Monday, 31 October 2011

Review: GRIMM, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Sometimes it feels like certain writers so enjoyed working on a defunct TV show that they rush to get behind a new one with a similar concept. David Greenwalt was a key figure behind Buffy spin-off Angel, about a detective with superpowers (he's a vampire) investigating a world full of monsters. Grimm concerns a detective with superpowers (he can see the true form of creatures posing as humans), and his investigations into this veiled world of monsters. As the second series with a fairy tale basis this season, the other being Once Upon A Time, Grimm is noticeably darker and less imaginative, but by attaching itself to a cop show backdrop I can envision it lasting longer. But that's not necessarily a good thing, because I'd rather have short-lived inventiveness than protracted formula.

To clarify the setup, Portland homicide detectives Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) and Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) find themselves chasing a killer who murdered a red-coated jogger, before Nick starts having frightening hallucinations of people's faces turning monstrous. It's not long before his bald Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) reveals Nick's one of the last remaining "Grimms"; people who can see the true form of creatures that co-exist with humans, whose existence prove the Brothers Grimm based their fairy tales on reality. For instance, the Big Bad Wolf from Red Riding Hood was in actual fact a "blutbad" creature, and one appears to be preying on girls wearing red clothing once again...

Grimm isn't as terrible as I was expecting, but it's also one of the many US fantasy shows that simply isn't trying very hard. I wasn't a fan of Once Upon A Time's pilot, but it was at least fairly creative, whereas Grimm's just another "cop show with a gimmick". My taste is more of fairy tales to be treated with an undercurrent of horror, so I'm pleased that Grimm's tone is more in that vein, but that doesn't really ameliorate its other weaknesses. Giuntoli is terribly flat and boring as the lead actor (having a facial resemblance to Brandon Routh that extends to his acting abilities), and I'm just not very excited by the concept.

Unexpectedly, Grimm's pilot worked best once Eddie Monroe (Prison Break's Silas Weir Mitchell) was introduced as a reformed "blutbad" who's learned to curb his killer instincts and live in harmony with people. Mitchell's the highlight of the show and the episode regained some life once Nick was partnered with Eddie for a brief period. It makes you wonder why they bothered with the Hank character and just partnered Nick with Eddie, as it wound be instantly more entertaining those two were working cases together. Maybe future episodes will find a way to at least have them working as a trio, with Eddie as the "Huggy Bear"-style figure, but I'd love to know why they opted to have two human males as the leads. If you have an actor as wooden as Giuntoli as your star, you really need to ensure his co-stars help take the edge off. The casting is generally very unbalanced, with the always fun Reggie Lee as Sgt Wu and Caprica's Sasha Roiz as Captain Renard—both actors who deserve to be much higher in the pecking order. I'd prefer this show with them as the leads, in fact.

Overall, the outlook for Grimm is best-described by its own title, but there's certainly mileage in the concept. But that's because shows of this nature are created every year on US TV, and they very rarely offer audiences anything new. I'm sure diehard fans of the genre will stick around for awhile, and likewise people with a sense of loyalty to Angel alumnus, but I can already tell that Grimm doesn't offer anything creative enough for me. There are too many better shows around right now, and I just don't see understand why you'd want to waste your time on the likes of this.

written by David Greenwalt & Jim Kouf (story by David Greenwalt, Jim Kouf & Stephen Carpenter) / directed by Marc Buckland / 28 October 2011 / NBC

Review: MISFITS, 3.1 - episode one

"What the fuck is brunch?"

After two years it's possible a show like Misfits will go stale. Series 3 wisely offers reinvention (through both circumstance and design), as the characters have been given fresh powers as a quirk of the story, and fan-favourite Robert Sheehan's left the show, replaced by This Is England's Joe Gilgun. This premiere is under more scrutiny than usual because of this big changes, but also because the show's had enough time to develop a following on DVD and overseas (the show's highly successful US debut on Hulu netted a remarkable 9 million streams). Has it managed to keep itself feeling fresh and relevant?

It's easiest to just run through all the changes that have occurred since we last saw the delinquents. After going to see mysterious "power dealer" Seth (Matthew McNulty) in the Christmas special, the gang have been dealt new powers that are revealed slowly over the hour. Simon (Iwan Rheon) has swapped invisibility for the ability to see into the near-future; time-traveller Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) can now transform into a woman; Alisha's lost her ability to boost people's sex drive with a single touch, and can now see through other people's eyes; and Kelly (Lauren Socha) can't read minds now, but has become a rocket scientist (a strangely restrictive and specific "super power", making me wonder why creator Howard Overman didn't just make her an all-round genius).

To be honest, most of the new powers feel like a disappointment right now, and certainly aren't as cool as the old ones were. It was also great how the original powers reflected the personalities of the bearers (like shy Simon turning invisible), whereas the new ones don't seem bespoke. I suppose it might be argued that the new powers are what (most of) the characters secretly desire—Kelly wants to be clever, Alisha wants to be less selfish, Simon wants to move beyond his past... um, Curtis wants to be a girl—but I'm not wholly convinced. It made sense to alter the gang's powers, which had run their course, and in some cases disrupted the logic of most stories (why can't Curtis keep reversing time to save the day?), but the new ones just feel less exciting.

But the biggest change is the introduction of candid northerner Rudy (Gilgun), which this episode is primarily concerned with. Gilgun has big shoes to fill now Sheehan's gone, but I thought he did a good job and immediately felt like part of the furniture. It helps that Gilgun shares his predecessor's crude way of speaking and gregarious nature (albeit with a more laidback style), and while he lacks Sheehan's gift for stealing scenes, it can be argued that Gilgun is more of a "team player". Sheehan would sometimes dominate Misfits because he had a larger-than-life character and relished the chance to chew the scenery, and perhaps that was detrimental to the ensemble occasionally. Gilgun comes from an acting background of ensembles (the soap Emmerdale, the aforementioned This Is England movie and TV series), so he'll likely be better at not upstaging his fellow actors. Would I prefer it if Sheehan was still around as cocky Nathan? Oh yes, definitely, because he was an unforgettable presence and a huge amount of fun to watch, but I see no reason why the show can't work with the quietly engaging Gilgun in his place.

It's also promising that Rudy's own superpower is one of the best the show's given us, as he literally splits into two people whenever he's confronted by a moment of self-doubt. It's not a Jekyll and Hyde-style case of two opposing personalities sharing the same body, it's more a physical way of showing the character's internal conflict. (Incidentally, I'm going to nickname Rudy's doppelganger "Twody", unless I hear of an official term for his twin, or something funnier.) Anyway, Rudy's power is very interesting and the episode did a brilliant job with the special effects required to show Gilgun acting with "himself". There were even a few shots that must have taken skill to put together, such as when the focus on the camera changed from Rudy standing in the background to Twody sitting in the foreground.

The premiere's actual story was undemanding and nothing we haven't seen before, in various guises, but this was probably for the best because there was a lot to cover with the power changes and Rudy's debut. We basically followed Rudy doing his community service; trying to keep his power a secret while wooing two fellow offenders, Charlie (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tanya (Katie Moore). This resulted in misunderstandings whenever his duplicate self popped into existence, making Tanya think Rudy's a two-faced love rat and deciding to teach him a lesson using her own power (the ability to turn people motionless), and the ensuing tricks caught the attention of the other misfits. Plus there was a later surprise when it became clear Rudy and Alisha have history together (she took his virginity, then broke his heart by ignoring him afterwards), so I'm guessing there's a chance Rudy may want to rekindle that relationship with Alisha, which would make him a love rival for Simon.

Overall, I was pleased this premiere continued to deliver the things we've come to love about Misfits, despite so many big changes. There's a chance Nathan's absence will be felt more strongly the further into the series we get, but we could just as easily forget about him entirely. I'm more than prepared to see what Rudy brings to the show, and willing to see if these new powers have hidden qualities that drive some stories forward in clever ways.

