You: Season 1

Netflix was pushing this fairly heavily, but I’d dismissed it slightly out of hand. I’d spotted that it was based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, and I’d recently read her second book (Providence) and been underwhelmed with unconvincing relationships and a distracted story. But then the buzz for You started building and I was informed by a couple of people that I HAD to watch it. So I did. And once I’d started I couldn’t stop.

It’s the kind of show that if I describe the individual elements and how I feel about them, it would probably make you think I didn’t like it. It’s about a group of 20-something New Yorkers who are by and large pretty awful people. The central story focuses on, and is largely narrated by Joe, a quintessential Nice Guy bookshop manager who falls for wannabe writer Beck, who is equally the quintessential Writer – she’s struggling to make ends meet and yet lives in a stunning apartment, is rarely seen working (either on her writing or her job as, of course, a yoga teacher), and is always out at expensive bars. Her circle of friends are rich and vapid (one actually has a job as an instagram influencer). Joe immediately becomes obsessed with Beck and things spiral quite rapidly in some incredibly creepy and violent directions, it very quickly becomes clear that Joe is quite the expert stalker and there’s a lot in his past that he’s not sharing.

What really pulled me into the show though was the voice over. We are watching the show from inside Joe’s brain, he’s narrating and talking throughout, explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing. While that never justifies his actions it does explain why he is doing everything. You can track the logic chains and while they are generally started by an idiotic choice that is unforgivable, you kind of understand why things keep going as they do. Joe does monstrous things, but because we are in his head, it’s hard for us to view him completely as a monster. He’s a fascinating character, elegantly written and subtly played by Penn Badgley.

Unfortunately that’s more than can be said for most of the rest of the characters, all of whom are pretty one dimensional. I found Beck a deeply annoying and unlikeable character. The fact that she’s far from perfect makes for some interesting twists and turns for the plot, but I never really understood her choices. Because we’re not in her head as much as we are in Joe’s, we don’t get the same insight into her motivations, so she comes across as shallow, selfish and inconsistent. While I don’t want to drift into victim blaming, she does make poor choices that have consequences in her life, and just because she IS a victim, does not actually make her a nice person.

This imbalance is what stops the show being great I think. The development of Joe’s character and the way he is presented makes a high quality drama (while still also having plenty of laughs from his dry observations), but because everyone around is flimsy, it undermines that central richness. It also makes it slightly uncomfortable when the aggressor is allowed more opportunity to be sympathetic than the victims are – they don’t have to be likeable, but if they’re not rounded, it just starts to come across as more of a cheap slasher than as a psychological drama. It’s still a hugely compelling and entertaining show to watch, but it could have been more.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1

I have vague memories of the original Sabrina television series, probably about the perfect amount as far as the creators of the new series are concerned – a mildly curious nostalgia without a defensive reverence. I immediately liked the idea of taking the teenage witch element and making it much darker and the show certainly on the surface delivers that with dark satanic rituals and casual references to pretty dark stuff, but I found if you really paid attention, it was all smoke and mirrors.

The pilot gets off to a good start with an immediate hook that Sabrina must soon decide between life as a human like her mother, or life as a witch like her father. Being raised by her father’s sisters following her parent’s death means that it’s assumed that she’ll commit to being a witch, taking a dark baptism on her 16th birthday and pledging loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. But that would mean leaving behind her human school, friends and boyfriend and Sabrina is not so certain, questioning what it really means to commit to the Dark Lord.

The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers don’t really know the answer to that question either, and really don’t want to have to commit to anything. Sabrina doesn’t really seem to have to give anything up – she uses magic, keeps the boyfriend, goes to both schools (although never has to do any actual work) and seems to have no real problem doing whatever she wants to do.

The show never really reconciles what it means to “commit to the Dark Lord” in terms of morality and principles. After a while it becomes apparent that although Sabrina’s family are full members of the church, they don’t seem to act on anything. There are dark things occasionally done by other witches, but it feels like that’s because they’re “bad guys” rather than because they’re witches. It felt all talk no action, like teenagers saying they’re satanists, drawing a pentagram with a sharpie and then going home to do their homework .

In addition to these problems at the heart of the concept, there are more mundane issues on the surface too. Characters are completely under-used (Ambrose, Salem the cat) and the less said about the utterly dreary Harvey the better. The directing/cinematography annoyed me from the very start and I didn’t really get used to it. There was some sort of effect being used that only a small amount of the screen would be in focus at any time and it drove me to distraction. Some of the sets felt incredibly artificial and cheap and some of the acting and/or script writing was pretty clunky, and even the costumes and make-up annoyed me at times.

