Archive for the ‘ Families ’ Category

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.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 12

Grey's AnatomyI not only had to look up what number season this was, but I had to look up what on earth happened as i’d forgotten most of the details. Broadly speaking I still love Grey’s Anatomy. It’s my first pick for comfort viewing and I don’t even think about watching it without snuggling up on the sofa with a blanket, unhealthy food and a soothing drink. That said, this is the twelfth of these reviews that I’ve had to write, some I’m gonna break out the bullet points. It’s a bit spoilery, but I don’t think anyone really cares.

Things I didn’t like

  • What’s her face, Penny – she never really landed as her own character, as evidenced by the fact that I had to look up her name. She was just there to drive stories in other characters, Meredith, Cally and even the other young characters when it came to the bloody Preminger Grant. It just didn’t feel like she had the same depth of character that the others had
  • Callie and Arizona’s custody battle – where did that come from?! Cally wanting to take Sophia away without even considering it a big thing? Then the court hearing was so utterly artificial and inept. AND THEN Arizona deciding to let Sophia go anyway?!
  • Jo – good grief the girl is awful. She’s whiny and annoying at the best of times, but then it turns out that she’s supposedly kept this massive secret from Alex all this time. Some more poor writing.
  • Owen and Nathan’s antagonistic relationship and drawn out secret history that then turned out to not be that exciting. The only good moment of the whole thing was when they suddenly snapped into sync in a surgery.
  • DeLuca – Winning the prize for most under-used character this year. There just didn’t seem any point to him. His relationship with Maggie never seemed to go anywhere and her over-reaction to dating an intern was rather jolting given the rest of the relationships on the show!
  • Childcare – there’s a LOT of children and some incredibly flexible childcare arrangements going on

Things I’m not sure about

  • Amelia – she can be massively annoying at times, but at least it feels deliberate. She is just a pain in the arse sometimes, that’s not bad writing, it’s just how she is. Doesn’t mean I don’t wanna slap her sometimes though.
  • Stephanie – likewise I’m on the fence about her. I guess she’s a bit like Christina, restrained, ambitious and confident, but she just doesn’t have a Meredith to bring out the emotional elements. The weird whistle-stop romance with the musician felt like a cheap attempt to give her a more emotional storyline and soften the character and it just didn’t work.
  • I can’t remember any of the actual patients. It’s not exactly the point of the show, but usually there are a couple that stand out, even if only for being notable guest stars, but I can’t remember a single one this time.

Things I like

  • Family. Over the years the theme of family has been about the family you chose, not just romantically but about the brothers and sisters you chose. This year there was a bit more focus on actual family as Meredith, Amelia (her sister in law) and Maggie (her half sister) shared a house and kids. Watching Maggie’s sudden acquisition of a family, and Meredith and Amelia’s strained relationship introduced some new ideas.
  • Carpooling – there were a lot of laughs to be had about the recurring carpooling that went on throughout the series.
  • The music – the soundtrack of the series continues to be superb, and I liked that they were using some classic songs completely re-imagined. I wish they’d release more albums, the ones I have from the first few seasons are still my top playlist.
  • Alex and Meredith – I adore that Alex has stepped into Christina’s shoes and is completely Meredith’s person now and she is his. I would rewind their scenes together because I so loved the familiarity and complete lack of bullshit between them.
  • Referencing – the show generally remembers where it came from and where its characters have been. Most obviously of course is that Meredith wasn’t suddenly over Derek, but it was the little mentions of long past events and characters that made me smile. With 12 years of history, there’s a lot of shorthand that can be used with the audience to evoke emotions, a snippet of a song, characters lying on the grass, events and characters long gone; calling back on them gives me a little warm glow. Long may that continue.

Transparent: Season 1

transparentTransparent is basically a family drama. Although the driver of the story is the father’s revelation that he has been hiding the fact that he identifies as a woman, really the series is as much about how the three adult children respond to that as it is about their father’s new life. Through their reactions and a series of flashbacks it becomes quite clear how much this secret has impacted everyone’s lives, shaping relationships, and impacting the way everyone manages their emotions.

I guess it’s a spoiler, but it’s hard to review the show without noting that none of the three offspring seem particularly pleasant or well-balanced to start with and their frequently selfish responses to their father’s news really don’t inspire you to want to spend more time with them. I found them all pretty irritating, but the oldest daughter at least seemed to exhibit some awareness and even consideration of how other people might feel, even if the way she manages her own life is still pretty childish. But the middle son and youngest daughter basically seemed to be in an ongoing competition to see who could be more horrific. Obviously it’s not hard to connect their spoilt, self-centred, entitled attitudes to their emotionally distant parents, with their father never being truly himself, but the explanation doesn’t make them any less frustrating to spend time with.

