Archive for the ‘ Families ’ Category

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1

I gave this show a try for no particular reasons. I knew it had won awards and praise, but not so much that I felt I absolutely had to watch it, particularly given that no one I knew was actually watching it. Nothing about the brief blurb I read particularly connected with me, there weren’t any actors that I recognised and to be honest the trailer rather put me off. I think I probably just watched it because I couldn’t face surfing through Netflix’s endless lists so I just plumped for the thing it was advertising at the top. From that incredibly apathetic start came one of my favourite experiences watching television for a long time.

I think ‘charming’ is probably the word that I’d most use. Which is a little odd because there’s a lot of weight and depth to the show. Just like the main character – on the surface there’s politeness and wit and bubbliness; but underneath is real emotion, heartache even; not to mention some well delivered vulgarity.

The blurb will make you expect a TV show about being a stand-up comic, particularly a female one; however it’s as much about being a ‘good’ Jewish housewife, about defying expectations. It’s not about whether she’s a comic who happens to be those things, or a housewife who happens to be a comic. Mrs Maisel is a fully realised character, a REAL character, one who is still working out who she is and what she wants to be, while dealing with the expectations and perceptions of all those around her, and that she puts on herself.

There are some really beautiful moments throughout the series. They’re so exquisitely written that I could write entire essays about them. The writers do not constrain themselves with standard approaches, they write just like life – serious ideas that are surrounded with comedy, or stand up routines that are full of pure emotion. I laughed at sad bits, cried at funny bits, and literally applauded the screen. I wanted to watch the whole thing without stopping, but I also wanted to savour it and make it last longer.

There are some series that seem unremarkable in offering, and even on first glance if you’re not paying attention, when you’re watching can seem nothing special. But a little bit of thought and focus and you’ll find something that will really stick with you and you’ll cherish. That’s Mrs Maisel.

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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.

Casual: Seasons 1-3

I powered through three seasons of this in just a couple of weeks. It’s only about 40 episodes in total, and they’re only 1/2 hour, so it’s no big commitment of time. However, it does do a slightly odd thing to your brain to spend that amount of time with the characters and leaves you with a rather more foul-mouthed and cynical view of humanity. Which should probably be considered a bad thing, but I found it mildly empowering.

I was gripped from the first episode because the tone of the three central characters – teenage Laura, mum Valerie and uncle Alex was so brutally frank and open that I practically gave myself hiccups laughing and gasping simultaneously at them. I could recognise the distant echoes of my close circle of friends and family in the scorching lines, a lot of “I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I can with you”.

The ‘casual’ relationships that the title refers to is less familiar, and a look into a terrifying world at the extremes (at least I hope they’re extremes) of the dating world. It’s a very clever set up of three characters – Alex is the ‘expert’, the insider in the world having written a dating app; Valerie is the newbie, getting divorced and not sure what she wants or how it works; Laura is the naïve cynic, thinking that she knows exactly what she’s doing, but really just being a confused teenager. None of them really know what they’re doing and screw up in truly spectacular ways that, frankly, anyone could see is going to end in disaster.

The relationships between them are alternately lovely and horrific, each knowing exactly how to support and how to hurt the others. The cast of supporting characters alternately ground the series (the utterly superb Leon, charmingly fun Leia and some of the transitory relationships) or just push it to new absurdity (the parents really do explain how Alex and Valerie became this messed up) and for the most part balance everything out.

Mostly the series is played for laughs. Real people wouldn’t screw up (quite) this badly or (quite) this often, and would climb out of holes rather than just digging deeper and deeper (I hope). There are moments that it all gets a bit much, the situations just get a bit too depressing and too far from the comedy that it mostly purports to be. It’s best to watch in big chunks as most of the stories span multiple episodes, and you can then power through the blips. Taken at a run like that, it’s a lot of fun, and when I ran out of episodes, I felt slightly lonely. They’re horrible, terrible, insane people, but they’re a lot of fun to spend time with.

Seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon video, season 4 will be the final one and will probably be on Amazon next year sometime.

