Glee: Season 1

Oh Glee, I want so very very much to give you a glowing review, to recommend you to all my loyal readers (hi Dad!) as a joyous example of something that looks trite and cheesy on the outside, but inside is supported by the highest calibre of talent that has ever gathered together around a television camera. Sadly I cannot. Mind you, I have a suspicion that in the light of its massive ratings success, almost unheard of TWO season pick-up, staggering itunes sales, and command performance at the White House – those involved aren’t really going to give a flying pompom what I think of them.

The fact that I’m giving a season spanning review tells you that I don’t actually hate the show. In fact, I kind of adore it. Each episode is brimming with such colour and spirit and passion and life that I can’t help but watch with a massive smile on my face. I love the fact that a show as weird and wonderful as this is just a huge hit on network television, amidst all the death and cops and blood and lawyers, it’s a huge beacon of noise and energy.

The musical numbers are generally superb. A completely eclectic collection of music from the classics of musical theatre (so I’m told) through to hip-hop. Not all the music is to my taste, but the energy and enthusiasm carry them through. I know some people complain of the ridiculousness of them spontaneously bursting into a fully choreographed, harmonised number, but I was perfectly happy to accept that. I was less happy about the poor dubbing that continued to be used periodically, but I was usually pretty quickly distracted by the clever montages and creative direction.

The dialogue is sharp and witty, the mix of eccentric characters gives a great balance. While Will and Emma are painfully inspirational, Sue cuts people down with complete inappropriateness. While Rachel and Finn are being tortured and full of dreams, Brittany and Puck are presenting the somewhat baser instincts of American teenagers. Somehow the fact that a lot of the rest of the kids are there to represent minorities is made less annoying by the fact that Sue endlessly points that out. The flipflopping around could be jarring, but actually really keeps you on your toes.

But if you look beyond each individual episode, the flaws in the show become all too obvious. As I very presciently said in my pilot review – “By the end of the first episode at least two of the characters had realised ‘who they really are inside’, which doesn’t really leave much space for development.” Well as it turns out the writers get round that small problem by having the characters forget they’ve discovered their true selves, and rediscover it again 3 episodes later. Every few episodes Rachel will discover there’s more to life than just being a star, Finn will realise he has to stand up to be himself, Quinn discovers she can be more than a vapid cheerleader, Kurt finds his father to be surprisingly accepting, Puck discovers… actually it takes him a few attempts to discover anything. But it just goes round and round. Likewise certain relationships and issues fade into the background for a few episodes before re-appearing once you’d forgotten they were even there.

The ‘issue of the week’ storylines got increasingly painful, each time focussing on a small fraction of the characters and giving them a complete journey inside the episode – introducing an issue we were often not aware of, exploring it, and resolving it all in 45 minutes while making space for songs and jokes about Will’s hair. Then next episode it will all be forgotten. It was almost as if they had a checklist of issues a high school show has to deal with and worked their way through, but without being particularly creative in their handling. It was just… poor.

But does any of that matter? As I watch each episode, I feel happy. I smile, I laugh out loud, I tear up and I want to sing along. I’ve bought all the soundtrack albums, and the opening chords of Don’t Stop Believing make me smile, wherever I am. It’s only when I start thinking that the massive flaws really stand out. So from here on, the solution I’ll take is to switch off my brain completely and just turn up the volume.


Criminal Minds: Season 5

Criminal Minds has always seemed the quiet goth sibling in the procedural family. It’s not as flashy as NCIS, as omnipresent as CSI or as shamelessly fun as Bones. It’s about what lurks at the dark and twisted end of the criminal spectrum. Every week the team look at the scariest, creepiest and most troubling crimes taking place across America.

The remit of the FBI team which allows them to travel the country gives a good excuse for why they’re always dealing with big cases, rather than having to come up with increasingly more improbable reasons for why their chosen city is the crime centre of the USA. The changing locations are a wonderful feature of the show, one week they’re in a tiny village in Alaska, the next in LA – the writers use this to full advantage giving fascinating insights into how criminals, victims and law enforcement are different, yet also very much the same.

