Stranger Things: Season 3

strangerthingsWhile many hailed season 1 of this series as some sort of incredible phenomena I couldn’t really summon up much more than ambivalence towards it. It was absolutely fine, even good, but I failed to experience the magic that some others had. Season 2 faired even more poorly as I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. So I wasn’t particularly enthused by season 3. It did however perfectly match my mood for a weekend where I couldn’t summon the energy to really commit to anything and just wanted something to put on that I wasn’t really invested in and wouldn’t challenge me too much.

I’m not sure whether it was those changed expectations, or a change in the series, but I enjoyed season 3 a lot more than I remember enjoying the previous series. I think there was a bit of a change of scale, although the situation the kids found themselves in did end up being pretty serious, it didn’t feel quite as emotionally intense as previous seasons. It felt like there was time to breath and muck about, that interludes of teenage relationships weren’t just a distraction. In fact while the plot itself was absolutely fine (and less confusing than the whole upside down thing), it was these relationships that are the heart of the season.

These relationships covered the whole lifecycle of romance and friendship. There’s the initial flirting and crushes, first love, relationships moving beyond high school, marriages on the rocks and grown ups acting like teenagers circling round each other. There are also some beautiful moments of friendship, new pairings, changing relationships and even the sadness of groups that are drifting apart. There’s heartbreak and humour, silliness and real heart. All the actors are charismatic individually, and together, with some great additions to the cast and I really found myself enjoying spending time with them regardless of what they were doing.

Without spoiling, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the ending as I think it reverted a little to the darker side of storylines which I didn’t really want. I like the easy going adventure style, where although in the moment it seems perilous there’s a safety that nothing bad will really happen. The ending made sense, it wasn’t forced or anything, I just didn’t think it was really necessary and was disappointed that a season I’d enjoyed so much actually left me feeling sad.

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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.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

I was unsettled by the first season of Discovery, unable to quite decide whether I liked it or not. I even watched it a second time before watching the second season and I’m STILL not sure whether it was good or not. I think if I can’t decide, it probably wasn’t; but the cast, spectacle and nostalgia for the franchise make it watchable. What did give me a bit more confidence was the series of shorts that were released between the seasons, which were not only very well written, but are eventually revealed to be quite important backstory for season 2.

Thankfully, that trend was continued and I’m a lot more confident in saying that season 2 was Good. It felt more like Star Trek, both in terms of the stories and the way the characters behaved. The crew actually felt like they were all pulling in the same direction and wanted to be there, that’s not a requirement for all series, but for me it’s a crucial part of Star Trek. Anson Mount as Captain Pike was the Captain that the crew and the show desperately needed – charismatic, leaderly, and fun. Trying to have the series without the Captain as the main character can work, but the Captain still sets the tone for the show. The set up for the first season didn’t work because Burnham was not only not in charge, but she was disconnected from everyone else. There was no one leading and bringing the ensemble together, they were just disparate people, few of whom really wanted to be there. In one of Pike’s first scenes he actually asked the names of the bridge crew and immediately the show became more about an ensemble of people. The ship was actually a real place.

Michael Burnham also finally felt settled in, she has found the crew and the position that she needs – she has responsibilities, respect and connections. From there she starts to come to terms with her family and her past. It felt a bit of a cheap trick at first to make her Spock’s never-before-referenced sister, but the complex relationship between Sarek, Amanda and Spock was interesting to see revealed. It also gave an emotional thread to the early episodes which were otherwise a bit random chasing mysterious red lights. Sonequa Martin-Green had some great scenes throughout the series and she’s a powerful leading lady creating a fascinating character. The setup for next season should provide plenty more interesting opportunities.

I’m still not convinced about whether the series really fits in with wider canon, even with the get out of jail free card that’s played at the end. To be honest, I’m not going to bother to look up what fandom thinks, I’m sure there’s a lot of well thought through analysis (and a lot that isn’t so coherent) but I don’t care that much. I guess that’s part of the problem with Discovery, I still don’t care that much. I look forward to the episodes each week, but I don’t feel particularly invested. I think that may be because of the way it sits in the middle of all the canon that makes it feel slightly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Future characters never mentioned Discovery, so it’s like the series is in a bubble. Making me care more about the crew as a whole is a good start though and the set up for next year looks like it has lots of potential for continued improvement.

