Monday, 2 October 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV Roundup

Television is my escape: something I can watch without getting into film critic mode. Yet while I prefer mindless nonsense on the small screen, I am also tempted by big, quality shows that are currently all over the channels and streaming services. So here's what I was watching this summer. And now that film festival season is upon me, I need trashy TV even more!


Game of Thrones: Series 7
Without pausing for breath, this show propelled a large number of people into a variety of conflicts that left our jaws hanging open in shock. After six years, the central characters are all so complex and involving that they almost feel like family: some we love and others we hate. So what happens to them feels like a punch to the gut. Meanwhile, the show's creators just keep topping themselves with exhilarating epic moments that take the breath away. There's never been anything on TV that even comes close to this scale of excitement and adventure. And this season finally brought many the characters together, ready to head into the final series of shows next year.

Top of the Lake - China Girl: Series 2
Jane Campion's haunting mystery series returned for a new set of episodes, anchored by another astonishingly internalised performance from Elisabeth Moss as detective Robin, still recovering from the trauma of the earlier mystery, and events even further back in her history. This season is set in Sydney following the discovery of a body in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, and it features terrific supporting roles for the likes of Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman (who wonderfully goes full Aussie). The main theme here is motherhood, and the labyrinthine threads of the plot come at this issue from so many angles that it's sometimes a little overwhelming. But it's also emotionally punchy and utterly riveting. 

Twin Peaks
After that astonishing mid-season nuclear bomb, this revived series continued to deepen the mystery rather than solve it. Although a much stronger sense of narrative thrust emerged once Kyle MacLachlan's old Dale Cooper finally returned from the dazed wreckage of Dougie. This is a show packed with wonder - funny and scary and impossible to predict. David Lynch loves challenging the viewer to think and feel things in unexpected directions, and this is like nothing else on television. It's also refreshingly nothing like the original series from 25 years ago: the world has changed and so has the show.


A superbly edgy 10-episode thriller created by star Jason Bateman, this constantly spinning story sends an imploding Chicago family into deepest Missouri, where they try to hold things together to survive the mobster who's dangling death over their heads. Bateman and Laura Linney are excellent as the estranged couple who clearly never bothered to properly raise their two teen kids. The tone of the show is dark, twisty and blackly funny. And while the echoes of Breaking Bad are sometimes a little too on-the-nose, this cast and setting keep things fresh. Hopefully the second season will keep the story spiralling organically, rather than starting to insert corny TV series elements designed merely to keep it running.

Friends From College
The pilot episode of this sitcom is so promising that you could forget how lame the title is, setting up some clever dynamics as a group of university buddies once again become neighbours in New York. But from the second episode onward, the writing turned stupid, creating insufferably unlikeable characters who do stupid things that push them into increasingly contrived situations. Every scene has the germ of a great idea, nicely played by an expert cast (including Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage and Cobie Smulders), but the script pushes them over the edge into cornball farce, so the actors look like they're straining desperately for laughs. Which is annoying when there's plenty of material here for something both funny and pointed.

Man in an Orange Shirt
A clever story told in two halves set more than 70 years apart, this BBC drama follows Michael and Thomas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and James McArdle) as they serve in WWII then split up because Michael chooses to to conform with society and marries Flora (Joanna Vanderham). In the present day, Michael's grandson Adam (Julian Morris) is resolutely single, living with his grandmother Flora (now Vanessa Redgrave) and engaging in casual sex until an image from the past shakes him up. Both halves of this story are compelling, depicting denial and repression in the same country but very different cultures. It's beautifully shot, edited and acted, perhaps a bit oblique but powerful.

Ill Behaviour
The premise of this comedy-drama is not easy to stomach: a just-divorced loser (Chris Geere) talks a friend (Jessica Regan) into kidnapping their old buddy (Tom Riley), forcing him to abandon his holistic healing and take chemo to cure his cancer. All with the convenient help of a hot mess doctor (Lizzy Caplan). Everything about the set-up stretches belief to the breaking point, but it's still compulsively watchable. Where it goes over three parts is fairly absurd, but there are some terrific performances in the cast that make these brazenly unlikeable characters entertaining. The fact is that no one here is very nice. But they're perhaps doing the best they can.

This sassy take on the early career of William Shakespeare (fresh-faced Laurie Davidson) in London has a wealth of possibilities, but the scripts play everything safe, finding the most obvious gags while peppering the dialog with references to anything and everything. It's also unnecessarily violent, complete with a snarling, sadistic villain (Ewen Bremner), which kind of undermines the otherwise jaunty comical tone. The Luhrmann-esque excesses are actually a lot of fun (the characters sing along with pop tunes), and the cast is seriously engaging. But it really should have been much more lusty than this, and far less grisly. When it's playing with the relationship chaos, the show is a lot of fun, even if it's shamelessly misusing Shakespeare's work.


