Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV roundup

There's been a lot worth watching on TV over the past few months, with a range of comedy, drama and anthology. As I've said before, watching television is a great escape for me from the work-minded approach I have to take to the movies. So here's what's been filling my spare time....


Complex and twisty, this ambitious adaptation of the Michael Crichton thriller has an enjoyable Groundhog Day premise as it resets itself each morning while building the narrative entanglements. Led by a formidable Thandie Newton (above right), the cast is excellent, diving into characters who are either robots layered with identity issues, guests trying to live a fantasy or creators with god complexes. It's an often thrilling mix, although the open-ended nature of the premise means it could run for years without reaching anything like a sensible conclusion. Yes, it takes a rather too-clever approach that tantalises the audience without giving any proper resolution.

The Young Pope
It's nothing short of tragic that this show failed to spark solid ratings or awards attention. After seeing the first two astonishing episodes as a feature film at the Venice Film Festival, I was wondering if creator-director Paolo Sorrentino could sustain the mix of comedy, drama and surrealism. Indeed he did, and magnificently so. Where this series goes is nothing short of revolutionary. It's witty, disturbing and gorgeous at the same time, and it was impossible to predict how these events would play out. And the acting by Jude Law, Diane Keaton, James Cromwell and Silvio Orlando is some of the very best on TV all year. 

This ITV series starts out a bit dryly, packing in a lot of historical events into a melodramatic set-up, then in episode 4 it shifts up a gear into Downton Abbey guilty pleasure territory, with the involving, sudsy romance between the young queen and her cousin Albert (nicely underplayed by Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, pictured). Sumptuously produced, this is light entertainment with just a hint of the weight of history. And it's so much fun to watch, that it doesn't really matter that it's not offering very much actual insight into the life of Queen Victoria. ITV should have no trouble with keeping this show running for several years.

The Crown
Like a 100-years-later version of Victoria, with a much brainier script, this series begins with the romance and marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (the superb Claire Foy and Matt Smith), and quickly introduces the illness of George VI (the amazing Jared Harris). The second episode is nothing short of a masterpiece. Produced to a very high standard, it's the high-calibre writing and direction that elevate this beyond the more soapy Victoria. Netflix went all out on this series, and it shows. And as she demonstrated in Wolf Hall, Foy is one of the finest actors working today when it comes to conveying a lifetime in a glance.

This Is Us
Everything about this show feels a little pointed, but it's beautifully written and acted, with characters who are grounded and authentic. The inter-connections between the disparate members of this family are fascinating, put together in a way that pretty much anyone watching can resonate with. And the issues touched on are strong and meaningful, mainly exploring discrimination on the basis of everything from economy and profession to weight and race. The characters also have a complexity to them that makes them nicely unpredictable, even if the way the writers fit them together is a bit tidy, like a softer, kinder, easier variation on Transparent.

This lightly interconnected eight-part anthology series is very nicely written, shot and acted, although the attempt to cover a wide range of topics and situations feels a little stilted. Essentially everything comes from a straight-white-male perspective, including the two episodes with rather leery lesbian elements. But there are astute moments all the way through, with sharp casting that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Orlando Bloom, Jane Adams, Malin Akerman, Emily Ratajkowski and Raul Castillo. The two most clearly connected episodes - about brothers (Evan Jonigkeit and Dave Franco) setting up a hipster brewery in their Chicago garage - are flat-out terrific. 


Difficult People: Series 2
Deranged, fast and very silly, this show uses dense 30 Rock-style delivery for its smart, snappy humour. Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner (pictured) are ridiculous as two struggling, unprincipled comedians in New York, willing to do pretty much anything for even a hint of success. And the great Andrea Martin as Julie's mum is a stroke of genius. The things they get up to are hilariously stupid, written with an inevitable sense of failure that's rather annoying. But what they say is laceratingly funny, naming names as they go after pop culture targets. And a string of starry guests (including, inevitably, Tina Fey) adds a terrific kick. 

Transparent: Series 3
This show showed a bit of strain in this season, both in the balance of comedy and drama and in the way it developed the central characters. The problem is that these people are becoming increasingly selfish and unlikeable. They're also turning on each other, which is dangerous in a show about a family. The actors are all so good that they continually remind us that they truly love each other, but the characters are feeling isolated, lashing out as they try to survive increasingly impossible situations. We may feel their pain, but it isn't easy to root for anyone.

Black Mirror: Series 3
Moving to Netflix, Charlie Brooker's technology-themed Twilight Zone-style series is seriously beefed up. At an hour long each (with a feature-length finale), these feel more like stand-alone movies than an anthology TV series, especially with the A-list cast including Bryce Dallas Howard (as a woman desperate to improve her social media rating), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (a party girl living in an alternate 1987), Kelly Macdonald (a cop trying to stop a mind-boggling tech attack) and Wyatt Russell (a tester trying a too-real virtual reality game, pictured), plus rising stars like James Norton, Alex Lawther and Sarah Snook. Each episode carries a serious wallop. Unmissable.

