Friday, 31 October 2008

Box Office Charts: w/e 31 October 2008

In the US: American kids flock to see HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR, earning it an incredible $42m... Halloween heralds SAW V at #2, in which the critic-proof sequel scares up $30m to become the most successful horror franchise in history... and crime drama PRIDE AND GLORY, starring Colin Farrell and Edward Norton in a tale about multi-generational New York cops, debuts at #5...


(-) 1. High School Musical 3: Senior Year $42m
(-) 2. Saw V $30.1m
(1) 3. Max Payne $7.79m
(2) 4. Beverly Hills Chihuahua $6.88m
(-) 5. Pride And Glory $6.26m
(3) 6. The Secret Life Of Bees $6.05m
(4) 7. W. $5.09m
(5) 8. Eagle Eye $5.05m
(6) 9. Body Of Lies $4.06m
(7) 10. Quarantine $2.58m

In the UK: Just like their US cousins, British kids use the half-term holiday to make HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR the #1 film... SAW V trails behind, but still takes #2... and there's more love for Ricky Gervais' supernatural rom-com GHOST TOWN than US audiences could muster, ensuring it bows in at #4 with a healthy £1.3m haul...


(-) 1. High School Musical 3: Senior Year £8m
(-) 2. Saw V £2.4m
(1) 3. Burn After Reading £1.4m
(-) 4. Ghost Town £1.3m
(2) 5. Eagle Eye £695k
(3) 6. Igor £451k
(4) 7. The House Bunny £305k
(6) 8. Taken £260k
(8) 9. Mamma Mia! £257k
(5) 10. Mirrors £226k



Historical drama. The last six weeks of Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands
Director: Steve McQueen Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Liam Cunningham & Larry Cowan
Tomatometer: 92% (Fresh; based on 24 reviews) "Unflinching, uncompromising, vivid and vital. Steve McQueen's challenging debut is not for the faint-hearted, but still a richly rewarding retelling of troubled times."

"The Midnight Meat Train"

Horror thriller. A New York photographer hunts a serial-killer
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Rogert Bart, Tony Curran & Barbara Eve Harris
US Box Office: $83k
Tomatometer: 67% (Fresh; based on 18 reviews) "A creative and energetic adaptation of a Clive Barker short story, with enough scares and thrills to be a potential cult classic."

"Quantum Of Solace"

Action-adventure. James Bond seeks revenge for the death of his girlfriend and discovers a nefarious plot by an environmentalist to take control of a country's water supply
Director: Mark Forster Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Jeffrey Wright & Gemma Arterton
Tomatometer: 76% (Fresh; based on 29 reviews) "Brutal and breathless, Quantum Of Solace delivers tender emotions along with frenetic action. Not as good as franchise reboot Casino Royale, but still an impressive entry to the Bond canon."

The horror, the horror

I haven't prepared anything special for Halloween this year. Sorry. Last year I briefly reviewed 31 horror films/TV shows throughout October, so feel free to check those out in the archive. This week's Dead Set and True Blood reviews will have to suffice as horror-related content, I'm afraid.

If you're looking for a scary film to watch tonight, the choice is rather limited, sadly: ITV4 have Blair Witch Project 2: Book Of Shadows at 10.35pm, E4 have Eli Roth's Cabin Fever at the same time, and BBC1 have Halloween II at 12.35am. I'm sure there are better things on Sky Movies, though. Or why not rent indie-horror Teeth on DVD?

Until then, here are a few trick-or-treats I gathered from the 'net for your terrified enjoyment:

DEAD SET: Part 4 of 5

Writer: Charlie Brooker
Director: Yann Demange

In the penultimate episode of this zombie drama, writer Charlie Brooker finally delivers the TV horror-comedy I had been expecting; blood, guts, satire, thrills and death…

It helps that Patrick (Andy Nyman) and Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) finally escape from their small office, by trapping Zombie Davina (Davina McCall) between the opened door and spearing her through the head with a lamp stand. Freed from his confines at last, Nyman dominates the rest of the episode with his brash, dislikeable, arrogant TV producer cliché. What his character lacks in originality, he makes up for in sheer bravado and confidence. Indeed, he's so watchable that the stupidity in keeping him holed up with screechy Pippa for two episodes seems even more ridiculous.

There are also some good, thought-provoking moments inside the Big Brother House, too -- particularly when the housemates are gathered at the dinner table, listing the things a zombie apocalypse has effectively ended (Amazon, Doctor Who, YouTube, Lost). Some digs at BB also elicit giggles (Patrick trying to inspire the housemates into making an escape plan by comparing it to "a task"), or Joplin (Kevin Eldon) mulling over the idea that the zombie holocaust is God's punishment for the decline of modern culture. Or how about producer Patrick physically eviscerating dead Grayson with callous determination, essentially exploiting a housemate for his own purposes? It's even surmised that the zombie crowds gathering at the compound gates are drawn to the "church" of Big Brother. I wonder how many Burberry-wearing zombies are at the Jeremy Kyle studio?

Perhaps because the end is in sight, part 4 seemed more focused and precise in its intentions. At the country house, Riq (Riz Ahmed) talks Alex (Liz May Brice) into leaving their safehouse, to travel down a river that passes by the BB House so he can be reunited with his girlfriend Kelly (Jaime Winstone). Dead Set has been particularly good at developing mood, and I enjoy the many uneasy silences -- usually broken by a screech and stampede of nearby zombies catching sight of fresh meat. The lonely, empty river is a particularly unsettling visual and keeps you on the edge of your seat as Alex and Riq go on their journey.

The shaky-cam aesthetic is still too frenzied at times, which sometimes robs action sequences of clarity and makes them difficult to watch. I don't have a problem with similar filming techniques in the Bourne movies or 28 Days Later, but Dead Set's cameramen seem particularly jittery and it can be frustrating to concentrate on the mayhem, or even comprehend what's happening. A sense of delirium is fine, but not always at the total expense of lucidity.

Overall, this episode was far more indicative of how I imagined Dead Set would be from the start, so I'm glad we got there in the end. I still think the reality TV setting hasn't been utilized as imaginatively as it could have, but I suspect Dead Set's faults would be less obvious if this had been a feature-length special, or a more intense two-parter. Still, if tonight's finale can provide creative and intense closure, Charlie Brooker will have pulled this back from the brink.

