Longmire: Pilot Review

Some shows sneak in under the radar, Longmire is so far under the radar that I thought I was tuning into a new series up until 2 minutes ago when I found out on Wikipedia that the show actually debuted in the US in March 2012, and was shown last year in the UK before I finally spotted it on 5USA last week. Mind you it’s buried in the listings, in the US it’s on A&E (whose only other drama is Bates Motel) and in the UK it was on TCM of all places. I’ve seen absolutely zero about it in any of the blogs that I follow and no publicity for it. I can’t even remember how I came to record it to be honest.

For all its lack of presence, I actually quite enjoyed the first two episodes. It’s a nicely paced, well constructed little show. It reminded me most of last year’s failed freshman show Vegas, although Longmire actually pre-dates it by a few months. The eponymous sheriff is played by relative unknown Robert Taylor (heavens, he was in Ballykissangel!) and could be Dennis Quaid’s long lost brother. They’re certainly treading familiar ground with the gruff, distant, old school cop, forced to interact with his community far more than either of them really want.

It’s not actually a period piece, but being set in the back of beyond in Wyoming and having to deal with conflicts with the native American tribal group doesn’t feel a million miles from dealing with the Mob in 1960s Vegas. It’s an original enough location, with interesting political and cultural issues to give it something to stand out from the crowd. Which is a good job because the actual stories didn’t really blow me away, fairly unoriginal variations on a theme of stories that have been done by pretty much every procedural out there. Something a bit bigger might have been a good idea, particularly for the pilot. The miniscule clues, drip feeding a backstory of traumatic events are also a tried and tested technique which is getting a bit weary.

But it’s not like I really watch any of the procedurals for the cases, I watch them for the characters and the tone, and Longmire hit them dead on. There’s a lightness to the dialogue and plot that give the characters time to breath and gives the actors a chance to establish their characters elegantly. I don’t remember too much clunky exposition and no one came across as too stereotype or single note. I’d forgotten that this was the slightly unglamorous location Katee Sackoff ended up after Battlestar Galactica (seriously, why is that amazing cast scrabbling around for mediocre roles, or buried on minor networks?) but she instantly warmed me to the series.

Longmire isn’t the kind of show that I would loudly tell people go and watch, but it is the kind of show that I would suggest to people who were looking for low level time passers. It doesn’t require a great concentration, but there’s enough there to keep the brain engaged and reward you if you do. It doesn’t seem to have lofty ambitions, which means it quietly delivers a satisfactory experience. Sometimes, that’s just what you want after a long, frustrating day. Just a bit of pleasant distraction.


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.

Boss: Pilot Review

Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) is the mayor of Chicago, and he didn’t get there by being particularly nice to either his colleagues, rivals or family. He’s also just been diagnosed with a degenerative condition which will see him lose his physical and mental faculties within the next 3 to 5 years.

You know from the very first scene, a long close up as Kane learns of his prognosis that this is going to be a show entirely built around this one central character and the inimitable Kelsey Grammer certainly delivers the kind of performance that makes you sit up and pay attention. But any show that’s built exclusively around one character lives and dies with that character. Tom Kane is not meant to be likeable, your initial sympathy for someone getting this diagnosis is soon overwhelmed by the fact that he’s a thoroughly nasty piece of work, cold and demanding of his colleagues, ruthless and violent to his opponents, and distant and selfish to his family.

It’s not necessary to like a central character, but you do have to want to spend time with him, and I unfortunately didn’t want to. I didn’t want to feel sorry for a sleazeball just because of his medical situation, but I also didn’t want to be cold to a man’s suffering. One thing that is missing from the episode as far as I noticed was any explanation for his motivation as mayor – does he behave the way he does because that’s the price he has to pay to deliver some other higher service, or is he that way just because he wants power? Without an understanding of his motivation it’s hard to judge the character and to know whether he’s redeemable or not.

There’s not much sympathy to be had through the rest of the characters either, nor is there much cheer. Everyone seems pretty ok with manipulation, threats, and outright violence. Throughout the numerous factions and characters I didn’t see a single person who could be considered pleasant, let alone innocent.

