Saturday, 30 May 2020

Screen: Summer TV Roundup Part 1

Because of these extraordinary times, I've watched rather a lot more series television than usual in between the movies I'm reviewing (obviously, I can't cover theatre or dance these days). So I'm dividing my Summer TV Roundup into two parts. It seems like there's no end of new series popping up involving some serious talent both in front of and behind the cameras. As a result, there are still several intriguing shows on my to-do list, rather like how that pile of books to read just keeps growing...


Set in the mid-1940s, this fabulously produced drama roots its story in several little-known facts and then stirs in some fictional twists, until it explodes into a riotously entertaining fantasy in the final episode. The point is very strong: what would have happened if studio moguls had stood up for what was right way back then instead of cowering in the closet? The cast is simply awesome, anchored by by the glorious Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor, plus scene-stealing turns from Jim Parsons and Rob Reiner and a solid cast of newcomers. And not only is it a great "what if" but it also makes us wonder if we're there yet. 

The Great
From The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara comes another bawdy historical romp, this time centring on Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) and her stormy marriage to Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). This witty approach would be much more engaging in half-hour increments; these hour-long episodes feel rather over-extended. But the dialog sizzles with wit and insight into bigger themes about politics, gender and power. And it also offers a wry slant on real historical events that brings them to life, sometimes in exhilaratingly funny ways. Some of the crudity is a little tiresome, and the rampant sex feels oddly timid, but the cast is excellent across the board. And the production design is fabulous.

There's an underlying nastiness to the premise of this adventure comedy, about two people who escape from their established lives based on a promise made 15 years earlier. Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson are good enough in the central roles to earn our sympathies, but the plotting is too gimmicky for its own good, constantly throwing in contrived obstacles, unnecessarily violent twists and gaping inconsistencies in the plot and characterisations. This means that the show never gets the chance to explore the much more intriguing central idea about dissatisfaction or the yearning for past simplicity.

Never Have I Ever
Gorgeously written, this teen comedy gets under the skin of its characters in a way that pulls the audience right into the hilariously soapy situations. There are layers of meaning here, including clever explorations of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. So even if the entire show feels a bit coy and gimmicky, it helps that the characters are realistically unpredictable, likeable even as they do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. The cast is terrific across the board, anchored by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as the enjoyably hapless Devi, who muddles her relationships with everyone around her but has a darkly emotive centre.

The Eddy
Damien Chazelle combines his love of jazz with an edgy, verite style of filmmaking for this dramatic musical about the trials of running a groovy nightclub in Paris. The dark tone is a little much for a series, but the music has a loose energy, even if spontaneous jam sessions feel oddly contrived. The cast is excellent, including superb performers like Andre Holland, Amandla Steinberg, Leila Bekhti, Joanna Kulig and (far too little of) Tahar Rahim, but none of the characters are sympathetic, and they're so deliberately awful that they're not hugely believable either. The strong production values kept me watching, but I wouldn't want to spend any more time with these people

There's a dopey-sexy charm to this high-concept comedy anchored by the hugely likeable Robbie Amell, whose character dies young in 2033 and is uploaded into a virtual afterlife. He can keep in touch with the living world, including his high-maintenance fiancee (Allegra Edwards), who is paying the bills so controls his experience, and his clever-hot upload assistant Nora (Andy Allo), with whom he's falling in love, of course. There's nothing terribly smart about this show, and it never even tries to grapple with issues like mortality or regret. But it's packed with witty gags, great side characters and irresistible emotions. Looking forward to the next season.

Little Fires Everywhere
This insidious drama gets under the skin with its suggestive plotting, and since it takes until about the fifth episode to give anything away, the audience is hooked. The way the shows jumps around in time is very awkward, and the tone feels just a wee bit overwrought. But the cast is terrific, adults and teens alike, led by the adept Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who rise above their rather typecast roles. So it feels like a shame that the plot felt so obvious and predictable, even though the writers kept trying to throw us off the scent.

What starts as a rather silly stoner comedy, cleverly deepens into something far more interesting, with astonishing undercurrents that say powerful things about friendships, personal ambition and the surprising nature of raw talent. The series hits its stride in the seventh episode, taking on mental illness before delving into some properly pungent internalised issues about what it takes to become a star. And the final three episodes are simply genius. Dave Burd and his crew are terrific in the roles, plus some fabulous guest stars. It's rare to see a show that's unafraid to be both ridiculous and unapologetically complex at the same time. A must-see.