What did you make of Misfits' return? Is it just not the same without Sheehan around? Is Gilgun a good replacement? Do you like the new powers? Does the show still feel innovative, or does the decline start here?

Asides

  • This episode marks the debuts of directorial double-act Wayne Yip and Alex Garcia on the show, who recently worked together on Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.
  • Like most people, I thought Simon would be given Curtis's old power of time-travel, which would explain how "Future Simon" travels back in time to interact with the characters in series 2 as "Superhoodie", but apparently not. So how will he manage to go back? And will Alisha let him, knowing he dies?
  • A bit of trivia: Joe Gilgun co-starred with Lauren Socha's brother Michael Socha on This Is England '85—and Michael Socha now appears in BBC Three's Being Human.
  • Kelly's going to be given a better power than the ability to design rockets soon, right? It makes for a nice joke, but it feels like a massive waste of time if she doesn't get a more practical power soon.
  • Why didn't E4 air the online special "Vegas Baby!" to explain Nathan's absence? I know a 10-minute piece is hard to schedule, and it's true most fans will have seen it anyway, but I bet a sizeable chunk of the audience didn't know Sheehan had left and found it odd how they explained it here.
written by Howard Overman / directed by Wayne Yip & Alex Garcia / 30 October 2011 / E4

TV Picks: 31 October – 6 November 2011 (Argumental, Him & Her, Live At The Apollo, The Simpsons, Stand Up For The Week, Top Boy, etc.)

TOP BOY - Channel 4, Monday-Thursday, 10PM

HALLOWEEN
Attack Of The Trip Advisors (Channel 4, 9pm) Documentary about people who are devoted to staying at hotels and writing about them for the Trip Advisor website.
Persons Unknown US sci-fi mystery about a group of people who find themselves trapped inside a small town. (1/10)
PICK OF THE DAY Top Boy (Channel 4, 10pm) Brand new drama about drug culture in a modern London council estate. Starring Ashley Walters, Sharon Duncan Brewster, Malcolm Kamulete, Kierston Wareing, Kane Robinson & Giacomo Mancini. Continues every weeknight until Thursday. (1/4)


TUESDAY 1st
The Food Hospital (Channel 4, 8pm) Series looking at claims that illnesses can be treated with nutrition instead of drugs. (1/8)
The Most Courageous Raid Of WWII (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary about Operation Frankton, a wartime raid involving 12 men who travelled up the Girone estuary to Bordeaux in canoes to blow up cargo ships using limpet mines. Presented by Paddy Ashdown.
Tool Academy (E4, 10pm) Series 2 of the reality show where 12 men are sent to a relationship boot camp. Presented by Rick Edwards. (1/9)
PICK OF THE DAY Him & Her (BBC3, 10.30pm) Series 2 of the sitcom about a lazy couple. Starring Russell Tovey, Sarah Solemani, Kerry Howard, Ricky Champ, Joe Wilkinson & Camille Coduri. (1/7)
Imagine: Grayson Perry & The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman (BBC1, 10.35pm) Documentary on the English artist and cross-dresser, whose art is exhibited at the British Museum.
Babies Behind Bars (ITV1, 10.35pm) Documentary about the pregnant inmates of Indiana Women's Prison. (1/2)
Zimbabwe's Forgotten Children – Update (BBC4, 11.15pm) Documentary catch-up on the 2010 film looking at Zimbabwean children who live on rubbish heaps.

WEDNESDAY 2nd
PICK OF THE DAY Hot Like Us (BBC3, 9pm) Reality contest where eight attractive couples live together and compete in tasks themed on relationships. The winners get a modeling contract with a top agency. Narrated by Kieran O'Brien. (1/7)

THURSDAY 3rd
Timeshift: Of Ice & Men (BBC4, 8pm) Documentary on the exploration of Antarctica. Narrated by Robert Gwilym.
The Big Bang Theory (E4, 8pm) Season 5 of the geek comedy. (1/24)
The World's Strictest Parents (BBC3, 9pm) Series 4 of the series looking at various stringent parents from around the world. (1/7)
Symphony (BBC4, 9pm) Series exploring the evolution of classic music. Presented by Simon Russell Beale. (1/4)
PICK OF THE DAY Argumental (Dave, 10pm) Series 4 of the panel show where two teams argue the point. Team captains are Robert Webb & Seann Walsh. Hosted by Sean Lock.


FRIDAY 4th
The Simpsons (Channel 4, 6pm) Season 19 of the US animated comedy. (1/20)
Mastermind (BBC2, 8pm) Series 9 of the revived quiz show. Hosted by John Humphrys. (1/31)
Susan Boyle: An Unlikely Superstar (ITV1, 9pm) Documentary on the phenomenal rise to global stardom of Britain's Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle.
Nirvana Night (BBC4, 9pm) An evening of programming on the popular '90s band.
PICK OF THE DAY Live At The Apollo (BBC1, 9.30pm) Series 7 of the stand-up comedy show. Featuring Jason Byrne & Seann Walsh. Hosted by Micky Flanagan. (1/8)
Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl (Channel 5, 10.30pm) Brand new fly-on-the-wall documentary following the sexy daughter of F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone. (1/3)
Stand Up For The Week (Channel 4, 11.10pm) Series 3 of the stand-up comedy show. Featuring Rich Hall, Seann Walsh, Josh Widdicombe, Sara Pascoe & Paul Chowdhry. Hosted by Jon Richardson. (1/6)

SATURDAY 5th
PICK OF THE DAY The Making Of Life's Too Short (BBC2, 10.15pm) Documentary going behind-the-scenes of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's new sitcom Life's Too Short, which starts next week.

SUNDAY 6th
PICK OF THE DAY Tintin's Adventure with Frank Gardner (BBC2, 6pm) Documentary on the cartoon character Tintin, who inspired BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner to become a journalist.
American Dad! (BBC3, 10pm) Season 6 of the US animated comedy. Voices by Seth MacFarlane, Scott Grimes, Wendy Schaal & Rachael MacFarlane. (1/18)

Remember to bookmark my Calendar for a constantly updated
list of when popular TV shows will be returning or premiering.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

MERLIN, 4.5 – "His Father's Son"

This was more like it. It may have all come down to yet another duel (secretly manipulated by magic), but for the most part "His Father's Son" gave us a story I don't recall being done before on Merlin. Some of its ingredients were familiar, I suppose, but it was just great to have a story with something weighty on its mind. This episode was all about Arthur (Bradley James) growing into a king, as duplicitous Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) believes he must assert his new power by commanding respect and fear across the Five Kingdoms. But after Arthur follows his uncle's advice, by executing a trespassing monarch, he triggered a potentially devastating war with a neighbouring kingdom, led by the widowed Queen Annis (Lindsay Duncan)...

"His Father's Son" was a simple story at heart, but by focusing on the characters and exploring ideas it felt much more complex than most other episodes. It also delivered the best use of Agravaine and Morgana (Katie McGrath) so far this series; the former doing his utmost to set Arthur up for a nasty fall, and the latter seizing an opportunity to ally herself with Annis and use the queen's grief to ensure the swift defeat of Arthur's army so she can claim Camelot's throne. A plan that actually made some sense for a change.

And before the battle itself could commence (with impressive vistas of CGI knights preparing for battle), Arthur eventually came to realize that he shouldn't just do what's expected of him, or blindly follow his father Uther's footsteps, but must stay true to his own beliefs. It was actually a rather moving moment when Queen Annis realized Arthur's a more empathetic and honourable person than she initially gave him credit... although it was perhaps a stretch to believe she'd be quite so forgiving of the man who recently killed her husband. The peace he secured here felt very much like the first building block of the chivalrous age King Arthur and Merlin are destined to preside over, with Camelot at its centre, and it's always great when Merlin takes a definite step forward in this manner.

