Monday, 24 September 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV roundup

There have been some good shows on over the summer, and perhaps I managed to avoid the truly awful ones. As always, TV gives me a break from cinema, which is work for me. Watching an episode or two after finishing a writing deadline is a great reboot. And this first show was something truly special...

Exploring the colourful vogueing subculture in 1980s New York, this series is warm, involving, funny, sad and often exhilarating as it digs into its characters. The interaction is raw and honest, the situations are resonant and the glamorous balls are magnificent. A side-plot involving Evan Peters and Kate Mara sometimes feels tacked on to unnecessarily provide white star power, but both are superb in complex, textured roles. Still, the stars of the show are awesome - likeable, compelling, inspiring and full of wonderful contradictions. Special mention to Mj Rodriguez as Mother Bianca, Dominique Jackson as Mother Elektra (above), Ryan Jamaal Swain as young dancer Damon and the astounding Billy Porter as the host of the ball. These are important, urgent stories that have never been told like this.

Patrick Melrose
Edward St Aubyn's five autobiographical novels are adapted into this full-on five-part series centred on a magnificent tour-de-force by Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Opening with the death of Patrick's loathed father (Hugo Weaving) in 1982, after which he makes a vow to get off heroin, the story is a snappy blend of torturous flashbacks and wickedly funny inner monologs. Edward Berger's direction is bracingly inventive, and all of the characters are cleverly larger than life. It's a staggeringly involving story with properly deep twists and turns, as Patrick tries to put his past into perspective in order to make something of his life. Profound and important. 

Who Is America 
Sacha Baron Cohen creates several more pranking alter-egos (see also Ali G, Borat, Bruno) for this seven-part series, which provokes people's opinions from politics to art. Playing various characters allows him to shift the tone from wildly obvious buffoonery to more subtle satire. Entertainment, often of the most chilling kind, comes when the guests fail to catch on, mainly luring gullible conservatives with crazy ideas they already want to hear. By contrast he confronts liberals with contrary ideas. When someone refuses to rise to his provocation, it says a lot. In other words, this is a telling comment on the state of a divided nation. Although it doesn't feel as subversive at a time when politicians say appalling things all on their own.

Sharp Objects
The setup may be a bit hackneyed (jaded alcoholic journalist assigned to cover murders in her sleepy Missouri hometown), but Amy Adams shines in the role as a woman reluctantly confronting her past, most notably her fearsome mother (the awesome Patricia Clarkson). This does kind of make the escalating murder mystery feel a little distracting, while the gurgling romance between the journalist and the hot detective (an almost-as-jaded Chris Messina) feels more than a little contrived. But then it is based on a novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Thankfully, the writing is powerfully internalised, while Jean-Marc Vallee's textured, sultry direction is mesmerising.

The Innocents
A British series with heavy Scandinavian overtones, this is insinuating and evocative, but it requires patience as it slowly reveals its story amid editing trickery, unfinished conversations and simplistic melodrama. The supernatural flourishes (mainly shapeshifting) are hard to get a grip on, but the emotions of the characters are raw and urgent. This helps carry the viewer through the infuriatingly vague Norwegian scenes in which whatever the calmly unreasonable Guy Pearce is up to with those women is pretentiously unclear. The real secret weapon in this series is the leading young duo, Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascott. They are terrific together, and their journey is powerfully packed with yearning, confusion, intelligence and hope.

The First
The opening title for this series couldn't be more pretentious if it tried, but then the whole show's tone is often painfully over-serious. Still, it's watchable due to the solid cast anchored by a beefy Sean Penn and complex Natascha McElhone. And there are big ideas swirling as these people prepare to launch the first Mars mission. It's rare to see such a big-scale series resolutely refuse to indulge in the usual rush to urgency. The story takes its time to develop. So why have the show's producers given into the fad for chopping things into ribbons of flashbacks, dreams and imagination, making it a challenge to find the narrative line. It's evocative, and an intriguing story to tell, but it's packed with corny symbolism and inexplicable cutaways.

Lodge 49
Wyatt Russell is a slacker surfer dude who stumbles across a signet ring that introduces him to an oddball fraternal society that feels eerily familiar. He's such an idiot that he shouldn't be as likeable as he is, but there's a sense of yearning to the character, as he endeavours to get back everything his family lost. As his sister Liz, Sonya Cassidy is just as good, but the show's writers aren't confident or clever enough to give her storyline as much weight, so she seems to flutter around the edges. Thankfully, the screen is full of lively oddballs who hold the interest as the mystery spirals in unexpected directions. It never quite comes together, but it's engaging.

Castle Rock
There's a lot of clever stuff going on in this series, which harks back to characters and settings from various Stephen King novels. Whether or not you get all the references is irrelevant, because there's plenty to enjoy, starting with excellent performances from Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgard and especially the great Sissy Spacek. There are elements of this series that are trying far too hard to be clever, but there's also a raw, honest thread of emotion that underscores everything that happens. So even when there's something wildly unexplained happening, it's grounded in the people. Just like King's novels.

