Archive for the ‘ 15-16 Season ’ Category

Killjoys: Season 1-4

Canada has always done an extremely solid line in excellent, character driven science fiction. My understanding is that it’s thanks to generous tax breaks and a wide variety of different landscapes in a relatively small geographical area, making it perfect for any series where the characters are travelling a lot. So X-Files, Warehouse 13 and Supernatural could tour the US while the Stargate franchise, Dark Matter and Battlestar Galactica can tour the universe. It can get a little incestuous with the same names and faces appearing in cast and crew and the same forests and mountains subbing for different cities, planets, spaceships and whatever else the imagination can summon. But they all know how to make the money go a long way – making the most of minimal set dressing, effective stunts and special effects rather than flashy but insubstantial CGI, and writers and actors who can deliver meaningful scenes in a bare corridor, or the small standing set that they use every week.

Killjoys is a very worthy entry into this great pantheon. The building blocks of the plot can be taken from any role-playing adventure – the characters fall into their assigned roles neatly (warrior princess, thief, soldier, cleric, medic, gay bartender) and head off on requisite quests and heists. But the universe behind it is half science fiction exploration of a class based society gone mad, and half like a bad trip (shared memories stored in “the green”, bodysnatcher goo and unkillable zombie like opponents) with conspiracy theories and wars being fought across the millennia. As I try to write it down, I realise that I don’t really understand the plot. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not about any of that. It’s about characters.

The three main characters (the warrior princess, the thief and the soldier) form an incredibly strong core to the series. They are beautifully written, and wonderfully acted. Killjoys could be used to teach what good character and relationship writing looks like. The thief (Johnny) and the warrior (Dutch) are bounty hunters (known as killjoys), the soldier (D’Avin) is Johny’s estranged brother, suddenly landing in the middle of their lives. The relationships between the trio, and the individual pairings are all wonderfully nuanced, but it’s the relationship between Johnny and Dutch that is my absolute favourite. They are soulmates, they are codependent, rely on each other, bicker away and call each other on their crap. But they are not in love. They freely admit they love each other, but they are family not romance. The openness and trust between the two is beautiful; while the worlds shift around them, they are bedrock.

The other thing is, the series is FUNNY. Proper laugh out loud, spit out your tea, rewind to hear it again, funny. There’s a realness to both language and delivery that has me smiling just thinking about it. It’s not elegant in terms of creativity of language or delivering complex set ups; it’s the hilarity of a perfectly timed swear word, a shared sigh, a heartfelt insult, an acknowledgement of insanity, a well timed pratfall. It’s the private jokes of family members, that are somehow feel inclusive rather than exclusive.

I love this series. I powered through it, and then went back and re-watched many of the episodes to obsessively seek out key moments and lines. Yeah, the plot goes a bit nuts and there are holes that you could drive an asteroid through should you chose to look for them, but it’s such a fun ride that I just don’t care.

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Dark Matter: Seasons 1-3

I’m in a bit of a TV funk at the moment (well, an all-round funk really but let’s keep on subject) and all I’m really in the mood for is easy to watch stuff. I don’t really want to be overly challenged, or have it pointed out how awful the world can be. Friends recommended Dark Matter to me on those criteria and it did a pretty good job of filling the need.

What you don’t have here is anything revelatory. It’s not science fiction that’s pushing boundaries at all, it takes every single trope and basic idea ever seen in Star Trek or Stargate and applies them without a huge amount of creativity. And to be honest, often without a huge amount of talent or quality either. It’s resoundingly second rate in budget, set, cast and innovation. It’s also notably lacking in visual style beyond “how can we redecorate this warehouse this week?”.

So, how come I watched all three seasons (39 episodes) in just a couple of weeks? Well it has two things going for it, the first is a simple and easy trick which is that the last 2 minutes of each episode form a teaser for the next episode. So every episode has a cliffhanger and sucks you into the next. Cheap, but effective.

The second reason is that it always manages to do just enough to keep you engaged, getting itself microscopically across the boundary where any lower and you’d give up on it. The ideas it plays with are interesting enough, and could have been very interesting if they’d been better developed. The cast mostly lacks in experience and depth, but The Android and Three manage to standout and develop interesting and complex characters beyond what the script is offering them. And every now and then there’s a flash of real charm or the beginnings of a great little idea that sucks you in again before gradually decaying away.

This series worked for me because I went in with low expectations and low requirements. It’s a shame because with a couple of bigger actors to headline it, a bigger budget to play with and a bit more polish to the script it could have been a real gem.

