Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

Lost in Space: Season 1

There are some concepts that just sort of stick with me, and it doesn’t matter how many times they’re done I will always tune in and be interested to see what new spin has been brought to it. Lost in Space is one of those concepts, well really it’s Swiss Family Robinson at its core, just the variation of setting it in space. There’s something about that core concept of a family of capable people pretty much on their own. I don’t even mind the film version.

I watched the whole 10 episodes on Netflix over just a couple of days. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that it was good, I also had a jigsaw I wanted to do and it seemed to rain every time I ventured out of the house. It was a step above background entertainment, but it’s certainly not going to be winning any awards.

The biggest thing to get over is that some of the core stuff of Lost in Space was kind of ignored. Firstly, they weren’t in space at all but crash landed on a planet, and then they very quickly find a lot of people. That added some interesting dynamics, but did rather change the show. I missed the focus of just the Robinson family, Dr Smith and Major West. The larger cast just felt like it crowded things and gave too many options.

What is better handled is making the Robinson family a lot richer. They’re not the perfect family of the 60s, or even the slightly-flawed-but-not-really family of the film. There’s a lot more backstory and complexity to the relationships which makes each character stronger, more independent and more interesting. Those characters are delivered by some good casting, and the talent of the younger actors impressed me, particularly their range and ability to deliver well timed comedy alongside some subtler drama.

It’s on the cheesier end of the spectrum, for a more family audience. There are some dark things going on, but they’re skimmed over very quickly. Solutions to problems often rely on magical science and extremely timely coincidences that get a little frustrating. But the pacing of episodes and the season over all is pretty solid, certainly enough to keep me watching back to back long enough for my Netflix app to check that I was still actually alive.

It’s no great revelation of a show, but it’s good enough, and that will do quite nicely.

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Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen): Season 1

An 8 part Danish thriller – yup, of course it’s on BBC Four.

I enjoyed this series immensely. At just 8, 45 minute episodes (broadcast in pairs each week) it didn’t outstay its welcome at all, powering through without too much unnecessary padding or red herrings. There were occasions that it felt like they’d maybe had a slightly longer series in mind, going into more back-story on the characters with more use of flashbacks, focussing each episode on a small number of characters. The end result actually has only a very small number of flashbacks which while they did what was needed, did feel a little odd at times, like we were only seeing the tip of an iceberg.

Just as the flashbacks are very focused, the same is true of the overall storyline. I found myself slightly missing the wrong turns and dead ends that most thrillers have. Everything here progressed fairly steadily and smoothly towards the conclusion. It’s boiled down to the bare bones and only ever has what is necessary, which is satisfying and impressively intense, but occasionally a little too easy. The ending does however manage the impressive trick of being both predictable and surprising and kept me rethinking things.

Even within that time they find room for some character development for quite a wide range of characters, both above and below ground. Johannes Lassen as Philip the head of the investigation team is impressive, delivering a flawed and conflicted character, but one that’s also in control and professional. He’s a good centre for a show like this. I could have lived without the romantic element with the negotiator, but it wasn’t pushed too much and did enrich her role a bit, so I’ll allow it. The hostages are a diverse and interesting group even with the limited screen time each one gets.

I don’t think this got much in the way of press, and it’s not got a ‘hook’ like The Bridge, or The Killing, but it actually makes both of them look flabby and a bit clunky. So I hope this turns into a regular series.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1

I gave this show a try for no particular reasons. I knew it had won awards and praise, but not so much that I felt I absolutely had to watch it, particularly given that no one I knew was actually watching it. Nothing about the brief blurb I read particularly connected with me, there weren’t any actors that I recognised and to be honest the trailer rather put me off. I think I probably just watched it because I couldn’t face surfing through Netflix’s endless lists so I just plumped for the thing it was advertising at the top. From that incredibly apathetic start came one of my favourite experiences watching television for a long time.

I think ‘charming’ is probably the word that I’d most use. Which is a little odd because there’s a lot of weight and depth to the show. Just like the main character – on the surface there’s politeness and wit and bubbliness; but underneath is real emotion, heartache even; not to mention some well delivered vulgarity.

The blurb will make you expect a TV show about being a stand-up comic, particularly a female one; however it’s as much about being a ‘good’ Jewish housewife, about defying expectations. It’s not about whether she’s a comic who happens to be those things, or a housewife who happens to be a comic. Mrs Maisel is a fully realised character, a REAL character, one who is still working out who she is and what she wants to be, while dealing with the expectations and perceptions of all those around her, and that she puts on herself.

