Orange is the New Black: Season 4

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardI reviewed the previous three seasons in a block, and so have only actually talked about the show in broad terms before, never getting into specifics of storylines or characters. That makes this season a little harder to review, separating out a block of episodes from the rest, not least by time. It’s almost exactly a year since I watched the previous two seasons almost on top of each other (I watched season 1 a little earlier but didn’t review it separately) and I struggled to get back up to speed. It’s easy enough to look up some of the key facts of the previous seasons, but really getting back into the characters is hard, particularly when there are so many of them and the focuses are constantly shifting.

I think season 4 does stand out from the rest. The writers seem to be moving away from the use of flashbacks with a different character each episode and I think that’s a shame. I like the little snapshot of someone’s previous life that you get, not answering all the questions, but giving them backstory, emotional foundations and a look at what they’ve lost and what their lives could have been. The flashbacks were much shorter or even absent altogether and the choices of characters weren’t so good and I think that really impacted the depth and flavour of the show. I also think there was a move away from really showing that these people are criminals. Yes there are some cases of mental illness, bad luck or just stupidity, but most of them are genuinely guilty and fairly imprisoned and losing track of that is a mistake I think.

I don’t know whether the corporate overlords and irritating Linda-from-Procurement were an attempt to bring some comedy to the show again, but it didn’t work. Caputo has always been a borderline believable character for me, so on the plus side the ridiculous corporate politics made him seem a little more human, but only in comparison to their cliché ridden stereotypes, which isn’t really much to be thankful for.

The real problem is that the stupid characters (and I’m afraid I frequently have to include Piper in that category) play completely at odds with the seriousness of the situations unravelling in the prison. I have a horrible feeling I’m being entirely naïve that people running prisons couldn’t be so stupid and irresponsible as to allow these situations to develop, but by making some of the characters deliberately extreme and unbelievable, it undermines the serious point if that’s what the writers were actually trying to do.

This is the problem Orange is the New Black has again, and again – the uncertainty about whether it wants to be funny or serious. The subject matter covered this season (and also in previous ones) is horrific. Dealing with brutal emotional and physical issues. The way people treat each other (prisoners, guards, family in every combination) is horrible. You cannot and should not make light of that. There can be funny moments, everyone makes jokes in difficult circumstances and laughs at the insanity of situations, that’s what keeps people sane. I’m not saying I don’t want there to be laughter and humour, but it has to come from within the characters and situations, not introduced from outside artificially.

When this show plays it straight as a drama, it is incredibly good. The final hour, even just the final 10 seconds of the season is heart-stoppingly good. The quality of the acting, the intertwining of characters and storylines and the overall pacing of the plots are superb. The moments of genuine love and happiness among the prisoners are wonderful, the failures and hopelessness are heartbreaking. The show is so good, it’s only when it tries to be something that it doesn’t need to be that it really lets itself down and that’s just frustrating.

American Gothic: Season 1

american-gothicThis is proper escapist television, pretty much completely rubbish, but just absorbing enough to keep you from any risk of thinking about the ironing that needs to be done, or the stupid meeting you have to go to. Sometimes I want to watch something meaningful, with plot and character arc and sense, other times I really do just want to watch barely believable tosh. American Gothic thoroughly obliges on the tosh front.

I’m going to assume that the writers were aiming for that, making a deliberate choice to embrace the mediocre, rather than trying to create something smart and missing by a country mile. The Hawthorne family and their close associates are a bunch of either morons, or manipulative assholes, or sometimes both at the same time. Pretty much no one is innocent or really terribly likeable, so there’s not really much chance of getting emotionally engaged.

The twisting and turning of the plot is actually pretty engaging. I guess some will get bored and frustrated with the endless stream of red herrings, dead ends and endless layers of motives. It’s a show that for once these days probably doesn’t work so well if you try to watch the whole thing as a box set, you become a bit resigned and disengaged as the sheer number of twists fall over themselves in a rush. But watching one or two episodes at a time fits the more soap opera style of the story. I felt like I was guessing each reveal only slightly ahead of the characters, which was enough to feel slightly smug, but not so much as to just shout at them for being so dim.

This is like Downton Abbey, or a soap opera – entertaining and diverting. It’s not quite mindless, there’s enough plot to actually keep you listening and paying attention, without really requiring you to engage your brain or get too emotionally connected. That doesn’t sound like very high praise, but it seems to be a rather tricky balance to find on TV with too many just ending up mindless and boring.

