Catch-22


I have read Catch-22, but it was in 2006 and I have no direct memories of it. Fortunately I’ve been obsessively reviewing things for a long time so can look up what I thought of it:

I didn’t actually like this book very much, and to be honest, didn’t really think it was that good. There were definitely some funny and some powerful scenes, but as a whole I found the book overly complicated and poorly structured. I continuously lost track of which character was which and how the various incidents fit together in the time line and while I’m sure with a bit more effort it would have become clearer, I didn’t really feel it was worth the effort. The whole thing just left me with a craving to watch M*A*S*H again.

The good news is that I liked the mini-series a lot more. Although I still struggled a little bit with the characters (I’ve got a poor memory for faces and they’re all fairly similar 20 something white boys in the same uniforms) the jumping timelines were smoothed out and a lot clearer, and I had no problems tracking the events.

The tone of the series is rich and unusual, there’s absurdist humour, irony and satire; but also psychological drama, action sequences, gory horror and jump shocks. Sometimes they blend together, and sometimes they smash into one another. It managed to find some interesting place between credible reality and absurdist fantasy that somehow really worked, each reinforcing the other. So the visceral brutality of the war is simultaneously emphasised and reduced, while the ridiculous situations are made both more ridiculous and yet more believable. If vibrant lives can be snuffed out in an instant in front of your eyes and people can justify that as “heroic” or “not in vain”, how is anything unbelievable?

Tying everything together is Christopher Abbott as Yossarian. Even as his character falls apart, he holds everything together and is a voice of sanity (or maybe the voice of understandable insanity) throughout grounding the series as the ‘normal’ person struggling to remain normal by becoming abnormal.

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the series, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and beautiful direction and cinematography to get lost in, but the heart of it is quite depressing. There were also moments that genuinely shocked me, leaving me open mouthed and unable to move from the sofa even if I’d wanted to. At only 6 episodes long it doesn’t drag things out and is best binge watched in a couple of sessions rather than lingering on it too much. I do think it’s one of the few times that I can confidently say that I preferred it to the book, and it’s unusualness makes it worth a watch even if you do then need to try and forget what it’s saying about the world.

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The Alienist

This is very generic. Even the things about it that are shocking do so in a way that these days feels very generic. That’s probably a bit of a damning indictment of the level of sexual violence on television today make the prostitution of young boys and their murder something that’s not terribly remarkable. The beautifully created period setting adds a slight other-worldliness to everything, I was never sure whether I was watching events and characters that were realistic to the period, or if it was an anachronistic fantasy.

The plot moves at a good rate, and for me there were just the right number of twists and turns, steps forward and backwards. Similarly the various factions involve play off each other well, with the ‘heroes’ not just trying to find the bad guys, but also work around members of the police who are not moving with the times as much as anyone might like. It’s not terribly creative, but it is a very well structured story.

The generic-ness of the characters doesn’t work quite so well unfortunately, it’s all been seen before and that just makes it a bit tiresome. The somewhat clunking dialogue also doesn’t help. It’s a shame because it’s a very good cast who have all delivered very good performances elsewhere. I don’t think any of them were necessarily trying their hardest here, but the material they were working with wasn’t really giving them much opportunity.

I found this a solid way to pass a few hours in a pretty disposable kind of way.

The Halcyon: Season 1

I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.

The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.

Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .

The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.

The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.

There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.

Victoria and The Crown

victoriaEarlier in the year I enthusiastically tuned into ITV’s period offering of Victoria. Jenna Coleman was utterly charming as the very young queen and carefully presented the complex character behind the portraits and there was some wonderful talents in the supporting cast (most notably Rufus Sewell). The period, the truth of history and the potential for untold fictions were a great set up for something truly interesting. The sets and costumes were also everything that you might hope for… and yet sadly that is where I run out of nice things to say.

Someone decided that rather than play it relatively straight, they would aim for another Downton Abbey. Then to add insult to injury, they failed to read the reviews of Downton Abbey and notice that no one at all had enjoyed the tacky and pathetic schemings of characters like Thomas and O’Brien. While Coleman and Sewell were acting their hearts out and doing their best to deliver nuanced performances with heart and soul, others amongst the cast were hamming their way through petty plotting, ‘mysterious’ back stories and some rather painful accents. I gave up after about 3 episodes.

