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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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.

The CW Pilots: Reign, Star-Crossed and The 100

cwThe CW has always pitched itself at the young adult market, with programming generally looking at the trials and tribulations teenagers and twenty-somethings have to go through, often while dealing with various science fiction or comic book traumas on top of that. I’m a big fan of young adult television and books, it often gives a better blend of various dramas and produces shows that are both engaging and entertaining to watch. The CW and its predecessors The WB and UPN have given some of my favourite shows of all time – Veronica Mars, Supernatural, Buffy and Angel. There’s also Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Charmed, Roswell and Star Treks Voyager and Enterprise.

But in recent years the quality of their offerings has fallen far from these lofty heights. More and more of their programming just feels like they’re following a simple equation to make their shows: young adults + THING = Show. So you have Young adults + Batman = Arrow, Young adults + Sex and the City = The Carrie Diaries, young adult + Grey’s Anatomy = Emily Owens MD. Formulaic is ok if your characters or style or direction have some spark (many of the shows in the first paragraph follow the same pattern after all), but recently it feels like The CW just can’t be bothered with that.

Fair enough, I often only watch the pilot so maybe I’m not giving things a fair chance to develop, but the pilots of Veronica Mars, Supernatural and Gossip Girl grabbed me from the very first scenes. Of the four pilots from The CW this year (I skipped The Originals as it’s a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries which I haven’t watched), I was only even vaguely tempted to watch one of them, the other four (including The Tomorrow People – reviewed separately), fell somewhere between dull and painful.

reignMary Queen of Scots is 15 when she and her ladies-in-waiting arrive in the French Court to become acquainted with her future husband and King of France, Francis. But not everyone is happy to see her and she finds herself in the middle of love triangles and intrigue.

It has a very weird and unstable tone to it. For the most part it’s very much what you’d expect from The CW – pretty teenagers, lip gloss, pouting, hair, giggling and love triangles, with popular music over montages of putting on makeup and dancing in clouds of feathers. But then it lurches to serious talk of the fate of countries, responsibilities of monarchs, attempted rape and execution. While the frivolous stuff is bright and entertaining though, the darker elements are clumsy and amateur.

There has clearly been some enthusiasm put towards the production. The detail of sets, costume and scale are very impressive, although they’re more about what an American teenager’s idea of 16th century French royal court than any type of reality. Most of the characters and actors are solid enough as well, the ‘grown ups’ hamming it up quite spectacularly while the ‘teenagers’ (all over 21 in reality and not a Scottish accent between them) pout and flounce as required. There are way too many people in the episode, the four ladies in waiting being particularly hard to keep track of, but that can of course be fleshed out in later episodes. The pilot covers a ridiculous amount of ground, and the first 15 minutes is almost hilarious as it bustles through exposition, but it does just about all hang together and fill in both the backstory and some possible stories for the future.

The episode as a whole felt very much like children playing dress up, both the actors themselves and The CW. But it’s just a game and it simply didn’t work. They should have steered clear of the more serious subject matter, using an entirely fictional history if necessary, take out all the pesky realities of history and just make it Gossip Girl in the 16th Century and it could have been rather fun.

Reign aired 22 episodes in its first season and was renewed for a second, it does not seem to have been picked up by any UK channels.

starcrossedIt’s 2024 and ten years ago aliens landed in America. Now as part of a move towards integration, seven of the teenage aliens join a local high school and all its usual social maneuvering. Then one of the alien boys makes a connection with a human girl…

The old Romeo and Juliet chestnut is dusted off again, I guess it’s so popular because it works, but it does immediately make me roll my eyes, particularly when it’s combined with so many painfully obvious tropes and references. It’s not a complete no-no to make metaphors for the civil rights movement, but they need to be done with care so they’re neither thumpingly obvious, nor painfully dull. Star-crossed does not manage this.

I just couldn’t be bothered with any of it. About 2/3 of the way through my (cough) watching method flaked out and I had to really force myself to go back and watch the rest of the episode. For the most part I needn’t have bothered because it all played out exactly as expected. The whole episode was really paint by numbers kind of stuff, with all the character and story cliches well broadcast and predictable.

