Orange is the New Black: Seasons 1-3

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardI’m really, really late to the party on Orange is the New Black. I actually did watch the first season a few months ago but didn’t review it at the time because I was intending to subscribe to Netflix almost immediately and watch the second season. But life got in the way so I didn’t actually manage to get round to signing up until very recently. At which point (aided by a nasty cold and a couple of days off work) I powered through seasons 2 and 3 in the space of about a week.

Orange is the New Black is perfectly suited to this kind of box set binging. The series as a whole has an overall story playing out, with each season having a couple of undulating plots and themes and then each episode having its own story and focus. These all combine, sometimes uniting to synchronised crescendos and sometimes all dropping away to see the development that happens in the quietest moments. You might struggle to remember specifics of what has happened in the last few episodes, but you’ve actually learnt huge amounts about characters and seen shifts in relationships and power dynamics throughout everyone involved. The way each episode also focusses flashbacks on a particularly character and reveals more (but never all) of their journey to today is a brilliant structure.

The really impressive thing is the sheer number of characters involved in this. There are easily two dozen prisoners who come in and out of the central stories, some of the big players in season 3 were there only in the background in season 1, just waiting their turn. Then you’ve got another half dozen or so guards and a fair number of family members outside the prison. The ensemble is absolutely incredible. I assumed it was going to be all about the central Piper character, the ‘good’ girl who finds herself in prison for a ‘youthful mistake’ long in the past, but she’s really just the audience’s way into the complex community inside the prison. In many ways, she’s actually the least interesting character there and I often felt she was a weak point of the show, particularly when being used too heavily for the comedy.

That’s the real question mark for me over the show. Orange is the New Black initially presented itself as a comedy and garnering an Emmy nomination in the best comedy category). Latter seasons though downplayed the comedy though and I think it was to the series’ advantage. To be honest even the first season seemed more a drama with occasional moments of humour than a true comedy (pitting a series that included rape and suicide against Modern Family and Veep seemed pretty bizarre). The fact that its second season won a nomination in the drama category shows just how good it is, although the re-categorisation was in fact due to the Emmys changing their rules to dictate that comedies had to be half hour long, and the show lost its appeal to return to the comedy category (ref).

I’d also make my usual “I’m not a prude, but” complaint that the nudity is particularly gratuitous and unnecessary at times. It is completely limited to the female characters (even in the flashback sequences where there are plenty of opportunities for more balanced nudity), There are plenty of times that the nudity (and the sex, violence and language) are used to extremely powerful effect, reinforcing the vulnerability and lack of privacy the prisoners have, but by also using it just for needless reason undermined that power. Particularly when that was heavily loaded in the first episode, it just comes across as crass and an attempt to draw in a certain type of audience which will really not match the true audience for the show.

Orange is the New Black is one of those shows that comes along so rarely and sort of whacks you round the head, reminding you of just what great television is. It’s revelatory more than revolutionary, because nothing it does is really that original. Lost (amongst others) did the flashback on a character trick, plenty of series have been set in prisons, lots have blended very black comedy and drama , but Orange is the New Black is that rare beast that manages to bring all that together to be entertaining, interesting and really really really good. It’s worth the price of Netflix all by itself.

CSI: NY – Season 9

csinyCSI New York was a show that I’ve spent the last 4 years watching “just one more season” because it seemed certain to be cancelled at the end of the year. Neither the ratings nor critical praise lived up to its older sibling, and in the case of the praise, that really wouldn’t be a tough competition to beat. How it managed to get to nine seasons is one of the great questions for our time. Heaven only knows there was nowhere near enough character development, plot or creativity to fill 197 episodes. But it’s finally really been cancelled this time, and I can now finally stop watching.

Season 9 went by exactly the same way the others did, a roller-coaster of characters and plots swerving from unremarkable to annoying with just enough charm and humour scattered through to make it just about worth watching. The combination that frustrated me most was the sloppy police work and forensics in the field but a reliance on the tiniest scraps of evidence and scientific anomalies in the lab. Each case would come down the the perpetrator leaving microscopic traces of some sort of dirt that was only found in one place, or a hair that indicated a rare genetic condition. All found after 17 thousand police officers and CSI’s had clomped through the crime scene. OK the British forensics teams in their white jumpsuits and hair nets look pretty silly, but at least they give some degree of confidence they’re not contaminating everything left right and centre.

The characters suffer their usual mixture of blandness and sanctimony. Everyone getting nicely caught up in their own fiascos as girlfriends get abducted and goodness knows what else. After 9 years I should feel some sense of connection to the characters, but with the exception of the gloriously weird Sid the Coroner and Adam the Tech guy, I really couldn’t give a hoot about any of them. Flack can at least be relied on to provide good banter, but the rest of them never seemed to develop between 2 sentence clichés.

For all that, clearly the show did something right because I actually stuck it out for 9 years! Admittedly a lot of the was accompanying ironing, but I can’t deny that I seem to have passed 6 full days of my life with it on in the background. That really does tell you far more about me, than it does about the show though.

Orphan Black: Season 1

orphanblackI went in to this series with high expectations. It had a lot of buzz about it from the US where it has almost immediately become a cult classic. It’s a favourite of the critics, but made no impression at the big award.

It’s a Canadian production, distributed by BBC Worldwide, but despite running March-June on BBC America we had to wait until September for it to eventually appear on BBC 3. Despite its hype though I did my best to avoid finding out too much about what it was. I knew it was about clones, but I didn’t really know anything else and I think that actually made it even better. I’ll try to repeat the favour, so if this review is vague to the point of incomprehensibility, it’s for your own benefit.

