2011-2012 – New Shows

36 pilots this year. As usual the vast majority of them are American series, but there’s a couple of British ones in there and almost as many Scandinavian ones!

Things I watched
American Horror Story – something very different for television, not always brilliant quality, but addictive
Awake (cancelled) – (not yet finished), clever and challenging.
Borgen – superb. The plots and characters didn’t go the way I wanted them to, but it was extremely well written, acted and produced.
The Bridge – great premise, not particularly well realised. Some fun and interesting characters let down by a disappointing plot.
The Cafe – utterly charming, although maybe only because it’s set in the town that I spent all my summer holidays and it re-creates it to a tea.
Homeland – fascinating (although occasionally frustrating) twisty plot and superb acting.
The Jury – properly awful ITV drama, but my excuse for actually watching it is that it was only 5 episodes and I had a cold.
Luck (cancelled) – incredible footage of horse racing surrounded by a too complicated plot and utterly incomprehensible characters.
The Newsroom – (not finished yet), swerving wildly from breathtakingly good, to really rather rubbish.
Once Upon a Time (not finished yet) – a nice idea, charmingly done. It’s not going to set the world alight, but it’s really rather lovely for Sunday evening relaxed viewing.
Smash – something different! Hugely entertaining with the exception of a couple of terrible characters who have sensibly been cut for next season.
Terra Nova (cancelled) – it had problems, but as Saturday evening ‘fun for all the family’ it was pretty good.
Veep – Some good dialogue, but I don’t like comedies about stupid people. I only really watched it because it was a short season.

Last year I only picked up eight new series, this year it’s thirteen so it’s been a better year on numbers, and actually the more I think about it, the more positively I think about the new season. It doesn’t feel like a spectacular year, but it’s got a few quiet stars, but once again they’re all on cable channels in the US (Homeland, American Horror Story, even The Newsroom), network channels are really struggling to find anything remarkable.

Things I might watch
House of Lies – quirky and entertaining pilot, with some charismatic performances and no problems with being unlikeable.
Scandal – show about legal ‘fixers’ working in Washington DC from the people that brought you Grey’s Anatomy. For some reason I failed to review the pilot, but it had potential. Yes, it was cheesy and predictable but the fast paced dialogue was entertaining and the characters and storyline had potential. Doesn’t seem to be airing in the UK though.

Things I might have watched if they weren’t cancelled
Alcatraz (cancelled) – a sparkles pilot just didn’t inspire me but I could see some potential, I was going to give it a chance, but then it was cancelled
Prime Suspect (cancelled) – fascinating central character and good line up of actors, with an interesting directorial style to it all.
The Playboy Club (cancelled) – Surprisingly entertaining and interesting, but pretty much doomed
The Secret Circle (cancelled) – Teenage witches in a small town with plenty of mysteries. It was pretty cheesy but I found myself somewhat charmed (pun intended!).

Things that weren’t bad, but I just didn’t like
GCB (cancelled) – I did laugh and enjoy pilot, but I hated myself for it a bit so didn’t really want to watch any more, then it was cancelled so I didn’t have to decide.
A Gifted Man (cancelled) – a well put together pilot, interesting concept, well written directed and acted. But I couldn’t see any way the story wouldn’t end badly for the characters and I just didn’t want to watch that happen.
Grimm – it reminded me of lots of other things, all of which had been done better than this. It felt small and boring.
New Girl – As comedies go, I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t really feel like watching any more.
Touch – too manufactured and artificial and not very well written.

Things that were rubbish
The Body Farm – badly written, badly acted and less scientifically sound than CSI Miami.
Charlie’s Angels (cancelled) – awful. Just awful.
The Finder (cancelled) – I only watched the backdoor pilot in Bones, but it was packed with irritating tropes (bloody awful accents, know it all characters, intellectual tough guy)
Hart of Dixie – cliché ridden awfulness.
Hell on Wheels – utterly un-engaging.
Pan Am (cancelled) – a bit boring and too plastic and artificial feeling
Person of Interest – charisma vacuum characters making ridiculous decisions and delivering cliché ridden dialogue
Revenge – utterly unsympathetic, hateful characters
Ringer (cancelled) – Terrible pilot with crappy production and a daft premise.
The River (cancelled) – Fun concept, delivery was painfully awful. The pilot was a double episode and it was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to watch the second half and never got round to reviewing it.
Titanic – I was rooting for the iceberg.
Unforgettable – An ironic title given it was pretty unremarkable, it’s a good cast but cheesy dialogue and cliché premise and plot left it not making any impression.

Finally some creativity!
I was critical last year that it didn’t feel like there was any creativity in the line up, everything was either a thinly veiled recreation of another successful show, or at best a ‘bog standard’ example of a genre that wasn’t represented on TV (Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Someone seems to have listened to me, because this year did offer up some refreshing originality.

