Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

American Horror Story: 1984 (season 9)

Naming the series 1984 conjures up two equally horrifying ideas, George Orwell horrible vision of the future, and the real world’s horrible vision of fashion. It’s not hugely surprising that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk opt for the latter subject as the perfect target for their blend of humour and horror, taking the tropes of 80’s slasher movies. The result is one of the sillier seasons of American Horror Story, and unfortunately not one of its best.

The series starts in 1984 as a group of young twenty-somethings join up to go to Camp Redwood as counselors for the summer. But the Camp has a history as the scene of a massacre. Unsurprisingly the past comes back and the first five episodes are basically just an over-extended classic slasher movie playing out absolutely all the stereotypes and tropes, just with a 5 hour run time rather than a normal 90 minutes. There are plenty of twists and reveals of additional levels of complexity in the relationships, but I saw most of them coming a long way off and I didn’t find any of it particularly shocking or surprising. I’m also not entirely sure that the different ‘mythologies’ at play were applied consistently.

The final 4 episodes do something a little more interesting, stepping forward in time a couple of times to see more of the fall out, including some interesting cultural ideas about how people who felt completely at home in a time period feel as the world moves further away from that time. However for the most part I still felt this was a bit unremarkable for American Horror Story. It may be doing something that you don’t see in classic 80’s slasher films, but it’s not original for American Horror Story in season 9.

Overall I just felt it was a little ‘phoned in’. The majority of the series just doesn’t seem to do anything original with the ideas, it’s just a straight forward slasher movie that except for the improved filming quality and special/visual effects could have been made in the 80’s. The characters are too caricature, the humour too obvious and the story too simple. On the positive side, you can easily just skip this season of the anthology and come back next season which will hopefully be more interesting.

Chernobyl

It wasn’t an easy sell to watch a drama about the Chernobyl disaster, I didn’t know much about the incident before watching, but the word ‘disaster’ is rarely indicative of light and positive easy watching. However there’s also been a huge amount of praise for the show and it swept best series, director and writing Emmys in the limited series categories, so I took a deep breath and settled in.

First up, the praise was right. This is truly superb television. I cannot imagine the amount of material that the writers had to work from, and they’ve boiled it down to a tight 5 episodes, each just a bit over an hour. They’ve clearly had to simplify, amalgamate, and I’m sure occasionally outright make stuff up, but the result is a compelling narrative, just enough technical information and exposition, but also plenty of breathing space for the characters to tell representative stories of all the different types of people involved. We come to understand what happened, and all the reasons why it happened, the complex collection of cultural, technical and personal issues that coalesced to cause the disaster and shape the response to it. You’ll come out knowing more about nuclear power, the Soviet Union and what villains and heroes look like.

The speed of the timeline is also very carefully paced, early episodes playing out over the space of just a few hours, while later ones step through months. The series starts at the very moment of the explosion and for the most part the events are told completely linearly, from there, it’s only the final episode that includes flashbacks to explain what happened. There must have been dozens of approaches the writers could have taken with interweaving timelines, or starting earlier to build the tension, but this presentation worked incredibly well. It meant we could follow along with the characters as we never knew more than them (except for whatever knowledge we went in with). At each point we were focused on exactly what the characters were – putting out a fire, stopping the next problem, working out what happened. The characters and audience are united in living in the moment, the immediate decisions that must be made with only the knowledge available at that instant. It’s incredibly gripping and that tension and pace would have been lost if there were jumping timelines to keep track of. When they eventually start using them in the final episode it is an equally good choice, taking us back before the start of the first episode to see what happened, now that we have the breath to reflect.

The cast is absolutely jam packed with acting talent and one of the things that made me want to watch were the headliners of Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, all actors that I always really enjoy watching and they are all at the top of their games here. The wider cast are all outstanding, many with minimal screentime to convey what it would feel like to be in the centre of something completely unimaginable. The only thing I wasn’t entirely certain about were the accents, everyone staying with their usual accent rather than attempting a Russian accent which was easier to connect with, but it then seemed a bit weird that all the signs and background writing were in Russian.

I was truly impressed with this series. It didn’t help my anxiety much as I was completely engrossed in it, wondering what I would pack if given only a few minutes to evacuate my home, what I would do if I knew something was seriously wrong but everyone was saying it was fine, how I would decide on the horrible choices people had to make. It’s utterly horrible and completely compelling. You may not want to watch it, but you really should.