The way Morgana was foiled also worked nicely, as she ingratiated herself on Queen Annis by revealing she was raised by the respected Gorlois, not her tyrannical biological father King Uther, but her devious acts were clearly something she's inherited from the latter... whereas her brother Arthur's assumedly taken more heritage from his peaceful mother. It was overall a nice reminder of the familial bond these characters share, and the ways in which both are influenced and driven by their histories. But while Morgana is blinkered by a lust for power, it's only Arthur who's coming to truly understand the responsibilities of sitting on a throne. He's a pain to be around at times (often depending on who's writing him any given week), but I'm hopeful that Merlin will continue to treat Arthur as an adult.

Overall, I thought this was the best episode series 4's given us thus far, because it just felt more mature than usual. The show tends to have episodes that cater for different demographics, and this one felt aimed more at the grownups. Merlin's never going to compete with adult fantasies like Game Of Thrones in terms of plotting, of course, but this episode proves it doesn't have to rely on storybook simplicity and can dig a little deeper when necessary.

Asides

  • Ratings for this episode rose by 400,000 to 5.9 million, making this the most-watched overnight episode of series 4. As the BBC discovered last year, it's extraordinarily effective counter-programming for The X Factor over on ITV1 (which nevertheless will always win the timeslot). By the by, poor X Factor was finally beaten this weekend by Strictly Come Dancing, which managed an impressive 10.2m to X Factor's 9.9m.
  • It never fails to amuse me when the writers slyly reference the fact many fans of Merlin see a homoerotic relationship in Merlin and Arthur's behaviour around each other. Here, Jack Michie delivered a moment when Arthur thinks Merlin's suggesting they share a bed together. And, sorry slash fiction writers, but he didn't look too happy about the idea!
  • Loved the look of the giant warrior Arthur had to fight to spare his men. Such an imposing figure and a face carved from granite.
written by Jake Michie / directed by Alex Pillai / 29 October 2011 / BBC One

Review: CHUCK, 5.1 – "Chuck Versus The Zoom"

"The computer didn't make you a hero. It just gave you an opportunity to be one."

When any television show reaches its fifth year it becomes a struggle to find anything fresh to say about it. (And when you're dealing with a narrowly-focused show like Chuck, that problem actually started in season 3.) It's no secret that I largely hated this show's fourth season, because I didn't enjoy the search for Chuck's (Zachary Levi) long-lost mother, and the Volkoff super-villain idea soon soured, but I was quite excited by the big conceptual changes the finale introduced for the show's fifth and final season. So have the changes managed to breathe new life into Chuck? Well, yes and no...

Sidekick Morgan's (Joshua Gomez) become the Intersect and eponymous hero Chuck's the regular guy, which makes for a fun reversal of their established dynamic. Morgan's a funnier character to give "super powers" to, if only because he's clumsier and hasn't matured in quite the same way, but Gomez is also less convincing when demonstrating them. Case in point: his saucy dance sequence with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) where it's apparent Gomez hasn't learned any of the awesome moves his character's supposed to be pulling off, forcing Strahovski to distract us.

The idea of giving Chuck the Volkoff family fortune, enabling him to create "Carmichael Industries" as a spies-for-hire operation, was also something that could have shaken life into the show. However, perhaps because there isn't the budget to do justice to the concept of a team with extravagant resources, this premiere has already undone that development—by having Chuck and Sarah's assets frozen by mean CIA Agent Decker. The only positive repercussion is that the Buy More, as one of Chuck's only remaining assets, now has a much better tie to the show's espionage element. Chuck, Sarah, Casey (Adam Baldwin) and Morgan need that store to run smoothly and turn a profit, because it's now financing their spy games. What a shame the show's waited this long to make the Buy More truly relevant, and not just a lame B-story crutch, but at least it finally happened.

Second of Strahotness
"Chuck Versus The Zoom" involved another of the show's storylines that just stitch together various templates and tropes—including the show's obligatory infiltration of a criminal's VIP party. I've long stopped caring, or even paying much attention, to the show's mission-of-the-week, as Chuck is all about the funny set-pieces that come from the flimsiest of ideas.

But I was pleased this premiere had strong subtext behind it all: does Chuck have a place and relevance now he's sans Intersect, or have his "training wheels" simply been removed? The story was at its best when we got a sense of Chuck's self-doubt and jealousy that Morgan's inherited his mantle as the "master spy" people expect to save the day, and in the end the story did a great job making us see how Chuck's intelligence and bravery are "powers" equal to that of the Intersect. I loved the sequence where Chuck single-handedly saved his friends, by leaving them a video message on a laptop, with instructions for how to aide his foolhardy escape from the enemy's skyscraper. It was a genuinely thrilling moment that was cleverly done, which is more of a rarity on this show than it should be.

Overall, I'm pleased to have Chuck back for a half-season victory lap, although from a creative standpoint it should really have ended a few years ago. It's a shame some of the big changes don't appear to be working as brilliantly as I'd hoped they would, but I actually prefer how the gang's a type of A-Team (likewise enemies with a man called Decker). And there remains a tangible feeling that Chuck's a show born out of love; where the cast and crew are all having a great time making it. And that still comes across loud and clear.

Asides

  • One of the funniest ideas is that Morgan's renamed "flashing" as "zooming" (hence this episode's title), which even Casey appears to have adopted as the official term for what the Intersect does.
  • Another dry Buy More subplot, with Jeff (Scott Krinsky) faking an injury to cheat customers out of donations towards his recovery, but at least it wasn't a big part of the episode. I wonder if Jeff and Lester (Vik Sahay) will be finding out Chuck's secret this season. Surely they have to, if this is the final year, or will they remain oblivious till the very end? I also hope Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) gets something interesting to do this year, and isn't just there to give her brother the occasional pep talk.
  • Two nice guest spots this week: Star Wars' Mark Hamill as the French villain in the teaser, and an appearance by Ethan Phillips (Neelix in Star Trek Voyager). This episode was also directed by Phillips' Trek co-star Robert Duncan McNeill (who played Tom Paris).
  • As a fan of the sorely underused Sarah/Morgan team-up, I enjoyed the squash scene and their little wiggling fingers hand-shake. Now that Morgan's a key part of the gang, I hope we get to see more of them working together.
  • It's premature to be making predictions, but surely Sarah and Chuck will move into that idyllic family home in the series finale, as Sarah announces her pregnancy. Anyone with me?
written by Chris Fedak & Nicholas Wootton / directed by Robert Duncan McNeill / 28 October 2011 / NBC

Saturday, 29 October 2011

COMMUNITY, 3.5 – "Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps"

For their Halloween special, Community turned in their own version of a "Treehouse Of Horror" episode of The Simpsons, albeit with a sketchier feel. A gimmicky half-hour that existed to be silly while underlining the main character's personalities, it took the shape of seven hastily-told spooky stories: Britta (Gillian Jacobs) with a lame and clichéd tale about a couple who are killed by an escaped madman while smooching in their car; Abed (Danny Pudi) then "fixed" Britta's story by relocating the scene to a remote woodland cabin, but forgot to add any actual scares; Annie (Alison Brie) imagined Jeff (Joel McHale) as an old-school vampire who prefers her over real-life rival Britta, if only because she can teach him to read; Troy (Donald Glover) opted for dumb fun with a bizarre story about a mad professor (Chevy Chase) who stitches himself and Abed together, in a safe-for-TV echo of The Human Centipede; Pierce's attempts to appeal to the younger generation resulted in a stupid and racist tale where he beat up two "gangstas" with his manhood; Shirley's (Yvette Nicole Brown) faith meant her story threatened eternal damnation on the rest of the study group, who were seen as the godless ones left behind post-Rapture, to be punished by a devilish Dean Pelton (Jim Rash); and Jeff story tried to ameliorate the study group's irrational fear that one of them's a psycho who might butcher the others, triggered by the fact Britta has a psychiatrist test results that proves one of them's a sociopath.