Shows like Smash, Once Upon a Time and Awake all had novel ideas or settings at their hearts and even though they weren’t always successful, I did at least want to cheer them on for giving it a try! American Horror Story set about bringing the horror genre to TV in the same way Walking Dead brought the zombie genre, but did a lot better job of merging the genre and the platform and made something really fascinating. Mind you, there were still some unremarkable procedurals and ‘rehash’ shows out there, Pan Am (and to a lesser extent The Playboy Club) tried to capture the period appeal of Mad Men and fell on their faces.

I’m right, everyone else is wrong
One thing that I find interesting is looking at the shows that I liked that got cancelled (annoyingly) and the shows I hated that stuck around (unfathomably). One show I was disappointed to see cancelled was Terra Nova which I suspect was rather miss-pitched as a primetime weekday evening show, when really it fits best in the early Saturday evening family slot (which the American’s don’t really seem to get like the UK does with Doctor Who and Merlin and the like). The other was Awake, which was an intriguing concept well played by Jason Isaacs (hello!) but was maybe a little slow for mass audiences. Mind you, I can’t really judge that harshly those that didn’t watch it, as I haven’t actually finished the series yet.

On the flip side I guess I’m saddened, but not surprised that some of the horrifically cheesy, cliché ridden shows found an audience (Hart of Dixie, Revenge). Why anyone wanted to watch Jim Caviezel suck all the life out of the room in Person of Interest is a mystery to me though.

Don’t believe the hype
Looking back at the upfront coverage, it seems that the big shows had the odds stacked against them. “Eagerly anticipated” programmes with big budgets and big names attached struggled to find the ratings to match their budgets – Steven Spielberg’s Terra Nova, JJ Abrahms’ Alcatraz, DeNiro’s NYC 22 (such a failure I didn’t even notice it go by), Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return in Ringer, the spin off for Bones, all fell flat. Only slightly more successful were the new Shonda Rhimes show Scandal and while Smash lived out the season it was far from the eponymous hit that was expected, and I’ve never seen a show create a more confused critical reaction of loving and loathing it than Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

Meanwhile, the darlings of season are based on an Israeli show and from the critically hounded creator of Glee. Homeland dared to be smart and used extraordinary actors to keep audiences on the edge of the seat, while American Horror Story did exactly what it said on the tin and wrapped its story up miniseries style.

I’ve really tried to find more UK shows to watch this year, but there’s been precious little of interest on UK channels. In addition to the stuff I’ve mentioned above which was at least bad enough to bother reviewing (Titanic – why and how are you so rubbish?!) I tried out probably half a dozen others and didn’t even get as far reviewing, often not even as far as the end of the first episode. Recent examples include ITV’s Last Weekend which was so full of foreboding it was laughable, and BBC’s Parade’s End which was mumbly and dull. As a rule I found the UK shows I watched either too impenetrably complicated for my little brain or killed by terrible production values.

It’s quite telling that I watch more Scandinavian shows than I do British ones. Well done to BBC for airing them at least, but I’m not sure what it is that’s stopping the UK channels making stuff this good. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be very grateful!

The Bridge: Season 1

BBC 4 does like to burn through these shows, airing two episodes at a time means that it’s only been 5 weeks since I was a bit apathetic about the pilot, and here I am being a bit apathetic about the rest of the series. Spoilers ahoy.

It turns out the show wasn’t really about what I thought it was, and I remained disappointed for quite a while about that. The whole Denmark/Sweden thing was never really more than the tiniest of sub-plots, not developing into the interesting social/political commentary that I thought was going to be the point of the whole thing. Instead the series was just about a couple of misfit cops chasing a serial killer, that’s not a bad concept for a series at all, I just hoped for something a bit chewier. The border issues turned out to be no more than a plot device to heighten tension, leaving cops without guns in particular situations. Oh, and a very cinematic bridge.

I had a similar disappointment with the motivation of the killer himself. What started out looking like a political activist, highlighting the great imbalances in society and challenging the way that people think about justice and fairness… turned out to be a guy who was bitter because his wife left him and then died in a car crash with their son. After the build up, that reveal just felt a bit “oh, is that it?”. Obviously losing your family is devastating, but turning a previously mostly stable police officer into someone who spends five years planning a series of ridiculously complex murders, all culminating in a single act of revenge against his wife’s lover… just didn’t feel quite as satisfyingly concrete as I might have hoped.

In the end, I’m not convinced that the story actually all held together. If I start to think about it too hard I start coming up with dozens of little questions – how does anyone build a wall that fast? How did a dead officer get a police car without anyone noticing? They may all have answers, and even if they don’t each one is relatively minor, but they combine to a general sense of unease about the solidity of the plot. The way the story developed was reasonably well structured though, the gradual building of the five planned situations, followed by the extended fall out and investigation built up well with a great balance of shock, tension and action. The only real frustration came from the early episodes’ tendencies to spend a disproportionate amounts of time on relatively minor characters (the bloody 70’s porn star social worker I could definitely have lived without).