All the likeability of the series comes from the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor as Maura. Maura is fundamentally just more likeable, she’s far from perfect, but there’s a vulnerability, courage and also a joy to her that just makes you want to spend more time with her. The flashbacks are very well handled, showing just how different she was as Mort. I like that they started the series with Maura coming out to her family and then flashing back to show her progression to this point. Telling the story linearly from either point wouldn’t have shown the contrast and growth nearly so clearly and it would have got boring quite quickly I think, this way allows a much fuller exploration of the journey.

I powered my way through this series in just one day. It’s not really that hard as it’s only ten half hour episodes, and I basically slotted it in around household chores and DIY. I this is a near perfect way to watch actually. You need to keep using the momentum that the beautiful writing and incredible Tambor generate to power you through the frustrations of the hateful younger children and the occasional diversions into whimsy. I’m not entirely sure how much more time I want to spend with the family, a movie actually may have been sufficient, but I certainly intend to return next season and hope that the younger characters can be somewhat less insufferable.

Jane the Virgin: Pilot Review

Jane_the_Virgin_logo (1)Jane is saving herself for marriage for various reasons including god, a terrifying grandmother, a mother who got pregnant at 16, and a heartfelt belief in romance. But then she is accidentally artificially inseminated with her boss’s sperm. Obviously.

To be honest, the accidental artificial insemination is one of the least far-fetched things in the whole of the first two episodes. The ludicrous network that’s built up between a relatively small pool of characters is truly stupendous. It is immediately clear that it’s based on a telenovela (like the one that actually appears in the show), with tenuous plots, shock reveals and manipulative cliff hangers. But those tricks keep soaps on the air for decades, and they work just as well here.

While the plots and several of the characters are ridiculous the show is completely grounded by the utterly charming Gina Rodriguez as Jane. In the face of all the insanity, she behaves exactly as you’d expect a normal person to behave. With tears, inappropriate jokes, embarrassment and a huge amount of heart. She’s the eye of the storm from which all the craziness emanates and focusses back, but she remains a point of normalcy.

I watched the first two episodes back-to-back which I think was actually a mistake, and a good indicator that this is a show best watched in small chunks. When you watch one episode the quirky narration is charming, the rollercoaster plots exhilarating and the over-the-top characters are entertaining. But despite the fact that fundamentally nothing changed for the second episode, I found the narration just frustrating in the way it dropped hints and/or restated the obvious, the larger characters were irritating, and the bouncing plot was just too much.

In moderation I think this could be a really entertaining and diverting show. It is refreshing in its enthusiasm and vibrancy, with just the right levels of comedy and melodrama to make it a guilty pleasure or comfort watch. If it settles down a bit it may have the potential to be a bit more than that and tell some original stories about colourful characters. Like a great desert though, you just have to make sure you don’t eat too much in one sitting.

Blue Bloods: Season 3

Blue BloodsI’m struggling to think of a single thing to say about this season that isn’t just a repeat of last year. Actually, why bother – here’s what I said last year.

First up… nothing happened! Of 22 plots and probably a similar number of sub-plots, I only remember a few moments scattered about… I often struggled to remember what was going on in the middle of the episodes, let alone weeks or months later…and if I can’t remember the cases, you can bet your life that I didn’t actually care about any of them.

That would be fine if the cases were just there as a vehicle to bigger stories or character development, but nothing happened on that front either.

I even gave them some helpful hints about how to make the series better – giving the characters new challenges, putting them in different situations, bringing new characters into the family… They obviously decided not to listen to me, because they just puttered along exactly as they did the last two years. In fact, they actually got rid of one of the characters I liked (Danny’s partner) and failed to replace her with a regular character. The Regans need people to challenge them, otherwise they’re just sanctimonious.

So once again I’m left explaining that I watch the series because I love Tom Selleck and because it’s so easy to watch it’s practically wallpaper. Blue Bloods is always there for those times that you have ironing to do and don’t want to spoil one of the shows you actually enjoy by being distracted. It’s continued presence on my todo list next year is only really based on the fact that with CSI:NY finishing, I need to have something mediocre to make ironing bearable