Saturday, 30 June 2012

HIT & MISS - episode six

** (out of four)


Sky Atlantic's first original drama comes to the end of its first series, where the biggest surprise was how the story didn't have the decency to conclude. Hit & Miss appears to be another show I've mistaken for a miniseries, unfortunately, ending on a cliffhanger to be resolved whenever Chloë Sevigny finds a gap in her schedule and memories of grim Manchester have faded. It's been a bizarre six-week viewing experience, but one that held my interest—even if much of the reason was a peculiar fascination with the show's odd style and failings. In the end, I think I know why Paul Abbott is only credited with creating this show, and left the writing to Sean Conway: the idea's attention-grabbing but unwieldy, so perhaps always doomed to failure.

The finale was exactly what we've come to expect from Hit & Miss. Nonsense; but with enough good moments to make it palatable. That said, so much about this episode infuriated me. Why wait until now to introduce Mia's (Sevigny) mother and low-life brother? Beyond revealing the reason Mia would occasionally wear a pig's nose and chant "I'm a real boy" (a common taunt from her carnie brother when she was a boy struggling with her gender identity), it just came out of nowhere. Another example of how the UK system doesn't always have enough time to tell a story in a way that feels natural and cleverly drawn out. And why give Mia's mother almost exactly the same aloof personality as mute uncle Liam? Speaking of whom, having Liam take the fall for murdering John to protect Riley (Karla Crome) elicited nothing but a groan from me. The character existed entirely to make this grand gesture for his niece, which I wasn't very happy about.

It was also obvious that the finale would pit Mia against her boss Eddie (Peter Wight), and having Mia fail to pull off a hit for one of Eddie's clients, forcing him to go after her to make amends, was a decent enough way for that to come about. It's just a shame it was another story that lurched to that point, which made it feel rather convoluted. If they had more episodes to play with, it might have been nice to actually see some of the the people who pay for Eddie's services, and make us care that he's been forced to kill Mia (who in many ways is a surrogate daughter in his eyes). But, as it was, it just came across as a manipulation to arrive at the episode's final Mexican stand-off tableau: Eddie aiming a gun at Mia, while her innocent son Ryan (Jordan Bennie) pointed a rifle on Eddie. Like father, like son.

The biggest annoyance with Hit & Miss was undoubtedly the lack of subtlety on display. The scripts gave us some incredibly lame ways to symbolize things, or create subtext. In this finale alone, we had Mia standing naked in front of a dress mirror, penis on show, spitting at her own reflection; and a butterfly landed on the scope of Mia's gun, causing her to miss her quarry. (Do butterflies even come out at night?) Things always felt so heavy-handed that you couldn't take much of it seriously, as it was always a whisker away from parody. And I'm still confused when it comes to Levi (Reece Noi), Ryan and Riley's reactions to Mia—who came across as a lunatic on many occasions but was never held accountable for her erratic behaviour. In this episode, from their perspective, Mia was suddenly ordering them to pack their bags and go on the run with her, and it didn't feel plausible that none of the kids would demand to know why. They undoubtedly knew that Mia was a strange woman with secrets who does a shady job for the equally sketchy Eddie, but why weren't they asking more questions?

And yet, for all its faults, Hit & Miss remained oddly entertaining. Perhaps it was because you couldn't take it seriously enough to be deeply insulted by its stupidity, or that some surprisingly strong performances and memorable sequences flowed through these six episodes. It may not have hung together as an all-encompassing idea (the show's "transgender hitman" USP, as many have complained, wasn't necessary for the most part), but it was at least something very different to the original dramas that are currently being made by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Sky Atlantic have a long way to go before they succeed in becoming a British HBO (making original TV programmes that people want to pay a premium for), but Hit & Miss was an intriguing first attempt.

I can't say I'm excited by the prospect of a second series, however, even if there are definitely questions left to explore (mainly how nobody knows Mia's a contract killer), because the show hasn't proven it can tackle things in a way that's satisfying. Still, maybe Sean Conway will sit back, take stock of where the show went wrong, and get his mate Paul Abbott's advice about how to turn this into a unqualified hit by avoiding the many misses.

written by Sean Conway / directed by Sheree Folkson / 26 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Review: THE NEWSROOM, 1.1 – "We Just Decided To"

**½ (out of four)


Aaron Sorkin offers another workplace drama to compliment Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, populated by familiar archetypes and snappy dialogue. The Newsroom is hardly a stretch for the award-winning writer, who recently moved back into feature films with Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network and Moneyball, but there's clearly something Sorkin wants to say about the media in the long-form of television. The problem with Sorkin is how his style and politics are now so ingrained in viewers that The Newsroom lacks a bite and freshness it may have done last century. It's just another platform for Sorkin to spread his idealism, through an assortment of characters you half-recognize because they're constituent parts of his previous characters. This excellent viral video even proves that Sorkin recycles his own beautiful dialogue, to be spoken by whichever mouthpiece is available.

The Newsroom concerns moderate Republican anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), referred to as the "Jay Leno of news" because his success is built on fence-sitting and keeping his political opinions to himself. (It's funny to note that these are considerable virtues in UK newsreaders that British audiences expect and demand.) However, after a scene inspired by Network (also appropriated in Studio 60), where McAvoy's cajoled into giving a speech about America's failures as a nation, the start of a new phase in McAvoy's TV career is triggered. In comes ex-girlfriend exec-producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) to run his newsroom, bringing an ideology for intelligent journalism that speaks to McAvoy's reawakened sense of public duty. And so begins the renaissance of Atlantis Cable News (ACN) on the airwaves, given an oily baptism thanks to the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when a BP oil rig explodes, with McAvoy's team given various scoops via MacKenzie's producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr).

That last sentence is perhaps where The Newroom needs to worry. It becomes clear halfway through the pilot that events are taking place a few years in the past, which obviously gives Sorkin perfect hindsight to pitch his story in a manner that means ACN don't put a foot wrong and report on the infamous oil spill in an effective, disciplined, noble, intelligent way. I can see why Sorkin chose this direction, because it's easier than creating fictional scenarios that are just inspired by real events, but it also comes across as cheating. It's just too easy to sit back with a self-righteous tone and write virtuous characters, with the benefit of hindsight. It gives Sorkin a platform to admonish real-life TV media and how they dealt with breaking news stories, from a position of obvious privilege. It's easy to critique the past, so what a shame The Newsroom isn't courageous enough to make bold statements about how more current events are being tackled, without time and distance to make a judgement in retrospect.

Beyond that bugbear, which may or may not grow into a major problem going forward, there was much to enjoy about The Newsroom. Sorkin doesn't write people in a wholly realistic manner, but there's no denying his nimble dialogue is sweet on the ear. Daniels is also terrific in the lead as tetchy McAvoy, comfortably shouldering the weight of the show and making his character into a compelling workplace monster whose heart's in the right place. Mortimer's his equal, blessedly keeping her English accent (she apparently had problems keeping an American one flowing with Sorkin's dialogue), and the background characters all demonstrate promise—from resident blogger Neal (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) to winsome associate producer Maggie (In Treatment's Alison Pill). They're a talented group of actors that clearly relish the chance to chew on Sorkin's funny, flowing words. Sure, normal people aren't as loquacious as they are in the Sorkinverse, which means this show is another idealistic fantasy land, but as a viewer I admit to enjoying seeing people operating at a higher capacity than normal.

Overall, while The Newsroom isn't stretching Aaron Sorkin's talents, and is comprised of familiar characters and reheated speechifying, I was entertained and bewitched by the adroit script and performances. The only concern I have is Sorkin's decision to have the fictional news tackle real stories, albeit written from a future perspective, because it's too easy to sneer at how the real press dealt with various events and have your own fictional characters choose the righteous path. I'd have been more impressed if The Newsroom was dealing with current events in parallel to the likes of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, but obviously that would be a Herculean task for a drama writer. It's tricky enough when sitcoms like Drop the Dead Donkey attempt that level of topicality. At least Sorkin's on considerably safer ground than his last TV project, the summarily cancelled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where his deficiencies as a comedy writer failed to make that show feel authentic.

