I had some time over the holidays to catch up on TV shows I've been following over the past few months. Results have been mixed, but there have been some great small-screen gems in here to help me recover from the big-screen movies...
Stranger Things: Series 2
The Duffer Brothers step things up a notch with a bigger, much scarier story arc that feels much more finely tuned to the characters and the actors. Everything in these nine episodes fits together beautifully, deepening the connections and unnerving the audience. References feel somewhat more grown-up this time, from X-Men to The Exorcist, and the scale of events is genuinely enormous, with deeply personal touches. All of the cast is excellent, from adults like Winona Ryder and David Harbour to the older and younger teens, who mix beautifully and end up nowhere near where they started. It's also refreshing that they ended on such an open note: anything can happen next year.
Basically an anthology series, each episode takes an aspect of Elizabeth II's life from her second decade as monarch. So there are episodes on JFK, sending Charles to school, the Profumo scandal, modernising the monarchy, confronting the family's Nazi past and Margaret's romance with Lord Snowden. But the season's through-line centres on Philip's indiscretions and how the couple weathered those various storms to solidify their relationship as a marriage rather than an arrangement. It's grippingly well written and played, but this structural approach makes it feel rather, well, episodic, without much momentum as a series. It's almost more like an unusually well-produced educational film. And these actors are all so good that next season's all-new cast (as everyone ages) has a lot to live up to.
Easy: Series 2
The second season of this anthology show revisits all of the overlapping characters, finding moments of proper comedy and drama along the way. Although most of the humour is of the bitter sort. Episodes all stand alone but loop around to touch others, and the characters all feel enjoyably realistic. The main problem is writer-director Joe Swanberg's relentless sexualising of females (for example, when artists are struggling, the man becomes an Uber driver, the woman becomes a prostitute). In isolation, none of this feels excessive, but when every episode features a scantily clad woman it becomes a little obvious. That said, there's equal opportunity nudity. And the characters are all complex and involving.
The 1970s Los Angeles stand-up scene is the setting for this solidly produced hour-long drama, which follows a group of comics as they traverse the ups and downs of their careers. The show is packed with terrific characters, all superbly played, from mother hen Melissa Leo to a varied bunch of hopefuls played by Ari Graynor, Andrew Santino, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke, RJ Cyler and Al Madrigal, to name a few. The political aspects of the comic scene are a little dull, but the personal journeys taken by each person are compelling, and the period detail is a lot of fun. There are also some terrific stand-up routines along the way.
The 1970s New York sex industry is the setting for this solidly produced hour-long drama, which follows a group of bar owners, prostitutes, pimps and pornographers as they shuffle through the crime-ridden streets. The show is almost incredibly murky, with corruption everywhere and such a huge range of detailed characters that none of them really stand out. There simply isn't time to properly develop each of them into a sympathetic person we can identify with in some way. But the acting is superb, anchored by James Franco as a rather too identical pair of twins and Maggie Gyllenhaal as hooker with a lot of personal issues. It's also refreshing to see a show that lacks the usual American hang-ups about sex and sexuality.
Charlie Brooker's slick, technology-themed variation on The Twilight Zone continues to tap into very current fears with its only slightly futuristic stories. These new Netflix episodes are produced like mini movies (the first episode is feature length) and have A-list Hollywood casts and crews. The plots sometimes have lapses in logic, but the themes are powerful, exploring how technological advances play into the darker urges we already have. This means that some of the stories are downright bleak. For example, Jodie Foster's episode Arkangel is deeply unsettling not because of its child-spying implants, but because of what it says about today's overprotective culture. And the best episode, Timothy Van Patten's Hang the DJ, mixes gloominess with hope as it plays with the concept of dating apps.
Transparent: Series 3
Thankfully less gloomy than the last season, these episodes saw the astonishingly dysfunctional family travelling to Israel as they connect with a long-lost relative. There were quite a few genuinely hilarious moments along the way, and most of the outlandish slapstick was reined in this time, even if each person's personal crisis seemed like the end of the world, to them at least. Of course, the setting gives the show's writers plenty of scope to play with political ideas. And they also cleverly infuse this entire season with songs from Jesus Christ Superstar. This is perhaps a little on-the nose as far as irony goes, but it grounds the family in a shared experience that connects them to this place.
