TV That I’ve Seen 1: Sugar Rush; Homeland; Joan of Arcadia; In Treatment.

(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”.

Sugar Rush

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.

Verdict:

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.

 

 

Homeland

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.

Verdict

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.

Verdict

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.

 

 

In Treatment

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.

Verdict:

Season One: 4/4

Season Two: 4/4

Season Three: As Yet Unseen.

As you can see, I’m changing the look of the blog; i’m trying out different themes and settings, so it may be a little while before it settles down – any obvious problems on the blog you can see are probably a result of this. Hopefully I’ll get around to tidying up some of the content, too.

Messing about with the blog

Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb (Liveship Traders #3).

I’m not really sure what to say about Ship of Destiny. It suffers from all the pacing issues of the earlier installments – indeed, I more or less abandoned it for a while halfway through, although that was as much about me getting distracted as it was about any objective quality of the book. That said, this isn’t perhaps the best series to read without a break, since the slow pace and rich plotting could probably becoming cloying for many readers.

And yet I can’t really complain about the pacing, because when I did, reluctantly, pick the book back up, halfway through, I fairly raced through to the end. This is a book with a big, impressive climax – a climax the series deserves – with an impressive, and intimidating, sense of destiny approaching, as the past, both ancient and modern, slowly gathers over the characters, ready to pounce, and the different strands of plot all converge for a final reckoning.

In some ways, it’s too big a climax, because the plot threads that don’t get wrapped up in it all have to be pushed to one side and conveniently forgotten about, which feels a bit of a cheat. It’s also a very big bomb to drop near the end of the book, making the subsequent authorial scurrying to tie up loose ends just a bit too obvious. It’s not as ungainly a clean-up as at the end of Farseer, but it’s still… not quite right. The end is maybe 20 or 30 pages too long – I don’t know which bits should have been cut, but something should have been. And there are maybe just one or two too many loose ends wrapped up, one or two too many questions answered – again, I don’t know which ones precisely should have been left dangling (and some were, to be fair), but as it was it went past satisfying, into clever and significant, and then just slightly too far into artificial and… over-neat. Likewise, throughout the book, there were too many dramatic misunderstandings – all by themselves believable, and any one of them a good source of tension, but all stuck in together seeming just a little bit too formulaic.

This isn’t an important thing, but: the issue of slavery is largely abandoned, which I felt cheated by. And at some point that got me thinking: this is a trilogy that explicitly addresses the evils of slavery, and features explicit condemnations of those who see slaves (and by extension all underclasses) as homogenous – and this is also a trilogy that shows us the same events from multiple perspectives, to show us the complixity of things, and how the same things appear differently to different people. OK, so how come there are no POVs of slaves? How come there are no developed slave characters? How come there are only a handful of slaves even named in all three books put together? It’s always “the slaves”, or “the Tattooed”, an almost indivisible mass. If she hadn’t brought our attention to it it might not have been noticeable – no book can give us every perspective, after all – but with so much emphasis placed on the topic, I ended up feeling that this was a massive hole in the series. Couldn’t Hobb have found an interesting slave narrative to tell? Given that there are slaves in the background of almost every plot in the trilogy, I’m sure she could have done. There are other gaps, too – the latent xenophobia of the Old Trader characters would have been well served by some New Trader POVs, for instance, or at the very least some sympathetic New Trader (or Jamaillian, or above all perhaps Chalcedian) characters. It feels a bit one-sided – which is fine for most books, but not for a book that seems to put a lot of its credibility on its (ideological and narrative) pluralism and three-dimensionality.

Another area sorely lacking was a real consideration of the end-point of the series. Although the trilogy, as is traditional, ends on, broadly, a ‘happy ending’, it’s an ending that is both bittersweet and ambiguous, on several levels. That’s great – but I really could have done with this being brought out more in the text itself – particularly as regards the top-level ‘geopolitical’, for want of a better word, resolution, which it’s too easy to read as a positive development. The reluctance of several reliable characters, and the self-doubt of another, do provoke the attentive reader to think more thoroughly about whether this happy ending is really happy or not – but in light of just how dramatic the events are, I really felt that more explicit thought on the subject was needed. Best of all would have been some tie-in between the different levels of theme – how does the ‘serpent’ plot look when placed in the same light as the ruminations on slavery, for instance?

[I’m sorry for speaking in code. I want to make some points that will only completely make sense to people who have read the books, you see, while not including explicit spoilers for those who have not read them. Not sure I’m always succesful at making sense when I do that]

Finally, a massive problem I had with the trilogy as a whole and this book in particular is the way in which several – and by the end frankly most – characters were sidelined after I’d become interested in them. This occurred not only in terms of screen-time, but also in character-development. Relationships between the reader and the characters that at one time seemed intimate and textured gradually become flat and distant. To some degree this is inevitable, in order to make room both for the plot and for the growth of several characters – most dramatically the growth of Kennit from an interesting side-character not directly involved with the main plot into the central, paramount, foundational character of the trilogy – but I feel it could have been handled with a little more sensitivity. My favourite chapter of the entire trilogy was way back in the first book, and it’s a great disappointment that the connexion I felt then was never rekindled.

However, there are good things about the book. First, it’s commendably explosive – it may have a long fuse, and there may be issues with aftershocks, but the big bang itself is a thrilling read. As I’ve said before, I’m constantly amazed by how good Hobb is at writing action scenes, given how far they are from what I’d consider her core interests.

