Sunday, 23 December 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV Roundup

I look through this list of shows and wonder how I found time to watch all of this over the past three months. But I tend to watch an episode here and there during the day - to take a break from work, to reset my mind after a film, as background while I'm eating lunch. It's a bit scary how much TV I get through like this...


Killing Eve
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this is a seriously inventive spy thriller series. Funny and scary, it centres on a befuddled British agent (Sandra Oh) tracking a ruthless Russian killer (Jodie Comer) across Europe. None of the characters behave like the usual stereotypes; these are complex, surprising, offbeat people with their own issues. And the side roles are just as cleverly drawn. Well, any show that features the great Fiona Shaw is unmissable. And Waller-Bridge deserves praise for her willingness to avoid the usual action beats in lieu of character comedy, dark irony and some proper thrills. Plus a great cliffhanger ending.

Snaky and fascinating, this half-hour thriller series is a bit vague, deliberately delaying any revelation that could add clarity to the central mystery. This makes it a challenge to stick with, even as it worms its way under the skin, mainly because the characters are particularly strong, played beautifully by Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James and Shea Wigham. The writing and directing are astute and clever, with terrific moments in every episode, and a clever blurring of the lines between events in the past, present and future. In the end, this is a stark story about some very big issues like the wellbeing of veterans and the abuses of private contractors. So it carries some powerful resonance.

Toni Collette and Stephen Mackintosh are terrific in this offbeat British comedy-drama about a married couple that decides to open their relationship to rekindle the spark between them. It's intriguing that the premise doesn't seem nearly as transgressive as it would have just a few years ago. Even the kids' somewhat outrageous behaviour feels almost normal. Whether this is a comment on our times or on a sliding scale of morality is the provocative question. The point is that this excellent cast is so good at making these people feel honest and real that it challenges us to define what we believe and why. And it keeps us smiling while doing so.

The Little Drummer Girl
The frankly awesome Florence Pugh stars in this adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller, which is snaky and stylish as it throws her character into a late-1970s spy/terrorism mess. Directed beautifully by Park Chan-wook, the series is wonderfully loose and elusive, but with a rivetingly strong edge that digs into the minds of the characters. Pugh is playing an actress with no espionage experience, drafted into a Mossad operation in which her method performance style is very effective, even as she blurs every line around her. Pugh's chemistry with slippery handler Alexander Skarsgard is mesmerising, while Michael Shannon's shady boss offers his own textures.

Vanity Fair
Thackeray's novel is adapted into this lively, colourful period series. It's perhaps a bit too jokey for its own good, knowingly nodding at the camera every chance it gets. But it's also skilfully well-made, with wonderful actors who inject lots of spark into their roles. And the way it's made brings in some nice present-day textures through the use of music and editing, plus themes surrounding the vacuous pursuit of popularity and money. Olivia Cooke has a terrific wide-eyed faux innocence as Becky Sharp, who aggressively attempts to make her fortune against the odds in 19th century England. She's so callous that it's hard to like her, so sympathy lies instead with the people she wrongs.

Definitely not for kids. Jim Carrey is superb as the Mr Rogers-style host of a long-running children's television show who clashes with the programme's producer, his dad (a hilariously exasperated Frank Langella), as he tries talk to kids about serious issues. But since this is from the mind of Michel Gondry, there's rather a lot more going on here. Essentially, this is a wildly inventive exploration of grief and emotional honesty, with terrific performances all round, including Catherine Keener and Judy Greer. It's sometimes a bit freaky, with entire episodes existing in a moment of insanity. But it's also darkly moving, and it carries a powerful kick as Carrey's Mr Pickles struggles with his inner demons.

It's rare for a comedy to explore existential issues, but this offbeat show boldly avoids obvious storytelling to create some quirky situations. Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen star as a couple who, after events in the first two episodes, continue their marriage in the afterlife. The writing isn't as clever or funny as it thinks it is, and it never really says much about relationships, so the premise feels under-imagined. There's also the problem that the show simply never makes sense, even within its own deliberate lack of logic. But the cast is great, and the show's absurd enough to hold the interest as it plays with genuinely huge ideas.

The Bisexual
Desiree Akhavan appeared in Girls, and here she pushes that format even further as an awkwardly over-talking young woman in London trying to appear confident as she works with her ex (Maxine Peake), lives with a lovelorn Irishman (Brian Fleeson) and dodges barbs from her best pal (Saskia Chana). The cast is excellent, and the show's writing is astute, funny and very pointed as it explores issues that have never been confronted quite so straight-on in a TV show. Akhavan writes superbly barbed dialog that refuses to pull any punches, and as an actress she dives into a prickly character with so much gusto that we can't help but love her.

The Conners (aka Roseanne: series 11)
Dumping Roseanne Barr from Roseanne was a rushed over-reaction, and a great shame since this show took such a complex, messy, important approach to American politics. The remaining characters are all wonderful, finely played by the cast. But Barr's unhinged comedy is badly missed, leaving the show off-balance. That said, the approach to issues remains complex and engaging, and each actor brings layers and textures that make this one of the most sophisticated shows on network television. The way it grapples with political and social issues is a blast of fresh air. And Laurie Metcalf is a genius.


