Iron Fist: Season 1

I wasn’t going to bother watching this entry into the Netflix Defenders franchise. Nothing about the concept appealed to me – kung fu movies leave me utterly bored at the action and chuckling at the cheesily delivered philosophy. But I decided to at least watch the pilot so I’d been introduced to the character before moving on to The Defenders. No one is more surprised than me that I made it through all 13 episodes in just two days.

I will say that I think this says more about me than it does the series. I had very little enthusiasm this weekend for doing anything more challenging than slumping on the sofa and doing a jigsaw and it was more by luck than planning that the first thing I picked to watch was Iron Fist and I was just too lazy to stop Netflix auto-playing the next episode.

The show isn’t anything special in the slightest. It has all the things about kung fu movies that I don’t like. There are lots of action sequences, which I’m sure took a lot of skill and talent to do, but almost always left me reaching for my phone to play with, or focusing on a particularly boring bit of sky in the jigsaw. I glazed over an equal amount whenever a character started talking about Chi and K’un L’un, The Hand, and the mystical destiny of whatever. Maybe I’m being incredibly disrespectful, but it just sounded silly. I did the same thing with any of the inhumans philosophy on Agents of SHIELD and a huge amount of Doctor Strange. Once you’ve taken all that out, you’re left with a fairly run of the mill story, missing heir comes back, tries to reclaim his father’s business and runs into scheming former friends/relations and an overly convoluted investigation into what the mystical Hand are doing in New York.

The more I write, the more I’m not sure why I watched the whole thing. Finn Jones is likeable enough as Danny Rand, but I’m not sure the character makes any sense. He’s sometimes completely at home in New York (where did he learn to drive a sports car in K’un L’un?) and other times completely out of touch with the reality of running a business or understanding people. Similarly his temper and zen flip flop depending on what the mood of the episode needs rather than necessarily with any relation to the circumstances he’s in. Other characters are pretty one dimensional until they too flip flop because everything needs to be dragged out to 13 episodes so it should appear that the bad guy has a heart after all, or the childhood friend may be a bit of a bitch. The plot relied on far too many cases of characters not being what they seemed so that after a while I just became immune to it all.

This is definitely the weakest of the series in the franchise I’ve seen. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were both much more carefully built series, both made me actually care about the characters and challenged me to think about the issues. Iron Fist was just pure background noise. Still, I did finish my jigsaw.

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Orange is the New Black: Season 5

This show still can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama or a comedy. Some shows manage to blend both together (I loath the word ‘dramedy’ but it is sort of useful), but this one just swings from one side to the other, with very little in the way of elegant merging. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just nudging back and forth on the natural boundaries between funny and sad, but lurching from extremes of tragedy to absurdity of farce.

The season also feels like it’s using a cast of characters so huge that individuals get completely lost in the noise.

The wikipedia page for the season lists 17 main cast and over 40 recurring characters. For thirteen episodes. That’s not including guest stars or bit parts, almost all of those characters get some kind of storyline and attempt at development. That’s insane and it just doesn’t work. To even attempt to cover that ground meant the flashbacks were hardly used at all, and I really missed the structure of giving each episode a focus on one character and telling their history at the same time as their present.

The other mistake of the season is focusing the time down on just a few days at the prison. That should bring some element of focus to the season, but because there are so many threads going on, it’s no more focused and just opens up confusion. I don’t think the writers plotted and structured it as well as they could, it felt like time was passing differently for different characters and there was no satisfaction to be had from interweaving of different strands.

Frankly, the whole thing was chaotic. And not in a good way. Characters had so little time – both screen time and actual passing time – to do anything, that they each got boiled down to just one or two aspects. The wavering tone made it impossible to either laugh at the comedy or allow yourself to really feel the impact of the tragedies. They continually undermine the weight of any of the serious messages they’re trying to introduce and it cheapens the whole thing. I was really disappointed.

