Merlin: Season 3

Merlin is a great example of what the BBC excels at – the great British institution of Saturday evening family entertainment. American mainstream television doesn’t seem to have an interest in producing this stuff, but if the success of BBC America (and I guess syfy channel fair such as Warehouse 13 and Eureka), is anything to go by there’s definitely a market for it.

The Autumn season of Merlin is the perfect counterpoint to the spring season of Doctor Who – two shows which understand the balance between cheesy jokes and action for the kids, with character development and intricate backstory and mythology for the adults.

Merlin is more kiddie oriented than Dr Who, there are far more jokes about bodily functions and the plots are generally pretty straightforward. The villains are all about long lingering evil looks and flouncing about the place. The ‘next time on Merlin’ sequences were often eye-rollingly frustrating this season, the brief trailer for the next episode seemingly packed full of repetitive motifs (a character falls for someone who’s not what they seem) and crawlingly slow character development (Gwen and Arthur look longingly at each other again). But actually when the episode rolls around there was always something new and the episodes were always entertaining.

The key to Merlin is the interactions of the characters and the humour they find everywhere. The banter and teasing is played with perfect timing, both laugh out loud funny and feeling perfectly natural. The contrast of these lighter moments with the weight of destiny which is clearly pushing on them all is nice managed, the jeopardy never so much as to get overwhelming. There’s the added satisfaction of seeing the elements of Arthurian legend slowly come together, not starting from where you expect, but gradually working their way together. Merlin is one of the staple shows in my house –excellent storytelling (all be it occasionally working with somewhat repetitive plots), entertaining writing, charming acting, beautiful costumes and locations, and a healthy dose of people hitting each other with swords add together to make near perfect Saturday evening entertainment.

I, Claudius

I finally got round to watching this classic BBC series coherently from end to end, I’ve seen occasional episodes and read the book but never got round to settling in for the full 12 hour series. It is everything that’s expected from the BBC period drama department at its height – absolutely superb, slightly odd and occasionally very easy to lose track of. Even though I knew a lot of the stories and history I struggled to keep track of all the characters and the relationships. It is in places a bit cheesy and over the top, but the cast is superb, the story is engaging and the script occasionally relieved by some humour.

Deadwood: Season 1

I just noticed the different seasons have different taglines – season 1 is “A hell of a place to make your fortune” and that’s a pretty good summary. Deadwood as a town is a large heap of mud and dirt on top of a heap of gold, Deadwood as a show is a large amount of HBO fuelled expletives on top of an amazing show.

To be honest, I think the number of expletives is a little much, there’s a great website that has calculated the average “f’s per minute” on the show is 1.56. Throw in the other expletives and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number rise as high as 2 per minute. You get used to it as the show goes on, but it seems ‘unnecessary’ (as my grandmother would say) at first. But you can get away with a lot on HBO and whatever you think of the swearing the violence and nudity make the show vibrant and more realistic than the PG13 you see on network tv.

The writing, plots, cast and direction are all superb. It’s quite hard to make comment beyond that; it’s hard to explain perfection, easy to criticise. Ian McShane is the stand out, mostly because of my awareness of how far he is from Lovejoy, but the rest of the cast is brilliant too, playing realistic characters held within the constraints of history. It’s just a shame not all the characters last long as everyone is interesting to watch from the series leads to recurring bit parts to one off body count fuelling guest stars.

The plots amble around, the episodes blur together in hindsight rather than having the neatly wrapped up plot-per-episode format. My one complaint would be that if I’d watched the show on TV week by week I’d have been driven to distraction by the abrupt, almost random endings of each episode. I strongly recommend watching the show in chunks on DVD instead.

DVD Special Features
It’s a nice box… that’s about it; there are absolutely no special features. Maybe that’s for the best as you stay in the history and with the characters more if you don’t see the behind the scenes. Maybe. Actually now I come to think of it, the box is pretty but the glue isn’t very good so it comes apart, so even the box is a bit disappointing.

Band of Brothers

An absolutely amazing series. I have enough respect for the film-makers to consider it part documentary, but it’s also funny, exciting and just damn good television. My only real issue with the series was that I had a hard job keeping track of characters, with a cast this vast, all wearing uniform and/or mud and a variety of names, ranks and nicknames it was pretty much impossible to keep track or people and relationships. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it feels like a disservice to the real people and the amazing actors to not be able to remember who is who.