Fosse/Verdon

I would consider myself someone who likes musicals, but I’m not really a fan. I think to be a fan you need to have at least a small element of obsession about something, it’s not enough to just watch and enjoy them, you need to really dig into them which is something that I don’t really do. So although I’d heard of Bob Fosse and could probably (at a push) have identified that he worked on Chicago and Cabaret, I knew nothing more of him and I had never even heard of Gwen Verdon. The latter I can at least partially blame on the long tradition of overlooking and burying women’s contributions.

The Fosse Verdon mini-series is an important step to rebalance that. Importantly it doesn’t just swing in the opposite direction and portray Verdon herself as a hero or a martyr, the series presents both characters warts and all, and there are a lot of warts for both of them. It clearly shows the unfairness Verdon encountered in the industry and in her private life, but it also shows her as manipulative and conniving, working within the system to get at least some of what she wants. The performances from Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell are utterly mesmerizing, shining through the inevitably slightly strained age makeup. The relationship between them was fascinating, both using each other with varying levels of self-awareness, the relationship is at times toxic and at times beautiful. It doesn’t really change over time, it’s just the small adjustments in power that make things interesting, although the circular nature of their relationship does become frustrating at times, every time it feels like things are reaching a finishing point, they manage to produce something beautiful and the cycle starts again.

The series is very much about MAKING musicals, rather than the musicals themselves, in fact if anything I would have liked to see a bit more about the productions. The rehearsal process was really interesting, but the supporting characters came and went very quickly and it was hard to connect to them, or see them as anything other than a means to an end to drive Fosse and Verdon. The series never set out to do anything but tell their two entwined stories, but it felt quite a very blinkered view, one that continues the concept of isolated genius – jut a partnership of two, rather than an individual. I know enough from studying history that it’s a very regressive approach to look for individual stories, bound to ignore the many and varied contributions (particularly from ‘minorities’).

There are also some hints at really troublesome aspects of the story, that are not really surprising given what has gradually trickled out about the discrimination and abuses that have been inherent in the arts for so long. There are classic “casting couch” situations with Bob Fosse sleeping with young members of his cast who then get better parts, and those that refuse him pushed aside. The presentation of this is troublesome, it’s not exactly excused, but Fosse is still made a sympathetic character and plenty of people around him (including Verdon) dismiss his actions, or only feel about them from their own point of view, not the victims. While the series relishes in the complexity of Verdon and Fosse, it still in the end falls into the trap of celebrating their creations as troubled geniuses. The final moments of the series celebrate their creations, successes and impacts on culture, not of the people that helped them, or the people that were damaged by them – there’s enough subtext in the series to see it if you look, but it’s easy to overlook. Even the first draft of my review didn’t mention it and it wasn’t until I thought a bit more that I realised what I’d missed.

I think as a piece of entertainment the series works very well and the performances from Williams and Rockwell are something special. It starts to open a door on some interesting questions of artistic creation, and the fact that it does it in a mainstream way is very important. However, I was left feeling a bit frustrated that it didn’t push the door open further.

Another Life: Season 1

There’s a special place in my heart for good old fashioned naff science fiction set on spaceships. Whether in film or TV form, they generally manage to delude themselves into thinking they’re doing something original while hitting every single cliche in the book. I’m not claiming that this doesn’t happen in plenty of other genres, superheroes, series set in high school, procedurals – they’re all just a subset of character and plot tropes pulled out of a jumbled bag. Maybe I just notice it more for space shows because I’ve watched so many of them.

Another Life is a Netflix series that is so utterly forgettable and uncharismatic that I keep forgetting what it’s called. The concept is that an alien ship has landed on Earth and we in turn send a spaceship back to where it came from. Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) is captain of the ship which (of course) hits some obstacles on it’s travels. For some utterly inexplicable reason her crew is made up of a bunch of twenty-somethings who immediately start bitching, whining and shagging. A chunk of time is also spent on Earth with Nico’s husband (Justin Chatwin) who is trying to communicate with the ship, oh and there’s an annoying reporter buzzing around as well.

There are a couple of nice little ideas. The ship carries a full reserve crew in stasis, so it’s possible to inject new faces into the otherwise isolated crew. That also means that the show has no qualms about killing people off in what is probably meant to be a distressing fashion, but given most of the crew are incredibly annoying it’s actually quite nice to see them go. The fluidity of relationships and gender are uncommented on in a way that makes sense for the future and the use of swearing feels quite natural. The AI on the ship (Samuel Anderson) is an interesting character too (although one that’s a disaster waiting to happen), and alongside Sackhoff and Chatwin provide some solid, grown up, acting talent.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not the strongest and not helped by the fact that their characters make little sense; even the best actors in the world is going to struggle to play characters that are supposedly hand picked for an incredibly important the mission but written as panicked children barely out of training. There’s a lot of shouting about the peril that Earth is in, it never really feels like there’s any scale to anything, just a handful of scientists on the ground and a ship full of junior officers sent off. The logic repeatedly falls down and the plot holes, inconsistencies and contrivances are so epic that you could drive space ships through them.

