Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

I watch a range of TV series as an escape valve from all the movies, and I like most genres that don't centre on cops, lawyers or hospitals. And I'm about to add superheroes to that list. Anyway, it's been an enjoyable few months, with some solid quality and several guilty pleasures...


The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
With staggeringly sharp writing, direction and acting, this dramatisation of the notorious events of 1994 and 1995 is utterly riveting from start to finish. All of the actors are award-worthy; stand-outs include Sarah Paulson's beleaguered lawyer, Sterling Brown as her tenacious partner and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. And these were only the most complex characters in a show packed with memorable performances. Clearly, the most important thing about this heavily researched show is the balanced approach it takes to finally put the record straight.

The Five
Harlan Coban's mystery took a terrifically snaky path through 10 gripping episodes. Since so many red herrings and character dramas were stirred in, the solution was impossible to see coming, but the ending still managed to be solidly satisfying. Tom Cullen was terrific in the central role, ably supported by a varied, skilled cast including OT Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as his childhood pals (they are four of the eponymous five, possibly). It's a rare thriller that can deepen the characters even as it makes the central storyline increasingly knotted, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

The Real O'Neals
A brightly silly play on the standard American sitcom, this genuinely hilarious series has five terrific actors playing the O'Neal family, each of whom goes through a sort of coming-out from their superficial good-Catholic appearance, sparked by teen Kenny (Noah Galvin) realising that he's gay. Where this goes is witty and smart, but played for very broad laughs, which cleverly undercuts a wide array of serious themes that gurgle through every scene. The dialog snaps with life, hysterically delivered by a cast we'd like to spend a lot more time with. As these characters mature, it'll be interesting to see how bold the writers are allowed to get within the US network formula. Because if they don't learn and grow, this show is doomed.

This blackly comical 6-part drama is so relentlessly quirky that it quickly weeds out less patient audience members with the very first scenes. An eccentric story about eccentric people in an eccentric English village, it's so mannered that it struggles to generate any real emotional kick. Even so, the cast is excellent, anchored by the brilliant Olivia Colman, who makes Deborah Flowers an engagingly flawed matriarch who veers from chirpy optimism to wrenching despair. As her husband and children, Julian Barratt, Sophia Di Martino and Daniel Rigby are intriguing and often surprising. As is writer-director Will Sharpe in what turns out to be a key role. It's a shame the story doesn't quite hang together.

Will Arnett is reason enough to watch this show, although it's pretty insufferable. Centred on a group of losers who are in their mid to late 30s, this show doesn't really have a single likeable character. Much of the interaction is jaggedly resonant, and the cool Venice Beach setting is put to use for maximum hipster value. So it's frustrating that the show feels so stuck in a perspective that's relentlessly narrow: men struggling with identity issues due to a lack of direction caused by past problems. Ho hum.


Game of Thrones:
series 6
It became almost a cliche that each episode in this season would end with a major bombshell involving a nasty death or edgy triumph. Daenarys (Emilia Clarke) continues to dominate the show, and teaming her with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has created the most formidable TV duo in recent memory. The battles have been bigger and more violent, so much so that there hasn't been time for many sexual shenanigans this season. And since they keep killing off the vilest of the villains, there aren't many left to hiss at. As the plot threads begin to entwine, the show is growing more coherent and urgent. And unmissable.

Veep: series 5
Running in parallel with the American election cycle, this season had a lot of fun with the whole primary system, followed by a chaotic voting day. The dialog has been some of the best in the entire five-year run, delivered beautifully by the genius Julia Louis-Dreyfus and company. Although the plotting has a nagging predictability, including the documentary being made by first daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), the shambolic campaign of the too-idiotic Jonah (Timothy Simons), and the backroom sneakiness of vice presidential candidate Tom (Hugh Laurie). The jaggedly hysterical dialog has been awesome this year, although the bittersweet ending felt like a farewell.