I'm looking forward to sampling more of this, although I hope the issues I had with the narrative's POV don't prove to be an insurmountable error of judgement on Sorkin's part.

written by Aaron Sorkin / directed by Greg Mottola / 24 June 2012 / HBO

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: ALAN PARTRIDGE – WELCOME TO THE PLACES OF MY LIFE

***½ (out of four)


It's strange to think that Steve Coogan's alter ego, incompetent broadcaster Alan Partridge, has only appeared in a handful of TV programmes actually doing his day job (The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You, and webseries Mid Morning Matters). His most famous outing, the award-winning sitcom I'm Alan Partridge, instead took a tragicomic look at his sad life as his career declines. And that makes Welcome to the Places of My Life all the more special to me, because it puts the character back in the spoof genre he originated from. Sky Atlantic's offering was a side-splittingly funny mockumentary, with Alan taking us on a guided tour of his beloved Norfolk ("the Wales of the east"), meeting the locals and extolling the county's virtues and history along the way. Wait until you hear what Hitler had planned for Norwich..

As a bonafide Pear Tree Production, I was particularly amused by the shoddiness of Welcome to the Places of my Life (hereafter Welcome)—with its many editing errors in a desperate attempts to create something usable. Take the hilarious moment when Alan was interviewing a swimming instructor while treading water in a pool, suddenly losing stamina halfway through, meaning the remainder of the piece was blatantly completed by inserting post-interview footage of a composed Alan asking questions to thin air. Plus there were the usual examples of Alan trying to keep a look of professionalism, when members of the public wander across his path, or he stumbles and valiantly tries to hide his gaffes from the camera. Sure, it's not entirely plausible that this programme would have reached the airwaves in such a slapdash state, but to hell with realism if it's this funny.

Coogan's a virtuoso when it comes to performing in character, and Alan Partridge remains his masterpiece because he's spent so long in the character's shoes. Even knowing Alan's not real (a sad thought), he exists in an alternate universe Coogan occasionally lets us peer into—and with a recent autobiography, a second Sky special, more Mid Morning Matters, and the long-awaited Partridge movie just round the corner, it feels like Coogan's happier to oblige his fans. There was a troubling mid-'00s period where it felt like Coogan considered Alan to be a millstone around his neck, and fled to America to find success without Partridge hanging over him. Moderate success did indeed follow in movies like Tropic Thunder and Night at the Museum, thanks to showbiz pals like Ben Stiller, although his career hardly thrived as it did for Peter Seller (a comic actor he was often compared to, until it became cooler to compare Sacha Baron Cohen). Whatever the reason for this profusion of Partridge projects, as a fan of the socially-awkward DJ from Norfolk, I'm just grateful Coogan's giving us plenty more to laugh about.

And make no mistake about it, Welcome was the funniest thing Alan Partridge has been involved with since 2002's dicey second series of I'm Alan Partridge. This faux-documentary played to the character's every strength: his ham-fisted presenting technique (count the times Alan ends a link with a gormless stare or off-camera remark), the superiority complex (a heated argument with a Land Rover dealer over motoring particulars), the snobby attitude (looking down his nose at a gregarious fruit n' veg seller), the impatience (a chat with a reverend in a graveyard whose incessant pauses were untidily tightened in the edit), the silly facial expressions, the moments of bullying (seizing a chance to settle a score with an old schoolteacher), the peculiar turns of phrase, a clear hatred of the public (venting road rage at an old cyclist), his hysterically effusive and complex sentences, or his pitiful attempts to look cool (a visit to a dry ski slope). The character's a gift from heaven if you write comedy, as this quote alone will attest:

"The Black Death was very much the HIV of its day; but rather than be transmitted by blood transfusions, sexual intercourse, or heavy kissing, this plague was airborne. Let me put that in context for you: flying AIDS. (to a butcher) Two handfuls of sausage meat, please."
I have no idea if that reads funny without imagining Alan's voice and toothy grins, but that's the thing with character-based comedy: they rely on the audience knowing, understanding, and believing in the fiction being presented. And when it works, it's arguably the funniest brand of comedy around, and one Britain excels at.

written by Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons & Rob Gibbons / 25 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

TRUE BLOOD, 5.3 – "Whatever I Am, You Made Me"

*½ (out of four)


Now I start wondering if there's any point reviewing True Blood every week, because the show's reached the point where it's a struggle to say anything new about it. You know my core issues by now, and they're not going to be fixed any time soon. (There are far too many characters, most stuck in pointless or boring subplots.) In every episode, an hour's worth of stuff happens—some good, some bad, most forgettable—and you finish each episode with a mix of emotions. If most of the episode revolved around characters/plots you care about, you'll be happy enough; if it doesn't, you shake your head and pray it's better next week. Alan Ball's making the show he wants to make, which is a successful recipe from a ratings perspective, so I'm not even surprised he refuses to change things. For him and the majority of fans, True Blood remains gruesome, sexy, silly fun. I don't begrudge people having their fun during the summer with a brainless show like this, but I'm surprised more people aren't upset this show isn't better.

What happened this week? As usual, a lot of stuf—but none of it felt very relevant. Tara (Rutina Wesley) is still exceedingly angry that Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) had her turned into a vampire, despite the fact it was that or death (which feels ungrateful to me), and spent most of this episode locked in a refrigeration unit to, um, cool off. Tara's "maker" Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) reminisced about her life as a brothel madam in 1905, during which time she forced Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) to turn her into a vampire by attempting suicide, which required a continuation of last episode's flashbacks that made them less superfluous. In fact, the flashbacks here were more entertaining than the present-day story.

Meanwhile, Alcide (Joseph Manganiello) learned the awful truth about Sookie killing his ex-girlfriend Debbie Pelt in self-defense, so she's off his Christmas card list. Sheriff Andy (Chris Bauer) discovered his girlfriend's teenage sons have posted a nude photo of him on Facebook; a story that almost put me in a coma. Lafayette poured bleach into a stew back at Merlotte's, because he was momentarily possessed by the "baboon-gremlin" spirit from season 4 that I've forgotten the inner workings of.

More entertaining was Eric and Bill (Stephen Moyer) being outfitted with the vampire version of electronic ankle-tags (heart-mounted, iPhone-activated chest stakes) to ensure their obedience to the Authority while recapturing the escaped Russell Edgington; and sexy Chancellor Salome (Valentina Cervi) fulfilled this week's nudity quota by sleeping with them both. It's just a shame Bill and Eric spent the episode floating around Authority HQ, when they should really have been sent out on their mission. The sooner this storyline lets Eric and Bill roam Louisiana, trying to bag Russell Edgington for a second time, the better.

Elsewhere, Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) went gaga for the smell of a young man in a clothes store, whom I consequently assume is a fairy (sorry, Fae) like Sookie. (A big clue was use of the same music for the Fae sequences from last season.) Jason (Ryan Kwanten) reconnected with the MILF schoolteacher he lost his virginity to 15 years ago, which helped him realise he's incapable of being friends with women and has been using sex to fill a void in his life. Hopefully you'll have forgotten that this is a personal crisis Jason has been grappling with for years already, because clearly the writers have no idea what to do with him. He's either embracing his libido for laughs and eye candy reasons, or trying to put a lid on his sex drive for so-called drama.

Most bizarrely, chirpy Steve Newlin's (Michael McMillian) succeeded Nan Flanagan as the Authority's spin doctor, which makes no sense whatsoever. Why would Roman (Chris Meloni) give a four-month-old vampire such a prestigious and important position? And why do the writers think it's a good idea to have Newlin, an intrinsically goofy character, join one of the show's strait-laced storylines? Oh, and Nora (Lucy Griffiths) was interrogated with intravenous silver by the South's version of Sharon Osbourne, while heartbroken Hoyt (Jim Parrack) discovered eyeliner. Yes, really.

It all washes over me these days, which is probably for the best. I like the potential of Eric and Bill as bounty hunter types, together with the supreme silliness of vampire lore and how it's now a secret history sitting alongside Christianity. I also enjoy Pam's sardonic quips, and will happily watch more of Italian actress Valentina Cervi naked. I approve of Jessica's new pink dress, too. And the flashbacks are often the most enjoyable aspect of the series, even if they're not always strictly necessary. But everything else this season gets a big, resounding sigh from me. If it wasn't for my sense of professionalism and a degree of masochism, I'd be fast-forwarding a good 70% of these episodes.