Casual: Seasons 1-3

I powered through three seasons of this in just a couple of weeks. It’s only about 40 episodes in total, and they’re only 1/2 hour, so it’s no big commitment of time. However, it does do a slightly odd thing to your brain to spend that amount of time with the characters and leaves you with a rather more foul-mouthed and cynical view of humanity. Which should probably be considered a bad thing, but I found it mildly empowering.

I was gripped from the first episode because the tone of the three central characters – teenage Laura, mum Valerie and uncle Alex was so brutally frank and open that I practically gave myself hiccups laughing and gasping simultaneously at them. I could recognise the distant echoes of my close circle of friends and family in the scorching lines, a lot of “I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I can with you”.

The ‘casual’ relationships that the title refers to is less familiar, and a look into a terrifying world at the extremes (at least I hope they’re extremes) of the dating world. It’s a very clever set up of three characters – Alex is the ‘expert’, the insider in the world having written a dating app; Valerie is the newbie, getting divorced and not sure what she wants or how it works; Laura is the naïve cynic, thinking that she knows exactly what she’s doing, but really just being a confused teenager. None of them really know what they’re doing and screw up in truly spectacular ways that, frankly, anyone could see is going to end in disaster.

The relationships between them are alternately lovely and horrific, each knowing exactly how to support and how to hurt the others. The cast of supporting characters alternately ground the series (the utterly superb Leon, charmingly fun Leia and some of the transitory relationships) or just push it to new absurdity (the parents really do explain how Alex and Valerie became this messed up) and for the most part balance everything out.

Mostly the series is played for laughs. Real people wouldn’t screw up (quite) this badly or (quite) this often, and would climb out of holes rather than just digging deeper and deeper (I hope). There are moments that it all gets a bit much, the situations just get a bit too depressing and too far from the comedy that it mostly purports to be. It’s best to watch in big chunks as most of the stories span multiple episodes, and you can then power through the blips. Taken at a run like that, it’s a lot of fun, and when I ran out of episodes, I felt slightly lonely. They’re horrible, terrible, insane people, but they’re a lot of fun to spend time with.

Seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon video, season 4 will be the final one and will probably be on Amazon next year sometime.

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.

Modus

modusI seem to have a rule that I have to watch any drama that comes along with subtitles. It’s a mixture of pure pretentiousness on my part combined with at least a small amount of logic that if it’s a show that’s good enough to get picked up outside it’s country of origin, it can’t be that bad. Modus is one of the exceptions. It really was quite mediocre.

I don’t really know where to start on explaining its mediocrity, it was pretty much consistent throughout. The plots were contrived, the characters stereotyped and the scandi-ness overdone. A few times I wondered if it was actually attempting to be a parody. Everything just felt like they’d pulled dozens of ideas off a shelf and clumsily bodged them together. Too many ideas, too little imagination. The lead actress managed to bring some life to her character, but everyone around her either couldn’t, or wouldn’t do anything with their characters at all. Not that I necessarily blame them when the script gives them nothing but dumb cliches to work with.

It took me a few episodes to realise that it wasn’t very good, and by the time I did, thanks to the fact that the episodes were broadcast in pairs and it was only 8 episodes long, I figured I may as well just keep going to the end. Even at just 8 episodes it was horribly drawn out, adding boring and repetitive loops to stretch a couple more episodes. Then to add insult to injury, by the time the crimes were untangled and the criminals unveiled I was muttering and even shouting “oh come on!” at the television screen for its dubious presentation of… well… just about everyone actually, but particularly gay people. It wasn’t really good enough to feel outraged about it, but it was quite frustrating.

American Horror Story: Roanoke (Season 6)

American Horror StoryI’m currently tracking 4 for 6 on American Horror Story. I liked seasons 1 (Murder House), 3 (Coven) and 4 (Freak Show), gave up on 2 (Asylum) after a couple of episodes and didn’t even make it 20 minutes into 5 (Hotel) before deciding I didn’t like it. The great thing though is that it doesn’t matter at all. While there are very minor crossovers (practically easter eggs), each season is entirely independent and enjoyable (or not) in isolation.

Roanoke has a very interesting structure that cleverly solves one of the biggest problems the series sometimes has – how do you maintain the tension and pace if you need to stretch the story out over 10 episodes? In effect Roanoke has 3 sections, the first of which was easily the best and most original, which I guess is best as if it had started with the second style then I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.

The first 5 episodes are presented as a television show – direct to camera interviews with ‘real’ people describing events, and a dramatic reconstruction using actors. I can’t think of something that’s really taken that approach before. It was easy to get lost in the reconstruction, but having the interview sections added even more depth to the events. I thought that knowing which people definitely survived (and who didn’t by implication of who was absent from the interviews) might undermine the drama, but it really didn’t. The gradual build up of the story of Roanoke and the horrific events were nicely delivered and both scary *and* creepy.

