Archive for the ‘ Drama ’ Category

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.

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The Crown: Seasons 1 and 2

Apparently I never got round to writing a review of The Crown Season 1 when I watched it last year, but that’s ok, because I re-watched it immediately before watching Season 2 so I’ll do them as a combo. Given that I’ve just told you I re-watched a season (something I rarely do) before pouncing on the second season when it was released probably tells you this isn’t going to be a bad review. If I add that I watched both seasons in about 5 days, that probably tells you it’s going to be a very good review.

So yes, I love this series. In fact I may go so far as to say this is one of the best things on television at the moment. Possibly this decade. That it isn’t actually on ‘television’ but is on Netflix is maybe an indicator of the shifts that the television landscape are going through. The amount of money that this series needed and the quality that Netflix’s money can buy is a different league to what television, even American cable television, can compete with.

I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder for a series to be based on true events. In the case of The Crown they certainly have enough phenomenal material to work with, even just in terms of what is in the public access already, let alone what can be extrapolated and guessed at. When you start looking at historical figures as real human beings and thinking about what their nature and nurture would be, it’s an amazing story to tell. The writers have then found a compelling way to tell that story, picking and choosing events, structuring into episodes and seasons and then filling in and adjusting with dramatic licence just enough to make it really shine without losing the reality.

Then you add a cast. And what a cast. There are huge names in there and relative unknowns and they are all, every single one, stunning. Of course the key roles of Elizabeth and Philip draw a lot of attention, and so they should. I’d not heard of Claire Foy, but she is perfect; just enough of an impression to make it connect, but not so much to be cheesy. The mannerisms and voice feel natural (despite being odd) and the restraint of the held in emotions is palpable. By contrast I was of course familiar with Matt Smith from Doctor Who but never imagined he would work in this role, but he really does. I thought Phillip was going to be a comic figure, but I came away feeling so much sympathy for him.

The surrounding actors are just as incredible, they may be “minor” in the royal household, but they shine in this series. John Lithgow has rightly got a lot of praise for his portrayal of the ageing Churchill, but I think the standout for me was Vanessa Kirby, bringing such complexity to Princess Margaret, in some ways getting the best story across the two seasons. I also want to mention Victoria Hamilton and Jared Harris as their parents, who show the previous generation and really bring alive the nurture element to Elizabeth and Margaret’s personalities.

Once you’ve got that script and the cast, then you add the money. A lot of money. It would have been hard to make this series work without the incredible richness of the sets, locations and costumes that are integral to the lives of the characters. The scale of the endeavour is amazing, it’s hard to remember at times that you’re not looking at the real Buckingham palace.

I enjoyed this series immensely, and with so much detail and character development the first season easily stood up to a second viewing. I do think the second season had some miss-steps in it. Some of the focus got a little bogged down, and the episode towards the end of the season with the flashbacks to Phillip’s schooling didn’t really help the momentum towards the end of the season leaving me a bit frustrated that I’d rather be spending time on other things. However, I can’t wait to see how the series continues to develop, particularly given the entirely new cast next season to mark the passing of time. If they sustain this quality, I think this could be one of the landmark television series of all time.

Iron Fist: Season 1

I wasn’t going to bother watching this entry into the Netflix Defenders franchise. Nothing about the concept appealed to me – kung fu movies leave me utterly bored at the action and chuckling at the cheesily delivered philosophy. But I decided to at least watch the pilot so I’d been introduced to the character before moving on to The Defenders. No one is more surprised than me that I made it through all 13 episodes in just two days.

I will say that I think this says more about me than it does the series. I had very little enthusiasm this weekend for doing anything more challenging than slumping on the sofa and doing a jigsaw and it was more by luck than planning that the first thing I picked to watch was Iron Fist and I was just too lazy to stop Netflix auto-playing the next episode.

The show isn’t anything special in the slightest. It has all the things about kung fu movies that I don’t like. There are lots of action sequences, which I’m sure took a lot of skill and talent to do, but almost always left me reaching for my phone to play with, or focusing on a particularly boring bit of sky in the jigsaw. I glazed over an equal amount whenever a character started talking about Chi and K’un L’un, The Hand, and the mystical destiny of whatever. Maybe I’m being incredibly disrespectful, but it just sounded silly. I did the same thing with any of the inhumans philosophy on Agents of SHIELD and a huge amount of Doctor Strange. Once you’ve taken all that out, you’re left with a fairly run of the mill story, missing heir comes back, tries to reclaim his father’s business and runs into scheming former friends/relations and an overly convoluted investigation into what the mystical Hand are doing in New York.

The more I write, the more I’m not sure why I watched the whole thing. Finn Jones is likeable enough as Danny Rand, but I’m not sure the character makes any sense. He’s sometimes completely at home in New York (where did he learn to drive a sports car in K’un L’un?) and other times completely out of touch with the reality of running a business or understanding people. Similarly his temper and zen flip flop depending on what the mood of the episode needs rather than necessarily with any relation to the circumstances he’s in. Other characters are pretty one dimensional until they too flip flop because everything needs to be dragged out to 13 episodes so it should appear that the bad guy has a heart after all, or the childhood friend may be a bit of a bitch. The plot relied on far too many cases of characters not being what they seemed so that after a while I just became immune to it all.

This is definitely the weakest of the series in the franchise I’ve seen. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were both much more carefully built series, both made me actually care about the characters and challenged me to think about the issues. Iron Fist was just pure background noise. Still, I did finish my jigsaw.

Orange is the New Black: Season 5

This show still can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama or a comedy. Some shows manage to blend both together (I loath the word ‘dramedy’ but it is sort of useful), but this one just swings from one side to the other, with very little in the way of elegant merging. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just nudging back and forth on the natural boundaries between funny and sad, but lurching from extremes of tragedy to absurdity of farce.

The season also feels like it’s using a cast of characters so huge that individuals get completely lost in the noise.

The wikipedia page for the season lists 17 main cast and over 40 recurring characters. For thirteen episodes. That’s not including guest stars or bit parts, almost all of those characters get some kind of storyline and attempt at development. That’s insane and it just doesn’t work. To even attempt to cover that ground meant the flashbacks were hardly used at all, and I really missed the structure of giving each episode a focus on one character and telling their history at the same time as their present.

The other mistake of the season is focusing the time down on just a few days at the prison. That should bring some element of focus to the season, but because there are so many threads going on, it’s no more focused and just opens up confusion. I don’t think the writers plotted and structured it as well as they could, it felt like time was passing differently for different characters and there was no satisfaction to be had from interweaving of different strands.

Frankly, the whole thing was chaotic. And not in a good way. Characters had so little time – both screen time and actual passing time – to do anything, that they each got boiled down to just one or two aspects. The wavering tone made it impossible to either laugh at the comedy or allow yourself to really feel the impact of the tragedies. They continually undermine the weight of any of the serious messages they’re trying to introduce and it cheapens the whole thing. I was really disappointed.

The Americans: Season 5

I find it increasingly hard to explain why this show is so good, and I’m beginning to wonder if I like it more for what it was, than for what it is.
Looking back at the thirteen episodes of season 5 I’m hard pressed to remember much of what happened. The two things that I can really remember are things that irritated me. The drip feed of development of Phillip’s son over the last couple of seasons seemed to be reaching a climax as he travelled to the US to find his father. And then it was all for nothing. The story collapsed with nothing even slightly resembling a satisfying conclusion. We also spent a bunch of time with Oleg Burov back in Moscow that I had almost zero interest in. Much like the Nina storyline it felt like it was dragged out too long, attempting to make the story wider than just the Jennings family. But I simply wasn’t interested and it was so completely disconnected it just felt like a random bolt on to pad for time. I suppose it did give a look into what Russia is actually like, but that was also covered sufficiently through flashbacks.

The only storyline for the whole season was a good set up at least, introducing a new young spy for the Jennings to work with brought a new aspect, as did having them spy on and manipulate Russians for a change, all be it defected ones. There were some other storylines that came and went, but it all felt a little disconnected. Lots of bits here and there, some played well for comedy (Phillip trying to seduce the boring logistics woman) and others a bit more heartbreaking; but because they weren’t really joined up, they felt a bit manipulative – solely there to draw attention to the way the characters were feeling.

The show has also made a fairly rookie error in dedicating a chunk of time to the teenagers. This hardly ever ends well for a series and it’s getting grating here. I fully accept that Paige is having a difficult time of it and her situation is interesting and unusual, but I just got bored of her and the continual wavering between coming to terms with things, and falling apart again. The self-defence classes with Elizabeth were a nice touch, but it didn’t feel like they transformed the character much. Mind you, I was surprised and thrilled to see they gave Henry an actual personality and storyline.

The biggest problem I had was that I got bored watching it. The acting is still superb, really subtly showing the complex feelings the characters are going through. But that subtlety is overwhelming any actual activity. Minutes would go by and nothing would actually happen, watching people walking or driving. I get that the characters are thinking and making decisions, but we don’t actually need to see in real time them going through the options in their heads. Between scenes that went nowhere, and entire chunks of time spent away from the central plot, I found myself clock watching rather too much.

I do love this show, but I sometimes find myself wondering why. The next season will be the final one, and i don’t think I will be too sad about that, so long as the writers actually wrap it all up, hopefully giving them all some kind of happy ending.

Orphan Black: Season 5

I’ve written a lot of superlatives about Orphan Black over the years and it’s been one of the first things I mention whenever asked for recommendations of what to watch. Now that it’s finally (belatedly) found a home on Netflix, that recommendation is easier than ever. My only concern with the show was whether it could stick the landing or not. While the final season is far from the series’ best, and a way off a 10/10, it’s certainly a solid 8 and certainly enough to keep the show right up there in the medals.

I actually went back and re-watched the series from the start in preparation for the final season. I was trying to time it so that I would be able to watch straight through without having to wait for a weekly episode release. I got it wrong because I was completely unable to stop watching and got through all four season in about 10 days. That meant that I had to wait for each new episode like some kind of historical relic and that did hurt the pacing a bit, so I heartily advise putting aside a bunch of time to binge watch through it.

Part of the reason I wanted to re-watch was because I’d lost track of the story the twists and turns of the various plots, missions, conspiracies and… frankly what any of the ‘bad guys’ were actually trying to accomplish. To be honest I’m not sure that a second watch really helped much and I was a bit vague about things when season 5 started and by the end of the season I’d lost a lot of the strands altogether.

That should be a bad sign, possibly even a deal breaker. But the reason to watch Orphan Black isn’t the stories; it’s the characters. The final season has some wonderful character moments that build beautifully from all that has gone before. The problem I had with the season was that it was made up of moments, rather than sustained satisfaction. I don’t understand why some characters were sent away for multiple episodes – Helena, Felix and Alison were all completely absent for several episodes and they were missed PAINFULLY. Each got their big moment eventually, but I missed their presence in the background and the smaller moments of casual character and relationship development.

The production values of the show remain outstanding, there are more locations I think than ever and they all feel so deeply real. Of course the performances are all that we’ve come to expect. Tatiana Maslany’s performance still boggles me, I completely forget that it’s the same actress; Cosima, Alison, Helena and Sarah (not to mention all the other passing clones) are such distinct characters I have to remind myself it’s the same actress. The flawless editing that brings them together on screen is a phenomena. The supporting characters who surround the sisters help ground them enormously, having different relationships with each of them but embracing everyone as family.

Season 5 is not the best of the series and there were times early on that I was incredibly frustrated at the writers’ choices. But it rallied when it brought all its chickens home to roost and the last few episodes were perfect. I can understand that some might criticise that it was all wrapped up a bit too neatly in the end, and from a critical point of view I can sympathise with that. But from an emotional point of view, the ending was all I’d hoped for. I will miss this series and I’m sure it’s one I’ll come back to again and again in the future.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1

I am a big fan of the book. I know a lot of people studied it at school and that may have spoiled it for them in some ways, but I didn’t read it until my late twenties and I think I could understand and appreciate it a lot better. Most importantly to me it was a good story, with an intricate universe, well developed characters, and a carefully paced plot. It doesn’t matter how strong your message is if it’s not a book that I want to keep picking up. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with the message at the heart of the book, I wasn’t being lectured at or told off, just calmly shown a way that things can go which was terrifyingly believable.

In praising the book, I praise the TV series, because it has captured everything that I thought great about the book and made the most of all the opportunities that television offers. I can’t remember enough details from the book to know if the story is exactly recreated, but it gets all the big things right – the message and the feel. It’s certainly not an easy show to watch, but I still enjoyed it – there’s enough character and humour in it to make it something that you want to watch, not just something you should watch.

What the medium of television adds is the visual. I’m not someone who reads a book deliberately visualizing what I’m reading, I couldn’t describe what I think people look like or what the light is like, even when the book describes that explicitly I tend to skim it or forget it. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful to watch though, the style of the world so complex but simple – the future and the past, austere but luxurious. The framing and the grand spectacles could feel contrived for the sake of an eye catching shot, but they fit right in with the controlled nature of Gilead.

The other visual that you get of course is the body language and facial expressions of the actors, and so much is said without words by this incredible ensemble. Elisabeth Moss (who will forever be President Bartlett’s daughter to me) is phenomenal. Aided by an occasionally unnecessary (but often laugh out loud funny) voice over, there is never a moment of doubt as to how she’s trying to pretend to the world around her and what she’s really feeling. But the rest of the cast is also fabulously nuanced, Joseph Fiennes as Fred is charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) but it’s Yvonne Strahovski as Serena that I actually actually found the most interesting character – trapped yet in control, powerless yet proud. As with any great film making, it’s often the moments and scenes without words that have the most effect and that’s down to everyone involved – actors, directors, lighting, music and sound; some of those moments have remained with me for a long time (the circle of handmaids with stones, the march on the bridge, Ofglen’s face, the letters, the walk in the last episode).

The level of sexual and emotional violence makes it a very hard watch. The horror of the situations are not often clearly spoken aloud and that could be taken as an excuse to ‘not see’ what is really happening – as of course many of the characters are choosing. When it is spoken, and people finally use the word rape, it is devastatingly powerful, but there are other, more intimate and emotional tortures that are not verbally acknowledged, words that even this programme shies away from which nags in the back of my brain somewhat. It’s a show that cries out to be discussed, but at the same time you don’t want to talk about it because it’s so awful. This hits on all levels – the emotional connection to the individual characters, the depressing impact on the society and the how believable it is that small deviations from our own world (increasingly small sometimes) could credibly lead to their world.

There are miss-steps in the series. The pacing doesn’t always work, sometimes spending too long in flashbacks, or too long with other characters. It feels a little like Walking Dead sometimes when you spend too long away from one group of characters and find yourself disconnected from everything. However overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is stunning. Both in the sense that it’s a beautiful piece of film making craft; and the sense that the emotional punch leaves you stunned. One of the best television series I have seen in years.

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