Is that what everyone else is doing to cope?

written by Raelle Tucker / directed by David Petrarca / 24 June 2012 / HBO

Monday, 25 June 2012

TV Picks: 25 June – 1 July 2012 (Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life, The Bachelor, Gordon Behind Bars, the Hollow Crown, Line of Duty, Veep, etc.)


MONDAY 25th
Wimbledon (BBC1, 1.45pm) Live coverage of the annual tennis Grand Slam tournament. Presented by Sue Barker. Continues every day for a fortnight, various times.
Food Factory (BBC1, 7.30pm) Series 3 of the food show that investigates mass-produced meals. Presented by Stefan Gates, taking over from Jimmy Doherty. (1/6)
Strictly Kosher (ITV1, 9pm) Documentary about the lives of a Jewish community living in Manchester. Concludes tomorrow. (1/2)
Lifers (Channel 4, 9pm) Documentary on Gartree Prison in Leicestershire, which has Europe's highest concentration of prisoners on life sentences.
Can We Trust The Police? (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary about the public’s perception of the police and their trust in the system that protects them. Presented by Adam Deacon.
Storyville: Girl Model (BBC4, 9pm) Documentary about young Japanese models, including a 13-year-old girl who was living in poverty in Siberia before becoming a model in Tokyo.
PICK OF THE DAY Alan Partridge: Welcome To The Places Of My Life (Sky Atlantic, 9pm) Comedy travelogue from the Norwich DJ and TV presenter. Starring Steve Coogan.
Veep (Sky Atlantic, 10pm) Season 1 of the US political comedy. Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons & Matt Walsh. Written and directed by Armando Iannucci. (1/8)
Walking & Talking (Sky Atlantic, 10.30pm) Brand new comedy based on the life of actor/comedian Kathy Burke. (1/4)


TUESDAY 26th
Love Your Garden (ITV1, 8pm) Series 2 of the gardening show. Hosted by Alan Titchmarsh. (1/6)
Turn Back Time: The Family (BBC1, 9pm) Series where three modern families experience life in five eras of the past century. (1/5)
PICK OF THE DAY Line Of Duty (BBC2, 9pm) Cop drama about a police officer transferred to the anti-corruption unit to investigate a colleague. Starring Lennie James, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Gina McKee, Neil Morrissey, Adrian Dunbar, Craig Parkinson & Kate Ashfield. (1/5)
Gordon Behind Bars (Channel 4, 9pm) Brand new series where Gordon Ramsay tries to turn prisoners into cooks, to setup a business selling to the public. (1/4)
Coming Here Soon: Greece, Bust & Broken (BBC3, 9pm) Investigation into the country’s financial meltdown.
Imagine (BBC1, 10.35pm) Return of the arts and culture series, starting with documentary behind-the-scenes of stage play "The Two Worlds of Charlie F"
talhotblond: (Channel 4, 11.10pm) Documentary about an online relationship between a middle-aged man and an 18-year-old, whom he killed after she spurned his advances after learning about his age.

WEDNESDAY 27th
Nothing.

THURSDAY 28th
Nothing.

FRIDAY 29th
Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads (Channel 5, 8pm) Series 2 of the show where six brave Alaskan truckers test their mettle on the winding roads of the Andes. (1/13)
The Circus (ITV1, 9pm) Documentary about one of the UK’s oldest circuses, run by the Paulo family.
PICK OF THE DAY The Bachelor (Channel 5, 10pm) Series 2 of the dating gameshow where an eligible celebrity bachelor goes on a series of dates to find his perfect match. Starring Made In Chelsea's Spencer Matthews.


SATURDAY 30th
PICK OF THE DAY The Hollow Crown (BBC2, 9pm) Series of four Shakespeare plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II, Henry V). Starring Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet, David Morrissey, Lindsay Duncan, James Purefoy, Clemence Posey, Tom Hughes, David Bradley, Patrick Stewart, Richard Bremner, Daniel Boyd & Tom Goodman-Hill.


SUNDAY 1st
Nothing.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Movie Review: THE GREY (2012)

***½ (out of four)


Joe Carnahan puts his post-Narc career back on course with the effective and unexpectedly spiritual The Grey, starring his A-Team lead Liam Neeson as another alpha male thrown into a life-or-death situation. Here, Neeson keeps his Irish brogue to play suicidal John Ottway, a hunter employed to kill the wolves that endanger an oil team in Alaska. Then, one fateful night during a blizzard, Ottway becomes one of seven drillers to survive a plane crash on their way home. Stranded in the snowy wilderness with little hope of rescue, Ottway takes charge to keep the men alive and get to safety, which becomes particularly difficult when the survivors realise they've attracted the attention of a vicious and persistent pack of grey wolves...

The Grey is your classic survivalist drama—owing a debt to everything from Alive (duly referenced), Cast Away and Jaws, to Predator and Pitch Black. It's man vs nature, which is something we've seen countless times, but this is one of the better examples of the sub-genre in some time. It helps that the relatively predicable storyline is buoyed by strong performances, and a potent air of existential anguish. At first, the title appears to elude to the genus of wolf that are stalking Ottway's own "pack", but I prefer to believe it's referencing the intermediate state between life (white) and death (black). Lives hang in the balance throughout this film, as any character could be attacked and mauled to death by an emboldened wolf any second. I haven't seen a superficially dumb film better itself in this way since Neil Marshall's spelunking horror The Descent—which crafted a similar atmosphere of chilly trepidation, albeit with 100% more oestrogen.

The direction from Carnahan is sharp and assured, most memorably in a bravura plane crash sequence (viewed from the vantage point of Ottway, bracing for impact across three seats). There were also some lovely visual touches scattered throughout, such as how Ottway is often lurched out of a tranquil dream when reality reasserts its grip, or how the dying are often comforted by poignant hallucinations of family members. The sound design and cinematography are also responsible for delivering much of the film's spectacle, menace, awe, and beauty. The villainous wolves, a mix of CGI and animatronics, are wisely used in moderation—often just an auditory threat of growls and howls, or cloaked in darkness with their silvery eyes hovering in the twilight.

Neeson embraces his best role since Taken, and it's fascinating to see how the autumn of his career's been marked with high-concept movies that, in some ways, have a straight-to-video feel about them. He brings gravitas and subtlety to the stanch Ottway, which helps pull his character out of a few eye-rolling moments (like his wistful memories of a poetry-loving father back in Ireland), and it seems more than likely The Grey's focus on the people left behind when loved ones die spoke to the actor—who suffered the tragic loss of his wife not long ago.

A moment when Ottway wails in anger and fury at God's apathy, head raised to a cloudy and indifferent sky, spoke strongly to my belief Neeson saw something deeper in the script than the B-movie logline suggests. I did, too.

directed by Joe Carnahan / written by Joe Carnahan & Ian MacKenzie Jeffers (based on the short story "Ghost Walker" by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) / starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie & James Badge Dale / 117 mins.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Sky's new shows: BRIZE NORTON, DUCK QUACKS DON'T ECHO, HELP ME I'M HUMAN!, MOONE BOY, MOONFLEET, THE SMOKE, and YOU & WHOSE ARMY?


Sky's announced another brace of TV shows that will join their channels later this year and the next. These include three entertainment pilots: Duck Quacks Don't Echo (a comedy panel show about erroneous trivia), Help Me I'm Human! (a comedy chat show focused on modern dilemmas), and You And Whose Army? (a challenge series between two celebrities and a handpicked team of friends, family and acquaintances). These were all commissioned by Phil Edgar-Jones, formerly of Channel 4, who is now looking to make his mark as Sky's Head of Entertainment.

In addition, Sky has already renewed Charlie Brooker's detective show spoof A Touch Of Cloth (starring John Hannah and Suranne Jones) for more episodes after August's 90-minute special. A two-parter entitled Cloth Undercover is currently filming for a 2013 release, together with a two-hour TV movie. Sky have released a clip from the show (which I'll embed here when possible), and it suggests this comedy will be in the silly Naked Gun tradition. My first impression is one of concern, however, given how the jokes feel so old-hat, but maybe it'll work better in context.