One thing I can talk about is the style. I was a bit worried it would be the kind of show that would alienate people (myself included!) by being too cool. Too gritty and edgy, trying to appeal to the Youth market that I hear tell of by being all loud music, sex, nudity and swearing. It wasn’t. But neither was it flat or dull. It had a sort of effortless style to it, music that you don’t necessarily consciously register but which drives everything along. The style comes from the characters, so when it’s a bit over the top on the grungy graffiti front, it’s OK because that’s just Felix’s flat, or if the gothy punk bit is a bit much, that’s just because it’s what Sarah’s like. If it’s a bit weird and trippy at times, well again that’s just what that particular character is like and in each case there’s a very good reason why they’ve committed so wholeheartedly to that particular style.

The only thing that I’m going to say about the plot is that it’s about clones. That could still count as a bit of a spoiler, but without mentioning that there’s no way that I could talk about the most incredible thing in the show. Tatiana Maslany plays all the clones. With the aid of some wigs and costume changes she manages to make every clone a completely independent character. After hardly any time at all I couldn’t even see the same actress underneath them. Even when it ends up with one clone impersonating another, you never lose sight of the characters. It’s a phenomenal collection of performances that is worth watching the show for all by itself. She won both the major critics awards (Critics Choice and Television Critics Association) yet not even a nomination from the Emmys, which tells you everything you need to know about her performance and the idiocy of the Emmys.

Although Maslany’s performance is far and away what makes the show, the rest of it keeps up with her. The plot developments and turns kept me on my toes throughout, but they were never so complex that I started to get confused and/or lose interest. It blends all the elements of science fiction and drama together with plenty of characters and relationships to make you care, and enough humour to break the tension at the right points and acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation.

This is a great series. I can’t really think of anything like it on TV at the moment. I guess the closest would be the Channel 4 series Utopia from earlier this year, but to be honest, Orphan Black puts it in the shade in every regard except pure directorial style. I cannot wait to see where season 2 goes.

Season 1 is available on dvd and blu ray from amazon et al

Smash: Season 2

smashThere are bad shows out there. Shows with bad writing, bad acting, bad premises, bad direction and on occasion – all of the above. But those shows don’t really have much of an impact on my life. They give me the opportunity to write a vitriolic review of the pilot and then I never have to see them again. At worst I’ll annually grouch about how they got picked up for another season while personal favourites didn’t. Good shows are similarly easy to write about, a nice bit of enthusiastic gushing, a recommendation to find a way to catch up and we can all move along happy. To a certain extent even the ones that are resoundingly mediocre are quite straightforward to watch and write about, you know what you’re getting and they’re a passable way to kill time while ironing.

The most frustrating shows however are the ones that do some things really well and other things catastrophically badly. They leave me ranting about how bad they are, while endlessly coming back for yet more punishment. They make you care and then disappoint you over and over again. You’ll have concluded by now that Smash falls into that category.

First the bad. Although they got rid of the most annoying characters from the first season (Ellis, Del, Julia’s family) not all the new characters were a substantial improvement. Jimmy and Kyle were way too unoriginal, the former the classic leather jacket wearing, mysterious bad boy with an amazing talent, the latter a gay Broadway wannabe with big dreams, big commitment and big hair. The two form an “unlikely” friendship and partnership (unlikely partnerships happen surprisingly frequently in TV land) and get to actually live their dreams. Mind you they were paragons of subtelty compared to the horrific guest turn from Sean Hayes as a character who somehow manages to be even more ridiculous than his previous role as Jack (Just Jack!) in Will and Grace!

Many of the other storylines for the series were pretty tired and unoriginal too, the director and the casting couch, the long standing partnership falling apart, an unplanned pregnancy, rekindling old flames and, most manipulative of all, a sudden death just to bring everyone back in to the game. The storylines weren’t just tired, they felt cheap. Purely based on driving plots not really having any coherence within the character stories. The biggest problem with many of those stories was that they broke one of the things I praised from last season – that the characters were competent at their jobs. People can screw up their personal lives, they can make isolated silly mistakes, but once it moves into professional incompetence, I begin to stop caring.

Maybe I was just a willing victim of the manipulation though, because I really loved the show and am going to miss it. When Smash was at its best it was about the characters, the relationships, the theatre and the music. The final episode started with a massive group sing-along, had some impassioned speeches about the power of the theatre, some beautiful moments between characters as they acknowledge what they mean to each other, and ended with a song all about ignoring the critics and going out on a big number. I laughed, I cried, I sang along and I went to buy the soundtrack.

Season 2 was better than season 1 I think. The addition of the second musical was a good choice, I wasn’t a big fan of the Marilyn Monroe musical (either in concept or in style) so the very different style of production was a nice change. It also took Karen and Ivy out of direct competition for the most part giving them both space to breath. The question of where the show could have gone in season 3 is interesting. With another year they could have continued to improve, but I’m not sure they hadn’t written themselves out of story (although the writing was on the wall in terms of cancellation, so maybe they didn’t care). Maybe it actually finished in the perfect place.

