Books in June 2020

Five books this month! That’s mostly thanks to a few incredibly lazy days just sitting in the garden reading, and also a couple of really entertaining reads. Even the couple that weren’t necessarily very good were diverting enough to keep me settled in my deckchair, and Agrappina has gone straight to the top of my favourite books of the year and made a pretty high entry on my top non-fiction books ever.

agrippinaEmma Southon – Agrippina
The period of the first few emperors of Rome is absolutely fascinating, and has been studied, written about, mythologised and dramatised pretty much ever since it happened. It’s a transformative period for a massive civilisation that ripples through history today; but it also plays out like a spectacular melodrama with endless plotting, scandals, betrayals and murders. However as Southon points out throughout this book, the lure of a good story has frequently overpowered what we today would consider ‘good history’. With very few direct primary sources (even the Roman writers we’d probably think of as primary sources were often writing hundreds of years after events) everything is suspicious.
This is particularly true of a person like Agrappina. A woman in a completely male world. Historians throughout history have interpreted her as manipulative, self-serving and power-mad, but Southon brings a fresh approach questioning absolutely everything, going back to the sources and considering the agendas of the writers. These were people to whom the idea of a woman looking out for herself was horrifying, whereas Agrappina’s action’s take on a rather different spin when you consider that most of her family had been exiled and/or murdered, including young children who’s only crime was inconvenient location in the family tree. I’m not going to call it a ‘feminist’ take, because that’s incredibly patronising, it’s a ‘fair’ take, respectful of the context and acknowledging the many things that just can’t be known.
The biggest thing I can praise about the book though is that the author’s voice is loud, proud and HILARIOUS. There is no dry academic language here, she grumbles about confusing naming practices, swears about sources, calls out respected historians for their double standards, she makes off hand pop culture references and freely admits when she isn’t sure of something. I absolutely loved spending time in her company and I came away informed, intrigued, challenged and hugely entertained. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

venetian gothicPhilip Gwynne Jones – Venetian Gothic
Another very solid thriller from Philip Gwynne Jones. The mystery element is maybe not as strong as some other writers, but it’s more than made up for by the incredibly rich description of Venice, not as a glamourised romantic vision, but as a real place where people live. The central characters are also well formed with flaws and eccentricities alongside their charms. This is not a series that will ever set the world alight, but they are good fun reads and a lot less disposable than the average thriller. And they really make me want to visit Venice again.

early riserJasper Fforde – Early Riser
I was just reading back through my reviews of previous Jasper Fforde books and I’ve been pretty critical of him in the past, in a way that makes me wonder why I keep picking his books up. There’s a four year gap in his bibliography before this book was published, and he’s come back in better form than ever. Early Riser hung together better than I think any of his other novels have. There’s a characteristically weird world, but this one feels completely real, it’s fully formed and makes sense (in a nonsense kind of way). Also the plot is smoothly developed through the book, with twists and turns on a coherent journey and a cast of characters that are entertaining and curious. I was pretty gripped through the whole thing and ended up completely satisfied.

terra twoTemi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra-Two
I’m afraid that I don’t think this is a very good book. On a surface level it’s a solid page turner with a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace, diverse characters and lots going on. But unfortunately anything beyond the very superficial starts to fall apart. The story revolves around a group of astronauts sent on a 20+ year mission to another planet. OK, solid idea, but the details are all ridiculous. 6 of the crew are teenagers who’ve gone through years of highly accelerated training that seems to have completely overlooked even the most basic psychology and mental health considerations leaving the whole set up completely ridiculous. I kept suspending more and more of my disbelief and switching my brain off until there was almost nothing left. I’ve got nothing against a book that’s dumb and fun, but this book isn’t presenting that way, it’s trying to be full on science fiction, and it’s sadly just not good enough.