Moone Boy, created by Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids), a comedy-drama set in 1989 about an 11-year-old living in Ireland, has also been picked up for a second series before the first has even aired. O'Dowd has written the show, and will also appear as the lead character's imaginary friend Sean Murphy. The series was adapted from O'Dowd's vignette in Sky's Little Crackers series and will air in September.

There's also an eight-part fire-fighting drama called The Smoke; an adaptation of John Meade Falkner's smuggling novel Moonfleet from Ashley Pharoah (Life On Mars); a brand new Ross Kemp fronted documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder; a fly-on-the-wall documentary series set inside RAF Brize Norton; and a third iteration of comedy travelogue Idiot Abroad called The Short Way Round (where dimwit Karl Pilkington teams up with Warwick Davies).

Existing hits have also been given renewal; from working class family drama Starlings, to a third festive helping of the aforementioned Little Crackers (with seasonal stories from Katy Brand, Joanna Lumley, Jason Manford, Alison Steadman and Paul O'Grady). Action drama Strike Back will also be returning very soon, continuing the partnership deal with America's Cinemax channel.

What do you think of all that? There are definitely some exciting and intriguing new shows on the way, and I'm glad many of them won't be stuck on Sky Atlantic, but more freely available via Sky1.

Review: TRUE LOVE (BBC1)


Here's an abject lesson in how to waste potential, if ever I saw one. True Love could have been a small-screen drama-heavy version of Love, Actually (there are signs it wanted to be), but for some inexplicable reason writer-director Dominic Savage largely chose miserablism. I like the basic concept, though: five half-hour love stories, broadcast across four nights, with a few characters straying into other episodes, all set in the seaside town of Margate. And look at the fabulous cast assembled: Doctor Who's David Tennant, Inside Men's Ashley Walters, Secret Diary's Billie Piper, Ab Fab's Jane Horrocks, State Of Play's David Morrissey, EastEnders' Lacey Turner, Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt, This Is England's Vicky McClure, Skins' Kaya Scodelario, Star Trek's Alexander Siddig, Fresh Meat's Gemma Chan, Nil By Mouth's Charlie Creed-Miles, Call The Midwife's Jenny Agutter, and Kidulthood's Jaime Winstone. It was a veritable who's who of veterans and rising stars, but their presence gave false hope. True Love, taken as a whole, stank.

"NICK" *½ (out of four)
I was going to try and pin-point why True Love failed, for the most part, but there's actually a multitude of reasons to take your pick from. Chief amongst them was the awful, half-improvised scripts (artistic flourish, or desperate attempt to salvage something from the project?), which came riddled with clichés, repetitive ideas, and tin-eared dialogue. We all know love isn't a bed of roses, and is a painful experience when it goes wrong, but for a summertime show airing across consecutive evenings, something more feel-good would have been preferable. Instead, True Love was too keen to explore negatives. We had Nick (Tennant) having an affair with his first love Serena (McClure) behind his wife Ruth's (Froggatt) back; then there was carpet warehouse manager Paul (Walters), likewise having an affair with a woman (Winstone) behind his wife's (Turner) back because she waved at him from a bus window. If you need to differentiate the two opening stories, Paul's was the one that ended gloomily instead of abstrusely.

"PAUL" * (out of four)
Next up was perky English schoolteacher Holly (Piper) having an affair with a pupil called Karen (Scodelario); the lesbian angle employed to make the situation more palatable than the obvious alternatives (a male teacher lusting after jailbait, of either gender). To be fair, Holly's story may have lacked courage, but Piper and Scodelario's chemistry together worked a peculiar kind of magic.

Then we met middle-aged Sandra (Horrocks), a gift shop owner stuck in a loveless marriage with David (Miles), the man Holly was sleeping with in the previous episode, who seized a chance to escape her ennui with dashing toilet cleaner Ishmael (Siddig). Horrocks brought a lot of sincerity to a thin role, but by this stage it had become clear each vignette isn't going to amount to anything stimulating. Given its concept, it's a shame the stories weren't interconnected to a far greater extent, if only to answer various questions. I mean, did David have sex with Holly because Sandra left him for another man? Or was he already seeing Holly behind his wife's back, making him a hypocrite?

"HOLLY" **½ (out of four)
The final story concerned a lonely divorcee called Adrian (Morrissey) who started corresponding with a girl called Kathy (Chan) online, who's living in Hong Kong, but decides to meet him during a trip to Europe. This was far and away the best episode of the run, possibly because Morrissey's the best improviser (most dialogue didn't sound half-baked for once), but mainly because the core story had some meat on the bones. The quality of this serial led me to believe Adrian's story would be a humdrum case of his internet lover being a gold-digger or scam artist, but the story avoided that pathway very nicely. Instead, Adrian's chance of true love was endangered by the romantic advances of schoolgirl Lorraine (Jo Woodcock), best-friend of his lesbian daughter Karen from Holly's story. That wrinkle even managed to knit two of the episodes together in a fun way, as one assumes Lorraine's infatuation stemmed from seeing her friend start a relationship with an adult. While hardly a remarkable piece of TV, the final episode of True Love was at least satisfying and ended the serial on a pleasing high note.

"SANDRA" *½ (out of four)
But, no matter that every episode was drizzled in love songs from the Heart FM jukebox, True Love was mostly too dull to make the human heart swell. Its saccharine love ballads were used multiple times throughout episodes, too, as if to manipulate our emotions because the story and performances couldn't be relied on. Watching a plethora of good actors struggle with bad or partial material was painful enough, and each actor didn't really get a chance to stretch themselves here. Having actors improvise rarely works, because most rely on clichés and half-forgotten dialogue from previous projects, which bubble up in their subconscious. (Turner was almost literally quoting an old EastEnders script in her heartfelt climax with Walters, for example.)

"ADRIAN" **½ (out of four)
The only good news is how viewers demonstrated excellent taste with their treatment of the show. The Tennant-headlining premiere opened to a respectable 3.11 million viewers on Sunday evening, only to tumble each day to a Wednesday night low of 1.49m. I can't say I'm surprised, but it's nice to know audiences saw through the stellar cast and picturesque cinematography. While it looked gorgeous and promising at first glance, without compelling and inventive scripts there was nothing in True Love to keep you anchored.

written & directed by Dominic Savage / 17-20 June 2012 / BBC1

Thursday, 21 June 2012

HIT & MISS - episode five


It's still as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, but Hit & Miss has proven to be oddly enjoyable despite that failing. As penultimate episode's go, this one didn't leave me desperate to see next week's finale, but I enjoyed the repercussion of Riley (Karla Crome) shooting John (Vincent Regan) dead as he tried to strangle her. It predictably led to Mia (Chloë Sevigny) taking charge of the situation, behaving suspiciously calm and collected around the gruesome scene, while getting into further debt with crime lord Eddie (Peter Wright), who acted as the "cleaner" to dispose of John using an axe and some plastic bags. John may have been the show's most overtly villainous presence, but Eddie's the one Mia really needs to escape from if she's to live a normal life (as a woman, with her newfound family). But Eddie has his hooks in deep; even giving Levi (Reece Noi) a job and feeling of responsibility.

A few things have started to irritate me, however. I'm confused about why little Ryan (Jordan Bennie) is now best-friends with John's son, who earlier in the series was nothing but a torment. Did I miss something, or forget a key development in their relationship? Ben's (Jonas Armstrong) dithering about whether or not to pursue a romance with Mia, reconciling his first instinct to run a mile when he learned she's a he, has also meant the character's been swimming in a small circle for a few episodes now. At least this episode, with Ben having penetrative sex, appears to put an end to that character's indecision. Or will Mia fly off the handle when she discovers he slept with a "real woman" to try and get over her? It also irritated me that two professional killers, Mia and Eddie, failed to succeed in a simple task of hiding a dead body—with the kids discovering John's decapitated head before the credits rolled. I mean, really? And what's with the creepy uncle, hanging around like a bad smell and doing magic tricks to entertain the kids? Is he just there to show that a dysfunctional weirdo is actually less dangerous than the more ordinary-looking Mia?

