(Have those four shows ever been listed in the same sentence before?).
I don’t put up reviews of TV shows generally – I don’t feel competent, and so I don’t usually have much to say. And yet, sometimes I want to say something. So, I though I’d have a compromise here – no full reviews, but a brief digest of some things I’ve watched recently enough to have meaningful thoughts about. And I suppose I may as well include a score – only, as I say, I don’t feel so competent here, so rather than 1-7 I’m going for a broader-stroke 1-4 scale: 1=”apparently OK enough that I watched it all, but not entirely sure why I did”; 2=”there are worse ways to spend time, it’s not that bad really”; 3=”I might recommend this to some people, it’s actually quite good”; 4=”seriously, go watch this, it’s brilliant”.
The first season of this show is not a lesbian teen-romcom. It’s actually an Angry Young Men novel disguised to look like a lesbian teen-romcom. The author of the novel the series is based on might not like that description, but then neither did the original Angry Young Men. It’s also important to point out that we’re not talking death-and-depression-and-seriousness AYM, but a comic style more in keeping with Waterhouse or the New University Wits.
Sugar Rush is about a 15-year-old nice middle-class closeted lesbian virgin, Kim, whose family has just arrived in Brighton, from London, and who has developed a sexual obsession with her straight best friend, Sugar – who is a chav, a fatherless highly promiscuous binge-drinking drug-taking drug-dealing petty thief, whose mother is never seen throughout the series. As Kim tries to deal with her obsession, the rest of her family disintegrates around her: in the first episode, she walks in on her mother having sex with their handyman; her father is a self-doubting, diffident, oblivious househusband; her brother wears a fishbowl over his head and appears to, in essence, be insane. The AYM trope of provincialism is seen in petty small-town Brighton, contrasted with the lights and delights of London; the AYM alienation could be no clearer than Kim’s closeted sexuality (a lesbian forced to keep quiet and watch as the girl she loves picks up a succession of worthless men for emotionless sex). Issues of identity and authenticity beset not only Kim but the whole of her family. Class divides are prominent – Kim longs to be with Sugar, but Sugar observes out acutely the completely different worlds the two inhabit, and will always inhabit. Social criticism is pervasive.
None of that means it’s a good show. That depth and interest means it has the possibility of being a good show. It actually IS a good show because these possibilities are brought out by fantastic acting (from a good cast, with special mention for the wonderful Andrew Garfield unexpectedly popping up pre-fame in a minor supporting role as Kim’s stalkerish neighbour), fantastic writing (it’s really funny), and fantastic directing (the absurdist energy of its incongruous cutting heightens both the humour and the tragedy).
That said, it’s not a brilliant show. It’s funny, but not hilarious; it’s moving, but not devastating; it’s compelling, but not gripping; it’s interesting, but not fascinating. It is, however, genuinely, seriously good, despite its subject matter and appearance. [It's also surprisingly edgy. Highlight - while Kim concocts a plan to drug and rape Sugar, her brother, looked down on by a set of creepy, staring blue-painted dolls in closeup, slowly drowns his hamster in paint. Yeurggghhh.].
Season 2 isn’t. Everything has been said in Season 1, and Season 2 is pointless. It descends into a lesbian teenage romcom – the edginess has gone, the subtlety has gone, the psychological examinations have been replaced by stock-footage plotting in which characters do stuff just to keep on screen and set up gags. It feels like it was written by someone who had only seen a precis of the first season. It’s not terrible – it remains funny now and then, it retains a degree of drama (particularly for those who have invested in the first season), and it has lots of scenes of attractive women kissing each other, so there are worse ways to spend half an hour. If you liked the first season, you may as well watch the second – but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone on the strength of the second season alone, and I can see why it was cancelled. That said, I can’t say it was a bad thing that it was made – while it may not live up to the first season, even I feel the lack of teenage lesbian sex on TV, so I can only imagine that for people who actually are teenage lesbians, having this show around was probably a good thing. Most TV shows will never be more than mediocrely entertaining, and if you’re going to have mildly entertaining mediocrity on TV, it may as well be mediocrity aimed at a minority who probably feel a little left out by a lot of TV’s normal programming.