Braindead: Season 1

braindeadThis is easily the most unexpected show I watched this year. It’s one of those times that I wish I could just tell people “watch this” without having to explain why, as it’s just so much better an experience if you have absolutely no idea what it is going to be. I don’t think anyone would regret watching this show, it’s one of my favourite shows of the year and one of the most original things I’ve seen in ages. Go on, give it a try. But for those of you that either won’t listen to me, or have already seen it and just want to know what I think, I guess I’d better expand a bit.

The premise of Braindead is incredibly, perfectly current – why is politics suddenly so nuts? How come everyone seems to be turning into idiots and fighting? The idea that it’s some sort of brain eating alien is really actually no more stupid then some of the things our politicians are actually coming up with. So let’s run with that and do The West Wing with… I dunno, Mars Attacks? That’s probably the closest I can think of in terms of wacky, slightly gross insanity.

There are moments in this series that are just jaw droppingly unexpected. Some of that stems from the ridiculousness of the plot, the pretty disgusting shock moments or fairly horrific implications of what’s happening. But actually, there are just as many moments of “I can’t believe you just did/said that” which are really about politics in 2016. Sharp observations of current events which are beautifully summed up in cutting lines of dialogue.

Individual lines of dialogue that perfectly cut through to the heart and true insanity of modern politics, shock moments of pretty disgusting gore,

Ok, so it does occasionally get a bit bogged down. The politics angles are definitely latter series West Wing with a lack of any real depth or teeth to it. This is by the people that brought you all the seasons of The Good Wife, and there were plenty of occasions there where complexity of arguments was abandoned just to get the plot moving along in the direction they wanted. So there are also few loops of plot that just draw things out a couple of episodes longer, while some plot threads are just abandoned or side-lined until needed. Oh and the romance elements are a bit tedious and high school and the budget was clearly underwhelming.

But, I don’t care. Do you know what I’m going to use to sum up how good this show was – the “previously on” segments. Yup, you know those bits that are really tedious on a weekly basis and even more pointless when you’re powering through a box set watching episodes back to back? The “previously on”s on Braindead should win awards. They’ve managed to make the most fast forward-able part of the show the bit that I actually rewound to watch again and again. I found one that was relatively spoiler free (don’t focus too much on the opening pictures). Seriously, Jonathan Coulton is a genius and if this is how good the “previously on” is, just go and see how great the rest of the show is.

15-16 Season

Wow, I haven’t watched nearly as much television as I thought I had. There’s 22 series this year, whereas last year I watched 27 American series, without even counting the British ones. I really thought that living by myself would increase the amount of TV I watched, but I guess I’ve been focusing rather more on films and reading this year. But, I don’t think that’s the only reason, either the series themselves are just not grabbing me or possibly (shudder) I’m just going off TV a bit.

Things I’ve watched

American Gothic: S1 (review pending)
The Americans: S4
Braindead: S1 (review pending)
The Bridge: S3
Code Black: S1*
Criminal Minds: S11*
Downton Abbey: S6*
Doctor Who: Swhatever*
Fargo: S2 (no review? Oops. It was great)
Grey’s Anatomy: S12
Happy Valley: S2
Jessica Jones: S1
Lucifer: S1
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S2
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: S3
The Muppets: S1
The Musketeers: S3
NCIS: LA: S6 (in progress)
Penny Dreadful: S3
Preacher: S1
River: S1
Stranger Things: S1 (review pending)
Trapped: S1
Unforgotten: S1
Walking Dead: S6

* Failed to review the season. I’ve been really slack this year! I promise to make an effort to do better!

goodwifeI know people describe this as a golden time for television, and there are still some real gems out there, but there’s a huge amount that I just find unexciting. I repeatedly found myself realising that I was only watching something because I thought I should, a kind of inertia. So I waved goodbye to the increasingly rubbish Scandal, couldn’t face the endless misery of The Affair and opted out of the abundance of awful people on Transparent. A tougher cut was one of my previously favourite shows, The Good Wife. I may go back to finish off the final season at some point, but I just found myself too frustrated by the big storylines endlessly pulling characters in frustrating directions.

ncislaShows like Criminal Minds, and NCIS LA remain on my Sky box only for their use as background noise while ironing or playing Candy Crush. But there’s only so much time for that (I really don’t iron that much) and most of the networks’ offerings this year would only have bulked out that list rather than add any particularly quality. I just about made it through the year with Code Black despite it being almost entirely ridiculous, and The Muppets only really lasted the year because at 20 minutes per episode, it was useful filler. I didn’t make it beyond the pilot for any other Network shows this year.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoThere were a couple of returning shows that I actually looked forward to, The Americans goes from strength to strength as the characters and stories continue to evolve. Fargo had another great season, maintaining the offbeat tone but brought to life by an ensemble of familiar actors really showing their talents. The two Marvel series (SHIELD and Carter) remained entertaining, and while The Walking Dead writers made some big, annoying miss-steps its still probably the show I await most eagerly each week.

