Archive for the ‘ Families ’ Category

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.

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.