The Americans: Season 5

I find it increasingly hard to explain why this show is so good, and I’m beginning to wonder if I like it more for what it was, than for what it is.
Looking back at the thirteen episodes of season 5 I’m hard pressed to remember much of what happened. The two things that I can really remember are things that irritated me. The drip feed of development of Phillip’s son over the last couple of seasons seemed to be reaching a climax as he travelled to the US to find his father. And then it was all for nothing. The story collapsed with nothing even slightly resembling a satisfying conclusion. We also spent a bunch of time with Oleg Burov back in Moscow that I had almost zero interest in. Much like the Nina storyline it felt like it was dragged out too long, attempting to make the story wider than just the Jennings family. But I simply wasn’t interested and it was so completely disconnected it just felt like a random bolt on to pad for time. I suppose it did give a look into what Russia is actually like, but that was also covered sufficiently through flashbacks.

The only storyline for the whole season was a good set up at least, introducing a new young spy for the Jennings to work with brought a new aspect, as did having them spy on and manipulate Russians for a change, all be it defected ones. There were some other storylines that came and went, but it all felt a little disconnected. Lots of bits here and there, some played well for comedy (Phillip trying to seduce the boring logistics woman) and others a bit more heartbreaking; but because they weren’t really joined up, they felt a bit manipulative – solely there to draw attention to the way the characters were feeling.

The show has also made a fairly rookie error in dedicating a chunk of time to the teenagers. This hardly ever ends well for a series and it’s getting grating here. I fully accept that Paige is having a difficult time of it and her situation is interesting and unusual, but I just got bored of her and the continual wavering between coming to terms with things, and falling apart again. The self-defence classes with Elizabeth were a nice touch, but it didn’t feel like they transformed the character much. Mind you, I was surprised and thrilled to see they gave Henry an actual personality and storyline.

The biggest problem I had was that I got bored watching it. The acting is still superb, really subtly showing the complex feelings the characters are going through. But that subtlety is overwhelming any actual activity. Minutes would go by and nothing would actually happen, watching people walking or driving. I get that the characters are thinking and making decisions, but we don’t actually need to see in real time them going through the options in their heads. Between scenes that went nowhere, and entire chunks of time spent away from the central plot, I found myself clock watching rather too much.

I do love this show, but I sometimes find myself wondering why. The next season will be the final one, and i don’t think I will be too sad about that, so long as the writers actually wrap it all up, hopefully giving them all some kind of happy ending.

Orphan Black: Season 5

I’ve written a lot of superlatives about Orphan Black over the years and it’s been one of the first things I mention whenever asked for recommendations of what to watch. Now that it’s finally (belatedly) found a home on Netflix, that recommendation is easier than ever. My only concern with the show was whether it could stick the landing or not. While the final season is far from the series’ best, and a way off a 10/10, it’s certainly a solid 8 and certainly enough to keep the show right up there in the medals.

I actually went back and re-watched the series from the start in preparation for the final season. I was trying to time it so that I would be able to watch straight through without having to wait for a weekly episode release. I got it wrong because I was completely unable to stop watching and got through all four season in about 10 days. That meant that I had to wait for each new episode like some kind of historical relic and that did hurt the pacing a bit, so I heartily advise putting aside a bunch of time to binge watch through it.

Part of the reason I wanted to re-watch was because I’d lost track of the story the twists and turns of the various plots, missions, conspiracies and… frankly what any of the ‘bad guys’ were actually trying to accomplish. To be honest I’m not sure that a second watch really helped much and I was a bit vague about things when season 5 started and by the end of the season I’d lost a lot of the strands altogether.

That should be a bad sign, possibly even a deal breaker. But the reason to watch Orphan Black isn’t the stories; it’s the characters. The final season has some wonderful character moments that build beautifully from all that has gone before. The problem I had with the season was that it was made up of moments, rather than sustained satisfaction. I don’t understand why some characters were sent away for multiple episodes – Helena, Felix and Alison were all completely absent for several episodes and they were missed PAINFULLY. Each got their big moment eventually, but I missed their presence in the background and the smaller moments of casual character and relationship development.

The production values of the show remain outstanding, there are more locations I think than ever and they all feel so deeply real. Of course the performances are all that we’ve come to expect. Tatiana Maslany’s performance still boggles me, I completely forget that it’s the same actress; Cosima, Alison, Helena and Sarah (not to mention all the other passing clones) are such distinct characters I have to remind myself it’s the same actress. The flawless editing that brings them together on screen is a phenomena. The supporting characters who surround the sisters help ground them enormously, having different relationships with each of them but embracing everyone as family.

