The Alienist

This is very generic. Even the things about it that are shocking do so in a way that these days feels very generic. That’s probably a bit of a damning indictment of the level of sexual violence on television today make the prostitution of young boys and their murder something that’s not terribly remarkable. The beautifully created period setting adds a slight other-worldliness to everything, I was never sure whether I was watching events and characters that were realistic to the period, or if it was an anachronistic fantasy.

The plot moves at a good rate, and for me there were just the right number of twists and turns, steps forward and backwards. Similarly the various factions involve play off each other well, with the ‘heroes’ not just trying to find the bad guys, but also work around members of the police who are not moving with the times as much as anyone might like. It’s not terribly creative, but it is a very well structured story.

The generic-ness of the characters doesn’t work quite so well unfortunately, it’s all been seen before and that just makes it a bit tiresome. The somewhat clunking dialogue also doesn’t help. It’s a shame because it’s a very good cast who have all delivered very good performances elsewhere. I don’t think any of them were necessarily trying their hardest here, but the material they were working with wasn’t really giving them much opportunity.

I found this a solid way to pass a few hours in a pretty disposable kind of way.


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.

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.

Lethal Weapon: Season 1

The biggest surprise about a Lethal Weapon relaunch is that it took this long to happen. It’s pretty basic and classic set up for a generic action/comedy/character network drama for primetime. It was already a step ahead of some of the other big hitters in the genre like NCIS in that it was pretty much unconstrained in the kind of case that could be tackled. So all it needed was a chunk of money spent on it for the kind of action sequences and stunts that we’ve come to expect from TV these days, and, most importantly of all, two charismatic leads.

Thank heavens they found them. Damon Wayans takes the Danny Glover role of Roger Murtaugh, the ‘grown up’ of the partnership. The casting director did a stunning job in casting a comedian as the straight man. The obvious choice would have been to find a ‘dramatic’ actor who could hold his own in the comedy moment, but the drama of the character is actually quite straight-forward and often driven by those around him anyway and Wayans delivers that adequately. Really, in any other partnership Roger is likely to be the wacky one anyway, so it makes perfect sense to cast a comedian and then put him opposite someone who takes “wacky” to the next level.

Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs is a relative unknown who I’d never encountered before, but absolutely blew me away episode after episode. It’s a gift of a role really, wacky goofball covering up huge emotional trauma, plus a hefty amount of running, shooting, bantering and monologuing. The complexity of the character is present in every movement and tone of delivery, and it takes some talent of both writing and acting to make such a broken character so functional. He *is* crazy, but it works for him. Even with that god awful hair and moustache.

Everything around those two characters is solid enough, but a bit unremarkable. Roger’s wife Trish is a bit too perfect, the psychiatrist is a bit too obvious and the two junior detectives never really get enough to do to make them anything other than exposition delivery methods. I did like the captain though – he was nicely written so it never seemed ridiculous that he would continue to send these two out in public, or that he would endlessly chide them for doing what everyone could predict they’d do. If you compare to someone like Cuddy in House who every week lectured him that his methods were unacceptable and then watched them succeed.

This show quickly became one of my favourite things to watch. I’d eagerly await each episode and settle in with a smile on my face. Even if the plot of the week was a bit so-so, the characters were so rich it was great to spend time with them. There is a bit of repetition in the character development as things seem to move forward and then loop backwards again, but it’s just about believable and it just presented another opportunity to watch them some more. The show is full on laugh out loud funny, but there’s an honest heart running through it that rises it above a lot of the disposable action on TV.

The Bridge: Season 3

[I found this saved in my draft items, it looks like I wrote it just after the series ended in December 2015, but forgot to post it!]

The BridgeThis series seems to continually surprise me, turning out to be about things that I wasn’t expecting. Back at the start of season 1 I expected it to be a cultural/political piece looking at the difference between Denmark and Sweden, neighbouring countries separated by a narrow stretch of water and joined by the titular bridge. In fact it turned out to be about a misfit police pairing investigating a serial murder. Well, no, I guess it turned out to be about a personal vendetta and I thought it would probably be the end of the series. Then season 2 turned up and somehow managed to coherently develop on that before seeming to close the door on a third season by getting rid of half of the lead pair. So I don’t know what’s more surprising, that it came back for a third season at all, or that it came back even better than it was before.

