Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Screen: Spring TV Roundup

I don't feel like I watch this much TV, mainly because I always have so many things in my "to watch" list. But just catching an episode here and there between films and before bed, to reset my brain while working, clearly adds up. As always, I enjoy offbeat shows the most, and I try to avoid anything centred around murder or illness. Give me messy characters over a police procedural any day. More comedies are always welcome...


Les Miserables
This series is not the musical, it's a fairly standard costume drama TV adaptation of Victor Hugo's great novel. The solid cast helps keep it watchable, even if it's shot and edited in a rather pedestrian way that belittles the material by trying too hard. Still, the epic story can't help but sweep the viewer up in the outrageous injustice of it all. And the always-remarkable Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Olivia Colman, Josh O'Connor and others are terrific. Although you can't help but wonder how much better it would be if the producers had been more daring. Swapping West's and Oyelowo's roles around would have been an intriguing start.

This Time With Alan Partridge
Steve Coogan continues the adventures of his most notorious alter-ego with this riotously well-written comedy, which sees him returning from the wilderness of regional radio to BBC TV in London. Not only is Coogan still on razor-sharp form with this relentlessly awkward character, but the show is a superb pastiche of sofa television, knowingly poking fun at everything that happens both in front of and behind the cameras. It's also taking on some of big issues without even a whiff of political correctness. Alan valiantly attempts to join the Time's Up era while at the same time bulldozing it. Some of the technical gags (mainly the studio's overcomplicated tweet system) seem a little stretched out. Otherwise, it's wickedly funny.

There's a lot not to like about this hour-long black comedy series. The central characters are reprehensible. In the main role, Penn Badgely is a psychopath who poses as a nice-guy bookshop owner while he's using technology to stalk and seduce a cute, bland blonde (Elizabeth Lail) who clearly can't be as sweet as he thinks she is. A twist to reveal her perspective is oddly underused, but begins to make the show much more interesting. Lapses of logic abound, including the way this is another series in which people seem able to run around and do all kinds of expensive, highly skilled, nefarious things with whizzy gadgets even though they never seem to go to work.

Now Apocalypse
Gregg Araki brings his distinctive style to the small screen with this rather bonkers half-hour comedy, which follows a group of young people on an inebriated, sex-fuelled odyssey as some sort of alien conspiracy seems to be threatening the planet. Araki's witty take on youth culture is as luridly colourful as his films have always been, And the sexy young cast is thoroughly engaging, ably anchored by Avan Jogia, Beau Mirchoff and Kelli Berglund. There is a sense that Araki covered this material back in the 1990s, and that the sense of doom was perhaps more timely then, but this feels like a blast of fresh air on television: never coy about sex, never proscriptive about sexuality, honest about the struggle to find your place in the world.

Sex Education
Smart and very funny, this British series fills each hour-long episode with pithy observations about sex, which makes most of the characters squirm uncomfortably, especially Otis (Asa Butterfield), whose mother (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist.  And Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa and Kedar Williams-Stirling are also superb. The script smartly skewers attitudes toward sexuality at every turn, so even when there's a badly cliched episode (such as No 5, when everything goes wrong simply because the writers are too lazy to think up something clever or original), there's plenty of character comedy and drama to hold the interest. And where it goes is finely played right to the explosive climax. Sorry.

Putting On
This snappy and watchable documentary web series from Revry follows On Mekahel as he goes into business with his ex Mateusz Pach to create a line of underwear. The charming, overconfident On is the definition of a drama queen diva in a ridiculously over-designed apartment (complete with fluffy white dog), blaming everyone for problems he causes himself. With six episodes under 10 minutes each, the show is a brisk, intriguing look at a business start-up, including some tellingly detailed moments along the way, balancing a business split between New York and Los Angeles, checking out samples, choosing models and hiring a PR agency. Sure, you have to be a control freak to do this job, but On really needs to lighten up.


Fleabag: series 2
The first season was so drop-dead brilliant that it was impossible to imagine where Phoebe Waller-Bridge might take it next. But the show just gets better with each new episode, which only makes a season of six half-hour shows feel almost painfully short. Not only is the writing simply jaw-droppingly hilarious and shocking at the same time, but Waller-Bridge has added the fabulous Andrew Scott, Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw to a cast that already features Olivia Colman in one of her most memorable roles as Fleabag's smiling-monster stepmum (who finally cut loose, off-camera, this series). Everything about these characters is so messy that the show is easily the funniest thing on television. And the final episode was surprisingly moving too.

Future Man: series 2
This show is so fast-paced that binging it is almost too easy. The dialog is so sharp and silly that it keeps the audience on its toes, spinning events in continually unexpected directions. Josh Hutcherson is even better this season, helped by the fact that the entire season takes place in one time (the far distant future), while the other characters continually exasperate him. The show wildly satirises human history, most notably issues of power and political corruption. But it's so absurd and manic that it begins to get sublimely inane - a stoner sci-fi comedy romp that feels utterly ridiculous but actually has some cool subtext.

Star Trek Discovery: series 2
This season got instantly back on track, making the debut season feel like a sideroad (well, it took place in a parallel timeline). This is much more grounded in the Trek ethos, which makes each "discovery" that much stronger as the characters explore new planets while trying to solve an epic mystery. The characters and their tricky relationships also develop in intriguing directions, with some terrific additions to the cast, including Anson Mount's Pike and Ethan Peck's Spock. Viewers who watch carefully will spot some annoying plot holes here and there, but the personal drama is so compelling that it's hard to mind too much. It's also impossible to predict where this will go next, which is rare for an episodic adventure in this genre.

