Thursday 25 June 2015

Shadows on the Tube: Summer TV roundup

Yes, I continue to watch TV to clear my head in my downtime, naturally preferring shows that are guilty pleasures rather than anything difficult or too gritty. Here's what I watched through the spring...


Grace and Frankie
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were simply divine in this somewhat contrived sitcom about two very different 70-year-old women stuck with each other when they're husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) marry each other. The entire cast is excellent, making the most of the occasionally goofy situational comedy to inject character depth and some properly emotional moments amid the generally hilarious comedy. Watching it is pure joy.

This archaeological thriller series clearly wants to be Indiana Jones meets Homeland, but it's more like The Da Vinci Code with its convoluted religious conspiracy and contrived action sequences. Still, it was more than worth watching for Jason Isaacs, Anne Heche and Lauren Ambrose. And the complexities of the setting in Jerusalem at least let the writers hint at some extremely murky themes along the way, even if they kind of chickened out in the end. It's unclear where this can go if it gets a second season.

How to Get Away With Murder
Another twisty thriller/soap hybrid from Shonda Rhimes, this show is enjoyable for its gimmicky scripting and flashy style, but it's also deeply annoying because every character on-screen is essentially repulsive. The worst of the lot is Viola Davis' supposedly fierce Annalise - a great actress saddled with a character who is so reactionary, two-faced and emotionally crippled that it's impossible to believe she's such a high-powered lawyer. And the one supposedly "good" student (Alfred Enoch's Wes) is predictably useless. The cast is excellent across the board, but the writing shows an astonishing lack of insight, and the structure is too choppy to let the audience in. What's left is superficially entertaining, but it's also insidiously misogynistic, racist and homophobic.

Ballot Monkeys
Timed to coincide with the British general election, this improvised series poked fun at the campaign trail of the four main parties, filming on the day of broadcast to keep everything unnervingly timely. It was sharply written and played by a cast of experts, with laugh-out-loud moments all the way through. And while much of the humour is a fairly timeless riff on the inanity of electioneering, most of the pointed gags are already out of date.


Mad Men: series 7b
Oddly, instead of just call this the 8th and final season, they called this year's brief collection of episodes the second half of the 7th. Whatever, this remained one of the best written and performed TV series ever right to the final episode. The way each of these characters wrapped up his or her individual story arc was a wonder to behold, masterfully written, directed and played to allow for shattering emotion, black comedy and lingering ambiguity. It's rare for a show to never put a foot wrong from start to finish. And this one is simply exquisite.

Game of Thrones: series 4
Things continue to come back into focus with this badly fragmented fantasy epic, after splintering into so many strands over the 2nd and 3rd seasons that it was almost impossible to keep track. But we're down to just a handful of important plots now centring on the four most engaging actors: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington and Maisie Williams. Watching two of them meet up along the way provided a thrilling jolt of energy to the show. So it's frustrated that the writers didn't go anywhere with that, leaving all of the (surviving) characters essentially where they started as the season began. Expect massive viewer drop-off next year.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: series 2
Messy and indulgent, there is little reason to watch this show beyond trying to make sense of Marvel's larger universe, and indeed there were references to Avengers: Age of Ultron folded into this season. Still, it's packed with enjoyable characters who bristle with all kinds of tension between them, and while the overarching mythology is murky and annoyingly elusive, that only adds to the show's X-Men/X-Files appeal. And this season's epic confrontation felt remarkably big and punchy for a TV series.


Veep: series 4
Now that she's president, there isn't much left for Selena to do, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus keeps her hilariously flapping around, surrounded by a gang of idiots trying their best not to do something stupid. Thankfully they fail week in and week out. Her presidential campaign seemed oddly rushed (compared to the protracted real thing), and the final cliffhanger felt like a cheat. But it's all so marvellously played that it doesn't matter too much.

Nurse Jackie: series 7
Edi Falco has creates such a vivid antihero in Jackie that it's becoming harder and harder to root for her. Cleverly, in this series she has been forcibly rehabilitated, and yet like everyone around her we don't believe it for a second. Her relationships and feuds continue to take surprising twists and turns, although the strain is beginning to show in both the scripts and the increasingly mannered performances.

Community: series 6
Now on Yahoo, this series feels very different, with a retooled cast and a tone that feels a bit softer and less anarchic. But these episodes were also more meta than ever (which is saying something) as characters continually referenced the fact that this was the sixth season on an online channel, ending with the hashtag #andamovie. And while the absence of Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown was strongly felt, Paget Brewster and Keith David added their own energy to a show that refreshingly refuses to play by any sensible rules.

Episodes: series 4
This gently comical series continues to trundle along without much energy, but the characters get stronger as it goes, and there's a superb sense of consistency in the way it approaches the absurdities of Hollywood, especially as it contrives to keep Sean and Beverly (the superb Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg) stuck in the studio treadmill. Yes, they've checked into the Hotel California and they can never leave. And Matt LeBlanc is riotously funny as the devil himself, even when they pointlessly try to make him likeable.

W1A: series 2
This BBC comedy about the inner workings of the BBC is so improvisational that it sometimes feels like it's treading water, but the characters are vividly well played by Hugh Bonneville, Monica Dolan, Jessica Hynes and company. The continual stream of knowing gags and outrageously straight-faced silliness is inspired enough to keep us chuckling even though David Tennant's subtly insane voice over is way over the top. The scary thing is that the BBC is probably even more ridiculous in real life. Or at least that's how we hope it is.

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