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.