You: Season 1

Netflix was pushing this fairly heavily, but I’d dismissed it slightly out of hand. I’d spotted that it was based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, and I’d recently read her second book (Providence) and been underwhelmed with unconvincing relationships and a distracted story. But then the buzz for You started building and I was informed by a couple of people that I HAD to watch it. So I did. And once I’d started I couldn’t stop.

It’s the kind of show that if I describe the individual elements and how I feel about them, it would probably make you think I didn’t like it. It’s about a group of 20-something New Yorkers who are by and large pretty awful people. The central story focuses on, and is largely narrated by Joe, a quintessential Nice Guy bookshop manager who falls for wannabe writer Beck, who is equally the quintessential Writer – she’s struggling to make ends meet and yet lives in a stunning apartment, is rarely seen working (either on her writing or her job as, of course, a yoga teacher), and is always out at expensive bars. Her circle of friends are rich and vapid (one actually has a job as an instagram influencer). Joe immediately becomes obsessed with Beck and things spiral quite rapidly in some incredibly creepy and violent directions, it very quickly becomes clear that Joe is quite the expert stalker and there’s a lot in his past that he’s not sharing.

What really pulled me into the show though was the voice over. We are watching the show from inside Joe’s brain, he’s narrating and talking throughout, explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing. While that never justifies his actions it does explain why he is doing everything. You can track the logic chains and while they are generally started by an idiotic choice that is unforgivable, you kind of understand why things keep going as they do. Joe does monstrous things, but because we are in his head, it’s hard for us to view him completely as a monster. He’s a fascinating character, elegantly written and subtly played by Penn Badgley.

Unfortunately that’s more than can be said for most of the rest of the characters, all of whom are pretty one dimensional. I found Beck a deeply annoying and unlikeable character. The fact that she’s far from perfect makes for some interesting twists and turns for the plot, but I never really understood her choices. Because we’re not in her head as much as we are in Joe’s, we don’t get the same insight into her motivations, so she comes across as shallow, selfish and inconsistent. While I don’t want to drift into victim blaming, she does make poor choices that have consequences in her life, and just because she IS a victim, does not actually make her a nice person.

This imbalance is what stops the show being great I think. The development of Joe’s character and the way he is presented makes a high quality drama (while still also having plenty of laughs from his dry observations), but because everyone around is flimsy, it undermines that central richness. It also makes it slightly uncomfortable when the aggressor is allowed more opportunity to be sympathetic than the victims are – they don’t have to be likeable, but if they’re not rounded, it just starts to come across as more of a cheap slasher than as a psychological drama. It’s still a hugely compelling and entertaining show to watch, but it could have been more.

Advertisements

American Horror Story: Apocalypse (season 8)

The good thing about American Horror Story is that each season is a complete story and you don’t need to watch them all. Except that’s not quite true. There ARE elements that carry across different seasons, and Apocalypse picks up a number of threads in a way that’s both satisfying and irritating. I’ve watched six of the previous seasons, but that doesn’t mean that I remember them and there were quite a few times that I was clearly missing some back story which was a bit frustrating.

However, the threads that are picked up make for a much richer story and even if I didn’t necessarily follow all the connections, I could still appreciate them and get some satisfaction from them. The various timelines were played out well, working in large steps rather than muddling them all up made that aspect easy to follow at least, gradually adding explanation and depth without having to keep track of who-knows-what confusion. Actually, given how many settings and characters there are, it’s surprisingly coherent. The cast is full of familiar faces from other seasons, and it’s a credit to the actors that even when they end up playing multiple different characters over the span of Apocalypse, it still somehow works. (Wikipedia has an interesting table of who plays who in each season, but there are mild spoilers there).