The show is very well produced – the writing is elegant, a combination of powerful speeches and quiet moments which give the actors a chance to deliver subtlety. The direction is also well put together, mostly handheld but with some nice little visual effects that keep things interesting. But for all that, I don’t have any desire at all to watch the next episode. I can appreciate that it may be an excellent show, but when I think about watching more it’s with a sense of weary duty rather than anticipation. I can be glad it exists, and can even recommend that others check it out, but I just don’t want to watch more.

Season 1 of Boss is on More 4 on Thursdays and you can watch it (and endless adverts) on 4OD. A second season has already aired in the US, but there will not be a third due to low ratings.

Mad Men: Season 5

Mad MenFirst up a disclaimer. I did not follow my own advice for how to watch Mad Men. I’ve always said that Mad Men is something that you have to just commit to, watch it through steadily (either week by week or in a box set catch up) and it will reward you with gradual and elegant developments of plot, characters and relationships. Unfortunately I watched this season in 3 chunks – 3 episodes, then a month gap, another 3 episodes, then a gap of about 6 months before a marathon of the last 7 episodes over a couple of days. And each time I came back to it I really struggled to reconnect with everything.

However even with that excuse, I do think this season lacked the arc and elegance of earlier seasons. I re-read my review of Season 4 before writing this review and it made me feel even more disappointed about Season 5. Maybe there’s a similar rule for Mad Men seasons as there is for Star Trek films, the even ones are a bit mediocre.

The key example of this from the second half of the season were Lane and Joan’s stories. I really like both these characters and have enjoyed their development over the years, and both had major events in their lives play out towards the end of season 5 (avoiding spoiling any details). However both stories were completely undermined by a lack of screen time in the middle of the season which not only meant I missed them from those episodes, but meant there were no hints at what might lead them to make the decisions they did, leaving my first instinct to question whether it was in character for them to take those paths. It made it hard to empathise and also harder to fully see the impacts of their choices on themselves and those around them. In normal series the stories would have still been considered slow probably, but I don’t watch Mad Men to be like other series.

Maybe those two storylines were just victims of where I broke the season up, other stories were given more time and unfolded in more traditional Mad Men style. I still don’t like Pete, but he’s a great character; he never seems to completely grow up, always complaining about the unfairness of life and managing to alienate absolutely everyone around him. Peggy also continues her fantastic story arc, and unlike Joan and Lane she gets enough screen time that you can see issues developing and bubbling in the background, leaving every action, every sentence entirely predictable and deeply satisfying.

And then we come to Don. One of the things that made me saddest re-reading the season 4 review was how positive I felt about Don and Megan’s relationship, the way that Don had found happiness and would let himself be happy. But as Peggy tells him, he really doesn’t see when things are good and he starts to revert to his usual boorish self. I’ve never liked him, but I hoped that there was light at the end of the tunnel for him and maybe he could become a better person. But he seemingly can’t, and he brings the worst out in those around him.

Mad Men continues to be an acquired taste and almost an exercise in how slow something can go before it stops entirely. That means that having got as far as season 5 I’m not going to let one slightly disappointing season deter me from watching more, particularly as I hold myself at least partly to blame due to the erratic viewing pattern. Given where all the characters find themselves, in fact I think I’m looking forward to season 6 more than ever.

Girls: Season 1

girlsThere was a problem with my recording of one of the last few episodes of Girls, where it didn’t record the dialogue track. It had the background noise, sound effects and music; but although I could see the characters moving their mouths, there was no sound coming out. The thing is that I watched nearly 10 minutes of the episode before I realised there was a problem and it wasn’t just an affectation. That was the moment that I realised I didn’t just not like the show, I really couldn’t stand it.

It took me until episode 9 of the 10 episode season to come to this conclusion because all the critics seemed to think that Lena Dunham (star, writer and director) is a fresh new voice, speaking for an entire gender and generation. I was desperately not wanting to admit that I was so out of step with everyone and that possibly my lack of ability to understand the show was some sort of nail in the coffin of my youth. After due consideration though, even if it does make me Old, that I just don’t believe these girls are representative of a significant section of the population and if they are, then I really fear for humanity.