So I wasn’t completely sold on the destination, but the journey for the most part was entertaining and the company grew on me along the way. Martin and Saga form an entertaining partnership, neither really having the faintest clue what the other one is thinking or doing, but forming a weird trust nevertheless. The problem is that neither character actually should be likeable. Martin is definitely a cheating slimeball, yet somehow manages to come across as more of a loveable rogue. Saga meanwhile struggles back and forth between entertainingly quirky and annoyingly weird. I suspect there’s an element of great actors managing to drag their characters up above some mediocre writing. Saga’s personality in particular seemed to fluctuate depending on whether the writers needed her to be a brilliant detective profiling serial killers motives or a comedy character unable to understand the simplest human needs.

The Bridge may not be the best thing since The Killing, but that’s ok, because it was still sufficiently entertaining. It still looked amazing with plenty of artistic framing and lighting of the grittily dingy Sweden and Denmark (can’t help but think the tourist boards weren’t overly thrilled with the production designers). And the best thing, at 10 episodes, it didn’t outstay its welcome and paced itself well so that stuff happened each week, things were revealed and introduced so everything kept moving quite merrily along. Well, not merrily obviously, because I haven’t really mentioned the fact that’s it’s all a bit bleak and depressing, but if you like that sort of thing, it’s a pretty good way to spend ten hours.

The whole first season is available on iPlayer at time of writing or on bluray or dvd.
A second season will broadcast late in 2013 according to wikipedia.

The Bridge: Pilot review

I think at this point I may watch more Scandinavian television series than I do British ones. I think my fondness for them is at least partly related to the fact that the subtitles override my natural tendency towards a short attention span, there’s no such thing as ‘half watching’ because without being completely focussed you miss all the dialogue. Many shows (independent of production location) don’t stand up to that level of scrutiny, but given how much I enjoyed The Killing and Borgen I’m now far more likely to give a subtitled BBC 4 show a chance than I am anything on the main channels. It also helps that at 10 episodes long, The bridge isn’t too large a commitment and two episodes a week keeps things moving along (although this review is written after watching just the first episode).

The Bridge is a joint production between the Danish and Swedish public broadcasters, and that theme runs through absolutely everything the show does, from the title card which gives the series name in both languages through to the details of the case. A body is found in the middle of the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo, and the Danish and Swedish police have to work together on the case which very rapidly turns into something a great deal more complex than just a ‘simple’ murder.

The set-up alone is enough reason to watch. I was instantly intrigued to find out more about how two countries so physically close might be the same or different in process and culture. The fact that I know very little about either country makes it even more interesting. Investigating that issue through the kind of complex murder mystery that I enjoy unravelling just puts the icing on the cake really.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the reality of the first episode as a whole quite delivers to the same level as the concept. One issue was that the characters seem pretty unimaginative at the moment, just taken from the various ranks of police drama archetypes. The lead Danish detective appears to be good natured, rather shabby womaniser with an aura of laid back experience. The lead Swedish detective meanwhile is the ‘kooky’ loner who’s a good investigator but has terrible people skills. It’s a classic case of unlikely partners being thrown together against their will.

There are a few more tedious characters, mostly in the random subplots that currently have no connection to the main plot at all. There’s one involving a successful business man suffering heart failure who’s overbearing wife will do anything money can buy to get her husband a new heart. Then there’s a weird storyline that sees a bloke with unclear motives who looks like he walked straight out of the 70s take pity on the beaten wife of a thug. I assume all these storylines will come together at some point, but in the pilot they were just a somewhat dull distraction.

The production was beautiful, as I’ve come to expect following The Killing and Borgen, every shot beautifully framed and lit. The only thing that let the production down I felt was the subtitling. I think I was missing out on a lot, the subtitles never seemed long enough to correspond to the actual dialogue. Also I think there was a lot of subtlety in language that’s missing; I was frustrated to not know who was speaking in what language for example. I’d hoped for a little more help from the writing and subtitles to highlight the cultural differences etc, but I had enough trouble just keeping track of which country we were in. I realise that this will be more obvious for the ‘home’ audiences of the show and it’s not really fair of me to expect them to cater for overseas viewers, but it did impact my enjoyment of the show.

I will stick with the show, cliché characters are hardly the biggest crime a pilot episode has ever committed, and there’s still plenty of time for development to round them out. I also rather enjoy the process of watching a show like this, discussing it with friends and colleagues and seeing it develop and resolve within a nicely manageable time span. It may not be the breathless praise I heaped on The Killing or Borgen, but it’s not a bad start, and now that I’ve written this, I can finally go and watch the second episode.

The Bridge is broadcast on BBC4 on Saturday evenings and is available on iplayer.

Other reviews:
The Huffington Post – How wonderful – Saturday night, 9pm, BBC4 and another Nordic thriller. We’ve had The Killing, then a burst of coalition politics in Borgen, what could The Bridge do?

It could take everything The Killing did so well, and expand on it, that’s what.
The Guardian – It wasn’t as gripping as The Killing, but it was handsomely mounted, well acted and reassuringly deprived of natural light and colour.
The Guardian also do a weekly recap and analysis for obsessives.