Season 5 is not the best of the series and there were times early on that I was incredibly frustrated at the writers’ choices. But it rallied when it brought all its chickens home to roost and the last few episodes were perfect. I can understand that some might criticise that it was all wrapped up a bit too neatly in the end, and from a critical point of view I can sympathise with that. But from an emotional point of view, the ending was all I’d hoped for. I will miss this series and I’m sure it’s one I’ll come back to again and again in the future.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1

I am a big fan of the book. I know a lot of people studied it at school and that may have spoiled it for them in some ways, but I didn’t read it until my late twenties and I think I could understand and appreciate it a lot better. Most importantly to me it was a good story, with an intricate universe, well developed characters, and a carefully paced plot. It doesn’t matter how strong your message is if it’s not a book that I want to keep picking up. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with the message at the heart of the book, I wasn’t being lectured at or told off, just calmly shown a way that things can go which was terrifyingly believable.

In praising the book, I praise the TV series, because it has captured everything that I thought great about the book and made the most of all the opportunities that television offers. I can’t remember enough details from the book to know if the story is exactly recreated, but it gets all the big things right – the message and the feel. It’s certainly not an easy show to watch, but I still enjoyed it – there’s enough character and humour in it to make it something that you want to watch, not just something you should watch.

What the medium of television adds is the visual. I’m not someone who reads a book deliberately visualizing what I’m reading, I couldn’t describe what I think people look like or what the light is like, even when the book describes that explicitly I tend to skim it or forget it. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful to watch though, the style of the world so complex but simple – the future and the past, austere but luxurious. The framing and the grand spectacles could feel contrived for the sake of an eye catching shot, but they fit right in with the controlled nature of Gilead.

The other visual that you get of course is the body language and facial expressions of the actors, and so much is said without words by this incredible ensemble. Elisabeth Moss (who will forever be President Bartlett’s daughter to me) is phenomenal. Aided by an occasionally unnecessary (but often laugh out loud funny) voice over, there is never a moment of doubt as to how she’s trying to pretend to the world around her and what she’s really feeling. But the rest of the cast is also fabulously nuanced, Joseph Fiennes as Fred is charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) but it’s Yvonne Strahovski as Serena that I actually actually found the most interesting character – trapped yet in control, powerless yet proud. As with any great film making, it’s often the moments and scenes without words that have the most effect and that’s down to everyone involved – actors, directors, lighting, music and sound; some of those moments have remained with me for a long time (the circle of handmaids with stones, the march on the bridge, Ofglen’s face, the letters, the walk in the last episode).

The level of sexual and emotional violence makes it a very hard watch. The horror of the situations are not often clearly spoken aloud and that could be taken as an excuse to ‘not see’ what is really happening – as of course many of the characters are choosing. When it is spoken, and people finally use the word rape, it is devastatingly powerful, but there are other, more intimate and emotional tortures that are not verbally acknowledged, words that even this programme shies away from which nags in the back of my brain somewhat. It’s a show that cries out to be discussed, but at the same time you don’t want to talk about it because it’s so awful. This hits on all levels – the emotional connection to the individual characters, the depressing impact on the society and the how believable it is that small deviations from our own world (increasingly small sometimes) could credibly lead to their world.

There are miss-steps in the series. The pacing doesn’t always work, sometimes spending too long in flashbacks, or too long with other characters. It feels a little like Walking Dead sometimes when you spend too long away from one group of characters and find yourself disconnected from everything. However overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is stunning. Both in the sense that it’s a beautiful piece of film making craft; and the sense that the emotional punch leaves you stunned. One of the best television series I have seen in years.

13 Reasons Why: Season 1

Hmm. This is a challenging one to review. I found the series quite disconcerting and it split my opinion.

On one hand, this is a high school drama. It’s got the usual pre-occupation with sex and relationship, almost no schoolwork whatsoever, completely oblivious teachers and parents, an amount of casual substance abuse that you’d normally only see in a gritty 18 rated drama, and a cast who are all clearly in their twenties. The network of relationships and histories are complex, the shifts from “besties” to “mortal enemies” happen in a blink of an eye over trivial matters thanks to the complete and total self-involvement of individuals. But those very things make high school dramas tolerably entertaining, no more or less ridiculous than the average soap opera.