The series was certainly compelling and entertaining but I can’t say I was ever particularly horrified. Other series have managed to be thoroughly creepy and disturbing, or deliver effective jump scares, maybe I’ve just become rather casual about gore, or this level of horror has become average for television. For the most part I didn’t feel the emotional connection to the characters that would be needed to feel lost in their awful situations, maybe that was related to me not being able to remember much about the previous times we saw the characters so I didn’t have that established relationship with them. But I still found it a really engaging season, I watched all ten episodes in two sittings, only interrupted by the need to sleep, so they’re clearly doing something right.

iZombie: Seasons 1-3

This had been on my list of things to watch for a while, but it didn’t have a UK distributor. I’m not sure when it appeared on Netflix but I only recently noticed it. On the plus side that meant I could pretty much binge watch straight through seasons 1, 2 and 3 over the course of a fairly short period of time.

The premise is fairly so-so. A doctor is turned into a zombie, but provided she gets a regular supply of brains to eat she’s pretty much normal. So she starts working in the morgue and dodging questions from her family and ex-fiance and just whines about here un-life a bit. Then it turns out that she gets visions from the brains she’s eaten, and if it’s a murder victim, that turns out to be very useful. She teams up with a cop who thinks she’s psychic, finds a purpose and we’re off and running with a fairly episodic “brain of the week” structure.

The first season or so plays to that pattern. The brains tend to have some over-the-top gimmick to them that is occasionally laugh out loud hilarious, and occasionally cringingly painful. That structure gets a bit trying when you’re binge watching, so it’s a good job that the background plots gather traction – seeking a cure and dealing with the various zombie groups that start to appear. There’s also a fair amount of relationship wrangling going on, which is again a bit tedious at times, but the characters are all likeable and self-aware enough that I didn’t get too bored of various makeup/breakup cycles.

Season 3 is where things really start to move pretty fast on the plot front. Throughout the season there’s a real sense of escalation building towards a satisfying game changer in the final episode that sets up for a very different 4th season. Some of the partnerships go through a couple more cycles that get a bit a tedious, but the development of the friendships are more nuanced and satisfying. Importantly for me, the humour is not lost with the increased stakes of the drama and there are plenty of hilarious set ups throughout the season that make this a show that I’m sure I will be happy to watch over again.

The reason that I’d wanted to watch iZombie (despite it’s frankly pretty awful name) was that it’s from the creator of Veronica Mars – one of my all time favourite shows. They share the same achingly smart dialogue, and take-no-crap characters but the sci-fi storyline of iZombie opens up even more opportunity for quirky situations and playing with genres and styles. The zombie cast wholeheartedly throw themselves into the different personalities, while the rest of the cast do a solid job as supporting straight men and women that the others can dance around. I don’t think iZombie will overtake Veronica Mars in my affections, but it’s certainly making a really good challenge.

The Walking Dead: Season 7

I think the first episode of season 7 of The Walking Dead is a key turning point for the series. For a show that has already defied boundaries of violence and brutality, the introduction of Negan and Lucille marks a new extreme. Characters are pushed further than before and it’s very clear that none of them will ever be the same as they were before. For me, sadly, it marked the point that I fell out of love with the series.

I read spoilers of The Walking Dead, it’s not about a lack of patience for the few hours I’d have to wait to watch the episode, but it’s more about making the tension bearable. I find that if I’m stressed and uncertain about what’s going to happen in a show I care so much about, I just can’t concentrate on the nuances of the acting, writing and directing that make The Walking Dead what it is. So, I knew not only who met Lucille, but how and how the rest of the episode was drawn out. When it came to sitting to watch the episode that evening, I realised I didn’t want to see it. So I didn’t. After a couple of weeks, I still didn’t want to watch it, so I figured I’d wait until the whole half season backed up and I could box-set my way through it. But I still didn’t want to. Eventually the whole seventh season was waiting for me, and I still couldn’t face watching the first episode. So I didn’t. I skipped it. I watched the rest of the season and just missed the brutality of the first episode.

With or without the first episode, binge watching the season in a few days worked well, because if I had tried watching it an episode each week I’d probably have died of boredom. The entire synopsis of events can be written in a not terribly long paragraph (I checked), and thanks to the fact that most episodes follow just one plot line, only a few characters, all the stories are stop start, and you might get stuck for an hour with someone you just don’t care about. Slow and subtle character and plot development is one thing, but this is just glacial. We know most of the characters well enough that we know exactly what they’re thinking and watching them go very slowly through the motions is mind-numbingly dull. The majority of the stories were predictable, only the shock violence and the specifics of who died, when, were surprising.

