Wednesday, 22 October 2014

TV I've been watching lately...

Wednesday, 22 October 2014
We're fast approaching November and most of the new autumn shows have begun, plenty of old favourites are back, and the summer shows are a memory. But what am I enjoying watching every week, finding time to write about, or have given up on completely? Read on!

THE AFFAIR (Showtime, season 1). It's been a great two-episode start to this new Showtime drama starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as extra-marital lovers, with a unique flashback format that also bisects each episode into opposing perspectives on the same events. Even without those narrative devices, I'd like this The Affair in terms of the basic story and performances, but the twists are what makes this feel so compelling. And I was pleased the second episode didn't beat around the bush, so we already have an idea about why the main characters are being interviewed by cops a year after their affair began. My only vague concern is that it's hard to really side with West or Wilson's character, as each "part" of the tale casts one or t'other as the more dominant, mildly unlikeable one. Not knowing who to believe or trust is part of the show's mystery, of course, but it does mean the viewer's constantly unsure about anything... which makes it hard to settle into. ★★★☆

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW (FX, season 4). I was intending to write about this every week, like I do most years, but AHS once again prevented me from doing so. How exactly do you review this show weekly? It would just be a list of 'did you see that shit?!' exclamations, and devolve into recapping with various degrees of snark. Angela Bassett has three boobies! I'm still going to be watching it every week, of course, because there's nothing else like it on television and it can occasionally transcend its own ludicrousness. Or just out-weird its rivals. ★★☆☆

ARROW (The CW, season 3). It's business as usual for the third season of The CW's unlikely comic-book hit, with a comfortable feeling of direction and confidence now part of its DNA. I like the arrival of ex-Superman himself, Brandon Routh, as a rival businessman trying to transform ailing Starling City into glitzy Star City, and the premiere contained a big shock with a notable character's death. It's too early to say if this year's overall arc is going to be as strong as last year's, because I'm not really sure what the arc is just yet, but I don't see any reason to believe Arrow's suddenly going to become a terrible show. ★★★☆

DOCTOR WHO (BBC1, series 8). This show is a mainstay of DMD. Unlike many U.S shows that are episodic in nature, Doctor Who feels like more care is put into each hour—even if the budgets are comparatively miniscule. It just exudes charm and character, while every week offers something very different to the previous week. Series 8's been an interesting one in terms of writing, too: Peter Capaldi's divisive in a refreshing way, Jenna Coleman's been a revelation now she's getting juicier material than her big-name co-star, and the show's structure has reverted back to a simpler form. ★★★☆

THE FLASH (The CW, season 1). Similarly to its sibling series Arrow, The Flash has started well. I like everything about it, and appreciate the bigger potential for special effects and actual super-powers to flourish. It's fun. I will keep reviewing it, until such time as the novelty values runs out and it becomes something I prefer to simply watch because it's up-and-running and episodic reviews aren't really necessary. ★★★☆

GOTHAM (Fox, season 1). It's still on shaky ground with me, but Gotham's easy to watch and there are good ideas and visuals throughout. I will always doubt the decision to do a Batman-less prequel focusing on Jim Gordon, but this hasn't been as terrible as it might have been, and I hear that episode 5's pretty good. But it's one of those shows that could go screaming off a cliff any second, particularly with the wink-wink Batvillain cameos and foreshadowing. ★★☆☆

HOMELAND (AMC, season 4). I've stopped reviewing it, but only because there's not much to say about Homeland after three seasons. It's a mature drama that's doing a decent job after a necessary, overdue, "reboot", but it all feels less compelling to me. I don't think Carrie and Saul will ever evolve much, because life-altering things like mental health, marital strife, and motherhood have never become the show's focus or natural areas of strength. ★★☆☆

INTRUDERS (BBC America, season 1). I finished watching BBC America's fantasy thriller about a secret society of 'bodysnatchers' just last night. Fantastically creepy mood and a great performance from child actress Millie Brown, but this played things far too close to its chest for my liking. I still have no real understanding of how the bodysnatching works. Do they hijack unwilling hosts? Are they supposed to live peacefully inside another body? What's the 9's thing about? Maybe I missed some of the answers along the way, because my viewing was a little scattershot. It all felt too oblique to me. ★★☆☆

THE KNICK (Cinemax, season 1). I still have the finale to watch from last weekend, but have been very impressed by this freshman season. It will feature in my end of year 10 favourites of 2014. Clive Owen's fantastic as the genius surgeon in turn-of-the-century New York, and manages to avoid making Dr Thackary a Gregory House knock-off. It's also viscerally gruesome at times, but also enlightening and with something to say about medical care from the period. I particularly loved a moment when a curious man posed for an x-ray of his own head, and was informed he had to stand completely still... um, FOR AN HOUR. Steven Soderbergh directed every single episode, and it really helped give the show a singular artistic feel. Loved this. ★★★★

