Archive for the ‘ Comedy ’ Category

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.

Braindead: Season 1

braindeadThis is easily the most unexpected show I watched this year. It’s one of those times that I wish I could just tell people “watch this” without having to explain why, as it’s just so much better an experience if you have absolutely no idea what it is going to be. I don’t think anyone would regret watching this show, it’s one of my favourite shows of the year and one of the most original things I’ve seen in ages. Go on, give it a try. But for those of you that either won’t listen to me, or have already seen it and just want to know what I think, I guess I’d better expand a bit.

The premise of Braindead is incredibly, perfectly current – why is politics suddenly so nuts? How come everyone seems to be turning into idiots and fighting? The idea that it’s some sort of brain eating alien is really actually no more stupid then some of the things our politicians are actually coming up with. So let’s run with that and do The West Wing with… I dunno, Mars Attacks? That’s probably the closest I can think of in terms of wacky, slightly gross insanity.

There are moments in this series that are just jaw droppingly unexpected. Some of that stems from the ridiculousness of the plot, the pretty disgusting shock moments or fairly horrific implications of what’s happening. But actually, there are just as many moments of “I can’t believe you just did/said that” which are really about politics in 2016. Sharp observations of current events which are beautifully summed up in cutting lines of dialogue.

Individual lines of dialogue that perfectly cut through to the heart and true insanity of modern politics, shock moments of pretty disgusting gore,

Ok, so it does occasionally get a bit bogged down. The politics angles are definitely latter series West Wing with a lack of any real depth or teeth to it. This is by the people that brought you all the seasons of The Good Wife, and there were plenty of occasions there where complexity of arguments was abandoned just to get the plot moving along in the direction they wanted. So there are also few loops of plot that just draw things out a couple of episodes longer, while some plot threads are just abandoned or side-lined until needed. Oh and the romance elements are a bit tedious and high school and the budget was clearly underwhelming.

But, I don’t care. Do you know what I’m going to use to sum up how good this show was – the “previously on” segments. Yup, you know those bits that are really tedious on a weekly basis and even more pointless when you’re powering through a box set watching episodes back to back? The “previously on”s on Braindead should win awards. They’ve managed to make the most fast forward-able part of the show the bit that I actually rewound to watch again and again. I found one that was relatively spoiler free (don’t focus too much on the opening pictures). Seriously, Jonathan Coulton is a genius and if this is how good the “previously on” is, just go and see how great the rest of the show is.

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.

Jane the Virgin: Pilot Review

Jane_the_Virgin_logo (1)Jane is saving herself for marriage for various reasons including god, a terrifying grandmother, a mother who got pregnant at 16, and a heartfelt belief in romance. But then she is accidentally artificially inseminated with her boss’s sperm. Obviously.

To be honest, the accidental artificial insemination is one of the least far-fetched things in the whole of the first two episodes. The ludicrous network that’s built up between a relatively small pool of characters is truly stupendous. It is immediately clear that it’s based on a telenovela (like the one that actually appears in the show), with tenuous plots, shock reveals and manipulative cliff hangers. But those tricks keep soaps on the air for decades, and they work just as well here.

While the plots and several of the characters are ridiculous the show is completely grounded by the utterly charming Gina Rodriguez as Jane. In the face of all the insanity, she behaves exactly as you’d expect a normal person to behave. With tears, inappropriate jokes, embarrassment and a huge amount of heart. She’s the eye of the storm from which all the craziness emanates and focusses back, but she remains a point of normalcy.

I watched the first two episodes back-to-back which I think was actually a mistake, and a good indicator that this is a show best watched in small chunks. When you watch one episode the quirky narration is charming, the rollercoaster plots exhilarating and the over-the-top characters are entertaining. But despite the fact that fundamentally nothing changed for the second episode, I found the narration just frustrating in the way it dropped hints and/or restated the obvious, the larger characters were irritating, and the bouncing plot was just too much.

In moderation I think this could be a really entertaining and diverting show. It is refreshing in its enthusiasm and vibrancy, with just the right levels of comedy and melodrama to make it a guilty pleasure or comfort watch. If it settles down a bit it may have the potential to be a bit more than that and tell some original stories about colourful characters. Like a great desert though, you just have to make sure you don’t eat too much in one sitting.

The Big Bang Theory: Season 7

The Big Bang TheoryThe Big Bang Theory, like every other long running comedy, has had problems with turning its characters into stereotypes. I don’t know why it happens, maybe it’s laziness on the parts of the writers and/or actors, or maybe it’s something they think the audience wants “they laughed when X happens, so do it more and do it bigger!”. Either way, that’s where they start losing me. Too often it pushes the characters from being extreme but credible to being charicatures and unrealistic.

The Big Bang Theory has been heading in this direction for a while. Characters could reasonably be expected to mellow with age, with the extremes of their personalities rounded off a bit as they meet more people and experience more life, but instead they get odder and odder. It makes the characters seem alternately stupid and cruel. Sheldon, despite supposedly being in a relationship and being surrounded by ‘functional’ people like Penny and Leonard who have repeatedly told and shown him that his behaviour is inappropriate, continues to be selfish, rude and hurtful. It makes him seem mean, and it makes the other characters seem foolish for continually associating with him and trying to change him.