The Umbrella Academy: Season 1

I un-enthusiastically loaded up netflix on Saturday morning with the intention to watch a documentary film that had been recommended to me. There was a big splashy advert for The Umbrella Company, and I thought that was probably a better choice to watch while consuming breakfast and the first cup of tea of the day, and I’d come to the documentary when I was a bit more awake. Spoiler alert – I never made it to the documentary, and instead just spent the whole day watching the 10 episodes of The Umbrella Academy with only a couple of pauses to seek food and fresh air.

Even though I’m not too keen on reading comic books/graphic novels, I’ve always been drawn to the superhero genre, and X-Men were my entry point. The Umbrella Academy is clearly a close relation of the X-Men (or a rip off if you’re feeling uncharitable) and therefore plays to similar themes of normal/other, identity, destiny and found families. The tone of Umbrella Academy is slightly more grungy though, a little bit steampunk, a bit more sweary and a lot less spandex.

The series is mostly set in ‘present day’, I think there was a specific reference to it being 2019, but there are no mobile phones, a slightly clunky fudge to prevent some of the problems being solved too easily. A diverse group of children, born under unusual circumstances and with a random set of powers, were purchased by an eccentric white rich guy, and trained in the titular academy to be a team of superheroes. Now they’re in their late 20’s, disillusioned and separated until the death of their adoptive father brings them back together. There are also a lot of flashbacks to them as children to gradually see how their upbringing made them who they are, and then there’s time travel, so we also get to see the future. The different threads can get a bit messy and hard to track at times, but if you let it wash over you, it actually hangs together very well. There are a few clunky transitions to flashback, but for the most part we never stay anywhere long enough to get bored or be put to sleep with exposition. It’s very much show, don’t tell.

The group of characters are well developed, both individually and with a complex network of relationships both past and present. I expected Ellen Page to be excellent, but the rest of the cast were unknown (until I imdb’ed and spotted that Klaus was actually Nathan in Misfits and I hadn’t recognised him at all!) and they all delivered nuanced performances as characters who’ve grown up under weird circumstances. I loved the family relationships and all the baggage bubbling barely under the surface and exploding at inevitably the worst times.

The plot is twisty and satisfying; I did guess the main twists quite a way in advance but it was still interesting to watch how they came through. The 10 episode format works well and I’m glad they went that route rather than a film which wouldn’t have given all the characters enough room to breath. There were a couple of episodes that dragged a bit in terms of plot, but there were still enough character moments to make them worthwhile. Not all the plot ideas really went anywhere and some big questions that were left unanswered, but hopefully that was deliberate to leave plenty of material for another season.

There’s creativity to the style as well that I liked. The direction and design, when at its best, was clearly drawing heavily from the comic book style. So much of the story and character in graphic novels has to be driven by the images, and that is carried over to the television series. There were scenes that I ended up rewinding just to fully appreciate the style, or to focus on a different part of the screen to see what other characters were doing, I must have watched the above scene half a dozen times, in just two and a half minutes it perfectly expresses every character, establishes the style and even gives you the layout of the house. It’s funny and sad and just perfect.

I went into this series expecting absolutely nothing and emerged 10 hours later completely obsessed with it.

Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2

I let the whole season of Handmaid’s Tale build up and sit on my Sky box for ages before actually watching it. It’s one of those shows that you really want to have watched, but actually wanting to sit down and start it is another matter entirely. You know it’s going to be good, really really good, but it’s not going to be easy and not necessarily much fun. There’s enough spark and flashes of humour to make it bearable, but only just.

Season 2 is completely beyond the source novel’s timeframe and plot, not that season 1 was exactly constrained as it was already expanding on the bones of the world and characters Atwood created. Season 2 moves further into backstories – broadening out the world and that may be the problem that I had with this season. I’m not sure that it hung together when looked at in that depth. The novel created a world without explanation, it didn’t try to work out how the world that we were reading about came to be, just that it existed and the reader and characters were in it whether they liked it or not. The first season of the television show started to add some backstory and it seemed just about plausible. But the second season really pushes the boundaries of the world out – looking at the transformation of our near-present day into Gilead and also the wider world of both ‘the colonies’ and more of Canada where the refugees flee.