henri pickDavid Foenkinos – The Mystery of Henri Pick
Walter Presents is a collection hosted by Channel 4 which curates the best in international television, and this is the first in a book series trying to reach a larger audience for books not originally written in English. Despite my best intentions, I’ve never actually watched anything on Walter Presents, but this book caught my eye. It’s by a French author and from my incredibly limited experience of French cinema I’d say it certainly feels French. Despite being entirely based in the real world, there’s a slightly fantastical feel to the story.
From a plot point of view, nothing much happens – an abandoned book is found and turns out to be a masterpiece. We then drop in with various characters who are connected to the story, meandering through their connections and how the publication of the book slightly changes their lives. It’s a book that encourages words like “gentle”, “charming” and the ultimate in faint praise -“nice”. It’s engaging enough while reading, but not impactful enough to really linger. The only thing I will say is that I would recommend not reading the epilogue, it felt like the author slightly chickened out of deciding which end to have and included an alternate one that would have been a much darker story than the one the rest of the book tells. That was a real disappointment right at the very end.

Films in April

I’m still finding it a bit difficult to pick films that I want to watch at the moment, generally I’m looking for things that are engaging enough to distract from the world, but not too challenging or melancholy. Although every now and then I embrace the drama and seek out a horror film to completely overwhelm my brain. The list below are almost exclusively older films that are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime or occasionally on television; the only “new release” is the first film which premiered on Netflix so jumps to the top of the list, even though it was hardly a ‘big’ name.

The Willoughbys (Netflix)
A perfectly fine animation, but it felt like it could have been something a bit more impressive. The story is solid, the animation is lovely with an original style and creativity and the voice work very good. I think my disappointment was that it wasn’t quite dark enough. It has some fairly dark ideas that reminded me of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket or Tim Burton, but it just doesn’t quite follow through. Maybe it’s because the visuals are so colourful that it instinctively feels less creepy. It’s solidly entertaining, and maybe it’s just me and others will enjoy it a lot more, but it just seemed not quite all there to me. 7/10

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Amazon)
An absolute classic of a film, a defining moment for the Spy genre. It’s not flashy secret agents with guns and car chases, but quiet, slow and thoughtful. The story is beautifully crafted so I always thought I knew what was happening, but also had an element of suspicion that meant I was never completely sure. My uncertainty and nervousness mirrored the paranoia of the characters and worked perfectly to bring a sense of unease to the film. The way the story eventually unwound was immensely satisfying. 9/10

Death on the Nile (TV)
Agatha Christie is the rightful queen of the murder mystery and this is one of her absolute best stories, beautifully constructed with twists and turns. Here it is brought to life beautifully; some of the best character actors around at the time bring the drama and the cheesiness at all the right points. The icing on the cake are the stunning locations of Egypt. 8/10

Three Identical Strangers (Netflix)
The documentary starts with a seemingly miraculous story, a boy going to college only to find that everyone seems to recognise him, and the rapid discovery that he’s got a twin brother who he never knew about, split up when they were adopted and neither family knowing the other. Then a third brother is found. That story in itself is incredible enough to make a decent film, but the story continues to develop, as the clickbait headline would go “in ways you’ll never believe” and I’ll not spoil. The events in this film are absolutely incredible, everyone on screen says they wouldn’t believe it if they hadn’t lived it. The film makers do a very solid job unraveling the story, always giving the individuals time and space to express how they felt and the very human impact that these sensational events had. It’s a shocking story that had a real impact on me. 8 / 10

Operation Petticoat (Amazon)
A Cary Grant classic! Pink submarines, women, goats, babies, bombs and thieves all conspiring to make Grant cranky. The combination of Tony Curtis and Cary Grant is an hilarious one, one never stops talking and the other one doesn’t need to say a word. It’s not exactly aged perfectly with a fair amount of leering at the women, but actually it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been and the women do a good job standing up for themselves. One of my favourite films when I was a kid and still absolutely hilarious. 8 / 10