The fact that I care enough about Smash to say “I wish it was better” says a lot. It was a phenomenally talented cast with both familiar television faces and incredible theatre performers, able to deliver the drama, the comedy and wonderful song and dance numbers. Thanks to the generous budget they could shoot in actual New York, not LA-New York or Toronto-New York and
use some incredible locations and sets. There’s nothing else quite like it on television at the moment either in subject or style, maybe there’s a good reason for that, but I for one will miss it.

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.

Scandal: Season 2

scandalI have a confession to make. I cheated when I watched this. I was trundling along quite happily watching week by week on Channel 4, frustrated that we were months behind the US, but plodding through. Then a friend pointed me at a reliable online source of episodes and I promptly lost an entire weekend, utterly incapable of doing anything but watching episodes back to back until I reached the end of the season.

That could be taken as an indication of just how good the show is, but it’s more complicated than that. The show is completely and manipulatively addictive; each episode racing along and ending on irresistible cliffhangers. There are so many mysteries and storylines, each constantly waxing and waning that you’re carried along without having time to stop and ponder the the fact that it’s actually a bit rubbish.

Most of the plots make no sense. I was utterly lost about who knew what about which conspiracy as everything twisted itself in knots. Then various characters and relationships just go round and round in dysfunctional and destructive circles of “we shouldn’t”, “but we want to”, “but we shouldn’t” until the only sensible conclusion is that everyone should retreat to separate corners of the globe and have nothing at all to do with each other.

But then the Shonda Rhimes magic kicks in. You don’t want the characters to be apart, because they’re so fascinating together. In the first season I was full of praise for Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and my admiration has only increased. She plays Pope’s great strength and great vulnerability perfectly in synch with each other, a woman whose brain has all the answers but whose heart still makes poor choices. After the very short first season I commented that the supporting characters got minimal development but had potential. Boy does that potential fly this season. With the possible exception of Harrison, everyone gets a huge amount of backstory and character development, while still leaving massive amounts of mystery and interest. Ironically, of all the characters I think the weakest is actually the President, who comes across increasingly like a sulky, lovesick teenager.

I do maybe wish that the series would slow down a bit, allowing more time for the stories and characters to marinade before rushing on to the next challenge. I thought the first season was rushed because of the episode count, but it turns out that’s just the pace they want to move at. It does wobble precariously between busy and chaotic, the moment when John Barrowman appeared and was actually the most understated thing in the episode was a moment that should have caused some pause in the writers room.

But like Grey’s Anatomy, the faults don’t really matter because it’s a show that I HAVE TO WATCH. Every episode has a moment that has me immediately wanting to share with a friend and gossip about. It replaces the emotional manipulation of Grey’s Anatomy with intrigue and mystery, but loses absolutely none of the heart. Come on Channel 4, I need season 3 now. This instant!

NCIS: Los Angeles – Season 4

ncislaNCIS: LA this season has continued to strengthen its strengths and weaken its weaknesses.

The great strength of NCIS: LA is the characters and their relationships. The characters are consistent, they grow and mature, their relationships evolve, the dynamics of the group as a whole change and it actually feels like a realistic group of people.

Every single episode finds time to cash in on that strength. The banter between characters is laugh out loud funny. I frequently end up rewinding to watch again and try to catch the little looks and body language that make the scenes a living thing. The conversation between the characters feel like real people talking, with pop-culture references, sarcasm, recurrent jokes, flashes of anger, touches of fondness. Not only are they people who I’d want on my side if I needed saving from bad guys, they’re also the kind I wouldn’t mind having a drink with after everything is sorted out.

Its a good job the series has that going for it, because the rest of the show around them meanders between mediocre and miserable. Both the NCISes have the issue of trying to shoehorn the Navy into straightforward cases, NCIS:LA seems to focus on various complicated terrorist groups which means that while the stakes are higher (the whole future of the world!) the emotional engagement is actually less because there are rarely tangible victims. There was some sort of continuing plot going on through the year about weapons dealers, but I have utterly no clue and no interest in it.

I can’t even say whether the stories fit together coherently, because I never pay attention. It’s not that I forget about them after I’ve watched (as with Criminal Minds or CSI), it’s that I don’t even know when I’m watching. They’re just the filler between bantering sessions, a means to get our characters somewhere new, in some new undercover situation or in some new pickle just for them to banter their way out.

It’s enough. But just. When NCIS lost sight of the characters, it lost me as a viewer, the same risk applies to NCIS:LA. But for now, I’m happy enough to just spend time with these characters that I’ll forgive the boring plots. But is it really so hard for writers to deliver both?

PS – The embedded pilot for NCIS: Red was actually a lot of fun. I loved the concept of a team travelling the country and world together, acting as a fast response team. It had a lot of potential I thought, and the cast, particularly Kim Raver (Grey’s Anatomy) as the lead was charismatic and interesting. For some reason, it didn’t get picked up to series (which given the phenomenal ratings the other NCIS series get, seems very strange) which I think is a real shame. Maybe they’ll be able to appear as guest stars sometime.

2012-2013 Freshman Class

2012_2013I tried out pilots for 32 new shows this year, 9 British, 1 French and 23 American. I tried to get through all the pilots for the major dramas from network and cable in the US, and did a better job hunting out British shows this year. I covered the British stuff in my yearly round-up, so here’s the summary of the American shows.

