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.


iZombie and Lucifer: Season 4

These two shows both fall neatly into what I label as “ironing TV”. They’re shows that I put on when I’m doing something that needs some level of awareness but isn’t fully engrossing; if there’s an interesting bit of the episode, I can pause the ironing to watch it, but 90% of the time it just doesn’t need (or support) that much attention.

Part of the reason both Lucifer and iZombie fit this way of watching is that the structure of most episodes are built around a “case of the week” that is varying levels of forgettable, and occasionally outright annoying. This structure is better done on iZombie because it presents opportunities for fun with the zombie trick of taking on the characteristics of the person who’s brain was eaten, usually some sort of extreme personality (posh, germophobe, sports obsessed etc). It gives Rose McIver plenty of opportunities to shine and keeps things fresh. Lucifer however is less successful because the cases are always wafer thin with a completely obvious connection to the other stuff going on in the characters lives, I often felt like I was being treated like a bit of an idiot and it left me a bit bored and frustrated.

The 10% of the shows that are worth putting the iron down for are the ongoing storylines and characters that are building up. Both shows are playing with similar ideas about nature, destiny, self-awareness and acceptance – generally the fundamental themes at the heart of most of the supernatural genre. Also season 4 for both series are dealing with the fallout of “coming out”. On iZombie the world has found out about the zombies with all sorts of ramifications that each of the characters are having to deal with in different ways. That’s a rich canvas and the series juggles most of it fairly well, but it did sometimes feel like there were too many threads running and not intersecting often enough, with some left hanging and forgotten about by either writers or watchers. It also didn’t always blend well with the more quirky cases of the week and the caricature personalities being shown, the two elements were fighting each other at times.

Lucifer meanwhile has a more personal reveal with Chloe finally finding out Lucifer’s true nature, which in turn forces Lucifer to confront his own acceptance of who he is. The problem with this is that I’ve never really believed in Chloe as a character, she has little in the way of core personality, just her job really. Also the fact that she’s been with Lucifer this long and she’s never really challenged how he does what he does just undermines her. Lucifer is such a strong and charismatic character and I’ve never felt she balances him, it’s a missed opportunity for a strong female character which is disappointing (maybe due the gender inbalance in the writers room – imdb). There are more interesting threads going on with the supporting characters, but they’re not given much time to really breath.

Neither show particularly excited me, and both took me several months to get through, partly because of my lack of enthusiasm for ironing, but mostly because of my lack of engagement in the shows themselves. Lucifer is watchable because of the superb Tom Ellis, but fails to adequately support the richness of the potential. iZombie is doing something a bit more creative and interesting, but is maybe overstretching and trying to do too many things.

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are individually two of my favourite authors, and their joint work Good Omens has always been one of my absolutely favourites. Since hearing the announcement that it was being made into a TV series I was almost equal parts excited and anxious. Every bit of news that trickled out raised my hopes – Neil Gaiman’s involvement, each bit of absolutely perfect casting, every behind the scenes photo – they just seemed right. But even as I sat down to watch on the day of release I was scared. Previous television versions of Pratchett’s work just haven’t worked for me despite having all the right ingredients. Maybe what makes Pratchett’s words so perfect to read, just doesn’t work for screen.

I stayed a bit nervous until the title sequence rolled and then I started to relax.

Good Omens works. I’d been half expecting a really glossy, shiny, expensive Americanised series like American Gods; but Good Omens is none of these things. It’s quirky, quaint, a little shabby around the edges and incredibly British. It’s Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Enid Blyton (without the now dodgy bits), Vicar of Dibley, Dr Who. It’s charming and a little bit naff in places.

I burnt through 4 episodes on the Friday night it was released, and polished off the final 2 episodes before 10 am on Saturday morning. Frankly I’m a bit annoyed about that because I’d set aside all of Saturday to watch it and found myself at a bit of a loose end before it was even time for elevenses. The length is perfect though, it gets on with the plot without feeling like anything was dragged out or padding with red herrings. There was maybe another episode worth of fun to be had, particularly with the supporting angels, demons and horsemen, but that’s more me wanting to spend more time enjoying the series than it is about the quality of the pacing.