There are some really beautiful moments throughout the series. They’re so exquisitely written that I could write entire essays about them. The writers do not constrain themselves with standard approaches, they write just like life – serious ideas that are surrounded with comedy, or stand up routines that are full of pure emotion. I laughed at sad bits, cried at funny bits, and literally applauded the screen. I wanted to watch the whole thing without stopping, but I also wanted to savour it and make it last longer.

There are some series that seem unremarkable in offering, and even on first glance if you’re not paying attention, when you’re watching can seem nothing special. But a little bit of thought and focus and you’ll find something that will really stick with you and you’ll cherish. That’s Mrs Maisel.

Dark Matter: Seasons 1-3

I’m in a bit of a TV funk at the moment (well, an all-round funk really but let’s keep on subject) and all I’m really in the mood for is easy to watch stuff. I don’t really want to be overly challenged, or have it pointed out how awful the world can be. Friends recommended Dark Matter to me on those criteria and it did a pretty good job of filling the need.

What you don’t have here is anything revelatory. It’s not science fiction that’s pushing boundaries at all, it takes every single trope and basic idea ever seen in Star Trek or Stargate and applies them without a huge amount of creativity. And to be honest, often without a huge amount of talent or quality either. It’s resoundingly second rate in budget, set, cast and innovation. It’s also notably lacking in visual style beyond “how can we redecorate this warehouse this week?”.

So, how come I watched all three seasons (39 episodes) in just a couple of weeks? Well it has two things going for it, the first is a simple and easy trick which is that the last 2 minutes of each episode form a teaser for the next episode. So every episode has a cliffhanger and sucks you into the next. Cheap, but effective.

The second reason is that it always manages to do just enough to keep you engaged, getting itself microscopically across the boundary where any lower and you’d give up on it. The ideas it plays with are interesting enough, and could have been very interesting if they’d been better developed. The cast mostly lacks in experience and depth, but The Android and Three manage to standout and develop interesting and complex characters beyond what the script is offering them. And every now and then there’s a flash of real charm or the beginnings of a great little idea that sucks you in again before gradually decaying away.

This series worked for me because I went in with low expectations and low requirements. It’s a shame because with a couple of bigger actors to headline it, a bigger budget to play with and a bit more polish to the script it could have been a real gem.

Mindhunter: season 1

I’d normally start a review with a brief description of what the show is about and what sort of style it is. Unfortunately that’s a bit tricky for Mindhunter because I’m not sure that anyone involved in this show knew from moment to moment what the show, or any of their characters were about.

I guess the essence of it is that it’s set in the 60s and the FBI are just starting to dip their toe in the water of psychology – understanding why people commit crimes so it’s easier to catch them. It’s the very early days of profiling, they’re even just beginning to introduce the term ‘serial killer’.

Immediately however, I hit upon a problem. I’ve watched a lot of Criminal Minds and other shows and films like it. So without a very clear introduction, it was hard for me to work out just how little the FBI know about any of this at the start of the series – when characters *should* know something, when they should be sniffy about something new. It was never clear how innovative characters were being, much of what they said was totally obvious to anyone who’d watched 2 episodes of Criminal Minds, so it really didn’t feel like they were being startling brilliant.

The series also never settles down into a format. One of the reasons I watched the whole series was because it was one of the least episodic things I’ve ever seen and stopping any earlier would have felt like walking out in the middle of a film. I don’t mind having one long arc (especially on Netflix and when it’s only 10 episodes) but this wasn’t really that either. it wasn’t one long story with a beginning, middle and end, but neither was it broken into smaller chunks with their own beginning, middle and end. There were a few ‘case of the week’ stories, but spread over a few episodes and rarely with a satisfying and conclusive ending. Basically it seemed to have several beginnings, lots of filler and no ends.

Similarly the different characters never quite seemed to settle either. Eventually some of them meandered their way towards some defining characteristics and histories, but it was a long time coming and there were many wrong turnings. The lead character, Holden Ford, seemed to waver between an academically minded book type and someone winging it on his own initiative; between a back-office bore and a complete rebel. Don’t even get me started on his approach to dating which had me shouting at the screen in disbelief at his lines and the improbable reaction of his girlfriend.

