The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1

I am a big fan of the book. I know a lot of people studied it at school and that may have spoiled it for them in some ways, but I didn’t read it until my late twenties and I think I could understand and appreciate it a lot better. Most importantly to me it was a good story, with an intricate universe, well developed characters, and a carefully paced plot. It doesn’t matter how strong your message is if it’s not a book that I want to keep picking up. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with the message at the heart of the book, I wasn’t being lectured at or told off, just calmly shown a way that things can go which was terrifyingly believable.

In praising the book, I praise the TV series, because it has captured everything that I thought great about the book and made the most of all the opportunities that television offers. I can’t remember enough details from the book to know if the story is exactly recreated, but it gets all the big things right – the message and the feel. It’s certainly not an easy show to watch, but I still enjoyed it – there’s enough character and humour in it to make it something that you want to watch, not just something you should watch.

What the medium of television adds is the visual. I’m not someone who reads a book deliberately visualizing what I’m reading, I couldn’t describe what I think people look like or what the light is like, even when the book describes that explicitly I tend to skim it or forget it. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful to watch though, the style of the world so complex but simple – the future and the past, austere but luxurious. The framing and the grand spectacles could feel contrived for the sake of an eye catching shot, but they fit right in with the controlled nature of Gilead.

The other visual that you get of course is the body language and facial expressions of the actors, and so much is said without words by this incredible ensemble. Elisabeth Moss (who will forever be President Bartlett’s daughter to me) is phenomenal. Aided by an occasionally unnecessary (but often laugh out loud funny) voice over, there is never a moment of doubt as to how she’s trying to pretend to the world around her and what she’s really feeling. But the rest of the cast is also fabulously nuanced, Joseph Fiennes as Fred is charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) but it’s Yvonne Strahovski as Serena that I actually actually found the most interesting character – trapped yet in control, powerless yet proud. As with any great film making, it’s often the moments and scenes without words that have the most effect and that’s down to everyone involved – actors, directors, lighting, music and sound; some of those moments have remained with me for a long time (the circle of handmaids with stones, the march on the bridge, Ofglen’s face, the letters, the walk in the last episode).

The level of sexual and emotional violence makes it a very hard watch. The horror of the situations are not often clearly spoken aloud and that could be taken as an excuse to ‘not see’ what is really happening – as of course many of the characters are choosing. When it is spoken, and people finally use the word rape, it is devastatingly powerful, but there are other, more intimate and emotional tortures that are not verbally acknowledged, words that even this programme shies away from which nags in the back of my brain somewhat. It’s a show that cries out to be discussed, but at the same time you don’t want to talk about it because it’s so awful. This hits on all levels – the emotional connection to the individual characters, the depressing impact on the society and the how believable it is that small deviations from our own world (increasingly small sometimes) could credibly lead to their world.

There are miss-steps in the series. The pacing doesn’t always work, sometimes spending too long in flashbacks, or too long with other characters. It feels a little like Walking Dead sometimes when you spend too long away from one group of characters and find yourself disconnected from everything. However overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is stunning. Both in the sense that it’s a beautiful piece of film making craft; and the sense that the emotional punch leaves you stunned. One of the best television series I have seen in years.


13 Reasons Why: Season 1

Hmm. This is a challenging one to review. I found the series quite disconcerting and it split my opinion.

On one hand, this is a high school drama. It’s got the usual pre-occupation with sex and relationship, almost no schoolwork whatsoever, completely oblivious teachers and parents, an amount of casual substance abuse that you’d normally only see in a gritty 18 rated drama, and a cast who are all clearly in their twenties. The network of relationships and histories are complex, the shifts from “besties” to “mortal enemies” happen in a blink of an eye over trivial matters thanks to the complete and total self-involvement of individuals. But those very things make high school dramas tolerably entertaining, no more or less ridiculous than the average soap opera.

But this is also a story about a suicide. The story of a smart 17 year old girl who carefully and with a great deal of forethought decided to die. I wish so much that this was a pure fiction, but of course it is not and lives are being destroyed every day.

As an “old person”, a lot closer to the age of the parents than the kids, it’s easy to look down on the teenagers. You want to shout at them to grow up, to stop being so self-involved and selfish. Just calm down, talk to people and think of others and it will all be fine. The majority of the characters are not evil, they’re not deliberately making other people’s lives a misery, they’re just completely unable to think how their actions impact others.

