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.

The Bridge: Season 3

[I found this saved in my draft items, it looks like I wrote it just after the series ended in December 2015, but forgot to post it!]

The BridgeThis series seems to continually surprise me, turning out to be about things that I wasn’t expecting. Back at the start of season 1 I expected it to be a cultural/political piece looking at the difference between Denmark and Sweden, neighbouring countries separated by a narrow stretch of water and joined by the titular bridge. In fact it turned out to be about a misfit police pairing investigating a serial murder. Well, no, I guess it turned out to be about a personal vendetta and I thought it would probably be the end of the series. Then season 2 turned up and somehow managed to coherently develop on that before seeming to close the door on a third season by getting rid of half of the lead pair. So I don’t know what’s more surprising, that it came back for a third season at all, or that it came back even better than it was before.

What is completely consistent is the addictiveness of the show. Once again I let a few episodes store up on the Sky box before my brother nagged me to watch them so that we could talk about them. As soon as I started watching, I couldn’t stop, powering through the backlog and then counting the hours until new episodes on Saturday evening. On one occasion I was actually compulsively refreshing iPlayer waiting for it to appear as soon as the live broadcast had finished. There is of course an element of manipulation with the use of cliff-hangers, but the writers also do an excellent job with the overall pacing of the series, keeping the crimes, investigation and personal storylines moving along, constantly taking small steps forward. Even the red herrings and miss-directs manage to not feel too frustrating, none of them felt like dead ends just there to increase the episode count.

Danish-Henrik makes an interesting alternative to Danish-Martin, and also a fascinating partner and counter-point to Saga. The two of them have a mountain of baggage between them, but somehow they work together. Sofia Helin as Saga excels this season, the character’s behaviours and responses all seem to finally hang together. She’s consistent in her strengths and her weaknesses and being pushed outside of her comfort zone really clarifies things for her, the characters around her and the audience. Henrik’s own personality and coping mechanisms also make sense as his own background is revealed and the development of their relationship is fascinating and rewarding to watch.

While I still think there is a missed opportunity to look more closely at the similarities and differences between Denmark and Sweden, I didn’t find that so frustrating when watching. I never really knew what country they were in or what language they were speaking, but it really didn’t matter and of course that wouldn’t bother the Swedes and Danes at all, who of course are the primary audience, not the internationals. I’m also not 100% certain that I fully followed all the twists and turns of the plot or the overall conclusion. But it just didn’t matter. It was a completely compelling from start to finish and my only regret is that it’s now gone. I have no idea what direction the story would have to swerve to next, but please, please, please let there be a season 4!

[The Bridge commissioned for a fourth and final season]

The Musketeers: Season 3

muskateerMusketeers is one of those shows that I found myself accidentally falling in love with and becoming mildly obsessed with, despite the fact that it’s a hugely flawed production. I’ve always thought it’s a near perfect setup and am astonished that it took so long to become a television series (not forgetting Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds of course). The four heroes are classic characters, the themes of loyalty, camaraderie, honour and betrayal are pretty universal and there’s plenty of opportunity for action, romance, thrills and humour. I’m guessing the period setting puts people off (although how good could a present day version be?), so it’s not surprising that it’s the BBC that finally took a run at it.

Frustratingly though, it seems the BBC gave up on the show before it even started, showing it hardly any love or support with the basic error of poor scheduling. I’ve always figured that the first season of the show was half written for a family Saturday evening slot to replace Merlin, but then pushed it to Sunday at 9pm, where its tone wasn’t a good fit, marketing was non-existent and its ratings suffered accordingly. Friday at 9pm for the 2nd season wasn’t much better and the 3rd season was announced as the last. By which point the BBC jut gave up altogether and scattered it around the schedules – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday… you name it, it aired there.

You can’t really blame the writers for feeling a bit peeved and lazy, but I wish they’d been just a bit better. The writing has always rather suffered from a focus on what needs to happen to support the immediate plot, often sacrificing the long term consistency. Too much of the previous seasons was spent with Machiavellian villains repeatedly getting beaten in their weekly plot, while the Musketeers still manage to come out behind. The writers took a particular “well sod it” attitude towards things in the final season, basically writing plots and moments to keep themselves happy and playing pretty fast and loose with credibility of both plot and character/relationship development.

The four year time jump between series two and three simultaneously left too much time passing and yet not enough changing. Aramis left them for four years, Athos had to be a captain rather than one of the men, and yet nothing really changed. Other than a couple of remarks, by episode two Aramis was completely re-integrated and Athos still went on every little adventure. D’Artagnan’s character actually did seem to have matured in those years, and the others did treat him more like a peer than a junior. But despite the title of the series, it turns out that it’s Constance who really got the best development. She had some good material in the first two seasons, but in season three she is confident, commanding and a wonderful foil to all the male characters. Tamla Kari’s beautiful performance blended a woman taking control while not losing her emotional core and uncertainties.

The poor consistency for the Musketeers themselves is frustrating because all the actors are more than capable of great performances, individually and as a group they’re hugely charismatic and versatile making each character a complex individual building from the classic archetypes. The characters and actors play off each other, always forming a balanced set. Athos, Porthos and Aramis as the triangle in everything – sword, fists and gun; head, heart and soul, thought, action, words – while D’Artagnon is always in the middle, tying them together or pushing them apart depending on what’s needed. You could pick any small scene and watch the poetry in motion of the actors and characters working and moving together to make a unit. Individually they’re ok, but together they’re wonderful.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the writers fully understood that and it was the very last episode that left me frustrated both as a critic and as a fan. The writers knew this was the final season and they wanted to basically go out with a huge bang while also tying everything up in a perfect bow. This required some particularly clumsy manoeuvring to get people (and history) in the right places. As a critic it was a frustrating exercise in fan-service with very few of the happy endings really feeling like they were earned. But the bigger problem is that as a fan, I still wasn’t satisfied.