Victoria: Series 2
Basically Downton Abbey in Buckingham Palace, this soapy history drama is effortlessly watchable, thanks to scripts that weave downmarket trashiness with true events. And lead actors Jemma Coleman and Tom Hughes are excellent at making Victoria and Albert realistic people in a surreal situation. If only the plotting was less melodramatically ridiculous, especially as Victoria finds herself pregnant again so soon after giving birth. The low point was the episode in which the Queen and Prince Albert develop a contrived mutual jealousy and lash out at each other with frightfully bad behaviour. This only makes the series feel like it's stretching to fill out its episode count rather than tell a proper story.

Master of None: Series 2
Kicking off with a witty black and white homage to De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves, each episode of Aziz Ansari's anthology series is a mini-masterpiece. Some episodes are funnier than others, but all are involving and engaging, packed with hilariously detailed and very messy characters. Through-lines include the offbeat trajectory of Dev's career from Italy to hosting a riotously awful cupcake competition show to working with a celebrity chef (Bobby Cannavale). And there's also a quirky running romance with his engaged Italian friend (Alessandra Mastronardi) that keeps us guessing right to the end. Worth waiting for two years between series.

Insecure: Series 2
Issa Rae is terrific at the centre of this comedy, which is only marred by its relentless undermining of her character. Like some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, the title hints at all manner of bad luck and crippling self-sabotage. But there's terrific material scattered throughout each episode, and the characters are deepening in intriguing directions, beautifully played by Rae, Jay Ellis, Yvonne Orji, et al. It's also refreshing to see a show that's so honest about sex without ever sniggering about it. So why are the plots so flimsy? And why do the characters do things that feel oddly implausible? It's as if Rae is trying to make her points rather than tell believable stories, which is a problem.

The Carmichael Show: Series 3
It's astonishing how clever this show is, as it uses all of the most obvious elements of a standard sitcom, from the family dynamic to the sets themselves, then subverts everything with sharply topical comedy. Enormous issues rear their heads in each episode, and yet the writers somehow manage to write hysterically funny punchlines even in the middle of a wrenchingly serious scene. The show's heart and soul is Loretta Devine as the outspoken matriarch who has big feelings about everything. And it's refreshing that actor-creator Jerrod Carmichael doesn't try to make his character remotely saintly.

Younger: Series 4
After giving up and skipping the third season, I returned simply because there were so few comedies on over the summer. It's still weak, but the cast is strong enough to hold the interest, especially Debi Mazar and Nico Tortorella. This season opens in a more enjoyable state of conflict, with best pals Liza and Kelsey (Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff) having fallen out. So while the sexuality is painfully simplistic and the publishing world setting utterly fantastical, at least there was scope for some enjoyably barbed dialog. If only the relationships were more adult-oriented; this feels like a high-school soap opera performed by 30-year-olds.


I'm a huge fan of Naomi Watts, but I could only make it through three episodes of this mopey series about a therapist who gets too involved in her patients' lives, while her husband (Billy Crudup) suspects nothing. It just felt indulgent and pointless from the start. Maybe it got better as it went along, but I ran out of patience. I'm not surprised it wasn't renewed for another season.

The Orville
I'm not a Seth McFarlane fan, but a review caught my eye. This sci-fi adventure comedy is so like Star Trek that I suspect at the end McFarlane will have to admit that it's an official franchise show. Never satirical, it's played dead straight, with only the odd snap of comedic dialog between the characters. Everything from the look of the ship and the music to the costumes and plotlines feels straight from the Star Trek universe. Including the moral certainty. I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it.

Star Trek: Discovery
Speaking of which, this new authorised Trek series has a strong cast, anchored by the superbly nuanced Sonequa Martin-Green. Her character's story is the clear through-line here, which is fascinating. But the first three episodes are very talky, establishing a rather too-serious tone that centres on the threat of war and violence rather than the interplay between the crew members or any sense of, yes, discovery. It feels a little like all work and no play, even with the odd humorous touch. The third episode at least has a blast of personality as it establishes the series' premise, so I'll stick with it for now.

Coming up, there's the return of most American network shows, a new season of Transparent, the last season of Episodes, the Pegg-Mitchell comedy Back, and lots of things I haven't heard of yet...

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