Category Archives: TV Review

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.

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.

Doctor Who: Resolution

[5 stars]

It took Chris Chibnall all season 11 to get there, but with this first ever New Year’s episode (rather than a Christmas one) he has finally nailed the rhythm and feel of the series, making it his. With Jamie Childs directing, it all came together with humor, adventure, and emotion galore. And it was a beautiful thing to see, not to mention boding well for the upcoming series 12.

I won’t spoil it here, just know it is a nice holiday gift to the fans and a solid, special to bridge the seasons building off what we’ve already seen. The only sad thing is having to wait till 2020 for the next sequence to begin.

 

Little Drummer Girl

[3 stars]

John Le Carre stories are always complex and often dark. From The Night Manager to A Most Wanted Man to, well pick one, they are deliberate tales of behind-the-scenes espionage that reveal knowledge only as needed. Little Drummer Girl is no exception. But this time it is as much Mission Impossible as it is The Third Man. The focus of this series is what goes into becoming and surviving in deep cover. Well, that’s the main thread, there are plenty of political and other aspects of intrigue as well.

The cast, as always, is quite solid, but it is dominated by Florence Pugh (Lear) as the semi-naive recruit. Her path through the six episodes is convoluted and layered. I never quite buy her being confused or undetermined about her beliefs, but her emotional conflicts about people and survival are very real. Helping her along is Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect) in a role that is nicely different from many of his others. His Gadi is quiet and intense, but not bombastic. Similarly, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) gets to explore interesting new territory as a ground-down spy and bureaucrat who is both exhausted and determined. While his contemplative nature remains, it is wonderfully crusted with life.

As with all the Le Carre tales, following all the motivations and politics is an effort, but it is part of what sets the stories apart. The attention to and adherence to details keeps the stakes high and visceral.

Like many of director Chan-wook Park’s (The Handmaiden) efforts, the pacing of this series is a bit slow, but never dull. And the new view into the world of spies and the era it is exploring will keep your attention to the very end.

Doctor Who (series 11)

[4 stars]

Beyond the series bringing us back to the sciencey end of the spectrum, it sets a new milestone with the first female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker (Venus, St. Trinian’s). Amusingly, and fittingly, that the Doctor is a woman really has no appreciable impact, at least no more than any new Doctor would. Whittaker has a good sense of the character historically and in energy. She is fun to watch, even if the series is slow to reveal her own particularly sensibilities and approach. In fact, a lot of the season is spent dealing instead with the new companions. With their three, overlapping stories, we lost time focused on the Doctor herself till well into the sequence.

Before the series kick-off, I rewatched the bittersweet finale of series 10 and Capaldi. It is a brilliant end to the cycle and Moffat’s vision. I didn’t always like his choices, but he pulled it together for his final go-round before Chibnall (The Great Train Robbery, Broadchurch, Torchwood) stepped in. With his arrival there has been a definite shift in sensibility. The show has returned to the darker and more of a science fiction feel. I, personally, prefer that mode of Doctor Who. It was always science-fantasy, but it was never really just fantasy. Moffat, by his own admission, disagreed with that and always pushed for the pure fantasy end of the spectrum. Forgetting his struggles with building seasonal arcs, it was that aspect of the last several years that tended to drive me bonkers.

As a whole, the series is fast paced and more political than in the past. There is much social commentary, but also lots of high adventure and humor. The individual episodes feel somewhat rushed and breathless, but definitely entertaining. I expect I’ll pick up more on rewatching some of them.  And there is a complete arc holding it all together, which builds on the efforts the new Who has had in play since it rebooted in 2005.  For Chibnall first season, it isn’t a bad indication of things to come and things to build on. My hope is that he’ll learn how to let the show breathe a bit more. The 10 episodes went by extremely quickly. The focus on the companions more than the Doctor herself also needs to shift a little so we understand and root for the Doctor more. She’s a bit mercurial during this introductory series; hard to pin down and sympathize with.

And now, as has been my tradition, an ep by ep set of responses, done as they were aired, to help keep me honest and to see how the series built.

Episode by Episode (with some spoilers)

The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Jodie Whittaker comes in with all the bravado and confidence you could have hoped for. The switch in gender is certainly commented upon, but hardly an issue. Who drives forward business-as-usual, as it should. This opener is an odd episode in that it breaks from tradition for the opening and it feels less like the Doctor finding his new crew than it does just an interesting story with that aspect eventually taking over. It may also be indicative of what’s to come as this opening show’s ending, much like its Christmas tale lead-in, is a cliff-hanger rather than a resolution. Of course, Twice Upon a Time left a lot of threads to clean up, so I’m glad Chibnall didn’t try to resolve them all in a rushed initial episode.

