Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

The Walking Dead: Season 7

I think the first episode of season 7 of The Walking Dead is a key turning point for the series. For a show that has already defied boundaries of violence and brutality, the introduction of Negan and Lucille marks a new extreme. Characters are pushed further than before and it’s very clear that none of them will ever be the same as they were before. For me, sadly, it marked the point that I fell out of love with the series.

I read spoilers of The Walking Dead, it’s not about a lack of patience for the few hours I’d have to wait to watch the episode, but it’s more about making the tension bearable. I find that if I’m stressed and uncertain about what’s going to happen in a show I care so much about, I just can’t concentrate on the nuances of the acting, writing and directing that make The Walking Dead what it is. So, I knew not only who met Lucille, but how and how the rest of the episode was drawn out. When it came to sitting to watch the episode that evening, I realised I didn’t want to see it. So I didn’t. After a couple of weeks, I still didn’t want to watch it, so I figured I’d wait until the whole half season backed up and I could box-set my way through it. But I still didn’t want to. Eventually the whole seventh season was waiting for me, and I still couldn’t face watching the first episode. So I didn’t. I skipped it. I watched the rest of the season and just missed the brutality of the first episode.

With or without the first episode, binge watching the season in a few days worked well, because if I had tried watching it an episode each week I’d probably have died of boredom. The entire synopsis of events can be written in a not terribly long paragraph (I checked), and thanks to the fact that most episodes follow just one plot line, only a few characters, all the stories are stop start, and you might get stuck for an hour with someone you just don’t care about. Slow and subtle character and plot development is one thing, but this is just glacial. We know most of the characters well enough that we know exactly what they’re thinking and watching them go very slowly through the motions is mind-numbingly dull. The majority of the stories were predictable, only the shock violence and the specifics of who died, when, were surprising.

Half of me wants to go back and watch another season to see if it’s the series or me that’s changed, the other half doesn’t want to risk that I’ll realise I was wrong all along. The writing this season felt ham-fisted and clumsy at times. Too many of the new characters felt cliche or over-the-top, and I was bothered by the logistics and realism in a way that I hadn’t been before – how far apart are these groups, how have they never tripped over each other, is that a realistic number of guns, how inept are they to not just shoot Negan, where is the petrol coming from? I’m struggling to engage with the newer characters and too many of the old characters are getting bogged down (not unreasonably I guess) in their traumas. When characters or groups reunite, the emotional impact was intense, but it felt more obviously manipulative than I remember it being in the past.

I think the problem is that Negan just feels like a hyped up version of The Governor, who was already close to a pantomime villain at times. Now that the walking dead themselves are not so much of a threat, human villains are having to get more extreme to make it comparable, but I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I was more interested in the politics between the different factions, the different styles of governance and how they interacted. The super-villain just felt unnecessary and stupid for a show that I always thought was more intelligent than that. I’m not angry. I’m just incredibly disappointed.

Luke Cage: Season 1

One of the strengths of the Marvel Universe is that each sub-franchise, be it film or TV, has entirely its own style. Even when characters cross between things (as Luke Cage does from Jessica Jones) they somehow manage to bring their own tone. It means you can like one thing but not another, or you can like them for very different reasons. You could probably put together a pretty complete map of genres just within the Marvel Universe which is impressive really.

As its central theme, Jessica Jones was about individual control – what it does to the people involved when one person takes someone else’s control away. Luke Cage is still about individuals, but individuals as the components of a community – how each person contributes towards that community, and how individual actions impact that community. The community of Harlem is an important character, but one that has no voice of its own for much of the series. Everyone thinks they know what ‘the community’ needs and wants and the best way to realise that vision; they seek to control it and mould it to their vision, not allow it to evolve and change organically. Luke Cage is almost the apathetic hero, he isn’t really part of the community, he’s just hiding within it and is brought into the struggles against his will.

You could talk about all of this without really talking about superpowers. As with most superhero stuff, it’s not about the superpowers themselves, it about what it lets people do. For Luke Cage, the fact that he is nearly invulnerable means that he can take actions that others couldn’t. If you take away the fear of death, what does that mean? As with Superman of course, it means that your weakness is now other people, the people you care about, so those relationships become even more powerful. And the ‘victims’ you need to protect are those that have less power than you. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a cliché, but it’s also true.

The characters and casting is (mostly) all you’d expect from the Marvel universe, with a lot of familiar names and faces playing to their strengths. All the characters are rich and interesting, imbued with their own history and credible reasons for their actions. There’s an unfortunate weak link in the second half with Claire Temple’s character who is always in the right place, at the right time, and magically able to solve all problems which is really unfortunate as the character (nothing to do with the performance) dragged the series down rather.

