Thursday, 30 September 2010

'Mad Men' moving to Sky?

The Guardian reports that Sky are poised to outbid the BBC for the rights to AMC's Mad Men. The BBC are apparently negotiating with the show's producer Lionsgate for two more years of the Emmy-winning series, but Sky have apparently offered 25% more than what the BBC's prepared to pay (between £5-10m, it's speculated.) With the BBC under pressure from politicians not to waste license fee money, it's unlikely they'll engage in a bidding war for a series that, while critically adored, is still a niche program for BBC4.

What do you make of this news? Typical Sky tactics, right? How many great TV shows have been launched on terrestrial television, only to be snatched by Sky when they've proven themselves? Personally, Mad Men will still be available to me if it transfers to Sky1/HD, but audiences will now have to contend with... adverts. How ironic, for a show about advertising...

'GLEE' 2.2 – "Britney/Brittany"

Quite possibly the most redundant and stupid episode in Glee's short life, "Britney/Brittany" was a thinly veiled excuse to reenact Britney Spears music videos (which it did very well), but with little to support the endeavour. This is Exhibit A in a trial for the prosecution of Glee; little more than a promotional hour for Ms Spears, sure to boost sales of her back-catalogue, with meagre relevance to the show and its characters.

Improbably, Mr Schue (Matthew Morrison) is revealed to be vehemently against the glee club performing the music of Britney Spears, claiming she's a bad role model. He's also jealous of ex Emma's (Jayma Mays) new boyfriend, hunky dentist Dr Carl Howell (John Stamos), who gets to work on various members of the glee club's teeth, eliciting Britney-related fantasies from the likes of Santana (Naya Rivera), Brittany (Heather Morris), Artie (Kevin McHale) and Rachel (Lea Michele) thanks to his anesthetic.

The episode's sole highlight was Heather Morris, despite the fact this episode wasn't anywhere near as focused on her scatterbrained character as the title had us believing. Pokerfaced Brittany was the Ralph Wiggum of season 1, dropping in to deliver perfect one-liners and non sequiters, so I'm glad she's a regular character because the actress deserves the show of confidence. She's by far the best dancer on the show, too, and this episode gave Morris plenty of opportunity to prove that with some fantastic, sexy performances -- singing Britney classic "I'm A Slave 4 U" as a visual mashup of the "Oops! I Did It Again" and "Toxic" videos. There was also an enjoyable duet with Rivera's character Santana for "Me Against The Music", and it all proved Morris can sing to an acceptable standard, which was something of an uncertainty given her dance background.

And there were some great Brittanyisms to be quoted for evermore: sitting in the dentist chair ("this room looks like the one on that spaceship where I got probed”), on super-geek Jacob's afro hair ("looks like a Jewish cloud"), and to paraplegic Artie ("did you get a leg transplant?")

Sadly, those aforementioned moments were the sole positives of this desperate episode, beyond an impressive restaging of Britney's "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" with Rachel inevitably stepping into her knee-socked heroine's shoes. The fact Glee feels partly inspired by that late-'90s video certainly helped matters, as there were times when it was unnervingly close to the real thing. Knowng the fast turnaround of TV production, I have to applaud writer-director Ryan Murphy's talent behind the camera in getting so many video homages done to this high standard. Unfortunately, his script was several notches below last season's Madonna tribute, finding no clear and plausible reason for anything to be happening. Why does Will have a hatred for Britney Spears? This is the guy who dances to Vanilla Ice.

I'm also worried about Jewish nerd Jacob (Josh Sussman), a periphery character given a bigger presence in this episode, but only to be the butt of everyone's jokes or to irritate us with his exagerrated behaviour and reactions. The character effectively ruined a latter group performance of "Toxic" in the school hall with his outbursts from the crowd, and the character feels like a very cruel and outmoded stereotype of a geek, making the characters of The Big Bang Theory look realistic by comparison.

The only meat to this episode in terms of a storyline was Schue's jealousy of likeable and handsome dentist Carl, a love rival who leads him to believe he lost Emma because he's too boring and predictable. In a weak attempt to win her back, Schue bought an identical sports car to Carl, shortly before ex-wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) reappeared, clearly desperate to win her ex back once his infatuation with Emma runs its course. The idea of Schue having a midlife crisis isn't bad, but it deserved more work than the halfhearted scenes dished out here.

Overall, "Britney/Brittany" was a big disappointment, particularly regarding Britney Spears cameo appearance itself, which was just a few small scenes with a total screentime of 30 seconds. I'm not sure if this is because Britney wasn't prepared to do more, the script had to be written without knowing her availability, or Ryan Murphy simply decided Britney wasn't a good enough actress to do more, but whatever the reason her appearance summed up this entire episode: unsatisfying, pointless and desultory.

  • Hey, Quinn -- you had a baby last season, right? Any chance you could mention that, or we could see your daughter? You too, Puck -- just a line of dialogue referencing you're a faher now would be appreciated. Thanks.
  • Brittany's full name is Brittany Susan Pearce. Brittany S. Pearce, geddit? Brittany Spearce. Geddit?
  • Am I missing something with Artie wanting to join the school football team? Surely it’s just impossible because he's in a wheelchair? Certainly to play actual games against opponents, right? I'm not sure I follow this, unless he's just being allowed to train and have fun but isn’t expected to play actual games.
GUEST CAST: Britney Spears, Jessalyn Gilsig, Max Adler, James Earl, Lauren Potter, Iqbal Theba & Josh Sussman
TRANSMISSION: 28 September 2010 – Fox, 8/7c

UK premiere of 'The Walking Dead': FX, 5 November

I received my The Walking Dead press pack from FX yesterday (see it here), which gives the UK premiere date as 5 November. That's 5 days behind the US premiere on 31 October (Halloween). So now I have a decision to make: do I review at the US or UK pace? Any reviews I write following AMC's Sunday airings won't get posted until Tuesdays, but FX's airings on Fridays would go up on Saturdays -- so there's actually only 4 days difference. FX also guarantees me a sparkling HD broadcast, and the end of the week is less cluttered with TV shows, so easier to find the time to write. Having weighed up the pro's and con's, I'll be following this zombie series at the UK pace on FX. Who's with me?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

'THE EVENT' 1.2 - "To Keep Us Safe"

I was puzzled by the snottier reviews of The Event's pilot, regarding how it spent an hour teasing us with questions. It left me wondering what kind of mystery show they'd prefer; one that answers all of its questions in episode 1, just so you can be sure it’s not leading you on? However, what baffled me more is seeing the writers deliver sizeable answers in "To Keep Us Safe", which was both a surprise and a risk. I guess they want to avoid the complaint that serialized mysteries keep posing questions they have no intention of answering for months or years, but you can also go too far the opposite way and answer too much, too soon...

The plane that vanished into a portal seconds before it would have destroyed the president's retreat appears in Arizona, crashing into the desert and necessitating an evacuation of the passengers moments before ominous helicopter gunships appear overhead. Sean (Jason Ritter) is urged by his pilot father-in-law to run for his life, after revealing he only agreed to this suicide mission to spare the lives of his kidnapped daughters. Sean leaves everyone behind, finding himself in a Yuma hospital after succumbing to heat stroke some time later, where the local police are alerted to his presence as a fugitive and fantasist wanted for murder.

Elsewhere, President Martinez (Blair Underwood) dealt with the fallout from the plane incident, cancelling his press conference and helping concoct a cover-story for what happened to the vanished plane. A series of flashbacks reveal that Sophia (Laura Innes) and her fellow detainees at Mount Inostranka are genetically 1% different to regular people, meaning they're aliens. Sophia's people apparently arrived in Alaska in the 1940s and were captured soon after, although some escaped and have since infiltrated human society. In fact, Agent Lee (Ian Anthony Dale) is revealed to be one of these slow-ageing aliens, having passed a CIA medical examination by giving blood via a fake vein he had embedded in his arm.

