Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV roundup

Still clearing my head by watching TV, which feels like a vacation from work (ie, the movies) to me. Here's what I watched over the summer...


Stranger Things
It seems like everyone was talking about this show this summer. And rightly so! This is a fiercely clever 1970s-style blending of the storytelling and character detail of a Stephen King novel with the childlike wonder and effortless magic of a Steven Spielberg movie. The show also cleverly works on three layers: with young boys discovering a strange girl with unusual abilities, teens looking into some freaky goings on, and adults investigating suspicious government activities. All of this was wrapped up in a period-style production that clicked together seamlessly. Gripping television that didn't need a second season, but we'll sure be looking forward to it.

The Night Of
A remake of the British series Criminal Justice, this forensic thriller has extremely sharp writing and direction and often astonishing performances. So even if the premise isn't terribly original - the criminal case, courtroom scenes and prison drama all feel rather standard - the show remains relentlessly gripping. It helps that scenes are full of contrasting characters played by the gifted Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, Peyman Moadi, Glenne Headly, Michael Kenneth Williams and more. Each actor invests so much detail into his or her role that it almost doesn't matter where the twisty plot takes them. And at the centre, Ahmed is excellent as a complex hero we wanted to cheer for even when things get very dark for him. 

Boy Meets Girl
I hadn't seen the first season of this short BBC sitcom, so I watch both series together and was pleasantly surprised. Set in Newcastle, the first six episodes trace the unlikely but warmly charming romance between the 26-year-old Leo (Harry Hepple) and his 40-year-old girlfriend Judy (Rebecca Root), who happens to be male-to-female trans. With that out of the way, the second series follows their somewhat wacky wedding plans. What's surprising is that even with a cast of standard sitcom characters (their families are deeply silly), the show manages to dig beneath the surface and uncover some much bigger themes about respect and human engagement. It's also so beautifully written and played that it can't help but charm the audience. A real gem.


After her trio of Chelsea Does Netflix docs, Chelsea Handler has now reinvented the chat show with her new series. Appearing three nights per week, she sets a theme for each episode (some are looser than others) and then explores it with experts, celebrities and general silliness with her team of skilled writers and producers. Each episode is an entertaining collection of interviews, to-camera pieces, playful stunts and packaged clips shot all over the world as Handler interacts with a variety of people on a very wide range of topics. As her dog Chunk roams around the studio, Handler's refreshingly irreverent style (posing as the idiot who needs to learn something) is engaging, her observations telling and her delight in being free from censorship hilarious. She also has a knack for getting the very best out of her guests, putting them at ease like no one else on television at the moment.

Wayward Pines: series 2
This went from being an intriguing, mind-bending mystery in its first season to a rather standard thriller this year. The cast is up to the challenge, but the writing is much more formulaic, complete with annoying flashbacks and revelations. Jason Patric was a strong protagonist, but his foils were less complex (and no one could match the only occasionally appearing Hope Davis, Melissa Leo and Toby Jones in the reasonable villainy stakes). Intriguing themes were raised then abandoned for more violence-based plotting and hyper-grisly action, none of which was remotely compelling. So even though it ends on a hopeful note, it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie, as it were.

From Darren Star (Sex and the City), this high-concept sitcom imagines a 40-year-old divorced mother (the engagingly generic Sutton Foster) implausibly posing as a 26-year-old to return to her publishing career. The only person who knows about this deception is her artist best pal (Debi Mazar). Everyone else is in the dark: new best friend (Hilary Duff), hot young boyfriend (Nico Tortorella), comically stern boss (Miriam Shore). The show is funny and silly, with strong characters well-played by the likeable cast. But it never pushes the boundaries of its premise, remaining safe and badly far-fetched, with some truly terrible plot turns. It also has a simplistic view of the publishing world, relationships and ageing.


The generic title certainly won't help anyone discover this show (it's virtually unsearchable anywhere). But it's well worth a look for the relaxed performances of Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust as two loners who have given up on love, then reluctantly drift into a relationship. Their friends are from the wacky sitcom mould, and the entire premise feels like a kinder-gentler version of the frankly amazing You're the Worst. But what the show lacks in originality or nerve it makes up for with enjoyably messy characters and awkward situations. Indeed, much of the comedy here comes from humiliation, usually where something intimate is brought out into the spotlight. This makes the show feel oddly timid and a bit smug. But its heart seems to be in the right place.

This DC superhero adventure has all the hallmarks of a Greg Berlanti production (see also Arrow and The Flash): edgy comedy, romantic triangles, a handy uber-talented hacker, badly staged action and a combination of breezy comedy and extreme violence. It also has a very likeable hero in Melissa Benoist's Supergirl Kara, plus strong support from veterans David Harewood, Calista Flockhart and Peter Facinelli. Plus Mehcad Brooks and Jeremy Jordan in the aforementioned triangle. It's enjoyable enough as action fluff, although the plotlines need to be a lot more original to make it unmissable. And the show can only be improved by adding a more prominent recurring role for Kara's younger cousin Superman (Tyler Hoechlin). 

Jessica Jones
This is definitely an original approach to the Marvel superhero universe, although it's also gloomy, relentlessly violent and it badly stretches a relatively thin story over its 13 hour-long episodes. Kristin Rytter is good in the title role, although the character is relentlessly unlikeable. This is the point, but it's not easy to engage or sympathise with her. Surrounding characters played by Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss and Eka Darville are far more interesting, while David Tennant's villainously cruel Kilgrave steals the show. In other words, it's an intriguing idea that feels rather out of balance, mainly due to its slavish adherence to TV cliches even as it tries to be something new. Why they're spinning off Mike Colter's Luke Cage into his own series is anyone's guess; he's one of the best things about this show.


After just about enjoying the first season, I watched one episode of the 2nd season of Ballers and, as much as I like Dwayne Johnson and Rob Corddry, I simply couldn't stomach any more of the macho idiocy that infuses everything about this show. I also only made it through one episode of Versailles. I know it was acclaimed and beloved, but I found it turgid, trying far to hard to be scandalous and trashy.

At the moment I'm watching Victoria, The Get Down and the 13-years-later 6th series of Cold Feet, just about deciding to stick with this new season of Masters of Sex, and looking forward to Easy and several series with new seasons this autumn...

No comments: