Archive for the ‘ Season Reviews ’ Category

Nurse Jackie: Seasons 1-5

Nurse JackieMy brother has been nagging me for years to watch Nurse Jackie, but I have very firm rules about not starting a series mid-way through and I never quite got round to hunting out the first season either on television or on dvd. Finally though I spotted the first four seasons on LoveFilm instant and I made pretty swift work of powering through all the episodes and then finding season 5 to bring me bang up to date within just a couple of weeks. That in itself pretty much tells you how right my brother was.

I’ll keep the main review pretty spoiler free and generic to the series as a whole, then at the bottom I’ll go into each season in a little more detail, but it’s hard to do that without spoilers, so beware!

The show is (unsurprisingly) about a nurse called Jackie. She’s an excellent nurse who does what she has to do for the good of her patients, but she’s also a drug addict who lies and deceives everyone around her. mostly-functional drug addict. The show is notionally a comedy (and a 1/2 hour one at that), but it’s more a “snorting quietly under your breath at the humour that’s inherent in life” kind of comedy rather than a laughing and jokes kind of one. Really though it’s a pure character study of Jackie, of her interactions with the people around her – family, friends, colleagues and patients. It’s funny because people are generally pretty funny. But it’s also dramatic, tragic, farcical, sweet and sad, because people are all those things too.

The series really is like nothing else I can think of. On occasions I was frustrated at the half hour format, wanting to spend more time with the particular cases of the week, or wanting to see more of the fallout of events, but generally I think the show was far better for its brevity. It has an elegance to it, not a second is wasted explaining something that the audience can easily work out for themselves. Not only does it obey the rule to “show don’t tell” but it excels in the secondary rule of “imply don’t show”.

For a show built entirely around one character it’s a credit to the writers that I love the show even though I don’t actually particularly like the central character. She’s a stunningly complex and fascinating character, and one that I would very much want to be my nurse, but I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, and I’d be very nervous of getting on her bad side if I were a colleague. The writers make brave choices to not soften the character or have her make the ‘right’ decisions and Edie Falco is phenomenal at playing her.

In this kind of character study though, the supporting cast hold equal power, bringing out different sides of the character and highlighting the complexity in the way she interacts with each individual. Her friendship with O’Hara (Eve Best) is probably the most honest you see the character with others (although it’s not entirely honest still), and that acceptance of who Jackie is provides a lot of the humour and lightness. Her friendship with Akalitus (the always wonderful Anna Deavere Smith) is more complicated, but as the person with probably the longest history with Jackie, she too is one of the more accepting of who Jackie really is. With Akalitus and O’Hara sitting on either side of her, Jackie is both balanced and challenged constantly. And following in her footsteps is Zoe, as a reflection of who Jackie might once have been, allowing the audience to see which paths can be followed.

I’m less blown away by the male characters sadly. I never found Coop anything other than epically irritating, he remained like a small child with a desperate need to be liked by everyone but an endless ability to destroy relationships through ignorance and thoughtlessness. Kevin and Eddie are both likeable enough, but both struggle to have any character outside their relationships with Jackie, leaving them as appearing rather weak and uninteresting.

It’s an utterly addictive series to watch, I found myself watching half a dozen episodes in a row multiple times, both impressed and entertained and occasionally devastated. It’s also a show that keeps moving, with each season doing something slightly differently. So below are slightly spoilery bits on each of the seasons.

Season 1
1I knew very few of the details of the show going in and that works well. Knowing that Jackie is a drug taking nurse doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of her actions. Likewise the surprises of the relationships she has are delightful and difficult to see. It never pulls punches on the character, never excusing her choices or making her lies and actions easy or without consequences. There were several avoidable plot contrivances which left me frustrated (cutting off a ring and then breaking a finger as an excuse rather than just wrapping the finger in a bandage with the ring still on being a key example), but overall a surprising and excellent first season.

Season 2
2I did miss the character of Mo-Mo, I liked the way he was sort of in between Zoe and Jackie, Thor grew on me though once he started answering back a bit more. I also wasn’t a massive fan of Eddie going all stalkery and desperate, as I mentioned above he just came across as entirely defined by his relationship with Jackie and therefore rather bland and weak. It was however interesting to see Jackie losing control, entertaining when it came to Eddie befriending Kevin, but tougher when it was watching her struggle to understand her daughter’s problems.

Season 3
3There was a deeply frustrating Coop storyline where he once again acted like a child the whole season, upset about his parents’ divorce and desperately engineering a wedding for himself. Jackie meanwhile is rapidly losing control of her lies and her addiction which is hard to watch, but also satisfying. I didn’t really feel sorry for her, she had after all brought all this onto herself, but I also didn’t feel any real satisfaction seeing her gradually lose the trust of her friends and family.

