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.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 12

Grey's AnatomyI not only had to look up what number season this was, but I had to look up what on earth happened as i’d forgotten most of the details. Broadly speaking I still love Grey’s Anatomy. It’s my first pick for comfort viewing and I don’t even think about watching it without snuggling up on the sofa with a blanket, unhealthy food and a soothing drink. That said, this is the twelfth of these reviews that I’ve had to write, some I’m gonna break out the bullet points. It’s a bit spoilery, but I don’t think anyone really cares.

Things I didn’t like

  • What’s her face, Penny – she never really landed as her own character, as evidenced by the fact that I had to look up her name. She was just there to drive stories in other characters, Meredith, Cally and even the other young characters when it came to the bloody Preminger Grant. It just didn’t feel like she had the same depth of character that the others had
  • Callie and Arizona’s custody battle – where did that come from?! Cally wanting to take Sophia away without even considering it a big thing? Then the court hearing was so utterly artificial and inept. AND THEN Arizona deciding to let Sophia go anyway?!
  • Jo – good grief the girl is awful. She’s whiny and annoying at the best of times, but then it turns out that she’s supposedly kept this massive secret from Alex all this time. Some more poor writing.
  • Owen and Nathan’s antagonistic relationship and drawn out secret history that then turned out to not be that exciting. The only good moment of the whole thing was when they suddenly snapped into sync in a surgery.
  • DeLuca – Winning the prize for most under-used character this year. There just didn’t seem any point to him. His relationship with Maggie never seemed to go anywhere and her over-reaction to dating an intern was rather jolting given the rest of the relationships on the show!
  • Childcare – there’s a LOT of children and some incredibly flexible childcare arrangements going on

Things I’m not sure about

  • Amelia – she can be massively annoying at times, but at least it feels deliberate. She is just a pain in the arse sometimes, that’s not bad writing, it’s just how she is. Doesn’t mean I don’t wanna slap her sometimes though.
  • Stephanie – likewise I’m on the fence about her. I guess she’s a bit like Christina, restrained, ambitious and confident, but she just doesn’t have a Meredith to bring out the emotional elements. The weird whistle-stop romance with the musician felt like a cheap attempt to give her a more emotional storyline and soften the character and it just didn’t work.
  • I can’t remember any of the actual patients. It’s not exactly the point of the show, but usually there are a couple that stand out, even if only for being notable guest stars, but I can’t remember a single one this time.

Things I like

  • Family. Over the years the theme of family has been about the family you chose, not just romantically but about the brothers and sisters you chose. This year there was a bit more focus on actual family as Meredith, Amelia (her sister in law) and Maggie (her half sister) shared a house and kids. Watching Maggie’s sudden acquisition of a family, and Meredith and Amelia’s strained relationship introduced some new ideas.
  • Carpooling – there were a lot of laughs to be had about the recurring carpooling that went on throughout the series.
  • The music – the soundtrack of the series continues to be superb, and I liked that they were using some classic songs completely re-imagined. I wish they’d release more albums, the ones I have from the first few seasons are still my top playlist.
  • Alex and Meredith – I adore that Alex has stepped into Christina’s shoes and is completely Meredith’s person now and she is his. I would rewind their scenes together because I so loved the familiarity and complete lack of bullshit between them.
  • Referencing – the show generally remembers where it came from and where its characters have been. Most obviously of course is that Meredith wasn’t suddenly over Derek, but it was the little mentions of long past events and characters that made me smile. With 12 years of history, there’s a lot of shorthand that can be used with the audience to evoke emotions, a snippet of a song, characters lying on the grass, events and characters long gone; calling back on them gives me a little warm glow. Long may that continue.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 3

agentsfoshieldSeason 3 of Agents of SHIELD actually felt like a significant improvement, Looking back on the plots and action that took place. I think it’s due a much less frantic pace and far more coherent set of storylines which actually felt like they were going somewhere, rather than the endless meandering and circling around that previous seasons have had.

