The Past Month on TV #33

There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

The City and the City
The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

Ordeal by Innocence
Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

Episodes  Season 5
Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

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  • The Past Month on TV #32

    Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

    A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

    This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicker’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

    Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

    Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

    It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

    But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

    Westworld  Season 1
    Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

    For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as they please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, or shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

    Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

    More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld’s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

    It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

    Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

    So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

    Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
    Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

    This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

    Line of Duty  Series 4
    Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

    Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
    Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

    Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

  • Westworld (1973)

    2016 #155
    Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

    Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

    Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

    So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

    3 out of 5

    The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.