Archive for the ‘ Drama ’ Category

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.

13 Reasons Why: Season 1

Hmm. This is a challenging one to review. I found the series quite disconcerting and it split my opinion.

On one hand, this is a high school drama. It’s got the usual pre-occupation with sex and relationship, almost no schoolwork whatsoever, completely oblivious teachers and parents, an amount of casual substance abuse that you’d normally only see in a gritty 18 rated drama, and a cast who are all clearly in their twenties. The network of relationships and histories are complex, the shifts from “besties” to “mortal enemies” happen in a blink of an eye over trivial matters thanks to the complete and total self-involvement of individuals. But those very things make high school dramas tolerably entertaining, no more or less ridiculous than the average soap opera.

But this is also a story about a suicide. The story of a smart 17 year old girl who carefully and with a great deal of forethought decided to die. I wish so much that this was a pure fiction, but of course it is not and lives are being destroyed every day.

As an “old person”, a lot closer to the age of the parents than the kids, it’s easy to look down on the teenagers. You want to shout at them to grow up, to stop being so self-involved and selfish. Just calm down, talk to people and think of others and it will all be fine. The majority of the characters are not evil, they’re not deliberately making other people’s lives a misery, they’re just completely unable to think how their actions impact others.

I’m not suer how well the two aspects of the show work together. The early episodes are much more about the depressingly “normal” kind of crap kids apparently do to each other, while the latter episodes escalate things horribly. Every now and then a scene would feel like it was inserted just to remind us all that a girl is dead and that serious things are going on, because without those scenes it would be quite easy to trivialise them.

The cast are all very good, but they are not 16/17 and most of them do not look anything like high school students, so every time one of them does something ‘childish’ it seems trite, whereas if they looked 16/17 it would be more understandable that they are acting childishly, because they are.

The plot McGuffins of the show also undermine it. Really not holding up to scrutiny that well. The concept of the tapes is a good one for dramatic purposes, but it requires a lot of desperate sticking plasters of unlikely decisions and coincidences to hold it together. The Tony character became particularly frustrating; I liked the character a lot (although it would have been better if he’d actually been made a non-student a couple of years older to explain why he was more enlightened, without that age difference it again just highlighted the immaturity of the others), but he kept having to pop up to keep things on track and it was just too forced. Without spoiling the ending, I also thought that was a let down. There is some resolution to the why of things, but insufficient tying up of lose ends, or even acknowledgement of them. I think it would have been stronger as a one season show rather than setting up for a second.

Fundamentally there’s an incredibly powerful story that presents a teenage world that looks like an absolute nightmare to this 30-something. But it is undermined somewhat by too many storytelling/filming contrivances.

The Walking Dead: Season 7

I think the first episode of season 7 of The Walking Dead is a key turning point for the series. For a show that has already defied boundaries of violence and brutality, the introduction of Negan and Lucille marks a new extreme. Characters are pushed further than before and it’s very clear that none of them will ever be the same as they were before. For me, sadly, it marked the point that I fell out of love with the series.

I read spoilers of The Walking Dead, it’s not about a lack of patience for the few hours I’d have to wait to watch the episode, but it’s more about making the tension bearable. I find that if I’m stressed and uncertain about what’s going to happen in a show I care so much about, I just can’t concentrate on the nuances of the acting, writing and directing that make The Walking Dead what it is. So, I knew not only who met Lucille, but how and how the rest of the episode was drawn out. When it came to sitting to watch the episode that evening, I realised I didn’t want to see it. So I didn’t. After a couple of weeks, I still didn’t want to watch it, so I figured I’d wait until the whole half season backed up and I could box-set my way through it. But I still didn’t want to. Eventually the whole seventh season was waiting for me, and I still couldn’t face watching the first episode. So I didn’t. I skipped it. I watched the rest of the season and just missed the brutality of the first episode.

With or without the first episode, binge watching the season in a few days worked well, because if I had tried watching it an episode each week I’d probably have died of boredom. The entire synopsis of events can be written in a not terribly long paragraph (I checked), and thanks to the fact that most episodes follow just one plot line, only a few characters, all the stories are stop start, and you might get stuck for an hour with someone you just don’t care about. Slow and subtle character and plot development is one thing, but this is just glacial. We know most of the characters well enough that we know exactly what they’re thinking and watching them go very slowly through the motions is mind-numbingly dull. The majority of the stories were predictable, only the shock violence and the specifics of who died, when, were surprising.

Half of me wants to go back and watch another season to see if it’s the series or me that’s changed, the other half doesn’t want to risk that I’ll realise I was wrong all along. The writing this season felt ham-fisted and clumsy at times. Too many of the new characters felt cliche or over-the-top, and I was bothered by the logistics and realism in a way that I hadn’t been before – how far apart are these groups, how have they never tripped over each other, is that a realistic number of guns, how inept are they to not just shoot Negan, where is the petrol coming from? I’m struggling to engage with the newer characters and too many of the old characters are getting bogged down (not unreasonably I guess) in their traumas. When characters or groups reunite, the emotional impact was intense, but it felt more obviously manipulative than I remember it being in the past.

I think the problem is that Negan just feels like a hyped up version of The Governor, who was already close to a pantomime villain at times. Now that the walking dead themselves are not so much of a threat, human villains are having to get more extreme to make it comparable, but I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I was more interested in the politics between the different factions, the different styles of governance and how they interacted. The super-villain just felt unnecessary and stupid for a show that I always thought was more intelligent than that. I’m not angry. I’m just incredibly disappointed.

Bates Motel: Season 1-3

I’d been meaning to watch this for a while and finally spotted it while rummaging on Netflix. It’s just going into the fifth and final season so I’m pretty late for the party, but at least I’m now making up for lost time, powering through all the episodes that Netflix had available in just a couple of weeks.

When I first heard the idea of telling the backstory of the infamous Norman Bates from Psycho, I rolled my eyes a bit. There are enough remakes/prequels/sequels about, does the world really need a high-school age prequel of a horror film? Surprisingly, the world does. There’s something absolutely riveting about knowing how the story ends, but not really knowing anything about how they get there. You find yourself sympathising for them, or rooting for them, crossing your fingers that things will work out for them and constantly remembering that it’s not going to happen. It means the writers and actors can play, taking a step in one direction and raising hopes before lurching back again, in the early seasons they can be incredibly subtle and immediate red flags go up anyway.

The ongoing structure of the series is very well designed though. The story of the series is how Norman Bates becomes the character in Psycho, and his story is completely intertwined with his mother’s story. They arrive in a new town with already some troubling events in their past, but the location of their ‘fresh start’ rather dooms them, given that the town is far from a quiet seaside town. Each season is then a discrete-ish story of their connection with a particularly group of people, or local events. Each season is only 10 episodes long, which is just enough to build and resolve that story, and move along all the characters, generally with a bit of a cliffhanger to highlight the step changes. It starts feeling a little formulaic if you watch three seasons back-to-back like I did, but that’s rather a first world problem of my own cause and the fact that I wanted to go straight on to each season shows how good it is.

It quickly becomes clear that even though the audience thinks it knows the end of the story, there is a huge amount of uncertainty still to understand. This is as much the story of Norma as it is Norman and there’s a lot of questions about her past and her responsibility. There is also a vibrant ensemble of supporting characters who become increasingly important to the audience, they’re the writers’ innocent victims in the inevitable. Each character has a role to play in stabilising and destabilising particular situations, it’s an interconnected network that is fascinating to watch and all the people around Norma and Norman bring a normal context to them. Norma and Norman are big and over-blown characters and they’re not really much for subtlety, so the supporting characters deliver a necessary counterpoint in their more appropriate responses.

The tone of the series takes a little while to get settled, and the first season requires a little bit of faith. There are immediately some violent and traumatic events that feel as if they don’t land with the characters as intensely as they did with me. Given how little that key moment is then reflected back on over the subsequent dozens of episodes it felt a little like the writers bottled out of it after using it as a dramatic starting point. The series is still gripping and interesting from the get-go, but thinking back on it, it just didn’t seem as balanced and considered as later seasons. The level of violence, bloodshed and chaos in this supposed small town continues through later seasons, but it does feel like it hits the characters a little more appropriately. It’s still Jessica Fletcher level of improbability, but it sort of makes sense. This isn’t a subtle show,

I’m not sure whether it was always intended to be five seasons, long, but it’s a good length. The third season, the mid point of the five season arc really turned up the psychological elements, and there’s a lot more going on in looks and glances, but also a fair number of emotional explosions that really show how unstable everyone is becoming. We’re cresting the top of the roller-coaster and the only way is down. I heartily recommend this series, the only hesitation I would have is that it’s probably a good idea to be at least passingly familiar with the story of Psycho so that you can appreciate the references and the sense of inevitable destination. I think the series would still work without that, and probably even add something sometimes, but I would think the writers meant you to know the ending.

The Halcyon: Season 1

I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.

The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.

Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .

The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.

The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.

There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.

Modus

modusI seem to have a rule that I have to watch any drama that comes along with subtitles. It’s a mixture of pure pretentiousness on my part combined with at least a small amount of logic that if it’s a show that’s good enough to get picked up outside it’s country of origin, it can’t be that bad. Modus is one of the exceptions. It really was quite mediocre.

I don’t really know where to start on explaining its mediocrity, it was pretty much consistent throughout. The plots were contrived, the characters stereotyped and the scandi-ness overdone. A few times I wondered if it was actually attempting to be a parody. Everything just felt like they’d pulled dozens of ideas off a shelf and clumsily bodged them together. Too many ideas, too little imagination. The lead actress managed to bring some life to her character, but everyone around her either couldn’t, or wouldn’t do anything with their characters at all. Not that I necessarily blame them when the script gives them nothing but dumb cliches to work with.

It took me a few episodes to realise that it wasn’t very good, and by the time I did, thanks to the fact that the episodes were broadcast in pairs and it was only 8 episodes long, I figured I may as well just keep going to the end. Even at just 8 episodes it was horribly drawn out, adding boring and repetitive loops to stretch a couple more episodes. Then to add insult to injury, by the time the crimes were untangled and the criminals unveiled I was muttering and even shouting “oh come on!” at the television screen for its dubious presentation of… well… just about everyone actually, but particularly gay people. It wasn’t really good enough to feel outraged about it, but it was quite frustrating.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.