Archive for the ‘ Horror ’ Category

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.

The Walking Dead: Season 6, part 2

The Walking DeadI’m not even going to make an attempt to avoid spoilers. Seriously, I’m gonna go into detail on everything up to the final fade to black at the end of the final episode and even some of the stuff covered by news stories too probably. The spoilers and this review WILL impact how you approach the show, or at least they will if I do it right.

I’ve been pretty vocal in my appreciation for The Walking Dead in the past. I’ve recently gone back and binge watched all the first five seasons and I stand by all the gushingly enthusiastic words I’ve written in the past. This however is not going to be a gushing review. It’s going to be a really pissed off one.

My annoyance with the show’s sixth season started with the manipulative and cruel cliffhanger on whether Glenn was dead (covered in more bitter detail in the review of the first half of the season). The cliffhanger at the end of that episode itself was harsh, dragging the uncertainty out for a couple more episodes and then having him save himself in a clumsy and improbable way was almost unforgivable.

So the writers were on rather shaky ground with me as we entered the second half of the season. But things were going ok. There were some really interesting evolutions for characters and the world as a whole. Alexandria is not the only community out there, and it’s interesting to think how outsiders might view our characters, and how they can integrate with both the brutal Saviours and the more hippy Hilltop. We’ve always known that our ‘heroes’ aren’t really entirely on the side of the angels, but where do they fall on the spectrum that’s left after the world change? The community as a whole needs to decide its rules of behaviour, and the individuals within the community must decide where they stand and what to do if they can’t agree with the rest of what has become their extended family.

All that stuff, The Walking Dead still absolutely excels at. It was often really uncomfortable to watch and think about, which is almost a defining factor for The Walking Dead. It’s not the gore and violence of the undead that’s the real horror, it’s the morality and violence against each other. Seeing what the world has done to the people is fascinating, Carol started out the mousey victim of domestic violence, lost her family and turned into a fighter, but she doesn’t realise she needs to stop until it’s too late and how can she stop? The great survivor doesn’t want to survive anymore. There are similar complex characters throughout the cast (particularly from the women I’d have to say) – Maggie, Sasha, Michone, Abraham, Denise (oh Denise!), Carl, Daryl. They all question who they have become and who they really want to be. It was about doing what you had to to survive, but just as they did at the Prison there’s now a chance to do more than just survive. But they know what happened at the Prison.

So where’s the anger? Well, basically in the last 5 minutes. All that careful character writing and discussion of complex moral questions is blown out the window for an extended soliloquy from a villain who lacks the depth of even The Governor followed by a drawn out debate of who was going to die and then…. smash to black. So all that tension building across the last half of the season, the growing reality that someone important was going to die was all blown away with a cheap “come back in 6 months”.

The audience of Walking Dead deserves better than that.

The showrunners immediately go on the defensive, confirming that “someone beloved” is going to die and that it’s not a trick. So why not show who it is? To make sure we all tune in next season? Look at your ratings guys, I don’t think that was in any doubt. It’s possible there are a couple of characters that if killed might cause people to not tune back in, but you’re gonna lose that audience either way whether it’s now or after the first 5 minutes of the start of season 7. Plus, if you’re worried about that – don’t kill that character.

There is no good reason for that sort of mucking about. In fact I don’t think there’s even any creative impact. I would think that showing someone dead and leaving the audience to spend the summer wondering how the rest of the group will continue without them would have just as much emotional impact. To me, an end of season cliffhanger (if you must do them at all) should be about wondering what will happen in the whole of the next season, not just about the first 2 minutes.

On many series a character death would be that kind of event, but that’s not true on The Walking Dead as they’ve killed plenty of major characters before. I think the only character death that would be genuinely paradigm shifting is Rick, and if you listen carefully to what Negan says – both Rick and Carl are safe. Yes, losing Glenn, Maggie or Daryl would be hard, but I don’t think it would fundamentally change the direction of the show. Think of all the characters that have been lost. From integral members of the group like Hershell and Lori all the way through to people who impacted one character. Did anyone but Sasha care when Bob died, would anyone but Abraham and maybe Rosita really notice Eugene dying? Would anyone at all notice if Aaron died?