What was once a caustic, brave show has clearly reached the limits of its premise. this season, the writers struggled with what to do with a couple that needed to get together for the audience's sake, but were designed to be thoroughly toxic. Instead of playing on the codependent aspects, this season has them lashing out separately. But it felt like the wheels were spinning with nowhere left to go. All of the actors continue to approach their broadly ridiculous characters with an intriguing sense of emotional honesty that makes them sympathetic and unlikeable at the same time. But I don't think I could take one more half an hour with any of them.
Episodes: Series 5
The final season of this loose-limbed sitcom circles back to end exactly as you've always known it would. And along the way there are plenty of ridiculous antics for Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg) and their circle of hopelessly neurotic friends, including Matt LeBlanc, who is now hosting one of the most hilariously appalling game shows ever imagined. The show has always had a way of lampooning Hollywood by playing everything just a little broadly. But there's also the definitely sense that pretty much everything they've ever depicted has actually happened. And the characters really grew on us.
SEASONS IN PROGRESS
In this second season, the writers are taking things very seriously, piling lots of big themes into each episode. Life for these people feels a little too difficult this year, at each of the various periods in their lives. And the show has introduced yet another timeline that lets the main cast get a bit more screen time while playing their characters a little younger and hotter. But the real thing, of course, is that the writers are now torturing the audience mercilessly with the possibilities about how Milo Ventmiglia's Jack dies, setting up a potential calamity in each episode. It's getting a bit silly. Just tell us and get on with the story.
Jane the Virgin: Series 4
Fiendishly well written, this spoof of Mexican soap opera plays on its origins mercilessly. And some of the twists and turns are more than a little annoying. But the central characters are all so loveable that it's hard to mind. By now, the writers have milked several of the characters as far as they can (it's way overtime to lose Yael Grobglas' evil twin character Anezka), and there's only so long they can stretch the will-they/won't they romance between the adorable Gina Rodriguez's Jane and the ludicrously hot Justin Baldoni's Rafael. But every scene is still packed with such great touches that it's worth hanging in there.
True confession: I am only still watching this show because it's the final season, and I might as well see it through. Because this year's series is actually pretty bad, straining to shift Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope from hero of the peoiple to villainous mastermind (ie, she's become her father Joe Morton). This is so contrived that it's almost laughable, well it would be if it weren't so unnecessarily dark and violent. In fact, all of the subplots are grislier and nastier this year. The zing of, well, the scandal is gone. This is apocalyptic.
Shameless: Series 8
It's amazing that this show can carry on, throwing the Gallagher family into even more spiralling mayhem without feeling contrived. Some elements are infuriating, as they're meant to be, while others leave us wondering what the writers were thinking when they came up with this. William H Macy is clearly relishing this new phase in Frank's life, and the undulating feud between Emmy Rossum's Fiona and Cameron Monaghan's Ian has been played with surprising texture. Even Vee and Kev (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey) are still on fire. It's impossible to predict where any of the plot strands are headed.
I don't remember this show being quite so broad and smiley the first time around. Even the opening credits this time reek of fake camaraderie. And while the idea is amusing that, 11 years later, these people are basically back where they started, the writing really needs to push them forward rather than using each episode to revive one of the more memorable gags or side characters. And the actors need to pull back a bit on their broadly comical performances, stirring in just a bit of believability. Except Megan Mullally, of course. Karen is still one of the most amazing characters ever seen on a sitcom, and she's as funny now as she ever was.
Modern Family: Series 9
This show has had some weak episodes over the past couple of years, but this season the writing feels back up to par. Plotting is tight, weaving various threads together in each episode that build to a big punchline. Of course, better writing gives the ace cast a lot to work with, and these characters are proving to be a continuous source of comedy: people we think we know very well who continue to surprise us. And the increasingly number of characters, including the kids, all have ongoing storylines that are genuinely engaging and witty. Indeed, the children are growing into comedy icons themselves.
I GIVE UP
Seth MacFarlane had a great opportunity here to make a full on satirical sci-fi series, and yet he seems happy to merely nod earnestly in the direction of Star Trek. There's the occasional great gag or inventive touch, but the plots and characters are never interesting or funny enough to care about. I stopped at about episode 5.
These were the last two shows of the DC Comics universe that I was watching, and they too have shifted into cheaply made, far too violent storylines that make absolutely no sense and have no angle on which the audience can find a connection. It's just gimmicky and grisly and angsty. Life's too short.
I was a big fan from the start of this show, and I hung in there even through some long dips into seriously silly storytelling. But this season simply lost all of the various plots, giving each character a drastic personality change. Nothing is happening here that's even remotely compelling. And the people are annoying. I'm done.