Thursday 7 January 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV roundup

Christmas break is a great time to binge watch things I've banked up for months, alternating them with studio screener discs of movies seeking awards consideration. Most of these are limited series that completed their runs (or at least this season) before Christmas. The other three built to a mid-season cliffhanger and will be back in the spring...


You, Me and the Apocalypse
This offbeat UK-US hybrid has heavyweight comical brilliance in the cast (Rob Lowe, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman) and a likeable double lead in Matthew Baynton. So there were moments of both comical and dramatic genius in this multi-strand tale of the final month before an asteroid obliterates life on Earth. But the tone resolutely refused to gel, existing somewhere in that space between goofy slapstick and edgy satire. In the end, it managed to entertain right to the awkward ending. Would I watch a second series? Possibly, if I needed something vacuous to fill the time.

Master of None
Aziz Ansari brought his stand-up persona to the TV series format in this intriguing hybrid of sitcom and anthology show. Each episode addresses a single theme,while allowing the characters to deepen engagingly. Even the minor roles had layers of complexity rarely seen in TV comedy, popping in and out of episodes like people do in real life - bringing their individual complications with them. It's also a rare show with a proper gender and ethnic angle that mirrors real life. As a result, the 10 episodes seemed to go by far too quickly. Would I watch a second series? Obviously.

Minority Report
Based on both the Philip K Dick novel and the Steven Spielberg movie, this futuristic series had some clever themes and a sharp visual design to it. On the other hand, it badly simplified the moral issues involved, often reducing the premise to a cheesy cop drama that, despite having a strong female lead in Meagan Good, felt eerily misogynistic (apparently in the future women are required to wear plunging necklines, which men have to oogle). This is probably because, as the series progressed, the writers stubbornly refused to add any proper depth to the characters. Would I watch a second series? I doubt it.

The Man in the High Castle
Also based on a Philip K Dick novel, this Amazon series takes a look at a parallel-reality 1960 in which the Nazis and Japanese won the war, dividing up America between them. The result is an intriguing mix of fantasy and political drama, packed with very big issues. It also boasts a terrific cast of likeable actors in complex, sympathetic roles. On the other hand, the production design was almost comically gloomy, and the plotting sometimes felt badly under-developed. But in the end, the intriguing "what if..." themes add a strong kick. Would I watch a second series? Yes, although I wish they'd let the story end properly this time round.

London Spy
More gloominess, this time in an even more relentlessly dark and grey present-day London, where a hapless young guy (the superb Ben Whishaw) discovers that his beloved late boyfriend was actually a spy. Strong support from Jim Broadbent, with spicy roles for underused stars like Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Kate Dickie and Adrian Lester. The production does a great job of creating a moody, paranoid atmosphere, although a hint of fresh air might have made it more engaging. And a plot that had somewhere interesting to go. Would I watch a second series? Probably. I like moody.


Downton Abbey: series 6
Julian Fellowes managed to keep the quality high right to the end of this final season, even if the show has relentlessly smoothed out every intriguing edge with each successive year. This climactic series, plus the two-hour finale, was never as dark or surprising as we hoped. But it gave all of the characters both narrative intrigue and lots of camp one-liners as it brought every plot thread (and then some) to a close. If anything, this last season was even funnier than the previous years, so perhaps it was a good idea to go out on a high.

Fargo: series 2
Instead of playing it safe, producers took this show back 25 years into a massive gang war. The result isn't quite as likeable as the first season, but it's even more provocative and textured, with a large cast of unforgettable characters, most of whom end up dead. Standouts include Kristen Dunst's blank hairdresser and her helpful butcher husband (Jesse Plemmons), two observant and measured local cops (Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson), a charismatic interloper (Bookeem Woodbine), a tenacious native American (Zahn McClarnon) and a matriarch (Jean Smart) who rules through gritted teeth. What happens is twisty, messy and so sprawling that it constantly requires narration to find the path through it. Fiendishly clever.

Transparent: series 2
Quite simply the most beautiful series in production at the moment, this second season pushed all of the characters much, much further, grappling with enormous issues of gender and sexuality, as well as family connections. All of these people are deeply flawed, which makes them eerily easy to identify with as they struggle to find their way. And the brief explorations of how their family's history echoes down through the decades was seriously haunting.

Homeland: series 5
Claire Danes' now ex-CIA operative Carrie Mathison may have gone off the grid for this series, but the writers cleverly managed to bring her right into the middle of a massive terrorist plot. The Berlin setting gave the show a blast of fresh air, as did the inclusion of Miranda Otto as a shifty US official. Along the way, there was some strong, complex drama and several heart-stopping moments, beautifully staged in intriguing locations. And it concludes on a note that allows the show to reboot again somewhere new next year.


You're the Worst: series 2
One of the darkest sitcoms ever made, this strikingly original show delved into depression this year in a way that was unexpected, honest and powerfully moving. This isn't something comedy series usually do, but the cast and crew managed it here while maintaining the show's hilariously brittle vibe,. They also constantly, inventively push these outrageous characters forward. Unmissable.

Doll & Em: Series 2
Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer continue their rather silly friendship, this season as they tried to write a play about their lives. The show is fiendishly knowing, dry and witty but more telling and emotional than funny. It constantly catches the audience by surprise with its astute comments on both friendship and show business. But the low-key approach sometimes tests the patience.

Please Like Me: series 3
This Australian sitcom is maturing year-by-year into something unusually observant, as its gang of young characters (led by creator-actor Josh Thomas) navigate their way into the thorny grown-up world of relationships and family. Constantly surprising and packed with unexpected laugh-out-loud moments, the show also had a stronger, more resonant emotional undercurrent this year.

The Muppets
This reboot of The Muppet Show cleverly sets the chaos around a late-night TV show hosted by Miss Piggy, which offers the promise of lots of starry guests sending themselves up. But the style of the show (a mock-doc) and the humour (The Office-style idiocy) utterly fail to catch the singular genius of the Muppets. It simply isn't smart, sweet or funny. I lasted four episodes and gave up.


Empire: series 2
There's been a strange tonal shift in this second season, as the Lyon family escalate their internal warring. The problem is that this has tipped the series from camp sassiness to real nastiness, leaving none of the characters particularly likeable. If rumours are to be believed, there's a similar level of feuding going on behind the cameras, which doesn't bode well for the future of a show that started off so brilliantly. Hopefully the second half of this season will be more fun. Frankly, it needs to feel the impact of Lee Daniels' involvement a lot more than it does at the moment.

Scandal: series 5
Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope continues to grapple with all manner of controversy, and in this season she's at the centre of the storm herself. The plots are melodramatic and soapy, but the interaction is great fun, as the camp excesses of Olivia's now-public affair with the US President (Tony Goldwyn), which is thankfully balanced by serious, shadowy grisliness. But there are fewer proper cliffhangers this year, as the story settles into a straightforward soapy narrative. Bring back the scandals, please.

Arrow: series 4 / The Flash: series 2

These heroic action series continue to intermingle enjoyably, as they use simplistic scripts to explore hugely overcomplicated plots, with characters visiting each others' shows. And the charismatic actors make them addictive - Arrow's brooding darkness is undercut by edgy comedy and romance, while The Flash's lively comedy is subverted by moments of real emotion. A third series (Legends of Tomorrow) joins them in early 2016. Will it have the same mix of badly choreographed action and compelling characters?

Ongoing series I'm watching at the moment include The Grinder (my favourite new show this year), Modern Family, Galavant, Dickensian, and I'm looking forward to Chelsea Does.

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