US Shows I stuck with (8/23)
americansThe Americans – Homeland LIte. easily the best new show of the year, and one of top three most enjoyable shows of the year.
Chicago Fire – Rescue Me Lite. I’m ashamed, but I somehow watched 20 odd episodes of this mediocre soap opera about fireman. I have no justification really, it was just mindless entertainment.
Defiance – Farscape Lite. Yay, aliens! It all got a bit wibbly at the end for my tastes, but I’m so happy to see ‘proper’ science fiction that I don’t care.
The Following – really rather rubbish, but also thoroughly entertaining, carried along by enthusiastic actors and relentless pacing.
HannibalHannibal – Criminal Minds Heavy. I was dubious from the very start, but I gave it the whole season to fill in the plot holes and reveal its true intelligence. It didn’t. It just got stuper.
House of Cards – West Wing Heavy. One of the three best shows of the year. Smart, stylish and absolutely gripping from start to finish.
Nashville – Glee Heavy. More cheesy fun, with country music and superb performances from the two leading ladies.
Vegas – CSI/Mad Men Lite.Yet more cheesy fun. Mostly I liked the actors and the period setting, the plots were all a bit meh, but I was disappointed that it was cancelled.

So, just like last year, I picked up 8 new shows. But actually of those eight, I only watched Hannibal to confirm it was rubbish and although I’d watch more Vegas, it was cancelled. So that’s 6 successes. Even in that 6 Nashville, Chicago Fire and The Following are far more on the guilty end of pleasure.

US Shows I might’ve stuck with if not cancelled
666parkavenue666 Park Avenue – American Horror Story Lite. It wasn’t awful, and I may have watched more, but it was cancelled before I got to it.
Made in Jersey – The Good Wife Lite. This was pretty cheesy and overdone in places, but I felt oddly warmed by it. But it was cancelled before I even got to it so I didn’t bother watching more.
Red Widow – Weeds Heavy. That’s another slightly harsh label but I have a joke I’m running with. Another show I might have given a longer run if it hadn’t been cancelled. Interesting set up and charismatic actors.

I can’t say I was devastated that any of these were cancelled, they just weren’t anywhere near as awful as the following section of the list.

US Shows I Didn’t Stick with (15/23)
arrowArrow – Batman Lite, without the talent of Nolan writing and directing or Christian Bale staring. Terrible.
Banshee – Fight Club Lite. I gave this a couple of episodes, but I found myself actually repulsed by the violence. I don’t inherently object to violence on screen, but here it felt entirely unnecessary and the lack of reaction to it from the apparently ‘normal’ people made me depressed.
Beauty and the Beast – Incredible Hulk Lite. flimsy, insubstantial, and cheap
cultCult – Lost Lite. A complicated interweaving plot, but I nothing in the pilot gave me confidence the writers could pull it off.
Do No Harm – Jeckyl and Hyde Lite. Actually its was just Jeckyl and Hyde and it was all over the place.
Elementary – Sherlock Lite. Probably the biggest success of the year, the pilot was ok, but I just couldn’t get over the fact I’d rather be watching Sherlock.
Emily Owens, MD – Grey’s Anatomy Lite. Terrible voiceover, weak characters, predictable plot.
Last Resort – Oh, I actually have no comparison for this one! The first original one on the list… and it was absolutely awful. Plot was rushed and characters were clichéd. I gave the second episode a chance to level it out, it didn’t. I left.
Low Winter Sun – The Shield Lite. I haven’t reviewed this yet (only watched it yesterday) but I was astronomically bored.
mobdoctorThe Mob Doctor – The Sopranos/Grey’s Anatomy Lite. A soulless show constructed by bolting two things together. It wasn’t even a very solid construction, full of stupid plots and dull characters.
Ray Donovan – The Sopranos Lite? Too many unpleasant people.
Under the Dome – I can’t actually think of a comparison for this one either, but that doesn’t make it original, I just can’t think of anything. I just found it dull. And ridiculous.
Zero Hour – DaVinci Code Lite. I couldn’t actually bring myself to finish watching the pilot. It was that tiresome.

I don’t think it was a great year for new series. As you can see from my attempt at humour, every show can be linked to another one on the air without too much of a stretch and for the most part they just came off as cheap knockoffs. Elementary was a weaker version of Sherlock, Arrow was Batman with youth, 666 Park Avenue was American Horror Story meets Supernatural, and then you’ve got three medical shows chasing Grey’s Anatomy and a legal one chasing The Good Wife. There are a couple of examples of hybrid ideas, or of shows actually adding additional depth to an existing idea, but they’re pretty few and far between.

vegasMind you, there was a bit of an under-representation of the usually popular genre of police procedurals. Vegas was pretty much the only one and did an amiable enough job with it, but in the land of CBS, even being the top rated new show of the year doesn’t save you from being axed.

Having made that complaint though, the shows that actually had something original going for them made something of a hash of it. The Last Resort, Cult, Zero Hour and Under the Dome had terrible pilots, each of which I struggled to sit through.

Looking Forward
2013_2014I don’t actually remember being particularly excited going into the 2012-13 year. There were a few things I was curious about and a few actors I was excited to see again, but nothing seemed especially buzz worthy. 2013-14 is a bit different though, there were a number of things at the upfronts that grabbed me and a few trailers that surprised me.

Interesting ideas but could still suckHostages, Tomorrow People, Intelligence, Sleepy Hollow, Wayward Pines, Resurrection, Crisis
I’ll give it a try because of the castRake (Greg Kinnear), Crazy Ones (Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar), Legends (Sean Bean), True Detective (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson)
Actually pretty excitingAlmost Human, Blacklist, Masters of Sex
In a category all by itself – Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the name is troubling. Other than that… I couldn’t be much more excited if I tried.