Martinez's conference was intended to reveal the presence of aliens on Earth, but there are clearly people who would do anything to prevent the President making that fact known to the world. These people appear to be led by a man called Carter (D.B Sweeney), who it's revealed in flashback was the person who kidnapped Jason's fiancé Leila (Sarah Roemer) from the cruise ship, and manipulated her father Michael into doing a Kamikaze dive into the president's abode.

So, there's quite a lot going on, gaps in the plot were filled quite nicely in explanatory flashbacks, and we were given some fairly big answers that slightly demystified the show. In fact, knowing that aliens are part of the mystery (or is that a red herring?), I felt my interest slip. I think I've had my fill of aliens, and ABC's remake of V is already covering that base for me, so hopefully The Event cooks up something else to keep me watching. Otherwise it feels like a serialized rethink of The Invaders, mixing elements of Lost's format and a 24-style conspiracy. And that's not a bad mix of shows to watch, but nothing very original. I can't get excited about aliens posing as humans, unfortunately. That feels like well-trodden ground to me.

Overall, "To Keep Us Safe" certainly maintained the pilot's pace and intrigue, and I can't deny a few reveals were unexpected enough to perk my interest. I'm still not really sucked into the situation on an emotional level, although Jason Ritter's screen presence and likeability is doing a better job than the actual material he's being given, and the flashback to the day he first met Leila (teaching her to swim) was appreciated. But at then moment The Event is all about the story and it's determined to try and grip you any way it can (plane crash, hospital chase, aliens reveal, 40's flashback, cruise ship stabbing, etc.) There's certainly enough here to keep me around for awhile, but it's time to make me care about the people caught up in this plot's web.

What did you make of this follow-up to the divisive pilot? Happy we got some very early answers? Disappointed in the apparent alien connection? Still not interested in any of the actual characters, but enjoying the ride superficially?

  • So Sophia and her detainees are aliens? I think we're being misled. That's too clichéd, no? Might they actually be slightly more evolved humans from the future, who travelled back in time to stop whatever "The Event" is? Or from a different dimension, to jump on the Fringe bandwagon? Aliens from literally another planet would look considerably different to us, even allowing for the fact budget plays a part in what extra-terrestrials look like on TV shows. I mean, even V's aliens are space lizards beneath their flesh.
  • The longevity of this show is still in question. How long until we need to be shown The Event? Maybe we'll learn what it is by season 1's finale, it'll actually happen by the end of season 2, and we can deal with the fallout in season 3, but can the show go beyond that? Will it last long enough to even try and keep itself going past season 1, let alone season 3?
  • Co-writer Evan Katz was a writer-producer on 24, so that maybe explains the pacing.
WRITERS: Evan Katz & Nick Wauters
DIRECTOR: Jeffrey Reiner
GUEST CAST: Scott Patterson, Taylor Cole, Clifton Collins Jr., Lisa Vidal, Dominic Flores & D.B Sweeney
TRANSMISSION: 26 September 2010 - NBC, 9/8c

'Chuck' moving to Living for UK season 4 premiere

Another repercussion of Sky buying Virgin1 (only to rebrand it Channel One, then dismantle it) is that Chuck is now moving to Living. The fourth season premiere will be on 14 October @10pm, which is months sooner than Virgin/Channel One were ever likely to air it. It also means that Chuck will be available in high-definition, via Living HD, for the first time in the UK.

'THE APPRENTICE', series 6

I've been covering The Apprentice for a few years now (including the surprisingly enjoyable Junior Apprentice spin-off earlier this year), but I'm not going to be reviewing series 6 every week -- which starts 6 October. I don't have enough time, so don't want to commit to weekly reviews and feel under pressure to get them written. It's not good for me.

The question is: is there any desire for an "open thread"-type post every week, where you can discuss the show in the form of comments? I could stretch to commenting broadly on the show, just to kick things off, it's just that a full review every Thursday might be the straw that breaks the camel's back for me!


If this isn't a popular compromise, my Apprentice coverage will be severely reduced until the show (hopefully) returns to its usual spring timeslot. It's just far too hectic in these autumn/winter months leading to Christmas to be tackling a reality show on top of everything else -- sorry!

In the meantime, why not have a look at the new candidates via the BBC's official website.

'CHUCK' 4.2 - "Chuck Versus The Suitcase"

Better than the middling premiere, "Chuck Versus The Suitcase" overcame a rather dull mission because of its welcome theme of Chuck (Zachary Levi) questioning the commitment of girlfriend Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), who still hasn't unpacked her titular suitcase, despite the fact they've been living together for months...

This week, General Beckman (Bonita Friedericy) assigned Chuck and Sarah a mission to steal Smart Bullets (GPS-assisted ammo) from enemy agent Sophia (Karolina Kurkova), who's undercover as a supermodel at Milan's Fashion Week. Casey (Adam Baldwin) remained behind at the Buy More, chided by Morgan (Joshua Gomez) for not returning his daughter Alex's calls, before Morgan convinced Beckman that the CIA-run Buy More is now so efficient it'll arouse suspicion. Morgan was thus asked to redress the imbalance, by tracking down the Jeff (Scott Krinsky) and Lester (Vik Sahay), who have been on the run, convinced they're wanted arsonists, as a first step in reuniting the Buy More staff and restoring normal, incompetent service.

Chuck and Sarah's mission to Milan was fun with some nice moments (like Chuck being caught by a naked, freshly-showered Sophia), but there just wasn't much meat to the whole story. In an episode featuring Smart Bullets, which can bend around corners in the style of the movie Wanted, it was strange that didn’t factor into the storyline more. Instead, it all felt rather routine and formulaic, with Chuck and Sarah in silly disguises, confronted with a dimwit bodyguard (Lou Ferrigno), ending with Sarah having another of her celebrated "catfights" with Sophia. That latter action sequence was at least good fun and nicely choreographed, with the two leggy women high-kicking and punching each other up the catwalk, their violent duel mistaken as an avant-garde performance by the audience.

Usually, the Buy More subplot is one I rarely enjoy, but this was actually a relatively decent aspect of "... Versus The Suitcase", particularly when Morgan was demonstrating the disturbing efficiency of the staff by attempting to cause a mess up the aisles, only for undercover CIA agents to immediately spring into action to prevent or clean any mishap. Even the return of Jeff and Lester wasn't too shabbily done, even if it's another example of Chuck refusing to let any natural changes evolve before it just brings everything back to square one. Strangely, the episode's biggest laughs came in the same sequence, with the slow-motion arrival of the Buy More's original motley crew (with Morgan assisting their entrance with a handy fan), and Jeff's creepy come-on to the pregnant Ellie (Sarah Lancaster): "is there room in that womb for two?"

Second of Strahotness: the model look

I'd be rating this episode lower if it wasn't for a decent throughline of Chuck worrying about Sarah's commitment to their relationship. He's willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, because spies don't usually lay down roots, and Sarah's family history with her conman father was rather itinerant, but he still finds it a little strange she hasn't unpacked her suitcase and filled his wardrobe with her clothes. Now that Chuck and Sarah are an item, the show clearly needs to find ways to test the strength of their relationship, so this is a welcome step. The final scene, with Sarah in bed with Chuck and listening to him mull over the possibility of marriage and kids, her eyes wide and staring fixedly ahead, spoke volumes. She may love Chuck, but she's perhaps not the kind of woman who wants things to get that serious, or is just scared of commitment.