It makes it very hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the series, even as mindless fluff. The little glimmers of potential were just about enough to hold my attention through ten episodes, but it was touch and go a few times. It’s just seems such a waste to spend all this time making something but not bother to find a way to address the insulting holes in the story.

Catch-22


I have read Catch-22, but it was in 2006 and I have no direct memories of it. Fortunately I’ve been obsessively reviewing things for a long time so can look up what I thought of it:

I didn’t actually like this book very much, and to be honest, didn’t really think it was that good. There were definitely some funny and some powerful scenes, but as a whole I found the book overly complicated and poorly structured. I continuously lost track of which character was which and how the various incidents fit together in the time line and while I’m sure with a bit more effort it would have become clearer, I didn’t really feel it was worth the effort. The whole thing just left me with a craving to watch M*A*S*H again.

The good news is that I liked the mini-series a lot more. Although I still struggled a little bit with the characters (I’ve got a poor memory for faces and they’re all fairly similar 20 something white boys in the same uniforms) the jumping timelines were smoothed out and a lot clearer, and I had no problems tracking the events.

The tone of the series is rich and unusual, there’s absurdist humour, irony and satire; but also psychological drama, action sequences, gory horror and jump shocks. Sometimes they blend together, and sometimes they smash into one another. It managed to find some interesting place between credible reality and absurdist fantasy that somehow really worked, each reinforcing the other. So the visceral brutality of the war is simultaneously emphasised and reduced, while the ridiculous situations are made both more ridiculous and yet more believable. If vibrant lives can be snuffed out in an instant in front of your eyes and people can justify that as “heroic” or “not in vain”, how is anything unbelievable?

Tying everything together is Christopher Abbott as Yossarian. Even as his character falls apart, he holds everything together and is a voice of sanity (or maybe the voice of understandable insanity) throughout grounding the series as the ‘normal’ person struggling to remain normal by becoming abnormal.

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the series, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and beautiful direction and cinematography to get lost in, but the heart of it is quite depressing. There were also moments that genuinely shocked me, leaving me open mouthed and unable to move from the sofa even if I’d wanted to. At only 6 episodes long it doesn’t drag things out and is best binge watched in a couple of sessions rather than lingering on it too much. I do think it’s one of the few times that I can confidently say that I preferred it to the book, and it’s unusualness makes it worth a watch even if you do then need to try and forget what it’s saying about the world.

Stranger Things: Season 3

strangerthingsWhile many hailed season 1 of this series as some sort of incredible phenomena I couldn’t really summon up much more than ambivalence towards it. It was absolutely fine, even good, but I failed to experience the magic that some others had. Season 2 faired even more poorly as I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. So I wasn’t particularly enthused by season 3. It did however perfectly match my mood for a weekend where I couldn’t summon the energy to really commit to anything and just wanted something to put on that I wasn’t really invested in and wouldn’t challenge me too much.

I’m not sure whether it was those changed expectations, or a change in the series, but I enjoyed season 3 a lot more than I remember enjoying the previous series. I think there was a bit of a change of scale, although the situation the kids found themselves in did end up being pretty serious, it didn’t feel quite as emotionally intense as previous seasons. It felt like there was time to breath and muck about, that interludes of teenage relationships weren’t just a distraction. In fact while the plot itself was absolutely fine (and less confusing than the whole upside down thing), it was these relationships that are the heart of the season.

These relationships covered the whole lifecycle of romance and friendship. There’s the initial flirting and crushes, first love, relationships moving beyond high school, marriages on the rocks and grown ups acting like teenagers circling round each other. There are also some beautiful moments of friendship, new pairings, changing relationships and even the sadness of groups that are drifting apart. There’s heartbreak and humour, silliness and real heart. All the actors are charismatic individually, and together, with some great additions to the cast and I really found myself enjoying spending time with them regardless of what they were doing.

Without spoiling, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the ending as I think it reverted a little to the darker side of storylines which I didn’t really want. I like the easy going adventure style, where although in the moment it seems perilous there’s a safety that nothing bad will really happen. The ending made sense, it wasn’t forced or anything, I just didn’t think it was really necessary and was disappointed that a season I’d enjoyed so much actually left me feeling sad.