The Past Month on TV #21

Another busy, busy month — I should’ve split it into fortnights again.

Anyway, read on for reviews of Top of the Lake: China Girl, the latest instalments of Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks, ‘old’ shows like Line of Duty series 3 (from all the way back in 2016) and Peaky Blinders series 2 (from even longer ago: 2014), and even more bits & bobs too.

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episodes 2-5
Arya's as surprised as the rest of usThe first of this month’s quartet of trips to Westeros, Stormborn, demonstrated better than the premiere the whip-crack pace the show is now moving at. To pick one example: Arya re-encountered Hot Pie and learnt that Winterfell was back in the hands of the Starks, changed her plans to journey there instead of King’s Landing, and encountered Nymeria (her wolf last seen way back in the second ever episode), who now leads a pack of wolves and, basically, rejected Arya. All those developments previously would’ve taken Thrones a good four or five episodes to get through, but no more. There are benefits to this, of course — no more longueurs — but the worry is Dan & Dave are rushing for the sake of rushing; because they told themselves this story would be done in 73 episodes and they’ve kind of had enough after the best part of a decade working on it. Still, it’s not as if it’s bad, it’s just faster. And where the episode promises exciting reunions and first meetings left, right, and centre, we can be assured they’re just around the corner.

Almost literally, as Jon Snow, hot off deciding to go visit Dany at the end of the previous episode, rocks up to Dragonstone in The Queen’s Justice for the long-awaited meet-up between aunt and nephew — not that either of them know that. The show doesn’t even make us wait all episode for it, kicking right into it. And, again, things move ever onward, as cunning plans are executed, thwarted, and bettered. It’s been reported that this season has the same budget as normal, despite having three fewer episodes, and that clearly shows on screen with epic battles almost every week.

Jon and Dany, sitting in a tree...The most epic so far came in The Spoils of War. Apparently it’s been dubbed the Field of Fire — if there’s one thing Game of Thrones is consistently good at, it’s giving its big events cool monikers. (The “Field of Fire” is also an event from the series’ backstory, I believe, so maybe some of the reviews I read just got confused.) But it’s not just cool shots of fiery destruction that make this episode so satisfying: it’s the way that changes the game. Not to mention characters coming together after so long apart, both on the battlefield and not. That two girls talking in a crypt can be as thrilling as a dragon blowing shit up is… well, how character investment works, I guess. Some reckon this is the series’ best-ever episode. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is right near the top.

By comparison, Eastwatch was almost a calm affair. Okay, that might be an exaggeration; but there were no epic battles this week (just a cliffhanger teasing one next time). It continued to contribute to this perhaps being Thrones’ most satisfying season ever though, with yet more long-awaited reunions, a couple of pretty major revelations, and some great skullduggery and counter-skullduggery. It also held fan-pleasing moments aplenty, my personal favourite being Davos’ meta one-liner. If it doesn’t stand out as an all-round all-time classic like the episodes surrounding it, that says more about them than it does this quality instalment.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Top of the Lake: China GirlElisabeth Moss, star of both Mad Men, a series partly about the sexual politics of the ’60s workplace, and The Handmaid’s Tale, a series about the sexual politics of a world where women are baby-making slaves, returns as Det. Robin Griffin for a second run of Top of the Lake, which is now a series about the sexual politics of present-day Australia.

Set four years after the first season, China Girl sees New Zealander Robin back at work as a police detective in Australia. The inciting incident happens on Bondi Beach, but this is not the world of sunny tourist hotspots or chirpy vets: it’s the body of an Asian prostitute, brutally murdered and shoved in a suitcase, then dumped to rot in the ocean. And it gets grimmer from there. Meanwhile, Robin seeks a connection with the daughter she gave up for adoption at two days old, who is now a headstrong and over-assured seventeen-year-old blindly falling into something way out of her depth.