The idea of spies having problems making a home fed into a few of Casey's scenes, too -- with Morgan teasing him that Burbank's becoming home to him, and encouraging him to make a connection with his nearby teenage daughter Alex. The fact he does perhaps shows that Casey's moving in the opposite direction to Sarah, in that he's slowly coming round to the idea of making a home in this quiet part of the world where he spends half his time stacking shelves. It'll be interesting to see if his status as a father continues to erode the workaholic Casey and turns him into a family man, of sorts.

This season appears to have a strong parental theme, too -- what with Chuck's search for his mother, Ellie as an expectant mother (now reminiscing about her own mom late at night), Chuck mentioning having a baby with Sarah, Devon (Ryan McPartlin) becoming a worrier over his unborn child's wellbeing, and Casey getting in touch with the daughter he barely knows. The show has always been at its best when the spy stuff mixes with everyday family concerns, so this is all very promising now.

Overall, "Chuck Versus The Suitcase" isn't an example of the show firing on all cylinders, but its themes helped boost a by-the-numbers primary mission, and the Buy More subplot was actually pretty decent. That said, I can't help but think having Beckman stand down as the Buy More boss is a big mistake (especially if she goes back to being stuck on a video-screen), and making Morgan the new manager is equally as dumb. Why give Morgan responsibilities that could limit his forays into the spy world? And it feels like we've been here before, when he was Assistant Manager, for all intents and purposes. However, it might be amusing for awhile if Morgan abuses the fact he's the boss to a store full of highly-trained CIA agents. We'll have to see, but my immediate reaction wasn't positive.

  • Let's chalk Lou Ferrigno up as a terrible mistake, shall we? He's a bad actor, so I'm not sure why they didn't just crowbar in a Hulk in-joke and move on quickly. "Don't make me angry; you wouldn't like me when I'm angry" - c'mon, it's predictable, but why didn't they make him say that? Instead he's the love-struck bodyguard of a supermodel? Boring.
  • I take it Isaiah Mustafa's character was "Greta" this week? If so, cool, it won't always be hot actresses, but a few hunky men for women to ogle. But won't Jeff and Lester get suspicious of this Greta arrangement? Having them comically unaware the Buy More's a tricked out CIA lair is one thing, but different people all called Greta having weekly stints at the store? They're not that stupid, are they?
  • Great production detail with the photos of Linda Hamilton and Scott Bakula as Ellie's parents, both holding babies. A mix of photoshopped images and real family photos from both those actors, I assume. Also more noticeable that the younger Hamilton resembles Lancaster, slightly.
  • Tranquilizer gloves? Cool. That reminds me: don't you think Chuck has been surprisingly stingy with the idea of fun gadgets? That's a staple of the spy genre, but you rarely see much gadgetry on this show. Maybe because Chuck himself is effectively a gadget, so they don't want to make things too easy on missions by introducing laser pens and shoe knives?
WRITERS: Rafe Judkins & Lauren LeFranc
DIRECTOR: Gail Mancuso
GUEST CAST: Karolina Kurkova, Isaiah Mustafa, Lou Ferrigno, Katie Cleary, Thierre Di Castro & Bronson Pinchot
TRANSMISSION: 27 September 2010 - NBC, 8/7c

'WHITES' 1.1

My review of BBC2's excellent new comedy WHITES is now live at Obsessed With Film, brought to you by the creators of eggless omelets.

"I'm surprised it's taken so long to develop a new comedy set in a busy kitchen, considering how many cooking shows and celebrity chefs have come to prominence in the past decade; from Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, to Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal. BBC2 sitcom Whites benefits enormously from this pop-culture foundation, as audiences now understand the setup of a professional kitchen (the roles, the lingo, the dishes, the pace, the pressure, etc.) It means we're already somewhat familiar with the world, even feeling some attachment to it, and that helps what's already an organized and nicely-paced opening episode..." Continue reading...

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bravo's 'Hawaii Five-0' October launch deferred to Sky

Bravo's UK premiere of the Hawaii Five-0 remake (scheduled to debut on 14 October), has been cancelled because the channel was recently bought by Sky, who are closing it down by the end of the year. Instead, Hawaii Five-0 will arrive on Sky1 a Sky-owned channel at a later date. I'm not sure if this means Sky will debut it while Bravo still exists, or if Sky have to wait until Bravo's defunct, for contractual reasons. But one thing's clear: if you're British and have been waiting for 14 October to see Alex O'Loughlin and Grace Park in Hawaii, you're going to have to wait longer. On the positive side: it's more than likely British audiences will perhaps get to see Hawaii Five-0 in high-definition, either on Sky1 HD or Living HD.

'THE INBETWEENERS' 3.3 - "Will's Dilemma"

I wish The Inbetweeners would decide if it's a semi-realistic comedy or a live-action comic strip, because I spent most of this third episode either smiling in satisfaction at well-observed adolescent behaviour, or struggling to swallow its broader moments. Do we really believe Tara (Hannah Tointon) would want to dress up new boyfriend Simon (Joe Thomas) to look like a complete idiot? Absolutely not. And the show still can't escape giving us caricatured female characters; here a giant schoolgirl called Kerry (Abbey Mordue) was the butt of many jokes, accompanying Will (Simon Bird) on a double date with Simon and Tara, which Will only put up with because Kerry's renowned for giving her boyfriends blowjobs.

It was an amusing episode, by and large: from Jay (James Buckley) crashing Neil's (Blake Harrison) 18th birthday present of a motorbike, seconds after claiming he's a skilled stuntman; to Simon having to face Tara's prudish parents and shocking them by swearing and revealing an offensive bumper sticker on his car. I just find think the show could be a lot better if they went for Peep Show-style realism, because the funniest moments here were whenever Simon's friends kept trilling "mimimimimimimi!" if he mentioned his girlfriend. Immature, silly, funny and accurate in its depiction of the kind of things teenage boys do to tease/annoy each other, it reminded me of when The Inbetweeners was more like that. Exaggerations of real life, not unrealistic sketch-show moments like Simon fainting at the cinema while watching a horror movie.

But this isn't a new complaint. The Inbetweeners often crosses the boundary, for me. Just when you're relishing the accuracy and nostalgic kick some of the situations and behaviour can elicit, along comes something ridiculous that stretches your disbelief to breaking point, or the quality of acting suddenly drops to school play levels.

Overall, I didn't dislike this episode, but it let itself down. Will in particular came across as a horrible person in his handling of Kerry, and that entire storyline didn't lead anywhere very interesting or cathartic. I was fine with how Will avoided learning a clichéd lesson that it's Kerry's personality that really counts, not her phsyical size, but we didn't get anything better.

WRITERS: Damon Beesley & Iain Morris
DIRECTOR: Ben Palmer
GUEST CAST: Hannah Tointon, Greg Davies & Abbey Mordue
TRANSMISSION: 27 September 2010 - E4/HD, 10PM

'BOARDWALK EMPIRE' 1.2 - "The Ivory Tower"

[SPOILERS] Not as whip-smart or memorable as the extravagant premiere, "The Ivory Tower" nevertheless told a more comprehensible story and is slowly building its 1920s world, while introducing more characters. Shows like this don't quite take hold with me until I'm au fait with the major players and understand everyone's perspectives, hopes, and desires -- so Boardwalk Empire still has a way to go before I feel connected and desperate to see what happens next, but it's doing a good job cementing the foundations.

Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is definitely corrupt, taking cuts from Atlantic City businesses, but he's cannier than his peers in Chicago and New York, recognizing the value of potential female voters and the black community. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is investigating the death of Mr Schroeder, whom he believes has been made a scapegoat in the alcohol stickup, and has already got the measure of Nucky after a brief meeting in his office. Nucky realizes as much, so asked his sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to make the necessary arrangements to cover his crimes -- which includes manipulating Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) into towing the party line about her innocent husband being involved in the robbery.

I'm enjoying how the action sometimes shifts to Chicago and New York, as I wasn't expecting this series to be so broad in scope, but giving Nucky some rivals is a great move. Here we got to see more of the shrewd NYC boss Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlberg), who scared Chicago mobster Jim Colosimo's assassin into revealing who ordered the hit, and later called Nucky and inferred he was behind it (which he might have been, but it's not certain). Clearly the two men are going to be enemies from hereon in, with Rothstein looking to avenge the death of a comrade.

We also met some vital support figures in the lives of Nucky and his subordinate Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Nucky has his elderly mentor Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), a Commodore of the Ku Klux Klan; unsurprisingly, a narrow-minded racist who takes pleasure in belittling his black maid's knowledge of business, claiming her lack of knowledge proves the uselessness of a female vote. But Nucky's more enlightened as a protégé, knowing that the key to his continuing success as Atlantic City's treasurer is to keep women and the black population sweet. He may use public funds to line his gilded cage (or Ivory Tower, as the title has it), but he knows that you have to keep the public on-side to keep that position of power.

For Jimmy, we meet Gillian (Gretchen Mol), a showgirl who at first appears to be a lover that Jimmy's seeing behind his wife's back, but in fact turns out to be his young mother. I'm not convinced the age gap works to that fact, however. Writer Terrence Winter says Gillian was pregnant at the age of 13, but that still doesn't quite sit right for me because Mol's nearly 40 and Pitt's nearly 30. If Pitt looked five years younger, or Mol five years older, it would be easier to accept. Still, the misdirection worked, and I was convinced Jimmy was seeing someone behind his wife's back (do you really let your mother give you a leg-hug embrace?). And Mol's fantastic casting because she's one of those people who look like they belong in a period setting.

The relationship between Margaret and Nucky also took some steps forward, which is currently one of the more interesting elements of the series for me. Margaret's so sweet and sympathetic you can't help but want the best for her, and Nucky clearly means her no harm (hearing she's well-read seems to only increase his affection for her), but trouble will surely follow if Margaret becomes a fixture. Interestingly, she also has the attention of Agent Van Alden, so is caught in the middle of the show's most obvious symbols of good and bad.

Also good to get a sense that Nucky's a darker character than he seemed in the premiere, with him forcing Jimmy to handover $3000 that was missing from his cut of the liquor robbery, forcing Jimmy to steal from his own mother because he's already spent the cash on luxuries. And having been given the money, Nucky pointedly gambled it away in front of Jimmy on a roulette wheel, pushing the idea that trying to cheat Nucky has bad consequences, and losing $3k on roulette is nothing compared to what might happen. Right now, Jimmy's so eager to please Nucky, ultimately pursuing a way to get some of Nucky's lifestyle for himself, that I'm guessing it's a lesson he'll learn. Nucky's certainly willing to show a stronger, crueler side if he feels threatened.

Overall, it's still early days, but the promise of the premiere wasn't washed away by this second episode. It wasn't as good, but it was easier to follow and the script is doing a good job driving the story forward while enriching characters and introducing new faces. There were times where you felt a little overwhelmed with information overload last week, but "The Ivory Tower" was much easier to slip into, and I'm already very interested in the lives of Nucky, Jimmy and Margaret.

  • Margaret is seen reading Henry James's "The Ivory Tower" in hospital, which explains this episode's title. It was an unfinished novel by the author, about two dying millionaires and their corrupting influence on other people. Clearly a relevant theme with Boardwalk Empire.
  • Jimmy's friendship with Al Capone (Stephen Graham) last week doesn't appear to have lasted, as Capone was quick to avoid Jimmy asking for cash as a favour over the phone.
  • Amusing scene with Jimmy having bought a "vacuum sweeper" and its noise frightening his young son.
  • Does anyone else think Michael Shannon (Van Alden) sounds exactly like Rod Sterling of The Twilight Zone fame?
WRITER: Terence Winter
DIRECTOR: Timothy Van Patten
TRANSMISSION: 26 September 2010 - HBO

'DEXTER' 5.1 - "My Bad"

Today over at Obsessed With Film, I review the compelling premiere of DEXTER's fifth season, brought to you by the makers of Mickey Mouse ear hats:

SPOILERS FOR SEASON 4: "Outgoing showrunner Clyde Phillips fired a cruel parting shot at both Dexter and the audience in Emmy-winning season 4 finale "The Getaway". Namely, the shocking death of Dex's wife Rita at the hand of the Trinity Killer -- as his own sick act of malice, before meeting his end wrapped in plastic on Dexter's kill-table. Incoming showrunner Chip Johannessen (Millennium, 24) has a tough job trying to recalibrate the show without Rita as a "rock" for Dexter (despite the fact she was becoming progressive less interesting post-nuptials), and in trying to launch a fifth season of a show some believe has lost its edge." Continue reading...

Monday, 27 September 2010

Talking Point: novelty box-sets

What are your thoughts on novelty DVD and Blu-ray gift-sets? You know what I mean: that Hogwarts-shaped Harry Potter compilation, the Temple-themed Lost box-set, the upcoming Inception briefcase (itself inspired by Blade Runner's case), Terminator's imposing T-600 skull, the Lord Of The Rings twin statue set, the King Kong box-set, etc. They look very enticing for fans who want something extra for their money, but are they worth buying?

And what about their sometimes extortionate price tags? Considering discs are already overpriced from the manufacturing costs, studios make a mint when someone buys a gift set for upwards of £40. And are they even practical for customers? If you store your DVDs in neat rows on a shelf, there's no way the "Alien-head" box-set will fit into that arrangement. Is it purely the sense of exclusivity that people love about them? Do they mainly appealing to consumers who want a "free" toy as part of the deal? Are people buying them more as gifts for family/friends, because they look more attractive and memorable than standard discs?

It's also interesting that novelty disc releases aren't so prevalent in the US. Apparently the sales of novelty gift sets never took off in North America, so it's generally seen as a European love-affair. Why do you think that is? At the risk of stereotyping people, you'd think it would be Americans lapping this stuff up, with Europeans the ones sneering at the prospect of shelling out extra for a Lost box-set that resembles a wooden crate.

So, do you like these gift sets? Do you own any? If so, which ones? Are they worth the money? What makes a really good gift set: the unique packaging or bonus content inside (CD soundtrack, key-rings, comic-book, a film cell, etc.)? Do you buy them purely for other people's birthdays or Christmas?

TV Picks: 27 September – 3 October 2010 ('Ask Rhod Gilbert', 'DCI Banks: Aftermath', 'Genius', 'Harry & Paul', 'Strictly Come Dancing', 'Whites', etc.)

The Classroom Experiment (BBC2, 7pm) Two-part series where Professor Dylan Williams tries to challenge accepted practices and rules schools usually enforce, in an effort to improve learning.
Horizon (BBC2, 9pm) Science series, beginning with a look at a new type of process to freeze people and revive them from clinical death.
DCI Banks: Aftermath (ITV1, 9pm) Two-part crime thriller. Stars Stephen Tompkinson.
Genius with Dave Gorman (BBC2, 10pm) Series 2 of the entertainment series where members of the public pitch their ideas for various harebrained schemes to Dave Gorman and celebrity guests. This week features Russell Howard & Hazel Irvine.
Ask Rhod Gilbert (BBC1, 10.35pm) Comedy panel show where the Welsh comedian tries to answer questions posed by celebrities and the public, helped by regular panelists Greg Davies & Lloyd Langford. Featuring Kate Silverton.

