Wednesday 2 August 2023

Screen: August TV Roundup

Long gone are the days when TV series premiered their new seasons in the autumn. Many high-profile shows have new episodes this summer, which gives me something enjoyable to watch in between the movies and stage shows. Some of the best programmes of the year are now sent out in the summertime, right during the TV awards show season. The question is what next year's shows will look like, as the delays from the writers and actors strike begin to shift release schedules. Well, it's started already, as the Emmys have postponed their awards ceremony from September to January. In the meantime, there's plenty to watch...

T H E   S A G A   C O N T I N U E S

The Bear: series 2 
There's a different energy this season, as the characters rally around a sense of purpose, looking to the future rather than simply trying to stay afloat. But the hope is tinged with a real sense of fear that makes each of the characters powerfully sympathetic. This allows the still-naturalistic performances to feel more relaxed and introspective, with stellar work once again from Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri and Ebon Moss-Bacharach. Generously, each member of the ensemble (plus astonishing guest stars) is given the chance to shine brightly in a nuanced, specific journey as part of the larger effort to reinvent and relaunch the restaurant in an insanely short period of time. Where this goes is funny, thrilling and unusually bittersweet, as the gifted cast and crew refuse to dodge the difficult stuff. (Hulu)

Heartstopper: series 2 
This unspeakably warm and involving series picks up right where it left off, following a group of 16-year-olds who feel like they don't quite belong for one reason or another. The romantic storylines continue to add textures this season, most notably as Nick and Charlie (Kit Connor and Joe Locke) face some very big issues as they grow closer. And Elle and Tao (Yasmin Finney and William Gao) finally confront the unspoken feelings they have. Terrific adult roles remind us that these questions aren't limited to adolescence. The range of serious topics this series deals with is impressive, offering layers of hope to viewers without ever pushing a point. It's also played to perfection by a seriously gifted cast who play teens with all their messiness in tact. Plus the fabulous Olivia Colman. Unmissable. (Netflix)

The Witcher:
series 3 
The amusing tone of the first season is an increasingly distant memory as everything turns almost ludicrously serious, the mythology becomes woefully dense, the plot splinters all over the place and everyone begins to speak in raspy whispers rather than their actual voice. This dialog is also packed with more wacky names than any mere mortal can keep track of. The central plot is still involving, despite the sideroads, layers of villainy and hyper-violent, over-staged battles. Oddly, the romance between Henry Cavill's Geralt and Anya Chalotra's Yennifer is a nonstarter; more involving is the complex link between Jaskier (Joey Batey) and Radovid (Hugh Skinner). While it's rarer now, the offhanded banter still holds the interest because it highlights engaging relationships over dully uninteresting lore. (Netflix)

I Think You Should Leave: series 3 
It's another bone-dry dose of pointed humour from Tim Robinson, taking aim at pop culture with lacerating satire about a range of worthy targets, from dating shows to pharmaceutical adverts, with a special emphasis on squirm-worthy office politics. These are short, sharp sketches with often absurd flourishes, and they're produced impeccably. The way they interweave, reference each other and sometimes overlap is both hilarious and often unnerving. It's the kind of show that provokes nervous giggles rather than hearty laughter. We can see ourselves in these exaggerated characters, which is both amusing and terrifying. (Netflix)

T H A T ’ S   A L L   F O L K S

The Other Two: series 3 
Increasingly wacky, this show has been written and performed from the first episode with lightning-sharp wit. The jokes seem to get broader with each episode, heading in sometimes ridiculous or even surreal directions as the writers ramp up their satirical take on the authentically insane world of celebrity and fame. Helene York and Drew Tarver are excellent as the desperate siblings who are unlikably ambitious but still sympathetic. Molly Shannon continues to steal the show as their now uber-famous mother. And a collection of hilarious side characters (including many A-list cameos) livens up scenes with astute gags and exaggerated absurdities. This show often begins to feel like it will spin out of control at any moment, which makes it unmissable. (Max)

Never Have I Ever: series 4 
For its fourth and final season, this series follows the bright but impulsive Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) through her fourth and final year of high school, continuing to trace the trail of carnage she generates in both in her friendships and romantically. And it's still inexplicably narrated by a wryly hilarious John McEnroe. The whole point of this series is to watch Devi growing up and forming increasingly serious relationships, and its her connection with her single mother (Poorna Jagannathan) that becomes the strong focal point here. A range of sometimes wildly nutty side characters maintain their own enjoyable trajectories while interacting with Devi's, and there are superbly dramatic, romantic and sexy moments scattered through these episodes, plus a lot of very witty writing. (Netflix)