2012-13 Season – the best and the worst

2012_2013As the new season has officially started, it’s time for my wrap up of the 2012-2013 season! From the list below it really looks like I’ve watched 46 television series this year, which frankly even I find amazing, given that last year I was astonished that I’d gone from 28 to 39 series. Admittedly 10 of those series are still in progress and a couple might not get finished, but even without those, it’s still probably somewhere in the order of 700 episodes.

The Americans: S1
Blue Bloods: S3
The Big Bang Theory: S6
Bones: S8
Borgen: S2
Broadchurch: S1
The Cafe: S2 (in progress)
Castle: S5
Chicago Fire: S1
Criminal Minds: S8
CSI: S13
CSI: NY: S10 (in progress)
Defiance: S1
Doctor Who: S7
Downton Abbey: S3
The Fall: S1
The Following: S1
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): S3
Fringe: S5
Game of Thrones: S3
The Good Wife: S4
Grey’s Anatomy: S9
Hannibal: S1
Homeland: S2
House of Cards: S1
House of Lies: S2 (in progress)
Hunted: S1
Last Tango in Halifax: S1
Luther: S3
Mad Men: S6
Merlin: S5
Nashville: S1
NCIS: LA: S4 (in progress)
The Newsroom: S2 (in progress)
Once Upon a Time: S2 (in progress)
Orphan Black: S1 (in progress)
Les Revenenants (The Returned): S1
Scandal: S2 (Review to come)
Smash: S2 (in progress)
Supernatural: S8 (in progress)
The Thick of It: S4
Utopia: S1
Vegas: S1
The Walking Dead: S3
Warehouse 13: S4 (in progress)
Young Doctor’s Notebook: S1

There are also a few miniseries I watched (mostly British) – Dancing on the Edge, In the Flesh, What Remains (to be reviewed), The Secret of Crickley Hall and Southcliffe.

Best Shows
The Walking Dead title screenThe Walking Dead – I think this may be the show I obsessed most about this year (although see Scandal later on). I pounced on every episode as soon as I could, read analysis, studied trailers, frankly it’s a bit embarrassing. But what makes me really happy is that the show warrants its place in the best list, not just the favourite. The quality of this show is outstanding, from the breathtaking direction to the elegant writing and heartbreaking acting. There were a few miss-steps with the plot, but overall, this show is right up there with the likes of Battlestar Galactica for raising genre to a new level.

GoodWifeThe Good Wife – It’s hard to think of new superlatives to describe The Good Wife, from the very first episode of season 1 this show has been consistently good, interesting and entertaining. Sadly that consistency also applies to the ongoing poor usage of Kalinda, but if that’s the only problem with the show, then it’s still leaps and bounds above most of its companions on the schedules.

House of CardsHouse of Cards – It’s notable that of the three best shows I’ve selected one is on Cable, one is on Network and the final one is on neither! Thanks to Netflix it’s now possible to get exceptional television series completely independent of the television channels. House of Cards was smart, challenging and exceptionally well made and throws a real challenge at the traditional broadcasters.

Honourable mentions – I’m only 2 episodes in, but Orphan Black is rather amazing and reminiscent of the also stunning Utopia. Broadchurch was outstanding, blending believable responses to horrific events with a British humour and A Young Doctor’s Notebook was surprisingly weird and engaging.

Favourite Shows
scandalScandal – I haven’t written my review of this yet, because it would mean admitting that rather than waiting for the weekly episodes on the television, I was so addicted to the show, I saught out an alternate source and watched the whole season pretty much back to back over the space of a weekend. The story is utterly ridiculous, but I found it incredibly addictive. Shonda Rhimes has recreated the Grey’s Anatomy magic, it doesn’t matter how bad it is, I can’t let it go.

americansThe Americans – It’s almost impossible to talk about this show without comparing it to Homeland, which appeared on my best shows list last year, but is significantly absent this year. The Americans gets right everything that Homeland got wrong in season 2, it never took itself too seriously, never sacrificed consistent character development for cheap cliffhangers and remembered that spies (even in the 80s) are cool!

BorgenBorgen – Last year Borgen was in the ‘Best shows’ category, this year I move it to ‘Favourite’ because although I still adore it, I just didn’t think it was as good. I had a lot of trouble with the storylines and characters this season, many set off down unfortunate paths which ultimately led to dead ends and frustrations. But despite that, it’s still hugely entertaining, with sparkling dialogue, beautiful direction and an unfailing ability to draw me in.

Honourable Mentions – hmm, the fact I’m struggling to find ones of note is a bit of an indicator that this years shows have really gone to the extremes of “great” and “meh”. Nashville was reliable ridiculous fun (far far more successful than the increasingly awful Smash) and Last Tango in Halifax was endearingly easy watching. Oh, and there have been great moments in the first few episodes of The Newsroom, but those moments of brilliance are unfortunately surrounded with some real mediocrity (and that’s being charitable).

Actors
bBroadchurchI think there should be some kind of awareness that there is great acting going on in the oddest of places. Awards are generally given for great acting in great shows. That really is a bit chicken and egg, is the acting great because of the writing, or is the writing great because of the acting? For shows like The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Broadchurch, The Americans and The Good Wife, the quality just feeds back and forth elevating both to wonderful heights.