Half of me wants to go back and watch another season to see if it’s the series or me that’s changed, the other half doesn’t want to risk that I’ll realise I was wrong all along. The writing this season felt ham-fisted and clumsy at times. Too many of the new characters felt cliche or over-the-top, and I was bothered by the logistics and realism in a way that I hadn’t been before – how far apart are these groups, how have they never tripped over each other, is that a realistic number of guns, how inept are they to not just shoot Negan, where is the petrol coming from? I’m struggling to engage with the newer characters and too many of the old characters are getting bogged down (not unreasonably I guess) in their traumas. When characters or groups reunite, the emotional impact was intense, but it felt more obviously manipulative than I remember it being in the past.

I think the problem is that Negan just feels like a hyped up version of The Governor, who was already close to a pantomime villain at times. Now that the walking dead themselves are not so much of a threat, human villains are having to get more extreme to make it comparable, but I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I was more interested in the politics between the different factions, the different styles of governance and how they interacted. The super-villain just felt unnecessary and stupid for a show that I always thought was more intelligent than that. I’m not angry. I’m just incredibly disappointed.

American Horror Story: Roanoke (Season 6)

American Horror StoryI’m currently tracking 4 for 6 on American Horror Story. I liked seasons 1 (Murder House), 3 (Coven) and 4 (Freak Show), gave up on 2 (Asylum) after a couple of episodes and didn’t even make it 20 minutes into 5 (Hotel) before deciding I didn’t like it. The great thing though is that it doesn’t matter at all. While there are very minor crossovers (practically easter eggs), each season is entirely independent and enjoyable (or not) in isolation.

Roanoke has a very interesting structure that cleverly solves one of the biggest problems the series sometimes has – how do you maintain the tension and pace if you need to stretch the story out over 10 episodes? In effect Roanoke has 3 sections, the first of which was easily the best and most original, which I guess is best as if it had started with the second style then I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.

The first 5 episodes are presented as a television show – direct to camera interviews with ‘real’ people describing events, and a dramatic reconstruction using actors. I can’t think of something that’s really taken that approach before. It was easy to get lost in the reconstruction, but having the interview sections added even more depth to the events. I thought that knowing which people definitely survived (and who didn’t by implication of who was absent from the interviews) might undermine the drama, but it really didn’t. The gradual build up of the story of Roanoke and the horrific events were nicely delivered and both scary *and* creepy.

The next 4 episodes were a nice idea, but just didn’t work quite so well. The utterly over-the-top producer of the TV series manipulates everyone (real people and their corresponding actors) to return to the house, which is kitted out with cameras. He’s set everyone up for confrontation and faked scares, but of course it doesn’t go entirely to plan. The set up just didn’t feel realistic (why would these people go back there?!) and because it committed to doing everything as found footage you had the ridiculousness of people picking up cameras while running for their lives. The actors ironically lacked the depth that they’d brought to their characters, each coming across as painful stereotypes, hamming it up and lacking any form of subtlety. It was far less creepy and relied too much on gore and jump scares.

The final episode sees yet another set of film makers arriving at the house to “uncover the truth”. It did tie one element of the story up nicely, but it mostly felt like a tacked on epilogue. The mostly new characters had no time to form any kind of personality and were blatantly going to just be fodder, so it was a lot of quite tedious jumpy camera to just get to the juicy bits of the story.

I remain impressed that American Horror Story manages to do something different each season. Taking fairly standard horror tropes and adding enough originality to make it fresh, while also referential. Not all of the choices this season worked for me, but they ere ambitious and well committed to. The ensemble cast moves between roles wonderfully, particularly those that this time played both the actor, and the actor playing a character, a character who was a dramatised version of other onscreen characters – a mind-twisting set up that seemed entirely natural until you think about it too much. As always, I look forward to what comes next.