The Secrets Of Scientology (BBC1, 9pm) Panorama special about the controversial modern religion, supported by Hollywood celebrities like Tom Cruise & John Travolta.
Whites (BBC2, 9pm) Sitcom set in the kitchen of a hotel. Stars Alan Davies, Darren Boyd, Katherine Parkinson & Isy Suttie.
Harry & Paul (BBC2, 9.30pm) Series 3 of the award-winning sketch show from Harry Enfield & Paul Whitehouse.

Start Your Own School (BBC2, 7pm) Toby Young attempts to create a "free school" in London.
Highland Emergency (Five, 7.30pm) Series following the exploits of the Scottish emergency service.
Emergency Animal Rescue (Sky1, 8pm) Series following the work of the RSPCA.
Crimewatch (BBC1, 9pm) Live investigative show aiming to encourage the public to help catch notorious criminals.
Secret Iraq (BBC2, 9pm) Two-part documentary about Iraq post-Saddam Hussein.
Nigella's Kitchen (BBC2, 8pm) Return of the culinary series.
Trinny & Susannah: From Boom To Bust (Channel 4, 9pm) Spoof reality show following the lives of stylists Trinny & Susannah, after their TV shows were axed.
My School Prom (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary about six prom attendees.
The Saint And The Hanged Man (BBC4, 9pm) Drama-animation about the medieval attitudes to reason and the supernatural. Narrated by Rob Brydon.


Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, 9pm) Official start of the dancing competition's eighth series, continuing tomorrow night. Hosted by Bruce Forsyth & Tess Daly.

When Piers Met Lord Sugar (ITV1, 9pm) Piers Morgan reviews self-made millionaire and The Apprentice star Lord Alan Sugar.

The Genius Of British Art (Channel 4, 7pm) Art series. Hosted by David Starkey.
American Dad (BBC3, 10pm) US animated satire.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Dexter: The Writers' Room

Ahead of tonight's season 5 premiere of Dexter in the US, why not watch this video focusing on the writers of the show and their plans for this year. If nothing else, it's fun to put faces to names like Scott Buck, Scott Reynolds and Tim Schlattmann. Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for the finale of season 4, so be careful British readers. My review of the premiere should go up on Tuesday.

'THIS IS ENGLAND '86' - Part Three

Apologies for the lateness of this review (seeing as the finale is just around the corner now) and I unfortunately don't have the time to do a thorough assessment of Part Three, either. But here are some thoughts on the penultimate part of this drama.

Part Three was again co-written again by Shane Meadows, with Jack Thorne, but he also steps behind the camera for the final half of this series. This Is England '86 has been a particularly excellent production in terms of visuals, often competing with most British movies out there right now. It's equal to the 2006 movie and often surpasses it, so it's aesthetically a pleasure to watch. The opening montage to footage of the Falklands War, with Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) sleeping rough and going to visit his soldier father's memorial, was particularly well done.

This episode wasn't as frolicsome as the previous two, with a potent theme of sex carrying through the whole hour. Gadget (Andrew Ellis) has become a toy boy for the sexually insatiable Trudy (Hannah Walters); Lol's (Vicky McClure) relationship with Woody (Joe Gilgun) is deteriorating, so she's taken to having meaningless sex with Milky (Andrew Shim) behind his back; and Lol's father Mick (Johnny Harris) is angry about her claiming he's a paedophile, but later proves her correct after an extremely uncomfortable scene when he rapes his daughter's teenage friend Trev (Danielle Watson).

That final sequence was particularly memorable for all the right reasons, with a superb performance from Harris and Watson that got to the heart of how empty and pitiful rape can be. It's a tough event to portray sensitively but accurately, but this was one of the best examples I've seen in awhile. Considering how Watson's a peripheral character of no real consequence until now, it was especially good work from that actress, and Meadows's assured direction no doubt helped both actors rise to the challenge.

On the downside, I still find the tone wobbles around from achingly realistic to rather cartoonish, not helped by the fact many of the characters are drawn thin and primarily there for comic relief. A lot of the time the performances are so dryly comic that it makes the serious-minded material look incongruous. I know the idea is to balance light and shade, but they can be a little too broad and daft for my taste, while swathes of this episode were again taken up with small incidents of little value (like the afternoon football match that turned violent when that idiotic biker gang arrived looking for a fight). I wish there was more of a clear focus, really, because only subplots belonging to Lol and Mick have captured my imagination by the third episode. I've been particularly disappointed by Shaun's storyline, considering he was the star of the preceding movie this is all based on, but he's been marginalized because TIE86 is an ensemble piece.

Overall, it was the smattering of great moments that really pulled Part Three through, not to mention the inciting climax with Combo (Stephen Graham) making his long-awaited return, collapsing into Shaun's home to the astonishment of Smell (Rosamund Hanson) and Shaun's mum. But has the show left everything too late? Part Four has a lot to wrap-up in an hour, unless the plan is to leave the door open for another series...

WRITERS: Shane Meadows & Jack Thorne
DIRECTOR: Shane Meadows
CAST: Thomas Turgoose, Rosamund Hanson, Joe Gilgun, Vicky McClure, Andrew Ellis, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Perry Benson, George Newton, Jo Hartley, Johnny Harris, Kriss Dosanjh, Danielle Watson, Joe Dempsie, Chanel Cresswell, Michael Socha, Hannah Walters, Katherine Dow Blyton & Perry Fitzpatrick
TRANSMISSION: 21 September 2010 – CHANNEL 4/HD, 10PM

'AN IDIOT ABROAD' 1.1 - "China"

An Idiot Abroad, Sky1's brand new comedy travelogue starring Karl Pilkington (cult hero and sidekick of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant on their successful podcasts), debuted with a whopping 820,000 viewers last Thurday night. That makes it Sky1's highest-rated premiere for a homegrown show since May's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, tripling what they expect for that timeslot.

I don't have the time or inclination to post an in-depth review of the show, suffice to say that I quite enjoyed it. It wasn't hilarious, but it was consistently amusing. I know there's still some debate about how much Karl Pilkington is "playing a character", as his idiocy often feels too scripted to be genuinely impromptu. I guess the debate will rumble on, although I just don't see how Karl could still be pulling the wool over our eyes after so many years, if he were a fraud. My guess is he has a sharp comic mind that was starved of education as a boy, pure and simple.

Anyway, this series finds Karl being sent around the world by Gervais and Merchant to report on "The Seven Wonders Of The World". First stop was China and its Great Wall, where we were treated to such scenes as Karl eating from a bag of Monster Munch as he watched a local man eat an egg containing a fetus, an old woman killing toads by whacking them on the ground to prepare Karl's dinner, the absence of doors and loo paper in Chinese public toilets, and Karl being taught Kung Fu at four in the morning.

It's not a hugely educational series (although we learned that the Great Wall was heavily restored in the '60s and '80s), but that's not really the point. It's an excuse to see a simpleton grapple with a different culture, showing us peculiar things you never get to see in serious documentaries and tourist shows. And, whether it was sometimes scripted or not, Karl's a witty person with a child's grasp of the world he inhabits, although the joke began to feel stretched after 30 minutes.