The Thick of ItThe more impressive achievement I think is great acting taking place in mediocre or even awful shows. The cast of Homeland did an admirable job with truly terrible writing as did some of the cast of Hannibal. The Thick of It had serious structural problems from a watch-ability point of view, but it did mean everything built up to the stunning inquiry which offered each of the actors an opportunity to give a masterclass in characters. Peter Capaldi was of course the star (and the only problem I have with him being Doctor Who is that he’ll have less time to do work like this), but everyone in the cast was incredible in that episode.

lutherThen you’ve got the type of performances that complete transcend and transform the shows they are in. Performances from Idris Elba (Luther) and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) seem like they’re in entirely different leagues to everyone around them, bouncing off the screen with originality and charisma and really are the only reason I watch the shows. I came to Nashville because I love Connie Britton, but was surprised that I stayed with it in equal parts for was wonderful performance from Hayden Panettier. Between the two of them they made the ridiculous soap opera watchable.

Grey's Anatomy CastWhen it comes to relying on her actors to sell ridiculous storylines however, Shonda Rhimes is queen, I forgive Grey’s Anatomy its many sins because of actors like Chandra Wilson, Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh. I forgive Scandal for being demented because of actors like Kerry Washington who portrays Olivia Pope with such hardness and such softness, Jeff Perry who makes Cyrus the kind of manipulative bastard you want to share popcorn with and Guillermo Diaz who makes you want to give Huck a cuddle even if he is a terrifying psychopath.

Disappointments
Mad MenMad Men – If not for the fact that the next season will be the last, Mad Men season 6 would have been the nail in the coffin for me. I’ve just got no interest in watching a show increasingly dedicated to the unpleasant and repetitive character that is Don Draper. He goes round and round in destructive circles, holding back the other characters and the show itself from really developing.

Once Upon a TimeOnce Upon a Time – I’m struggling to find the enthusiasm to watch the whole season of this I have backed up on my Sky+ box. I think there are just too many characters (particularly given almost every character has a fairy tale alter-ego), too many worlds and too many storylines. I don’t care enough to watch every week, and without that regular viewing I lose track and therefore care even less.

fringeFringe – I’m sorry, but the final season of Fringe just wasn’t as good as the previous seasons. Jumping to the future threw everything off for me, it wasn’t as much fun, I wasn’t as engaged and it felt less original. It did however at least offer a solid ending to the show, so I am still grateful for that.

Things I Didn’t Watch
SonsOfAnarchyIn many ways the 2012-13 season was notable for the things I didn’t watch. Several shows that I’ve previously loved, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch. Glee and NCIS both got dropped because I was fed up with the inconsistent writing. I tried out Hawaii Five-0 to fit the NCIS spaced gap, but though I love the dynamic between the two leads, it wasn’t enough to keep my attention through the mind numbing plots. I also dropped Veep because I just didn’t find it funny enough to overcome the frustrations with stupid characters.

My reasons for stopping watching Girls are rather more profound. Like Veep, I didn’t think it was funny and I found the characters frustrating, but I had an extra level of repulsion to the series because it seemed to be claiming some greater reality than something like Veep. Lena Dunham, either through her own claims or those of the media appears to think this is what young women in New York are really like. Given that I think the characters are pretty hateful people, if that’s truly what this section of humanity is like, then I want nothing to do with them, even through the abstract medium of television.

This year’s high profile casualty is actually more about the fact that the writing is too good. Sons of Anarchy is a superb television show, but by making me care so much about the characters, the relentless misery heaped upon them has just become a bit much. As their situations become increasingly hopeless I found myself dreading each episode until eventually my anxiety overcame the quality and I remembered that I didn’t have to watch if I didn’t want to. It’s the same reason that I’m unlikely to watch Breaking Bad beyond the first season, that was enough for me to understand how good it was, and enough to for me to know I just didn’t want to watch something that hard.

To end this section on a positive note however, even though I didn’t get along with this season of American Horror Story (I just didn’t feel any connection to any of the characters) the clever thing about the way the series is structured means that I can try it again next year when it moves on again to a new set of characters and stories.

Local Talent
utopiaEvery year I pledge to watch more British television, and this year I actually managed it! A lot of it suffers from, what Sky’s director of entertainment eloquently described as “po-faced stick up your backside morose drama”. When done well that sort of thing is hard but fascinating to watch, but when done badly it’s just dull. Southcliffe fell into the latter category unfortunately, The Fall was doing well until it failed to reach a conclusion that just left a bad taste in the mouth. On the plus side Utopia was quirky, brutal, intriguing and beautiful to watch, and Broadchurch was utterly engrossing and entertaining from start to finish. It’s a good job David Tennant was so good in that though, because The Politician’s Husband was horrific and I know at least one person who’s Tennant crush has been permanently damaged by the dialogue he was forced.

Downton AbbeyA lot of dross was also put out claiming to be ‘pure entertainment’ with Mr Selfridge and The Paradise both trying to capture the ongoing magic of Downton Abbey and failing catastrophically. Hunted was entertaining, but nowhere near interesting enough to make me want to watch a second season. Sky’s offerings of The Cafe and Young Doctor’s Notebook are far from what I’d expect from the juggernaut, both understated and unusual.

Emmy Awards 2012-13

Emmy AwardAh the Emmys. Every year the nominations come out and television fans and critics alike look at the list and go “you what now?”. It’s full of the same old stuff, some of it deserving, but a lot of it just old, tired and not as great as people remember it was. The nominators seem to have massive blind spots for certain shows, often it’s a straightforward “genre shows aren’t good” (The Walking Dead), or “police procedurals may be popular but we shouldn’t reward that” (Southland), or “motorcycle gangs are bad” (Sons of Anarchy) or even just a blanket “there’s nothing good on network, quality is only on cable” (The Good Wife). But this year for some reason the Emmys have also taken against The Americans and when you start wondering if that’s because they still don’t like Russians, you have to wonder what the hell is going on over there.

So here are my thoughts on who I would give awards to and who I think will win the Emmys. I’ve only really covered the major drama categories. I don’t watch enough comedy, reality or factual to comment on those, I don’t have enough technical knowledge to comment on sound design or camera work and I can’t be bothered to look at the directing and writing categories because those frankly seem like they’re just used as an extension of the outstanding drama/comedy/whatever award and not looking at whether the direction or writing is actually creative or innovative.

OUTSTANDING DRAMA
Breaking Bad – I’ve only watched the first season which was brilliant, and I can’t imagine the final season is anything else, although stretching it out for nearly 2 years does feel a little like an awards show grab.
Downton Abbey – Ah, the Americans’ love of Downton Abbey. It’s a fun series, with a very specific genre. Does it deserve to be here? Hell no.
Game of Thrones – Another very specific type of show that just does not belong on this list.
Homeland (2012 winner) – I think the second season is probably best described as ‘troubled’. Season 1 was very good, I think season 3 could be very good, but season 2 was not.
House of Cards – It’s already a huge deal that a Netflix original programme is on this list at all. The fact that it’s also absolutely superb should terrify the other channels.
Mad Men – Far from the best season of the show. I’ve lost interest completely.

The Walking DeadWith the exception of Breaking Bad and House of Cards I think this is a really very poor selection from the vast number of outstanding shows that are out there. The Walking Dead is far more deserving than Game of Thrones (if we’re going to allow one spot for genre). The Americans is better than Homeland, Nashville is a better cheesy soap than Downton Abbey (not that this category is necessarily the place for a cheesy soap) and The Good Wife (while not such a tidy genre comparison) is so far beyond Mad Men it’s not funny. I would also not be appalled to see Scandal, or Sons of Anarchy (even though I haven’t seen it) on the list, and I know a lot of people would grumble at the absence of Southland and Justified.

My outstanding drama – The Walking Dead
My Emmy Choice – from that list, I think House of Cards (Breaking Bad can have it next year)
What will win – I recon House of Cards might just do it

OUTSTANDING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
Connie Britton, Nashville – Excellent choice, she’s wonderful. And lovely.
Claire Danes, Homeland (2012 winner) – manages to ride the roller coaster the writers put her character on, always knocking it out of the park
Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey – she’s doing the best with some pretty miserable writing, but no way she deserves to be on this list (not least because it’s an ensemble, she is not the star)
Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel – Haven’t seen it yet so I don’t know, but I’ve heard good things.
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men – She’s a great actress, but I don’t think she’s a lead in Mad Men, she just didn’t get enough material.
Kerry Washington, Scandal – Another excellent choice, she’s incredible on the show.
Robin Wright, House of Cards – A difficult character, but played very well to make her both unsettling and sympathetic.

scandalThere are some amazing roles out there for women at the moment, and some amazing actresses filling them. The presence of Connie Britton brings into notice the absence of her co-star Hayden Pannetier. She submitted in the supporting actress instead, I guess for fear of splitting votes, but then didn’t get nominated). I would say she was as much a lead as Britton and did just as good a job and actually with a greater range of material. Keri Russell of The Americans is overlooked, Ellen Pompeo continues to quietly do good work on Grey’s Anatomy, Anna Torv for Fringe didn’t even bother submitting herself apparently, Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy might as well not have bothered because the Emmy’s fails to acknowledge their shows existence. I’m also only a couple of episodes in but Tatiana Maslany is incredible in Orphan Black and pretty much cleared up at any award show voted for by critics. But that all pails into insignificance with the absence of Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife which is just beyond belief.

My Outstanding Actress – Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife (although I might change that to Tatiana Maslany when I finish Orphan Black)
My Emmy Choice – I think Kerry Washington, she makes the show work, which is a true mark of a leading role.
Who will win – Robin Wright, and it would be well deserved.

OUTSTANDING ACTOR IN A DRAMA
Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey – He did have some amazing moments this season, but they were only moments. I think he belongs in the supporting actor category.
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad – I’m sure he’s amazing
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom – Interesting. The writing for the character was all over the place, but he did convincingly sell it all.
Jon Hamm, Mad Men – I hate the character and think the continual yo-yoing is beyond a joke, but even when I try to ignore that and just look at Hamm’s performance, I find it a bit… flat.
Damian Lewis, Homeland (2012 winner) – As with his co-star, ropey writing salvaged by superb performances.
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards – It’s Kevin Spacey, of course he’s amazing.

House of CardsTo my mind, Matthew Rhys in The Americans gave just as good a performance as Damian Lewis and the show around him was immeasurably better material. The fact that Andrew Lincoln’s breathtaking work on The Walking Dead was ignored isn’t surprising but is endlessly frustrating. I think the show is rubbish, but Hugh Dancy gives an amazing performance in Hannibal. I wouldn’t have been displeased to see Matt Smith for Doctor Who, or even Kevin Bacon for The Following on that list either. The surprise absence is Michael C. Hall for Dexter who must have really pissed someone off to not get his sixth consecutive nomination.

