Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

[Reminder: I’m not doing a full review of this because it’s a recent book by a living author. On the other hand, it’s not THAT recent, and given its popularity and the film coming out, it’s unlikely the author would ever see this review, so I’ve gone a little further into personal opinion than I might otherwise]

What is this book?

Cloud Atlas is not really a novel in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a collection of six novellettes (novellas, novelines… I’m not up on the precise distinctions); I’d say they were tangentially connected,  but that’s doing a disservice to tangents. Instead, I’ll say that they’re, as it were, connected by conceit – characters in different stories are proposed to be reincarnations of the same souls. Furthermore, each story exists as a story or history within at least one other story. The stories are nested, the first half of each being told, followed by the second half of each in the reverse order. Each story is in a completely different style: a 19th century sea journal; a 1920’s upper-class composer and cad fleeing his creditors and seeking fresh employment in Belgium; a semi-noir conspiracy action-mystery set in (slightly altered) 70’s California; a curmudgeonly, tragicomic lament on modern Britain by an elderly vanity publisher; a Korean dystopia as described by an imprisoned clone; war and slavery in post-apocalyptic Hawai’i. Not only the content changes – the whole narrative voice in each story is entirely different.

What is this book good for?

It’s clearly an impressive demonstration of Mitchell’s writing ability. If you were applying for a job as a writer, and for some reason they demanded an entire novel as evidence of your ability, this might be the sort of thing you’d submit – it shows his ability to write in a diversity of styles and genres.

The stories themselves seem to me variable in quality, but that may in part reflect my own preferences. It was no surprise to me, for instance, that I found the Dick/Huxley story by far the most interesting – since that’s just a lot closer to what I’m interested in. But all of the stories create coherent and understandable protagonists, who in most cases will seem broadly sympathetic to the reader. Some of the stories – the Dick/Huxley and the California piece in particular – had fairly effective adrenaline-spiking plot progressions. There are moments of pathos, bathos, wit and insight. It’s a good read, if you don’t mind the tonal and narrative disconnexion between the component stories.

What problems does this book have?

Should books exist to show off how smart the author is? Take out the conceit of how many different styles he can write in, and what we’re left with is six basically unrelated stories, each one broadly enjoyable in an accessible, low-expectations way. At times – too many times – the author seemed to be reaching for profundity, wisdom, meaning… but all I could see was fortune-cookie cliché and, frankly, vapidity. Some of the quotes that people have picked out and listed on Goodreads: “…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”; “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”; “If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass”; “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence”. And there are whole lectures of it – the book basically ends with a lecture.

Of course, not every book has to be deeply meaningful. It can just be enjoyable. But there is one big problem the book faces on that front too: the entire thing, other than perhaps the conceit of the six stories in one novel, is disappointingly… unimaginative. We can recognise that each story is a different style and genre precisely because it so immensely apparent what style and genre each one is. It would be cruel to call them pastiches… but there is nothing original, nothing surprising, nothing ingenious here. The dystopia, for instance. Well thanks, but I’ve read Brave New World and I’ve watched Blade Runner, and my consciousness is saturated with so many portrayals of dystopias and cloning, and dystopian cloning… these settings can be interesting, of course, but either you’ve got to do something new with them, or you’ve got to do the old thing really well. And Mitchell does exactly what you expect him to do all along, and he doesn’t do it any better than the people he’s copying. Or the Hawai’i section – I’m sure I’m not the only one who, the whole time, had half of my brain constantly thinking ‘this isn’t as good as Hoban’s version’. Because I know the story already, I know it down to its weird fake-primitive dialect (and, btw, that really is weird if you think about it, since within the context of the story it’s made clear that they aren’t actually speaking anything that would be understandable to us, so the decision to ‘translate’ it into a more accessible form of Hobanese is purely a matter of obeying genre conventions). The same is broadly true of the flippant English bounder, the over-the-top conspiracy mystery, and the black humour satirical farce with a character who sounds like a letter to the editor of the Telegraph – sure, I don’t know those genres well enough to name the specific authors he’s copying, but they’re sufficiently ubiquitous in our culture that I never felt I was somewhere unfamiliar. The pacific journal was a little more novel (people have compared it to Melville, but I’ve never read Melville), but unfortunately it was also the least interesting as a story in its own right.

I’ll also add two further, more minor problems: first, that Mitchell doesn’t actually completely grasp the proper prose style in all his sections, as he tends to over-do it and make each voice more-X-than-X, as it were; second, his repeated postmodern comments about his own book expressed through the characters (including the complaint that the pacific section seems not to have exactly hit the diction correctly, and the complaint about postmodernism, which he postmodernistically makes himself) didn’t excuse the flaws, but only called attention to it, and to the author, in an annoying way. It’s a convenient excuse, when you have each story be a story in another story, to blame the deficiencies of a story on the fictional characters who wrote it – but that doesn’t actually make the story better, since we all know that, in the end, the author is still the author.

In Short?

