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.

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Community: Season 2

CommunityWhile the first season of Community was good, the second season was verging on sublime. The show raises the art of the spoof to art form, making almost every episode an exquisitely crafted collection of references to every type of genre and trope that film and television have to offer. I had a quick look through the episode list for the season to see if I could pull out a highlight and found myself amazed all over again at the breadth of subjects covered. The whole series is like a love letter to television and film. I usually don’t like spoofs because I feel they’re mocking their targets, but the writers of Community manage to pick the subjects apart with such respect and care that they can’t be anything other than fans themselves.

Even my quibbles of the first season have been addressed a bit. Shirley developed a little more backbone to alleviate her simpering and the writers took the bold choice of actually making Pierce MORE unlikeable and having the group gradually treat him more like the enemy than a member. Each of the other characters has just enough development to sustain them, while not overdoing it so that they become useless for the comedy. Every character and combination gets a chance to shine, even the phenomenally annoying Chang has moments of redemption scattered through the year.

Floating above all of this though is Abed, one of the most entertaining and best used characters on television at the moment. In my review of the first season I described him as a “media obsessed soothsayer… quietly manipulating everything around him” and he raises that to an art form this season, playing both narrator, audience voice, critic and deus ex machine all at the same time. He’s not infallible though, he still under (or over) estimates his peers and that’s an even greater treat for the audience.

This has turned into a very gushy review, but I really can’t think of much to criticise. No storyline outstayed its welcome, every character had their moment and not a single moment went by without something that I either laughed or smiled knowingly at. Community is one of the smartest things on television at the moment, and is more satisfying by far than the majority of dramas out there.

Body of Proof: Season 1

Body of ProofIt’s important that I explain why I was watching this series. You see, thanks to an abundance of free time at the moment I actually find myself running a little short on things to watch. I’ve also just got a new book of Killer Sodukus and need something fairly innocuous to put on while I’m working my way through that . One evening, after clearing off my Sky+ backlog, I went rummaging around on the Lovefilm Instant service to see what I can find and stumbled over Body of Proof. I went back and had a look at my pilot review and noted that although I wasn’t enthused enough to seek it out at the time, I thought it might be ok. On top of all that, the first season is only 9 episodes long, so it wasn’t exactly a huge commitment.

That’s a pretty lengthy insight into my unexciting life, but it’s important that you understand that. Because even given those low ambition reasons for watching, and the fact that my brain was half occupied with soduku… it’s impressive that Body of Proof was still so deeply unsatisfying.

The biggest problem with the whole thing is the quality of the mysteries. The most basic requirement of a procedural show is that the cases make sense. Yes, to be successful you need characters and originality etc, but if your cases are stupid, you are sunk before you even start. It’s not like I even need the cases to be memorable (god knows I watch enough CSI and NCIS), but the ones on Body of Proof are just plain shabby. Aside from the phenomenal reliance on our hero spotting a microscopic clue, or each victim or accused having some obscurely specific medical complaint, almost every episode had a gaping error in it. One case was immediately ruled a murder rather than a suicide because the victim had been shot in the head twice (admittedly tricky to do yourself) and then utterly failed to have that happen in the eventual flashback to the murder. Barely an episode went by when something wasn’t either dropped in the middle, or introduced unexpectedly.

Everything was just so frustratingly fake. The female medical examiners are always in form fitting designer dresses and ludicrously high heals, no matter where the body is. One of the flunkies is a borderline offensive parody of a self-righteous black woman (although he’s male) doing the whole “oh no you di’nt just go there!”, while the other is the usual tedious caricature geek with glasses and awkwardness. The detectives are two good actors (Sonja Sohn of The Wire and John Carroll Lynch of ‘you’ll know him when you see him’) doing their best with the clichés they’ve been given, but even their attempts to deliver subtlety and humour with body language and delivery cannot completely overcome the terrible dialogue.

I guess I should comment on Dana Delany as it’s really her show, but I don’t really know what to say, because talented though she is, she can’t fight her way through the fact that this show just isn’t very good. I came to like the stuff with her daughter and when she got a chance to play human, but the rest of the time the character she was too much of a superhero, a medical examiner who can see the tiniest details and identify fungus at just a single glance.

Even as something that I only wanted to pay attention to with half my brain, it still managed to be unsatisfying. The actors deserve better. My soduku book deserved better. It will take a special kind of boredom to make me watch season 2.

Body of Proof is available on Lovefilm Instant (give me a shout if you’d like a free trial link) and probably other on demand services too, or on dvd

Hawaii Five-0: Season 1

Coinciding with my decision to give up on NCIS, an email* arrived informing me that Sky was re-running the first season of Hawaii Five-O. Well, I had some spare time on my hands and recalled that I rather enjoyed the pilot so figured I’d give it a shot.