So I was rather dubious about Netflix’s offering of The Crown, fearing that it would take a similar route, possibly made worse by having Americans involved. I was extremely happy to be wrong.

the-crownFirstly, the story of the young Princess Elizabeth, her secession to the throne and the early years of her reign are absolutely fascinating. The first season covers just 8 years (plus some flashbacks) and frankly 10 episodes/hours was not enough to do it justice. I think the writers did an excellent job combining coverage of big events and taking time to also see smaller, more personal moments and development, but I still wanted more every time. This isn’t just about Elizabeth, but about those around her too and I wanted to spend more time with everyone, understanding the role in the household, their background and their interactions.

The cast is jam packed with absolute stars, all walking a very carefully balanced line between performance and impression. Claire Foy (who I’d never heard of before) as Elizabeth is very impressive, she has to do something I’m guessing is incredibly hard as an actor which is acting someone who is acting. Elizabeth is actually a woman playing different roles to different people, and at this point in her life, she’s having to work out how to do that and which roles are needed for who. It’s what makes the character fascinating and also human, The Queen is not really someone any of us can really relate to, but Elizabeth the wife, Lilibet the daughter and sister, even Elizabeth the woman promoted into a job she’s not ready for… those are all much more interesting.

The style and look of the show are phenomenal, clearly demonstrating every penny of the
Reported £100m budget. The period-ness of it is less far removed than Victoria, which maybe helps make it more relatable. It all feels a little more familiar, a distant memory rather than a completely new world. Given that the existence the royal family lead is so different to normal life anyways, the period differences such as everyone smoking like chimneys, old cars, or telephone switchboards seem the least of the worries.

I found the show completely compelling to watch, burning through the series in just a few days, and I’m sorely tempted to go back and watch it again as I’m sure I’ve missed a great deal. The history is absolutely fascinating (and something I know little about), but the show’s real success is telling it all from a completely human point of view, making me really care about the characters in a way that Downton Abbey never even came close to. I look forward to the next five seasons!

The Musketeers: Season 3

muskateerMusketeers is one of those shows that I found myself accidentally falling in love with and becoming mildly obsessed with, despite the fact that it’s a hugely flawed production. I’ve always thought it’s a near perfect setup and am astonished that it took so long to become a television series (not forgetting Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds of course). The four heroes are classic characters, the themes of loyalty, camaraderie, honour and betrayal are pretty universal and there’s plenty of opportunity for action, romance, thrills and humour. I’m guessing the period setting puts people off (although how good could a present day version be?), so it’s not surprising that it’s the BBC that finally took a run at it.

Frustratingly though, it seems the BBC gave up on the show before it even started, showing it hardly any love or support with the basic error of poor scheduling. I’ve always figured that the first season of the show was half written for a family Saturday evening slot to replace Merlin, but then pushed it to Sunday at 9pm, where its tone wasn’t a good fit, marketing was non-existent and its ratings suffered accordingly. Friday at 9pm for the 2nd season wasn’t much better and the 3rd season was announced as the last. By which point the BBC jut gave up altogether and scattered it around the schedules – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday… you name it, it aired there.

You can’t really blame the writers for feeling a bit peeved and lazy, but I wish they’d been just a bit better. The writing has always rather suffered from a focus on what needs to happen to support the immediate plot, often sacrificing the long term consistency. Too much of the previous seasons was spent with Machiavellian villains repeatedly getting beaten in their weekly plot, while the Musketeers still manage to come out behind. The writers took a particular “well sod it” attitude towards things in the final season, basically writing plots and moments to keep themselves happy and playing pretty fast and loose with credibility of both plot and character/relationship development.

The four year time jump between series two and three simultaneously left too much time passing and yet not enough changing. Aramis left them for four years, Athos had to be a captain rather than one of the men, and yet nothing really changed. Other than a couple of remarks, by episode two Aramis was completely re-integrated and Athos still went on every little adventure. D’Artagnan’s character actually did seem to have matured in those years, and the others did treat him more like a peer than a junior. But despite the title of the series, it turns out that it’s Constance who really got the best development. She had some good material in the first two seasons, but in season three she is confident, commanding and a wonderful foil to all the male characters. Tamla Kari’s beautiful performance blended a woman taking control while not losing her emotional core and uncertainties.