The casting is superb, full of names, voices and faces that are incredibly familiar, bringing instant chemistry and security. There’s a lot of hamming it up going on, at times it feels a little in danger of tipping over into an amateur dramatics production with people having a lot of fun. The special effects don’t help on that front, the CGI is often a little on the low budget side. The locations and sets also feel a little easy too, as if someone said, “you know what, there’s a building at the end of my road that would do for this”. But again, that kind of works. Shots of small village churches, London garden squares, shiny office lobbies all felt familiar and comfortable. They’re well shot, creatively framed with plenty of expensive crane and drone shots; it’s just they all feel a bit… quaint.

And that’s what the series needed. It’s exactly the right setting for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s story of big events in small places. It gives all the space to the words from the page, delivered by exactly the right people. It was everything I could have hoped for and I absolutely loved it.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1

I have vague memories of the original Sabrina television series, probably about the perfect amount as far as the creators of the new series are concerned – a mildly curious nostalgia without a defensive reverence. I immediately liked the idea of taking the teenage witch element and making it much darker and the show certainly on the surface delivers that with dark satanic rituals and casual references to pretty dark stuff, but I found if you really paid attention, it was all smoke and mirrors.

The pilot gets off to a good start with an immediate hook that Sabrina must soon decide between life as a human like her mother, or life as a witch like her father. Being raised by her father’s sisters following her parent’s death means that it’s assumed that she’ll commit to being a witch, taking a dark baptism on her 16th birthday and pledging loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. But that would mean leaving behind her human school, friends and boyfriend and Sabrina is not so certain, questioning what it really means to commit to the Dark Lord.

The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers don’t really know the answer to that question either, and really don’t want to have to commit to anything. Sabrina doesn’t really seem to have to give anything up – she uses magic, keeps the boyfriend, goes to both schools (although never has to do any actual work) and seems to have no real problem doing whatever she wants to do.

The show never really reconciles what it means to “commit to the Dark Lord” in terms of morality and principles. After a while it becomes apparent that although Sabrina’s family are full members of the church, they don’t seem to act on anything. There are dark things occasionally done by other witches, but it feels like that’s because they’re “bad guys” rather than because they’re witches. It felt all talk no action, like teenagers saying they’re satanists, drawing a pentagram with a sharpie and then going home to do their homework .

In addition to these problems at the heart of the concept, there are more mundane issues on the surface too. Characters are completely under-used (Ambrose, Salem the cat) and the less said about the utterly dreary Harvey the better. The directing/cinematography annoyed me from the very start and I didn’t really get used to it. There was some sort of effect being used that only a small amount of the screen would be in focus at any time and it drove me to distraction. Some of the sets felt incredibly artificial and cheap and some of the acting and/or script writing was pretty clunky, and even the costumes and make-up annoyed me at times.

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

Preacher: Season 1

I spent quite a lot of time while watching the ten episodes of Preacher not really fully understanding what was going on. Although it’s based on a graphic novel that did ring a vague bell with me, I had utterly no clue what the subject or tone of the show was going to be. Even for someone who watches quite a lot of shows that fall into the broad genre of ‘weird stuff’, this still felt very fresh and new. Yes there are elements that feel a bit familiar, Dogma, Supernatural, Good Omens… anything that’s got that theme of angels and religion not quite being entirely on the up-and-up. Combined with things like Twin Peaks and Fargo for the small town quirkiness. But overall I never really knew where it was going to go at any point and some of the reveals left me laughing with stunned disbelief.

The thing that really made me keep watching though was the style of it. Fargo is another touchpoint here, as is some of Tarantino’s stuff with the same quirky, self-knowing sense of humour combined with occasional violent and gory brutality. Preacher could turn on a dime from cryptic plotting to shocking violence and then break the tension with perfectly time dry humour – the simple comedic power of a quiet “huh”.

Style gets you a long way, which is a good job because there were a few points where things really dragged. The flashback sequences got a bit dreary, and repetitive (yes, I know there was a reason for that repetition, but it doesn’t make it less tedious). Character development was not necessarily the most coherent and consistent that I’ve ever seen, which wasn’t helped by the fact I often really struggled to understand what the characters were saying. I laughed out loud the first time they put subtitles up for the character with the severe speech impediment, because I didn’t find him any harder to understand than the thick Texas and Irish accents other characters chewed through.

