Saturday, 19 October 2019

Screen: Autumn TV Roundup

Watching an episode or two of a TV show in between movies, or between writing a review and proofreading it, seems to help reset my brain. So the more escapist, the better! This summer summer felt a bit thin for good television, so I'm surprised to see how much I watched over the past four or five months...


The Boys
Taking a bracingly honest approach to the superhero genre, this show dares to present these heroes as deeply flawed humans who have let their power go to their heads, even as they're being manipulated by the giant corporation that's making a fortune off of them. The characters are complex and messy, and the escalating nastiness of the plot is superbly unpredictable. So it's a shame that the show has such a generic title, smug attitude and frenzied love of grisly violence. The relentless toxic masculinity begins to feel oppressive by the end, on both sides of the battle. And much of the more provocative material feels like it was designed to shock rather than to build characters or story. But the show's driving central narrative is riveting.

Because it dares to break rules, this show stands out from the crowd. Its depiction of that teen sense of immortality is frankly astonishing, showing sex and drugs in ways that are frighteningly honest while refusing to vilify the way young people use devices and social media. It's rare to find a movie or TV series acknowledge so skilfully that the world has changed and the older generations need to get up to speed rather than pointlessly trying to drag everyone back. The cast is note perfect, both teens and adults. And the show is gorgeously well shot and edited, even if its structure sometimes becomes indulgent as it over-explains the cause of each character's vices. This was most noticeable in the season finale, which was edited into a chaotic jumble to leave each plot thread dangling at just the right angle. It's occasionally stunning, but also naggingly pretentious.

Joseph Heller's spiralling WWII novel is adapted into a beautifully focussed miniseries set mainly around the experiences of a young officer (Christopher Abbott) at a US airbase in Italy. The continual ironies make it well worth a look, as it adopts a snappy M*A*S*H tone with added dark absurdities. It's a lacerating look at the true nature of war, in which no one is a winner. And it features some superb supporting actors (Kyle Chandler is particularly notable), plus a continual stream of heart-stopping moments. George Clooney and Grant Heslov led the charge on this show, directing and appearing in various episodes, and the high production values make it feel timeless.

The Other Two
Sharply well written and played, this comedy hilariously scrambles the idea of celebrity. It's about two 20-something siblings (Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke) who are still struggling to find their way in life, and now they also have to grapple with the sudden viral fame of their younger 13-year-old brother (Case Walker). All three actors are perfect, with impeccable comic timing. And the great Molly Shannon shines as their hilariously involved mother, who takes a journey all her own (and deserves awards-season attention). These episodes go down so smoothly that the season ends far earlier than we want it to. But the writers finish on a very funny twist that sets things off in a new direction for the second series.

What We Do in the Shadows
Basically transplanting the hilarious New Zealand spoof film to Staten Island, this witty documentary pastiche follows a group of over-earnest vampires as they fail to grasp the complexities of modern society. Each of the half-hours features yet another ridiculous challenge for people stuck in the middle ages. And the addition of energy and emotional vampires is a stroke of genius. Performances are spot on, never winking at the camera even as they acknowledge the presence of the crew, which gets itself into trouble now and then. It's all a bit fluffy and absurdly silly, but that's just what you want from a TV comedy.

The Name of the Rose
With its medieval setting and triumphant opening theme, it's clear that the producers were going for a Game of Thrones vibe. Sure, it's packed with oddly named characters who are impossible to remember, but the story is more singular, zeroing in on brainy monk William (a wonderfully lively John Turturro) trying to solve a series of murders in a monastery. With its shifty characters and maze-like library, the show pulls us into the mystery through the eyes of William's young novice Adso (Damian Hardung), who's in love with a peasant girl (Greta Scarano) in the woods. Then the vicious papal henchman (Rupert Everett) arrives to complicate things dramatically. 


