The Past Months on TV #52

I didn’t post a TV column again last month, so this roundup is thoroughly overdue. So before the Christmas TV season gets properly underway (it kind of already has, but shh), here’s my final regular TV review for 2019. (I still intend to post my usual Christmas-TV-focused one at some point.)

His Dark Materials  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
His Dark Materials series 1If I’d posted this column on time, this series would’ve just been getting underway. As it is, the final episode airs tonight. And, obviously, I’m quite far behind. I do intend to catch up, but I’m not entirely sure what I make of it.

Philip Pullman’s novels are acclaimed and beloved, of course; there’s a starry and talented cast, naturally; the production values are sky high; there are plentiful interesting ideas and threads to be explored… but the execution is a tad confusing, offering little quarter to those of us who are pretty new to this world (I have seen the film, but that made significant changes) and need it explaining to them — well, aside from a text prologue that feels like it was a late addition when someone realised they hadn’t explained things particularly clearly for newcomers. Even if you get a handle on it all, though, it feels like there’s an indefinable spark missing that would really bring it all to life as an engrossing drama.

Or maybe I’m just expecting too much — this has been a long time coming, with an attendant amount of hype. Perhaps it’ll all cohere as it goes on. As I said, I do intend to stick with it to find out, but I don’t feel it hit the ground running in quite the way I’d hoped.

Watchmen  Season 1 Episodes 2-9
Cause for celebrationWhen I reviewed the premiere episode of this last time, I said “there’s a lot of promise and potential here.” Well, reader, I do believe the series lived up to that and then some — it just got better as it went along, with a lot of the very best stuff coming in the final third.

Last time I also wrote about how it was both a sequel and a so-called ‘remix’ of the original novel, and that only became more apparent as the season went on. For the former, there’s no denying this is a follow-up to the book — it explicitly references and builds out of events and characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original work. But it also takes a lot of the iconography, themes, and storytelling devices from the book and rearranges them to help support its own narrative. That kinda makes it sound like just a remake, but that undervalues it — creator Damon Lindelof and his team of writers have brought a lot of other ideas to the table too, mixing those with what’s taken from the book to make a work that is new. So, whereas a traditional sequel would just be “the next adventure of the same characters”, maybe this is more of a companion piece. Whatever you want to call it, I think it’s a worthy addition. But it’s definitely an addition — I dread to think how this plays if you haven’t read the book.

And just like the book, there’s an awful lot more that could be written about what this series has to say and how it says it. I’ll leave that to others — there’s plenty of writing out there about it already. Some of that is a bit clickbaity (well, when isn’t stuff nowadays?), in particular with reference to the ending, which some sites have taken to calling a “cliffhanger”. It isn’t. Indeed, there may not even be a season two — not because HBO don’t want one, but because Lindelof doesn’t necessarily have a story to tell. It’s admirable that they’re not forcing it to happen just because season one has been a success (learning their lesson from True Detective, I suspect), but I also hope Lindelof does alight on an idea for more — if it can equal this, it would certainly be worth seeing.

Indeed, some commentators have been calling Watchmen a late entry for best TV series of the decade, or even one of the very best TV series of all time. Well, I don’t know about that, but it is very good — certainly better than it has any right to be, considering its provenance. That’s an achievement not to be undervalued.

World on Fire  Series 1 Episodes 3-7
World on FireThis is good enough that it probably would’ve been A Major Series if it had been made 15 to 20 years ago; heck, maybe even 10 years ago. Today… well, as my previous comment implies, it just doesn’t feel slick enough in the modern TV landscape. It has its plus points (the recreation of Dunkirk was suitably epic, at least compared to the low-key-ish earlier episodes, and Lesley Manville is always magnificent), and it’s done well enough to get recommissioned (thank goodness, because the finale left a tonne of stuff dangling as if it was a midseason episode), but I’ll be surprised if it ends up in the zeitgeist in the manner of, say, Downton Abbey. (Brief thoughts on episodes 1 and 2 last month.)

Shetland  Series 5
Shetland series 5This ITV-produced BBC-aired crime drama is so popular that they recently recommissioned it for both a sixth and seventh series. Originally it took the form of two-parters adapted from novels, but for the past few series they’ve done original season-long six-episode storylines. For this run, the gang find themselves up against human traffickers, using Shetland as a waypoint to get slaves into the UK. Overall it’s not as engrossing or remarkable a story as the ones told in the last two series, but it remains a more-than-solid cop show bolstered by a likeable regular cast. That double series recommission is welcome news.