The team has weathered in nicely. It took me a long time to like Rossi, he was gruff and standoffish for a while, which didn’t sit well with him joining MY team. But he has gradually worked his way in and his previous attitude now perfect sense that he would be defensive and troubled at taking a while to get back to being a member of a team and not being in charge, not to mention catching up on knowledge and experience. Likewise Prentiss took a while to grow on me, but now she has a really nice relationship with everyone, relaxing and being goofy and geeky occasionally. I particularly love that there are three strong female characters on this show, each not afraid to be female and have children, pink fluffy hair clips and cravings for shopping, while still being competent and occasionally scary FBI agents.

Hotch and Morgan’s relationship was also interesting this year, with the former taking some time away from leading the team and bequeathing its care to Morgan. Both subtly changed in their new roles, Hotch being a little more laid back and seeming to enjoy watching someone else deal with his day to day problems, while still being a kind mentor. Morgan took the power well, not without occasional mistakes – befitting someone taking the next step in their career – but never being afraid to admit his failings and ask for advice.

The plot arc of the serial killer targeting Hotch and his family didn’t work well for me, as I frequently find with the cases that get personal for the team. I much prefer them to be subtly effected by things, rather than completely emotionally traumatised. The other problem is that the scale of the fallout rarely seems to be dealt with, the second half of the season hardly referenced the life changing trauma Hotch went through.

The standalone episodes continue to be creative, interesting and terrifying. The range they cover is wide, from relatively small, but intense kidnappings, to the mass murderers. Many are pretty disposable, but there’s some great guest casting and interesting locations which make things tick along nicely. Small character moments and humour are scattered throughout giving a great balance each episode of psychology, humour, action, mystery and character.

All in all this season of Criminal Minds has been pretty satisfying, while I suppose the big Hotch storyline should have formed the centre, to me what the season was about was the team acting as a team – not one that’s just forming, or even one that’s settling in, but as a team that is now completely comfortable with their roles and each other.

Edited to add – the same day I praise the show for finally settling into a great team dynamic and for how strong the female characters are, Michael Ausiello reports that A.J. Cook (JJ) has been told her services are no longer required, and Paget Brewster (Prentiss) will not be appearing in every episode. Apparently it’s for budgetary reasons, but I’m pretty unimpressed and disappointed in these changes. If it’s saving money to fund the (dreadful looking) spinoff, I’m going to be cross.

Bones: Season 5

First the good – I’m happy to include Bones in my selection of crime procedurals because it is just plain fun to watch. Each mystery is self contained (there wasn’t really a plot arc this season) and they’re creative and satisfying. There’s a good mix of science and action and also a careful balance between quirky cases and never losing sight of the fact they’re talking about events that change people’s lives. I like that I can watch it while eating dinner and browsing the internet and it’s fun, or I can pay attention to it and get more from it.

The characters are a big part of that enjoyment. Their careful evolutions, gradually developing based on their experiences are a real reward for loyal viewers. Booth and Brennan form an excellent partnership with contrasting skills but a great respect for each other’s talents. The same applies to the rest of the team, including the rotating cast of interns, the kind of large dysfunctional family that is easy to fall in love with. (Except for Daisy, she is very annoying indeed.)

The frustrating thing this season has been the endless hinting and teasing about whether Booth and Brennan are in love with each other. To me, they have excellent chemistry as professional partners and as protective friends, but I never bought a romantic connection between them. The writers seem to feel the same way, not least because of the Moonlighting effect which immediately kills a show if the ‘unrequited’ couple get together. Booth and Brennan care for each other, want each other to be happy, understand each other better than anyone else… but they’re not romantic soul mates.

Looking back it feels as if a massive amount of the season was spent teasing people who are obsessed with that relationship, basically poking the shippers with a stick until they get hysterical. First there was the whole hallucination thing, then the flashback and then the final lingering scene of the season. Maybe I’m just too cynical, there are a lot of (vocal) fans out there who adore that romantic element to the show, probably the same people I got annoyed with when they endlessly talked about Mulder and Scully.

Bones to me is a pretty disposable show – watch it, enjoy it, forget it until next week. To damn it with faint praise – it’s nice. It irritates me with the flip-flopping of relationships mostly because the show really doesn’t need it and I think it would be a lot more satisfying to have the grown up characters just be friends without trying to pair absolutely up in turn.

CSI: Season 10

The previous season of CSI was a bit manic, Warrick and Grissom both departed the team, Langston and Riley joined and it seemed like a lot of sudden change for a show that had been relatively unchanging for so long. Season ten however felt like everything settled down again. Riley disappeared into the sunset and I barely noticed. Sara returned every now and again and slotted in to her old place in the team flawlessly. The only real change was some long term recurring characters getting well earned promotions to regular status, when I saw Super Dave the assistant coroner in the opening credits I gave a little cheer.