The four titular girls range from annoyingly bland through to hatefully unpleasant. Hannah (Lena Dunham) is a twenty-something graduate who believes that she has it in her to be the ‘voice of her generation’, but the closest she comes to publication is when someone steals her diary and turns it into a song out of spite. Hannah shares a flat with her college friend Marnie who spends most of the season in a relationship that she hates, until they actually split up and she realises that she wants him back, then changes her mind again and then is miserable because she’s alone. Shoshanna is an insufferably immature Sex and the City fan and Jessa would probably describe herself as ‘bohemian’ but is in fact flaky, unreliable, selfish and destructive to everyone around her. Hannah’s boyfriend is also a regular appearer, he’s a self-centred, arrogant, obnoxious artist who criticises everyone he meets because they’re not ‘being true’ or some such tripe. The only thing more annoying than him by himself, is when he and Hannah are together, despite the fact that they are completely and utterly, catastrophically and apocalyptically wrong for each other.

All the characters are insufferable. Drifting around whining about their own lives and judging everyone else’s. I could barely stand to spend half an hour a week in their company, let alone imagine having to be their friend or work with them. Hannah is a particularly hateful individual. She whines when her parents stop paying her rent, she whines when her acquaintances are more successful than her, she whines that an ex-boyfriend is now gay, she whines when the guy she’s seeing doesn’t act like a boyfriend and then she whines when he does. Then she whines about the fact that her best friend calls her on her whining. She boasts about her talents and calling as a writer but there is absolutely no evidence of her actually writing anything or attempting to make a career out of anything other than just endlessly whining. I also hated her dress sense and endlessly wanted her to comb her hair.

I’m not really sure whether it’s supposed to be a comedy or a drama, each episode is half hour which usually indicates a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny very often. Not only that, but it’s actually downright uncomfortable to watch a lot of the time thanks to the gratuitous sex and nudity, it may well be more ‘natural and honest’ than is usually shown, but I can live without that level of reality.

I wanted to like this show. I wanted it to be fresh and original, I wanted it to be an honest look at twenty-something women today. Given that almost every other review seems to think it’s just that, raving about the show and Lena Dunham as some kind of paradigm shifting truth, I am perilously close to just concluding that I’m utterly out of touch and should just shut up.

House of Lies: Season 1

House of LiesMy evaluation of the pilot of House of Lies was “yes, but with some reservations” which was good enough for me to set the series link on it once it finally arrived on Sky Atlantic. At the end of the 12 episode season I haven’t really changed my opinion – “yes, but with some reservations”.

The show maintains the shameless ‘wrongness’ that it introduced in the pilot. The characters (both regular and one-shot) are all after power and money and will screw over pretty much anyone to further their sky-high ambitions. They lie, manipulate, threaten, bribe and entrap to get what they want, and the only excuse for that behaviour is that everyone is doing exactly the same to them. Whenever someone displays a rare flash of conscience, they are immediately pounced on by the other members of the pack and inevitably ends up far worse off. It’s a brave direction for a show to take and it makes House of Lies unusual and intriguing, although of course not somewhere you’d want to spend too much time.

The other thing that’s interesting and unusual is the style of the show, particularly the ability of Don Cheadle’s character to break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and forcing upon them a connection to the world within the show. It’s a tricky thing to pull off and it’s done beautifully here, making good use of the extremely charismatic Cheadle. I was worried that it might get old, particularly the way the action occasionally pauses and Cheadle walks through a frozen scene, but it stayed fresh and entertaining all the way through.

The only thing that causes me pause with the series is that some of the characters are phenomenally annoying, and far too ridiculous to be credible in even this environment. The two male team members (whose names I still can’t remember) are no more than idiot college boys (one frat boy, one nerd), with utterly no redeeming qualities and every time they were on screen I was annoyed. Similarly Cheadle’s ex-wife and his ‘nemesis’ who is trying to take over the company were utterly over-the-top pantomime villains. Those four people just didn’t feel like they should be in the same league as Cheadle or Kristen Bell, both of whom had complex and layered characters.

As comedies go, it’s not really a “rolling in the aisles” kind of show, more a “knowing snort and cynical chuckle” affair, mind you I rarely find the comedies labelled as hilarious to be anything of the sort. The majority of House of Lies is witty, slick and blackly funny. There is however a minority thread of crudeness that runs through it, which can’t quite be forgiven just because some of the characters roll their eyes at it. The half hour format works well with the plots dispensed with brutally fast and the irritating elements never quite getting enough screen time to push me into switching off.