As I said, subtle is not this show's strong suit. The dream sequence with Mia playing hostess to a dinner table of her bloodied victims, as they passed a parcel around that contained John's head, was perhaps the biggest example of this. It was fun, but far too obvious. Or maybe it was the moment Mia donned a pregnancy suit, brandishing two handguns, after watching a "real woman" give birth (something she'll never, ever be able to do—which is the ultimate expression of femininity.)

Together with the fact much of Hit & Miss is trading on reheated soap-y plots, and I spend most episodes wishing the writing was more multifaceted. At times, it feels a few drafts short of the finished article, and when things get a little too conventional they remember to throw in a sequence where Mia's on a job and kills a mark. But as I've said all along, the performances are good and it's quite tricky to see where things will go. My guess is that Mia's going to kill Eddie (as the only means to escape her past), and the family are going to discover her true occupation. Whether or not they accept this, and let her turn over a new leaf, is anyone's guess. So too is whether Riley's going to confess to killing John because the guilt's too much. Or will Mia take the fall for her, proving herself as a "mother" and repenting for her sins by going to jail?

Hit & Miss isn't the masterwork I was hoping for when it was announced, but it's largely enjoyable and manages to keep you watching week to week. Credit the commitment of the fine cast and the superb cinematography from David Luther, but it's a shame the scripts aren't a great deal sharper and more perceptive.

written by Sean Conway / directed by Sheree Folkson / 19 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Competition Result: COVERT AFFAIRS DVD


Last weekend one of my irregular competitions was launched; this one to win a copy of Covert Affairs' first season on DVD (released 18 June 2012 in the UK). I'd love to say thousands of people entered, but that would be a barefaced lie. But hey, that's why you really must enter competitions here, because you have a fantastic chance of actually winning!

Anyway, the question posed was as follows:

Piper Perabo is the star of Covert Affairs, but which live-action/animated movie was her big break?

(a) The Smurfs
(b) The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
(c) Garfield


The answer was (b) The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle. I'm happy to say everyone got that right. But the winner, chosen at random, is:

Pete Aighton, Collompton

Congratulations, Pete! I have your address, so the DVD will be in your hands shortly. Thanks to everyone else who entered, and better luck next time.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: FALLING SKIES, 2.1 & 2.2 - "World's Apart" & "Shall We Gather at the River"

**½ (out of four)


I really enjoyed the first batch of Falling Skies episodes from season 1, but then the show started to spin its wheels and my interest diminished. I managed to watch the whole season, but beyond a few moments the show didn't capitalise on its concept and make its characters matter. Even now, I struggle to remember people's names, have no real connection with the majority of folk, and don't feel compelled to keep watching. Although, on a visual level, Falling Skies at least delivers the goods. The various alien paraphernalia, but particularly the two alien breeds themselves (the crab-like "skitters" and their sleek humanoid “Overlords"), look absolutely terrific. There appears to have been improvements with skin texture and animation between seasons, because they're remarkably lifelike and realistic this year. It's just a pity the humans don't leap off the screen as much.

Last season ended similarly to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, if Spielberg's aliens had been aggressors, with historian action hero Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) agreeing to board an alien ship to prevent his sons coming to harm. The two-part premiere (aptly airing on Father's Day) played around with chronology, featuring a jump forward in time by three months and subsequent use of flashbacks, but I was glad writer Mark Verheiden (Battlestar Galactica) played fair with the audience. We still got a decent look inside the spaceship Tom entered, in scenes echoing Fire In The Sky at times, and our first human/Overlord interaction.

The show feels like it's on surer footing when the humans are interacting with aliens, either personally or during a military attack in the streets. It's only when the focus shifts to the characters that you find yourself struggling to care sometimes. Wyle's great as the everyman protagonist trying to protect his three kids, and I like world-weary Captain Weaver (Will Patton doing Lee Majors), but almost everyone else are just vaguely familiar faces--still. And that's a shame, because I'd love to really care about the Mason's as a family dynamic, but I don't. The adults definitely need to rise up and take charge more; particularly Moon Bloodgood as Dr Glass and "bad boy" Pauly Shore-alike Colin Cunningham as biker/chef Pope. At least we have a few new faces introduced in this two-part premiere, such as engineer Jamil (The Killing's Brandon Jay McLaren), who may prove more immediately successful.

Overall, I'm going to stay positive about Falling Skies. I think the writers know what worked and failed last year, and there are some astute improvements already; like how the resistance is now fully mobile, which is great because the pacing was ruined by the frugal decision to have them take sanctuary in a high school for most of season 1. If the kids become better written, the adults take charge more, the action become more roving, and the overall story develop in enjoyable ways, Falling Skies could grow into a genuinely good alien invasion for the small-screen. It's one to keep watching and hoping for the best, because the conceptual basics are there, and lord knows the budget is.

written by Mark Verheiden (2.1) & Bradley Thompson & David Weddle (2.2) / directed by Greg Beeman / 17 June 2012 / TNT

Monday, 18 June 2012

TRUE BLOOD, 5.2 - "Authority Always Wins"

** (out of four)


An improvement on the messy premiere, for a reason we've come to expect: less focus on the bad storylines the second-tier characters are occupied with, more on the good ones that feel relevant. As someone who enjoyed the vampire politics of True Blood's first few seasons, I'm glad we're back to that particular well. Seeing Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bill (Stephen Moyer) detained in the vampire equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, interrogated by politely threatening Dieter Braun (Hell On Wheels' Christopher Heyerdahl) using intravenous silver, was all rather enjoyable. Those two are fast becoming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with added fangs, while Heyerdahl's positioning as the affordable TV version of Christoph Waltz makes me giggle.

The climactic scene where the two mutinous vampires came face-to-face with the secretive Vampire Authority--a group of Chancellor's that includes Spartacus' Peter Mensah, led by their ancient leader Roman (Chris Meloni)--was also a highlight. Throw in baffling secret history about the "original Bible", detailing how God created "vampyre" in his own image, starting with the famous progenitor Lilith, and the Authority's fundamentalist belief that humans were later created as food, and True Blood was back on ludicrously enjoyable form. There's nothing original about any of this, as it's another variation on the "secret vampire subculture" trope that's a standard of the genre, but I at least hope the details are enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episode was filler of varying quality. Tara's (Rutina Wesley) been transformed into Looney Toons' Tasmanian Devil, becoming feral and unwilling to have a conversation. Lord knows why, as I don't recall this being the case with other newborn vampires. Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) were consequently stuck trying to look after Tara the tornado for the whole episode, grappling with mixed feelings about whether or not they should continue to let her exist in this supernatural state. This story's only engaging if you care about Tara and her relationship with her two best friends, but for me it's almost unbearable. And for many others, one would imagine.

But it wasn't as pointless as Sam (Sam Trammell) having to deal with his girlfriend Luna (Janine Gavankar) becoming an unreasonable bitch, because the writers have grown bored again. But even Sam's nonsense with the wolf pack was preferable to Terry (Todd Lowe) having nightmares about a wartime secret he's never told his wife Arlene (Carrie Preston) about, or Jason (Ryan Kwanten) being confronted by an angry teenager for sleeping with his mother. Where did that come from?

Of more interest was national celebrity Reverend Newlin (Michael McMillian) appearing on TV to announce he's a vampire and has changes his mind about vampires being unholy creatures of sin. (As you would.) I find Newlin to be quite an amusing prick, actually. He's True Blood's version of Ned Flanders and that's often fun to watch, although he's another character caught in the midst of a thin, stupid storyline: making a $20,000 indecent proposal for Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) to let him to sleep with her boyfriend Jason. Is that really something the show wants to pursue? Jessica showing her midriff was some compensation, although I'm completely confused about her feelings for Jason. They spent the majority of season 4 chasing each other like horny teenagers, last week she was blasé about Jason in front of her college pals, and this week she's offended that Newlin wants her to play pimp. I know Jessica's been a reckless and unpredictable character (most of the time), but I'm already at a point where I can't invest in Jason/Jessica (Jassica?) as a couple because they're so inconsistent.