The next 4 episodes were a nice idea, but just didn’t work quite so well. The utterly over-the-top producer of the TV series manipulates everyone (real people and their corresponding actors) to return to the house, which is kitted out with cameras. He’s set everyone up for confrontation and faked scares, but of course it doesn’t go entirely to plan. The set up just didn’t feel realistic (why would these people go back there?!) and because it committed to doing everything as found footage you had the ridiculousness of people picking up cameras while running for their lives. The actors ironically lacked the depth that they’d brought to their characters, each coming across as painful stereotypes, hamming it up and lacking any form of subtlety. It was far less creepy and relied too much on gore and jump scares.

The final episode sees yet another set of film makers arriving at the house to “uncover the truth”. It did tie one element of the story up nicely, but it mostly felt like a tacked on epilogue. The mostly new characters had no time to form any kind of personality and were blatantly going to just be fodder, so it was a lot of quite tedious jumpy camera to just get to the juicy bits of the story.

I remain impressed that American Horror Story manages to do something different each season. Taking fairly standard horror tropes and adding enough originality to make it fresh, while also referential. Not all of the choices this season worked for me, but they ere ambitious and well committed to. The ensemble cast moves between roles wonderfully, particularly those that this time played both the actor, and the actor playing a character, a character who was a dramatised version of other onscreen characters – a mind-twisting set up that seemed entirely natural until you think about it too much. As always, I look forward to what comes next.

The Expanse: Season 1

exp-titlecard1-thumb-400x211-204818Being a science fiction fan is what made me a television fan. It was great science fiction series that turned me into someone who compulsively watches series from start to finish and then starting over again, obsessing over details and characters. I do feel that when science fiction is at its best it is in an entirely different league to even the best of “non-genre”, because it’s not only telling compelling stories about interesting characters, but it’s creating whole new universes for you to lose yourself in. When I think about the great science fiction series like Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Babylon 5, Firefly, Doctor Who, and the whole Star Trek canon (although admittedly not all Star Treks are created equal) I immediately want to throw myself back into the series at the beginning and immerse myself all over again.

The Expanse is sadly not going to be added to that list.

In conception it’s got a lot to admire and that would qualify it for consideration amongst the greats. It is certainly epic, with multiple locations across the solar system. It is immediately gratifying to see space ships, space stations and… welll just space in general on a television show. The stories span the big to the little, interplanetary politics forcing local events and changing people’s lives regardless of whether they want to get involved or not.

But while the local stories were interesting, I thought it was a mistake to try and directly tell the political story by spending time with the politicians. The strength of series like Babylon 5 and Star Trek were that we were focussed on the ‘little guy’, the people who had minimal influence and just had to deal with the situations they found themselves in, while politics happened elsewhere. You knew about the bigger stuff because of the ripples it had, not because you had it explained to you directly from the politicians mouths. I found it hard to connect the stories and events up in my head, Earth and the characters there felt a long way from the events on the stations and ships and hence every time we went to Earth, I felt it slowed everything down and felt as if we were being pushed out to a bigger picture.

I would have been able to get over that though, it would have been a minor niggle, but the bigger problem is that The Expanse just isn’t very good. The script, the direction, the cast, the effects… they all felt rather second tier. Everything feels like it’s forced and hard work, nothing really flows or feels natural. Whenever effects are involved it looks more like a computer game than the level of quality that we’ve come to expect from HD television these days. Accents and styles felt like they’d been designed to be different for no reason other than to make sure we didn’t forget we were watching science fiction.

Worst of all, and hardest to say is that I think the cast is a little disappointing, the majority of the main cast are relative newcomers and the lack of experience really showed. The series really needed a couple of heavy hitters in there to just anchor it. This was particularly evident when about half way through the series Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men) turned up and immediately elevated each scene he was in despite a ridiculous accent (ditto for The Walking Dead’s Chad Coleman). The script they were all working with wasn’t exactly giving them much help, but I think more experienced actors would have been able to elevate it to something greater, or at least made me want to watch them while they delivered the dribble.

I did make it all the way through the 10 episode season, and I’m not sure why I stuck with it really. I think it was probably the ideas behind it that I wanted to see through despite the poor execution, the glimmers of interesting characters and groups. My desperation for some proper sci-fi overcoming my disappointment at the quality. But I rather wish that I’d just gone and dusted off the Babylon 5 dvds instead.

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