iZombie: Seasons 1-3

This had been on my list of things to watch for a while, but it didn’t have a UK distributor. I’m not sure when it appeared on Netflix but I only recently noticed it. On the plus side that meant I could pretty much binge watch straight through seasons 1, 2 and 3 over the course of a fairly short period of time.

The premise is fairly so-so. A doctor is turned into a zombie, but provided she gets a regular supply of brains to eat she’s pretty much normal. So she starts working in the morgue and dodging questions from her family and ex-fiance and just whines about here un-life a bit. Then it turns out that she gets visions from the brains she’s eaten, and if it’s a murder victim, that turns out to be very useful. She teams up with a cop who thinks she’s psychic, finds a purpose and we’re off and running with a fairly episodic “brain of the week” structure.

The first season or so plays to that pattern. The brains tend to have some over-the-top gimmick to them that is occasionally laugh out loud hilarious, and occasionally cringingly painful. That structure gets a bit trying when you’re binge watching, so it’s a good job that the background plots gather traction – seeking a cure and dealing with the various zombie groups that start to appear. There’s also a fair amount of relationship wrangling going on, which is again a bit tedious at times, but the characters are all likeable and self-aware enough that I didn’t get too bored of various makeup/breakup cycles.

Season 3 is where things really start to move pretty fast on the plot front. Throughout the season there’s a real sense of escalation building towards a satisfying game changer in the final episode that sets up for a very different 4th season. Some of the partnerships go through a couple more cycles that get a bit a tedious, but the development of the friendships are more nuanced and satisfying. Importantly for me, the humour is not lost with the increased stakes of the drama and there are plenty of hilarious set ups throughout the season that make this a show that I’m sure I will be happy to watch over again.

The reason that I’d wanted to watch iZombie (despite it’s frankly pretty awful name) was that it’s from the creator of Veronica Mars – one of my all time favourite shows. They share the same achingly smart dialogue, and take-no-crap characters but the sci-fi storyline of iZombie opens up even more opportunity for quirky situations and playing with genres and styles. The zombie cast wholeheartedly throw themselves into the different personalities, while the rest of the cast do a solid job as supporting straight men and women that the others can dance around. I don’t think iZombie will overtake Veronica Mars in my affections, but it’s certainly making a really good challenge.

Mr Robot: Pilot Review

MrRobotIt’s easy for shows to just pass by on Amazon or Netflix; there’s no time pressure to actually watch them. Also, when they’re released in a block for binge watching you don’t get the repeated press and commentary each week for an extended period of time maintaining the buzz and reminding you that you’re missing out.

Mr Robot was a show that for a long time failed to make it onto my radar. Then it started getting nominated for and then winning awards. Proper awards that people actually care about (as much as anyone cares about awards). Do you know what the Golden Globes and Critics Choice thought was the best drama of the year? Not Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards or any of those… it was Mr Robot. So I figured I should give it a try. It still took me another few months to get round to watching it mind you, but I got there eventually.

Sadly I didn’t make it beyond the second episode. In fact I really struggled to not give up in the middle of the second episode. It’s one of those occasions where me not liking a show is probably more about me than the actual show to be honest. I just couldn’t get into it.

Most of the problem for me was the lead character and particularly the narration that allows us to really know what he’s thinking and feeling all the time. When you’re not getting on with a character, the last thig you really want is to get an even deeper insight into their head, particularly when the head in question is so deeply confused. Whether because of mental disorder(s), self-medication or just being a bit of an asshole, he’s dissociated, sanctimonious and paranoid. Rami Malek’s performance is great, but it just wasn’t much fun to spend time with the character.

Mr Robot is also one of those shows where you can see it all unravelling for the characters. Or maybe actually a better way of describing itself is it all getting tied up in a big knot. Do you do the wrong thing to do the right thing? What’s right anymore? Etc etc. I just found myself bored by it before it even got started.

It’s a good show, and I wish I liked it. It’s talking about some interesting and really current stuff, and has some great performances in it. But I just plain didn’t like watching it. I gave it two episodes, and by half way through the second I really just wanted it to stop. So I stopped it. Sometimes listening to the voice in your head *is* a good thing.