Even that would be forgivable with some spark from the actors, but with the exception of Aimee Teegarden (unrecognisable from her Julie Taylor days on Friday Night Lights) they’re a bland bunch. Again, I struggled to tell characters apart and struggled to care. If you think of something like Gossip Girl, there was no original story there either, but the dialogue and characters shone. Star-crossed just sits there like a lump.

Star-Crossed aired 13 episodes in its first season and was not picked up for a second.

The 100
the10097 years after a nuclear apocalypse, the various space stations have bonded together and established a pretty large population. 100 teenage criminals are sent back to Earth to see if it’s safe and to reduce the population on the struggling space station.

This is actually the strongest of the new shows, although that’s not saying a great deal. What I liked most about this was that the pilot focussed on the story with only a spattering of teenage issues. The setup is actually quite interesting and solid; yes it’s all got the potential to turn into Lord of the Flies, but the sci-fi elements, and the political story carried by the adults on the space station are a very strong foundation to build on.
As with all these series, everyone is improbably pretty, hair is impeccable and mascara and lip gloss are the only thing that appears to be in abundance post apocalypse. A quick check of imdb reveals that the actors playing ‘teenagers’ are all at least 22, but they generally seem to be able to deliver more depth than those in the other series.

The 100 isn’t Battlestar Galactica or anything, but it’s not as predictable as the other series and I can see potential for both interesting storylines and entertainment. It wasn’t exactly a show that I’d rate as a “must watch”, I haven’t got beyond the first episode, although I also haven’t cancelled the series link.

The 100 had 13 episodes in its first season and was broadcast in the UK on E4. It has been picked up for a second season.

True Detective: Pilot Review

truedetectiveAs soon as the cast list for this was announced, I was interested. This was before Matthew McConaughey won his Oscar of course, but he was already showing signs of being more than just the second-rate romantic comedy lead he’d seemingly been pigeon-holed into. I’ve always been a fan of Woody Harrelson, he’s able to play everything from innocent stupidity through to scary hard men, and he can even pull off a complex combination. It instantly struck me as an interesting pairing and I wanted to see the chemistry between them.

The other good thing about casting like this is that a series isn’t going to be able to lure those kind of names without a very good story and script. And once a studio or network is shelling out the sort of money necessary for these kinds of movie stars, they’re not going to skimp on the production costs. All in all, it’s a pretty positive set of indicators.

All the indicators were spot on. All the elements were of extremely high quality, each well polished and original. The case is as dark and powerful as you’d expect for HBO (although it’s not quite so original if you’ve seen Hannibal) and the characters are complex and certainly worthy of the acting talents. It’s particularly interesting to watch the story play out both in the present tense of the murder, and looking back on it from several years in the future. It’s also beautifully shot, each scene well framed and lit to perfection. The music is well pitched, adding character but not overwhelming. Even the costumes are carefully designed to support the periods and add to the characters.

But. I didn’t like it. I just didn’t seem to have any emotional connection to any of it. The case focused on the crime but without any real attempt to make the victims any more than bodies. It was all very clinical. McConaughey’s character was equally cold and dissociated. I found him just slightly more annoying than I did intriguing. His speech patterns and rambling delivery, lengthy meditations on life and the state of the world just bored me. Harrelson’s character was more interesting but often seemed reduced to second fiddle relatively to McConaughey’s. I enjoyed the moments that he called bullshit on his weird colleague, but it got a bit repetitive.

I was bored by the pilot. It was all very drawn out and ponderous. I didn’t get round to reviewing it at the time, so I’ve just re-watched it and even though I was looking for reasons to continue with the other 7 episodes, and although I wanted to see more of Harrelson’s character, I just couldn’t be bothered to sit through the rest of it.

