Penny Dreadful: Season 3

pennydreadfulIt turns out this was the final season of Penny Dreadful and I am not 100% certain how I feel about that.

Each season of the show has been something best approached in big chunks, and I think actually the whole series would probably be served well by just watching the complete thing in one thread. Episodically it doesn’t really work that strongly, and even though each season does have a marked start and end point, it’s really the slow burn of the entwining characters and relationships that are the meat of the show.

The third season isn’t the strongest unfortunately. It does have some excellent elements to it (Dr Sweet, Dr Seward, the revealed past relationship of two of the main characters) but the physical separation of many of the characters is frustrating. It deprives us of some of the key relationships and chemistry, which would have been tolerable if not for the fact it was the final season. Many of the plots felt like this was being setup as a middle season of an overall arc, before bringing everything together in a final concluding season.

But then it was like they ran out of time, and rather than a gradual build towards the climactic battle followed by a grand conclusion, there was a rush at the end to fling the characters and plots desperately to a collision. It felt a little like it came out of nowhere, going from dawdle to panic. Some of the stories were tied together in too neat a bow, others were just abandoned. I was left with a funny mix of feelings that I wasn’t really keen on the idea of more seasons of the ‘filler’ that we’d had, but also wasn’t ready for it all to be over.

Still, it was a wonderfully different and impressive show while it lasted, and maybe three seasons was exactly the right amount. The acting as always was superb. Eva Green is of course a stand-out, but Billie Piper impressed yet again with some of her monologues, even if the plot itself was a bit of. Roy Kinnear was heart-breaking as ever, and his character’s storyline was perhaps the most interesting of all of them.

It’s a shame this show never really got a wider audience, or the recognition its cast deserved. This level of creativity and style is just not evident in many shows on television today, hopefully it will find some more fans now that it can be viewed as a 27 episode whole.


2014/15 Season

I’m getting worse and worse at actually writing stuff promptly. So my end of year wrap up comes after several of the 2015/16 shows have already started. Oh well, better late than never. I’m only talking about US shows here, I think I’m going to move the UK series so that I look at them at the end of the year. Frankly that’s pretty arbitrary but I watch so little UK television that adding it to the list just looked embarrassing. Also I’m focussing more on the returning shows as all the new things got their own little article last week.

Things I’ve watched

The Affair: S1
American Horror Story: Freak Show (S4)
The Americans: S3 (in progress)
Aquarius (in progress)
The Blacklist: S2 (half)
Criminal Minds: S10 (failed to review)
CSI: S15
Defiance: S3 (in progress)
Downton Abbey: S5
Forever: S1 (half)
Game of Thrones: S5 (half)
The Good Wife: S6
Grey’s Anatomy: S11
Jane the Virgin: S1 (review pending)
Justified: S6
Mad Men: S7 Part 2
Madam Secretary: S1 (half)
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S1
Marvel’s Agents of Shield: S2
NCIS: Los Angeles: S6 (failed to review)
The Newsroom: S3
Orange is the New Black: S3 (review pending)
Orphan Black: S3 (just starting)
Penny Dreadful: S2
Perception: S3 (failed to review)
Scandal: S4
Stalker: S1 (failed to review)
Transparent: S1
The Walking Dead: S5

So that’s 27 series, although four of them I only watched part of the season before giving up and four are still in progress. I think that’s probably about 340 episodes? It felt like I watched less television this year, but actually it’s up on last year’s count of 20 series. I think though that a lot of what I watched was just less memorable so it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched as much. 20 episodes each of Criminal Minds, NCIS LA, CSI and Scandal all add up pretty quickly, yet take up remarkably little space in my brain.

I watched six new shows to completion this year, an additional two I made it half way through and actually Orange is the New Black and Justified were both new series for me too which I binge watched from the start and then caught up to the current season. So 10 shows that appear on this year’s list but weren’t on last year’s. In the other direction there were 9 series that I watched last year which didn’t return. Five I chose not to pick up again: Castle (I just got bored with it), The Big Bang Theory (I just missed the start and never felt like catching up), The Following (just too ridiculous), Extant (I don’t think I even got through the whole first season) and The Lost Ship (couldn’t be bothered) . Two I haven’t got round to yet: House of Cards: S3 (it’s in my new Netflix queue) and The Night Shift: S2 (still no UK distributer). Almost Human was cancelled and Fargo didn’t broadcast any new episodes.

The more I think about the list of shows I’ve watched, the more underwhelmed I am with the year. Did I miss something? Have I watched so much TV that I’ve over-dosed and its lost its appeal? I just don’t think anything this year was outstanding. Even the shows that I list below for plaudits are mostly ongoing series that have just continued doing what they do, well. Where were the paradigm shifts? The big evolutions? The watercooler moments? It just feels like a very flat year.

