Friday, 26 January 2018

Godless (Mini-Series)

Godless offers a good remedy for that cowboy itch left by Deadwood ten years ago. Here is a western that is dirty, gritty, sweary and offers plenty in terms of production value (the opening scene of episode #1 might well have been 2017’s best). Like old school westerns, you know it is building up to an almighty showdown but it also isn’t in a hurry to get there, opting instead to flesh out its compelling characters. But Godless also holds the dubious honour of being the most woke western in town, as it elevates its female cast from damsels in distress to bona fide badasses – with 90% of a small town’s male population lost in a mining accident, it is up to the local women to fend off the very male threats that descend upon them. Jeff Daniels makes a menacing yet oddly sympathetic villain, but the turns that linger long after the last gunshot is fired are by Merrit Wever as the town’s de-facto governor and Michelle Dockery, who seems all too happy to shed Lady Mary’s corset and brandish a shotgun.

Verdict: 5/5

Where to find it: Netflix

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The End of the F***ing World (Season 1)


Imagine if Wes Anderson decided to remake Bonnie & Clyde after binge-watching Skins and you’ll get a rough idea of what you’re in for with The End of the F***ing World. Slightly misleading title aside (despite the hardly upbeat tone, no actual apocalypses are involved), this British pitch black comedy sees two maladjusted teenagers – she’s an impulsive rebel, he’s a closet serial-killer in the making – embark on a road trip to escape their disenfranchised existence. Expect whip-smart interior monologues and earnest soul-searching coupled with the odd burst of blood-soaked violence and a hefty wallop of gallows humour. It’s that kind of show.

Verdict: 4/5


Where to find it: 4oD, Netflix;

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2016 (plus one honourable mention)



 
10) Better Call Saul (Season 2)
If there was an award for ‘Most Beautifully Shot, Impeccably Acted Show About Nothing’, Better Call Saul would surely win it. With crisp photography that is rich in texture and detail, the opening shots for each episode often feel like they belong in a gallery. As a character study, it’s admirably layered and clearly not in a hurry to get to any major plot twists, but hopefully season 3 will throw a few curveballs our way.




9) Luke Cage (Season 1)
Marvel’s latest series may not have been its best to date – that’s a position DD and JJ’s opening seasons are still jostling for – but it certainly was its most socially conscious. With an emphasis on community (the mean streets of Harlem) as much as on character (Mike Colter’s indestructible, impossibly cool vigilante), Luke Cage shows an ambition to tackle hefty subjects that is absent from most shows of the superhero genre. Admittedly, the final episodes’ sharp turn into more conventional comic book territory jarred with what came before, but Mr Cage is yet another character we’ll be looking forward to seeing again on our screens in next year’s Defenders.





8) Orange is the New Black (Season 4)
OITNB is a series that has often struggled with finding the right balance between tragic comedy and tongue-in-cheek prison drama, but season 4 finally managed to address the equilibrium and is easily the show’s best so far. What OITNB excels at is fleshing out its large ensemble of characters. Whether it was erstwhile walk-on roles from earlier seasons or Lichfield’s new arrivals, it felt like everyone got a look-in this year. Even Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman, usually the most tedious inmate of the bunch despite being the closest we get to a protagonist, went through one hell of a narrative arc. And that ending… stretched over the course of two impeccably-paced episodes, the mood ranged from distressing to bittersweet, before fading to orange on a nail-biting cliffhanger. Season 5 can’t come soon enough.




7) The Night Manager (Mini-Series)
You can’t go wrong with John LeCarré. The undisputed master of the espionage novel (both cold war and post-modern), his books are rife with deception, tortured souls and lush European locations, all of which lend themselves perfectly for a thrilling mini-series. Throw in Tom Hiddleston, the internet’s favourite gentleman, and you’ve got a seriously good proposition that’s too good to turn down. In fact, Tommo looked so comfortable slipping into tailored suits before effortlessly disposing of thugs with elegant nonchalance, many viewed The Night Manager as his James Bond audition. He is supported by a host of British actors at the top of their game, including former House star Hugh Laurie, all menacing charm as an influential arms dealer, and Olivia Colman, in the role of a heavily pregnant intelligence office with more balls than all the male characters combined. If you like your spies edgy and classy, then The Night Manager is a must-see.



