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”.

House of Cards: Season 2

House of CardsSeason 1 of House of Cards was fantastic. The delivery method certainly drew attention for being ground breaking, but what rapidly became the headline was just how good this show was! It was exquisitely crafted with a dedication to the story and characters and a respect for the intelligence of the audience that is pretty rare these days. It never shied away from conflict or complexity, there was no happy ending and no purely good or bad characters. It’s the kind of show that warrants and rewards thought, analysis and discussion.

Season 2 is almost exactly as you’d anticipate season 2 being after watching season1. It moves the story and the characters onwards, but is consistent in tone and quality. The new characters and actors that come in join the team flawlessly, so you barely notice and miss the people that have departed. Almost everything that was good about season 1 was good in season 2, so I’d recommend reading my review of the first season for the full on gushing.

The awake amongst you may have noticed the qualifier “almost” appeared a couple of times in that previous paragraph, it’s “almost exactly as you’d anticipate”. There were two elements which I felt sadly let season 2 down a bit.

The first problem was that characters became a little more one dimensional. In my review of season 1 I said:

“No one in this is really a good guy or a bad guy, it’s not possible to really like anyone, but neither is it possible to really hate them. Their individual actions may draw understanding or disbelief, but they all combine to make such complexity that reactions and judgements such as like/dislike or good/bad are far too simplistic.”

Well, in season 2 that’s not true. Some of the characters (new and old) lack that complexity and come across as very simplistic in feeling if not in action. Raymond Tusk is a Bad Guy – he kills birds and manipulates for power and there is never even a hint that he’s doing that for the betterment of anything but his own bank balance. The President on the other hand comes across almost exclusively as a Good Guy, he’s self-sacrificing, honourable and driven to do good for his country – very admirable things in a President, but somewhat at odds with the other complex characters.

Frank himself seems to lose some of the nuance from the first season and move firmly into the ‘bad guy’ court. Maybe I’m putting rose tinted glasses on it, but I thought he was manipulating and grabbing power because he wanted to be able to deliver his political policies. But this season it felt purely like he was trying to get power because he wanted the power. He compromised on policies and sold out his friends just to move up the ladder, never even seeming to assess whether it was worth the cost.

That leads to the second problem with the season – the Underwoods’ actions felt rushed, reactive, poorly thought out and too dangerous. This did not feel like the couple from season 1 who were completely in control of everything and everyone. Their greed and desperation led to carelessness and mistakes and that just didn’t feel right. They’ve been plotting for decades and yet they come close to throwing it all away because they didn’t leave things to rest in between actions. In turn that means that I think the series is rushed, I won’t spoil it obviously, but where they end up at the end of the season, felt too far. It’s too much, too big and too fast. Even if they’d just put some off-camera time jumps in it would have felt more controlled.

The amount of type I’ve spent on the complaints is rather disproportionate to their actual importance. House of Cards is still absolutely superb and one of the most interesting and original shows out there at the moment. I rather think season 3 is likely to be the show’s last (forming a neat and well balanced arc of rise, adversity and fall I would guess), but whether it is or not, I’m sure it will be fascinating.

The Honourable Woman

honourablewomanThere’s a middle ground on which some shows try to balance. On one side is a show which explains everything to the audience, spelling out the plot, characters and background so that nothing is left to the imagination. On the other side however are shows that are entirely vague on everything, leaving everything to the audience to extrapolate, or indeed make up for themselves. There’s a patch of territory in the middle however where the audience is forced to think and interpret, but the writer has given enough hints that they end up exactly where they were meant to be, coming to the same conclusions and having those predictions confirmed.

The Honourable Woman tries to find that balance point, an admirable ambition but I’m not entirely certain that it was successful. There were certainly points during the season where I had no idea what was going on. Reading The Guardian’s recaps was as much a part of the show as actually watching it, and that would frequently point things out to me which had completely passed me by. At the same time thought, episodes would make a big ‘reveal’ things that I’d been assuming as a given for a while. Discussing the show with friends the next day became a regular habit (which is great!) and they tended to agree with me that they missed some things and assumed others (which is not so great), although it wasn’t always about the same things (which is just confusing).

Despite that the show was certainly watchable, even compelling. Each episode moved things along and the rate at which questions were answered and new ones introduced was very satisfying. There were a few too many incidents of smart characters having to act dumb to move the plot along (“this isn’t a stone factory”) or being passive when they should have stood up for themselves more (“I deserve it”), but that may be just my own disappointment in the characters themselves, not that those actions were ‘incorrect’.