It feels like everyone has finally accepted that Grissom is gone. It’s not that he’s never mentioned, he’s frequently acknowledged and referenced, but as a part of the family that’s moved on, not as a lingering ghostly presence. Catherine seems to take charge more actively, and in promoting Nick to her deputy she puts her stamp on it as her team. Nick steps up and takes responsibility nicely, telling Greg off when he acts out, or trying to mentor Langstom. The team dynamics work very nicely with everyone stepping up a rung, even the previously somewhat self-righteous Sara takes on a more nurturing role. The collection of characters felt like a team again.

Langstrom is a really interesting character, worthy of Laurence Fishburne’s talents. He’s extremely knowledgeable, and smart enough to acknowledge his inexperience as a CSI and is eager to learn from his younger colleagues. He is also self-aware enough to know that he has a potentially violent temper and consciously tries to minimise it. His obsession with the Dr Jeckyll case through the season offered an interesting structure to gradually reveal more about his history and his potential to fall into obsessions. The serial killer as a whole worked well, not particularly overplayed, but with some entertainingly creative puzzle pieces, which didn’t fall into CSI:NY’s trap of being too clever until the final episode.

The other cases through the year were the usual reliable mix of heavy and dramatic all the way down to the weird and comedic. I love the lab rats being given more to do, both in Field Mice which had them pretending to be CSIs to Appendicitement where a boys night out turns into a chaotic and hilarious adventure.

CSI is rarely a show I get excited about, but it seldom disappoints me and this season was really satisfying from start to finish. The character moments were small, but charming – little expressions of appreciation, consideration or irritation. I enjoyed this season, and I’m glad to see that after 229 episodes, I’m still interested about what they’ll do next.

FlashForward: Season 1

Sometimes you watch a one season show and come to the end angry that your show isn’t coming back, othertimes you get there and you feel that although the show won’t come back, it made an impact and did enough. Other times you reach the end and as the closing credits play for the last time, you think to yourself “well that was an epic waste of everyone’s time, energy and talent”. Guess which one FlashForward falls into?

Reading back over my review of the pilot is quite sad, I was filled with such hope, which all came to nothing. I am quietly smug though that while I liked the pilot, I highlighted two big problem areas which would later come to be the show’s undoing – uninteresting characters, and untrustworthy writing.

The characters started out lacking spark, and as the season went on many of them didn’t change. There were a couple of them that had moments where they stopped being single issue, whiny, faintly useless lumps, but only brief moments. The biggest problem though was the big black hole of a charisma vacuum where a leading man should have been. Joseph Fiennes’ Mark Benford alternated between quietly tormented and dementedly psychotic and yet somehow managed to be dull throughout. I really was routing for his wife to leave him and shack up with the British scientist as he was a lot more interesting.

The other thing I was worried about was that a show like this needs to give its viewers confidence that the writers know where they’re going, that they’re not just making it up as they go along. In my piece about the mid-season relaunch I was a bit more optimistic, seeing that they’d ‘retconned’ some stuff so it made more sense and taking things in a slightly new direction. I think they stuck with that reasonably well for the rest of the season, but it did turn out to be too little too late. The giant conspiracy stuff also got away from me a bit, I lost track of it all and didn’t care enough to catch up.

There really was a bit too much going on, a giant conspiracy, something about military contractors, scientists, and dozens of character threads. Too many of the plots were completely isolated – the love triangle of Bryce searching for the girl of his flashforward while developing a friendship with another girl, it was a sweet story, but had nothing to do with anything else. Likewise the story of Benford’s sponsor and his MIA daughter didn’t connect back strongly enough to make it feel like their arc was anything other than filler. I get that those stories are there to illustrate how the flashforwards changed people’s lives, but it would have been nice if there’d been more linking.

Likewise the balance between the intellectual stuff and the action could have been handled more smoothly. As I commented mid-season, the intellectual stuff was quite interesting, but they didn’t do enough of it. I had far more interesting conversations with friends about the philosophy of alternate timelines and pre-destined behaviour than was ever hinted at in the show. Meanwhile the action was just a bit dull, each time they got in a big gun battle I just found myself dozing off; the good guys were invincible and the bad guys were faceless and useless.