23 September 2010
Sky1/HD, 9PM

'MERLIN' 3.3 - "Goblin's Gold"

[SPOILERS] This third episode was in stark contrast to the expensive two-part premiere's darkness, being instead a cheap n' cheerful lark with its eye on 7-year-olds. There's certainly nothing wrong with Merlin targeting different age groups every week (this being a family show with various demographics to please), but it's a shame the shift in tone is often so blunt. It's almost like there are two different creative teams working on Merlin, and they job swap every other week.

While searching for a book in Camelot's vast library, Merlin (Colin Morgan) stumbled upon a secret chamber behind a bookshelf, containing a variety of ancient artifacts. Amongst them was a small wooden box that Merlin couldn't resist opening after hearing it rattle, only to release a mischievous green Goblin (Mark Williams) with an unappeasable desire for gold. Unable to recapture the sprite, the Goblin escaped to possess Gaius (Richard Wilson) and, now in the guise of the court's trusted physician, started extorting gold coins from Camelot's citizens, while also playing pranks on various people -- like causing King Uther (Anthony Head) to go bald, and Prince Arthur (Bradley James) to grow donkey's ears.

It's difficult to review an episode like "Goblin's Gold", because it's clearly not going to be to everyone's taste, but I think we can all agree it was badly scheduled to immediately follow the considerably more adult "Tears Of Uther Pendragon". Rather than demonstrate Merlin's ability to please a wide spectrum of viewers, it instead makes the show look schizophrenic and in need of a firmer grasp. Doctor Who similarly airs episodes skewed more towards the under-10s, but it does a much better job ensuring things are balanced for the adults to enjoy. There are subtleties the kids can't grasp to keep the grownups engaged in the story, but this episode didn't hit that balance. There was fun to be had in "Goblin's Gold", but it was essentially an episode derived from toilet humour (spitting, belching, farting) that I'm sure reduced young kids to hysterics, but everyone over-12 will have been stone-faced.

It was admittedly fun seeing Richard Wilson do something different on the show, even if none of the comedy played to the actor's strengths. Wilson's a good straight comic actor (see: One Foot In The Grave), but he doesn't play the fool very well, and the sight of him twirling his tongue every few minutes was more creepy than funny. His performance just didn't match what you'd expect the Goblin's persona to be in its CGI form, and many of his scenes sank as a result. It was a great idea to have a stiff character like Gaius become a naughty schoolboy, and maybe Wilson could have pulled it off 25 years ago, but it didn't really work here.

Also, considering the fact comedy actor Mark Williams (The Fast Show) voiced the Goblin, I have to wonder why they didn't utilize Williams himself, rather than go with an awful CGI version that was incapable of lip-synching dialogue. A small mercy they found a way to have the digi-Goblin disappear for the majority of the hour, but simply putting Mark Williams in green make-up and shrinking him with special-effects would have been preferable.

On the bright side, a few scenes stood out from the pack: there was a great moment when "Goblin Gaius" confronted Morgana (Katie McGrath) about her evil intentions for Uther, with McGrath's reaction to Gaius's unexpected perception particularly memorable. In that one brief scene the actress did better work than the entirety of the two-part premiere, which was ultimately at the level of a pantomime witch. I also enjoyed seeing Arthur reduced to a braying donkey (leading to a fun gag in the denouement), and Merlin's plan with Gwen (Angel Coulby) to force the Goblin out of Gaius was logical and fun to see unfold.

Overall, I'm sure a portion of Merlin's audience had great fun with this episode's childish streak, and in simply watching Gaius acting out of character, but the majority will be wondering why Merlin suddenly turns into a kid's show having aired an episode with the ghosts of drowned children last week. It's not that it shouldn't do silly episodes that speak more to the primary school crowd, just that it needs to include some subtext or intelligence to keep everyone else happy. As it stands, I can't in all honesty champion this episode (despite it eliciting a few chuckles), because it was insignificant, sometimes embarrassing, and best forgotten.

  • Have Merlin's FX team demanded more interesting challenges this year, now the Great Dragon isn't a fixture? Last week we had those Lord Of The Rings-style hordes of soldiers, this week we get an animated humanoid.
  • It's a common feature of Merlin that magic is constantly proven to be a disruptive, evil, and life-threatening practice. When you weigh up the evidence, you can't help agreeing with King Uther that the world would be improved without magical beings around. Isn't it about time there were stories where magic is openly seen to be of benefit? How else is Uther ever going to change his mind about witches and warlocks?
  • I'm increasingly worried that Howard Overman's having a bad year, with this episode following his flop cop show Vexed in the summer. I'm hoping and praying that Misfits' second series won't also be a let-down.
WRITER: Howard Overman
DIRECTOR: Jeremy Webb
GUEST CAST: Mark Williams (voice), Rupert Young, Michael Cronin, Simon Nehan, Gemma Arrowsmith & Duncan Meadows
TRANSMISSION: 25 September 2010 - BBC1, 7PM

Saturday, 25 September 2010

'MAD MEN' 4.3 - "The Good News"

Appropriately for this episode, I had a split reaction. Divided into two halves -- one focusing on Don's (Jon Hamm) real identity (Dick Whitman), the other the man he became after adopting a dead soldier's name -- I found value in both, but it felt a little disjointed to me. That said, it's always a pleasure to delve into Don's psyche, and this quasi-sequel to season 2's "The Mountain King" left an indelible impression.

It's the Christmas holidays and the staff at SCDP are bidding adieu to the workplace until New Year. Don uses his vacation time to travel to Acapulco, via Los Angeles for an overnight stay with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the wife of the US soldier whose identity he stole, who's since become the only person that knows and understands Dick's decision to assume another life. It was great to see Don and Anna interacting again, with Don clearly more relaxed and happy in her presence and concerned about her recently broken leg.

The arrival of Anna's sister Patty (Susan Leslie) and niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz) also expanded this particular branch of Don's life, although you couldn't help but cringe when Don decided to proposition Stephanie after driving her home from a bar. But just when you were expecting it to all blow up in his face (would Anna have been pleased about him sleeping with her niece?), it instead imploded with Stephanie's reveal that Anna's dying of cancer. Even worse, Patty's decided to keep the diagnosis a secret from her own sister, which Don doesn't agree with. Of course, he has no real say in Anna's life, as it appears he's only considered a family friend by Patty (or, more accurately "a man in a room with a chequebook"), despite the clear mother/son vibe between them.

There was also an intriguing subplot with Joan (Christina Hendricks), whose feminine wiles are proven not to work on Lane (Jared Harris) when she asked for an extended holiday to be with her husband, who's working during the official Christmas period. But the really fascinating moment was seeing Joan slice her finger open in the kitchen, with husband Greg (Sam Page) quickly putting his medical skills to good use, but in a manner that confirmed he doesn't really perceive Joan as anything other than an immature trophy. See him infantilize her by telling a joke and distracting her in the manner he would a child patient. A dark cloud always looms over Greg's character, ever since he essentially raped Joan on the floor of Don's old office in season 2, but the show hasn't really followed up on that shocking moment. Was it a scene never to be repeated, or did the writers choose to ease off on Greg's depiction and go for something more subtle?

The split in the episode came when Don decided to honour Patty's wishes and, despite his intention to stay longer than a day and repaint her wall, decided it was in her best interest to fly back to New York. He'll revisit again in Easter with his kids, introducing them to a hitherto unknown "aunt", but I wonder if her health will have deteriorated by then. Lovely touch with Don literally signing off on their life, painting "Dick + Anna '64" on her wall.