I’m not suer how well the two aspects of the show work together. The early episodes are much more about the depressingly “normal” kind of crap kids apparently do to each other, while the latter episodes escalate things horribly. Every now and then a scene would feel like it was inserted just to remind us all that a girl is dead and that serious things are going on, because without those scenes it would be quite easy to trivialise them.

The cast are all very good, but they are not 16/17 and most of them do not look anything like high school students, so every time one of them does something ‘childish’ it seems trite, whereas if they looked 16/17 it would be more understandable that they are acting childishly, because they are.

The plot McGuffins of the show also undermine it. Really not holding up to scrutiny that well. The concept of the tapes is a good one for dramatic purposes, but it requires a lot of desperate sticking plasters of unlikely decisions and coincidences to hold it together. The Tony character became particularly frustrating; I liked the character a lot (although it would have been better if he’d actually been made a non-student a couple of years older to explain why he was more enlightened, without that age difference it again just highlighted the immaturity of the others), but he kept having to pop up to keep things on track and it was just too forced. Without spoiling the ending, I also thought that was a let down. There is some resolution to the why of things, but insufficient tying up of lose ends, or even acknowledgement of them. I think it would have been stronger as a one season show rather than setting up for a second.

Fundamentally there’s an incredibly powerful story that presents a teenage world that looks like an absolute nightmare to this 30-something. But it is undermined somewhat by too many storytelling/filming contrivances.

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.

Doctor Who: 2017

Did I even bother reviewing the previous Doctor Who? I’m getting so dissillusioned with it I’m not sure I bothered. Reading back my own reviews it seems I reviewed the first season with Capaldi (which I was not a fan of) and didn’t bother wittering on about second. I know I watched it, but I’ve got little recollection of it.

The problem is that something went wrong with Peter Capaldi in the role and I don’t know how or why. Capaldi is certainly more than capable of delivering both the comedy and the drama required for the role, and the older doctor should have been an interesting change, but the character just wasn’t very well written. They couldn’t get the fluidity between the comedy and drama, it just felt like abrupt switches from serious to weird with little sense of an overall character holding it together. With Clara as the companion there was also an odd hangover of the relationship with Matt Smith’s Doctor which made things slightly flirty, weird and uncomfortable.

So it was a good thing to bring in a new companion, and I liked Bill a lot. She felt like a proper modern and normal character, rather than another in the long line of ‘special’ companions who have some kind of destiny. Bill was just normal, mostly unphased by the “timey-wimey” stuff and treated the Doctor how he looks – an older professor type, all-be-it a pretty eccentric one. Removing any implication of sexual chemistry made a nice change, and the fact that she was gay was completely incidental to the rest of the story, it was very naturally handled. Bill was doing very nicely until a lazy writer undermined her and she made a stupid choice that just frustrated me and made her look na├»ve and weak. Then she almost got sidelined to give time to the terrible character of Missy and her ever-wandering accent.

Something I did really like this season was Matt Lucas as Nardol. I always prefer when there are more companions along, particularly ones that don’t blindly fall for the Doctor’s charms (Mickey, Rory, even River Song). Having someone who cuts through the nonsense helps ground the whole series. Nardol did exactly that when it was most desperately needed.

The problem I’ve had with the last few seasons of Doctor Who is that nothing felt earned. Characters didn’t so much develop as just teleport from one mindset to another. It’s not the actors’ faults but the writing. Too often things happened just to get from A to B, things were forgotten or remembered as the machinations of clumsy plots required, mysteries were engineered, painfully deliberate hints were hammered home, good ideas were never developed, thrown away for a cheap effect or fast resolution, and elegance just went out the window. Was Stephen Moffat tired, or just too distracted with Sherlock?

With the recent announcement of Jodi Whitaker as the thirteenth doctor, partnered with a new executive producer in Chris Chibnall (a writer on Torchwood and creator of the excellent Broadchurch, which also starred Whitaker) I have hope again for the series. It will be a completely fresh start for the series, which is the great thing about Doctor Who, it can completely reinvent itself. Fingers crossed it can either re-find some of the magic, or even better, create all its own magic.

Lethal Weapon: Season 1

The biggest surprise about a Lethal Weapon relaunch is that it took this long to happen. It’s pretty basic and classic set up for a generic action/comedy/character network drama for primetime. It was already a step ahead of some of the other big hitters in the genre like NCIS in that it was pretty much unconstrained in the kind of case that could be tackled. So all it needed was a chunk of money spent on it for the kind of action sequences and stunts that we’ve come to expect from TV these days, and, most importantly of all, two charismatic leads.

Thank heavens they found them. Damon Wayans takes the Danny Glover role of Roger Murtaugh, the ‘grown up’ of the partnership. The casting director did a stunning job in casting a comedian as the straight man. The obvious choice would have been to find a ‘dramatic’ actor who could hold his own in the comedy moment, but the drama of the character is actually quite straight-forward and often driven by those around him anyway and Wayans delivers that adequately. Really, in any other partnership Roger is likely to be the wacky one anyway, so it makes perfect sense to cast a comedian and then put him opposite someone who takes “wacky” to the next level.

Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs is a relative unknown who I’d never encountered before, but absolutely blew me away episode after episode. It’s a gift of a role really, wacky goofball covering up huge emotional trauma, plus a hefty amount of running, shooting, bantering and monologuing. The complexity of the character is present in every movement and tone of delivery, and it takes some talent of both writing and acting to make such a broken character so functional. He *is* crazy, but it works for him. Even with that god awful hair and moustache.

Everything around those two characters is solid enough, but a bit unremarkable. Roger’s wife Trish is a bit too perfect, the psychiatrist is a bit too obvious and the two junior detectives never really get enough to do to make them anything other than exposition delivery methods. I did like the captain though – he was nicely written so it never seemed ridiculous that he would continue to send these two out in public, or that he would endlessly chide them for doing what everyone could predict they’d do. If you compare to someone like Cuddy in House who every week lectured him that his methods were unacceptable and then watched them succeed.

This show quickly became one of my favourite things to watch. I’d eagerly await each episode and settle in with a smile on my face. Even if the plot of the week was a bit so-so, the characters were so rich it was great to spend time with them. There is a bit of repetition in the character development as things seem to move forward and then loop backwards again, but it’s just about believable and it just presented another opportunity to watch them some more. The show is full on laugh out loud funny, but there’s an honest heart running through it that rises it above a lot of the disposable action on TV.

The Upfronts 2017 – The CW

Sorry these have been so slow!

What’s done
The Vampire Diaries was retired after 8 seasons, but is survived by its spinoff The Originals. Reign lasted 4 rather improbable seasons. Frequency and No Tomorrow didn’t survive their first seasons.

What’s coming back
A while ago, Supernatural had a five year arc, now it’s back for season thirteen. Mind you I gave up a few years ago because I got a bit depressed at how things just kept getting worse and worse for the characters, so who knows how miserable it is by now. Nearly half the schedule is occupied with the DC universe: Arrow (season 6), The Flash (season 4), Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl (both season 3). The Originals and The 100 both return for season 5; iZombie and Jane the Virgin both for season 4, and Crazy Ex Girlfriend for season 3. Riverdale was the only new series to survive to a second season.

What’s new

Black Lightning – another super hero. This looks like the CW version of Luke Cage, with a reluctant superhero becoming a vigilante against a neighbourhood gang; it’s just there’s some teenagers thrown in to make it CW. It looks ok, and apparently isn’t part of the Flash/Arrow/etc family so at least there’s no need to catch up on all gazillion episodes of those to watch this.

Dynasty – Was anyone out there really saying “what we need is to remake Dynasty, because everyone wants to watch rich white people’s dramas”? I mean, they really go for it, fully embracing the melodrama and shamelessness, but it just feels incredibly wrong.

Life Sentence – She thought she was going to die, now she’s not and she has to work out what to do with her life. I liked the trailer a lot, yeah it’s schmaltzy and obvious, but the cast pulls it off and watching it immediately after the Dynasty one buys it a lot of positivity. I worry though that the central idea will run out of gas quickly, I just hope they can manage to ground everything else before it grinds to a halt.