This was demonstrated pretty impressively in the finale. All the stuff with the gun battle in the FBI building that Benford had seen was just really boring, distracting from the really interesting stuff about the flashforwards. This was the whole reason I’d kept watching, I wanted to see people experience the two minutes that they’d seen so long ago come true (or not). I thought it was pretty well handled, there were enough twists that it wasn’t predictable, but not so many that it felt like it was cheating. I was impressed and intrigued that the next flashforward came so soon but showed a time so far in the future – giving the series a new lease of life for the second season and a new twist seeing how people deal with a flashforward to 2 years away, instead of just a few months. But of course we’re not going to see any of that, so all I’m left with is a faint sense of frustration.

There are some single-season shows I will happily recommend to people (Firefly, Wonderfalls, Studio 60 etc), FlashForward will not be one of them. It will go down in my memory as a great ‘could have been’. The show just never really came together properly, it always felt too much like the writers were constructing a recipe “two scoops romance, one cup action, three tablespoons of philosophy” but then forgot to actually bake it together to make a cake at the end of it. Maybe there was too much network meddling, maybe the showrunners just weren’t invested enough, or maybe everyone was just trying too hard, but for whatever reason FlashForward was an embarrassing failure – critically, creatively and commercially.

Is anyone still watching FlashForward? Not so much

US Ratings data from wikipedia, UK from

Links: NY Daily News – ‘FlashForward’ series finale is one of the worst in TV history
SciFi Wire – 5 reasons why FlashForward deserved to fail
CliqueClack – finale review

Supernatural: Season 5

Where to start with this review? I’ve been struggling with it for nearly two weeks and still don’t actually know how to sum up my feelings. I love Supernatural, it’s number six on my top shows of the decade list and I recommend it to anyone I think is worthy of it. But for all my enthusiasm about past seasons I’ve been torn in my response to season 5. I have a suspicion that the problem has been that this is the first season I’ve watched week by week, rather than in a massive marathon covering four seasons in just three weeks. Maybe the show is just better when you watch it in big chunks; the structure and pacing works better when the humorous diversion episode is just 45 minutes in your 3 hour marathon, not something that means there’s nearly two weeks between plot episodes.

Story wise, there’s some epic stuff going on this season. To keep things as non-spoilery as possible the Winchester Brothers are trying to stave off the apocalypse, everyone (from Lucifer all the way up to the archangels) is telling them they are destined to play out certain roles, and they just don’t want to. The first half of the season is spent in an increasingly desperate drive to find a solution that doesn’t screw over humanity as a whole. The second half is a pretty depressing investigation of what you do when it turns out the situation really is un-winnable.

The show was originally ‘planned’ as a five year arc (although happily it has been picked up for a sixth season) and one of the things that worked extremely well was the bringing together of elements from throughout the story. Questions that you didn’t even know you had were answered in a satisfying way, characters returned and arcs were concluded. There was a lot of really meaty stuff going on, talking about the very nature of destiny, religion, good and evil, personal responsibility, free-will. But at the same time, in true Supernatural fashion there were a few fun episodes, with some wickedly observant comedy in them, which would then have a completely epic final 5 minutes, the credits would role and you’d be left sort of staring at the screen with your mouth open.

The thing is I just didn’t feel like I enjoyed the season as much as I have others. Even season 3 with it’s very depressing overall story, it never really felt heavy; between the black humour the boys have about their lives and the hope they and the audience shared that things would work out, it never felt like it was wallowing. But a lot of season five was spent angry, bitter and wallowing, any spark of hope was so relentlessly stomped on that I often struggled to motivate myself to watch the next episode.

I think Supernatural lost some of its subtlety this season. One of the things that I’ve always adored is that the characters very rarely talk about their feelings – they just don’t need to. The character development, writing and acting have been so smooth that the audience knows instantly how they feel about any situation, the fun thing is watching them put on the fronts that they’re fine, or confident. You also know when the other characters know that someone else is pretending, but aren’t saying anything. Emotional breakdowns and confrontations had been limited to pretty much one each per season so far, but in season five they seem to happen every other week. I don’t want the boys to be broken, they’re just not as much fun.

