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.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook: Season 1

The only reason that this little series from Sky Arts caught my eye was the casting – John Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe. What I hadn’t realised was that they were playing the older and younger versions of the same character, which is possibly the most wonderful piece of casting I’ve ever seen. They are PERFECT from their gelled hair to the obvious progression of the proud young doctor full of possibilities to the jaded, worn down man he becomes. The only problem was that at some point he also grew a foot taller.

Even as I was marvelling at the comparison, I was saddened because I feared that this would mean the two would never share the screen, Radcliffe appearing only via flashback and Hamm trapped behind his desk in his own future. But the revelation of this show is the twist by which Hamm appears as a vision to his younger self, sharing conversations, fights and baths. The explanation for this metaphysical meeting is never explained and works so beautifully that explanations would just ruin it.

It’s a good job it works so well, because there’s not a great deal more to the series. There are creative and funny scenes (“drops, gargle, drops, gargle”) which keeps everything moving along, but I would have liked a bit more of that. The dramatic elements, watching the gradual decline of one character into the other was elegantly handled, but somewhat predictable.

I actually watched the series on dvd, and at just over an hour and a half in total, it felt more like watching a film than four individual episodes. I was impressed at that, it efficiently and effectively got the points across and any additional time would have just been padding really. I was therefore a bit sad to spot that there will be a second season (The Telegraph. I just don’t think more is necessary, it’s as close to perfect as it’s going to get.

The Big Bang Theory: Season 6

The Big Bang TheoryI wonder whether there’s an expiry date on sitcoms. As any series gets older it becomes harder to keep things fresh, while not making so many changes that the series becomes unrecognisable. As the years pass it becomes increasingly unlikely that the characters would all still be in the same place, the same jobs, the same friendship groups, the same domestic situations and more tellingly, making the same mistakes. Many dramas get stuck in a rut of endless running through the same procedures with different guest stars and window dressing, but with a comedy you’ve got the added pressure of making the whole thing funny.

What’s strange is that when I started writing this review, I was all set for a lament about how that applies to The Big Bang Theory, but now as I come to document the evidence, I’m wondering if maybe the complete opposite is true. Actually, The Big Bang Theory HAS managed to avoid many of the common pitfalls while still staying true to its original pitch.

The addition of Amy and Bernadette, and even the tentative inclussion of Stuart the Comic Shop Guy, and recurring characters like Kripke and Lucy, have broadened the potential of the show. While it’s true that the characters are broadly in the same jobs and same situations, and the friendships between the group haven’t changed much, the romantic relationships have and each of the pairings have matured satisfyingly. While characters do tend to take 2 steps forward and 1 step back, they are at least still making steady, if slow progress forwards.

The moments in the show that demonstrate character growth are really lovely – Sheldon and Amy moving forward in their relationship, Penny telling Leonard she loves him, Raj talking to Penny, the less girls playing Dungeons and Dragons, or discussing comic books to better understand the guys. Each of those moments proves that not only can the characters age and grow, but they can still be funny while they do it. They’re moments that I re-watch and chat about with friends, and they’re timelessly endearing.

That all sounds great, so why was my first instinct to launch this review with talk about expiry dates? The problem is I think that while the memories that stick are the real highlights of the show, when I watch week to week I’m overwhelmed by the frustrations that leave me wanting to hide behind cushion. Raj is a particularly difficult character, with his jokes about money and India feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Sheldon has made some big steps forward (for him), but it’s the leaps backwards where he comes across as downright mean and inappropriate (the whole HR storyline).

For the moment, there’s enough there to keep me coming back for the next season. It will be interesting to see how the group have coped without Leonard for a few months and that should provide some great material, allowing the show to investigate what it’s like without one of the characters, without actually being without them. For now the potential and the good outweigh the short term frustrations, and this is still the only comedy that I really watch. So fingers crossed they keep moving in the right direction, even if it is very slowly.

Community: Season 2

CommunityWhile the first season of Community was good, the second season was verging on sublime. The show raises the art of the spoof to art form, making almost every episode an exquisitely crafted collection of references to every type of genre and trope that film and television have to offer. I had a quick look through the episode list for the season to see if I could pull out a highlight and found myself amazed all over again at the breadth of subjects covered. The whole series is like a love letter to television and film. I usually don’t like spoofs because I feel they’re mocking their targets, but the writers of Community manage to pick the subjects apart with such respect and care that they can’t be anything other than fans themselves.

