Archive for the ‘ 13-14 Season ’ Category

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.

Defiance: Season 2

I seem to swing back and forth on Defiance a bit, I loved the pilot but was then a bit under-whelmed by the rest of the first season, now I’m swinging back for a cheery review of the second season.

defianceAs I acknowledged previously, some of my positivity about the series may be a slight desperation for some actual science fiction on television. While superheroes and even fantasy are pretty ubiquitous on television these days, space ships are still a pretty rare sight. Space ships accompanied by good writing are even more uncommon (I’m looking at you Extant), so when a new season of a Rockne S. O’Bannon series hits the schedules I breathe a sigh of relief.

What O’Bannon manages to do is create fantastically rich universes and populate them with believable characters, putting makeup and weird languages on talented character actors and giving them dialogue that’s both utterly normal and completely alien.

The storylines cover pretty much everything from giant world-destroying spaceships and alien possession through to grief, jealousy and what people will do for love. As previously, I could do without some of the “wibbly spiritual stuff”, but at least you can sort of ignore it if you want and just watch the practical outcomes of it. Or just laugh at the dialogue and care about the characters. It works on that level just as well.

Defiance is a show that’s great entertainment to watch but also stands up pretty well to more intense study and discussion. Personally I’m more about the entertainment, but it’s very nice to have the choice.

Scandal: Season 3

scandalGood grief, was that really only season 3 of Scandal? This show is like something on fast-forward, burning through plots and defcon levels at astronomical rates. Unfortunately, I think that means in the space of 3 seasons 2 they’ve propelled themselves through the growth phases and (to extend my rocket metaphor to breaking point) rather than settling into a happy steady orbit, they’ve burnt out and are about to crash and burn.

If you look at Shonda Rhimes most successful show Grey’s Anatomy, it’s made it to 11 seasons because most of the time it’s quite small. It’s about individual doctors living their lives and treating individual patients. When it struggles is when it tries to be big with plane crashes and life changing ridiculousness, but the moments that the fans keep tuning in for are the small moments of connection and relationships.

Scandal went the other way. It didn’t want to be about small things, it wants to be about Presidents and politics and conspiracies and the safety of the good old US of A. And it’s ridiculous. By midway through the first season they’d made things so big that they couldn’t back down and the only way was to keep getting bigger. SPOILERS!

So in season 3, Olivia’s mother, who’s an international terrorist, tries to kill Olivia’s lover, who’s the president. But she is foiled by Olivia’s other lover, who runs a secret government spy agency, which used to be run by Olivia’s father. Meanwhile the vice-president has decided to run against the president, despite the fact that she recently murdered her husband after finding out he had an affair with a journalist, who is also the husband of the president’s chief of staff. But the chief of staff and the secret spy agency covered it up. But then journalist wanted to come clean, so Olivia’s lover (the spy one, not the president one) killed the journalist, who also happened to be the father of Olivia’s godchild.

To coin a phrase from Grey’s Anatomy – Seriously?!

I mean the whole thing is just idiotic. Which I’d be kind of ok with, because the dialogue is snappy, the monologues heartfelt and the characters are fun to watch thanks to some great performances. But at some point through the season I stopped caring about the characters and they instantly became phenomenally annoying.

Olivia is the centre of this cloud of awfulness and all her attempts to make it better just make it worse. I can sympathise with crap luck, but she’s just out of control at this point and dragging everyone down. Her endless whining about wanting to be with the president just bores me, because fundamentally – he’s not a very nice person. He’s like Derek Shepherd (who I’ve also never thought is the least bit dreamy), he’s arrogant, self-righteous, ambitious for all the wrong reasons, manipulative and awful to the people around him. If he wants to be with Olivia so bad, STOP BEING PRESIDENT! Quit. Just go. Everyone around him is selling their souls (without too much encouragement it has to be said) for him to be president and all he seems to care about is making jam and babies with Olivia. So for the sake of everyone… go do that!

Once that thought has crossed your mind, unfortunately the whole series unravels, because all the stories are basically built on keeping the president in office and no one seems to be willing to look at why that’s a good thing either personally or for the country.

