Casual: Seasons 1-3

I powered through three seasons of this in just a couple of weeks. It’s only about 40 episodes in total, and they’re only 1/2 hour, so it’s no big commitment of time. However, it does do a slightly odd thing to your brain to spend that amount of time with the characters and leaves you with a rather more foul-mouthed and cynical view of humanity. Which should probably be considered a bad thing, but I found it mildly empowering.

I was gripped from the first episode because the tone of the three central characters – teenage Laura, mum Valerie and uncle Alex was so brutally frank and open that I practically gave myself hiccups laughing and gasping simultaneously at them. I could recognise the distant echoes of my close circle of friends and family in the scorching lines, a lot of “I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I can with you”.

The ‘casual’ relationships that the title refers to is less familiar, and a look into a terrifying world at the extremes (at least I hope they’re extremes) of the dating world. It’s a very clever set up of three characters – Alex is the ‘expert’, the insider in the world having written a dating app; Valerie is the newbie, getting divorced and not sure what she wants or how it works; Laura is the naïve cynic, thinking that she knows exactly what she’s doing, but really just being a confused teenager. None of them really know what they’re doing and screw up in truly spectacular ways that, frankly, anyone could see is going to end in disaster.

The relationships between them are alternately lovely and horrific, each knowing exactly how to support and how to hurt the others. The cast of supporting characters alternately ground the series (the utterly superb Leon, charmingly fun Leia and some of the transitory relationships) or just push it to new absurdity (the parents really do explain how Alex and Valerie became this messed up) and for the most part balance everything out.

Mostly the series is played for laughs. Real people wouldn’t screw up (quite) this badly or (quite) this often, and would climb out of holes rather than just digging deeper and deeper (I hope). There are moments that it all gets a bit much, the situations just get a bit too depressing and too far from the comedy that it mostly purports to be. It’s best to watch in big chunks as most of the stories span multiple episodes, and you can then power through the blips. Taken at a run like that, it’s a lot of fun, and when I ran out of episodes, I felt slightly lonely. They’re horrible, terrible, insane people, but they’re a lot of fun to spend time with.

Seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon video, season 4 will be the final one and will probably be on Amazon next year sometime.

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Things I didn’t bother with this year

So one of the big things I clearly didn’t bother with this year was to keep on top of my reviews and actually post me review of the television year before the new seasons all began. I was trying to finish some things off before posting the summaries because otherwise it was a surprisingly short list of shows. There were however a few shows that I just didn’t bother with this year, and thought it would be a good idea to bundle them all together so they didn’t pollute the others.

Criminal Minds: Season 12 – when did this show get so poor? I realise that after a couple of hundred episodes the writers may start to struggle and the actors may get a bit bored, but this season feels like some kind of step change in quality. I mean it’s just bad. The dialogue from the writers and delivery from the actors are just amateur, like everyone is phoning it in, it’s full of cliché’s utterly lacking in subtlety and painful to listen to. I know they’ve had a lot of change in the cast, but I don’t think it’s because Morgan and Hotch left, or Alvez joined. Tara has never really come out as a character, and Prentis isn’t working in her new role as leader, she’s just too wooden (I think Paget Brewster is better suited to comedy and struggles to carry the weight of the drama necessary for the leader of the team). Reid is more of a caricature than ever and the only point of life is Garcia who just cannot do it all by herself. Time to retire this one I think.

Fargo: Season 3– I really enjoyed the first two seasons, but I didn’t even last half hour of this one before I lost interest. Having the same actor playing brothers just feels like a completely unnecessary gimmick. It’s not the Ewan McGregor couldn’t play either role, but I just didn’t want to spend my time trying to suspend my brain from continually working out how they edited scenes together. Nothing else jumped out as interesting, so I gave up.

Code Black and The Night Shift – both haave the same problem. The first seasons were enjoyable tosh, but I just couldn’t be bothered to continue watching. A few characters I liked disappeared, the melodrama ramped up and it just felt too artificial for any real engagement. Life’s too short.