Also watched…
  • Comedians Giving Lectures Series 1 — Dave’s latest comedy concept is to give comedians the titles of real scientific lectures and have them deliver their own version, judged by an actual expert and a studio audience. Some go for all-out laughs, some actually deliver surprisingly decent lectures with gags thrown in. As with all mixed-bill standup, the overall result is variable depending on the skill of the performers, but it’s a nice little format.
  • Death on the Tyne — Comedy murder mystery sequel to Murder on the Blackpool Express, which aired back in 2018 but I’ve only just got round to watching (because they’ve recently aired a third). My review of Blackpool Express sounds quite dismissive, but I did enjoy it overall. Sadly, this follow-up is quite a bit worse. I’ll still watch the third one, though it may yet take me another year to get round to it…
  • Doctor Who Series 12 Trailers — At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, the new series of Who looks like an attempt to move away from the slower-paced, kinda-serious Series 11 and back into the action-packed monster-stuffed fun that made the show a hit on its return in 2005 (almost 15 years ago now! Jeez…) It begins with a Bond-parodying two-parter in the new year.
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 2 — A fabulously nerdy show. As this is a film blog, I have to recommend the second semi-final (episode 7), in which the teams created magnificent layouts based on Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and James Bond.
  • There’s Something About Movies Series 1 — This Sky comedy panel show about (you guessed it) movies passed me by when it was on back in April, only coming to my attention by coincidence when the second series started. Unsurprisingly, it’s daft and aimed at general audiences — nothing special for avowed film buffs.
  • World’s Most Scenic Railway Journeys Series 1 Episodes 3 — No offence to the featured people of New Zealand, who all seem thoroughly lovely and likeable, but this travel doc kind of plays like a Taika Waititi mockumentary.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Jack Ryan season 2This month, I have mostly been missing Jack Ryan season 2 — perhaps not the most high-profile show I could mention here (it’s on Amazon Prime, which never gets the same buzz as Netflix, however hard they try), but I enjoyed the first series a lot so I really do want to make time for this. Speaking of Netflix, they’ve just released The Witcher, which they clearly hope is going to do for fantasy what, er, Game of Thrones did for fantasy — i.e. be a much-talked-about series that brings big ratings. They’re pushing it hard, which for a company that claims to only use word of mouth and let the cream of their output rise naturally… well, it certainly suggests it cost a pretty penny. One show that has generated plenty of word-of-mouth self-promotion is The Mandalorian. Okay, it’s a Disney-produced Star Wars spinoff, it hardly needs the help, but you can’t’ve missed everyone going on about Baby Yoda. It’s not out on this side of the pond until Disney+ launches in the UK on March 31st, but where there’s a will there’s a way… And that’s without mentioning the BBC’s new War of the Worlds (which was poorly received but, as a sci-fi fan, I still feel compelled to watch); or thriller Giri/Haji (which was well-reviewed and sounds right up my street); or… oh, loads of stuff!

    Next month… Diddily-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum ooo-weee-ooo, it’s Doctor Who.

  • The Past Months on TV #51

    When I mentioned in September’s monthly review that I hadn’t posted a TV column that month, I was intending to get one up within a few days. As it turned out, for various fundamentally unimportant reasons, it’s taken until now — so, really, this one covers two months.

    Much like my film viewing, my TV watching hasn’t been as prolific as normal, including some regulars falling by the wayside (no Twilight Zone again). But there are still a few things worth talking about.

    Stranger Things 3
    Stranger Things 3On what you might unkindly call a superficial level, the third season of Netflix’s signature series was thoroughly entertaining — it’s frequently funny and exciting, with cool moments aplenty (especially in the last couple of episodes), and many enjoyable callbacks to both ’80s pop culture and within the show itself. But dig any deeper and it begins to seem less surefooted, with what felt to me like muddled themes and character arcs, and a sense that the mythology was treading water. I don’t particularly object to the way any characters were treated, nor the destinations any of them reached (especially as a fourth season was inevitable, so wherever this run finished up was only ever temporary), but I didn’t feel like they were being guided anywhere with any real purpose. There’s something to be said for storylines like that, but when you’re trying to play some kind of redemption arc, or a coming-of-age tale about burgeoning independence (or whatever), I feel like you need to be a bit clearer-eyed. But hey, I still enjoyed it a lot — it’s a fun watch, and I imagine even more so if you have nostalgic memories of an ’80s childhood — I just think there’s still some room for finessing.

    Watchmen  Season 1 Episode 1
    WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen is a seminal work of the form — I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about that at this point. Over the past decade it’s been adapted into a film, and both prequelised and sequelised (I think? I dunno, I stopped paying attention) in comic books, to varying degrees of success and controversy. So when HBO announced they were bringing it to TV, there was much trepidation. Early promises that it wasn’t a remake or prequel or sequel, but instead a ‘remix’, just added to the confusion.