[By the way, the praise isn't just my idiosyncratic lesbian-fixated inner teenage boy with a soft spot for romance speaking. It was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Drama Series, alongside The Street, Shameless, and Life on Mars. And it won an International Emmy. Honestly, take it seriously!]
EDIT: forgot to add, the first season is one of the few things I’ve seen on TV where I’ve actually appreciated the pop music soundtrack.
Season One: 3/4. Don’t be fooled by the premise, it’s actually a good TV show.
Season Two: 2/4. Second-rate, and perhaps a bit exploitative, but not actively bad.
What a fantastic premise. A lost soldier returns from war and tries to settle back into life, when those around him have already begun to move on; meanwhile, a CIA agent is convinced that he has been turned by the enemy and is planning a terrorist attack, so decides to put him under 24-hour surveillance. Is he a terrorist, or an innocent victim? The genius is that it’s not easy to tell – depending on what assumptions you make, his actions can all be seen as either suspicious or perfectly innocuous.
Unfortunately, the show disappointingly abandons the brilliant premise far too early, and collapses into a conventional spy thriller. It’s not a bad spy thriller, but I felt keenly the loss of those possibilities – the unique nature of the promised plot, the interesting ideas about society that it could raise.
Claire Danes is superb as the CIA agent – it’s the kind of scenary-chewing over-the-top role that is made for awards, but she lives up to it and deserves the acclaim she’s received. Damian Lewis is also very welcome, as is the wonderfully subdued charisma of Mandy Patinkin as the agent’s mentor. At its best, Homeland reaches the thrilling plot-twistiness of early 24, without that show’s implausible ridiculousness. In fact, hands down, this is a really good show. I just wish it had been the show it originally set out to be.
I also wish there weren’t going to be a second season. As with Sugar Rush, everything has been dealt with in the first season, and there is no need for a second. Then again, perhaps they’ll prove me wrong. I really hope we don’t just retread the same ground.
Season One: 3/4. Fails to be brilliant, but being in a position where the audience expects it to be brilliant is itself a great achievement.
Joan of Arcadia
Oh joy. Another Buffyclone – teenager deals with supernatural powers (in this case, visitations from God) while negotiating the social difficulties of being an outsider in a highschool. I don’t know why I even bother.
But actually, there’s more here than meets the eye. It’s half buffyclone… and half depressing family crisis. Joan’s eldest brother is bitter and angry after a paralysing car-crash; their middle brother, the science geek, is lonely and ignored; their mother clearly has some dark edges that she hasn’t confronted; their father is a new police chief in a town that seemingly rivals Baltimore for corruption and incompetence, and makes dangerous enemies every week. There’s death and murder and suicide – in one episode, a teenage suicide is actually presented as the relatively happy ending. It gets seriously dark in places.
It is, however, still basically shit. It’s a cliche, conventional US teen soap opera… it’s just one where the same cliches and conventions are used to darker and more critical ends. It’s as though the network comissioned a boring show but gave it to writers who really wanted to be writing something more serious and respectable. As a result, it’s an unusual mixture of cheap addictive sugar with some sour and bitter and savory aftertastes, which prevent the sugar from becoming TOO over-sickly (though it’s certainly a close-run thing).
I haven’t seen the second series. Seems a bit pointless to me, since it’s pretty much finished after one season and I wouldn’t want it to keep on repeating itself. I’ll probably watch it eventually, though.
Season One: 2/4. You’d think it would be terrible, but actually it isn’t. Some good moments, if you can stomach this sort of thing.
Season Two: As Yet Unseen.
My word. This is HBO. I mean, this is the apotheosis of HBO. Except that it has no breasts. I don’t mean content-wise, I mean structurally. HBO shows explore the boundaries of plotlessness, basically shout out “watch us, we’ve got great characters”. In Treatment genuinely has no plot – only characters. It’s the story (story? no it isn’t!) of a psychologist, a therapist, who sees a number of patients, one on each day of the week. Each episode is – with occasional exceptions and maybe a minute of intro sometimes – a conversation between a character and their therapist (including the therapists’ own session with HIS therapist, at the end of the week), and lasts 20-30 minutes. There are maybe 20 or 30 or 40 minutes in total that are outside the office of the therapist. In a height of drama, in one episode the lights dim and thunder is heard. Sometimes it’s raining outside. That’s about all that happens.