Season 4
4Jackie goes to rehab. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to see that she’d been playing a game all along and deceiving everyone, but as the season went on, it just became more and more real. It was a brave choice for the writers to make, to redefine the show from being about a drug addicted nurse to being about a recovering addict, but it really worked. Less brave was the fact that they followed the unwritten rule that sooner or later every American medical show seems to do a storyline about becoming more like a business, all suits and targets and efficiencies. At least Nurse Jackie brought in Bobby Cannavale to add weight to the story, and it had the unexpected delight of bringing the very best out of Akalitus and her relationships with Jackie and O’Hara. The three women supporting each other through the change of management, rehab and a pregnancy was possibly the high point of the entire series.

Season 5
5Jackie’s now clean, sober and divorced, but more alarmingly – she’s without O’Hara. While I love Jackie’s stronger relationships with Akalitus and Zoe, I really really missed O’Hara and the show really missed her humour. I felt particularly robbed of the opportunity to see O’Hara with baby! Watching Jackie and Kevin try to work out their new relationship was interesting (although sometimes heartbreaking) and I liked the new love interest of Frank and the new honesty Jackie brought to a relationship. Coop continues to be a frustrating character though and the other new doctors didn’t make a very favourable impression either. All my responses and reactions to the season pale into insignificance at the intensity of my emotions during the final few moments. I can’t think of anything else I’ve felt so devastated and overwhelmed by in response to a calm and understated action by a character. I’m both looking forward to, and dreading, season 6.

Community: Season 1

CommunityWay back in 2009, I hadn’t yet given up on watching pilots of comedy series, so did actually review the Community pilot and liked it. However despite the critics absolutely adoring it, I didn’t watch it, not least because it was buried on some obscure channels in the UK.

Jump forward three years and a couple of friends forced the first season dvd upon me and nagged until I watched it.

It was good.

It’s the kind of show that could relatively easily be dismissed, but the more attention you pay, the more it rewards you with a lot of exquisitely crafted writing that takes a sideways look at everything and crafts spoofs of just about every subject under the sun.
The episodes which are built around referencing genres or specific films/shows are the high point of the series. Each one is entirely respectful, as if the writers genuinely love whatever they are pulling apart, poking fun without being mean or snide. The other clever thing is that you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of the target, or even know anything at all about it, because the story, characters and jokes are all well enough done that the show is still entertaining.

The show doesn’t always manage to hit the right balance for me, the characters walk a very fine line between being quirky and ridiculous. It’s often not really believable that Chevy Chase’s Pierce hasn’t been lynched by his fellow students, or that anyone tolerates Shirley’s simpering for more than one class. Mind you I can forgive most of those problems because while not all the characters work, the writers did introduce us to Abed, who sort of floats through the series like a media obsessed soothsayer. Rather than have the biggest geek be completely disassociated from reality, in many ways he’s actually the member of the group most in touch with the real world, quietly manipulating everything around him. He isn’t the star of the show, but he is the heart and soul of it.

With each episode lasting just 20 minutes or so once you strip out the adverts the episodes never outstay their welcome, each carefully constructed to build up towards a satisfying ending – be it a sweet one or a cynical one. It does exactly what a comedy should do, makes you laugh and realise how daft real life is.

Also – any show that generates a gag reel almost as long as an episode has to be worth a look.

Friday Night Lights: Season 4 & 5

I took an unconventional approach to watching the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights. I watched the first half of the fourth season and then stopped. Then I watched the second half of season 4 and most of season 5 in a week. Then it took me a month or so to bring myself to watch the last two episodes. This reluctance to watch isn’t because it’s bad, but completely the opposite. I had to stop watching season 4 because I read a spoiler of what happened to one of my favourite characters and I just couldn’t bring myself to watch that happen on screen. Then within sight of the ending, I realised that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and if I didn’t watch the finale, maybe it didn’t happen.

Eventually I just had to suck it up and watch though, driven predominantly by the fact that if I didn’t see it, I couldn’t include it on my end of year awards and I didn’t want to deprive it the opportunity. Suffice to say that not only will it be certain to appear on that list, but it maintains its second place on my TV of the decade list and would place similarly highly in a best show of all time list.

It’s hard to find anything to add to reviews of previous seasons, to find anything new to say about how a show that on paper is about football and small towns in Texas can be such a spectacular look at the lives of a group of fantastic characters. How boundaries were pushed on network television for what issues will be addressed. How beautiful direction combined loose and open documentary styles with breathtaking sports sequences. How actors like Kyle Chandler, Taylor Kitsch and Zach Gilford did so much while saying so little, while actors like Connie Britton and Adrianne Palicki were so subtle while shouting out loud.

There was a relatively smooth transition from the original Panther team to the Lions team of the last couple of seasons but unfortunately I never really bonded with the new kids as much as I loved Saracen, Riggins, Street, Smash and Landry. Seeing the other side of Dillon, the massively underprivileged Lions fighting for every penny and every bit of respect highlighted how easy the original team had it in many ways. Watching characters like Vince, Jess and Becky fight for every opportunity, particularly in the last few episodes was inspiring and heartbreaking.

I felt some of the plots of the final season floundered a bit. I never really liked Julie Taylor much and was a bit frustrated that while other people left high school and left the series, she lingered around making her usual poor choices. I also found the storyline that saw the Taylors’ fighting over their future very troublesome. It didn’t feel realistic to me that they’d be so unable to communicate, that they would come so close to letting themselves be pulled apart. But I find myself unable to make an accurate, unemotional assessment; I want so much to say that this was bad writing, engineering a crisis that the characters wouldn’t really have allowed happen, but is that purely my love of the characters speaking? Just like I was so mad at the show for having Tim Riggins screw up his life so badly, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t entirely consistent in how the character would behave in that situation.

I always had to struggle to watch this show, I was so emotionally invested in every game, every relationship, every character, every choice… every single scene… it was exhausting. I worked my way steadily through half a box of tissues in the final episode alone, but alternated every tissue with laughing out loud. As a critic, I felt the finale was a bit willowy as it showed all the characters getting happy endings and lacking the grittiness of previous storylines – but as a fan, I would have been devastated if it had finished any differently.

Clear eyes, full hearts…

Luther: Season 1

There’s nothing particularly original about a police drama built around a lead character who gives his name to the show. But this isn’t Morse, or Bergerac. Luther the show is more a psychological thriller than a cop show, there’s far more emphasis on outwitting people than on chasing them in cars and shooting them. Luther the character is a Chief Inspector in a serious crime team, he’s an extremely good investigator, using intelligence to keep a step ahead of the criminals. Unfortunately he’s not exactly what you’d describe as entirely on the up-and-up. He’s one of those characters with a ‘strong sense of justice’ which is slightly troublesome for a police officer, because sometimes his methods for finding information and evidence won’t exactly hold up in court.

The really interesting part of the set-up created for the first season is that although Luther starts off in a mental institution, he’s not nearly as crazy as those around him think he is. He does have a temper, but for the most part he controls it, what others may think is craziness is actually him rationally deciding on a course of action. He has a strange set of cheerleaders on his side however, his new partner who wants to learn from him and believes in him for no particular reason that I can see, his estranged wife, and a murderer that he couldn’t catch.

The relationship with his estranged wife is the best developed of the series, possibly even the only relationship that makes any sense. Although there are excellent reasons why they are no longer together, they have a long history and both remember that their relationship used to be good. Even when she is angry with him, she understands him and is firm in her beliefs of what he would and wouldn’t do. Likewise through it all, he wants her to be safe and happy, and he can understand and accept that those two conditions may not be possible with him. To counterpoint that complicated but generally positive relationship is the altogether less healthy connection that develops between Luther and a murderer that he couldn’t catch. Luther seems to respect her ability to elude prosecution and gradually uses her more and more to gain insight from a mind just as sharp as his, but wired an entirely different way. How and why this relationship develops is as much a mystery to Luther as it is the audience, but it really works somehow.

The first season is only six episodes long and I wish it had been a couple of episodes longer to give the writers more time to develop the characters and situations more naturally. I would have preferred a couple of episodes where Luther beats the criminals in a fair competition, too often he gives up and declares that there’s no way to catch criminals without stretching the law, the fact that he always feels the need to cheat undermines his supposed intelligence and abilities. More time would have also given more time for the surrounding characters to develop, to really get a feel for the relationships they have with Luther, so that when things get complicated at the end, there’s a firmer starting point. As it was, the acts of betrayal and loyalty didn’t feel as dramatic to the audience as they did to Luther, they just didn’t feel earned.

This is far from a perfect series, most of the cases are ridiculously over the top, the writing lays things on a bit thick and many of the characters under-developed. However at its core there’s a very interesting character, played beautifully by Idris Elba (The Wire), he takes the hammy dialogue and does fascinating things with it just in the tone of his voice and the tilt of his head. The show Luther really is all about the character of Luther, and with Idris Elba’s inspired performance, that is more than enough to make me recommend it.