Girls: series 5
This series has been notable for presenting an ensemble of people who are so disarmingly realistic that they seem quirky and almost surreal in the generally accepted fantasy landscape of television. In this season, Lena Dunham and friends all acted on impulse, making sudden decisions based on no rationality whatsoever, which is fairly infuriating for audiences that are hooked on the trite plotting of most TV series. But this show is relentlessly fresh and funny, pushy and annoying, but always surprising, forcing both thought and uneasy laughter. And the final episode in this season is breathtaking.

Silicon Valley: series 3
Frankly, I wasn't sure I'd return to this series, but there wasn't much else on so I gave in. The problem is that the writers seem to only have one trick up their sleeves: make things as miserable as possible for these nerds and their supposedly amazing invention. Every time they get a break and things look like they might actually come together, there is a series of setbacks caused by ludicrous circumstances out of their control. This may comically reflect the reality of the IT sector, but it's annoying to watch a show in which everyone just runs in circles. Especially when the primary cause of most of the pain is TJ Miller's insufferable moron Erlich. Miller's a gifted comic, but without Erlich the show might actually be enjoyable.


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 2
This buoyant series continued with its breakneck pacing, zooming through 13 episodes in what felt like the blink of an eye. It was nice to see a bit of deepening for the side characters played by Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess - both play utterly ridiculous people, but this season revealed some surprisingly emotional sides. Ellie Kemper continues to be perhaps the most relentlessly likeable person on TV - adorable, hilarious, silly. Her story is superbly involving. Although it's probably too jarringly nonstop for some viewers, as Tina Fey recreates her 30 Rock formula of packing what feels like 10 comedy gags into each second of air time. 

Grace and Frankie: series 2
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin took their characters quite a bit further in this second season, pushing both their camaraderie and deep differences to various breaking points. The scripts sometimes felt a bit goofy, but both actresses are so good that it's hard to mind much. And there's fine support from Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, on their own journey as the coupled-up ex-spouses, plus Brooklyn Decker, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn and June Diane Raphael as their complex kids. This is also a rare show that gives other acting veterans a chance to shine - Ernie Hudson and Sam Elliot both had great roles this season. Geriatric love has never looked so sexy on-screen: there's hope for everyone!

Empire: series 2
After a very rough first half, this season got back on track by concentrating once again on the soapy excesses rather than the grim criminal elements. And the stories mercifully reverted back to the tetchy members of the Lyon dynasty rather than those swirling around them. The big cliffhanger finale was perfectly played, Dallas/Dynasty style. And it suggests that things will continue to return to more camp craziness for the third season. Intriguingly, now that we're used to Taraji P Henson's outrageous attitude and costumes and Terrence Howard's squinty steeliness, it's the three sons who are emerging as much more complex, engaging characters. The question is whether Henson and Howard will let them share the spotlight.

The Royals: series 2
This oddly undercooked series continues with its cheap and cheerful style, mixing very badly written scripts with cheesy direction. The cast is adept, although each moment of resonance is undermined by something eye-rollingly stupid. Still, William Moseley and Alexandra Park manage to find depth in their twin prince and princess roles, while Liz Hurley and Joan Collins have a ball strutting around in high-fashion regalia with their diva attitudes and hidden agendas. And Tom Austen offers some terrific brooding-hunk moments. Trashy and pretty awful, really. But fun.

Schitt's Creek: series 2
After the gimmicky set-up in the first season, this one felt like it was kind of pushing it. A family of four millionaires stranded in a backwoods town, each of the characters pushed forward in his or her life, but without more interpersonal development, none of this quite makes sense anymore. That said, the four lead actors (Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy) are so engaging that the show is still hugely entertaining. (While Chris Elliott is still hopelessly annoying.) So if they try to stretch this premise even thinner, I'll still be watching. 

There isn't much on over the summer months - well, not that I've discovered yet - but I am watching the second season of Wayward Pines, enjoying Chelsea Handler's cleverly titled Chelsea, looking forward to the Looking movie and Sharknado 4, and catching up with less promising series I'd previously skipped, like Supergirl.

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