I hope I haven’t seemed too harsh on the book. I think it all depends on what you want from it. If you can’t decide what genre you want to read, you don’t want anything challenging, and you’re not looking for a masterpiece, this is, broadly, a good, enjoyable, pleasant, entertainment. Unfortunately, if, like me, you are excited by all the hype and come to it expecting something memorable…  that’s not so good.

I think this is the sort of book people read to be proud of themselves – because it’s just unusual and soi dissant profound enough to make people feel literate for reading it, but at the same time it’s actually just a good yarn, so people get to enjoy reading it while at the same time feeling proud that they’re enjoying something a little bit more clever.

[Perhaps the film analogy would be Inception. A fun brainless popcorn film if taken in its own right, but it portrays itself as more than it is, and the audience have bought into that for their own reasons].

I’ve no doubt at all that Mitchell can be a really good writer. I’m just not sure that, this time, he really had anything to write about. It’s like watching a really clever, sophisticated, powerful engine whizzing around with no actual load to pull.

Verdict?

Mixed.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Some sections 5/5, especially since the structure puts 6 finales in a row. But the cost of that is that much of the first half is a little dull and slow.

Emotion: 2/5. It’s hard to get caught up in characters in such short stories, particularly when they do not feel original.

Thought: 3/5. It’s clever, but not as clever as it thinks it is; in particular, it’s quite a let down that the stories don’t integrate more closely in the end, which wasted a fair amount the time and energy I’d expended trying to work out how things were going to fit together.

Beauty: 3/5. There are some pretty lines, particularly in the cad section.

Craft: 4/5. Have to commend the author on his grasp of genre and his versatility of prose. Mitchell looks like a really talented writer.

Endearingness: 3/5. Could have given it worse, because there’s something about its attention-seeking superficiality that I really don’t like… but I can’t be too harsh on it because in places it’s genuinely funny, and in other places it’s a jolly good read.

Originality: 2/5. The originality is in putting six such different stories together in one book in the guise of a single novel. The stories themselves are almost entirely familiar.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Going by the scores above, this is on the border with only “Not Bad”. However, since I recognise that part of my dissatisfaction comes from having expected too much for it, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and nudging it up to Good. Because I think, if I’m being fair, this is a good book.  It’s pretty fun to read, and it’s certainly well-written. It just isn’t… exceptional. In my opinion.

Things I’ve seen on TV, #2 (Boston Legal, Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother, Drop the Dead Donkey, and Ultraviolet)

Well, time has passed, I’ve watched through some more TV series, so I thought I’d share some opinions on them. As before, I’m recognising my deficiencies as a commentator on TV, and restricting myself to a very simple 4-point scale – 1 is rubbish, 2 is sort of not-great-but-I-don’t-regret-watching-it (typically ambitious and interesting programmes that fail to work as they should, or fundamentally disposable programmes that manage to be surprisingly enjoyable), 3 is actually good, and 4 is brilliant. Or to put it another way these could be seen as respectively marking programmes that I would discourage people from watching, programmes that I wouldn’t discourage people from watching but probably wouldn’t recommend either unless the programme matched some special interest of the person I was talking to, programmes that I would recommend to people who had some free time, and programmes that (unless i knew they hated the genre) I would put on everyone’s must-watch list.

So, my thoughts on:

BOSTON LEGAL

Hmm. When I started watching this, I pretty quickly thought that I was making a mistake. I think what gave it away was the beautiful women. There are too many of them. I sometimes couldn’t tell which one was which. On several occasions characters had to explicitly state in dialogue which characters were beautiful and which were merely plain, because it was impossible to tell from appearance. And we’re mostly talking hollywood beautiful here – which mostly means ugly. Would be beautiful if they were made of marble, but as they’re made of hollow plastic, it’s just a bit repulsive. One of them has a collarbone so protrudent from her emaciated body that every time I see her neck I involuntarily shudder with the image of it accidentally snapping like a twig if she turns her head too fast.

The bigger problem is that “beauty” tends to indicate a preoccupation with gloss, rather than with content. So, it didn’t give me much hope.

That said, having stuck with it for a while, it got a lot better. This is largely because of James Spader, who is terrific in it, and because William Shatner acts as badly as only only William Shatner can. Shatner clearly realised early on in his career that he had no acting ability, and he’s parlayed this into a surprising succesful acting career, by taking the roles of people who overact. This overacted role is a great vignette of Shatnerism.

Unfortunately, Spader, Shatner, some funny moments, and an admirable willingness to go into dark places may set this apart from typical Hollywood bilge, but they aren’t enough to overcome the bigger problems. The darkness is dark, but fits uneasily with the sillyness, and lacks much psychological acuity or feeling of realism. The acting is generally quite bad, outside the aforementioned two (and Candice Bergen, and maybe Rene Auberjonois), not helped by poor and inconsistent characterisation. The writing has as many shudderingly bad moments as it does good ones. The interplay between the handsome, succesful Republican ex-marine who can’t get a girlfriend and spouts off about ‘red white and blue’ every episode and the weirdo nerdy liberal, Spader, who I think has six beautiful love interests in 17 episodes, is agonisingly transparent wish-fulfillment. The creators clearly don’t know where they’re going and characters lurch about (and in and out – it’s never good when a main character is dropped halfway through the first season, especially when they’re later replaced by someone fulfilling the same narrative roles; nor when one of the lead three characters is only introduced halfway through). Some of the legal cases are interesting, but others are just silly and boring.