My Outstanding Actor and Emmy Choice – Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Who will win – Bryan Cranston.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad – probably excellent
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey (2012 winner) – I was initially frustrated at this nomination, but then I remembered the scenes after Sybil’s death and actually, I think she deserves this nomination far more than her win last year.
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones – She’s one of the best things in the disappointing series, but I’m just not sure there was that much complexity to her character.
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife – yay!
Morena Baccarin, Homeland – Also yay!
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men – I love her, but I’m not sure her character got enough to do to warrant this nomination. I’d almost rather see January Jones in this space. (Oh, but two actresses from Firefly in the list, how cool is that?!)

NashvilleGiven I think Hayden Pannetier could have been nominated for lead, the fact she didn’t make the cut here is surprising and sad. I’d happily see Chandra Wilson or Sandra Oh for Grey’s Anatomy on the list. Kate Mara gives just as good as she gets from Kevin Spacey on House of Cards (and could be argued is more the lead than Robin Wright is).

My Outstanding Supporting Actress – Hayden Pannetier for Nashville, and I’m as surprised as anyone by that.
My Emmy Choice – Christine Baranski (Maggie Smith can just consider she won a year early and it averages out).
Who Will Win – Maggie Smith

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA
Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire – Don’t watch, dunno.
Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad – Dunno, haven’t seen any episodes with him in.
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad (2012 winner) – I’m sure he’s great.
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey – Sigh. No. Just no.
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones – The best thing in the show and almost the only reason I keep watching. Absolutely wonderful.
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland – A worthy nominee.

Game of ThronesI’m pretty unexcited by this list, but then can’t really comment on three out of the six. John Nobel for Fringe is unsurprisingly overlooked. Josh Charles is always wonderful in The Good Wife, Sam Waterstone is powerful and hilarious as Charlie in The Newsroom, Guillermo Diaz and Jeff Perry were both superb on Scandal, and for all Smash’s woes I rather adore Jack Davenport.

My Outstanding Supporting Actor and Emmy Choice – Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones. Every scene he’s not in is just counting the minutes until he returns.
Who Will Win – I recon Peter Dinklage might win again, but the Breaking Bad people could snatch it.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
Margo Martindale, The Americans – oh apparently the nominators *are* watching The Americans, or is it just that they loved Margo Martindale in Justified so much they keep nominating her. She’s good, but not spectacular.
Diana Rigg, Game of Thrones – I think this is more about the name than the performance, which while good, I’m not sure was one of the best of teh year out of the thousands available.
Carrie Preston, The Good Wife – Yay Elsbeth! I adore her, she’s so quirky and offbeat, but somehow incredibly real.
Linda Cardellini, Mad Men – I had to look up who this was. Unenthused.
Jane Fonda, The Newsroom – I just remember her shouting a lot, not really anything phenomenal
Joan Cusack, Shameless – No idea.

goodwifeThis list could easily be made up with just The Good Wife – Maura Tierney, Martha Plimpton, Mamie Gummer, Stockard Channing, Amanda Peet… all wonderful. Shirley McLain was hilarious in Downton Abbey. I’m sure Grey’s Anatomy had some good guests too, but the one I remember most was Sarah Chalke.

My choice and the Emmy’s choice, was Carrie Preston for The Good Wife (awarded at the Creative Arts Emmys last week)

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA
Nathan Lane, The Good Wife – it’s always odd to see Nathan Lane doing something low key and he was heartbreaking as a drab little accountant in a suit inspired by Steve Jobs’ biography
Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife – gloriously manipulative, skirts the edges of comedy villain beautifully
Rupert Friend, Homeland – I had to look him up, but as soon as the photo loaded I recognised him as the creepy and mysterious Quinn, an excellent addition to the amazing Homeland cast, but he was in 9 out of 12 episodes… doesn’t sound like a ‘guest’ role.
Robert Morse, Mad Men – Bert Cooper (I had to look him up and check) just doesn’t really do that much, more a reliable piece of furniture than anything outstanding imho.
Harry Hamlin, Mad Men – I have no memory of him in the series. Not a great indicator.
Dan Bucatinsky, Scandal – I was surprised to see this name here, he was a little umm… melodramatic I thought, but I don’t begrudge him this space on the list.

Another list that could just be made up of guests on The Good Wife – Matthew Perry, Gary Cole, Dallas Roberts, T.R. Knight – all my favourite actors show up here sooner or later. Guest stars are always the hardest to remember though and I’m struggling for other shows.

My choice – I can’t bring myself to pick between Nathan Lane and Michael J. Fox.
Emmy’s choice – Dan Bucatinsky, which really surprises me.

OUTSTANDING TV MINISERIES OR MOVIE
behindthecandelabraAmerican Horror Story: Asylum – I just didn’t get on with the series this year. I found it much harder to engage with the characters and stories
Behind the Candelabra – not being in the idiotic US, I was able to see this in its true home on the big screen and it will probably feature as one of my top films of the year. Telling a fascintating story about complex characters in a hugely enjoyable way – a joy to watch.
Top of the Lake – I made it through 2 and a half episodes before calling it quits due to extreme boredom and disbelief at every single one of the characters.
The Bible, Phil Spector, Political Animals – haven’t seen ’em

My outstanding miniseries/movie – Behind the Candelabra and I think the Emmy voters will agree. I think Michael Douglas will also win the lead actor award, although Matt Damon is equally worthy.