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC, season 2). A marked improvement over early season 1, that's for damn sure. I like the new characters and how the dynamic's changed between the core team. (Less of the slushy "family" vibe with Coulson as the patriarch.) That stupid mega-plane isn't the headquarters any more, and seeing the aftermath of the attempted HYDRA coup in Captain America 2 gives the show more importance in Marvel's live-action universe. It's also benefiting from developing its own personal history and back-stories, in the sense it can play around with ongoing plots and characters already introduced. ★★☆☆

SLEEPY HOLLOW (Fox, season 2). I will continue watching, but in a half-interested way while doing my ironing. It's mostly background noise to me now. While I love Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie in the lead roles, and the production's gorgeous to look at, it's too much overblown nonsense to me. I wouldn't be surprised if the writers admitted they get all their ideas from a hive-mind of six-year-old kids they keep locked in a basement—fed a mixture of M&Ms and Sunny-D. It's preposterous pulp silliness, which can be a lot of fun in small doses. Unfortunately, Sleepy Hollow delivers it by the bucketload. I feel like I've been battered by a crazy-hammer every episode. ★★☆☆

THE STRAIN (FX, season 1). I finished this off awhile back, but have suddenly remembered I didn't mention anything about the finale. Sorry about that. On the whole, I thought this vampire thriller was enjoyable, but too much about the storyline was predictable and its handful of original ideas lost their novelty by mid-season. I also didn't think it had enough material to spread over thirteen-hours, which maybe explains a subplot set in the 1940s explaining the backstory behind chief vampire hunter and Nazi vampire Mr Eichhorst. While entertaining, for awhile, it also felt like relatively pointless filler. As did much of the season's final quarter.

It was best to treat The Strain as a pulp horror fantasy with modest intentions, because there wasn't much more to it—although it dabbled with the possibility of being something more interesting occasionally. And yet, ultimately, it was a show where Corey Stoll in a hairpiece, caretaker Filch from Harry Potter, Kevin Durand with a cod Russian accent, and their dull hangers-on (the "pretty co-worker", "the son") traipsed around Toronto New York City in the midst of a vampire apocalypse. Although, as feared, a cable TV budget couldn't really handle that scale, so we had to make do with lots of distant police sirens and screams on the soundtrack.

Things that disappointed me include how pointless the survivors of the initial plane-based contagion were to the storyline, how the show seemed to lose its dark sense of humour along the way (who can forget the scene where a rock star turning into a vampire lost his penis in a urinal?), how the broad arc of the storyline didn't take any unexpected steps (Stoll's screen wife is turned into a vampire), and how repetitive a lot of the action became. This was particularly noticeable when the finale involved the gang tracking down and attacking The Master vampire, just as they'd done a few episodes earlier.

The saving grace of The Strain were centred on the creature effects and the sickly colour palette co-creator Guillermo Del Toro laid out in the pilot. I particularly liked the Master's design—beginning as a Grim Reaper-style flap of brown rags, then revealed as a sort of Nosferatu gargoyle. He wasn't exactly frightening (in fact he was quite humorous in appearance), but I liked the strong comic-book tone their central monster exuded. Indeed, The Strain was at its best when it was being big, brash, silly and fun. I just wish there was better material to work with, because it all felt quite thin and obvious. The kind of story a teenage boy would write, having spent 50% of the time pondering the life-cycle of the vampires, 40% on the creature artwork, 5% on the characters, and 5% on the plot. ★★☆☆

THE WALKING DEAD (AMC, season 5). I'm going to try and review this very popular horror drama every week; mainly because it's been ages since I gave up halfway through season 2, but also because people always ask me to. So far, season 5's off to a strong start. The writers do seem to realise the flaws of their show, and make attempts to fix them. It's at the level I wanted it to be back in season 1—when I was a lone voice saying it wasn't very good. Remember that? ★★★☆

YOU'RE THE WORST (FX, season 1). A few people told me this FX sitcom was a real treat from earlier this summer, so I'm playing catchup. I'm about six episodes in and agree, mostly, with the sentiments expressed. Not exactly laugh-out-loud, but absorbingly ribald and with two fine performances from Chris Geere (yes, the guy from Trollied!) and Aya Cash as the acidic lovebirds. Or should that be love-hate-birds? ★★★☆