Sunday, 5 January 2020

Screen: Winter TV Roundup

There's been some good telly on lately, and the holidays offer some more time to binge than usual, so I've been able to keep almost up to date. I'm still lagging behind on a few shows, but will dive in when I can, to reset my mind in between the movies...


His Dark Materials
Fans of Philip Pullman's novels (like me) were understandably nervous about this BBC series, due to the watered-down 2007 feature The Golden Compass. But this series has taken time to dig deeper and bring out Pullman's provocative plotting and themes. Dafne Keen is terrific as young Lyra, a proper reluctant hero who has little idea that her actions have massive repercussions. And Ruth Wilson is staggering as the shifty Mrs Coulter. Produced with epic visuals that are never fussy, the show looks great. The extended format allows characters to emerge with a bracing sense of unpredictability. And that cliffhanger ending leaves us gasping for part 2.

The Mandalorian
Made on a superb scale like a free-wheeling Western with added gadgets, this Star Wars bounty hunter adventure is thoroughly entertaining, recounting a mini-epic with each half-hour episode. Its sets and characters look fantastic (effects and creatures are grounded and resolutely undigital), and it's written, shot and edited in a way that instantly feels like a classic, complete with a memorable musical score by Ludwig Goransson. Even under that armour, Pedro Pascal is a wonderfully sardonic hero. And at the end of episode 1, it introduces the year's best new character in a pint-sized relative of Yoda with a cheeky sense of curiosity that gorgeously balances the show's inventive action beats over eight wonderful episodes. 

This extraordinary series lets its story unfold without the usual comic book structures, presenting angles on its premise that continually subvert expectations. It's made with such a sure hand that watching it never feels like a chore: there's no doubt that this is heading somewhere very interesting, and getting there is darkly entertaining. The cast is edgy and textured, led by Regina King, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson and a seriously unhinged Jeremy Irons. How it all fits together becomes clear slowly and enigmatically, while the subtle alternate reality in which the show is set is fascinating. So as the bigger plot emerges, this series carries all kinds of thematic implications.

The Morning Show
Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon play bickering journalists who are thrown together on a breakfast news show. Of course, they're more alike than not, and the fun of the show is watching them discover this against their will. While there is plenty of barbed humour laced through the scripts, this is a serious drama taking on workplace harassment and abuse in a strikingly honest, sometimes downright painful way. The show also lifts the lid on the artificiality of live television in a way that's funny and knowingly provocative. And the pitch-black issues raised in the storylines make it important too.

The ambition behind this show is notable, as it recounts the 19th century life of poet Emily Dickinson in sitcom style, infused with present-day dialog, attitudes and music. Anchored by Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski, the cast is excellent, and the storytelling is particularly strong. This allows for a knowing skewering of archaic (but sadly not unfamiliar) issues involving sexism and racism. Although this would come across more forcefully if it wasn't so smug about the anachronistic style. One cringeworthy example: after writing the memorable first lines of Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily puts down her pencil and proclaims, "Nailed it!"

The Umbrella Academy
The premise for this story feels a bit lazy (another zillionaire family, more kids with superpowers), but it plays out in ways that are continually surprising. And the show is written and directed with a generous dose of absurdity and sarcastic wit, plus a thunderous song score. It's also sharply acted by an eclectic cast (Ellen Page, Robert Sheehan, Mary J Blige), which helps make up for the plot's general default to violence that feels way over-the-top. Perhaps this betrays the comic book origin, but hopefully the writers will find more complexity in the second season.

The Politician
Ryan Murphy continues his takeover of all things televisual with this blackly comical political pastiche about a teen (Ben Platt, both deadpan and brimming with emotion) who takes his class president election far too seriously. But then so does everyone else at his posh private school. The narrative spins and shocks along the way, but remains a bit too ridiculous to to seriously touch on the themes. And the characters are all slightly cartoonish, even if they're a lot of fun - from teens Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet to adults Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bob Balaban. And the big set-up for the second season is beautifully played.

Living With Yourself
The main draw here is Paul Rudd playing a befuddled man who books into a refreshing spa day and ends up facing a clone of himself after something goes wrong. The premise is a bit sloppy, and the way it's written and directed is more than a little gimmicky, with characters who don't always ring true. But there are some witty moments and intriguing wrinkles that get close to resonant meaning (one of the Pauls is a close-minded idiot). It's worth watching, but would be even more engaging if it was more relaxed, sillier, sexier.

Dolly Parton's Heartstrings
Anthology shows are notoriously hit and miss, so there's no way each episode in this series can be a knock-out. But they're surprisingly well written, with sharp edges to the gentle narratives and some terrific performances (Melissa Leo!). Dolly's presence in each episode is great fun, including her sparkly introductions, her sassy characters and lively musical performances. Each episode centres around one of her songs, some more beloved than others, to weave a tale of love and heartbreak. It's often a little relentless in its warmth, but some prickly Southern charm adds interest.


The Crown: series 3
Recasting this season was always the plan (it will happen again with series 5), and the transition is predictably tricky, even with the powerhouse duo of Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter. But they grow into their roles, and by the time the wrenching episode 3 rolls around, they are inhabiting Elizabeth and Margaret with a vengeance. Colman gets to sink deeply into Elizabeth, adding offhanded touches that beautifully reveal the Queen's maturity as a leader. Tobias Menzies and Josh O'Connor also have particularly powerful episodes as princes Philip and Charles, respectively. Bring on season 4.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: series 3
As this show continues to beef up side characters, it badly loses focus. The ongoing story of hilarious standup Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and her acerbic manager Susie (Alex Borstein) is still involving, not so much the rambling, distracting sideplots for her parents, ex-husband, his parents and the musical star she's touring with (who get long, pointless numbers of his own). It's like the writers couldn't resist crafting pithy dialog for these terrific actors, but they've forgotten what made the show so both unmissable and important. Make it a half-hour with Midge and Susie and it might rediscover its magic.

Succession: series 2
This second season was perhaps even more riveting than the first, as the plotlines twisted so tightly that even these expert wigglers found themselves with nowhere to go. Like a present-day Game of Thrones, these people circle around each other vying for control of an empire. Both the writing and acting are simply astonishing, as deeply layered characters seize on the snappy dialog. Each cast member is excellent, bringing humanity even to the greediest, most back-stabbing member of this wildly flailing family. More please.

The End of the F***ing World: series 2
Cleverly spinning off in new directions that feel both stylised and organic - just as awkward and brittle as before - this follow-up season takes our two antiheroes (Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden) on another offbeat road movie, this time pursued by someone (Naomi Ackie) wronged in their first spree. The outrageous things that happen are played to bone-dry comedic perfection, often with an added layer of thick irony. It's a rare TV series that refuses to play by the usual rules, which makes it unmissable.


The Conners: series 2a
While this sitcom's range of characters feels a little conveniently diverse, the writers and actors seem to have found their groove, mixing bristly humour with some honest situations. The cast is uniformly excellent, anchored ably by ace veterans John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, plus Katey Sagal. Sara Gilbert and Alicia Goranson are terrific dealing with parental issues of their own, and it would be nice if Michael Fishman's DJ became more of a character.

This Is Us: series 4a
Things feel a bit tighter this year, even as the plots spiral to offer glimpses (and only the most tantalising glimpses) of new timelines. The actors are clearly enjoying the chance to continue flexing their performance muscles, most notably Justin Hartley, Sterling K Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson. Indeed, the deeper drama is far more involving that the gimmicky cross-cutting between time periods. This show is continually in danger of vanishing up its own navel, but the writers are just about keeping that in check.

Bless this Mess: series 2a
Trundling on harmlessly, this show is basically a tribute to Lake Bell's genius at finding subtle edges of humour in everything and surrounding herself with talented actors like Dax Shepard, Ed Begley Jr, Pam Grier and David Koechner. The premise is more than a little bit feeble, and the jokes are tired (at least Green Acres had a character who hated living in the country). But the show has a scruffy, ramshackle goofiness that keeps us watching. Mainly thanks to that cast.

Mom: series 7a
Everything is ticking along with this show's astute comedic approach to addiction and recovery, this year with the added wrinkle of marriage between Bonnie (Allison Janney) and Adam (William Fichtner). Janney is such a joy that it doesn't really matter what she's doing, and both writers and costars give her plenty to work with. It would be nice to beef up the other central cast members, whose plotlines feel a bit dull this year, most notably Anna Faris' Christy. She was more fun when she was a mom herself (where are her kids anyway?).


Transparent: series 5
After Jeffrey Tambor's unceremonious departure from his series, this "musicale finale" ties up all the loose plot ends. It feels a little tidy and abrupt for a show that was known for its messy interactions. But the songs are enjoyable, performed well by the up-for-it cast, which kind of makes up for the way the overall story kind of peters out. There are no surprises, and some rather oddball twists here and there that never quite push the boundaries. But it's warm and engaging, and packed with lovely moments.

The Good Place: series 4a
Both blissfully funny and smartly thought provoking, this show is going out on a high. This season will be ending where the creators knew it would, rather than stretching things out unnecessarily. Which gives the adept actors the confidence to wonderfully push their performances right over the edge. Each of them is excellent on his or her own, and as an ensemble they create some magical alchemy. This is a rare sitcom that manages to be both intelligent and silly at the same time.

Modern Family: series 11a
This long-running sitcom has had some ropey episodes in recent years, but it's a rare show that has maintained a high quality of character-based comedy writing, allowing the actors to age on-screen. The expanding cast continues to be almost criminally watchable, with the children now grown-ups and the youngsters revealing a lot more personality than most TV kids get. There is a tendency to drift toward sentiment this season, but that's understandable if this is indeed the final series.

Shameless: series 10a
Never a show to pause for breath, this show kicked off its final season with a flurry of outrageous plot twists that sent the Gallagher family in about seven directions at once. This first set of episodes is perhaps a bit too frantic, even for this show, although this keeps the audience on its toes, piling on twists that are both entertaining and infuriating. There are several clever touches this year, as well as a few badly dangling threads (Carl's twins!). And as usual, the audience continues to root for these losers, despite the evidence.

See - I'm a fan of the cast, and they're superb here, but the premise is just a little too gimmicky and violent for me, set in a caveman-like future where humanity has gone blind. 

NOW WATCHING: The Witcher, Unbelievable, Castle Rock (2), You (2)
COMING SOON: Star Trek: Picard, The Outsider, High Fidelity, Schitt's Creek (7), Grace and Frankie (6), Homeland (8), Kidding (2)

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