Saturday, 29 June 2019

Screen: Summer TV Roundup

There's more and more television to watch, with so many outlets starting new shows and miniseries all year-round rather than the old-style seasonal system. I can't keep up with everything, but I do alright, watching episodes in between movies and writing deadlines to clear my head. It's been a busy spring, and the summer is already going full-pelt...


Years and Years
One of those shows that gets deep under the skin, this family drama slides quickly from the present into the near future, then skips ahead by a year or so in each episode. This makes its plotlines feel remarkably urgent, because it looks like this is the direction the world is heading: straight into dystopia! Comments about what's to come are both shockingly big and subtly clever, and what makes the show even more involving is the powerhouse cast, including Anne Reid (whose final-episode rant has rightfully gone viral), Emma Thompson, Russell Tovey, Rory Kinnear and Jessica Hynes. Some of the sci-fi excesses feel a bit nutty, but most are underplayed. While the political angles relating to immigration, health and economics hit close to home, the family's dynamic is hugely engaging. Essential.

The quality of this production is staggering, as it recreates the look and feel of the 1980s Soviet Union with unnerving precision and an inventive narrative approach. This is simply stunning television, a harrowing re-creation of the notorious meltdown and its aftermath, seen through the eyes of a few key people. The combination between personal stories, scientific expertise and political control is strikingly well-balanced. It's rare to see a show that can seem so effortless in its ability to shift between terror, wrenching emotion, dark provocation and outright rage. By the end, we feel like we have lived through it with these people, played with awards-worthy precision by the gifted likes of Jared Harris, Jessie Buckley, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson. And the final message about the power of the truth is urgent.

Good Omens
Frankly, this is what I was hoping for from American Gods, which turned out to be far too pleased with itself to be watchable. By contrast, this is a lively, witty, smart pastiche about gods and monsters and the end of days. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are hilarious as an angel and demon who become friends over the millennia and team up to stop the 11-year-old Antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck) from triggering Armageddon. Jaunty and clever, the show is skilfully assembled with a fabulous starry supporting cast (Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Jack Whitehall and Frances McDormand as the voice of God), expert sets and costumes, and a wryly hilarious and gripping story adapted from the acclaimed Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett novel.

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are simply superb in this series about the professional and personal partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Starting in 1968, the show follows their work and tumultuous marriage through a series of films and stage projects. It's astutely well-written and directed with lots of style, including a constant string of lively musical dance numbers. Although the attempt to dramatise Fosse's life as a surreal musical was better done by the man himself in All That Jazz. Still, this is a terrific romp through the lives of this iconic power couple, reminding us why their work is so indelible.

Dead to Me
This offbeat comedy-drama centres on an unlikely friendship between two very different women (the terrific Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini) who meet in a bereavement group. The writers cleverly add plot twists and cliffhangers to continually switch-up the story, which helps the show work on a variety of levels: an unexpected friendship, an exploration of grief, a struggle to deal with the truth, a blackly creepy caper comedy. Some of the elements work better than others, but the core show is both entertaining and provocative.

Bless This Mess
This snappy sitcom from the sharp mind of Lake Bell follows a couple (Bell and Dax Shepard) as they quit their New York jobs and move a Nebraska farm they've inherited. They know nothing about farming, and the house needs a lot of work, but they've had it with the city and need a change. Although the over-friendly neighbours and the man (Ed Begley Jr) living in the barn are a whole other challenge. As is the wise shop owner/sheriff (Pam Grier) The characters are colourful and engaging, and the developing story is hilarious. Just as importantly, there are superb depths to these people and their situation. Although the silly tone can get a little grating.

Ryan O'Connell created, wrote and stars in this witty, sharply observed series about a gay 28-year-old trying to navigate adult life in the context of his cerebral palsy. Over eight 15-minute episodes, O'Connell finds both hilarious moments of comedy and some darkly touching emotions as his character tries to put his condition in the background. He's a remarkably complex young man, not always doing the right thing, but remaining likeable as he struggles with his self-image. The surrounding characters are a bit more cartoonish, but are also deeply engaging, adding some deep meaning to the show's themes. A remarkable achievement that deserves more episodes.

I Think You Should Leave
Tim Robinson's sketch comedy show is not only sharply well-produced with an array of superb guest stars, it also pushes humour far beyond the usual limits. Each little scenario begins as a fairly standard comedy bit, then twists into surreal directions that become absurdly funny and more than a little surreal, sometimes veering closer to horror. Binge-watching this first season is almost too easy, as the episodes race by, making us laugh while tweaking us with unexpected provocative barbs, leaving us wanting a lot more.


Game of Thrones:
series 8
Kicking off with a bang, these final six epic episodes shift back and forth between churning build-up and mad action intensity. From the whoosh of Jon Snow's first dragon ride to the knighting of Brienne to Arya's stunning pounce. The Night King dominated the first three episodes, then we moved on to Cersei and her stubbornly violent thirst for power. There are a staggering number of very pointed scenes in which the characters clear the slates between them (and quite a few of the old faithful are killed off horribly). And it couldn't help but be a bit anti-climactic with so many characters and so much going on. But it's the offhanded moments that are the most enjoyable, packed with character-based wit and emotion that's expertly played by Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Gwendoline Christie, to name a few. 

Jane the Virgin: series 5
It's remarkable that this series has maintained its high quality right to the very end, mixing smart wit and a knowing pastiche of telenovelas with a bunch of superbly engaging characters who will really be missed. The lively cultural mix has been even more pronounced this year, even as the soapy antics spiralled in outlandish directions that were alternatively hilarious and emotive. Gina Rodriguez is such a great anchor to the chaos, even managing to sell the ludicrous return of her dead husband (Brett Dier) to again mess up her relationship with baby daddy Rafael (Justin Baldoni). There is little doubt how this will end for each character, but the writers have plenty of surprises up their sleeves.

Veep: series 7
The writing never flagged with this series, even as the overall plot kind of went in circles ever since Julia Louis-Dreyfus' indelible Selena Meyer stopped actually being vice president. Where the writers have taken this show has been eerily prescient, remaining utterly hilarious even as it can never match the craziness of the real political world. So in this series, set on the primary campaign trail, they double and even triple down on the mayhem, almost daring America to keep up. It's so fast that you can barely blink while watching it. And it would be even funnier if it didn't feel so accurate.

The Big Bang Theory: series 12
What is there to say about this show after all these years, other than that it has gone out at the peak of its powers. Actually, you could argue that once these nerds began getting married, the premise was badly compromised. But the actors and writers have sustained the show with warmth and infectious humour, mainly because the characters are so indelible. I've watched this show sporadically from the start, usually on airplanes, so I've only been loosely keeping track of it over the years. But the final episodes were a lot of fun. 


Killing Eve: series 2
Picking up just seconds after the first season ended, these new shows rarely pause for breath. Indeed, Sandra Oh's Eve seems unable to get her feet back under her after everything she has learned lately. The connection between her and Jodie Comer's astonishingly complex Villanelle is wonderfully surprising and more than a little disturbing. It's rare for a series to be able to play with such hideous violence in a way that's witty and pointed, never losing sight of the tragedy. The twists and turns of the plot are often exhilarating, mainly because the characters are so realistic that we never know what appalling thing they might do next. And the season cliffhanger was perfect.

Santa Clarita Diet: series 3
This breezy, nutty little show is the perfect antidote to over-serious, too-trendy dramas. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are engagingly ridiculous in the central roles as a sparky, over-achieving zombie and her up-for-it husband. And Liv Hewson came into her own this season as their feisty daughter, whose awkward connection with a neighbour boy (Skyler Gisondo) took some nice turns. Superb costars this year include Jonathan Slavin as their over-eager undead pal and Linda Lavin as a reborn pensioner. The Knights of Serbia subplot is rather corny, but adds some witty gags along the way. Bring on the fourth and final season.

True Detective: series 3
After the somewhat iffy second season, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto took a long break, regrouped and found another A-list cast for an epic detective drama. This one has strong echoes of the real-life West Memphis case, with significant differences, and its snaky plot is intriguing. But jumping around between three periods over some 40 years eliminates most of the mystery and diminishes the narrative drive with sheer confusion (the only way to know where you are is to look at the haircuts). Mahershala Ali is of course awesome, and so are Carmen Ejogo and Stephen Dorff, all in tricky, messy roles that hold the attention even if the central case doesn't.

Victoria: series 3
Now easily in its own groove, this semi-historical series has toned down its more soapy influences. Although there's still a strong whiff of Downton Abby around this take on the reign of Queen Victoria. Jenna Coleman has settled into her role as the strong-willed monarch, now in a tug-of-war for control with her frustrated husband Prince Albert (Tom Hughes). Political conflict comes largely from Lord Palmerston (Laurence Fox). And the kids are becoming characters now, although Victoria seems to give birth to another child every five episodes. Side characters have the obvious secret romances, mini-scandals and so forth. It feels somewhat toothless and generic, but it's entertaining and worth sticking with.

Tales of the City: series 4
The previous seasons of this Armistead Maupin-based series were in 1993, 1998 and 2001. And it's remarkable that this new iteration maintains the same mix of humour, emotion and soap-style subplots. Many of the original cast members continue in their roles, including Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Paul Gross, with welcome additions Ellen Page, Murray Bartlett and Zosia Mamet. The various plotlines are funny and intriguing, and refreshingly awkward as well. Like the earlier series, the storylines feel distracting from the much more interesting character comedy and drama. This one involves blackmail and revenge, or something. A bit more personal complexity would have made this even better. 

Mom: series 6
This show may be spinning its wheels - the characters haven't really gone anywhere this season. But it's sure been a lot of fun to watch them, especially led by the formidable Allison Janney, whose impeccable comic timing is beautifully matched by the loveable Anna Faris. This is a rare sitcom in which riotously funny people cope with darkly serious issues, and it's great that the showrunners continue to find ways of laughing at things most people would consider resolutely unfunny. Here, they are hilarious, with a meaningful kick.

Modern Family: series 10
The characters in this show continue to be some of the most consistently funny people on television, and it's been impressive to watch the writers let them grow up organically over a decade, up until the moment when yet another generation emerged into this family. The writing is still unusually sharp, mixing slapstick with more intelligent gags and underlying emotion. There have been some hit-and-miss moments in the past few years, so it's probably time to retire these characters. Next season is set to be the last, and they will be missed.


The Twilight Zone: Jordan Peele relaunched this vintage anthology series with a certain amount of style. Production values are high, and the casting is cool, with actors who can bring the needed nuance to each scene. So it's frustrating that the scripts aren't up to par, lacking both thematic depth and moral complexity. 

The Act: Based on a true crime story, this disturbing series traces a grisly murder in extended flashback over four years. At the centre are two idiosyncratic performances by Patricia Arquette and Joey King, but their relationship is too obvious. And the bizarre plot structure makes it difficult to care how it arrives at the predicted ending.

NOW WATCHING: Euphoria, Catch-22, The Hot Zone, The Name of the Rose, Pose (series 2), Big Little Lies (2), The OA (2), The Handmaid's Tale (3), Black Mirror (5), Younger (6).

COMING SOON:  The Loudest Voice, The Politician, The End of the F***ing World (2), Lodge 49 (2), Stranger Things (3), The Crown (3), Insecure (4).

No comments: