Archive for the ‘ Drama ’ Category

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.

Victoria and The Crown

victoriaEarlier in the year I enthusiastically tuned into ITV’s period offering of Victoria. Jenna Coleman was utterly charming as the very young queen and carefully presented the complex character behind the portraits and there was some wonderful talents in the supporting cast (most notably Rufus Sewell). The period, the truth of history and the potential for untold fictions were a great set up for something truly interesting. The sets and costumes were also everything that you might hope for… and yet sadly that is where I run out of nice things to say.

Someone decided that rather than play it relatively straight, they would aim for another Downton Abbey. Then to add insult to injury, they failed to read the reviews of Downton Abbey and notice that no one at all had enjoyed the tacky and pathetic schemings of characters like Thomas and O’Brien. While Coleman and Sewell were acting their hearts out and doing their best to deliver nuanced performances with heart and soul, others amongst the cast were hamming their way through petty plotting, ‘mysterious’ back stories and some rather painful accents. I gave up after about 3 episodes.

So I was rather dubious about Netflix’s offering of The Crown, fearing that it would take a similar route, possibly made worse by having Americans involved. I was extremely happy to be wrong.

the-crownFirstly, the story of the young Princess Elizabeth, her secession to the throne and the early years of her reign are absolutely fascinating. The first season covers just 8 years (plus some flashbacks) and frankly 10 episodes/hours was not enough to do it justice. I think the writers did an excellent job combining coverage of big events and taking time to also see smaller, more personal moments and development, but I still wanted more every time. This isn’t just about Elizabeth, but about those around her too and I wanted to spend more time with everyone, understanding the role in the household, their background and their interactions.

The cast is jam packed with absolute stars, all walking a very carefully balanced line between performance and impression. Claire Foy (who I’d never heard of before) as Elizabeth is very impressive, she has to do something I’m guessing is incredibly hard as an actor which is acting someone who is acting. Elizabeth is actually a woman playing different roles to different people, and at this point in her life, she’s having to work out how to do that and which roles are needed for who. It’s what makes the character fascinating and also human, The Queen is not really someone any of us can really relate to, but Elizabeth the wife, Lilibet the daughter and sister, even Elizabeth the woman promoted into a job she’s not ready for… those are all much more interesting.

The style and look of the show are phenomenal, clearly demonstrating every penny of the
Reported £100m budget. The period-ness of it is less far removed than Victoria, which maybe helps make it more relatable. It all feels a little more familiar, a distant memory rather than a completely new world. Given that the existence the royal family lead is so different to normal life anyways, the period differences such as everyone smoking like chimneys, old cars, or telephone switchboards seem the least of the worries.

I found the show completely compelling to watch, burning through the series in just a few days, and I’m sorely tempted to go back and watch it again as I’m sure I’ve missed a great deal. The history is absolutely fascinating (and something I know little about), but the show’s real success is telling it all from a completely human point of view, making me really care about the characters in a way that Downton Abbey never even came close to. I look forward to the next five seasons!

Orange is the New Black: Season 4

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardI reviewed the previous three seasons in a block, and so have only actually talked about the show in broad terms before, never getting into specifics of storylines or characters. That makes this season a little harder to review, separating out a block of episodes from the rest, not least by time. It’s almost exactly a year since I watched the previous two seasons almost on top of each other (I watched season 1 a little earlier but didn’t review it separately) and I struggled to get back up to speed. It’s easy enough to look up some of the key facts of the previous seasons, but really getting back into the characters is hard, particularly when there are so many of them and the focuses are constantly shifting.

I think season 4 does stand out from the rest. The writers seem to be moving away from the use of flashbacks with a different character each episode and I think that’s a shame. I like the little snapshot of someone’s previous life that you get, not answering all the questions, but giving them backstory, emotional foundations and a look at what they’ve lost and what their lives could have been. The flashbacks were much shorter or even absent altogether and the choices of characters weren’t so good and I think that really impacted the depth and flavour of the show. I also think there was a move away from really showing that these people are criminals. Yes there are some cases of mental illness, bad luck or just stupidity, but most of them are genuinely guilty and fairly imprisoned and losing track of that is a mistake I think.

I don’t know whether the corporate overlords and irritating Linda-from-Procurement were an attempt to bring some comedy to the show again, but it didn’t work. Caputo has always been a borderline believable character for me, so on the plus side the ridiculous corporate politics made him seem a little more human, but only in comparison to their cliché ridden stereotypes, which isn’t really much to be thankful for.

The real problem is that the stupid characters (and I’m afraid I frequently have to include Piper in that category) play completely at odds with the seriousness of the situations unravelling in the prison. I have a horrible feeling I’m being entirely naïve that people running prisons couldn’t be so stupid and irresponsible as to allow these situations to develop, but by making some of the characters deliberately extreme and unbelievable, it undermines the serious point if that’s what the writers were actually trying to do.

This is the problem Orange is the New Black has again, and again – the uncertainty about whether it wants to be funny or serious. The subject matter covered this season (and also in previous ones) is horrific. Dealing with brutal emotional and physical issues. The way people treat each other (prisoners, guards, family in every combination) is horrible. You cannot and should not make light of that. There can be funny moments, everyone makes jokes in difficult circumstances and laughs at the insanity of situations, that’s what keeps people sane. I’m not saying I don’t want there to be laughter and humour, but it has to come from within the characters and situations, not introduced from outside artificially.

When this show plays it straight as a drama, it is incredibly good. The final hour, even just the final 10 seconds of the season is heart-stoppingly good. The quality of the acting, the intertwining of characters and storylines and the overall pacing of the plots are superb. The moments of genuine love and happiness among the prisoners are wonderful, the failures and hopelessness are heartbreaking. The show is so good, it’s only when it tries to be something that it doesn’t need to be that it really lets itself down and that’s just frustrating.