I’ll probably watch the second season. There is something worthwhile hidden here, there’s just a lot of dross around it. Maybe later on they sort out what they’re doing and actually do it well.

For now, this felt a bit like a second-rate House – good central performance as an antisocial savant with questionable ethics, cast of attractive people around him, ‘edgy’ and sometimes absurdist humour, an attempt to take a formulaic show and make it a bit darker and deeper. It’s just not as dark, as deep or as funny as House, it’s not as well written, the central character is less interesting and the acting isn’t as good. All in all – it’s better than shit, I mostly enjoyed it, I’ll probably find the second season some time… but I’m not going to hurry out to buy it, and I’m not going to be recommending it to all my friends.

It’s OK.

VERDICT

Season One: 2/4

All other Seasons: As Yet Unseen

 

 

BREAKING BAD

I’m not sure I entirely get this series. In the short term, the storylines are fairly compelling, and I can certainly admire the fantastic acting by Brian Cranston in the leading role. And yet I don’t really feel engaged. I don’t particularly care about anyone, and I get the feeling that the few people or relationships I do care about, the series is going to enjoy crushing just to spite me.

Before going any further, a caveat: I’ve only seen the first two seasons. I expect it to get darker and deeper, and maybe even better. That said…

Weirdly, it doesn’t compare well to Weeds. I know, I know, that sounds ridiculous. Weeds isn’t serious, after all. [And another caveat: I’ve only seen the first three seasons of Weeds]. But that’s sort of the point – as entertainment, Weeds is overtly ridiculous, but this allows it to be funny. Breaking Bad is studiously serious and important (though not, of course, without allowing the possibility of both absurdity and humour – I mean, it begins with a man in his underpants in the desert, after all), and so is less directly funny and enjoyable, but I don’t feel it makes that ground back in other areas. The situations and background characters remain ridiculous, hard to take seriously, which damages the dramatic potential without managing to up the fun. Almost everything is depressing – but I never feel that anything deep or important is really tackled head-on. The main character is too inscrutable – too, frankly, boring. I can sympathise with him and I can understand him, but I don’t really feel his emotions (which I think is part of the point – he hides himself from us just as he hides himself from those around him); though he does bad things, they’re not so horrific as to be perversely compelling, nor are they as flamboyant as to be perversely thrilling. To get right down to it: this is a show about a chemistry teacher. And it’s as exciting as that sounds. Nor is there much to get the heart pumping, with the exception of a couple of episodes – the focus is more on the drama than the action. But it’s a drama about a boring and unlikeable man who doesn’t show his inner emotions.

Don’t imagine that I think this is bad, though. It’s not. The central acting performance is fantastic, wringing every drop out of the script, and the show couldn’t exist without that performance. The directing, likewise, is usually adequate and not infrequently inspired. There are many scenes here that, taken by themselves, are brilliant little moments. In particular, the pink-teddy-bear intro scenes throughout the second season, though over the top, are coldly gripping – the one ending with the glasses was chilling.

Oh, and it’s a fantastic demonstration of the power of hair in defining a character – hair-and-moustache vs shaved-head-and-face vs –shaved-head-but-a-beard seems to project entirely different personalities onto the same face…

So what do I think? I think it’s an excellently-crafted piece of work, and if you’ve got the time it’s certainly worth watching, for its competent script, good directing, and superb acting. And yet it’s far from being a favourite of mine, largely because I didn’t feel moved by the overarching narrative. The conceit of the show is that a good, likeable man is gradually led to do bad things – perhaps even to become a bad man. But I never felt that he was outstandingly good or likeable to begin with (he seems distant and irritable), and so far I haven’t seen him do anything spectacularly bad either (sure, he’s crossed the lines of morality and law, but not beyond redemption or beyond understanding). So neither the themes nor the character compels me. I’m curious about what’s going to happen next – but not hooked. It’s very, very well done, but I sort of wish they’d done something else instead.

UPDATE: I’ve now seen the third season. It continues to be excellent in execution, but struggles even more with the narrative. It sort of seems as though the writers are making it up as they go along (which apparently they were), so the plot veers around in ways that damage the integrity of the characters and the effectiveness of the narrative arcs. I mostly felt that the state-of-affairs in the series was stepping backwards, rather than steaming ahead.

That said, I’ve no doubt that I’ll see if I can pick up subsequent series. There’s considerable promise in the series, and frankly it’s worth watching for Cranston’s performance alone.

VERDICT:

Seasons One-to-Three: 3/4. Of the three, the second season is the best, as it feels more coherent, with a clearer direction of travel.