Every element of this show is packed with double entendre, although it feels like rather a lot of bluster. Despite being a Netflix show, this would almost be safe for network primetime, as the edginess is purely superficial. Thankfully, it's also very funny, playing up the dodgy things most people are thinking about, but these characters can't help but blurt out loud. Sparky supporting roles are enjoyably absurd, played by ace scene-stealers. In the lead role, Dallas Roberts has a great time skilfully layering innuendo into everything he does and says. Opposite him Debby Ryan is also superbly unfiltered, although for a satire about beauty pageants and eating disorders, her casting is perhaps tone-deaf. But at least it tackles the issues. And it takes some intriguing, dark turns in the final few episodes.

A remarkably quirky series, this starts out as something I would never be interested in (a drama about someone on a diet), but it quickly becomes much, much more than that. The surreal plot turns and wildly colourful characters continually send the audience in unexpected directions. The writing, direction and acting take absolutely no prisoners as they pointedly satirise a culture in which women are sidelined, especially those perceived as overweight. And the cast (anchored by the terrific Joy Nash) takes no prisoners as they fill every moment with subtle subtext and implication. This helps the central revolution take on a stand-and-cheer importance, even if the radicalised violence feels a bit over the top.


Ozark: series 2
Things continue to close in as Jason Bateman and Laura Linney remain just about one step ahead of being killed. Both actors are superb, as are the surrounding cast of equally desperate people. Even the fearsome new cartel lawyer (the magical Janet McTeer) seems to always be looking over her shoulder. The message isn't that crime doesn't pay, because it clearly does. But this is a rare show that presents the moral quagmire that results when rules are bent, twisted and broken. The writers continue to send these people spiralling ever deeper into trouble. For example, they're no longer just covering up murders, but actually responsible for killing people. And adding local politicians to their web is very clever. But the master stroke was the messy, awful relationship Ruth (the astoundingly full-on Julia Garner) had with her vile ex-con dad (Trevor Long).

The Handmaid's Tale: series 2
The second season of this show launched with a powerful bang, throwing the audience right back into this disturbing dystopia while propelling the forwards into the unknown. This season also spends more time looking backwards through flashbacks that looks eerily like present-day America, just as the fanatics are taking over the government. This portrayal of freedoms being removed in tiny increments is just as terrifying as the depiction of religious zealots running the country unfettered. This season got a little awkward plot-wise, including a few story strands that fell oddly flat. But the central narrative and themes remain riveting.

I'm Dying Up Here: series 2
The characters have deepened considerably in this series about stand-up comics in late-70s Los Angeles, as the writers send them into a variety of personal clashes. This includes some obvious moral issues, as they compromise to achieve their dreams: Ron (Clark Duke) earns a fortune as a soulless one-line joke on a sitcom, Eddie (Michael Angarano) scrapes a living writing for a fading star (a superb Brad Garrett), Adam (RJ Cyler) finds success on any front elusive, Nick (Jake Lacy) and Cassie (Ari Graynor) have deeply personal conflicts, Goldie (Melissa Leo) faces the wrath of her acolytes by refusing to pay them. Yes, the plotting feels obvious, so it's a good thing the actors are so good.

The Good Place: series 2
I binge-watched the first two seasons of this comedy and thoroughly enjoyed its unusually high-concept premise. The first season is about a woman (the great Kristen Bell) who finds herself in heaven and knows she doesn't belong. A big twist turns everything on its head for the second season, as she teams up with the supernatural being (the fabulous Ted Danson) running the place on an elaborate scam. Over both series, the show resists the usual structures as it develops the characters in hilarious directions. Side roles for Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto are hugely engaging, as is the ever-evolving not-a-robot assistant Janet (D'Arcy Carden). Can't wait to see where the incoming third season takes them.

Younger: series 5
The writing on this show isn't any better, but it's worth watching for unpredictable scene-stealers Miriam Shor and Debi Mazar. And Nico Tortorella is simply too loveable for words. Otherwise, it's flatly ridiculous that anyone still believes Sutton Foster's Liza is in her mid-20s (thankfully there aren't many who still do). And her romantic muddle is dull. It would be much more engaging to see her set up house and have a baby with Josh, twisting the title's meaning in a new direction. Hilary Duff's character has better storylines this time, entangled with two very different men. And the take on the shifting role of publishing, while still a bit fantastical, at least tackles relevant themes while playing with super-current media.

Insecure: series 3
Issa Rae is back for this sharp comedy, which still relies a bit too heavily on personal awkwardness and misery, with tiresome predictable calamities at every turn. Y'lan Noel and Kendrick Sampson are nicely beefing up Issa's love life, plus the lingering ghost of Jay Ellis. The side characters are fun (and funny), but their plots are less involving, and the new storyline for Yvonne Orji's Molly feels under-developed. At least this season they finally took on the issue of the workplace, its endemic racism and particularly Issa's tone-deaf boss. But frankly I would also rather see the show-runners give Issa and Molly a few triumphs, maybe a bit of self-confidence that will make the show's title more ironic and less simplistically defeating.

Maniac, Wanderlust, Kidding, Vanity Fair, Rel, Shameless, The Deuce, I Love You America 
House of Cards (2 Nov), The Man in the High Castle (5 Oct), The Good Place (27 Sep), Victoria and more...

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