Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Stranger Things: Season 3

strangerthingsWhile many hailed season 1 of this series as some sort of incredible phenomena I couldn’t really summon up much more than ambivalence towards it. It was absolutely fine, even good, but I failed to experience the magic that some others had. Season 2 faired even more poorly as I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. So I wasn’t particularly enthused by season 3. It did however perfectly match my mood for a weekend where I couldn’t summon the energy to really commit to anything and just wanted something to put on that I wasn’t really invested in and wouldn’t challenge me too much.

I’m not sure whether it was those changed expectations, or a change in the series, but I enjoyed season 3 a lot more than I remember enjoying the previous series. I think there was a bit of a change of scale, although the situation the kids found themselves in did end up being pretty serious, it didn’t feel quite as emotionally intense as previous seasons. It felt like there was time to breath and muck about, that interludes of teenage relationships weren’t just a distraction. In fact while the plot itself was absolutely fine (and less confusing than the whole upside down thing), it was these relationships that are the heart of the season.

These relationships covered the whole lifecycle of romance and friendship. There’s the initial flirting and crushes, first love, relationships moving beyond high school, marriages on the rocks and grown ups acting like teenagers circling round each other. There are also some beautiful moments of friendship, new pairings, changing relationships and even the sadness of groups that are drifting apart. There’s heartbreak and humour, silliness and real heart. All the actors are charismatic individually, and together, with some great additions to the cast and I really found myself enjoying spending time with them regardless of what they were doing.

Without spoiling, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the ending as I think it reverted a little to the darker side of storylines which I didn’t really want. I like the easy going adventure style, where although in the moment it seems perilous there’s a safety that nothing bad will really happen. The ending made sense, it wasn’t forced or anything, I just didn’t think it was really necessary and was disappointed that a season I’d enjoyed so much actually left me feeling sad.

Killjoys: Season 1-4

Canada has always done an extremely solid line in excellent, character driven science fiction. My understanding is that it’s thanks to generous tax breaks and a wide variety of different landscapes in a relatively small geographical area, making it perfect for any series where the characters are travelling a lot. So X-Files, Warehouse 13 and Supernatural could tour the US while the Stargate franchise, Dark Matter and Battlestar Galactica can tour the universe. It can get a little incestuous with the same names and faces appearing in cast and crew and the same forests and mountains subbing for different cities, planets, spaceships and whatever else the imagination can summon. But they all know how to make the money go a long way – making the most of minimal set dressing, effective stunts and special effects rather than flashy but insubstantial CGI, and writers and actors who can deliver meaningful scenes in a bare corridor, or the small standing set that they use every week.

Killjoys is a very worthy entry into this great pantheon. The building blocks of the plot can be taken from any role-playing adventure – the characters fall into their assigned roles neatly (warrior princess, thief, soldier, cleric, medic, gay bartender) and head off on requisite quests and heists. But the universe behind it is half science fiction exploration of a class based society gone mad, and half like a bad trip (shared memories stored in “the green”, bodysnatcher goo and unkillable zombie like opponents) with conspiracy theories and wars being fought across the millennia. As I try to write it down, I realise that I don’t really understand the plot. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not about any of that. It’s about characters.

The three main characters (the warrior princess, the thief and the soldier) form an incredibly strong core to the series. They are beautifully written, and wonderfully acted. Killjoys could be used to teach what good character and relationship writing looks like. The thief (Johnny) and the warrior (Dutch) are bounty hunters (known as killjoys), the soldier (D’Avin) is Johny’s estranged brother, suddenly landing in the middle of their lives. The relationships between the trio, and the individual pairings are all wonderfully nuanced, but it’s the relationship between Johnny and Dutch that is my absolute favourite. They are soulmates, they are codependent, rely on each other, bicker away and call each other on their crap. But they are not in love. They freely admit they love each other, but they are family not romance. The openness and trust between the two is beautiful; while the worlds shift around them, they are bedrock.

The other thing is, the series is FUNNY. Proper laugh out loud, spit out your tea, rewind to hear it again, funny. There’s a realness to both language and delivery that has me smiling just thinking about it. It’s not elegant in terms of creativity of language or delivering complex set ups; it’s the hilarity of a perfectly timed swear word, a shared sigh, a heartfelt insult, an acknowledgement of insanity, a well timed pratfall. It’s the private jokes of family members, that are somehow feel inclusive rather than exclusive.

I love this series. I powered through it, and then went back and re-watched many of the episodes to obsessively seek out key moments and lines. Yeah, the plot goes a bit nuts and there are holes that you could drive an asteroid through should you chose to look for them, but it’s such a fun ride that I just don’t care.

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.

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.