Remaining Seasons: Not Yet Watched

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

I don’t, as a general rule, like American comedy. I tend to ignore the various US imports that make it to our shores, because although America seems to be able to create intelligent, nuanced, distinctive dramas, my experience of hit US comedies is that they tend to the lowbrow, the unsubtle, and the mass-produced. [Not that UK comedy is in that great a place right now either. I think there was a golden age of UK TV comedy, but it ended at least a decade and a half ago, unfortunately. Standup seems to be going strong, and panel shows have their moments, but both sketch comedy and sitcom have taken a serious nosedive. “Little Britain”. Dear gods.]

But sometimes a show stands out and demands to be watched. This is the case with HIMYM. It had been on for years, and I’d always assumed that it would disappear just as quickly as it emerged – the brief glimpses I caught of it didn’t exactly bowl me over. Plus, it was clearly ‘the next Friends’, and knowing how Friends ended that didn’t provoke good thoughts in me (Friends, I later rediscovered, was once a genuinely hilarious, touching, intelligent, even occasionally edgy show… but by the time it ended, I thought it was a pile of shit. A reanimated corpse that just couldn’t be killed off – and the idea of HIMYM being designated successor to THAT moneyspinner was not a happy thought). But it kept being on TV, and people increasingly told me that I ought to watch it. So, eventually, I did.

I didn’t think it was all that funny. I laughed, yes, but neither continuously nor uproariously. The characters weren’t that likeable, either, nor believable, nor, in some cases, even three-dimensional; their struggles were uninteresting and uncompelling. If I’d been watching it on TV, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the first season.

But I did. Why? Well, about 10% because it was clever and made me laugh. About 20% because Neil Patrick Harris is awesome. And about 70%, I’ll be honest, because Alyson Hannigan smiling is one of the most joyous sights in the universe. [I don’t mean that as a sexual euphemism – she’s attractive enough, I suppose, but that’s a different thing entirely from the incredible infectiousness of her grin. Some people just seem like that – they smile, and you feel happy]. And those are largely the reasons I carried on and watched the second season too – though the manipulative and pointless plot twist at the end of the first season nearly made me quit.

[And I guess also 5% of it was having the whole of the season anyway, so I may as well have finished it]

And then, somehow, at some point, without my noticing it, I started to really like this show. It got funnier – that’s not a great surprise, comedy often needs a little time to get to know itself, its protagonists. The second, third, fourth seasons were really very funny. They still weren’t riotious festivals of hilarity, to be sure, but they were reliably funny. And surreptitiously, a little other thing happened along the way: it gained depth. Characters fleshed out from their original one-note casting descriptions, gained pathos and my empathy. I started to care about Ted’s struggle to find The One, not because I particularly liked Ted (he’s a curiously odious main character, and not normally in a way that suggests it’s intentional on the part of the writers. I feel I’m meant to like Ted despite his flaws – but those flaws (idiocy, narcissism, passivity, arrogance, a derogatory attitude toward other people in general and women in particular, and, at risk of repeating myself, a contemptuously arrogant narcissistic immense self-centredness with outbreaks of real unpleasantness) were so much more obvious than his virtues (sort of funny, not a complete arsehole from time to time, loyal, spontaneous now and then) that the best I could manage was grudging toleration, though admittedly future-Ted does seem a bit more likeable), but because the writers quite skillfully interlayed the day-to-day plots of the episodes with a tantalising progression toward finally actually telling the story in the title. Particular impressive in this period is the way that the writers deal with the problem of Robin: throughout the first season, Robin has essentially no personality or character whatsoever, and exists solely to be Ted’s impossible love interest; so, in later seasons, the writers cleverly develop her personality as a woman who has no personality. Why is she so secretive and so reluctant to display her true feelings about anything? The absence of character becomes a character.

So, it got funnier and more engaging, and I really liked it. Unfortunately, then it hit a problem. The writers seemed to enjoy their new more interesting characters, and tried to shift the emphasis toward personal (mostly relationship) drama. Normally, I’d have no problem with that. I like drama. But the writers of this particular show are so hemmed in both by the characters they are dealing with and by the inescapable constraint of the title conceit that they had very little room for action. In particular, where the knowledge that none of these women would be Ted’s One was once intriguing, in a ‘how-is-he-going-to-get-out-of-this’ way, after a certain number of dead-end relationships, it just makes it all seem pointless. When you know, each time, that the relationship is going to end, and probably pretty quickly, it’s hard to really care too much about the little ups and downs. In a similar way, all the other characters are bound to Ted’s side by being main characters, so we know they’re not going to move on with their lives in any significant way, at least not permanently, because that would disrupt the group dynamic. [There’s one exception to this, but even there the plot progresses at a glacial pace]. Actually, that parenthesis hits on something: across the show, it feels as though we’re being offered storylines that have an interesting end-point, but they’re intentionally being progressed so slowly that the show will reach its end before (or immediately when) they actually get to the good part. This is particularly frustrating in the last few seasons, where it feels as though the writers wanted to move forward, but got a two-year extension to their contract and decided to juggle things around for a couple of years in a way that will result in them resetting  things in a year or two back to where they were going – that is, it doesn’t matter what happens now, because we’re just in a holding pattern until their contract runs out.