Pilot Review: Almost Human

Detective Kennex (Karl Urban) had a bad day at work that left his team dead, him missing a leg and in a coma for 17 months. Now he’s going back to work with a ‘synthetic’ leg, an abundance of psychological issues and almost no friends. Fortunately his only two friends are his boss and the tech guru so when he’s forced to have a synthetic partner (i.e. a robot) they find him one that actually has a personality, albeit one that’s renowned for driving the model insane. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

This was one of the shows that really caught my eye when it was announced. For a start, it’s science fiction and that’s in pretty short supply these days. For a second it’s science fiction plus a buddy detective show, which I’m an absolute sucker for. The miss-matched partners trope is extremely well covered in television, but that’s partly because it really does make compelling tv. The conflicts drive character moments, the moments of connection give satisfying emotional milestones and, if handled correctly, the contrasts can easily drive stories and arcs over multiple season. Finally, the name Karl Urban is a big draw, most recently familiar for being Dr McCoy on the new Star Trek, but a genre favourite since being Eomer in Lord of the Rings, his movie credentials show he’s capable of the action hero stuff, but he’s also able to bring a dry wit to things that I’m always a fan of. Michael Ealy as his partner I didn’t know but had a great reputation and the supporting cast also had enough names to offer optimism (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under; Minka Kelly, Friday Night Lights and Michael Irby, The Unit; Mackenzie Crook, Pirates of the Caribbean).

So that’s what made me look forward to it. On the down side by the time it reached the UK, it had already been cancelled. Literally a week before it arrived on air, in the middle of Sky’s advertising drive, Fox announces it’s dead. That’s often enough to put me off a show altogether (best case scenario – it’s great and you’re angry) but given a general lack of sf things to watch with the house mates (who have rather specific requirements) we gave it a shot anyway.

The good news is, at least I’m not angry it was cancelled.

My house mate’s take on it was “how can so many great components combine to make something so bad?” which is an excellent question. All the promise was actually there, plenty of sci fi, loads of expensive looking technology and shininess, a complex universe to become familiar with, light and dark moments between the partners, some running and shooting and shouting… and yet overall, it was just poor.

The biggest problem is that there’s very little delicacy with anything, and a lot of that I’m afraid lies with Karl Urban who alternately lays everything on way too thick and yet also phones it in. Now that could be the script’s fault which is pretty lacking in subtlety, but Michael Ealy’s performance was a lot more nuanced. I wonder if the director told Urban that he should play up that he is not dealing with his real human emotions as well as his robotic partner is dealing with his simulated ones, maybe the director really wanted to make sure that a non-sf familiar audience Got It, but it felt patronising.

The other frustration was that within just a few minutes my house mates and I were picking holes in the plot and the technology, logic was compromised too often just to drive the plot along. Now if the rest of the show is pulling you in, that sort of nit-picking doesn’t happen, but because the writer/director was taking so much time to hammer things home, there was more than enough time to ponder why the robot needs a graphical interface to assimilate data, how people don’t walk into the transparent panel in the middle of the office and just how a robot analyses blood by injecting it in their neck.

I suspect we will probable watch the rest of the series anyway to be honest. Firstly, there’s not much else on we watch together, secondly it’s only a dozen or so episodes, and thirdly it is just about possible that after the initial stress of the pilot, everyone will calm down a bit and it will get better. I won’t hold my breath though.

Ironside: Pilot Review

Television once again returns to its back catalogue rather than coming up with a new idea. I’m not entirely sure of why they bothered for this. The sum total of what’s taken from the original series is the name and the one liner – “A police officer is shot and paralysed, but returns to the force”. I don’t know whether the title means enough to really justify the bother, certainly to me it didn’t inspire any strong feelings, but maybe in the US it’s a different matter and they thought it would be enough to buy them viewers.

There have been some pretty vitriolic reviews of this show, but I’m afraid my hopes of being able to craft my own witty takedown of it were foiled. It was certainly a long way from good, but its biggest crime was to smoothly sail straight on by every opportunity to do something interesting and instead headed straight for generic and cliché every time. Ironside could have been a complex character, dealing with his disability and the perception of others, but instead he’s just another obnoxious cop who’s “doing what needs to be done to keep the streets clean” while picking up pretty women and staring moodily out of windows at the rain. The fact that he’s in a wheelchair makes almost no difference. Maybe that in itself *is* the interesting comment on disability, that it makes no difference. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t make you interesting any more than not being in a wheelchair does.

His team follows the usual pattern, the brains, the brawn the sassy girl. His captain follows the usual pattern of hating the methods but loving the results and presumably driving himself to an aneurysm with the mental conflict. The case of the week, was pretty disposable and familiar from any other procedural out there.

It was just dull. Really boring. Maybe with time the show would have developed beyond the superficial introduction, but it was cancelled after just three episodes so we’ll never know.

Mostly procedural, mostly British pilot catchup

I’m getting increasingly behind on my reviewing, so am opting for a round up post to gather my thoughts on some of the new series that have appeared in the last few weeks on British TV. Mostly procedural (except one), mostly British (except one).


Babylon arrived with a fair bit of publicity pushing its connections to Olympic Opening Ceremony hero Danny Boyle (producer and director). It’s described as a comedy-drama, but I actually don’t know much more about it. Initially that was because I wanted to come to the series reasonably fresh and from what little I did read everyone was having a hard time describing what the tone and flavour really was. The principle reason for my ignorance is that I didn’t make it more than 10 minutes into the first episode before I had to switch it off. The first scene made me cringe, the second left me angry and halfway through the third I realised that I was actively searching for ways to distract myself from having to watch or listen and so decided to give up. I don’t know whether it’s intended as biting satire based on what police work is really like, but nothing I saw gave me any confidence that it was based on reality, and even if it was, then that’s not something I want to watch. I’m sorry, but if the armed police really are that horrific and juvenile than I don’t want to see it outside of a documentary or news story. The introductory pilot will be followed by a series later this year, I won’t be touching it with a barge pole.

The Smoke

Sky are increasingly moving into content production rather than just purchasing other people’s shows and The Smoke is one of their flagship offerings. Set in a fire station in Mile End it picks up 9 months after a disastrous call-out that had serious physical and mental fallout for the fire station’s chief, played by Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica). I’ve always been a bit surprised that given the plethora of cop procedurals there aren’t more series about Fireman (or paramedics for that matter), but I guess fundamentally someone lying in the street with some fake blood is considerably cheaper to do than raging infernos. The Smoke certainly doesn’t compromise on the budgets or spectacle mixing some genuinely scary fires to accompany with more small scale chip pan fires and traffic accidents, although the latter is possibly even more scary due to its relatively common day feeling. There’s also no skimping on the melodrama, it’s as much a series about emotions and characters as it is about smoke (the title I’m sure is all metaphorical as well as literal) and it certainly doesn’t pull its punches on the horrors the fireman see or the not always sensible ways they deal with them. In contrast to Babylon, somehow the juvenile antics of the firemen don’t push them away from the audience, instead making them easier to connect with although not necessarily making them likeable. It’s all laid on a bit thick in places (particularly Bamber’s accent) but it’s certainly interesting enough to have me hitting the series link.

The Muskateers

This series is now four episodes in, but you can catch up on iplayer until April. I was initially a bit underwhelmed by the series, but for some reason I stuck with it and it’s rather grown on me. I was expecting this to slot into the Merlin shaped hole on Saturday nights, pitched more towards the younger audience with humour, silliness, relationships, unsubtle moral quandaries and a heavy dose of action. What I got though was an attempt to step towards a more mature audience on a Sunday night, but not a massively successful one. The tone is quite uneven, there’s plenty of entertainment and plenty of interest, but the two aren’t blended together, instead coming in blocks of “here’s the funny bit” and “here’s the serious bit”. Each bit is good, and it has smoothed out a little bit, but it can make it rather frustrating to watch and easy to tune out the bit that you’re not in the mood for at the time. There’s plenty of energy though and I like what they’re doing with the characters and the variations to the traditional story that makes it more suited for a longer series, so we shall see how it goes.


As we wave goodbye to the Scandinavian Bridge, BBC4 immediately offers us the Belgian Salamander to deceive us into feeling cultured by watching something with subtitles, while really we’re just watching a slightly trashy thriller. Four episodes have aired by the time I write this, but I’ve only watched the first of them and am allowing the others to build up on the Sky+ box as I haven’t quite decided whether I’m going to stick with the show. The first episode was intriguing enough – a colourful police officer, a three dimensional villain, an original crime, some action, some politics, some mystery and some humour. I just found myself having a bit of an internal crisis; if this had been in English would I have bothered with it, or am I just watching because it’s got subtitles? It’s a silly thing to get caught up on, but I have a suspicion that the series itself is intrinsically quite disposable and for now it’s not quite bubbled above the other things on my to-watch list.