The poor consistency for the Musketeers themselves is frustrating because all the actors are more than capable of great performances, individually and as a group they’re hugely charismatic and versatile making each character a complex individual building from the classic archetypes. The characters and actors play off each other, always forming a balanced set. Athos, Porthos and Aramis as the triangle in everything – sword, fists and gun; head, heart and soul, thought, action, words – while D’Artagnon is always in the middle, tying them together or pushing them apart depending on what’s needed. You could pick any small scene and watch the poetry in motion of the actors and characters working and moving together to make a unit. Individually they’re ok, but together they’re wonderful.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the writers fully understood that and it was the very last episode that left me frustrated both as a critic and as a fan. The writers knew this was the final season and they wanted to basically go out with a huge bang while also tying everything up in a perfect bow. This required some particularly clumsy manoeuvring to get people (and history) in the right places. As a critic it was a frustrating exercise in fan-service with very few of the happy endings really feeling like they were earned. But the bigger problem is that as a fan, I still wasn’t satisfied.

You see the final resolution for our four musketeers is that each of them individually get their happy ending. Athos who had been driven to be a soldier because of the betrayal of his wife, gets the girl and a baby on the way and leaves soldiering for them. Porthos who had come from the streets and was treated as the muscle, is recognised for his leadership and strategising and made a general. And spontaneously gets married to a woman who doesn’t mind him soldiering (despite the fact that her husband, and father of her new baby, was killed on a battlefield). Aramis who craved adventure and as many women as possible to escape memories of the true loves he’d lost, left the musketeers to become First Minister of France where he can be near to the Queen and watch over his son. ‘Trainee’ D’Artagnon became captain, running the musketeers with Constance. Each is a happy stories individually, but they missed the point of what I loved about the stories of the musketeers – the group of them together. How can it be a happy ending when they are going in different directions?

Despite the somewhat clumsy plotting, and that somewhat sour end note, the series was never anything other than entertaining. I wonder what this show could have been if only the BBC had committed to it more. With the mixture of action, comedy, romance and drama; not to mention the incredibly detailed and beautiful period sets and costumes; it should have been a perfect candidate for an absolute hit. As it was, it’s a show that I suspect I will always remember more fondly than it maybe deserves, giving it the benefit of the doubt for what it came so close to being, rather than the slight mess that it actually was.

The Musketeers: Season 1

muskateerThe BBC seems to have an ongoing commitment to producing Saturday evening family dramas, shows that appeal to young and old by covering the full spectrum from fart jokes to existential crises, sometimes elegantly integrating the two (Doctor Who) and sometimes just swerving wildly between them (Merlin). I’m quite a fan of this type of show, at worst it makes for a mindless 45 minutes or so while eating dinner and as a bonus sometimes you get something a bit more substantial on top. So when the BBC announced they were doing a version of The Three Musketeers I was *almost* excited. I’ve loved the story of the musketeers since I was introduced to it via Dogtanian and the 70s comedy films starring Michael York and Oliver Reed. The story seemed a really good fit for Saturday evenings on BBC – swashbuckling action, palace intrigue, handsome young men with just about credible reasons to take their shirts off and friendly banter and camaraderie by the bucket load.

So I was rather surprised when rather than being a Saturday at 7pm show to fill in the gap left by the departure of Merlin, Musketeers appeared on Sunday at 9pm show. That immediately confused me, Sunday at 9pm is a very different timeslot, no kiddies to appease with running and swashing of buckles and instead an expectation of something a bit more thoughtful (The Crimson Field is now in the slot since Musketeers finished its run).

I’m not sure Musketeers ever got over that confusion. While the absence of bodily function jokes was a blessing, the darker story lines never felt like they were really being committed to. Elements of the show were still a little camp (yes Peter Capaldi, I’m looking at you and your beard) and somewhat silly when compared to the tone of some of the actual plots about the politics and acceptable actions of the period.

The repetitiveness of the stories really didn’t help either. It felt like pretty much every week one of the Musketeers found the love of his life, who was then placed in jeopardy and eventually had to be given up because being a Musketeer is too important and/or too dangerous to allow long term relationships to work out. The first couple of times it was interesting, but it got old pretty quick once it had looped past each of the four Musketeers at least once.

Of course The Musketeers lives and dies with the four main characters, and it took some time for the actors and audience to settle in with the characters. They’re iconic roles and the relatively unknown and inexperienced actors didn’t immediately bring them to life. It took me several episodes to get the hang of who was who and for them to ground each Musketeer into their familiar traits. But by the end of the season everything was coming together a lot more and I was starting to see the potential of each of the characters getting some more long term development than the isolated films have ever managed.