From a clinical point of view the writing and stories had a very good mix of big and small, the pacing worked, the interactions between the plots worked and none of them overstayed their welcome. Looking back at the season I don’t think there were any dead ends, each story wound into the overall picture and continued to effect characters. Relationships moved forward, people grew, people fought with each other and things occasionally blew up. What more do you want?

It feels like all the characters, and actors, were playing to their strengths this year. The cast expanded with new ‘inhuman’ superheroes and ‘normal’ agents and they finally seemed to gel into a coherent collection of people. That’s not to say they always agreed or worked well together, but it felt like a fully rounded group that covered off all the various attitudes and emotions. I particularly like the mixture of “grown ups” and “newbies”, each respecting each other, but also occasionally having to exert their authority and experience, or challenge and get creative. As characters rose and fell to prominence, others dropped away; allegiances and attitudes shifted and it felt like an organic whole rather than a forced structure.

There are still some weak points, or rather under-utilised characters, the cast list was very crowded at times and not everyone was well used all the time. Hunter was well used for levity, but his quest for revenge didn’t quite play as well; particularly against Adrianne Palicki’s much more nuanced performance as the recovering Bobbi. Sadly, I still think Clark Gregg’s more melodramatic moments as Coulson don’t quite land right, but his lighter delivery is still flawless and gives the series a wonderful character. Lincoln was something of a non-starter for me and I remained pretty bored of Ward, I didn’t really find his character very interesting when he was a good guy, and his switch to Hydra made him no more interesting and then when [the spoiler for the second half of the season] that was the final nail in the coffin of any interesting character options.

I enjoyed this series. It’s a long way from perfect, but it is firmly settling into the entertaining category, with a few characters and performances I really look forward to. I think it can still be better than it is though, and continue to hope it will find some real magic.

Lucifer: Season 1

Lucifer,_titleAided by the tragic demise of my sky dish, I blitzed my way through Lucifer on Amazon Prime over the space of a few days. It’s something of a one trick pony kind of show, it’s a good trick, which is enough to carry the 13 episode season, but the lack of other tricks (or ponies… I’m not quite sure about this metaphor) is a constantly niggling irritation.

The pony in question is the titular Lucifer. “Devil gets bored of hell and runs away to LA to run a nightclub” is a pretty good pitch. Added to that idea is the complexity of the character which makes him so much more than the stereotypical devil, which he himself gets very cross about. He doesn’t consider himself evil, in fact the very opposite – he punishes evil. He doesn’t force people to do evil things, he merely encourages people to follow their desires and takes satisfaction in punishing them when their desires aren’t all that they should be. He does have a sense of morality that doesn’t really match most people’s, but frankly when he explains his reasoning it kind of makes sense. He’s also got some pretty serious issues with his father of course. The elegance and complexity of the character, make a lot more sense when you realise it’s actually Neil Gaiman’s character from his Sandman series. Heaven knows nothing else in this series has that level of talent.

When you get away from Lucifer’s character and story you find yourself in the familiar, tedious and clumsy worlds of a procedural cop show. It’s “Castle, but with the devil instead of a writer” and the way he’s clumsily brought into each case is painful beyond belief. I also unfortunately just didn’t get anywhere near the same complexity, depth, or (sadly) acting talent from his partner’s character. She just felt very flimsy and insubstantial, like she wasn’t quite grounded in the show around her. It’s possible she lost me at the moment she revealed she named her daughter Trixie, which even Lucifer points out is a stripper name.

The show is pretty much worth watching for Lucifer and Tom Ellis’ portrayal. He’s incredibly charismatic and manages the dramatic shifts in tone from charming to terrifying at incredible speed. His character development and story is fascinating, and his interactions with those that really know who he is have a tremendous depth and history that leaves you wanting to know more. It’s just a shame that the mortal side of the deal is cheesy, obvious and amateur.

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