I can see that House of Lies isn’t for everyone, the subject and characters are a pretty tough sell. But I do think that it’s innovative, challenging and entertaining in a way that other shows that get more attention actually fail to deliver (see my review of Girls later this week). I also think that Don Cheadle’s Emmy Award winning performance alone is enough to make this show watchable, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in season 2.

Scandal: Season 1

scandalOlivia Pope is a fixer, she leads a small team of misfits working in Washington DC and if you’ve got a problem, or done something you shouldn’t have, she’s the person you go to even if you’re the President of the United States. She is phenomenally smart, she knows absolutely everything and everyone and she will stop at absolutely nothing for her clients. Fortunately for the viewers she’s also actually a real person with feelings and emotions and is not above making a few mistakes of her own. Olivia Pope is a fantastic character and beautifully played by Kerry Washington.

The other characters fall into the shadows a little in comparison. Pope’s team never really get much beyond a sentence character description each. Harrison is a lawyer/salesman and talks very very fast, Abby is a highly strung investigator who is blatantly in love with the womanising and frankly rather dodgy Stephen, Quinn is the naive, neurotic new girl and Huck is the quiet tech guy who retired from doing very bad things for the CIA. They’ve all got potential, but they never got much of a chance to develop depth. The political characters are a lot stronger, with the President, his Chief of Staff and First Lady all having considerably more layers to them, most of them not very pleasant. Oh and there’s Joshua Malina in there as a district attorney, it really doesn’t matter about his character, because he’s Josh Malina and he’s always great.

The big problem the first season has is that it’s only 7 episodes long; that’s not a season, it’s an introduction. But rather than take any time to establish the characters and their day lives, it jumps straight into a massive, potentially world changing plot. That’s a real difficulty here, because there’s never really a chance to understand what normal is before we’re thrown into something exceptional, meaning it’s difficult to fully appreciate the stress and impact. I thought the series was going to be about the consultancy business and fall into a “client of the week” pattern, with a long term arc around the more major political stories. I’m still not really sure whether I was wrong, or whether the “client of the week” all just got cut when 15 episodes got hacked off the season.

Despite the questionable pacing, the show is good fun to watch with the snappy dialogue and knowing tones that I love in Grey’s Anatomy, and the smart appreciation for complex situations that makes The Good Wife so interesting. However I think the season (and possibly the whole series) is undermined by rushing all the establishing stuff which left me feeling a bit like I was watching the edited highlights. Hopefully season 2, with a full 22 episodes will take a bit more time to allow the characters and scenario to establish properly before inevitably turning it all upside down again.

Glee: Season 3

For the past two years I’ve been obsessed with Glee, it just made me happy. In fact it made me sufficiently happy that I could forgive the not inconsiderable problems it had. Season 3 however broke through some kind of barrier and I suddenly found myself completely unable to ignore the terrible writing. I was not just irritated, I was so angry that I really had to force myself to keep watching, and only made it thanks to a commitment to watching the whole thing for this review and enthusiastic use of the fast forward button.

This was always going to be a difficult year for Glee, as with any school based show it had to decide what it was going to do now that its original stars were coming up on graduation. For the characters this meant growing up, saying goodbye to school and friends deciding what to do with the next phase of their lives; for the show it meant deciding whether to say goodbye to those characters and introduce new ones, or saying goodbye to the school setting and following the characters along.

The problem is that Glee was so busy looking towards season 4 that they completely forgot season 3 had to be coherent and enjoyable too. Everything about the season was aimed at getting characters where they needed them, regardless of whether that made any sense or not. I realised the show was doomed in the first episode of the season when it’s revealed that half the characters aren’t the ages you think they are. If there’d been decent writing in previous seasons they could have planned for graduation, but instead because of a lack of forethought the writers are forced to sacrifice continuity, consistent character development and coherent storytelling to get characters where they think they need to be.

The stories they tried to tell and the way they did it, were at best clumsy and often just plain awful. The most offensive were those that tried to deal with serious issues, but came from out of nowhere and disappeared almost as fast. The domestic violence storyline was particularly stupidly done, but the story of Finn’s father, or Quinn’s accident were also ineptly done. Then there was the ridiculous congressional race with heavy handed soapboxing about the importance of the arts, and ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ looks at issues of what it means to be poor, mentally or physically disabled, transgender or gay. None of these stories were well enough written to make their inclusion anything other than downright insulting.