Jessica_Jones_NetflixSo, thank heavens for Netflix and Amazon. The ease of watching, combined with some actual originality has made Amazon and Netflix my TV source of choice recently. Things as diverse as the dark Jessica Jones and the cheesy American Gothic; the throwback Stranger Things, and then the downright un-classifiable Preacher and Braindead. These are the shows that I actually remember more than 5 minutes after I finished watching them, ones that I have something to say when I come to write their reviews, and the ones that I talk about with friends. Even shows that I didn’t get on with (Mr Robot for example), I still respect them and talk about them.

happy_valleyNon-American TV faired a little better at the start of the year with Happy Valley and Unforgotten both absolutely superb dramas with incredible performances by Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker. Trapped and The Bridge were both excellent entries in the Scandi-noir genres. Downton Abbey closed as it lived in cheesy ridiculous fashion, but for all that it really wasn’t very good, I will miss it as a pretty much perfect piece of Sunday evening rubbish telly. Things went a bit downhill after Christmas, with many dramas sounding too depressing for me to even start watching, and several leaving me apathetic and giving up on before too many episodes in (War and Peace, Victoria). The theoretically more light hearted, entertaining shows have also rather suffered, another season of Doctor Who that failed to grab me, a final season of The Musketeers even the writers couldn’t be bothered with and an array of uninspiring shows that never got off the ground.

I don’t really have a massive amount of enthusiasm for the coming year. There are only a couple of returning shows that I can summon any real enthusiasm about, and a couple of the new shows look like they might have potential; but at the same time I’m feeling rather cynical that things will turn out to be rubbish and I’ll be disappointed. I miss science fiction, I miss shows with a sense of wonder about them, imagination and the ability to surprise me. Is everything feeling a bit formulaic because it’s getting worse, or is it just that I’ve watched so much that I’m only now detecting the patterns. Fingers crossed something will manage to re-inspire me soon.

Things I want to watch but haven’t yet: Orange is the New Black S4 (half way through), Orphan Black S4 (argh! British scheduling), and I still want to catch up on iZombie and Empire

I was tempted to not bother with the “Best of” lists, but decided to do it just of the sake of tradition.

americansBest Shows:
The Americans – still one of the best shows out there and just getting better and better
Jessica Jones – there are so many levels to this show and it’s excellent on every one of them
Happy Valley – I didn’t think a second season of this could work, I was beyond delighted that I was wrong.

The Walking DeadFavourite shows:
Braindead – a total surprise of a show, totally fresh and incredibly current, I alternated between laughing hysterically and dropping my jaw in astonishment.
Walking Dead – really the only show that I pounced on new episodes each week, so it makes the list despite the fact that it wasn’t actually very good this year.
Trapped – I ummed and erred about the 3rd slot in this list, but then I remembered just how obsessed I got with the show, counting down until the new episodes aired each week.

Penny Dreadful: Season 3

pennydreadfulIt turns out this was the final season of Penny Dreadful and I am not 100% certain how I feel about that.

Each season of the show has been something best approached in big chunks, and I think actually the whole series would probably be served well by just watching the complete thing in one thread. Episodically it doesn’t really work that strongly, and even though each season does have a marked start and end point, it’s really the slow burn of the entwining characters and relationships that are the meat of the show.

The third season isn’t the strongest unfortunately. It does have some excellent elements to it (Dr Sweet, Dr Seward, the revealed past relationship of two of the main characters) but the physical separation of many of the characters is frustrating. It deprives us of some of the key relationships and chemistry, which would have been tolerable if not for the fact it was the final season. Many of the plots felt like this was being setup as a middle season of an overall arc, before bringing everything together in a final concluding season.

But then it was like they ran out of time, and rather than a gradual build towards the climactic battle followed by a grand conclusion, there was a rush at the end to fling the characters and plots desperately to a collision. It felt a little like it came out of nowhere, going from dawdle to panic. Some of the stories were tied together in too neat a bow, others were just abandoned. I was left with a funny mix of feelings that I wasn’t really keen on the idea of more seasons of the ‘filler’ that we’d had, but also wasn’t ready for it all to be over.