It's a bit of a shame this episode is airing after "Remedial Chaos Theory", which shares its format (in the sense it's another episode telling smaller stories within), but this was apparently due to an unplanned alteration of the running order. Regardless, "Horror Fiction" was a satisfying and mostly enjoyable example of Community's fun-loving spirit, kept alive by the fact the stories got progressively more outrageous. I also found plenty to laugh at with the show's childishness (such as Pierce having his backside stitched to his chest), and the way every story filtered through each narrator's quirks was a good way to explore the group dynamic.. uh, again. (I think this is something Community tends to overdo, not helped by the aforementioned fact "Chaos Theory" had a similar idea at play.)

While I don't think this is an episode I'll remember for long, it was everything it intended to be. I wish it had been a touch more insightful about the horror genre, because I was expecting something cleverer than what we were given for a Halloween special, but this was fun and had an entertaining tone.

written by Dan Harmon / directed by Tristram Shapeero / 27 October 2011 / NBC

SPY, 1.3 - "Codename: Grades"

I'm a glutton for punishment, you might say, but I'm fascinated by terrible shows that other people seem to like. Or perhaps just tolerate better because their tastes are "peculiar", don't care to see how something can be improved, or don't notice the many mistakes it's making. Spy's third episode was certainly the best of the bunch—so it's improving every week, which is something to be grateful for. But, seriously, why is this show called Spy? Tim (Darren Boyd) could have any number of jobs he's keeping a secret from his family, as it never feels like he's a government agent, and the show never allows him to do anything cool in his profession. In "Codename: Grades", Tim's being trained in computer hacking, which he seems quite proficient at anyway, and while that's certainly more plausible work for MI5 to be doing than fighting Russian assassins on a train, I know which would be more fun!

This week's story truly began when Tim abused his position to alter his annoying son Marcus's (Jude Wright) school grades, lowering them from A*'s to C's and D's. He also upset his son's dance-obsessed teacher Philip (Tom Goodman-Hill), who's also his ex-wife's new boyfriend, leading to Marcus being expelled from school as a very implausible punishment. Wouldn't Marcus's mother, Judith (Dolly Wells), have something to say about her boyfriend kicking her son out of school like that? Of course she would, but Spy's not concerned with developing any kind of reality—be it the family dynamic or Tim's job as a spy.

It was faintly amusing to see the studious Marcus become a tracksuit-wearing chav after a few hours spent watching Jeremy Kyle with Tim's friend Chris (Mathew Baynton), and I do quite like any scene where Tim's fellow spook Caitlin (Rebekah Staton) is around, but the rest can be painfully unfunny and, worse, utterly devoid of internal logic. After hearing that Chris is going to be looking after Marcus during school hours, Caitlin tells Tim "there are plenty of worse people you could leave Marcus with", implying she's know about Chris's character. But where's that come from? Have those characters even met yet?

Overall, Spy is just a huge mess, I don't care what its fans say. It's beneath Boyd, a particular waste of Robert Linsday (who's clearly having fun, but his character does nothing beyond brandish weapons while being a misogynistic idiot), and it's completely failing to do anything interesting with its derivative concept. You could remove every spy-related scene and the show would barely change one iota.

written by Simeon Goulden / directed by Ben Taylor / 28 October / Sky1

DERREN BROWN: THE GAMESHOW

The second of Derren Brown's "Experiments" was a curious hour of television; an enjoyable disappointment with a decent ending, but nevertheless fairly hollow and conceptually flawed. "The Gameshow" concerned the social psychological concept of deinviduation (the idea that normal people can make monstrous decisions while anonymous in a large group). It's the kind of thing that leads to so-called "mob mentality", which is rather prescient after a summer of rioting across Britain, where deinviduation played a part in proceedings. Its effects can also be seen with the Ku Klux Klan, Nazism, and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"The Gameshow" took a different approach to Derren's usual style of shows. This was effectively the pilot of a realistic gameshow called "Remote Control", where the life of one man (unaware he's surrounded by cameras and actors) was momentarily controlled by the vote of a large studio audience. The audience could collectively give the man positive or negative experiences; ranging from being accused of sexual harassment, to being arrested for shoplifting. Unsurprisingly, all the positive experiences, like being awarded money, never won a studio vote, so the poor guy had a memorably eventful and dispiriting night out.

But was this 70-minute special really showing us that groups of people, anonymous behind white masks (more for effect than practicality), turned into a nasty mob when their individualism was removed? I'm not entirely convinced. Everyone voting was doing so in the context of being part of a television show (anonymous or not), and that backdrop comes with certain expectations that everything's been approved, tested, and is all good fun. Despite being made aware the "victim" believes whatever happens is genuine, the audience know actors are involved every step of the way. Take any member of that group and have them make a decision as an individual, and I'm sure most would still choose the "negative" experiences... because those were also the most entertaining experiences. You probably wouldn't want to choose the least entertaining "good" option, for fear of upsetting the majority of people watching you. And that's peer pressure, something entirely different.

So I think this special was conceptually flawed from the start. The TV gameshow format comes with cultural baggage that the experiment didn't take into account, in my opinion. However, the ending of "The Gameshow" offered a very enjoyable twist, as the studio audience opted to have the man kidnapped by a gang of thugs, before witnessing him unexpectedly escape from his attackers and get hit by a car while running away. Suddenly it dawned on everyone in the audience that their decision had led to someone possibly dying on television. Of course, the footage was actually pre-recorded with a stuntman, and no harm had come to the gameshow's unwitting star. But again, were the group culpable here? Weren't they all just shocked because the car accident proved the TV production team's negligence? Or does my thinking prove I'm perhaps more willing to offload responsibility onto other people, if I was ever in this situation myself?

Whatever you think, "The Gameshow" should be congratulated because it did make you think. It's just a shame it took so long to make a fairly simple point, although the actual gameshow was surprisingly good fun (Derren's a great host, the fake show's actors improvised brilliantly), and the finale just about rescued it from being a flop. But the more I think about it, the more I'm unconvinced the idea was a watertight way of testing deinviduation.

28 October 2011 / Channel 4

Friday, 28 October 2011

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY: Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien³ (1992) & Alien Resurrection (1997)


The Alien saga spans four canonical movies from four talented directors, who each put their own spin on its core themes of sex, loss of identity, motherhood, and feminism. It's a respected quartet of films that have delighted scholars just as much as they've thrilled moviegoers and obsessed geeks, with design work that's influenced SF and horror cinema since first frightening audiences back in 1979. Below I take a look at what, for me, is one of cinema's most interesting franchises...

ALIEN (1979)
directed by Ridley Scott; 
written by Dan O'Bannon
(story by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

In space, no one can hear you scream. Ridley Scott's masterpiece took B-grade material and gives it A-star treatment; forever changing sci-fi horror in the process. It also took George Lucas's "used future" aesthetic of Star Wars to an industrialized, nightmarish extreme. For those who've been under a rock for decades, Alien begins with deep space towing ship The Nostromo receiving a distress call from an unexplored, inhospitable planetoid. The crew investigate and are astonished to discover a crescent-shaped alien ship, containing thousands of large eggs—one of which releases a crab-like "face-hugger" when disturbed by crewman Cain (John Hurt), attaching itself to his face. After the creature later releases its head grip and dies, it soon becomes clear Cain's been impregnated with the creature's offspring: a penis-shaped critter that tears free of his rib-cage and escapes into the Nostromo, where it quickly grows into a terrifying monster with acid for blood...

"It's got a wonderful defense mechanism. You don't dare kill it."

Alien is an unequivocal classic, taking an incredibly simple storyline and filling it with phenomenal designs and compelling actors. Swiss artist H.R Giger was the perfect man to create a cutting-edge "bio-mechanical" look that hadn't been seen before, achieving perfect synergy with Scott's mastery behind the camera. The whole movie swims in a foreboding atmosphere, while the story's subtext and extra-terrestrial threat carries potent sexual connotations.