After a first episode that seems somehow tentative, as if it’s considering on the fly whether it should be a second season or a standalone narrative with the same protagonist, China Girl quickly resolves into its own beast: with vital groundwork laid in that sometimes stilted first hour, it hits the ground running as soon as episode two (making me wonder if, with further hindsight or a rewatch, the first episode wasn’t so awkward after all). Over its remaining five hours, China Girl increasingly impresses as dark, difficult, uncomfortable, challenging, and powerful drama. It’s also laced with surprising humour, and it’s a bit pretentious too. I can see why it was a hit at Cannes.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline ChristieThere are some great performances in there too, mainly from the female characters — no surprise, really, considering creator and co-writer/co-director Jane Campion is clearly interested in exploring women’s place in the world. Moss carries things, with Robin competent but combative at work (she needs to be, as the Australian police force seems stuck in the ’70s with its gender politics) even as her personal life is a tumultuous mess. Nicole Kidman gets to play it kooky as the adoptive mother of Robin’s child, who’s gone all spiritual and lesbian recently. The most entertaining is Gwendoline Christie as an enthusiastic constable who latches on to Robin, eager to be her protégé. She brings the bulk of the humour, with great lines and moments aplenty, but also brings emotional depth when needed.

The whole thing ends with a degree of ambiguity rather than a killer blow, answering all the plot mechanics but seemingly less clear on how it wants to conclude its important themes. Nonetheless, for me it was an order of magnitude more interesting than the good-but-kind-of-woolly first season, and therefore a lot better than it too.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 11-14
Two CoopersI must be honest with you, dear readers: the longer this Twin Peaks revival goes on, the less I feel I’m enjoying it. It works best when Lynch is trying to out-Lynch himself. Those episodes are crazy and borderline nonsensical and insanely challenging to what constitutes filmed entertainment, but at least they’re interesting; and if you don’t get it you can dismiss it as “it’s Lynch, innit”. It’s actually the ‘normal’ stuff — the investigations and machinations in South Dakota, Las Vegas, and Twin Peaks itself — that are beginning to get on my wick. Again, at times there are moments of clarity or inspired weirdness, but in between sits a morass of sludgy plotting and wilfully obscure characterisation. It’s starting to nudge the series from “revelatory experiment” into “noble failure” territory, for me.

That said, there was a definite uptick at the end of this month’s viewing, with Part 14 providing a lot of long-awaited developments and forward momentum for the plot (plus one of my favourite of the end-of-episode performances at the Roadhouse, Lissie’s Wild West). Perhaps everything will finally come together in the remaining few episodes after all? Or perhaps everything will slow down again and we’ll be none the wiser come the end of Part 18. Only time will tell…

Line of Duty  Series 3 Episodes 4-6
Line of Duty series 3As I noted last month, the third series of Line of Duty seems to be the one that attracted the most adulation. I was reserving judgement until I’d finished, because at the halfway point I wasn’t finding it superior to the brilliant second series.

For those still unaware of the show, it’s about a police anti-corruption unit, and in this six-parter they were looking into an officer who shot a suspect and covered up the circumstances. That wasn’t all that was going on, however. Line of Duty pretends it’s about a new case each series but, really, it told one big story across its first three runs. I wonder if that’s why some have hailed this one as its best: it finally brings all those long-brewing arcs to a head. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the resolutions come in the feature-length finale, which is certainly a striking episode. Nonetheless, I’d argue series two was better overall — I felt it had a greater sense of mystery, palpable tension throughout, and the plot was more unpredictable. Still, I don’t wish to do the third series down — being second-best to that is no mean feat.

Peaky Blinders  Series 2
Peaky Blinders series 2The second series of BBC Two’s period crime drama jumps forward two years to find everyone’s favourite Brummie criminals running such a successful business that they intend to expand their operations to London, by sticking their oar into a turf war between the Jews (led by Tom Hardy) and the Italians (led by Noah Taylor). Meanwhile, Sam Neill’s copper is back with a vengeance, teaming up with the Irish to blackmail Blinders kingpin Cillian Murphy into performing an off-the-books assassination for the crown.

