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.

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The Haunting of Hill House: Season 1

I was looking for something that would be a satisfying, but un-challenging box set for a weekend of dreary weather, mild illness and catastrophically low motivation. The Haunting of Hill House turned out to be a near perfect fit for my needs.

This series delivers a number of fundamental horror principles very solidly:

1) Is it supernatural or not? The twists and turns play out very nicely over the 10 episodes, supported by characters holding different positions and in turn evolving their thinking as the audience does. If you see the monster in the first 5 minutes there’s no mystery, just a battle for survival. But if you spend hours not sure whether the monster exists or if people are crazy, that’s far more interesting.

2) Family dynamics are the real horror. As much as this is a story about a haunted house, it’s a story about a haunted family. The series follows a sibling group demonstrating how differently people can respond to trauma, and how those differences can tear a people apart and bond them together. The individual characters are all complex individuals and played by actors more than capable of demonstrating their depth; while the connections and conflicts between the siblings are equally complex and fascinating.

3) Stuff that’s festered is more scary. I’m not just talking about some of the ickiness, but also by tracking two major timelines, and flashing back occasionally to key points in the intervening period, it allows you to see the huge, life changing impacts that events have. Being scared and getting over it is one thing, but when it’s shaped the characters lives for decades, that’s really scary. The plot and interweaving of the timelines was carefully done and I rarely felt frustrated to be pulled from one to the other.

Overall, The Haunting of Hill House is a very satisfying and solid horror series. It’s not without flaws, I struggled early on to track who was who, particularly tracking the children to their grown up counterparts, and there were a fair number of classic horror story problems whereby people often did dumb things that pushed the bounds of credibility. But that’s almost part of the genre itself. The series uses its running time well and leaves just the right amounts of closure and unanswered questions. A great binge watch for a dreary weekend.

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.

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.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1

I have vague memories of the original Sabrina television series, probably about the perfect amount as far as the creators of the new series are concerned – a mildly curious nostalgia without a defensive reverence. I immediately liked the idea of taking the teenage witch element and making it much darker and the show certainly on the surface delivers that with dark satanic rituals and casual references to pretty dark stuff, but I found if you really paid attention, it was all smoke and mirrors.

The pilot gets off to a good start with an immediate hook that Sabrina must soon decide between life as a human like her mother, or life as a witch like her father. Being raised by her father’s sisters following her parent’s death means that it’s assumed that she’ll commit to being a witch, taking a dark baptism on her 16th birthday and pledging loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. But that would mean leaving behind her human school, friends and boyfriend and Sabrina is not so certain, questioning what it really means to commit to the Dark Lord.

The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers don’t really know the answer to that question either, and really don’t want to have to commit to anything. Sabrina doesn’t really seem to have to give anything up – she uses magic, keeps the boyfriend, goes to both schools (although never has to do any actual work) and seems to have no real problem doing whatever she wants to do.

The show never really reconciles what it means to “commit to the Dark Lord” in terms of morality and principles. After a while it becomes apparent that although Sabrina’s family are full members of the church, they don’t seem to act on anything. There are dark things occasionally done by other witches, but it feels like that’s because they’re “bad guys” rather than because they’re witches. It felt all talk no action, like teenagers saying they’re satanists, drawing a pentagram with a sharpie and then going home to do their homework .

In addition to these problems at the heart of the concept, there are more mundane issues on the surface too. Characters are completely under-used (Ambrose, Salem the cat) and the less said about the utterly dreary Harvey the better. The directing/cinematography annoyed me from the very start and I didn’t really get used to it. There was some sort of effect being used that only a small amount of the screen would be in focus at any time and it drove me to distraction. Some of the sets felt incredibly artificial and cheap and some of the acting and/or script writing was pretty clunky, and even the costumes and make-up annoyed me at times.

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

The Rain

The Rain is effectively a Danish, post-apocalyptic young adult novel, there was really no way I wasn’t going to watch it. It ticked all of the boxes for the type of things I gravitate towards, but then have no idea why I’m really watching it. I guess Britain and America can make any amount of shows that are fairly mediocre and yet still get audiences, why shouldn’t Denmark.

Don’t go in expecting a plot that really makes any sense. The setup is that the rain makes people get sick, one drop and you’re a foaming gibbering dead person walking. Simone and Rasmus are just children when they find themselves all alone in a bunker as the world outside disappears. 6 years later they emerge, join a passing group of other young adults and set off on a slightly incoherent quest.

The eight episodes play out pretty much as you’d expect, hitting as many tropes as they can along the way. Most of the characters get little flashbacks to show you who they were before the disaster, and there are some glimpses of interesting ideas there, but none of them go anywhere. How any of them survived any length of time is a bit of a mystery as their decision making is dubious at best and they are very easily distracted by a whole network of love triangles and secret crushes. The acting is all solid and Alba August as Simone is particularly interesting to watch doing a really good job portraying someone who is still a child, but also has to be the adult for everyone. Netflix offers an option of a dubbed version, but you lose too much of the characters and I lasted less than 5 minutes before it drove me to distraction and I reverted to subtitles.

The setting is at least something different from the usual America, and some of the scenery and even rundown city settings are really stunning, definitely making a change from the usual filming locations of warehouses in Vancouver. At eight episodes long, it’s a short sharp burst that doesn’t really set the world alight, but it is passingly entertaining. N

The Upfronts 2018 – NBC

Bye bye
The Brave and Rise both failed to survive their first seasons – I’d actually been looking forward to Rise (high school musical theatre starring Josh Radner, but it got terrible terrible reviews). Shades of Blue (the Jennifer Lopez vehicle) got three seasons, while Great News and Taken only got two seasons each. Timeless is still on the bubble, it got cancelled then renewed last season, I don’t think it’s likely to be saved again.

See you again soon
It’s weird that the only thing I watch from NBC is actually a half hour comedy, but The Good Place is SO good that it even gets past my tin ear for comedy, the third season can’t come soon enough. I also plan to watch This is Us whenever the 2nd season appears on Amazon, although I’m not certain how long the jumping timelines can be drawn out once so many reveals have been done. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been renewed for a 20th season which will tie it to the original Law & Order and Gunsmoke as longest running American scripted drama, it seems unlikely they’ll cancel it before it takes the record. All the Chicagos will be back (Fire, Med, PD), The Blacklist continues into season 6 and Blindspot into season 4. Good Girls is a new series that I’ve got my eye on (I’ll watch Christina Hendricks in almost anything) and now it’s been picked up for season 2 I’ll definitely seek it out, ditto for Midnight Texas.
Will & Grace had already been renewed for its 11th season (or 3rd season of the revival). Superstore goes into season 4, and A.P. Bio gets a second season.

NBC has also rescued the Fox series Brooklyn Nine-Nine after a massive fan outcry when Fox cancelled it. I’ve never watched it, but it’s just a nice feeling when that sort of thing happens (not that I’m still bitter about Firefly or anything).

Hello there

Manifest – a bit Lost, but this is the first trailer I’ve seen that actually made me really want to watch the show.


I Feel Bad – I’m starting to worry, I kind of liked this one too.


New Amsterdam – generic medical drama, but yup, that one got me too. I think they’ve officially broken me.

Also:
Abby’s – a group of people hanging out in a bar – sounds like Cheers
The Enemy Within – a former spy is brought out of prison to help solve present cases – sounds like the Blacklist
The Inbetween – a woman who can talk to the dead helps solve cases with the police – sounds like iZombie
The Village – a group of ‘characters’ who live in an apartment building – sounds like… well pretty much every other show out there.