6) The Get Down (Season 1)
The Get Down is everything Vinyl wasn’t: a musical drama that oozed cool, paid loving homage to 1970’s pop culture and, more importantly, had a unique visual style that it was not afraid to embrace. Sure, it’s not the easiest show to binge on. The running time is all over the place, varying from 50 to 90 min per episode, while some viewers were turned off by its cartoonish quirks and excesses, to the point that some would argue that creator Baz Luhrmann should’ve probably pitched The Get Down as a 3 hour extravaganza in the same mould as Moulin Rogue!. But love it or loathe it, this is a series that stands out from the crowd, and not just because of Luhrmann’s trademark vibrant touches. The kids from Stranger Things may have been the summer’s breakout stars, but the young cast of The Get Down carried a more difficult show on their shoulders, with admirable results. Herizen F. Guardiola strikes the perfect balance between sweet and sexy and if you don’t get a lump in your throat during Justice Smith’s poem scene, then you have a heart of stone. Oh, and the soundtrack kicks ass.


 
5) Stranger Things (Season 1)
For many, this was the show to beat this year and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s something immensely likeable about Stranger Things. It might have to do with its young lead characters, an amiable, goofy-grinning bunch who are a joy to spend 46 minutes with, or it could be possibly down to its distinctly retro vibe that evokes fond memories of the films we used to consume on VHS (or Super 8, if you were born after 1995). The show is so strongly rooted in 1980’s pop culture that at times it felt like we were watching a beautiful amalgamation of the decade’s best movies. Yet for a show that at times felt so Spielbergian in spirit, it’s an unfortunate misstep that the first couple of episodes gave away big reveals far too early and gratuitously, violating one of the key principles the bearded director has always stood by: tell, don’t show. By revealing too much, all sense of mystery and suspense is swiftly undone. But then again, this is a minor gripe that derives from the frustration of wanting a very good show to be perfect. Just sit back and take in the nostalgia.



 4) The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (Mini-Series)
SPOILER: OJ is found ‘not guilty’. Then how did a show about the “trial of the century” become one of 2016’s hottest tickets if we all knew the ending from the get-go? Simple: because PvOJ happened to be one of the best scripted, brilliantly acted mini-series of the decade, let alone the year. The show (the first season in a planned true crime anthology series) makes the smart decision to shift the focus from “The Juice” to the legal teams defending and prosecuting him, revealing the internal squabbles and personal dramas affecting the different players. Not only does this humanise characters that could’ve easily been one-note, it also allows some of the lower profile actors (especially Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance, both unforgettable as crusading lawyers) to outshine the more well-known stars (John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr., who seem to be playing caricatures of their real life counterparts). It’s also worth noting that, despite its 1990s setting, PvOJ’s themes feel surprisingly relevant in the current social climate. The seducing power of fame, our obsession with reality TV entertainment, the distrust toward the police and justice system in the African-American community… all of these are meticulously exposed and dissected over the course of ten episodes that would be criminal to miss.



3) Black Mirror (Season 3)
Charlie Brooker’s pitch black dystopian series had been on our radars for a while, but truly came into its own this year. Anthological in structure, each episode is self-contained, allowing the British satirist-turned-showrunner to explore a variety of themes that resonate with modern society, especially the power that the media and new technologies exert on our lives. So in season 3 we were treated to a VR gaming experience gone horribly awry, a tale of cyber-bullying that pulled the rug from under our couch in its closing minutes and a satirical take on our growing dependence on social media that, despite featuring a delightfully awkward performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, felt uncomfortably pertinent. And then there’s “San Junipero”. If series were judged on the strengths of a single episode, then Black Mirror would no doubt be the best show of 2016. Brooker fancies himself as an acerbic commentator on the fucked-up condition of society, so the fact that “San Junipero” is an arrestingly touching story about love and hope bathed in nostalgia comes as a shocker. More importantly, after three seasons of black humour and bleak visions of our future, it has the admirable confidence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there is still hope that mankind will use technology for magnanimous, even transcendental of purposes. For the presence of “San Junipero” alone, Black Mirror deserves to be in Top 3.