I made it all the way to the end of the season because frankly I was in need of something stupid and mindless to watch and this filled a hole. Whether I’ll be back next year rather depends on whether I have anything else filling my quotia of mindless television. I’m not actually sure which outcome would be considered “good”.

Pilot Reviews: The Last Ship and The Strain

Although both of these shows are built from the idea of a deadly virus running out of control, they take it off in very different directions and tones. So I thought I’d put both reviews together so that I can really draw out that contrast. In no way is it because I’m massively behind on my reviews and this is the only hope of catching up.

The Strain is written and produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy) and is based on his series of novels. A plane lands at JFK and then completely shuts down, not a peep is heard. In an encouraging display of competence, the airport controller calls in emergency teams and after a bit of bickering, it’s the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) that get to be the lucky first entrants to the plane. Everyone’s dead and they have no idea how.

It’s a stonking set up, and I was pretty gripped by it. The sight of the empty plane (described as ‘dead’) is chilling and the displays of competence by all parties is really satisfying. What I find scary in horror movies is realism, normal people making sensible choices and being overwhelmed by the something completely out of control.

Sadly, that satisfaction was show lived because from the moment the CDC team get into the plane, all competence and realism is destroyed and the plot and characters become entirely driven by the need for a dramatic moment before each ad break. The team get on the plane in their full sealed suits, they stand in the doorway and look around at all the people not moving, they check two nearby passengers and declare everyone dead. They start wandering the plane aimlessly, they split up and ignore the radio calls telling them not to and asking what’s going on. Then low and behold, not everyone on the plane is dead! I’m sorry, but what kind of first responder or scientist jumps to “everyone’s dead” from “two people are dead and no one else is moving”? It may seem a relatively minor quibble, but it set up the rest of the episode for a similar level of eye-roll-inducing incompetence.

The Last Ship meanwhile is produced by Michael Bay (Transformers, Pearl Harbor) and based on a book from the 80’s by William Brinkley. The USS Nathan James has been on a mission in the arctic, out of radio contact for 4 months. When they finally reconnect with civilisation it’s to find that a virus has swept the world, a good percentage of people are dead, governments are falling and the only hope for a cure rests with the CDC scientists on board who, unknown to the crew, were investigating the virus. But they’re not the only ones looking for a cure and they’ve got to defend themselves against other desperate people, as well as trying to keep the ship sailing and crew functioning.

The contrast between the two shows is fascinating. While the virus is more established and more catastrophic in The Last Ship, the show is actually more contained and focussed. The characters are all on board the ship, they’ve got limited resources (even down to fuel and food) and a balance between saving themselves and the improbable challenge of saving the world. In The Strain meanwhile, things are just getting started and there are whole government agencies available to head things off, they have all the resources they need to manage the situation, so the jeopardy can only come from people screwing up.

The tone of the shows is also completely different and is pretty predictable if you know anything about the two big names involved. Guillermo del Toro is dark, he’s about creepiness and how the fantastic can interact with the real, our heroes are the quiet people, scientists and administrators who are voices of reason and competence in the face of something out of this world. The Strain is ominous, brooding and all about what might happen. Michael Bay meanwhile is shiny, he’s big and brash and loud. The Lost Ship is action and adventure, giant pieces of military hardware swinging into action, heroes in uniform making speeches and following the rules until the only way to be the hero is to break the rules, and then agonise over it afterwards. It’s not about the possibilities and what you need to imagine, it’s about the visceral here and now.

I was all set up to love The Strain, I’ve loved a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s work and was far more attracted to the tone and direction. But he screwed it up. The quiet scientist is only the hero if he really is competent, it’s only creepy if you carefully control what you see, it’s only scary if events and timings are surprising, and it’s only interesting if it’s unusual. The cookie cutter characters (team leader who’s losing his family because he’s too dedicated to his job, 2nd in command who slept with the boss, blah blah blah) were as predictable as the timing of the scary jumps and the sense of mystery was sacrificed in favour of quick reveals.

I wasn’t initially as drawn to The Last Ship however, it’s not the sort of setup that I find as interesting, the trailers made it look silly and I’ve had serious issues with Michael Bay sacrificing strong ideas to bring them down to the lowest common denominator of sex and explosions. But, while I may not have been as keen on what The Last Ship was trying to do, it did at least stick to its principles and do those things really well. The characters are cheesy, the action sequences prolonged, the direction veering towards military porn at times and the speeches over the top. But it all fits together and works in a way that I ultimately found very satisfying.

The Last Ship started from an understanding of the limitations of the medium and genre and was as good as it could be within those limits. The Strain however seemed to start with lofty ambitions and then have to cut all the corners off. So, much to my shame, I’m sticking with The Last Ship and ditching The Strain. I’m going with Michael Bay over Guillermo del Toro. Transformers is still awful and Pan’s Labyrinth is still amazing though.

2013-14 – Season Review

2013_2014Another television year is over. Or at least it is if you take the American-centric view of things which I tend to fall into, whereby the new season starts in mid September with the big pilot presentations. In the UK it’s a bit less marked, but there seems to be at least an element of September being a starting point for some new series, so I’m bundling everything together.

American Series
Almost Human S1
American Horror Story: Coven (S3)
Castle S6
Criminal Minds S9
CSI S14 (in progress)
Extant S1 (in progress)
Fargo S1
Game of Thrones S4
Grey’s Anatomy S10
House of Cards S2
Mad Men S7 Part 1
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD S1
NCIS Los Angeles S5
Orphan Black S2
Penny Dreadful S1
Scandal S3 (in progress)
The Americans S2
The Big Bang Theory S7
The Blacklist S1
The Following S2
The Good Wife S5
The Lost Ship S1 (in progress)
The Night Shift S1 (review coming soon)
The Walking Dead S4
British Series
Downton Abbey S4
Happy Valley S1
Last Tango in Halifax S2
Outnumbered S5
The Crimson Field (not reviewed)
The Honourable Woman
The Musketeers S1
The Smoke S1

Short series
Death Comes to Pemberley
Dr Who
Sherlock S3
Suspects (seems to air a couple of episodes every now and then, which is my excuse for not having reviewed it)
The 7:39

International Series
The Bridge S2
Borgen S3

Intended to watch but not got to/aired yet – Utopia S2, Chicago Fire S2 and Defiance S2. I’m also a bit behind on Perception and Nurse Jackie.

Purely by the numbers, I have watched a lot less television this year. By my count I’ve watched 20 full series of American shows (with four others in progress), 8 UK shows, 2 Scandinavian ones and about half a dozen micro-series (shows of 3 or 4 episodes – e.g. Dr Who this year, Sherlock). This year’s list looks very different to last year’s. For a start it’s considerably shorter, last year I watched 46 series (31 American, 10 UK, 3 international and 2 short series). But there’s also been a big turnover in what I watched.

I added 13 brand new shows, and three others which hadn’t aired or I didn’t watch in 2012-13. But then there were 13 series from last year which didn’t return this year, and another 9 that did air, but I chose not to watch The rest of the difference is made up of a few shows that I haven’t got to yet, or didn’t air significant numbers of episodes I that timeframe.

Best shows
orphanblackThe Good Wife – The consistently outstanding quality puts It a step above any other series on network television, and the fact that it makes more than 20 episodes per year marks its achievement as superior to anything on cable television. For the incredible writers and amazing cast to ‘churn’ out such entertaining and interesting stories and characters, it really shows up the rest of the television community. The series keeps growing and changing, never getting lazy or cheap and it is easily my favourite show of the year.

Happy Valley – a near perfect piece of television that blended serious and difficult stories with just enough humanity and humour to make it bearable. I’m not sure how I feel about there being a second series mind you, this one will be hard to top without losing the sense of reality.

Orphan Black is a fascinating series, that really should have been on my ist last year as well, but I was just slightly too slow watching it. Season 2 just got better and better, with a complex plot that never got too bogged down. The way the completely different personalities of the clones and their friends and families all came together was fascinating and it never lost sight of the ridiculousness of the idea, with plenty of humour along the way.

Honourable mentions: House of Cards was a harder watch in many ways this year, but was completely gripping from start to finish. The Honourable Woman was equally gripping, although I don’t think it quite lived up to its early potential. The Americans changed its tack a little, getting rather more serious and rather less wiggy and handled it very well; although I do miss the fun spy stuff.