Still, it was a wonderfully different and impressive show while it lasted, and maybe three seasons was exactly the right amount. The acting as always was superb. Eva Green is of course a stand-out, but Billie Piper impressed yet again with some of her monologues, even if the plot itself was a bit of. Roy Kinnear was heart-breaking as ever, and his character’s storyline was perhaps the most interesting of all of them.

It’s a shame this show never really got a wider audience, or the recognition its cast deserved. This level of creativity and style is just not evident in many shows on television today, hopefully it will find some more fans now that it can be viewed as a 27 episode whole.

Emmys 2016 thoughts

Emmy AwardSeems that my TV watching (and getting round to writing about it) is waaay down this year, so I’ve seen hardly any of what Emmy considers the best TV of the year (or the year 1st June 2016 to 31st May 2016). So this is just a very quick brain dump of my thoughts on the dramas

Outstanding Drama Series:
The Americans – I love it. It’s such a beautiful character study, elegantly told and combined with just enough excitement and spy stuff to keep it exciting.
Better Call Saul – I never really got on with Breaking Bad, let alone this one.
Downton Abbey – Seriously?! Even if you just view it as cheesy entertainment, there are still far far better options!
Game of Thrones – I got bored a couple of seasons back, but from what I read it’s had a pretty good season
Homeland – I gave up during the slump period and am impressed that it’s seemingly managed to survive that and come back stronger
House of Cards – I haven’t seen this season, and am not sure I will bother. It was good at the start, but became increasingly contrived and full of characters that I just hated
Mr Robot – I got a few episodes in and was impressed at the show, but just didn’t like or enjoy it enough to continue.

What I want to win: Of those options, of what I’ve seen, The Americans is by far the best show there is.
What’s missing: Jessica Jones was absolutely superb and although The Walking Dead didn’t have the strongest of seasons but it still beats Downton Abbey hands down. Nothing for The Good Wife? I thought this season was a considerable step down and it seems others agreed, but it will still be better than Downton Abbey. No Orange is the New Black either (although it was the slightly disappointing 3rd season that was eligible, not the recent 4th which I hear is better).

Lead Actor (Drama)
americansKyle Chandler, Bloodline – always wonderful, this is still on my list of things I intend to catch up on, almost enitrely because of Chandler.
Rami Malek, Mr Robot – very good, an awkward and difficult role, but from what I saw Malek makes it credible.
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul – no idea
Matthew Rhys, The Americans – yes! And FINALLY. There is so much depth and complexity to this character and his relationships
Live Schrieber, Ray Donovan – didn’t like the show, but Schrieber was fine.
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards – the character turned into too much of a pantomime for me

Who I want to win: Matthew Rhys obviously.
Who’s missing: I think Matthew Rhys would likely still be my winner, but there were a few that could have given a run for his money. David Tennant was utterly compelling and horrific in Jessica Jones (maybe he would count as a supporting?), Andrew Lincoln as ever on Walking Dead. Tom Ellis on Lucifer was a completely different type of performance but deserves recognition for the astonishing amount of charisma he delivers. And as per usual, despite not having watching in yonks, I can’t imagine the two leads on Supernatural have lost any of their talent for doing everything from pratt falls to emotional devastation, often in the same scene.

Lead Actress (drama)
orphanblackClaire Danes, Homeland – she was never the problem with the show and if the writing got better, then I’m sure she deserves this space
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder – no idea
Taraji P. Henson, Empire – I really must get round to watching this
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black – Yes Yes Yes! The fact that she is listed with 6 character names tells you everything you need to know. She’s phenomenal.
Keri Russell, The Americans – also fantastic. Like Rhys there’s so much depth, but her character is even more restrained and even confused about her own self. How do you even start acting as a character who’s losing herself in the characters that she’s acting as?
Robin Wright, House of Cards – her character was much better written than Spacey’s

Who I want to win: What an amazingly strong category. It comes down to the two I’ve seen (obviously) and I think Maslany edges in front of Russell, but I do acknowledge that it’s almost cheating to have someone who gets such diverse characters all at once.
Who’s missing: Oh that there could be a dozen nominees in this category. Kirsten Ritter of Jessica Jones was phenomenal, soooo many layers. I’ll once again put in the good word for Ellen Pompeo on Grey’s Anatomy, tirelessly putting in good work and getting no recognition, the episode where she was attacked was just amazing. Hayley Atwell gave another charming and underplayed performance on the criminally under-appreciated Agent Carter. Oh, and Eva Green missed out for the final season of Penny Dreadful, a show that just seems to have completely passed the Emmys by. Oh, and no Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife

Supporting Actor (drama)
House of CardsJonathan Banks (Mike), Better Call Saul – no idea
Peter Dinklage (Tyrion), Game of Thrones – he was pretty much the only thing that got me through the last season of Game of Thrones I saw
Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), Game of Thrones – if he got something to do other than mope about then he was probably pretty good.
Michael Kelly (Doug), House of Cards – another high point on the show.
Ben Mendelsohn (Danny), Bloodline – no idea
Jon Voight (Mickey), Ray Donovan – no idea

Who I want to win: Well, I haven’t seen any of them at all, so I really don’t care.
Who’s missing: most of the cast of The Walking Dead, Alan Cumming was probably excellent in The Good Wife as usual

Supporting Actress (drama)
Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke (Daenerys), Game of Thrones – always incredibly watchable
Lena Headey (Cersei), Game of Thrones – also superb
Maggie Smith (Lady Violet), Downton Abbey – oh for crying out loud, get over her
Maura Tierney (Helen), The Affair – I didn’t watch this season (too depressing) but I’m glad to see her recognised here
Maisie Williams (Arya), Game of Thrones – wow, there are a lot of incredibly good women on this show
Constance Zimmer (Quinn), UnREAL – no idea

Who I want to win: all three Game of Thrones ladies are wonderful, so I guess it just comes down to quality of material they got.
Who is missing: Christine Baranski for The Good Wife? I didn’t see this season but she’s never anything other than wonderful. Probably most of the cast of Orange is the New Black. Melissa McBride’s Carol on The Walking Dead had yet another stunning season.

The Americans: Season 4

americansI was so patient waiting for this show to build up on my sky box so I could watch it in big chunks, that I completely forgot about it and only just got round to watching it. Good job I had a nice run of free evenings because as usual, I just couldn’t stop watching.

The thing that makes it so completely compelling isn’t the twists and turns of the spying and investigations, but the elegant development of the characters. Frankly I lost track of half of the plots, which bits of information they were trying to get from who and for what purpose. Bah, whatever. That’s just the mechanics of getting characters to keep having to make choices, form connections and mostly, just deceive absolutely everyone, including themselves.

Season 1 of the series started out clearly focusing on the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip and the different way they felt about their ongoing mission. Many of the other characters just felt rather incidental to that, people to use and/or keep secrets from. By season 4 however, many of those characters have sneakily completely ingrained themselves into stories and lives and the web of deception has to go so much wider, with Elizabeth and Philip struggling to keep all the different lies straight, and keep themselves emotionally removed.

As each person becomes closer, the writers and actors keep everything original and fresh, it never feels quite what you’d expect it to be and it is never at all simple. Martha started out as just an unknowing asset, but somewhere along the line she became a key relationship with Philip, in turn impacting his relationship with Elizabeth. The way that story worked out over season 4 was absolutely heart-breaking and fascinating, so many different emotions being played out, so eloquent yet with so few words. Similarly the ongoing fallout of letting Paige into the secret keeps going. You never doubt Philip and Elizabeth love her and hate what the knowledge does, but they are still her parents and are disappointed and angry at some of Paige’s mistakes.

A few characters don’t land quite as well. I’m happy to see an end to Nina’s storyline and satisfied that it really was the only ending that made sense. Henry, the son, really doesn’t get much to do beyond studiously not being present for key discussions. Pastor Tim also remains tediously ‘limp’ through what could have been a more interesting storyline and Gabriel (the handler) is generically just used to move plots along without really contributing much. Most of the new characters just don’t feel like they’re worthy replacements for those that we’ve lost, with the exception of the hilarious Young Hee and her utterly charming relationship with Elizabeth.

It’s been announced that there will be two further seasons of the show before it finishes and that gives both a security in knowing it will be written to a conclusion, but also provides a ticking clock that raises the tension even more. It’s two years away, but I’m already nervous for how the story will end. These characters are so well developed that it feels like they’re absolutely real, every trauma, every stressful decision, every consideration of the consequences feels very real. It’s not exactly a relaxing show to watch, but that’s because it is one of the best shows about people that I’ve ever seen.