I'm still watching a bit more television than usual, thanks to lockdown - basically filling the time I would normally be travelling into central London for film screenings. There's been a lot on, and I'm behind with a few series, trying to take them one by one and getting easily distracted when something new pops up (The Crown!). Here's what I've been watching over the last few months, starting with a timely treat...
The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special
This animated 45-minute mash-up is an inventive mix of silly comedy and thrilling action. It's set after the nine-film saga as Finn and Poe plan a bustling Life Day party, and a magical Force Key sends Rey on a wildly chaotic journey through space and time, jumbling up the entire franchise. The mayhem is packed with knowing nods to fans, plus hilarious Lego-style gags as that black caped gang (Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and Palpatine) squares off against Rey, Luke and others. The holiday touches are amusing too, including Christmas jumpers, Poe's sentimentality and an unexpected snowfall. It's a lot of nutty fun, but not nearly as daring or ridiculous as the notorious 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (Disney)
We Are Who We Are
With the pungent subtitle "Right Here Right Now", this strikingly current series by Luca Guadagnino centres around teens living on a US military base in italy. The show has a loose-limbed exuberance to it that's engaging and freeform, allowing it to circle themes and deepen considerably as it spirals in unexpected directions. It also deliberately blurs lines of gender and sexuality in almost every character, which is fascinating as these young people take circuitous routes into their grown-up selves. The central friendship between Fraser and Caitlin is played with unapologetic complexity by Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamon. And their parents have their own messy journeys. (HBO)
This ambitious series could have been this year's Watchmen, exploring history and major issues through story infused with fantasy. But it's not nearly as focussed or coherent. Jonathan Majors leads an above-average cast, holding attention even as the characters and plotting become increasingly opaque. Each episode is a combination of intrepid action and mind-bending supernatural freak-outs, all of which feels strangely random, especially as it never comes together to illuminate the bigger mystery. The themes are powerful, but the expository dialog is too dense, the dramatics exaggerated, and whole episodes are extraneous. Curiosity keeps us watching, but interest wanes. (HBO)
The Third Day
With echoes of The Wicker Man, this series initially follows a man (Jude Law) to the island of Osea, off the Essex coast, where he runs into a freaky ancient cult that's up to something nefarious. And he's the person they're after. The perspective then switches to another woman (Naomie Harris) who arrives in Osea months later on her own private mission. These two plot threads are quickly revealed to be one, and the filmmaking approach skilfully keeps dropping creepy details into scenes, including wonderful performances from Law and Harris, plus Paddy Considine and an on-fire Emily Watson. It's uneven and not terribly convincing, but enjoyably chilling. (HBO)
A twisty plot makes sure that this espionage thriller holds the attention over eight nail-biting episodes. It's about an Israeli agent (Niv Sultan) trying to complete her mission in Tehran while an Iranian security official (Shaun Toub) tries to stop her. Telling the story from both perspectives adds some unnerving nuance, which means that we don't want either side to succeed. Some of the plot points leave gaping holes here and there, and a tit-for-tat kidnapping tilts the story toward melodrama. As does a genuinely sweet romance that might just be part of a spy's job. But it's sharply well made and superbly acted, and it gets increasingly thrilling the events unfold. (Apple)
London-based Canadian stand-up comic Katherine Ryan based this sitcom on autobiographical elements as a single mother who puts her daughter above everything else. There are some very funny and astute moments scattered throughout this show, and some terrific dialog, especially as Katherine storms around being brutally honest with everyone she meets. But she's not hugely likeable, and she mistreats the people in her life until they snap; and when they do something nasty, they're suddenly the villains. It's a bit frustrating to watch her fail utterly to learn anything from her errors. But it's blackly hilarious, and rather bleak fun. (Netflix)
Someone Has to Die [Alguien Tiene Que Morir]
From Spain, this three-part melodrama centres on a wealthy Spanish family that's infused with outrageously cruel bigotry. This latest conflict starts when prodigal son Gabino (Alejandro Speitzer) returns to Madrid from Mexico after 10 years away, and his father instantly exerts control, furious that Gabino brought a friend (Isaac Hernandez) home with him. The plot is simply bonkers, not only making very little sense in its histrionics, but always settling in on the worst possible things people can do to each other. As always, the great Carmen Maura livens things up as the imperious matriarch. But even her character is essentially thankless. (Netflix)
BACK FOR MORE
The Boys: series 2
Diving straight back in with an all-new pile-up of decapitations, betrayals and Billy Joel tunes, this mis-titled rowdy series barely pauses for breath. The high-energy superhero characters are a mess from the very start, caught in spirals of inner turmoil and frustrated megalomania, which of course gives the actors a lot to work with and provides plenty of interpersonal fireworks. Literally. The various plotlines move in fits and starts, compromised by some soapy story points and sequences that strain to be over-cool. But there are plenty of intriguing wrinkles to the characters that catch us off guard, most notably whenever the engaging Hughie (Jack Quaid) is on-screen. (Prime)
The Crown: series 4