Bull: Season 1– I managed about three quarters of the season and I kept thinking that as I was so close to the end I should just stick with it. But I once again realised that life’s too short to watch mediocre television. Particularly when it’s just making me sad to see a talented cast wasted on utterly mediocre ideas and writing. It was so formulaic and derivative that I can’t believe anyone involved was really putting any effort in or cared about the output. The idea of the show was just too narrow to really support a full 20 odd episode season, particularly given they decided to have almost no arc stories at all, each episode was completely standalone with no plots or character development spanning multiple episodes. A waste.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 12 – Season 12 finished in a place that I was incredibly unhappy with. I’ve always like the character that Alex grew into, starting out as an obnoxious arsehole and gradually showing where he came from and allowing the other characters to influence him into a better person. Then the writers had him beat the crap out of someone because he was jealous. I thought I’d let a few episodes of the new season build up to see where they went with that, and reading the spoilers I liked the direction even less, as it seemed to be verging dangerously into victim blaming. So I decided not to watch. I kept reading spoilers, and there really wasn’t anything in there that made me want to watch again. It wasn’t just Alex, other characters were frustrating too (ugh – Amelia) and I just didn’t want to watch. So I didn’t bother. That makes me sad, because I adore this show. I’ve read similar frustrations from reviewers online, but they seem to be a bit more positive about the new season, so maybe I’ll just pretend this season never happened.

The Good Fight: Season 1 – I adored the early seasons of The Good Wife, but I lost interest to the extent that I didn’t even get through the final season. I felt the writers rushed things a bit and characters went in directions I either didn’t believe or didn’t want to believe they’d go. I tried The Good Fight because, well, Christine Baranski. But I never really felt like watching more. It sat on my Sky box for months waiting for me to get to it before I finally gave up and deleted it. It may have been great, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

The Defenders: Season 1: I loved Jessica Jones, liked Luke Cage and even sat through Iron Fist just so that I could be more up to speed for The Defenders, but I haven’t yet made it beyond episode 2. I was bored. Even though I’d watched 3 out of 4 of the components, I didn’t remember enough of the plots to really pull everything together and there was absolutely zero help from the writers to elegantly remind you. I’d even have been happy with an inelegant “previously on…” few minutes at the start. I didn’t engage at all, but I will give it another try.

The Good Place: Season 1

As a quick browse through this site will show, I don’t really watch many sitcoms. I seem to have a very specific type of humour which doesn’t seem to match mainstream television. I can’t abide stupid people, particularly characters who have to act stupid just to drive a plot or get a laugh. That feels cheap and I’m more likely to cringe at their poor choices than I am to laugh at the punchline. If I’m looking for comedy I’ll usually head towards one of the middle-of-the-road dramas which tend to have humour embedded around the serious stories. I’m more likely to laugh at The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy or Agents of SHIELD than I am at most sitcoms.

So I approached The Good Place tentatively. I was approaching it at all because it has Kirsten Bell (who delivered the perfect mix of comedy and drama in Veronica Mars) and Ted Danson (who I’ve loved since Cheers), plus I had got incredibly bored of dismissing everything on Netflix as “not quite what I felt like” and this at least was only 1/2 hour. A few hours later I’d watched the whole of the first season, pretty much back to back.

That’s not actually as impressive, or as big an endorsement as it sounds. Each episode is in fact only 22minutes long and there are only 13 episodes, so it’s less than 5 hours long, about two films worth. Even taking a few breaks to putter and do some chores it was easy to watch it over the span of a day. The episodes are so short, and the episodic elements so minor, that I would imagine watching one episode per week would be incredibly unsatisfying and dull. But there’s a well paced arc playing out over the season as a whole, with some satisfying twists and developments towards the end, which makes it very well suited to box set viewing.

I wouldn’t say it’s a show that will go down in the annals of history as one of the greats. It’s got some funny moments, some clever observations, and a couple of chuckle-worthy recurring gags, but nothing that’s really going to be replayed over and over as comic genius. The characters are built from stereotypes, but most of them add a level of richness that elevates them into the realms of interesting and natural feeling. The world that’s created is a fun one, although if anything it’s slightly underused in the middle episodes. It’s a series that was nice to spend a weekend with, but probably nothing more. I won’t be rushing to watch each episode of season 2 as they arrive, but I will quite look forward to the weekend when I eventually have all of them available.

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.

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.