What is completely consistent is the addictiveness of the show. Once again I let a few episodes store up on the Sky box before my brother nagged me to watch them so that we could talk about them. As soon as I started watching, I couldn’t stop, powering through the backlog and then counting the hours until new episodes on Saturday evening. On one occasion I was actually compulsively refreshing iPlayer waiting for it to appear as soon as the live broadcast had finished. There is of course an element of manipulation with the use of cliff-hangers, but the writers also do an excellent job with the overall pacing of the series, keeping the crimes, investigation and personal storylines moving along, constantly taking small steps forward. Even the red herrings and miss-directs manage to not feel too frustrating, none of them felt like dead ends just there to increase the episode count.

Danish-Henrik makes an interesting alternative to Danish-Martin, and also a fascinating partner and counter-point to Saga. The two of them have a mountain of baggage between them, but somehow they work together. Sofia Helin as Saga excels this season, the character’s behaviours and responses all seem to finally hang together. She’s consistent in her strengths and her weaknesses and being pushed outside of her comfort zone really clarifies things for her, the characters around her and the audience. Henrik’s own personality and coping mechanisms also make sense as his own background is revealed and the development of their relationship is fascinating and rewarding to watch.

While I still think there is a missed opportunity to look more closely at the similarities and differences between Denmark and Sweden, I didn’t find that so frustrating when watching. I never really knew what country they were in or what language they were speaking, but it really didn’t matter and of course that wouldn’t bother the Swedes and Danes at all, who of course are the primary audience, not the internationals. I’m also not 100% certain that I fully followed all the twists and turns of the plot or the overall conclusion. But it just didn’t matter. It was a completely compelling from start to finish and my only regret is that it’s now gone. I have no idea what direction the story would have to swerve to next, but please, please, please let there be a season 4!

[The Bridge commissioned for a fourth and final season]

Lucifer: Season 1

Lucifer,_titleAided by the tragic demise of my sky dish, I blitzed my way through Lucifer on Amazon Prime over the space of a few days. It’s something of a one trick pony kind of show, it’s a good trick, which is enough to carry the 13 episode season, but the lack of other tricks (or ponies… I’m not quite sure about this metaphor) is a constantly niggling irritation.

The pony in question is the titular Lucifer. “Devil gets bored of hell and runs away to LA to run a nightclub” is a pretty good pitch. Added to that idea is the complexity of the character which makes him so much more than the stereotypical devil, which he himself gets very cross about. He doesn’t consider himself evil, in fact the very opposite – he punishes evil. He doesn’t force people to do evil things, he merely encourages people to follow their desires and takes satisfaction in punishing them when their desires aren’t all that they should be. He does have a sense of morality that doesn’t really match most people’s, but frankly when he explains his reasoning it kind of makes sense. He’s also got some pretty serious issues with his father of course. The elegance and complexity of the character, make a lot more sense when you realise it’s actually Neil Gaiman’s character from his Sandman series. Heaven knows nothing else in this series has that level of talent.

When you get away from Lucifer’s character and story you find yourself in the familiar, tedious and clumsy worlds of a procedural cop show. It’s “Castle, but with the devil instead of a writer” and the way he’s clumsily brought into each case is painful beyond belief. I also unfortunately just didn’t get anywhere near the same complexity, depth, or (sadly) acting talent from his partner’s character. She just felt very flimsy and insubstantial, like she wasn’t quite grounded in the show around her. It’s possible she lost me at the moment she revealed she named her daughter Trixie, which even Lucifer points out is a stripper name.

The show is pretty much worth watching for Lucifer and Tom Ellis’ portrayal. He’s incredibly charismatic and manages the dramatic shifts in tone from charming to terrifying at incredible speed. His character development and story is fascinating, and his interactions with those that really know who he is have a tremendous depth and history that leaves you wanting to know more. It’s just a shame that the mortal side of the deal is cheesy, obvious and amateur.

Trapped (Ófærð)

TrappedI wondered if the biggest question about Trapped was, “does the world need another Scandi-noir drama?” but I decided that was a stupid question because when a genre is popular and well done there’s no reason not to add another one. So instead my biggest question became – does Iceland count as Scandinavian? (Short answer: sort of. Long answer: wikipedia.)

I’ve been staring at a blank page trying to start this review and struggling to find a line on it. Trapped is just really, really good. It pulls all the engaging elements of murder mysteries together into one very well structured story: a small community with it’s own politics and history provide a handful of other mysteries for the audience and characters to understand and uncover, sometimes tying things together, other times making things just more complicated. I never felt like I was being misled or that any of the dead-ends were just extending the story out to the episode count, there were little reveals and well timed action sequences to keep things moving along and it all hung together very nicely.

The array of characters are all interesting to spend time with. I particularly liked that each of the characters has a different place and longevity in the community. Some are well established and known, others are only visitors who are involved just because of the murders. It’s interesting that the lead character Andri is actually in the middle. As chief of police he’s a prominent part of the community, but being a relatively recent arrival he doesn’t have the history that many other characters do, but his family connections also add an emotional connection.

The really unique element to Trapped was the location itself, the story itself could have been an Agatha Christie novel quite frankly if not for the fascinating setting. To the characters of course it’s nothing special, but to the audience the trials of living in the remote Icelandic town add to the drama. The weather is a pretty major player in the series. It sets the tone, closing the community off and bringing an almost overwhelming tension at times.

I’m not sure whether this is a standalone mini-series, or whether it will return for a second series. As with any successful series like this there’s the mixed feelings towards a second series. Part of the power of the series is that this kind of event is almost unheard of for the community, so a second event is both improbable and less impactful. But I can’t say I’d be disappointed at the idea of seeing more of this utterly compelling series.

Forgotten (,) River and three others

This is a pretty formulaic concept, the quirky, grumpy, distanced cop who rubs everyone up the wrong way but is some kind of savant when it comes to solving crimes. It’s a formula that works, so I’m not being snotty about it, but there has to be something to make me want to watch this rather than just dust off an old box set. The first episode had two things that really hooked me. The first was Nicola Walker cutting through any sense of scandi-noir tone that the casting of Stellan Skarsgård might have had by layering on the London accent and the horrendously cheesy 70’s music. The second was the reveal of what makes River (the character) quite so quirky. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a really great moment when you realise what’s going on.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think the rest of the series didn’t quite live up to that opening. The twists and turns of the mystery start off ok, but they become increasingly tenuous until the final conclusions left me underwhelmed and actually a bit cross. Skarsgård and Walker could easily take their place in the pantheon of great detective duos, but sadly the material didn’t quite live up to their talents. I’m not sure a second series would work, and I’m not sure I’d really want to watch it.

I’m not sure of the timings of the release of these two series, as I actually pretty much binge watched them both on catchup, but I came to Unforgotten second and I only actually watched it at all because I figured I’d been so impressed with Walker in River (and Last Tango in Halifax for that matter) that I should give this series a try too. Thank heavens I did.

Where River is ‘quirky’ this is just a straight up police murder investigation, the only peculiarity being that the murder took place decades ago. The first episode nearly overwhelms you with the sheer number of seemingly disparate characters it introduces, but just as it all became a bit too removed, the links are revealed. In fact that was a pattern throughout the series, everything was stretched to the limits at time, but just before it became unbearable or inappropriate, it was pulled back, or the tone was changed. Unlike River, Unforgotten actually managed to carry me through to the end. I don’t think the resolution was as interesting or satisfying as the journey to get there, but it felt right enough.

Carrying the audience through is the wonderful Nicola Walker, just as in River she grounds the series into utterly believable human reactions. There’s just something about the way she delivers lines that’s completely compelling, the pauses and the body language, the emotions that are all over her face. She’s absolutely fascinating to watch and while River didn’t have great material around her leaving the series suffering a bit every time she wasn’t in a scene, Unforgotten had a solid story to back up the performance.

jeckylandhydeJeckyl and Hyde
After about 20 minutes I had a sudden revelation that sometimes, it’s not necessary to watch the WHOLE pilot episode of a show if you think it’s so utterly miserable and unremarkable that you’ll never watch a second episode voluntarily. It just seemed a mess. Too many characters and locations, too little acting talent, too much exposition, too little caring. Nothing at all that made it worth watching.

The Frankenstein Chronicles
It’s a sad fact of Sean Bean’s career that I find it hard to accept him as a leading man. He just doesn’t feel like he’s every really more than a one-note character who is waiting around to die and motivate other, more interesting characters to greatness. It’s not fair, but it is what it is. He’s not really got much to work with here, the “good soul with a troubled past” is laid on tediously thickly in the first episode. Maybe it will develop a bit more, but it could really do with getting a move on. The rest of the idea is ok, but like the character, could do with moving a bit faster. Maybe I do just watch too much tv, but I spent most of the episode just going “yes yes, we get it, move along”.