You're the Worst: Series 3
Continuing to tilt into the edgier areas of the characters lives, this stunningly well written and played comedy somehow managed to turn even bleaker this year. As their relationship grows, it's getting increasingly difficult for the central characters (Chris Geery and Aya Cash) to be quite so blithely self-involved. So the writers have spread out to indulge in the side characters a bit more, which is kind of distracting since they're all pretty cartoonish, and not nearly as interesting. But the central storyline is as heartbreaking as ever.

Please Like Me: Series 4
This extraordinary comedy from Australia continues to throw curveballs at the audience, with its gang of prickly, unpredictable characters veering from hilariously outrageous comedy to wrenching emotion. This series started off lively and silly, with the usual mix of romantic chaos and family strains. And then in the final episodes it turned astonishingly dark, grappling with serious emotions in a way that's meaningful and important. The mixture of highs and lows is daring, as is the fact that actor-creator Josh Thomas' protagonist isn't always very likeable. But we can't help but love him.

Masters of Sex: Series 4
This show continues to depart from real life with its soapy plotting, as Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, still excellent) began the season feuding and sulking in opposite ends of their laboratory. Ho hum. The strain is also showing in the writers' feeble attempts to keep the superb Caitlin Fitzgerald (as Johnson's angry ex-wife) in the show, while they seem unsure what to do with the amazing Annaleigh Ashford (as Betty the feisty receptionist). It did snap out of the doldrums as it went along, but there clearly needs to be a rethink. And it needs to be sexier than this.

Cold Feet: Series 6
Like a British take on the classic series Thirtysomething, this hit comedy-drama ran from 1997 to 2003, then returned this summer for an eight-part reunion season. The set-up is more than a little contrived, with a sudden marriage and relocation back to Manchester for Adam (James Nesbitt) seemingly because no one ever considered that his friendless 15-year-old son could move out to Singapore with him. And how the plot developed was pretty ridiculous. Still, the chemistry between the actors remains engaging, and it's especially great to see Fay Ripley and John Thomson back in the show's most interesting roles.

Shameless: Series 7
This inventive show wobbled slightly as this season began, straining to find outrageous plots. Some of this was fun (like Frank's "new" Gallagher family), and the darker observations about things like teen parenthood and mental illness are still dead-on and surprisingly moving. A few episodes in, it regained its character-based stride, pushing each person into an all-new form of nightmarish desperation while somehow maintaining the pathos. And as always, the climax was the return of Hurricane Monica (the wonderfully slurring Chloe Webb) in episode 9. And it got better and better from there, right to another brilliant, shattering finale.


The Real O'Neals: Series 2
This smart-silly sitcom is expanding on its ensemble cast with spiralling narratives that are a lot of fun. Although it's odd that the show seems to be neglecting its central figure, the gay teen Kenny (Noah Galvin), this year. It's as if the writers can't think beyond the trite cliches they continually resort to, since his storyline is the least entertaining one in the show. It's a mistake to go down this road with a show that started out so fresh. The writing is still strong, and the superb cast keeps the characters endearing. But it seems to be pandering to the masses by simplifying everyone to just one or two personality traits.

Supergirl: Series 2
After Arrow went dark, fragmented and chaotic about a year ago, The Flash followed suit in the first episode of this season, bogging down in its unnecessarily murky convolutions. So their sister show Supergirl probably has one more year before it also heads into creator Greg Berlanti's murky bog. Worrying signs are showing already, with the departure of Calista Flockhart, the show's primary source of comedy sass. And the action is turning increasingly violent, grim and cheesy. But the lead characters are still engaging as they trade plenty of snappy banter, and there's still a whiff of a light touch in the writing, so I'll keep watching for now. But this is the last superhero series I can stomach.

Empire: Series 3
After that fiery first year, this series has struggled to find its stride. The 2nd season was bipolar, lost in messy storytelling in the first half before wrenching it back to the more colourfully entertaining fireworks later on. This season has shot out with a vengeance, thankfully maintaining the focus on characters rather than plot melodramatics. But after the nightmarish events at the end of the last season, everyone is a bit stunned and emotional. Someone needed to bring sexy back. Instead, the showrunners have simply into the boring criminal plots and counter plots, while stupidly sidelining the three sons as damaged souls. Even Cookie looks bored with this.

Modern Family: Series 8
It's probably inevitable that a show that sustained some of the best writing on television would have to decline one day. After the uneven 7th season, this year's shows feel eerily uneven. There is some great dialog, and a general sense of energy, but on the whole the plotlines aren't hugely inventive, leaving the characters spinning their wheels. This show has always been about the joy of developing these people as they grow older, but there's a sense that the writers are unsure where to send them, relying on old gags instead of inventing new ones as the family dynamics change.

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