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2

I let the whole season of Handmaid’s Tale build up and sit on my Sky box for ages before actually watching it. It’s one of those shows that you really want to have watched, but actually wanting to sit down and start it is another matter entirely. You know it’s going to be good, really really good, but it’s not going to be easy and not necessarily much fun. There’s enough spark and flashes of humour to make it bearable, but only just.

Season 2 is completely beyond the source novel’s timeframe and plot, not that season 1 was exactly constrained as it was already expanding on the bones of the world and characters Atwood created. Season 2 moves further into backstories – broadening out the world and that may be the problem that I had with this season. I’m not sure that it hung together when looked at in that depth. The novel created a world without explanation, it didn’t try to work out how the world that we were reading about came to be, just that it existed and the reader and characters were in it whether they liked it or not. The first season of the television show started to add some backstory and it seemed just about plausible. But the second season really pushes the boundaries of the world out – looking at the transformation of our near-present day into Gilead and also the wider world of both ‘the colonies’ and more of Canada where the refugees flee.

The issue is, I don’t think it makes sense. I know we live in a world today where things happen that seem to defy belief, but I struggle to see how things could change so dramatically, so fast. This is the kind of tectonic shift that should take generations to gradually erode freedoms. But it is evident that it’s only a couple of years between ‘normal’ existence with recognisable technology, jobs and laws, and people being enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered. The problem is not only time, it’s geography, Showing ‘normal’ Canada really emphasises that, just a drive away from this horror, everything is fairly normal.

Everything else about the series remains absolutely superb. Every shot is beautifully and creatively framed, lit, and designed; there are scenes that could be considered works of art they are so stunning to look at. The script is cut back to the very minimum as all the characters mind what they say, while never lacking clarity or meaning. The performances are of course wonderful, and there is not a single weak link or boring character, everyone has so many levels to them. Even when characters are making frustrating choices, or their arcs don’t seem to make sense as a whole, the acting in the moment cannot be faulted.

But I could not get past that nagging feeling that the core of the series is rotten. That all the beautiful acting and exceptional production values could never quite make me ignore that nagging doubt and annoyance that fundamentally, the series doesn’t make sense.

Killing Eve: Season 1

Sometimes I really am tempted to just write “this is really good, you should watch it”. I’m very aware that reviews can leach the joy out of things, particularly the pleasure of discovering something wonderful when you have absolutely no idea what’s coming. The good news is that I’m quite far behind on my TV watching, so I figure if you were going to discover Killing Eve for yourself, you’d already have done so and I’m just giving a bit of a nudge.

It’s a hard show to describe. It’s about serial killers, psychopaths, murder, chaos and terror. And yet, it’s also hilarious, knowingly ridiculous and a lot of fun. In a world of scandi-noir and bleak dramas it’s something of a breath of fresh air. There are moments of true drama though. There was an incident a few episodes in which was well telegraphed and I spent the whole episode just wishing it not to happen and was properly devastated when it did. There are a few other moments spread through the episodes that are either horrifying, terrifying, depressing or all of the above. But wrapping around them is a dry and witty sense of humour.

Anyone familiar with Sandra Oh from Grey’s Anatomy will know her wonderful talent for delivering heartbreak and humour in the same breath and she uses that skill here beautifully. Her counterpart is played by Jodie Comer who has a similar ability to slide between mischievous and murderous. The relationship between the two women is fascinating, the connection is clear even when they’re apart and when they do share scenes together I found myself holding my breath.

As is now my usual way, I burned through the series in just a couple of sittings. In my defense it is only 8 episodes and they’re only 45 minutes long. The plot is well structured with gradual reveals to reward you, but a deepening storyline to keep things moving. The game of cat and mouse between intelligence officers and a villainous organisation is hardly original, but the characters all felt richer and fresher than the traditional wood paneled rooms. Of course a lot of that is down to having so many women involved, it’s created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and most of the main characters (hero, villain, boss) are women. I’ll leave it up to the reader to extrapolate how that would make for a different feel from something like James Bond or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I’m happy to see that a second season is already in production and I look forward to how the story continues to twist and turn. I do have a slight worry that things could end up being strung out too long, and conspiracies getting too complicated, but for now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Killing Eve is available as box set on iPlayer for a whole year

SEAL Team: Season 1

I’m not sure how many people remember a series from a few years ago called The Unit. A bit of googling reveals it was on CBS from 2006-9, airing 69 episodes over 4 seasons. I’m not sure how I came to watch it in the UK but I somehow ended up with the dvd box set and powered through it. SEAL Team is pretty much the same series, just moved into a world 10 years older for an audience that’s more savvy.

