Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

SEAL Team: Season 1

I’m not sure how many people remember a series from a few years ago called The Unit. A bit of googling reveals it was on CBS from 2006-9, airing 69 episodes over 4 seasons. I’m not sure how I came to watch it in the UK but I somehow ended up with the dvd box set and powered through it. SEAL Team is pretty much the same series, just moved into a world 10 years older for an audience that’s more savvy.

Both series are about special forces teams, the people that get sent in to the most dangerous and complicated situations at home and abroad and both series go to great lengths for authenticity, with all the language, movements, actions and behavoiurs seeming entirely ‘correct’. This is the most satisfying thing about both series, and the most vital. If they didn’t seem credible as elite military unit it wouldn’t work at all. Similarly if they too often disobeyed orders, or the orders didn’t make sense, it would be impossible to accept any of it.

Season 1 of SEAL team neatly split into two halves – the first half establishing the characters while working out of their home base, and the second half following them on deployment to Afghanistan. It’s a very smart decision, giving us a run of standalone episodes to build the characters – starting from their simple definitions (the leader, the right-hand-man, the newbie) and then add secondary notes and depths, and how they function as a team. Then the second half develops into a longer overall story line and pushes them slightly out of their comfort zone (although what is a comfort zone to a Seal team operative is quite scary).

The biggest difference between the two series is that The Unit had a much greater balance between the stories at home, the families left behind and the challenges of being military wives. That is touched upon in Seal team, but it’s always from the point of view of the soldiers. I don’t mind that change to be honest, there were a lot of times in The Unit that it felt that the home stories were forced and verging on melodrama at times. It’s a shame so many of the female characters in Seal team are therefore relegated to guest appearances, but they are still strong characters. There are also women on the team who are never presented as anything other than fully competent.

Neither series is a mindless “boys” action fest. The characters are smart and well rounded, the emotional aspects are never ignored, and the complexity of the situations they are in are well considered. The cast was one of the big draws for me, with several names that I knew could all deliver interesting characters, adding more than was maybe written on the page. Led by David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) you’ve also got Max Thieriot (Bates Motel), Jessica Pare (Mad Men) and AJ Buckley (CSI New York and Justified) and the guest cast includes people like Alona Tal (Supernatural) and even Michael Irby from The Unit.

I watched about 1/2 the season straight through in a few days before catching up with the live airings. Each story is dealt with efficiently and effectively, I was never bored and I didn’t spot any particular holes or oversights (which is far from common). It will of course not be a show that wins any major awards, and I can’t say it’s a show that necessarily lingers in the mind after you’ve finished watching. But for me, it ticked all the boxes.

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Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

Station 19: Season 1

Despite my unashamed love for Grey’s Anatomy (with the exception of a few plot lines that I try to forget about) I’ve never found the same level of joy for the rest of Shonda Rhime’s work. I stuck with Scandal for a few years but it just got too ridiculous, I barely made it through the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder and even the direct spinoff from Grey’s, Private Practice, didn’t really land with me. As I’ve made it through the full season of Station 19 that makes it the most successful of the bunch, but this isn’t exactly going to be a glowing review.

The first problem is that I’ve never really understood the American emergency services structure which seems to merge paramedics and the fire service into one shared skill set (although this may be an affectation of TV/films based on the way things work in LA and may not be representative of the country as a whole). Station 19 adopts this, meaning that all the firefighters also act as medical first responders and it left me constantly bemused at the different skills and roles that the characters fell into, making them slightly hard to differentiate.

Sometimes the characters seemed to be able to do everything, but other times they were startling inept with storylines being driven by characters making mistakes. Grey’s Anatomy started with, and tries to maintain, a tiered approach to its characters with people at all stages of their careers. The new people understandably make mistakes for drama or entertainment, while the more senior staff can teach both audience and characters while picking up the pieces. Station 19 seems to lack that hierarchy as the only person treated as having significant experience is quickly sidelined.

The rest of the season is structured around a leadership contest between two people who are clearly completely unsuited to lead. Neither has the required experience, neither can put aside stupid quarrels even in literal life and death situations, and neither gives or receives sufficient respect to inspire confidence. Too many of the stories were driven by the mistakes of the characters rather than the inherent challenge of battling fires and disasters. People died because of their pettiness and ineptness and we were supposed to feel sorry for those that made the mistakes.

The personal elements have flashes of the Grey’s strengths, but only flashes. There are some interesting and well delivered relationships (both romantic and otherwise) and some hints at rich backstories that could be developed. Sadly the voiceover doesn’t work, Herrera just doesn’t have as strong a voice as Meredith Grey and everything she says comes across as trite. I also wasn’t a big fan of the flashes of future moments that top and tail each advert break, they just felt like padding and a cheap way to build drama. As a whole, it just doesn’t reach the standards that Grey’s has set and I’m not sure it’s adding anything to a TV landscape that already has Chicago Fire (and its siblings).

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 14

I stopped watching last season because of the Alex storyline. I’ve always had a soft spot for Alex as one of the less perfect characters who has actually had impressive character development over the years. But the final moments of season ???? set up a storyline that ran through the following season that I just didn’t want to watch. Fundamentally he seriously assaulted a colleague and then he, his colleagues and the writers seemed to look for excuses for why it happened. I could follow the logic that he lost his temper (his anger being a central character element) but not the machinations everyone went through to excuse it. He should have gone to jail. I didn’t want to watch that happen, and I can’t quite forgive the other characters and writers for forgiving him. So I’m pretending that whole season didn’t happen, that they characters didn’t take sides against each other. The writers seem to have done the same, which is equally offensive really, but I guess we all just pretend the season didn’t happen.