Peter Morgan continues to mine the royal family for dramatic morsels, and as always his writing has the ring of truth to it even though it's pure fiction. Centring this season around Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), the show is immaculately produced, as each episode contains heart-stopping moments alongside the throwaway bits that make it feel so real. Even if the takeaway this year is that Prince Charles is a monster. And the cast deserves all the awards: beautifully anchored by Olivia Colman with Josh O'Connor, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter, each of whom gets a chance to shine very brightly indeed. It'll be all-change for the next season. (Netflix)
Star Trek: Discovery: series 3 (in progress)
This season's opener sends this series into yet another whole new direction, and where it continues from here is beautifully crafted, reinventing the entire show once again with a very different set of tensions and intentions. The superior cast (led by Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp and the awesome Michelle Yeoh) bridges all of this expertly, deepening their roles as they go while finding clever ways to reinvent the wider franchise for today's audience. Like the original series almost 60 years ago, this show continues to ask enormous moral and ethical questions in provocative ways, and it grapples with hot-potato issues using stories that are easy to identify with. (Netflix)
The Conners: series 4
The astute writers on this sitcom have always reflected the times, and this new season is no exception. Embracing the pandemic and the economic carnage it has brought to the working class, the scripts are putting this already bedraggled family through the wringer with issues of health, work, finances and immigration flaring up in earthy, thoughtful ways. And throughout even the most serious stuff, this great cast (Laurie Metcalf continues to steal the show) manages to drop smart punchlines all over the place, reminding us that laughter can ease the pain, for a few moments at least. It's rare to have such a long-running show that actually feels like it's still going somewhere. (ABC)
Huge in France
Acclaimed comedic actor Gad Elmaleh plays a version of himself in this amusing comedy about a top French comic who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to his teen son (Jordan Ver Hoeve), an aspiring model with his own issues. The show focuses on how Gad struggles with the fact that he's not famous in America and can't get a grip on the local sense of humour. With his identity in crisis, he's certainly in no shape to help his son pursue his dream, although his contacts come in handy (cue a terrific Jean Paul Gaultier cameo). Everyone in this show is struggling wildly with who they are, which gives the writers a chance to astutely satirise various aspects of show business. (Netflix)
Reality competitions are comfort food during this pandemic, and have found clever ways to bubble, distance and so forth. The most comforting of them all, The Great British Bake Off: series 11 (C4), put its cast and crew in a bubble and made the show as normal with another terrific line-up of likeable contestants, plus a new host in the cheeky Matt Lucas. With a more complex style of safe distancing, Strictly Come Dancing: series 18 (BBC) is also back for another spin, with entertaining celebrities and up-for-it professionals. Quarantine measures make everything look very different, but there's plenty of glittery magic. And then there's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here: series 20 (ITV), held this year in a superbly creepy castle in Wales, which has added some enjoyable twists for the typically eclectic cast of scene-stealers. And then there were two competitions that delayed their finals until the autumn: Britain's Got Talent: series 14 (ITV) saw the title going to a fitting winner who warms the heart with his witty quintessentially British act, while The Voice UK: series 9 (ITV) came back with two live shows to wrap up its truncated season and crown another seriously talented winner we'll probably never hear from again.
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman hit the road again for Long Way Up (Apple), another likeable travelogue, this time from Tierra del Fuego to Los Angeles. The scenery is spectacular, and their stopovers add some pointed meaning. The first and last episodes get a bit bogged down in logistics, but it's a fabulous journey. And in Amy Schumer Learns to Cook: series 1-2 (Food) the comic and her chef husband take us into their lockdown life, teaching how to make cocktails and to recreate favourite restaurant dishes at home. It's loose and funny, with some great tips.
Finally, RuPaul had a few series running through the autumn as well, including Drag Race: Vegas Revue (VH1), following a group of queens as they launch a massive show on the Strip, and God Shave the Queens (WoW), with British drag stars putting on their own UK tour. Both featured plenty of lively backstage clashes, which isn't surprising with these divas. And both stage shows were cut short by Covid. I couldn't find a way to watch Drag Race Holland, and now Drag Race Spain is coming too.
I GIVE UP
- Adult Material: I only made it through two episodes of this broad and contrived comedy-drama before giving up. The premise is solid, a soapy bit of madness set around the porn industry. But it's impossible to believe that these people are wealthy when they make such terrible porn and are so incapable of acting like humans. A waste of the terrific Hayley Squires and Rupert Everett. (C4)
- Truth Seekers: As a fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I was looking forward to this ghost-hunting sitcom. But while it has a gently scruffy charm, it just isn't funny. Frost and Samson Kayo are a witty double act at the centre, as they face a variety of supernatural activity. And high-profile guest stars add sparky moments along the way. But after three dull episodes, I gave up. (Prime)
NOW WATCHING: The Undoing, Next, The Comey Rule, Des, The Mandalorian (2), His Dark Materials (2), Fargo (4), This Is Us (5), Superstore (6), Mom (8)
LOOKING FORWARD: The Stand, Bridgerton, The Morning Show (2), Dickinson (2), Shameless (11).