Peaky Blinders’ second series ups the ante from the already excellent first, pitching its leads into a more dangerous world where they’re not the major force to be reckoned with. As its stories unfurl over six hours (without needing to resort to wheel-spinning), you begin to wonder how they can possibly escape the various binds they find themselves in. It all builds to a payoff-filled finale, even though things don’t go quite to plan… Where that will take things in the third series will be interesting to see. (For more up-to-date fans than me, the fourth series is due later this year.)

Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle Series 1-2 — ITV’s short-lived drama (just seven episodes across two series), about former Bletchley Park codebreakers using their skills to solve crimes in ’50s London, is chiefly notable for its intelligent and capable female heroes. The first series is good, but I felt like the second was beginning to struggle to sustain the conceit — just how many criminal conspiracies were these ladies going to stumble upon?
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — the last season! Sob! If you like swashbuckling excitement and have let this show pass you by, do find a way to catch up on it.
  • Sherlock Pilot — finally got round to watching this unaired pilot (it’s included as a special feature on the series one Blu-ray). I was under the impression it was something of a disaster, but it really isn’t. The direction isn’t as flashy as the final show (but is otherwise fine), and obviously it’s half-an-hour shorter, but other than that it’s all very similar.
  • Wallander Series 4 Episodes 2-3 — an adaptation of the final novel, in which the Swedish detective investigates a case relating to a shameful incident in his country’s past while battling early-onset dementia. It’s a superb idea for a story — the once-great detective battling his deteriorating mental faculties. This being Wallander, it tackles the concept from a more personal, emotional perspective, rather than a Memento-esque plot-driven one, but is no worse for it. It’s a sad end for the character, but an affecting one for his series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Torchwood: Aliens Among UsThis month, I have mostly been missing Torchwood: Aliens Among Us. Although ‘just’ an audio drama from Big Finish, it’s being marketed as the series’ official fifth season, picking up after the events of 2011’s (disappointing) Miracle Day. A full 12-episode run, it’s coming out in three box sets — although part two isn’t out until October and part three until February, part one came out last week. Obviously, I’ve not listened to it yet. Hopefully next time…

    Next fortnight… another earlier-than-normal edition, as Netflix gets defendered and Game of Thrones reaches a feature-length finale. Yes, already.

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #20

    Like some kind of Walder Frey impersonator, I’m having two feasts in a fortnight — two feasts of TV reviews, that is!

    It may’ve passed you by (don’t think I’ve seen any coverage of it anywhere at all), but Game of Thrones is back, so that’s where I’ll begin…

    Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episode 1
    Game of Thrones season 7Season premieres of Thrones are typically concerned with re-establishing where all the major characters are, and maybe moving their stories on a few baby steps to indicate where they’ll be headed this season. Dragonstone is no exception. So where Arya had arrived in Westeros to kill the Starks’ enemies, now she’s slaughtering them by the hallful; where Bran and Meera were headed for the Wall, now they’re passing through it; where Jon and Sansa were taking charge in the North to be ready for war, now they’re preparing for war; where Sam had headed to the Citadel to research important stuff, now he’s in the Citadel researching important stuff; where Cersei had taken the Iron Throne and Jamie had his doubts, now Cersei’s preparing to defend her kingdoms and Jamie has his doubts; and where Dany was sailing for Westeros with her hodgepodge military, now she’s landed in Westeros. The wonder of Thrones is that it can take such scene-setting and turn it into riveting television.

    That’s because everything about the show is so well put together. Each sequence offers one or more out of sharp-witted dialogue, sublime direction, surprising emotion, or badass mass-murder, alongside consistently stellar performances. David Bradley, Rory McCann, and Sophie Turner were the particular standouts this episode, I thought, with special mention for all that John Bradley had to endure in the name of a montage. Although some scenes only left us with more questions about the future, others were satisfying vignettes in their own right. It’s a good mix.