Bumblebee (TV)
I am rather amazed to say, I really enjoyed this Tranformers film. I haven’t seen the most recent ones I don’t think, I don’t even really know how many of them there have been, but I’d heard suggestions that as a more standalone film (and a prequel I think) this one was something different. It felt like it was harking back to solid old tropes of aliens/monsters befriending young people who help keep them secret and safe. Bumblebee the character is beautifully created to be part child, part scary fighter; the complicated animation really communicates his feelings even when he has no voice, I felt real sympathy and joy with him at times. Hailee Steinfeld is an excellent lead, also delivering charm and emotional punches, creating chemistry with the animation. I even liked the way the 80’s period setting was used, the pop culture references making me laugh rather than cringe. The script is nicely knowing about the cliches they’re playing (“They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?”). Okay, so the plot is a bit predictable and the emotions laid on too thick at times, but for a piece of family entertainment, it really delivers. 8 / 10

The Current War (Amazon)
Once upon a time, I studied the history of science, and this film is exactly the type of story that got me interested in the subject. On the surface the idea of a film about whether AC or DC electricity would ‘win’ is really not that exciting sounding. But what this film captures is the complex components of that decision, the combination of all the personal, political and sociological issues that play out along the actual science. One of the things they teach you about studying history is that it’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking of people as heroes and villains, even people who are pushing for a theory that we now know is wrong aren’t (usually) villains and this film really shows that. Both Edison and Westinghouse demonstrate greatness and underhandedness, both have beliefs, passions, curiosity and ambition, and the film follows them as they wax and wane. On top of a fascinating story being told very well, the film is beautifully shot and there are some very well placed stylistic elements that really stood out. I wasn’t expecting much from this film and I was very pleasantly surprised. 8 / 10

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe. 8 / 10

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over. 8 / 10

Good Night, and Good Luck (DVD)
This is a strangely intimate feeling film considering the depth of the history it’s covering, journalists finally standing up against the bully that was Senator McCarthy. Most of the story is told through discussions in the newsroom, and the remainder is told through historical clips of McCarthy and the hearings. I was a bit skeptical of the black and white at first, but I think it actually helped focus on the words and imbue the whole film with a sense of history (I guess having black and white clips in a colour film wouldn’t have worked). David Strathairn isn’t a well known actor but he’s perfect as Edward Murrow and George Clooney brings his charm and integrity to Fred Friendly. An entertaining film, and a fascinating insight. The film’s plot/history was well crafted and the use of period footage was very powerful. It’s not often I say this but I think the film could actually have been a little longer (run time 93minutes) to explain things a little more. A fascinating film with some bold choices in direction, most of which work but some of which are just plain irritating. 8 / 10

Filmed in Supermarionation (Amazon)
I grew up with several of Gerry Anderson’s series, and still think that Thunderbirds is one of the best concepts for a TV series there has been (although not necessarily the best delivered). This is a very un-flashy documentary that would be very at home on Sunday evening TV, but does fit the history of the production company that was run by a small group of people in glamorous locations like Slough. It’s a straightforward chronologically told story with plenty of clips of the series, behind the scenes footage, pieces to camera by the people that were there and even a group of the original teams going back to where they used to work. It’s very charming, and a fascinating story for anyone that has a fondness for these series, or an interest in the history of television. I could have lived without the new snippets of the puppets as if they were part of the documentary, that was just too cheesy. 7 / 10

Animals (Amazon)
I think to really appreciate this film you need to connect to the characters, to feel some kind of familiarity to some part of them, and I just didn’t feel that. I don’t think that’s because the film wasn’t good, I think the characters were well written and performed and I’m sure a lot of people will really connect to them, it’s just that the passions that drove them were ones that don’t really speak to me. So I felt myself a bit frustrated and bored of them, rather than sympathetic. Even without that connection though there were still moments that did speak to me, enough that I could see the talent behind the film. It just wasn’t for me. 7 / 10