I’m surprised the teachers unions aren’t boycotting Glee for their presentation of teachers. Will and Emma (‘teacher of the year’ and guidance counsellor respectively) utterly fail to notice or care that two of their group are failing the year, that most of them have no idea what they want to do and that those that have are pinning all their hopes on just one option. I don’t want to sound like a grouch, but the key message of “don’t be afraid to dream” is one thing for 15 year olds, but when it’s leading to 18 year olds pursuing unrealistic paths that may seriously affect their lives, it would be nice if some of the grown-ups were at least challenging if they’ve thought everything through.

Even the music couldn’t save the show this year. I don’t know whether the playlists changed, or whether I did, or whether the bad writing somehow polluted the whole experience, but I found myself fastforwarding a lot of the pieces, particularly anything without a dance number going on. Too many of the pieces were wallowy ballads and the direction that accompanied them featured far too much staring into the distance. That said, I did still find the big choreographed dance routines kept the magic of the previous seasons, and had me smiling along with them. I’m not faulting the performers in any of this. The last couple of episodes highlighted just how good much of the cast were, capable of delivering some heart breaking scenes as the kids say goodbye to each other, but also incredibly talented singers and performers.

Maybe I’m just very late to see the light and I’ve just been an idiot the last couple of years. But to me the first two seasons of Glee were just what the title said – gleeful. It was fun to watch, silly and cheesy but also full of positive messages about being yourself and supporting each other. This season I don’t look back and remember the great musical numbers, the fun camaraderie or the moving acts of friendship, I remember all the stupid stories and clumsy character development. Glee just wasn’t fun to watch, it made me sad and frustrated – the very opposite of why I used to love Glee.

Once Upon a Time: Season 1

I got quite behind watching Once Upon a Time so had to do my various season round-ups before I’d finished it, so loyal readers will already know that I’ve been pretty impressed and would consider it one of the most entertaining new series of the year.

There are a few ingredients that have to be brought together to bake a successful television series, miss out any of those components and you’ll end up with something disappointing. Once Upon a Time successfully brings the ingredients together, and not just to make a boring Victoria sponge, it’s got unusual stuff in there that makes something that you may feel uncertain about at first, but turns out to be rather inspired.

The universe of Once Upon a Time is both unique and fascinating. On one hand there’s the fairy tale world which mixes together just about every fairy tale character that you know in a way that impressively maintains their own stories while merging everyone together into a new story over the top. Then you’ve got all those characters relocated to the ‘real’ world (well at least, small-town America real) where they can’t remember who they are, yet still have similar characteristics.

Each episode focuses on one of the characters, revealing their backstory in the fairy tale land and linking them in with the wider, gradually developing story of how everyone came to be exiled to the real world. Meanwhile, the rival forces for good and evil (and all the shades of grey in between) in the real world are hatching schemes and counter-schemes, forming conspiracies and constantly changing allegiances. Everything is carefully inter-twined and paced, making each episode satisfying to watch, while constantly building into the overall storyline. It’s definitely a show that you need to watch each episode in order, and I’d strongly recommend watching in chunks rather than week by week. But despite dozens of characters and storylines, I never lost track or got confused.

The cast is absolutely superb. In the fairy tale land they’re all gloriously over the top and in the real world, well they tone it down a bit but are still, shall we say, enthusiastic. Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle are deliciously conniving as the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin, both clearly thoroughly revelling in their evilness. Ginnifer Goodwin’s Snow White is more warrior princess than wilting princess and in the real world she has a similar strength and power, all be it buried within a slightly soppy primary school teacher. Jennifer Morrison probably feels a bit hard done by, not having a fairy tale land counterpart (she could maybe form a support group with Joshua Jackson from Fringe) but is a wonderfully relatable character, the normal person thrown into the weird stuff but desperately trying to keep up for the sake of her friends and son. In fact, this is a great set of characters for female actors, they dominate the cast and if there’s a weak link at all, it’s Prince Charming who’s rather wishy washy, never really getting the chance to be heroic!

The icing on the cake (to go back to my metaphor) is that the series is beautifully designed, the costumes, locations and sets in the fairy tale world are glorious, while even the real world has plenty of visual clues and details that bring everything together. Even the title card is changed each week to highlight the focussed character.

