Category Archives: TV Review

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

The ABC Murders

[3 stars]

I have to give writer Sarah Phelps credit. After successfully tackling several of Agatha Christie’s other works (Ordeal by Innocence, Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None) taking on Poirot took guts. It was a fool’s errand, but guts nonetheless.

The problem is that unlike Marple or Christie’s stand-alones, we know all of Poirot’s life; Christie made sure of that. So remaking the story of such a beloved character is dicey at best.

John Malkovich (Bird Box) tries to tackle Poirot with energy, but he is no David Suchet, nor does he have the accent or the mannerisms to pull off the little Belgian. At least Branagh’s recent attempt was much more palatable in Murder on the Orient Express. Malkovich’s credibility wasn’t helped by resetting the story later in Poirot’s life, and veering off the known path. The push and pull between he and Rupert Grint (Moonwalkers) just feels all wrong, not unbelievable, just wrong for the character.

Eamon Farren (Winchester), as the main focus for the deeds, delivers a delightfully creepy and broken man. Along with Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch), Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting), Anya Chalotra (Wanderlust), and Freya Mavor (Skins) the world is filled out with interesting characters and clues. All of this helps sell an otherwise foolhardy adaptation.

If this weren’t Poirot, it would have been an interesting and fun story. Phelps can write and understands the sense of Christie while being able to update them enough for today’s sensibilities. But, in this case, with the weight of expectations about Poirot around its neck, it simply keeps clunking. If you can keep the spectre of what you know about Poirot out of your mind, this is definitely worth your time. If you’re hoping for a new Christie adaptation that can launch a revival, go elsewhere for now, you’ll simply be disappointed.

Father Brown (series 7)

[3 stars]

Father Brown has been around for a while now. They are sweetly entertaining cozy mysteries, much like Miss Marple but lacking some of the complications and not really worth calling out as something special. This newest series remains in the cozy territory, but our slightly secular Father B has suddenly become rather humanist and, somehow, even more religious at the same time. Every episode, save one, has him suggesting absolution via confession…not quite in the booth so much as the witness stand. Still it is a marked shift.

So too are the plots. Nearly every episode is a morality play tethered very much to the present, even though it is anchored in the past. The show has always shined a light on hypocrisy, but these plots go even further and are period only in their trappings. And it is clear the series was set up like stations of the cross; one episode per message. Only the finale cleaves fully to past series traditions in plot and, because of that, feels a little out of place with the remaining 9 episodes. It isn’t a bad finale…in fact, it is a rather satisfying one…but it is of a very different tenor, which makes the series arc a little unbalanced.

The cast remains the same, with Mark Williams (Early Man) running the presbytery with assistance from Sorcha Cusack (River), and  Emer Kenny (Pramface) and Nancy Carroll (Prime Suspect (1973)) hanging about. In the constabulary, John Burton gets a bit of an upgrade this series in focus. Only Jack Deam has devolved in development, becoming even more a pompous ass than he was, despite a few special moments. His character causes more than a little teeth-grinding thanks to his lack of growth and awareness. But even with that miss, the the show runners have imparted an interesting breath of fresh air into the show in this series, without mucking up what made it work in the first place.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more. And you may have noticed that the lead and the main character share a name…you may have wondered, and the answer is yes.

Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story

[3 stars]

Ballarat is back, but not with the Blake you’ve beloved (sorry…that was a stretch for the final “B”). Jumping ahead a few years from what had felt like a series farewell, we find a changing of the guard. There This two episode movie relaunch allows a lot of familiar faces to finally get to dominate the story rather than play second fiddle. Most obvious among these are Nadine Gardner as the abandoned/widowed(?) wife of the missing Doctor Blake, and Belinda McClory as the delightfully curmudgeonly medical examiner Alice Harvey.

Honestly, as much as I’d enjoyed the series, I’d not been writing it up as it was fun, but not noteworthy. This shift, whatever the cause, is worth calling out as it was handled smoothly and well. The result keeps the sensibility of the previous five series, but heads off in a solid new direction with new leads, while taking advantage of a new cultural era to help smooth it all over.

The future of this series is probably assured now, regardless of real-life events, though what direction it will go was left purposefully open-ended. Who knows, we may end up with an Australian update of Hart to Hart set in the 60s when all is done. Having now given these characters their due, I can’t see dialing them back in any satisfying way.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (series 8 – finale)

[4 stars]

What is it they say: Go big or go home?

I haven’t written Voltron up recently due to the uneven aspects of its story and the odd rhythm of release. But the good runs have been pretty good and this finale season definitely raised the stakes about as high as they could go while also supplying an interesting story.

It isn’t often an animated series, especially one that bridges younger and older viewers, is willing to do a complete cycle and finale. They’re usually designed to keep going and generate revenue as a business model. It is more common for manga series or adult anime where an end was always intended.

Voltron has bridged these audiences by creating a long-form, more mature story with a lot of kids-style animation spread throughout. They also took some interesting chances stylistically occasionally. It isn’t on the level of Attack on Titan, nor is it purposefully adult like Castlevania, but has definitely stretched to make something beyond the typical Saturday morning style stories. If you’ve not found it yet, give it some time and let it reel you in. I have to admit, it surprised the heck out of me, and only a few episodes really put my teeth on edge as too juvenile for my taste.

Nightflyers

[2.5 stars]

Such anticipation and such disappointment. This adaptation of the classic novella by George R. R. Martin ended up as an unhappy cross between Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey; an embarrassingly and nearly unwatchable tale of space horror trying to be intellectual.

You can tell that the producers knew they were in trouble with this series from the start. In order to hook you, they had to start with the unlikely events near the finale. By doing so they kept you hooked trying to figure out how it happened, even though wading through the absurd plot and actions of the characters would have normally had you switching off the show.

There are some clever ideas amidst the really bad writing. Some are from Martin’s source material and some from the writer’s own expansion of that novella. But clever ideas alone can’t drive a show. You need at least one other element, good dialogue or good characters. Neither materializes despite some considerable talent in the cast and effects on the screen. And, to top it all off, the end of the season is far from a resolution, though I can’t say I’ll be back for a season 2 should it appear.

I wholly support the efforts to start bringing well known writing to the screen, large or small. But the results need to be as crafted as the original source in order to bring it to life.

Nightflyers is middling at best and, in my opinion, not worth 10 hours of your time to navigate.