The more I think about it, the more I come to rationalise away each option and how it wouldn’t have that epic an impact. It would be sad, but everyone would keep moving as they always have. I think the writers have made an epic mistake. Not only have they pissed people off today, but I think they’ll find that when they finally reveal who died, there’ll be an overwhelmingly apathetic response. We will have spent the summer pondering it, thought through all the options, it can’t help but be underwhelming.

I have other gripes with the season that I guess I should mention. Where did Jesus go? Introduce a fascinating character and then have him disappear. And were we really supposed to care for any of the Alexandrians? Denise was an absolute standout, but even Aaron was relegated to background noise in preference to whiny Spencer. . Why are the characters so stupid? You know there’s a huge threat out there but you endlessly all leave to wander the wilderness and walk into traps, taking your only medic wandering about. How many saviours are there? Are you saying a violent gang, numbering well over a hundred and with huge resources were living within a short distance of Alexandria all this time and no one noticed? And that the same vast army never came knocking on Alexandria’s door before? These were the things I was thinking as the tension was supposed to be building to the final reveal of Negan. Not “ooo how scary is this?” but “how stupid are you?”. Stupid isn’t a word I’ve previously associated with this show.

My anger has reduced in the few days since the episode aired, partly helped by forcing myself to take my time over this article and remember all the good stuff that happened too. But my anger hasn’t been replaced by good feelings, it’s just turned into apathy and sadness. I’m sad that the writers felt the need to reduce all the good work they’d done before into a set up for a cliffhanger. I’m apathetic about who dies. Which before the episode aired I had been utterly obsessed about, but now that I have to wait 6 months, I’ve got plenty of time to come to terms with all the options (I could probably spend almost a whole month carefully thinking about each option) and the writers are gonna have to do something truly incredible to make me feel anything other than underwhelmed. Still, I guess if anyone can do it… it’s probably them.

The Walking Dead: Season 6, part 1

The Walking DeadI promised myself this year I’d review each half of the walking dead season separately as they increasingly seem to be telling an almost complete block of story in each half, rather than continuing over to the next. For the most part that’s true of the first half of season six, it seems to be set all within just a couple of days, focussing each episode on just a small sub-section of the every growing cast of characters.

As per usual with Walking Dead that structure can be frustrating. It’s interesting to see characters either by themselves or in unusual groups, but it’s very limited and frustrating for the characters and combinations not involved. New characters just aren’t making the impact that the old ones did, increasingly with the people from Alexandria it’s hard to keep them distinct and care about them when you know most of them are fodder. The always wonderful Merritt Wever about the only exception and the whiny teenagers were particularly tiresome.

I would normally avoid spoilers in reviews, but I decided that Glenn’s storyline was so important to the quality of the season that I couldn’t review without commenting. I think the show made a huge mistake playing with the audience by dragging out the question of whether Glenn was dead or not. Using such a manipulative cliffhanger, and then drawing out the resolution for so many episodes just felt like a cheap trick, betraying loyal audience members. Once people are talking about whether a character is dead based on whether the actor got a goodbye tour and montage real on the spin-off discussion show, something has gone wrong with your writing. Then, to eventually clumsily save his life undermined the brave work the show has previously done in making sure no one is safe.

Once again, I’m also disappointed that they’ve accelerated through a storyline. I felt short-changed previously when we got to spend so little time in the Prison once it was running as an established community, similarly here we’ve barely arrived at Alexandria and started having hope and showers before the streets are filled with bodies and screaming again. I really wanted to see whether Rick’s group of hardy survivors could change the way they lived and settle into this environment. Instead they set up that conflict and then proved that Rick was right and they should not change, rather than the more interesting question of whether they could change.

Overall, I guess I was disappointed by this half season. It’s still an excellent show, with entertaining and interesting storylines and characters, but it just doesn’t quite seem to be working for me as well as it has in the past. I wish I had the patience to avoid spoilers for long enough to group the episodes for longer binges as I think then the pacing wouldn’t be so frustrating.