Even my quibbles of the first season have been addressed a bit. Shirley developed a little more backbone to alleviate her simpering and the writers took the bold choice of actually making Pierce MORE unlikeable and having the group gradually treat him more like the enemy than a member. Each of the other characters has just enough development to sustain them, while not overdoing it so that they become useless for the comedy. Every character and combination gets a chance to shine, even the phenomenally annoying Chang has moments of redemption scattered through the year.

Floating above all of this though is Abed, one of the most entertaining and best used characters on television at the moment. In my review of the first season I described him as a “media obsessed soothsayer… quietly manipulating everything around him” and he raises that to an art form this season, playing both narrator, audience voice, critic and deus ex machine all at the same time. He’s not infallible though, he still under (or over) estimates his peers and that’s an even greater treat for the audience.

This has turned into a very gushy review, but I really can’t think of much to criticise. No storyline outstayed its welcome, every character had their moment and not a single moment went by without something that I either laughed or smiled knowingly at. Community is one of the smartest things on television at the moment, and is more satisfying by far than the majority of dramas out there.

Amazon Original Comedies – Pilots

Amazon are making a move into television production, with plans to distribute the series via Lovefilm in the UK. They offered up half a dozen kids shows and eight comedies and commissions for series will be based on audience ratings and feedback (I think you can watch the pilots even without a Lovefilm subscription). I took a poke through their offerings a month or so ago, but between upfronts and laziness didn’t get round to posting my thoughts until now. While I wasn’t really blown away by any of them and there was a resounding aura of cheapness to many of the productions, I did at least find the concepts more original than the endless offerings of family and friend based sitcoms that American networks normally offer up. Two series have been picked up so far, while two have been rejected. Deadline seem to be keeping track.

Alpha HouseAlpha House – What a great concept, four senators sharing a house in Washington while they’re away from their constituencies. I’ve said before with the whole expenses scandal over second homes there was potential for a show (maybe even a fly on the wall reality show) with politicians living in halls of residences. There’s a great cast too, when I started hearing about Amazon original developments I never thought I’d see John Goodman in one. Unlike most of the other offerings, this one really actually feels like a professional production which could just as easily be on network television. Bits of it aren’t to my taste (the sleazy young senator, the tiresome gay jokes), but I laughed enough at other bits of it that I’d actually consider watching this.
With the names and the quality behind this, it’s not a big surprise that Amazon have picked this series up for next year.

betasBetas – Given the success of The Big Bang Theory I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been a deluge of geek based sitcoms. Unfortunately Betas is not a great advertisement for the genre. The central concept is solid and a couple of the characters are interesting, but those factors are completely overwhelmed by dialogue and characters that leave me wanting to crawl away from my own eyeballs. I didn’t laugh a single time and it made me sad.
Amazon disagree with me, Betas has been picked up to series.

browsersBrowsers – I physically flinched away from the screen as the episode started and revealed itself to be a musical. Not a great start, but I’ve watched and loved Glee and Smash (although note the past tense), maybe it can pull it off. Ten minutes later I gave up. It’s not the music that’s the biggest problem (although it’s not great) it’s that overwhelming irritation of the characters. Maybe if I’d watched it before Betas I wouldn’t have hit my threshold and would have made it through, but I very much doubt it.
Public opinion and Amazon agreed with me and have passed on the series.

darkminionsDark Minions – Another fun concept that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Star Wars and wondered what the stormtroopers in the background are saying, but I gave up on this one after less than five minutes. The pilot isn’t helped out by only being part finished (it will be stop motion in the end, but large chunks are just storybooked at the moment), but that doesn’t cover for the fact the dialogue isn’t funny, the delivery is awkward and the story all just rather tedious.

onionnewsOnion News Empire – another professional looking offering, and with the name of The Onion attached and stars such as Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) and William Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption) it’s another one that could easily be pitched on major channels. Unfortunately the pilot just felt really tired, all the jokes are obvious, all the satire is cheap and it’s just painful and dull.