So, they moved away from comedy toward drama, and this was a mistake because they don’t have enough drama to go around. The situation is too limited, and the characters too shallow, to allow a real dramatic plot – a tantalising dramatic background to the comedy, yes, fantastic for that, but once you foreground that drama, you discover how two-dimensional it really is.

Anyway, that sounds more negative that it probably should. I do like this show, I’ve decided. It’s funny, it’s mostly likeable, it’s interesting. In fact, given how many seasons it’s had and the length of each season, it’s done well to be as funny as it still is – it certainly feels fresher and funnier than Friends did at this point. It’s just… not what it could have been. I’m going to keep watching, but mostly in the forelorn hope that it gets better again.

And because Neil Patrick Harris is awesome.  And Alyson Hannigan has a really cute smile.

[But I’m glad I caught up on DVD – because if I’d been watching it in real time, I’d have gotten bored and wandered off somewhere in the fifth or sixth season.]

[It’s a fantastic conceit though]

VERDICT:

Season One: 2/4

Seasons Two to Four: 3/4

Seasons Five to Seven: 2/4

 

DROP THE DEAD DONKEY

Dear lord this was refreshing after HIMYM. None of that poncy American romance and hope and destiny here. Heavens no.

For those not keeping up with British comedy from two decades ago, DTDD was a satirical sitcom set in the office of a fictional news programme. The emphasis is on situation comedy – the dysfunctional relationships of a cluster of spiteful inadequates – but heavy use is also made of biting commentary on the state of the world: the series was (partially?) written and recorded in the week of broadcast, so there are usually throw-away jokes about the scandal of the day. This must have been refreshing when watching live, giving a real sense that the team were part of the real world, but is of course lost on an audience watching twenty years later.

The show begins with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, in the dying days of the Thatcher government, when corrupt billionaire mogul Sir Royston Merchant (the writers comment how fortunate they were, legally speaking, that Murdoch and Maxwell shared the same initials – neither could prove that Merchant was a parody of them, rather than of the other) buys out Globelink News and imposes his hand-picked chief executive, Gus Hedges – a bollocks-spouting modern manager with an oily smile and no morals in the slightest, who is eager for others to remember that he’s not there, he’s not really in charge, he’s just a liaison, just making suggestions… this Sir Humphrey of middle management heads an office comprised of a grey, cardigan-wearing, hypochondriac wimp (George, the editor), a sociopathic reporter specialising in sexy reports filled with carnage and tragedy (Damien), an aging, anger-and-whiskey-filled old-school journalist who now works as the senior newsreader (Henry), and a womanising gambling addict (Dave, the general dogsbody and Everyman); the only voice of sanity is George’s female deputy, Alex, whose innate passion and idealism are caged in by cynicism and eroded by pessimism. They are swiftly joined by a simpering, narcissistic female newsreader (Sally), and the second season introduces a new PA, Joy, who despises everybody in the office, resents having to do her job, and is indefatigably rude and aggressive (she does have some excuse – her father was an alcoholic, and her mother a drug addict who tried to kill herself… plus she’s clearly far too capable for the job). They are all, needless to say, fundamentally depressed. None of them particularly like any of the others, though some toleration has grown up through working together, and much of the comedy is bitter sniping between the characters (or, as Gus would put it, an ongoing ‘togetherness shortfall’), with occasional sober moments of despair and personal insight. Enlivened by ranting about politicians and celebrities, and dealing with whatever crisis has arisen in the office this week(NB don’t expect Iannucci-style tirades – this is closer to realistic antagonism than Tuckeresque high profanity). In other words, good old British humour. It’s the sort of show where one character rebukes another for wondering out loud whether Mrs Thatcher cares about children dying – of course she does, because every starving child who actually dies is one less photo opportunity. Or, in another episode, there’s a little vignette of one of Damien’s reports, where he’s trying to film an execution but it keeps going wrong, and eventually he has to staple a corpse’s head to a stake. It’s bleak, cynical, and everybody is on the verge of a mental breakdown of one sort or another (except Damien – a psychologist discovers that he is “completely stress-free. Psychotic, but stress-free”). [Damien is apparently based on the career of Paul Greengrass, before he went into films].