30 October 2008
E4, 10pm

: Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Kevin Eldon (Joplin), Riz Ahmed (Riq), Liz May Brice (Alex), Warren Brown (Marky), Shelley Conn (Claire), Beth Cordingly (Veronica), Adam Deacon (Space), Davina McCall (Herself) & Brian Belo (Himself)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Hayden Panettiere: "Wake Up Call"

It's a forgettable pop-reggae song with echoes of Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind". Oh, but who's that singing? Why, it's Heroes hottie Hayden Panettiere! Apparently she does have a good voice, but "Wake Up Call" definitely doesn't showcase it. I somehow doubt a successful pop career beckons... but, if you fancy watching a few minutes of Ms. Panettiere cheesily pouting into a mic, looking cute in a little black dress, and busting some moves in a black hoodie, you're in luck!

HEROES 3.6 - "Dying Of The Light"

Writers: Chuck Kim & Christopher Zatta
Director: Daniel Attias

Spoilers. There's a moment in "The Dying Of The Light" when Arthur Petrelli (Robert Forster) revives himself, bolts upright in bed, and rips out his throat tube with an expression that communicates one thing to fans: okay, enough of this bullsh*t, let's get this party started!

It remains to be seen if Forster's magnetism is the molotov cocktail that needs to be thrown into Heroes' sputtering fireplace, but he's certainly a very promising new arrival that makes you sit up and take note. So, let's see what the gang got up to this week:

Matt & Daphne: I've been waiting for Heroes to introduce another sidekick beyond Ando, but never for one moment thought a tortoise would fill that role! Matt (Greg Grunberg) arrives back on US soil and somehow avoids quarantine rules, with the rather creepy mission to find the spiritual hare to his tortoise: Daphne (Brea Grant). But will she believe his tall tale of arriving to save her life by marrying her?

This storyline left Matt on the sidelines in an airport, but I appreciated Daphne echoing the audience's thoughts about how stalker-ish his "mission" is, and Grant herself is proving to be quite an engaging, quirky presence with her anime hair and pursed lips.

Mohinder, Nathan & Tracy: The unconvincing craziness continues, with egghead Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy) choosing to capture any flies who wander into his laboratory web. Here, Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) and Tracy (Ali Larter) arrive to ask for his help, but are soon tricked into accepting injections that knock them unconscious. The trusting fools.

Claire, Sandra & Meredith: The best storyline finds Meredith (Jessalyn Gilsig) still at the mercy of Level 5 escapee Eric Doyle (David H. Lawrence), the "puppetmaster" who can manipulate peoples actions. I'm sure everyone's imaginations are running away with themselves at the dark possibilities, but this is a family show.

Eric is appropriately odious and creepy, and the arrival of Claire (Hayden Panettiere) and her mother Sandra (Ashley Crow) to mount a rescue leads to a memorable sequence with all three women being forced to play Russian Roulette. In hindsight, the sneaky outcome is obvious, but I felt the script did a good job of involving you in the action so you didn't think too far ahead of the surprise. Also great to see Sandra actually do something other than fuss over Mr. Muggles for once!

Peter & Sylar: A brief subplot finds Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) locking horns with "brother" Sylar (Zachary Quinto), before heading off to attack the Pinehearst Company single-handed -- where he stumbles on a familiar face from his past, with disastrous consequences. This was more of a preamble to next week's episode than anything interesting in its own right, and Ventimiglia's sub-Stallone performances have their own super-ability: to drain my concentration.

Hiro, Ando & Usutu: The explanation for Ando's (James Kyson Lee) "death" was obvious in hindsight, but it was nicely handled and a clever use of Hiro's (Masi Oka) abilities. A sense of fun also returns with the pair arriving in Africa to capture Usutu (Ntare Mwine) at the behest of Daphne, so Hiro can join the "virrains" and steal back Kaito's formula. What worked particularly well was demonstrating quickly how Hiro's ability to travel back in time can't defeat a precognitive like Usutu -- with the African mystic humorously braining Hiro repeatedly with a shovel, no matter when or where he appears. Very funny.

Arthur & Adam: It's a shame the writers reintroduced Adam (David Anders) just to kill him off after three episodes, but that's exactly what they've done. The laid up Arthur Petrelli clearly has the same power-sponging abilities as his son Peter, and uses them to drain Adam of his ability -- turning him to centuries-old dust in the process. It's a shame to lose Anders, but I was immediately distracted and excited to see Forster in this role. He has a charisma and screen presence that shines, and the idea of someone with Peter's abilities and Sylar's immorality is a juicy one.

Overall, this was the first episode of season 3 that made me feel mildly confident there's a plan behind everything. The self-imposed limitation of Hiro's time-jumping is a loose bandage I can deal with, and I'm relieved the writers have finally neutralized Peter by having his father steal all his powers. Arthur is now a sizeable threat for the characters to fight -- one that perhaps only Sylar can stop, to find redemption for his past crimes? But has Arthur stolen Peter's base-level ability, preventing him from reacquiring powers? It sure looks that way. How long until he gets his hands on Kaito's formula and re-powers himself, though?

29 October 2008
BBC Three, 10pm

: Jack Coleman (Mr. Bennet), Greg Grunberg (Matt), Ali Larter (Tracy), James Kyson Lee (Ando), Masi Oka (Hiro), Hayden Panettiere (Claire), Adrian Pasdar (Nathan), Zachary Quinto (Sylar), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder), Dania Ramirez (Maya), Cristine Rose (Angela), Milo Ventimiglia (Peter), Ntare Mwine (Usutu), Blake Shields (Flint), David Anders (Adam), Alan Blumenfeld (Maury Parkman), Ashley Crow (Sandra), Jessalyn Gilsig (Meredith), David H. Lawrence XVII (Eric Doyle), Jamie Hector (Knox), Brea Grant (Daphne), Malcolm McDowell (Mr. Linderman), Ron Perkins (Doctor), Mark Vanselow (Neighbor), Robert Forster (Arthur) & Matt Wiese (Milosh)

DEAD SET: Part 3 of 5

Writer: Charlie Brooker
Director: Yann Demange

The further Dead Set drifts away from its Big Brother core, the more appealing it becomes. It's clearly doesn't have pop-culture satire foremost on its mind, so part 3 is a welcome shift into pure zombie-slaying action outside of the BB house…

Kelly (Jaime Winstone) and Marky (Warren Brown) escape from the compound in a van, in an effort to find medicine at a local supermarket for the bitten Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), who is being nursed in the BB house by Grayson (Raj Ghatak). Unfortunately, they run into two edgy policemen after fleeing the store with zombies in pursuit, and the stand-off with the tetchy cops proves equally as dangerous…

This was the best strand of the episode by far, with some genuine scares (the moment a dropped crowbar heralds a rampaging zombie), and a few amusing digs at the reality show phenomenon (Marky noticing he's been exploited in Heat magazine.) Winstone undoubtedly makes a good, believable heroine, and the tense situation with the cops is nicely balanced with a few comic lines. It's about time Charlie Brooker had a bit of fun with this idea. More, please.