Pose: series 2
Shifting the story forward to 1990, and diving right into the Aids epidemic, this show starts strong but quickly begins to get bogged down in special conceptual episodes (including far too many maudlin after-death fantasies that are overwritten and overplayed). By contrast, when the show focusses on its characters and their everyday issues, it shines. The period is the moment this subculture hit the mainstream with Madonna's Vogue, and the cast is incandescent as ever, with compelling storylines and riveting performance pieces. Moving forward, let's hope the showrunners remember that it's the smaller, personal moments that provide the sharpest observations and emotional high points. And frankly, Patti LuPone should sing in every episode of every TV show ever.

Big Little Lies: series 2
This is a lot more soapy than the first season, simply because the writers are now trying to stretch things out. Thankfully, the cast is so good (with an added powerhouse performance from Meryl!) that it never feels trite. Indeed, the entangled drama expands in unpredictable directions that continually keep the viewer on his or her toes, as each of the central characters faces surprising situations that shake them to the core. This offers plenty of grist for the almost obscenely talented likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Adam Scott and more. But this is The Meryl Show all the way. There's even a great cliffhanger.

Stranger Things: series 3
Progressing even further into horror, this third season is a full-throttle adventure that once again cleverly maintains a character focus while a high-concept plot unfolds. Alliances are shifted around now that we're in 1985, with the older and younger teens working together on two fronts to figure out what's going on: one group chasing a monster and the other spying on Russians. Meanwhile, Joyce and Jim (Winona Ryder and David Harbour) are on their own trajectory. It's a beautifully produced show with an attention to detail that goes far beyond production design. And the cast is excellent, bringing these realistically messy people to vivid life.

The Handmaid's Tale: series 3
This show continues in thriller mode, while the pressure of stretching one book into an ongoing series sends plots spiralling out to cover more characters in increasingly melodramatic gyrations. This waters down the show's kick, because the first season was so astonishingly focussed. But it's still bold and provocative, with storylines that twist and turn through some genuinely nasty and emotionally devastating events. As ever, the cast is excellent, anchored by a powerhouse Elizabeth Moss in full-glowering superhero mode. And the wonderful Ann Dowd gets some back-story this time, even as she's less central.

Easy: series 3
This comedy-drama ensemble is back with their separate, occasionally loosely connected dramas. Sometimes creator Joe Swanberg's offhanded attempts to shock feel pushy, for example presenting an open marriage as an everyday situation. But a moralising undercurrent gives away the game. The Chicago setting at least makes the show look different from other things on the air, and the actors bravely tackle the roles without worrying that all of these people are deeply unlikeable. They're realistic, so there are things about each of them that we can sympathise with, but it's difficult to care. 

Black Mirror: series 5
There are only three episodes in this season, and the high quality of the productions will leave the audience wanting more. Charlie Brooker happily pushes his characters to the brink with the help of on-the-edge technology that feels like it might be introduced tomorrow. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play out a fiendishly clever variation on the usual bromance. Andrew Scott has a harrowing stand-off with the cops, which gets increasingly entwined technologically. And Miley Cyrus is terrific as popstar Ashley Q, whose life is hijacked by her assistant, while a loyal fan (Angourie Rice) has an unexpected connection with an artificial-intelligence toy. They way these two strands converge is fiendishly clever.

Younger: series 6
A guilty pleasure, this dopey comedy continues to be just right when you don't want to think: hot people angsting about inane dilemmas in situations that bear no resemblance to the real world. And the way the show tries to be hip about social media is deeply amusing. Watched this way, there's quite a lot of fun to be had in the quirky characters, even if it's impossible to care what happens. But it doesn't help that the show's star (Sutton Foster's Liza) is the dullest character, and her romance with Peter Hermann's Charles is a non-starter. She's clearly destined for Nico Tortorella's gorgeous young single-dad tattooist. So just get on with it.