I must admit, in writing this review I’ve put more thought into the series than I did while I was watching it. I enjoyed watching it, and the 13 episodes rattled along always leaving me wanting to just let the auto-play carry me onto the next. But it didn’t have the impact that Jessica Jones did, it’s only when I thought about it afterwards that I started seeing the complexity and themes that you could find. Sometimes analysing shows to death kills them stone dead, other times though it really elevates them into something greater.

Bates Motel: Season 1-3

I’d been meaning to watch this for a while and finally spotted it while rummaging on Netflix. It’s just going into the fifth and final season so I’m pretty late for the party, but at least I’m now making up for lost time, powering through all the episodes that Netflix had available in just a couple of weeks.

When I first heard the idea of telling the backstory of the infamous Norman Bates from Psycho, I rolled my eyes a bit. There are enough remakes/prequels/sequels about, does the world really need a high-school age prequel of a horror film? Surprisingly, the world does. There’s something absolutely riveting about knowing how the story ends, but not really knowing anything about how they get there. You find yourself sympathising for them, or rooting for them, crossing your fingers that things will work out for them and constantly remembering that it’s not going to happen. It means the writers and actors can play, taking a step in one direction and raising hopes before lurching back again, in the early seasons they can be incredibly subtle and immediate red flags go up anyway.

The ongoing structure of the series is very well designed though. The story of the series is how Norman Bates becomes the character in Psycho, and his story is completely intertwined with his mother’s story. They arrive in a new town with already some troubling events in their past, but the location of their ‘fresh start’ rather dooms them, given that the town is far from a quiet seaside town. Each season is then a discrete-ish story of their connection with a particularly group of people, or local events. Each season is only 10 episodes long, which is just enough to build and resolve that story, and move along all the characters, generally with a bit of a cliffhanger to highlight the step changes. It starts feeling a little formulaic if you watch three seasons back-to-back like I did, but that’s rather a first world problem of my own cause and the fact that I wanted to go straight on to each season shows how good it is.

It quickly becomes clear that even though the audience thinks it knows the end of the story, there is a huge amount of uncertainty still to understand. This is as much the story of Norma as it is Norman and there’s a lot of questions about her past and her responsibility. There is also a vibrant ensemble of supporting characters who become increasingly important to the audience, they’re the writers’ innocent victims in the inevitable. Each character has a role to play in stabilising and destabilising particular situations, it’s an interconnected network that is fascinating to watch and all the people around Norma and Norman bring a normal context to them. Norma and Norman are big and over-blown characters and they’re not really much for subtlety, so the supporting characters deliver a necessary counterpoint in their more appropriate responses.

The tone of the series takes a little while to get settled, and the first season requires a little bit of faith. There are immediately some violent and traumatic events that feel as if they don’t land with the characters as intensely as they did with me. Given how little that key moment is then reflected back on over the subsequent dozens of episodes it felt a little like the writers bottled out of it after using it as a dramatic starting point. The series is still gripping and interesting from the get-go, but thinking back on it, it just didn’t seem as balanced and considered as later seasons. The level of violence, bloodshed and chaos in this supposed small town continues through later seasons, but it does feel like it hits the characters a little more appropriately. It’s still Jessica Fletcher level of improbability, but it sort of makes sense. This isn’t a subtle show,

I’m not sure whether it was always intended to be five seasons, long, but it’s a good length. The third season, the mid point of the five season arc really turned up the psychological elements, and there’s a lot more going on in looks and glances, but also a fair number of emotional explosions that really show how unstable everyone is becoming. We’re cresting the top of the roller-coaster and the only way is down. I heartily recommend this series, the only hesitation I would have is that it’s probably a good idea to be at least passingly familiar with the story of Psycho so that you can appreciate the references and the sense of inevitable destination. I think the series would still work without that, and probably even add something sometimes, but I would think the writers meant you to know the ending.

The Halcyon: Season 1

I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.

The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.

Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .

The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.

The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.

There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.

Westworld – Season 1

There was a lot of buzz around this. The trailer looked stunning and the ideas were fascinating, clearly HBO and Sky in the UK were hoping that this would be the next Game of Thrones, particularly given that we’re heading towards the end of that series. So why was I just not bothered with it? I let a few episodes back up and then watched the first couple and my response was distinctly… meh. It just didn’t grab me. I watched with a couple of friends and they seemed to feel the same, so our meh-ness somewhat reinforced each other and we agreed that there was something that just didn’t quite work about the delivery of the concept.