You see the final resolution for our four musketeers is that each of them individually get their happy ending. Athos who had been driven to be a soldier because of the betrayal of his wife, gets the girl and a baby on the way and leaves soldiering for them. Porthos who had come from the streets and was treated as the muscle, is recognised for his leadership and strategising and made a general. And spontaneously gets married to a woman who doesn’t mind him soldiering (despite the fact that her husband, and father of her new baby, was killed on a battlefield). Aramis who craved adventure and as many women as possible to escape memories of the true loves he’d lost, left the musketeers to become First Minister of France where he can be near to the Queen and watch over his son. ‘Trainee’ D’Artagnon became captain, running the musketeers with Constance. Each is a happy stories individually, but they missed the point of what I loved about the stories of the musketeers – the group of them together. How can it be a happy ending when they are going in different directions?

Despite the somewhat clumsy plotting, and that somewhat sour end note, the series was never anything other than entertaining. I wonder what this show could have been if only the BBC had committed to it more. With the mixture of action, comedy, romance and drama; not to mention the incredibly detailed and beautiful period sets and costumes; it should have been a perfect candidate for an absolute hit. As it was, it’s a show that I suspect I will always remember more fondly than it maybe deserves, giving it the benefit of the doubt for what it came so close to being, rather than the slight mess that it actually was.

Preacher: Season 1

I spent quite a lot of time while watching the ten episodes of Preacher not really fully understanding what was going on. Although it’s based on a graphic novel that did ring a vague bell with me, I had utterly no clue what the subject or tone of the show was going to be. Even for someone who watches quite a lot of shows that fall into the broad genre of ‘weird stuff’, this still felt very fresh and new. Yes there are elements that feel a bit familiar, Dogma, Supernatural, Good Omens… anything that’s got that theme of angels and religion not quite being entirely on the up-and-up. Combined with things like Twin Peaks and Fargo for the small town quirkiness. But overall I never really knew where it was going to go at any point and some of the reveals left me laughing with stunned disbelief.

The thing that really made me keep watching though was the style of it. Fargo is another touchpoint here, as is some of Tarantino’s stuff with the same quirky, self-knowing sense of humour combined with occasional violent and gory brutality. Preacher could turn on a dime from cryptic plotting to shocking violence and then break the tension with perfectly time dry humour – the simple comedic power of a quiet “huh”.

Style gets you a long way, which is a good job because there were a few points where things really dragged. The flashback sequences got a bit dreary, and repetitive (yes, I know there was a reason for that repetition, but it doesn’t make it less tedious). Character development was not necessarily the most coherent and consistent that I’ve ever seen, which wasn’t helped by the fact I often really struggled to understand what the characters were saying. I laughed out loud the first time they put subtitles up for the character with the severe speech impediment, because I didn’t find him any harder to understand than the thick Texas and Irish accents other characters chewed through.

It seemed a strange choice for Amazon to release Preacher as weekly episodes rather than as a box set, as it certainly played best watched in big chunks. I’m not entirely certain that the first episode by itself would have brought me back a week later. The unpredictability and freshness of the series are what really make it work and I felt that was served best by watching it in big chunks rather than episodically, but now that the whole thing is available, I’d heartily recommend it.

The Muppets: Season 1

The_Muppets_(TV)_title_cardThe Muppets mean something to me. I think the world is a much better place because Jim Henson shared his dream with it. I’m far from the only person to feel this way and I’m sure I was not alone when I was simultaneously excited and nervous about this latest incarnation of the Muppet Show being brought to prime-time television. 16 episodes later, my overwhelming emotion is relief that the show stayed true to the fundamentals of Jim Henson’s vision and didn’t trample over that nostalgia. That relief though is tinged with some disappointment and regret that the show just wasn’t… well… better.

I liked the concept; it seems natural to bring the theatre variety show up to date and make it a late night chat show with sketches and guests. It also seems natural to age the target demographic of the show, targeting a more adult market who are nostalgic for the old show, but don’t really want to watch a kid’s show. So the Muppets now not only have to deal with the day-to-day running of a show, but also have lives and relationships of their own. It’s aiming to be less zany and slapstick, and more witty and satirical.

When that worked, it worked really well. Some of the characters moved very easily into that new context, Kermit in particular with his dry wit felt like a perfect fit. The use of the documentary style pieces to camera worked well, giving a window into a bit more of the characters’ personalities. I liked the moments that addressed the fact the characters are all sorts of different animals living in a human world, it was never really dwelled on, but made some amusing asides. Mostly though I liked the nostalgia, I liked the little references back to the original series and that the characters all felt like old friends.

But when it didn’t work, it was really awkward and uncomfortable. Some of the more frat boy antics of the ‘writers’ (Gonzo, Rizo and Pepe) were just painful. Also after the novelty of it being the Muppets wore off, elements such as Piggy and Kermit’s complicated relationship just became the usual tedious, contrived back and forth, except with furry puppets. Many of the guests were quite awkward, not really seeming to know whether to play it straight or play a role. And just like other series with “shows within shows”, (Studio 60, I’m looking at you) the sketches that were supposed to be part of a successful late night show just weren’t funny.

I enjoyed the show, but predominantly, only as filler. At less than 30 minutes, it became an easy choice when I didn’t want to commit to a full length show that might require concentration. I’m not sure that I would have stuck with the series the whole way through if it had required more time or mental energy. That doesn’t sound like a particularly enthusiastic thing to say, but in recent years I haven’t found a half hour sitcom that I could actually stand for as long as I did The Muppets. For all that there were moments that made me cringe every episode, there were also moments that made me smile and it had almost as much heart as the original series. For that, if nothing else, I will miss the show.