[The show was originally going to be called “Dead Belgians Don’t Count”, a reference to a recent Belgian train crash; the broadcasters forced them to go for something less offensive]

It’s really funny, and also surprisingly fun – dark it might be, but it’s also close enough to realistic that it doesn’t let itself wallow in darkness – these people may be more exposed to the tragedies of the world than most people, but they’re still just ordinary people trying to get through the day, trying to stay cheerful. There are some weak moments, particularly early on, where the show hasn’t quite worked out what it should and shouldn’t be doing (in particular, early experiments with inner monologue aren’t very succesful), so there are some mis-steps in both writing and plotting. The show also suffers from lost topicality – most modern viewers probably aren’t up on the minutiae of 1990 politics and celebrity affairs. Yet somehow I didn’t find that much of a problem. After all, it doesn’t really matter who these people are that are being mocked – few of the jokes require more context than can be gleaned from the joke itself. If they make a joke about an MP’s sex life, you know the MP must have had some scandals around his sex life – does it matter that you don’t know the details? The jokes are about slimy, corrupt, narcissistic and stupid public figures – just insert modern names if you want, the joke still applies. Later showings and the online versions include a little editorial comment at the beginning of each episode alerting you to the really big news stories that broke that week so you don’t miss anything too significant.

One big difference from a show like HIMYM, and similarity with other British sitcoms like Red Dwarf, at least in its early years, is that the comedy is not presented as comedy. By that I mean that the characters do not seem to be telling us jokes – they are forced together in this situation, and tell each other jokes. The actors play them as real, albeit caricatured, people, who happen to be funny – whereas on HIMYM, they seemed to start with the joke and then later on start worrying about coherent character. As a result, on HIMYM, their character – their whole way of speaking and moving – is geared to be funny, is over the top, it’s like they are the characters in a joke someone is telling (or a story, of course…); in DTDD, nobody could deny that the characters are extreme, but it’s more that they have started out as normal people and then been pushed to an extreme. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, although glimpses into the hidden depths of these characters are infrequent, they are (at least once the writers and actors have worked them out) all played with realism and acuity – comedy aside, these are fine acting performances. In fact, if you look up the actors involved, they’re all serious – if minor – respectable actors of stage and screen, rather than comedians. They’re all the sort of people who trained in drama school, have done some well-received theatre work, and have regularly appeared in guest roles in soaps and murder mysteries and little TV movies. In fact, looking at all their CVs, it’s rare to find any of them being in any comedies at all. As a result, they act like actors, not like comedians – they deliver their lines the way that character would deliver that line, not the way that makes the joke funniest. They trust the writer to make the lines funny, and trust their character to be funny without the actor having to try to be funny.

And it works.  It’s funny, and can at times also be moving. Unlike most comedies, you really get a sense of the characters as people – you become friends with them as the series progresses.

I’ve only re-watched the first and second seasons so far, though I remember the quality being maintained throughout, with the exception of the final, return-from-hiatus, final year.

All episodes are available for free online at 4oD (this may only apply to UK viewers, I don’t know, and registration (free and unverified) is required).

Seasons One and Two: 3/4. (The first season is a bit weaker than the second, unsurprisingly, but not enough to mark it down).

Remaining Seasons: Not Yet Rewatched.

 

 

ULTRAVIOLET

Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets grimy police procedural show in Joe Aherne’s thrillingly brilliant 1998 miniseries. Only it has nothing much in common with Buffy, beyond the subject-matter.Jack Beresford is a cop, and he is about to get married. The night before the wedding, his put-upon best man, Michael Colefield, receives a bizarre call from Jack’s unreliable informant, babbling about men who do not appear in photographs. The next morning, the informant is dead, killed in impossible circumstances, and Jack fails to turn up at the church. Michael sets out to find him – and in the process uncovers the existence of a top-secret government paramilitary force, and finds himself caught in a nightmarish guerilla war raging – unsuspected by the public – through the streets of Britain, and specifically of London… a war in which neither side may be entirely clean.

If you think we’ve got a vampire craze at the moment, cast your mind back to the late 1990s, an era of seminal vampire portrayals. In 1994, it was Interview with a Vampire. In 1996, it was Tarantino’s insane From Dusk Till Dawn. In 1997 we were introduced to Buffy in TV form. In 1998, we had Blade, John Carpenter’s Vampires… and Ultraviolet. With the possible exception of some parts of Buffy, Ultraviolet is by far the best of the things I’ve just named, for all that it’s the least-known. Ultraviolet has largely slipped through the cracks in public consciousness – too difficult for vampire fans, too full of vampires for those who like ‘serious’ drama. Only hardcore genre enthusiasts seem even to have heard of it (the ghastly, unrelated film of the same name can’t help). And that’s a great shame, because this genuinely deserves to be a classic.

This isn’t your typical vampire show. There aren’t a lot of vampires in it, for a start (Aherne seems to follow the old maxim to show the monster as little as possible, and his vampires aren’t fodder for butt-kicking, they’re skulking, manipulating, tactical), and they’re never referred to as vampires (the vampire hunters use the more professional-sounding ‘code five’, or the more emotive ‘leeches’). All that business with crosses and churches is explained as superstition, though thanks to the placebo effect that doesn’t necessarily make it worthless (vampires are just as superstitious as humans, apparently). Stakes through the heart are not recommended – not when there are allicin grenades and carbon bullets.