supanaturalSupanatural – the title and description pretty much cover it. “Oh hell no! Two outspoken divas are humanity’s last line of defence against the supernatural.” Another one that made it less than 5 minutes before its mind blowingly annoying dialogue and unappealing animation drove me away. Oh hell no indeed.

thosewhocantThose Who Can’t – Hey, look teachers are just as screwed up, rude and stupid as everyone else who populate sitcoms. I guess it’s like The Office set in a school, but I didn’t watch The Office because I just find this kind of comedy depressing and this one was the same. My internet connection was flaking out during this one and when I realised that instead of being frustrated I was actually grateful every time the buffering symbol appeared, I gave up.

zombielandZombieland – I loved the film, found it quirky, original and a very nice piece of comedy horror. That’s good news and bad news for the television version though, because while the writing does a pretty good job replicating the tone of the film, the cast and production just felt like cheap knock-offs. The decision to use the same characters left me unable to see anything other than Not-Jesse Eisenberg and Not-Woody Harrellson. The actors were doing a fair enough job, it’s not their fault, it just felt too much like an impression. Still I did laugh and it’s certainly different, so if I’d suggest giving it a try and hoping that you’ don’t have the same problem as I did.
Amazon have passed on picking the series up. The creator has been quite public grumbling that he didn’t understand why Zombieland fans hated it.

Girls: Season 1

girlsThere was a problem with my recording of one of the last few episodes of Girls, where it didn’t record the dialogue track. It had the background noise, sound effects and music; but although I could see the characters moving their mouths, there was no sound coming out. The thing is that I watched nearly 10 minutes of the episode before I realised there was a problem and it wasn’t just an affectation. That was the moment that I realised I didn’t just not like the show, I really couldn’t stand it.

It took me until episode 9 of the 10 episode season to come to this conclusion because all the critics seemed to think that Lena Dunham (star, writer and director) is a fresh new voice, speaking for an entire gender and generation. I was desperately not wanting to admit that I was so out of step with everyone and that possibly my lack of ability to understand the show was some sort of nail in the coffin of my youth. After due consideration though, even if it does make me Old, that I just don’t believe these girls are representative of a significant section of the population and if they are, then I really fear for humanity.

The four titular girls range from annoyingly bland through to hatefully unpleasant. Hannah (Lena Dunham) is a twenty-something graduate who believes that she has it in her to be the ‘voice of her generation’, but the closest she comes to publication is when someone steals her diary and turns it into a song out of spite. Hannah shares a flat with her college friend Marnie who spends most of the season in a relationship that she hates, until they actually split up and she realises that she wants him back, then changes her mind again and then is miserable because she’s alone. Shoshanna is an insufferably immature Sex and the City fan and Jessa would probably describe herself as ‘bohemian’ but is in fact flaky, unreliable, selfish and destructive to everyone around her. Hannah’s boyfriend is also a regular appearer, he’s a self-centred, arrogant, obnoxious artist who criticises everyone he meets because they’re not ‘being true’ or some such tripe. The only thing more annoying than him by himself, is when he and Hannah are together, despite the fact that they are completely and utterly, catastrophically and apocalyptically wrong for each other.

All the characters are insufferable. Drifting around whining about their own lives and judging everyone else’s. I could barely stand to spend half an hour a week in their company, let alone imagine having to be their friend or work with them. Hannah is a particularly hateful individual. She whines when her parents stop paying her rent, she whines when her acquaintances are more successful than her, she whines that an ex-boyfriend is now gay, she whines when the guy she’s seeing doesn’t act like a boyfriend and then she whines when he does. Then she whines about the fact that her best friend calls her on her whining. She boasts about her talents and calling as a writer but there is absolutely no evidence of her actually writing anything or attempting to make a career out of anything other than just endlessly whining. I also hated her dress sense and endlessly wanted her to comb her hair.

I’m not really sure whether it’s supposed to be a comedy or a drama, each episode is half hour which usually indicates a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny very often. Not only that, but it’s actually downright uncomfortable to watch a lot of the time thanks to the gratuitous sex and nudity, it may well be more ‘natural and honest’ than is usually shown, but I can live without that level of reality.