So I returned nervously but soon settled in to the same drama of both a medical and a personal fronts, inducing the usual array of emotions from laughing out loud to sobbing incoherently, occasionally at the same time. What I love about the show (and hence why last season drove me away) is the depth of the characters. The relationships between all the characters all make sense, those that have known and worked together for decades, those that are brand new and trying to find their places, and those in the middle who know some of the stories but not all of them. The friendships and respect are inspiring, but everyone still gets on each others nerves occasionally, knowing exactly how to push people’s buttons. Watching makes me feel like part of the family.

I can’t really remember much about the stories themselves to be honest. Poor April had a miserable season, and although she’s never been my favourite character she’s always been interesting, her evolution has been wonderful to watch and Sarah Drew’s performance was never anything other than breathtaking and I’ll miss her on the show. I’m less bothered by the departure of Arizona who I always felt was one of the less well written characters with less consistency and less of her own agency. The ‘fix’ for Amelia was a bit tacky but served a purpose as it turned her back from the caricature she’d become and re-embedded her into the same level of ridiculousness that the others were in. The stories that tried to get a little more current (me too, immigration) were a little bit clumsy, but I can’t fault them for their intent.

I’m glad I could come back to Grey’s, it’s been with me so long that I did feel like I’d lost a friend for a while. While I can understand why it doesn’t get to compete for awards in the current TV landscape full of ground breaking shows, I think many underestimate the skill it takes to bring it to the screen. The usually spot on mixture of drama and comedy the writers script and the subtle but powerful delivery of the actors is unparalleled. Few things on TV bring me such joy.

The Americans: Season 6

I came into the final season of The Americans with a sense of dread which gradually built up to almost unbearable levels for the last couple of episodes. I was determined not to look up spoilers, but I came very close a couple of times to googling “does the Americans have a happy ending?”. I won’t give away the spoilers here, because I do think this show is more about the journey than the destination, I’ll just say that it has an ending that felt right, felt satisfying and most importantly made me feel an awful lot of emotions.

If you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series, then you will enjoy this final season and in fact, I think it’s probably one of the better seasons. While there have been some dead ends and long meanders in previous seasons, this is what it’s all been building and navigating its way towards, and everything is brought together. The characters and relationships have grown and evolved over the years, but really not fundamentally changed. The stories being told haven’t changed much either, there’s still a lot of complex politics going on that I didn’t entirely follow, but most of the missions can be understood in simple terms – get the thing, convince someone to tell you something, deliver a message, kill someone, keep someone alive. All with a combination of wigs, confidence games, tricks and gadgets.

The final season is the culmination of everything that has gone before and I found it incredibly tense, the secrets all feel very precarious and there were shouting at the screen for characters to look out, or to not dig themselves into a trap. The close shaves make everyone aware of how easy it would be for the characters to lose everything. That does mean though that the less tense moments could feel quite dull. Expositions of politics (particularly when in Russian with subtitles) were easy to drift off in.

The Jennings family is one of the richest, most interesting set of characters television has produced in recent years. The way the stories and plots provide opportunities for them to react and evolve was masterfully set up by the writers, and delivered with skill, nuance and emotional impact by the actors. All the feelings and all the twists and turns held together impeccably. Although I don’t think it’s had a huge audience watching it season by season, I hope that people will find it and box set it, I think it would work well watched reasonably intensely. I’ll miss checking in with the Jennings family each year, but it went out absolutely perfectly.

Marvel’s Runaways: Season 1

I don’t know how to write this review. I watched this series last week, I’d let them build up on my Sky box until they were all there then worked my way through the 10 episodes in a few days. I know I enjoyed watching it enough to watch 2 or 3 back to back, but a week later and I can’t really explain why, because all the things I can think to talk about are more on the complaint end of the spectrum.

Even just describing it makes it sound pretty poor. A group of privileged teenagers see their parents go into a secret basement room, don red robes and seemingly murder a girl. Some of the kids then seem to reveal super powers, there’s a scientology-esque church, a magic staff, advanced technology and a dinosaur. Yup, a dinosaur. I really can’t explain it any way that doesn’t make it sound ridiculous. Oh, and of course because it’s teenagers there’s also a complex array of relationship statuses between the teenagers which they seem more than happy to pursue while also dealing with the discovery that their parents are murderers. It’s a mess.

But, it does sort of work. You have to go with it and let it wash over you a bit, but if you engage at just the right level, it’s entertaining. It’s not going to be for everyone because if you want too much from it (ie coherence) then you’re going to be very frustrated. The young actors are pretty good, feeling like teenagers and responding appropriately to the craziness. The adults aren’t quite so well balanced, some playing it for laughs a bit more, others trying to take it seriously and failing.

A brief read of wikipedia and it seems that it’s reasonably close substantively to the comic strip and maybe this kind of chaos just feels a bit more acceptable in comic form. The series feels a bit like they’ve thrown everything together desperately hoping someone interesting will come from it. I’m not entirely sure that it succeeds, but there’s enough there to keep me watching for the 10 episodes of the first season. The season sets up for a somewhat different second season that has me intrigued enough that I’ll be back.

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