Sometimes pilots end up not being representative of the rest of the series, sometimes a weak first episode turns into a solid series, or an impressive start ends up in a disappointing series; it’s not always just about quality either, sometimes tones and subjects change as series progress. Hawaii Five-0 was not one of these shows, for better or worse, the pilot was an exact miniature of the rest of the series.

For the most part, that was good. I enjoyed the pilot, particularly the central relationship between the two reluctant partners – Danny the wise ass detective from New Jersey who at heart is a softy and would rather talk things through, and Steve the local boy turned special forces commander who goes in all guns blazing. It’s a perfect ‘buddy cop’ pairing, a great mixture of frustration and friendship, they challenge and support each other with laugh-out-loud funny bickering and manfully emotional sentiment.

The second star of the show is definitely the setting. Hawaii is gorgeous and the show may as well be sponsored by the tourist board. They also make a point of exploring the culture and history of the islands though which adds an extra dimension to the cases which otherwise are solid but disposable. The ongoing storylines are woven through the series to give a little more depth to things, but for the most part everything is neatly tied up with a little moral bow at the end of each episode. That doesn’t give much scope for anything outstanding, but each episode’s formulaic structure trundles along nicely and makes for comfortable watching.

Unfortunately however the show failed to improve on some of the weaknesses in the pilot. The supporting characters remain woefully under-developed. Grace Park, who did amazing work on Battlestar Galactica is reduced to a rookie agent, being patronised with exposition and constantly being sent to talk to children and/or wearing a bikini. Daniel Dae Kim continues to spend most of his time pouting and mysterious about his past which got dull very quickly.

Hawaii Five-0 is a solid, entertaining series, that bounces along with action sequences interspersed with beautiful scenery and laugh-out-loud funny bantering. I’ll probably add to my viewing as a direct replacement for NCIS. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is just plain entertaining.

* The Sky Never Miss site is an excellent resource for tracking shows, and I think you can create an account even if you don’t actually have Sky. You can select from hundreds of past, present and future shows and about a week before the show is on you get an email letting you know. Incidentally, back when I was doing some work for Sky via an agency about 5 years ago my company suggested to them that this was the kind of service that television fans really wanted, not endless emails about competitions. Took them a while…

Doctor Who – 2011

I hate trying to write reviews of Doctor Who. I love the show to pieces, but find it a little tiresome to over-analyse it. Sometimes it really does feel like it’s enough to say “that was great!” and leave it at that. Unfortunately for me apparently I made some kind of commitment to not just leave these things hanging.

The series as a whole adopted the technique of showing us what’s going to happen, then leaving us the rest of the season to work out why it happened, what it means and what happens next. It’s a good idea, keeps you guessing all along. Unfortunately they made it just that little bit too big – the doctor dies. Not just regenerates, but really properly dies and has a Viking funeral and everything. But it’s too much, as soon as they did that you know there’s a trick – the BBC isn’t going to kill off the franchise! So from the get-go you know you’re being manipulated and it will all be undone one way or the other, which rather takes the drama out of it.

The rest of the season is rather surprisingly not about the Doctor’s journey, it’s River Song’s. While certain dimwits complain about the complexities of her storyline (or timeline) I for one loved it! What’s the point of having a show about time travel if you’re not occasionally going to do things in the wrong order? Everything made perfect sense and was a really fun look at what you can do if you take ideas to their distant but logical extremes. That’s what science fiction is supposed to do. Plus Alex Kingston is wonderful.

While a couple of the more standalone episodes left a bit to be desired (pirates? Really? And what was all that with the cloned people?) I am willing to forgive almost anything because this was the season that Neil Gaiman introduced us to the TARDIS. A stunning episode, hilarious and heartbreaking from start to finish. The Girl Who Waited was another superb piece of science fiction and provided some great acting opportunities for the companions. I’ve really enjoyed the themes they play about with for Amy and Rory, I love the way their characters have gradually been clarified this season, not developed because nothing has really changed about them, it’s just that the audience and the Doctor have come to understand their characters so much better. These two companions more than any I can really remember are full characters in their own rights, they don’t just define themselves by their relationship with the Doctor.

With the Doctor, two regular companions , regular visits from River and visiting companions like the TARDIS and Craig, it’s felt pretty crowded at times but I for one have really enjoyed it. I like Doctor Who when the solitary brooding is implied off screen rather than front and centre. I think this season worked spectacularly well for combining characters, thought provoking plots, action adventure and outright fun. It’s a phenomenally difficult balance to find, but I think Doctor Who is easily one of the best shows on television at the moment – my only complaint is that there’s not enough of it.

Other reviews (containing spoilers)
Slouching Towards Thatcham – Most importantly though, was season six actually any good? It was certainly more ambitious, scary and arc-heavy than any season since the series’ rebirth. And despite a couple of clunkers early on, the quality has been consistently high.

CliqueClack and The Guardian both review episode by episode and generally like them.

