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.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.

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.

Victoria and The Crown

victoriaEarlier in the year I enthusiastically tuned into ITV’s period offering of Victoria. Jenna Coleman was utterly charming as the very young queen and carefully presented the complex character behind the portraits and there was some wonderful talents in the supporting cast (most notably Rufus Sewell). The period, the truth of history and the potential for untold fictions were a great set up for something truly interesting. The sets and costumes were also everything that you might hope for… and yet sadly that is where I run out of nice things to say.

Someone decided that rather than play it relatively straight, they would aim for another Downton Abbey. Then to add insult to injury, they failed to read the reviews of Downton Abbey and notice that no one at all had enjoyed the tacky and pathetic schemings of characters like Thomas and O’Brien. While Coleman and Sewell were acting their hearts out and doing their best to deliver nuanced performances with heart and soul, others amongst the cast were hamming their way through petty plotting, ‘mysterious’ back stories and some rather painful accents. I gave up after about 3 episodes.

So I was rather dubious about Netflix’s offering of The Crown, fearing that it would take a similar route, possibly made worse by having Americans involved. I was extremely happy to be wrong.

the-crownFirstly, the story of the young Princess Elizabeth, her secession to the throne and the early years of her reign are absolutely fascinating. The first season covers just 8 years (plus some flashbacks) and frankly 10 episodes/hours was not enough to do it justice. I think the writers did an excellent job combining coverage of big events and taking time to also see smaller, more personal moments and development, but I still wanted more every time. This isn’t just about Elizabeth, but about those around her too and I wanted to spend more time with everyone, understanding the role in the household, their background and their interactions.

The cast is jam packed with absolute stars, all walking a very carefully balanced line between performance and impression. Claire Foy (who I’d never heard of before) as Elizabeth is very impressive, she has to do something I’m guessing is incredibly hard as an actor which is acting someone who is acting. Elizabeth is actually a woman playing different roles to different people, and at this point in her life, she’s having to work out how to do that and which roles are needed for who. It’s what makes the character fascinating and also human, The Queen is not really someone any of us can really relate to, but Elizabeth the wife, Lilibet the daughter and sister, even Elizabeth the woman promoted into a job she’s not ready for… those are all much more interesting.

The style and look of the show are phenomenal, clearly demonstrating every penny of the
Reported £100m budget. The period-ness of it is less far removed than Victoria, which maybe helps make it more relatable. It all feels a little more familiar, a distant memory rather than a completely new world. Given that the existence the royal family lead is so different to normal life anyways, the period differences such as everyone smoking like chimneys, old cars, or telephone switchboards seem the least of the worries.

I found the show completely compelling to watch, burning through the series in just a few days, and I’m sorely tempted to go back and watch it again as I’m sure I’ve missed a great deal. The history is absolutely fascinating (and something I know little about), but the show’s real success is telling it all from a completely human point of view, making me really care about the characters in a way that Downton Abbey never even came close to. I look forward to the next five seasons!

Orphan Black: Season 4

orphanblackThis was the penultimate season of Orphan Black and I need to make a mental note to re-watch the series from the beginning as it’s increasingly evident that I’ve no idea what on earth the plot is on about. Given that condition, it’s quite impressive how much I still enjoyed the season!

There is a huge amount of plot going on, conspiracies within conspiracies, groups within groups and double crossings going around in circles. I’m not absolutely certain that the audience is actually meant to follow it at all. I think it just about manages to not be repetitive or too frustratingly going down repeated dead ends, but given that I’d very little recollection of what happened in previous seasons, and rapidly lost track of what was going on in the current episodes (despite watching them all over just three days) I can’t really guarantee that the whole thing wasn’t just a giant nest of incoherence.

But where the plot does succeed is in generating scenarios for playing with the characters. Each of the clones and the surrounding characters gets a chance to shine with their strengths and struggle outside their comfort zones. Serious characters get to let lose a little, those that are more often the light relief get to show some emotional depth and those that are usually in control get their turn at being out of the loop.

There are lots of connections between the characters that continue to delight. The relationships between the sisters themselves is lovely. These women who share a complete genetic identity, yet are so different and got thrown together. They bicker away, but they truly care for each other, worrying for Cosima, taking care of Helena even when she scares them, the flashbacks showing Beth as part of the original family, even the exasperated response to Krystal. There are some equally lovely relationships in the extended family too – straight laced Alison’s unlikely friendship with Felix, Scott’s partnership with Cosima, Art’s with Sarah, Donnie’s nervous connection with Helena, the clone’s odd relationships with Kendall, and Mrs S’s contrasting relationships with each clone. But I did think a couple of balls were dropped. There was an interesting set up for conflict between Sarah and Felix, with him looking for something for himself, but that challenge just sort of fizzled out.

I’ve said before that I watch television for the characters not so much for the plots and Orphan Black is basically the key proof of that. The fact that I can’t or don’t follow the plot doesn’t really matter as I just want to see all that extended ensemble play together (while remembering of course the incredible acting achievement of half of the ensemble being played by the same actress). The plot is of course necessary as a catalyst for those characters and relationships, but I do wish a bit that it wasn’t so convoluted and could give a bit more time for more character exploration. I’m not saying that I want it to just be a soap opera style show about the average day-to-day lives of a group of people who happen to be clones, but a bit simpler might not hurt.

Stranger Things: Season 1

strangerthingsI watched the whole season of Stranger Things back-to-back one Saturday. That’s not actually as impressive as it might sound, as the first season is only 8 episodes/6 hours long, which really is more of a 10k than a marathon in my world. Still it was enough continuous television that my Netflix app on Xbox actually checked to make sure I was still actually present, or conscious. Or alive possibly.

Given that commitment to watching, you’d think my response would be something greater then “it’s good”, but that’s about all the enthusiasm I can sum up. It is entertaining, and certainly compelling enough that reaching for the remote to stop the autoplay wasn’t an attractive option. But when I think back on it, the words that spring to mind are all “damning with faint praise” type terms – competent, well put together, engaging; not words like spectacular, or revolutionary, or wonderful.

Part of the issue for me was the reliance on 80s nostalgia as part of the USP. Everything about the show was a throw-back to things like the Goonies, ET. The kids investigating an increasingly weird occurrence, the well meaning sheriff, it was all sort of non-specifically familiar to me. Maybe the problem is that I’ve re-watched many of those ‘classics’ from my childhood (actually being born in 1979, most of the 80’s was a bit early for me) and they don’t really hold up that well these days. So making that mental connection wasn’t necessarily acting in the show’s favour. Thankfully either as I got used to them, or as the plot gets into gear in later episodes, the references faded into the background a bit. All except the music. The tracks used were incredibly obviously linked to the events/emotions on screen in a way that was either funny or painful depending on your point of view. More than once I rolled my eyes or let out an audible sigh with the cheesy and obvious selections.

While the setting and style might not be to my taste, the nuts and bolts of the series work well. The story builds up nicely, the development and gradual reveals of the mysteries nicely paced out through the nicely restrained 8 episode run. The short season was an excellent choice as any longer and things would have felt way too drawn out. The characters likewise develop nicely over that time, with the large ensemble moving fluidly and gradually bringing the different groups together. The cast is superb, the four children all magnificent, and Winona Ryder delivering some devastating scenes.

In an era where more choice of television seems to be leading to more mediocrity, competent shouldn’t be overlooked and Stranger Things may not have resonated for me in the way that it clearly has for some, but it’s a well put together and satisfying show to watch even with the 80’s-ness of it all.