The female characters actually didn’t suffer from that problem as much. I wasn’t sure why they’d changed Constance’s role from being the Queen’s maid to being… actually, I can’t even remember how she got involved with the whole thing, but other than that minor problem, each of the three women (Constance, Milady and the Queen) was an interesting mix of strength and emotion.

One other thing the show did get right from the start at least was the production design. It looks both beautiful and right. Everything from the lavish French palaces to the leatherwork on the armour feels appropriately intricate. I also rather liked the style of the opening credits and the music that was used. Although again, it all fit a Saturday evening adventure series a little better than the 9pm drama slot.

If the show had been in the 7pm slot on Saturdays, I would have come down a lot more favourably. I acknowledge that’s pretty daft, particularly as I rarely watched the show live, but I had different expectations for a Sunday at 9pm show. If you approach the show as moderately disposable entertainment, then I think you’ll be satisfied. But if you’re looking for more, I think you’ll be disappointed with the first season. I will look forward to next season with revised expectations, although losing Peter Capaldi to Doctor Who (ironically of course to the Saturday at 7pm time slot) will be a blow to the series, so we’ll have to see how they cope with that.

Downton Abbey: Season 4

Downton AbbeyI’m really behind on my reviewing. So behind that I gave serious consideration to leaving my review of Downton until I’d also seen the Christmas Special. But I realised if I did that there was a chance that I wouldn’t be able to go off on my planned rant, because there’s the possibility that the writers may actually use the Christmas episode to develop some plot, because god knows, they didn’t bother with anything so petty for the rest of the season!

The early seasons packed massive amounts of content in, taking huge chronological jumps and dispensing with weddings, deaths, scandals, traumas and joy at breakneck speed. Between the hurtling pace and the Sunday night scheduling you never really get a chance to stop and think about the insanity until you’re heading to bed and already thinking about opening your inbox at work the next morning. Season 3 was the first indication of decline, because they somehow managed to combine both the hail storm of events with a general sense of wallowing which was impressively contradictory. But season 4 has dispensed with the plots and firmly settled in for a long extended wallow. When the announcer interrupted the end titles to tell us that we’d just watched the last episode of the season, I gave an audible, and impolite indication of my disbelief. How can it possibly be the end of the season when NOTHING HAS HAPPENED!?

The only thing that really happened all season felt less like a plot and more like a combination of an extended award submission clip reel and a massive PR engine. The rape of the ever-saccharine Anna was a moment of brutality that, like Sybil’s death last year, seemed completely incongruous with the rest of the series. While I’m in no doubt that this kind of horrible attack was uncommon at the time, I just felt that in the less-than-subtle hands of the Downton writers it was more about generating press for an otherwise pedestrian show than it was about highlighting elements of history that go uncommented on. Particularly by the time it got turned into being more about Bates’ anger than it was about Anna’s strength (just like last year they made Mrs Hughes cancer all-clear more about Carson than about her).

What else happened? Edith finally found a man that would marry her, then rather carelessly misplaced him in Nazi Germany, but not before falling predictably pregnant. Mary on the other hand was besieged with indistinguishable suitors like she was some combination of Helen of Troy from the Iliad and Penelope from the Odyssey (I have a proper classical education don’t’cha know). Which is frankly befuddling because she is neither a great beauty, she has absolutely no money of her own and is a “frightful bore”. Her only redeeming features this year appeared to be that she was able to scramble an egg and was willing to get a bit muddy.

There were plenty of minor twittery stories floating around, but nothing actually significant or unifying. New girl Rose came, fluttered about, fell in love with a black man, and then got her heart broken – and no one cared. O’Brien departed mysteriously – and no one cared. Kitchen maids got all in a fluster for various gangly footmen, Thomas schemed with the new lady’s maid whose name I never even registered, Tom sat next to a woman at a political meeting, Carson’s old friend came by, the dowager countess got sick then got better, Mrs Crowley got a gardener a job… it was all so tedious even Lord Grantham got sick of it and swanned off to America to avoid a couple of episodes.

I mean, it’s all still entertaining I guess. Settle in with a mug of something, a blanket to snuggle under and a crossword puzzle and you’ll be sufficiently entertained to transition you from your weekend towards an early night before going back to work, but that’s hardly the pinnacle of entertainment is it? It’s got the budget, it’s got the cast, it’s got the support… I just wish they’d do something with that!