Saturday, 7 April 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

I continue to use television as a reset in between film screenings, so I manage to catch quite a few series along the way. Here's what I watched through the winter months...


The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
The decision to tell this story out of sequence, essentially moving backwards through the narrative, eliminated any sense of momentum from the overall series. The only real way to watch it is as a group of stand-alone episodes that are loosely connected but lack any dramatic kick. That said, there's real power in the story itself, and it's very well shot, edited and acted by a first-rate, unapologetic cast. Darren Criss is superb as the psychopathic central character, and Penelope Cruz is remarkable as a deeply unlikeable Donatella. But by the final episode, when it circles back to where it started, there's an odd lack of emotion or tension, leaving the series admirable but not particularly satisfying.

Everything Sucks!
Set in the late 1990s, this smart comedy follows a handful of teens through the misery of high school, during which their burgeoning hormones cause quite a few problems. Basically, this is Stranger Things with nerdy kids facing more everyday horrors like the idea of your principal dating your mother. Discovering that you're not like the other kids is both terrifying and liberating. And the show is so freshly written and played that it frequently takes the breath away, and not only because the events are so resonant. These are all vividly realistic, flawed people trying to do their best against the usual odds everyone faces. So the humour bristles with earthy honesty, and quiet revelations are powerfully moving. 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
A blast of fresh air, this lively series rightly won awards across the board. Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as the title character, a 1950s New York society housewife who finds herself suddenly single and nowhere near as helpless as everyone thinks she should be. A force of nature, Midge is smart and absolutely hilarious, so her budding career as an edgy standup comic feels just about right. It helps that the writers give her jokes that are actually funny. And the show's recreation of the period is strikingly well-done. But it's the characters who make this show unmissable, including Alex Borstein as Midge's sardonic agent, Michael Zegen as her hapless ex, and Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub as her eye-rolling parents. 

This eight-part British series struggled to build up a head of steam in its tale of Russian mafia business dealings. James Norton anchored the series ably, although his character was far too repressed to really spring to life or garner much audience sympathy, especially as his story arc took him to some very, very dark places. The more engaging character was David Strathairn as a shifty Israeli dealmaker, although he was left on the sidelines. There may be a more intriguing story in here about business ethics in a slippery moral climate, but this show concentrated on the sinister mob underworld, which was watchable but never terribly compelling.

Star Trek: Discovery
The oppressive darkness in this show is a little much sometimes, from the violent parallel universe episodes to the ongoing nastiness as people who are meant to be good continually use murder and torture as everyday tools, simply because there's a war on. At least it looks great, and the cast is excellent across the board, with some nice surprises in the supporting ensemble. Although poor Doug Jones needs to redesign his annoyingly rubbery makeup so he can actually move his face. Spoiler alert: as painful as it was to lose the terrific Jason Isaacs and Wilson Cruz from the cast, at least Michelle Yeoh came back with a wild-eyed vengeance.


This Is Us: series 2
The shameless heart-tugging reached epic proportions over this season, but when a show is this well written and played you don't mind too much. All of the actors are great - including the kids who play the main roles at two earlier stages in their lives. And the producers finally had mercy on the audience by revealing the circumstances around Jack's death, including how it impacted each of the others in a specific way that causes all of the emotional fallout years later (many tissues required). It's contrived and overwrought, but beautifully done.

Love: series 3
The romance between improbable couple Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs continues, and is just as offbeat. Both of these people are damaged, not always likeable and not very easy to root for, so their relationship is a proper mess. Even more interesting in this season was the professional arc of Rust's character, who finally manages to shoot his film. But for every triumph, the screenwriters give him three crises, which is a little exhausting. And the show feels soft and sweet when it should be a lot more prickly. But it's charming enough to hold the interest.

Inside No 9: series 4
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's anthology series is showing a little strain. It's still wildly inventive, mixing a menacing horror vibe with Twilight Zone-style twists, but some of the premises kind of strained for effect, losing plausibility on the way. Still, the swings in tone were remarkable, from the slapstick farce of Zanzibar to the grim nostalgia of Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room. The nastiest episode was also the most gimmicky, Once Removed recounted its murderous tale in reverse order. Thankfully, each episode also has a topicality that makes it resonate. And they also offer a range of juicy roles for Shearsmith and Pemberton.

Grace and Frankie: series 4
A thin idea to begin with, this show has somehow found ways to deepen all of its characters without pushing anyone too far. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are still superb at the centre, with terrific chemistry and impeccable timing. They add unusual pathos and comedy to even the corniest situation. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston struggle a bit more with their cartoonish roles, but also ground them in realistic thoughtfulness. And it's a rare show that makes us want more time with the side characters: these two couples' four children are pretty ridiculous, but their obsessions and quirks could fuel a series on their own.

Shameless: series 8
It's a rare show that can sustain the quality over eight years, and even rarer for a TV series to get the balance right between comedy and drama. But this remake of the British show is better than ever, pushing its characters into ever-more-intense situations while at the same time letting them grow and change. Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, as the writers never seem to let them catch a break, but there were moments in this season that offered the Gallagher family some welcome moments of triumph amid the usual setbacks. William H Macy anchors the show beautifully as the, yes, shameless Frank. But the entire ensemble is excellent.

The X Files: series 11
After the intriguing return to this story last year, this show continues in a bizarrely comical way that feels more like a pastiche than a new season. The first episode in this series was a downright spoof, and while subsequent episodes have had a certain entertainment value, most have been so ludicrous that they seem to miss the point entirely. Even the series mythology feels like it has lost the plot. So even though Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny continue to have strong chemistry together on-screen, maybe she's right to say that it's time to hang up these characters for good.


Bliss: As a fan of Stephen Mangan and creator David Cross, I was looking forward to this offbeat half-hour comedy about a guy trying to maintain two families. But the premise is riddled with implausibilities that began niggling right from the start, leading to some inevitable "twists". By the third episode, I'd had enough.

Action Team: The idea of a spoof action series is a great one, and there are some witty touches in this goofy British show. But both the writing and acting are far too broad and obvious for my taste. I lasted two episodes.

At the moment I'm watching Trust (terrific cast, clever storytelling); The Looming Tower (riveting and scary, like a true version of Homeland); The Santa Clarita Diet 2 (a welcome slice of Drew Barrymore silliness); Schitt's Creek 4 (better than ever); Homeland 7 (has found a new groove); and the revivals of Will & Grace (funny if Megan Mullally is on screen) and Roseanne (eerily up to date humour). And plenty of things are coming up soon.

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