But this isn’t a modernised action-vampire bullet-fest like Blade either. This isn’t an American film drawn from a collective consciousness of invading places and kicking ass; this is a British miniseries, and it’s heavy with the depressing scent of Belfast. This is about terrorism, and not the sexy kind with ticking bombs and alien fanatics and locales from a Hollywood dream – this is about the old-fashioned insurrectionary kind of terrorism, where everybody looks and talks the same at night, and you can’t shake off the sense that maybe, somewhere under all the blood, maybe these guys do have a point. Maybe we aren’t always the good guys. Nobody on the show explicitly mentions Republican terrorism in Ireland, and I don’t know if it was a conscious source for the show, but the analogy seems inescapable to me. The vampires portray themselves as fighting for survival and freedom against a fanatical government death-squad, and say that their endangered circumstances justify their brutal methods; the vampire hunters, in turn, are filled with political, theological, and most importantly personal animosity toward their enemies, and appear no less ruthless in their tactics than the ‘leeches’ and ‘parasites’ they are out to exterminate. This is a series that asks a lot more than it answers.

Yet, in the end, it isn’t the subject matter than makes this good – it’s just that it wants to be good. More an more, I think the biggest obstacle to good art is lazyness. Sure, you need an OK writer, and some OK actors. But there’s actually not much here that, in itself, is excellent. The writing isn’t exceptional. The acting isn’t exceptional – yes, most of the cast do a fine job (most memorably Idris Elba’s grim ex-soldier), but they aren’t really asked to do that much (and unfortunately Jack is just annoying, and cheesy in my opinion). The directing isn’t exceptional – and sometimes it’s downright clumsy, though it also has some good moments.

No, what matters is that the writer didn’t want this to be shit, so it isn’t. Instead, it’s clever. I don’t mean in a murder-mystery kind of way… it’s just that this is what you get when a TV writer doesn’t turn off his brain, and doesn’t expect you to either. One example: if the viewer is expecting something to happen, the writer is expecting the viewer to be expecting that to happen, so something else will happen instead. And yes, that includes your back-up ‘if this doesn’t happen then that will’ option – except for the times when the obvious happens just to mess with you. In particular, there’s one brilliant suspense scene, with a man having only a few minutes to live unless he finds a way out of a trap. As the time ticks down, the show – with almost no words at all – points the viewer in half a dozen different directions. He’s going to escape by doing… oh, he’s going to… oh, don’t tell me he’s going to… oh! I see! that’s clev… ah. Oh dear. No, wait, maybe…. It’s fantastic. Will he find a clever way out, will he be rescued, will he go out all guns blazing, will he kill himself, or is the whole threat just a misdirection anyway and nothing bad’s going to happen? It’s a show with the intellect to think of everything that it could do, and the balls to do anything it wants to do. In six hours, I honestly, honestly, could have counted the number of times when I knew what was going to happen next on one hand (except, perhaps, the first episode – I knew the premise of the series, so I kind of saw where things had to go in the first episode to end up in the right place).

Another example: the things that aren’t said. On the one hand, lots of film has a lot of dialogue telling the viewer lots of stuff that the viewer expects to be told, but that doesn’t actually change anything. This generally doesn’t. Does the viewer actually need to know this? No? Then we’re not going to tell them. And if that means the viewer will often feel they don’t know exactly what’s going on, well good. It’s a thriller, nothing wrong with a little confusion. You’re not necessarily going to be given a full explanation of what vampires are, for instance, or full back-stories of the characters, or complete motivations of the villains. You might be given all or some of those things, if the writer feels you need to be given them… or you might not. On another hand, lots of film has moments where the viewers get to think “oh, I understand!” before something has actually been explained on screen. Ultraviolet generally doesn’t. Ultraviolet says ‘if the viewer can guess it now, the characters probably worked it out weeks ago… oh, didn’t we tell you they worked that out? We didn’t think it was worth mentioning, I mean theses guys aren’t stupid!’. So there are several points where you think you’re one step ahead of a character, only to realise that actually the character already worked it out without telling anyone – or else perhaps did tell someone else what he or she thought, but did it off-screen. Indeed, ‘off-screen’ can cover quite a bit of time, because there are unannounced time jumps – nothing interesting going to happen today, well then cut instantly to tomorrow and leave the viewer to figure it out. There’s none of this silly ‘make sure we see X tell Y about Z’ stuff – if the viewer should be expected to expect X to tell Y about Z, the series often doesn’t bother to actually spell it out. The viewer can’t think they know what characters know, think, or have done – they have to work out these things, on the basis of expecting the characters not to be idiots.

