Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

So many shows, new and returning, converged this spring that it was a relief that this year's season of Game of Thrones was delayed. It's been intriguing to see the convergence of so many political shows tackling the same themes: Homeland, Veep, Scandal and House of Cards at times felt like the same show, struggling to be more outrageous than what was actually happening in Washington. And then The Handmaid's Tale (ahem!) trumped all of them. 


Twin Peaks
To get ready for this, I binged the 1990-91 series, plus the 1992 movie Fire Walk With Me, chilled each time "25 years later" was mentioned. And now here we are. The new shows have a different tone, more fragmented and much drier. But David Lynch is cleverly maintaining the open-ended mystery, dropping clues everywhere without explaining anything, giving just enough plot to make it riveting. Most of the returning cast members are appearing in cameos, but Kyle McLachlan has even more work to do as Dale Cooper tries to, well, put himself back together after a quarter century in red-curtained limbo (although his duality is beginning to feel draggy). The show is also still very funny, although not quite as silly as the original shows were. It's also just as magnetic, impossible to look away. This season continues until September, and Lynch says there's more to come after that.

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood's novel is more than 30 years old, and yet its premise feels chillingly relevant in this creepy series set in a very near future ("When they blamed terrorists and suspended freedom temporarily, we let them") ruled by a theocratic government that brutally enforces "traditional" values. Produced with artistry and anchored by yet another riveting performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is a punchy exploration of human nature and the dangers of subverting it for whatever reason. It's somehow shocking to hear Offred's fiery internal thoughts as she plays such a passive role on the outside, a rare fertile woman in a polluted world, assigned to bear children for a wealthy commander (Joseph Fiennes) and yearning for her stolen daughter (Jordana Blake). What this says about fanaticism and resilience is astonishing. And it's emotionally riveting. A second season is coming, praised be.

Santa Clarita Diet
A witty, original approach to the zombie genre, this sitcom is thoroughly engaging thanks to the likeable central performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as estate agents in suburbia dealing with her sudden appetite for human flesh. The carnage is played for laughs, and since this is Netflix the grisliness and language are pretty full-on. It's all rather broad, and the short episodes never really go anywhere. Indeed, the 10-episode first season feels very slight. But there are hilarious moments dotted throughout every episode, and the side roles are pretty fabulous, from teens Liv Hewson and Skyler Gisondo to the likes of Portia De Rossi, Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fillion, Ricardo Chavira, Thomas Lennon and the great Grace Zabriskie.

Thirteen Reasons Why
There's a loose realism to this series that continually takes the viewer by surprise. Corny but involving, it holds the interest with dramatic intensity and the seriousness of the teen-suicide theme. Dylan Minette is excellent as a highschooler trying to understand why one of his classmates killed herself then left him a set of old-fashioned cassette tapes to explain herself and to lead him on a kind of scavenger hunt. It's all a bit gimmicky, contriving to drag things out over the 13 stretched-out episodes that turn every character (including the dead girl) into someone who isn't remotely likeable. There are some important points, but it's not as truthful as it pretends to be.


Sense8: Series 2
After nearly two years, this ground-breaking, earth-shattering series returns, and it kicks off with a fierce attack on endemic bigotry in society - a seriously complex, thoughtful and provocative exploration of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. This is a show about what binds humanity together in the face of various man-made divisions. And it's staggeringly well written, acted and assembled as a ripping thriller this time, with stronger characters and a punchy momentum that grabs hold and doesn't let up. Sadly, after this enormous set-up, Netflix has decided not to continue the story. Although it definitely needs some kind of conclusion, please.

House of Cards: Series 5
It seems impossible that this show could get any darker, but here we are. This season is so bleak and nasty that it's not easy to watch, but we're kind of afraid that the Underwoods might hunt us down and kill us if we stop. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are astounding as always, offering a terrifying portrayal of a couple clinging relentlessly to power through sheer force of will. And as they subtly begin turning on each other, this becomes must-see drama. The nastier gyrations of the plot may feel exaggerated and contrived until we remember what's happened in the so-called civilised world over the past year. Our political landscape might not be quite this violent, but it's not as far removed as we'd like to think. And where this is going for future seasons is more than a little scary.