The face-hugger disgusts us because it's effectively having oral sex with an unwilling "mate", and the adult creature this unholy union creates behaves like an unstoppable, predatory rapist. The alien has a phallic head, its slathering mouth resembles a vagina dentata (itself containing a toothed tongue-penis), and it has no eyes to sympathize with its prey. In one scene, there's a shot of the alien's jagged tail creeping upwards between the legs of Veronica Cartwright's petrified character. The meaning is clear. Alien is shot through with allusions to sex and motherhood elsewhere, too: the ship's computer is known as Mother, the Nostromo's landing craft detaches from an "umbilicus", and the hull of the mysterious alien craft is studded with portal entrances resembling welcoming vagina's.

Alien, famously sold as "Jaws In Space", remains a giant of modern horror sci-fi. A perfect cocktail of concept, story, tone, design, theme, character, and subtext. It's a movie that gets under your skin by stoking male fears of female reproduction, and both gender's fear of sexual violation. It also created one of cinemas most unforgettable screen heroines in Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)—quite by accident, as the character was intended to be just another grease monkey. The surprise of having a newcomer like Weaver become the sole survivor has been lost to time, now the name "Ripley" is synonymous with action movie feminism, but that's just one trick of a hundred this movie accomplished.

ALIEN - Director's Cut (2003)
The changes to Ridley Scott's Alien aren't substantial enough to alter my feelings toward this excellent film. It's actually a shorter cut than the original, meaning it's imperceptibly tighter, and now includes the legendary deleted scene of a cocooned Dallas (Tom Skerritt) being turned into an egg. It's worth remembering that when this scene was filmed, the lifecycle of the creature, later established in Aliens as a matriarchal hive, hadn't been decided on, so I'm not sure if this director's cut is canonical. Maybe an alien, in lieu of a Queen, uses this transformative cocooning of prey to create a replacement queen egg? Yeah, let's go with that.

ALIENS (1986)
written & directed by James Cameron (story by James Cameron & David Giler)

This time it's war. James Cameron's gung-ho sequel imaginatively continued the Alien storyline, while transforming it from "claustrophobic horror movie" to "sci-fi war movie", heavily inspired by author Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers. It could have been a feeble excuse for mindless carnage in lesser hands (exploiting H.R Geiger's stunning creature and just boosting their number for a violent bug extermination), but Cameron's script also offered clever development of Alien's mythos and added a theme of motherhood—thus giving Aliens a solid emotional anchor. This decision to balance action with emotion worked brilliantly: Aliens marks a rare occasion when the lead of a sci-fi movie (a woman, too) was nominated for a 'Best Actress' Academy Award.

42 years after escaping her encounter with the drooling alien, Ellen Ripley's escape pod is retrieved from deep space and she's revived from prolonged stasis. The universe has changed in the half-century she's been asleep; not least with the terraforming and colonization of "LV-426", the planetoid where the alien ship and eggs were discovered by her crew mates. When contact with the colony "Hadley's Hope" is lost, Ripley suspects the worst and agrees to lead a troop of bellicose colonial marines back to the windswept planet, where they discover an outbreak of aliens have infested the facility—leaving only one survivor, Newt (Carrie Henn), a traumatized little girl Ripley takes under her wing.

"You're going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out."

The most crowd-pleasing entry in the saga, Aliens is a tour de force of machismo and exhilarating set-pieces that have you gripping your seat. Its real triumph is how it's different to predecessor, while still feeling like a plausible companion piece. While most sequels are content to recycle or amplify the previous movie, Cameron also chose to restyle and modify. It loses the shock and surprise of Alien, but broadens and embroiders. This time, the aliens were given a hive-like society with a giant Queen at its centre; Cameron subverted the original's use of a traitorous android, by making his own automaton Bishop (Lance Henriksen) into a selfless hero; and the notion of an immoral Company manipulating events in Alien were given prominence through corporate slimeball Burke (Paul Reiser), who works for Weyland Yutani. Burke becomes arguably a bigger monster than the aliens, in trying to manipulate the situation for his own greedy ends.

Aliens is unashamedly macho; pitting the merciless aliens against the most potent testosterone humanity has to offer—and that largely includes the buff women. Guns are phallic symbols, the Sulaco spaceship itself resembles an enormous firearm tipped with a bayonet, and its most memorable female (beyond Ripley) is butch Latina grunt Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein)—a woman introduced on equal terms with the boys, who famously joke about her being mistaken for a man. But it's ultimately a mother's compassion that saves the day (perhaps the most feminine of traits), leading to an inter-species smack-down between the universe's two greatest females: the ferocious Alien Queen and Ripley in an evening-the-odds "Power Loader" suit.

ALIENS - Special Edition (1990)
This Special Edition was one of the first such re-edits, although it's become commonplace for theatrical movies to be re-released in an alternative form for video. Hell, these days fans can re-cut their favourite films and post the results online! Aliens: Special Edition offers a collection of pleasurable changes and embellishments, the three most famous being: a preamble on LV-426 with Newt's family, who discover the alien craft (demystifying the colony's fate much too early), a sequence featuring automated Sentry Guns (that should give weapon fetishists an orgasm), and the reinsertion of a scene where Ripley is told her daughter died of old age while she was in stasis (a welcome inclusion that Weaver had criticized the original loss of, revealing the source of Ripley's maternal feelings toward Newt as a "surrogate" for her dead child).

Aliens was filmed on notoriously grainy high-speed negative, which has now been de-noised and colour-corrected under the supervision of director James Cameron for Blu-ray. The result is a remaster that looks gorgeous in the less-forgiving HD format, and won't upset purists who hate filmmakers tinkering with past work. This is, simply, an improvement in every respect. There's more clarity to the image and details are sharper, but nothing looks noticeably enhanced or artificial. It's just a crisp cleaning of the negative that will have fans salivating like a xenomorph. Incidentally, it amused me that Cameron also took the opportunity for George Lucas-esque revisionism, by fixing a blooper I used to enjoy. Now you can't see actor Lance Henriksen's body beneath Bishop's fake-torso in the climax, in the shot where he reaches back to grab Newt as she's dragged towards the Sulaco's airlock. His torso's been digitally erased for this release. I'm glad it's been fixed because it was such a dreadful oversight, but also disappointed because it was a fun mistake to point out to people.

ALIEN³ (1992)
directed by David Fincher; written by David Giler, Walter Hill & Larry Ferguson

The bitch is back. By the time Alien³ was tardily released in 1992 (ironically delayed because of the ending's similarity to that of Aliens director Cameron's Terminator 2), the previous films had become classics and amassed a fanatical audience desperate to see the saga continue. Sky-high expectations didn't help matters, but Alien³ also did itself no favours by indifferently killing three popular characters during the opening titles, and taking such an opposite approach to Cameron's exhilarating thrill-ride. Reducing the threat back to a sole alien, in an environment devoid of guns, was perceived as a backwards step for those expecting the militaristic punch of Aliens to continue. Music video wunderkind David Fincher (making his feature debut) even defeminized Sigourney Weaver by shaving her head, which didn't go down well with the actresses male admirers, despite being a prime way Fincher endeared himself to his female lead. Thankfully, as time has distanced us from its creative maladies, Alien³ has ripened with age—but only to a point.

Opening with eye-catching glimpses of a hatched facehugger's presence causing the Sulaco to eject its occupants after a fire, Ripley awakens on Fiorina "Fury" 161, a barren planet that's home to a male-only maximum security prison for murderers and rapists. As the only woman the inmates have seen in years—including the kindly Dr Clemens (Charles Dance), who takes a shine to this woman who fell from the sky—Ripley's presence poses a threat to the jail's religious order, according to brusque warden Andrews (Brian Glover).