The Americans: Season 3

americansThis continues to be one of the best series on television, almost entirely due to the incredible performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. As the seasons go on their characters get more and more complex and nuanced in their relationship to each other, their family, their adopted country and their ‘home’ country. Nothing is simple or straightforward, there is no easy answer to “who’s side are you on?” or whether they are acting as spies because they want to, because they are used to it, or because they’re scared. The reason changes each moment.

Season 3 adds yet more pressure to their situation as their daughter Paige finally realises that everything is not normal and they eventually tell her the truth. Paige hasn’t always been the most endearing of characters, her developed obsession with a “happy-clappy” church was particularly grating for characters and audience alike, but all that was worth it to see how it played out when she finds out her parents have been lying all this time. On top of that Philip has to deal with second-wife Martha finally figuring out that he’s not what he pretends to be. Basically the lies are being revealed and it feels like the walls are closing in from all sides.

I was less enamoured with the ongoing story of Nina back in Russia. I thought her imprisonment for treason at the end of last season was a brave and dramatic conclusion to her storyline and was a bit sad that it instead continued to dribble on, completely removed from the rest of the characters in America. I guess it does show a bit more what it’s like in Russia, but it felt like a distraction.

I love this show. It has so many layers to it. You can just get by watching each episode as an action/thriller. There are plenty of car chases, disguises and scams. But if you pay attention there is a tremendous amount of political and personal drama going on that really make me count down the days until the next episode each time.

Aquarius: Season 1

Sorry for the gap in postings, between Christmas and moving into a new house, i didn’t have much time for writing! Hopefully a bit more back to usual now.

aquariusThe concept is that this is “inspired by” the story of Charlie Manson. It’s a setup that immediately grabs attention because it’s the kind of story that tv series and films are made of, and this one is true to boot. I thought the whole thing was going to be told though from the police point of view, so focusing on the investigation of his crimes. But the series in fact starts in the early days of Charlie’s group and the narrative is divided roughly evenly between Charlie and the police who will eventually investigate him, but for now have relatively little contact. Apparently the full plot will take 6 seasons, which seems optimistically ambitious.

The bad news is that I didn’t actually get along with the Charlie Manson chunks of the series. It was sort of conceptually interesting, but watching it play out was a bit tedious. It’s one thing to read accounts of his belief system, philosophy and musical leanings, but it’s quite another to have to sit through his witterings and his dopey, mostly interchangeable followers.

On the other hand, the police procedural bits work quite well, the 1960s Hollywood setting brings a hefty noir tone and has all the contrasts of glamour and success alongside civil rights issues and poverty. The local politics factor in quite heavily, as do the attitudes towards race and sex. The problem is that the cases sort of meander around, some spanning multiple episodes and others seemingly incomplete. I know I wasn’t paying the greatest attention which wasn’t helping, but I often lost track of characters and investigations.

What made me stick through the thirteen episodes was David Duchovny as the lead detective. He is having a great time with this role, blending humour and depth just as he managed in the X-Files. The character is a bit of a mess admittedly, a mix of “of his time” police brutality and racism, but also open minded when it comes to supporting his female colleague for example. Objectively, it’s a fudge, trying to make a character of that age a realistic period character, while also making him likeable, but each individual scene with him works in isolation and is interesting and fun to watch.

Overall this series is a bit of a muddle. Some bits work really well, others not so much. David Duchovny just about holds it all together and makes it watchable, but it’s a close run thing. I think they’d have been better off being less ambitious in scope, either dropping the Manson angle altogether or coming in much later in the story and telling it solely from the investigators’ point of view. David Duchovney leading a procedural set in 60s Hollywood would have been a good enough set up for most people and would have been easier and ultimately more successful I think.

House of Cards: Season 3

House of CardsI thought for a long time that the third season of House of Cards wasn’t very good. I looked back over my old reviews and saw the early warning signs and was feeling smug that I’d basically spotted the problems early on. I praised the first season for the writing, acting, originality and the subtlety. The second season I emphasised that while all the good was still there, niggles were appearing – rushed storylines and characters losing their depth. With the third season I thought those niggles had grown into full blown problems.