F R E S H   &   N E W

The Crowded Room 
While series creator Akiva Goldsman works far too hard to obscure the story with a fragmented narrative, this show is involving thanks to lead performances from Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried as a criminal suspect and the psychiatrist trying to work out how his mind ticks. The plot's big secret is obvious very early on, and it's a mistake to wait until the sixth episode to confront it. If you stay with it, the show gets much better as it begins grappling with bigger themes about childhood abuse and mental trauma, which makes the second half of the series properly resonant and powerful. Holland and Seyfried play their complex roles beautifully, and the production is packed with clever visual touches that add to the internalised impact. (Apple)

Kim Cattrall gets a superb starring role as the founder of a high-end cosmetics brand who is trying to reconnect with her loyal customers. Her friendship with perky overachiever Marco (Miss Benny) is refreshingly offbeat and uneven, nicely refusing to progress as expected. Scattered through 10 sparky episodes are plenty of nice surprises in the interaction, narrative and relationships. The show plays out like an updated variation on Ugly Betty, and it feels perhaps a bit pointed in its gender politics, but the underlying ideas are important. This adds a hint of depth to a show that's otherwise unashamedly cartoonish. These are characters who are able to grow and change, so by the end most have taken a proper journey. Bring on season 2. (Netflix)

Secret Invasion
Yet another Marvel product that can't decide whether to focus on big action set pieces or character drama, so it isn't satisfying on either front and it ends up feeling like a plot transition between other movies and series. When the people are at the centre of the scene, this is riveting, played to perfection by the likes of Samuel L Jackson, Olivia Colman, Ben Mendelsohn, Don Cheadle, Emilia Clarke and Kingsley Ben Adir. But each episode seems to require a bombastic action set-piece that's efficient enough but also painfully uninteresting (super-powered people bashing each other is so boring!). And the overall plot, about an alien race warring with itself over whether to annihilate humans to take over Earth, carries absolutely no tension in a Marvelised universe. (Disney)

There's a dopey charm to this silly action comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a CIA spy who is sent on one last mission before he retires, during which he discovers that his daughter (Monica Barbaro) is also an ace operative. The banter is sharp and goofy between protective father, independent daughter, oblivious family, goofy colleagues and absurdly handsome villainous mastermind (Gabriel Luna). It's one of those shows in which no other spies seem to exist in the agency, so both spycraft and romances are limited within this ensemble. Amid some rather oddly nasty violence, there's plenty of comic relief (mainly from sidekicks Fortune Feimster and Travis Van Winkle). All of which leaves this show as a bit of mindless fun. (Netflix)

Based on a True Story 
Kaley Cuoco, Chris Messina and Tom Bateman are a solid enough central trio to overcome this crime comedy's outrageously contrived story points. The idea is so absurd (struggling couple launches a true crime podcast with a real serial killer) that it's impossible to take anything that happens remotely seriously. Which is fine for a comedy, but becomes a problem when events take some properly serious turns. All of this is assembled and performed with such a chirpy blast of energy that it's easy to simply sit back and enjoy each ridiculous predicament these people get themselves into. The red-herring fantasy sequences are so overdone that they undermine any attempt to get into the groove of the story. But the actors sell it. (Peacock)

C A T C H I N G   U P   W I T H . . .

Somebody Somewhere: series 1-2
I arrived late to this series and found it to be my kind of vibe. The writing and performances are delightfully unforced, creating characters who bring the audience into each scene so we can laugh with them at the absurdities of their lives. Bridget Everett shines as Sam, whose sardonic wit is a survival mechanism in rural Kansas. Her connections are the heart of the show, played out in mini-adventures that bristle with humour and emotion. Sam's interaction with sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) is played with unusual complexity and texture. And Jeff Hiller is wonderfully bemused as her new best pal Joel. This is a gorgeous show that could run and run. (HBO)

The Last of Us
Having lost my interest in zombies a few seasons into The Walking Dead, I avoided this show when it first came out. Then it was nominated across the board in the Dorian Awards, so I decided to take a look before casting my vote. The first two episodes were as tedious as I thought they'd be, and then episode three came along, deepening the dawning connection between the fabulous Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey while tracing a gorgeous decades-spanning subplot featuring the great Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett. The banter between Pascal and Ramsey is what kept me watching the series, plus some terrific guest stars (who knew Melanie Lynskey could be so gleefully vile?). This is far more involving than the action nonsense that consumes far too much screen time. (HBO)

GUILTY PLEASURES: Drag Race All Stars, Too Hot to Handle, Love Island.

NOW WATCHING: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2), Minx (2), Good Omens (2), And Just Like That (2), The Afterparty (2), What We Do in the Shadows (5), Black Mirror (6).

COMING SOON: The Continental, Ashoka, Only Murders in the Building (3), The Morning Show (3), Physical (3), Sex Education (4).

Previous roundup: JUNE 2023 > 

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