 2) The Night Of (Mini-Series)

It’s difficult to remember a pilot episode that had viewers on the edge of their seat like the opener for The Night Of. Riz Ahmed plays Nasir Khan, a young Pakistani-American from Queens who, following a chance encounter and drug-fuelled one night stand with a mysterious woman, is pinned for her gruesome murder the morning after. Trouble is, he does not remember any details of the night in question and the odds are most definitely not in his favour. Enter eczema-ravaged lawyer John Stone (John Turturro), who might just possess the resolve and street smarts to handle Nasir’s case. On the surface, The Night Of can easily come across as ‘just’ another whodunit like the dozens of others we come across on TV every evening. However, on closer inspection, it actually pulls off the impressive feat of being three shows in one. On one hand, we have a meticulously-paced police procedural that takes its time in picking apart the grisly and cryptic clues left at the scene of the crime. On the other, you have an unflinching prison drama that reveals the undignified effects that such a hopeless environment can have on an innocent man. And finally, the latter episodes turn into a tense courtroom drama, as Stone steps up to the plate and tackles head on a jury and district attorney already set on convicting his client. Each one of these plot threads could easily work as their own show. Together, they make up one of the most compelling thrillers of the year.



1) Westworld (Season 1)
One of the most addictive qualities of TV series is their ability to captivate viewers with their mythology, roping us into their world and keeping us emotionally invested in their characters (i.e. glued to the screen) for multiple seasons. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless others have successfully done it in the past, and this year it was Westworld’s turn.

The show’s premise is enough to send geeks into spasms: a sci-fi western based on a 1973 Michael Crichton film, produced by Jonathan Nolan AND JJ Abrams. Westworld is a large scale, technologically advanced park designed to recreate the look and feel of a western movie, where high-paying visitors get to escape the real world and re-enact their deepest sexual and murderous fantasies. Here’s the catch – the park’s “hosts” are high-functioning androids whose main function is to cater to the guests’ needs and desires, no matter how depraved or gruesome they may be. Of course, this being Crichton territory, the park goes through some malfunctions and the hosts begin to retaliate.

Epic in scope – breath-taking shots of Utah and Californian valleys make up the scenery – and rife with sex and violence (it is HBO, after all), at its core Westworld is a show about what makes us human. If a synthetic being is capable of feeling the same emotions that we do, if not more so, then does that mean it is human? And should a creator be entitled to any control over such beings if they are capable of free will? These questions are pondered extensively over the course of 10 cerebral episodes featuring some of the most ambitious plotting ever committed to a TV series – some of the more astonishing twists will have some viewers going back to earlier episodes to re-experience them in a whole different light.

Narrative gimmicks aside, the ensemble cast elevates the material further, with most cast members turning in some of their best work to date, although inevitably the more seasoned pros steal the show. But while Ed Harris is quietly menacing as the enigmatic Man In Black and Anthony Hopkins is dependably brilliant as the park’s silver-tongued creator, it is Evan Rachel Wood that delivers the most genuinely touching performance as a host coming to grips with her emerging conscience, who is ironically the heart and soul of the show.

More excitingly, there’s a feeling that the showrunners are only just getting started with Westworld, as it looks like more mind-boggling twists and developments are set to come in the already confirmed season 2. Was this the best show of 2016? Maybe not, but it was certainly the most bingeworthy. And isn’t that the benchmark by which most series are judged these days?
 
And one honourable mention…


Life is Strange (PS4)
Yes, it came out in 2015 and it is actually a console game, but a) some of us have only recently invested in a PS4 and b) Life Is Strange’s episodic structure make it far more similar to an interactive TV series than a videogame. The game's plot focuses on photography student Maxine’s ability to briefly rewind time at any moment of the narrative, leading her every choice to enact the ‘butterfly effect’, the chaos theory concept that dictates that even the smallest causes can lead to larger, seemingly unrelated effects. As a result, Max’s actions will have an impact on the narrative as it unfolds and reshape it once allowed to travel back in time.


While the ability to briefly rewind the plot is a neat gimmick (and one we could all do with in real life), it is merely just a narrative detail in what is actually a very grounded, highly relatable coming of age tale – think of it more as The Breakfast Club (or My So-Called Life, if you’re one of the twelve people who saw it) meets Back to the Future. Depression, cyber-bullying, substance abuse, social adjustment, identity crisis… these are just a few of the themes Life Is Strange explores with admirable tact over the course of its five episodes (yes, episodes, not levels), topics which have been grossly mishandled by some TV shows throughout multiple seasons.

And then something truly unexpected happens. By the time you reach the game’s closing moments, after spending five episodes dictating and re-writing the actions and histories of these characters, you suddenly realise how close you’ve got to them, how much you’ve grown with them and care about them. Like a series finale of a show you’ve loved, you just don’t want it to end. And that is the reason Life Is Strange is on this list – it is the most immersive, beautifully scripted series you’ll ever have the pleasure of playing.