But then, as if an alarm goes off in a character’s head, they take a step forward – Sheldon inches his relationship with Amy closer, Penny realises what she wants in life, Raj learns how to be in a relationship. It feels like fireworks should go off. These moments are so sweet and lovely, so elegantly written and true to the soul of the characters that other missteps are forgiven. Until the next time and then with a sigh I find myself seeking out a clip of a highpoint and remind myself of the good.

The writers have made some improvements at least. Amy’s obsession with Penny has been toned down and Penny’s increasing familiarity with science and geekery are a refreshing acknowledgement of how long she’s been with the group. I wish they’d smooth Stuart’s character out a little and make more use of him, I like his addition to the group, I guess we’ll have to see how integral Raj’s girlfriend becomes but I hope it will last as that will be an interesting direction for the character.

I don’t really see myself giving up on the series, it’s pretty much the only sitcom I watch and it’s easy to slot in during the week. But they need to make sure that they keep hitting those highpoints regularly enough to keep me forgiving the low points, and if they could maybe avoid the low points a bit more often, that’d be great too.

Outnumbered: Season 5

Outnumbered ChristmasI had to check Wikipedia for the chronology of the seasons, but with the exception of a Christmas special in 2012, it’s over 2 years since we had an Outnumbered series. Given the change in ages of the Brockman children (and indeed the actors) that’s seen quite a shift in the family, and I think that jump is probably a good thing. It may have been interesting to see the more gradual shift of the kids, but this jump allowed us to really mark the changes.

Karen and Ben are still children, but they’re not little kids any more. Jake is to all intents and purposes an adult (maybe the only one in the whole family), he’s not talking back to his parents like an unruly teenager, he’s properly interacting with them, challenging them but also taking and being given responsibility. To a certain extent he’s always been the straight-man of the comedy, somewhat older than his age, and now he really occupies that middle ground between child and adult, mostly grown up, but still uncertain of what he’s doing with his life and occasionally willing to muck about and act like a kid again.

Karen and Ben are a little more problematic. Both are still demonstrating the annoying traits that their parents have failed to really deal with, and have now gone from cute and quirky to outright annoying as they grow older. Ben’s hyperactivity and silliness, and Karen’s stubbornness don’t really work at secondary school and while that’s addressed with Karen via a stunning and hilarious meeting with her new headmistress (the perfect Rebecca Front, “we’re all unique, but we’re not all special”), Ben continues to be firmly ridiculous, encouraged by a demented drama teacher it would seem.

As with previous seasons of Outnumbered there are some beautifully observed moments of every-day comedy – interacting with mobile phones, losing car keys, trying to explain the ridiculousness of life to rightfully confused teenagers. But there are still times when the characters meander too far from reality and do things that you don’t think any real person would do which is jarring. The penultimate episode of the season (and indeed series) nicely demonstrated that. The quiet hilarity of Pete trying to co-ordinate three children and two relatively innocuous chores, combined with Karen and her headmistress’s conversation was undermined by Sue’s over the top failure to balance work and family and get a conference call to work. That aspect was pushed that little bit too far and it broke.

I’ve loved this show because unlike most other sitcoms it felt believable. Real life is genuinely funny and this is the kind of show that is comfortable, familiar and helps you see the comedy in your own life. I will really miss Outnumbered and have some hope that we will be able to check in with the Brockman’s again every now and then. I want to see if Ben ever grows up and if Karen’s new leaf sticks, what kind of people they’ll be and how Sue and Pete deal with all their kids turning into adults. Hopefully we’ll see them again some day

Nurse Jackie: Seasons 1-5

Nurse JackieMy brother has been nagging me for years to watch Nurse Jackie, but I have very firm rules about not starting a series mid-way through and I never quite got round to hunting out the first season either on television or on dvd. Finally though I spotted the first four seasons on LoveFilm instant and I made pretty swift work of powering through all the episodes and then finding season 5 to bring me bang up to date within just a couple of weeks. That in itself pretty much tells you how right my brother was.

I’ll keep the main review pretty spoiler free and generic to the series as a whole, then at the bottom I’ll go into each season in a little more detail, but it’s hard to do that without spoilers, so beware!

The show is (unsurprisingly) about a nurse called Jackie. She’s an excellent nurse who does what she has to do for the good of her patients, but she’s also a drug addict who lies and deceives everyone around her. mostly-functional drug addict. The show is notionally a comedy (and a 1/2 hour one at that), but it’s more a “snorting quietly under your breath at the humour that’s inherent in life” kind of comedy rather than a laughing and jokes kind of one. Really though it’s a pure character study of Jackie, of her interactions with the people around her – family, friends, colleagues and patients. It’s funny because people are generally pretty funny. But it’s also dramatic, tragic, farcical, sweet and sad, because people are all those things too.