The Ghost Monument
Really, this is part 2 of the series opening. And it is a good one. Whittaker is really coming into her own and her posse is coming together. The delightful addition of Susan Lynch (Killing Eve) and Shaun Dooley (Misfits) to carry the storyline was great fun. Now that stuff is established, I’m ready for things to start happening (though a clear series arc has begun to form) from a Who point of view. Up till now, things are occurring, but are there as backdrop for the Doctor to get her feet under her. That’s fine, but I’m ready now so, allons-y!

Rosa
A powerful and powerfully told story that resonated nicely with today. Though clearly with an agenda, it wasn’t overly preachy and with some solid impact. On a Doctor level, however, I’m ready to start to get to know the Whittaker Doctor better. She’s quick witted, but unlike previous versions, we aren’t really getting a sense of her yet, only a delightful patter and set of wins. I want to see what’s beneath the surface, not just hear about it. Still very much enjoying the season, but it’s time to get real with it since there are only 7 left to go.

Arachnids in the UK
This episode riffs on a number of classic and reboot Who. From the classic side we have the coal mine refuse causing havoc with the bug life (remember those maggots?). And from the new Who we have the turning point for the companions, who have to shift from being pulled into the circle of the Doctor to making a choice to be there. What we don’t have yet is enough of the Doctor herself. She’s active and entertaining, and clearly we’re leading to something, but I’m a bit weary of the “I’m still figuring myself out” thing that is continuing. Jump in and commit already! As a story, this one made my skin crawl nicely and did expose some emotional cores of the characters. It also got to take some very unveiled swipes at the US with Chris Noth as a reflected stand-in for Trump. I still really enjoy the sensibility of this new season, but I want to get to the meat now. I can feel it building, but not with the same sense of tension and fun that Davies managed in his first sequence of the reboot. I may yet revisit that statement when it is all said and done, but this is purposefully a running log, not a recap. I want to track how it works as it unfolds. And, so far, it is working ep to ep, but not quite coming together for me as a series.

The Tsuranga Conundrum
In some ways, this is the weakest of the series so far, despite being another Chibnall episode. It has a lot of action and some nice emotional lines for the side characters, but the monster in play isn’t realistic (and folks seem to know far too little about it despite having more than enough data to have gotten to the solution before the Doctor). Also, again, we’re not seeing a lot about the Doctor herself. It all feels very surfacey so far. Well executed. Entertaining. Just not feeling like a full meal yet. I expect that the main arc will reassert starting with the next episode. This was a hard left for the series as a whole with a new show runner, a new (and newly gendered) Doctor and crew. It needs some time to get its feet. I’m not disappointed, just not quite sated yet.

Demons of the Punjab
What has become clear this series is that the focus is very much on the companions, even more so than the Doctor. However, with this episode we’re starting to get a little more of who she is. We’ve yet to have a story the focuses explicitly on her and we’ve yet to see the main arc come back, after two early hints, but things are coming together. Another aspect that is coming clear is that Chibnall is not afraid to reflect the current world in politics or comment on what is going on. Who has always had social commentary, but Chibnall has stepped it up a notch and made it a little more pointed. Tackling Partition was certainly brave…taking it on in such a personal way was inspired.

Keblam!
A clever and fun respite as the trajectory of the series bends toward finale. It is pretty much a standalone (or appears so), but with the focus, finally, mostly on the Doctor. Ultimately enjoyable, even though I got somewhat ahead of it (in the hope that they were going to go the interesting way). It was surprisingly devoid of strong emotion, however, even with a couple of really painful moments. It tried to make up for that with the show close and the reaction of main bad guy, but still was surprising. Curious to see where the last three eps. take us.

The Witchfinders
This season continues to beat the political drum loudly, and I’m all for it as Chibnall is using history to reflect on current issues. In this case, it is more subtle than Rosa was earlier in the run. The episode itself interesting and fun, if a little forced in the clues and resolution (which is about as hand-wavy as you can get). But we are starting to see more about this Doctor and that is welcome. This had a very stand-alone feel to it, so I’m guessing this is the breath before the wind up to a finale (2 eps left, plus the New Year’s show which replaces the traditional xmas day episode).  At least I’m hoping so. There was clearly an arc being built at the top of the series, but we’ve not seen it built on much.

