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.

The Society – Season 1

Unoriginal. I’m sure the creators of this show would be deeply disappointed that this is the first word I think about with this show, and I’m pretty disappointed too, although in fairness I didn’t have particularly high expectations. There’s almost nothing here that even the most charitable person could highlight as innovative, the only thing that I could really think of was that one of the main characters is deaf and that’s an integral part of him and the community around him and is almost unremarked on. Even the fact that he’s also gay feels a little generic in the modern young adult landscape (thankfully!). Beyond these positive steps forward in representation, which less charitably could be seen as remedying a failure of the rest of the world rather than a great step forward, there’s nothing going on here that hasn’t been seen dozens of times since Lord of the Flies in the 1950’s, and I doubt even that was entirely original.

Fundamentally we’ve got a group of teenagers left to fend for themselves after their town is cut off from the world and all the adults disappear. From there you could probably take a pretty good shot at working out how things will go, with a predictable bunch of high school stereotypes (jocks, partiers, rich kids, student council nerds, science geeks, neighborhood psychopath) in predictable relationships (high school sweethearts, bullies, sibling rivalries) and inevitable scenarios (dealing with crime, rationing, establishing democracy). Even the supposed twists are predictable. The TV Tropes page is quite the list.

Part of feeling generic is that it doesn’t feel modern. Other than the improved representation, this series could be set almost any time in the last 50 years. It would have been nice to see a more positive message – us grown ups are doing such a crap job at leading the world, wouldn’t it be good to have a version of the world run by the next generation, learning from our mistakes and making a better job of it? Rather than falling back to domestic violence, class-ism, violence, backstabbing and short-sightedness couldn’t we have seen a group of people working together to make something better? It feels like this is a show written by adults, and I’m not sure that anyone old enough to be sitting in a writing room can fully understand what it is like to be a 17 year old today in a world where all information, media and communication has always been at their finger tips, and climate change, (non)equal rights, and gun control have always been front of mind. Other than very fleeting references there’s hardly any discussion of how much of a struggle it would be for kids to no longer have working mobiles, or how much of an opportunity to have power to improve on things. Whether it’s true or not, it’s depressing that nothing seems to move forward.

It’s not that it’s badly made or anything, it’s perfectly fine. The actors are all good enough (although few are convincing as actually being teen aged) and the writing may be unoriginal, but it’s competent. It’s just that it’s very hard to get excited about something so generic.

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are individually two of my favourite authors, and their joint work Good Omens has always been one of my absolutely favourites. Since hearing the announcement that it was being made into a TV series I was almost equal parts excited and anxious. Every bit of news that trickled out raised my hopes – Neil Gaiman’s involvement, each bit of absolutely perfect casting, every behind the scenes photo – they just seemed right. But even as I sat down to watch on the day of release I was scared. Previous television versions of Pratchett’s work just haven’t worked for me despite having all the right ingredients. Maybe what makes Pratchett’s words so perfect to read, just doesn’t work for screen.

I stayed a bit nervous until the title sequence rolled and then I started to relax.

Good Omens works. I’d been half expecting a really glossy, shiny, expensive Americanised series like American Gods; but Good Omens is none of these things. It’s quirky, quaint, a little shabby around the edges and incredibly British. It’s Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Enid Blyton (without the now dodgy bits), Vicar of Dibley, Dr Who. It’s charming and a little bit naff in places.

I burnt through 4 episodes on the Friday night it was released, and polished off the final 2 episodes before 10 am on Saturday morning. Frankly I’m a bit annoyed about that because I’d set aside all of Saturday to watch it and found myself at a bit of a loose end before it was even time for elevenses. The length is perfect though, it gets on with the plot without feeling like anything was dragged out or padding with red herrings. There was maybe another episode worth of fun to be had, particularly with the supporting angels, demons and horsemen, but that’s more me wanting to spend more time enjoying the series than it is about the quality of the pacing.

The casting is superb, full of names, voices and faces that are incredibly familiar, bringing instant chemistry and security. There’s a lot of hamming it up going on, at times it feels a little in danger of tipping over into an amateur dramatics production with people having a lot of fun. The special effects don’t help on that front, the CGI is often a little on the low budget side. The locations and sets also feel a little easy too, as if someone said, “you know what, there’s a building at the end of my road that would do for this”. But again, that kind of works. Shots of small village churches, London garden squares, shiny office lobbies all felt familiar and comfortable. They’re well shot, creatively framed with plenty of expensive crane and drone shots; it’s just they all feel a bit… quaint.

And that’s what the series needed. It’s exactly the right setting for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s story of big events in small places. It gives all the space to the words from the page, delivered by exactly the right people. It was everything I could have hoped for and I absolutely loved it.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Season 2

I was pretty negative in my review of the first season of Sabrina. My biggest complaint was that there was no real commitment, everyone was claiming they were dark and satanic, but in reality no one was actually doing anything. The series claimed Sabrina was being forced to make an impossible choice between being a mortal and being a witch, and yet there seemed to be no restrictions on her actions based on what she chose. At the end of my review I wrote:

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.

And yup, I came back and found all the same problems present and some exciting new ones.

One thing that was maybe implied, but not called out explicitly for season 1 was that I don’t really like Sabrina. She’s an annoying little princess who swans through life as the centre of attention. She is sanctimonious, goes looking for arguments, doesn’t listen to those around her and digs holes that make chaos for her friends and family. She’s a terrible friend – using people when she needs to, and making decisions for those around her, jumping to conclusions about what is right for other people without actually talking to them. I know she’s the star of the show, but the character doesn’t know that and yet always makes herself the centre of any story.

There’s a similar lack of charm in the other main characters, who are clunkily presented. Lord Blackwood is a pantomime villain, while Hilda and Zelda are given little to work with. In the background some of the supporting characters are actually having very interesting stories of their own. The three Weird Sisters get a bit more material and Prudence in particular is a much richer character; the developing relationship between Roz and Harvey is well told (even if Harvey is still a boring drip), Mary Wardwell has an interesting arc and the portrayal of Susie’s transition into Theo is carefully delivered. There are some very talented actors doing good work. They just don’t get to do it very often.

There’s a lot of meandering about for the first 2/3 of the season, stories that I can barely remember. There’s something about a prophecy, a lot of boys and girls chasing each other, an obligatory weird dream episode and not much actual Evil (or school work). Everything came to a bit of a head when the last couple of episodes seemed to have some kind of breakdown. It felt like everyone suddenly realised they’d been bumbling along all season and run out of time to build anything up gradually. The lurching gear change came so suddenly and awkwardly that I actually spent a lot of time assuming it was going to pull a magic trick – reveal that it was all a hallucination, or an alternate reality or something. It wasn’t, it was just bad writing. On the plus side at least it meant something actually happened… but it didn’t make much sense.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be back for Season 3 and will have yet another chance to complain.

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.

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.