Sure, this sounds like it could be the product of bad filmmaking… but it isn’t. In this case, it feels very intentional, an attempt to create an unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere, an uneasiness. This is a series all about not saying things – it’s very British in that regard. The stuff the characters say to one another is only a fraction of what they’re thinking – and we only see a part of what they say to each other. There are some narratively fascinating moments where the viewer doesn’t actually know what they’ve watched – we go from a character seemingly knowing/believing/planning X, to them knowing/believing/planning Y, but because we’re given no bright shiny lightbulb to tell us when they’ve changed their mind, we don’t know when they changed their mind, so, for any particular moment in the last five minutes, we don’t know whether they had changed their mind or not, which means that what the character did in that time can be interpreted in multiple ways. This lack of signposting forces the viewer to pay close attention to everything, to theorise about what may be going on… and as a result it forces the viewer to become paranoid. We don’t know whether X is going to do Y… fair enough. When the moment has passed, we don’t know why X didn’t do Y – were they going to but couldn’t, or couldn’t go through with it, or did they change their mind, or were they never thinking that at all? Well, OK. But this is what really got me: not only do I not know whether he was planning to do that but didn’t, I don’t even know whether I was meant to suspect that he was planning to do that, or whether I’m just being paranoid. There are times I wasn’t just unable to tell the red herrings from the real foreshadowings, there were even times I couldn’t tell which red herrings the writer had given me and which I had dreamt up myself.

This sounds very arty and confusing. But there is just enough easily-understandable suspense thriller detective plot to grip the viewer and make them watch on – and just enough characterisation to make us think we sort of know, and like, these people. And just little enough that we’re very uneasy about everything. Because this series doesn’t shout – it doesn’t even shout out “I’m not going to shout!”. I don’t even know whether Aherne set out to drive me paranoid, or whether that’s just a paranoid conspiracy theory.

If I had to name one thing this reminded me of, it would be The Wire, only this is more so. It’s less predictable, it’s less cliché, it’s less immediately easy. [It also lacks the epic scope and the depth and breadth of characterisation].

Now, sometimes I can go overboard with things I like. And that’s what I’ve done here, because although it has great aspects, this show isn’t perfect. The case-of-the-week format is a bit limiting, because it forces the ‘real’ content of the show to fit into a slightly tired rhythm – we all know (if not who dun it or why or how or when or even what) at least how long into the episode we’re going to find out what the case is, when we’re going to come to a conclusion, and when we’re going to have a race-against-time to catch someone, save someone, whatever. It’s a shame – if this had been made ten years later, when episodic plots were less popular and arcs more accepted, it could have been stunning (it does improve in the later episodes, where we start to get a feel of how everything ties together).  And unfortunately something in the directing, the image quality, the writing, the acting, I don’t know maybe just my expectations of British drama, something gives the whole thing a very slight tinge of jaundiced detective show around the edges, a slightly Frost-y, even Morse-y, scent (though personally, I thought the dark, grainy, slightly faded film was a lot more appropriate than some pure-colours digital Hollywood jiggerypokery would have been).

But I’m splitting hairs. This isn’t perfect – it’s only a TV show, it had editorial pressures and limited funding, what can you expect – but it is brilliant.

[But one caveat: as often when we watch something we expect to be brilliant, I wasn’t persuaded at first. The first episode, I think I thought was OK. The next lot I thought were really watchable, very good. I think it was only in the last couple of episodes that I realised it was brilliant. So don’t just watch an hour and think there’s nothing new to see here.]

All six episodes are available on 4oD, for those who can get it.

Season One: 4/4.

P.S. a special word is needed about the score, which is perfectly suited to the content in its restless edginess. In particular, there’s a fantastic theme heard in the later episodes, in which a Satie-esque piano revery brings a touch of sad intimacy to procedings… only to be interrupted by intimidating strings. Most scores would leave it there, but this piece allows both the piano and the strings, both gentle and violent, reflective and restless, to play on simultaneously. It’s not great music, I’ll be honest, but it is a great score, and perhaps that minute of music best captures the soul of this miniseries.

Good news, everybody!

Well, ‘good’ is a matter of perspective, I guess. But from my point of view it’s great news: Ursula Vernon has won a Hugo Award for her excellent (funny, beautiful) webcomic, Digger.

I don’t know when I first started following Vernon’s work, although I know it began when somebody told me about her (brief, incomplete) earlier webcomic, Irrational Fears. At first, I just checked her new art every now and then; later, I discovered her blog, which is a constant source of hilarity (I think she’s actually better writing about herself than writing stories, where her authorial voice seems a bit more artificial, and a big part of her success as a blogger is her authenticity, even intimacy, or at least the impression of such). I was certainly following her when she was Eisner-nominated, which I’m shocked to discover was six years ago. Anyway, I’ve been following her life and career with some interest for probably nearly a decade now, and the vicarious pleasure (at least on the professional side) has been immense: this fairly-obscure woman, who I was recommending to people for her weird paintings of gears and her peculiar hamsters and whatnot, has flourished into a succesful and award-winning children’s author (seven books already published!), and now, dear lord, has even won a Hugo Award.

Hugo Award-winning artist, Ursula Vernon.

I’m not sure whether her continually-expanding success is disheartening (what have I done with my life in that time?), or encouraging (look, success is possible!). But it’s certainly something.

Anyway, the award (and the rest of the success) is greatly deserved, and my congratulations and best wishes go out to her. Here’s to one day the people who become her fans now that she’s won a Hugo being able to think of themselves as the ones who knew her before she reached the peak of her career…