Westworld (the setting) is basically an evolved computer game. The people who built the park are running a real life massively multiplayer role playing game, one that’s been running for decades and is hugely successful. The hosts (non-player characters, robots) have all been crafted and written in order to support either specific narratives that the guests can participate in, or just to flesh out the background so the guests can immerse themselves in the period setting. Now, my friends and I have played a lot of games between us, and we could quickly predict how some things were going to go, leaving us a little bored waiting for it to play out slowly. Plus we could spot various flaws in the ‘game’, either deliberate ones necessary to get the show’s narrative to work, or accidental ones that were just mediocre writing by people who hadn’t really thought about how this sort of game would work in reality.

So after watching a couple of episodes, I just wasn’t grabbed by it, and let it flounder on my sky box for a while. Eventually though I exhausted most other options (I still can’t be bothered with The Walking Dead!) and figured I might as well finish it off, not least as I’d heard there were a few twists later on that were interesting (although sadly I was spoiled on them which rather reduced their impact). At that point I managed to power through the rest of the 10 episodes, gathering momentum until I watched the last 4 episodes back to back last night (sadly the final episode was double length leading to a rather late night).

It did get better, or maybe more accurately the good bits expanded and made the not-so-good bits tolerable. There are characters in the first couple of episodes that are almost background, but really develop into something interesting and start to actually explore the issues around consciousness, manipulation and desire. Once it starts getting into the mystery elements more fully, and the characters and audience realise that not everything is what it seems it starts gaining momentum. Bits of the story make very little sense and at best require characters to take particularly convoluted routes towards their aims, but it does finally give the show some momentum that made me want to watch the new episode.

There were still threads that I didn’t care about and slowed everything down, the idea behind Delores’s “narrative” was interesting, but I found her an excruciatingly tedious character to actually spend time with. Some elements were uncreatively cliché which was a bit frustrating, and also slowed everything down when you know how things are going to go but they take an age to get there. There are also characters and ideas which had a lot of potential that was frustratingly ignored, some of which may be expanded in the second season, but not all of the characters will have the opportunity and that’s a real waste.

I do have some conflicted feelings towards the level of nudity and violence. The nudity in particular is incredibly gratuitous. I can see that there is a point to the nudity – the people working in the park dehumanise the hosts by having them naked when not ‘live’. It is relevant to the plot and isn’t sexualised in the same way that other shows might do. Similarly the level of violence against things that look like people but aren’t really, is again an interesting look at what people are capable of (the last episode has an interesting counter point to that too). But in both cases I wonder if there was a more elegant way of making those points.

I don’t think this is the next Game of Thrones (although I don’t really think that Game of the Thones is the pinnacle series that the masses seem to think it is), or at least it isn’t yet. I do think that it’s got a lot of potential, particularly if they continue playing with some of the ideas and storytelling techniques that come up in the last few episodes. It could be that in a couple of years this is the kind of series that you explain the first season is a bit ropey, but stick with it as things get amazing. But it could also be that they have no idea what they’re doing and it will go down as a good idea that didn’t quite materialise. Still, at least it’s something different.

Modus

modusI seem to have a rule that I have to watch any drama that comes along with subtitles. It’s a mixture of pure pretentiousness on my part combined with at least a small amount of logic that if it’s a show that’s good enough to get picked up outside it’s country of origin, it can’t be that bad. Modus is one of the exceptions. It really was quite mediocre.

I don’t really know where to start on explaining its mediocrity, it was pretty much consistent throughout. The plots were contrived, the characters stereotyped and the scandi-ness overdone. A few times I wondered if it was actually attempting to be a parody. Everything just felt like they’d pulled dozens of ideas off a shelf and clumsily bodged them together. Too many ideas, too little imagination. The lead actress managed to bring some life to her character, but everyone around her either couldn’t, or wouldn’t do anything with their characters at all. Not that I necessarily blame them when the script gives them nothing but dumb cliches to work with.

It took me a few episodes to realise that it wasn’t very good, and by the time I did, thanks to the fact that the episodes were broadcast in pairs and it was only 8 episodes long, I figured I may as well just keep going to the end. Even at just 8 episodes it was horribly drawn out, adding boring and repetitive loops to stretch a couple more episodes. Then to add insult to injury, by the time the crimes were untangled and the criminals unveiled I was muttering and even shouting “oh come on!” at the television screen for its dubious presentation of… well… just about everyone actually, but particularly gay people. It wasn’t really good enough to feel outraged about it, but it was quite frustrating.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.