Given my anaemic response to many of the recent new British drama offerings, I didn’t go into Channel 5’s Suspects with anything resembling expectation or hope. I mean, Channel 5 doesn’t really have the reputation for showing high quality drama, let alone making it themselves, so I was absolutely astonished when I found the first episode original, interesting and utterly compelling. The documentary filming style immerses the audience in the action and the complete focus on the crime and investigation is refreshing. The characters are completely secondary, but thanks to the talented actors they manage to reveal themselves organically. The investigations feel realistic and the stories are interesting, although in both episodes I’ve watched the eventual outcomes were fairly predictable and standard which did let things down a bit, but overall I’m really impressed.

The Tomorrow People: Pilot Review

Although I’m generally a fan of such things, I’ve somehow never seen the original 1970’s British series. Frankly I’m a bit surprised that anyone in the US has seen it and even more surprised given what I’ve heard about the series that anyone would chose to remake it! I guess if you can look past the 70s naffness then it is a pretty good fit for The CW Network (home of Supernatural, Arrow and The Vampire Diaries) – teenagers with superpowers. Plenty of potential for all kinds of angsty variations of “with great power comes great responsibility” while having complicated relationships and wearing as few shirts (for the guys) and as much lipgloss (not limited to the girls) as possible. I’m not being snooty about that (well, I am, but only for comic effect). I can enjoy a trashy American teen series as much as the next thirty something Brit, but Tomorrow People utterly failed to grab me and I’ve been trying to work out why.

I think it’s mostly due to the obviousness of it all. There was nothing either subtle, clever or original about any of it. I don’t know the details of the original series, so I don’t know or care how much is carried over and how much is new. There were a few opportunities to go in interesting directions (eg making the enemy less “mu ha ha we are evil” and actually having them follow through on the more interesting moral questions) but the writers steered away from them as if they were on fire.

It also feels a little like the writers ran into the super-power candy store and took everything they could lay their hands on. Each of the Tomorrow People gets teleportation, telepathy AND telekinesis, and then the hero seems to have extra bonus powers on top of that as well. Even Professor Xavier only got two of those! Actually X-Men is another interesting comparison, everyone having different powers is part of what made it interesting, different specialities combining in different ways. Each new character brought new potential and new chaos. But as The Tomorrow People are all the same, all they’ve got going for them are their personalities.

Which would be fine if they actually had any personality beyond cardboard cut out American teenagers. They immediately fall into the expected patterns of naive newbie, alpha male leader, voice of reason… blah blah blah. And of course the immediate romantic triangle that looms into view immediately. Oh, and of course the fact that all the teenagers are played by people who are at least 25. Just to keep it in the family as well the lead actor in this is played by the cousin of the lead actor in Arrow.

I haven’t even touched on the idiotic science, clunky “he’s not ready to hear that yet” narrative or the cheesy voice-over. It’s all just paint-by-numbers kind of stuff. I could possibly have forgiven all those crimes though if only it had some sense of irony or style to it. Something like Buffy, or even Gossip Girl had equally stupid plots, but they filled the scripts with snappy dialogue and some energy.

Once again a new series is launched which leaves me wanting to do nothing but dig out some dvds and re-watch other series from 5, 10 or even 15 years ago. There was nothing in this show that really sold me on watching to the end of the episode let alone to the end of the season.

Hostages: Pilot Review

I was going to write a whole piece here about how the plan for Hostages was going to be unusual. It was going to mimic the structure of American Horror Story, telling a different, self-contained story each season, with different characters and probably different actors. I like this structure. It immediately sidesteps an issue that I often have when watching pilots – how is this going to be sustained over multiple seasons? It’s too easy for shows to degenerate fast when they start stretching their ideas out and introducing new characters and increasingly complicated twists and turns. Re-creating the show each year gives it new energy.

The first unfortunate thing for Hostages is that, it’s not going to get the chance, because by the time the series made it to the UK, it had already been cancelled. Mind you, due to the structure that still means there’s a complete story and shouldn’t really affect your enjoyment of the show. The second unfortunate thing for Hostages was that the structure was the only thing about the show that I did like. 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.