Friends From College: series 2
This ensemble comedy returned to further entangle the lives of these lively characters. Nothing about this show is particularly believable, especially as all of the drama feels so ingrown, but it's entertaining for what it is. This is largely thanks to the up-for-it cast, layering some bracingly unlikeable angles into their characters. Which actually makes them more sympathetic, because we can identify with them. It's refreshing to see a show that doesn't strain to make everyone a quirky type who is adorably sweet. These people all have crippling issues that push them to do terrible things to each other. But they're so hilariously hapless about it that it's hard to hate them.

One Day at a Time:
series 3
I'd never seen this, but on a recommendation I started from the beginning and binged it. This is one of the smartest, funniest sitcoms out there. A remake of a classic 1970s show, it's a fresh take on the single-mother set-up with a particularly strong cast of complex characters led by Justina Machado and national treasure Rita Moreno. It's a rare comedy that uses character-based wit to keep the audience laughing while also tackling some deeper themes with emotion but no sentimentality. And it's bracingly realistic, easy to identify with these people as they grapple with big issues using warmth and humour. Netflix sadly hasn't renewed it, so let's hope someone else picks it up.

This Is Us: series 3b
Compulsively watchable, this sludgy show manages to find new interest by continually delving into new timelines, backstories and possibilities. There are so many different story periods and strands that it's becoming worrying: can they sustain all of this fragmentation without losing the logical coherence of it all? Thankfully, the core cast is solid enough to make the show unmissable. The Michael Angarano/Griffin Dunne plot thread fit in nicely with the show's recurring themes. And seeing Randall (Sterling K Brown) go into politics will hopefully bring some cool new angles, especially for Susan Kelechi Watson's Beth, who felt like the break-out character this year.

The Good Place: series 3
This series continues to pull the rug out from under its characters and the audience in the most awesome ways imaginable, somehow managing to be stupid, smart, hilarious and emotionally resonant all at the same time. The afterlife antics continued this year with our heroes trying to prove that the rules have made it too hard to get into heaven, so they set out to change the system. The existential themes are provocative, even as the characters and situations remain sublimely ridiculous. And the cast is getting better with each episode. There seems to be no end to the inventiveness of the writers.

Schitt's Creek: series 5
After last year's sublime season, the gang returns for an even stronger year, with sharply well-written episodes that are played to perfection by actors who are relaxing into their characters. Even Chris Elliott isn't as annoying this time around, finding some unexpected layers to the idiotic Roland. Of course the main reason to watch this is the raw genius of Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, plus the impeccable timing of Dan Levy and Annie Murphy as their kids. But then all of the characters are unforgettable. And the way they react to each other and the realities of their lives is simply priceless. The show can't run forever, but we can hope. And we also hope they release Moira's Cabaret as a stand-alone special. And The Crows Have Eyes III, too.

Grace and Frankie: series 5
This is one of those rare shows that gets better with age, appropriately enough. By now, the broad premise has settled into the background, allowing the writers the space to have some fun with the characters as they adeptly weave various plot strands together. This not only makes the show funnier. but it's also much more textured and insightful. Episodes spark plenty of laughter, but with an emotional edge. All of which gives the strong cast a lot to run with. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are simply wonderful in the title roles, pushing their characters further than expected. And everyone around them is on peak form.

Shameless: series 9b
When the Gallaghers bring chaos on themselves, it's engaging; when the universe dishes out bad luck, it feels like writers are contriving to stir up trouble. The second half of this season weaves in too much scripted pain, particularly for Fiona (Emmy Rossum). But as annoying as it was to see her shattered and mean, at least there was a bigger plan, and they sent her off with real panache. Even as the younger kids grow up and get into their own issues, William H Macy's Frank remains the most unapologetically irresponsible member of the family, and Macy still nails the character perfectly. They all continue to be great, actually. As much as we'll miss Rossum, it'll be great to have Cameron Monaghan's Ian back next year.


Timeless: series 3
This show wraps up with a two-part season subtitled, ahem, "The Miracle of Christmas". The increasingly splintered narrative makes even less logical sense than before, but the show has a simplistic charm that delivers mindless entertainment as it pings around between encounters with various random historical figures and events. The settings are intriguing, with some clever touches along the way. But the convolutions of the script are frankly laughable, especially as they try to unravel the tangled mess of plot threads over the previous two seasons. That's clearly impossible, so most of the dialog sounds like gibberish. But it's good fun.

You're the Worst:
series 5
This series was always going to be difficult to maintain, as the idea of two relationship-averse people falls apart when they're planning their wedding. But the writers find ways to continue their tortured interaction in some jaggedly funny directions. And the actors somehow manage to deepen even the more cartoonish side characters in the show; all are excellent. Being the final season, there was a definitely sense this time round that they are heading somewhere, even if the whole wedding scenario just never clicks into gear. Still, the final episode has some terrific touches in the way it wraps things up.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 5
To wrap up the show, this half-season started rather wobbly before regaining its stride for some superbly entertaining wackiness. Frankly, the premise was stretched beyond the breaking point, as Kimmy's emergence as a capable, intelligent woman kind of undermines her continuing naivete. So the writers instead went off the rails into manic nuttiness involving the wider cast of characters, which simply wasn't as engaging, even though it was still very well-played by the ace actors (Jane Krakowski is god). A bolder approach, pushing Kimmy into some proper female-empowerment scenarios, might have given the series some legs. But at least it went out with a bang.

NOW WATCHING: Killing Eve, Twilight Zone, Veep, Victoria, True Detective, Jane the Virgin

COMING SOON: Game of Thrones, Fosse/Verdon, Good Omens, Santa Clarita Diet

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