The first victim of bad writing is always the intelligence of characters. Rather than make sensible, well thought out calm choices , characters are forced to do what the plot requires of them, what will make good television rather than a believable character. A well written character, by the time you get to season 3, should be unsurprising. If you’ve spent 20-40 episodes with someone, you should be able to predict what they will do.

The Underwoods in Season 3 are surprising this season, but after a bit of consideration (and at least half a dozen false starts on this review) I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not actually because of bad writing, but is in fact good writing of people that you don’t want to be real. The Underwoods are fully revealed to be not just power-hungry and selfish like we already knew, but also stupid and short-sighted. For 2 seasons they’ve been fighting for power, and I naively assumed that when they got it, they’d want to do something with it. Not necessarily something I’d approve of, but SOMETHING. But they don’t seem to have any actual agenda beyond obtaining and keeping that power.

It’s depressing.

And just to add insult to injury, they’re not very good at it.

The early years, the Underwoods manipulated and manoeuvred and they won every war, maybe not every battle, but they always retreated before being forced to surrender and eventually turned it into a victory. Now however they’re scrabbling and they’re screwing it up and screwing each other in the process. Most of the supporting characters are just as bad and other than some really interesting character development for Doug (finally) all pretty unrewarding to watch.

The whole series turned into something that, while still technically superb, is just unpleasant to watch. I found it a real slog to force myself to watch it, and only really got through because I wanted to drop my Netflix subscription. I don’t think I’ll be back for season 4 and think the series would have been better served to play out the story arc in a classic three act structure.

Orphan Black: Season 3

orphanblackI wasn’t quite sure how I felt about season 3 of Orphan Black, I just didn’t feel the same sense of overwhelming positivity that I had for previous seasons. I’ve generally been embarrassingly gushy about the show, wanting to shout about it from the rooftops and force people to sit and watch. Re-reading the previous reviews did help me narrow things down. On the second season review I highlighted some of the things that the show had avoided doing

I think this show is going to be one of those like Buffy, Battlestar or Twin Peaks that lives on and on and certain people talk about in hallowed tones. It’s got that kind of depth and complexity to it, without getting lost in convolution that can easily leave you disengaged (X-Files, I’m looking at you)… With the final moments of season 2 we’re all set up for the story to keep growing in season 3. I hope it doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole that shows like X-Files or Twin Peaks did, but even if it did, I’m sure I’ll still be blown away by Maslany’s acting master class

I think they fell down the rabbit hole.

The story DOES get a bit lost in convolution, with the conspiracies and shifting loyalties of the Diad group and, well, frankly I’m not sure who or what is going on there to be honest, because I lost track. The back-story of the history of the clones, and the present day with the introduction of the male clones left me confused, then a bit bored, then disengaged. They did their best to keep the story relevant and character driven, but I lost track of why anyone was doing anything and it all just fell apart.

The clones are emotionally closer than ever and their relationships are absolutely wonderful to watch, as are their connections with “niece” Kira and “brother” Felix. It’s those extended relationships that really help to reinforce that this is a family of complicated individuals. That also helps to reinforce the differences with the male clones, although that in turn shows up just how uninteresting they are in comparison. As the male clones were all raised together they’re just not distinct enough to make you really consider them as separate people. It’s psychologically interesting, but makes the characters a bit dull.

The tone of the series is also a bit disjointed. Most of the comedy was focussed on Alison’s storyline, but she was isolated from the others most of the time. Likewise the relocation to other countries felt like it broke the clone club up too much, as if the physical distance between them stretched the nerves of the show somehow.

However, even when it’s a bit disappointing, the show is still better than most of the stuff on telly at the moment. The ambition and elegance of the script and storytelling and the calibre of the actors carries the show along and had me finishing the whole season in just a few days. I’m hopeful that things will settle down again next season and this was just a bit of a miss-step.

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.