This is a really lovely series, full of great characters and a fun blend of drama, humour, romance and action. It’s one of those shows that is just plain nice, bringing a little touch of magic to your living room.

The 2011-2012 Season

I’ve been dragging my feet on my season round-up post as I’ve been trying to polish off a few more series. But all the new stuff is starting, so the time has come to just get on with it! I’ve watched 39 series this year, last year was 28 so that’s a pretty terrifying increase! A fair number of the series are only a handful of episodes though (for better or worse) so I figure the number of episodes is about the same, somewhere around the 600 mark.

American Horror Story – S1
Awake – S1 (In progress)
The Big Bang Theory – S5
The Big C – S2
Blue Bloods – S2
Bones – S7
Borgen – S1
The Bridge – S1
The Cafe – S1
Castle – S4
Criminal Minds – S7
CSI – S12
Downton Abbey – S2
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): S2
Fringe – S4 (in progress)
Game of Thrones – S2
Glee – S3 (in progress)
The Good Wife – S3
Grey’s Anatomy – S8
Homeland – S1
House – S8
The Jury
Luck – S1
Luther – S2
Mad Men – S5 (In progress)
Merlin – S4
The Newsroom – S1
Once Upon a Time – S1 (in progress)
Outnumbered – S4
Sherlock – S2
Smash – S1
Sons of Anarchy – S4
Supernatural – S7
Terra Nova – S1
Veep – S1
The Walking Dead – S2
Warehouse 13 – S3

There are a few other bits and pieces that didn’t make the list, mostly documentaries, many of them really rather excellent – Inside Nature’s Giants, David Attenborough’s Kingdom of Plants filmed at Kew Gardens, Frozen Planet, Wonders of the Universe to name a few.

Borgen. “The Danish West Wing” is an overused label, but it’s so accurate it’s hard to resist. It’s not just the subject matter that draws the comparison, but the quality of writing and production and, sadly, the ability for it to break your heart as characters realistically, but depressingly make the wrong decisions.

Fringe. For complicated housemate related reasons I still haven’t seen the final two episodes of this series, but I can’t see how they would do anything that would mean the series drops from this list. Fringe continues to evolve into a spectacularly complex, yet completely followable series while never forgeting to actually entertain its audience with self-aware nods to the ridiculousness of the situations.

The Good Wife. A brilliant cast, fascinating storylines, sure and steady character development all polished off with sparkling dialogue makes a package that’s just a complete and utter joy to watch. In a world of mediocre network procedurals, this one is so far ahead it’s clearly in a different league.

Homeland. Another show that’s complex yet accessible. The gradual reveal and development of characters is fascinating and I was on the edge of my seat all season not knowing which way anything was going to go.

Mad Men and Awake could potentially be added to this list, but I am less than half way through each.

The Newsroom. This show was the one I’d been most looking forward to, and I’m slightly devastated that I can’t include it in the ‘best’ category. But despite massive flaws with the characters and a preachiness that even I find rather troublesome, it’s still one of my favourite shows of the year. That may be blind Aaron Sorkin obsession, but I don’t care.

American Horror Story. A huge collection of characters and stories intricately interwoven and elegantly revealed over the span of a carefully structured series. It felt both innovative and yet thoroughly grounded in the history of the genre. I’m especially happy that each season is completely self contained, so nothing is dragged out or has the chance to get dull.

Smash. It’s original and fun, balancing cheesiness and melodrama with engaging characters and a surprisingly real feeling storyline. I’m really looking forward to next season, particularly given they’re getting rid of all the annoying characters.

Once Upon a Time. Another new show that’s original and fun. The storyline is incredibly complex yet revealed so elegantly that there’s never any difficulty keeping up. It’s beautifully designed and just a lovely series to watch.

I sort of covered my thoughts on actors in my Emmy post, so here are some broader thoughts.

House . Hugh Laurie gets the most praise publicly, but the whole cast of the series are absolutely superb. Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson completely and utterly broke my heart, Peter Jacobson (Taub) cracked me up, Olivia Wilde (Thirteen) stole the very few scenes she was in, and Jesse Spencer (Chase) produced one of the most satisfying character developments I’ve seen in a long time.

Homeland . One of the few things that myself and those that vote for awards actually agree on, the superbness that are Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. I however would go a lot further and also heap praise on the supporting performances by Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin.