Favourite shows
SherlockI’m going to put Sherlock on this list, although I hesitate to describe 3 TV movies as a ‘series’. But still, my pure delight while watching Cumberbatch and Freeman deliver Moffat’s dialogue in the beautifully directed style is unsurpassed. The series isn’t in the Best category because I did think it was a little flabby in places, and playing to the fans a little too much on a purely technical level, but as a fan, I couldn’t have loved it more.

The Walking Dead tends to swap back and forth between the ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ slots, and I’ll be honest that’s because I use it to create space in whichever category needs it. There’s a huge amount happening in this season, and yet there’s also masses of time given to the characters, and the second half the season when they’re split up into often unusual groups was particularly interesting. It never ceases to impress and thrill me that a zombie apocalypse show can be one of the most fascinating and beautiful shows on television.

I’m going to put Fargo in the ‘favourite’ category too. I think most of the quality of it actually came from the Coen brother’s film, but what the television series did was flesh it out with a really charming and engaging cast and some additional twists and turns that ultimately felt like a large diversion (the whole Oliver Platt storyline) but were entertaining enough on the way.

There are other shows that I enjoyed watching (obviously, I’m not such a masochist as to watch all of them just for the sake of completing a review), but to be honest, nothing else reached the level of “must watch” that I got from those series. If I were going to list a few honourable mentions – Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, NCIS LA and The Blacklist would appear somewhere. Oh, and Game of Thrones actually felt much improved to me and (with the exception of the last couple of episodes) I rather enjoyed the season.

Acting
goodwifeIf I think about the most impactful performances this year, the most interesting and dynamic characters, I think my top five would all be women. Maybe even top ten. Shows like The Good Wife (Julianna Margulies), The Honourable Woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Happy Valley (Sarah Lancashire), Borgen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany) and Scandal (Kerry Washington) have painfully real women in the lead. Even many of the ensemble shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Fargo, The Americans, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Smoke) the female roles have amazing depth and complexity. Shows like Castle and House of Cards may appear on paper to be a male lead, but their female partners are just as vital and vibrant.

Comparably, I’m not sure the guys are having such a strong time at the moment (I know, cry me river). There are clearly some actors having a lot of fun (James Spader in The Blacklist jumping to mind), but really meaty roles and performances seem to be more limited when it comes to the long form. to the shorter series – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Idris Elba in Luther to name a few.

One of the things that Emmy doesn’t award of course is ensemble. The Screen Actors Guild do (this year the nominees were Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Homeland with Breaking Bad taking the win). The key thing to me in a strong ensemble is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. There isn’t a single person (regular, recurring or guest) on The Good Wife that doesn’t deserve some sort of award, and yet they get even better when they’re bouncing off each other. There is no combination of characters on The Walking Dead or Grey’s Anatomy that isn’t interesting to watch with personalities subtly shifting to reflect different balances and backgrounds.

British Shows
happy_valleyAnother strong year for British shows, although I am (oddly) far more selective about the British stuff that I watch and hence have a much smaller pool for comparison. Again, the majority of these programs are driven by phenomenal female performances. They’ve also had a pretty good range, from very ‘traditional’ hard hitting dramas like Honourable Woman and Happy Valley, to more creative storytelling methods such as Suspects‘ use of documentary style, or just more fun stories such as The Musketeers and The Smoke. The miniseries model many of these shows use (or micro-series when it comes to things like Sherlock or Death Comes to Pemberley) give a high impact and very tightly constructed format that often left me wanting more.

Same old same old
castleWhile the shows I mention above have grown or refreshed themselves, there are other shows that just continue doing the same old thing, season after season. They form a sort of backbone to my television watching, they’re safe and secure and nothing alarming is going to happen. Even when Grey’s Anatomy throws giant disasters at their sweeps episodes and shuffles major cast members, it still somehow feels comfortable and familiar. Low stress. So when CSI season 14 is just like season 12, or Criminal Minds season 9 is just like season 8, I try to be content with that. It makes for boring reviewing, but comfortable watching. And at the end of the day, I’m not confident that the writers could shake things up without actually destroying the core of what I enjoyed about the show in the first place.

