Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

Here's what I've been watching on television over the past few months, simply to escape from the movies, which are of course work for me. This is fun...

Big Little Lies
An offbeat style of TV from Jean-Marc Vallee with a strikingly starry cast, this series may take a fairly standard approach (unpicking the brittle undergrowth beneath an outwardly perfect community), but the Northern California setting adds a bold visual touch, and the A-list actors bring their A-game. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Adam Scott and Alexander Sarsgaard are all excellent as prickly, deeply flawed people trying to show their best sides to everyone around them, including their hilariously precocious children. The way the scripts teased us with a murder was very clever, leading to a seriously heart-stopping finale. So bring on the next season.

A lively exploration of the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, this series is so camp that it's hard not to love every moment. Whether it's all true is irrelevant, as the actors gleefully chomp on the scenery. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are superb in the lead roles, adeptly supported by Judy Davis, Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci, plus Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates in juicy side roles. It's a colourful romp through 1960s Hollywood, cleverly playing up the way the industry changed in the decades both before and afterwards. The Oscar episode was simply heavenly, and it'll be interesting to see if they can outdo that in the few episodes still left to go.

Tom Hardy stars in (and with his father created and wrote) this series for the BBC, which takes a decidedly offbeat approach to the whole concept of the period drama. Dark and grimy, it's a clever collision of free-spirited adventure and cruel corporate greed in a very repressed early 19th century London. It's a period of history that's rarely depicted on-screen, so the entangled plot threads are genuinely fascinating, even if the show is relentlessly gloomy (it's virtually shot in monochrome). Hardy is excellent in the central role as the enigmatic explorer who takes on the system, with an imperious supporting performance from a dastardly Jonathan Pryce. A second series is coming.

I've been turned off by all other superhero TV series this year, but was urged to take a look at this one. And the inventive approach of creator Noah Hawley (Fargo) certainly piqued my interest. These eight episodes were an action-packed rollercoaster of psychological thrills and more visceral nuttiness. Even so, the kaleidoscopic narrative fragmentation is a little off-putting, continually throwing the audience out of anything terribly engaging emotionally. And excessive gunplay always bugs me. But Dan Stevens is simply fantastic, giving a staggeringly textured performance at the centre. And any show that deploys the great Jean Smart and Aubrey Plaza to maximum effect gets my vote. 

The Get Down
Baz Luhrmann's dazzling series is a thrilling fictionalised drama using real people from the emerging hip-hop movement in 1970s New York. The characters are strikingly vivid, specifically a group of teens who find themselves caught between their parents, gangs, politicians and their love of music. As the central character Ezekiel, Justice Smith is magnetic - a rising star getting ready to go supernova. Luhrmann gives all of this an impressionistic mythological sensibility that feels earthy and authentic and also wildly fantastical. The first six episodes last summer were exhilarating, and six more are due this spring.

When We Rise 
Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black revisit Harvey Milk-era San Francisco in this eight-part series, which traces some 50 years in the gay equality movement. Shot with an almost documentary realism, the series centres on four survivors who served as consultants for the series: Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Ken Jones and Cecilia Chung. This means that scenes are based on first-hand accounts, which makes the deeply personal storylines much more powerfully involving. It's all a bit earnest and worthy, but that's only because the themes are so big. Thankfully, everything is grounded in these real people, and the cast recreates them beautifully, especially Austin McKenzie and Jonathan Majors as the young Cleve and Ken (Guy Pearce and Michael K Williams adeptly play them in later years).

This 8-part half-hour comedy series has a strong cast and terrific characters, although the series title is a big problem, as it perpetuates the stereotype of the seemingly strong woman who is actually crippled by insecurity. It also seems to portray turning 30 as some sort of magical moment of maturity or seriousness - another cultural myth that really needs to be debunked. Otherwise, this show is beautifully written and played with a snappy sense of humour. Relationship issues feel bracingly realistic, and the actors are all superb, especially creator Issa Rae and Jay Ellis.

Deep Water
This four-part Australian TV series centres on Bondi Beach detectives (Yael Stone and Noah Taylor) who discover inexplicable links between a present-day murder and a series of unsolved hate-crime killings from the late 1980s, which the police ignored at the time. The show has a soapy emotional flair that sidesteps authenticity in lieu of flashy plot points, hot potato themes and shifty suspects. So it's a rather standard television procedural, overloaded with characters and shocking revelations. But the underlying issues tough on things that haven't improved as much as we'd like to think they have in the past 25 years. And it's strikingly well shot, with engaging performances.


Sherlock: Series 4
With its sporadic episodes, this show has been drifting in an increasingly smug direction for awhile now. It's still strikingly well acted, and produced to a very high standard. But the inventive visuals are increasingly gimmicky, and the further the plots drift from the Conan Doyle stories, the less interesting or engaging they become. This incarnation of the detective won us over with clever adaptations of original stories to modern settings. But the mysteries in these episodes are merely tricksy and self-satisfied, and the show seems to be riding on Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman rather than deploying them as the characters. We'd like more, but please get back on track.

The Man in the High Castle: Series 2
I wasn't planning to return to this show, but there wasn't anything else on at the time. The cast is strong enough to maintain the intrigue, especially Luke Kleintank, hugely sympathetic as Joe, a young guy on a complex journey into his Nazi roots. And Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa beautifully underplays Tagomi's increasingly dark odyssey. But the plotting is increasingly cheesy, with lots of melodramatic revelations and ironic twists, plus an extension of the parallel timeline premise that never quite came into focus. By the end it was a bit difficult to get excited about much of what happened. So whether I watch the next season will probably again depend on alternative programming.

Tracey Ullman's Show: Series 2
The expert mimic continues to lampoon both modern culture and celebrity figures with this brisk sketch comedy. Some of the segments are inspired, mainly those that address some aspect of society that's flatly ridiculous anyway. Other things feel a bit tired; as clever as they are, the ongoing alternative sagas of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith should have been abandoned in lieu of new targets. As this season went on, it dragged badly. A few moments of sharp invention kept it moving, but without a complete reinvention, I doubt that I'll be back for a third series.


Girls: Series 6
The final season of Lena Dunham's groundbreaking series sends her character into yet another unexpected adventure: pregnancy. It's the bold writing and acting that make this show so exceptional, a willingness to go places movies and TV shows never go, with characters who are complex, flawed and often darkly unlikeable, and yet also easy to identify with. And laugh with. While Dunham quietly takes Hannah in some offbeat directions, there are more colourful arcs for Marnie (Allison Williams) and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) this year. Without ever being flashy or gimmicky, this has been a clever deconstruction of the sitcom. And with only a few episodes to go, it's impossible to predict where we'll leave these hot-mess characters.

Homeland: Series 6
Like some sort of reboot, this series cleverly threw a massive shift into the premise, bringing Claire Danes' Carrie back to America as a private citizen getting involved in a political mess involving her former CIA bosses (the great Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham), her former colleague (Rupert Friend) and the president elect (Elizabeth Marvel). The last season in Berlin was thrilling, but this one has a whole new level of intensity to it, grounding the action in everyday reality, even as it echoes other shows like House of Cards and Scandal. And there's such a strong sense of righteous anger running through it that it's unmissable.

Mom: Series 4
Despite the too-enthusiastic live audience, this show is still worth watching simply for Alison Janney's impeccable characterisation, and Anna Faris is also excellent. Most surprising is that it's a silly comedy that indulges in the expected jokes and pratfalls surrounding family and friends, but underscores everything with seriously dark touches, mainly as it explores the central characters' various addictions. It doesn't seem like this was initially envisioned as a 12-step sitcom, but that's where it has ended up, and it's what makes it worth watching.

Jane the Virgin: Series 3
I came late to this bracingly well-written pastiche of Latin telenovelas, but I have since caught up to the present, travelling through the twisted knot of entwined narratives. It's broadly silly, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious in its deliberately messy plotting, but the characters are allowed to deepen and evolve, which gives the show a surprising dramatic kick. It also lets actors like Gina Rodrigues, Andrea Navedo, Yael Grobglas and Justin Baldoni find unexpected edges in their characters.

Schitt's Creek: Series 3
Frankly, after the first season it was unclear how the writers could keep this comedy going, and there were times when it felt like a stretch. But Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are so funny in the main roles, impeccably supported by Dan Levy, Annie Murphy and Emily Hampshire, that you'd watch them all sitting around chatting about the weather. So it's nice that the plot is actually going somewhere rather interesting, finding interesting things to say about a family of millionaires stranded in small-town America.

Coming up: I'm looking forward to more of Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Veep, Fargo, Grace and Frankie, House of Cards, The Get Down and hopefully some new discoveries.

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