    Ed SheeranIn fact, the only thing letting the side down was the well-publicised cameo by Ed Sheeran. If you have no idea who Mr Sheeran is then perhaps his appearance was fine — his acting was no worse than dozens of other bit players they’ve had on the series before now. But if you do know who the singer-songwriter is, his appearance was like being served a cheese board accompanied by cheese crackers with a glass of melted cheese and extra cheese on the side. After devoting what felt like a significant chunk of time (but was probably mere seconds) to him singing a song, Arya trots over to him and goes, “I don’t know that one,” and he says, “it’s a new one,” which he may as well have followed up with, “which you can hear in full on my new album, available now everywhere music is sold.” I have no idea if he has a new album out, or if that song would be on it if he did, but that’s how it felt.

    Anyway, maybe next week Arya will murder him in his sleep. Things to look forward to…

    Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 9-10
    Happy times in Twin PeaksSlowly, very slowly, the disparate strands of Twin Peaks Mk.III seem to be coalescing into a coherent, connected story… which is almost more frustrating, in its own way. By that I mean: when it was wilfully obscure, you just kind of went with it — it was Lynch being Lynch, and you had to let it wash over you and allow your feelings to do the deduction about what it was supposed to signify. Now that the plot is beginning to crystallise into something your rational brain can make sense of, it feels a mite slow in getting there. I mean, while Dougie Jones is less annoying than he used to be (helped in no small part by the brilliance of Naomi Watts), I still miss real Coop, and we’re running out of episodes to spend time with him again. Was MacLachlan just feeding us a red herring when he said he’d “almost forgotten how to play him”? Because he hasn’t played him yet! Ach, we’ll see. It remains defiantly its own thing, and at least we can trust Lynch is going somewhere with it — even if we may never be able to work out precisely where that somewhere was…

    Automata  Season 1
    AutomataBased on a webcomic from the creators of Penny Arcade and funded through Kickstarter (so far it’s only available to backers), this miniseries-cum-pilot (the five short episodes total 58 minutes) takes place in an alternate Prohibition-era America, where “Prohibition” instead refers to the ban on production of automatons — sentient robots. Ex-copper Sam Regal (Basil Harris) and his partner Carl (voiced by Doug Jones), an automaton, now make ends meet as PIs, doing the usual PI thing: photographing cheating spouses. Only this time the run-of-the-mill case leads them into a murderous web that encompasses speakeasies, robo-gigolos*, underground automaton-hating gangs, and a twist ending (natch).

    There are two particularly striking things about Automata. The first is its interesting alternate history. From this opening season (which, as I alluded to earlier, is equivalent to a single episode really) it’s tricky to get an idea of how fully imagined it is, but this is a promising start. Secondly, it has really strong production values, especially for something on such a low budget. In particular, the CGI used to create the automatons is exceptional. But it’s also very nicely shot, with the deep shadows so evocative of noir. It was made available in 4K, so it’s the first thing I’ve bothered to properly watch in that quality since I got my new TV. I must say, I’m not sure it looked any better than a good 1080p transfer. That said, I didn’t watch it side by side with its lower-res version, and my screen is on the low end size-wise of those available in 4K, so maybe it wasn’t the fairest test of the format. When I finally get round to American Gods, or when The Defenders comes out, then I’ll give it a longer trial.

    Anyway, personal technological observations aside, Automata is a well-made proof-of-concept that should satisfy anyone who thinks “Prohibition-era noir story, but with robots!” sounds like a good pitch. And if you’re still not sure, you can watch an atmospheric trailer here. Whether this’ll lead to a full-blown series, or even just further miniseries like this one, it’s too early to say, but I’ll be there to watch them. (And I’ll try to remember to mention when this one becomes available to non-backers, too.)

    * That’s not what they call them, I just thought it sounded good.

    Also watched…
  • Line of Duty Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — with the tennis over, it’s time to dive back into series the other half also cares about. This is the season of Line of Duty, apparently, so it should be a corker. More thoughts on this one next month when we’ve finished it, but that first episode… must’ve been great for those who hadn’t had the twist spoiled!
  • Wallander (UK) Series 4 Episode 1 — it’s been yonks since this final series was on, but we’re finally making time for it. The first episode upped sticks for a South African setting, and so did the production — and they clearly wanted us to know it, with tonnes of truly stunning location photography. It was almost worth watching for that alone, but I also thought the episode had a strong, weighty (if ultimately predictable) story.

    In other news…

    The 13th DoctorThe biggest TV news this fortnight was undoubtedly the BBC’s announcement of the 13th actor to take the title role in Doctor Who. (Well, the 14th. Well, the… oh, let’s not get into that.) As you surely can’t have missed, it was Jodie Whittaker, who is a woman! Gasp! Naturally, there was some outrage. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever that an alien being who can travel in time and changes his whole body every time one gets worn out could possibly, during that change, switch from being a man to a woman, even if it’s been established multiple times within the series itself that such a change is possible. It’s just not plausible, is it?

    It’s difficult to tell whether the loonies who actually believe that groundless claptrap are in the majority, or if the day instead belongs to the many who were mightily pleased by the news. Hopefully the latter. There’s certainly a lot of positive word of mouth, so hopefully the naysayers will be converted. Even most of the media were on side, though some of our pathetic excuses for ‘newspapers’ reverted to predictable type and ran articles on Whittaker’s previous roles that featured nudity. Apparently one paper accompanied it with photos of previous Doctors topless, as if that somehow justified it. On a more intelligent note, Variety ran a piece about the importance of the casting: “Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new Doctor Who is female is huge — and almost completely delightful.” (Emphasis my own, because it pleases me.)

    Anyway, I guess the proof will be in the pudding — in this case, the “pudding” being the ratings. I hope it’s a success. I mean, I always hope Doctor Who is a success, but there is extra weight on this particular incarnation, like it or not. New showrunner Chris Chibnall doesn’t have the strongest track record on the show, but he’s done first-rate work elsewhere, so fingers crossed — at the end of the day, it’ll be the quality of the writing as much as the quality of the performance that will make or break the first female Doctor.

    Things to Catch Up On

    The Handmaid's TaleThis month, I have mostly been missing The Handmaid’s Tale. It belatedly started airing on this side of the pond at the end of May, but it slipped my mind so much that I didn’t even mention it in the May post. Ironically, it’s no longer fully available on demand so I’ll have to get hold of it (at some point) in the same way I would’ve before anyone bothered to air it here. Meanwhile, in “things I’ve actually started”, I’m three episodes behind on Preacher. This happened last year, too. I’m sure I’ll catch up on some or all of it before next month’s column.

    Next month… Cannes hit miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl.

  • Wallander 2 (or 6) and 3 (or 13)

    If you read my review of the first episode/film of the Swedish Wallander, Before the Frost, back in November, you may have some idea what that title’s on about. For the rest, I’ll try to explain it succinctly:

    There are multiple TV/movie series based on Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander. This particular one, begun in 2005, features an adaptation of one novel (Before the Frost) followed by twelve original stories. Of these thirteen feature-length episodes, three were released theatrically — episodes one, six and thirteen (the rest went direct to DVD, and later TV) — and, because of their initial cinema release, I’ve reviewed those three as part of my objective. Having published the first last November, this pair of reviews covers the second film (or sixth episode) and the third film (or thirteenth episode).

    I hope that makes some kind of sense…

    2009 #88
    Wallander: Mastermind

    Mastermind works to earn its status as a theatrical release, everyone upping their game to provide something more filmic than the other direct-to-DVD entries in the series.” Read more…

    2010 #12
    Wallander: The Secret

    The Secret‘s not quite as filmic as Mastermind. Making it personal for one of the team is always a good way to make A Bigger Story, and there are some particularly large revelations and twists involved here.” Read more…


    A second series of the Swedish Wallander comes to BBC Four soon. This time, only the first episode — The Revenge (Hämnden) — has received a theatrical release, though to date only nine (of thirteen) episodes have been released at all (according to IMDb, the remainder are due for release in Sweden in March, April, June and July; I don’t know if BBC Four are screening all thirteen in one go regardless). I will, of course, continue to cover the series’ cinema-released episodes as I see them.