I thought it was going to be quite a tight psychological thriller and instead it was a daft melodrama full of overly ponderous dialogue and pointed direction. Everyone has something to hide, there are layers of secrets and deception with each character and it just becomes increasingly ridiculous. From the get go, the fact that this woman is operating on the president and doesn’t have the most basic of security presence around her is idiotic. She hasn’t even had any kind of vetting done, which would have brought most of her family’s secrets to light. She’s an absolute gift to a blackmailer. It’s stupid.

But maybe that’s what they were going for, maybe they weren’t looking to be particularly subtle. I would be ok with that if it had been full on explosions and daftness like 24 or something. But you’re going to be horribly bored if that was what you were looking for. Nothing happens. Oh, there’s a foiled bank robbery at the start which is over in about 30 seconds and a dog gets drugged. That’s all. a dog. And (spoiler!) he gets better.

I also failed to connect with any of the characters. There’s something about Toni Collette that I’ve just never really got on with, her characters always feel distant and cold, even when they’re really not. Dylon McDermott is probably the most interesting character, but even he is saddled with the ‘mysterious’ role which just means that his character is completely up in the air, utterly different to whoever he’s opposite at the time.

I think it’s probably a personal taste thing, I wouldn’t be as critical of people who did like as I would of some terrible shows out there, but I was disappointed in this. Half way through I suddenly started thinking about how great it would have been if the show was made in Denmark.

Dracula: Pilot Review

Dracula comes to London at the turn of the last century. By day he is a flamboyant American entrepreneur, by night he’s on a quest to take down a secret society.

My instinctive response to the announcement of a series about Dracula was a bored sigh. I’m not the biggest horror fan in the world and find that it tends to be derivative at the best of times (skipping creativity in favour of rehashing old themes and tropes that weren’t necessarily that great even when they were original) and making a series about not only vampires but The Vampire felt rather doomed from the start. But, there was a smidgeon of hope for originality in the setting and embracing the steampunk potential of the turn of the century.

So after watching the pilot, what do I think? To be honest I’ve got no idea. I’m not sure the show itself really knows what to think. This is not going to be one of my most coherent reviews.

On one hand it’s a bright and colourful romp. All the characters bordering on caricatures, plot bordering on ridiculous and as a whole it borders on pantomime. In tone it most reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes films, with Jonathon Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) channelling Robert Downey Jnr’s energy to play his ‘cover’ of an American entrepreneur bringing technology and charisma to stuffy British society. It’s thoroughly entertaining to watch his smug outmanoeuvring of the various lords and ladies.

On the other hand however, he’s far less interesting and engaging as the predictably dark and broody vampire. He’s not so much a complex character as a completely schizophrenic one with one half presenting interesting questions about motivations and morale standing, the other an outright murderer who slaughters not just those that have wronged him, but random women off the street as well. While the cautious friendship with journalist JOnathon Harker is intriguing on both sides, the long lingering looks at Mina Murry, the reincarnation (?) of his dead wife was considerably more tedious.

Overall the episode is a mess, dozens of clumsy questions raised and characters hinting at secrets and plans. But rather than being intrigued at how it would all fit together, the lack of elegance just left me convinced that the writers themselves were as in the dark as the audience and that they’d left things unsaid so they could work out rationales at a later date. It was vague on so many things it just felt uncertain rather than mysterious – is it an alternate history, how much ‘magic’ is there, who are the good guys? It felt like the writers were basically throwing everything at the audience and seeing what stuck.

I commented on the trailer that I was confused how something could look so expensive and so cheap all at the same time, and I remain confused (and a bit impressed). The sets, locations and costumes are all stunning, but the cast and writing all felt a little C-list. The anachronisms came so thick and fast that by half way through I was doubting whether anything was accurate and was more tempted to spend my time on wikipedia checking everything than I was watching the show. It is a slightly odd production, a joint UK/US series of 10 episodes, broadcast on NBC in the US, Sky Living in the UK and filmed in Bulgaria. It is from the head of the creator of the weird and wonderful Carnivale, but I don’t know whether this is an attempt to be more mainstream, or it’s just been dumbed down, but Dracula really didn’t draw me in the way that Carnivale did.

I was entertained watching it, but that was at least partly because I was watching it with someone else who would join me in mocking it. I think I might stick with it a little longer just because I’m so confused by it. That’s really not a very good recommendation for anyone else to watch it, but I guess it’s not an outright suggestion to avoid it either. There – now you’re as confused about it as I am!