Friday 25 September 2015

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV roundup

Summer is a great time to binge-watch television series, offering a nice escape from film critic work: I don't have to pay close attention to plot gyrations or characters names, or assign a star rating. And I can watch what I want, so I tend to avoid violence-based series for more character-centred ones. Best of all is the ability to squeeze in a half-hour comedy between writing reviews and watching a movie for work. Here's how I cleared my head over the summer...


Beautifully shot and edited, with a powerful emotional kick, the Wachowskis' ambitious 12-part drama weaves together eight plots involving people around the world who have a sentient connection with each other. It was all rather elusive, only barely explaining what was going on as the eight storylines plus an overall Heroes-like supervillain plot inched along at an infuriatingly slow pace. More interaction between the characters might have made it even more engaging, as each central figure was strikingly well played by actors we'd like to see a lot more of on either the big or small screen. Particularly, Miguel Angel Silvestre shines in the most complex, interesting role; Max Riemelt reveals a remarkably magnetic screen presence; and Tuppence Middleton was terrific in a devastating role. But it would be nice if the plot increases its pace in the second series.

Wayward Pines
This 10-episode series starts out like Twin Peaks, then veers sharply into Lost territory before becoming a more schlocky sci-fi thriller. It's a lot of fun, thanks to first-rate production design and committed performances by Matt Dillon, Melissa Leo, Carla Gugino, Shannyn Sossaman, Hope Davis and especially Toby Jones, seriously unnerving as an obsessive visionary. It's shot and edited very cleverly, maintaining some serious tension even when the story goes completely off the rails. Frankly, as the gunplay increases the show gets less and less enjoyable, so by the end the violence begins to eclipse the more intriguing drama that went before. But the cast makes it gripping.

The Flash
Since Arrow is one of my guilty pleasures, I thought I should catch up with the spin-off series over the summer. It's certainly a lot of breezy fun, lighter and faster-paced than Arrow, but with the same combination of over-complicated characters, contrived plotting and simplified action sequences. Grant Gustin makes a likeable lead, especially in his scenes with the wonderful Jesse L Martin. And the surrounding cast members really grow on us, something we notice when their lives are threatened. Yes, as with Arrow, the series regulars aren't remotely safe. Clearly these producers have a tendency to turn things very dark indeed, but they also work at keeping this show enjoyably buoyant between the big emotional bits.

Yet another TV series with a nutty fantastical gimmick, this show demonstrates the usual screenwriting that pretends to be smart but is actually simplistic and rather silly. It's also a lot of fun to watch, as it throws a handful of likeable characters into a series of mysteries, all centring on the idea that someone can be "stitched" into the fading memories of someone who has recently died. The crime-solving aspects of the show are fun, while the overarching story begins to bog down in coincidences and complications that are clearly designed to drag things on from season to season. The cast is sharp and young and energetic, all ludicrously thin and fit for top scientist nerds. But their relationships are worth rooting for, and these 10 episodes end on a huge cliffhanger guaranteed to bring viewers back for series 2.


Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
This riotously gimmicky comedy reassembles the starry cast of the 2001 cult hit movie, including Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, Ken Marino, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, et al. Plus Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman and more. The joke here is that they're all playing the same characters - teen summer camp counsellors - on the first day of camp (as opposed to the film, which is set on the last day). And the casting turns out to be an inspired touch, since the pre-teen campers see these 17-year-old leaders as grown-ups, even though they're anything but. Like the movie, the series is packed with random plot threads, throwing jokes and references at the screen constantly in the hopes that some of them stick. And yes, it's hilarious.

The Brink
A terrific cast and some very sharp writing give this political black comedy an entertaining edge, as it focusses on Jack Black's idiotic diplomat causing chaos in Pakistan, exacerbated by two downed pilots (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin) who are captured by a pair of freaky black market antiques dealers (the hilarious Rob Brydon and Michelle Gomez). Meanwhile, Tim Robbins' Secretary of State freewheels through his job, barely managing to just diffuse World War III but never bothering to keep his libido in check. Aasif Mandvi is also superb as the only character who seems to see that all of this is utterly nuts. The events unfold from episode to episode with a random sense of momentum, flickering around to a variety of characters and set-pieces that don't all seem to fit together, but there's always a sense that the writers have a bigger picture in mind. And where it goes is both funny and jaggedly pointed.