But those shows will always be at risk of getting bumped for something just slightly more interesting. Particularly given that many of them are deteriorating into “things to watch while I do something else” series. They’re disposable, not worth paying that much attention to. But there’s a limit to the amount of time I spend ironing and cooking and some shows run the risk of falling off into the next section of “things I just can’t be bothered with”. The Following is in the danger zone at the moment, and much as it pains me to say it, so is Castle which had an utterly tedious season of wedding planning.

Things I just couldn’t face
Supernatural - Season 5Then there were nine that I just didn’t want to watch. Nashville and Once Upon a Time were both fun, but I just didn’t feel like watching them this year. Hannibal had a short season so I stuck it out last year, but couldn’t be bothered this year. Homeland lost me and a lot of people this season, for me it was the moment that Saul, up to now the voice of calm and reason, shouted at a woman for wearing a veil because he was unable to separate extremism from religion. I dropped both Blue Bloods and Bones (after 8 seasons!) because I got fed up with the lack of growth and development, particularly frustrating in Bones where characters would just loop endlessly in circles. House of Lies I gave up on because everyone was so unremittingly nasty. Young Doctor’s Notebook and Warehouse 13 just kind of fell through the gaps. Hardest of all, I’ve stopped watching Supernatural because I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the endless misery and trauma that befell characters that I loved.

Easy access
Game of ThronesI think it’s easy to forget sometimes how lucky we are these days to be able to watch American shows so quickly. High profile shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead air within just hours of the US, and many shows air within a few weeks (often they start a long way behind but run through without interruption so by the end of the year everything’s caught up). A few years ago I had to write most of my reviews based on somewhat dodgy sources of the episodes, but now I can generally just wait a short while before being in synch with the US.

It’s also phenomenally easy to watch television however you want to watch it. Whether it’s live broadcast, via DVR, catchup service or streaming distribution on Amazon or Netflix (or, yes, various questionably legal sources too). I watched Extant on Amazon Streaming Video which I get for just a fiver a month (formally Lovefilm), I watched House of Cards on dvd, I’m catching up on Perception using Sky’s boxset service, and have Utopia stacked up on my Sky+. I can get the Sky Never Miss system to email me when new seasons of my favourite shows are starting and set them to record from my phone. It’s all SO easy!

But that does mean that when things aren’t available it feels like the end of the world. If the UK distributor decides against picking up a series you can be left in limbo. Once Upon a Time and Supernatural both lost their UK broadcasters and haven’t aired this year. Many of the new series never made it to the uk (although that wasn’t always the end of the world). Still it is hilarious when the Americans grumble about having to wait for Downton Abbey.

Overall
It’s taken me a long time to write this round-up, because quite frankly I couldn’t get very excited about it. I wasn’t overwhelmed with things I wanted to sing the praises of, or even things that I wanted to moan about (although I’d suggest going and having another look at my Mad Men review if you’re after that). The whole year just felt a bit… meh. Several of the more exciting shows (for better or worse) didn’t return this year, the established shows are just ticking along and there really didn’t seem to be anything particularly outstanding coming along to replace them. It wasn’t a terrible year by any means, but it certainly wasn’t an outstanding one.

2013-14 – New Shows

2013_2014I rather arbitrarily describe the television year for US shows as starting in September (UK shows I cover separately). By my estimates on Wikipedia there were 51 ‘serious’ new drama shows this year (my list was a bit arbitrary as I excluded stuff on smaller channels or that were imported from outside US or that I’d never heard of in the slightest), and I’ve watched 26 pilots, so I’m pretty happy with a 50% hit rate. As this is about US shows, there were a lot that haven’t or won’t make it to UK broadcasters, which in some cases is a shame but in a lot of others is no loss whatsoever.

Of the 52 pilots I identified, 25 were renewed for a second season and a further 7 haven’t been confirmed either way (many of the summer premiers are still broadcasting after all) which seems to me like a pretty good rate of success. But that’s quite heavily skewed to cable channels like HBO etc. Of 29 drama premiers on the five major networks, only 9 of them were picked up for a second season.

I watched 29 pilots (including 3 comedies) and only made it through the whole season of 7 of them. Frankly, I don’t think it was a very good year, last year I watched 23 pilots and 8 whole seasons. There was just nothing outstanding, even the ones that I did stick with, only Fargo would I really describe as great; Almost Human, Penny Dreadful and Blacklist were thoroughly entertaining and SHIELD had some highs amidst the frustrations. But frankly that’s a pretty lacklustre summary. Where are the stars, the headline grabbers, the must-talkabout shows? The only new shows that have fallen into that category this year have been British, this lot are all just a bit mediocre.