It seemed a strange choice for Amazon to release Preacher as weekly episodes rather than as a box set, as it certainly played best watched in big chunks. I’m not entirely certain that the first episode by itself would have brought me back a week later. The unpredictability and freshness of the series are what really make it work and I felt that was served best by watching it in big chunks rather than episodically, but now that the whole thing is available, I’d heartily recommend it.

Lucifer: Season 1

Lucifer,_titleAided by the tragic demise of my sky dish, I blitzed my way through Lucifer on Amazon Prime over the space of a few days. It’s something of a one trick pony kind of show, it’s a good trick, which is enough to carry the 13 episode season, but the lack of other tricks (or ponies… I’m not quite sure about this metaphor) is a constantly niggling irritation.

The pony in question is the titular Lucifer. “Devil gets bored of hell and runs away to LA to run a nightclub” is a pretty good pitch. Added to that idea is the complexity of the character which makes him so much more than the stereotypical devil, which he himself gets very cross about. He doesn’t consider himself evil, in fact the very opposite – he punishes evil. He doesn’t force people to do evil things, he merely encourages people to follow their desires and takes satisfaction in punishing them when their desires aren’t all that they should be. He does have a sense of morality that doesn’t really match most people’s, but frankly when he explains his reasoning it kind of makes sense. He’s also got some pretty serious issues with his father of course. The elegance and complexity of the character, make a lot more sense when you realise it’s actually Neil Gaiman’s character from his Sandman series. Heaven knows nothing else in this series has that level of talent.

When you get away from Lucifer’s character and story you find yourself in the familiar, tedious and clumsy worlds of a procedural cop show. It’s “Castle, but with the devil instead of a writer” and the way he’s clumsily brought into each case is painful beyond belief. I also unfortunately just didn’t get anywhere near the same complexity, depth, or (sadly) acting talent from his partner’s character. She just felt very flimsy and insubstantial, like she wasn’t quite grounded in the show around her. It’s possible she lost me at the moment she revealed she named her daughter Trixie, which even Lucifer points out is a stripper name.

The show is pretty much worth watching for Lucifer and Tom Ellis’ portrayal. He’s incredibly charismatic and manages the dramatic shifts in tone from charming to terrifying at incredible speed. His character development and story is fascinating, and his interactions with those that really know who he is have a tremendous depth and history that leaves you wanting to know more. It’s just a shame that the mortal side of the deal is cheesy, obvious and amateur.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

strange_norrellI’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long for this book to make it to the screen, but after the wait I’m very glad that it ended up as a seven part miniseries with the BBC. For a start the BBC can generally be trusted to do a faithful adaptation, taking the tone and essence of a story while not being so tied to the details of the original that they reproduce flaws or fail to adapt for a different medium. Also seven parts, while a rather odd length, was perfect to show the evolution of the world and the characters, but avoided the slight dragginess of the original breeze block of a book.

What I loved most about the book and what this adaptation captured perfectly were the quirkiness and the sense of wonder. Susannah Clarke created a rich and deep world, and most importantly left elements of the history slightly muddled. Different people see and remember events differently; fact to one person is legend to another and the audience can never really know what the truth is. It’s wonderfully immersive and I never felt like I was stupid for not understanding something, or overwhelmed with explanations.

The other strength of the book that is beautifully recreated here is the complexity of the characters. Rather than the traditional simplicity of good guys and bad guys there are a collection of individuals with their own priorities, ambitions, flaws, courage and beliefs. Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are truly superb and show the complexity of their characters with impressive subtlety. It’s not really the plot about the restoration of English Magic, or the threat of the Fairy that is the centre of the story, but the shifting relationship between the titular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Their story is epic, but is told in relatively small moments and acts, each character insecure and uncertain, acting and reacting until the immensely satisfying conclusion.

The production values are everything you’d anticipate from a period production for the BBC. It also matches the tone of the book perfectly, it’s not the hyper-realistic detail that you might be used to, but at times it feels very much like you’re looking at sets and manufactured locations. It’s sort of as if you’re watching a production, rather than watching something that’s supposed to be as if you’re there. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it makes it feel like you’re watching a tale being told, acknowledging that it’s a story. It works really well with the other-worldliness of the story.