In keeping with the saga's reliance on extreme bad luck, it transpires that the facehugger saboteur likewise hitched a lift aboard Ripley's escape pod and attached itself to a guard dog. The resulting alien (born during an ironic montage involving a funeral for Hicks and Newt) thus takes on a few canine traits—most noticeably a propensity to scurry about on all fours. Initially reticent about explaining her unbelievable past, Ripley is eventually forced to when the adult alien starts killing stray prisoners. And with The Company's so-called "rescue party" en route to Fury, intending to capture the beast for study in their bio-weapons division, Ripley must help the ragtag group of convicts vanquish the alien using humble resourcefulness.

"Let me see if I have this correct, Lieutenant: it's an 8-foot creature of some kind with acid for blood, and it arrived on your spaceship. It kills on sight, and is generally unpleasant. And of course, you expect me accept all this on your word."

There is enjoyment to be had from Alien³, which takes the saga back-to-basics in a story that has plenty in common with Scott's original. As a teenage boy I was bemused and mostly bored by this movie, but that's clearly because it's more of an adult think piece and my adolescent expectations weren't ready for it. But the reason Alien³'s still not as gripping as its spiritual twin Alien, even viewed from an adult perspective, is simple: it can't compete in terms of surprise (the mystique of the alien was low), and the characters don't develop very well. There's masses of potential in the idea being presented, but it keeps going unfulfilled because of a very spotty script.

Dance makes a good impression as the mild-mannered physician with a fondness for Ripley, but he's slain way before his time. Dutton tries his utmost to wrestle the script into shape, but he's just a slightly more recognizable goon to the hodgepodge of TV actors who fill out the two-dimensional cast. Considering the fact these are all hardened criminals, you'd think the idea of pitting killers and rapists against the universe's ultimate killer and rapist would see sparks fly... but the film's frustratingly inert, at least until the feisty finale arrives to provide emotional closure. Alien³ is best described as an interesting failure. But even if you dislike its creative direction, it undoubtedly contains the saga's best performance from Weaver, and a beautiful climax that still marks the spiritual end of this tale, for me. If only 20th Century Fox agreed...

ALIEN³ - The Assembly Cut (2003)
The turbulent, painful, development of Alien³ is an eminent piece of film-making legend, and perhaps a more compelling story than the resulting movie. There were dozens of abortive screenplays produced in the early-'90s for another Alien sequel, but Fox were unhappy with all of them, and the resulting Alien³ bears the scars of ideas from many abandoned drafts. One popular screenplay by Vincent Ward had the movie take place on a wooden planet full of devout monks who've turned their back on technology. We eventually ended up with a "prison planet" full of criminals with no weapons, although Alien³'s "Assembly Cut" proves Ward's religious theme did exist, but was largely cut from Fincher's movie.

Of all the alternate versions available with this saga, Alien³ is the film that could most benefit from modification, considering its turbulent production history and notorious studio interference. Compiled without director Fincher's participation or blessing, 2003's "Assembly Cut" restores various scenes and an entire subplot excised from the theatrical release. Mainly, these provide additional character moments and push the religious angle more blatantly, but with such extensive changes the Assembly Cut is a lumbering beast.

The alterations just aren't as compelling as you'd hope. Even the reinstatement of a subplot for Golic (Paul McGann), a crazy survivor of an alien attack who admires the creature so much he releases it from captivity (believing they have a bond), isn't as engrossing as it might have been with better writing. In fact, Golic still gets short shrift, despite essentially being this film's version of android Ash and company man Burke (a human traitor/deceiver, arguably more iniquitous than the alien). Bizarrely, the Assembly Cut involves a different host for the alien to gestate inside (a dead ox, rather than a live dog) and Ripley's suicide doesn't coincide with the infant Queen bursting through her chest. Both are changes that deliver less impact than the original version, in my opinion. That's true for the majority of extra scenes, too, as most are just longer versions of the movie's dialogue-heavy moments (often involving preaching to prisoners). The annoying thing is, Alien³ might have been something worthwhile if the story had embraced the religious angle more passionately, but instead this subtext feels like what it is: vestiges of previous drafts.

ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997)
directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; written by Joss Whedon

Witness the resurrection. The fourth movie is utterly unnecessary, given how Alien³ managed to accomplish a thematically perfect ending, by having Ripley dive into a container of molten lead as the last remaining alien burst from her gut, thus defeating the Company and eradicating the species in on fell swoop. It also, unintentionally or otherwise, provided added resonance because the erstwhile-trilogy had followed Ripley through the three archetypes of womanhood: maiden (Alien), mother (Aliens), and crone (Alien³). There isn't a fourth archetype, and thus no deep thematic reason for Alien Resurrection to exist.

Regardless, a clone of Ellen Ripley is created 200 years after the events of Alien³—using recovered DNA fused with the infant Queen's she was impregnated with. It's a creative way for the saga to resume, also allowing for an interesting theme of genetic experimentation and cloning—a hot issue back in the mid-'90s. And I love how every single Alien movie opens with Ripley motionless inside a glass capsule, like Sleeping Beauty constantly awoken to live through another nightmare.

However, Alien: Resurrection is an example of the old adage "be careful what you wish for, you might just get it"—with the return of multiple aliens, a spaceship, a Queen, smart-ass characters, and high-tech weaponry—all elements unjustly blamed for the failure of Alien³. But these inclusions did little to distract from the homogenized tone of the movie (the first to film outside of England), working from a snarky fanboy script by Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), and shot by stylish French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City Of Lost Children).

"You're a thing, a construct. They grew you in a fucking lab."

There are some decent ideas and visuals sprinkled around, but that's about all. Weaver gets to play a different character this time, essentially a reptilian uberwoman with incredible strength/agility because of her alien DNA. This delivers a few fun action sequences (such as her competitive basketball encounter with Ron Perlman), and the allegiance of hybrid-Ripley (who sometimes treats the aliens like naughty sisters) lends the film moments of uneasiness. But there's no escaping the fact having a "super Ripley" eliminates the core idea of the franchise that pure humanity/feminism can defeat such a vicious menace. However, I'm pleased Resurrection didn't abandon some core themes of the franchise (procreation, motherhood), as demonstrated in a standout scene where Ripley finds the seven previous clones of herself (effectively "abortions"), and how the climax rests on the idea the Queen develops a human womb and gives birth to a half-human "Newborn" that imprints on Ripley as its mother.

Jeunet and his cinematographer Darius Khondji also give us a satisfying visual milieu of slime greens and muddy amber, while the production benefits from late-'90s developments in CGI to create aliens that are less obviously skinny men wearing rubber suits. The puppetry is arguably the best of the saga (the sound of the aliens breathing and snorting creates a palpable sense of power, too), and while the CGI isn't seamless by today's standards, the balance of practical animatronics and digital FX is decent. The CGI-enhanced ships are also very nice—so much so that Whedon later appropriated this movie's aesthetic and designs for his space-western TV series Firefly.

It's just a pity Resurrection feels so horribly immature compared to the previous installments; the narrative too often resembling jokey fan-fiction. Aliens was funny, too, but its jokes felt like they were coming from the character's minds, not the writer's pen. Whedon's screenplay is just too self-aware, plagued by idiotic jokes (like the awful "fork"/"fuck" mix-up) and stupid flourishes: security access panels requiring you breathe on them, a mention that supermarket chain Wal-Mart are still trading? Please stop.

ALIEN: RESURRECTION - Special Edition (2003)
This so-called Special Edition is the type of flimsy re-edit that gives such releases a bad name. It offers no substantial changes to make you reconsider the film's intentions or value, as Jeunet himself practically admits in his pre-movie introduction. The new footage is just an assortment of off-cuts and extended scenes that have escaped the disc's extra features and been sewed into the existing movie—sometimes with decreased audio-visual quality. Nothing about it improves Resurrection (the alternative opening/ending are awful), it just gives you a mildly different viewing experience. With nothing here to make you reassess this pointless final entry, which wrongly believes the journey to Earth was the saga's long-term goal, it's a colossal waste of time.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

FRESH MEAT, 1.6

Rather strangely, Fresh Meat seems to be getting less funny as the weeks pass. This isn't disastrous, because it's clearer than ever it's more youth drama than all-out comedy, but I do think back to the brilliant start and wish it had retained more of that early promise. Remember when Fresh Meat seemed to share some of Spaced's energy when it started? That's not really the case now. And it's not because the pace is flagging or they're running out of ideas, it's because most of the writers handed the reigns by creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain have a different take on the show. Still, the characters are great fun to watch, even if they haven't been especially funny in recent weeks...