Shows I stuck with

  • almost_humanAlmost Human – a very ropey start killed this series before it realised the strength it had in it’s two central characters and actors. It was more ‘fun’ than ‘good’, many of the plots were mediocre retellings of standard tropes, but the bickering between the two cops was worth tuning in for.
  • The Blacklist – this show is all about James Spader, he’s wonderfully charismatic and unpredictable to watch. The ongoing story and mystery is also fairly engaging, although the ‘criminal of the week’ is generally pretty disposable.
  • agentsfoshieldMarvel’s Agents of SHIELD – not nearly as good as it should be. It did get better as the series went on and the story got bigger, but certainly the early episodes were extremely amateur. It could desperately do with more involvement from Joss Whedon, but the building blocks are there, so hopefully season 2 will buck up.
  • Fargo – it took me two attempts to get into the show, but that turned out to be a good thing, because by the time I came back to it, I could watch the whole thing in big blocks. The tone and setting and characters are all just the right level of quirky and contrast wonderfully with the bleak subject matter. Wrapping up the storyline makes for a very satisfying series, but it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with them.
  • nightshiftThe Night Shift – I’m about half way through this one too, mostly watched in the last couple of days. It’s far from excellent (the medicine is particularly improbable to anyone who’s watched an episode of ER let alone been in one) but the characters are interesting and the whole thing trots along at the perfect level for background watching while doing other boring tasks.
  • Extant – I’m about half way through this series on Amazon Instant Video and it’s passing the time. That’s pretty faint praise, but I can’t seem to get excited about it despite the interesting story and great actors that are involved.
  • Penny Dreadful – entertaining, engaging and disposable, does exactly what it sets out to do and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Shows that I may watch/return to

the100

  • The 100 – More teenagers. It’s was nowhere near as painful as the Tomorrow People, but I was again somewhat unenthused by the genericness of it. I may give it another couple of episodes to see if it can do anything original.
  • Sleepy Hollow – I watched about half this season before a recording failed and then I never quite got round to going back to it. I enjoyed each episode, but never really got fully engaged with the sprawling mythology. I may return to it in the future.
  • chicagopdChicago PD – just like Chicago Fire, this does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s rather by-the-numbers, but those numbers work for a reason.
  • Trophy Wife – I never actually reviewed it properly, because I watched it through somewhat dodgy methods, but this was actually a really charming and funny little sitcom. I’m biased because of my love of Bradley Whitford of course, but it’s a real shame that this series wasn’t better promoted and scheduled and got cancelled after its first season.
  • crisisCrisis – a nice idea and solidly delivered, the fact that it’s a contained story means that its cancellation doesn’t matter so much and effectively turns it into a mini-series which I may seek out at some point.
  • Resurrection – the pilot set up some nice ideas and it was certainly more interesting than the French Les Revenants which has pretty much the same plot, I’ve got the series stacking up on my sky plus, but I’ve not actually had sufficient enthusiasm to watch it yet.
  • rakeRake – playing up the charm and the humour makes this a pretty easy watch, but that may have got grating after a while.
  • Halt and Catch Fire – I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but maybe it will grow on me. I’ll pick it up when it comes to the UK.
  • Black Sails – Like Pirates of the Caribbean without the annoying Johnny Depp. I’m going to add it to my “things to watch while baking” list.

Shows that weren’t my thing

masters_of_sex

  • Masters of Sex – I think it’s probably a superb series, but I didn’t like it. It’s an interesting idea, but I would have found it more interesting if they’d skipped the ‘obvious’ option of having the central characters get caught up in a relationship.
  • Intelligence – Fine, but the chip implanted in someone’s brain was already being turned into a magical fix-all even in the first episode and I immediately felt the writers didn’t have the restraint or skill to establish or stick to any rules of how it could be used, rather than just a magic thing that powers plots and dramatic timing.
  • truedetectiveTrue Detective – I didn’t get on with the style and found Matthew McConaughey’s character supremely irritating. I just decided that life was too short to force myself to sit through this no matter how Good it was.
  • Looking – the male, gay equivalent of Girls. It was less hateful than that series, and I made it through a couple of episodes before the awkwardness of the characters just made me cringe too much.