I wanted to like this show. I wanted it to be fresh and original, I wanted it to be an honest look at twenty-something women today. Given that almost every other review seems to think it’s just that, raving about the show and Lena Dunham as some kind of paradigm shifting truth, I am perilously close to just concluding that I’m utterly out of touch and should just shut up.

House of Lies: Season 1

House of LiesMy evaluation of the pilot of House of Lies was “yes, but with some reservations” which was good enough for me to set the series link on it once it finally arrived on Sky Atlantic. At the end of the 12 episode season I haven’t really changed my opinion – “yes, but with some reservations”.

The show maintains the shameless ‘wrongness’ that it introduced in the pilot. The characters (both regular and one-shot) are all after power and money and will screw over pretty much anyone to further their sky-high ambitions. They lie, manipulate, threaten, bribe and entrap to get what they want, and the only excuse for that behaviour is that everyone is doing exactly the same to them. Whenever someone displays a rare flash of conscience, they are immediately pounced on by the other members of the pack and inevitably ends up far worse off. It’s a brave direction for a show to take and it makes House of Lies unusual and intriguing, although of course not somewhere you’d want to spend too much time.

The other thing that’s interesting and unusual is the style of the show, particularly the ability of Don Cheadle’s character to break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and forcing upon them a connection to the world within the show. It’s a tricky thing to pull off and it’s done beautifully here, making good use of the extremely charismatic Cheadle. I was worried that it might get old, particularly the way the action occasionally pauses and Cheadle walks through a frozen scene, but it stayed fresh and entertaining all the way through.

The only thing that causes me pause with the series is that some of the characters are phenomenally annoying, and far too ridiculous to be credible in even this environment. The two male team members (whose names I still can’t remember) are no more than idiot college boys (one frat boy, one nerd), with utterly no redeeming qualities and every time they were on screen I was annoyed. Similarly Cheadle’s ex-wife and his ‘nemesis’ who is trying to take over the company were utterly over-the-top pantomime villains. Those four people just didn’t feel like they should be in the same league as Cheadle or Kristen Bell, both of whom had complex and layered characters.

As comedies go, it’s not really a “rolling in the aisles” kind of show, more a “knowing snort and cynical chuckle” affair, mind you I rarely find the comedies labelled as hilarious to be anything of the sort. The majority of House of Lies is witty, slick and blackly funny. There is however a minority thread of crudeness that runs through it, which can’t quite be forgiven just because some of the characters roll their eyes at it. The half hour format works well with the plots dispensed with brutally fast and the irritating elements never quite getting enough screen time to push me into switching off.

I can see that House of Lies isn’t for everyone, the subject and characters are a pretty tough sell. But I do think that it’s innovative, challenging and entertaining in a way that other shows that get more attention actually fail to deliver (see my review of Girls later this week). I also think that Don Cheadle’s Emmy Award winning performance alone is enough to make this show watchable, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in season 2.

Community: Season 1

CommunityWay back in 2009, I hadn’t yet given up on watching pilots of comedy series, so did actually review the Community pilot and liked it. However despite the critics absolutely adoring it, I didn’t watch it, not least because it was buried on some obscure channels in the UK.

Jump forward three years and a couple of friends forced the first season dvd upon me and nagged until I watched it.

It was good.

It’s the kind of show that could relatively easily be dismissed, but the more attention you pay, the more it rewards you with a lot of exquisitely crafted writing that takes a sideways look at everything and crafts spoofs of just about every subject under the sun.
The episodes which are built around referencing genres or specific films/shows are the high point of the series. Each one is entirely respectful, as if the writers genuinely love whatever they are pulling apart, poking fun without being mean or snide. The other clever thing is that you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of the target, or even know anything at all about it, because the story, characters and jokes are all well enough done that the show is still entertaining.

The show doesn’t always manage to hit the right balance for me, the characters walk a very fine line between being quirky and ridiculous. It’s often not really believable that Chevy Chase’s Pierce hasn’t been lynched by his fellow students, or that anyone tolerates Shirley’s simpering for more than one class. Mind you I can forgive most of those problems because while not all the characters work, the writers did introduce us to Abed, who sort of floats through the series like a media obsessed soothsayer. Rather than have the biggest geek be completely disassociated from reality, in many ways he’s actually the member of the group most in touch with the real world, quietly manipulating everything around him. He isn’t the star of the show, but he is the heart and soul of it.