I really enjoyed this series. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it’s also really entertaining with plenty of wit and laugh out loud moments. I can really see this becoming a classic.

Game of Thrones: Season 4

Game of ThronesI’m not sure whether it was lowered expectations or a genuine improvement, but for the most part I enjoyed this season of Game of Thrones a lot more than the previous couple. It felt like there was a higher proportion of time spent on the more interesting storylines, a greater focus on the more rounded characters and a more even distribution of action, comedy and intrigue.

It’s hard to make generalised statements about the show because each thread has different pace and quality, but I really can’t be bothered to write a 17 page essay looking at each one individually. Broadly though, it felt like many of the characters were actually maturing and developing, reaching milestones that were significant enough to move things along to a new phase. It’s not that there haven’t been major steps before, but often those just meant the complete ending of a thread (Ned Stark, Rob Stark, Khal Drogo). This season characters have made commitments in a more non-suicidal way, so we can look forward to seeing the fallout of that for them, and those around them .

Many of the characters, when faced with these challenges have been forced out of their whininess and into action and it very much suits them. Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, Jon, Daenerys, Jamie, Bran and even Circe have been forced to commit themselves and their spirit has made them considerably more interesting to watch. They all feel like they’re a bit more involved with the bigger picture and what is right for their families and those who follow them, not just selfishly pursuing power. This helped bring the dispirate threads together more, although the near misses between characters was still epically frustrating.

I’m less fond of the more ‘wibbly’ storylines and anything that involves mystical wifflings. I still have no understanding or interest in whatever Stannis and the red haired witchy woman are on about, and Bran and his visions of trees also sort of pass me by. Splitting the difference are the stories around Jon Snow, the dispute with the wildlings around the wall is interesting, but the stuff about the White Walkers just went straight past me and I couldn’t help but giggle every time zombies appeared. Those three storylines also felt very far removed from all the other stories, in both tone and location.

After a relatively successful season, I was rather frustrated by the final two episodes. The penultimate episode focussed exclusively on one story and sadly it was one of the ones I wasn’t fussed about and then even worse it was really just one extended battle scene. It was well directed etc, but I just didn’t care. The last episode also left me rather cold, I’m not sure whether it was just the particular stories it focussed on, but rather than feel excited for the next season, I actually felt like this could be a good point to stop watching. It felt like decisions had been made (which was satisfying) but I don’t feel any enthusiasm for seeing how it works out.

I still tend to have to either pause or store up questions to ask my housemates questions about the details (they’ve read the books and I haven’t) because the finer details are passing me by. Words that are said with clear significance by characters I have to follow up on, particularly frustrating when it’s some of the last scenes of the season and clearly I’ve missed something huge. I don’t *think* it’s me being stupid, and I’m sure there are more elegant ways of reminding people of significant previous events. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Petyr (Littlefinger) Baelish’s extremely annoying and near spontaneous development of a thick Irish accent which completely threw me every scene he was in.

I always feel out of step on Game of Thrones. I just don’t agree that it’s the amazing piece of television that critics and the mass populace seem to think it is. There are some outstanding performances and the production values are certainly incredible, but in terms of story and structure it’s a meandering mess. There are better fantasy books and writers out there, better multi-thread series, and better grown up series using the violence and sex that’s allowed on cable to better effect. Game of Thrones is ok enough, and I’m glad there is a fantasy series with this much money being spent, but it could be so much better if it had used better source material.

American Horror Story: Coven (Season 3)

American Horror StoryI love the structure of American Horror Story which offers a completely new start each season – new story, new setting, new characters and new horror. It means that I was able to dislike season 2 (Asylum) and give up after a couple of episodes, but still come back for season 3 (Coven).

My issue with Asylum was that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, and because it was set in the past in an entirely unfamiliar setting, I found it very hard to engage and care about any of it. Moving Coven back to the present and having a couple of more accessible characters made it feel less like an uphill battle.