The style of the show also occasionally lost the balance, falling too far on the arty side of the spectrum, which always makes me lose focus. Some of the scenes had absolutely stunning lighting and framing but others (and the credit sequence) seemed to be trying too hard to make the show feel moody and atmospheric, which to me conflicted with the more practical nature of the story. I also thought the music montage of real news clips in the last episode was a huge miss-step, we shouldn’t (and didn’t) need to be told after that many episodes that there’s such suffering in the Middle East, it cheapened the whole series by making it feel like a slow build up to a charity appeal.

What held the show together though were the performances. I thought it would be impossible to find a challenger to Sarah Lancashire’s performance in Happy Valley, but Maggie Gyllenhaal gives it a fine attempt. As Nessa Stein she demonstrates another amazing balance act between a strong and confident baroness, and a terrified and isolated woman with secrets; hiding behind rigid control in public and struggling to not break down in private. Gyllenhaal used everything from her voice to her eyes to deliver this stunningly complex character.

I have to admit that I did lose track of the plot towards the end, at least partly due to my embarrassing lack of understanding of the whole situation in Israel and Palestine. The personal stories all made perfect sense, what the characters did and why, but the larger motivations of the regimes involved rather went over my head (or another way of looking at it, weren’t adequately explained). That did leave me feeling a bit down on the show at the end, but none of that changed how completely engaged I was in the show. It was not a flawless series, but it was an ambitious idea and a very worthy and watchable attempt.

Fargo: Season 1

fargoWhen I first watched the pilot of this series a few months back, I wasn’t blown away. My brief comment on it was “it just made me want to watch the movie again”. But I didn’t get round to writing a full review of it. So when it came time for my Emmy thoughts post (coming this weekend!) I decided I should re-watch the pilot and actually do the full review. Second time round though, I found myself more drawn in. Fortunately while not getting round to writing the review, I’d also not got round to cancelling the series link, and just 4 days later, I seem to have polished off the whole ten episodes.

I think that’s really the best way to watch this series. At one episode per week it would have been glacially slow. Even watching two or three episodes back to back I found it best to have a puzzle book to hand. It did have momentum, I wanted to continue to the next episode each time one finished, but it was a kind of satisfying slow chug rather than anything particularly speedy and I think with a week-long gap I would’ve lost interest.

Taken at face value the story is a well constructed, but not exactly revolutionary tale of a normal guy who happens to meet a hitman. From that one random encounter, the impacts ripple outwards and escalate until it’s a huge epic story with the police, the mob, the FBI and a fair number of relatively innocent bystanders. Everything stems from that one encounter.

The hitman, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is the only large, extravagant thing in the show. Every other character is just a normal small town person going about their normal lives. Malvo leaves chaos in his wake, both through his own actions and through the influence he has on others. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a downtrodden insurance salesman and henpecked husband until Malvo shows him that there are other ways of dealing with his problems. Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is a small town deputy just learning how to be an investigator until she’s the only person that sees everything is not so simple. If Malvo hadn’t sat next to Lester, they would all have just gone about their normal lives.

But he did sit next to him and the way that everything builds from there is both elegant and intriguing. As I said, the momentum just keeps going, I won’t spoil the ending (or actually the middle either) but it all comes together very satisfyingly, answering questions that I wasn’t always aware that I had, and filling in all the gaps. I was particularly impressed and pleased with the handling of passing time to move the story forwards. The characters all grow and develop beautifully, building from ‘simple’ first impressions to really complex and engaging people. Again, the exception is Malvo himself, he doesn’t change or grow, he is just who he is from the start.

The tone of the piece is what is really unique about the show. It’s taken straight from the film and continues that off-beat quirkiness without ever really becoming irritating. It’s hard to describe really, it’s a kind of black, dry humour running alongside some quite bleak and violent drama, it’s all quite minimal, focussing on tone of voice or even length of silence rather than number of words. I can see it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it’s quite immersive and partnered with the beautiful landscapes and film-quality cinematography that’s now become standard for television series it really draws you in.

The second season has been commissioned and will be a separate story, taking place decades before this story with different actors and characters. That’s mostly a good thing, because this season was such a well contained, isolated story I wouldn’t want them to bolt much more onto it. But I will miss these characters and the excellent cast, fingers crossed they can recreate the magic next time.