Best Shows
Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardOrange is the New Black was a show that I’d wanted to watch from the get-go, but couldn’t justify the Netflix cost for. I finally caught up on the first season on dvd and then binged the second and third over a week or so when I finally gave in and signed up to Netflix. The lightness of the humour and the positivity of the relationships is starkly contrasted with the bleakness of the characters’ situations. The acting and writing is wonderful, the slow reveals of characters’ pasts through flashbacks is particularly clever and the whole thing is fresh, original and utterly compelling.

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified was a great discovery for me, which I should thank Sky Boxsets for. I caught up with the first five seasons in just a few weeks and then got to watch the final season as it broadcast. I loved the whole series, but was particularly impressed that rather than fade away, the final season was actually one of the best. It focussed back on the main trio of characters and played out the uncertainty of “good”, “bad” and “somewehre in between” to the very end. A masterclass in how to close out a series.

americansThe Americans has been slow to reach the UK so I’m only about half way through, but it continues to be absolutely fascinating. The focus is alwasys on the emotional impact of the secrets and lies all the characters have to tell, which is good for me because I often struggle to remember the details of the various conspiracies and am far more interested in watching the phenomenal Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell acting. I feel a bit of a cheat putting something on here that’s only half way through, but it seems unlikely it will take a nosedive now!

Honourable mention: Defiance got off to a surprisingly brutal but very interesting start. There’s so little science fiction on television outside the super-hero genre that it’s a huge relief that this one doesn’t suck.

Favourite Shows
greys anatomyGrey’s Anatomy – only 4 of the original cast are left by the end of season 11. Each time someone leaves I think the show will struggle without them, that their gap will be unfillable, but each time the characters and relationships mature and evolve, not to replace the missing person, but to grow around the gap and evolve the show into something new. I love how the characters have grown, how the relationships mature and how nothing in the past is forgotten, but all makes a part of the present. Yes, it’s a daft soap opera with unbelievable stuff happening, but if you accept that key premise, everything else makes perfect sense. It’s like a comfortable blanket at the end of the day.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoMarvel’s Agent Carter – while Agents of SHIELD did improve this year it’s still got a lot of problems and the pressure of being a headline show for both ABC and Marvel isn’t helping it. Agent Carter however didn’t have any of the pressure or any of the problems and quietly came along with a phenomenal central cahracter and hugely entertaining story.

Honourable mention: Jane the Virgin was a breath of fresh, if extremely cheesy, air.

Same old, same old (in a mostly good way)
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead – The relentless pace of The Walking Dead never stops (ironic, given the increasingly shambling nature of the zombies). In the space of twenty odd episodes an incredible amount happened and it’s only through the efficiency of the writing and the talent of the actors that all the characters manage to develop and every nuance is clear. I do wish that we could catch our breath a little, and that the characters could actually find some brief respite and happiness, but I guess that wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.

pennydreadfulPenny Dreadful continues to be an under-watched and under-appreciated gem. The period detail is stunning and the interweaving of various literary characters is fascinating. It’s definitely a show that benefits from watching in chunks though as it is quite easy to lose track of the many different threads.

Mostly honourable mention: Orphan Black has got off to a strong start to season 3 (I’m about 3 episodes in) but its storyline is becoming more convoluted and I hope it’s not going to get lost.

Same old, same old (in a middling way)
CriminalMindsCriminal Minds – I didn’t even bother to review Criminal Minds this year because I honestly have nothing to say and very little recollection of what happened. I mean, I guess it’s safe and familiar (as much as that’s weird to say about a graphically brutal series about serial killers) and it’s not that I want it to be cancelled or dramatically changed, but 10 seasons later it needs some energy.

csiCSI – the final season trundled along much as the last half dozen or so had gone. Unremarkable stories, increasingly losing touch with the actual science and credibility that the show was founded on. Mind you (spoiler alert) having just yesterday watched the final feature length episode, the last season comparatively the creative highpoint of the show.

Middlingly honourable mention: NCIS: Los Angeles continues to have fun with its characters but struggle when it comes to memorable and engaging plots.

Same old, same old (in a bad way)
scandalScandal – oh good lord. It just keeps getting stupider and stupider. The core relationships are all stunningly unhealthy and I endlessly wonder why any of them (friends, colleagues or lovers) stay together when they’re clearly all phenomenally bad for each other and in fact the rest of humanity. I think I might be done.

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones – I’ve finally given up. There’s way too many characters that I really don’t care about, too many drawn out plots that aren’t going anywhere and a complete absence of any real fantasy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Dishonourable mention: not even James Spader was enough to make me stick with The Blacklist as its convoluted mess of a story left me completely confused and utterly uninterested in who was trustworthy or not.

What happened there?! (in a very bad way)
goodwifeThe Good Wife – I hate seeing The Good Wife down in this section, but the more I think about it, the more frustrated I was by this season. I’d been really looking forward to seeing what would happen with Cary and Alicia’s firm, particularly with Diane joining them… and I was cheated out of it by a ‘too fast’ change of direction that saw Alicia running for State’s Attorney. The ongoing ridiculous arguments with the old firm was just pantomime and Cary’s legal problems were just contrived and frustrating. There’s still a lot of good about the show, but all the major storylines were miss-steps.