Penny Dreadful: Season 3

pennydreadfulIt turns out this was the final season of Penny Dreadful and I am not 100% certain how I feel about that.

Each season of the show has been something best approached in big chunks, and I think actually the whole series would probably be served well by just watching the complete thing in one thread. Episodically it doesn’t really work that strongly, and even though each season does have a marked start and end point, it’s really the slow burn of the entwining characters and relationships that are the meat of the show.

The third season isn’t the strongest unfortunately. It does have some excellent elements to it (Dr Sweet, Dr Seward, the revealed past relationship of two of the main characters) but the physical separation of many of the characters is frustrating. It deprives us of some of the key relationships and chemistry, which would have been tolerable if not for the fact it was the final season. Many of the plots felt like this was being setup as a middle season of an overall arc, before bringing everything together in a final concluding season.

But then it was like they ran out of time, and rather than a gradual build towards the climactic battle followed by a grand conclusion, there was a rush at the end to fling the characters and plots desperately to a collision. It felt a little like it came out of nowhere, going from dawdle to panic. Some of the stories were tied together in too neat a bow, others were just abandoned. I was left with a funny mix of feelings that I wasn’t really keen on the idea of more seasons of the ‘filler’ that we’d had, but also wasn’t ready for it all to be over.

Still, it was a wonderfully different and impressive show while it lasted, and maybe three seasons was exactly the right amount. The acting as always was superb. Eva Green is of course a stand-out, but Billie Piper impressed yet again with some of her monologues, even if the plot itself was a bit of. Roy Kinnear was heart-breaking as ever, and his character’s storyline was perhaps the most interesting of all of them.

It’s a shame this show never really got a wider audience, or the recognition its cast deserved. This level of creativity and style is just not evident in many shows on television today, hopefully it will find some more fans now that it can be viewed as a 27 episode whole.

Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1

Fear_The_Walking_Dead_title_cardDespite being a huge Walking Dead fan, I’ve only just got round to watching the first season of the spin-off series, and I have to say my lack of enthusiasm in advance is rather matched by lack lack of enthusiasm afterwards.

Almost as if by magic, Fear the Walking Dead (and god, isn’t that a tedious title?) manages to leach all the specialness out of The Walking Dead and just make a pretty run of the mill, extended zombie film. There are a number of traps that the production falls into which The Walking Dead had completely avoided.

The overall problem with the series is that it’s all too fast. For a start, too much happens. The six episode first season spans way too much time. The entire multi-season span of this series could have been spent slowly showing us how the zombie apocalypse started, grew and took over; how normal people gradually came to realise what was happening; how people and governments reacted; and how everything fell apart. It could have spent YEARS showing us what happened before Rick Grimes even woke up in The Walking Dead. Instead all of that is covered in just 6 episodes. It’s an utter waste of a huge amount of material and, worse, all it means is we’re effectively just watching The Walking Dead with a different set of characters.

Having to cram that much activity in means that everything is too fast – each scene and character is in a rush to get to the next moment. The Walking Dead moves painfully slowly at times when you want to know what happened to a favourite character, but that time gives space to fully understand the emotions and choices. Fear the Walking Dead dashes about and it’s hard to really connect with anyone. Mind you, when several of those characters are teenagers, it’s not like I really wanted to connect that much. If I wanted to watch teenagers moping about their relationships and the unfairness of life I’d be watching The CW.

The other victim of the speed is that Fear The Walking Dead just doesn’t look as good as it’s older brother. The Walking Dead is gorgeous to look at, with incredibly careful framing (harking back to its comic book roots) and incredible lighting showing off everything from the Georgia landscape to the amazing makeup and effects. While Fear the Walking Dead has some impressively large set pieces, it just doesn’t often have the time to linger and find the beauty of the rapidly deteriorating city, and even when it tries, it often comes across a bit cgi.

I feel like this missed an opportunity. I love The Walking Dead because it’s so much more than a zombie show, but it’s about survivors not the fall. Fear the Walking Dead was an opportunity to show the fall and it just wasted that opportunity to try, and fail, to just be another Walking Dead. It was… fine, but absolutely nothing more.