The OA: series 1-2
Created by and starring Brit Marling, this show is a clever prism of reality that's challenging but never tries to outfox the audience. It's rare to find such a mind-bending premise that's so bracingly coherent, packed with sequences that send exhilarating tingles up the spine. And where this season ends makes it even more essential, so it's sad that the plug was pulled. 

Derry Girls: series 1-2
This raucous half-hour comedy is perhaps a bit too broad for its own good, but it is amusing as it follows a group of Catholic teens as the conflicts of early 1990s Northern Irish unfold in the background. The girls (and one boy) are pretty ridiculous in their naivete, but their interaction is generally hilarious. But this knowing, funny show is stolen by Siobhan McSweeney as the deadpan Sister Michael.

Call My Agent: series 1-3
Not sure why I hadn't discovered this French comedy (now made by Netflix) before, but it's seems made for me! At a top Paris talent agency (with clients playing themselves, often riotously so), the out-of-control staff members get more engaging with each episode. It's a terrific combination of snappy humour, soapy plotlines and knowing industry pastiche. The Isabelle Huppert episode is essential.

Superstore: series 1-4
Over the dog days of summer, I was in need of a half-hour comedy to fill in the corners between work projects. And it didn't take long to get through all four seasons of this breezily silly sit-com set in a Walmart/Target like warehouse store, anchored ably by America Ferrera. It tackles big issues (immigration, un-liveable wages, sexism) but is refreshingly offhanded about pretty much everything. 

Succession: series 1
The cast and sharp writing make this show essential. There's a bit too much swaggering masculinity on display (the female characters need to be beefed up), and the mashup of Murdoch, Ailes and Disney sometimes feels a little forced. But it's fast and ruthlessly nasty, which is something rare on television. The question is whether they can sustain this pace into another season.

The Haunting of Hill House: series 1
Bearing almost no resemblance to the source Shirley Jackson novel, this series spin an elaborate horror story over several timelines, This Is Us-style. It's beautifully put together, with a superior cast, although everything is rather too scary-looking. Still, it's packed with solid freak-outs. Some of the cast will return for the second season, a variation on Henry James' iconic The Turn of the Screw.


Clearly the most escapist of all TV genres, reality shows are such vapid fun that they help provide a break from, and some perspective on, actual life events. I enjoyed Love Island this summer for its collection of too-beautiful people who aren't stupid but don't seem to understand what's actually important. I'm currently keeping an eye on guilty pleasures The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing, two shows that feature big personalities and nothing else I'm remotely interested in. See also The X Factor: Celebrity, which just launched, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, coming soonish. RuPaul's Drag Race UK is off to a great start, combining huge characters with social importance and sassy colour. But the best reality show this year, perhaps ever, is A Very Brady Renovation, reuniting all six iconic child actors with an army of renovation show hosts to merge the exterior of the famed house with the 1969 interiors that only ever existed on a soundstage. It's the perfect combination of nostalgia and ingenuity, and staggeringly well put together. And now that house exists for real. This was pure television joy!


Sometimes you get into a show and begin to wonder why you're wasting your time, so I stop watching. Russian Doll was not my cup of tea from the start, with its abrasively heightened drama, pushy convolutions and acting that's too deliberately over-the-top. Brassic is a shameless variation on, well, Shameless that's far too wacky to be engaging, so the strong underlying themes ring hollow. Lodge 49 had a meandering, loose first season, but the show-runners went bigger with season 2, and the overly messy structure leaves the superb Wyatt Russell with nothing coherent to do. And I only made it through a couple minutes of the dryly overserious The Hot Zone.

NOW WATCHING: The Politician, Unbelievable, Living With Yourself, Succession (series 2), The Conners (2), Bless This Mess (2), The Good Place (4), This Is Us (4), Superstore (5), Mom (7), Modern Family (11).

COMING SOON: His Dark Materials, The Mandalorian, The Loudest Voice, War of the Worlds, State of the Union, The End of the F***ing World (2), Castle Rock (2), The Crown (3)...

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