Shows that just weren’t good enough

  • starcrossedStar-Crossed – bland and derivative.
  • Ironside – generic, cliché and really, really boring.
  • Dracula – it was bright and full of energy but it was also a mess, with characters jumping about, loads of questions and very uneven tone. The whole thing felt very cheap and C-list, but it was potentially entertaining if only as something to mock.
  • legendsLegends – nice idea, but some disappointing choices undermined it. Also, I wasn’t convinced Sean Bean could pull off the complexity of the different roles.
  • Hostages – I didn’t like the story, I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the writing and I didn’t like the tone.
  • Tomorrow People – again, just very generic characters partnered with pretty much every superhero power in the box. No spark, no self-awareness, just built by committee.
  • reignReign – completely unbalanced, lurching from silly frippery to pretty brutal historical issues, either one could have been fun, but combined it was just a mess.
  • Believe – oops, I never wrote this one up. For a show about an adorable child, this wasn’t too bad, but fundamentally it was about a precocious child with super-powers and I’m not sure I can get past that.
  • Silicon Valley – I didn’t even make it through the whole first episode before I had to switch it off. Stereotype characters in awkward situations, I just don’t get the attraction.

I edited this post on 8th September because I’d left Penny Dreadful off the list. 

Miscellaneous Pilots

nightshiftThe Night Shift
The night shift in the Emergency Room at San Antonio Memorial is full of Characters, with a most definite capital C.
The show has some potential – reliable premise, solid characters and cast members who’ve been reliable (if not spectacular) in their supporting roles on other shows (Eoin Macken of Merlin, Freddy Rodriguez of Six Feet Under, Brendan Fehr of Roswell). But the pilot at least is very by-the-numbers and is painfully lacking in subtlety. They try to establish backgrounds and future stories for at least 8 characters and there’s not much room left for elegance. The stories, both medical and otherwise have been done to death in other shows with infinitely more accuracy and attention to detail and I was particularly bored by the conflict between the penny pinching administrator and the sanctimonious medics working around him, isn’t it time for a more nuanced discussion of this? The potential is good enough that I may give the other 7 episodes of the season a try as something to accompany cooking or tidying but that will be despite of, not because of, the pilot.
No UK broadcaster has announced they’ve purchased it, but it has been picked up for a second season by NBC in the US.

intelligenceIntelligence
Dr Phlox from Enterprise has implanted a chip into Sawyer from Lost which turns him into a super-agent with Google, satellites and all sorts of ‘apps’ in his head. Catherine from CSI runs the agency and brings in Ruby from Once Upon a Time to try and keep Sawyer from either getting himself killed, or falling down the rabbit hole searching for his supposedly dead CIA wife.
The pilot ain’t bad. The magic chip idea is good but doesn’t seem to have been entirely nailed down as to what it can and cannot do, so there’s a great danger of it turning into a magic mcguffin that can solve all problems at just the most dramatic moment. The side story of investigating the death (or disappearance?) of Sawyer’s wife is a little tedious, but at least it means that there’s no immediate question of will-they-won’t-they between the new partners. I did like that they opted to not have the pilot be an origin story, but instead have a new member join the team as means to deliver all the exposition.
I think this was solid, but not remarkable. There wasn’t anything that made me want to see the next episode. Despite Holloway’s obvious charm it was a bit superficial, lacking in emotional connection.
Sky 1 broadcast Intelligence earlier in the year, but it’s been cancelled by CBS after finishing its 13 episode first season. Presumably it just didn’t generate the massive ratings that CBS requires from its prime time dramas.