There's just a hint of underlying honesty to this pro-sports comedy, because otherwise all of the macho posturing would be unbearable. Dwayne Johnson is well-cast as an ex-footballer trying to make a go of things as a sports manager, and his misfit clients (including John David Washington, Omar Benson Miller and Donovan W Carter) are both amusing and endearingly pathetic. As is his accountant partner, the always brilliant Rob Corddry. Oddly, the show seems to not realise that it's main commentary is about uneducated athletes who suddenly earn a fortune and don't have the smarts to deal with it. Instead, the show focusses on their silly decisions as they continually get themselves in trouble, relying on Johnson and Corddry to rescue them. Even though they often need rescuing themselves. But the relentless misogynistic masculinity is ultimately exhausting. Which shouldn't be surprising for a series from the producers of Entourage.

The Spoils Before Dying
In the style of the iconic 1982 series Police Squad, this deadpan genre spoof is hosted by Will Ferrell in an Orson Welles-like role as a disgraced filmmaker presenting his lost 1959 masterpiece, the eponymous noir mystery starring Michael Kenneth Williams as a jazz musician who has three days to clear his name. The all-star cast includes Kristen Wiig, Michael Sheen, Maya Rudolph, Haley Joel Osment and Berenice Marlohe, with cameos galore. It's utterly absurd, and far too mannered to work on any real level. But for every broad gag that isn't remotely funny, there's a throwaway line that's deeply inspired. Frankly, it's amazing that they got the money together to make something this ridiculous.


Inside Amy Schumer: series 3
As she took on her first big-screen writing and starring project with Judd Apatow's Trainwreck, I finally had a chance to binge watch all three series of her TV show, which mixes Chelsea Handler's comical sensibilities with some surprising acting chops. It's a clever combination of sketch humour, chat show and stand-up, with Schumer essentially playing herself (she's always named "Amy", as indeed she is in Trainwreck) in a variety of scenarios, many of which are set in her actual life as a TV comic. And there are big laughs laced through each half-hour episode, bolstered by Schumer's willingness to push the boundaries of what's always been considered acceptable on television. Her frankness about sex is especially refreshing, as is her celebration of things most people would consider deeply wrong. The 12 Angry Men pastiche this season was especially inspired. And delightfully profane.

Vicious: series 2
Produced like a British 1970s sitcom, the retro style of this comedy is extremely jarring, as excellent actors Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, Iwan Rheon and Frances de la Tour ham it up mercilessly for an audience that seems willing to laugh at absolutely anything. It's so cheaply made that it's impossible to engage with properly (the dance competition episode was especially inane in this sense, as there were no contestants aside from the series regulars). And yet the script manages to surprise us with moments of honesty that seem to come out of nowhere, especially as Freddie and Stuart legally formalised their tetchy relationship after more than 50 years together. It's written as a stupid, simple-minded farce, but the occasional glimmer of depth makes it watchable.

Masters of Sex: series 3
This show departs from its biopic origins, now heavily fictionalising the lives of William Masters and Virginia Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan). This has the effect of sidelining their scientific achievements in lieu of more standard television melodrama, which requires the viewer to take a rather enormous leap. Without the underpinnings of real life or science, the show feels oddly uninteresting, as the excellent actors struggle to maintain the intriguing layers of their characters in these more simplistic, formulaic scripts. And the strangest thing is that the show is no longer sexy at all. It's still produced to a very high standard, but without the zing of real-life, it feels rather pointless. We have plenty of dramas about marital infidelity, but not many that are fiercely honest about sex.

True Detective: series 2
With a new cast, story and L.A. setting, this follow-up season has very little resemblance to the first. And that's a problem, because the case it traces is messy but not very interesting, only watchable because it brings three disparate cops (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch) together to solve a murder. Each of them has personal issues that basically stem from self-hatred, which makes them difficult to sympathise with. And the shadowy businessman played by Vince Vaughn is equally unlikeable. So what's left? There are some stunningly staged set-pieces along the way, like the astonishingly awful gunfight in episode 4. And the mystery feels knotted and messy, although it's actually about as complex as a Murder She Wrote episode stretched to 10 hours.

Now it's autumn and we have a slew of new and returning series to distract us. I'm most looking forward to seeing if Empire can maintain its spark, if Fargo can strike gold again, and if Downton Abbey can go out with a bang. Plus more of comedy favourites like Transparent, You're the Worst and Please Like Me.

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