Ultimately, I think this was a mess. There were moments that I could see some potential in, but it felt like the whole thing was done off a first draft. If you are going to make the whole series one box-set view, then you have to write the whole thing at once. You can’t get halfway through and realise that you need to go in a different directly. The cast definitely deserve better, and so do the audience.

Altered Carbon

I didn’t know anything about Altered Carbon going in, nothing about the characters, the story or the setting, nothing beyond what was being shown in the very expensive looking trailers – i.e. mostly that it looked expensive and a bit like Bladerunner. After watching all ten episodes in just a few days, I’m not sure about the characters or the story, the setting was fascinating and it definitely looked like Bladerunner.

The universe of the story is a tremendously rich one, and the series introduces the audience to it very elegantly. The exposition is relatively limited and there were times I was on the very edge of not knowing what was going on; but either through incredible design, or lucky accident I always stayed just the right side of lost. The central character is in the odd situation of knowing all the foundations of the society, but being a couple of hundred years out of date, so there’s a good excuse for some exposition, while still plenty left to the audience to work out. I’m often frustrated by this kind of thing, so I’m very happy to award praise when it’s done this well.

The story and characters I’m not so sure about. I was engrossed in it as it went ,following the twists and turns, but as threads start resolving and mysteries are explained, I didn’t quite feel settled. Even as episodes were still playing, I had more questions than were being answered about whether motivations were really solid, characters would really act that way, and emotional responses were really appropriate. I wasn’t screaming at the TV in frustration or anything, it was 80% good enough, but the 20% niggled.

The characters are also a bit spotty. There are a lot of good characters, and some borderline exceptional character moments. Detective Ortega is beautifully developed and rounded character. She manages to both be a character where her gender and race are irrelevant, but are also completely ingrained in her character. It’s a wonderfully diverse cast and the response to characters in the show is inclusive but not blind in a very aware way. At one point a woman’s mind is placed in a man’s body; and while everyone is briefly discombobulated by that, it is quickly adapted to and subtle changes of costume, makeup and body language gradually build. I was really impressed by that kind of attention. It was therefore a shame that there was some quite needless nudity in places. Some of it was reasonable for the plot (and reasonably gender balanced) but there was slightly too much leering at women in showers.

I’m not sure their decisions and attitudes of the characters were always consistent and logical. Some of that is about the context they live in and the range of social strata. With the technology available to the wealthiest of characters they seem closer to gods than humans (and see how that worked out for the Greek/Roman gods). For everyone else though the changes from our own lives aren’t so epic, yet they are more than aware of the ‘gods’ living just out of reach. So there’s a huge range of personal contexts to keep track of. I’m almost tempted to watch the series again, because it’s possible that the things that I thought of as inconsistent may actually be a more rich response to the varied contexts. However I’m more inclined to believe that certain jumps and stretches were made to make the story fit regardless of what characters would reasonably do.

I often divide series between those that are good and those that are enjoyable, it’s rare to get something that excels in both areas and I think Altered Carbon would probably get an A- for enjoyability and a B for goodness. Both still pretty good grades, but I think it’s more successful if you approach it as a show to look at the pretty design work and enjoy the detective story. That means that you’ll then be pleasantly surprised at just how good it is as well.

Glow: Season 1

I was looking for something easy to watch and Netflix was enthusiastically advertising Glow and… well to be honest I’m not sure what about it made me want to watch. A half hour comedy (rarely my thing), about women’s wrestling (what?) set in the 1980s (ugh). About the only thing it had going for it was Alison Brie who I’ve loved in everything she’s done, not least Community.

I did end up watching the whole series. Not with a huge amount of enthusiasm I confess, it just sort of kept going and I felt it was more effort to chose to not watch the next episode than it was to just finish the season.

The tone of it is rather muddled. I don’t think it was ever quite clear to anyone involved whether they were making a comedy, a drama with black comedy in it, or an out-and-out parody of something ridiculous. There is something inherently ridiculous now about the ’80s – the fashion and the styles, and those are exacerbated by the subject matter. But some of the characters seem to be aware of the extremeness of their costumes etc, while others approach them as completely natural. Similarly plots around sexual harassment, miscarriage and abortion are inconsistently handled with either great tact and care, or completely inappropriate humour that left me close to turning off a couple of times.

There are some threads in there that worked really well and Alison Brie in particular managed to hold things together so she at least felt like she was consistently performing in the same show. But everything else was just too much of a mess to really work.

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