The Following: Season 2

The FollowingThe Following season 2 was basically just like season 1, just with a few additional psychopaths. But then the first season did work in an insane type of way. I mean the whole thing is preposterous in the extreme, but there’s never a dull moment at least. It’s a good thing, because if there were any dull moments they’d be filled with the sound of plots collapsing under the catastrophic unlikeliness of everything. Characters make insane decisions, organisations are hugely incompetent even the weather made no sense with snow appearing and disappearing in minutes.

Fortunately though everything moves along at such a pace you don’t really pause to question it (helped in my case by usually watching this while cooking or baking). The action sequences are lively and frequent enough and the quieter moments are held together with the performances by James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon who are laying the ham on spectacularly thick but seemingly having a glorious time doing it.

The supporting characters tend to get a bit bogged down and the actors are maybe taking things a bit too seriously. I wish the more easy-going and youthful Mike had stayed around a little longer before turning into the bitter and scary version we’ve got here. Also following the season 1 death of the previous competent yet ineffectual female law enforcement officer, she’s been replaced with another almost identical one who just spends her time saying “Ryan you shouldn’t do that” and watching him run off to do exactly what he shouldn’t. Emma meanwhile, despite being a pretty horrific person, actually seems to be the only one in the whole setup with any brains at all. The rest of the supporting characters come and go with speed, which while theoretically this keeps the audience on their toes, it sometimes backfires in that it never seems worth engaging with the characters if they’re likely to die within a few episodes.

The plot is sort of the same as the previous season, but with an intriguing twist, rather than Joe being at the top of the totem pole, this time he has to start from the bottom and beg, borrow and bludgeon his way there. Some of the religious stuff did get a little much towards the end, but the idea of him infiltrating someone else’s cult was a nice spin on things.

The shorter seasons (15 episodes) work well for the series, frankly taking it down to 12 may not be a bad idea, I lost interest around episode 9 and only came back to it after a couple of months when I’d run out of other things to watch. I’m not certain whether I’ll bother watching next year, it sort of overlaps a bit too much with The Blacklist, and I’d much rather watch James Spader than Purefoy and Bacon, but if I’m short of mindless distraction, I’ll probably give it a try.

Almost Human: Season 1

almost_humanPossibly the most promising and interesting new series of the year, but it’s a sci-fi series on Fox, so obviously it’s cancelled after only 13 episodes. Sigh.

In fairness to Fox, the series did get off to a rather ropey start. The pilot was pretty clunky, playing out a number of traditional SF tropes without really giving them much freshness. They should frankly be paying royalties to Bladerunner! The backstory of the world and characters was delivered in big chunks of very heavy handed exposition, every emotion was dialled up to 11 and you had to really want to see the potential in it. On the plus side, the pilot certainly showed that little expense was spared on the production design and special effects though and as I had been informed by various reviewers that the series got better I figured I’d stick it out for the full, short run. It’s not like there’s much else in the way of SF to watch at the moment.

It almost immediately picked up though, or maybe settled down is a better descriptor. The writers realised that the real strength of their show was actually the old stalwart of the mismatched buddy cop motif, and that in Karl Urban and Michael Ealy they had the kind of actors who can bounce off each other, elegantly hiding real emotion and depth behind effortless banter. The high points of the show weren’t any of the (admittedly stunning) special effects, or moderately well thought out sci-fi storylines, but the small scenes of the two guys sitting in a car bickering. It’s just a real shame that the pilot didn’t show that off.

Urban may have gone into it as the big name (Eomer in Lord of the Rings, Judge Dredd, Dr McCoy in the new Star Treks) and he certainly delivers, but relative unknown Michael Ealy completely holds his own and creates an amazingly complex character in Dorian. He is the ‘amost human’ of the title, and manages to make both of those words relevant and intriguing. The supporting characters were a little weaker, disappointing given the pedigree of the actors involved, but then they never really got much of a chance to develop beyond their single paragraph summaries.

It’s sad that this show was cancelled, but I can turn that frustration around on the show runners. It’s not Fox’s fault for cancelling a show with too low ratings, it’s the producers and writers fault for making a poor pilot that led to losing nearly a third of the audience before the second episode. First impressions are everything, and a show is unlikely to be able to recover from that sort of start, making the whole thing a waste of time and talent. A real waste.