With each episode lasting just 20 minutes or so once you strip out the adverts the episodes never outstay their welcome, each carefully constructed to build up towards a satisfying ending – be it a sweet one or a cynical one. It does exactly what a comedy should do, makes you laugh and realise how daft real life is.

Also – any show that generates a gag reel almost as long as an episode has to be worth a look.

Last Tango in Halifax and The Secret of Crickley Hall – Pilots

I’d not had a great day and I retreated to bed with my laptop to catch up on a couple of new BBC series thanks to the power of the almighty iPlayer. Miraculously, this turned out to be the perfect cure for my bad mood!

First up was Last Tango in Halifax. This is an easy going six-part series which is well and truly embedded in the ‘comfortable’ zone of watching. Celia and Alan were almost sweethearts at school, but it didn’t work out. They both lived their lives and raised a family, now 60 years later they reconnect via facebook and rather nervously arrange to have coffee. Each of their daughters are meanwhile having their own problems with their families.

There’s nothing stressful about Last Tango in Halifax, it’s easy going, amiable, sweet, funny and just utterly lovely. Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi are perfect as people who have plenty of experience of life, but are also adorably nervous about a first date. Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker are equally great as women living very different lives, but each just trying to make the best of everything. The whole thing is full of an easy going humour and charm that made me completely fall in love with it.

After that success I wasn’t optimistic that my luck would hold for the second new series of the evening, The Secret of Crickley Hall. Mother of three, Eve Caleigh, nods off while her son Cam is playing in a park, she wakes up and he’s gone. 11 months later, Cam is still missing and the family relocates to try and escape the pressure of the upcoming anniversary. Unfortunately they pick Crickley Hall, a house with a disturbing history, gradually revealed through flashbacks to 1943 when it was an orphanage with a very strict master. The history carries through to the present and the Caleigh family start experiencing Weird Stuff.

This is a shorter series, just 3 episodes, and is moving along a lot faster, well paced so that the tension is gradually built up, but doesn’t become unbearable. The Caleigh family is extremely likeable and believable, both in how they’re dealing with the grief of their missing son and how they approach the weird events of the house. Suranne Jones (the Tardis!) Eve believes that she has a psychic connection with her son which gets a little wishy-washy, but it’s well balanced by the way the rest of the family treat her – they don’t necessarily believe her, but they are complete supportive. Maisie Williams as the older daughter steals every scene that she’s in, much as she does as Arya in Game of Thrones. It’s impossible not to like this family, they’re smart and funny, tightly knit without being saccharine and they’re really doing their best to get through the terrible uncertainty and grief.

The period elements aren’t quite as strong. Douglas Henshall and Sarah Smart are stuck with some pretty hammy dialogue and they come rather too close to pantomime villains. Similarly Olivia Cooke as Nancy Linnet, the young teacher worried for the safety of the pupils comes across as a rather too perfect rescuer. But balanced by the extremely ‘real’ feeling modern sections, the flashbacks aren’t too bad. The whole thing combines into a sort of easy-going creepiness that might make you jump a couple of times and keeps you paying attention, but isn’t going to keep you up at nights.

Last Tango in Halifax is on Tuesdays and The Secret of Crickley Hall is on Sundays and both are available on iPlayer.

Other Reviews:
The Telegraph on Last Tango in Halifax – The ways in which this story of late love might have gone wrong were numerous, but with the help of beautifully nuanced performances from her cast, Wainwright steered an entertaining course between the Scylla of sentimental regret and the Charybdis of patronising caricature.

The Independent – [Last Tango in Halifax] triumphed because it wasn’t about old people or even elderly romance, but love. This (sentimental) 30-year-old loved every minute.

The Telegraph on The Secret of Crickley Hall – It all clipped along quite watchably, but – unpardonably for the horror genre – with no sickening sense of jeopardy or threat.

Den of Geek – The Secret of Crickley Hall is entertaining and involving stuff. Nancy and the Caleighs are such sympathetic leads that the horrors of Crickley Hall have a satisfying heft of consequence.