Luther will apparently be returning later this year, although maybe only as two longer standalones. Season 1 is available on dvd for £7.50 on Amazon

Other Reviews
The Guardian: Gradually, as the weeks have passed, the audience’s persistence has been rewarded and it has developed into something approaching appointment TV. Yes, Luther’s still an unconventional cop who doesn’t play by the rules and, yes, his personal life is a mess – but that’s not the only substance the programme has to it. In fact Luther is barely even a cop show at all: it’s a slightly sillier version of Silence of the Lambs.

TV Squad: ‘Luther’s’ increasing density and darkness becomes addictive, and it almost does the impossible — it takes that old TV cliche about the detective who may think too much like a criminal and makes it feel fresh again.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 6

I have a rather epic love/hate relationship with Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t think of another show that has pissed me off so much, but that I’ve forgiven over and over again.

The problem is that 10% of the show is really terrible. Most of that is due to the characters making really really idiotic choices – getting involved in dumb relationships, screwing up the good ones and endlessly whining about how hard their poor little lives are. You just want to shout at them to grow up, get on with it and sort themselves out. The other big problem this season specifically was the sudden introduction of a mass of new characters, it felt too much like an extended casting session to replace the absent characters, except that because there were so many of them I didn’t care about any of them.

Despite these hugely frustrating issues, the other 90% of the show is absolutely brilliant. The dialogue, the characters, the relationships, the music, the drama, the comedy… it’s wonderful, I adore it. I save up a few episodes, waiting until I have the house to myself and settle in with some comfort food and a box of tissues. It’s my time. My indulgence. I can’t stand to have my watching interrupted by someone who doesn’t understand, there’s no way I can explain the show without it seeming silly, soppy and embarrassed, spoiling the whole experience. The show and I have history – I can’t explain to someone why I burst into tears when Meredith calls Christina her Person, or why I cheer and clap when Bailey silences someone with a look. If you don’t understand it, I can’t explain it.

When I disappear into the world of Grey’s I don’t notice that the plots are ludicrous, that about 80% of the doctors on the show have ended up on the operating table themselves, that Seattle Grace seems to attract the crazies like moths to a flame. It bothers me a bit when I come to write this kind of review, but it’s hardly the show’s fault that I over analyse things. if I just stuck to shamelessly enjoying it by myself, or occasionally discussing it over coffee with people who understand (“the thing with thing…”, “…sobbing everywhere…”, “…Seriously!”) then I would probably be perfectly happy.

After they killed off George last season, I wasn’t sure I could face coming back. I’m glad I did. I’ll be back next season too, and woe betide anyone who mocks me.

Sons of Anarchy: Season 2

I allowed the whole of Season two to stack up on the Sky+ box before starting it and this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A soon as I started watching, I couldn’t stop. I would travel home from work planning the optimum arrangement of my evening’s tasks to allow me the maximum viewing time before a house-mate would come home and interrupt my viewing. The first season was great, the second season was absolutely superb.

Wikipedia has a section in the Sons of Anarchy description talking about the similarities with Hamlet and although I don’t get the detailed links (I never studied it at school and ain’t starting now), the show certainly feels Shakespearean in tone. Airing on cable in the US means that the show can take a much more long term structure, relying more on telling a story over the span of the 12 hours, than having a strong start, middle and end to each individual episode. It’s great news if you’re watching on dvd, or can store it up, but I suspect watching weekly would be frustrating and a bit too slow.

Life is a bit more black and white in season 2; the club, law enforcement and the viewers are all united in their hatred for the villains of the piece. Adam Arkin (who I’ve been a fan of since Chicago Hope) plays the leader of a white supremacist group who want to take over Charming, using calmness and intelligence in the face of the club’s more loud and obvious tactics. His calculated violence and manipulation is far worse than anything the club ever does, he knows exactly how to hurt them and how to get them to hurt themselves. It’s terrifying, creepy and fascinating.

The Club meanwhile has its own problems with the simmering issues between Clay and Jax gradually bubbling over. More and more responsibility is pushed onto other members of the extended family to try and smooth the relationship for the sake of the club. Bobby is really interesting as the peacemaker of the group, contrasting with both the hot-headed leaders, and the emotionally collapsing Opie and Tig.