A flashback explaining how wise-ass Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) became a vampire was, well, part of this episode. I don't think we really needed to know Pam was a turn-of-the-century prostitute saved from being raped in the street by Eric, and this gave us no deeper insight into Pam's personality, her attitude towards creating other vampires, or as a thematic echo of what Tara's going through now. Like much of True Blood nowadays, it felt included to soak up airtime, and as something to cut to.

But as I said at the start, a fair chunk of "Authority Always Wins" was spent on the more dramatic Eric/Bill situation, and at least having so many weak subplots means none of them last too long. It's just unfortunate how you spend most of True Blood twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the characters/plots you're interested in to hurry back. Still, with the reveal that Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare) is definitely coming back, once he's recovered from his full-body wounds after his concrete burial, I'm hopeful he'll revitalise this season. But as of episode 2, I'm still not certain what the big picture is. My guess is the Authority will need to be stopped by the vampires who've become more sympathetic to humans, such as Eric and Bill, and that the original vampire Lilith's going to make some kind of grandiose return Queen Of The Damned-style.

written by Mark Hudis / directed by Michael Lehmann / 17 June 2012 / HBO

TV Picks: 18-24 June 2012 (Chris Moyles' Comedy Empire, Prime Suspect USA, Radio 1's Big Weekend, Sex & The Sitcom, etc.)


MONDAY 18th
London On Film (BBC4, 8.30pm) Documentary on the various aspects of London captured on film, beginning with the West End.
Chris Moyles' Comedy Empire (BBC3, 10pm) Gala evening of comedy from the Hackney Empire, hosted by Chris Moyles. Featuring Mark Watson, Jason Bryne, Andrew Maxwell, and many others.
PICK OF THE DAY Prime Suspect [USA] (Universal, 10pm) US remake of the long-running and influential British drama about a tough female detective. Starring Maria Belo, Brian F. O'Byrne, Aidan Quinn, Peter Gerety, Kirk Acevedo & Tim Griffin. (1/13)


TUESDAY 19th
PICK OF THE DAY Joely Richardson On Shakespeare's Women (BBC4, 9pm) Series where famous actors examine specific aspects of William Shakespeare's oeuvre, beginning with Joely Richardson and female characters in his plays.

WEDNESDAY 20th
PICK OF THE DAY Cherry Healey's How To Get A Life (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary about modern life and current attitudes. (1/6)
The Strange Case Of The Law (BBC4, 9pm) The story of the English judicial system. Presented by Harry Potter (no, not that one). (1/3)

THURSDAY 21st
Nothing.

FRIDAY 22nd
PICK OF THE DAY Simon Schama's Shakespeare (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary about Shakespeare's work and how it dramatised history in an unprecedented way.
David Bowie & The Story Of Ziggy Stardust (BBC4, 9pm) Documentary on the singer and his '70s alter-ego.

SATURDAY 23rd
PICK OF THE DAY Radio 1's Big Weekend (BBC3, 7pm) Coverage of the annual music festival organised by BBC Radio 1, featuring Ed Sheeran, Nicki Minaj, Kasabian, Jay Z, Leona Lewis, Rita Ora, Tinie Tempah, Jessie J, Emeli Sande, Biffy Clyro, and many more. Hosted by Fearne Cotton, Greg James & Gemma Cairney. Concludes tomorrow.
Sex & The Sitcom (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary about sex in UK sitcoms; from innuendo-laden classics like Up, Pompeii and Hancock, to more modern shows like the '90s Men Behaving Badly. Contributions from Simon Nye & Jonathan Harvey.

SUNDAY 24th
Nothing.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Hardware Review: VIRGIN MEDIA TIVO


It's been available for awhile now, but I recently took the plunge and bought one of Virgin Media's new TiVo boxes. No, before you ask, it wasn't those David Tennant adverts that swayed me. I opted for the 500GB model, rather than the premium 1TB model, mainly because I don't record and keep enough HD content to make the 1TB a key requirement. I nearly always record, watch and delete everything within a week or so.

The many features of the TiVo have been well-documented over the months by professional gadget geeks, so I'll just give my overall impression of the key aspects I find most desirable and impressive.

Audio-visual. People forget that the primary function of a DVR is to display things to the consumer on their TV screens. I've heard it said that the TiVo doesn't handle standard-def channels as well as the old V+HD boxes, but I think this issue's been fixed in an update, or my Toshiba flatscreen isn't an affected model. I didn't notice any real difference, see. The HD channels are likewise very good, and appear to be an improvement. But that could just be wishful thinking. Whatever's the truth, I'm more than happy with the output of the TiVo. The option to have audio go "Dolby Digital to PCM" is also very handy for me, because it means all the sound can be processed in my dedicated 5.1 surround sound system.

Menus & EPG. Virgin had an ugly yellow-black aesthetic for its set-top boxes before TiVo (don't they know that colour combination means danger in nature?), but this has thankfully been abandoned. The new menus have a red themed TiVo design with discrete Virgin logos, looking very similar to the US TiVo boxes. They're much faster and easier to navigate than V+HD and Sky+HD, with far less lag. I even like the default setting that gives a pleasant "pop", "bloop" or "bong" sound effects when you press buttons, move around, or encounter errors...

Apps & Games. This isn't something I'm especially interested in, but after you sign-up through Virgin's website it's possible to connect the TiVo to your Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts. I haven't done so yet, because you need a keyboard to prevent yourself going crazy trying to text-type with a remote control. But the Facebook connectivity could be fun, as it means you could view family photos/videos on your TV with ease.

YouTube. Technically, this should come under the app section above, but I think it's deserving of its own paragraph. There's a TiVo feature that I never hear anyone talk about, but it's bloody fantastic. If you have a phone/tablet, you can pair that device with your TiVo wirelessly, then go to "m.youtube.com", select "remote" from the grid options, and stream your YouTube content directly to your television. For me, this is a very unexpected and brilliant innovation. I have lots of videos "favourited" that I now prefer to playback via my TiVo, giving you the ability to show home videos more communally (rather than get everyone hunched around a laptop/tablet). Oh, and because the TiVo accesses the internet with its own dedicate broadband line, there's no slowdown of your internet speed for anyone else in the house using their computer. Bonus!


Series-linking. This isn't new to me, because it was the main reason I bought a V+HD box many years ago, but TiVo makes the process faster and smoother. It also helps that it's now capable of recording THREE things simultaneously, which puts an end to most recording clashes and me having to sacrifice a recording and try to watch it later via on-demand. This was often because recordings overlapped for just a few minutes at the start/end, too! I don't have to worry about any of that now, because it's unlikely a jam will happen with the extra tuner.

Small joys. I like the info banner that can be called up during a show you're watching, because it has handy tabs of information and, best of all, a useful green line showing how long a show's been airing with a quick glance.

I also like the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" idea of ranking content you watch, which in turn enables TiVo to develop a profile of you and suggest other things you may like. For me, this isn't an especially useful thing, because I already know what's on, but it may catch the odd thing I would have missed. Regardless, there's something very satisfying about giving a show the maximum three thumbs down or up.

Being able to explore the TV guide backwards is a delight, mainly because it's a much easier way to find a show you missed and (in most cases) play it using one of the integrated catch-up services (BBC iPlayer, 4OD, ITV Player, etc.)

There's a button called "slow" that does exactly what you imagine to live television. It's hard to see what it could be useful for, though, beyond savouring some risqué pop videos or watching THAT scene in Basic Instinct.

The "peanut" remote control is amazingly comfortable, and despite looking quite childish in someways, I prefer to see it as "fun". The buttons are pleasing to push and nicely laid out. A big improvement on my V+HD controller, and Sky's own flatter remote.

And finally, the TiVo doesn't have a pointless display on the box with the current channel number. This means it's less of a distraction if you're watching TV with the lights low/off. I'm amazed it took them that long to realise people are quite happy using the huge TV screen to note what channel they're watching, and don't need the box to tell them.

The downsides. There are downsides to TiVo, of course, but not very many. I miss being able to set on-screen "reminders" on the TV guide, but Virgin seem to think that's an antiquated idea and you should instead be immediately recording things. But that's silly to me. Sometimes you just want a handy reminder about something. I hope the reminders come back.