It Takes You Away
Some nice emotional work in this episode. And some additions to the Who canon as well. This is a fast-paced tale with some nice twists, and a few shortcuts. It isn’t brilliant Who, but it is inventive and full of some great asides by several of the characters. It also has begun to bend the arc back to the beginning of this series, which is necessary given the proximity of the finale. It’s been a good ride getting here, but it isn’t feeling like a cohesive whole yet. There is lots of character work and some big milestones, but the shape is a little amorphous and Whittaker is still a little vague as a character, ceding focus to the companions a bit too much in my opinion. However, I still feel like it is headed somewhere, so willing to have faith. Even if I end up unfulfilled on that point, it has been a fun season and a fairly smooth transition of Doctors and show-runners.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
Wow, that was a fast season, but it definitely came full-circle, as expected. I’m not sure I felt as much a sense of completion as I’d have liked. The main arc was hard to hold onto and respond to since it didn’t get echoed quite enough to keep it fresh for me, even with the previous episode refreshing our memory of it, and Grace in particular. Still, a rich and complex story with a nice part for Mark Addy (Oasis, Game of Thrones) and button for the Tardis crew. I’d have liked something that felt like it came to more of a plateau, but it isn’t without a bit of bittersweet joy and an indication of new directions for the extended family in the blue box.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Fall 2018 TV – The New Stuff (and what survived)

I’m being very, very picky this season about broadcast TV. Just too much out there to watch streaming to add mediocre or underwhelming shows to my already long committed list. (Updated 23 Nov.)

Keeping

Connors – I was impressed with how they handled the hard pivot into the post-Barr show. The show proved it could still handle hard subjects with a sense of reality and humor. Sure there is a political element keeping me here, but I am also being entertained, so win/win.
Murphy Brown – It doesn’t have the same snap and energy as the original, but it has guts and a great cast. The additions of Jake McDorman and Tyne Daily were inspired, and Nik Dodani is holding his own.

On the Bubble

Manifest – nothing particularly new, but nothing particularly frustrating about it at its launch. Curious enough to give it few more to cement its place in my schedule, but they have to get better writing, especially around police and fed procedure or it will be too painful to continue. And unless the uber-conspiracy vibe abates, it will be tossed like last week’s trash.
Charmed – it is as light as the first go-round, and without any of the charismatic star power of Combs and Milano, but it appears to have enough to survive. It could still fall victim to the axe, but it was one of the more complete pilots put out there this season. However, as the season progresses, it is clear they don’t have the chemistry of the first, and some of the writing and acting is a problem. This may fall even further to being axed.
Single Parents – the kids are great but the writing barely pulls it together by the end of each episode. We shall see.
New Amsterdam – intriguing characters, but a somewhat cookie-cutter formula with very weak research, at times. Whether it survives for me will be whether it can find some new take on the medical venue.

Forget it

I Feel Bad – this came so close, but just doesn’t have the writing to sell it for me. The characters, particularly the gaming programmers, are just absurd.
Hang Ups – the cast is what convinced me to watch…the writing drove me away. It had its moments, but the lack of any sense of reality left it untethered and, ultimately for me, unfunny.
Magnum PI – not bad, but nothing overly compelling. To be fair, the original casts a long shadow and dims this reboot’s hopes.
REL – writing was weak and broad and just not landing for me.
God Friended Me – actually relatively good writing and acting, but I don’t see where this can go that we haven’t been before. Life’s too short to see it all again. Also, I’m not confident the message will be universal enough rather than targeted.
The Neighborhood – just a bit too forced, for all its moments of truth, to work for me for longer than a couple episodes.
Happy Together – despite the potential and the chemistry, just didn’t grab me. Two main issues: lack of credibility and the broad humor.
FBI – While there are a couple of great cast members, neither of those are the leads, who are wooden and the least credible special agents I’ve seen in a while. Add bad procedures, even if with clever plots, and this just isn’t up to the Law & Order level of interest.
Million Little Pieces – This latest This is Us cum 30-Something copy-cat has a good cast and writing with possibility, but was quickly becoming a slog of a soap-opera. Cast and writing or not, just didn’t need that in my weekly lineup.
The Kids are Alright – the writing and cast aren’t bad, but I am definitely not its audience. Too broad, too loud, and too silly.
The Rookie – Really, I’m only here for Nathan Fillion, Melissa O’Neil, and Richard T. Jones. It is possible this survives if it can find something to say without trying so hard, like the pilot did. I didn’t hold out much hope…and I was right.
The Cool Kids – a great cast and silly humor, but executed by a solid cast despite painful scripts at times. I’m gave it more time, but it never figured out how to use what it had to even make it a nice and empty weekly 22 minutes of escape. Just wasn’t worth the time.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.