Penny Dreadful: Season 2

pennydreadfulThis is quite a slow burn of a show. If you watch it too erratically it gets a bit confusing and rather fades into the background. However if you take a run at it as a box set, it’s really very easy to get pulled into the series and find yourself watching multiple episodes back to back.

The world of Penny Dreadful is a wonderfully rich one, drawing concepts and also specific characters from across gothic literature and throwing them together in a world of magic and monsters. You don’t have to be familiar with the works that are being put together, nothing is quite like the original and they are all manipulated to come together under Penny Dreadful’s own mythology. It’s more about the themes of the stories than the specific details.

The strands of characters weave together, waxing and waning so that although there is a main thread of narrative running through, each episode focusses on particular characters or combinations. These vary throughout, so it never feels old or tired and you continually get to see characters in different situations or from different points of view, adding further depth to the already rich tapestry.

The tone of the whole series is very particular and completely committed to. It’s gothic, fantastical and melodramatic. The cinematography is rather on the dark side, but look through the gloom and there’s a beautiful richness to the period locations and sets. The characters are similarly gothic with big emotions and a tendency to speechify, but at the same time they are all grounded in truth. Everything may be played large, but underlying it all are simple human emotions such as fear, loneliness and vengeance. There are also (thankfully!) moments of levity and acknowledgement of the situation. The cast ably raises to the challenge and deliver the drama, melodrama and heart impressively.

Unfortunately it’s easy to lose a lot of that if you don’t immerse yourself in the series. I watched most of the series in two sittings, within a few days, but then had to have a couple of weeks break before watching the last episode. I really struggled to re-engage and didn’t manage to sink back into the same level of engagement. Instead the melodrama was just a bit much and it seemed even silly in places.

So, watch it in bulk and throw yourself into it! It’ll make Game of Thrones look like a children’s book.

Penny Dreadful: Season 1

pennydreadfulSometimes it’s surprising that certain ideas and stories take so long to make it to television, they seem to come with an elevator pitch that’s so simple, so immediately intriguing that it seems an easy sell. But then you have to factor in the weird blindspots that frequently seem to come up in the television landscape. So on one hand for Penny Dreadful you’ve got “Some of literature’s most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London” (official site). But then you have to remember how hard anything that could be described as ‘genre’ usually finds it to deliver either an audience or critical acclaim, let alone both.

Maybe times are a changin’ though, because The Walking Dead and American Horror Story have managed to succeed with both the critics and the ratings (all be it within the lower expectations of Cable). So the time is ripe for Penny Dreadful to jump on the creepy band wagon. Fortunately the tone is different enough however to not make it too shameless and the show completely commits to its concept. It’s extremely gothic with all the darkness, ick and melodrama that you’d hope for.

I actually watched all eight episodes in just a couple of days and it really was perfectly targeted. It’s not incredibly expensive and polished like American Horror Story, and it’s not got the depth and elegance of The Walking Dead, but it is a proper penny dreadful. The horror is grizzly and bloody and just this side of comical, the drama is over the top, the romance is all corsets and heaving bosoms (well, it’s Showtime, so the corsets come off fairly frequently, but you know what I mean) and the production has a sense of cheap practicality that’s completely fitting.

There’s some excellent performances pitched just right to deliver this. Eva Green’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. It’s huge, she throws herself into these epic emotional and physical scenes in a way that leaves me rather fearful for her. It’s perfect for the series and would be utterly ridiculous anywhere else. The rest of the supporting cast is similarly enthusiastic in their roles, committing whole heartedly to every single emotion and making everything just as large and intense as the series demands.

I really enjoyed Penny Dreadful, it’s completely distracting, entertaining and disposable in a really good way. Eight episodes was exactly the right length, even the one flashback episode managed to be one of the most interesting of the series when it would normally be a filler and each character brought something interesting to the screen. I don’t think it’s the best show of the year by a long way, but it so solidly delivers what it sets out to that I can’t help but respect it a great deal.

The Upfronts 2014: Showtime

showtimeWhat’s Dead
Only one show ending on Showtime this year, Californication is just finishing up its seventh and final season

What’s Returning
Shameless and finished its fourth season a couple of months ago and will be back next year for a fifth. Homeland will return later this year for a fourth season, if anyone still actually cares. Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex will both be back very soon for their second seasons. Nurse Jackie will be back next year for its seventh season. Episodes, House of Lies and Web Therapy have all been renewed for fourth seasons, but air dates seem a little vague.

What’s New
Penny Dreadful (trailer, already started): Clearly inspired by American Horror Story, Showtime brings some pretty creepy, gruesome and scary stuff to the screen, drawing from existing characters from 19th Century literature such as Dorian Gray, Dracula and Frankenstein. It’s already a few episodes in and started in the UK on Sky Atlantic (who co-produced the show) last week.

The Affair (no air date): The impacts of an affair. Not much of a plot but a stunning cast – Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson.

Happyish – I would imagine is on hold, it’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman comedy series that he was working on when he died.