Coyote Ugly (DVD)
A fun enough film with a great soundtrack and a tolerable enough plot in between. The Coyote Ugly bar is an interesting idea and it’s a shame it wasn’t in more of the film. Some likeable performances by a collection of pretty unremarkable actresses, although the characters are pretty one dimensional. 7 / 10

Magic Mike (DVD)
I’m a sucker for any of these films, any of those ‘struggling artist finds a home and a purpose by performing’, it’s just they’re usually about girls. And not usually about stripping. But my fondness carried through and I loved Magic Mike. The way the story turns some elements on its head brings freshness to the genre (the new guy isn’t the hero, it’s the older teacher that gets the better story) and the insight into the practical business of stripping is fascinating. For all that there’s actually a very strong story and interesting characters though, they also don’t shy away from the stripping, but if you’re just watching for that, I think you’re missing the true strengths of the film. Well, some of them anyway. 7 / 10

Children of the Corn (Amazon)
A classic of the horror genre that flip flops a bit between ideas and scenes that are still genuinely creepy, and ones that have dated very badly and just seem funny now. The story still holds up as a concept, murderous children are alwasy going to be unsettling. Given it was made in 1984, it’s not that surprising that it looks a little rubbish now, incredibly low quality effects and weirdly non-creepy looking deserted streets. I do wonder if the voice of Isaac was ever anything other than funny. 7 / 10

21 Bridges (Amazon)
This is a pretty good brainless action film that’s got a bit more depth to it than usual. Unfortunately I think the film is presenting itself as a smart thriller and there were two problems with that. There is too much reliance on suspension of disbelief that is normally used for mindless action films. The main characters lead charmed lives where every shot they take hits their target, but they walk unharmed through hails of bullets unscratched. It just didn’t feel like the villains had the level of skill to create the carnage and chaos they did, they’re presented as not much more than thugs for hire and yet they take down half a dozen cops with relative ease. The second problem is that I felt it was a bit of a waste of the premise. Shutting down the island of Manhattan is a great dramatic moment (and an opportunity for a rousing speech from Chadwick Boseman) but it didn’t feel like it actually played a huge part of the story. I mean Manhattan is huge, surely two guys could have hidden and waited it out? It didn’t really feel like it added anything to the film at all. So if you go in expecting a smart thriller I think you’ll be disappointed. But as an action film with some solid character work and performances, it’s pretty entertaining. 6 / 10

Chicken Run (Amazon)
This isn’t as stand out as many of Aardman’s other movies, it doesn’t feel as rich or detailed as something like Pirates an Adventure with Scientists, and it doesn’t have as much charm as Wallace and Grommit. But it is still entertaining, really playing up the ideas of The Great Escape and delivering them in chicken form. It’s funny and charming, and beautiful to look at. However there’s a big problem with the concept that can never really be overcome. It’s a children’s film about a chicken farm. There’s an early scene of a chicken being killed for the kitchen table and the other chickens being aware of that fate, which doesn’t quite blend with the quirky adventure tone of the rest of the film, and I certainly wouldn’t feel like explaining what’s happening to any younger children. 6 / 10

Booksmart (Amazon)
There was a lot about this film that I was impressed by. It felt like a very current entry to the coming of age genre, with a mixture of genders and sexuality that would have been remarkable a few years ago but here is just accepted as normal. But it still has all the usual elements of a coming of age film, and I’m not a big fan of those. There’s a lot of cringing humour, characters making fools of themselves, disasters that can be seen coming from a mile off. Many of the characters are quite annoying a lot of the time, which does make their moments of nice-ness a lot more impactful, but for the most part they’re just not fun to spend time with. I respect this film a lot, but I didn’t particularly like it. 6 / 10