This review is coming across very negative, which is exactly why I’ve held off on writing it for so long. The thing is that Supernatural is still superb, but season five was superb in a similar way to Battlestar, rather than in a similar way to Buffy. Battlestar was epic, dramatic, relentless, it asked difficult questions and took no prisoners – it was amazing, but depressing as anything. Buffy meanwhile was superb because it hid the epicness and drama and questions under a layer of humour, fun and coolness. I think Supernatural crossed over this season, there was a line from Sam “remember when we just used to hunt wendigos” referring basically back to the second episode of the show, and yes, I do remember it, and I miss it! That’s not to say that season five wasn’t great, amazing and impressive. But could we just go back to having two guys, in a cool car, killing monsters to the accompaniment of a great soundtrack? I’m not sure I can take the emotional turmoil any more.

Much more positive reviews (although they all focus on the final episode and have heavy spoilers in them) – CliqueClack, IO9, The Watcher, The AV Club

Even if this review sounds a little down, I really cannot recommend this series highly enough. Supernatural – The Complete First Season [DVD] is just 9 quid at time of writing!

CSI:NY – Season 6

CSI:NYWriting a review for season six of CSI: NY immediately after reviewing House season six makes me feel that maybe I’ve been a little harsh on House. I criticised it for having a lot of un-memorable fluff around a few amazing minutes each episode. Then I come to look at CSI:NY and realise that the fluff is for the most part just as unmemorable, there are no amazing minutes and the only memorable bits are only memorable because they’re kind of awful.

The problem with New York is that it feels like it’s a television show, that everything is written and guided to maximise ratings, product placement, celebrity appearances and mostly, to generate an exciting looking trailer for next week’s episode. The cases and character developments all feel contrived; nothing seems as if it’s stuff that has just happened and has to be dealt with, it always feels as if a committee of writers has sat down together and decided what would be interesting this week. The next week they may decide something different and the previous events are just forgotten. It means that each episode is quite enjoyable in a disposable way, but when I come to write the end of season review I feel weirdly angry about the whole thing.

The science is really suffering along the way. Too often the episode is about an artificial puzzle created by the criminal to specifically grab the attention of the CSIs. As if they too have seen their smug faces on TV and want to have a shot at beating them. The thing is the puzzles aren’t satisfying for a viewer because they always require huge amounts of exposition to explain and are always solved only just in the nick of the time. It all felt too artificial, crossing out of the realms of suspension of disbelief and leaving me rolling my eyes. The science is often compromised along the way, fitted in around the puzzle or the need for a flashy effect.

Characters suffer from the same flip-flopping continuity issues. The cliff-hanger of season five effected the whole team either directly through injury or loss, or indirectly seeing their colleagues and friends struggling with grief or physical issues. But after a few episodes that all seemed to be mended, it was only when I started writing this and looked back at the episode guide for the whole season that I remembered the apparently life altering turmoil the characters had been through, by the end of the season it was as if none of it had happened.

When they’re being written well, I like the New York characters; they act like a big dysfunctional family and fall into their roles easily. I was worried last year that the Lindsey and Danny relationship would have a negative effect on the show, but it’s either been handled carefully so it has minimal effect on the story or it was a victim of the uneven continuity and some of the writers just forgot about it. I like it when Mac loosens up a bit and gets off his self-righteous horse and he’s done that a bit more this season. Hawkes I find annoying in the extreme, but he had very little to do in the second half of the season, so that was fine by me. While depressed Flack at the start of the season was very well played, in some ways I was glad that the writers forgot that arc and returned him to carefree sarcasm. I thought it was a real shame that the Stella and Adam relationship wasn’t investigated more though, Adam is a great spark of life to the show (much like Greg in CSI:Original’s early years) and his lack of confidence is a really great contrast to the self-righteous CSIs.

I think New York is struggling to identify itself. It’s always been the quiet younger sibling compared to the trend setting oldest and explosive middle child; but at 6 years old, it really should be able to stand on its own. Maybe this season long arc of puzzle solving is it staking a claim as to the approach it’s going to take to the CSI genre, but if it is, I’m afraid I don’t like it. CSI:Original went through a few years of not quite knowing what to do with itself, until the recent massive cast shuffle gave it a new lease of life. With CSI:NY’s relatively low ratings, and a move to the Friday Night death slot in the US next year, I have a suspicion the show may not survive much longer, and while I am glad to have watched past seasons, if season 6 is an indication of the direction the show is going to take I don’t think I’ll miss it very much.