Interestingly, in "The Mountain King" Don's visit to Anna was something of a calming oasis in his tempestuous life, but in "The Good News" he simply returned to the Big Apple and dived ever deeper into his Don persona. Only this time, he found the company of another man wanting to forget his problems: Lane, who has cancelled his trip to London because of so much work. I've never felt that Jared Harris has been given enough to do on Mad Men, but this episode went some way towards fixing that problem. Lane and Don's night on the town was wonderful: watching a Japanese movie and upsetting cinemagoers, having a meal together where a drunken Lane embarrassed himself by pressing steak to his crotch ("I got a big, Texas belt buckle! Yee-haw!"), and being mistaken as homosexuals by a comedian at a club. Most surprisingly, Don called Candace (Erin Cummings), the call girl he's been seeing, and got her to bring a friend over for Lane to sleep with – to get over his crumbling marriage. Clearly Don saw a man in his own situation with Lane, but it'll be interesting to see how far this potential new friendship goes.

Overall, "The Good News" was another compelling episode, particularly if you're fascinated by Don's character and have been desperate to see Lane given more prominence on the show. The L.A storyline wasn't the greatest (just there to deliver information for later pay-off when Don visits at Easter with his kids, I'm guessing), but the second half with Don showing Lane a good time downtown was superb. I'm really enjoying the fresh tone this fourth season has, and it's doing wonders with Don's arc in particular. Jon Hamm's clearly relishing all the opportunities with Don in a freefall. I'm pretty sure Anna's not going to last long, too, so it'll be very interesting to see how Don copes without her as a spiritual touchstone. When she dies, ex-wife Betty will be the only person who knows his secret, but he'll have nobody who really understand who he is. Can he overcome that setback, or will losing Anna cast him adrift in the world?

A great episode, bringing us neatly into the mid-'60s with the closing scene of Joan taking the minutes for a meeting. "Gentlemen. Shall we begin 1965?" she asks. I'm hoping this means we have another four seasons left until Mad Men's story is told.

  • Actor Remy Auberjonois's father is Rene Auberjonois, an actor perhaps best known as Odo in Star Trek Deep Space Nine.
  • Great visual with Don sat on Anna's couch after returning home from Stephanie's, so numbed by news of Anna's cancer that he sat motionless all night, the room turning from night to morning in time-lapse.
  • One person who doesn't respond to Joan's feminine charms is Lane. "I understand that all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you, but consider me the incorruptible exception." And wasn't her attempt to sweet-talk him into giving her extra holiday something a child would do? Does Greg have a point? Clearly, Joan is aware she's being infantilized at home, as she lashed out at Lane over his mix-up with some flowers of apology, saying he makes her feel "like a helpless, stupid little girl." She's just misdirecting her thoughts about her husband elsewhere.
  • Joan's had two abortions already. Has the circumstances of that been alluded to before, or was this fresh information?
  • What are the odds on Greg being shipped off to Vietnam and killed?
WRITERS: Jonathan Abrahams & Matthew Weiner
DIRECTOR: Jennifer Getzinger
GUEST CAST: Alexa Alemanni, Erin Cummings, Sam Page, Melinda Page Hamilton, Susan Leslie, Caity Lotz, Remy Auberjonois & Bayne Gibby
TRANSMISSION: 22 September 2010 - BBC4/HD, 10PM

'FRINGE' 3.1 - "Olivia"

The third season of sci-fi drama FRINGE aired Thursday night on Fox, and my review is now live at Obsessed With Film, brought to you by the smash-hit musical "Dogs".

"After two seasons it looks like Fringe has decided to embrace serialized storytelling, despite debuting in 2008 with the promise it would be more episodic and, thus, accessible to casual viewers. Consequently, it's moving away from a modern-day X Files format, to focus on its fanbase's preference for the mytharc. Even with the opening catch-up that condenses the past two season’s events for potential newcomers, it's hard to imagine Fringe increasing its audience from hereon in. It's a shame, because this is arguably the best pure sci-fi show on the box right now, but I think it’s missed its chance to grab a larger audience, sadly." Continue reading...

Competition: 'Glee' Winner

Last Monday I ran a competition in partnership with UKGleeDVD, to win a selection of Glee prizes (1x DVD of "Glee: The Complete First Season", 1x official Glee iPhone 3GS case, 1x official Glee Season 1 poster, 1x official Glee exercise book, and 1x "Wicked" musical card wallet). The competition attracted an unprecedented response, with 567 entries! I'm so pleased that everyone took the time to answer this question:

What is the name of the restaurant Glee's characters sometimes visit?
The answer and name of the lucky winner is below:

Answer: "BreadstiX"

Winner: Liz Osborne

Congratulations to Liz! I will be in touch to arrange delivery of your Glee swag. The winner was chosen using I also accepted "Breadsticks" as the correct answer, but a handful of people unfortunately gave the name of other establishments mentioned in the show (Jollibees, The Tam O'Shanter Inn, etc.) While I can understand this mistake, BreadstiX fitted the definition of "restaurant" more appropriately, and featured throughout season 1 a total of 6 times -- most famously in the episode "Hell-O", when Santana and Brittany took Finn there on a date (see above).

Thank you to everyone who took the time to enter this competition, and particularly if you helped spread the word online -- even if that did decrease your own chances of winning! Hopefully I'll be running similar competitions in the near-future.

Friday, 24 September 2010

'UNDERCOVERS' 1.1 - "Pilot"

Head over to Obsessed With Film for my review of UNDERCOVERS, the new spy-drama from J.J Abrams for NBC, brought to you by the neologism "sexpionage"...

"This is the first TV pilot from J.J Abrams that feels behind the curve, with a concept lacking the ingenuity of previous Abrams-produced ventures (Alias, Lost, Fringe). Undercovers offers no joyous surprises, feeling like something Abrams has tossed off inbetween movie projects as a favour to NBC; content to deliver a tweak to his spy-drama Alias that only has superficial allure. There's just nothing much going on inside." Continue Reading...

LOST: The Complete Sixth Season (2010) [Blu-ray]

[SPOILERS] Now the dust has settled, we can reflect on the divisive final season of ABC's Lost with some distance and clarity. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan there's always a danger your love for a TV show makes you blind to its failings, or at least keener to overlook them. Alternatively, it can make you too critical in the moment because you're demanding perfection, making you unable to take a step back to see the bigger picture with a level head.

The sixth season of Lost caused internet quakes when its final episode, the literally tremorous "The End", was simulcast worldwide. There was no way a finale to a complex six-year story involving dozens of characters, multiple storylines, and a plethora of questions, could satisfy absolutely everyone. The writers made a judgement and opted to focus on character and emotion, rather than coldly dispense logical answers. And that's fine. Of course, quite why rewarding answers, while focusing on character and eliciting an emotional response, can't be packaged together, is perhaps the great unanswered question of this series.

I've already reviewed Lost season 6, so won't recycle my thoughts about each episode in an abridged fashion. Instead, please browse my archive of reviews:

6.1 & 6.2 - "LA X"
6.3 - "What Kate Does"
6.4 - "The Substitute"
6.5 - "Lighthouse"
6.6 - "Sundown"
6.7 - "Dr. Linus"
6.8 - "Recon"
6.9 - "Ab Aeterno"
6.10 - "The Package"
6.11 - "Happily Ever After"
6.12 - "Everybody Loves Hugo"
6.13 - "The Last Recruit"
6.14 - "The Candidate"
6.15 - "Across The Sea"
6.16 - "What They Died For"
6.17 & 6.18 - "The End"

With the benefit of hindsight, how do I feel about Lost's swansong four months later, having now read a multitude of reviews and heard the impassioned responses from everyone? Well, I still remain impressed by the overall journey and breathtaking enormity of the challenge in creating a show like Lost, which became the most multifaceted and imaginatively fertile sci-fi hits of the past few decades. Lightning in a bottle we're unlikely to see repeated any time soon.