I also find it can be a struggle to watch something on "catch-up", despite how TiVo has integrated it better. You're still sent to a ridiculous number of sub-screens until whatever you want to watch starts to play. It shouldn't really take longer than two button presses. Admittedly the process is easier if you just use the TV guide and browse backwards through the listings, but there's still room for improvement overall.

Recommendations for the future. It's still a shame no DVR on the market has a USB port viewers can use (or so I believe). This would allow you to connect an external hard-drive or data-stick and play music/videos or slideshow photos. If one did, I'd be using my TiVo more often than my Playstation 3 (which does have USB and allows this common activity). It surely can't be that hard to add a USB port at the front, can it? Or are Virgin worried customers will realize they can torrent TV from the internet (ironically at great speed thanks to Virgin's cable broadband) and grab content to be played using the TiVo and bypass the broadcast TV option entirely.

In summation. I'm very happy with my purchase, and don't begrudge the £5 extra it's costing me each month. I tend to fritter away £5 on crap, so I'll just stop that and know the money's going somewhere worthwhile. Does this all mean Virgin's better than Sky? I believe so, even before TiVo arrived, unless you're particularly keen on the channels Sky hold as exclusive. But if you don't really care about sport and watch enough movies elsewhere (I subscribe to Lovefilm), it's hard to see why you'd choose Sky over Virgin if you're in a cabled area. Their TiVo box is the best DVR the UK has to offer, and appears to be something of a global leader in key areas. They should be rightly proud of it. With a few improvements here and there, I can't think of anything to complain about.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Competition: win COVERT AFFAIRS on DVD!


Covert Affairs is a USA Network drama about CIA trainee Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), who works for the Domestic Protection Division and is promoted to field operative to catch her ex-boyfriend. Co-starring Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty) and Peter Gallagher (The O.C), and produced by The Bourne Identity's Doug Liman Covert Affairs has become Really's most popular drama here in the UK.

The first season DVD box-set is released on Monday (18 June), but I have a FREE copy to give away to one lucky reader, courtesy of Universal Playback! To have a chance of winning, simply answer this question:

Piper Perabo is the star of Covert Affairs, but which live-action/animated movie was her big break?

(a) The Smurfs
(b) The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
(c) Garfield


To enter, just e-mail me your answer, remembering to include "Covert Affairs" in the subject header and your preferred delivery address. It's important to note this DVD is Region 2 and the competition only open to residents of the UK and Ireland.

The competition will close on Wednesday 20 June @5PM (GMT). The winner will be selected randomly from all the correct entries. I will announce the lucky winner on this blog shortly after, before contacting that person by e-mail.

The standard Terms & Conditions apply.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Review: DEAD BOSS – episode one & two

** (out of four)


BBC Three's latest comedy reminded me a great deal of BBC Two's Psychoville. Both tackle dark concepts, both are serialised murder-mysteries at heart, and Dead Boss even cast the other half of French & Saunders in a fun role as a prison warden. Is it coincidence that this sitcom's even directed by Steve Bendelack, who filmed Psychoville's esteemed forerunner The League Of Gentlemen?

Comic actress Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Todd Margaret) co-wrote this series with stand-up comedian Holly Walsh, and also takes the lead role of Helen Stephens; an ordinary woman sentenced to 12 years in jail for killing her employer. Naturally, sweet office worker Helen's innocent and there's a conspiracy afoot (with plenty of cartoonish suspects jostling around the sidelines who may have framed her), but all Helen has to keep her spirits high is inept lawyer Tony (Geoff McGivern) as she adapts to life behind bars.

I'm not a fan of the trend to air double-bills of new sitcoms, but in the case of Dead Boss is was a godsend. The first half-hour wasn't terrible, but it was fighting a losing battle. There was obviously a lot to introduce in terms of plot and characters, and while the pacing was strong there wasn't enough big laughs or memorable performances to keep you engaged. Horgan and Walsh's script also leaned heavily on the many prison clichés and tropes, which are admittedly tough to avoid, and sometimes impossible to sidestep. The idiot lawyer? The jail bully? It wasn't even trying to be original in this regard. Perhaps that's part of the reason Jennifer Saunders made a good impression as Margaret, the warden of the prison, because she was the only character who felt like a fun opposite to the expectation of a tyrannical autocrat. Instead, she was more in the vein of Harry Potter's evil headmistress Dolores Umbridge; a middle-aged woman who appears to be compassionate, but is actually a ruthless authoritarian. I'm surprised Saunders wasn't a bigger presence in these opening episodes, but hope to see more from her.

The second episode was definitely stronger because it broadened the scope of the show rather nicely; letting us know that we'll obviously see how fish-out-of-water Helen copes with imprisonment, but also that the show's going to venture outside the prison walls to investigate the mystery of who did kill Helen's boss and for what reason? I just hope the explanation is worth the wait, seeing as there are seemingly limited options right now. Helen's weasel of a work colleague? The boss' trophy wife? Dead Boss will also have to avoid a potential pitfall that scenes inside HMP Broadmarsh may start to feel comparatively tedious to those set outside the prison. Seeing as Helen's been sentenced and banged up, it's hard to see how she can wholly engage with the "whodunnit?" nature of the story, beyond remembering vital clues and being apprised of development by her cowardly lawyer. Maybe this means the show will soon be tackling another prison clichéd to counter this: the escape plan.

Overall, for all its faults and some early concerns, Dead Boss shows promise. If the storyline evolves and manages to take some unexpected but plausible directions, I'll feel much happier accepting the show's less original elements (like Lizzie Roper's "Top Dog" with the Chelsea smile). But there's still the nagging feeling that Horgan and Walsh's script lacks courage and a dark heart the title hints at. This is a particular shame because Horgan was also half responsible for the tremendously acidic Pulling (the best comedy BBC3 ever axed). Dead Boss could have used some of that bite and flavour, because it already feels like the production style and characterisations are too innocuous—although that could be down to personal taste, as I tend to enjoy the Julia Davis brand of disquieting psychological comedy this could have been in different hands.

I'll stick with Dead Boss because I'm a massive fan of Horgan's work, and the assembled cast are a pleasing mix of interesting actors and famous faces. It's also nice to see a comedy with such a strong lineup of women, that isn't tackling a topic one associates with female-skewing comedy (i.e. unlucky-in-love Bridget Jones or Miranda types).

What did you make of Dead Boss?

written by Sharon Horgan & Holly Walsh / directed by Steve Bendelack / 14 June 2012 / BBC Three

Thursday, 14 June 2012

HIT & MISS – episode four


The dearth of comments suggest Hit & Miss is a show people either don't like, aren't watching, or don't feel obliged to talk about. That's a shame. It certainly isn't great, but as these things go every episode's kept me entertained and convinced to keep watching. The performances are strong and the cinematography is wonderful, which helps cover the fact the storylines feels like someone's scratching several "gritty soap" itches. The show may have been created by Shameless' wunderkind Paul Abbott, but perhaps because every episode's written by Sean Conway, Hit & Miss isn't as subtle and intelligent as I was expecting. It's actually rather insulting at times, in how it bludgeons you with its blunt dialogue and anvilicious attempts at subtext.

But just as you start to get tired of everything, the show delivers a moment to make you sit up and change your mind: be it a creepy homeless man who turns out to be the kid's reclusive uncle; or John (Vincent Regan) strangling Riley (Karla Crome) on her bed because she refuses to have an abortion. Plus I still don't quite know where anything's headed, in general terms, particularly now cartoonish villain John's been shot dead by Riley and Ben (Jonas Armstrong) is struggling to reconcile his feelings for fancying "a man". I have a few theories, but it's the kind of show that can about-turn at any given moment. That's the saving grace of British dramas that don't need to be mindful of a network expectation to last five years minimum.

As of right now, I'm just savouring the good and giggling over the bad. Chloë Sevigny's terrific as Mia, few UK dramas look better (credit to nature for some stunningly desolate hilly locations), and there are some excellent sequences (like Mia strangling a man with a plastic bag inside a telephone booth, while taking a break on a car journey to get the kids fish and chips), but I wish the show was smarter. There's a great concept and fun characters here (performed by good actors), but there's also a huge amount of idiocy and well-trodden plotting. If Hit & Miss had sharper writing, I could get behind it more positively and implore you to watch it... but it doesn't, so I can't. But that's not to say there's nothing of value here, because I'm actually enjoying it a great deal. It's just not what it could have been.

written by Sean Conway / directed by Sheree Folkson / 12 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

MAD MEN, 5.13 – "The Phantom"

The season concludes on an unsubtle and meandering note, nevertheless blessed with some haunting character moments.


This wasn't the most thrilling or revelatory finale Mad Men's ever produced (in fact, it was probably the weakest ending we've had), but it was still a quietly intoxicating hour that drew some of the year's themes and subplots together nicely. It's just a shame this wasn't the emotional punch I was hoping for (which came early with Lane's suicide last week), meaning "The Phantom" was occasionally as insubstantial as its evocative title. But as always with Mad Men, even if the cumulative impression of an episode wasn't totally satisfying, there were enough excellent moments and characters beats to keep you happy.

Don (Jon Hamm) spent most of the episode nursing a bad tooth, declining everyone's advice to see a dentist. The pain was likely symbolic of his nagging relationship with Megan (Jessica Paré), particularly because Don was transformed soon after getting it extracted. It was fascinating to see how he dealt with Megan this week, too. At first, his wife's plea to get her a commercial using his contacts in the advertising world, to kick-start her non-existent acting career, were nobly shunted aside ("you want to be somebody's discovery, not somebody's wife"), but later Don acquiesced and got Megan a job. It felt like he'd taken his own advice to Peggy from earlier ("... when you help someone... they succeed and move on".) So by helping Megan's dreams come true, is Don secretly hoping she'll thus outgrow him and leave?

The fantastic sequence where Don strode away from Megan, who was dressed as a fairy tale princess, through the soundstage as his wife and her dream became an illuminated dot in vast emptiness, suggests Don's made his first move away from her. The final shot of the finale then seemed to confirm it, as an attractive girl at a bar asked if Don was single and the credits rolled before we heard his response. That itself speaks volumes: as I'm willing to bet Don replied no, and is consequently back to the womanising ways that ruined his first marriage to Betty. It remains to be seen if getting the "old Don" back, who's been faithful for a few seasons now, will mean the resurgence of SCDP in season 6 after a very problematic year here.

I didn't expect to see Pete's (Vincent Karthesier) storyline with Beth (Alexis Bledel) to continue from mid-season, so it was a real surprise when she returned and rekindled their affair with some hanky-panky in a hotel room. Even odder was the reveal that Beth's husband insists she get electro-shock treatment every once in a while, which she knows plays havoc with recent memories, so sleeping with Pete was a last grasp for happiness that she won't recall in the near-future. There was something of an Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless vibe to this tragic love story, really, especially when Pete later went to see Beth in hospital and, realising she's now forgotten him, took the chance to unburdened himself during a bedside chat about his state-of-mind during their affair. To be honest, while it was all very interesting, it was also an instance where Mad Men was at its most unsubtle. Even the dialogue felt too corny. Still, it was interesting to note the upshot of this storyline: as Pete got into a fight with Beth's husband on the train, told wife Trudy (Alison Brie) he'd had a car accident, and has now been given permission to find an apartment in New York. Effectively, he's becoming a version of Howard and his own wife an example of Beth. I can well imagine Pete getting up to all sorts of mischief now he's been let off the leash in the Big Apple.

It was also fantastic to see Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) again, particularly as I'd heard crazy rumours she'd been written out of the show without anyone quite believing it had happened! Her scene with Don, whom she coincidentally met at a screening of Casino Royale (the first of a few nods to James Bond), was one of the biggest highlights to me. I just love both seeing those characters, especially when they're hanging out together. They have such a great chemistry, and it was fun to see that Don both regrets the loss of Peggy, but also admires and respects the fact she's moved on and is enjoying success elsewhere. He was almost like the proud father of his favourite grown-up daughter.

Elsewhere, there were some fun moments for the other characters, like Roger (John Slattery) reconnecting with Megan's mother Marie (Julia Ormond) and encouraging her to do LSD (which she refused, although he went ahead anyway). Will Roger develop a drug addiction soon? I thought his memorable acid trip was a one-off deal, but by returning to it again it's got me thinking otherwise. Don having visions of his half-brother Adam (Kay Paulson), who hanged himself way back in season 1 after Don rejected him, was also an excellent touch—linking Lane's recent suicide directly to something in Don's past that still haunts him. I never realised it until this episode, but Lane's the second person Don pushed away who almost immediately committed suicide as a result, and that's got to play on a man's mind. "It's not your tooth that's rotten" said a vision of Adam as Don was being gassed at the dentist. I think we know what Don thinks might be.

Overall, "The Phantom" was a slightly disappointment because it didn't have a strong storyline as a beating heart, but it was still enjoyable and injected with haunting images and unsettling ideas about existence, memory, change, and trauma. It was also great to see SCDP increasing its floor space (Harry may finally get an office with a view!) now Joan's (Christina Hendricks) asserting her influence/power as a named partner, and the climactic montage to "You Only Live Twice" (the episode's other Bond reference) was another beautifully constructed piece of editing. The song title also suggesting that Don—who spent most of this season worrying about his mortality, in one way or another—may have decided to stop being so damn miserable about things he can't hope to change. Beyond the passage of time and ageing, there are still events and people he can control in his life—not least Megan—so it's time to start living it.

A brilliant season of a marvellous show, as usual. The wait for season 6 will be a long one, indeed.

Asides

  • I loved the nod to the early season's storyline with Lane trying to make contact with a woman whose photo he found in a lost wallet. Since his death, that photo's been mistaken by his wife as a probable floozy he was seeing behind her back. It's actually quite worrying to imagine how your life could be misinterpreted after your death, using the evidence you leave behind.
  • Did you notice that Don smiling pensively at the screen test of Megan, echoing a similar moment from "The Wheel" when Betty was the object of his dreaminess?
  • How awkward was the scene where Don tried to give Lane's widow $50,000 of the company's life insurance cheque? I especially liked her line "you had no right to fill a man like that with ambition!", which really made me think about the kind of man Lane was back in dreary post-war London.
  • I don't know what it is, but Julia Ormond and Embeth Davidtz are both familiar actresses that look completely different to me on this show. Maybe they've both just aged more than I imagine, or the '60s fashions hide them somehow.
  • Those Topaz clients weren't very happy with Ginsberg's pitch, making reference to the fact SCDP has lost one famous component of its business: the female perspective. Is this setting up the return of Peggy, whose loss will be more keenly felt next season?
  • Another unsubtle parallel was Megan playing "Beauty" in the Beauty & The Beast themed advert. I guess Don's the beast in her life.
written by Jonathan Igla & Matthew Weiner / directed by Matthew Weiner / 12 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

CHUCK's Yvonne Strahovski joins DEXTER


Showtime have revealed that Chuck star Yvonne Strahovski has joined Dexter's seventh season for a multi-episode guest arc. Strahovski will play Hannah McKay, a "strong, independent woman with a past that she's struggling to put behind her". Hannah will help the Miami Metro detectives solve some cold cases, alongside Dexter Morgan, who begins to suspect there's more to Hannah than meets the eye. (My premature guess: she's the show's first female serial killer.)

As a huge fan of Ms Strahovski, who proved herself a well-rounded and likable young actress on NBC's Chuck, I'm excited for her. She had a few opportunities to stretch her dramatic muscle on Chuck, but obviously it's a world away from a cable show like Dexter. It'll be interesting to see how she gets on, and already feels like it'll be an important role for her. If she's proves to be really good, maybe it'll open more doors for her in Hollywood. And as a viewer, it'll just be nice to see her on my TV screen again.

What do you think? Is this good casting? Or do you suspect she'll be given a thankless role, like Julie Benz had as Rita?

Strahovski joins other notable guest star Ray Stevenson and Jason Gedrick for season 7 of the Showtime hit, which is currently filming for a 30 September premiere.