In the BB compound, as the aforementioned Grayson looks after the deteriorating Angel in the garden, Joplin (Kevin Eldon) uses the time alone with Veronica (Beth Cordingly) to spy on her in the shower. The development of characters like Joplin and (particularly) Veronica was very welcome, with everyone becoming more noticeable now the zombie emphasis has abated. The Joplin/Veronica scenes are wholly unrelated to the undead threat, which was a refreshing change.

Meanwhile, Kelly's boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) and Alex (Liz May Brice) have taken refuge in a country house and spend the episode searching the TV and radio for signs of life. I'm not convinced (in this digital, automated age) that TV and radio broadcasts would go off-air so quickly, but it's almost tradition for radio's to hiss white noise in apocalyptic drama, so I can let it slide. Great to see the BB live-feed still working, thus allowing Riq to see his girlfriend is alive, too. So far, that's been the only unique use of a reality show conceit in this zombie tale.

Again, the subplot for producer Patrick (Andy Nyman) and screeching Scottish housemate Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) is a big waste of time. They're still trapped in small office with Zombie Davina (Davina McCall) lurking around in the corridor outside. It's such a waste of Nyman and McDermott's talents, but they seem to be in a holding pattern right now. Hopefully their escape is imminent, so they can start participating in the story. Also, it was a bit depressing to see Brooker lean on toilet humour again to sustain interest in their scenes -- with Patrick having a bout of diarrhoea in a wine bucket, to the utter disgust of Pippa.

Overall, I liked this episode a fair bit, because it reminded me least about missed opportunities with the reality show backdrop. It's still full of big clichés and lacks enough comedy for my taste, but the scares were effectively delivered, the various subplots (with the exception of Patrick and Pippa) were more involving, and the characters have started to take hold. Let's hope the remaining two episodes can capitalize on part 3's sudden focus.

29 October 2008
E4, 10pm

: Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Kevin Eldon (Joplin), Riz Ahmed (Riq), Liz May Brice (Alex), Warren Brown (Marky), Shelley Conn (Claire), Beth Cordingly (Veronica), Chizzy Akudolu (Angel), Raj Ghatak (Grayson), Adam Deacon (Space) & Davina McCall (Herself)

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Doctor Who: Tennant leaves the TARDIS

Breaking news: David Tennant has announced at the National Television Awards that he's to step down as The Doctor after 4 years of starring in Doctor Who. The BBC has confirmed Tennant will complete the filming of 4 special episodes and 2009's Christmas special, before his character regenerates into the Eleventh Doctor.

"When Doctor Who returns in 2010 it won't be with me. Now don't make me cry. I love this part, and I love this show so much that if I don't take a deep breath and move on now I never will, and you'll be wheeling me out of the TARDIS in my bath chair."

"I think it's better to go when there's a chance that people might miss you, rather than to hang around and outstay your welcome. [It's been] the most extraordinary time; it's been bewildering, life changing, very exciting."

"And just so much fun, such a great show to work on. That's one of the reasons I think it's right to take a deep breath and bow out when it's still fun -- when it's a novelty. I don't ever want it to feel like a job, so I want to move on when it still feels exciting and fresh, and that means I'll miss it."

Let the rampant speculation over his replacement begin! Well, to be honest it began ages ago. The latest rumours have Paterson Joseph (Peep Show) as a frontrunner, despite the fact the actor has appeared in a previous episode of nu-Who. Adding some credence to the possibility, Joseph co-starred in Jekyll, which was written by Doctor Who's new showrunner Steven Moffat. If Joseph gets the job, he would be the first black Doctor in the show's 40-year history.

But this is all speculation and we're months away from any announcement. The question is: can David Tennant be replaced? Most fans hold him in very high-regard, and he's undoubtedly made the part his own after taking over from Christopher Ecclestone in 2005. Then again, Doctor Who has always been bigger than any one actor...

24: New Season 7 Trailer

It's another season 7 trailer for 24 (this time mixing in elements of the "Redemption" TVM arriving in late-November). The verdict? It's as high-octane as you expect with huge production values. You can already tell it has a different feel compared to previous seasons, too.

As a big fan of the show since it started, I'm very excited. The ridiculousness of Tony Almeida's return from the dead had better work, though. Regardless, January can't come soon enough for me. The huge wait between seasons should guarantee massive ratings and initial interest. Let's just hope the writers have managed to plan a season-long story that doesn't go limp around episode 12.

Ironically, they can't say they haven't had enough time to get this right...

Ross and Brand face the Sachs

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand have been suspended from the BBC, after they made lewd comments on actor Andrew Sachs' voicemail during a radio show broadcast on 18 October. Oddly, there was only 2 complaints from Radio 2 listeners at the time, but after the story broke in the newspapers a few days ago, the complaints have rocketed to over 18,000. Funny that.

I hope the complainers bothered to listen to the incident themselves, instead of registering a knee-jerk complaint based on the second-hand assessments of tabloids. But is it a lot of fuss over nothing? Well, no. I heard the podcast before the story broke, and it was certainly in bad taste for Ross to blurt out "he's fucked your granddaughter!" when Brand got through to Sachs' voicemail. It had been a running joke for awhile that Sachs' granddaughter Georgina Baillie had slept with Brand, but had asked the comedian not to tell her famous relative.

To book Sachs as a guest was clearly intended to mine comedy from "the elephant in the room" of Brand's antics with Sachs' granddaughter -- which is a bit distasteful alreay. I'm sure the interview would have taken a different path had Sachs answered his phone, but the naughty schoolboy temperaments of Brand and Ross (who are both immature in their own different ways) proved too much to resist when they clicked through to his voicemail.

What nobody's remarked on is how the situation would probably have been avoided if Brand's co-host Matt Morgan were present. He's the sensible one, who often reigns in Brand if he goes too far. But he's been on holiday for the past few weeks, necessitating the need for guest co-hosts like Ross. Sadly, Brand is very much a loose canon and easily led by someone like Ross.

But why was the show even broadcast by the BBC? It was pre-recorded, so major damage could easily have been avoided. But the producer decided to let it air (slightly edited) without even asking for Andrew Sachs permission. Which would obviously not have been granted.

No, there's no excuse for what Brand and Ross did, even though this was a style of edgy, dangerous, controversial humour most people will have heard or even participated in. Let's get real: I've heard worse things down the pub in my time, quite regularly. You just don't broadcast that thing to the nation, on the BBC. And, while both have apologized to Sachs, they only did so when it all kicked-off in the papers.

I guess this means there'll be no Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for awhile?

TRUE BLOOD 1.8 - "The Fourth Man In The Fire"

Writer: Alexander Woo
Director: Michael Lehmann

Is this the most consistent TV show on-air right now? It's nice to be able to settle down for a viewing experience and feel safe that the writers have a plan, direction and continually develop the story and characters. "The Fourth Man In The Fire" deals with the aftershocks of the redneck attack on the vampires who caused a scene at Merlotte's, with Sookie (Anna Paquin) convinced her beloved Bill (Stephen Moyer) was inside one of the four coffins the police have uncovered, burned to a mushy pulp…

Of course, that isn't the case. Bill escaped incineration by opting to sleep underground that night, so they're soon reunited in a slightly disturbing sequence where Bill emerges zombie-like from graveyard soil to have sex with Sookie whilst covered in dirt.

Again, Sookie demonstrates total trust in Bill's vampiric nature, despite continuing raised eyebrows from the Bon Temp populace. In one amusing sequence, Sookie agrees to baby-sit Arlene's (Carrie Preston) kids and she gets to play happy families with Bill. It was fun to see Bill acting playful with the star-struck youngsters (showing them his "fangs"), but also interesting to note Sookie's nightmare about Bill exploding into flames at the breakfast table. She's clearly beginning to realize they'll never have a normal life together -- it's even mentioned that human/vampire marriage is illegal.

The other notable subplot concerns Jason (Ryan Kwanten) and his new girlfriend Amy (Lizzy Caplan) who, far from being a one-night stand, takes an active role and replaces Dawn at Merlotte's, after impressing Arlene and Sookie with her waitress skills. The speed of Amy's infiltration of Jason's life should already be sending alarm bells ringing, but Jason is too smitten after she introduced him to the pleasures of V-tinged sex (which, amusingly, wasn't even penetrative.)

Tying into their plot nicely, we're shown how Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) manages to score vampire blood: he's given it in exchange for sex with a middle-aged vampire living alone in suburbia. This knowledge leads Jason and Amy to plan an attack on the singleton vamp, in an effort to drain him so they can fuel their growing addiction.

Elsewhere, Tara (Rutina Wesley) sees a huge difference in her mother Lettie Mae (Adina Porter) following her recent exorcism, as she throws out half-full bottles of alcohol and makes breakfast for the first time in years. Despite thinking the exorcism was phony, the result speak for itself (placebo-effect, or not.) Indeed, the change in her mother's attitude and temperament is so refreshing that Tara begins to think there might be some truth in the exorcist's comment that she herself is infected by an evil spirit. But is that truly the reason for Tara's hot-headed personality and dysfunctional relationships with men?

More than anything, I appreciate how True Blood doesn't ignore the big questions buzzing around its audience's mind, as the sight of Sam (Sam Trammell) running across a field naked is brought up by those who witnessed it here. At first, Sam is dismissive of the incident and claims it wasn't him, but after Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) mentions it, he spins an implausible story about honouring his dead, naturist parent's memories by running around naked once a year. O-kay.

It was great to see dumb-looking Andy didn't fall for Sam's weak excuse, and quickly investigates his naturist story to disprove it. To me, it still seems likely Sam's a werewolf and we caught him post-transformation last week. But does that also make him Bon Temps' serial-killer? If so, was he targeting the waitresses who spurned his advances at work, with Sookie's grandmother an unfortunate accident when he targeted Sookie? I don't think Sam would want to hurt anyone, but maybe his lycanthropy draws on his deepest, darkest, angriest, sexual thoughts?

Finally, ancient vampire Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) returns and asks for Bill's help in finding a thief at his Fangtasia nightclub, if he'll oblige the services of Sookie to mentally-interrogate suspects. It was inferred that something more insidious would be taking place with this story, so I was mildly disappointing to see things take a smoother turn. For a second I thought Eric was demanding Bill hand Sookie over to him for sexual favours, but the playful waitress instead seems to have charmed the higher echelons of the vampire subculture. A shame Skarsgard is so empty and hollow in his portrayal of a character that should be a scene-stealing highlight, too.

Overall, "The Fourth Man In The Fire" is another strong episode for a series that has quickly settled into its universe and refuses to stop progressive and surprising. I'm still a bit confused about why there isn't more fuss over Bon Temp's spate of killings, but otherwise I really like the direction this show is taking. It manages to look unpredictable, even if you're faced with evidence that seems to signpost obvious twists (Sam's secret), and I'm genuinely thrilled to imagine what the finale will bring in a month's time.

26 October 2008
HBO, 9/8c

: Stephen Moyer (Bill), Anna Paquin (Sookie), Michael Raymond-James (Rene Lenier), Carrie Preston (Arlene Fowler), Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette), Rutina Wesley (Tara), Ryan Kwanten (Jason), Sam Trammell (Sam), Alexander Skarsgard (Eric Northman), Jim Parrack (Hoyt Fortenberry), William Sanderson (Sheriff Bud Dearborne), Lizzy Caplan (Amy Burley), Chris Bauer (Andy Bellefleur), Adina Porter (Lettie Mae Thornton) & Raoul Trujillo (Longshadow)

DEAD SET: Part 2 of 5

Writer: Charlie Brooker
Director: Yann Demange

The second episode of the five-part Dead Set is marginally better than the first, mainly because all zombie stories become more unpredictable after the initial attacks. Despite this, it's disappointing to see so many clichés rock up (the sick survivor, the gun-toting bitch, the roof-top distraction tactic). The whole episode reminded me of other, better zombie films…

As I mentioned in my review of part 1, my biggest complaint is how Dead Set is avoiding any allegorical storytelling, or satirical swipes at reality TV. I just don't understand why you'd set a zombie apocalypse in the Big Brother compound and just decide to use the environment as the Dawn Of The Dead shopping mall. Why not leave the cameras running and cut to Big Brother fans watching the live-feed as the situation worsens, for example? George Romero would have a field day with this premise, but creator Charlie Brooker seems oddly content to just vent his zombie passion in a narrow, predictable way.

Accepting the fact Dead Set's premise is operating below most peoples' imaginations, part 2 had a few entertaining scrapes for the characters to contend with. Kelly (Jaime Winstone) is now the self-appointed leader of the BB housemates, and must think of a way to get medical supplies to help the injured Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), who is being cared for by Grayson (Raj Ghatak).

The resulting scenes are familiar retreads of the genre (distract zombies, run to a van to escape), but work quite well because at least there's direction, action and pace here. Again, it might have been more satirical to have the "reality star" housemates be utterly useless once this "unreal" situation hits, but Grayson in particular is quite capable with his rudimentary first-aid knowledge.

Tellingly, the best subplot avoided the Big Brother backdrop altogether, focusing on Kelly's boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) as he joins forces with gun-toting Alex (Liz May Brice) at a convenience store, before they both head off in a car. Only, guess what: the car breaks down, it's getting dark, and there are zombies about. Is anyone counting the clichés? Still, Alex and Riq are the only characters with a semblance of realism to them, and Dead Set definitely works better without the Big Brother eye looming over proceedings.

The worst subplot belongs to egotistical producer Patrick (Andy Nyman) and Scottish BB evictee Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), who are trapped in a small office with Zombie Davina (Davina McCall) prowling around outside. But there isn't any tension, as their plan consists of sitting around, moaning, drinking champagne, and waiting for help to arrive. More than anything, this subplot demonstrated a perplexing lack of comedy in the series. The idea of a dislikeable TV exec and a dumb Big Brother contestant, sheltering from zombies in a confined space, should have provided lots of material -- but comedy writer Brooker only bows to a shot of Patrick peeing into a bucket, to the oddly-overblown disgust of Pippa. Has she never seen a man piss before?

Overall, I did enjoy part 2 more than part 1, so Dead Set is moving in the right direction. It's well-directed by Yann Demange, the make-up is excellent, the story didn't feel stretched at 30-minutes (indeed, it ends too abruptly), and this episode had one subplot that worked reasonably well (Riq/Alex) -- but the absence of big laughs from the funny premise (zombies attack Big Brother) has left me confused and disappointed. I hate to see potential squandered like this.

28 October 2008
E4, 10pm

: Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Kevin Eldon (Joplin), Riz Ahmed (Riq), Liz May Brice (Alex), Warren Brown (Marky), Shelley Conn (Claire), Beth Cordingly (Veronica), Chizzy Akudolu (Angel), Raj Ghatak (Grayson), Adam Deacon (Space) & Davina McCall (Herself)

Tuesday, 28 October 2008


Apologies for the delay. To be honest, Strictly fatigue is hitting hard now. I've seen enough to know who'll be up for the chop 'till about Week 9 (unless there's a major voting upset), and find it hard to get excited about the show in this saggy middle stage. Even the ordinarily sexy dresses aren't as hot as they were last year, are they? A brief summation of the weekend's dances:

LISA SNOWDON & Brendan Cole
Holy moly! Lisa in a sea-blue black-speckled dress, cut high up the skirt to show off her perfect legs, with bare arms and plenty of stern-faced attitude. "Eye Of The Tiger" was a fitting choice as she prowled around looking absolutely stunning. Gorgeous figure, too.

OLA JORDAN & Andrew Castle
She's always very petite and pretty, but I find that the shorter ladies don't look as great in the classic ballgowns. Still, she's absolutely huggable and the white-pink dress was very fetching.

No smiles this week, but a fair few inches of leg glimpsed through her black skirt -- and there's always something watchable about her, even in this dance disaster. Give me smiling, fun-loving Christine over this ice maiden act any day, but this wasn't bad.

ERIN BOAG & Austin Healey
Erin Botox (sorry, Boag) has been transformed this series, but a rather drab green dress kept her toned body hidden from prying eyes. Best dance of the night, but the worst look.

CHERIE LUNGHI & James Jordan
Great face and figure for a woman in middle age, and she performed well with lots of style, attitude... and the odd stick-thin crescent kick of a leg. Good, but unremarkable stuff.

HEATHER SMALL & Brian Fortuna
Sickly hot-pink dress with one of those huge skirts. Very forgettable in the looks department, sorry.

HAYLEY HOLT & Mark Foster
Yippee! Hayley's getting into her groove just recently – rose red dress, bare hips, floaty skirt spinning up to reveal slender legs, with lots of vim and vinegar. Hot. Just a shame she's partnered with a man who lacks coordination outside of a swimming pool.

Fairy tale-style candyfloss pink dress; very pretty and serene, but that's about all I can say.

Hey, Kristina's burning up the series just now, although that blue-red dress was hideous. Still, it showed lots of her left leg and a really fine, tight body. Sexually charged. I particularly liked how John seemed to be dragging her back to his cave at one point!

RACHEL STEVENS & Vincent Simone
Absolutely stunning face, petite body, open-backed white dress, and a very enticing slow waltz. Beautiful and low-key class.

JODIE KIDD & Ian Waite
She has quite a pug-nosed face, doesn't she -- but Jodie's at least showing off her best assets recently: those incredible long legs. A very unusual white dress with silvery bits, using her tomboy strength to power through Blur's "Song 2". Very good.

The bottom two this week were Ola & Andrew (unfairly) and Hayley & Mark (deservedly). Still, it's always sad when two of the sexiest girls are in the dance-off. Fortunately, Ola was kept in the competition by a unanimous judge decision. Phew! The better of two evils.

25 October 2008 – BBC1, 6.35pm
26 October 2008 – BBC1, 7.15pm

DEAD SET: Part 1 of 5

Writer: Charlie Brooker
Director: Yann Demange

Dead Set destroyed its own reality in seconds, with the presence of Kevin Eldon as a fictional Big Brother contestant. While never a household name, Eldon's a familiar face to the demographic who'll be watching this "reality-horror" special in the run-up to Halloween. From that moment, it didn't matter how closely they aped Big Brother (filming on actual sets, a role for Davina McCall, brief narration by Marcus Bentley), the potential for a gritty, horror-tinged spoof was squandered.

The premise is high-concept obviousness at its best: what if an outbreak of zombies coincided with the annual Big Brother reality show circus? It's the kind of one-sentence pitch that fizzes the imagination like Alka-Seltzer dropped into water. Unfortunately (unless the remaining episodes prove me very wrong), writer Charlie Brooker seems to have ignored the satirical possibilities zombie maestro George Romero would have immediately jumped on. Zombies halting their blood-letting to watch the show? The Big Brother compound containing the only dimwits unaware of a worldwide apocalypse? Nope, sorry; the BB House just became a modern version of Evil Dead's cabin in the woods.

I was also surprised by the lack of comedy, as Brooker's day job is as an opinionated, rant-prone Guardian columnist who's had success with black comedy (TVGoHome, Nathan Barley) and spewing bile at British TV in his entertaining Screen Wipe series. For someone so funny and knowledgeable, why make Dead Set a straight-forward zombie horror with a unique backdrop? There was the odd wry line and exaggerated performance (mainly from Andy Nyman's handlebar-moustached boss), but the naturally funny idea of Big Brother-meets-Night Of The Living Dead wasn't played for any laughs. To its detriment.

On the positive side, despite the fact its shaky-cam style grew wearisome, director Yann Demange managed to reproduce low-budget cinematic horror on the small-screen very well. The Danny Boyle-style running zombies (again, a bad decision) were every bit as ferocious as those from 28 Days Later and Dawn Of The Dead's remake.

The overall aesthetic was bleak and dirty, which worked brilliantly once the zombie outbreak reached the Big Brother eviction night, but worked against a sense of reality beforehand. Viewers have seen behind the scenes of Big Brother many times, and it's not reflected in the murky, depressive atmosphere of Dead Set. The in-house sequences were also unconvincing, which was surprising given the cooperation of Channel 4 and Endemol in making Dead Set.

For an episode running 70-minutes (including adverts), the level of characterization was also painfully meager. Understandably, the show wanted to introduce the zombies quickly and get them attacking the Big Brother audience and crew, but it was difficult to care about our production runner heroine Kelly (Jaime Winstone), her boyfriend, or the sketchily-drawn BB housemates who immediately guess something's wrong when the cameras stop moving and the Diary Room stays locked.

Still, amongst the many disappointments were a few good moments and ideas -- the mere presence of Zombie Davina (giving her catchphrase "I'm coming to get you!" a different connotation) was a real highlight, and the amount of blood and violence should please gorehounds. I remain hopeful that things will improve now the exposition's over -- if only because there are four more episodes, and it would be disastrous if Dead Set's blown its load already.

Overall, Dead Set left me decidedly cold and unsatisfied. Even cameo's by genuine BB housemates weren't used well: Makosi owns a book on Kaballah, we're reminded that Imogen Thomas has big boobs, and Aisleyne trots around in a skimpy dress -- how toothless. If Charlie Brooker can't skewer the Big Brother phenomena in a fast-paced 70-minute opener, what hope is there now Dead Set's turned into a humdrum horror set inside a TV studio not even broadcasting events?

27 October 2008
E4, 10pm

: Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Kevin Eldon (Joplin), Riz Ahmed (Riq), LizMay Brice (Alex), Warren Brown (Marky), Shelley Conn (Claire), Beth Cordingly (Veronica), Chizzy Akudolu (Angel), Raj Ghatak (Grayson), Adam Deacon (Space), Davina McCall (Herself), Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace (Herself), Brian Belo (Himself), Imogen Thomas (Herself), Helen Adams (Herself), Paul "Bubble" Ferguson (Himself), Kinga Karolczak (Herself), Eugene Sully (Himself), Makosi Musambasi (Herself) & Ziggy Lichman (Himself)

DEXTER 3.5 - "Turning Biminese"

Writer: Tim Schlattmann
Director: Marcos Siega

Spoilers. After a slow start with only a sprinkling of the old magic in evidence, "Turning Biminese" is an overdue burst of freshness. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is now a golfing buddy of Miguel (Jimmy Smits) and edging closer to a normal life, although Rita's (Julie Benz) sudden idea to buy a house together (forcing him to abandon the "sanctuary" of his apartment) gives him pause for thought. Can he really settle down and be an everyday husband, father and home-maker -- or is it asking too much for a man of his unusual nature?

Undoubtedly, the best aspect of season 3 has been seeing Dex contemplate the onset of normality. He's now months away from marrying Debra, fathering a child, adopting Debra's kids, moving in permanently, and even has a close "friend" in Miguel (never mind the fact it's ultimately based on a foundation of complicity in a murder.) Tim Schlattmann's script develops things for Dex very nicely, pushing our anti-hero to react more honestly when Debra pushes the issue of house-buying in his face. It's been awhile since we've seen Dex unable to avoid issues with his usual skill, but fatherhood is certainly snapping on the emotional handcuffs.

It's no surprise that the array of subplots struggling to compete again, although it was fun to see Masuka (C.S Lee) transform into a stiff, suit-wearing professional, having learned from Quinn (Desmond Harrington) that everyone at Miami Metro views him as a creepy, crude joke. I've never been a huge fan of Masuka, but Lee actually makes him very sympathetic and scratches out some memorable moments -- particularly when he confronts Angel (David Zayas) and Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) over their recent treatment of him.

Elsewhere, I still don't find Debra and her informant an interesting diversion, and the associated background hum of the Freebo investigation seems like old news -- no matter how many times Ramon (Jason Manuel Olazabal) storms into scenes to try and spur the Laguerta's (Lauren Velez) team into action. The audience have been fully aware of what happened with the Freebo/Oscar situation back in episode 1, so the quest to find Oscar's killer is increasingly laborious.

The fact the case somehow connects to a serial-killer nicknamed "The Skinner" hasn't quite blossomed as an idea yet, but I'm hoping things will reach a boiling point very quickly. Here, Debra is seen being watched through binoculars as she visits a young boy with information on Freebo, and it seems likely the snoop was either The Skinner (but how would he know about Debra?) or perhaps "rival" detective Quinn (whose methods and actions at work suggest he has unspoken beef with Debra).

I'm still willing to believe there's a masterplan behind Debra's scenes, but it's too unfocused to get excited about yet. I only really find myself giving Dexter my full attention whenever stories touch on things that affect Dex himself, and that didn't happen nearly enough in Debra's storyline this week.

One aspect of Dexter that was very enjoyable back in season 1 was the nighttime activities of Dex in exacting vigilante justice on criminals who have escaped justice. It's something that understandably can't be dragged out every episode for easy shocks, but it always proves to be the heartbeat of episodes when it does.

In "Turning Biminese", Miguel mentions a frustrating case to Dex, where a man called Ethan Turner (Larry Sullivan) got away with throwing his rich wife overboard on a cruise liner. Dex is quick to shake off the burden of family matters to stalk Ethan -- armed with his usual kill-kit and determination. Such sequences are always darkly riveting, and Ethan's comeuppance reminded me of how messed-up Dex really is -- as this season has been curiously devoid of Dex's ritualized killings. I think we need them to keep the audience's moral compass spinning.

The scene that will have everyone's head spinning arrives in the climax, after Dex has narrowly managed to get to the hospital to comfort Debra after a medical scare with the baby. Miguel confronts Dex over his mysterious absence (having sent the coast guard out to where Dex said he had "gone fishing" and learning about Ethan's disappearance.) It's happened before on the series, but Miguel correctly deduces that Dex was responsible for Ethan's disappearance, and surprises Dex by showing huge pride.

Smits and Hall are both absolutely brilliant here, in a compelling scene that ranks as the season's best. So, is Miguel genuinely on Dex's side, or is his acceptance of Dex's true nature just an elaborate ploy? How will his reactions differ to previous characters who knew about Dex's "dark passenger" (father Harry, brother Brian and mistress Lila)? There's definitely more to Miguel than meets the eye, so I'm expecting a few more twists in the tail. It took 5 episodes, but season 3 may have belatedly found its hook...

26 October 2008
Showtime, 9/8c

: Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Julie Benz (Rita), Jennifer Carpenter (Debra), Jimmy Smits (Miguel), Lauren Velez (Laguerta), David Zayas (Angel), C.S Lee (Masuka), Desmond Harrington (Quinn), Jason Manuel Olazabal (Ramon Prado), Larry Sullivan (Ethan Turner), Preston Bailey (Cody), Ellen Bry (Doctor), Kristin Dattilo (Gianna), Joshua Dov (Tilly), Marc John Jefferies (Wendell), Carla Jiminez (Nurse), Sage Kirkpatrick (Laura), Karina Michel (Beth) & Christina Robinson (Astor)

Monday, 27 October 2008

MY OWN WORST ENEMY 1.2 - "The Hummingbird"

Writer: Jason Smilovic
Director: David Semel

Enjoyable unless you stop to think, "The Hummingbird" contained some interesting ideas and sequences, although the central Jekyll/Hyde premise is still incredibly awkward and unbelievable…

A secret government agency called "Janus" (operating from the bowls of anagram cover firm "A.J Sun"), have a number of spies that have willingly agreed to spend half their lives as someone else (courtesy of a brain-chip that can be flipped to summon the emergence of a split personality). The tenuous reason? That having an artificially-created alter-ego will be perfect cover if the spy is ever captured and interrogated. I mean, really, talk about a heinous waste of resources!

Fortunately, this episode unspools at a fast enough rate to stop you sticking on its many impracticalities and problems -- like why are Janus still sending Edward (Christian Slater) out on field missions, when they're aware he's "broken" and will sometimes flip into the untrained and morally-forthright Henry (Slater again)? For some reason Mavis (Alfre Woodard) is even trying to hide the malfunctioning brain-chip from her own superiors, like company head Alistair Trumbull (James Cromwell, Woodard's co-star in Star Trek: First Contact).

Interestingly, the overused Id/Superego battle takes a slight backseat already, as the real focus of "The Hummingbird" is with everyman Henry trying to disprove Mavis' bombshell that he's the "fake" personality who was created 19 years ago. Henry starts a personal crusade to find tangible evidence that he knew and interacted with real people before that time. The obvious problem is keeping his investigation a secret from wife Lily (Mädchen Amick), the watchful eyes of Janus agents, and "himself".

And it's good fun, for the most part. Christian Slater is compelling enough to keep you watching, improving in his capacity to give both Henry and Edward distinct mannerisms and vocal cadences. This is best shown in an interrogation scene, where mild-mannered Henry has to pretend to be Edward and is shown by Mavis (via earpiece) how to extract information from a German villain using nasty-looking injections. We later return to the scene, but now with Edward restored, and the difference in attitude and temperament is very clear -- without simply making Edward a maniacal lunatic.

Good support from Afre Woodard also helps, although I'm not yet sold on Tom/Raymond (Mike O'Malley) as a character. The gorgeous Mädchen Amick also gets a few nice scenes, as her sex-life rapidly improves, but she's unaware she's sleeping with Edward. Indeed, it's rather strange how Edward seems to takeover whenever bedtime beckons -- although you can hardly blame him, if it's intentional.

At the moment, I'm enjoying the idea of a regular joe having to come to terms with the fact he's only existed for 19 years, while battling the dispiriting presence of a cleverer, stronger, faster, more sexually adventurous competitor for his wife's affections. It's this core idea that's definitely a lot of fun, even if the broader context is illogically written and very stupid.

Overall, "The Hummingbird" did a decent job of slightly widening the premise to include a falsified childhood, and I like the performances from Slater, Woodard and Amick. I'm not terribly excited about the humdrum espionage thrills (something that also affected Jason Smilovic's previous series, Bionic Woman), but this episode certainly showed evidence that My Own Worst Enemy has a few interesting angles to explore. They even visited London and avoided the clichés and stereotypes that stink up US dramas (with the London Eye replacing the standard Big Ben backdrop -- although seeing a red post-box in a street seems to be obligatory.)

I also like the subconscious compartmentalization of Henry (all offices are box-like "prisons" in design.) He even bounces a rubber ball against a wall in one scene, echoing Steve McQueen's famous incarceration pastime in The Great Escape. It's neat touches like those that help me forgive the bigger picture dumbness.

23 October 2008
NBC, 9/8c

: Christian Slater (Henry Spivey/Edward Albright), Mädchen Amick (Lily Spivey), Alfre Woodard (Mavis Heller), Saffron Burrows (Dr. Skinner), Taylor Lautner (Jack Spivey), Bella Thorne (Ruthy Spivey), Mike O'Malley (Tom Grady/Raymond), Omid Abtahi (Tony), Jeanine Giovanni (David's Wife), Ryan Adkisson (David's Son) & James Cromwell (Alistair Trumbull)

LIFE ON MARS (US) 1.3 - "My Maharashi Is Bigger Than Your Maharashi"

Writer: Tracy McMillan
Director: Michael Pressman

"This counter-culture, Ray, will one day be looked upon
as a time when a politicized youth rebelled against the
excesses of the Vietnam war, the excesses of corporate
arrogance, and the excesses of racial intolerance."
-- Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara)

Thanks to an original script, it's easier to properly assess the US remake of Life On Mars without déjà vu hanging over every moment. "My Maharashi Is Bigger Than Your Maharashi" finds the team investigating the murder of a Vietnam vet. The episode makes use of its 1973 context to highlight prejudices of the era -- from peacenik hippies campaigning against the Vietnam war, shameful attacks on soldiers who returned home after serving their country, and homophobic violence in general…

This rich cocktail doesn't provide the expected nourishment, although it certainly touched on some interesting period details and themes. Again, the main stumbling block is the fact Life On Mars has to juggle a typical '70s procedural with its fantasy elements. In a 43-minute episode, this leaves the cop show aspect looking stale and simpleminded as it jostles for emphasis (yes, the only notable guest star is unmasked as the culprit) and the enjoyable fantasy stuff will always be vague because that's the overarching mystery the show's built on.

Still, it's intriguing to see the remake tackle Sam's (Jason O'Mara) situation in new ways, throwing up all kinds of odd ideas and probable red herrings: an Indian maharashi pricks Sam's interest with a mystical talk about the nature of time; symbols on said guru's forehead later match with a building's window to lead Sam to his old house; Sam has flashbacks to half-forgotten childhood memories (a holdover from the BBC original); and hippie neighbour Windy (Tanya Fischer) even appears more tied to Sam's out-of-time experience than we first thought. Incidentally, is her insistence on calling Sam by his apartment number ("2B") a hokey dig at Shakespeare's "to be, or not to be" line?

To be fair, I actually enjoyed Sam's side investigation into his childhood, but everything's tainted by my overriding thought that the producers don't really have a plan in place. I'm willing to accept the flashbacks will basically culminate in a finale that echoes the BBC original's season 1 end -- but a Mars rover robot, a ghostly kid, a nutty hippy, and a weird Indian mystic? Sorry, as diverting as those things are, I don't believe they're all relevant pieces of the overall jigsaw.

In terms of acting, O'Mara's quite a good, solid lead actor. John Simm did a far better job of making you believe in Sam's dilemma, because O'Mara's just too reserved to bring a Simm level of histrionics to the table. He's hunky and bland in comparison to his predecessor, but he's at least likeable and refuses to be overshadowed by the other actors.

Gretchen Mol really improved a notch here, thanks to more screen time between her and Sam. She's perky, confident and far more interesting than the bullying Gene (Harvey Keitel), who still isn't a patch on Philip Glenister. It was mildly interesting to see Gene chew-out Ray (Michael Imperioli) for his hatred of gay men, while still retaining his own unsteady moral views on the matter (basically, murderers are worse than gays), but elsewhere he's just throwing chairs and spitting on suspects. There's very little sense of fun and zero signs of the reluctant camaraderie between Gene and Sam that was such a big part of the BBC original's sheriff/deputy dynamic.

Indeed, there isn't much reason to love this series yet. For me, it'll take extra effort for it to become anything more than a curiosity piece for fans of the British series. Beyond the excellent production design, cool choices of music, and some neat visuals teases about Sam's predicament, it's essentially just a middling cop drama with '70s moustache. The BBC show wasn't immune to the problems facing its American counterpart, either -- but it had two things working in it favour: genuine chemistry between all the actors (particularly Gene and Sam), and the good grace to conclude the mystery after a neat 16 episodes.

23 October 2008
ABC, 10/9c

: Jason O'Mara (Sam), Harvey Keitel (Gene), Gretchen Mol (Annie), Jonathan Murphy (Chris), Michael Imperioli (Ray), John Cenatiempo (Sizeable Ted), Marc Scrivo (Hippie #1), Nimo Gandhi (The Maharishi), Brian Avers (Sticker), Matthew Backer (Hippie Guy), Jaron Farnham (Crew Cut), Robin Lord Taylor (Jimmy), Arnie Burton (Lawrence Jones), Timothy Adams (John Philip Fisher), Susan Misner (Carol Ann Reeves), John D'Leo (Robbie Reeves), Tanya Fischer (Windy), Tom Hatton (Hippie #2), Andre De Shields (Bartender), Matthew Cowles (Cowboy Dan) & Dean Winters (Vic Tyler)

BREAKING BAD 1.5 - "Gray Matter"

Writer: Patty Lin
Director: Tricia Brock

Spoilers. The first episode not written by creator Vince Gilligan, "Gray Matter" loses the momentum Breaking Bad had built up, but Patty Lin's script is still full of excellent moments and wonderful performances. Here, Walter (Bryan Cranston) reflects on his underachievement when he's invited with Skyler (Anna Gunn) to an old work colleagues birthday party…

Elliot (Adam Godley) has become a very wealthy man in the years since he parted company with Walter, but after hearing about his old friend's lung cancer he offers him a top job with comprehensive medical insurance. Unfortunately, Walter is unable to swallow his pride and accept Elliot's offer of help, engineered by Syler in the hope of persuading him that chemotherapy is an essential course of action.

Elsewhere, Jesse (Aaron Paul) struggles to go straight, finding his lack of qualifications an insurmountable obstacle. After learning from a potential employer that he's only fit to advertise on the streets dressed in a stupid costume, Jesse bumps into Badger (an old school friend on a similar downward spiral) and they decide to become partners and resurrect Jesse's crystal meth business. Unfortunately, Jesse's skills at chemistry leave a lot to be desired…

Again, this episode focuses on family reactions to Walter's condition. Skyler remains adamant her husband must choose to fight his cancer, so she arranges an uncomfortable family meeting to try and persuade Walter with unfair peer pressure. Walter Jr (RJ Mitte) is particularly disappointed and upset about the situation, perceiving his father as "giving up" on his family by accepting death so easily. Interestingly, Hank (Dean Norris) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) slowly reveal their true thoughts on the matter, and it certainly doesn't tow Skyler's party line.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, this is clearly the best acted television show on-air. Even ignoring Cranston's raw, utterly compelling performance, the rest of the cast are just as strong in different ways. I'm particularly enjoying Dean Norris as the well-meaning but boorish brother-in-law, and Anna Gunn is finally getting a chance to go toe-to-toe with Bryan Cranston. Even Aaron Paul, who I initially wasn't convinced by (mainly because it's like he drifted in from a Kevin Smith stoner comedy) has really found a foothold now -- aided by last week's insight into his family background.

The only slight disappointment for me was Walter's final decision regarding whether or not to fight a statistically incurable condition. I understand a television show needs to travel down narrative roads that can reap the most drama and incident, but I didn't quite believe Walter would reverse his principles. He gave succinct and understandable reasons for opting to accept death "like a man", so the sudden reversal for the benefit of his wife (or some extra time with her) didn't quite convince me. But that's a very minor quibble, in the big scheme of things. And it meant we got to see a glimpse of what chemotherapy entails; a procedure you always hear about, but rarely see.

Overall, while this was the weakest episode so far, the standard is still much higher than most TV shows. "Gray Matter" adjusts direction very nicely, reveals an unexpected skeleton in Walter's closet (he had an affair with his work partner's wife) and prods the series into its next chapter.

26 October 2008
FX, 10pm

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Walter), Anna Gunn (Skyler), Aaron Paul (Jesse), Dean Norris (Hank), Betsy Brandt (Marie), RJ Mitte (Walter White Jr.), Adam Godley (Elliott), William Sterchi (Manager), Marc Mouchet (Farley), Kiira Arai Sniegowski (Server), William Allen (Scientist), Loren Haynes (Music Producer), Kyle Swimmer (Louis), Robert Arrington (Soren), Frederic Doss (Off-Duty Cop), Matt Jones (Badger), Jessica Hecht (Gretchen) & Juanita Trad (Medical Technician)