Category: Television

Goodbye Designated Survivor: Your Heart Was in the Right Place

So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”. And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.

Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland. Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nineuntil it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.

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Marvel Malaise: Jessica Jones S2 and the Pacing Problem

Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.

Pacing.

Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.

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Revisiting… Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s Extras

Looking at Extras, the second comedy project from Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, a decade on, you realise for all the Leveson enquiries, disgraced newspapers and changing models of television, the world of media and entertainment looks a great deal similar. Few lessons have been learned. Most structures and institutions remain the same.

Because, let’s not split hairs, Extras was and indeed remains a quite clear cautionary tale about the lure and subsequent perils of fame. Not just fame either but fame for fame’s sake, both of which are areas Gervais’ show touches upon the deeper it propels into its narrative over the course of two six part seasons and a feature-length Christmas special finale. Extras turned out to be much like The Office, its predecessor that took Gervais from a memorably offensive supporting player on late-90’s edgy Channel 4 comedy and made him a star of international, indeed Hollywood proportions. Not in style, not even in story, but in the sense of how it constructed a story arc around a concept and concluded in strong, often quite dramatic fashion. Though it lacked the iconic nature of The Office, Extras had the heart, many of the laughs, and certainly had the *point* of why it existed, right up to the very final scene.

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Black Mirror Season 4 – A Unified Theory

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

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From Wars to Who: our favourite franchises are evolving – why can’t their fans evolve with them?

An unexpected comparison can be drawn this holiday season between two of the biggest science-fiction franchises – Doctor Who and Star Wars. In both Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the Doctor in ‘Twice Upon a Time’ and Rian Johnson’s sequel The Last Jedi, central characters openly advocate rejecting both their pasts, and indeed intertextually the pasts of their product’s own history. The Doctor, an old man on the verge of rejecting a new lifespan, ‘let’s go’ of his incarnation while The Last Jedi‘s ostensible villain, Kylo Ren, just about avoids fratricide as he advocates killing his own past, killing his own history and letting it die (and by default the known galaxy) to create something new.

In both examples, you have two long-standing, iconic storytelling franchises, both with powerful, ingrained and dedicated fanbases, actively attempting to jettison aspects which made them adored in the first place. And, indeed, in both cases, the fandom of both properties have lost their minds in desperately rejecting this rejection. I won’t rake over my earlier thoughts about the current state of fandom, but it gives birth to another question – why can’t fans let go of the past?

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The League of Gentlemen’s Brexit Britain: why the old guard TV shows are returning now

If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least. Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage. Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more. Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?

It’s fair to say there has been something of a Renaissance for 90’s and ‘Noughties’ television in the last couple of years. The old guard have been popping up all over the place, revamped, reimagined and revived for an entirely new audience. The X-Files, early in 2016, returned with its two key original characters and a shortened, six episode run, followed swiftly by a condensed, compact revival of Prison Break for an erstwhile fifth season. This was after, in the autumn of 2015, popular superhero series of the mid 00’s Heroes returned for a mini-series called Reborn.

This year’s most profound revival has been, almost inexplicably, Twin Peaks, in which David Lynch crafted a third season almost twenty years since the end of the second, baffling and confounding audiences in equal measure on both sides of the Pond – some say it’s genius, others say it’s ponderous. Even Star Trek, a 90’s mainstay of television which dominated the science-fiction landscape for more than a decade before drifting into mid-00’s obscurity, returned with a new lease of life thanks to Discovery, its new series set ten years before the original 1960’s run. These aren’t the only examples but they all have one crucial element in common – all of them, to a series, have met with a mixed response.

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The Crown Season 2: The Price of Marriage

The second season of The Crown has something of a difficult act to follow. The first season, despite having a wealth of recognised talent in front of and behind the camera, and being the most expensive TV series ever commissioned by Netflix at a whopping £100 million, nonetheless was a gamble nobody expected the streaming giant to falter with. The Royal family can entice both loyalists and those who find the monarchy an outdated institution, so the fact it almost certainly garnered strong ratings alongside plenty of critical buzz, meant The Crown got off to a romping start, making an instantaneous star out of Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth II, and receiving plaudits and awards all over the place. Season 2, therefore, needed to keep up the pace.

Peter Morgan, writer of all ten scripts, plays the second season—set roughly between the years 1957 and up to the assassination of JFK roughly in 1963—as very much the second act of an opening two-part, aka two-season story. The Crown of course, famously, is planned to have six seasons which will replace the entire cast with age appropriate actors every two seasons. Season 3, therefore, won’t have Foy as Elizabeth, or Matt Smith as Prince Philip etc… should it happen (as of yet Netflix haven’t greenlit a third run but the chances are very high). These first two seasons of The Crown, consequently, are the first chapter in the life of Elizabeth and Philip, and if Morgan’s second run makes anything abundantly clear, this is very much the story of them both. The story of a Royal marriage around which everything else pivots.

Many critics in reviewing Season 2 of The Crown have suggested there is too much Philip. It’s a double-edged complaint, in truth. Yes, Philip is given a *lot* of material this season, more than in the first, but given how Smith—previously best known, bear in mind, as a scatty incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who—breaks out in the first season as an irascible, arrogant and often difficult partner to the Queen, you can hardly blame Morgan for throwing him more to do. Equally, the very arc of the entire second season is concerned with the price of marriage, the cost of attempting to have a traditional relationship while being bound by honour, faith and duty. While the story may heavily develop Philip, there’s a sense developing Elizabeth would have been much harder without doing so.

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