Murphy Brown: series 11
Two decades after going off the air, the entire talented cast is back for a reunion series. And while it took awhile to find its stride, it actually feels like the perfect sitcom for our times. The show's style feels a bit quaint, with a punchline carefully placed in every other line, but the topicality of the humour and the feistiness of the characters is thoroughly enjoyable. Adding the now-grown Avery (Jake McDorman) to the mix is just right. It reminds me why this was my favourite show all those years ago: a rare comedy in which the jokes actually mean something, bring out angles on the characters and occasionally find a moment of real emotion.

Shameless: series 9a
The Gallagher family simply won't give up. Each of them seems to have kicked up a gear this season, as increased desperation drives them to bigger, bolder scams. The actors are all so good that it's annoying when they cut away from anyone, but there isn't a weak storyline in here (of about 10 that run full-pelt). That said, the show is far more entertaining when these people are up to their, well, shameless antics than when the writers heap random misery on them undeserved. And there's been quite a bit of that so far this year. 

This Is Us: series 3a
This season continues to tug shamelessly at heartstrings, while exploring new past timelines along with the present-day saga and occasional future forebodings. So even with the occasional downright terrible episode (the fragmented Thanksgiving collage was a mess), the show is unmissable. The addition of Michael Angarano as the doomed Uncle Nick bodes well for future episodes, and both Kate's pregnancy and Randall's political campaign carry some nicely resonant kicks. It doesn't matter where it goes, just that it keeps moving, and that the writers don't work themselves into a corner.

The Good Place: series 3
As before, this season begins with a complete reboot of the premise, again offering the cast members the chance to play merrily with their characters. This series is even trickier than before, continually pulling the rug out from under the audience (and the characters for that matter) as a good-hearted demon (Ted Danson) and his definitely non-robot assistant (D'Arcy Carden) try to keep four hapless humans (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto) from the Bad Place. Smart, fast, silly and brilliantly well-played.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: series 2
This sharply written and produced series continues the story of the fast-talking 1950s housewife-turned-comic (Rachel Brosnahan). The plotting feels a little looser, abandoning the first season's tight arc for a more open-ended TV series style. This means that they spend a bit too much time following subplots involving Midge's manager (Alex Borstein), parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) and ex-husband (Michael Zegen). Thankfully, the characters and actors are so good that we don't mind much. And the show comes exhilaratingly to life whenever Brosnahan gets behind a mic.


The End of the F***ing World: series 1
Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden are flat-out terrific as teens on the run in this half-hour road-trip comedy adventure. Lawther's James is only going along because he is pretty sure he's a serial killer, and he thinks Barden's manipulative Alyssa would be a decent first victim. But there's an unexpected connection developing between them as they search for her long-lost father, while the police and their parents try to track them down. Based on a series of comic books, it's laceratingly well-written and expertly played by an ensemble supporting cast of frankly brilliant British actors. Bring on the second series.

Fleabag: series 1
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a bracingly fresh British comedy, starring as a riotously frustrated woman willing to try just about anything to find some happiness after her best friend and business partner commits suicide. Hilariously inappropriate about almost everything, she remains remarkably likeable even as she upsets the lives of her friends and family (including Sian Clifford as her equally messed-up sister and the fabulous Olivia Colman as her snooty stepmum). But it's the emotional undercurrents, which swell up as the six episodes progress, that make the series memorable. It's impossible to predict where it will go from here.

Future Man: series 1
Josh Hutcherson is terrific as the title character in this wacky, action-packed half-hour comedy. He's the nerdy gamer Futterman, who finds himself travelling through time trying to save the world with two hysterically clueless characters (Eliza Coupe and Derek Wilson) from what he thought was a videogame. The hands of producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are strongly felt in the sharp stoner-style humour and outrageously over-the-top violence. Seriously addictive. The late Glenne Headley (as Josh's mum) will be sorely missed in the second season.


Maniac • After a strong start, this series became increasingly tricky, and by about the mid-point it simply turned itself inside out. Based on a Norwegian show, this is inventively directed by Cary Fukunaga with a Gondry-style playfulness, but it' far too pretentious. I made it through 5 episodes.
Rel • Cast and crew from The Carmichael Show reassemble for this lighter sitcom, which sends its endearing characters through a range of awkward situations. Lil Rel Howery is great in the lead role, but annoying when he plays a guest character in each episode. And while the show tackles some big issues, the buffoonery is wearing. I made it through 7 episodes.
The Deuce (series 2) • Like the first season, this show is somewhat dry and impenetrable, with a huge number of characters and complex situations that aren't fully explained. Shifting forward to the late-70s, it also feels slicker, with more organised criminals and pornographers. Maggie Gyllenhaal isexcellent, but it's hard to care what's happening. I gave up after episode 2.
House of Cards (series 6) • In its final season, this show became far too arch, drowning in cliches as Robin Wright's Claire turned oddly vicious. As good as she is, feels like she lost her grip on the character. The whole cast is superb, but the scripts don't do them justice. And the muddy tone wore me out about halfway into the third episode, when Claire turned to the camera and asked, "Are you still with me?"

NOW WATCHING: Les Miserables, Mom, Modern Family, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, The Conners
COMING SOON: The Crown, Victoria, Future Man, Fleabag, The End of the F***ing World

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