Sons of Anarchy. Award voters clearly have some kind of blind spot when it comes to Sons of Anarchy, because year after year they completely fail to register the incredible performances throughout the cast, but in particular from the female leads Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff

Katharine McPhee (Karen) and Megan Hilty (Ivy), Smash – I loved the dance the characters went on, competing with each other but respecting each other’s talents; sometimes gracious, sometimes bitchy. And boy can they belt out tunes! Also Jack Davenport (Derek) had some of the funniest lines of the year!

Fringe . The cast are good as their primary characters, but what’s impressive is that most of them then go on to play the same person in the alternate universe, each of them the same person but with slight variations. It’s astonishing, they are the same person yet completely different, it’s mind twisting and fascinating. I can’t imagine a greater challenge as an actor. While Anna Torv and John Noble rightly get a lot of praise, the performances of Jasika Nicole (Astrid) and Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee) are just as subtle. Poor Joshua Jackson must feel rather hard-done-by without an alternate version to play with. He is pretty though.

The Good Wife – so many great performances and characters that I love from both stars, supporting characters (I could watch Josh Charles and Christine Baranski do the Will and Diane show all day long) and a dream list of guest stars (Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Matthew Perry – all playing deliciously slimy characters).

Booth and Bones getting together on Bones. I was completely against it, but cheerfully admit I was wrong. Having them jump from no relationship at all to living together and having a baby brought a breath of fresh air to the series. It was handled with such lightness and charm, with both characters bending to accommodate the other, but not making any fundamental changes… beautifully written and acted. Here’s hoping Castle can do the same.

The end of House. A series going out gracefully and winding everything up with a collection of satisfying resolutions for all the characters. House has never been about the medicine, but about the puzzles and about the people, while I may personally wish that Wilson had a different conclusion, it all fed in so perfectly and everyone ended up where they were supposed to be.

Creativity! It felt like there was some variation with what’s on TV, not just an endless stream of interchangeable procedurals. Shows like American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and Walking Dead (finally) are investigating what it’s like to bring non-traditional genres to television, and shows like Smash, Luck and The Newsroom brought different subjects to the screen.

Female Characters! There are plenty of people out there who have and will write far more eloquently on the plight of women in television, but this year has felt like a relatively good year. Shows are full of strong women doing their jobs, raising their families and doing so as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Shows like The Good Wife, Smash, Once Upon a Time and Grey’s Anatomy have dominantly female casts, and almost everything else has a nice balance. Even something like Downton Abbey with its period constraints provides some wonderful roles for female actors.

Lighten up! Supernatural is superb, but it really really needs to lighten up a bit! It’s turned into something I have to force myself to watch, rather than something I really look forward to. The same argument could be made for Sons of Anarchy. Relentless depression is just not entertaining to watch, I’m not saying they suddenly need to be all sunshine and puppies, but just every now and then, let them catch a break.

NCIS . After 9 seasons, I realised there’s no point in watching this any more. The plots are utterly disposable and the characters are disastrously erratic. The last two seasons I’ve relegated it to ‘ironing watching’, but I’m even giving up on that (the show, not the ironing sadly).

Glee. I still haven’t managed to get to the end of the season having realised that I’m increasingly just fast-fowarding episodes. I just got sick to death with the terrible writing which completely undermined the charm of the characters and the talents of the actors. It just stopped being fun.

Still no spaceships. Can no one make this work?

Too short! Sherlock and Luther both had only 3 episodes, each ‘double’ length. It’s not enough. There’s the obvious problem that like a small child if I like something I want more of it, but it also really hampers the ability to get invested in characters and stories, just as you’re settling in, it’s all over and the voice over man is saying “will return in 2014”.

In preparing this article, I went back and looked at my summaries of last years shows and I have to highlight the following phrase in my summary of 2010-2011’s new shows:

Superheroes are out – there was a flurry of superhero shows and none of them were any good. People keep trying to find the magic of the early season of Heroes and the massive success that’s being found by Marvel and DC Comics at the cinema, but no one’s managed it yet. Here’s an idea, stop pissing off Joss Whedon and get him to do one, after he’s done making millions with The Avengers that is.

I rejoice in my ability to predict the future and can’t wait to see what Joss does with S.H.I.E.L.D.