Sons of Anarchy: Season 3

What I look for and enjoy in television shows are characters and relationships. To me the stories are just ways to put the characters in context, the plots are ways to poke the characters and see what they do. It’s why I’m apathetic about shows that have minimal character development and why I get cross when writers are inconsistent. It’s why I can love shows like Friday Night Lights and Sons of Anarchy despite having no interest or understanding of American Football or motorcycle riding gun runners.

Unfortunately this season Sons of Anarchy was let down by its storyline. The season will go down as “the one where the Sons went to Ireland and took on the IRA”, or less charitably – “the one with way too many bad accents”. The whole thing kicked off with Jax’s son being stolen by the IRA in retaliation for the fact that his mother killed the son of an IRA member. But Gemma didn’t really kill the boy, it was a rogue federal agent who framed her, and the IRA member wasn’t acting on orders and didn’t stay an IRA member for long. Then it got complicated. I really struggled to follow a lot of what was going on with complex family relationships involving the head of the Northern Ireland Sons of Anarchy being married to the sister of an IRA leader, who also had some sort of relationship with Jax’s father… Those aren’t really spoilers, it all happens in the first episode. It was all just a little too much. And the accents were terrible.

Meanwhile the epicness of the storyline completely overwhelmed the usual subtlety of characters and relationships. Too often the characters were being distilled down to one emotion that was driving their decisions and making them act stupid. Gemma, usually the one who thinks out all the long term implications, spends the whole season driven by the sole desire to see her family, even when it jeopardises her freedom which in turn forces the other characters into stupid reactionary choices. One of the things I’ve adored about the previous seasons is the apparent contradiction of these characters – seemingly tough and brutal bikers who are actually thoughtful and caring, forming an extended family with a strict moral code built on love and trust. Gemma’s choices (and some of Jax’s as well) broke or at least stretched that code by making decisions based just on what they want, not what the club needed.

My criticisms of the season are more out of frustration and disappointment than anything else, there was still a lot to love. The humour and heart of the show are still great, even though they both largely came from the excellent supporting cast; each episode still left me wanting to immediately watch the next one. I think this season was a blip rather than an indicator of the show running out of steam. I think the overall plot was a mistake, taking the characters out of their native environment and introducing too many new characters and situations upset the balance. Next season looks set to take a bit of a time jump but have our characters back in Charming, dealing with the usual issues rather than interfering in international politics. I’m looking forward to it.

Stargate Universe: Season 2

Warning – there are spoilers for the final episode in the final paragraph.

I liked and enjoyed Stargate Universe more and more as it went on, I was originally snippy about the pilot, but was generally favourable towards the first season as a whole. Maybe it’s the rose tinted glasses of cancellation speaking, but I am dangerously close to gushing about the second season. Everything just seemed to work, from the big things like the stories, characters and acting through to the smaller stuff that you don’t necessarily notice like the very different, but extremely good music choices and the attention to detail in the scripts.

There are some pretty gritty storylines going on, difficult choices for characters to make with impacts that ripple out through the rest of the season. It’s nice to see that continuity, events are not forgotten, people struggle with whether they made the right decision, there’s no instant forgive and forget – it’s all very satisfying for viewers that invest. To be honest one of the most irritating elements of the show was the long repetitive “previously on…” that started each episode – loyal viewers didn’t need reminding of these things, they remembered and by focussing on them it killed the subtlety of the references.

Even more than the first season though, this season really felt like Stargate because it had the easy camaraderie of a team that shows in the Star Trek franchise never quite seemed to manage. These characters really do behave like a bunch of random people who’ve been living together in trying circumstances for some time. After an additional year living and working together the sharp edges and confrontations that caused such trouble in the first season have been battered off in a way that makes perfect sense and doesn’t feel rushed (compare with Star Trek Voyager where everyone was suddenly best friends over night). In the truest traditions of Stargate these relationships are reinforced with occasional mushy speeches about becoming a family, but what really sells it is the way they tease each other, bicker, share knowing looks and finish each other’s sentences. They still disagree, sometimes passionately, but they do so with respect.

This is what Stargate at its best is about, creating a group of characters that (other than their magic scientists and engineers who are seemingly experts in everything) feel like they could have walked off the street. They make the same pop-culture jokes that I would, they’d rather be sarcastic than sit down and talk about feelings, they lose their tempers, forgive but don’t forget, grumble about the food and have a bit of a sulk. It’s normal. Just in space.

It’s impossible to review this season without commenting on the fact that its marking the end of an era. After 14 years, 17 seasons and over 350 episodes there is no Stargate in production. With that knowledge in mind I really did find the last few episodes of the season slightly devastating. The final moments of the series, watching the lights go out across the ship as the crew goes into stasis for who knows how long were beautifully poignant and heartbreaking. How long it will be until there’s another Stargate series, or if we’ll ever see TV movies to wrap up the Universe and Atlantis storylines, I have no idea, but at least it went out on a note that all concerned can be extremely proud of. Universe was a great show and a great instalment to the franchise, the fact that there was no place for it in the television landscape is by far a reflection on the sad state of the television business rather than on the quality of this series.