But the final season did fail in many ways, perhaps crippled by the fact its mythology was in flux for too long. I truly believe that, had the writers been told they had to wrap things up by season 4, during production of season 3, they could have pulled everything together far better at that mid-series point. Instead, knowing they'd been guaranteed three years by ABC meant season 4 and 5 had to create fresh questions for the fans to chew on. They did this by introducing largely superfluous ideas/plot-points (time-travel, a hydrogen bomb) and brand new characters (Charlotte, Miles, Faraday, Lapidus), that bloated the show and ensured the final season became too unwieldy once it arrived. Looking back, with some necessary tweaking, season 4 would have been a more effective finish-line. There's an argument to say that's where it ended spiritually, at the very least, with season 5's twin storylines (returning to the Island, living in the '70s) having little to no impact on the sixth season's events.

And naturally, with a half-dozen years of feverish anticipation from an rabid fanbase who could concoct elaborate theories to explain Lost's many riddles (some of which were better than the eventual explanation), nothing could surpass that voracious hive-mind's inflated expectations. But I think we're forgetting how exciting and emotionally rewarding many episodes of the sixth season were, or how perfect the final scene with Jack in the bamboo field was... so, really, Lost may not have had the perfect ending we craved and deserved, but its legacy's intact because it dazzled for much longer than it disappointed.

Blu-ray Review

Picture (1.78:1, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4) This is my first time sampling the delights of Lost in high-definition, and the season 6 box-set didn't fail to impress. There's a depth of colour and detail that standard-definition can't capture, so the 1080p image quality here really "pops" and gives you a fresh appreciation for the show's production standards. Naturally, it helps that Lost's filmed on location in beautiful Hawaii, so the lush scenery in HD is worth seeing alone.

Sound (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English DD2.0, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DTS 5.1, Spanish (Latin American) DD2.0, Portuguese (Brazilian) DD2.0) Similarly, I've rarely heard Lost in surround sound, and the DTS-HD 5.1 audio track added extra depth to the ambiance of the show. Previously impressive action sequences are now even better with a thriving sound mix, while Michael Giacchino's beautiful score really sings through in HD.

Special Features

Audio Commentaries: Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse give two smattering of audio commentaries across the box-set, including season premiere "LA X", but the most interesting is for "Across The Sea" because it was such a polarizing mythology episode. If you're a fan of "Darlton"'s official ABC podcasts, you'll know they're an entertaining double-act who are acutely aware of the response and the range of attitudes towards their show. They're once again wary of spoiling any ongoing discussion of the series, by giving "official" answers now Lost is over, which some people may take issue with, but I personally I agree they should leave loose-ends for die-hard fans to chew on. After all, discussion of Lost was 50% of many people's enjoyment, so why not let that continue now the show's over?

That said, they do give credence to a popular fan theory that Mother (Allison Janney) was actually a "Smoke Monster" during the episode (explaining her single-handed destruction of a village's well-armed inhabitants, and why she likely conned her adopted sons into both becoming her successor and killing her). Cuse and Lindelof definitely stick to their guns when it comes to defending this episode, which enraged some quarters of fandom. They deliver a few decent arguments for why "Across The Sea" should be re-evaluated, but none of it's convincing enough for me to forgive the handful of ridiculous answers this episode gave us. I think the key reason many fans were upset is that "Across The Sea" answered mysteries that have been teased for years using information that only appears during this 43-minute episode. How could anyone possibly have guessed the genesis of the Smoke Monster using the clues breadcrumbed throughout season 1-5? It kind of devalues the effort uberfans put in trying to decipher it all, no?

Two other commentaries exist on the box-set for "Dr. Linus" (with writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, joined by actor Michael Emerson) and "Ab Aeterno" (with writers Melinda Hsu Taylor and Greggory Nations, joined by Nestor Carbonell), and both are entertaining insights into the creative process I think fans will appreciate. Of course, it's very frustrating than there's no commentary track for finale "The End", which is definitely the episode most fans would appreciate some insight into. Frustratingly, during the "Across The Sea" yakker, Lindelof and Cuse mention they'll record an audio commentary for the finale one day, perhaps evidence that some kind of "Ultimate" box-set will be released in the future.

Flight 815: A Crash Course (HD, 8m) On Disc 1 you can watch this very entertaining catchup video for the events of season 1-5, narrated by a hilariously deadpan woman.

The New Man In Charge (HD, 12m) Comfortably the most hotly-anticipated extra feature on this box-set is this official coda to Lost's finale -- a canonical "last act" that gives a glimpse of Ben (Emerson) and Hurley's (Jorge Garcia) era as protectors of the Island. Arguably even more divisive than the finale, it's essentially a way to explain a handful of the show's trivial mysteries (who was organizing the DHARMA food drops? What was the "Hurley bird" was? What were the polar bears trained for? What was Room 23 used for?) It basically exists to fan-service anal fans, but even if you don't likes the rather awkward way it dispenses its answers (via DHARMA-brand DVD), I appreciated the thought and it did clarify half-a-dozen minor questions.

Crafting A Final Season (HD, 38m) The key documentary of this box-set takes a look at the creation of the sixth season and Lost's legacy as a whole. It features other TV executive-producers giving their opinions on Lost's journey and its place in TV history, from Shawn Ryan to Stephen J. Cannell, and many of the show's actors fretting about if/when their characters might die. In one particularly moving moment, we see Jorge Garcia reading the finale script and crying when he reaches a significant point for his character Hurley, which is rather beautiful to see. This featurette definitely works very nicely as a glimpse behind-the-scenes as this huge show drew inexorably closer to its end.

A Hero's Journey (HD, 9m) A short featurette on how Lost's storytelling utilizes the principles set out by author Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey".

See You In Another Life, Brotha (HD, 9m) More behind-the-scenes footage taken throughout season 6's filming, paying particular attention to the "flashsideways" plot-device and its use of mirrors. We're also reminded of the many callbacks to season 1, as a means of bringing the show full circle.

Lost On Location (HD) A collection of brief featurettes, each focusing on a prominent episode from the final season. "LAX" (6m) shows us the impressive Temple set made of polystyrene on the lot and the details of its hieroglyphics; "The Substitute" (3m) looks at the dangerous cliff side stunt from that episode featuring Josh Holloway and the stunt crew; "Recon" (3m) reveals how the episode's car crash was filmed; "Ab Aeterno" (5m) features an intriguing look at the Black Rock set and how a "fake pig" was used for one scene; "Happily Ever After" (5m) shows us how Henry Ian Cusick and Dominic Monaghan filmed the underwater sequences following a car crash into an L.A marina; and "The Candidate" (6m) keeps an aquatic theme with a look at the claustrophobic submarine set that was flooded with many of the principle actors inside.

Deleted Scenes (SD, 10m) As is typical of deleted scenes packaged together, most if not all don't really add much to the conversation. "On Guard", "Bearing Fruit", "Maternal Instincts", "Parched", "A Helping Hand", "Fatalities", "The Lab & The Well", "Epiphany" and "Desmond's Task" all sound a lot more intriguing than they ultimately are. Dispensable.

Lost Bloopers (HD, 4m) This assortment of outtakes isn't exactly side-splitting material, but it's generally good fun if you enjoy seeing actors crack up, fluff their lines, or trip up.

Miscellaneous: The season 6 box-set comes equipped with ABC's Season-Play facility, which is a Blu-ray exclusive way to create a viewing profile that tracks exactly where you are when watching the series, even if you eject the disc and watch something else inbetween. A useful feature for hardened marathon box-setters.