TV, Book and Movie Roundup – April 2019

Welcome to May! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with Film…

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Alias – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

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The Birth of ‘Laddism’: Men Behaving Badly (Series 1 & 2)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

Men Behaving Badly, one of the most popular and well-loved British comedy series of the 1990’s, you suspect is a show that a lot of people have not rewatched in a long time.

Running for six series, a Christmas special, and three special concluding episodes between 1992 and 1998, Simon Nye’s ITV and later BBC series (based on a book of the same name by the writer), Men Behaving Badly was a show that struck a clear chord in the 90’s as a response to the phenomenon of the ‘New Man’, a pro-feminist, almost new age male figure who eschewed boorish masculinity at the tail end of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, but we must be careful to mark out Nye’s series as a rejection of such a movement. Men Behaving Badly is sometimes mischaracterised as a major influence on the birth of ‘laddism’, or a ‘new lad’ subculture which rejected the progressive, gender equal feminist movement in favour of a return to masculine, and often misogynistic ideals.

In truth, Nye’s series is a clear and approximate satire on the rejection of the ‘New Man’, revolving around two (or as it ends up being, three) men who both epitomise aspects of ‘laddism’ while proving, uncategorically, how pathetic such positions are. While Men Behaving Badly gets off to a slow and in places rocky start with its first series, the template by the end of the first six episodes is clearly defined. Martin Clunes’ Gary and Harry Enfield’s Dermot are flatmates and a fairly useless pair of men at the tail end of their youth, still trying to define themselves by fake masculinity, sexual promiscuity, and personal success. In the time honoured tradition of British comedy, they are endlessly doomed to failure in all of these aspects, held back by their own selfishness, lack of self-awareness and frequent childish behaviour.

Even more acutely, especially with the benefit of hindsight, neither Gary or Dermot in the first series are men who don’t actually behave particularly *badly*.

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Plugging Gaps: How backstory is *becoming* story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

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Alias – ‘Rendezvous’ (1×21)

Given Rendezvous has to work as the middle piece in a three-part climactic best for Alias’ first season, and tie together threads which have been building across the entire year, it’s surprising how well it works as an episode on its own terms.

The main reason for this is that Rendezvous finds a way to maintain three distinct but increasingly interlinked, building narratives in a coherent and dynamic way: Will’s investigation intersecting directly with Syd’s search for Khasinau, Dixon’s growing suspicions about Syd’s loyalty, and Sloane’s wrangling with the Alliance over the Khasinau problem and how it could be affected by his wife Emily. Writers Erica Messer and Debra J. Fisher (who last wrote Mea Culpa, but did uncredited re-writes on some of Season 1’s strongest episodes such as The Box two-parter and The Prophecy) manage to satisfactorily interlink most of these threads to the point you can feel the overarching plot stitching together in preparation for the finale.

Rendezvous, of course, is most remembered for finally pulling the trigger on a plot development that was inevitable eventually: Will discovering the truth about Syd’s secret life as an international super-spy, and thankfully they manage to pull this off in the most entertaining and enjoyably histrionic way. Captured by Khasinau’s forces, Will watches the red-headed Syd leap into fray, in slow motion, kicking the arse of the Euro-goons watching over him before realising who it is and delivering a scream of disbelief that is just *perfectly* executed. You feel the payoff of this moment, and Syd’s complete disbelief that Will has shown up on her mission, because the season has really put the leg work in to get Will into her orbit. 

It’s a moment that in its own way changes Alias forever. Rendezvous ends up delivering the first of several leading into Almost Thirty Years that allows the show’s first season to stick the landing.

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Alias – ‘The Solution’ (1×20)

The season finale of Alias’ premiere year may technically be Almost Thirty Years but in real terms, The Solution marks the beginning of the end.

Specifically, a three-part end to the season, building off everything we have seen so far and drawing many of the lingering narrative threads together in an attempt to provide some level off satisfying payoff while simultaneously delivering a springboard into the coming second season. The Solution is a good example of how Alias both holds to and breaks from the traditional stand-alone/ongoing serialisation structure of shows past. It both could not exist without many of the preceding nineteen episodes before it and equally it feels contained within the confines of its three-part climactic storyline. 

Alias by this point understands it has a great deal of balls in the air and story threads it needs to either start taking to the next level or justifiably paying off. This was a major problem with Snowman, the previous episode; it spun the show’s wheels, focusing on an extraneous central romantic entanglement which means little beyond serving as a thematic parallel, at the expense of getting on with most of the story in play. The Solution begins to correct that immediately. It ramps up the search for Khasinau. It reintroduces the Rambaldi mythology. It spirals back around to Sloane’s relationship with his wife Emily and his dealings with the Alliance and it kicks back into gear the simmering Will investigating SD-6 plot line, which ends up being a major factor in how Season 1 comes to an end. 

In short, while not necessarily much more than a protracted Act One, The Solution corrects most of the problems from the previous episode or two.

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Game of Thrones – ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ (8×02)

It would be remiss of me, as an enormous Game of Thrones fan, to let the final season go by without sharing some thoughts week on week.

I’m conscious, however, that full and in-depth critical analysis won’t truly be possible until the finale has aired, at which point I’ll be going back and starting to tackle Season 2 and working back toward the end. I have already deep dived Season 1, as you may remember, and they will probably get a polish once the entire show is completed.

My plan then, in the spirit of George R. R. Martin’s books, is to write up thoughts on each character journey and use them as a prism to explore each episode. With a show like this, built heavily on theory, escalation and payoff, this feels like one of the best ‘in the moment’ methods of reviewing the show – indeed I did just that for Season 6 in my days writing for Flickering Myth.

Right then! Pour yourself (half) a cup of wine and let’s do this…

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