Fargo: Series 3
The almost freakishly talented Noah Hawley (see also Legion) continues this anthology series with a new scenario in snowy 2010 Minnesota, quickly spinning events out of control over the first few episodes, then deepening characters and intrigue in fiendishly inventive ways. Some of the flourishes are a bit gimmicky (and one episode seems to have snuck in here from Twin Peaks), but there's a snaky underlying attitude that keeps it riveting. And the cast is simply wonderful, anchored by the superb Carrie Coon and a double dose of Ewan McGregor. Produced to a very high standard, it's also a rare show that allows for unnerving complexity in its themes, including the moral questions about who's good and evil. Fiendishly clever.

The Get Down: Series 1b
The second half of Baz Luhrmann's groovy and stylish 11-episode dramatisation of the birth of hip-hop in 1978 continues in the same exhilarating style, anchored by the engaging central performance from Justice Smith. This is bold television, exploring a range of issues with intelligence, humour and real insight, plus a terrific use of old and new songs that makes Empire look feeble by comparison. Some of the excesses are a bit overused (there's far too much animation, oddly including key plot moments). But the impressionistic approach is fascinating, even if it's perhaps too artful for purists who want to see the gritty details of this period of history, both for New York and for music. 


Veep: Series 6
The writing is as good as ever in this sixth season, even though the characters are spread out in a variety of places around the political world. Which just proves the resilience of the characters and the actors playing them. No one's anywhere near the White House this time, which somehow makes everything even funnier. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has the best comedic timing on television, period. And what makes this show so unmissable is that she's happily playing such a self-absorbed buffoon, while everyone around her is even more appalling. We really should hate all of these idiots, and the chaos they bring to US government, but their relentless cynicism makes them likeable. And also frighteningly authentic.

Grace and Frankie: Series 3
It was impressive to see the cast and writers push these characters in some bold directions during this season. Instead of the gentle holding pattern of Series 2, this year was packed with challenges, and the writing was sharply funny as well as more intelligent and introspective, which drew superbly textured performances from Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston and others. Some elements felt a bit farcical, in a sitcom sort of way (namely Bud's hypochondriac girlfriend), but there were plenty of clever surprises along the way. And everything touched on much bigger themes about various forms of bigotry, along with the general indignities of getting older.

The Trip to Spain:
Series 3
This hilarious improvised comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom sends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on another wacky road trip, taking in the sights and tastes while engaging in stream-of-consciousness repartee. Once again, these six half-hour episodes are engaging and packed with witty gags, delicious food and lovely landscapes. This time it also feels rather grumpy and deliberately self-indulgent, overdoing the starry impersonations to the point of exhaustion (they seem to notice this as well). As before, there are a few side characters to add some narrative continuity, and of course a string of smart running jokes. Plus a nice wave of Cervantes-style surrealism popping up now and again. But if they travel somewhere else, it would be nice to freshen up their banter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Series 3
Because of the breakneck pace and relentless goofiness, this third season takes awhile to find its feet. But once it sets up the story arcs for its central characters, the series takes off into a series of riotous, astute directions. The rapid-fire dialog is flat-out hilarious, played broadly by gifted actors who are able to turn their dim-witted, oblivious characters into people who are surprisingly loveable. And along the way, there are some serious issues that gurgle quietly in the background, cleverly remaining fodder for jokes rather than preachy messaging (such as racist sports franchise names or the gentrification of quirky neighbourhoods). So even if everything is utterly bonkers, there's an edge to this show that makes it irresistible.


There were three shows that I just couldn't stick with. Generally I try to give a show at least three episodes before I tune out... 
  • American Gods: A bewildering melange of fantasy, mythology, comedy and thrills, this hyper-violent series is so smug that it never lets the viewer into what's going on. I struggled through three episodes. 
  • Dear White People: Justin Simien cleverly adapts his provocative film for TV, using an inventive structure that focusses on different perspectives. I love the complex, witty exploration of race issues, but it feels oddly ingrown, and far too pleased with itself.
  • I Love Dick: Jill Soloway brings the brilliant Kathryn Hahn with her from Transparent to this cynical comedy about a bunch of unlikeable artists. Even with the terrific cast and some surprising storytelling, I didn't make it past episode 5.

Coming up: Game of Thrones, Master of None, The Carmichael Show, something new?

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