The theme here was largely about health and mortality: Vod (Zawe Ashton) was hospitalized after OD'ing on drugs; JP (Jack Whitehall) was told his father recently had a heart attack; and Oregon's (Charlotte Ritchie) horse Roulette was taken ill and is due to be euthanized. So it was about realizing you're not invincible, confronting death, and the severing of childhood ties. All weighty themes, mostly handled well by writer Rose Heiney, although I felt that the death of JP's father was too rushed and didn't elicit any response. Still, it was a strangely touching idea to have an emotional JP, while high on drugs, console Oregon's dying horse as it lay down in a barn, using the animal as a substitute for the father he can't reach in time.

The remaining two subplots weren't so downbeat, with Kingsley (Joe Thomas) and Josie (Kimberley Nixon) joining a journalism class and becoming rivals, while Josie tried to computer her Welsh boyfriend Dave proposing to her by text. A marriage proposal Vod and Oregon think is just a way to prevent Josie straying while she's away at university. And Howard's (Greg McHugh) new friendship with bubble-haired Brian deepened, although it eventually got in the way of Howard's attempt to woo a nerdy student called Lauren (culminating in a date to a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey). Both stories were overshadowed by the rest of the episode's darker events with Vod, JP and Oregon, but that's become a common issue for this show. However, the use of the characters was above-average, because at least Josie, Kingsley and Howard were involved in stories that had meat to them. I actually rather liked the situation with lovable Josie, who's decided to accept the world's least romantic proposal, as that raises the stakes for Kingsley to somehow win her heart before it's too late.

It also surprised me that the joke with Oregon's seemingly run its course, as the fact she admitted to owning a horse alerted JP to the fact she's posh, before all doubt was removed when Oregon was forced to take Vod and JP to her family's lavish rural home. I rather enjoyed seeing Oregon squirm to present herself as a working class radical, as she's embarrassed about her silver spoon upbringing, but I suppose it had to end some time. I just hope Oregon (real name "Melissa") hasn't lost too much of what made her an appealing and amusing character in the first place, now she doesn't have to lie about herself.

All said, I enjoyed this sixth episode and still find lots to enjoy from the performances, but I can't ignore the simply fact that Fresh Meat should be much funnier. I'm surprised that Peep Show's Baines and Armstrong haven't written more episodes of a show they created, but have instead farmed the scripts out to other people. And while the other writers have a good grip on characters and can construct decent stories, there's been a notably lack of big laughs along the way. One assumes Tony Roche's credits for providing "additional material" means he's been trying to punch-up the number of jokes in every hour, but this is still an issue. The first few episodes were hilarious at times, but everything since has been a little undercooked. There's a wonderful cast here, please give them opportunities to make me laugh more!

Asides

  • Fresh Meat isn't on next Wednesday, because Channel 4's new drama Top Dog is being stripped across the week. The show will instead return in a fortnight's time on 9 November. However, as a consolation to fans, Channel 4 have made Episode 7 available early via their 4OD catch-up service. In view of this, I'll review the next episode whenever I get the chance to (which may, or may not, be before next Wednesday).
  • And if you haven't already heard the news, Fresh Meat's been renewed for a second eight-part series, scheduled for the same time next year.
written by Rose Heiney (additional material by Tony Roche) / directed by Nick Wood / 26 October 2011 / Channel 4

THE FADES, 1.6 - series finale

"In the beginning there was the word, and the word was shit." -- Mac

Now The Fades has come to a close, I feel happier about its existence, but I still don't think it was close to as thrilling and intelligent as most people believe. It recovered well from a post-premiere slump, ending with a finale that had an entertaining mix of dilemma, drama, action and a few surprises. But was I on the edge of my seat? Not really. One of the indubitable strengths of the show has been its grey areas, as the heroes and villains aren't so delineated, and that's led to Paul (Ian De Caestecker) being more of a mediator between the forces of Good and Evil. In this finale, estranged mentor Neil (Johnny Harris) became the principal villain in many ways; kidnapping Mac (Daniel Kaluuya) and Anna (Lily Loveless) to use as leverage and force Paul into becoming a one-man exterminator of the reborn Fades.

One annoyance with the finale was how it separated Paul and Mac, who've been the show's dynamic duo all these weeks. It made sense to put Mac in danger and have Paul trying to save the day without his friend around to help (well, comment on the situation), but it still felt like the show missed their chemistry together, and ultimately wasted Kaluuya by keeping him in a shipping container for an hour. Nevertheless, I really liked Mac's story about how he and Paul would create superheroes as kids, now realizing they were imagining replacements for their fathers—whose absences they excused by believing they were busy saving the world elsewhere.

Paul instead teamed up with Alice (Ruth Gemmell) to try and reopen the woodland Ascension point, hoping that doing so will drag all the reborn Fades into the afterlife before they overrun the planet as "zombies" who can only survive by eating human flesh. Elsewhere, the newly-resurrected Sarah (Natalie Dormer) was reunited with her husband Mark (Tom Ellis) but started to feel a compulsion to kill, and John (Joe Dempsie) made the mayor's office his base of operations as he plotted a global takeover.

I don't have too much to say about this episode, strangely. It resolved some things, or appeared to, but left the door open for a second series I can't see being refused. One of the most shocking moments was when Neil callously shot Paul's girlfriend Kay (Sophie Wu) in the head, to make it clear he's not fooling around, and in some ways that moment overshadowed the rest of the episode, because no amount of special effects could best it. Even though we're dealing with a world where ghosts exist and resurrection's possible (meaning Jay's probably due some form of comeback if series 2 gets commissioned), the moment still felt very final and unexpected.

The actual finale was a slight cheat, considering we'd been led to believe that Paul and Sarah's visions were truly apocalyptic, when it turns out they were just seeing the abandoned shopping centre covered in ash from a reopened Ascension point. But it provided a decent final brawl between Paul and John, now the latter's decided he wants to live more than he wants to ascend. The chintzy special effects for a winged Paul hovering aboard the Ascension point's geyser and shooting energy into its abyss didn't unravel the tension too badly, and I was pleased by the denouement... with something very bad happening in the atmosphere over the city, as the defeated Neil remarked "I told him... you don't fuck with ascension". It seems that Paul's plan to save the day has backfired in ways yet to be explained, and I rather like how The Fades appears to have let its hero do more damage than good. Paul may have good and noble intentions, but he's ultimately a naïve teenage boy with incredible powers and no clue what he's doing. To be fair, he's in good company with the Angelics, who are a dysfunctional bunch of idiots.

Overall, The Fades ended on a high and I'm not reluctant to see more. Over its six episodes I was pleased to see a few problem areas were ironed out as the writing and focus improved (Anna's unwarranted bitchiness, the bludgeoning geek-speak, less Sophie Wu), its trump card was how it blurred the lines between good and evil, and in De Caestecker they found a great actor who brought a lot of humanity and sensitivity to Paul. It definitely had its moments, but there was something about The Fades that just didn't connect with me deeply; possibly because it bit off more than it could chew, and too many irritations got in the way of the good stuff in my head. The Sarah/Mark storyline was so shortchanged it needn't have existed to begin with.

What's your abiding feeling about The Fades? Are you one of the many people championing the show as a worthy companion to the likes of Being Human, or was it just a load of hogwash knitted together from a variety of sources?

