Thursday, 5 September 2013

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

As a film critic, I love movies even though watching them feels like work as I have to analyse every detail and remember everyone's names! To escape - and to recapture my enjoyment of less demanding entertainment - I watch guilty pleasure television. Sometimes this is quality stuff like Mad Men or Top of the Lake, but I like silly TV like Franklin & Bash or Downton Abbey just as much. And I love smart-funny sitcoms (Veep, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation are favourites). Here's what I've been watching this summer, in chronological order...

Mad Men: series 6
created by Matthew Weiner; with Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks; AMC/US *****
The quality of this show never flags, as the scripts continually provoke characters to their breaking points. So much happened in this season that it's impossible to outline briefly: each character went through an odyssey that left them profoundly changed. Many of them were heading in all-new directions as the final episode wrapped up. What's fascinating is watching each person try to do the right thing but fail at every turn because of weakness, lust, ambition or even ignorance. These are amazing people, staggeringly well-played by a first-rate cast, including strong new roles this season for Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin and James Wolk. They even pushed young Sally (Kiernan Shipka) in some pretty intense directions, in the process thankfully bringing back her nice-creepy friend Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). (May-Jun.13)

Franklin & Bash: series 3
created by Bill Chais, Kevin Falls; with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Breckin Meyer, Reed Diamond, Malcolm McDowell, Heather Locklear; TBS/US ***.
This is a rare beast: a mindless guilty pleasure that's silly and inconsequential, but never stupid. Gosselaar (all grown up since Saved by the Bell) and Meyer have terrific chemistry as womanising, rule-defying surfer lawyers who join an elite Los Angeles legal firm run by McDowell's eccentric renaissance man. This season, the firm is managed by a whip-cracking Locklear, who adds even more energy to the show, not that it needed it. This is a free-wheeling comedy that has a lot of fun with its weekly oddball court cases, including celebrity judge guest stars. And all of the characters are hilarious, including the guys' assistants, who live with them in their Malibu beach house, where their neighbourly feud with Rob Lowe gets a nice pay-off. Yes, it's utterly ridiculous, but it constantly surprises us with smart comedy and even some character depth when we least expect it. (Jul.13)

Top of the Lake
created by Jane Campion, Gerard Lee; with Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M Wright, Holly Hunter; BBC/NZ ****.
Embracing mystery and ambiguity in ways that we haven't seen on TV since Twin Peaks, this series plays with our curiosity, dropping all kinds of clues in every scene. We're never sure if these are important keys to understanding the bigger picture or off-handed details to reel us in. But it's absolutely mesmerising, set in a spectacular New Zealand mountain community. And Moss' riveting performance anchors the show impeccably, drawing us in with a mix of steely tenacity, earthy emotion and painful baggage. Her interaction with shifty cop Wenham, nice-guy childhood boyfriend Wright and bullish gangster Mullan is simply magical. Each of these men is a riot of conflicting personality traits that feeds into the central mystery about a missing pregnant teen. But where she is and who her baby's father is are secondary to Moss' own journey. And Hunter's seriously odd guru adds some absurd humour along the way. (Jul-Aug.13)

True Blood: series 6
created by Alan Ball; with Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard, Sam Trammell, Rob Kazinsky; HBO/US ***.
After a couple of rather soapy seasons, this series rocketed through a tense story that had everyone at each others' throats: government thugs are up to something awful, the now godlike Bill (Moyer) is trying to change the world, lovelorn Eric (Skarsgard) is out for revenge, Sam (Trammell) is caught between werewolves and shifters, and Sookie (Paquin) has met a super fairy-vamp (Kazinsky) who has pined after her for 5,000 years. Every episode is packed with jolts that catch us off guard, including a number of high-profile deaths. And even though it's completely over-the-top, it's packed with wonderfully entertaining side characters who make it unmissable, notably Anna Camp's insane vampire-hunter, Kristin Bauer van Straten's always-angry diva and Deborah Ann Woll's tormented young blood-sucker. But everyone surprises us in this series. (Jul-Aug.13)

House of Cards
created by Beau Willimon; with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll; Netflix/US ****
Spacey brilliantly channels the ghost of Ian Richardson's character in this remake of the iconic 1990 British series about an ambitious politician ruthlessly pulling the strings of government for his own benefit. It's dark and twisted, and Spacey lets us see not only the character's manipulative cruelty but also his inner insecurities. Even more vivid is Wright's portrayal of his equally ambitious wife. This is one of the strongest women in film or TV at the moment, and you can't take your eyes off her. Mara is plucky but a bit soft as the reporter caught up in the nastiness. But Stoll shines as a Congressman forced into all kinds of dark corners. His plot strand may feel preachy and somewhat forced, but it's the most emotionally engaging element in the whole show. Unlike the original version, which was a stand-alone mini-series (continued in two further stand-alone series), this remake ends on a cliffhanger that clearly leads to a second season. (Aug.13)

created by David Schickler, Jonathan Tropper; with Antony Starr, Ulrich Thomsen, Ivana Milicevic, Frankie Faison, Ben Cross; Cinemax/US ***
This small-town thriller is a decent guilty pleasure with its twisty plot and colourful characters - a Western set in present-day America. It centres on an ex-con (Starr) who passes himself off as the new sheriff in an unusually violent rural Pennsylvania town (shootouts every day!), where he's trying to win back his old girlfriend (Milicevic), daughter of the New York mob boss (Cross) who wants him dead. Meanwhile, he continually locks horns with a local gangster (Thomsen) who grew up in the local Amish community. Starr's central performance is eerily reminiscent of Arrow's Steven Amell (they could play twins): beefy but expressionless. But the show is also misogynistic and racist, while the writing and directing (and especially the fight choreography) are frequently quite lazy, all of which is surprising with Alan Ball's name attached as a producer. Amid continual violence, the sex is the stuff of male fantasy: women are often naked, helpless and thankless, but never the men. The only interesting character is Hoon Lee's cross-dressing fix-it expert, but he gets tamed as the series progresses. (Aug.13)

> Autumn highlights include the finale of Dexter, the returns of Homeland and Downton Abbey, and the new season of sitcoms.

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