Dead to Me: series 2
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are back for more chaotic black comedy as two women who are inexorably linked by a bond of friendship that's entangled with death and murder. Resurrecting James Marsden as the hitherto unknown identical twin brother of the season one villain/victim makes this show feel like a full-on soap opera. Which is of course entertaining, even though there's not much to it. It may be thoroughly ridiculous, hinging on a series of ludicrous coincidences, but the ongoing messiness of the characters and the way they are increasingly intertwined is enjoyable. And the actors manage to add clever subtext.

The Conners: series 2b
There aren't many shows that are tapping into the current zeitgeist as adeptly as this does, poking gentle fun at everyday annoyances linked to much more profound truths about how the current global economy and right-wing governments are crushing the working class. There are quiet comments on immigration, social services, entrepreneurialism, ageing and pop culture scattered among these terrific characters, finely performed across the board (just give Laurie Metcalf all the Emmys). And the way the storylines continually catch reality is both entertaining and brave.

Insecure: series 4
I've had problems with this show from the start. I keep watching because of the terrific cast, but the characters just get more and more self-absorbed, with increasingly insulting storylines. This doesn't serve any of the actors well, because it's just too pushy and contrived for the characters to engage with the audience. It's odd that Issa Rae writes this herself, undermining her own character's integrity (and wasting the terrific Jay Ellis in the process). Although other side roles fare better. And the way it's structured to stretch out plot strands over multiple seasons is cynical and annoying. I give up.


Bless this Mess: series 2b
Essentially a ridiculous updating of Green Acres, this is the kind of show I would never stick with if it weren't for the actors in it. They manage to not only deliver hilarious comical performances, but are continuing to deepen their characters even as the show seems unable to figure out where it's heading. There are moments when Lake Bell and Dax Shepard seem to tap into something genuinely funny and relevant, but most scenes opt for the dumb gag rather than the smart one. Thankfully, there are sharp jokes too, but not enough to make me miss it now that it's been cancelled. 

Homeland: series 8
Claire Danes returned for one last hurrah as the brilliant but unstable Carrie in this tightly scripted final season. Cleverly highlighting how the world has changed since this show premiered, the drama is intense, as are the beautifully staged action sequences. And the writers clearly didn't feel constrained to play it safe. Both Danes and Mandy Patinkin are as excellent as ever, surrounded by a terrific supporting cast creating characters with their own stories and interests. So even as the narrative goes way off the rails in the final two episodes, with an implausible lapse for Carrie herself, what this show is dealing with gets more and more urgent, as does what it says about today's global political issues. 

Will & Grace: series 11
After its original eight-year run, this classic sitcom returned 12 years later for three more seasons, leading up to another series finale. It's a shame that the show's creators didn't use these three new series to push things further, or develop the characters in interesting directions. The comedy is amiably entertaining, but it's always far more mindless than the writers think it is. And while there are some great gags (as always for Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes), there were some excruciating bits too, including a bizarrely simplistic I Love Lucy homage. The ending is a bit happier and more open-handed this time, but once again it kind of missed the point.


Kim's Convenience: series 1-2
I've only watched two of four seasons so far, but I'm enjoying this show's askance approach to the usual sitcom about a mother, father and two grown kids. There's plenty to like about this show, including its dry humour and spiky interaction. That they're Korean Christians living in Toronto adds amusingly unexpected textures to the show, as do some intriguing wrinkles in their interaction. Although it's a bit of a problem that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee's Appa is simply too mean and self-absorbed to be likeable, even though he's skilfully played for laughs.

Elite: series 1-3
From Spain, this sexy-dopey high school soap is a guilty pleasure largely because of the beautiful, talented 25-year-old actors who play teens at a posh private school where each day seems to consist of an exam, a party and some blackmail. Plots also include murders and other violent nastiness, as the kids treat each other horribly. The first series had a lively vibe, while the second was dark and ugly, and the third continued with contrived, increasingly angry storylines to a gruesome climax and extended emotional finale. But it definitely has its moments, so I'm glad there's more to come.

The House of Flowers: series 1-3
This Mexican soap starts as a snappy-smutty comedy and morphs into a flailing comedy-melodrama about a messy upper-class family. By the middle of the second season, each character has given into his or her most idiotic personality traits, while the clumsy plots become increasingly corny (including a doomsday cult and TV talent competition). And in the third season, the timeline splits, crosscutting with the youthful antics of the older generation in the late-70s while neglecting the core cast. Most of these people are nasty and/or stupid, but they do manage to hold the interest. 

NOW WATCHING: Normal People, Mrs America, Snowpiercer, The Plot Against America, What We Do in the Shadows (2), Killing Eve (3), Kim's Convenience (3-4).

COMING SOON: Love Victor, Space Force, Messiah, I Know This Much Is True, A Series of Light, The Umbrella Academy (2), Queer Eye (5).

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