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.

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.

Orphan Black: Season 4

orphanblackThis was the penultimate season of Orphan Black and I need to make a mental note to re-watch the series from the beginning as it’s increasingly evident that I’ve no idea what on earth the plot is on about. Given that condition, it’s quite impressive how much I still enjoyed the season!

There is a huge amount of plot going on, conspiracies within conspiracies, groups within groups and double crossings going around in circles. I’m not absolutely certain that the audience is actually meant to follow it at all. I think it just about manages to not be repetitive or too frustratingly going down repeated dead ends, but given that I’d very little recollection of what happened in previous seasons, and rapidly lost track of what was going on in the current episodes (despite watching them all over just three days) I can’t really guarantee that the whole thing wasn’t just a giant nest of incoherence.

But where the plot does succeed is in generating scenarios for playing with the characters. Each of the clones and the surrounding characters gets a chance to shine with their strengths and struggle outside their comfort zones. Serious characters get to let lose a little, those that are more often the light relief get to show some emotional depth and those that are usually in control get their turn at being out of the loop.

There are lots of connections between the characters that continue to delight. The relationships between the sisters themselves is lovely. These women who share a complete genetic identity, yet are so different and got thrown together. They bicker away, but they truly care for each other, worrying for Cosima, taking care of Helena even when she scares them, the flashbacks showing Beth as part of the original family, even the exasperated response to Krystal. There are some equally lovely relationships in the extended family too – straight laced Alison’s unlikely friendship with Felix, Scott’s partnership with Cosima, Art’s with Sarah, Donnie’s nervous connection with Helena, the clone’s odd relationships with Kendall, and Mrs S’s contrasting relationships with each clone. But I did think a couple of balls were dropped. There was an interesting set up for conflict between Sarah and Felix, with him looking for something for himself, but that challenge just sort of fizzled out.

I’ve said before that I watch television for the characters not so much for the plots and Orphan Black is basically the key proof of that. The fact that I can’t or don’t follow the plot doesn’t really matter as I just want to see all that extended ensemble play together (while remembering of course the incredible acting achievement of half of the ensemble being played by the same actress). The plot is of course necessary as a catalyst for those characters and relationships, but I do wish a bit that it wasn’t so convoluted and could give a bit more time for more character exploration. I’m not saying that I want it to just be a soap opera style show about the average day-to-day lives of a group of people who happen to be clones, but a bit simpler might not hurt.

American Gothic: Season 1

american-gothicThis is proper escapist television, pretty much completely rubbish, but just absorbing enough to keep you from any risk of thinking about the ironing that needs to be done, or the stupid meeting you have to go to. Sometimes I want to watch something meaningful, with plot and character arc and sense, other times I really do just want to watch barely believable tosh. American Gothic thoroughly obliges on the tosh front.

I’m going to assume that the writers were aiming for that, making a deliberate choice to embrace the mediocre, rather than trying to create something smart and missing by a country mile. The Hawthorne family and their close associates are a bunch of either morons, or manipulative assholes, or sometimes both at the same time. Pretty much no one is innocent or really terribly likeable, so there’s not really much chance of getting emotionally engaged.

The twisting and turning of the plot is actually pretty engaging. I guess some will get bored and frustrated with the endless stream of red herrings, dead ends and endless layers of motives. It’s a show that for once these days probably doesn’t work so well if you try to watch the whole thing as a box set, you become a bit resigned and disengaged as the sheer number of twists fall over themselves in a rush. But watching one or two episodes at a time fits the more soap opera style of the story. I felt like I was guessing each reveal only slightly ahead of the characters, which was enough to feel slightly smug, but not so much as to just shout at them for being so dim.

This is like Downton Abbey, or a soap opera – entertaining and diverting. It’s not quite mindless, there’s enough plot to actually keep you listening and paying attention, without really requiring you to engage your brain or get too emotionally connected. That doesn’t sound like very high praise, but it seems to be a rather tricky balance to find on TV with too many just ending up mindless and boring.

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