Hammer Horror vibe. There are also some nice nods to the series’ history, which is the main reason it feels like it could serve fittingly as a “finale” if needs must.

    Though, personally, I’d love to see Jonathan reunited with Maddy for one final case; and I’m happy to wait for a one-off special when Renwick’s got a good idea, because we’ve seen how wrong it goes when he forces it.

    Also watched…
  • Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. This one starts dark… and gets darker. I loved that, but I can see he’s not for everyone.
  • Demetri Martin: The Overthinker — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much — it was, ironically, overthought. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.
  • Small Axe Episode 1 — Just to note that I’ll be counting these as films, because that’s what they are, really, aren’t they? I suppose the counterargument is it’s an anthology miniseries because they’re premiering on TV, but nah — especially as several of them actually premiered at a film festival.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episodes 2-4 — I’m even way behind on Bake Off! I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers, at least, so I’ll catch up soon.

    Things to Catch Up On
    His Dark Materials series 2This month, I have mostly been missing His Dark Materials, the second series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy. Of course, I’ve been missing lots of stuff (that was kind of the theme of my introduction, remember?), but that’s one of the most pressing to me personally. You might argue The Mandalorian, also on its second season, is even more pertinent, what with it regularly being thoroughly discussed online, but I’ve not even started that yet. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, I do expect to watch soon.

    Next month… His Dark Materials season 2, probably. What else, only time will tell.

  • 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 always 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.)