Mind you, part of what made it easier to watch is also something of a failing – I just didn’t find it particularly scary or unpleasant. Yes, there were moments and ideas that were grim, but as things went on and everything just layered on top of each other it became diluted. While avoiding spoilers as much as possible, there was so much coming and going, that every time a character departed it felt less and less permanent. And eventually you just become numb to the physical tortures, like you’re watching an old Batman where the violence is mitigated with ‘pow’ and ‘bam’ stickers. I wasn’t shocked, horrified, or appalled by anything. I really hope that says more about the show than it does about me!

The core story was a good one though, a modern day school for witches and the politics within their ranks. Jessica Lange once again gets a juicy part to play as the current leader whose power will desert her as her successor is revealed. The various teenage witches meanwhile are varyingly powerful, ambitious, out of control and bitchy, although at time they feel a little too one dimensional. Sarah Paulson’s character sits in the middle and is probably the most interesting and ‘normal’ of the lot of them, which sadly does leave her feeling a little plain in comparison.

I enjoyed the dozen or so episodes, but that was about it. While the first season felt like it was putting a fresh spin on traditional horror tropes and bringing them to a new audience via television, this just felt… disposable. It just didn’t seem to have the depth that the first season had which left me wanting to re-view it to follow through all the connections and implications. But as I said at the beginning, the beauty of the format is that each season is a chance to start again, so we’ll see what comes our way next year.

Dracula: Pilot Review

Dracula comes to London at the turn of the last century. By day he is a flamboyant American entrepreneur, by night he’s on a quest to take down a secret society.

My instinctive response to the announcement of a series about Dracula was a bored sigh. I’m not the biggest horror fan in the world and find that it tends to be derivative at the best of times (skipping creativity in favour of rehashing old themes and tropes that weren’t necessarily that great even when they were original) and making a series about not only vampires but The Vampire felt rather doomed from the start. But, there was a smidgeon of hope for originality in the setting and embracing the steampunk potential of the turn of the century.

So after watching the pilot, what do I think? To be honest I’ve got no idea. I’m not sure the show itself really knows what to think. This is not going to be one of my most coherent reviews.

On one hand it’s a bright and colourful romp. All the characters bordering on caricatures, plot bordering on ridiculous and as a whole it borders on pantomime. In tone it most reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes films, with Jonathon Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) channelling Robert Downey Jnr’s energy to play his ‘cover’ of an American entrepreneur bringing technology and charisma to stuffy British society. It’s thoroughly entertaining to watch his smug outmanoeuvring of the various lords and ladies.

On the other hand however, he’s far less interesting and engaging as the predictably dark and broody vampire. He’s not so much a complex character as a completely schizophrenic one with one half presenting interesting questions about motivations and morale standing, the other an outright murderer who slaughters not just those that have wronged him, but random women off the street as well. While the cautious friendship with journalist JOnathon Harker is intriguing on both sides, the long lingering looks at Mina Murry, the reincarnation (?) of his dead wife was considerably more tedious.

Overall the episode is a mess, dozens of clumsy questions raised and characters hinting at secrets and plans. But rather than being intrigued at how it would all fit together, the lack of elegance just left me convinced that the writers themselves were as in the dark as the audience and that they’d left things unsaid so they could work out rationales at a later date. It was vague on so many things it just felt uncertain rather than mysterious – is it an alternate history, how much ‘magic’ is there, who are the good guys? It felt like the writers were basically throwing everything at the audience and seeing what stuck.

I commented on the trailer that I was confused how something could look so expensive and so cheap all at the same time, and I remain confused (and a bit impressed). The sets, locations and costumes are all stunning, but the cast and writing all felt a little C-list. The anachronisms came so thick and fast that by half way through I was doubting whether anything was accurate and was more tempted to spend my time on wikipedia checking everything than I was watching the show. It is a slightly odd production, a joint UK/US series of 10 episodes, broadcast on NBC in the US, Sky Living in the UK and filmed in Bulgaria. It is from the head of the creator of the weird and wonderful Carnivale, but I don’t know whether this is an attempt to be more mainstream, or it’s just been dumbed down, but Dracula really didn’t draw me in the way that Carnivale did.

I was entertained watching it, but that was at least partly because I was watching it with someone else who would join me in mocking it. I think I might stick with it a little longer just because I’m so confused by it. That’s really not a very good recommendation for anyone else to watch it, but I guess it’s not an outright suggestion to avoid it either. There – now you’re as confused about it as I am!