Last Panthers
I didn’t make it 15 minutes into this before I gave up. I suspect if I’d been better prepared for how much was subtitled, I’d have been more engaged, but I just couldn’t seem to keep focus on it and every time I was distracted I missed more subtitles and cared even less. I was expecting things to kick off with an action and adrenalin fuelled heist, but was pretty disappointed and nothing in the next 12 minutes managed to rise me out of that funk.

CSI: Season 15

csiThe final season of CSI as it turns out. All over bar a concluding tv movie. And the final series was… unremarkable.

I know I watched all the episodes, but I can’t really think of much to say about it. It was fine? The seasonal serial killer worked pretty well and rippled through enough episodes that the season felt like it bonded things together, but the rest of the episodes were the usual mix of stupid and forgettable.

Each season of CSI has felt like it tried to concentrate it’s CSI-ness and simultaneously moved away from what actually made CSI original in the first place. It didn’t quite become a self-parody, but it was heading in that direction. The original cgi graphics of microscope views and freeze frames and things from the early series now just feel like they’re filling time to accompany some tie in deal with a new song. The science wasn’t about being accurate and educational, but focused on gadgets and technobabble.

The CSIs that started out as scientists turned into gun toting detectives, shouting at suspects and delivering punch lines. On the plus side the camaraderie never really went away, even if it did seem that each new person was treated like they’d always been there. A little bit of tension wouldn’t have gone amiss (in fact I think that was where Brass was most missed this year).

It does feel bad to say goodbye to such an institution that was so influential. But no one can claim that 335 episodes wasn’t a good innings and that it wasn’t time to retire.

Gotham: Pilot Review

The city is being overwhelmed by criminals. They own the police, they own the mayor and the ‘good’ people are either fighting a losing battle, or have already given in either because if you can’t beat them you might as well join them, or just to protect themselves from retribution. But this isn’t just any city, it’s the city that will one day be home to Batman. Gotham opens with Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered in front of him. Detective James Gordon, a recent transfer to the city, promises Bruce that he will find who did it, breaching both a pretty solid rule of policing and certainly a rule of Gotham. Gordon’s partner is less enthusiastic and over the course of the hour they battle each other and the various criminal elements in an attempt to solve the case.

Gotham is one of the most hotly anticipated new shows of the year, and with the recent successes of the Dark Knight and the popularity of various comic book/superhero adaptations on big and small screen, it’s a fantastic concept. Going back to the early days of Gotham, being introduced to the heroes and villains a couple of decades before they become the characters we know gives the writers a huge amount of potential, and established ideas.

It all sounds great. But I was very disappointed with the delivery. My hopes were admittedly very high but from the opening scene I was underwhelmed, and on occasion deeply disappointed. It felt like the show had been completely scripted, down to every last frame, blink and mutter and no one would deviate from that script despite the fact that it felt a million miles from the way anyone would speak or act. The introduction of Gordon as he strode through a crowded room of idiot police offers actually made me groan, it was so trite and obvious. Every word felt like a line, a cliched and hammy line at that. All the actors seemed unsettled in their roles, as if they were playing each scene from the script without knowing what their characters were really thinking or motivated. I guess we’re just not supposed to trust anyone, but I’m sure there’s a way to play that without making it seem like the character themselves doesn’t know who they are. These actors can all do better.

The nuts and bolts of it were just erratic as well, with elements working beautifully in one scene, but then poorly in another. The cinematography was mostly gorgeous, gritty and grey shots of the alleyways and rooftops of New York, I mean Gotham (Gotham with the Brooklyn Bridge admittedly). But then there were weird moments that utterly didn’t work (the running towards the camera shots particularly unpleasant).

Now that I really think about it, I’m also worried about the sustainability of the concept. After all, unless they deviate hugely from the comic series, we know the future of many of these characters. You know that when someone points a gun at Gordon’s head, he’s not going to die. That lack of real jeopardy is problematic, and you need to be completely immersed in the moment so that you can forget you know the ending. But to immerse in the moment you can’t be constantly given cameos and portentous close-ups for familiar characters. It just doesn’t work. Gotham runs the risk of turning into a fairly unremarkable police procedural/mob drama, and there’s some very high calibre competition in that field.

As with most “hotly anticipated” things, reality rarely lives up to hype, but I was really sad at how far I felt this fell from the mark. I haven’t killed the series record yet, because many of the issues with script and acting could (and should!) be just down to it being a pilot. But it’s not got off on a good foot.