I think the biggest strength of both the show and the club itself however are the female characters. Gemma (Katey Sagal – criminally overlooked for an Emmy nomination) and Tara are instrumental in holding the club together. Gemma learns she can trust Tara with her own secrets, and those of the club and her son, while Tara comes to respect Gemma’s advice and accept that she has power and responsibilities of her own. The way the two characters develop individually and together is amazing; as Jax and Clay grow apart, Tara and Gemma come together. Likewise the Sheriff and his deputy go through a similar journey, each finding a way to fulfil their responsibilities while not breaking their own moral codes – whatever they might be.

Like Mad Men this is a show of quiet beauty and subtle pacing. I really enjoyed watching it, utterly riveted from start to finish – gasping, cheering and laughing along with the characters. But it wasn’t until I came to write this review that I started to fully appreciate how carefully structured the whole season was, how many things balanced each other, how themes were delicately introduced and developed. The plots may be about guns, motorbikes, the porn industry, drug dealing and white supremacy, but the story is about a great deal more, and it’s amazing.

Links:
My Season 1 review
Official website, imdb, wikipedia, Reviews and News at TVSquad

Season 2 has just finished on Bravo, season 3 will start in the US in September. Seasons 1 & 2 are available for £27 quid or Season 2 by itself for 15. (Amazon affiliate links, sorry for the crappy formatting, WordPress doesn’t seem to want to let me do them nicely :(

NCIS: Los Angeles – Season 1

A screenshot from the truly terrible opening credit sequence. The music sounds even worse than this looks.

At some point during the year, when faced with an episode of NCIS and an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, I switched from watching NCIS first, to eagerly jumping to Los Angeles. I’d initially suffered from my usual scepticism where it comes to spin-offs, but NCIS:LA quickly revealed itself to have an excellent understanding of what made NCIS popular in the first place, at the same time as its parent show started plummeting towards an ignoble end.

The day to day plots of the two shows are much of a muchness – a little less science in LA and a little more undercover, but basically running around shooting and interrogating people. The Navy angle in LA is usually even more forced than in the original flavour with a series of unfortunate seamen getting caught up in domestic dramas, gang squabbles and occasional terrorist kerfuffles. They’re all pretty daft and to be honest, I rarely paid them enough attention to grasp more than the basics of the stories.

Where LA succeeds and Original failed this year however was in the character department. Original flavour bounced all over the place, seemingly inducing schizophrenia in all of its characters and just hoping the viewer wouldn’t notice the inconsistencies. LA meanwhile gave its characters a much smoother time of it, allowing them the time to evolve naturally and actually have some time to react to events.

Chris O’Donnell (Callen) and LL Cool J (Sam) make a brilliant partnership, one of the best on screen at the moment. In my Fringe review I commented that great partnerships are about contrast, seemingly opposite characters actually complementing each other. These guys do that perfectly. Sam is the patient, quieter, more restrained ex-Navy Seal, while Callen the outgoing, risk taking, undercover expert with the mysterious past. They challenge but respect each other and have a really fun, bantering relationship.

I complained in the pilot about the lack of a strong leader character, and while I wouldn’t say they resolved the problem, they did make it more interesting. Hetty (Linda Hunt) is a really original character, office manager to a bunch of agents who just won’t behave. She’s tiny and not exactly a spring chicken (think Edna in The Incredibles) but also pretty handy when it comes to picking out brands of rocket launchers. Hetty doesn’t mother people at all, but she’s definitely the grown up voice of the group, happily manipulating them so that they learn a lesson. She and Callen lead the team together, her from an operations, administrative and political point of view, while he is the team leader in the field. She manipulates him, and he knows it; he listens to her advice, and she doesn’t take advantage. I’m still not really sure of who’s in charge, but the relationship is a fascinating one to watch.

The other members of the team were less stand-out, but perfectly adequate as supporting bodies. Surfer kid tech-whiz was a bit one-dimensional and the female agent was generally just treated as a token female agent, although her occasional sparks of personality hinted at something more interesting. The psychiatrist was poorly used, in too many cases he behaved like a child, showing a painful inexperience and over-enthusiasm when it came to getting involved in the law enforcement side of things. That might have been ok if it were balanced with some other skills, but he rarely was useful in any way, so just seemed a bit of a waste of space. The other junior agent was so utterly unremarkable, that when he left mid-season, I barely noticed.

I enjoyed NCIS:LA in the way I used to enjoy NCIS, harmless fun with good dialogue and fast paced plots; raised above being merely ‘entertaining’ by having some really great characters. If anything, NCIS:LA is partly responsible for my disappointment at NCIS, the season in LA was bright and fun and smooth, the season in NCIS was old and clunky and erratic. The newbie is definitely showing its older colleague up.