But this is also a story about a suicide. The story of a smart 17 year old girl who carefully and with a great deal of forethought decided to die. I wish so much that this was a pure fiction, but of course it is not and lives are being destroyed every day.

As an “old person”, a lot closer to the age of the parents than the kids, it’s easy to look down on the teenagers. You want to shout at them to grow up, to stop being so self-involved and selfish. Just calm down, talk to people and think of others and it will all be fine. The majority of the characters are not evil, they’re not deliberately making other people’s lives a misery, they’re just completely unable to think how their actions impact others.

I’m not suer how well the two aspects of the show work together. The early episodes are much more about the depressingly “normal” kind of crap kids apparently do to each other, while the latter episodes escalate things horribly. Every now and then a scene would feel like it was inserted just to remind us all that a girl is dead and that serious things are going on, because without those scenes it would be quite easy to trivialise them.

The cast are all very good, but they are not 16/17 and most of them do not look anything like high school students, so every time one of them does something ‘childish’ it seems trite, whereas if they looked 16/17 it would be more understandable that they are acting childishly, because they are.

The plot McGuffins of the show also undermine it. Really not holding up to scrutiny that well. The concept of the tapes is a good one for dramatic purposes, but it requires a lot of desperate sticking plasters of unlikely decisions and coincidences to hold it together. The Tony character became particularly frustrating; I liked the character a lot (although it would have been better if he’d actually been made a non-student a couple of years older to explain why he was more enlightened, without that age difference it again just highlighted the immaturity of the others), but he kept having to pop up to keep things on track and it was just too forced. Without spoiling the ending, I also thought that was a let down. There is some resolution to the why of things, but insufficient tying up of lose ends, or even acknowledgement of them. I think it would have been stronger as a one season show rather than setting up for a second.

Fundamentally there’s an incredibly powerful story that presents a teenage world that looks like an absolute nightmare to this 30-something. But it is undermined somewhat by too many storytelling/filming contrivances.

iZombie: Seasons 1-3

This had been on my list of things to watch for a while, but it didn’t have a UK distributor. I’m not sure when it appeared on Netflix but I only recently noticed it. On the plus side that meant I could pretty much binge watch straight through seasons 1, 2 and 3 over the course of a fairly short period of time.

The premise is fairly so-so. A doctor is turned into a zombie, but provided she gets a regular supply of brains to eat she’s pretty much normal. So she starts working in the morgue and dodging questions from her family and ex-fiance and just whines about here un-life a bit. Then it turns out that she gets visions from the brains she’s eaten, and if it’s a murder victim, that turns out to be very useful. She teams up with a cop who thinks she’s psychic, finds a purpose and we’re off and running with a fairly episodic “brain of the week” structure.

The first season or so plays to that pattern. The brains tend to have some over-the-top gimmick to them that is occasionally laugh out loud hilarious, and occasionally cringingly painful. That structure gets a bit trying when you’re binge watching, so it’s a good job that the background plots gather traction – seeking a cure and dealing with the various zombie groups that start to appear. There’s also a fair amount of relationship wrangling going on, which is again a bit tedious at times, but the characters are all likeable and self-aware enough that I didn’t get too bored of various makeup/breakup cycles.

Season 3 is where things really start to move pretty fast on the plot front. Throughout the season there’s a real sense of escalation building towards a satisfying game changer in the final episode that sets up for a very different 4th season. Some of the partnerships go through a couple more cycles that get a bit a tedious, but the development of the friendships are more nuanced and satisfying. Importantly for me, the humour is not lost with the increased stakes of the drama and there are plenty of hilarious set ups throughout the season that make this a show that I’m sure I will be happy to watch over again.

The reason that I’d wanted to watch iZombie (despite it’s frankly pretty awful name) was that it’s from the creator of Veronica Mars – one of my all time favourite shows. They share the same achingly smart dialogue, and take-no-crap characters but the sci-fi storyline of iZombie opens up even more opportunity for quirky situations and playing with genres and styles. The zombie cast wholeheartedly throw themselves into the different personalities, while the rest of the cast do a solid job as supporting straight men and women that the others can dance around. I don’t think iZombie will overtake Veronica Mars in my affections, but it’s certainly making a really good challenge.