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.

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.