This series really is one of the best pieces of film making I’ve ever seen, it’s frequently very hard to watch, but it should almost be considered required viewing.

Deadwood: Season 3

I enjoyed the third season a lot less than the first two, the things that were minor irritations in season 2 continued to grow throughout the third. There are so many threads going on that very few feel as if they were given fair treatment and many characters almost completely disappear. The introduction of the theatre and actors was a particular strange choice I felt.

The big plot of the season was interesting and could easily have carried all 12 episodes. The tension of the arc develops very nicely although I’m not sure about the resolution of the story (or lack there-of).

The good is still good – acting, comedy, chemistry, script – all superb. But I feel the unnecessarily complicated plot let them down.

Deadwood: Season 2

Wow. A lot happens this season, maybe too much. With new characters introduced some others get side-lined and I found the politics of annexation got a little tedious at times.

However those are relatively minor quibbles about an otherwise superb show however. Everything I praised in the first season is still superb and there’s not really much higher praise. One thing I didn’t comment on, and that I continue to find surprising, is just how funny the show is. With a look, a line or even just the situation I was frequently laughing out loud and wanting to share the joke with someone. I’m not sure a show with so much swearing in it can be referred to as ‘delightful’ but it comes pretty damn close.
DVD Special Features
ARGH! If you cannot be bothered to sort out licensing your special features from the region 1 discs to the region 2 for the love of all that’s holy show the respect of reprinting the packaging so the people who have paid you money don’t spend 5 minutes hunting for features that aren’t there. I will acknowledge that it’s a beautifully designed package with some nice artwork and character, but missing out on the half a dozen commentaries and having my nose rubbed in it really angers me.

Carnivàle: Season 2

My review of season 1 said that I wasn’t sure whether I liked the show or not and that how good the first season was would depend on whether the pay off of all the set up was worth it. With the series being cancelled season 2 is all the payoff we’re going to get and sadly I think it desperately needed a third season. 1 was the background for a battle, 2 was putting the troops on the relevant sides and the opening salvos, 3 would have been the battle itself (I suspect). Without getting to where it was going, I’m not sure that the rest of the journey was anything more than an interesting diversion – compare with if Babylon 5 had been axed after season 2. This is probably a bit harsh and stemming from my bitterness at the cancellation. I did find the episodes fascinating to watch – you can never really predict what most of the ‘supporting troops’ are going to do and which side they’ll pick, right up to the final moments of the last episode.

The style of the series is amazing and being HBO they can push things much further than ‘regular’ tv can get past the censors giving it a much grittier realistic feel. I think this may have had the potential to be great, but without it’s conclusion, I’m not sure where it ends up.

Carnivàle: Season 1

The basic premise is that we’re following a travelling freak show around in 1930’s dust bowl US. We join them as they pick up a stranger who doesn’t appear to be a freak but may well actually be the most ‘different’ of all of them. One of my favourite things about the series is that the characters are all flawed and by no means the most honest people on the planet, but they really are actually freaks – be that an actual bearded lady or a fortune teller who really can see the future. They are a spectacularly dysfunctional and bizarre family, and they know and acknowledge it. Except none of it’s acknowledged out-loud. It’s just the way things are. And the audience picks up on that as the new
member of the group does so too.

The other story running throughout and almost entirely independently I’m a bit less sure about. It follows a priest who seems to have some close connection with God, through visions and strange occurrences. Without spoilering his character goes through a quite impressive journey over the course of the season and the whole thing seems to be a very large set-up for… well, I’m not sure what.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go into such ramblings about the plot and just tell you what I think, but I honestly don’t think I know. I watched most of the 12 episodes of the season in a couple of days while off-sick and I don’t actually know whether I liked it or not, beyond that I didn’t want to stop watching. It was certainly beautifully shot and produced (as evidenced by an impressive haul of Emmys and other awards) and the scripting and acting is superb. However I can’t help feeling that the whole season is just one long scene setter for something much bigger, if it pays off then it’s challenging and daring, but if it fails, I can’t help thinking I’ll look back on the season as a disappointment.