If there is a core interest, it’s character and relationships, and here also the book excells. Many of the characters are rich, believable, and subject to change and development – believable change and development, or in some cases a refreshingly realistic lack thereof. This novel, however, is Kennit’s. In Kennit we are given one of the masterpiece characters of the fantasy genre – a character complex, ambiguous, repellant and attractive, a character even that raises interesting questions. We never know who Kennit is, or who he isn’t, not because he’s hidden from us, or devoid of characterisation, but because we are given at least two completely conflicting interpretations: is he a villain to the core, who succesfully persuades those around him that he is a man of many great virtues, or is he a good man who does good things despite telling himself (from fear and from shame) that he is a villain? Is he both? Or is he neither? The truth of masks and the deception of sincerity… even when we see the events from every perspective possible, still we cannot penetrate to “the truth” of the matter when it comes to the nature of men’s souls. And to some degree perhaps it doesn’t matter that we can’t. Throughout the trilogy, characters engage in various serious and meaningful relationships without ever really knowing the other parties – and though character drives the plot, it is a negotiated, external character, that may be quite disconnected from the heart of the man, or the woman. Most of all, we may never really know Kennit – if indeed there is any meaning to that concept or real knowledge of a person – but it doesn’t matter, because it is “Kennit”, the larger-than-life negotiated social construction that drives events. The man at the core of the myth is perhaps as confused about the boundaries between himself and his legend as we are. But of course, though Kennit exemplifies this most strongly, it remains true for all the other characters – whether the myth is a romantic ideal, or a paternal prescription, or a heroic duty, or the mask of authority. The image and the real – and the ineffability of the real, its negotiable quality – is a theme that runs powerfully through the whole trilogy.

In the process, we are distanced from the characters, and this is one reason why this trilogy is less accessible and immediately likeable than its predecessor. Pacing and the shear confusing breadth of the story are additional problems. Yet for the reader who can settle down for a challenging but comfortable saga, there is an extremely strong story at the heart of this – multiple sympathetic and inherently interesting characters engaged in significant and compelling plots, in an interesting world. I’ve struggled through the trilogy, I know, chipping away at it chapter by chapter. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it – or that I wouldn’t recommend it. I most certainly would.

One warning, though: some readers don’t like rape. There have already been rapes in previous volumes, but the rape and sexual assault quotient does accelerate here. Personally, I think this is an excellent thing, exploring the consequences of terrible actions in a way that felt sympathetic, textured, and never gratuitous. But it needn’t always be comfortable – some of the aftermath of one rape, for instance, makes for some of the most horribly uncomfortable reading I’ve encountered in a genre book. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing.

—-

Adrenaline: 4/5. Full marks toward the end, but it does take a little while to ramp up to speed.

Emotion: 4/5. I’m not sure I cried, but I certainly had very moist eyes at least twice. Perhaps it still didn’t have the payoff I might have hoped for given the amount of investment in the characters, but certainly not a cold or arid novel.

Thought: 4/5. Between the fascinating characters and the fascinating, challenging developments around them, together with a well-worked and sophisticated plot, my brain was really enjoying this one.

Beauty: 4/5. Kicked up a notch from Hobb’s usual utilitarian level by the symmetry and elegance and emotive beauty of a number of key climactic scenes.

Craft: 4/5. Hobb’s prose isn’t sparkling, and there are minor errors and omissions made. However, overall this has an above-average level of craft – both emotional and action scenes are well-written, a considerable amount of information is doled out with a light and graceful hand (and excellent timing), plots, foreshadowings, repetitions and in-world allusions are handled deftly and carefully, and character development and presentation are largely excellent, even if I might want a little more limelight for the supporting cast.

Endearingness: 4/5. I still don’t quite adore this trilogy. Because of its giant cast of characters (I think there are over 20 POV characters alone, though admittedly some are minor) and disparate plot threads it’s hard to immerse us fully in any part of the story – it feels as though in order to show us everything, Hobb has had to use a wide lens. For some authors this can work, but as Hobb intentionally uses complex, often challenging characters who need close exploration to bind us to their more sympathetic sides, and indeed plot developments that (with some exceptions) tend to the subtle rather than the pyrotechnic, the wide lens leaves us often feeling a little less close to the action than we’d like to be. That said, I do really like the novel. It has some very memorable and sympathetic characters, it has a delightfully weird and tingly background plot development, it’s immersive, and for the most part it’s jolly fun to read (though, again, it’s not for those who need breakneck writing styles and constant physical action scenes).

Originality: 3/5. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion has less room for originality than the development section had – there are only so many ways to bring an end to a plot on this scale, and while Hobb certainly doesn’t fall into cliché and manages to surprise a little here and there, the general structure and direction feels, perhaps inevitably, more familiar.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. I know that a lot of this review didn’t sound that glowing, and I’ll admit that this book didn’t blow me out of the water. It isn’t brilliant at anything. On the other hand, it isn’t bad at anything either – I’ve pointed out a few (I think) flaws, but there are no real weaknesses. Aside from an average level of originality – which is to be expected given the genre and the fact that this is a plot-concluding novel rather than a plot-developing or plot-introducing novel – this book is above par in every way. I think that the trilogy as a whole suffers by its placement between the two Fitz-focused trilogies, because this is a long way from Farseer thematically and structurally and emotionally – I think that the disappointment of Fitz-fans struggling to adapt to such a change has given it an undeserved reputation. It’s true also that the genre is an issue here – it’s close enough to epic fantasy for many readers to dismiss it, but it doesn’t directly appeal to core epic fans either. It’s not dark lords destroying the earth unless they’re stopped by teenage farmboys – it’s a bunch of women talking about relationships, politics, trade, ships, and sea serpents. [With added pirates and magic and fighting and sea serpents and toxic mutation and buried secrets (literal and metaphorical) and rape, and some more rape, and a prophet]. Nonetheless, I do think that if you take this series on its own merits, not expecting it to be Jordan, not even expecting it to be Fitz, it’s a really good old-fashioned sprawling yarn with great characters that now and then makes you think. Which I think is a very good thing to be. And it ends on a high note.