Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

Yes, sometimes a bit of television can help clear my head after a day at the movies (ie, work). And I've been following several series over the past few months. The granddaddy of them all is the most expensive TV show ever made...

Game of Thrones: series 3
created by David Benioff, DB Weiss; with Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, Kit Harington, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau HBO/US ****
Honestly, this is one of the most thrillingly infuriating TV series ever, as it skips around its array of storylines tantalising the audience with tidbits of narrative, about half of which is hugely engaging. By far, the best characters in the show are Dinklage's Tyrion (above) and Clarke's Daenerys, and both had gripping journeys this year, ending up in unexpected emotional places. And Williams' Arya is proving to be the show's dark horse. There was also the usual series of nightmarish battles and sudden deaths for various central characters. Few TV shows have ever tried something on this scale, and while the fragmented narrative keeps it from being completely involving, each episode is packed with moments that take the breath away.

Mad Men: series 7
created by Matthew Weiner; with Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse AMC/US *****
The final season of this already iconic show has been split into two - so actually this is the penultimate series, and we'll have to wait until next year to see how it all ends. This astonishingly well written and acted drama has now arrived in 1969, where things are rather tumultuous for both America and the characters. Some of the story threads feel a little obtuse (January Jones has so little to do now), while the New York/California split made the show sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic. But everything dovetails together cleverly without answering every question, which forces the audience to engage with the moral complexities and interpersonal dramas. It's time for it to come to an end, but we'll hate to see it go.

Veep: series 3
created by Armando Iannucci; with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons HBO/US ****
Nurse Jackie: series 6
created by Evan Dunsky, Linda Wallem, Liz Brixius; with Edie Falco, Merritt Wever, Adam Ferrara, Peter Facinelli, Paul Schulze, Anna Deavere Smith Showtime/US ****
Two cable series pushed boundaries with female-led, dark-edged comedies. Louis-Dreyfus continues to be the best comic performer on television; her impeccable timing makes Selena both formidable and rather endearingly pathetic. Selena's campaign for the presidency sometimes drifted over the lines into corny slapstick, but was consistently hilarious. By contrast, Falco's equally impeccable performance as Jackie made her show unmissable, thanks to some of the best writing in all six seasons. As a high-functioning addict, Jackie's link to reality drifted very slowly this season, so the laughter tended to be of the bitter, nervous sort. Both shows offered terrific season-long arcs that were packed with surprises and left things in a whole new place for next year.

Modern Family: series 5
created by Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd; with Ed O'Neill, SofĂ­a Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet ABC/US *****
Parks and Recreation: series 6
created by Greg Daniels, Michael Schur; with Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt NBC/US *****
Community: series 5
created by Dan Harmon; with Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong NBC/US ****
I don't watch very many network sitcoms, but these three single-camera shows are mercifully free of laugh-tracks (I tried to watch Mom because I love Allison Janney and Anna Faris, but the inane guffawing wore me out). These three, on the other hand, are not only very funny but are blessed with some of the best writing and acting on TV. Has another show ever maintained such high quality over five seasons as Modern Family? When I met Ty Burrell at a press event in January I asked him why, and he said it's simple: they have the same team of writers they started with. Which also explains why the children have grown into sharply complex characters all their own. Another show that gets funnier year by year, Parks has a cast of hilarious scene-stealers who continually add layers to their characters. Losing Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones would have doomed a lesser show, but these guys more than filled the gap. And in its final season, Community bounced back to the wacky unpredictability of earlier years. The scattershot approach was a little disorienting (as are many of the brainy jokes and subtle references), but it's a rare show that actually talks up to its audience.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: series 1
created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen; with Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge ABC/US ***
Scandal: series 3
created by Shonda Rhimes; with Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Perry, Darby Stanchfield, Katie Lowes, Guillermo Diaz ABC/US ****
Arrow: series 2
created by Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim; with Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, David Ramsey, Caity Lotz, Manu Bennett, Susanna Thompson Warner/US ***
These three series are guilty pleasures: not particularly great but a lot of fun. Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. series often feels like either an X-Files rip-off or a craven tie-in to their big-screen movies, but the character interaction is a lot of fun, and the season arc led the team into some intriguingly perilous situations. Scandal was a blast of fresh air in its first short season, then became bogged down in soapy melodrama in the second year. This third series was a lot sharper, with more political edge and some strong moral dilemmas. It also features the most fabulous cliffhangers imaginable - even the lead-ins to the ad breaks leave the audience breathless with anticipation. By contrast, Arrow suffers from painfully clumsy plotting that feels badly contrived at every turn, while the dual-timeline structure is straining at the seams. But the often startlingly fit actors are magnetic, drawing us into the action even though we know it's utterly ridiculous.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Here's Tammy!
Since I was on holiday last week, I saw no films at all. But I returned to work on Monday (my birthday, no less) and caught up with two: Melissa McCarthy's comedy Tammy isn't quite sure if it's a silly slapstick comedy or a sentimental road movie - so isn't really either one. And the festival-favourite comedy Obvious Child is a seriously endearing rom-com that avoids the usual structure and is packed with spiky characters and humour. I've got several things in the pipeline over the next week, including catch-up screenings of this summer's Transformers, How to Train Your Dragons and Planet of the Apes movies. But first things first: I mustn't let my tan fade away...

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