Asides

  • John's retelling of the Bible story about Lot dissuading some townsfolk from gang-raping angels, by offering them his own daughters to abuse, is a story I've heard before... and it remains an astonishingly sick and morally-bankrupt piece of scripture.
  • I had to wonder if director Tom Shankland was paying homage to Quentin Tarantino with the "trunk shot" when Neil opened the boot of his car to reveal Mac inside.
  • Another influence on The Fades appears to be Night Watch, which itself is a pick n' mix of other movies. The use of birds is prominent in both.
written by Jack Thorne / directed by Tom Shankland / 26 October 2011 / BBC Three

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

HOMELAND, 1.4 - "Semper I"

"How come it's so hard to talk about [Baghdad] with people who weren't there?" -- Nick

"I have a better question: how come it's so hard to talk with anyone who wasn't there about anything at all?" -- Carrie

Many drama's telling a single story over many months tend to move in batches of three or four episodes. Since Homeland began a month ago, the "first movement" has been Carrie's (Claire Danes) surveillance of the Brody family. In "Semper I" that all came to an end because no incriminating evidence has been found in the allotted month (we've jumped forward in time three weeks, too), bringing an end to one aspect of this drama, so the rest of the episode setup the "second movement"...

This episode took some time to build a few characters who've been sitting on the sidelines for awhile—most notably CIA boss Estes (David Harewood), who had a fling with Carrie, which makes you reassess their prickly working relationship. With the surveillance shutdown and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) ordering Carrie to focus on following Abu Nazir's money trail, Nick Brody's become even more of a mystery—just when cracks have started appearing in his family life that can't be ignored. The most notable event being Nick's socially-awkward shooting of a deer that wandered into their garden during a party, which he recently saw his wife and son taking great pleasure in spotting. It also feels like Nick's beginning to suspect his best-friend's been sleeping with Jess (Morena Baccarin) while he was away, as he's noticed that Mike (Diego Klattenhoff) keeps avoiding invites to their house. The incident with the deer was at least enough for Jess to breakdown for the first time since her husband returned home, bringing some of her concerns out into the open about his weird behaviour and sexual dysfunction, suggesting Nick attends a veteran support group meeting.

What was most memorable about "Semper I" was seeing how the writers appear to be going regarding Carrie's investigation into Brody. As she's unable to snoop on him, it seems she's decided to get closer to him in real life, and they meet at the support group. Unexpectedly, there even appears to be a genuine connection between them, as both have experienced terrible things while in the Middle East, leading to a marvelous scene between Danes and Lewis in the pouring rain—where it seems clear Nick's attracted to the blonde woman he recognizes from his debriefing, but unaware she's trying her damndest to expose him as a sleeper agent. I particularly liked the way this episode foreshadowed this whole development, with Carrie almost behaving like Nick's wife when she distractedly told him where his missing neck-tie was while watching his morning routine on a surveillance monitor. It'll be interesting to see if Carrie starts to develop real feelings for Nick, becoming his mistress—in an echo of the role her "asset" Lynne played with the Saudi Arabian prince. Or is Nick playing a deeper game, and is only interested in Carrie because she offers a connection to the CIA he can exploit?

It's just interesting to theorize about what Nick's goals are, if he's indeed part of a terrorist plot. Given his status as a national hero, this episode introduced the Vice President's aide, Ms Gaines, who's exploring the possibility of putting Brody on the political map. Is this an unexpected development from Nick's perspective, or is it possible that achieving political office is part of his plan to begin with? If so, it's hard to see that all happening in just one season, so I'm wondering if Homeland's going to end with finale where Nick simply reaches a position of power that's going to make Carrie's job even tougher, and set the stage for a second season where Nick's perhaps a Senator? Part of the appeal with this show is how it's so difficult to predict, as the basic premise doesn't suggest we'll be spending years on this one story. But is it a single season storyline, or two?

Overall, another good episode, making me wonder if Homeland's going to ever put a foot wrong. Some episodes are more exciting and engrossing than others, but the quality is largely the same across every hour. The only subplot that gives me any concern is the issue with the apparent "sleeper cell" living near an airport, which feels very much season 4 of 24 right now. (The actor playing the husband even appeared in 24's final season, if I recall correctly. But then, didn't every American actor of Middle Eastern descent?)

Asides

  • Loved Nick's brief vision of a younger Jess, with cropped hair, surprising him in their garage by taking her top off. A brief reminder of the love he's turning his back on, but one that's perhaps lost to the past anyway.
  • Another sly piece of foreshadowing, with Jess remarking to her husband that a storm is "coming". And not just literally, right?
  • Did you notice Carrie actually discovering Nick's prayer mat while snooping around the garage (the only place she didn't have cameras placed)? Amusing to see she just looked past that key bit of evidence, as it doesn't fit with her expectations of what she's find there.
written by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa / directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff / 23 October 2011 / Showtime

THE WALKING DEAD, 2.2 - "Bloodletting"

In many ways an even more confident step forward this week, as the consequence of Carl (Chandler Riggs) being accidentally shot while admiring a deer took full advantage of the actors. Even better, we were introduced to three new characters living together on a farm: kindly Hershel (Scott Wilson), daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Hopefully they're going to be part of the story for awhile longer, as all made more of an impression than many of the regulars. I was particularly taken with Wilson's unwavering performance as he tried to save Carl's life (especially in one harrowing scene to remove a bullet fragment with no anesthetic); Maggie's action sequence involving a horse, a baseball bat, and a zombie in the forest; and the strong feelings of sympathy Otis evoked for unintentionally shooting a little boy, considering he could have been little more than a country bumpkin.

I know season 1 was serialized, but this season already feels like it's going to be more like one continuous road adventure, which is just feels like a wiser choice. I always hated how limiting the base camp was last year, as it just resulted in a lot of sitting around with the occasional trip into Atlanta. It just makes more sense to give the characters a clear destination to head for, and throw various obstacles in their way during the journey. The current search for missing Sophia (Madison Lintz) and the life-threatening injury to Carl are much better story ideas than we had last season, mainly because they affect some of the prominent regulars in father Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and mother Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). Remember how last season spent so much of its time on Daryl's (Norman Reedus) redneck brother Merle, handcuffed to a besieged building's rooftop, who simply vanished and still hasn't been heard from since? I'm glad this season appears to be making better choices about what it should be focusing on.

This episode even did something I suggested last year, inspired by how successful it was for Lost: it gave us a pre-outbreak flashback to the moment Lori was told Rick had been shot in the line of duty, and how she had to break the news to her son. I hope the show does more of this, because it gives us a little insight into how these people were before they had to deal with a zombie apocalypse, which in turn humanizes them to some extent. This episode's opening flashback didn't do much beyond remind us of the parallel between Rick and Carl, as the oldest and youngest members of the Grimes family have now been shot in recent months, but I appreciated the introduction of what's hopefully going to be a running plot-device.

The story focused on Carl's situation and lead to terrific performances from Lincoln and Callies that felt very authentic, especially because the whole situation and the seriousness of being shot wasn't sold short. This all felt very real and people's reactions were utterly believable. The subplots were less involving, but still agreeable to watch, with T-Dog (IronE Singleton) having to cop with suspected blood poisoning to the cuts on his forearm he sustained last week, and a mission where Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Otis had to steal vital medical equipment from a hospital crawling with "walkers". As with last week, it's good to see the show giving us more zombies than the majority of episodes delivered last season, although the number of extras requiring make-up probably hasn't helped the show's budgetary issues. But as a viewer, it all helps sell what's a global event.

Overall, I was again rather pleased by "Bloodletting" and how the writers appear to be tackling The Walking Dead this season. It all feels more personal and pregnant with possibility, three new characters were introduced very well, the story again ended on a decent cliffhanger (Shane and Otis cornered by zombies with only a chain-link fence between them), and this story provided solid opportunities for good performances and human drama... together with a smattering of cool zombie-slaying moments.

Aside

  • Daryl is seen carrying blue-coloured meth, which is likely a reference to the narcotic from AMC's other series Breaking Bad?
written by Glen Mazzara / directed by Ernest Dickerson / 23 October 2011 / AMC