Hustlers (Amazon)
I’d been disappointed to miss this film at the cinema and was excited to see it appear on Amazon Prime, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the expectations. I was immediately on edge with the level of nudity and sexualisation in the opening scenes. I’m not being a prude about it, but it felt exploitative rather than narrative, the full pole dance routine Jennifer Lopez does wasn’t about establishing her character, motivation or backstory, it was just about JLo in a skimpy outfit doing a pole dance. I’m not sure the film ever came back from that. There were plenty of opportunities for the film to be a proper drama, looking at the deeper stories of the women and how they felt, what they wanted and why their stories played out that way, but it never felt like it got beyond the tight dresses, leering and intrusive cameras and one dimensional characters. As a caper movie with strippers, it wasn’t un-entertaining, but I thought it was going to be more than that. 6 / 10

Diego Maradona (TV)
After Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentaries Senna and Amy, I had high hopes that he could bring the same level of insight to the world of football and someone I knew of only because of the ‘hand of god’ cheating. Sadly, I was disappointed. Not just disappointed but bored and frustrated. The film focuses on his time playing in Italy and I never felt like I understood where he came from, the interviews and voiceovers said stuff, but I never felt like we saw evidence to support anything. I didn’t get an understanding of how his football playing was special and I never understood the reactions of the fans and people around him. On top of that much of the footage was really dated and almost the whole thing was subtitled so as my attention wavered I completely lost track. I just don’t think this was anywhere near as good a piece of work as Kapadia’s previous works. 5 / 10

Shutter Island (Netflix)
A thriller without the thrills, and mystery without much mystery. The period setting is intriguing and beautifully created, but the film as a whole was a bit too much style over substance. It’s trying to present itself as gritty and grounded but there are so many obviously daft plot elements that it’s easy to see that there’s more going on. That’s made even clearly by the horrific soundtrack that tramples over any remaining subtlety, literally honking a horn every time something weird happens. 5 / 10

Van Helsing (DVD)
What on earth was that? I didn’t have high expectations of it, but I figured it had Hugh Jackman so how bad could it be? The answer is that it could be really really bad. I don’t know whether they were aiming for serious and made it bad, or they were aiming for funny and forgot to put the jokes in, but either way it completely missed the mark. Most of the actors seemed equally unsure what sort of film they were in because I know most of them can do a lot better, although unfortunately there were also some actors that clearly would not have been able to deliver a more nuanced performance even if the script had provided the material. Even the special effects were clunky and painful. The whole film was utterly without redemption. 4 / 10

Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

American Horror Story: 1984 (season 9)

Naming the series 1984 conjures up two equally horrifying ideas, George Orwell horrible vision of the future, and the real world’s horrible vision of fashion. It’s not hugely surprising that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk opt for the latter subject as the perfect target for their blend of humour and horror, taking the tropes of 80’s slasher movies. The result is one of the sillier seasons of American Horror Story, and unfortunately not one of its best.

The series starts in 1984 as a group of young twenty-somethings join up to go to Camp Redwood as counselors for the summer. But the Camp has a history as the scene of a massacre. Unsurprisingly the past comes back and the first five episodes are basically just an over-extended classic slasher movie playing out absolutely all the stereotypes and tropes, just with a 5 hour run time rather than a normal 90 minutes. There are plenty of twists and reveals of additional levels of complexity in the relationships, but I saw most of them coming a long way off and I didn’t find any of it particularly shocking or surprising. I’m also not entirely sure that the different ‘mythologies’ at play were applied consistently.

The final 4 episodes do something a little more interesting, stepping forward in time a couple of times to see more of the fall out, including some interesting cultural ideas about how people who felt completely at home in a time period feel as the world moves further away from that time. However for the most part I still felt this was a bit unremarkable for American Horror Story. It may be doing something that you don’t see in classic 80’s slasher films, but it’s not original for American Horror Story in season 9.

Overall I just felt it was a little ‘phoned in’. The majority of the series just doesn’t seem to do anything original with the ideas, it’s just a straight forward slasher movie that except for the improved filming quality and special/visual effects could have been made in the 80’s. The characters are too caricature, the humour too obvious and the story too simple. On the positive side, you can easily just skip this season of the anthology and come back next season which will hopefully be more interesting.

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.