Both series are about special forces teams, the people that get sent in to the most dangerous and complicated situations at home and abroad and both series go to great lengths for authenticity, with all the language, movements, actions and behavoiurs seeming entirely ‘correct’. This is the most satisfying thing about both series, and the most vital. If they didn’t seem credible as elite military unit it wouldn’t work at all. Similarly if they too often disobeyed orders, or the orders didn’t make sense, it would be impossible to accept any of it.

Season 1 of SEAL team neatly split into two halves – the first half establishing the characters while working out of their home base, and the second half following them on deployment to Afghanistan. It’s a very smart decision, giving us a run of standalone episodes to build the characters – starting from their simple definitions (the leader, the right-hand-man, the newbie) and then add secondary notes and depths, and how they function as a team. Then the second half develops into a longer overall story line and pushes them slightly out of their comfort zone (although what is a comfort zone to a Seal team operative is quite scary).

The biggest difference between the two series is that The Unit had a much greater balance between the stories at home, the families left behind and the challenges of being military wives. That is touched upon in Seal team, but it’s always from the point of view of the soldiers. I don’t mind that change to be honest, there were a lot of times in The Unit that it felt that the home stories were forced and verging on melodrama at times. It’s a shame so many of the female characters in Seal team are therefore relegated to guest appearances, but they are still strong characters. There are also women on the team who are never presented as anything other than fully competent.

Neither series is a mindless “boys” action fest. The characters are smart and well rounded, the emotional aspects are never ignored, and the complexity of the situations they are in are well considered. The cast was one of the big draws for me, with several names that I knew could all deliver interesting characters, adding more than was maybe written on the page. Led by David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) you’ve also got Max Thieriot (Bates Motel), Jessica Pare (Mad Men) and AJ Buckley (CSI New York and Justified) and the guest cast includes people like Alona Tal (Supernatural) and even Michael Irby from The Unit.

I watched about 1/2 the season straight through in a few days before catching up with the live airings. Each story is dealt with efficiently and effectively, I was never bored and I didn’t spot any particular holes or oversights (which is far from common). It will of course not be a show that wins any major awards, and I can’t say it’s a show that necessarily lingers in the mind after you’ve finished watching. But for me, it ticked all the boxes.

Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.

Station 19: Season 1

Despite my unashamed love for Grey’s Anatomy (with the exception of a few plot lines that I try to forget about) I’ve never found the same level of joy for the rest of Shonda Rhime’s work. I stuck with Scandal for a few years but it just got too ridiculous, I barely made it through the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder and even the direct spinoff from Grey’s, Private Practice, didn’t really land with me. As I’ve made it through the full season of Station 19 that makes it the most successful of the bunch, but this isn’t exactly going to be a glowing review.

The first problem is that I’ve never really understood the American emergency services structure which seems to merge paramedics and the fire service into one shared skill set (although this may be an affectation of TV/films based on the way things work in LA and may not be representative of the country as a whole). Station 19 adopts this, meaning that all the firefighters also act as medical first responders and it left me constantly bemused at the different skills and roles that the characters fell into, making them slightly hard to differentiate.

Sometimes the characters seemed to be able to do everything, but other times they were startling inept with storylines being driven by characters making mistakes. Grey’s Anatomy started with, and tries to maintain, a tiered approach to its characters with people at all stages of their careers. The new people understandably make mistakes for drama or entertainment, while the more senior staff can teach both audience and characters while picking up the pieces. Station 19 seems to lack that hierarchy as the only person treated as having significant experience is quickly sidelined.

The rest of the season is structured around a leadership contest between two people who are clearly completely unsuited to lead. Neither has the required experience, neither can put aside stupid quarrels even in literal life and death situations, and neither gives or receives sufficient respect to inspire confidence. Too many of the stories were driven by the mistakes of the characters rather than the inherent challenge of battling fires and disasters. People died because of their pettiness and ineptness and we were supposed to feel sorry for those that made the mistakes.

The personal elements have flashes of the Grey’s strengths, but only flashes. There are some interesting and well delivered relationships (both romantic and otherwise) and some hints at rich backstories that could be developed. Sadly the voiceover doesn’t work, Herrera just doesn’t have as strong a voice as Meredith Grey and everything she says comes across as trite. I also wasn’t a big fan of the flashes of future moments that top and tail each advert break, they just felt like padding and a cheap way to build drama. As a whole, it just doesn’t reach the standards that Grey’s has set and I’m not sure it’s adding anything to a TV landscape that already has Chicago Fire (and its siblings).