chicagopdChicago PD
A spin off from Chicago Fire. Detective Voight is to all appearances a dirty cop, violent and on the take. But there seems to be something else going on as he’s been given a free pass and is now heading up his own team.
Just like Chicago Fire, this is a show that knows exactly what it is and delivers it very effectively. The pilot is very well put together and introduces each of the characters pretty slickly giving each a moment to show they’re distinct and have depth, but not overloading the audience with exposition or heavy handed hints. Occasionally it’s a little too on-the-nose, Voight’s growling tone, carefully showing us the cops’ families and hazing the junior officers but it also plays some of the stereotypes quite effectively (I particularly liked the grumpy female desk sergeant). Just like Chicago Fire, this is an incredibly watchable show. The pilot ends on a cliffhanger and I could cheerfully have gone straight into the next episode.
Chicago PD has been picked up for a second season, and aired on 5USA earlier this year

rakeRake
Greg Kinnear plays a defence lawyer who’s basically screwed up almost everything in his life.
Rake plays things pretty much for the laughs, which is both a welcome relief from some of the other doom and gloom on television and a bit jarring when you realise that you’re supposed to be smiling about a guy getting beaten up by his bookie due to his inability to pay his debts. Kinnear however ladles on the charm and carries it off. The supporting characters of his friends and colleagues find a nice balance between supportive caring and exasperated irritation. Even the legal case was one that I didn’t immediately recognise from several other series. All in all, I found this series quite refreshing and engaging enough that I’d be tempted by the rest of the series.
Rake hasn’t been picked up by a UK broadcaster and was cancelled mid season, although Fox did later air the rest of the 13 episodes.

blacksailsBlack Sails
Pirates, doing the full on pirate thing in the West Indies; a prequel to Treasure Island.
I had pretty low expectations of this, and that probably helped a lot, but I really enjoyed this pilot. It does exactly what you’d expect and hope a period Pirate show to do, there’s sailing, swordplay, secret treasures and shady dealings. It’s not exactly got the big budget production values of Pirates of the Caribbean or Master and Commander, but they do a pretty good job hiding the cheaper corners and the only really noticeable place the reduced cost shows is in the lack of big names in the cast. It is on Starz network in the US and that too shows through in the complete lack of subtlety when it comes to adding in nudity and violence. All things considered though, this made quite a pleasing diversion from endless procedural shows.
Black Sails is available exclusively on Amazon Instant Video in the UK and has been renewed for a second season.

crisisCrisis
A bus load of the children of some of America’s most rich and powerful are abducted, and their parents start getting demanding phone calls.
It’s a very good premise and it’s a very well put together pilot that elegantly introduces a load of characters and sets up various connections and conflicts and establishes that nothing is really as it seems. The cast and characters are all solid, and surprisingly the group of teenagers were not instantly hateable. My only real concern was over how the story would be drawn out over a season, and/or into multiple seasons. It seems like the first season formed a complete story, but the show was cancelled, so I guess further plans don’t really matter.
No UK broadcast information available.

legendsLegends
Sean Bean plays an FBI agent who’s an expert at going undercover, creating elaborate characters and backgrounds. But is he immersing- himself in his covers, or is he losing himself?
This sadly felt rather cheap, which is a real shame because Sean Bean (Game of Thrones, LOTR), Ali Larter (Heroes) and Tina Majorino (Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars) really deserve better. The building blocks are there, but it just didn’t really feel substantial. The science/investigating elements felt unrealistic, the jeopardy manufactured, the characters unoriginal and the relationships tired. The moment where the female agent ‘has’ to go in as a lap dancer just had me groaning out loud and I hate to say it, but I’m not sure that Bean has it in him to play all these different characters.
Legends starts in September on Sky 1 in the UK and is still broadcasting its first season in the US and no pick-up has been announced.

haltandcatchHalt and Catch Fire
In 1983 in Texas a former IBM salesman is manipulating people left-right-and-centre to engineer a new computer which will revolutionise the pc industry.
The title alone was enough to lure me in to this, and Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies, amongst other more huge things like Guardians of the Galaxy) was a nice bonus. I guess to be cynical it’s one of the many shows still trying to jump on the Mad Men bandwagon of looking at under-represented industries and periods, but just because it’s cynical doesn’t make it any less interesting. Unfortunately though the pilot left me a bit cold; it’s not bad in any way, but I’m also not certain that it’s either good or entertaining. I didn’t come away desperately wanting to spend more time with the characters or find out where the story is going to go, which means it rather failed in the key aims of a pilot. I may give it a bit more time, but it disappointingly didn’t set my world alight.
Halt and Catch Fire has been renewed for a second season, but there’s no information on a UK air date.