The issue is, I don’t think it makes sense. I know we live in a world today where things happen that seem to defy belief, but I struggle to see how things could change so dramatically, so fast. This is the kind of tectonic shift that should take generations to gradually erode freedoms. But it is evident that it’s only a couple of years between ‘normal’ existence with recognisable technology, jobs and laws, and people being enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered. The problem is not only time, it’s geography, Showing ‘normal’ Canada really emphasises that, just a drive away from this horror, everything is fairly normal.

Everything else about the series remains absolutely superb. Every shot is beautifully and creatively framed, lit, and designed; there are scenes that could be considered works of art they are so stunning to look at. The script is cut back to the very minimum as all the characters mind what they say, while never lacking clarity or meaning. The performances are of course wonderful, and there is not a single weak link or boring character, everyone has so many levels to them. Even when characters are making frustrating choices, or their arcs don’t seem to make sense as a whole, the acting in the moment cannot be faulted.

But I could not get past that nagging feeling that the core of the series is rotten. That all the beautiful acting and exceptional production values could never quite make me ignore that nagging doubt and annoyance that fundamentally, the series doesn’t make sense.

Killjoys: Season 1-4

Canada has always done an extremely solid line in excellent, character driven science fiction. My understanding is that it’s thanks to generous tax breaks and a wide variety of different landscapes in a relatively small geographical area, making it perfect for any series where the characters are travelling a lot. So X-Files, Warehouse 13 and Supernatural could tour the US while the Stargate franchise, Dark Matter and Battlestar Galactica can tour the universe. It can get a little incestuous with the same names and faces appearing in cast and crew and the same forests and mountains subbing for different cities, planets, spaceships and whatever else the imagination can summon. But they all know how to make the money go a long way – making the most of minimal set dressing, effective stunts and special effects rather than flashy but insubstantial CGI, and writers and actors who can deliver meaningful scenes in a bare corridor, or the small standing set that they use every week.

Killjoys is a very worthy entry into this great pantheon. The building blocks of the plot can be taken from any role-playing adventure – the characters fall into their assigned roles neatly (warrior princess, thief, soldier, cleric, medic, gay bartender) and head off on requisite quests and heists. But the universe behind it is half science fiction exploration of a class based society gone mad, and half like a bad trip (shared memories stored in “the green”, bodysnatcher goo and unkillable zombie like opponents) with conspiracy theories and wars being fought across the millennia. As I try to write it down, I realise that I don’t really understand the plot. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not about any of that. It’s about characters.

The three main characters (the warrior princess, the thief and the soldier) form an incredibly strong core to the series. They are beautifully written, and wonderfully acted. Killjoys could be used to teach what good character and relationship writing looks like. The thief (Johnny) and the warrior (Dutch) are bounty hunters (known as killjoys), the soldier (D’Avin) is Johny’s estranged brother, suddenly landing in the middle of their lives. The relationships between the trio, and the individual pairings are all wonderfully nuanced, but it’s the relationship between Johnny and Dutch that is my absolute favourite. They are soulmates, they are codependent, rely on each other, bicker away and call each other on their crap. But they are not in love. They freely admit they love each other, but they are family not romance. The openness and trust between the two is beautiful; while the worlds shift around them, they are bedrock.

The other thing is, the series is FUNNY. Proper laugh out loud, spit out your tea, rewind to hear it again, funny. There’s a realness to both language and delivery that has me smiling just thinking about it. It’s not elegant in terms of creativity of language or delivering complex set ups; it’s the hilarity of a perfectly timed swear word, a shared sigh, a heartfelt insult, an acknowledgement of insanity, a well timed pratfall. It’s the private jokes of family members, that are somehow feel inclusive rather than exclusive.

I love this series. I powered through it, and then went back and re-watched many of the episodes to obsessively seek out key moments and lines. Yeah, the plot goes a bit nuts and there are holes that you could drive an asteroid through should you chose to look for them, but it’s such a fun ride that I just don’t care.

Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.