It is, however, incredibly fantastic. Yes, I was unsure at first – the first week or two (ie the first ten or so episodes), it seemed a bit… American. You know, the American cult of the shrink, in which after half an hour the shrink says “don’t you see! it’s all about your father!” and everyone’s problems are magically cured. But actually, it’s not like that at all. Some of the obvious “it’s he father, you idiot!” guesses the audience makes turn out to be false, while others turn out to be true but surprisingly unimportant – these characters may have key insights, but aren’t unravelled by them. They aren’t just textbook ‘cases’, but each character shows many inter-related complications. As we see the effect Paul has on his patients, or fails to have, and the effects that they have on Paul’s life, we really challenge the myth of therapy. The myth of everything, really. It’s some of the most challenging, uncomfortable, uncompromising viewing I’ve encountered. It’s brilliantly written (by and large, minus one or two bad lines). Difficult questions, and no easy answers.
It’s carried by it incredible acting. Gabriel Byrne is tremendous as the psychologist, whose own personality gradually emerges as the hours go past – the perfect shell of the therapist held up in searing contrast with the man we see inside in his own therapy sessions – but he often takes the back seat to his patients. Worthy of particular mention is the outstanding Mia Wasikowska, whose teenage gymnast (referred by an insurance company who suspect her cycling ‘accident’ may have been attempted suicide and won’t pay out) is one of the most heart-wrenchingly awe-inspiring acting performances I’ve ever seen. I’ve rarely felt so much about any TV character as I have about Sophie – and that in turn makes Paul’s feelings about her so much more powerful.
The second season features a new cast of patients, which in some way is a shame, which feels a little like bereavement. [In particular, I gather that in the Israeli original (what is it about Israeli TV? Homeland was originally Israeli too) the child in the second season is the child of the arguing couple in the first season, which would have been fascinating to see]. That, I suppose, is part of the point though, and a major plot issue of the second season – Paul sees his patients, and then they go away, and he may never hear from them again, indeed is expected never to hear from them again. Paul’s twin roles as a father and a therapist meet, as he is symbolically outgrown by one patient after another – he, and we, invest utterly in his patients, only to have them disappear completely into their own lives. One of so many ways in which this is painful viewing. More prosaically, the second season doesn’t have Wasikowska, and nobody quite replaces her – but I can’t complain too much, because the new cast are also brilliant. [I'm running out of superlatives, sorry]. Alison Pill’s architecture student is the new standout for me, but I imagine tastes will differ – i guess maybe I just find it easier to care about cute young women, and about certain issues.
That’s an important part of why In Treatment is so gripping. Paul sees each patient in turn – which means that at the end of Sophie’s session (to pick my own personal favourite) you have to watch through another four episodes before you get to see what happens next. On TV, this could easily be frustrating, but on TV it translates to hours and hours and hours of continual viewing.
I haven’t seen the third (and almost certainly final) season yet. I certainly will.
There are some issues. Some will dislike some of the characters and find that an obstacle to continuing. Some will be tired of all the talking and the complete lack of action. Some will not be charmed by the fact that it’s basically a series of two-hand stage plays on TV. Some will dislike its ambition, and some will find all the high emotion and deep psychological wounds to be overdone, wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo why can’t they stop talking about their feelings and start shooting people i mean one of them’s a fighter pilot how come there’s not even one flashback to a dogfight with machine guns and BANG BANG EXPLOSIONS YEE HAW. It’s not a show for everybody, no.
What it is is unflinching. Both in content and in form, this is seriously uncompromising TV. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it had tiny viewing figures and that even HBO backed away from it.
It is, however (and I do repeat – if you’ve some reservations at first, do press on), fucking brilliant.
EDIT: forgot to add: it’s also, I’m told (both first-hand and by people on the internet) remarkably accurate as a portrayal of therapy, albeit of course condensed and sometimes simplified, and focusing on the more ‘interesting’ patients.
Season One: 4/4
Season Two: 4/4
Season Three: As Yet Unseen.