Valor – a military/conspiracy theory drama that feels completely out of place in the rest of the CW lineup and I suspect it will lack the conviction to really follow through on the subjects.

The Upfronts 2017 – CBS

Oops. I completely failed to post the last couple of Upfront summaries! Here you go.

What’s cancelled
The only big casualty at CBS it feels is 2 Broke Girls, cancelled after 6 seasons. The Odd Couple was cancelled after 3 seasons, probably a record run for a post-Friends Matthew Perry. Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders was cancelled after its second season, which I hadn’t even noticed had happened.

Four new series didn’t survive their first year. Only 2 episodes of Doubt aired, Katherine Heigl seems to be the kiss of death for television, slightly unfairly. Training Day was unsurprisingly cancelled following the death of its star Bill Paxton, although ratings and critical response was also underwhelming. Pure Genius (tech billionaire runs a hospital) was cancelled, just like the “tech billionaire runs a police dept” on Fox. Oh, and The Great Indoors died too, which was fairly predictable from the awful trailer.

What’s returning
Despite the increasing repetitiveness, the aging collection of action/procedurals are all renewed. All three flavours of NCIS will be back for evermore tenuous naval connections, original flavour for season 14 (second longest running show on air), LA (9) and New Orleans (4). Criminal Minds is renewed for season 13 even though season 12 was so rubbish even I gave up on it. Blue Bloods and Hawaii Five-0 will both be back for eighth seasons (although the latter seems to have lost half its cast), Elementary is renewed for a sixth and Scorpion (which I have no memory of) for a fourth. Code Black reached the limit of even my tolerance for over-blown medical drama a while back, but is renewed for a third season, as is Zoo, which I’ve never managed to catch but is apparently ridiculous. Madame Secretary is a slightly more intelligent offering and returns for a fourth season.

Only two new dramas got picked up; I’ve been watching Bull for the cast, but don’t think I’ll make it much further because the ideas and writing are painfully contrived. I keep meaning to catch up on MacGyver and may make more of an effort now it’s been renewed.

Not much in the way of comedy at CBS. Big Bang Theory was renewed for both 11 and 12. Mom for fifth, Life in Pieces for a third. New series Kevin Can Wait, Man with a Plan and Superior Donuts were all picked up.

What’s New
CBS don’t seem to want to share their trailers and I got fed up hunting for them.

9JKL – terrible name, bog standard sounding ‘comedy’ about a guy getting divorced and moving to New York.

By the Book – “a comedy about a modern day man at a crossroads in his life who decides to live strictly in accordance with the Bible.” Yeah. Really. That’s genuinely what someone pitched, someone bought, someone made, and someone is putting on the air.

Instinct – a former CIA operative (Alan Cumming) is lured out of retirement to help the NYPD catch a serial killer. Apparently this is based on a James Patterson novel that hasn’t even been published yet. It’s about time Alan Cumming got a lead, but sounds pretty unremarkable.

Me, Myself and I – this actually is a fun idea. A sitcom centred on three periods in the same characters life, a 14 year old in 1991, a 40 year old today, and a 65 year old in 2042.

Seal Team – The work and lives of an elite Navy Seal team. (See The Unit). Solid cast led by David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones), but I sort of wish he’d done something different from his character on Bones.

S.W.A.T. – Shemar Moore (Criminal Minds) leads a specialised tactical unit. Sounds the same as Seal Team expect it’s LA Police not international military. Both are good fits for the network, strong leads and high potential, but maybe both at the same time is too much? But I think this one actually has the edge for me, it’s dealing with very real, very current issues and feels less “hoorah for America”.

Wisdom of the Crowd – Jeremy Piven (Entourage) is a tech genius who invents an app to allow people to share information and help solve crimes. Isn’t this very close to the “tech billionaire solves problems” series that just got cancelled? Dunno whether this is going to take a “woohoo ain’t technology amazing!” direction or a “bloody hell, vigilantes are scary” drift.

Young Sheldon – a spin off from Big Bang Theory looking at Sheldon’s life as a 9 year old genius in Texas. I thought this would be unremarkable but ok, but the trailer is a total mess with way too much sentiment and criminal bad writing resulting in zero laughs. The kid is cute and Jim Parson’s narrating it should be good news, but if that’s the best script they could come up with this is going to be a turkey.