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.

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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.

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.

Dark Matter: Seasons 1-3

I’m in a bit of a TV funk at the moment (well, an all-round funk really but let’s keep on subject) and all I’m really in the mood for is easy to watch stuff. I don’t really want to be overly challenged, or have it pointed out how awful the world can be. Friends recommended Dark Matter to me on those criteria and it did a pretty good job of filling the need.

What you don’t have here is anything revelatory. It’s not science fiction that’s pushing boundaries at all, it takes every single trope and basic idea ever seen in Star Trek or Stargate and applies them without a huge amount of creativity. And to be honest, often without a huge amount of talent or quality either. It’s resoundingly second rate in budget, set, cast and innovation. It’s also notably lacking in visual style beyond “how can we redecorate this warehouse this week?”.

So, how come I watched all three seasons (39 episodes) in just a couple of weeks? Well it has two things going for it, the first is a simple and easy trick which is that the last 2 minutes of each episode form a teaser for the next episode. So every episode has a cliffhanger and sucks you into the next. Cheap, but effective.

The second reason is that it always manages to do just enough to keep you engaged, getting itself microscopically across the boundary where any lower and you’d give up on it. The ideas it plays with are interesting enough, and could have been very interesting if they’d been better developed. The cast mostly lacks in experience and depth, but The Android and Three manage to standout and develop interesting and complex characters beyond what the script is offering them. And every now and then there’s a flash of real charm or the beginnings of a great little idea that sucks you in again before gradually decaying away.

This series worked for me because I went in with low expectations and low requirements. It’s a shame because with a couple of bigger actors to headline it, a bigger budget to play with and a bit more polish to the script it could have been a real gem.