The series really is like nothing else I can think of. On occasions I was frustrated at the half hour format, wanting to spend more time with the particular cases of the week, or wanting to see more of the fallout of events, but generally I think the show was far better for its brevity. It has an elegance to it, not a second is wasted explaining something that the audience can easily work out for themselves. Not only does it obey the rule to “show don’t tell” but it excels in the secondary rule of “imply don’t show”.

For a show built entirely around one character it’s a credit to the writers that I love the show even though I don’t actually particularly like the central character. She’s a stunningly complex and fascinating character, and one that I would very much want to be my nurse, but I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, and I’d be very nervous of getting on her bad side if I were a colleague. The writers make brave choices to not soften the character or have her make the ‘right’ decisions and Edie Falco is phenomenal at playing her.

In this kind of character study though, the supporting cast hold equal power, bringing out different sides of the character and highlighting the complexity in the way she interacts with each individual. Her friendship with O’Hara (Eve Best) is probably the most honest you see the character with others (although it’s not entirely honest still), and that acceptance of who Jackie is provides a lot of the humour and lightness. Her friendship with Akalitus (the always wonderful Anna Deavere Smith) is more complicated, but as the person with probably the longest history with Jackie, she too is one of the more accepting of who Jackie really is. With Akalitus and O’Hara sitting on either side of her, Jackie is both balanced and challenged constantly. And following in her footsteps is Zoe, as a reflection of who Jackie might once have been, allowing the audience to see which paths can be followed.

I’m less blown away by the male characters sadly. I never found Coop anything other than epically irritating, he remained like a small child with a desperate need to be liked by everyone but an endless ability to destroy relationships through ignorance and thoughtlessness. Kevin and Eddie are both likeable enough, but both struggle to have any character outside their relationships with Jackie, leaving them as appearing rather weak and uninteresting.

It’s an utterly addictive series to watch, I found myself watching half a dozen episodes in a row multiple times, both impressed and entertained and occasionally devastated. It’s also a show that keeps moving, with each season doing something slightly differently. So below are slightly spoilery bits on each of the seasons.

Season 1
1I knew very few of the details of the show going in and that works well. Knowing that Jackie is a drug taking nurse doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of her actions. Likewise the surprises of the relationships she has are delightful and difficult to see. It never pulls punches on the character, never excusing her choices or making her lies and actions easy or without consequences. There were several avoidable plot contrivances which left me frustrated (cutting off a ring and then breaking a finger as an excuse rather than just wrapping the finger in a bandage with the ring still on being a key example), but overall a surprising and excellent first season.

Season 2
2I did miss the character of Mo-Mo, I liked the way he was sort of in between Zoe and Jackie, Thor grew on me though once he started answering back a bit more. I also wasn’t a massive fan of Eddie going all stalkery and desperate, as I mentioned above he just came across as entirely defined by his relationship with Jackie and therefore rather bland and weak. It was however interesting to see Jackie losing control, entertaining when it came to Eddie befriending Kevin, but tougher when it was watching her struggle to understand her daughter’s problems.

Season 3
3There was a deeply frustrating Coop storyline where he once again acted like a child the whole season, upset about his parents’ divorce and desperately engineering a wedding for himself. Jackie meanwhile is rapidly losing control of her lies and her addiction which is hard to watch, but also satisfying. I didn’t really feel sorry for her, she had after all brought all this onto herself, but I also didn’t feel any real satisfaction seeing her gradually lose the trust of her friends and family.

Season 4
4Jackie goes to rehab. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to see that she’d been playing a game all along and deceiving everyone, but as the season went on, it just became more and more real. It was a brave choice for the writers to make, to redefine the show from being about a drug addicted nurse to being about a recovering addict, but it really worked. Less brave was the fact that they followed the unwritten rule that sooner or later every American medical show seems to do a storyline about becoming more like a business, all suits and targets and efficiencies. At least Nurse Jackie brought in Bobby Cannavale to add weight to the story, and it had the unexpected delight of bringing the very best out of Akalitus and her relationships with Jackie and O’Hara. The three women supporting each other through the change of management, rehab and a pregnancy was possibly the high point of the entire series.

Season 5
5Jackie’s now clean, sober and divorced, but more alarmingly – she’s without O’Hara. While I love Jackie’s stronger relationships with Akalitus and Zoe, I really really missed O’Hara and the show really missed her humour. I felt particularly robbed of the opportunity to see O’Hara with baby! Watching Jackie and Kevin try to work out their new relationship was interesting (although sometimes heartbreaking) and I liked the new love interest of Frank and the new honesty Jackie brought to a relationship. Coop continues to be a frustrating character though and the other new doctors didn’t make a very favourable impression either. All my responses and reactions to the season pale into insignificance at the intensity of my emotions during the final few moments. I can’t think of anything else I’ve felt so devastated and overwhelmed by in response to a calm and understated action by a character. I’m both looking forward to, and dreading, season 6.