    Now it’s finally here, it’s clear that such bold reports were perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Well, I say “clear” — I’ve only watched the first episode (two have aired, out of nine) so there’s plenty of room for things to change, but (so far at least) it seems to be definitively set in the world of the comic book (and not the movie, which made some significant modifications to the climax) and in 2019 (whereas the comic is set in the ’80s). So it is a sequel… but it’s not a direct sequel, because very few of the original characters have a part to play (yet, anyway). So it’s a new story set in the same world… albeit one where the events of the first story have had a massive impact, and some of the same thematic concerns are coming into play — not to mention a load of familiar iconography. Okay, maybe “remix” wasn’t a wholly terribly epithet after all.

    Anyway, it’s early days, but there’s a lot of promise and potential here. Reading the original before viewing may not be essential, but it’s going to help a lot (besides which, it’s a damn good book). And if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, be sure to check out the tie-in Peteypedia website, which provides a lot of extra info to help bridge the gap between book and series.

    Catherine the Great
    Catherine the GreatHBO and Sky Atlantic have teamed up for this lavish four-parter about the life of the famous Russian ruler, conceived by and starring Helen Mirren. The big bucks those broadcasters are known for are all over the screen here — it looks suitable sumptuous, with grand locations that positively shine, especially in UHD. Unfortunately, nothing else about the production is up to scratch. The writing is thoroughly mediocre — it most reminded me of The Tudors, although that seemed to know it was a bit of trashy fun, whereas I think Catherine the Great wants to be taken very seriously. But the dialogue is uninspiring, the characters uninteresting and underdeveloped (we’re told the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin is some great love affair, but they strop around like moody, jealous teenagers), and the flat performances do nothing to elevate any of it — and despite her general acclaim, Mirren is probably the weakest of the lot. Pretty, then, but vacant.

    Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes
    Dad's Army: The Lost EpisodesThe BBC’s 1970s policy of junking programmes because they supposedly no longer had commercial value is a familiar topic for Doctor Who fans, who’ve spent decades hoping and hunting for copies of missing episodes. But it was an organisation-wide policy, so Who was far from the only show that suffered — Dad’s Army was another. It’s a perennially popular sitcom here (even today repeats land among the most-watched programmes of the week), so you can see why it made commercial sense to invest in recreations of the missing episodes — especially as there’s only three of them.

    The pre-broadcast press and ads emphasised heavily that these were intended as a tribute (presumably because that attempt at a feature film revival from a couple of years ago went down so badly). The sense of affection for the original seeps off the screen, from the faithfully recreated set to the performances, which ably tread the fine line between flat impersonation and respectful imitation. By that I mean the cast were clearly trying to play the roles as they were originally performed, but without getting stuck in a rut of mere emulation, instead injecting a reasonable amount of their own interpretation of the characters.

    So, taking the project as it was intended — as a loving salute to the original programme, which also plugs a gap in its record — The Lost Episodes should be classed as a success.

    Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco Season 1 Episodes 1-4 — ITV’s cancelled period crime drama is revived in this US sequel/spin-off, because it was relatively popular on the other side of the pond. Unfortunately, this iteration does look and feel like cheap US network filler. It’s gently watchable enough, if you don’t mind that sort of thing.
  • Japan with Sue Perkins — The former Bake Off host pops over to Japan for a two-part exploration of modern cultural quirks and fads. Open-minded and consequently insightful, I feel like it could’ve been a longer series to dig in even deeper. Maybe a more indicative title, too — by getting so specific, it was hardly the overview/travelogue of Japan that you might’ve expected.
  • Monty Python Night — BBC Two marked the 50th anniversary of arguably the most influential comedy troupe ever with an evening of archive-derived programming. So, that was two repeats — of documentary Almost the Truth: The BBC Lawyer’s Cut and the first-ever episode of Flying Circus — and one new programme that was compiled from archive interview clips, Python at 50: Silly Talks and Holy Grails. If you missed it… it’s no longer on iPlayer because I’ve been so tardy in posting this column. Sorry.
  • World on Fire Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Now, here’s a good idea: a returning series that follows multiple loosely-connected characters in multiple different countries as they make their way through World War 2. I’m not convinced by the execution so far (it feels remarkably small-scale for a premise that’s all about scope, and visually it looks a bit too “TV” for a major prime-time series in the present climate), but, eh, we’ll see.

    Next month… the golden compass leads us to the northern lights as His Dark Materials is readapted for TV.